Football Features

Best English cup teams of the 21st century

By CJ Smith

Best English cup teams of the 21st century

Published: 11:08, 18 April 2024

Who doesn’t love a cup run?

Especially in England, a run to Wembley is something every fan dreams of and that doesn’t just count for the big guns. Over the years, we’ve seen all manner of clubs up and down the English Football Pyramid make a run for glory.

Of course, there’s no doubting a select few dominate the domestic landscape and it’s those clubs that usually make their voices heard in Europe, too. But who has been the best English cup team of the 21st century?

Chelsea: Cup kings of the 21st century

Even before their cash injection in 2003, Chelsea have long been at least a decent cup team. But since the Abramovich takeover, the silverware has barely stopped. In fact, since the year 2001, the Blues have lifted no fewer than 12 major cup trophies coming in the form of five FA Cups, three EFL Cups, two Champions Leagues and two Europa Leagues. That’s a phenomenal level of success when you consider that doesn’t even take into consideration their five league titles or the fact it could’ve been so much more with Chelsea losing 10 finals during that time.

Of course, a special mention must be made to Manchester City who, prior to lifting the 2011 FA Cup, hadn’t won a major domestic trophy since 1976, but have mopped up three FA Cups, six EFL Cups and a Champions League title in the last 13 years alone.

And for all their success in terms of league position and reaching several finals, it’s also incredible to consider that Tottenham’s only silverware success of the 21st century so far was the 2007/08 EFL Cup in which they ironically beat Chelsea in the final.

Arsenal Women: English football’s ultimate Cup specialists

Across both Men’s and Women’s football, nobody has dominated cup competitions in England quite like Arsenal. Their overall record is a startling seventeen cup trophies in the 21st Century. Along with six runner-up finishes, they have added 10 FA Cups, six League Cups and the Champions League to their trophy cabinet. To date in fact, Arsenal remain the only English women’s team to taste continental success, with Chelsea the only other club to even make a final, losing 4-0 to Barcelona in 2021.

The last decade or so in particular has seen Arsenal specialise in cup competitions despite failures in the league. Only one of their 15 WSL titles have come in the past 13 years. However, they’ve carried on lifting cups during that time with four FA Cups and a record seven League Cups, including the last two in a row of the latter after winning March’s final against Chelsea.

Somewhat emulating the men, Chelsea Women have enjoyed plenty of cup success this century and have been Arsenal’s nearest challengers with five FA Cups and two League Cups, with Manchester City also taking seven trophies in the form of three FA Cups and four League Cups.

These three teams have become the behemoths of women’s football in England, winning every single domestic cup title since 2013 and sharing all but two WSL titles. However, other clubs have enjoyed their moments in the sun, not least Charlton Athletic reaching four FA Cup finals between 2003 and 2007 — winning one of them — and Everton winning the FA Cup in 2010 and finishing runner-up in 2005, 2014 and 2020.

The most successful underdogs

The magic of the cup is all about the underdog story and despite a select few elite clubs generally dominating over the past couple of decades, there have still been some fairytale stories to enjoy. The most famous underdog story of recent times is probably still Wigan Athletic’s incredible 1-0 victory over Manchester City in the 2013 FA Cup final, lifting their first-ever major trophy despite suffering relegation to the Championship in the same season. The Latics even made a good fist of defending their title by reaching the semi-finals the following season.

Of course, there are plenty of other memorable FA Cup moments involving underdogs, including Portsmouth’s title in 2008 — followed by another final in 2010 — and final appearances from Southampton, Millwall, Stoke, Hull and Crystal Palace. West Ham and Everton also reached FA Cup finals in 2006 and 2009, respectively, although they both have rich history in this competition anyway.

Outside top-flight and Championship clubs, the most remarkable achievements in the FA Cup in recent times include Tamworth reaching the third round 2006, 2007 and 2012 — going further than any other non-league team each time — and semi-final appearances from the likes of Tranmere Rovers, Wycombe Wanderers and Sheffield United.

Despite performing well in the Premier League at the time, Leicester City’s FA Cup win in 2021 can be seen as something of a shock given they beat Chelsea in the final having already dumped out Manchester United in the last eight. Just two years later, the Foxes would suffer relegation.

The EFL Cup has also enjoyed its fair share of underdog stories, most notably with Birmingham City beating Arsenal in the 2011 final while, just like Wigan, suffering relegation in the same season. League Two Bradford City’s run to the 2013 final was arguably the greatest story in tournament history given they knocked out Arsenal and Liverpool on their way, and perhaps even overshadowed Swansea City beating them 5-0 at Wembley to lift their first-ever major trophy (of course, the Swans do not quite fall under the umbrella term of the best English Cup teams at the top of this article).

Attention must also be paid to some of England’s lesser cup competitions. For example, Whitley Bay’s treble of FA Vase titles between 2009 and 2011, and Hornchurch becoming the first-ever Step 7 finalists and winners of the FA Trophy in 2021.

The ‘big six’ stranglehold on the cups

For all the romance and excitement of lesser teams leaving their mark on cup competitions, there’s no doubt the supposed ‘big six’ have a stranglehold both domestically and in terms of success on the continent.

Since 2001, 20 of the 23 FA Cup winners have been one of Chelsea, Man City, Man Utd, Liverpool or Arsenal, while it’s 19 of 23 for the EFL Cup. One of the four other winners in the latter are Tottenham in one of five EFL Cup finals they’ve reached in the 21st century, while they’re the only English team outside that group of five to reach a Champions League/European Cup final since Aston Villa’s triumph over Bayern Munich in 1982.

Even in the Europa League/UEFA Cup, England’s only winners in the 21st century have been Chelsea, Man Utd and Liverpool, with Arsenal losing in the final to the former in 2019. Fulham and Middlesbrough both reached finals in 2010 and 2006 but fell to Atletico Madrid and Sevilla, respectively.

It’s in the Europa Conference League where the European trend has been bucked for English clubs with West Ham lifting the title last season. Can Aston Villa repeat the feat this time around?