The FA Cup is the oldest football tournament in the world, and as everybody knows the final takes place at Wembley each year. But what everybody may not realise is that the very first FA Cup final, between Royal Engineers and Wanderers, didn’t take place at Wembley at all: it was played at the Kennington Oval in London, home of Surrey Cricket Club.
On 7th November 2012 to mark the 140th anniversary of that historic first final, Royal Engineers and Wanderers met once again in a recreation of the match that changed the face of football forever.
In the early 1870s, moustachioed men, looking more like sailors than footballers, played football in a kit comprising of long knitted socks, knickerbockers, heavy woollen jerseys and knitted hats. There was no net, no corners, a ball made of heavy leather and not much interest from the public. Back then, Rugby was the nation’s premier sport. So, to kick-start more interest, the Football Association decided they would run a cup competition, hence the FA Cup.
Fifteen teams entered that first competition and the final was played at The Oval on the 16th March 1872. It was watched by around 2,000 spectators scattered around a ground that wasn’t much more than a field. They politely clapped every gentlemanly tackle after paying an entrance fee of a shilling (5p). Many thought the price exorbitant, and with the average wage for a working man just twenty pounds a year, it represented almost a whole day’s wages.
The hardest and fastest match ever seen at the oval.
Back then football was a very different game, and both teams focused mainly on attack rather than defence – the Engineers lining up with seven forwards and Wanderers with eight. The match was decided fifteen minutes in by a single goal to Wanderers scored by Morton Betts, playing under the pseudonym ‘A.H. Chequer’. The Engineers were praised for their passing, an innovative tactic at the time, as most teams relied heavily on dribbling the ball the length of the field. Even so, they couldn’t manage a goal and Wanderers received the trophy the following month at a special reception at the Pall Mall Restaurant. A newspaper of the time declared it: “The hardest and fastest match ever seen at the oval.”
The rest, as they say, is football history. With the inception of the FA Cup, the world began to change. A game that was once a series of inter-house competitions played in public schools, was about to transform our culture. By the end of the 1870s football matches had become a place for groups of men, from all parts of an otherwise rigid society, to meet and share a common love of the sport.
The FA Cup during the Victorian era was an unprecedented social leveller
Tony Collins, Professor of History at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture at De Montfort University said about these early years: “The FA Cup during the Victorian era was an unprecedented social leveller – you would get blokes from the local factory kicking the daylights out of peers of the realm. Unsurprisingly, this became an increasingly popular spectator sport.”
As the game spread northwards so the men that played and watched began to change. The FA Cup, dominated by public school teams for the first decade, was changing; after 1883 not a single public school team played in a final. Football had come of age and the scene was set for it become the national and world game that we know today.
Wanderers folded in the 1880s but Royal Engineers kept playing. When Wanderers reformed in 2009 the opportunity to replay that original match was attainable. So, with hardly a handlebar moustache or woollen cap in sight, the two teams met once again at The Oval. To the tune of ‘Abide with Me’, the opposing sides trotted onto the pitch for a crack at winning the original FA CUP.
What followed was an exciting game for both players and the sprinkling of spectators who had come to watch the match. The action was fast and frantic, but from the start, there seemed little doubt of the winners. With 7 goals to 1, The Engineers played a blinder, engineering a stunning victory and after only 140 years got the FA Cup winners revenge they had so patiently waited for.