The FA Cup
The FA Cup is the oldest football tournament in the world. Its first season was 1871-72 and 15 football teams took part, the final being played at Kennington Oval between the Wanderers and the Royal Engineers. The Wanderers won 1-0.
FA Cup Eligibility
What marks out the FA Cup as different from other football competitions is its entry qualifications. It is open to all teams in the Premier and Football Leagues and in the FA National League System. That means teams with a huge range of abilities compete, from top Premiership clubs down to amateur town and country teams. In the 2014-15 season there were 736 entrants.
This wide variation of ability is the reason behind much of the tremendous emotion that the FA Cup traditionally evokes, as there is always the possibility that a team in the lower leagues will beat a far superior team and earn a reputation as a giant killer.
The competition is run as a knock out tournament with teams paired using a random draw. There are six qualifying rounds followed by a further six rounds and the semi-finals and final. There is also an extra-preliminary round for teams at or below level 9 of the FA National League System and a preliminary round which includes level 8 teams.
Level 7 teams enter in the first qualifying round, Conference North and Conference South in the second qualifying round, and Conference Premier in the fourth qualifying round. By then just 32 teams remain, and they are joined by League One and League Two clubs for the first round proper.
Premier League and Championship teams enter the competition at the third round proper which is played early in the New Year.
FA Cup Upsets
Because of the format it is rare for top flight teams to meet the bottom teams, however it can happen and there have been several major upsets in the history of the tournament. One of the more notorious was when Hereford United from the Southern League beat Newcastle United 2-1 in 1972. Another was in 1992 when Wrexham, the lowest team in the Football League, beat Arsenal, then second place in the First Division, 2-1. There have been several others over the years, the most recent being in 2013 when Luton Town, a non-league club, beat Norwich City 0-1 in the fourth round.
Home and Away
The first team drawn is considered to be the home team and when possible the match will be played at the home team’s ground. If the game is drawn, then it is replayed at the away team’s ground. This can have a huge financial benefit for lower ranked clubs. An example of this was in 2012 when Leyton Orient in League One drew with Arsenal taking them to a fifth round replay at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium; the matches generated around 30% of Leyton Orient’s total revenue for the year. Another example is when Crawley Town played Manchester United in the fifth round; the single match earned Crawley £1 million.
In addition to potential windfalls such as those mentioned previously, the prize money can make a big difference to the lower ranked teams. Prize money starts at £1,500 for extra preliminary round winners of which there are 184, with incrementally larger prizes for each round rising to £18,000 for the 40 first round proper winners. Winning the semi-final earns £900,000 and the final £1.8 million.
For most clubs the trophy is far more important than the prize money. Traditionally the final is played at Wembley Stadium and the trophy is presented by a representative of the Royal Family.
The original FA Cup was stolen in 1895 and apparently was melted down to make counterfeit coins. The second trophy was a copy of the first and was used until 1910. It is on display in the National Football Museum in Manchester.
The third trophy was commissioned in 1911 though as it eventually became fragile a replica was used after 1992 until it was retired in 2014 when a brand new trophy, identical to the original 1911 trophy, was introduced.
The greatest number of FA Cup wins is 13, a record held by Arsenal the current cup holders who won the FA Cup in 2017.
Has a little of the FA Cup magic rubbed off?
Several years ago many considered the FA Cup to be the most important competition in football. But in the modern game it seems that many of the top clubs view the competition as an encumbrance. They complain that it takes away their focus from the main task of the Premiership and it has been suggested, perhaps unfairly, that certain clubs tend to play their “B team” at these matches, resting their key players. After all, being knocked out of the cup and avoiding relegation is far more important than the opposite result.
However the knock on effect of this is that lower ranked clubs may start challenging for the FA Cup more frequently and end the dominance that Premiership clubs have maintained since 1995, the year in which the trophy was lifted by the Championship club Everton.
For most fans, the FA Cup is still magic. Few things stir the blood more than bringing the FA Cup back home.