Welcome to the First FA Cup Final
by Absolute Thai Football
Beastly Fury: The Strange Birth of British Football
Royal Engineers v. Wanderers
Kennington Oval March 16th 1872
If you walked along Kennington Road that day, you may have noticed a small, well dressed knot of people heading for the Oval. Unless you were part of that small group you would probably have no idea that, rather than taking in a game of cricket, they were about to witness the first ever FA Cup Final.
The match itself had little impact. The papers were more concerned with Bessie the brown bear roaming Cricklewood.
Most sports pages concentrated on the upcoming Varsity boat race and The Times ignored it altogether. But in the history of the world’s greatest sport, this day was seismic.
The crowd of around two thousand were predominantly upper class. The one shilling entrance fee excluded most working class people, which suited them fine. Both teams were public school old boys. Eleven of the twenty two had been to Eton or Harrow.
Much of the game was strange to modern eyes. Both teams wore knee – length knickerbockers. The Engineers wore nightcaps, whilst many Wanderers players wore brightly coloured caps. There was a tape rather than a crossbar and no pitch markings. There was no heading and very little passing; charging was the key tactic and goalkeepers could be charged if they had the ball or not. Throw ins were taken rather like modern rugby (or Stoke City) by the first person to touch the ball after it went off and the formations… they were a sight to see. Wanderers played a 1-1-8 formation, whilst Royal Engineers opted for the more defensively minded 2-1-7. The two sides also changed ends after each goal.
Some things would be familiar to modern audiences, though. The goals and the ball were the same size as now and there was a referee of sorts, although he was only called on to pass judgement if the two umpires couldn’t agree. Although the game sometimes degenerated into a “loose scrimmage” there were no more scrums. Handling had been outlawed, other than for a goalkeeper, with an indirect free kick introduced as a penalty. Most importantly the stifling and intricate offside laws of the public schools had been relaxed. Players were now onside if they had three opponents between them and the goal.
This was a game recognisable as the sport we play today, with rules applied in a national cup final organised by a national association. It was a dramatic advance from the bickering meeting in 1848 but, as the supposedly historic founding of the FA in the Freemasons Tavern in 1863 showed, meeting and agreeing are very different things. The only real agreement in the Tavern was to separate the codes of Rugby and Football. By 1867 the ten FA members included some begging to play by different rules and the FA was ignored for its first four years.