The FA Cup was the first of football’s great competitions, providing the blueprint for structuring the game in more formal fashion and has proved to be, both at home and abroad, organised football’s founding father.
More than simply the showpiece occasion to bring down the curtain on an English season, it became the world’s cup final, the best loved and most watched domestic game on earth, the fixture that people all over the planet would do anything they could to catch.
It is the competition that fostered professionalism, created and fuelled the rivalry between clubs great and small, instigated the game’s global television market and yet still reminds us that, be they ever so mighty, the biggest and the best in the world can still be brought down to earth by a committed bunch of journeymen, hurling themselves around on a mud heap on a bitingly cold January day.
It’s the competition that began by drawing together the elite of Victorian society and those from its humblest strata, and one which still, despite the league pyramid that followed, is the only way in which a team of postmen, office clerks and production line workers might get the chance of walking out at Old Trafford, Anfield or Stamford Bridge.
The FA Cup. All human life is here.
Following the formation of the Football Association in 1863 and the early work done in codifying the game by producing its first set of laws, it was that vision of bringing the nation's teams together - the public schools of the south and the team's forged from industry, church and philanthropy in the north – that formed The FA’s next guiding task, one ideally suited to a competitive arena.
The burgeoning game was still in its infancy as we entered the 1870s, teams playing in a patchwork of local friendlies for the most part, few venturing beyond the most parochial of boundaries to play games. As the national association, it was incumbent upon The FA to show leadership and draw all these disparate clubs into a cohesive whole and a countrywide competition seemed the best method of doing so.
Charles W. Alcock, the Secretary of The FA, had already been a prime mover in trying to get international football off the ground by arranging a controversial first meeting between England and Scotland in 1870.
The FA Cup final between Aston Villa and Everton at Crystal Palace
Clearly a forward thinker, on 20 July 1871, at a meeting of The FA committee at the offices of The Sportsman newspaper, he drew on memories of his schooldays and the inter-house matches at Harrow, concluding that with the growth of the railways in particular making national travel possible, there was now no longer any impediment to teams from all over the nation meeting one another on the sporting field.
So it was that at that committee meeting, 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”.
The motion was swiftly carried, the rules of the knock-out competition agreed and invitations issued to The FA’s 50 member clubs of the time, just 15 of whom responded – Alcock was clearly ahead of his time. Following further withdrawals around a dozen clubs ultimately took part over a competition that spanned just 13 fixtures, the first round of games taking place on 11 November 1871.
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.- Charles W. Alcock, Secretary of The FA
As a consequence of that win, Wanderers received a bye to the following year’s final, the original concept of “challenge cup” competition, although this was to be the only year in which that rule applied. They retained the trophy with a 2-0 win over Oxford University, going on to win five of the first seven finals, Oxford University and Royal Engineers winning the other two.
But as Wanderers were busily underlining the fact that the cup had been born from the great amateur bastions of the nation, the spread of The FA’s influence via its county and district satellites would spawn the next great change in the game – the arrival of professionalism, legalised in 1885.
By that time, the provinces had started to show their mettle, Blackburn Olympic carrying off the trophy in 1883 before Blackburn Rovers began the roll call of winners familiar to us today, winning a hat-trick of cups before triumphs for the likes of Aston Villa, West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End. 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.
Professionalism contributed to a shift in the game’s axis, the new clubs of the north with their players dedicated to the game quickly usurping the amateur sides typically from the south. That led to the creation of the Football League in 1888, but it was still The FA Cup Final that was the showpiece occasion of the season, even after it moved to the Crystal Palace in 1895, the year in which the original trophy was stolen from a Birmingham shop window, displayed there after Aston Villa had won it. A replica was made to replace it and that survived until 1910 when it was replaced by the trophy that we know today.
Bradford City players line up for the presentation of the FA Cup by C Crump (1911)
By then, the cup was not only the most desirable piece of silverware in the English, and perhaps the world game, but the competition was a byword for the unexpected, the heroic, the romantic – the idea of the “magic of the cup” had taken hold in popular culture, the concept of “giant-killing” central to it all. Notts County became the first winners from the Second Division in 1894, beating Bolton of the top flight, while Tottenham won the competition as a Southern League outfit in 1901, the first final to be filmed by Pathe News, defeating Sheffield United in a replay.
The competition’s hold on the national consciousness took another great leap forward in 1923 when the final was hosted by the Empire Stadium at Wembley, a purpose built stadium, designed, in part, to accommodate the growing appetite for attending The FA Cup final. Completed only four days before Bolton Wanderers were to play West Ham United in the final, demand for entrance overwhelmed even this new “cathedral of football” as Pele would later call it. With an announced crowd of 126,047 – although many believe that perhaps more than twice that many might have been inside the stadium - spectators spilled onto the field, eventually only cleared by the intervention of mounted police and, in particular, George Scorey and his horse, Billy, gradually eased them back into the surrounds, to allow the game to go ahead. The “White Horse” final remains one of the most iconic moments in world sporting history.
Wembley and The FA Cup Final went hand in hand thereafter, each adding to the other’s lustre. Cardiff City became the first – and so far, only – club to take the cup out of England when they defeated Arsenal in 1927, the first final to be transmitted live on national radio. Television arrived in 1938, broadcasting the Preston versus Huddersfield final in full, though there had already been limited coverage of the previous year’s final between Sunderland and Preston.
But it wasn’t all happening at the national stadium, the 1933 FA Cup tie between Walsall and Arsenal, the archetypal giant-killing feat as the Gunners, well on the way to the first of their hat-trick of First Division wins, were humbled by the Saddlers of the Third Division (North), manager Herbert Chapman so angry that he sacked one of his defenders on the train home from Fellows Park.
When football returned after the war, the appetite for the game was greater yet and The FA Cup duly stepped up to the plate. 1949 saw another huge upset as Yeovil of the Southern League defeated big spending Sunderland, the “Bank of England” club as they were known, in the fourth round.
Even so, it was the final that really caught the imagination and in 1953, with the nation newly equipping itself with grainy black and white sets to watch the Queen’s coronation, came the game with everything. The nation’s favourite footballer, Stanley Matthews, seemed to be nearing the end of his career at 38 and still had never won an FA Cup winner’s medal. This appeared to be his last chance but Bolton had other ideas and, with just over 20 minute to go, they led 3-1. Matthews conjured up a cross for Mortensen to reduce the deficit but as the game entered its final minute, Bolton were still in front, only for Mortensen to score direct from a free-kick. Impossibly, Matthews then conjured up the fairytale finish, the “wizard of the dribble” crossing for Perry to score the winner in injury time.
That began a run of extraordinary finals – former prisoner-of-war Bert Trautmann playing on to win with Manchester City in 1956 despite a broken neck, Manchester United dragging themselves from the wreckage of Munich to contest an emotionally exhausting final in ’58, Spurs completing the 20th century’s first double in ’61. Year after year, The FA Cup Final threw up indelible memories that will last as long as the game is played – a delirious Everton fan invading the pitch and slipping off his jacket to avoid the attentions of a policeman in ’66, the conflict of 1970 as Chelsea and Leeds declared war on each other over two games, Charlie George slumping to the ground, overcome as he sealed Arsenal’s ‘Double’ in 1971.
And yet there was more to come.
1978: Ipswich Town captain, Mick Mills (left) holding the FA Cup with Roger Osbourne
In January 1972 came perhaps the most memorable FA Cup tie of all-time, played on the unpromising mudheap of Hereford United’s Edgar Street as the non-leaguers prepared to replay against top flight Newcastle United. When the Magpies took the lead, the game seemed up, but then came one of the greatest FA Cup goals, Ronnie Radford defying the conditions to smash the ball across 35 yards, searing into the top corner to level matters before Ricky George twisted and turned his way to the winner in extra-time.
As if desperate to live up to that early round magic, The FA Cup Final of ’73 provided a shock of almost similarly seismic proportions as second tier Sunderland beat Leeds United, as good a team as there was in Europe, courtesy of an Ian Porterfield goal and a double save from Jim Montgomery that’s almost as legendary as Radford’s rocket from the previous season.
Hard on its heels, we had the seeming impossibility of Second Division Southampton defeating the might of Manchester United in 1976, the similarly unlikely climax to the 1979 final between Arsenal and Manchester United as the last five minutes saw United salvage a draw from 2-0 down, only to lose it again in the final seconds.
There was Ricky Villa dancing through the City of Manchester to win the final replay of 1981, just days after trudging away, disconsolate and alone, after being substituted in the first game. Coventry won a first trophy in 1987 courtesy of the horizontal Keith Houchen, the “Crazy Gang beat the culture club” a year later, Dave Beasant saving a penalty and lifting the cup for Wimbledon.
Bryan Robson celebrates Manchester United's FA Cup victory at Wembley in 1985.
And then there was Hillsborough.
That a competition that through over a century had seemed so much about joy and celebration should be the backdrop to such tragedy was heartbreaking in itself and, though Liverpool went on to win the cup in all-Merseyside final that year, the horrors of that semi-final day cast a long shadow. Perhaps it always will.
In 2001, a temporary move to the Millennium Stadium reinvigorated the tournament, and the first final there saw Michael Owen step up to rescue Liverpool from a losing position by scoring twice in the last seven minutes to defeat Arsenal.
Liverpool’s flair for the dramatic was there again in 2006, the last Millennium Stadium final, as Steven Gerrard took the game with West Ham to extra-time with virtually the last kick of the 90 minutes, from all of 35 yards.
Back now in its rightful home of Wembley Stadium, The FA Cup continues to generate the moments that stop the nation in its tracks, be it Ben Watson’s near post header to win the 2013 final for Wigan against one of the world’s richest clubs, Manchester City, League One Bradford City’s extraordinary run to the sixth round in 2015, winning at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge on the way or non-League Lincoln City's adventures in 2017 beating top-flight Burnley en route to the quarter final.
There’s nothing like an old-fashioned cup tie, and there’s nothing which draws us together as one footballing nation like the Football Association’s Challenge Cup.