The early history of the FA Cup was also the end of an era. A look at the first decade of cup final fixtures tells a story of how clubs formed mostly in the Greater London area gave way to increasingly professionalised teams well to the north of Watford. Teams that are still around today such as Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers and West Bromwich Albion.
By contrast to these stalwart clubs, few will be familiar with the exclusive set of six teams that competed in the first 10 finals: Wanderers, Royal Engineers, Oxford University, Old Etonians, Clapham Rovers and Old Carthusians. They were exclusive in another sense too: all were born out of public school networks and emerged as part of a blossoming football culture in London throughout the 1860s.
The sport may have been growing, but relationships were fractious. Teams clung on to their own public school rules, traditions and idiosyncrasies. The newly-formed Football Association's attempts create a unifying common framework at meetings in The Freemason's Tavern in Holborn were routinely ignored.
Old boys' clubs
The man eventually responsible for the cup competition also clung to his old school's traditions. Indeed, Charles Alcock founded Wanderers out of a desire to keep old boys in contact. Alcock was an Old Harrovian and the FA Cup was even based on a knockout tournament from his school days in Harrow. Furthermore, on 16 March 1872, it was Alcock who captained Wanderers in the first final, and Alcock who organised for the match to be played at The Oval where, handily, he was secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club. In the event, Wanderers beat Royal Engineers by a single goal: there are no surprises for guessing who was presented with the trophy at the classy Pall Mall restaurant.
However, none of this seems due to any conflict of interest. There were simply a small sample of players, teams and roles at the time. Besides, Alcock's love of football far outstripped any lingering attachment to Harrow and he was anything but insular in his outlook. No sooner then had Alcock replaced his own brother on the FA committee in 1866, he'd set about attracting support the young organisation had so badly lacked. Rather than imposing new common rules nobody wanted, he brought the FA rules into line with alternative codes teams were actually following.
Despite his own triumph in the first final, the cup competition was an opportunity to reach much further afield than London. It is no accident that Queen's Park of Scotland became FA Cup regulars after Alcock's public invitation to teams north of the border.
Another old boy instrumental to the modern game's early development was the sport's first superstar. Arthur Kinnaird wouldn't be one to call it the beautiful game. He was known as a tough tackler and also for the full magnificence of his auburn beard (when in his prime). Kinnaird played in a total of nine FA Cup finals, winning the coveted trophy on five occasions: three times with Alcock's Wanderers and twice with the team of his old school and the one he himself founded: Old Etonians.
For Old Etonians it was third time lucky. In 1879 they beat Clapham Rovers by a solitary goal after two defeats in previous cup finals. However, their following three appearances in the final are all symbolic of the public school pioneers' decline into obscurity.
First, Old Etonians were hit by a shock defeat by Old Carthusians in 1881. But the match is not remembered for the surprise scoreline: it's remembered for being the last final in which two upper-class teams competed. Then, the next year, Old Etonians beat Blackburn Rovers. It was the first time a northern team had made the final and the start of the era to come.
The next year was the final appearance of Old Etonians, or any other public school team, in an FA Cup final. The now defunct Blackburn Olympic took the trophy north for the first time and it was a lengthy period before it returned south.
The reason the northern teams came to dominate their London counterparts was at least partly due to a deeply entrenched resistence within the FA for football to become professional. This was based on a deeply-held ideal of sport as an amateur pursuit and a recreation of social good.
Luxury of leisure time
Clubs north of London would claim they couldn't afford the luxury of thinking in these terms. This does rather cast the old boys as a little naive. It's certainly true that players at clubs from middle- and working-class origins would not have viewed leisure in the same way as the upper-classes. Unfortunately, it is highly debatable that all of these clubs had their players' best interests at heart. On the other hand, Kinnaird's efforts to popularise the sport, for better or worse, do at least seem rooted in his philanthropy.
Nonetheless, the old public school teams could no longer compete and the cup did not return south for 18 years. It was finally won by a London club that had formed in the year Old Etonians last won the trophy. But by the time Tottenham Hotspur team lifted the cup in 1901 the final had long attracted crowds too large for The Oval — the ranks of spectators swollen with people down for the day from the north.
The next era of cup finals would be played in a new London home: Crystal Palace park.
For further reading two books are highly recommended: Richard Sanders' Beastly Fury and The Football Grounds Of England And Wales by Simon Inglis. The latter is sadly out-of-print. (Grateful thanks to Jonathan Burton for digging out his copy).