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The FA Cup’s fifth round is not normally peppered with more than a couple of ties pitting established footballing giants against lower league opposition, but seven of this weekends eight Cup matches bring ‘plucky underdogs’ face-to-face with their pampered Premier League counterparts.
There are few places on earth where the underdog is more admired than in Britain and nowhere is our appreciation more evident than in a sporting context.
We become enthused by the underdog’s passion and determination when the odds are stacked against them, a sense which is perhaps closely associated with the fact that we hail from a small country which for centuries has consistently punched above its weight. Whatever the deep psychological reasons for our support of the underdog, most neutrals will be cheering for Crawley and Stevenage when they take to the pitch against Stoke and Spurs respectively this weekend.
Tim Quelch’s Underdog emphasises this national trait. is a riveting mixture of football, social history and popular culture in which he recounts improbable tales of success at previously unheralded footballing outposts such as Burnley, Carlisle, Ipswich, Oxford and Aldershot. It is an extraordinarily well-researched book.
The author maintains that an underdog’s sporting glory is invariably underpinned by the combined efforts of a large number of people, all of whom are unpaid, and shrewd leadership of traditionally ‘small’ football clubs by hard-working folk who, often in the face of adversity, keep the operation going by making almost negligible amounts of money. Without such people, English football would cease to exist and we would be left with a US-style franchise system accommodating only its biggest names.
Quelch’s convincing theory reminds us that unpredictability remains at the core of football's popularity. The game provides minnows with a rare platform, an opportunity to show they’re not overawed but are instead prepared to engage in the sporting equivalent of David v Goliath.
How many times have we watched in amazement as top-flight teams, capable, on paper, of cruising to victory, are enveloped with a complacency immediately sensed by their underdog opponents? It will happen in the FA Cup this weekend when at least one resourceful XI will overcome more talented opponents and we’ll cheer them because we love the underdog.
But apart from enjoying reading about such upsets from earlier years, there is another excellent reason for buying this compelling read. Mindful that a surprisingly large number of ex-footballers contract the condition, the author is donating all of the book’s royalties to the Alzheimer's Society.