Middlesbrough are vying to become the first side from outside the Premier League to reach a major cup final in over 10 years.
Michael Carrick’s side take a 1-0 lead over Chelsea to Stamford Bridge for the second leg of their League Cup semi and are now one step away from Wembley.
It used to be relatively commonplace to see sides from the Football League make it all the way to cup finals. We’ve identified the six teams from outside the top flight to make it to an FA Cup or League Cup final since 2000.
Tranmere Rovers (League Cup, 2000)
Things have changed considerably with English football’s secondary cup competition since the turn of the millennium, with it no major shock that second-tier Tranmere booked a clash with Leicester City, who had made it to their third final in four years.
This was an era in which the moneyed elite routinely went out in the earlier stages and blockbuster final clashes between them were few and far between. Even as recently as 2007, Arsene Wenger fielded a second-string XI with an average age of 21 when they faced Chelsea in the final.
Back in 1999-00, John Aldridge’s Rovers beat Blackpool, Coventry, Oxford, Middlesbrough, Barnsley and Bolton en route to the last-ever League Cup final played at the original Wembley Stadium.
They gave a good account of themselves on the day, too, equalising in the closing stages through Republic of Ireland international David Kelly before a second goal from Foxes centre-back Matt Elliott crushed their dreams in a 2-1 defeat.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) February 27, 2018
Birmingham City (League Cup, 2001)
Trevor Francis’ Blues finished fifth in the old First Division in back-to-back seasons, enduring play-off semi-final heartbreak in both, but their 2000-01 campaign was most memorable for their run in the League Cup, or the Worthington Cup as it was known back then.
They vanquished Premier League sides Tottenham and Newcastle before a memorable second-leg semi-final comeback against Ipswich and pushed Gerard Houllier’s Liverpool all the way to penalties at the Millenium Stadium after Darren Purse’s injury-time spot-kick made it 1-1 after 90 minutes.
But Liverpool, who unforgettably won three pieces of silverware that year, were victorious in the shootout. Jamie Carragher held his nerve in sudden death after a young Andrew Johnson missed his. It was the first-ever major English domestic cup final won on penalties.
Millwall (FA Cup, 2004)
With a veteran Dennis Wise as player-manager and a young Tim Cahill partnering Neil Harris up top, Millwall were quite a thing in 2003-04.
They finished midtable in the First Division and made the most of a series of favourable draws in the FA Cup, dispatching Walsall, Telford United, Burnley, Tranmere and Sunderland to book the considerably tougher task of facing Manchester United in the final.
The occasion turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax as United’s superior quality told. Cristiano Ronaldo broke the deadlock on the stroke of halftime, and from there Sir Alex Ferguson’s men cruised to a routine 3-0 victory following a second-half brace from Ruud van Nistelrooy. Never in doubt.
Cardiff City (FA Cup, 2008)
In 2008, Cardiff probably came as close as any lower-league side came to lifting the FA Cup since West Ham in 1980.
They gave a decent account of themselves in the second final played at the new Wembley, but just couldn’t break through Portsmouth’s steely rearguard of Sol Campbell and Sylvain Distin. Nwankwo Kanu’s first-half strike, capitalising on Peter Enckelman’s spillage, proved the difference in a 1-0 win.
Dave Jones’ Bluebirds featured a fresh-faced Aaron Ramsey and fellow Wales hero Joe Ledley alongside the likes of Roger Johnson, Peter Whittingham and Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink. A favourable run saw them progress past Chasetown, Hereford, Wolves, Middlesbrough and Barnsley but ultimately the final proved to be Pompey’s day – the crowning glory for Harry Redknapp’s classic Barclays-era side.
— Emirates FA Cup (@EmiratesFACup) July 1, 2020
Cardiff City (League Cup, 2012)
Four years after their FA Cup heartbreak, Cardiff were back at Wembley. Cardiff legend Peter Whittingham and right-back Kevin McNaughton remained, once again starting in a cup final, tasked with upsetting the odds against Kenny Dalglish’s Liverpool.
Cardiff took an early lead and pushed the contest to extra-time following Martin Skrtel’s second-half equaliser. Luis Suarez and Andy Carroll were kept at bay, but substitute Dirk Kuyt put the Reds ahead in extra time – only for Ben Turner’s 118th-minute equaliser to take it to penalties.
Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam missed Liverpool’s first two spot-kicks in the shootout, but Cardiff failed to capitalise, missing three of their five. The decisive killer blow came via Anthony Gerrard’s – cousin of Steven – missed effort.
Bradford City (League Cup, 2013)
The last side from outside the top flight to reach a domestic final was over a decade ago – Bradford City in 2013. Ever since then, the ‘big six’ have tended to monopolise the FA Cup and League Cup, the only exception being Leicester City’s FA Cup win in 2021.
So the memory of Swansea City facing off against League Two Bradford is something to be savoured. The Bantams were in their first major cup final in over a century, and became the first fourth-tier side to reach a cup final in over 50 years.
Bradford’s fairytale run saw them bloody the noses of Arsenal and Aston Villa on their way to the final, but Michael Laudrup’s Swans brutally made short work of them, winning the most prestigious piece of silverware in their history in style with a 5-0 win.