This weekend brings with it the first round of the FA Cup as those clubs outside of the elite begin to dream of giant-killing feats and a lucrative cup run. But only one club has won the FA Cup as a non-league side - Tottenham in 1901. Inspired by one of football's forgotten reformers, and spearheaded by a deadly striker, this is the story of how Spurs upset the odds over a century ago.
"It's lucky for Spurs when the year ends in one, they first won the cup when the century begun."
So sang Chas and Dave as Tottenham prepared for their eventual victory in the 1991 FA Cup final. With triumphs in the competition stretching back to 1981, 1961, 1921 and 1901, and not to mention League victories in 1951 and 1961, as well as a League Cup win in 1971, Spurs fans unsurprisingly feel more confident in the binary system. Indeed, the victory that over 100 years ago established the club's formula for success is also a singularity, marking as it does the first and only time since the formation of the Football League that a club situated outside of football's established order has won the FA Cup.
At the end of the 19th century, before Einstein's theory of relativity, before the advent of mass production and before Lenin's Russian Revolution, English football was at a relatively embryonic stage. Tottenham were members of the Southern League as the pre-eminent Football League, established in 1888, was still dominated by northern clubs. Admittedly, though, describing Spurs as 'non-league' winners of the FA Cup is somewhat stretching the point, as by the end of the 19th century the lax financial restrictions imposed on players in the Southern League led to an influx of players from northern clubs, who were unhappy with proposals for a maximum wage.
One of the most prominent members of this diaspora was a player named John Cameron, who would transform Tottenham, and attempt to revolutionise the power structures of English football. In 1898, the Scot decided to leave Everton in an act of rebellion against the Football League's feudal 'retain and transfer' system that ensured players were at the mercy of clubs that held their registration - a situation that was only rectified in 1963 following George Eastham's contentious move from Newcastle United to Arsenal and the intervention of the Professional Footballers' Association.
As the inaugural secretary for a precursor of the PFA - the Association Footballers' Union, founded in 1898 - Cameron had attempted to fight against retain and transfer and later described the system as "iniquitous". In his 1908 book, Association Football and How to Play it, Cameron described how, "This [system] is hardly in accordance with English love of fair play, and is probably one of the few blots on the game. I am looking forward to the day when this system shall be abolished, and the player shall be a man, not a slave."
Cameron was long dead by the time players wrestled control away from their clubs, but his dissatisfaction with the system did see him turn his back on Everton and the Football League, and Tottenham were the beneficiaries. Cameron became player/manager following Frank Brettell's departure in 1899 and secured the Southern League title in his first full season; greater feats were to follow in the 1900-01 campaign.
Despite Cameron's early success, few would have predicted that Spurs would impress in the FA Cup. The competition was effectively the preserve of Football League clubs and not since Old Etonians in 1882 had a team from south of the Midlands taken home the cup.
Preston North End - founder members of the Football League - were dispatched following a replay in the first round but it was the following tie - a 2-1 win over holders Bury - that caught the attention. The Guardian, still housed firmly in Manchester at the time, described the result as "a great triumph", and detailed how "[The] Tottenham Hotspur team is one that plays with spasmodic fluctuations. They gave the great crowd they had to cheer them on a succession of expectant thrills."
Reading would fall in the third round after a replay, with striker Sandy Brown continuing his formidable run in the competition with a brace. Brown finished his Spurs career with 45 goals in 57 appearances but it was the FA Cup campaign that would make him a club hero. That much was demonstrated yet again in the semi-final when, at Aston Lower Grounds, Brown plundered four goals in a 4-0 defeat of West Bromwich Albion. The Baggies had won the cup twice, and finished as runners-up on three occasions, but in blustery conditions they toiled in the second half. Brown's performance was described as a "sensation".
Against the odds, Cameron had led Tottenham to the FA Cup final and their opponents on April 20, at London's Crystal Palace, would be Sheffield United and their famous goalkeeper William 'Fatty' Foulke. Cameron explained in his football textbook that goalkeepers, "like poets, are born, not made. My ideal for that position would be a man who stood six feet and weighed at least 13 stone." There is no question he would have admired Foulke, then, who by estimates of the day weighed in at an eye-watering 20 stone (you can assess his girth yourself here).
No less than 115,000 people crammed in to Crystal Palace to attend the final, with The Observer setting the scene in wonderfully antiquated fashion. "This weather attracted everyone who ever thought of going to a football match," wrote the paper's reporter, "and many were so frightened at the numbers that they went back immediately on arrival. People flowed into every corner as the incoming tide amongst the rocks, and the fringe of trees was peopled. Up one elm no less than 36 persons had climbed."
Those intrepid souls saw Fred Priest put Sheffield United in front but the prolific Brown struck twice to give Spurs the advantage. After 53 minutes, controversy gripped the game as United were awarded a goal when Walter Bennett charged into Spurs goalkeeper George Clawley and the ball went behind. A corner was originally awarded but the match official decided the ball had crossed the line just before Clawley clawed out a shot from Bert Lipsham prior to Bennett's challenge. The crowd had to wait almost a minute for the goal to be awarded, but awarded it was.
Cameron was angered - later claiming "our players were sure that the ball had not crossed the line" - but one observer was certainly thrilled. Sir Redvers Buller, an army hero, veteran of the Boer War and Victoria Cross winner, attended the game. He told the crowd: "It has been a great pleasure to come here today and see such a good and well-fought match. There are many things which interest a soldier in the game of football, and essentially it is one in which, as a rule, the side wins which is best practised at shooting." The Guardian reports his final comment was met with "laughter and cheering".
A replay was set for April 27, at Bolton's Burnden Park, and this time Spurs were not to be denied. Though fears were expressed about the state of the pitch, with Bolton's ground being marked by a central ridge and slopes towards both goals, Tottenham tormented Foulke and United. Priest put the Sheffield side in front but it appeared a preparatory trip to the seaside and Southend had set Tottenham in good stead. It was Cameron himself who levelled, before Tom Smith and then Brown, who scored in every round of the competition, settled the tie in favour of the London club.
The result was absolute vindication for Cameron's decision to abandon the Football League and journey south, and just reward for Brown who accumulated an incredible 15 goals in the competition that season.
In understated fashion, Cameron reflected on the victory in 1908. He said: "I do not care to enter into the year when my old club, Tottenham Hotspur, won the cup, but one of the biggest officials in the Football Association came along to compliment me, and said that my side gave the best display of football since Aston Villa won the cup [in 1897]."
But it was so much more than just a good display. The Scottish reformist, who turned his back on the Football League, had achieved a singularly unique feat in football history.
What happened next? Sandy Brown moved on to Portsmouth in 1902, and later enjoyed spells with Middlesbrough, Luton Town and Kettering Town. Cameron resigned as Tottenham manager in March 1907 and went on to coach Dresden before being interned in Ruhleben prisoner of war camp during the First World War, where he helped establish a thriving football community. Cameron returned to Scotland to manage Ayr United and also worked as a journalist prior to his death in 1935. Tottenham would not win the FA Cup again until 1921.