The draw for this season’s FA Cup took place last Monday — but did anybody really care, asks Paul Rouse.
A small acre of newsprint has been used to lament the demise of a competition that was once so central to English sporting life — and central also to the childhoods of people who grew up in a television age where the FA Cup final was one of the few club soccer matches shown live in any given year.
This breeds an inevitable nostalgia — but there is no meaningful prospect of time’s arrow being reversed here. There is no true romance left in a competition when the biggest clubs field their second-rate players and where domestic leagues and European competition are all that really matter. And yet, without the FA Cup, the game of soccer might easily have slipped into oblivion.
Indeed, before the establishment of the FA Cup, the prospects of soccer emerging as the most important game in England seemed extremely limited. And, of course, it was from England that it spread across the rest of the world, continuing to gather momentum until its current ubiquity.
The story of this transformation was told brilliantly by Tony Mason in his landmark 1980 book Association Football and English Society 1863-1915 and was retold by David Goldblatt in his bestselling 2006 global history of soccer, The Ball is Round. That latter book is one of the most extraordinarily accomplished books published on the history of sport and, indeed, of any cultural activity.
After it was founded in 1863, the Football Association had teetered on the brink of collapse for much of the remainder of the decade.
The FA had been founded in London, but even in that city there were merely 20 affiliated clubs by 1867. That is to say that there were around 80 clubs playing various forms of football in the city by the middle of the 1860s, but most of them simply rejected the governance of the FA.
This rejection manifested itself in simple form — clubs (often based on the public schools from which the upper middle class of England’s burgeoning imperial economy was drawn) continued to play by their own particular forms of rules for football.
Most of these rules allowed for the handling of the ball in the course of play and many of these clubs ultimately coalesced into the Rugby Football Union, founded in 1871.
The reason why soccer is a game in which only the goalkeepers use their hands on the field of play is a story for another day; it is enough to say for now that for those clubs where the players handled the ball, soccer was an unauthentic perversion of the game they had played as schoolchildren and they would have no part in it.
As well as struggling in London, the FA also essentially failed to attract clubs from outside the capital. And these two facts combined to create a scenario that was almost disastrous. In 1867 only six men attended the annual meeting of the FA; there were suggestions the FA should disband.
So why did the FA not just survive but begin to thrive?
The reasons are several. First of all, Sheffield Football Club had challenged the London FA to a match in 1867 and in that game they agreed to use the London FA’s rules. Sheffield began a process which led to them affiliating with the Football Association. And as there were 14 clubs in Sheffield and more than 1,000 players this was, in time, a huge boost.
Secondly, the FA in 1867 modified its rules somewhat and in so doing they attracted the support of a few more clubs in the London area — notably those from the public schools of Westminster and Charterhouse.
Thirdly, and most importantly, the FA initiated the FA Cup in 1871. The Association’s secretary, CW Alcock, wrote: “It is desirable that a challenge cup would be established in connection with the Association, for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete.” The idea came from Alcock’s public school past. He had been to the prestigious Harrow School and they had run a knockout football competition between the houses in the school. This is what he replicated now for the FA, beginning in 1871.
Just 12 clubs competed in the first competition; others were deterred by the envisaged expense of involvement.
The 1871 final was played at the Oval Cricket ground in London and saw the Old Harrovian side, Wanderers, beat the Royal Engineers.
The winning goal was scored by a man called Morton Betts. Well, he was normally called Morton Betts, but not on that day. He was, in fact, illegal and playing under the assumed name of AH Chequer. There was a certain mischief in the name he chose — he had earlier played for Harrow Chequers in the competition.
Press estimates from the day of the final put the attendance at some 2,000 people — it was speculated that most of those who attended were themselves former public schoolboys. And certainly it was then the case that teams who entered the competition and wider playing cohort of soccer teams was almost entirely middle-class.
But from this starting-point came an explosion of interest.
Through the 1870s, the FA Cup increasingly captured the public imagination. For the remainder of the 1870s, the competition was dominated by teams who owed their ancestry to the English public school system. This was the elite of society at play.
Winning clubs included the Old Etonians, Oxford University, and the Old Cartusians. Steady growth ensured that by 1878, more than 40 teams were entering the cup, still mainly former public schoolboy teams from the south, but also now clubs who held a working class allegiance.
Clubs were set up by local grandees, by factory owners, by schools, by churches, by cricket clubs, and then a whole host of clubs were founded that centred on pubs, streets and groups of friends.
The dramatic surge in the number of clubs that ensued and the explosion of interest in the FA Cup went hand in glove. New football associations were set up across Britain. It happened in Birmingham in 1875, in Staffordshire in, 1877, in Surrey in 1877, in Lancashire in 1878 and elsewhere. These local FAs ran their own challenge cups which were seen as a great way of preparing for the national competition.
The FA began to remodel itself and got these associations to affiliate to a central FA council with an elected membership from all the county FAs.
Through the FA Cup, the FA began its march to becoming a properly national institution. At the heart of this growth towards national scale was the number of teams from the northern industrial towns and cities who now began entering the FA Cup.
This profoundly altered the class basis of soccer teams. The first great working class team that came to prominence was Darwen. This was a team of Lancashire cotton mill workers, and they reached the quarter-final of the 1880 FA Cup where they played against Old Etonians.
What followed was a remarkable series of matches. In the first match Darwen were 5-1 down with 15 minutes left but rallied to draw 5-5 amid scenes of uproar. A second match then ended in a compelling 2-2 draw. Old Etonians finally won through to the semi-final, winning 6-2 on the third day out.
Crucially — and much more important ultimately to the history of soccer than either defeat or victory — the cost to the mill workers of competing in the matches was actually defrayed by a collection around the town and in the mill where they all worked.
This new source of funding eventually transformed the opportunities for those who wished to play soccer.
For a few years, it made little difference as the rise of working class teams was repelled by public schoolboy teams.
Then, in 1883, Blackburn Olympic — a team funded by the owner of an iron foundry and comprising of three weavers, a spinner, an iron worker, a cotton machine operative, a picture-framer, a master-plumber, a clerk, a dental assistant, and a publican — reached the final of the competition. There they again played Old Etonians whose team included lawyers, churchmen, a baronet by the name of Percy de Paravicini, and a professor of Latin. The Blackburn men won 2-1 after extra-time.
Never again did any team drawn from the alumni of England’s elite public schools teams win the FA Cup.
This mattered to the geography of the game — soccer now came to be dominated by teams from the north of England.
The FA Cup grew and grew. It was increasingly built on intense local rivalries. It became entwined with a sense of identity and that typical sense of identity where it is vital to beat your neighbour above all else.
It became a matter of intense civic pride to field a team in your town or city that could compete for the FA Cup.
And, in the process, more and more crowds came to the matches to support their local teams.
The place of soccer teams in the identity of English towns and cities remained extremely strong. That is the legacy of the FA Cup.
And a last note: the FA Cup was reported widely in the Irish press in the early 1880s—– it wouldn’t take much to envisage a scenario whereby the men who made the All-Ireland championships were essentially imitating what was happening across the Irish Sea. After all, the surest way to success is often to imitate what others do, only do it better.
- Paul Rouse is Associate Professor of History at University College, Dublin and his book, The Hurlers is now on sale.