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The birth of the FA Cup

On July 20, 1871 the world's oldest and most famous domestic cup competition was born after a proposal by Charles William Alcock at a meeting held in the offices of The Sportsman newspaper. This is the story of how one man went against the trends of society to create the FA Cup as we know it today.

With its roots in the working-class, football did not appeal to the elite of Victorian society in the 1870s who preferred to fill their time with the more 'gentlemanly' pursuits of racing, cricket and rugby.

Those who were considered the ruling class of football, however, retained a streak of populism despite their elevated social status and had a desire to see the game break new ground. Primary among them was C.W. Alcock, the son of a broker and ship owner in Sunderland, who had moved to London in 1855 to attend Harrow School with his brother John.

Harrow played an important role in the development of Alcock's footballing philosophy. The school, which created its own version of the game, was under the guidance of headmaster Dr Charles Vaughan and placed great virtue in the gentlemanly ethics of sport, encouraging its students to take part.

Finishing his education in 1859, Alcock's desire for football burned strongly and he was one of the founding members of Forest FC, along with his brother and A.F. Kinnaird, who has been placed alongside the cricketing great W.G. Grace in terms of his early impact upon his sport.

At Forest, Alcock forged a reputation as a fearsome, hard-working centre-forward, despite his small stature, and two years after its formation changed the club's name to Wanderers FC; a side that was eventually described by The Sporting Gazette in 1870 as the ''MCC of football.''

The formation of a London-based Football Association in 1863 proved to be a defining moment in football's evolution as, in November, a meeting was held at the Freemasons' Tavern, Lincoln's Inn Fields, in Central London. There were eleven old boys' clubs present and as historian David Goldblatt explains: ''In a series of meetings over the next two months, attempts were made to generate a single code from the many competing versions of football represented around the table.''

After much discussion, the first efforts took in parts of J.C. Thring's Cambridge Rules (which had proved a useful starting point), while also taking into consideration the Harrow Rules that had been played by Alcock during his time at the school. However, the revelation that Sheffield FC had created their own set of rules in 1858 saw a division in English football as the Yorkshire clubs opted to play under a different code to that of the Londoners and formed their own FA in 1867.

Alcock, though, made strides to build bridges between the two FAs and a series of matches were organised to raise awareness of the game and sort out the conflicts over the rules. London FA v Sheffield FA, proved a seminal moment in this regard and, as Alcock became more of an authority with his contributions to two influential sports journals, The Field and The Sportsman, and the publication of his own Football Annual - which ran from 1868 to 1908 and defined the genre before press had really begun to take a hold over the sport - he was elevated to the position of FA honorary secretary in 1870.

Making strides in other areas as well, he issued a notice in The Sportsman that same year stating: "A match between the leading representatives of the Scotch and English sections will be played at The Oval on Saturday, 19 February, under the auspices of the Football Association." And, although the game would not be played until March, the seeds of the international game were sown.

Alcock was criticised for the lack of homegrown Scottish players who played in the game, but responded thus: ''The fault lies on the heads of the players of the north, not on the management who sought the services of all alike impartially.''

The issue of which set of rules to follow was helped by the creation of the Rugby Football Union in 1871 - allowing the 'hacking' and 'carrying' purists to engage in their own form of the game - and Alcock's focus on football led him to create what is considered his greatest achievement: the FA Cup.

Keen to move away from the social elite's general disapproval of organised tournaments - they contemptuously referred to such competitions as 'pot hunting' - Alcock's brainchild was born from Harrow's inter-house events and proposed at a meeting in 1871, with the words: ''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."

Approved three months later, the FA Challenge Cup took form and the first competition saw fifty clubs eligible to take part; although only fifteen did. Cost, more than desire, played its part in the poor showing and, in the semi-finals, the first Scottish club to have been created, Queen's Park, were forced to forfeit their game against Alcock's Wanderers when they could not afford to head back down to London for a replay after two draws.

On March 16, 1872, the first FA Cup final saw Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers 1-0 at the primary home of cricket at the time: The Oval. A crowd of 2,000 paid one shilling to watch Morton Betts score the only goal of the game, but the name on the scoresheet read A.H. Chequer. As a former player for Harrow Chequers (a team consisting of ex-pupils of the Harrow School), Betts opted to play under a pseudonym and Alcock would have almost certainly been appreciative of the joke.

The Field wrote that the final was "the fastest and hardest match that has ever been seen at The Oval" and added that the Wanderers displayed "some of the best play, individually and collectively, that has ever been shown in an Association game." It was a fitting finale for the inaugural competition, and even more poignant that one Charles W. Alcock, the Wanderers' captain, lifted the 18-inch, £20 trophy for the first time.

What happened next? As the FA began to establish roots on how the game should be played, Alcock was an integral part of the success of the competition in its early years. With the FA Cup established as a unified competition, a fixed set of rules was laid down in 1877 and Alcock served as FA secretary until 1895; also refereeing the FA Cup finals of 1875 and 1879. He helped to professionalise football in 1885 and played a major part in the modernisation of cricket as the secretary of Surrey CCC. Alcock died on February 26, 1907, aged 64 and his achievement was heralded by distinguished football writer Geoffrey Green as ''the spark that set the whole bonfire of football alight. .. It altered the whole pattern and the whole purpose of the game."


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