While some football purists may beg to differ, there’s still a certain ‘magic’ surrounding the FA Cup. Each season, the historic knockout competition sees clubs throughout the English football pyramid battle it out for a slice of sporting glory. The final, held at Wembley, draws huge crowds and millions of TV viewers across the globe.
But the early years of the FA Cup were far removed from the tournament fans have come to know today. Masterminded by Football Association secretary Charles William Alcock, the inaugural ‘Challenge Cup’ of 1871-72 attracted just 15 amateur clubs.
Among the participants were Wanderers, a team captained by Harrow-educated Alcock himself. Founded as Forest FC in 1859 by him and his brother John, men of all classes could play for them; however, the team prided itself on the sporting values of Britain’s prestigious public schools.
“Great things, it is said, from trivial things spring,” Alcock later recalled. “The trivial cause in this instance was the humble desire of a few Old Harrovians, who had just left school, to keep up the practice at all events of the game at which they had shown some considerable aptitude.”
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The road to Kennington
Wanderers’ path to cup glory began in December 1871, with a 3-1 victory over Clapham Rovers.
Yet despite only managing goalless draws in their next two matches, Alcock’s team went straight through to the final when several would-be opponents withdrew from the competition. Following this strange twist of fate, Wanderers arrived on 16 March 1872 to face a burly XI plucked from the ranks of the Royal Engineers.
The 1872 final was played at Kennington Oval, now better known for hosting cricket – some early football teams were actually founded by cricket clubs to keep their players fit during winter.
The military men were hot favourites, thanks to their pioneering passing style of play, but hopes of cup success began to fade when Wanderers forward Morton Betts slotted past Engineers keeper William Merriman on 15 minutes.
“The Engineers were by no means so formidable as had been anticipated,” wrote one newspaper reporter, “and their backs not at all equal to their opponents. Nor did they play so well together; and in fact, they were overmatched throughout.”
Alcock’s men kept their 1-0 lead and secured victory in front of 2,000 spectators. During its short lifespan, the club went on to win the trophy a further four times before dissolving in 1887. A reformed Wanderers side aims to enter the FA Cup by 2021-22.