It seems to have taken almost forever, but in the last year of its sixth decade (notwithstanding four fallow years), the FA Cup reached the form that we have known for so long and, those of us of a certain age, loved for its simplicity and beautiful logic. After the years of lop-sided draws, of byes, walkovers and eccentric notions on how to bring Football League clubs into the competition and when, the 1930/31 season saw two Preliminary Rounds, four Qualifying Rounds, six Rounds Proper, semi-finals and Finals, at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, beneath the Twin Towers. The clubs of the two lower Divisions entered at the First Round Proper, those of the two higher Divisions at the Third Round Proper. Only the detail that the Third Round was played on the second, not first Saturday in January, renders the picture slightly off-key.
Crazily, that pure form would exist for one season only, And there would be twenty years yet of more eccentricity before this format would be adopted permanently, before the Cup would become the Cup in all its proper glory. And there was still a crazy amount of irrational choices to go through to get there even once.
As at the end of the fifth decade, the Cup started its next phase responding to changes in the Football League. The creation of a Third Division by purloining the entire Southern League top flight had led to understandable fears of an overly southern bias. The League accepted this, renaming the new level Division 3 South, and inviting into membership twenty northern and midlands based clubs – drawn from a variety of local Leagues – to create a parallel Division 3 North.
The new Division might officially be on a par with its southern equivalent but it was hardly treated as such. To begin with, it comprised only twenty teams to Division 3 South’s twenty-two, though the two Divisions would achieve parity in that respect in 1923. But as far as the Cup was concerned, there was no such notion.
The1921/22 campaigns illustrates the pattern. Only 41 of the First and Second Division teams went directly into the First Round Proper. Admittedly, Birmingham (who would not adopt the City suffix for another dozen years) failed to lodge the paperwork in time, thus becoming the first First Division club not to compete in the Cup (this should not be seen as a precedent for Manchester United’s defection in 2000), but two Second Division clubs started in the Fifth Qualifying Round, whilst no less than eleven Division 3 South clubs received byes into the First Round.
The rest of Division 3 South were slotted in at different Qualifying Rounds, except for Charlton Athletic, who didn’t enter, whilst the Division 3 North Clubs, excluding the two who, like Charlton, didn’t enter, were spread across the Fourth and Fifth Qualifying Rounds.
It must be admitted that whilst this scattergun approach lacked logic, it was not totally unfair in terms of playing standards. The Third Division South clubs had stepped up as a Division, a practiced League where the clubs were relatively equal, whilst the Northern clubs had been drawn from all over the shop, from Leagues in which they’d been one of a mere handful of strong teams, regularly battering the weaker opposition.
And the Southern clubs were generally richer (in relative terms) than the industrial North.
As for the Cup itself that year, it went to Huddersfield Town, for the first and only time. This was the last Final played at Stamford Bridge and the game was decided by a penalty, scored past Preston North end keeper James Mitchell, the only player to appear in a Cup Final whilst wearing glasses! Mitchell was also the only England International to play in glasses.
So far as the eccentric draw was concerned, this was repeated throughout most of the decade with minor changes in numbers. The First Division was now privileged to the extent that all its teams (if they’d filed their paperwork promptly) entered at the First Round Proper, with between two and four Second Division clubs joining in the Qualifying Rounds. The Second Division finally achieved its automatic entrance in the (now) Third Round Proper in 1927/28.
On the other hand, a number of Third Division South teams were still receiving byes directly into the First Round. Though on a couple of occasions, one or two Third Division North teams were similarly distinguished, the vast majority of their teams (excluding one or two who would not enter the Cup in certain years) had to start in the Fourth and Fifth Qualifying Rounds alongside the remaining Third Division South teams, and there was still a massive discrepancy between the two Divisions over whose clubs started in the Fifth Qualifier.
The FA complicated the situation even further when, in 1923, they extended an invitation to the famous amateur club, Corinthian, to enter the Cup in the First (and later Third) Round Proper, an arrangement that ran for seven seasons.
This was an astonishing decision, inexplicable to modern eyes, but it reckons without the fact that, even after three and a half decades of the League, amateur football was still both popular and strong. In certain areas of the country – the south-east and the north-east – amateurism was the stronghold of the game. Corinthian were the giants of amateur football, but until 1923 their constitution forbade them from playing in any competitive game, save for charity.
Wikipedia suggests that, but for that self-imposed restriction, Corinthian might well have been one of the giant names of the early Cup. There are records of games in which Corinthian played – and completely thrashed – recent Cup winners who were employing virtually all of their Cup-winning teams. Whether that’s likely or not can only be speculation, but in 1923 Corinthian amended their constitution, the FA responded with invitations, and for seven seasons the amateurs joined in on a par with the ‘big’ boys of the First Division.
They never progressed more than into a second round, and they were frequently thrashed. But Corinthian could hand out thrashings of their own, given a chance.
The Cup’s fiftieth season, 1924/25, was the last year for the six Qualifying Rounds. The following season, the final two Rounds were re-named the First and Second Rounds Proper, and the other Rounds became those we now know. It was almost there, but the convolutions over where exactly each team joined the competition persisted, with four Second Division clubs still entering at Round 1 and three Third Division South teams at Round 3, as well as Corinthian. And, to balance out the numbers, seven non-League clubs also went straight in at the First Round Proper.
But the shape was coming into place. In 1927/28, the entire First and Second Divisions, no holdouts or exceptions, entered at the Third Round, but with two Third Division South teams and Corinthian alongside them, whilst Third Division North team Barrow started in the Fourth Qualifying Round. These last, awkward remnants of an imbalanced system remained for a couple more years, but at last, in 1930/31, the final, logical step was taken. All the Third Division sides, South and North, and no other clubs, joined the Cup in the First Round, all the First and Second Division sides in the Third.
Infuriatingly, as we already know, this was to be a one-season development.
The other major development of this decade was the Cup finding its permanent home at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, behind the Twin Towers, in the 1923 Final. It is probably the best known Final of all time, and likely to remain so. The attendance is an official record, 126,047 according to the books, but in reality the figure could have been anything between 150,000 and 300,000.
The Empire Stadium was not supposed to be completed until 1924, but it was finished ahead of schedule, and the FA, who had been concerned at the low gates attending the three Stamford Bridge Finals, hastened to switch to the new stadium. Though tickets were sold in advance to fans of the participating teams, the majority of tickets were sold at the gate, to spectators turning up ad hoc.
It was a fine, sunny day. The FA, fearing they would not fill Wembley, had advertised the game heavily. And there was a London team involved. Public transport was plentiful and efficient. People started making their way to North-West London. The area filled up. The Bolton coach got stuck a mile from the ground and the players had to walk to reach the stadium. The crowd overflowed the turnstiles, pushing through them, climbing over them, ordinary, respectable people forcing their way in to the ground until everywhere was full. As Kenneth Wolstenholme said, forty-three years later, some people were on the pitch: the pitch was invisible.
Mounted Police – in particular, PC George Scorey, on a grey, ‘Billie’ – were summoned for crowd control under impossible, shambolic circumstances. The grey – white to non-equestrians – was a highly visible symbol in rallying the crowd to co-operate, as was the arrival of King George V. Eventually, the Final kicked off 45 minutes late, with the crowds packed in so tightly that they were, in effect, the goal-lines and touch-lines.
Bolton, famously, were winners by 2-0, going ahead after two minutes through centre forward David Jack, scorer of the only goal in each of the three previous rounds. The crowd was so tight that, effectively, West Ham were reduced to ten men as their throw-in taker couldn’t get back onto the field, and Jack’s shot reputedly struck a spectator pressed up against the net and knocked him out!
Bolton’s second goal was even more controversial, West Ham claiming the shot had rebounded from the post without going in, the referee that it had rebounded from a spectator crammed up to the net!
West Ham, a Second Division club, had set a unique record of their own in reaching the Final, having played Second Division or lower opposition in every round: Bolton were their only First Division opponents. They also set a new record for ungraciousness, blaming their defeat on the White Horse that has given its name to this most famous of Finals – for kicking lumps out of the turf.
This shambles never happened again, and never again have Cup Final tickets been (officially) available on the day.
But despite the prominence of this Final, those of the rest of the decade remained full of incident. Newcastle left it late in the 1924 Final, scoring twice in three minutes, with only seven minutes left to beat Aston Villa. This was, much less famously, known as the Rainy Day Final, and its programmes are the most valuable to collectors, so few having survived their use as makeshift umbrellas.
The following year, Cardiff City became the first non-English Finalists since Queens Park, forty years previously, losing to Sheffield United. They would return, two seasons later, against much-fancied Arsenal, and would win the Cup, the first and only time it has gone out of England. That Final was also decided by a famous incident that created a tradition: Cardiff’s goal came from a mistake by the Arsenal keeper, letting the ball squirm out of his hands and into the net. The keeper blamed this on the greasiness of his new jersey. Thereafter, at least into the Eighties (though I don’t know if it’s still maintained today), Cup Final teams lined up in brand new kit, except for the keeper wearing an old – and definitely not shiny – jersey.
The 1927 Final was also the first to benefit from full radio commentary on the BBC, giving rise to the popular adage, ‘Back to Square One’.
In between those two Finals, Bolton Wanderers had won the Cup a second time, beating Manchester City in a reverse of the 1904 Final. It’s a remarkable commentary on the gulf between Football then and now to note that ten of Bolton’s side had also played in the Cup Final win of three years earlier. The goal was also scored by none other than David Jack.
And Manchester City set an unwelcome record on their own. They had appeared in the Final – which was still not yet the last match of the season – whilst being second bottom of the First Division, and one win in their two remaining League games was insufficient to preserve their status. City became the first club to be beaten Cup Finalists and relegated from Division 1 in the same season.
This ‘feat’ would not be repeated until 1969, when City were the winning finalists, and it has only occurred four times in all. The most recent relegated Finalists, Wigan Athletic in 2013, are in a class of their own, having actually won the Cup, ironically at the expense of Manchester City.
The 1928 Final saw Blackburn Rovers regain the Cup, thirty-seven years after the last of their five wins in the second decade. In doing so, they regained parity with Aston Villa on six wins, a record they would share for the next twenty-nine years. The beaten Finalists, Huddersfield Town, did at least manage to become the first defeated Finalists to score since 1910.
Bolton reaffirmed themselves as the dominant FA Cup team of the decade by winning their third Final in seven years in 1929 against Portsmouth: sadly, David Jack was not around to score. Arsenal, the current record holders, would win their first Cup the following season, beating Huddersfield. This Final was noted for the first half appearance, looming hauntingly over the ground, of the German Airship, the Graf Spee.
It’s also amusing to note that Arsenal’s previous game, their last League fixture of the season, had ended in a 6-6 draw, still the highest-scoring draw in English top-flight football: one Arsenal player scored four goals in that game, and was left out from the Cup Final!
The decade ended with a Midlands derby, with West Bromwich Albion beating Birmingham 2-1 in a competition that had seen three of the four Sixth Round ties go to replays whilst Everton had demolished Third Division North Southport 9-1 in the fourth, Dixie Dean scoring four goals. West Brom became the sixth Second Division team to win the Cup, and the first and only to pair this with winning promotion in the same season.
Birmingham, sadly, would go on, a quarter century later, to emulate Queens Park in being the only teams to lost two Finals without ever lifting the Cup. Later still, a club that, at this time, had ever even reached the Cup Final, would go on to outdo both of them.
The Cup now existed, however briefly, as we understand it today. Football, however, still had a long way to go. In the next decade, it would once again be shaped by War.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, unless otherwise stated)
1921/22 Huddersfield Town 1 Preston North End 0 (Stamford Bridge)
1922/23 Bolton Wanderers 2 West Ham United 0
1923/24 Newcastle United 2 Aston Villa 0
1924/25 Sheffield United 1 Cardiff City 0
1925/26 Bolton Wanderers 1 Manchester City 0
1926/27 Cardiff City 1 Arsenal 0
1927/28 Blackburn Rovers 3 Huddersfield Town 1
1928/29 Bolton Wanderers 2 Portsmouth 0
1929/30 Arsenal 2 Huddersfield Town 0
1930/31 West Bromwich Albion 2 Birmingham 1
The sixth decade, happily with a Cup every year again, saw thirteen different finalists. Bolton wanderers and Huddersfield Town reached three Finals each, though Bolton were clear winners, winning all three of their appearances to Huddersfield’s single victory. No other club won the Final more than once during this decade, though Arsenal and Cardiff City would have two attempts on the trophy, winning and losing one each. Six clubs would reach their first Final, three of whom added their names to the winners’ list. Two others would go on to win the trophy in future years, but Birmingham would be destined to be the second Club to appear in more than one Final without lifting the Cup. Two Second Division teams reached the Final, with past Winners West Brom becoming the fourth such club to win.