And suddenly it was so different.
The first decade of the FA Cup was the era of the southern amateurs, the Home Counties public schoolboys. And indeed, they maintained their record in 1881/2, with Old Etonians becoming only the second team to win the Cup twice. Unseen, Wanderers, to whom the first decade belonged, entered the Cup for the final time, scratching without playing (as did Queen’s Park, of course).
But it was the identity of the losers that provided the key to the decade ahead. These were Blackburn Rovers, and the second decade would be the Blackburn years.
But Rovers were not the first northern team to win the Cup. There were about twenty teams in Blackburn at that time, and it was rivals Blackburn Olympic who would take the Cup into Lancashire in 1883, after defeating Old Etonians (in their sixth Final, beating Wanderers’ record of five: of course, Wanderers won all of theirs). The Final required extra-time to resolve it. At this period, extra-time was not mandatory and depended on both team captains agreeing to play it. West Bromwich Albion’s refusal of extra-time would send the 1885/86 Final into the only replay of the decade.
Olympic’s victory gave rise to a prophetic story: at the celebration dinner, someone called out that the Cup had come to Lancashire at last, to which Olympic’s captain, Albert Warburton famously replied, “Aye, and it’ll never go back to London again.” This prediction came true in 1895 when Aston Villa, as holders, allowed the Cup to go on display in a local shop. The shop was burgled and the Cup stolen, never to be seen again.
Blackburn Olympic were a short-term phenomenon. Their win came in only their third Cup campaign, having been knocked out in the First Round in each of their first two attempts. They would reach the semi-finals the following year but never again achieve such heights: indeed, they would disband in 1889.
Perhaps more important was the effect of Olympic’s win on the Cup and football in general. Not only were they a northern club, but they were a working class team, and one that, outrageously, had taken a week off before the Final, training in Blackpool. The team was almost professional, and this was anathema to the FA. Over the decade, there would be instances throughout the Cup of clubs being disqualified – sometimes both teams in a tie – for professionalism (though this would hardly account for the disqualifications of Old Wykhamists and Old Harrovians from the Third Round in 1885/86).
This treatment fuelled resentment among the northern clubs and was a factor in the growing desire to set up an alternate competition free from FA interference that soon led to twelve north-western clubs agreeing to set up a League.
Blackburn Olympic never graced the Final again, but the rest of the decade belonged to Rovers. They would appear in five of the remaining eight finals of the decade, winning the Cup on every occasion, equalling Wanderers’ record of five Cups, and equalling Wanderers’ record of three successive trophies between 1884-86, plus a two in a row in 1890 and 1891.
The first two of their victories came against, of all clubs, Queens Park. The great amateurs had continued to enter the Cup and withdraw from it as soon as they were asked to actually play a tie, but all this changed in 1883/84, when the Scots suddenly decided to fulfil a tie, away to Crewe Alexandra, their first game since the goalless semi-final in the Cup’s inaugural season. They won 10-0.
Queens Park went on to beat Manchester FC (no relation to either Ardwick or Newton Heath LYR) 15-0 in the first cup tie played in Scotland, Oswestry Town 7-1, Aston Villa 6-1, Old Westminsters 1-0 and holders Blackburn Olympic 4-0 in the semi-finals. Having scored 43 goals en route to the Final, Queens Park looked to be favourites, but this was Blackburn’s decade, and Rovers beat them 2-1 at Kennington Oval.
Though there was considerable controversy over the result. It was suggested that the referee, Major Francis Marindan (the FA President who took charge of most of the Finals in this decade) had favoured the English side over a valid equaliser being disallowed. Marindan himself admitted the goal’s validity: the ball had been cleared from a goalline scrimmage after crossing the line but as no player had appealed for the goal – as in cricket, the referee could only intervene if an appeal was made – he had let play carry on!
That season had been the first in which 100 teams had applied to enter the competition, although the still-usual withdrawals meant only 97 actually played but the following year, the entrants and players topped 100 for the first time. Though there were still years to come where the numbers of entrants would dip, the line would never drop below three figures again.
The increased figures meant that a Sixth Round was required from the first time, though this was achieved by the farcical situation of having only one actual Fifth Round tie with the seven other participants getting byes. The era of semi-final byes was determinedly behind, and more care was being taken now over juggling numbers to produce orthodox rounds, but this ridiculous one-tie round was to be repeated over the next three seasons, although in future it would be transferred to the Fourth Round, where ties and byes would be unmercifully split to produce sixteen Fifth Round teams.
Each season, the number of actual ties would increase, but in 1887/88, there were still more byes (9) than ties (7).
The 1884/85 Final was a repeat of the previous year, save only for the score, Blackburn Rovers beating Queens Park 2-0. The Scots were not the first team to reach two Finals and lose, but as history would have it, this result made them the first of only three clubs to have reached more than a single Final without ever winning the trophy.
By now, disqualifications were on the increase, but there were also a slow but steady increase of void games. I don’t know what lay behind these decisions, or whether there was a common factor, but void games were replayed as if they had been draws, with the venue switching to that of the away team.
If you’ll forgive a personal note, virtually every home tie played by Hurst FC (forerunners of the present-day Ashton United, local rivals of Droylsden) was voided. This became farcical in 1885/86 when both their First Round and First Round Replays were declared void. Hirst won the Second Replay, only for their (home) Second Round tie to be declared void again. Perhaps understandably, they scratched from the replay.
Blackburn Rovers reached their third consecutive Final that season, meeting West Bromwich Albion in a goalless game. The West Brom captain’s refusal to agree extra-time meant a replay was required, for which the venue was the Racecourse Ground in Derby, home of Derbyshire County Cricket Club. It was the first Final to be held outside London, and Blackburn completed their hat trick, emulating Wanderers only eight years after their amazing achievement.
There was, under the terms of Wanderers’ stipulation on returning the Cup to the FA, no prospect of Blackburn being allowed to keep the trophy. The feat has never been achieved since. Indeed, the Cup is notoriously difficult to retain even once, so there have only been six instances (including the current Cup) since the Second World War where three-in-a-row has even been possible.
Queens Park’s success in England had been noted above the Border, and a couple of other successful Scottish teams had also applied to play in England. This reached a head in 1886/87, with no less than seven Scottish clubs, together with Ireland’s Cliftonville, applying for admission. Rangers – who progressed to the semi-final before losing to ultimate winners Aston Villa – Hearts and Partick Thistle were amongst the entrants, whilst Renton put out the three-time holders Blackburn Rovers in the Second Round on their own ground.. Ironically, Queens Park, the pioneers, were beaten in the First Round.
It was their last Cup tie. Perhaps alarmed at the precedent, the Scottish FA promptly banned its clubs from playing in English competitions. Though one Scottish team, the 93rd Highland Regiment, did appear in the 1890/91 First Round. Presumably, as a military side, they weren’t affiliated.
In 1887/88 Preston North End were the red hot favourites. So confident were they of victory – and quite reasonably so, given their path to the Final – the team asked to be photographed with the Cup before the Final. Major Francis Marindan refused, suggesting that they ought to win it first, which they failed to do. Even the West Brom team, appearing in their third consecutive Final, were stunned, having declined opportunities to bet on themselves. The Preston team explained it as being due to their having gone to watch the Boat Race – still by far the bigger event – before the game, and weakening themselves through cold and hunger.
The Cup changed irrevocably in 1888, with the foundation of the Football League. And not just the League: it’s less well known that the same season saw the founding of the rival Football Alliance, comprised of teams more oriented towards the northern Midlands, and of a lesser standard than the dozen who had banded together as the League. And it’s all but forgotten that a third league sprang into being at the same time, the Combination, comprised of smaller and weaker clubs still, although given that the Combination had no actual league structure nor any actual fixture lists enabling clubs to play each other home and away, and collapsed less than two-thirds of the way through the season, their absence in football’s memory is entirely understandable.
The Alliance would last four years and merged with the League as their Second Division: the Combination would reform in a better structured format but disappear completely after a twenty year run, leaving the League as the sole bastion of nationally operative football for a century.
But in recognition of the respective statuses of these sudden, multiple Leagues, the FA Cup restructured itself dramatically, creating Qualifying Rounds for those clubs of Alliance and Combination level, and those outside any League structure, with the League teams entering the Competition at the First Round proper: and with the Proper Rounds reduced to only three at this stage.
The Cup-Winners were Preston, who also won the inaugural Football League Championship, doing the first Double. They were undefeated in the League, and won the Cup without conceding a goal, which won them the nickname of ‘The Invincibles’. They had already contributed the Cup’s biggest victory, defeating Hyde 26-0 in the 1887/88 First Round. Since that season, only one team outside the Football League has ever won the Cup.
A total of 114 teams entered the Cup that year, a substantial drop for the second successive season. Professionalism had been legalised in 1895, though official amateurism would remain until 1970, and many of the public school teams and amateur clubs were ending their relationship with the competition. 92 teams entering the Qualifying Rounds were whittled down to 10 winners after four rounds, who then entered the Cup Proper with the 22 exempt teams. Byes still had their place, but they would never affect any of the Rounds Proper again. Just as professionalism had entered the playing of the game, a professional attitude was now changing the Cup into the shape with which we are familiar.
Among the qualifiers were the Irish side, Linfield Athetic, who reached the First Round Proper by beating their countrymen Cliftonville in a replay, the only FA Cup tie ever to take place on Christmas Day. Blackburn Rovers were back, beating The Wednesday by a record 6-1 margin in the Final (with William Townley becoming the first scorer of a Cup Final hat-trick), and going on to retain the Cup in the last competition of this second decade, beating Notts County 3-1, to equal Wanderers’ record of five wins.
That record would stand for a very long time, not being beaten until the first season of football after the First World War.
It had been Blackburn’s decade, with the town represented in seven of the decade’s Finals. But, just as Wanderers’ years of success had been fitted within a single decade, Blackburn’s glory would not extend beyond this ten year spell. But whilst their decade of success had swept away the golden years of the Victorian amateurs, the gentlemen players, the new era of the working class game was here to stay, and it would be over a century before that era would start to be dislodged. Professionalism was here, a League was here, and the ‘combination’ play of the working men (i.e., teamwork and passing) was pushing out the individual dribbling and scrimmage approach of the amateurs.
The FA Cup was now twenty years of age. It had become an established part of the game. It was on the road to becoming the most important sporting trophy in the country.
(all Finals played at Kennington Oval unless otherwise stated)
1881/82 Old Etonians 1 Blackburn Rovers 0
1882/83 Blackburn Olympic 2 Old Etonians 1 (aet)
1883/84 Blackburn Rovers 2 Queen’s Park 1
1884/85 Blackburn Rovers 2 Queen’s Park 0
1885/86 Blackburn Rovers 0 West Bromwich Albion 0 (WBA decline extra time)
R Blackburn Rovers 2 West Bromwich Albion 0 (Racecourse Ground, Derby)
1886/87 Aston Villa 2 West Bromwich Albion 0
1887/88 West Bromwich Albion 2 Preston North End 1
1888/89 Preston North End 3 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
1889/90 Blackburn Rovers 6 The Wednesday 1
1890/91 Blackburn Rovers 3 Notts County 1
Unlike the first decade, there were ten teams contesting the Final in this era, but once again there were only six different winners, with one team winning five Cups and the other five one apiece. Blackburn Rovers, the Cup’s seventh winners, are the oldest winners still existence. Indeed, of the thirty-seven succeeding winners, only one other team has gone out of business. Of the losing sides, Wolves, Wednesday and Notts County would all come back to win the Cup, but for Queens Park the chance of escaping from their unfortunate position as two-time losers is forever denied to them: by the Scottish FA’s dictum, and by their ongoing status, 125 years later, as amateurs.