I am, as you should by now be well aware, a Manchester United, and one highly delighted at our victory over Everton yesterday to reach the FA Cup Final (what a winning goal by Anthony Martial!)
But it’s not of the Cup that I want to speak now. Everybody will also be aware that United have not played well this season and, with four League games remaining, lie fifth, with an outside chance of pipping Arsenal for the vital fourth place that will see us in the Champions League again next season.
Back in October of last year, the unlikely shape of Leicester City reached the top of the Premier League, and I decided to support them for the League this year. Part of it was a joke: as a United fan of nearly forty years standing, I have been accused on innumerable occasions of being a glory-hunter, so I felt perfectly entitled to actually be one for once.
No-one was taking Leicester seriously back then. They won’t last, they’ll burn out, they haven’t got the squad, these were the mantras. In vain I pointed out that I had heard every single one of these objections spoken about Nottingham Forest in 1977/78. No-one wanted to listen. No-one could believe Leicester could be taken seriously.
Even I didn’t really expect it to last. It would be glorious if it did, an absolutely brilliant demonstration that football wasn’t completely dead yet, that it hadn’t been bought and sold irrecoverably by the Big Four/Five. And it wasn’t really glory-hunting. That glory, that delirium attaches to the real Leicester fans, for whom this is life and death in a way that it can never be for me, who next year will be (hopefully) concentrating upon United.
But it has lasted, not just lasted but become and been deadly serious for far too long now. I’ve followed the results, I’ve even started watching the games. It still doesn’t make me a Foxes, just a mere hanger-on, ready to be thrilled and delighted by the glory that they will rightly savour. If it comes off.
And that’s the thing. As of those moment, I’ve just enjoyed an open, flowing game that Leicester have won 4-0. That places them eight points clear, eight points, nearly three whole wins, at the top. With three games to play.
But in second place, Tottenham Hotspur, the only team that can now overhaul the Foxes, have four games to play. Speaking strictly mathematically, Spurs could end up on 80 points. Leicester are on 76 points: they need five from the last three games to secure the title.
Though if Spurs fail to win their game-in-hand, at home tomorrow night to West Bromwich Albion, which seems unlikely but hey, this is football, the equation will change dramatically. Even if Spurs only draw, Leicester could win the Premier League in their next match, next Sunday.
At Old Trafford. Against Manchester United.
Which leaves me in a bit of a quandary. I have never, ever gone into a United game wanting us to lose. Expecting to lose, maybe, but never, not for the most tactical of purposes wanting us to do anything other than win. But a win over Leicester might destroy this ridiculous dream of glory, this unimaginably v-signing, nose-thumbing, middle-finger raising claim upon something fundamental to football’s soul, or that part of it that is still not black and charred.
Especially if a win next Sunday might be the thing itself.
Next Sunday could be seriously embarrassing. Come on West Brom!
The final decade of the FA Cup’s first century spanned the Sixties, a period of social change, of liberalisation, of optimism and incident. England won the World Cup. Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United won the European Cup-Winners Cup and Manchester United the European Cup. But these did not overshadow the competition that was still regarded as every British footballer’s dream. League Championships were harder to achieve, a more serious accomplishment. But nothing beat Wembley on a May Saturday afternoon, with the eyes of the whole country on you, and the thrill and dash that a Winners medal meant.
The World Cup aside, the Cup Final was England’s only live televised football game each year. It was the highlight of the season. And in their varying ways, the Finals of this decade lived up to the reputation of the fixture.
As it had ten years earlier, the decade began with Tottenham Hotspur retaining the Cup, only the fourth team ever to do so at that time. And they would go on to bring a European trophy to England for the first time, when they won the following season’s Cup-Winners Cup. Three other Cup winners this decade would emulate them.
The Final, played between the second and third placed League clubs that season, was downplayed in the Press, who nicknamed it the ‘Chessboard Final’ for being short on excitement and long on caution and tactics. However, statistics showed that the game had had more penalty area action and more saves than any other post-War Final. And the game was not without controversy as a second Burnley equaliser was ruled out for a very marginal offside, whilst the third Tottenham goal, a penalty converted for a goalline handball, was granted when the referee ignored his linesman flagging for a Spurs foul.
Burnley did enjoy one record from the game: their goal, scored by Jimmy Robson, was the 100th goal scored in a Wembley Cup Final.
This was the last Final to be played at a Wembley with uncovered terraces and, shades of the decade ahead, the last in which the winning captain called for the crowd to raise three cheers for Her Majesty the Queen, to be followed by the National Anthem, though the playing of this before and after the game would continue until 1971.
The following season,the Cup’s schedule was massively disrupted by the Big Freeze of 1963. Only three of the thirty-two Third Round ties were played on the day and the Round was not completed until 11 March, when the last outstanding tie was settled by a replay, in favour of eventual Finalists, Leicester City. This was two days after the originally scheduled date for the Sixth Round.
The draw was thrown into confusion by the haphazard manner in which ties were completed, and later rounds and draws were put back to try to accommodate the weather. One Fifth Round tie resulted in pairing eight teams in a sixteen-way possible outcome of as-yet-unplayed Third Round ties. The eventual winners, Manchester United, did not get to play their Third Round tie until 4 March.
The Final was eventually played on 27 May, three weeks after the original date, the latest the Cup Final has ever been played. United, who had reached the semi-final the previous season before being put out by Spurs, were decidedly the underdogs, having rescued themselves from relegation in only the penultimate match of the First Division season, but they brushed Leicester aside, condemning the Foxes to their third defeat in as many Finals. But no team had lost all their first four.
Though United’s red and Leicester’s blue tops did not clash, the clubs were asked to change by the BBC, as their shirts would not be distinguishable on black and white television. This was the first instance of television interfering with a football game for their benefit. Sadly, it would not end there.
For Manchester United, this was a turning point. The side that won the Cup – United’s first post-Munich trophy – was on the point of morphing into Matt Busby’s third great team, and United would set an incredible record of reaching five consecutive Cup semi-finals between 1962 and 1966, and another in 1970, though this would be their only win of the decade.
In 1964, they would be knocked out by the Winners, West Ham United, lifting the Cup for the first time, forty-one years after playing in the first Wembley Final. Their opponents were Preston North End, a decade on from their last Final, and providing the Second Division with a first finalist in fifteen years. They also included the youngest FA Cup finalist in seventeen year old half-back, Howard Kendall. But despite taking the lead twice, it was not their day, Ronnie Boyce heading the Hammers’ winning goal in the ninetieth minute.
The Cup was lifted by West Ham captain, Bobby Moore. It was the first step in a unique treble for Moore who would lead West Ham to victory in the Cup-Winners Cup Final, at Wembley, twelve months on, before raising the World Cup as captain of England, in the summer of 1966.
A second first-time Winner was inevitable in 1965, with a War of the Roses Final between Leeds United, reaching their first Final, and Liverpool, unsuccessful in two appearances going back over fifty-one years. For the first time since 1947, extra-time was required to separate the teams, after the Final finished goalless in normal time. Liverpool would reach the following season’s Cup-Winners Cup Final, but would lose out to Borussia Dortmund, in a game which I am sure was televised live in Britain: it was the first televised football I was aware of, even if I wasn’t particularly watching it.
The old Wembley hoodoo that had affected so many Fifties Finals nearly struck again, with Liverpool full-back Gerry Byrne suffering a broken collarbone in a seventh minute collision, though he played all 120 minutes, unaware of the severity of his injury. For Leeds, Jimmy Greenhoff finished on the losing side but would collect a Winners medal twelve years later, for Manchester United, ironically against Liverpool.
Less pleasant was the experience of Leeds’ South African winger, Albert Johanneson, the first black player to play in the Final. Johanneson was subjected to appalling racist abuse from before he even got onto the field, which went unchecked throughout the game.
With the World Cup looming on the very near horizon, it would have been very easy for the 1966 Final to be overshadowed, yet Everton and Sheffield Wednesday produced an amazing game to stake their own claim to fame under the Twin Towers. There’s a famous story that when Princess Margaret was introduced to the teams before kick-off, she asked Brian Labone, the Everton captain, where Everton was actually from. When told it was Liverpool, she replied, ‘Ah, yes, we had your first team here last year.’
Sheffield Wednesday were out to record their first victory in thirty-two years, and looked to be well on course when they went 2-0 up in the second half. But Everton responded with three goals in fifteen minutes to overturn their Yorkshire opponents and record their own first victory in thirty-three years.
By doing so they became only the second, and last, team, after Blackpool in 1953, to recover from a two goal deficit and win the Cup in normal time, whilst Wednesday became the only team to lose such an advantage whilst retaining eleven fit players on the pitch.
Like Jimmy Greenhoff the preceding year, Wednesday’s Jim McCalliog would go on to claim a Winners medal a decade later, this time playing against Manchester United.
For reasons that are not now apparent, this season was the first of three in which the Third Round was pushed back into the second half of January, instead of being played on its first Saturday. Indeed, for the next two seasons, that honour would be vested in the Second Round.
The first post-World Cup tournament began with an unusual North East Derby in the First Round as non-Leaguers Blyth Spartans and Bishop Auckland fought four games for the right to progress, only for Auckland to be hammered 7-0 by Halifax Town in the next round (in a replay, of course). Manchester United, after reaching the semi final five years in a row, were put out in the Fourth Round at home by then bogey-team, Norwich City.
Amazingly, given the profusion of clubs in the Capital, it had taken ninety-five years to produce a London Derby Final: inevitably nicknamed the ‘Cockney Cup Final’. Tottenham Hotspur made it five out of five, despite a late consolation goal from their West London rivals, Chelsea, whose record was now nought out of two.
This was the first Cup Final of which I watched any part, a large chunk of the second half and I still have vague memories of seeing what my memory insists as being the Chelsea goal, but which was actually Spurs’ second and winner from Frank Saul. This was the first Final in which substitutes were named, following the long overdue change in the Laws, though at this time they were only allowed on for injury, so neither featured in the game.
Having partially broken my duck the previous season, I would watch the whole Cup Final in 1968 for the first time, beginning a personal association with and love for the Cup that has lasted all my life. In all the years that have followed, I have only failed to watch the Final on four occasions, for varying reasons.
In part, my decision to devote the afternoon to the game came out of cupidity. Foolishly, I had a bet on the result with a schoolmate. I say foolishly because I had committed to the prize of 3d without establishing who was betting on who. I wanted the favourites, Everton, but was forced into supporting the underdogs, West Bromwich Albion.
Satisfaction came early in extra-time, when Jeff Astle drove in the only goal, not that I ever got to see my winnings. There’s no honour in gambling.
Astle’s goal saw him join the limited ranks of those who have scored in every round of the Cup, whilst his team-mate Dennis Clarke became the first substitute to come on in a Final. And the midlanders created a new record with this game, becoming the first team to appear in ten Finals, although irony must record that, having established this landmark, WBA have never reached the Final since.
And a thought must be spared for Howard Kendall, now a part of the classic Everton midfield trio with Alan Ball and Colin Harvey, once again on the losing side. Like so many tremendously talented footballers, he was never to know the thrill of winning the Cup.
The Cup returned to normal in 1968/69, at least as far as the Third Round went. The tournament itself was again affected by weather as snow in early February wiped out the entire Fifth Round, the only time a Round has not seen any match played on schedule. The Cup itself this season was notable for producing no Second Replays at any stage, and when the semi-finals were drawn, there was the prospect of an immediate repeat for the 1968 Final. But both Everton and West Brom were beaten by goals coming in the last five minutes of each tie, and it was Manchester City and Leicester who contended the 1969 Final.
Though City had struggled in the First Division for a long time, they were still reigning League Champions, whilst Leicester were still far from free of relegation concerns, and no team had ever lost their first four FA Cup Finals. But a first half goal gave City the Cup, and Leicester’s failure in their outstanding League fixtures saw them go down, only the second club to undergo relegation and Cup Final defeat in the same season: ironically, the only other club had been City themselves, in 1926.
Leicester became, and remain, the Cup’s least successful Finalists, with four defeats and no wins. Manchester City would go on to become the third English team to win the Cup-Winners Cup, though ironically, their success would be all but invisible outside Manchester (and I have met at least one City fan unaware of their only European triumph), thanks to the FA Cup. And City’s manager, Joe Mercer, became the first person to win both League and Cup as player and as manager.
Long ago, I heard a fascinating FA Cup question: what is taken to Wembley every year but never used? The answer is, of course, the ribbons in the losing team’s colours. Since the Final was first housed at the Empire Stadium, the same could have been said about the name of the Replay venue. At last, after forty-eight years, a Wembley Cup Final ended as a draw, fifty-eight years after the last such, and a replay was duly required, at Old Trafford, Manchester.
Old Trafford had been the venue for the Khaki Cup Final in 1915, when Chelsea had lost the first of their two appearances. Once again, the Cup was guaranteed a first-time Winner as the Blues measured up against Leeds United.
In 1970, England were to defend their World Cup crown, in the unfamiliar settings of Mexico. In order to give the squad a month to acclimatise to the heat and the atmospheric conditions, the season was shortened and the Cup set for 11 April. Three weeks elapsed between the Third and Fourth Rounds, and the Sixth Round and the semi-finals, but only two weeks each between the Fourth, Fifth and Sixth.
Manchester United reached their sixth semi-final in nine years but were beaten in a second replay by Leeds, by the only goal in 330 minutes play.
The early Final meant that the game was played only a week after the Horse of the Year Show, and this showed in the appalling condition of the surface, which was directly responsible for at least one of the goals in a 2-2 draw, Jack Charlton’s header from a corner simply not bouncing, and rolling under what would normally have been a routine goalline clearance.
Because of the compression of the season, it was not possible to schedule the Replay for another eighteen days, making this the longest Final on record. Again Leeds took the lead, and again Chelsea equalised, but it was not until extra-time that they scored the winner, taking the lead for the first time over the 240 minutes of the two games. Chelsea would compound their first Cup win by becoming the fourth English winners of the Cup-Winners Cup, knocking out Manchester City in the semi-finals (revenge for defeat at City’s hands in the next season’s Fourth Round) and, ironically, requiring a replay to add their European trophy.
As for Manchester City, their Cup-Winners Cup Final was played the same night as the Cup Final Replay: no television coverage, no fuss and ado.
The Replay attracted 28,000,000 viewers, an audience exceeded only by the 1966 World Cup Final in sporting events and the sixth highest television audience of all time in Britain. Chelsea’s Peter Osgood was the last player to date to score in every round of the Cup. The games themselves were representative of an era of hard and often brutal challenges on the pitch: it has subsequently estimated by referee David Elleray that, in the modern era, six red and twenty yellow cards would have been issued, but the matches have also been defended for the fact that no-one dived and no-one tried to get an opponent sent off.
For the first time, a Third and Fourth Place Final was introduced, played on the Friday evening before the Final. Manchester United won this unwanted honour, beating Watford 2-0. It was not an innovation that would last: the match would only be played five times before being abandoned as the unwanted and ill-considered thing it was.
It had taken sixty-three years to come up with a Twentieth Century Double. It took only ten more to come up with another. Arsenal secured the first half of their Double on the Monday night, away ironically to Spurs, and added the Cup in the hot Wembley sunshine after a goalless ninety minutes. Although the Final is remembered mostly for the pile-driver winning shot from Charlie George, and his highly distinctive celebration, a forerunner of the modern era, I’ve always thought that Steve Heighway’s opening goal was the more important of the game.
I’d actually seen Heighway, the first graduate footballer of note, score for Skelmersdale United at Droylsden only twelve months before. Twelve months and a considerable number of levels later, he swept in from the left with the ball and, with the Arsenal keeper Bob Wilson anticipating the ball across goal, slammed his shot through the wide-open gap between Wilson and his near post. It created a shockwave, as if it were the first goal ever scored at the near post, and it changed the face of football in an instant. No keeper ever left that kind of gap at his near post ever again.
Arsenal’s Eddie Kelly became first substitute to score in a Final, though the Arsenal equaliser was celebrated on the day as belonging to George Graham (who made no bones about claiming it). His opposite number, Peter Thompson, became the first Cup Final substitute to be brought on for tactical reasons.
In the Third Place Play-Off, Stoke City beat Everton 3-2.
The FA Cup had now been in existence for one hundred seasons.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, unless otherwise stated)
1961/62 Tottenham Hotspur 3 Burnley 1
1962/63 Manchester United 3 Leicester City 1
1963/64 West Ham United 3 Preston North End 2
1964/65 Liverpool 2 Leeds United 1 (aet)
1965/66 Everton 3 Sheffield Wednesday 2
1966/67 Tottenham Hotspur 2 Chelsea 1
1967/68 West Bromwich Albion 1 Everton 0 (aet)
1968/69 Manchester City 1 Leicester City 0
1969/70 Chelsea 2 Leeds United 2 (aet)
R: Chelsea 2 Leeds United 1 (aet) (Old Trafford, Manchester)
1970/71 Arsenal 2 Liverpool 1 (aet)
The final decade of the FA Cup’s first century featured twelve clubs and nine winners, including two first-time Winners. Only Tottenham Hotspur won the Cup twice in this period, although Everton, Chelsea, Liverpool, Leeds United and Leicester City would also reach Wembley twice, the latter two losing on both occasions. There were three First-Time Winners in this decade plus another First-Time Finalist, who would go on to lift the Cup, and one representative of the second Division. The decade saw the only occasion since the Cup came to the Twin Towers of the Empire Stadium when the Cup was presented away from Wembley, the honour going to Old Trafford on the first time a Wembley Cup Final ended in a draw. By the time this situation was repeated, Wembley itself was the nominated Replay venue, leaving Old Trafford with a unique status. The 1965 Liverpool/Leeds Final became the first in eighteen years to need extra time, but once this barrier had been crossed, three of the last four Finals of this period would require extra-time, as would that Replay.
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.
The FA Cup was now entering its seventh decade. A lifetime had passed, and few, if any, of the players who had represented those original fifteen teams were left to witness the way the competition had grown, grown and changed. There was an organised League of professional teams, eighty-eight of them, more than any other country before or since, supplemented by the fragmented, regionalised, but nevertheless lively and enthusiastic collection of semi-professional and amateur clubs all across England.
The Cup had changed its format multiple times to take account of an entry that had climbed from fifteen to over five hundred, to allow for the stratification of football. In it’s sixtieth year, it had finally reached the perfect, logical, inevitable system whereby the non-League clubs competed throughe the Qualifying Rounds, the two lower League Divisions entered at the First Round Proper, and the two higher Divisions at the Third Round Proper.
Then the FA promptly threw this idea away in 1931 and for the rest of the decade, a decade that would be ended prematurely by the resumption of War.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see a calm and orderly process once again thrown into illogical confusion, but it’s no less ridiculous for all that. The FA simply decided that 44 byes into the Third Round, for the First and Second Divisions were insufficient, and extended the number to forty-seven. For 1931/32, the three extra places went to two Third Division clubs, one from each region, and the last, nostalgically, to the amateurs, Corinthian, not that they did any better than in the previous ten years.
This at least was a one-off, as from 1932/33 onwards, the three bonus byes went to the Third Division. As a result, with only forty-one Third Division clubs entering at Round One, further byes to non-League clubs (including Corinthian on a few occasions) brought them directly into the Rounds Proper.
But though the ongoing efforts of the FA to make the structure of the Cup look shambolic, there were far more important things to worry about in the Thirties. The Cup, and Football in general, was played out against the background of the Great Depression, of unemployment, poverty and misery. And as the economic fortunes of the era began to improve, such concerns were replaced about the growing spectre of Fascism, and an even more overt anti-Semitism than had already been the case. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, even the would-be English dictator Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts: these were the things that the Saturday afternoon game were the truest and best escape from.
The first tournament of the decade had, in addition to the reversion to messing around with the structure, a couple of oddities to itself. Non-League Bath City reached the Fourth Qualifying Round only to be given a bye through it, whilst in the First Round Burton Town were awarded the first walk-over in decades, when their opponents Wigan Borough went out of business and resigned from the League.
But it was the Final that was notable, for Newcastle United becoming the first team to come from behind to win a Wembley Final (and only the third ever to win the Cup after conceding the first goal in the Final). The Geordies beat Arsenal 2-1 but it was their equalising goal which gave its name to the ‘Over the Line’ Final. Arsenal protested that the ball had gone out of play behind the goalline before being crossed for Jack Allen to convert. The referee refused the protests, but photographic evidence after the game proved him wrong. One of television’s future roles was set.
The following season, Brighton and Hove Albion made the elementary mistake of forgetting to apply for their exemption, as a Third Division South Club, into the First Round and so had to work their way up through the Qualifying Rounds. This they did to great effect, eventually reaching the Fifth Round on one of the longest Cup runs played by a League team. This year’s Final was the first in which the players wore numbered shirts, with Everton wearing numbers 1 – 11, representing the traditional positioning from goalkeeper to left-winger. Unusually, Manchester City’s team was kitted out as nos 12 – 22, reversing the order from left-winger to goalkeeper.
Everton were the winners by 3-0, but twelve months later, not for the last time, City bounced back to win, defeating Portsmouth 2-1. Both teams wore 1 – 11 that year, and thereafter until squad numbers were accepted by the Cup. City’s team included right-half Matt Busby, who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself away from Maine Road, and keeper Frank Swift, one of the finest keepers England ever had, who was so wound up by the tension of defending a single goal lead that he fainted on hearing the final whistle!
The Final was next won by Sheffield Wednesday, defeating West Bromwich Albion 4-2 after the Midlanders had twice equalised. It was Wednesday’s third Cup win, one less than their neighbours, but their only one under the banner of their home-town, having only adopted the Sheffield name in 1929. Though Sheffield United, as a Second Division club) would follow their footsteps to Wembley twelve months later, this was to be the last occasion when the Cup went to the Steel City.
The 1935 Final was the third successive Final in which a clash of colours had seen both teams adopted their away strip but the 1935/36 Final saw Arsenal and Sheffield United both utilise their home colours, despite both playing in combinations of red and white. The game was significant for the failure of the newsreel companies to reach an agreement with the Wembley Stadium authorities over rights to cover the game. As a result, all media were banned except for the official Stadium cameraman. In order to cover the game, journalists resorted to hiring autogyros (an early form of helicopter) to overfly the Stadium!
Sunderland became the only first-time winners in 1937, coming from behind to defeat Preston North End 3-1, but Proud Preston, like Manchester City, were back in 1938, thus time to win the Cup. This Final, a repeat of the 1922 Final, was the first to be televised by the BBC. First time round, Huddersfield had won by the only goal, a penalty, but this time it was Preston who won, by the same score and same means. The penalty was awarded in the penultimate minute of extra-time, the only 120 minute Final of this period, and was converted off the underside of the bar.
Seconds before the penalty was awarded, BBC commentator Thomas Woodruffe, convinced the game would be goalless, said he would eat his hat if anyone scored now. And he did. It’s something I’d have loved to see repeated many times with other commentators…
For Preston, it was their second, and last FA Cup win: the other had been the year of the Double, and the Invincibles.
And so we come to the last Final of the seventh decade. It was the first year that the Third Round was played on the first Saturday in January, Football’s New Year. Before then, in the Second Round, the Halifax Town/Mansfield Town tie became the first to go to a Third Replay before being settled in Halifax’s favour. And Portsmouth, after two failures, at last won the Cup, defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1.
On 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared War. The Football League had gone through three rounds of game: the season was suspended. The FA Cup had not even held its Extra Preliminary Round. Unlike during the First World War, the Government recognised the importance of football to the country’s morale. There would be war-time games, Leagues and Cups, played in regions to avoid unnecessary travelling, with players appearing for clubs nearest to where they might be stationed.
Many players would lose their lives in combat. Many more would see their careers destroyed, their best years, their peak reached and passed during the years of War. Portsmouth would hold the Cup for seven years, the longest reign of any, and a record that hopefully will be unrepeatable, unless a club comes along to dominate the FA Cup to an extent hitherto impossible.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)
1931/32 Newcastle United 2 Arsenal 1
1932/33 Everton 3 Manchester City 0
1933/34 Manchester City 2 Portsmouth 1
1934/35 Sheffield Wednesday 4 West Bromwich Albion 2
1935/36 Arsenal 1 Sheffield United 0
1936/37 Sunderland 3 Preston North End 1
1937/38 Preston North End 1 Huddersfield Town 0 (aet)
1938/39 Portsmouth 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
The seventh decade, once again truncated by War, enjoyed eight Finals, featuring twelve different Finalists, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Preston North End each appearing twice. All four clubs would win one and lose one. Sunderland were to be the only first-time winners of the decade, and Sheffield United the only Second Division team to reach the Final. Of the eight winners, only two, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End, would not have future Cup wins ahead of them, on the other side of a War that would be an even greater clash of history and great forces.
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.
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.