Never Forget the FA Cup

While some deride the FA Cup as a hinderance or an unwanted game in a busy schedule, it could be said it's the most important competition in football's history. Welcome to IBWM Jack Allen.

For many, reaching the FA Cup final used to represent the pinnacle of footballing achievement. The twin towers of Wembley stadium were steeped in tradition for a reason - they hosted what used to be the most important date on the football calendar.

This May the new Wembley will again host the event considered the most prestigious in club football, yet these days it comes in the form of the Champions League final. Ask any fan of English clubs involved in both competitions and there would be an almost unanimous answer as to which final they’d rather be part of.

The FA Cup does still manage to produce a certain amount of nostalgia and romance. This weekend for example non-league Dover, Crawley and York will look to add their names to the list of giant-killers that have undoubtedly added to the competition’s heritage, but the sad fact is that the FA Cup these days has about as much of its magic left as David Blaine. Whilst broadcasters will continue to insist that standing in a block of ice for three days is magic, the simple truth is that it isn’t.

There’s an unfortunate predictability about whose name will be engraved on the trophy come the end of the season. Portsmouth managed to buck the trend somewhat with victory in 2008, but aside from them there have only been four teams to win the competition since 1995 (Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United if you hadn’t already correctly assumed), and it’s hard to shake off the feeling that it doesn’t even register as a top priority for the clubs who invariably end up winning it.

The fall off is understandable. Football has long since been about business and with higher league positions and European campaigns more valuable, it’s not hard to see why clubs can sometimes view the FA Cup as somewhat of a distraction.

Personally I too would rather see my club win either the Champions League or the Premier League, but at the same time it would be a real shame to forget about the historical importance of a truly great competition.

This doesn’t refer to all the upsets or to the glory days of the trophy, as there is plenty written about these every year (Ronnie Radford anyone?). What shouldn’t be forgotten is the impact the competition had in the days before the final even took place at Wembley.

It was in 1871 when the FA’s Secretary Charles W Alcock suggested:

‘…that it is desirable that a Challenge Cup should be established in connection with the Association, for which all clubs belonging to the Association should be invited to compete…’

In doing so, Alcock hit upon something that was to take football to the next level - he introduced a sense of national and prestigious competition.

Football was still very much in its infancy at this stage, with the few clubs around mostly made up of ex-public schoolboys who would play each other in friendly matches week in week out. The introduction of a real sense of competition was needed to boost a game in danger of becoming a hobby of the elite.

Throughout the late 1870s and the 1880s, as working hours fell for industrial workers more and more football teams were established across the country as recreational clubs. As male workers found themselves with more time on their hands then they’d enjoyed before and a woman’s place still firmly ensconced in running the home, football began to spread quickly to all areas of the country.

There were a number of factors that enabled the game to blossom in this period. Changing social and economic conditions made leisure activities for the working class much more achievable. The simplicity and cost effectiveness of a game that only required 1 ball and a place to play was perfect.

The establishment of the FA Cup was an important factor in making football a newsworthy pursuit amongst all the available pastimes. Writing in 1881 a journalist for the sports paper the Midland Athlete had this to say:

‘The associations and challenge cups have done much to hasten the spread of the game, the first by organizing clubs and matches, and by exerting a beneficial authority over their members, and the latter by giving a definite object for the competing teams to battle for. There can be little doubt that the original cup [FA Cup] has done an immense deal towards furthering the interests of this branch of sport.’

In the years when football was finding its feet, the FA Cup focused the sport into a countrywide competition. When in 1883 Blackburn Olympic took the trophy north for the first time in it’s history, it had truly arrived as the nation’s most prestigious national sporting competition.

The FA Cup cannot be seen as solely responsible for the huge increase in interest in the game but it did give football a massive helping hand. People certainly would have begun forming teams of their own accord, regardless of whether or not there was a national trophy to play for, yet both commentators at the time as well as modern historians recognize the importance of the cup in football’s origin.

In an era when the FA Cup plays second fiddle to European ambition, it’s more important than ever to remember it’s place at the heart of the game.

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