Up for t’Cup!

The Cup.

As it turned out, I watched a World Cup Final before I watched an FA Cup Final. England beat West Germany in the summer of 1966, after a month of football that may well have been the first football I ever watched on TV. The following May, 1967, I watched at least some of the Cup Final between Tottenham Hotspur and Chelsea.
Nowadays, I could tell you, almost without thinking, that Spurs won that 2-1, to win the FA Cup for the fifth time, out of five appearances in the Final, and that it was the first London Derby Final, which, given just how many London clubs there are, was pretty overdue.
I could also tell you that Derby Cup Finals are pretty thin on the ground. There’s never been a Manchester Derby, or a Birmingham Derby Final, although there were two Merseyside Derby Finals within the space of four years. Incidentally, in the years since 1967, there have been four other London Derby Finals.
And I could expand from there. I could pick a stat here, a fact there, spiral ever outwards in incident, anecdote and statistic until you would forget that all this happy, obsessive detail started with the 1967 Final. And I didn’t even watch a full, start to finish Final, until the following year (West Bromwich Albion 1, Everton 0 in extra-time, goalscorer Jeff Astle).
You see, I like the FA Cup. In fact, I love it. I can be, in fact I am, an FA Cup bore. I can recite the FA Cup Final results back as far as 1953, and scorers to 1968. Any kind of fact, statistic, anomaly is grist to my mill. I fall upon questions about FA Cup history. Who are the only Cup winners to play only top-flight opposition in every round? Nine teams have lost their only Cup Final appearance but which club has frustrated the dreams of no less than four of them? (The answer’s the same team, by the way).
And I have just found out whole areas in which I am completely ignorant. Not just ignorant but bemused. Stunned at the opening up of an area of Cup history of which I was completely unaware, that paints a picture of the FA Cup – the World’s oldest football competition – in a light in which I have never seen it before.
The FA Cup wasn’t always as it is now (and I don’t just mean to hearken back to the days when it was respected by the clubs, who wanted to win it).
Something drew me, at long last, to the details of the FA Cup in its infancy. I was looking up Wanderers, the first FA Cup Winners, indeed the first team to two, three, four and five wins, all in the first seven seasons. The first team to win three successive Finals (it’s only been done once since, and not in either of the current or previous Centuries), which entitled them to keep the Cup in perpetuity. Except that they handed it back, on condition that nobody else ever be allowed to keep it.
Wanderers’ story is fascinating in itself. As well as being the first winners, they were the only team to reach the Final on a bye direct to the last game, at a stadium they were allowed to nominate. They were a peripatetic club, an association of ex-public schoolboys, who never had a home ground. They entered the FA Cup in each of its first eleven seasons, although they withdrew from the tournament without playing a game in each of the last two years.
Overall, they were five times FA Cup winners in nine years, during which they played only 30 games, winning 21, drawing five and losing only four. One of their games is still, 140 years later, the record score for an FA Cup tie. And their success was the cause of their demise.
Through researching Wanderers, I came upon Wikipedia’s detailed, season-by-season records of all the FA Cup results, an openly available resource that I’d never thought to even hunt for, let alone consult. It’s a record of a competition that bears no resemblance to the Cup as I’ve known it all my life, that’s so utterly removed from the fixed and repeating structure that endures today as to be almost impossible to reconcile. How can this be the same competition? How can these histories  be the same?
It’s almost January again, just eleven days until the Third Round, Football’s New Years Day. I’ll be dipping into the Cup’s history, a decade at a time, throughout 2016. Next year’s Final will be the 144th year the competition’s been around, the 134th such game. I’ll see if I can catch up to date in time.

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