Years of change. The biggest of all was the Great War, causing the FA Cup to be suspended for four seasons, but when Football resumed its place in post-War society, it too would undergo drastic change, moving towards the game as we would know it for most of the rest of the Century.
There was no sign of any of the changes that were to come when the Cup moved into its fifth decade. Barnsley, defeated two years earlier by Newcastle United, reached their second Final and this time won the Cup, although they again needed a Replay, and actually lifted the trophy considerably nearer to home, in Sheffield, at Bramall Lane.
This was the third successive Final to go to a Replay, which led to some Press rumblings, exactly as it did when the same thing occurred in the 1980s. Neither side played well, though you have to feel sympathetic towards West Brom who, due to a series of postponements from early in the League season, had to play seven games in ten days, one of those between the Final and its replay. Even then, Barnsley’s winner came with only two minutes of extra-time remaining, and with it presumably the prospect of a Second Replay. Only one Final has been decided at a later point than this game.
Barnsley also became the third Second Division team to lift the Cup. The gate, at the Crystal Palace, was 54,000. The fluctuating nature of crowds at the Final, which was still on a pay-at-the-gate basis, was re-emphasised the following season, when Aston Villa again attracted a six-figure gate, a new record of just under 122,000. Only one other Final has attracted more.
Villa’s single goal victory over first-time Finalists Sunderland saw them draw level with Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers as five times Cup-winners. This came despite having a penalty saved with the game still goalless. That event would not be repeated for seventy-five years.
There would be one more season where the Cup remained unaffected. There were still two Preliminary Rounds, still five Qualifying Rounds, still four Rounds Proper. There was still the uneven division of byes among the forty League teams, and still the extensive extension of byes into the First Round Proper extended to non-League clubs, in theory inferior of status to the Second Division.
Not all of these byes went to the Southern League. The 1913/14 season saw one such place handed to an amateur club, London Caledonians, a club composed almost exclusively of Scots exiled to the capital. The amateurs played in, had been founders in 1905 of the Isthmian League, senior among a group of similarly Hellenic-titled Leagues based in London and the Home Counties, staunchly defending the amateur principal. London Caledonians would fold in 1939, but the Isthmian League would remain resolutely amateur until the distinction was abolished in 1970, and beyond, and the League persists today, long better known by its sponsors, as the Rymans League.
Burnley won that last pre-war Cup, the last to be played at the Crystal Palace, beating fellow first-time Finalists Liverpool by the only goal. It would take Liverpool over fifty years to finally win the Cup.
On 28 July, 1914, what became known as the Great War and, decades after, the First World War was declared, before either the Football League or FA Cup seasons had begun. That the season was allowed to be started, and was played out in full, demonstrated the relative lack of seriousness with which the War initially taken. By the time of the Final in April, the situation changed. The Final was moved from London to Old Trafford, Manchester, to avoid disruption to travel in and around London. The choice of venue was unfair to the losing Finalists, Chelsea, who had already had to travel to Blackburn for semi-final, but the War had not been over by Xmas and grim years were ahead. The game was won 3-0 by Sheffield United, and has gone down in history as the Khaki Cup Final, reflecting the number of men in battledress among the crowd. That crowd numbered less than 50,000 (travel restrictions, mobilisation). There has never been a Cup Final gate that low since.
Chelsea would finally win the Cup fifty-five years later, ironically at Old Trafford again. The last Cup, before all sport was suspended for the duration, the FA Cup set to one side, and professionalism temporarily banned, had seen entrants rise sufficiently for there again to be need of a Sixth Qualifying Round.
It’s an interesting point to question whether football, and sport should have been suspended as it was. True, local matches still took place, but organised football was shut down completely, unlike during the Second World war, where regionalised War-time Leagues and Cups abounded. Though the war in the trenches had already settled down to the grim torture of four years, there was no realistic threat of the hostilities extending to Britain. It was the ongoing jingoistic attitude to the War that prevailed. White feathers were still being handed out to able-bodied men in the street, mostly by women who were completely ignorant of what they were demanding. To play football was unpatriotic. Whilst men at the Front pleaded for the game to carry on, to give them something to look forward to when home, in England the Press was scathing, public meetings called for the game to cease and Football was branded as the single most powerful reason why yooung men were not signing-up. That it might have been morale-boosting, as was recognised in World War 2, never entered anyone’s heads.
The War ended on 11 November 1918, the forty-seventh anniversary of the Cup’s first ever round, far too late for any organised football that season. Things returned to normal the following year, with the same format in place, in both League and Cup. Sheffield United handed back the trophy after holding it for five years, in time for Aston Villa to beat Huddersfield Town by a single, extra-time goal, at the Cup’s new, short-lived home of Stamford Bridge. It was thus fortunate that Villa had defeated Chelsea in the semi-final.
Villa’s victory meant that they had won the Cup for a sixth time, a new record that saw them move past Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. They would hold, singly and jointly, the record for most wins for sixty-one years, a record unlikely ever to be beaten.
But elsewhere, the Football League had ambitions to expand, and in the summer of 1920, it re-structured itself. It had already expanded itself to two Divisions of twenty-two each the year after the War (with Arsenal securing a First Division place despite having finished the last pre-war season fifth in Division 2: this feat was achieved through bribery, as was later admitted. Arsenal have never left the top level since). Now, however, it added a Third Division, of twenty-two clubs, by simply absorbing the entire Southern League First Division, en masse.
As a consequence, the Cup underwent a change. Its format was retained, but the two Preliminary and Six Qualifying Rounds now produce a total of twelve survivors to join fifty-two of the now sixty-four League Clubs. Nine Third Division sides entered at the First Round Proper, the other thirteen in the Qualifying Rounds. As did Second Division Leeds United, a club a year old, formed from the ashes of the pre-War Leeds City, forcibly disbanded by the FA for illegal war-time payments to players. As the Club had only one year’s existence, in the Midland League, before being elected directly into the Second Division, they had to start from the First Qualifying Round.
The Cup was won by Tottenham Hotspur, by now a League club. It was the first time the Cup had come to London since Spurs’ previous victory, exactly twenty years ago.
The modern structure of the FA Cup was almost in place now. Though the system of byes into later stages was still complex and partial, the Rounds were there. All it would need would be to convert the last two Qualifying Rounds into the first two Proper Rounds, which would happen in the next decade, to reach the present format, and the League’s great expansion, over the last season of its fifth decade and the first of its sixth would create the conditions for the competition we know to finally be attained.
(all Finals prior to the First World War played at Crystal Palace, all post-War at Stamford Bridge, unless otherwise stated)
1911/12 Barnsley 0 West Bromwich Albion 0 (aet)
R: Barnsley 1 West Bromwich Albion 0 (aet) (Bramall Lane, Sheffield)
1912/13 Aston Villa 1 Sunderland 0
1913/14 Burnley 1 Liverpool 0
1914/15 Sheffield United 3 Chelsea 0 (Old Trafford, Manchester)
1919/20 Aston Villa 1 Huddersfield Town (aet)
1920/21 Tottenham Hotspur 1 Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
The fifth decade was reduced to only six Finals, with eleven different finalists. Only Aston Villa appeared twice, setting a new record of six wins, overtaking Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. Five clubs appeared in their first Final, though only Burnley would lift the trophy. The other four clubs would all go on to win the Cup in the future, though Liverpool would have to wait another half-century before they could add their name to the Roll of Honour. Besides Burnley, only Barnsley were first-time winners, the latter the third Second Division club to achieve this: neither team has won the Cup since.