They call it a giant-killing – the unexpected toppling of a football super-power by a so-called minnow. it is the very quintessence of the FA Cup – the mercurial detail that transforms a portrait into a masterpiece. In the history of the oldest Association Football competition in the world, there have been dozens of them – but the greatest of all time is surely the day that little Hereford United took on mighty Newcastle United in 1972. Up until ’72, Hereford’s greatest feat was persuading the former Juventus and Wales hero John Charles to join the club, but this was to become theatre at its finest. Newcastle were in the top tier, with one of the most formidable strikers in the country in Malcolm “Supermac” MacDonald, while Hereford plied their trade in the lowest echelons of the Southern League. There was an absolute certainty that the bigger team would win the game hands down and, on the face of it, there was not one single logical reason why any sane person would think any differently.
What happened is without any doubt the high-point in the troubled 90-year history of this little club. It was formed in the market town of Hereford in July 1924 by the merger of two smaller local sides, taking on the nickname The Bulls as a tribute to the famed cattle raised in the Herefordshire countryside. In 1939 Hereford joined the Southern League, but they played only four games due to the outbreak of the second World War. After the war, they achieved their first giant-killing defeating Football League side Scunthorpe United.
This would be the first of many, with subsequent victories over Exeter City in 1953 and Aldershot in 1956. In the same year Hereford thrashed Third Division side QPR 6-1 at Edgar Street, going to beat Millwall, a new Third Division team. The seeds of a giant-killing tradition were being sewn…
February 5, 1972 was a cold and misty day. Hereford’s lifelong home, Edgar Street, was jam-packed for the visit of Newcastle, with the Geordies vociferous making themselves heard, too. It was a miracle that the game was taking place at all, after Hereford dug deep for a completely unexpected 2-2 draw at St. James Park in the original tie. The atmosphere was crackling with the tight little ground already full to bursting an hour before kick-off. Did the locals sense an occasion to remember?
It’s been said that Supermac had a meltdown after the first match ended in a draw.
“How can we only draw against these rank amateurs? Why do we have to go to the sticks to play in their lousy little playground?”
Perhaps MacDonald gave Hereford all the motivation they needed when, in days leading up to the game, he was photographed holding up ten fingers to show how many goals he was going to grab. Clearly Supermac learned nothing – he did the same thing repeatedly throughout his career, most famously before the FA Cup Final against Liverpool in 1974!
Due to a succession of weather-related postponements, the fixture was held on the same weekend as the Fourth Round ties. Having come so far was already an amazing outcome for The Bulls, but the best was yet to come. In front of 14,313 noisy fans, one of the biggest crowd in the club’s history, the teams took to the field. The conditions were horrible – one of the great elements that made the early rounds of The Cup so special. The ground was a quagmire but, at the fourth time of asking, the match simply had to be played. In the first half Newcastle hit the crossbar twice, but the sides went into the tunnel at halftime goalless. Things remained similarly tense and tight right through the second half until a Malcolm McDonald header gave the visitors the lead in the 82nd minute. Hereford’s plucky part-timers slumped to their knees in despair. And yet…
With 8 minutes left, and the drama intensified. Hereford pushed everybody forward, desperately trying to force the match into extra time. The gutsy right-back Roger Griffiths – who was later found out to have played the entire game with a broken leg – came off for striker Ricky George. He had an immediate impact, setting up one of the FA Cup’s most iconic goals of all time – Ronnie Radford’s 35-yard screamer that almost burst the net, along with the lungs of 10,000+ ecstatic Hereford fans. The goal led to Extra Time, and an equally famous pitch invasion, studded by little boys in navy blue snorkel parkas.
Ricky George was not done yet. The first period of Extra Time was almost up, when the slippy ball was shipped to George at pace. For a second he appeared to miscontrol it, then somehow stepped inside a challenge from Newcastle skipper Bobby Moncur before guiding the ball past McFaul into the far corner. Cue pandemonium at Edgar Street. The Snorkel Army flooded onto the pitch in their thousands and, this time, the police seemed to stand back and let them enjoy their moment in the (somewhat foggy) sun. When the game finally resumed it was backs to the wall for Hereford – for Newcastle there was no time left to recover. Hereford won 2-1, the first time a non-league team had beaten a top-flight club in a competitive fixture since Yeovil Town’s notorious victory over Sunderland in 1949. History was made: for Hereford, it was the ultimate giant-killing, a fairytale; for Newcastle a nightmare.