Cup Football – An Exploration

Of late there has not been much going on in the world of Row Z. I can now reveal the reason for this is that all my energies have gone into finishing off a project I started around two years ago. It all began with an article I wrote for Late Tackle magazine about various cup competitions which were, shall we say, not the most highly regarded of tournaments. What struck me was that even these unloved pieces of silverware had, in many cases, some quite interesting back-stories. The idea then came of putting some of these into a book – which seemed like a great idea at the time, but less so a year on! Anyway much reading and research later it has all come together in a book which will – for the next five days be free on Kindle, or available in hard-copy. As a little preview, here is the first chapter on the origins of cup football:


For Football Association secretary Charles Alcock the FA Cup final of 1872 was a double triumph; Not only had he just witnessed the successful denouement of the tournament which he himself had conceived of and set up, but somewhat remarkably, he had also captained the winning side, Wanderers. Made up of chiefly of former pupils of the Harrow public school Wanderers emerged victorious from what had been a group of fifteen initial entrants to the tournament: Barnes, Civil Service, Hitchin, Crystal Palace (not the current Crystal Palace, but a side who were dissolved in 1876), Maidenhead, Marlow, Queen’s Park, Donington School, Upton Park, Clapham Rovers, Royal Engineers, Reigate Priory, Wanderers, Harrow Chequers and Hampstead Heathens.

Wanderers had sealed victory in the final with a 1-0 victory over Royal Engineers in front of a crowd of 2,000 paying spectators at the Kennington Oval – a ground which more usually was home to Surrey Cricket Club, for whom Alcock also held the position ofsecretary. This goal came from Morton Betts, playing under a pseudonym A. H. Chequer, owing apparently to his membership of Harrow School’s Chequers club. Such playing under a pseudonym appears to have been a common feature of the era – In another case the A. C. Smith playing in goal for Portsmouth Association in the final of the Portsmouth & District Cup in 1887 was none other than Sherlock Holmes creator Dr Arthur Conan Doyle

Although the FA Cup had been open to all members of the Football Association, the requirement for a financial contribution and the fact that all games would be played in London acted as a barrier to clubs from the provinces, giving the list of entrants a distinctly London-centric flavour. Notably absent were any clubs from Sheffield, a place where football had also taken an early hold. Despite this however, the inclusion of Glasgow’s Queens Park at least hinted at the ambition for the contest to be a truly national endeavor.

Logistics and organisation would though prove to a major challenge for the cup. With the fledgling game lacking infrastructure finding pitches could be difficult, whilst travel costs were also an issue. Such obstacles would mean that three of the fifteen, Donington School, Reigate Priory and Harrow Chequers left the competition without playing a single game. Queens Park would find themselves the chief beneficiaries of these drop-outs, allowing them to progress all the way to the semi-final without so much as kicking a ball in anger. The Glasgow club would however, themselves succumb to off-field forces when after holding Wanderers to a 0-0 draw they were forced to withdraw from the contest as the club could not afford to remain in London for a replay. This allowed Wanderers through to contest the inaugural final against Royal Engineers who had defeated Crystal Palace 3-0 in their semi-final, which had gone to a replay, also at the Kennington Oval

The FA Cup is often referred to as the first knockout competition of its type in the world, so where had Alcock’s idea for the contest originated? The answer is in the same public schools which had formed the hotbed of the game in its early years. Alcock, like his Wanderers team-mates, was himself an old Harrovian and it is thought that the inspiration for the cup came from his memory of an inter-house ‘sudden death’ competition. There was however, another potential source of inspiration which Alcock may have drawn upon; Just a few years earlier, in 1867, Sheffield Theatre Owner Thomas Youdan had put up a prize of an engraved silver claret jug. This was supplied by Martin & Hall Silversmiths of Broad Street Sheffield – who would also go on to provide the first FA Cup – and was contested by 12 local teams. The tournament was played under Sheffield rules and although the first two rounds followed a knockout format the final was contested between three teams who played each other in turn. This final round took place in front of 3,000 spectators at Bramall Lane where Hallam beat Norfolk and Mackenzie to finish first, while Norfolk beat Mackenzie to finish second and claim the prize of a two-handed silver goblet encircled with athletic figures which had been purchased with the proceeds of the gate money.

Whether, or not the Youdan Cup, which was never repeated, had indeed been a source of  inspiration for the FA Cup it is clear that cup football as it is today is a legacy of the role played by the public school system in developing and nurturing the modern game. Alcock, in both his role as a senior administrator off the field and a top player on the field, was a typical example of how in that era those steeped in the English public school system exerted influence over all aspects of the game. In its first decade the FA Cup was dominated by teams which were linked with the top public schools. Wanderers themselves reached the final five times in those ten years, in 1872, 1873, 1876, 1877 and 1878, winning the trophy on each occasion. In that same period Old Etonians also contested five finals in 1875, 1876, 1879, 1881 and 1882, with victories coming in 1879 and 1882.

The period of public school dominance was however, relatively brief. The turning point came in 1883, when Blackburn Olympic defeated the defending cup holders Old Etonians 2-1 with an extra time goal. Not only were Olympic the first team from the North of England to win the cup, but the side, backed by an iron magnate, encapsulated a new professional approach to the game which had been increasingly taking hold, particularly in the North where games attracted good crowds; As well as displaying a tactical astuteness in their play player-coach Jack Hunter had taken his team away to Blackpool ahead of their semi-final against Old Carthusians. There, beside the sea, the sides preparations had included a monitored diet and work on their fitness – the latter being something which was to prove a deciding factor in both the semi-final and the final itself.

Although Olympic themselves would fade into obscurity in a relatively short period the wider movement they represented proved irresistible. The balance of footballing power shifted away from the gentlemen-amateurs of the South towards the new professionals of the North – 1883 was the last occasion a public school side would ever reach the final – and with pressure building professionalism would finally be legalised in 1885, a move which could count Alcock as one of its supporters. Just a few years later in 1888, merely five years after Olympics triumph, the Football League – the world’s first – began, consisting almost exclusively of clubs from the North.

Whilst this new format would bring an end to the effective monopoly the cup, and cups in general, had held over competitive football the coming of the league did not immediately harm the FA cup and in fact it could be ventured that it had provided it with a boost. This was because the Football League provided a level of organisational structure and regular income which allowed clubs to develop, both on the field and off it. Football was undoubtedly a growth market and the benefits of this were felt by the cup. This is demonstrated by the growth in Cup Final attendances. When Olympic won the cup in 1883 it was witnessed by a crowd in the region of 8,000. In 1888, the year the league began, 19,000 saw the final between West Bromwich Albion and Preston north End, but within just a few years of the league, in 1893, attendance at the final was up to 45,000, before in 1901 the attendance broke the 100,000 barrier for the first time as over 114,000 saw Tottenham Hotspur and Sheffield United play out a 2-2 draw – Spurs winning the replay 3-1.

In such a growing market there was ample room in which cup football and the league format could happily coexist. Subsequently this coexistence could be seen to endure even in leaner times right up – it can be argued – until the 1990s.



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