Philip Barker

One-hundred and fifty years ago, an England footballer set down an idea that gave life to one of the most enduring sporting events in the world.

Charles Alcock also happened to be secretary of the Football Association (FA) and his proposal to a meeting was "that it is desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the association for which all clubs belonging to the association should be invited to compete."

Alcock would surely never have imagined that his idea would result in a competition which this season attracted an entry of 729 clubs. Even less would he have foreseen that the final would be beamed around the world by satellite to a television audience of billions.

Since 1923, the final has been played at Wembley more times than not, though in the first year over 200,000, many of them gatecrashers, stormed the stadium to watch.

That the UEFA Champions League final is now played on a Saturday is in part down to the influence of the what was officially known as the "FA Challenge Cup."

Back in 1871, only 15 teams saw fit to enter. One of those was Alcock’s own club, a team known as The Wanderers. 

Some other sides even struggled to muster the requisite eleven players to complete their matches.

The regulations stipulated for what is officially known that all ties "shall be played within a month after the publication of the ties in such papers as the committee may see fit."

The winners were to receive a trophy, which in time became known as the "little tin idol." It cost £20 ($27/€23) to make.

In addition the winning team were to receive "eleven medals or badges of trifling value."

When Leicester City lifted the FA Cup earlier this year, they received £1.8 million ($2.47 million/€2.13 million) in prize money, part of a total fund of £16 million ($21 million/€19 million).

For matches in 1871, the committee was to appoint two umpires and a referee to officiate. These were to be neutral.

A photo of the 1895 FA Cup, which disappeared after being displayed in a shop window after it was won that year by Aston Villa ©Philip Barker
A photo of the 1895 FA Cup, which disappeared after being displayed in a shop window after it was won that year by Aston Villa ©Philip Barker

"The decision of the umpires shall be final except in the case of the umpires disagreeing when an appeal shall be made to the referee, whose decision shall be final."

The players in those early matches were amateur and many came from wealthy backgrounds.

Alcock had attended the exclusive Harrow School on the outskirts of London. Whilst there he had played in a school knockout competition after which the winner became "Cock House." It was this format which was to be used for the FA Challenge Cup.

On that first November Saturday in 1871, the first round ties took place. Clapham Rovers beat Upton Park 3-0. The opening goal was scored by Jarvis Kenrick.

It came, said the correspondent for The Field, "after a good piece of play for the Rovers." Kenrick scored his second late on and played "in very fine form throughout."

The goal gave Kenrick a place in history as the FA Cup’s first goalscorer. He later played cricket for Surrey and was a leading light in croquet. He lived to be 96.

That first round also had a local derby. Great Marlow, founded in 1870 and Maidenhead established in 1871, were from neighbouring  towns on the River Thames.

Although the names of the two clubs have altered slightly in the intervening years, they still play in the competition, albeit starting their journeys in the qualifying rounds and claim to be the only clubs never to have missed an entry.

The luck of the draw pitted them together in the first round of the first competition.

"Great interest was shown in the game," said local newspaper reports. The match itself had "some excellent play on both sides," in front of a large crowd before Maidenhead won 2-0.

Barnes from West London, beat the Civil Service 2-0 not least because their opponents brought only eight men with them.

"From the commencement, it was apparent that the Civil Service, through smallness of numbers, would have to play a defensive game," reported The Sportsman newspaper.

Wembley Stadium, current venue for the FA Cup Final, as seen from Harrow School ©Philip Barker
Wembley Stadium, current venue for the FA Cup Final, as seen from Harrow School ©Philip Barker

It was 0-0 at half-time, but Barnes scored twice in quick succession in the second half to win.

North of London, Hitchin and Crystal Palace drew 0-0 in "drizzling rain."  There was no replay and both teams advanced to the second round of the competition.

In fact only four matches were played in the first round.

The leading Scottish club Queen’s Park were supposed to play Donington School, but it was not possible to agree on a venue. Both went through to the second round where curiously, they were drawn together yet again.

This time Donington scratched.

Crystal Palace beat Maidenhead 3-0 in the second round, despite the presence of many visiting supporters who had "expressed their determination to go and see the match and if need be give their young townspeople a cheer of encouragement."

The Wanderers started with a bye, but then beat Clapham Rovers.

In the third round, they drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace.

Once more, both sides were allowed to proceed through to the last four.

In the semi finals, Queen’s Park at last played a match in the competition.

They had left Glasgow by train late on Saturday night and their match against the Wanderers was played on a Tuesday afternoon. 

It ended goalless but the London newspapers reported it "as the Scotch gentlemen were unable to visit London again they were forced to withdraw." They at least had the distinction of retiring unbeaten.

In the other semi, Royal Engineers beat Crystal Palace after a replay.

The tournament rules decreed that the final "shall be decided in London on a ground that shall be hereafter chosen by the committee."

Football Lane is part of the site of Harrow School, attended by former FA secretary Charles Alcock, whose idea established the FA Cup ©Philip Barker
Football Lane is part of the site of Harrow School, attended by former FA secretary Charles Alcock, whose idea established the FA Cup ©Philip Barker

The venue chosen was the Oval Cricket Ground, where FA secretary Alcock had coincidentally, just taken over running the Surrey County Cricket Club. He pulled on an orange violet and black hooped jersey and turned out for his club in the match too.

"It must be conceded that the popular sympathy was certainly with the Engineers in some measure," said The Field newspaper.

The winning goal was scored by Morton Peto Petts, who appeared in some reports under a pseudonym, as "A Harrow Chequer" denoting that he had been an old boy of the school.

The Harrow Chequers team had scratched without playing earlier in the competition.

Newspaper reports related how the winner was created by Robert Walpole Sealy Vidal who "after a good run middled the ball so cleverly AH Chequer that the latter was able to effect the goal with very little difficulty."

A crowd of only 2000 turned up but this had nothing to do with social distancing.

At this time, football was still one of many sporting attractions. In the early years the kickoff time was often adjusted to accommodate the Oxford v Cambridge University Boat Race.

There was no grand presentation of the trophy. Instead, a month later, when The Wanderers held their annual dinner at the Pall Mall Restaurant in London, FA President Ebenezer Cobb Morley handed the cup over.

The holders were to be exempt until the final of the following year’s competition, when as the name of the competition indicated, they faced a "challenge" from the best of the rest. The same format was originally used for the tennis at Wimbledon.

The winners were expected to return the trophy by the first day of February in the year following their triumph. In the event that any team won three in a row, the trophy was to become their "absolute property."

Wanderers won again in 1873, and later in the decade, three in succession, but graciously returned the trophy on condition that it would never be held permanently by any other club.

In 1883, Blackburn Olympic won "The Cup." They were the first team from the north of England to do so.

The original trophy was destined never to return south. The winners in 1895 Aston Villa displayed it in the shop window of William Shilcock, a sports outfitters in Birmingham. One night it disappeared never to be seen again.

A new trophy, much larger in size than the little tin idol was commissioned in 1911. It was made by a firm in Bradford, and first used that year when Bradford City won the Cup. The competition has been full of such curiosities and coincidences ever since.