Up for t’Cup: 1891/2 – 1900/01


A Final at the Crystal Palace

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!

WINNERS
(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.

Up for t’Cup: 1881/82 to 1890/91


Preston North End – ‘The Invincibles’

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.

WINNERS
(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.

Up for t’Cup: 1871/2 to 1880/81


The first F A Challenge Cup Trophy

It was another world, almost as much as if a movement back in time takes us to another planet.
The Football Association Challenge Cup was the creation of a five man Committee, amongst whom the primer mover was one Charles Alcock, secretary, ex-Harrovian, a member of the peripatetic Wanderers club, a future Cup Final referee, and a man moved by memories of inter-House knockout tournaments at School.
The Cup was the World’s first ever competition, and it’s very first round of matches took place on 11 November 1871, eighty-four years to the day before my birth (is that why I have such an affinity for the competition?) There were fifty clubs affiliated to the FA, gentlemen, sportsmen and amateurs alike, for this was the oldest of eras, an almost exclusively southern-based, ex-public school game. Football is often distinguished from Rugby by being described as a gentleman’s game played by hooligans, whereas Rugby is a hooligan’s game played by gentlemen, but in that age this epithet would have created nothing but puzzled expressions.
Only twelve teams braved the waters of this new-fangled competition, and of those dozen, three withdrew without kicking a ball. Another six teams then joined in, including the famous Glasgow amateur cub, Queens Park, invited by several clubs with whom they enjoyed friendly links.
There would be three Rounds in the inaugural Cup, plus semi-finals at the Final which, like the majority of Finals in the early years, would be played at Kennington Oval before a crowd of hundreds, not thousands. Looking at that first season, there’s an almost glorious casualness, a slapdashedness almost stereotypical of the amateurs, and this was to form the template for the Cup’s first decade.
Fifteen teams meant seven ties, with Hampstead Heathans securing the first of what would be many byes in the Victorian era. Even so, only four matches were played, one of which was drawn 0-0. Reigate Priory and Harrow Chequers withdrew, giving their opponents walkovers, Queens Park and Donington School couldn’t agree on a venue so the FA waved both of them through to the Second Round and, instead of a replay, Hitchin and Crystal Palace were also both admitted to progress.
The entrants’ names are themselves a world away, with only Crystal Palace to suggest a link to the modern world, but this Palace were a long-defunct amateur club with no links to the present South Londoners.
So, fifteen clubs had only been whittled down to ten. Bizarrely, Queens Park and Donington School were drawn together again, but this time the School withdrew, whilst the Barnes vs Hampstead Heathans draw, in defiance of the previous round’s precedent, was sent to a replay, won by the Heathans.
That left a Third Round with only five teams, and one guaranteed a bye into the semi-final: it is hard not to suspect a fix when that turned out to be Queens Park. Of the two actual ties, Wanderers drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace, whereupon the FA reversed itself again and admitted both to the semi-final, whilst the Third Round’s only actual losers were Hampstead Heathans, who never played another FA Cup tie.
The looseness of things also extended to fixtures. The First Round ties may all have been played on the same day, but thereafter Rounds were completed over a period of days or even weeks, as if being fitted in whenever the Clubs had a spare moment. Indeed, the two semi-finals were played a week apart, in contrast to the FA’s future rigidity about the games being played simultaneously, a stance that was only ended by Hillsborough.
Both semi-finals were goalless draws. Royal Engineers overcame Crystal Palace in a replay, but, unable to afford a second trip, Queens Park scratched, giving Wanderers a free path into the first Final, which they won by a single goal, scored by a player playing under a pseudonym!
So: a Scottish team, playing in the English Cup, reached the semi-final without playing a game, whilst the Cup Winners reached the Final having, through various walkovers and waived replays, having won – and indeed scored in – a single game. This competition clearly had no future.
Throughout this first decade, the FA Cup grew in size almost every year, but nevertheless in every year there was always a handful of teams who withdrew instead of playing their First Round ties, and there were always byes at various stages of the competition, as awkward and uneven numbers of qualifiers for each round were juggled with no apparent pattern, sometimes in a head-shakingly bewildering manner.
For instance: in the 1879/80 season, no less than five teams – five teams – were given byes in the Third Round. Why so many clubs were given a free pass into the Fourth Round is a mystery, especially when pairing four of those teams off in actual ties would have avoided the absurdity of having only three teams reach the semi-final, and thus one club getting a bye into the Final!
If that sounds ludicrous, bear this in mind: that season was the fourth of five successive seasons where there were only three semi-finalists.
And if that sounds daft, consider this: in the Cup’s second season, 1872/73, there were only two semi-finalists.
That’s because this season was the only one played to the Cup’s original intention. Remember that it was, and still is called the Football Association Challenge Cup. The original intention, after an inaugural season, was that following tournaments would be played to produce a challenger to the holders, who, furthermore, would have pick of venue for the Final.
Thus Wanderers got in effect a bye into the Final, a situation so clearly absurd that the notion was dropped forthwith.
A Fourth Round was required that second year, though only one tie was played. To overcome the travelling issue, Queens Park were given a succession of byes into the semi-final, no less, whereupon they scratched without playing. In effect, the Cup went from its one-tie Fourth Round straight to the Final (nearly eight weeks later). Wanderers retained the Cup at Oxford University’s expense: twice winners, having played a total of five games – two of them draws – over two years.
The following year would provide only a handful of minor anomalies: the only (replayed) tie to be decided on the toss of a coin, the first Second replay, and Wanderers’ first FA Cup defeat, in a Third Round replay after two byes. Bizarrely, the finalists in the Cup’s third year were both playing in their second final, each having been defeated by Wanderers in previous years. It has the feel of a very small Old Boys Club.
Entrants continued to increase year on year, withdrawals without playing would continue, and odd numbers of byes would create rounds of strange numbers. After their bizarre history in the Cup’s first two years, Queens Park did not re-enter the competition until 1876/77, but once they did it was the same old farce of byes and conceded walkovers. They would continue to participate in the Cup for the rest of that first decade, but they would not play, calling into question the very notion of their continuing to be invited.
Wanderers again failed in the 1874/75 season, recording the highest score of the decade in a 16-0 thrashing of Farmingham in the First Round, but after scoring five without reply in the Second Round, surprisingly lost the Third to the holders, Oxford University.
But their glory era was about to start, as Wanderers won the Cup for the next three years in succession, five wins in seven seasons. It’s tempting to call this an era of unparalleled dominance but, as we will see in the next decade, it would be topped far sooner than you might imagine.
Three wins in a row meant that, by the Rules of the Competition, the Cup became the property of Wanderers. But Charles Alcock returned it to the FA on condition that no other team should be allowed to hold it in perpetuity.
Wanderers’ hour of glory was, ironically, their undoing. They were a team made up of ex-public schoolboys, but their success, and that of the Cup, had inspired the public schools to set up ‘Old Boys’ clubs of their own. The players who had represented Wanderers now chose to represent their old School. Wanderers would be defeated 7-2 in the first round of the 18878/79 Cup – the first instance of the holders being knocked out in the first round.
The club showed a resurgence of their old strength in the next season, winning the First Round 6-0 away, and getting through the Second 1-0. But in the Third Round they were beaten 3-1 by holders Old Etonians. It was the end of that first era. Wanderers would never play a Cup game again, entering but scratching from the next two tournaments, unable to raise an Eleven. Within a couple of years they would be reduced to one game a year.
We end this first decade with the 1880/81 season. Unbelievably, it’s even more confusing than ever. There were a new record sixty-two entrants (four scratched, including Wanderers and Queens Park) but the issue with byes was even worse than before: five teams in each of the Second and Third Rounds were given byes, producing only three semi-finalists for the fifth year running.
It’s inexplicable, given that reducing the Second Round byes to only one would have produced sixteen Third Round sides and the perfect number, with no need for a Fifth Round that, in a more commercial era, would be looking like an artificial creation.
The FA Cup’s first decade ended with Old Carthusians becoming the fifth winners, having beaten bye-beneficiaries, Old Etonians. That’s a whole world away all on its own, isn’t it?
It was a decade of Southern domination, of amateurism and gentlemen and Old Boys and military teams. But already, by that tenth season, the appeal of the game was spreading. Sheffield FC, England’s oldest existing club, were already regular participants. Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, the two Nottingham clubs and The Wednesday (who would not adopt Sheffield into their name until 1929) were familiar names among the mystifying array of amateurs.
But the growing penetration of Northern clubs into the southern-based competition was signalled by Darwen, reaching the 1880/81 semi-finals after scoring an incredible thirty-three goals – fifteen of them in the Fourth Round at home to Romford. Surprisingly, they were beaten 4-1 by the eventual winners.
So the first decade failed to throw up a northern winner, or even a finalist. That would rapidly change in the FA Cup’s second decade.

WINNERS
(all Finals played at Kennington Oval unless otherwise stated)

1871/72  Wanderers 1 Royal Engineers 0
1872/73 Wanderers 2 Oxford University 0 (at Lillie Bridge)
1873/74  Oxford University 2 Royal Engineers 0
1874/75  Royal Engineers 1 Old Etonians 1
R: Royal Engineers 2 Old Etonians 0
1875/76  Wanderers 3 Old Etonians 0
1876/77 Wanderers 2  Oxford University 1
1877/78 Wanderers 3  Royal Engineers 1
1878/79 Old Etonians 1 Clapham Rovers 0
1879/80  Clapham Rovers 1  Oxford University 0
1880/81 Old Carthusians 3 Old Etonians 0

Only six teams contested the first ten Finals, each of whom won the Cup at least once during this period. Wanderers’ five appearances (and wins) clearly dominated the decade, but each of Royal Engineers, Oxford University and Old Etonians contested four Finals, winning only one apiece. The 1880/81 winners, Old Carthusians, were the only club not to make multiple appearances in the Finals of this decade.