To be honest, this is the last day on which I want to think about anyone else’s death, but I have just returned from Dukinfield Crematorium, where I go every year to feel closer to the spirit of my Dad, and I’ve just got in and practically the first piece of news I discover is that the former Aston Villa striker, Dalian Atkinson, has died, aged 48.
But he’s not merely died at far too young an age, he’s died because he was tasered by the Police.
He died, visiting his 85 year old Dad, in a community where he was known, and liked, and the kids loved him, and the neighbours thought he was great, and whilst it’s far too soon to come to any conclusions, and my instincts and my years in the Law all go against making any statement until I know more, much more, it very much looks as if he died for the crime of being black in the presence of a Police Officer with a weapon.
I mean, it happens all the time over there, doesn’t it, and nobody does anything to stop it, because the people who could do something to stop it are the ones carrying the guns in the first place. And it’s not like I have any particular dog in this show, because I don’t support Aston Villa, and my only memory of Dalian Atkinson the footballer is that he scored the first goal against us when they beat us in the League Cup Final in 1994, the bastard, when Manchester United came closer than anyone ever will to doing the Grand Slam, the Clean Sweep, every domestic trophy in a single season.
But because he did that, and I was there to see it, he’s a part of my story, and he seemed like a nice guy and he loved his Dad, and it’s that day when I think so deeply about mine, and I’m in a raging fury.
Because you know nothing will happen. The guy who did this will be exonerated, will face no punishment, not even censure. They never fucking do. It’ll be the same old whitewash.
And you don’t have to be black in this country to no longer trust the Police. I was brought up to respect them, to trust, to assume they were automatically right and righteous, and I haven’t been able to do that for thirty years now, and all I can think and feel today is that this is wrong, that it’s so bloody wrong and they’ll get away with it. Again.
I’m at the end of this series now, right up to the modern day, Cup Final Day 2016. At the time I’m starting this piece, we don’t yet know the Finalists: indeed, as I write, it was only yesterday that Manchester United even confirmed the semi-final line-up, beating West Ham United in a replay that took place exactly one calendar month after their original draw. This is the longest delay, excluding weather-related postponements, between tie and replay in the Cup’s long and no longer august history, and it is yet another symbol of its unimportance in this degenerate age.
United’s victory means that they are the only one of the ‘Big Four’ or ‘Five’, however it is to be defined, in the semi-finals. They face Everton, twice opponents in the Final. If United win, they have a shot at their first Cup Final win at the New Wembley, and at regaining a share in the FA Cup record, equalling Arsenal’s newly-set record of twelve wins.
The other semi-final will produce a record of some sort: whichever of Watford and Crystal Palace reaches Wembley, then they will produce either the forty-fourth Cup-Winner, or else the fourth team to have appeared in two or more Finals without winning the trophy.
Having opened the doors to sponsorship with the power company, E.ON, the Cup allied itself in 2012 with Budweiser. A beer company. An American beer company. Their name still came after ‘the FA Cup’, making it easier for purists like myself to shut our eyes and ears to it.
There was another record number of entrants, 763, and Manchester United exercised revenge for their semi-final defeat last year, by defeating holders Manchester City 3-2 on their own ground in the Third Round, though they were knocked out in the Fourth by eventual Finalists Liverpool.
As we’ve seen, the Cup has suffered tragedies off the pitch, at Bolton and Hillsborough, but in the Sixth Round, this season came perilously close to the most personal of tragedies, when Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the pitch at Tottenham Hotspur, having suffered cardiac arrest. Thankfully, the provision of medical support at grounds had only lately been enhanced, following an incident when Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech sustained a fractured skull. Muamba’s life was saved, though he could never play again. The tie, 1-1 at that point, was abandoned. Spurs won the rematch, but were defeated in the semi-final by Chelsea.
It was Chelsea’s fourth Final in six years, and their fourth win, beating Liverpool 2-1 with the aid of a winning goal by Didier Drogba, setting a new record by scoring in his fourth Final, more than any other player (though not equalling Ian Rush’s record of five Cup Final goals). And they went on to claim a Double, winning the European Champions League Final, the first London team to win that trophy, and the last English winners to date.
Sadly, the Cup was yet again degraded. The Final was once more scheduled for a day with a full Premier League programme, with yet more fixtures scheduled for the following week. This time, the decision was taken to provide a four week gap between the end of the domestic season and the 2012 European Championships.
This time, however, the Premier League fixtures were not moved around. They took precedence. It was the Cup Final that had to shift, to an unprecedented and utterly dismaying 5.15pm kick-off.
It was a disgraceful decision, ending 140 years of tradition that previously had only been disturbed by war. It showed blatant disregard for the Liverpool fans, who would be leaving Wembley and North London no earlier than 7.15pm, having to make their way home to the north west.
But the fans were of no importance. Television had made that plain from the very beginning of the Premier League: Sky selected Southampton vs Manchester United for their first Monday Night Match, leaving the visitors to start heading home at 10.00pm from the South Coast. The FA had sold out yet again. There would be no need the following year for the Cup Final to be played alongside a League programme. Indeed, it would be restored to the ‘showpiece’ position, but television, having noted the audience figures for 2012, insisted on the early evening kick-off. It suited them better, it made them more money. It stank on ice, but who gave a shit?
The following year there was a more orthodox controversy in the Second Round when Bradford City, after drawing at home to Brentford, were disqualified for playing an ineligible player, Curtis Good, whose registration had not gone through by the deadline hour. Playing an ineligible player is an absolute rule, as Droylsden found to their cost in 2008. Suddenly, it wasn’t: Bradford appealed and were reinstated, their punishment reduced to a financial penalty: one rule for some, eh? Natural justice saw to it that Brentford comfortably won the replay that should not have been permitted.
The same round also saw the draw pair M. K. Dons with AFC Wimbledon, the first meeting of the two clubs with an unwanted relationship. This caused great concern for Wimbledon, with talk of withdrawing from the fixture rather than extend recognition to the team many still called Franchise United. The game did go ahead, covered live on TV due to the rivalry between the clubs, with M.K. Dons, the higher situated team, winning 2-1.
Luton Town, once Finalists, once of the old First Division, got through to the Fifth Round before being eliminated, a more impressive feat for a club who had slipped into the Football Conference.
The semi-finals paired the Cup’s last two winners, with the unfancied Millwall and Wigan Athletic – one of the second tier, the other in grave danger of returning to that level – in the other tie. It was the two north-western clubs who prevailed, making Wigan the latest First-Time Finalists. Their prospects were rated no higher than those of Sunderland in 1973 and Wimbledon in 1988 – a good omen – or Sunderland in 1992 or Millwall in 2004, making history a very mixed blessing.
A long way back in this series, I teased the fact that the 1959 and 1960 Finals were linked by a bizarre kind of coincidence. The first half of this paid off twenty-five years later: Roy Dwight, scorer for Nottingham Forest in 1959, was carried off with a broken leg. His nephew Reg, better known as Elton John, was chairman of Watford when they were beaten as First-Time Finalists in 1984.
Dave Whelan, Blackburn Rovers defender, who suffered the same fate in 1960, had to wait over half a century, but this time it was he in person who came to Wembley as chairman of a First-Time Finalist.
And unlike the Dwights, the tale ended with unexpected but delightful glory. The game had reached injury time scoreless, and Manchester City had been reduced to ten men, Pablo Zabaleta having collected a second yellow card to become the third player to be sent off in a Final. Wigan sent a corner in from the left and their substitute, Ben Watson, who had been out of action for six months with a broken leg, sent a header over City keeper Joe Hart to win Wigan the Cup.
Wigan Athletic became the forty-third, and most recent club to win the FA Cup. Having been founded only in 1932, they also became the ‘youngest’ club ever to win the Cup. Their victory was marred, to some extent, when defeat in their final League match saw them undergo relegation from the Premier League, emulating the fates of Leicester City (1969), Brighton (1983) and Middlesbrough (1997), though unlike their predecessors, Wigan actually won the Cup!
City’s defeat came as a shock, though perhaps not to the same extent of those of Leeds and Liverpool, as the Manchester club were relative newcomers to prominence. It was also the last match in charge for their manager, Roberto Mancini, in succession to Bill Shankley (1974) and Tommy Docherty (1977), though it was an open secret throughout football that irrespective of the Cup result, Mancini was to be replaced.
Improbable as Wigan’s feat was, they came within a penalty shoot-out of back-to-back Finals, this time as a second tier club. Their conquerors were Arsenal, whose victory set-up a near-identical Final to that of the previous year: a well-established, leading club facing off against First-Time Finalists, this time in the shape of Hull City, the fifty-sixth and most recent team to reach the Cup Final. What’s more, Wigan beat Manchester City again, at their own ground, in the Sixth Round.
The Cup did enjoy another first in its earliest stages, with the first appearance of a club from the Isle of Guernsey, prosaically called Guernsey FC, though their landmark appearance only lasted as far as the Second Qualifying Round.
Hull’s opponents in their semi-final were third tier Sheffield United and both semi-finals had their kick-offs held back by seven minutes, in commemoration of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Hillsborough Disaster.
The Final, once again, endured an evening kick-off, although this was slightly alleviated by being brought forward to 5.00pm. And for the first time since 2010 it returned to its rightful place as the last match of the domestic season. For an astonishing seventeen minutes, a repeat of Wigan’s bombshell looked to be on, as Hull took a two goal lead eight minutes after kick-off (and very nearly added a third!).
But Arsenal pulled back a goal comfortably early and went on to defeat Hull 3-2, in injury-time. It was their eleventh Cup win, drawing level with Manchester United as record-holders. They were also the first team to be presented with the fifth FA Cup. Once again, identical to the third Cup, this version is heavier yet than the fourth, and meant to be more durable in an era when the Cup itself spends as much time on the road and travelling to different events than it does in the hands of its current holders.
Arsenal also concluded an unusual Cup Double when their Ladies team won the Women’s FA Cup Final, a fortnight after this victory.
As Arsenal had already qualified for the Champions League by virtue of their League position, Hull City took the Europa League slot available to the FA Cup. They are the last team to do so to date: changes to UEFA rulings now bar the Cup runners-up from qualifying for Europe in that role.
Last year saw a host of minor issues. Rights to terrestrial coverage returned to the BBC once more, though this made no difference to the kick-off time of the Final, which went further back yet, to 5.30pm. However, the BBC did revive the old-time tradition of an entire day’s programming based on and around the Final, starting at 9.00am.
To rub further salt in Droylsden’s wounds, a second League club fielded an ineligible player, in the Second Round, but instead of being expelled, were simply ordered to replay the tie. The discrepancy was further emphasised by Chesterfield being the beneficiaries: they beat M.K. Dons 1-0 in both versions of the game.
In the same round, a new record was set for a penalty shoot-out, with thirty-two kicks needed to separate Worcester City and Scunthorpe United, the latter winning 14-13.
Arsenal, having knocked out Manchester United away in the quarter finals struggled to overcome second-tier Reading in the semi-final, needing an extra-time goal deriving from a goalkeeper’s mistake to return to Wembley, where their opponents were Aston Villa, the former record holders, in only their second Final since establishing that record fifty-eight years previously.
Though Villa had performed prodigies to defeat Liverpool in the semi-final, Arsenal’s Final was as easy as the 4-0 scoreline suggests. It was only a surprise that Villa held out until the 40th minute before conceding the first, and once Arsenal scored their third, confirming victory beyond any shadow of a doubt, I switched the game off, missing the injury-time fourth goal, that equalled Manchester United’s twice-held record victory margin in a Wembley Final.
Arsenal’s win did however send them clear of United as record Cup winners, and Cup Finalists, with a twelfth win from a nineteenth Final. Their win was blighted during their victory parade when midfielder Jack Wilshere made an obscene reference to rivals Tottenham Hotspur (not a first offence) bringing down a misconduct charge on his head.
The current season has progressed (at the time of writing this section) to semi-final weekend: in six hours from this moment, Everton play Manchester United in the first such match, at the New Wembley.
There have been no especially memorable stories to date in the competition. FC United of Manchester reached the First Round for only the second time, in only their tenth year of existence, but were comfortably beaten at home by, ironically for my personal history, by Chesterfield. It has not been a season for non-Leaguers: only Enleigh featured in the Third Round.
Nor has it been a competition with any great giant-killing feats, the closest to that being Watford’s Sixth Round defeat of holders Arsenal at their home in the Sixth Round, putting paid to the serious talk at Arsenal of winning a third Cup Final in succession.
But the Sixth Round also threw up another example of the Cup’s decline, with the month-long delay between the drawn Manchester United vs West Ham United tie and its replay. The delay was due to the inability to find a suitable date. In addition to the Police stipulations about providing security, there was the UEFA demand that televised matches should not clash with rounds of European competition.
In the end, the date did clash with the Champions League, the best the FA could do being to order the tie to be played at 7.00pm, heedless of the convenience of the fans, because that way only the second half would overlap.
In addition to the various possibilities I’ve outlined above, there is a double possibility of a repeat Final stemming from this weekend’s results. A Manchester United victory this evening could set up a repeat of the 1990 Final if Crystal Palace overcome Watford, whereas if the results both go the other way, we’re looking at a repeat of the 1984 Final.
And if the first option should come off, then there’s the possibility of a United win not merely pulling them level again with Arsenal as record holders, but also of Crystal Palace duplicating the unique achievement of Queen’s Park, of failing in two Finals – against the same team!
And the outcome was a repeat of 1990, Manchester United vs Crystal Palace. In addition to the possibilities I’ve set out above, this will be the third time United have played a repeat Final, more than any other club, and given the club’s current struggle to regain their domestic fortunes after the retirement of Sir Alex Ferguson, there’s an echo to this year’s Final.
Not only would a United victory see them equal the record number of Cup wins, exactly as it did in 1990, but a United victory over Palace was the first trophy of the Ferguson era, and a repeat performance would be the first trophy of the post-Ferguson era.
A lot rests on this year’s Final – for both teams. Remember too that Palace Manager Alan Pardew is also deeply connected to the first meeting, having played for Crystal Palace in both Final and Replay.
The Final will be played on 21 May 2016, and will be the 135th Final in the Cup’s 145th year.
And with extra-time required, a sending-off and having to come from behind with ten men, Manchester United beat Crystal Palace for the second time to regain a share in the Cup Final record, immediately equalling Arsenal’s new record set last year. Only Blackburn Rover of the previous record holders and sharers have returned from being overtaken.
Palace are now the fourth team to have played in more than a single Final without winning the trophy, fifty-five years since the last team to fall into that category, Leicester City.
And Chris Smalling became the fourth player to be sent off in a Final, and Manchester United became the only team to have experienced two such red cards.
(all Finals played at the New Wembley Stadium)
2011/12 Chelsea 2 Liverpool 1
2012/13 Wigan Athletic 1 Manchester City 0
2013/14 Arsenal 3 Hull City 2 (aet)
2014/15 Arsenal 4 Aston Villa 0
2015/16 Manchester United 2 Crystal Palace 1 (aet)
Only half a decade has passed. Nine clubs have appeared in the five Finals to date, and there have been four different Winners, Arsenal being the only team to reach and win two Finals. In doing so, they set a new record, although Manchester United recovered immediately to regain a share in that record). There have already been two First-Tine Finalists, and one First-Time Winners. Wigan Athletic also became the only team to win the Cup and be relegated in the same season. The last Final to date is a repeat, with Manchester United prevailing again. The Cup’s future lies ahead. In light of the last two decades, it is hard to imagine it ever recovering the pin-sharp brightness of previous decades. A personal hope: after their remarkable first League success, I would love to see Leicester City finally win the Cup, and eradicate its most painful record.
The FA Cup had been conceived and commence in the Nineteenth Century. Had those whose inspiration it had been ever foreseen what it, what their youthful, unformed game would become? I doubt that they had ever imagined what this sport, so recently codified to eliminate handling and hacking, might become, though several lived to see the outline of the future. Several lived to see the Twentieth Century: could they have imagined their trophy might last until the Twenty-First Century?
One thing that did not was the trophy itself. The third FA Cup had, by 1992, become so fragile that it could no longer be risked and a fourth – identical but sturdier – was made. But the glamorous old trophy was reserved one final outing under the North London sky that season.
The Third Round began with a bang, with one of the great Cup results of all time. It came at Football’s New Year, the Third Round, at the Racecourse Ground, Wrexham, where the visitors were Arsenal.
The great beauty of the Cup is that on any given day, any team of eleven players can defeat any other team of eleven players. The distance between the two clubs could not have been greater: Arsenal were the reigning League Champions, whilst Wrexham had finished bottom of Division Four, and had only escaped relegation to the Football Conference because of a failed plan by the Football League to expand to 94 teams. First played ninety-second. If you could arrange for this to be played one hundred times as a League game, Arsenal would have won ninety-nine and drawn the hundredth. And they scored first.
But this was the Cup. In the space of two minutes, the oldest player on the field and the youngest player on the field scored for Wrexham to overturn Arsenal’s lead and send them out of the Cup. It was a welcome demonstration of what the Cup really meant. It is the stuff of which dreams are made.
In 1973, Sunderland had shocked the whole of English Football by winning a game they were never expected to compete in. They beat Leeds United, one of the greatest teams of the time, and they beat them whilst representing the Second Division. In 1988, Liverpool had played in the other shock Cup Final result of all time, but that time they had been the overwhelming favourites, losing a game they were never expected to be vulnerable in. For the first Final of this latest decade, Sunderland, once again a Second Division, were back at Wembley and looking to pull off the same feat against the other victim.
But history never repeats itself when you’re relying upon it to do so, and Liverpool, after a goalless first half, negotiated the Sunderland challenge more than adequately. Michael Thomas, who’d destroyed Liverpool’s Double Double dreams in 1989, by scoring the goal that enabled Arsenal to steal the League in the last minute of the season, opened the scoring, and Ian Rush became the first player to score in three different Cup Finals. It was his fifth Cup Final goal, a record that remains to this day.
Somehow, the sets of medals were switched round so that Liverpool’s team received losers medals and Sunderland winners. The players rectified the issue themselves on the pitch after the presentation.
The FA Cup still remained the showpiece, the climax of the season, but something went out of it in this season, heralding a new decade. With effect from 1991/92, there were to be no more marathon ties. Henceforward, if the scores were still level after extra time in a replay, the game would be decided that night, by a penalty shoot-out.
It was not a decision taken by the FA, rather one that was enforced upon it. The game was emerging from the dark ages of being regarded as the cause of hooliganism, as opposed to being its victims. Football fans had refuted their image as thugs at Italia ’90. Manchester United had gone straight back into Europe and won a trophy at the first time of asking. All-seater grounds were beginning to spread, in accordance with the Government’s directives. The membership scheme was gone, the fences were gone, good things were coming.
But the Police, whose relationship with football had been forever soiled by the experience of Hillsborough, decided to put their foot down. Their presence for crowd control and safety was mandatory before a game could take place: suddenly, they decided that they would no longer provide that on anything less than ten days notice.
It was a direct blow to the Cup. Traditionally, replays were instant: draw on Saturday, be back at it by Tuesday or Wednesday. That was gone in an instant: no replays until the week after. And any subsequent replays would also need ten day’s notice. And there wasn’t that much time between Rounds that could accommodate later replays.
So the FA gave in, decided to cut their losses, accept the police’s position, introduce penalty shoot-outs as a standard Cup feature. In the Fourth Round, Manchester United became the first First Division Club to go out of the Cup without losing, at home to Southampton.
And it diminished the Cup, just as so many things would begin to do so in this fateful decade.
The biggest of all, though it made no direct difference, came that summer, though it had been bruited almost all the season. The long years of rivalry between the Football Association and the Football League over who really controlled English football were settled when the FA persuaded (it was down to money, which was always the most convincing talker) the entire First Division to secede from the League and form the English Premier League, a separate competition.
It settled the argument decisively: it was the Clubs, hand in hand with the money from BSkyB Satellite Broadcasting, buying Football, hook, line and sinker. It made no difference to the Cup, structurally: The Premier League simply took the place of the old First Division, the Football League renumbered its Divisions, moving everybody one level up, and the game went on as normal, or so it seemed.
But the money went into the Premier League, not the Football League. And the financial benefits of a successful Premier League season suddenly outweighed the glamour of the Cup. It didn’t happen immediately. But the seeds were sewn, and in very fertile ground, well-watered with money.
Arsenal would be the first Premier League team to win the Cup, completing as they did a new Double, the first club to win both the League Cup and the FA Cup in the same season. Both games ended 2-1 and both times the defeated side was Sheffield Wednesday, proving yet again that football is weirder than fiction. It is the only time this has happened.
But there was much more to this Cup season than that. Once more, only two years later, the North London rivals were drawn together in the semi-final, making a mockery of the FA’s claims, in 1991, that a Wembley-staged semi-final would be a complete one-off. Given the greater capacity, the FA were hardly upset at having to repeat the exercise, but were faced with a revolt over the other semi-final venue.
By an odd coincidence, this too was a derby match, the two Sheffield clubs having been paired by the draw. Originally, and in accordance with the traditional approach, the game was scheduled for Elland Road, Leeds. But United and Wednesday protested furiously. They were upset that their rivals were being favourably treated by experiencing the Wembley atmosphere ahead of them, and given the rivalry between Sheffield and Leeds, they were unhappy at being required to play in a city where they both were hated.
So, after an initial show of reluctance that seemed to be based more in trying to demonstrate who was boss, rather than upholding principle and tradition, the FA accepted the Sheffield clubs’ proposals. And got a much higher gate than any Elland Road could have produced.
There was another shift as well. The live televised semi-finals of the past two years had both been free-to-air on terrestrial television. But the advent of BSkyB as a major player, televising live Premier League games, extended to the Cup. The Sheffield semi-final took place on the Saturday, on Sky TV: only the North London semi-final – won on this occasion by Arsenal – was shown on BBC.
Unusually, the Final began with the presentation of a Winners’ Medal, to Arsenal’s Steve Morrow. It was a holdover from the League Cup: Morrow had scored the winning goal and, at the final whistle, was lifted off the ground by team-mate Tony Adams, who unfortunately dropped him, causing Morrow to break his shoulder and have to be rushed off by ambulance with receiving his medal.
The Final was drawn, one apiece, making this the fifth Final in the last thirteen years to require a replay. It was also the last time this would occur. In 1999, the FA would decide to abolish replays for the semi-finals and Final: any such match not settled after extra-time would go to a penalty shoot-out, an indignity that all fans of the Cup immediately and devoutedly hoped would never be required in the Final.
It nearly came to pass in the replay. The match finished 1-1 again, Arsenal’s goals in each match both scored by Ian Wright, adding him to the short list of players who’d scored for two different Cup Final teams and bringing his total in Finals to four, one short of Ian Rush. And the game was in injury time at the end of extra-time when Andy Linighan headed the Arsenal winner to spare that fate.
This was also the first Final in which the teams played in squad numbers, with their names on their backs, instead of the traditional 1 – 11. The innovation was taken up the following season by the Premier League and has now spread to all of English professional football.
The first Premier League was won by Manchester United, ending their twenty-six year long quest for another title. It was to be the springboard for a season that would see them come closer than anyone ever before or since to winning not merely the classic Double, but a Grand Slam, a Clean Sweep of every trophy in the domestic game.
United were League leaders for all but twenty-eight hours of the season, and they won the Charity Shield after a penalty shoot-out (shared Shields were no longer permissible in the BSkyB era). At one point, they led the League by sixteen points, but in the Spring they suffered a collective loss of form that threatened to leave them with nothing. It did cost them the League Cup, beaten 3-1 by Aston Villa, and suffering their fourth red card in the space of a month, two of which in successive games having led to a five match suspension for their talisman, Eric Cantona.
One of those other matches Cantona was disqualified for was the FA Cup semi-final.
Once again there was controversy over the venues. Mindful of the income a Wembley tie would produce, the FA seized upon the draw pairing Chelsea with Luton Town as an excuse to nominate the Empire Stadium, and with a sanctimonious air, proclaim that fairness demanded the other tie also be held at Wembley, even though United were paired, for a second time in five years, with their Greater Manchester neighbours, Oldham Athletic.
United protested loudly at the expense yet another trip to London would mean for their fans, particularly pertinent with the country still in recession. The FA decided to let things rest upon a ballot of both clubs’ fans, agreeing to switch if both sets agreed. United’s fans voted overwhelmingly for change, but a majority of Oldham fans wanted Wembley, and so it was. It is rumoured in Manchester to this day that the Oldham verdict was tipped by a large intake of Manchester City fans, out to inconvenience their rivals.
United were in poor form. The semi-final was not the six goal thriller of yesteryear, and an Oldham goal nine minutes from the end of extra-time was on the point of taking the club to their first Final, when a spectacular equaliser by Mark Hughes secured a replay. This was played at Maine Road, Manchester, where the tie should always have been played, and United were comprehensive 4-1 winners.
This was another Final I failed to see on TV, for the simple fact that I was at Wembley itself. The omens were mixed, with Chelsea the only team to do the League double over United, both times by a single goal from Gavin Peacock. Who hit the bar in the first half, which was goalless. The second half was a different story as United were twice awarded penalties, one clear cut, the other controversial. Both were stroked home in identical manner by Cantona, the first Frenchman to play in the Cup Final.
It was the first, and to date only occasion when two penalties have been awarded to the same team, and Cantona’s first was the first Cup Final penalty to be scored since Arnold Muhren for United in the replay eleven years earlier.
The second penalty was the subject of controversy, referee David Ellary giving the award from thirty yards away when his linesmen, ten yards from the incident, failed to flag. However, Ellary was at the correct angle to see the offence, whereas his linesman’s view was blocked by the body of United’s Andrei Kanchelskis. I have always found it significant that, despite England’s top referee being correct in seeing the offence, his linesman was unable to tell him that contact had been two yards outside the area. Subsequently, Elleray admitted regretting his decision.
Not being at home, I missed the BBC’s near blunder in allowing replays of the penalty incident to nearly overrun United’s third goal, by Hughes. This too was a personal record: it was Hughes’ fourth Wembley appearance of the season – Charity Shield, League Cup Final, FA Cup semi-final and Final – and he had scored in every game. Indeed, Cantona’s first penalty had been United’s first Wembley goal that season NOT to be scored by Hughes!
The Frenchman came inches from scoring the first Cup Final hat trick since 1953 but United equalled their own record for biggest winning margin at Wembley with a fourth goal just before time, set up on a plate for Brian McClair by an act of unselfishness above and beyond the call of human nature by Paul Ince.
United’s eighth win equaled Tottenham Hotspur’s record and they also became the sixth team to win the Double of League and Cup in the same year. That the Cup was still the great glory game may be signified by the fact that it was not until the third United goal, securing the Cup, that I remembered United were the League Champions, and had therefore won the Double!
This was also the first Final to features three substitutes for each team, enabling clubs thereafter to always have a goalkeeping substitute available in the event of injury or sending off.
After winning their Double, Liverpool had come close three times in the next four years to be the first Club to win in twice. In 1994/95, Manchester United came within two blinding saves of doing it back-to-back.
That season’s Cup almost began with a team short, as Tottenham Hotspur were initially banned from entering the Cup, as a punishment for financial irregularities. On appeal, however, it was decided that a financial penalty was better suited for financial improprieties and the joint record-holders were reinstated.
Manchester United’s season was rocked in February by the suspension of their talismanic striker, Eric Cantona until September 30 1995. Cantona had been sent off in a League game at Crystal Palace and was pursued along the touchline by a home fan spewing racial and obscene taunts at him, until Cantona vaulted the fence and kung-fu kicked the fan (quickly revealed to be a National Front member).
United reacted promptly and responsibly by suspending Cantona for the rest of the season, though the FA decided it needed to be seen acting and extended that ban by a further ten weeks.
Without Cantona, United still reached the Final, needing a replay to beat their 1990 Final opponents, Crystal Palace in the semi-final, whilst Everton comfortably beat the reprieved Spurs to set up a repeat of the 1985 Final. United, hampered by the absence of Cantona, arrived at Wembley as Premier League runners-up by a single point, a title-winning win in their last game denied by great saves from Ludek Miklosko for West Ham.
The repeat Final from ten years previously would end with the same score, but this time Everton prevailed. United were denied extra-time by a blinding save from Neville Southall, who played in both games, preventing an equaliser by substitute Paul Scholes. Scholes would score in a Final before the decade was out.
Nevertheless, United’s failure in 1995 was reversed only twelve months later. Cantona’s return from his lengthy suspension saw him create one and score one in a 2-2 home draw with Liverpool, and several vital goals from the Frenchman saw United overhaul season-long League leaders Newcastle United to regain the title.
Once again, an entire round was almost wiped out by snow, in late January, with only four of sixteen ties in Round Four being completed on the day. There was another oddity when Round Six featured an all-Premiership line-up, a very rare occurrence, and due to television’s demand for live games, all four ties were played on different days.
In the semi-final, United were drawn to play Chelsea. It was their third successive semi-final and their third against recent and previous major Cup opponents: in order, United had played their 1990 semi-final opponents, their 1990 Final opponents and their 1994 Final opponents, who they beat 2-0 at Villa Park.
For once, the Cup missed a trick. The other semi-final was played at Old Trafford between Aston Villa and Liverpool, who won by a comfortable 3-0, denying the Cup a Final between clubs who had won their semi-finals at each other’s ground!
For a second successive season, Manchester United faced a repeat Final against opponents they had previously beaten at Wembley, but where Everton had gained revenge, Liverpool were unable to prevent a second defeat, inevitably at the hand, or boot, of Cantona, four minutes from the end. For those who watched on TV, the game was a dull disappointment, but I can only speak for myself when I say that inside Wembley, the game was tense and fascinating at every minute.
United became the first team to win the Double Double, only two years after completing their first such. This was their ninth Cup win, setting a new record, and Eric Cantona became the first player to score Cup Final goals from both the penalty spot and in open play. They also became only the fifth team to reach three successive Finals, as recently achieved by Arsenal and Everton.
Speaking in my personal capacity as a Manchester United fan, I have to comment that when United were beaten in a Fourth Round replay in the 1996/97 tournament, it was a very strange sensation. It was the first time in four years that we had no interest in the Cup after January. I don’t mean to be big-headed at that: I am sure that Arsenal fans in 1981 and Everton fans in 1987 had exactly the same sense of vague displacement.
There was a guaranteed first time Finalist that season when Middlesbrough were drawn against Second Division Chesterfield. This was the first appearance in the semi-finals by a third tier team since Norwich City in 1959, and Chesterfield took their Premier League opponents to a draw, or rather it was the reverse, as Chesterfield led twice and were denied a third goal when the referee, David Elleray again, missed seeing a shot bounce behind the line. Within two minutes, the referee awarded a penalty to Middlesbrough for an obstruction that took place outside the penalty area, from which Boro scored their second equaliser. Chesterfield’s run was broken in the replay, which Middlesbrough won comfortably.
In contrast, Chelsea were easy winners in their semi-final against Wimbledon, coming their closest to repeating the glories of 1988, just five years before the controversial and fatal decision to allow the club to be uprooted to Milton Keynes. Chelsea were equally comfortable at Wembley, winning their second Cup, twenty-seven years after the first, whilst Robert di Matteo broke Jackie Milburn’s record for fastest goal at Wembley, set forty-two years earlier, scoring after only 43 seconds.
Middlesbrough would complete the unwanted Double of Cup Final defeat and a very controversial relegation in the same season due to a points deduction, not to mention defeat in the League Cup Final. But it was a personal triumph for Chelsea striker Mark Hughes, winning a record fourth Winners Medal after three with Manchester United. Chelsea manager Ruud Gullit became the first foreign and non-white Manager to win the Cup.
Chelsea would go on to record the seventh English win in the European Cup-Winners Cup, the only English team to win it twice. Their victory came in the Cup’s penultimate season: it’s reputation had seriously declined and a decision was taken to abolish it after the 1998/99 season.
In 1988, Arsenal emulated Manchester United by winning their Second Double, though this came twenty-seven years after their first. Arsenal were also the first team to win the Cup after progressing through two penalty shoot-outs, the second of these in the semi-final. Their opponents at Wembley were Newcastle United, the third time this pair of clubs had met in the Final, the only pairing to meet more than twice. Newcastle had won both the previous encounters.
Though he was not in the match-day squad for the Final, the first in which each team could name five substitutes, of whom only three could be used, Ian Rush had scored for Newcastle in Round Three against Everton, his 43rd goal in the FA Cup. Like his five in Finals, this is a Cup record that stands until today: no player has scored more Cup goals.
This year saw ITV replace BBC as the terrestrial TV broadcaster. Because of Arsenal’s Double, Newcastle became the last English team to qualify for the Cup-Winners Cup, alongside holders Chelsea.
This was another Final that I refused to watch, the reason this time being the teams playing. In every Final where I did not have a personal stake in the outcome, I could always settle upon one team to support. It seemed as necessary as breathing. I cannot be perfectly neutral, perfectly disinterested. I need some element of passion, however spurious or brief. How this was to be determined depended on multiple factors: sometimes, I would support one side because I couldn’t stand the other. This Final presented me with a conundrum. I couldn’t stand Arsenal and their manager Arsene Wenger, and wanted them to lose. On the other hand, I couldn’t stand Newcastle manager, Kenny Dalglish, and wanted them to lose.
So I went up to the Lake District for a day’s walking and managed to avoid learning the result until the Sunday paper was delivered.
Arsenal had equaled Manchester United’s record of winning the Double twice. Practically the whole 1998/99 season, in League and Cup, was a struggle between the two teams to become the first club to win it three times.
Before this reached a head in the semi-final, there was a sensation in Round Five involving Arsenal, who defeated Sheffield United thanks to a controversial goal, breaking the unwritten ‘rule’ about returning the ball to opponents who had knocked it out of play to allow medical treatment for an injured player. Manager Arsene Wenger offered to replay the game, which Arsenal won second time round.
Neck-and-neck in the Premier League, Arsenal and United were drawn together in the semi-final, where a properly dramatic draw would have paired them at Wembley. The game was goalless with David Elleray once again at the heart of controversy, disallowing a valid United goal over a misinterpretation of the offside rule.
This set the scene for the last ever semi-final replay. Ellary sent off United captain Roy Keane and disallowed an offside Arsenal winning goal. United saved a last minute penalty and the game was won in extra-time by a goal from Ryan Giggs that was immediately hailed as one of the greatest ever scored in Cup history.
United’s win prevented the first case of back-to-back Finals with identical teams since Blackburn Rovers vs Queen’s Park, in 1885 and 1886. They duly completed their Third Double in six seasons (and the fourth in that same period) before going on to win the Champions League Final, and complete the Treble that they had denied to Liverpool in 1977. Almost unnoticed, United extended their record as Cup Winners to ten. As the Cup-Winners Cup no longer existed, Newcastle United became the first English club to qualify for the UEFA Cup by this route.
Much was (unavailingly) expected and feared of the Millennium. For the Cup, it was a progression into the third Century of its existence, and it was also the seventy second and last Final to be played at the Empire Stadium Wembley, with its famous Twin Towers. To their everlasting shame, defending holders Manchester United withdrew from the Cup, the only winners to fail to defend their trophy. United were under pressure to play in the FIFA World Club Championship in South America, in the misguided belief that it would support the FA’s bid to host the 2006 World Cup. The Championship would have clashed with the Cup’s Fourth Round, and the suggestion that United muster a team of reserves and juniors for that Round – assuming they would reach it, which was not a given – was dismissed as an insult to the Cup. How that could have been worse than simply refusing to play – as holders – is hard to understand.
The FA Cup’s prestige was delivered a blow, by the people charged with maintaining its history and tradition. In one moment, that was discarded, and the Cup’s meaning, except for romantics such as myself, has diminished ever since.
To accommodate United’s absence from the Third Round draw, the FA opted to re-include a ‘lucky loser’, a random Second Round victim. This fell upon Darlington, the only club ever to get a second Cup life. They were promptly beaten by the eventual Finalists, Aston Villa.
There was a big shock in Round Five when League Two (i.e., fourth tier) club Gillingham beat Premier League Sheffield Wednesday, but their hopes were crushed in the quarter-finals by eventual winners, Chelsea.
With the demolition of the Empire Stadium, and its replacement to be paid for, the FA dispensed with the neutral ground tradition in favour of the increased gate money and brought the semi-finals to Wembley again. This was a foretaste of the eventual decision to make Wenbley the semi-finals’ permanent home. Chelsea kept Newcastle from reaching a third successive Final whilst Aston Villa reached their first Final since setting their seven win record in 1957, thanks to a penalty shoot-out.
But the last Old Wembley Final went to Chelsea, the claret and blue shirts finishing on the losing side as they had in the very first on that ground, with Roberto di Matteo scoring for Chelsea in the Final a second time.
So, for the first time in seventy-eight years, the Cup Final needed a new home. It was suggested that Old Trafford, Manchester, be used, as the stadium with the greatest capacity in England, but instead the FA chose to take the Final away from England, agreeing to utilise the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff for the five years it was estimated it would take for the new Wembley to be constructed (it would, in practice, take six years).
Manchester United returned to the competition they had dishonoured, winning 2-1 away at Fulham in the Third Round, but beaten in unusual circumstances at home by West Ham United in the Fourth Round, when an attempted bluff by goalkeeper Fabien Barthez failed to deter Paolo di Canio from scoring the only goal.
There was a shock in the Fifth Round thanks to second tier Tranmere Rovers, who came from 3-0 down to Premier League Southampton to win 4-3, thanks to a hat trick by former Southampton striker Paul Rideout, scorer of the winning goal in the 1995 Final for Everton, but it was overshadowed by fourth tier Wycombe Wanderers in the next round, by beating Leicester City 2-1, their late winner coming from a player who had only recently joined the club after seeing a newspaper advertisement.
Wycombe made history by becoming the first fourth tier team to reach the semi-finals, where they were only narrowly beaten by Liverpool, all three goals coming in the last twelve minutes.
The other semi-final was the third meeting at this stage between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Surprisingly, after the FA’s sincere concerns about capacity for such a meeting, the clubs managed perfectly well at Old Trafford, Manchester. Then again, Old Trafford did hold more than 70,000 by that time, so everybody was happy, except perhaps for the fans, with both sets of supporters having to travel over 250 miles – on the same routes – to reach the venue.
The Spurs fans were certainly the unhappiest: for once, their Cup affinity with years ending in 1 let them down.
The first wholly Twenty-First Century Cup saw the first Final to be held outside England. There was no score until Arsenal took the lead, twelve minutes from time, and looked to have secured the Cup, but two late goals from Michael Owen turned the game around, and it was Liverpool who ended the thirteenth decade as Cup-Winners, exactly as they had started it.
This was the fourth, and to date last Final that I missed watching, and for the same reason as 1998: Arsenal? Liverpool? What joy can be had from watching a Final where you desperately want both teams to lose, and one must win?
The FA Cup was now 130 years old. But at last it was beginning to show its years. It wasn’t just the indignities shown to it during its thirteenth decade, many of them practiced by the men who were supposed to be respecters and guardians of its heritage, record and glamour. But football as a whole underwent a massive change in the Nineties, thanks to Sky TV. Millions were poured into the game, much more than the game that had once been the province of sportsmanlike Public schoolboys and hard-nosed working class men alike had ever seen. And money changed everything, in many ways for the better but, for good or ill, it changed things irrevocably.
If it was about anything, Sky TV was about control, which came from exclusivity. But it couldn’t show the FA Cup exclusively. The Final was still a ‘Crown Jewel’, a Protected event that had to be shown free-to-air. So the Cup didn’t get what the Premier League and the Champions League got. These became the money-pots, the tournaments to win. Glamour is all very well, but it doesn’t pay for that new record signing who doesn’t know that once upon a time you won one of the most exciting FA Cup Finals ever.
This was demonstrated vividly by the scheduling of the Final. For the first time, the Final was deliberately scheduled to be played a week before the end of the League season. Though the day was cleared for the Final itself, nevertheless one final round of matches (with nothing but relegation to settle, Manchester United having won the League at a canter) was scheduled for the week after the Final.
The men who ran the FA betrayed the Cup, betrayed football, for the smell of the money. Weak men in power, a dangerous, indeed fatal combination. Nothing was safe in their hands, not if the chance of an extra buck was dangled before them. Everything was for sale, even the FA Cup.
This degradation of the Cup would only rise through its next, and last complete decade so far.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley unless otherwise stated)
1991/92 Liverpool 2 Sunderland 0
1992/93 Arsenal 1 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (aet)
R: Arsenal 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1 (aet)
1993/94 Manchester United 4 Chelsea 0
1994/95 Everton 1 Manchester United 0
1995/96 Manchester United 1 Liverpool 0
1996/97 Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 0
1997/98 Arsenal 2 Newcastle United 0
1998/99 Manchester United 2 Newcastle United 0
1999/2000 Chelsea 1 Aston Villa 0
2000/01 Liverpool 2 Arsenal 1 (Millennium Stadium, Cardiff)
The third decade of the FA Cup’s second century featured only eleven clubs, and only five winners, this latter equalling only the previous decade. Manchester United, with three again, were the most successful team again, and there were two wins for Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. Only Everton disturbed the ‘Big Four’ clubs in their dominance. Each of the ‘Big Four’ appeared in one losing Final as well as their wins, and, with the exception of Everton, each of the other one-timers went down to defeat, including Middlesbrough, the Decade’s only First-Tine Finalists. But Manchester United have to be the team of the decade, each of their three wins being Doubles and, in the case of the third of these, a Treble unprecedented amongst the major Leagues of Europe (a formulation chosen to obscure the fact that, in 1967, Glasgow Celtic had gone one better than everyone). ‘Big Four’ domination would continue into the next decade, as the romance of the Cup, and its unpredictability diminished even further.
As it entered its ninth decade, the Cup had now established itself in its most simple format, that of a purely random, simple knock-out in which any team, no matter how low, might find itself drawn to play – frequently at home – any other team, no matter how high. That was a primal part of the FA Cup’s appeal, that it was the most egalitarian competition. All that mattered was the performance on the field. Giants most often triumphed, but there was something about the anarchy of the Cup that made Giants vulnerable to being killed.
A look at the Qualifying Round results in 1951/52 reveals some intriguing, long lost club names, such as Liverpool Police, Bournemouth Gasworks Athletic, Parliament Street Methodists and half a dozen Colliery Welfare clubs in differing coal pit towns. And whilst the First Qualifying Round tie between Southwick and Worthing didn’t produce the highest goal tally of the day (that distinction went to King’s Lynn’s 14-1 home win over Chatteris Town), it must have been the most exhilarating, with the visitors winners by the odd goal in thirteen.
By now, enough teams were entering the Cup annually for the Final to move into May. The first Saturday in May, the weekend after the (official) end of the Football League season, was now Cup Final Day.
Holders Newcastle United became only the third club, after Wanderers and Blackburn Rover, to retain the Cup, thanks to a late winner from their Chilean forward, George Robledo, the first out-and-out foreigner to play in a Final. Robledo was a forerunner of modern times, where no English team is without its complement of foreign players. He was also an ironic reversal of the situation whereby several English players were plying their trade in Chile, whose Football Association was not affiliated to FIFA, and thus were free to attract players to their nascent League by offering salaries far above those allowed elsewhere in the world. Of course, any player taking the Chilean peso was promptly banned world-wide, but when set against England’s maximum wage, this was not enough of a deterrence.
The 1952 Final also saw the runners-up, Arsenal, play with ten men for most of the game, after full-back Wally Barnes was carried off with a twisted knee. This was to be a harbinger for a decade that saw four other Finalists reduced to ten men by injuries, feeding the growing clamour to introduce substitutes.
For the moment, it was only the first of Arsenal’s troubles: three other players would be injured during the game, leaving Arsenal with only seven fit men by the time Robledo scored.
Newcastle did not, however, go on to emulate Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers by winning a third consecutive Cup: as of 2016, no-one has. The 1953 Final was probably the most famous Final of all time, the legendary Stanley Matthews Final. This was Blackpool and Matthews’ third appearance in six years, and the great winger was now 37 years old, and still seeking a Cup Winners’ Medal (incredibly, he would go on to play in the First Division at the age of 51, so time was still on his side, but no-one knew that then). On Cup Final day, every neutral in the country was backing Blackpool.
But Bolton scored first and, with only 22 minutes remaining, were 3-1 ahead. Blackpool and England centre forward Stan Mortenson, scorer of the Blackpool goal, turned the ball in to halve the deficit and then, with less than three minutes left, banged home a goal direct from a free-kick – and that was extremely unusual in 1953, with the heavy, leather balls still in use – to draw level, and become only the third, and last to date, player to score a Cup Final hat-trick, and the only one at Wembley.
Then, with extra-time seemingly a certainty, Matthews turned on the wing wizardry again, bamboozled the Bolton defence on the right, and slid across a pass that Bill Perry converted from six yards, winning the Tangerines – and Matthews – the Cup, and in the process becoming the second foreigner in successive seasons to score the winning goal: Perry was South African.
With typical modesty, Stanley Matthews ever after said that the Final should have been named after Stan Mortenson, not himself, for that hat-trick. The country disagreed, and why not? The 1953 Cup Final was the first major sporting event to be seen by large parts of the country, thanks to the upsurge in the purchase of television sets that accompanied Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation, and the popularity of the game ensured that thereafter, the Cup Final would get its own slot on TV and Radio at the BBC, and ITV, and subsequent organisations.
Blackpool never reached the Cup Final again. It took them six games to reach Round Five in the 1953/54 campaign, where they were put out by lowly Port Vale, the eventual Third Division North Champions. That year’s Final, in which West Bromwich Albion beat Preston North End 3-2, was a repeat of the 1888 Final, also won by West Brom. Though overlooked nowadays, it was and exciting match, in which the lead changed hands three times and the winner came three minutes from full-time. This was West Brom’s greatest ever season, as they had also campaigned strongly in the League, only to end up second by four points.
The following year, the Third Round match between Bury and Stoke City set a new record by becoming the first Cup-tie to go to five games before being resolved in favour of Stoke in the record Fourth Replay, which took place sixteen days after the original game. At Wembley, Newcastle United reached, and won, their third Cup in five seasons. This was their sixth overall, equalling the record of Aston Villa and Blackburn Rovers. The opening goal, scored by Jackie Milburn, came after only 45 seconds, the fastest at Wembley, a record held until 1997, though it has since been beaten again, in 2009.
Manchester City suffered the same fate as Arsenal in 1952, being reduced to ten men after 22 minutes by the loss of full-back Jimmy Meadows. Uncannily, Meadows’ injury was suffered on the same spot as Wally Barnes, three years previously.
But City were to repeat their Thirties performance by returning to Wembley the following season, and winning the Cup. This was the first Cup season of my lifetime, as I was born between the Fourth Qualifying Round and the First Round Proper. For a second successive season, the Cup threw up another five game marathon, in the Fourth Round between Burnley and the eventually successful Chelsea.
The Final was to be another of those legendary games, thanks to City’s German goalkeeper, ex-Prisoner of war, Bert Trautman. City had established a commanding 3-1 lead over Birmingham City when, with twenty minutes remaining, Trautman dived at the feet of winger Peter Murphy to claim the ball, and took a kick on the head.
Despite suffering considerable neck-pains, Trautman saw the match out and collected his medal. In the dressing room, he called for a neck massage which, if administered, might easily have paralysed him for life. Instead, he was taken to hospital, where x-rays revealed he had fractured a vertebra in his neck. The injury would effectively end his career.
For Birmingham, it was a second defeat in two Finals, repeating Queen’s Park’s unwanted feat, but they did at least achieve a record in being the first team to reach the Final without playing a home tie, and Bobby Johnstone, scorer of Manchester City’s third goal, became the first player to score in consecutive Wembley Finals.
In 1956/57, it was the turn of Manchester United to reach the Cup Final, playing record-holders Aston Villa. This was the ‘Busby Babes’, League Champions for a second successive season, this time by an incredible eleven points: the equivalent of five and a half games. They were also Europeann Cup semi-finalists. United were the hottest prospects for a Twentieth Century Double, but like Arsenal and City before them, they effectively had to play five-sixths of the game with ten men.
This time it was goalkeeper Ray Wood, knocked out in the sixth minute through a clash of heads when shoulder-charged by Villa’s Peter McParland that resulted in a broken cheek-bone. Defender Jackie Blanchflower replaced him in goal and kept a clean sheet until half-time, by which time Wood was back on the field, but only to make the numbers up, running up and down the left wing.
Two goals early in the second half from, inevitably, McParland were conclusive, though when Tommy Taylor pulled a goal back seven minutes from time, United pushed Wood back into goal whilst they searched for an equaliser, but none came. Villa set a new record of seven Cup wins, one that would not be equalled for a further twenty-five years, but it would be forty-three years until they themselves returned to the Final.
For the Babes, the team of talents that were destined to dominate football like no other team before them, this was to be their only Cup Final. Nine months later, six of their team would die at Munich Airport, as would two other players not in the Final Eleven. Two others of the Final team would be so badly injured they would never play again. United would, miraculously, reach the Final again in 1958. Only Billy Foulkes of the team that nearly won the Double would play the following season’s Final.
The Munich Air Disaster would dominate the story of the Cup in 1957/58. The Babes’ last tie was a 2-0 victory over Ipswich Town in the Fourth Round, but it was an unrecognisable eleven, represented by blank names in that programme that beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-0 in the delayed Fifth Round tie. United swept to Wembley on a wave of popular sympathy. It was the second time in the decade that Bolton Wanderers walked out at Wembley knowing everyone in the country except their own support wanted them to be beaten, but United could only go so far.
It’s impossible to know how things might have gone otherwise, but United’s defeat was perhaps sealed by the most well-meant of gestures. Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy had guided his makeshift team to the Final, whilst Matt Busby slowly recovered in Munich Hospital. Now he was back in England, still very frail, dependent upon a walking stick. Busby visited the dressing room to give a pep talk, but once there, the absence of the faces he’d nurtured overwhelmed him and he could only sob. After that, what hope did the players have?
Ironically, there was a second successive goal-keeping controversy, with Bolton’s second goal coming from Nat Lofthouse bundling Harry Gregg into the net, and probably getting no contact with the ball. I’ve heard the radio commentary on the incident, and it’s astonishing just how defensive the commentator sounds and how desperately he defends Lofthouse and the goal’s validity, as if he’s trying to convince the Stretford End.
As for Lofthouse, he freely admitted after the game that he expected the goal to be ruled out as a foul.
Outside the Cup, but not affecting it in practice, the summer of 1958 saw another shift in the Football League structure. The growing prosperity of the country, the increasing facility for travel saw the League end the regionalisation of its third tier by merging the North and South Divisions into a straightforward Third and Fourth. The cut was a simple top-slicing, with the top half of each Division constituting the Third Division and the bottom half the Fourth.
The major story of the 1958/59 Cup season was the dramatic run of Third Division Norwich City to the semi-finals. After defeating Manchester United in the Third Round, Norwich went on to put out Cardiff City, Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United – Cup winners all – before finally succumbing to Luton Town, and then only after a Replay.
It was the closest a side from beneath the second tier had ever come to reaching the Final, and Norwich’s surge would go unrepeated for nearly forty years, until replicated by Second Division (and third tier) Chesterfield in 1997. Extraordinarily, Chesterfield would also take their conquerors to a semi-final replay, and would go out to the beaten Finalists, playing in their first Cup Final.
Luton’s opponents at Wembley were Nottingham Forest, in an uneventful game of no great significance outside the Finalists’ home towns. Forest became the fourth Club of this decade to be reduced to ten men, when winger Roy Dwight, scorer of their opening goal, was stretchered off with a broken leg, though on this occasion only, the loss of a player did not prevent the Midlanders taking the trophy.
There is a curious connection between the unfortunate Dwight and another Cup Final featuring first -time Finalists, which I’ll explain when we reach the relevant decade.
The following season, as the Cup moved on into the eventually Swinging Sixties, was not a significant year either, despite featuring the largest win in decades, as Tottenham Hotspur thrashed Crewe Alexandra 13-2 in a Fourth Round Replay at home. The Final, in which Wolverhampton Wanderers beat Blackburn Rovers 3-0, is regarded as one of the dullest on record, in part due to being played in excessive heat that had spectators fainting and the game played at almost walking space, but also by the excessive employment of the offside trap by both teams.
As well as scoring three legitimate goals, Wolves had two other efforts ruled out for offside, whilst Blackburn were reduced to ten men by the loss of full-back Dave Whelan with a broken leg. Bizarrely, the almost identical connection enjoyed by Roy Dwight to a later Cup Final also applies to Whelan and another Final featuring first-time Finalists, though in this case over fifty years had to lapse for this connection to come about.
The success of the European Cup – which up to this point had only ever been won by Real Madrid – had led to the creation of a second pan-European trophy, the Cup-Winners Cup. This came into being, with only ten participants, for the 1960/61 season, albeit on a semi-official basis, and with several countries represented by teams who were not Cup-winners in countries with no significant Cup competition.
As holders, Wolverhampton Wanderers became the first English club to be invited to play, getting a bye into the quarter-finals, but being knocked out in the semi-finals by Glasgow Rangers, who would, in turn, be beaten in the competition’s only two-legged Final.
The time would come, and before very long, when English clubs would have their day in the Cup-Winners Cup.
The last Final of this decade would be a memorable event indeed, but first let us record that the Second Round tie between Darlington and Hull City became the third this decade to require four replays before Hull went through, and that the Leicester City/Sheffield United semi-final was the first in twenty-eight years to go to a Second Replay, and the first semi-final to still be goalless after 210 minutes.
And let us also record Denis Law’s incredible feat of scoring seven goals in a cup-tie only to finish on the losing side. Law was playing for Manchester City at home to Luton Town in the Fourth Round and had scored all six of City’s goals when, with the Blues leading 6-2, the game had to be abandoned due to a water-logged pitch.
When it was replayed, at Luton, City were knocked out 3-1, with Law scoring their only goal…
But the story of the Cup this year was of the Double, the first since Aston Villa in 1896, and the first Twentieth Century Double, won by Tottenham Hotspurs’ great push-and-run team under Bill Nicholson, and led by the great Danny Blanchflower. By the time Spurs achieved the Double, it was a feat that had long been regarded as impossible. Preston and Villa’s Doubles belonged to a bygone age, in which the League programme was less severe. It was generally thought that the qualities required to maintain consistent performances throughout a nine-month, 42 game League season were the antithesis of the ability to lift your game for a separate sequence of one-off matches.
Spurs proved that wrong, scoring twice against one of the greatest keepers ever to play, the future World Cup Winner Gordon Banks. His team, Leicester City, joined the ranks of Queens Park and Birmingham City as two-time losers, but for them worse was to come as the Cup moved smoothly towards its centenary.
Incredibly, for the third successive Final, and the sixth in this decade, Leicester were reduced to ten men when full back Len Chalmers suffered a broken leg after 20 minutes. Unbelievably, he only left the field after 80 minutes, by which time the game was irretrievable.
The cry for substitutes to be introduced would not be answered until more than half way through the next decade, but this series of injuries, in Football’s spotlight match, watched live on TV by the majority of the country, was fuel to the fire, and all but ensured that the day would come.
Ironically, in light of their Cup Final record, Leicester City would go on to represent England in the European Cup-Winners Cup. Spurs, by virtue of being League Champions, entered the European Cup. But the time was rapidly approaching…
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)
1951/52 Newcastle United 1 Arsenal 0
1952/53 Blackpool 4 Bolton Wanderers 3
1953/54 West Bromwich Albion 3 Preston North End 2
1954/55 Newcastle United 3 Manchester City 1
1955/6 Manchester City 3 Birmingham City 1
1956/47 Aston Villa 2 Manchester United 1
1957/58 Bolton Wanderers 2 Manchester United 0
1958/59 Nottingham Forest 2 Luton Town 1
1959/60 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Blackburn Rovers 0
1960/61 Tottenham Hotspur 2 Leicester City 0
The ninth decade was the first for thirty years to feature a full ten Finals. Sixteen teams – the highest number ever – would contest the Final, with four clubs – Blackpool, Bolton Wanderers and the two Manchester clubs each reaching two Finals, with United the only Club to lose both times. Newcastle United, briefly equalising the Cup Winners Record, were the only two-time Winners in this decade, Blackpool were the only first-time winners, and Luton the only first-time finalists. The decade’s most popular location was Manchester, with City and United appearing in four successive Finals, though between them only taking the Cup home once. But the true mark of this decade would be the fact that in five Finals a team would be reduced to ten men through a broken leg, leading to increasingly powerful demands to permit substitutes.
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.
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.
So we move on, into the Edwardian era, that last golden afternoon as so many have described it, before the world it represented was destroyed in the mud and blood of Flanders fields. It was a decade of slow development, of a Cup that, halfway through the decade, took a half-hearted step towards the format we recognise today.
It was still a tournament dominated by the professional clubs of the North and Midlands. Tottenham Hotspurs’ success in the last Final of the third decade might have brought the Cup back to London after nearly twenty years, but it was an isolated success: the Final might have taken place in London, but the Cup would not rest there for another twenty years.
The Intermediate Round introduced in 1900/01 was retained for another four seasons, involving a complex combination, each year, of byes at various stages into different rounds, with not even the entire First Division getting byes into the First Round Proper, and clubs from the powerful Southern League getting preferential treatment ahead of Second Division teams.
Sheffield United were the first Cup-winners of the decade, though they made a heavy fist of it in the end, requiring three games to win the semi-final and two to win the actual Cup. Unusually, the Replay was held at the Crystal Palace, like the first match, a situation that would not recur for seventy-nine years.
Although the competition was now becoming a well-regulated, almost staid tournament, there was a flashback to the illogic of the Cup’s formative years. Second Division club, New Brighton Tower, were given a bye into the Intermediate Round, where they were drawn to play non-League qualifiers, Oxford City, and this arrangement stood, despite the fact that New Brighton Tower had folded in the summer of 1901 and been replaced in Division 2 before a single ball had been kicked in the 1901/02 Cup!
As a result, Oxford City enjoyed a nostalgic walkover into the First Round Proper. Even more bizarrely, New Brighton’s replacements, Doncaster Rovers, had to enter the Cup at the Third Qualifying Round.
If I may be allowed a personal point, the 1902/03 Cup was the first to be competed for by Manchester United, as opposed to Newton Heath. The Reds didn’t get very far, unlike their Lancashire neighbours, Bury, who reached their second Final in four seasons. They were very much the underdogs against Derby County, despite the latter losing their leading scorer, Steve Bloomer, to injury. But to everybody’s surprise, Bury not only won the Cup but recorded the record victory margin, 6-0. Derby apparently played so badly, the Bury keeper had nothing to do, and the club’s nick-name of ‘The Shakers’ derives from this game and result.
Bury – whose aggregate score in Cup Finals is 10-0 – are the only club after Wanderers to have won the Cup more than once whilst remaining undefeated in Finals.
The number of Cup entrants was still expanding, and each year the FA’s resistance to increasing the number of Proper Rounds grew more puzzling. A second preliminary Round was added in 1903/04, and a Sixth Qualifying Round the following season. Manchester City took the Cup to Manchester for the first time, beating Bolton Wanderers in what, surprisingly given the base of operations of the Football League, was the first all-Lancashire final, and Aston Villa secured their fourth win the following year.
Villa’s Final reversed an unexpected trend in Cup Final attendances. After Spurs had drawn 110,000 to the Crystal Palace in 1901, attendances had declined dramatically over the following three seasons, with Manchester City’s victory taking place before a gate of just over 61,000, but figures bounced back in 1905, with 101,000 filling the ground.
By this time, the Cup had reached a seriously imbalanced state, with nine Qualifying Rounds under various names, and a rigidly maintained three Rounds Proper. It was overdue time for a reorganisation that would better suit the number and status of the entrants. The Football League had, this season, expanded to 40 clubs, in two Divisions of 20, which needed to be taken into account.
So the Cup reduced itself to five qualifying Rounds (one Preliminary, four Qualifying) and restored the Cup Proper to four rounds. But it was not a case of the forty League clubs entering the Cup at Round One, with twenty-four survivors from the Qualifying Rounds, oh no. Twenty-nine League teams enjoyed that status,, with the rest coming in at various Qualifying Round stages. And, in order to provide sixty-four clubs at this stage, eleven non-League clubs were also given byes to the First Round.
Though the structure of the Cup was growing ever more familiar, it was still an indication of the nature of the game in the Edwardian era that 11 non-Leaguers were given preference to the equivalent number of League clubs in terms of when they entered the Cup.
One Third Qualifying Round tie provides an odd foretaste of the Cup’s future, and led to a rule change. In the Third Qualifying Round, Chelsea were drawn to play Crystal Palace. The same day, however, they were required to play Burnley in the Second Division. That neither game was to be postponed, that Chelsea were seriously required to play two matches simultaneously, foreshadowed the long years of rivalry between the Football Association and the Football League over control of the game.
And, foreshadowing today’s sad reality, Chelsea opted to prioritise their promotion battle, choosing the first team to meet Burnley and sending out the Reserves to be humiliated 7-1 by Palace. As a consequence, the FA introduced a new Law, requiring clubs to field their strongest teams in the Cup. A rule far more honoured in the breach than the observance in the Twenty-First Century.
The eventual winners were Everton, their first victory after two previous defeats.
The Cup’s new format only lasted one season, with a Fifth Qualifying Round being reintroduced the following season. The number of non-League teams given byes into Round One was increased to sixteen, and the Round required no less than thirteen replays (four going to second replays). The Wednesday joined their Sheffield rivals, United, in winning a second Cup.
The 1907/08 season set a record that stands to the present day, with thirteen First Division teams going out to lover level clubs. Unsurprisingly, three of the semi-final places were occupied by Second Division clubs, a situation not repeated until exactly a century later, in 2008. The only First Division survivors, Newcastle United (who finished fourth), won their semi-final against Fulham 6-0, still a record at this stage, but were comfortably beaten by Wolverhampton Wanderers, only the second Second Division winners.
By this time, Newcastle United had reached three Finals in four years and lost them all. They were spared further potential embarrassment the following season by Manchester United in the semi-final, with the Reds going on to claim their first Cup win. But neither Manchester club would feature prominently in the Cup’s history for many years, and decades, yet.
United’s opponents, Bristol City, have not returned to the Cup Final, placing them alongside Queen’s Park among clubs who have never won the Cup. It would be forty years before another team would reach the Final yet never, to date, lift the Cup.
Newcastle’s time would come in 1910, though not at Crystal Palace but at Goodison Park in a replay, winning the Cup at the fourth time of asking. It’s an odd quirk of the FA Cup’s history that only one club has failed to win the Cup after losing on its first three appearances in the Final.
This was the last year for the second FA Cup. When Newcastle returned the trophy, it was retired and presented, as a retirement gift, to the FA President Lord Kinnaird. The trophy is still in existence today. It was bought at auction in 2005 by then-Birmingham City, now West Ham United co-Chairman, David Gold, and is on permanent display at the National Football Museum in Manchester.
To replace it, the FA ordered a new, larger, re-designed trophy, the F.A. Cup as we recognise it today, though the 1911 trophy is no longer in use itself. It was designed by Fattorini’s of Bradford and, fittingly, was won in its first season by Bradford City, beating Newcastle United (again!) in a replay at Old Trafford. The replay was by far the most successful in terms of attendance to date, with 69,000 at the Crystal Palace, and an impressive 58,000 coming to Manchester.
The Edwardian decade, when football, and the Cup, was still played in an atmosphere of innocence. The Cup was now forty years old, yet it was still developing. Another decade would see it achieve its half-century. No-one could foresee how the middle years of that approaching decade would be ripped out.
(all Finals played at Crystal Palace unless otherwise stated)
1901/02 Sheffield United 1 Southampton 1
R: Sheffield United 2 Southampton 1
1902/03 Bury 6 Derby County 0
1903/04 Manchester City 1 Bolton Wanderers 0
1904/05 Aston Villa 2 Newcastle United 0
1905/6 Everton 1 Newcastle United 0
1906/07 The Wednesday 2 Everton 1
1907/08 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Newcastle United 1
1908/09 Manchester United 1 Bristol City 0
1909/10 Newcastle United 1 Barnsley 1
R: Newcastle United 2 Barnsley 0 (Goodison Park, Liverpool)
1910/11 Bradford City 0 Newcastle United 0 (aet)
R Bradford City 1 Newcastle United 0 (Old Trafford, Manchester)
The fourth decade saw another new record of fifteen different finalists, with Newcastle United the most prolific, appearing in five Finals, albeit losing four of them. Everton were the only other club to appear in two Finals. There were ten different winners in the fourth decade, a different holder every year, with five clubs winning their first Cup, including both Manchester clubs. Of the losers, only Bristol City did not have Cup success ahead or behind them. Three Finals required replays, as many as the three decades prior to that, one of which took place at the same venue as the Final itself, an anomaly that would take eighty years to become the rule.
The Cup’s third decade was a decade of consolidation. The Qualifying Rounds, three Rounds Proper, semi-finals and Final format was maintained throughout the next ten years with only minimal adjustment to reflect the ever-increasing number of entrants, which soon passed 200.
Curiously, the Cup Proper was unchanged throughout the decade, and the extra entrants were absorbed into an expanded Qualifying Round set-up. First, a Preliminary Round was added in 1892, and then, in 1896, a Fifth Qualifying Round. The refusal to increase the number of Proper Rounds hit its peak in the 1900/01 season, in the introduction of an Intermediate Round, with the ten survivors of the Qualifying Rounds drawn against ten clubs given byes to this level.
That it would have been simpler to increase the number of Proper Rounds, especially with regard to the expansion of the Football League, and the immediate impact of the Southern League, was apparently not in the FA’s mind.
The Football League, that had started with twelve clubs and quickly expanded to fourteen, had been almost doubled in size in 1892 when it absorbed the failing Football Alliance as a Second Division. But League status on its own did not automatically command a bye into the Cup Proper. For the sixteen First Division clubs, that was the case, and six Second Division clubs to make up numbers.
Though I don’t have access to any interim tables to prove it, based on final Second Division positions, I would strongly believe these half dozen clubs to be the top six in the Division at the relevant cut-off date.
The rest of the Second Division clubs would enter the Cup during the Qualifying rounds, as far back at the Third Qualifier, even when there were five such rounds!
I mentioned above the Southern League. As is well known, the Football League was launched in the North West, and the Alliance itself established a catchment area that went little further than the Midlands. The Southern League was established in 1894 for, as its name made obvious, football clubs in the south of England. As these were separated from the Football League mainly on the grounds of geography, it became the home of strong clubs such as Southampton and Tottenham Hotspur.
Both of these clubs would reach the Cup Final as ‘non-League’ teams, (though that term had yet to grow into its full meaning), with Southampton defeated finalists in 1900, beaten 4-0 by Bury, whilst Spurs ended the third decade by lifting the Cup after beating Sheffield United in a replay. In doing so, they became the only ‘non-League’ club to win the trophy after the Football League was formed.
And at this point a special mention should be made of Notts County, Cup-winners in 1894 as members of the Second Division, the first club to win the Cup from outside the top flight of English football. Notts County’s feat would be repeated half a dozen times down the decades, but none of their second tier successors, not even Spurs, would win the Cup from a position in the Qualifying Rounds.
The Cup’s first decade had belonged to the Southern amateurs, the old boys and gentlemen. Its second had belonged to the North, the North-West in particular. So it’s entirely appropriate that the Cup’s third decade should be dominated by the Midlands. Their clubs would appear in the first eight Finals of this era, and would come away as Cup Winners on six of those occasions.
Just as the second decade had begun with one final flourish from the past, so too the third: the 1891 Final was played at the familiar Kennington Oval, but that was to be the last Final to take place at the Cup’s original home. It had hosted twenty of the twenty-one Finals to date, two of which had gone to Replays elsewhere, but after West Bromwich Albion secured the Cup, at the third time of asking, the Cup went elsewhere.
Its first two venues were far removed from the Oval, indeed from London. Wolverhampton Wanderers would break their duck in Manchester, at the Fallowfield Stadium in 1893, and Notts County win their only Cup a year later, at Goodison Park, in Liverpool. The following season, the Cup would return to London, with the Crystal Palace taking over the duty of hosting the competition for the next twenty years.
Notts County’s win in 1894 provided the Cup with a second Final Hat Trick, three goals from Jimmy Logan to match William Townley’s feat for Blackburn Rovers. Only one other player in the 121 years that followed has achieved the same feat.
Back at Crystal Palace, Aston Villa won the first of their Cups. It was the last season in which the first trophy was presented. As related before, ‘the little tin pot’ was stolen, in September 1895, whilst on display in a Birmingham shop, fulfilling Albert Warburton’s prediction, in 1893. Villa were fined £25 towards the cost of making an exact replica.
Decades later, the self-professed thief revealed that it had been melted down to make forged half crowns, but his description of the theft did not align with the known facts, so the romantic possibility exists, however faintly, that one day the trophy may be re-discovered.
Aston Villa won the Cup that year by a single goal, scored after only thirty seconds (pity anyone not in their place at kick-off). This record for fastest goal stood for 114 years, until beaten by Louis Saha for Everton, in 2009.
The growing number of entrants to the Cup had seen the 1895 Final pushed back in April for the first time. The following year, the FA introduced the Fifth Qualifying Round to cope with the numbers. Ten Second Division teams entered the Cup at the First Qualifying Round, given no great advantage than clubs in the Southern League, The Combination, or any other of the growing number of regional Leagues that are the history of today’s English League System (still better known as the Pyramid).
But the gap between Division 2 and non-League was evidently not very great in that era. Only four Second Division teams survived to reach the First Round Proper, with no fewer than six non-League survivors.
As for the Cup, that went to Yorkshire for the first time, won by Sheffield’s The Wednesday.
Aston Villa regained the trophy the following season, emulating Preston in winning the Double, something that would not occur again for 66 years. Indeed, Villa were unique in being the only team to win both Cup and League the same day. Though the Cup was growing in popularity every year, it had yet to reach its traditional status as the last domestic match of the season, played in isolation. Whilst Villa were beating Everton 3-2 (all goals coming in the first half), their final League contenders, Derby County, lost to leave the Birmingham side uncatchable.
For the 1898/99 season, the last Nineteenth Century Cup, the Football League expanded its two Divisions to eighteen clubs each. With the First Division still favoured by a bye into the First Round Proper, this left four additional places. Three of these went to leasing Second Division clubs, but the FA chose to recognise the stature of the Southern League by giving a bye to one of its leading clubs, Southampton. This was a sign of things to come.
The Cup would make a return visit to Sheffield, with United beating Derby County in the Final. Derby would be the last Midlands team to reach Crystal Palace in this decade.
Though the Cup’s format of Preliminary Round, five Qualifying Rounds, three Rounds Proper seemed set in stone, the situation regarding byes into various stages of the competition began to become more complex each year. For the 1899/1900 competition, only seventeen of the eighteen Division 1 clubs received byes into the First Round Proper, with Glossop North End, two Second Division teams and three Southern League teams receiving byes into the Third Qualifying Round.
And the strength of the Southern League was demonstrated by Southampton becoming the first ‘non-League’ finalists, although they were roundly beaten, 4-0, by Bury.
Things grew even more complicated in the first FA Cup to take place wholly in the Twentieth Century. The ever-increasing number of entrants led the FA to create an Intermediate Round, between the Qualifying and Proper Round. Two First Division teams, six second Division teams and two Southern League teams entered the Cup at the Intermediate Round, to face the ten Qualifying Rounds survivors, and the remaining sixteen First Division teams, three further Second Division teams and one Southern League team entered at Round One Proper.
That highest ranked Southern League team were Tottenham Hotspur. They would go on to become the only ‘non-League’ club to win the Cup, and to start the great Spurs tradition (currently suspended) of winning in years ending with ‘1’.
It was the dawn of the Twentieth Century, and much that we now know of the Cup came to life in that season. The Final, at Crystal Palace against Sheffield United, was the first to be filmed, for Pathe Newsreel. It was the first Final to attract a crowd of over 100,000, although the irony was that a Replay would be required, at Bolton Wanderers’ ground, Burnden Park, before a crowd of just over 20,000. And Spurs would be the first to tie ribbons in their club colours, to the handles of the Cup.
What’s more, Spurs striker Sandy Brown set a record by becoming the first player to score in every round of the Cup, including both Final and Replay, something only seven men after him have equaled, and none in the last 45 years. Technically, he wasn’t the first, Aston Villa’s Archie Hunter having scored in every game in 1886/87, but as Villa’s run included a bye through the Fourth Round, I feel justified in crediting Sandy Brown as the first.
And the Final was not without controversy, for Sheffield United’s equaliser at Crystal Palace, the goal that necessitated a Replay (extra time was not played) never crossed the line. The Pathe film later established that the ball had never gone closer than a foot from the line, making that the first ever example of goal-line technology. Over a century later, we have only just begun to make use of the technologies during games!
(all Finals played at Crystal Palace unless otherwise stated)
1891/92 West Bromwich Albion 3 Aston Villa 0 (Kennington Oval)
1892/93 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1 Everton 0 (Fallowfield Stadium, Manchester)
1893/94 Notts County 4 Bolton Wanderers 1 (Goodison Park, Liverpool)
1894/95 Aston Villa 1 West Bromwich Albion 0
1895/96 The Wednesday 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
1896/97 Aston Villa 3 Everton 2
1897/98 Nottingham Forest 3 Derby County 1
1898/99 Sheffield United 4 Derby County 1
1899/1900 Bury 4 Southampton 0
1900/01 Tottenham Hotspur 2 Sheffield United 2 (no et)
R Tottenham Hotspur 3 Sheffield United 1 (Burnden Park, Bolton)
The third decade saw a new record of thirteen different finalists, with Aston Villa the most prolific, appearing in three Finals. Everton and Derby County both appeared in two Finals and lost both. Aston Villa were also the only club to win more than a single Final in this decade. Bolton Wanderers and Southampton make up the list of losing Finalists in this decade, but all four cubs would go on to win the Cup in the future. Aston Villa and West Brom were the only previous winners this decade, with eight new names being added to the Roll of Honour.
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.