The Giant Killers

Every F A cup giant killing since 1888

All time greatest F A cup giant killings

Number 114

 

Exeter City 3-2 Derby County

Third round {last 64}:Saturday January 10th 1931

St James Park, Exeter

Attendance: 16,500

Scorers: Percy Varco {21}, Jack Bowers {47}, Billy Armfield {68}, Harold Houghton {79}, Jack Bowers {87}

Alfred Hitchcock's Juno And The Paycock was in the cinema, Webster Booth had a hit with A Little Brown Bird Singing, The Sadlers Wells theatre opened and Thomas Edison submitted his last patent.

In the forty-one years since football was first played in Exeter the national press had rarely found cause to visit the Devon City to report on the exploits of its football teams, which had merged in 1904 to form Exeter City. The Grecians, as they came to be known, gained membership of Third Division in 1920 but the next decade was spent largely trying to avoid re-election with sporadic excitement created by two visits from top flight clubs in the cup. On both occasions Exeter had forced creditable replays against Blackburn and Leeds respectively before losing replays away from Devon. Naturally for a club whose home record was quite impressive, the upcoming visit of Derby County for a third round tie in 1931 created a fair bit of excitement and introduced a mascot that would remain for the best part of the next forty years in the shape of Dido the seagull.

Exeter's newest fan was first spotted perching on the crossbar of one of the goals at St James' Park as the early bird fans began entering the ground to watch the locals take on a side sitting just four points off the summit of the title race and pushing hard to bring the Championship to the Baseball Ground for the first time with a side boasting England Internationals, Tommy Cooper and Sammy Crooks.

Derby's ground carried a certain notoriety for having the worst state pitch in the top flight so St James' Park must have been in a terrible condition for the visiting players to question whether or not the game should go ahead but the referee was satisfied that the ball would travel so the game kicked off as scheduled with no serious complaint from any section.

Few fans made the long trek from Derbyshire to watch the tie but those that did would have instantly recognised the home goalkeeper as Arthur Davies, who had earned a Championship medal when custodian for Everton in 1928. Inside left, Harold Houghton had been a reserve in the same side while Percy Varco and Billy Armfield had been reserves at Aston Villa. Stan Barber and Dicky Baugh had been in the same position at Newcastle and West Bromwich Albion respectively although the five reserves had managed just five top flight appearances between them with their previous clubs.

With a starting eleven of such limited pedigree and a cup history that suggested the best the home fans could hope for might be a draw the game went ignored by the BBC, who chose not to send a reporter but the newspapers were there to record that Exeter started the game at a very high tempo and deservedly took the lead when Percy Varco pounced on a hesitant Derby defence to fire past a hopelessly exposed Jack Kirby.

Despite finding life tough on the poor playing surface, Derby kept their composure to go in a goal down and it certainly seemed like they had been given a half time dressing down when they started the second half a much improved side. Within two minutes Sammy Crooks got to the byline and swung in a teasing cross that Jack Bowers met perfectly to head the Rams level. Derby were in the ascendancy and looked sure to go on and win the tie when a nasty clash between team mates Nobby Clarke and Dicky Baugh left both players rolling in agony. Both Exeter men were unceremoniously carried from the field as their team mates tried to reorganise to play on with only nine men and for the next ten minutes it was a very uneven contest as Exeter settled for kicking the ball as far from their goal as possible. 

The return of Dicky Baugh brought a great cheer from the home fans but a shake of his head to captain Charlie Miller told everyone that Clarke would not be returning. Now the majority within St James' Park were hoping that yet another creditable draw could be secured but the players had other ideas as the ten men lived up to the old adage of the side a man down playing the better football.

Within five minutes of Baugh's return Billy Armfield reacted quickest in a goal mouth scramble to put the home side back in front and once again raise the noise level to fever pitch inside the ground

The body language of the Derby players certainly suggested that a cupset was on as Exeter continued to have the better of things and a sustained spell of pressure saw the ball pinging around the penalty area as the Derby defence became more and more stretched until finally Harold Houghton prodded the ball home. 

There were just eleven minutes left but even with only ten men the home fans now finally believed that they were witnessing history for the Devon club, although fatigue gripped the home players in the closing stages and allowed Jack Bowers the chance to give the visitors late hope with his second goal of the day.

Derby showed increased urgency in the last three minutes but their chance had gone and the final whistle signalled an army of children swarming onto the field to congratulate their heroes.  For Derby the result was a disaster for a club desperately in need of a cup run to solve their terrible financial woes.

Exeter's cup run took them to second division Bury in round four where yet again they took their share of the headlines in a game in which they spent most of the game defending doggedly. The Grecians had rarely threatened before Percy Varco lashed a free kick into the net just before the interval and when Harold Houghton got lucky with a second half lob from distance the tie was won, even though another late goal set up a grandstand finish as Bury tried to salvage the tie.

With so many surprising results happening in the cup the respected broadcaster and Arsenal manager, George Allison jested in the press at the possibility of an Exeter versus Barnsley cup final before nailing his colours to the mast by tipping Leeds as his favourites to win the trophy. Later that day the struggling top flight Peacocks were told that the next step on their road to Wembley would be a trip to Devon to face The Grecians.

 Cup fever had well and truly gripped Exeter by fifth round day with a record attendance filling every space in the tiny St James' Park Ground long before kick off but it was a nervous start from the Grecians as Leeds controlled the early stages with a confidence and swagger that had been missing from their First Division performances but the nervous Exeter players were supported by a crowd who cheered an early throw in as if it were a penalty and when the ball was launched from the Exeter half high into the Leeds penalty area it was cheered as if the home team had scored as the bemused Leeds keeper, Potts, clutched an effort no more dangerous than a back pass.

The enthusiasm of the crowd was infectious though and the Exeter players grew in confidence as the half wore on before taking the lead after twenty-four minutes when Houghton raced at George Milburn at full speed down the left. The Experienced Leeds man made to force the Exeter winger out wide to avoid him cutting in for a shot but Houghton instead wrong footed the full back before laying a great cross to an unmarked George Purcell who had time to take a touch before lashing the ball into the Leeds net.

The noise that greeted the goal hadn't died down when Hyde equalised, only for his headed effort to be ruled out for a close call of offside and while there was little protest from the visitors it seemed to have an effect on their play. Exeter remained comfortable for the rest of the first half and their dominance was rewarded right on half time when Armfield doubled their lead.

The Exeter fans could hardly believe it at half time that their team had one foot in the F A cup quarter finals but any doubters were silenced eight minutes into the second half when Varco laid on a chance for Armfield which crashed in off a post with Potts well beaten. Barring a major collapse The game lost any sense of a contest after that as a demoralised Leeds knew they were beaten and it was only in the last twenty minutes that they began to try and salvage some pride, which they did sixteen minutes from time through Mitchell.

The final whistle yet again sparked the pitch invasion from the hundreds of kids in the ground as the amazing cup run continued. Leeds' assistant chairman visited the victorious changing room and warmly congratulated the team whom, he confessed had been easily the better side on the day. Charlie Miller was full of praise for their First Division opponents in return stating that "It was a very good game and the hardest we've had so far. It was a clean game too but we were really the better team. Leeds were a good lot of sportsmen and they took their defeat very well indeed." Miller then added to George Allison's tongue in cheek remarks about Exeter being in the cup final when saying "All the boys feel fresh and fit and we have a great hope of going to Wembley. In fact, wonderful hopes and I would tell the Exeter people to book their seats!"

The quarter final draw couldn't have been harder on the Devon men though when they were asked to go to Roker Park to face the mighty Sunderland. In the toughest test presented to them so far the Grecians yet again rose to the challenge and came within a whisker of making the semi finals when Percy Varco missed an open goal with the clock running out and the two sides locked together.

That set up yet another big day in Exeter with workplaces closing early and school children given the day off to ensure a record 20,984 crammed into St James' Park for the midweek afternoon fixture. The pitch this time was worse than for the Derby tie in January but Sunderland adapted their game on what was described as an unplayable bog to book a semi final against Birmingham 4-2.

None of the Exeter side managed to move on to the big time but as a team their fortunes in Division Three improved through the thirties and remain the greatest side Exeter have ever produced. It would be fifty years before the Devonians would reach a quarter final again. Dido the seagull featured heavily in the cup run and continued to pop in in various guises at St James' Park over the next four decades before falling from favour in the seventies. 

Exeter: 1:Arthur Davies, 2:Dicky Baugh, 3:Charlie Miller, 4:Nobby Clarke {pictured}, 5:Jack Angus, 6:Percy Varco, 7:Billy Armfield, 8:Stan Barber, 9:George Purcell, 10:Harold Houghton, 11:Dick Doncaster

Derby: 1:Jack Kirby, 2:Tommy Cooper, 3:George Collin, 4:Jack Nicholas, 5:Freddie Jessop, 6:Gavin Malloch, 7:Sammy Crooks, 8:George Stephenson, 9:Jack Bowers, 10:Peter Ramage, 11:George Mee