This first FA Cup final, held 150 years ago to this month, was unrecognisable from today’s finals held between expensively assembled teams owned by billionaires and featuring multimillionaire players performing for global audiences watching on TV. Not to mention, there are now 90,000+ fans paying hundreds of pounds for tickets to attend the game.
That first final, March 16th, 1872, was contested by two amateur clubs, Wanderers and Royal Engineers at Kennington Oval (the cricket ground) in front of 2,000 spectators.
Fifteen teams entered that first season (the number in 2020-21 was 736) and Wanderers reached the final having won only one match in the previous four rounds. In the semi-finals, they drew with Scottish club Queens Park but reached the final when the Scots withdrew from the competition because they could not afford to return to London for a replay.
Attack, attack, attack
Typically for the time, both teams focused mainly on attack rather than defence, the Engineers lining up with seven forwards and Wanderers with eight! Most teams at this time relied primarily on individual dribbling, with team-mates backing up the dribbler in an effort to move the ball towards the opponents’ goal. The Engineers style, the ‘Combination Game’ as it was called, was revolutionary and involved passing the ball as well as dribbling.
Wanderers captain Charles Alcock won the toss which meant the Engineers, the favourites, initially had the sun and wind in their faces. Early in the game, Edmund Creswell of the Engineers broke his collar bones in a melee. He refused to leave the pitch but had to spend the remainder of the match as a “passenger” on the wing!
After 15 minutes, Wanderers’ Morton Betts opened the scoring from an acute angle after Walpole Vidal’s long dribble. Under the rules in use at the time, the teams changed ends after each goal, but the Engineers failed to take advantage of the fact that the sun and wind were now behind them, the Wanderers players remaining dominant.
Alcock once again put the ball into the net after 20 minutes, but the goal was disallowed because Charles Wollaston handled the ball. Wanderers continued to exert further pressure on the Engineers’ goal and only goalkeeper William Merriman prevented them from increasing their lead. One newspaper later described his performance as “perfect”.
One goal was also enough.
Despite the Engineers constructing a late rally, Wanderers held on for a 1–0 win. The Field newspaper called the final “the fastest and hardest match ever seen at The Oval” and said that despite losing the Wanderers displayed “some of the best play, individually and collectively, ever shown in an Association game”.
The Cup was presented not at the match but at the annual dinner of the Wanderers on April 11th in London. The Football Association gave each player in the winning team a silk badge commemorating the victory and the Wanderers’ committee presented each player with inscribed gold medals.
As cup-holders, Wanderers received a bye straight to the final of the following year’s FA Cup, keeping with the original concept of the competition being a “challenge cup”, with their bye being the only time this rule was used.
How things have changed
Football in 1872 had a number of other features alien to today’s game. Tape was strung between two eight-foot-high posts to resemble a crossbar. Goalkeeper was not yet a specialist position, with goalies playing outfield. Throw-ins were not determined by the team whose player had kicked the ball off the pitch but instead by the first player to reach the ball.
Attendance at football matches was not large in the early 1870s, partly because of the price of tickets. One shilling was high for most matches at the time.
The Oval crowd was said to be ‘very fashionable’ and was reportedly made up of the well-to-do and the upper middle-class, as well as those connected with the ‘old boys’ public school network that ran the Football Association at this time.
Indeed, most players in the 1872 final had learnt the game at elite public schools and universities. Three of the players previously attended Eton and four studied at Harrow. The Wanderers was open only to those who had attended leading public schools and Oxbridge.
Still playing today
For winners Wanderers, it was the start of a golden, but brief, era of success. They retained the trophy in 1873 by beating Oxford University 2-0 and added three more trophies before the end of the decade. Their haul of five FA Cups has only been beaten by Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle, Aston Villa, Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Manchester United and Arsenal.
By 1881, Wanderers could not field a side as players left to play for the newer clubs springing up across the country and the team folded in 1887. A reformed side was founded in 2009 and the club currently play in the Surrey South Eastern Combination.
The Royal Engineers won the Cup in 1875. As professional teams took over the game in 1888, they joined the newly formed Army Football Association.
The last word goes to Harrow-educated Charles Alcock. Captain of England, FA Secretary and instigator of the FA Cup. One of the key figures in the development of football:
“Great things from trivial things spring. 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 at the game at which they had shown some considerable aptitude.”