The FA Cup was now entering its seventh decade. A lifetime had passed, and few, if any, of the players who had represented those original fifteen teams were left to witness the way the competition had grown, grown and changed. There was an organised League of professional teams, eighty-eight of them, more than any other country before or since, supplemented by the fragmented, regionalised, but nevertheless lively and enthusiastic collection of semi-professional and amateur clubs all across England.
The Cup had changed its format multiple times to take account of an entry that had climbed from fifteen to over five hundred, to allow for the stratification of football. In it’s sixtieth year, it had finally reached the perfect, logical, inevitable system whereby the non-League clubs competed throughe the Qualifying Rounds, the two lower League Divisions entered at the First Round Proper, and the two higher Divisions at the Third Round Proper.
Then the FA promptly threw this idea away in 1931 and for the rest of the decade, a decade that would be ended prematurely by the resumption of War.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see a calm and orderly process once again thrown into illogical confusion, but it’s no less ridiculous for all that. The FA simply decided that 44 byes into the Third Round, for the First and Second Divisions were insufficient, and extended the number to forty-seven. For 1931/32, the three extra places went to two Third Division clubs, one from each region, and the last, nostalgically, to the amateurs, Corinthian, not that they did any better than in the previous ten years.
This at least was a one-off, as from 1932/33 onwards, the three bonus byes went to the Third Division. As a result, with only forty-one Third Division clubs entering at Round One, further byes to non-League clubs (including Corinthian on a few occasions) brought them directly into the Rounds Proper.
But though the ongoing efforts of the FA to make the structure of the Cup look shambolic, there were far more important things to worry about in the Thirties. The Cup, and Football in general, was played out against the background of the Great Depression, of unemployment, poverty and misery. And as the economic fortunes of the era began to improve, such concerns were replaced about the growing spectre of Fascism, and an even more overt anti-Semitism than had already been the case. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, even the would-be English dictator Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts: these were the things that the Saturday afternoon game were the truest and best escape from.
The first tournament of the decade had, in addition to the reversion to messing around with the structure, a couple of oddities to itself. Non-League Bath City reached the Fourth Qualifying Round only to be given a bye through it, whilst in the First Round Burton Town were awarded the first walk-over in decades, when their opponents Wigan Borough went out of business and resigned from the League.
But it was the Final that was notable, for Newcastle United becoming the first team to come from behind to win a Wembley Final (and only the third ever to win the Cup after conceding the first goal in the Final). The Geordies beat Arsenal 2-1 but it was their equalising goal which gave its name to the ‘Over the Line’ Final. Arsenal protested that the ball had gone out of play behind the goalline before being crossed for Jack Allen to convert. The referee refused the protests, but photographic evidence after the game proved him wrong. One of television’s future roles was set.
The following season, Brighton and Hove Albion made the elementary mistake of forgetting to apply for their exemption, as a Third Division South Club, into the First Round and so had to work their way up through the Qualifying Rounds. This they did to great effect, eventually reaching the Fifth Round on one of the longest Cup runs played by a League team. This year’s Final was the first in which the players wore numbered shirts, with Everton wearing numbers 1 – 11, representing the traditional positioning from goalkeeper to left-winger. Unusually, Manchester City’s team was kitted out as nos 12 – 22, reversing the order from left-winger to goalkeeper.
Everton were the winners by 3-0, but twelve months later, not for the last time, City bounced back to win, defeating Portsmouth 2-1. Both teams wore 1 – 11 that year, and thereafter until squad numbers were accepted by the Cup. City’s team included right-half Matt Busby, who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself away from Maine Road, and keeper Frank Swift, one of the finest keepers England ever had, who was so wound up by the tension of defending a single goal lead that he fainted on hearing the final whistle!
The Final was next won by Sheffield Wednesday, defeating West Bromwich Albion 4-2 after the Midlanders had twice equalised. It was Wednesday’s third Cup win, one less than their neighbours, but their only one under the banner of their home-town, having only adopted the Sheffield name in 1929. Though Sheffield United, as a Second Division club) would follow their footsteps to Wembley twelve months later, this was to be the last occasion when the Cup went to the Steel City.
The 1935 Final was the third successive Final in which a clash of colours had seen both teams adopted their away strip but the 1935/36 Final saw Arsenal and Sheffield United both utilise their home colours, despite both playing in combinations of red and white. The game was significant for the failure of the newsreel companies to reach an agreement with the Wembley Stadium authorities over rights to cover the game. As a result, all media were banned except for the official Stadium cameraman. In order to cover the game, journalists resorted to hiring autogyros (an early form of helicopter) to overfly the Stadium!
Sunderland became the only first-time winners in 1937, coming from behind to defeat Preston North End 3-1, but Proud Preston, like Manchester City, were back in 1938, thus time to win the Cup. This Final, a repeat of the 1922 Final, was the first to be televised by the BBC. First time round, Huddersfield had won by the only goal, a penalty, but this time it was Preston who won, by the same score and same means. The penalty was awarded in the penultimate minute of extra-time, the only 120 minute Final of this period, and was converted off the underside of the bar.
Seconds before the penalty was awarded, BBC commentator Thomas Woodruffe, convinced the game would be goalless, said he would eat his hat if anyone scored now. And he did. It’s something I’d have loved to see repeated many times with other commentators…
For Preston, it was their second, and last FA Cup win: the other had been the year of the Double, and the Invincibles.
And so we come to the last Final of the seventh decade. It was the first year that the Third Round was played on the first Saturday in January, Football’s New Year. Before then, in the Second Round, the Halifax Town/Mansfield Town tie became the first to go to a Third Replay before being settled in Halifax’s favour. And Portsmouth, after two failures, at last won the Cup, defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1.
On 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared War. The Football League had gone through three rounds of game: the season was suspended. The FA Cup had not even held its Extra Preliminary Round. Unlike during the First World War, the Government recognised the importance of football to the country’s morale. There would be war-time games, Leagues and Cups, played in regions to avoid unnecessary travelling, with players appearing for clubs nearest to where they might be stationed.
Many players would lose their lives in combat. Many more would see their careers destroyed, their best years, their peak reached and passed during the years of War. Portsmouth would hold the Cup for seven years, the longest reign of any, and a record that hopefully will be unrepeatable, unless a club comes along to dominate the FA Cup to an extent hitherto impossible.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)
1931/32 Newcastle United 2 Arsenal 1
1932/33 Everton 3 Manchester City 0
1933/34 Manchester City 2 Portsmouth 1
1934/35 Sheffield Wednesday 4 West Bromwich Albion 2
1935/36 Arsenal 1 Sheffield United 0
1936/37 Sunderland 3 Preston North End 1
1937/38 Preston North End 1 Huddersfield Town 0 (aet)
1938/39 Portsmouth 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
The seventh decade, once again truncated by War, enjoyed eight Finals, featuring twelve different Finalists, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Preston North End each appearing twice. All four clubs would win one and lose one. Sunderland were to be the only first-time winners of the decade, and Sheffield United the only Second Division team to reach the Final. Of the eight winners, only two, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End, would not have future Cup wins ahead of them, on the other side of a War that would be an even greater clash of history and great forces.