The first FA Cup Final in 1872 attracted around 2,000 spectators and the one shilling entrance fee ensured only those in the upper-classes could make the trip to Kennington. Two decades later the cup final was the sporting event of the year and The Oval was no longer suitable to accommodate what was now a mass spectator sport. In order to keep the cup final in London the Football Association needed to think of an alternative venue.
The trouble was these new crowds were mostly not from London. The city's football clubs like Wanderers and Clapham Rovers — that dominated the early years of the competition — had been obliterated into obscurity by middle- and working-class teams from the industrial midlands and the north. The cup finals of 1893 and 1894 were played at Fallowfield in Manchester and Goodison Park on Merseyside respectively.
To make matters more problematic, no London club could boast a stadium like Goodison Park, the first purpose-built football stadium opened by the first football superstar, and Old Etonian, Lord Kinnaird. Yet despite the wonders of Goodison, or Villa Park in Birmingham later, the FA was resolute in its view that staging the cup final in London gave the event the national importance it deserved. It argued that supporters from the north and the midlands would much rather enjoy a day trip out in the capital than in another city.
Whether this really was the case is a moot point. The 1895 final was moved to Crystal Palace park for the first time, meaning those arriving at Euston then faced another train ride across London. This supposed 'pleasurable outing' must have felt like an everlasting rush-hour commute.
A Picnic at the Palace
However, there can be little doubt that those down for the day would have enjoyed the spectacle of Joseph Paxton's creation. In his excellent book on football stadiums, Simon Inglis quotes former FA administrator William Pickford describing a typical cup final day: "The Crystal Palace era was more than a venue for a football match; it took on the character of a picnic."
The FA Cup finals played at Crystal Palace between 1895-1914 produced games that would be talked about for decades. The first in 1895 saw this year's finalists Aston Villa play midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion. Villa's single winning goal, after just 30 seconds, became known as the 'Crystal Palace thunderbolt'. Villa returned to the capital two years later to play Everton. Their 3-2 victory completed the league and cup double for the Birmingham side and is considered one of the classic finals.
Would any London club be able to break the northern dominance of the competition?
At the turn of the century Tottenham Hotspur had been around for less than two decades. During those years the Football League had formed but was so dominated by the northern teams a southern league was also formed — largely of teams playing professional catch-up. Tottenham joined this league in 1896 and won it four years later. Despite their champion season Spurs still went into the 1901 cup final against Sheffield United as underdogs.
There was a six-figure attendance in Crystal Palace park on that day, although as the stadium was second-rate it's almost certain many of the 110,000-plus crowd saw little of the action. Tottenham should have won 2-1 with a brace of goals from star striker Sandy Brown, but the Blades equalised through a controversial goal which arguably didn't cross the line. The replay was fought out in front of a much smaller crowd at Bolton's Burnden Park. And so it was that Tottenham literally had to head north to bring the cup back to London. Though they did so in style with an emphatic 3-1 victory.
However, London football supporters' joy was short-lived. It was another 20 years before the trophy came back to the capital, again won by Tottenham. A little earlier than this, the last cup final in Crystal Palace park was the first attented by the reigning monarch King George V. But the year was 1914.
It's possible that had the war not intervened more investment would have been put into the stadium and Crystal Palace park would have a stadium on a scale more like Wembley than the National Sports Centre that sits on the exact site of the cup final pitch today. As it was, Crystal Palace stadium became a war depot and never hosted the cup final again.
For more about the history of the FA Cup in London, see When Old Harrovians and Old Etonians ruled the FA Cup.
For further reading try Simon Inglis: The Football Grounds of England and Wales.