Officially referred to as the Football Association Challenge Cup, the FA Cup is the biggest domestic knockout tournament in English football and was founded back in 1871, making it the longest running association competition in the world. Last season saw 736 teams battle for the historic honour as coverage continues to grow wider and wider, so much so that there’s now a Women’s edition that, similarly to the Men’s, Arsenal have mostly dominated. Birmingham City Ladies have certainly enjoyed more fortune than the Gents since the competition’s formation, while Chelsea and Manchester City are also top contenders on a yearly basis.
Focusing on the highly-anticipated Men’s FA Cup though, we see 14 rounds take place every year from August to May with six of those qualifying – introduced in 1888 – where teams from Level 10 to 5 square up in an attempt to reach the First Round Proper. Some recent success stories involve National League duo Sutton United and Lincoln City reaching the Fifth Round and quarter-finals respectively last term – both were eventually defeated by cup winners Arsenal. Lincoln’s run was the more memorable of the two runs, performing a series of three giant killings on their way to the Emirates Stadium against Ipswich Town, Brighton & Hove Albion and away at Premier League side Burnley.
The First and Second Rounds merge the non-league clubs who have completed the qualification process with clubs from League One and League Two, before Championship and Premier League clubs enter the mix in Round Three. Similarly to the qualifying stages now, Round One and Two use to be split based on region with a North and South divide, however that format ended from 1998 onwards.
The bye handed to the more advanced outfits makes the probability of a giant claiming FA Cup glory instead of a minnow large, a statement backed up by the fact that a team below Championship level has never reached the final. The semi-finals offer a chance for a lesser side to have a day out in Wembley though, after the FA decided that they’d be played at the fortress from 2013 to recoup debts gained from financing the stadium.
New Wembley has hosted the semi-finals and final since its opening in 2007, but prior to that a number of different venues had been used for the climax of the prestigious tournament. Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium was the place to be from 2001 to 2006 while the Old Wembley was being rebuilt, but in the first 51 years of the competition – before Wembley was a thing – several club grounds were utilised.
Old Trafford, Bramall Lane, Goodison Park and Selhurst Park were popular options but Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge was favoured in the final three campaigns before the Empire Stadium’s construction was completed. Now a famous cricket ground, the Kennington Oval played host 22 times from the first event in 1871 which emphasises the tournament’s history of London being chosen for the big games, which still stands today.
Despite the trophy’s importance, teams have opted to not feature in the past for a number of reasons. A key example of this was when Manchester United didn’t defend their crown on the back of the treble-winning 1998-99 season because of their involvement in the first Club World Championship. There has also been a total of 11 campaigns missed due to the First and Second World Wars from 1915 to 1919 and 1938 to 1945, but such issues seem very unlikely in the modern day. This tournament has continued to evolve as generations have passed and the latest update occurred in 2014 when artificial turf became valid to use, making the event more unpredictable and diverse as ever.
The iconic piece of kit FA Cup winners receive on the Wembley balcony comes in three parts – the base, cup and lid – but the trophy’s history isn’t as shiny as itself. The original was nicknamed “little tin idol” but didn’t last long after getting stolen in 1895, resulting in its replacement being used until 1910. It had to stop being used because Manchester United decided to make their own replica after winning the competition’s 1908-09 edition because copyright wasn’t owned.
A second design was then made and used from 1911 until 2014 before the third and final replica was produced, and built heavier than the previous two to make handling it easier. The base of the trophy contains all winning team’s names engraved onto it and the handles are decorated with ribbons of the team’s colours before being presented at the full-time ceremony.
London-based club Wanderers FC were the inaugural winners and hold the record for most finals played in without losing, 5, and joint record with Blackburn Rovers for winning it in three consecutive seasons. Arsenal’s recent FA Cup win in May 2017 meant they went ahead of Manchester United again by claiming their 13th honour – Tottenham Hotspur are those two teams’ closest competitors with eight triumphs while Liverpool and Chelsea sit closely behind on seven each.
Arséne Wenger is also the most successful manager in the cup’s history with seven wins, the Scottish trio of George Ramsay, Thomas Mitchell and Sir Alex Ferguson follow on five. One of the Gunners’ victories was in the last final to be replayed, beating Sheffield Wednesday 2-1 in extra time after a 1-1 draw prior in 1993, as replayed semi-finals and finals were rightfully scrapped in 2000.
Finally stopped in 1991, matches use to continue to be replayed until they were settled at neutral grounds, with some going back and forth on more than five occasions, but after a remarkably long wait for that rule to be banished there are now only replays up until the quarter-finals. Quarter-finals would also go to a replay before the 2016-17 season but are now decided by extra time and penalties – West Ham United’s 2-1 loss at Upton Park in April 2016 to eventual champions Manchester United was the final ever Sixth Round clash to be settled via a replay. Fulham hold the record for the most games having to be played in order to win the FA Cup, after having to play 12 in six rounds on the road to their crowning in 1975 – a record that is almost impossible to ever be broken again.