Buidling Dreams Together


Beginnings: The Story of the First Ever FA Cup

As this season’s tournament – the 143rd edition – reaches the quarter-final stage, we turn back the clock to 1871 to the very first staging of the Football Association Challenge Cup. Expect posh names, strange kick off times and a whole load of Queen’s Park.

The First Round

The FA Cup was born on what would become Armistice Day. Fifteen teams entered, all hoping to win the first piece of silverware in association football.

The November 11th, 1871, hosted four first round fixtures. Two kicked off at 15:00 – Hitchen FC and Crystal Palace (not that one, a separate, older iteration) drew 0-0 and Barnes FC claimed the first ever win in the cup with a 2-0 victory over an eight man Civil Service FC. No red cards, they just lined up with eight players.

The third match kicked off at 15:20 and saw Maidenhead beat Marlow FC 2-0. The first goal to be scored, however, came in the latest match of the lot. At a 15:30 start, Jarvis Kenrick slotted home two minutes into his Clapham Rovers’ side 3-0 win over Upton Park FC (a team which never played at Upton Park).

Pictured: Jarvis Kenrick, scorer of the first ever goal in the FA Cup

There were a number of teething problems in these early stages. As stated, only four matches took place that day yet three further games were scheduled and did not commence. Royal Engineers and Wanderers FC were both given walkovers to the second round after their opponents, Reigate Priory and Harrow Chequers, withdrew.

Scotland’s oldest club Queen’s Park, who are currently in the Scottish Championship, were drawn against Donnington School. Clubs from Scotland would play in the FA Cup until 1887 when the Scottish FA prohibited them from continuing to do so

With Queen’s Park and Donnington based in Glasgow and Lincolnshire respectively, they failed to decide on a venue for the match and were therefore both given a bye to the next round. As were Hampstead Heathens, being as they were the last team drawn and odd ones out.

The Second Round

Fifteen became ten, with the second round fixtures sprawled over the winter period. Two matches took place on December 16th, 1871, one on the eve of Christmas Eve and the concluding match coming on January 10th, 1872. 

On that bitterly cold December day (I’m guessing the weather conditions but probably correct given it is Victorian England), Crystal Palace beat Maidenhead 3-0 while Wanderers – whose name derived from the fact that they never had a set home ground – edged past Clapham Rovers 1-0.

Pictured: An illustration of a match during the early years of association football

In between, Barnes FC hoped to continue their good start against the yet-to-play Hampstead Heathens on December 23rd, but both sides could only share a goal each.

A further peculiarity was that if a game ended in a draw then both sides would progress into the next round. However, on this occasion a replay was held because, in the initial 1-1, the match was halted early due to poor lighting.

Though Barnes again hosted the replay on January 6th, 1872, they couldn’t capitalise on the 15:15 sunlight and fell to a 1-0 defeat to the Heathens.

Meanwhile, old friends Queen’s Park and Donnington School were unbelievably drawn together again. Truly a spectacle that would only be enhanced if Rod Stewart had been on hand to conduct it. 

Unfortunately neither side used the second bite of the cherry to sweeten things out. Yet again, no stadium was chosen and so Donnington withdrew from the FA Cup at this stage.

The final second round fixture, on January 10th, saw Royal Engineers hammer Hitchen 5-0 to sew up the round.

Pictured: The oldest surviving FA Cup trophy, used between 1896 and 1910 after the original was stolen
The (Sort Of) Quarter Finals

At the third round stage, there were now only five teams remaining, which meant one was able to receive a bye to the semi’s. 

That team… was Queen’s Park. The humble club from Glasgow had reached the FA Cup semi-finals at the first attempt. A remarkable achievement for a side that had yet to play a single minute in the tournament.

Elsewhere, at 15:15, on 20th January, 1872, Wanderers hosted Crystal Palace at Clapham Common, drawing 0-0. And so both sides were permitted into the semi-finals due to the aforementioned rule on draws. 

Lord knows what would have happened if one team won, but my guess is Queen’s Park getting a bye to the cup final.

Pictured: Royal Engineers, who pioneered the concept of the passing game

The well oiled Royal Engineers team continued their fine form, easily dispatching Hampstead Heathens 3-0. Pioneers of the ‘combination game’, the Engineers favoured passing to each other rather than hoofing the ball upfield or solo dribbling, and their teamwork was being richly rewarded. At this point, they are the favourites.

The Semi Finals

This is where the competition takes a more recognisable form to us 2024 fans. Four teams left, two matches, the winners advance to the final. Simple right? Wrong.

Royal Engineers and Crystal Palace were first up, taking to the Kennington Oval on 17th February, 1872 at 15:15. 

The famous cricket ground was the go-to stadium for footballing occasions in the late 1800s, hosting all FA Cup finals until 1892 bar one and the very first international football match between England and Scotland. The Oval also hosted both of these semi finals, which I’m sure won’t come back into play in this story at all.

The second semi took place on 5th March at 15:35, with Wanderers playing Queen’s Park. Yes, Queen’s Park actually played this time.

Both semi finals ended 0-0. Though association football was still very much in its infancy and the admin hadn’t exactly been tip-top thus far, people knew you couldn’t have a final consisting of four teams. Replays were ordered instead.

Famous cricket ground The Oval hosted every FA Cup final bar one until 1892

On March 9th, Royal Engineers ran away comfortable 3-0 winners in the second tie to book their place in the first FA Cup final and send Palace packing. Of course, the reverse leg of Wanderers and Queen’s Park wasn’t as plain sailing.

Queen’s Park were unable to afford to make the lengthy trip down from Glasgow to London for a second time in quick succession and withdrew. Wanderers had in fact attempted to take this into account during the first match, offering to play an extra thirty minutes to find a winner, but Queen’s Park refused. 

Who knows what would have happened if Queen’s Park could have made the journey again. If a Scottish team had won the very first FA Cup, the landscape of British football could have been radically altered.

The Final

And so it came to 16th March, 1872, – 152 years ago – where Wanderers faced Royal Engineers. The club without a home against the club representing Her Majesty corps of grafters.

A 15:05 kick off this time, with both teams in colourful horizontally-lined kits. Wanderers lined up with two defenders and eight attackers, while Royal Engineers chose a more conservative approach of three defenders and seven attackers. 

The slightly more forthright tactics proved successful as, fifteen minutes in, Wanderers took the lead through Morton Betts, who was playing under the pseudonym AH Chequers (Betts played for Harrow Chequers earlier in the season).

Rules at the time dictated that teams swapped ends after each goal. Five minutes later Wanderers had the ball in the other net, from captain C.W. Alcock, who was a major force behind the creation of the tournament itself, but the goal was disallowed for handball in the build up.

Pictured: Morton Betts, scorer of the first ever goal in an FA Cup final

Wanderers continued to dominate, with the Royal Engineers’ artillery unable to find a way through. Their goalkeeper, William Merriman, was overworked and put in a reportedly “perfect” performance. 

In the end, despite fifteen forwards on the pitch, the game finished 1-0 and Wanderers were crowned the first champions of the FA Cup.


Due to the original premise of it being a challenge cup, Wanderers were given a bye straight to the final of the next year’s competition. Royal Engineers were knocked out by eventual finalists Oxford University in the third round and, in much the same way, Queen’s Park reached the semi-final without playing a match before handing Oxford a walkover in the semi’s. 

Lack of football wouldn’t prove to matter much to Wanderers, who defended their title by winning 2-0. Though this ‘winner stays on’ concept would only be used on this one occasion.

Oxford University would claim the FA Cup in the third edition of the tournament beating Royal Engineers, who again fell at the final hurdle. Though, at long last, Royal Engineers would claim the trophy the following year. 

Wanderers would go on to claim five FA Cups in total, putting them level with Everton and West Bromwich Albion, with their last win coming in 1877/78 against Royal Engineers once again. Though defeated twice in the actual competition, the Engineers were victorious in a restaging of the first final to commemorate the 140th anniversary.

A rematch of the final was held between Wanderers (pink, gold, black) and Royal Engineers (red, blue) at The Oval in 2012

And for all the walkovers and byes, Queen’s Park really showed what they could do in 1883/84 and 1884/85 by reaching two successive finals, dismantling oppositions along the way, with 7-0’s, 15-0’s and a 6-1 demolition of Aston Villa. They were unable to get over the line in both finals, coming up against future Premier League champions Blackburn Rovers twice, losing 2-1 and 2-0 respectively.

Although the practices back then were so different to how we structure and consume football now, and it can be comical at times because of that, these are the foundations of the game and tournaments we still love to this day. So intrinsic is football to our culture now that it seems unbelievable that the organised game as we know it is less than two hundred years old.

Sometimes taking a step back in time can give a refreshing perspective on the multi-billion pound behemoth it has morphed in to. Not that it’s entirely a bad thing in some ways. I’m sure Queen’s Park would be able to travel to London quite comfortably now.

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I write about football and I support Tottenham Hotspur.