More than a sporting story: 150 years of the FA Cup

Class, civic pride, the development of the railways and the concept of the weekend lie at the origin of the world’s longest-running knockout football competition.

Published 10 May 2022, 12:54 BST
Chelsea's Marcos Alonso celebrates with the FA Cup trophy following the final against Manchester United in ...

Chelsea's Marcos Alonso celebrates with the FA Cup trophy following the final against Manchester United in 2018. 

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Little can the players of Wanderers and Royal Engineers involved in the first FA Cup final – on March 16, 1872 at London's Kennington Oval – have known that 150 years later their humble competition would become English football’s most prestigious knockout cup. Today some 90,000 fans roar on their teams at Wembley Stadium, with a global audience watching on in more than 46 countries. Only 15 teams entered the first edition of what was then known as the Football Association Challenge Cup in 1871; this year, 729 clubs took part. Women would have to wait until 1970 to get a shot, with the Women's FA Challenge Cup Competition the pinnacle of competitive women's football, with 300 clubs taking part.

But the FA Cup is more than a sporting story – it’s a history of class, industrial development, workers’ rights and north-south divide. Nurtured in the nation’s public schools, football was swiftly adopted by the urban working classes, fostering a powerful sense of local pride. Within a decade of the competition starting, Blackburn Olympic were beating Old Etonians in the final.

A print shows scenes of the 1883 FA Cup Final, played between Blackburn Olympic and the Old Etonians.

Photograph by Steeve-x-foto / Alamy

Pictured nearly two decades before the start of the First World War, the Everton FA Cup final team of 1897. The team lost 3-2 to Aston Villa at Crystal Palace.

Photograph by Trinity Mirror / MirrorPix / Alamy

“In the 1880s a very high proportion of people who played football were solicitors, barristers and clergy. It was an upper-class, snob sport,” says Brian Beard, associate historian, Football Association.

“But you only needed a ball to play football, whether you were an aristocrat from Eton or a millworker from Blackburn. There was a clear north-south divide.” Blackburn Olympic’s victorious team of 1883 included a plumber, a cotton operative, a weaver and a foundry worker, who returned as heroes to Lancashire.

“Brass bands marked the triumphal route as the team were driven through the streets in a wagonette drawn by six horses,” according to Geoffrey Green’s Official History of the FA Cup, published in 1949.

Darwen FC, 1879. The Lancashire team controversially reached the semi-finals of the FA Cup in the 1880-1881 season. The player Fergie Suter lies in font – one of the first instances of a professional to be signed to an amateur team, and – along with Jimmy Love – play in the FA cup.  

Photograph by Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy

The 1909 FA Cup Final, between Bristol City and Manchester United. Held at Crystal Palace, Manchester United won 1-0. 

Photograph by Archive PL / Alamy

The team had the same profile of mixed backgrounds that today pits the postmen and production workers of non-league teams against the world-famous players of Manchester United, Liverpool and Arsenal; ties that remain unique to the FA Cup.

Origins of a sport

Football emerged from England’s public schools and universities in the 19th century, and only became a codified sport with a fixed set of rules in 1863. The two dominant rules were the Sheffield Rules of 1858 and the ‘Cambridge Rules’ of 1848 (now carved in stone on Parker’s Piece, Cambridge). The latter declared that, “The time during which the match shall last, and the numbers on each side are to be settled by the heads of the sides.” Even the size of the ball was subject to local eccentricities. The origin of a match being split into two halves is not due to evening up a slope of the pitch or the strength of the wind, but to the teams being able to play one set of rules in the first half and another in the second half.

The scene in 1923 at the newly-built Wembley Stadium for the FA Cup Final football match between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United. King George V, at the right of the line of figures, watches the game – which West Ham won 2-0. The stadium – which was rebuilt and reopened in 2007 – has been the venue for the FA Cup Final ever since.

Photograph by PA Images / Alamy

Another scene from Wembley's 1923 FA Cup final. The stadium's capacity of 127,000 was breached by surging fans in advance of the game, and had to be cleared by mounted police before play could begin. The stadium remained over-capacity, with crowds sitting on the edges of the pitch. 

Photograph by Trinity Mirror / MirrorPix / Alamy

Overcrowding at football matches became something of a theme – with occasionally tragic results. Here, at a sixth-round FA cup match between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City in 1946 at Bolton's Burnden Park, a fainting casualty is attended to on the exact spot where an hour later, 33 Bolton Wanderers F.C. spectators would lose their lives through asphyxiation and crushing amidst a crowd of 85,000.

Photograph by Trinity Mirror / MirrorPix / Alamy

Codification had gone some way towards taming a game that appeared to be a hybrid of rugby and football, including carrying the ball and rough tackling. The FA’s laws of the game at the time of the first Challenge Cup specified that “Neither tripping nor hacking shall be allowed and no player shall use his hands to hold or push his adversary, nor charge him from behind.”

But cross-bars, goal nets, free kicks and penalties had yet to be introduced. Team selection was very different from today, too, with sides comprised of seven forwards, three defenders and a goalkeeper. Tactics focused on dribbling the ball, not passing, which was considered “as a last resort and very haphazard,” according to Green. When Queen’s Park, from Glasgow, arrived for the first semi-final with a passing rather than dribbling game, their approach appears “to have astonished their opponents,” adds Green.

Codification also coincided with the development of the railways, whose tracks paved the way for teams to play opposition from farther afield than the local area.

Manchester City goalkeeper, Bert Trautmann, dives at the feet of The Birmingham City's Peter Murphy during the 1956 FA Cup Final at Wembley. Trautmann, who was a German soldier and prisoner of war during World War 2, broke his neck during a dive against Murphy – but continued to play for the last 17 minutes of the game, helping Manchester City secure a 3-1 win.  

Photograph by ZUMA Press Inc / Alamy

“With the growth of the railways and improvement in ease of travel it would be easier for a team in Northampton, say, to play a team from Manchester,” says Beard. “So football grew from a local level to a regional level to a national level.”

Birth of a tournament

By 1870, with teams able to travel, the possibility of a nationwide competition gathered steam. The idea is attributed to Charles W. Alcock, the secretary of the FA, who envisaged a championship that mirrored the inter-house matches of his schooldays at Harrow, copying a format of halving the number of teams each round via knockout.

According to Green, a committee from the FA met in “a small, oak-panelled room at the Sportsman office, London,” on July 20, 1871, where the ‘tall and athletic’ Alcock proposed, “That it is desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the Association, for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete.”

“It was only when the Government introduced half-day working on a Saturday so people could knock off from the pits or the mill that football began to grow in industrial areas.”

Brian Beard

The idea was officially accepted on October 16, 1871, leading to the ‘immortal fifteen’ participating in the inaugural Cup to compete for a silver trophy on an ebony plinth, about 18 inches tall and costing less than £20. Today’s famous ‘big ears’ trophy was introduced in 1910.

In the first year of the competition, eight of the teams came from London, five from the Home Counties, and only two from north of Hertfordshire – Queen’s Park, Glasgow and Donington Grammar School. The final saw Wanderers FC from Battersea (with Alcock in its team) defeat Royal Engineers 1-0; Wanderers went on to win five of the first seven finals.

This season, “729 clubs across 10 levels of the English football pyramid will take part in more than 700 fixtures,” Andy Ambler, the FA’s Director of Pro Game Relations, tells National Geographic.

The Derby County team return home with the FA Cup following their victory over Charlton Athletic, 1946. Here, Derby captain Jack Nicholas shows off the trophy. Due to the shortage of materials after World War Two, the team were presented with Bronze medals – with Gold ones awarded later in the year when supplies were re-established. 

Photograph by Trinity Mirror / MirrorPix / Alamy

“The world’s longest-running knockout football competition continues to be of significant importance to clubs and their communities from the amateur through to professional levels of the game. It’s always oversubscribed. The fact that everyone has the chance to progress and compete at the very highest level means that there is a substantial level of interested in the competition retained both at home and abroad.”

‘Excessive rivalry’

While the Victorian-era competition gathered steam, it did not enjoy universal approval, with opponents fearing that the FA Challenge Cup, “would give rise to an excessive rivalry; that a desire to win the trophy, or even to gain a prominent place in the struggle for it, would introduce an unhealthy feeling and tempt clubs to subordinate the well-being of the game to their own selfish interests,” wrote Green. 

Tottenham Hotspur return to London to greet crowds in an open-topped double decker bus after their win over Leicester in the FA Cup Final, 1961.

Photograph by Trinity Mirror / MirrorPix / Alamy

The following year, in 1962, Tottenham won again by beating Burnley 3-1. The team with the most wins is another London team – Arsenal – with 14 FA Cup titles to date.

Photograph by Keystone Press / Alamy

They may have had a point. The multi-million pound contracts of today were absent from an amateur sport, but ‘boot money’ – surreptitiously slipping a player cash in his boots after a match, became a regular occurrence, especially for players from working class backgrounds.

“From the mid-1870s onwards there was more of that happening; northern clubs were enticing players down from Scotland on the pretext of giving them a job in their factory, mill or foundry and they were paid under the table,” says Beard. “Teams were banned or expelled from the FA Cup because they admitted paying players and some teams refused to play teams from the north, but it was like a snowball rolling down the mountain – once they started, they couldn’t stop it.”

Professionalism of a sort was made legal in 1882, when the FA at least accepted that clubs could pay expenses ‘and any wages actually lost by players taking part in any match’, although any additional remuneration was prohibited.

The oldest surviving FA Cup trophy, awarded from 1896 to 1910, went under the hammer at Bonhams in 2020 for £760,000. Bought by Manchester City Football Club, it is now on display at the National Football Museum. The original, preceding trophy was nicknamed the 'little tin idol' and was stolen from a Birmingham sports shop in 1895. 

Photograph by Malcolm Park / Alamy

“By the mid-1880s, winning The FA Cup had already become the holy grail for the rapidly organizing football clubs, and they weren’t shy of spending the money required to do it, Rovers forking out some £615 on wages in the cup winning season of 1885/86,” wrote David Barber, former FA Historian.

Supporters, however, were already pouring money into the game. The first FA Challenge Cup final was attended by 2,000 fans who each paid a shilling to watch the match at the Oval. Two years later the attendance had risen to 5,000 people. By 1884, 101 teams had entered the competition and 12,000 spectators attended the final.

Living for the weekend

Fans’ growing enthusiasm for the sport and cup competition had developed hand-in-hand with the concept of the ‘weekend’ throughout the second half of the 19th century. Campaigns for a half-day Saturday plus Sunday off work started in earnest in the 1840s, and by the end of the century had become irresistible.

Wembley Stadium today, during a match between Everton and Liverpool. The current stadium has a capacity of 90,000. 

Photograph by Athol Pictures / Alamy

“It was only when the Government introduced half-day working on a Saturday so people could knock off from the pits or the mill that football began to grow in industrial areas,” says Beard. “Teams grew because people had leisure time and fan bases grew because if they didn’t play they could watch.”

Crystal Palace took over as venue for the final in 1895, with the crowd swelling to over 100,000 people in 1901 for the match between Sheffield United and Tottenham Hotspur. This was also the first final to be filmed, by Pathe News, although the first live broadcast of a final was not until 1938, between Preston North End and Huddersfield, at a time when only 20,000 households had television sets.

In 1914, 476 clubs entered the competition, and the final was the first to be attended by a reigning monarch, George V. Despite the outbreak of the Great War, the final of 1915 went ahead, the only final to be played during wartime. After the Armistice, Crystal Palace was still a War Service Depot, so the final moved to Stamford Bridge for three years, before the FA Ground Committee sanctioned a stadium at Wembley Park, then a golf course in a leafy corner of London’s northern suburbs, in 1921.

“On a January day in 1922 the Duke of York [future King George VI] cut a piece of turf to set in motion a mounting series of events,” writes Green. “Within 300 working days more than 250,000 tons of clay were removed at a cost of £750,000; 25,000 tons of concrete, 1,500 tons of steel, and half a million rivets were brought in. Gradually the amphitheatre took shape.”

Wembley was ready for its first final in 1923 with a capacity of 127,000 people, but thousands stormed the stadium leading to an estimated crowd of 200,000 to 250,000 people, shepherded from the pitch into the stands by a policeman on a white horse. It was “a human flood, like some tidal wave carried along by the force of its own momentum, pouring over the lush, green pitch,” adds Green.

After the Second World War the FA Cup swiftly resumed, bringing entertainment and distraction to a population still facing austerity and rationing (the winners of the 1946 final received bronze medals due to a shortage of precious metals after the war, although they were eventually upgraded). As Green wrote at the time, “What is the FA Competition but an adventure, in which faith sometimes, quite often, moves mountains… The approach of spring each year brings us to the final battle to secure this valueless, yet priceless trophy.” 

Special thanks to Brian Beard, associate historian, Football Association for contributing insights to this story.

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