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.
(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.