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A guest post by LH Founder Member Stanley Slaughter. This article first appeared in London Historians Monthly newsletter for March 2022. You can join London Historians here. 

Early on the Saturday morning of 16 March, 1872, a group of young men gathered at the Surrey Tavern attached to the Kennington Oval cricket ground. The Oval had been the home of Surrey County Cricket Club since 1845 after much hard work had converted a cabbage patch and market garden into a decent cricket square. It was 150 years ago that the men had met at the famous ground, not to play a cricket match but to take part in the first ever FA Cup Final.

In the late 19th century, cricket was “still more than ever the rage”, according to a popular daily newspaper, The Morning Post. But football was growing rapidly in the public imagination. It had been played in the country for many years and clubs were springing up all over the UK. By 1863 there was sufficient interest to form the Football Association (FA) which subsequently drew up the rules of the game.

As interest grew, the first ever, unofficial, international match was played between England and Scotland in 1870, also at the Oval. It was a 1-1 draw. Then Charles Alcock, a major and pioneering figure in the game, had the bright idea of a sudden death competition. On 2 July 1871, he wrote to The Field, the gentlemen’s newspaper, announcing a Challenge Cup, open to all football teams playing under FA rules. The prize would be a cup worth £25.

Charles Adcock. Multi-sports administrator of great note.

Alcock was typical of the men who played and dominated English sport in the Victorian era. Born in 1842, he was the son of a wealthy shipbuilder from Sunderland. Alcock had attended Harrow where similar knock out competitions were played. He and his elder brother, John, also an Old Harrovian, were both talented footballers and founded the Forest Football Club in 1859 in Essex where the family were now based. Later the brothers were among the founders of Wanderers Football Club in 1864 which, after a few years playing at various grounds, was now based at The Oval.

By the time the FA Cup was launched Charles was secretary and treasurer of the FA, captain of England in the Scottish encounter, captain of Wanderers and secretary of Surrey County Cricket Club. He remained a major administrator in both games into the 20th century.

Alcock’s letter in The Field attracted a decent entry of 15 teams. Eight came from London: the Wanderers, Harrow Chequers, Barnes, the Civil Service, Crystal Palace, Upton Park, Clapham Rovers and Hampstead Heathens. Most of the rest were from the Home Counties with two exceptions, Donington Grammar School from Lincolnshire and Queen’s Park, the best Scottish team based in Glasgow. Most regional clubs, including those from Sheffield where football was already very popular, declined to enter because of the cost of travelling to games.

The first ever FA Cup tie was played on 11 November 1871 at Hitchin Cricket Club between local team Hitchin and Crystal Palace, their successors currently in the Premier League, before 500 spectators. The score was 0-0 but both sides somehow went through. Over the next five months, the other ties were played until the Wanderers and the Royal Engineers, also known as the Sappers, won through to the final.

The two teams’ respective routes to the final were very different. Wanderers’ opponents in the first round, Harrow Chequers, withdrew. In the second round they beat Clapham Rovers 1-0. In the third they drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace but again both sides went through. Then in the semi-final, Queen’s Park also withdrew. Wanderers had won one game and scored one goal on their way to the final.

Meanwhile, the Royal Engineers’ first round opponents, Reigate Priory, withdrew. In the second round they thumped Hitchin 5-0, in the third, Hampstead Heathens were dispatched 3-0 and in the semi-final, Palace got the same treatment. Three victories, 11 goals and none conceded.

The two clubs were also quite different. Wanderers’ team consisted of the pick of the best players from the public school teams and old boys. Their players turned out for more than one club and were in and out of the Wanderers’ side, according to selection or availability. This resulted in the bizarre fact that some of the players who played in the Final had played for other teams during the contest. The Royal Engineers, based at their Chatham barracks, were a far more integrated outfit. Founded in 1867, they regularly trained and played together and put great emphasis on their team spirit, regarding it as far superior to the comings and goings of their opponents. The Morning Post still regarded Wanderers as the best team in the country, although the bookies made the free scoring and more entertaining Sappers the 7-4 favourites.

The Royal Engineers XI of 1872.

Unlike today, the first Cup Final attracted comparatively little press notice. The main concern of the sports pages that March Saturday was the Boat Race, the annual rowing contest on the River Thames from Putney to Mortlake between the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge. That day was trials day when the respective eights would be chosen for the main event the following Saturday. Cambridge had won the last two and were backed to make it a hat-trick. They did.

Nor was there overwhelming interest from the football world. The first Saturday after the close of the season was traditionally set aside for the football clubs’ annual athletics meet and the president of the FA, Ebenezer Cobb Morley, was umpiring the walking events of Barnes Football Club’s meet on Putney Common and had no plans to go to The Oval.

But The Morning Post described the forthcoming game as a “great event” and, perhaps prematurely, called the Final the “Blue Riband of Football.”

As the build-up to the game progressed, the Wanderers hammered out their tactics. Alcock, the captain, favoured attacking from the start. But the team’s youngest player, Robert Walpole Sealy Vidal put forward another idea. The 18-year-old from Devon, still a pupil at Westminster School, proposed a cautious approach, strengthening the defence from two to three men. It had worked when his school team had held the Engineers to a 0-0 draw when they played them earlier in the season. “If we stop them scoring, they can’t win,” he explained. Alcock’s argument won the day.

Young Robert Walpole Sealy Vidal, extreme left in the Oxford University XI, winners in 1874.

As the Wanderers put the finishing touches to their game plan, the Royal Engineers arrived at Vauxhall Station in their splendid red and black uniforms and marched the mile to the ground with their supporters, including wives. There a crowd of some 2,000 was gathering for the game. Spectators were charged a one shilling entry fee although a few paid extra so they could bring in their carriages to watch the game in greater comfort.

The Wanderers team, resplendent in their orange, violet and black striped shirts, white shorts and black caps, was made up four Old Harrovians, the school’s headmaster, three Old Etonians, one Carthusian, one man from Lancing College and the teenager from Westminster. Many had played for England in the unofficial international against Scotland. Their line up was one goalkeeper, one full back, one half back and eight forwards.

The Engineers, playing in their usual red and blue hooped shirts and matching caps, fielded two captains and nine lieutenants. Their line up was one goalkeeper, two full backs, one half back and seven forwards, including the splendidly named Henry Waugh Renny-Tailyour, their leading goal scorer and a Scots international at both football and rugby.

The Wanderers won the toss of a silver coin and straightaway began began attacking the Engineers. It paid off in just 15 minutes when Vidal crossed the ball to Morton Peto Betts, an Old Harrovian who also played cricket for Middlesex, who side footed the ball home for the first ever Cup Final goal. In the second half Wanderers stayed on top and Charles Alcock had a goal disallowed for an earlier handball.

There was no presentation ceremony after the game. The Cup was finally presented to Alcock a month later at a dinner at the Pall Mall restaurant for which all players and guests had to pay 7/6d. Cobb Morley was finally persuaded to make the presentations which included silk badges for the winning team. Wanderers also presented their players with gold medals worth 50 shillings each. One is now on display at the National Football Museum in Manchester.

For Wanderers, the cup win was the first of five, the last in 1878 when they again beat the Royal Engineers, this time 3-1. The Club was dissolved in 1883 and reformed in 2009 in South London to play charity matches. The Royal Engineers won the Cup in 1875 beating Old Etonians 2-1 in a replay after a 1-1 draw.

As the game became increasingly professional, teams like the Royal Engineers, who were amateurs, faded from the scene as the professional clubs took a growing grip on the game. But there was one last hurrah for the days of the gentlemen footballers when a Wanderers team played a Royal Engineers side in 2012 to mark the 140th anniversary of the first Cup Final. The Sappers got sweet revenge with a 7-1 victory.

The FA Cup has been an annual competition since 1872, apart for breaks during the first and second world wars. It has also long been associated with London. Apart from replays, only nine Finals have been played outside there capital, in Fallowfield Stadium, Manchester, Goodison Park, Liverpool, Old Trafford, Manchester and the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff where six matches were held while Wembley Stadium was being rebuilt.

The competition played at three London venues, The Oval, Crystal Palace and Stamford Bridge before moving to its “home” at Wembley Stadium in 1923 where the first final there attracted 126,000 fans.

The famous ‘White Horse Final’ at Wembley in 1923.
There were, in fact, other horses of different hues present. 


Stanley Slaughter
Stanley Slaughter is a Founder Member of London Historians and a regular contributor to our newsletter. Much of the information for the article comes from Ian Chester’s book Charles Alcock and the Little Tin Idol (Chesfox Books, 2021) available from www.chesfoxbooks.com. A second book on the subject, The Official History of the FA Cup by Miguel Delaney (Welbeck Publishing Group, London, 2022) is due to be published on 17 March.

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