The FA Cup is famous as the oldest annual competition in football and the most famous domestic club cup in the world. First played back in 1871 it pre-dates the Football League and indeed existed before most of the big sides we know today were even formed. Among the winners in those early years were teams like Royal Engineers, Oxford University, Old Etonians and Clapham Rovers.
Blackburn Rovers were the first side to win the FA Cup that modern fans would definitely recognise. They did so in 1884 and completed a hat-trick with wins in the following two seasons too. Arsenal are the most successful side in FA Cup history though with 14 titles to their name. Man United are next with 12, whilst Chelsea, Liverpool and Spurs all have seven.
The big boys from the top two divisions do not enter the draw until the Third Round in January but the great thing about the FA Cup is that it includes teams from the 10th tier down. Such clubs will have to win a number of games (including in preliminary rounds) to reach the Third Round proper but if they do, then get a lucky draw, the magic of the cup may just come alive, with plumbers, policemen and estate agents getting their big day out at Old Trafford or Anfield.
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FA Cup Format
The FA Cup starts in early January as far as many football fans are concerned but for a whole host of welders, policemen, plumbers, recruitment workers, the odd librarian and a few doctors, it begins in the preceding autumn, or even summer! Whilst the big boys of the Premier League (and the Championship for that matter) do not enter the fray until the Third Round, one of the beautiful things about the FA Cup is that it is about more than just the game’s elite.
Indeed, the 142nd FA Cup, in 2022/23, saw well over 700 teams enter, with the majority of those, indeed the vast majority, being semi-professional or amateur. Most fans are familiar with the concept of the Football League, the Premier League and the 72 teams beneath it that play in the Championship and Leagues One and Two. However, central to the FA Cup is the far larger football pyramid of the National League System (NLS).
The National League itself sits at the top of that and has been known for some years as the Vanarama National League for sponsorship reasons. Older fans may well always think of this division as the Conference, or, again because of sponsorship, the Vauxhall Conference. The NLS has six steps, or tiers, overall, with most of these containing multiple leagues or divisions and all teams within the top five steps of the NLS are eligible to enter the FA Cup, with places open to those in the sixth step if teams above them decide against entering.
In 2022/23, for example, teams such as Abbey Hey (North West Counties League Division One South) and Warminster Town (Western League Division One) were among 11 teams from what is effectively the 10th tier of English football to enter the qualifying rounds. They were a small fraction of the 640 teams that entered the FA Cup qualifying process, hoping to land one of the 32 places available in the First Round. This is sometimes called the First Round proper (to differentiate it from the very first round of qualifying). Whilst that doesn’t start until November, the qualifying rounds start back in August!
One might assume that the First Qualifying Round would be the very first round but, in actual fact, this is usually preceded by a Preliminary Round. And an Extra Preliminary Round. One has to love this simple, straightforward bureaucracy and organisation!
FA Cup Dates & Entry Points
The exact dates vary from season to season, and, of course, they are occasionally disrupted by the odd virus, a winter World Cup in the desert, or perhaps a global war. However, the following dates are a decent guide to when the different stages of the FA Cup take place most seasons, who takes part and what sort of prize money is offered. Note that prize money is also paid to the losing teams and figures for this and team numbers are taken from the 2022/23 season.
|Who Joins?||Round||General Dates||Number of Teams Joining Competition||Approximate Prize Money (Winning Club)|
|Tier 9 (plus a selection of lowest ranked Tier 8 sides & highest ranked Tier 10 if needed)||Extra Preliminary Round||Early August||416||£1,125|
|Tier 8 Sides||Preliminary Round||Mid-August||64||£1,444|
|Tier 7 Sides||First Qualifying Round||Early September||88||£2,250|
|Tier 6 Sides||Second Qualifying Round||Mid-September||48||£3,375|
|N/A||Third Qualifying Round||Early October||0||£5,625|
|Tier 5 Sides (National League)||Fourth Qualifying Round||Mid-October||24||£9,375|
|League Two & League One||First Round||Early/Mid-November||48||£41,000|
|N/A||Second Round||Early December||0||£67,000|
|Championship & Premier League||Third Round||Early January||44||£105,000|
After the 44 teams from the top two tiers of English football come into the FA Cup, no more clubs enter and the tournament is a straight knockout. Those 64 teams are whittled down to 32, then 16, then eight at the quarter finals, four for the semis and, of course, our two finalists who will battle it out for the FA Cup. Typical dates for the other rounds are as follows:
- Fourth Round: Late January
- Fifth Round: Mid-February
- Quarter Finals: Mid-March
- Semis: Early April
- Final: Mid-May
As can be seen in the earlier table, the prize money increases quite dramatically as the tournament moves through the various rounds. For small clubs who make it into the main draw even a few thousand pounds can be quite significant. The rewards for any non-league side winning a Second Round match – £67,000 – can really allow them to improve their facilities. However, should they make the Third Round and get drawn away from home against a top Premier League side the financial rewards can really change the course of a small club’s history.
Losing clubs do not get any prize money once the qualifying rounds are over (until the semis) but winning in the Third Round delivers a six-figure sum. This rises to £225,000 in the Fifth Round, £450,000 in the quarters, £1m in the semis (losers receive £500,000) and £2m for the final (the runners-up get £1m). However the financial rewards are not just about the prize money, with clubs splitting gate receipts equally (45% each), meaning a sell-out at Old Trafford can earn a non-league outfit a fortune in relative terms. In addition, a televised game will earn a club well over £100,000 in the Third or Fourth Rounds and around £250,000 in the next two rounds. Replays are worth around half of those sums.
Are Games Over Two Legs & What About Extra Time & Penalties?
All FA Cup games are held over a single leg, with the draw deciding who is at home and who is away. The draw for each round typically takes place after all, or certainly almost all, of the games from the previous round have been played. It is televised for most rounds, with all available to watch via live stream at least. The semi finals are played at Wembley, as is the final.
If games end level after 90 minutes they typically head to a replay in the earlier rounds, with the away team from the first match hosting that. Due to the global health crisis, replays were scrapped for extra rounds (the Third and Fourth) and at the time of writing there is a suggestion that may be the case for the 2022/23 season due to extra fixture congestion caused by the Queen’s death. In this instance, games will go to extra time and penalties (if needed), always to be settled at the first attempt. Where replays are used, these games will go to extra time and then penalties in the event of the scores remaining level.
However, from the Fifth Round onwards there are no replays. The FA introduced this change in December 2018 for the 2018/19 FA Cup to ease fixture congestion for the top sides at the end of the season. Matches will be played to a finish, being settled on the day via extra time first, then penalties if the scores remain level.
Glory, the Trophy, Prize Money & a Place in Europe
In addition to the aforementioned prize money and the glory of having their name engraved onto one of the world’s most famous sporting prizes, clubs that win the FA Cup also earn a European place for the following season. The victors will qualify for the group phase of the Europa League. However, if they have already qualified for the Champions League then the Europa League place is instead given to the highest ranked side in the league to not have already qualified for the CL or the Europa League. Until fairly recently (2015/16) the FA Cup runner-up would have been granted the place in Europe.
In addition the winners of the FA Cup earn a place in the following season’s domestic curtain-raiser, the Community Shield. They meet the Premier League champions at Wembley, or if they themselves did the double they will face the side that was second in the PL.
FA Cup History
There have been several books written about the history of the FA Cup so it is clear we cannot give this topic anything like the depth of coverage and detail it merits. With more than 150 years of history, the first FA Cup having been held in 1871, there is clearly a lot of ground to cover. In order to keep things brief, let’s take a look at some of the key dates and changes in the FA Cup, throwing in a few interesting points of trivia along the way.
FA Cup Timeline
Officially known as the Football Association Challenge Cup, the first ever FA Cup saw just 15 out of 50 eligible teams enter, though three of those pulled out before playing a game. Here are the key dates:
- 1863, FA Formed – Football Association formed to codify rules and govern the game.
- 1871, Knockout Competition Proposed – Members of the FA generally just played one-off games against each other at this time but FA secretary Charles Alcock proposed a knockout tournament.
- 1871, First Ever FA Cup Games – On the 11th of November, 1871, the first two FA Cup ties ever took place at 3pm. Barnes beat Civil Service 2-0 and Hitchin drew 0-0 with Crystal Palace. Two other games kicked off slightly later at 3.20pm and 3.30pm.
- 1872, First Cup Final – On the 16th of March, 1872, Wanderers beat Royal Engineers 1-0 in front of around 2,000 people at Kennington Oval, where the two semis had also been held.
- 1883, The Cup Heads North – Blackburn Olympic became the first side from the North of England to win the FA Cup. Previously only teams from the south, wealthy amateurs and ex-public schoolboys had prevailed. Olympic beat Old Etonians in the final.
- 1888, Football League Formed – On the 17th of April, 1888 the Football League was formed and for the 1888/89 season the FA Cup began to be a lot more like the cup as we know it now. More teams than ever before entered and the competition had qualifying rounds. On the 6th of October, 1888, 46 games took place in the First Qualifying Round. After a series of qualifiers, 32 teams made it through to the First Round proper.
- 1889, Preston on the Double – Preston North End would go on to win the FA Cup and also the first ever league title, completing the double. PNE were the original Invincibles too, going the whole season unbeaten in the league (and cup), winning 18 and drawing four out of 22 league clashes.
- 1901, Spurs Win – The year ended in a 1 so of course Spurs won the FA Cup. They beat Sheffield United in a replay and became the first non-league club (since the Football League was created) to win the FA Cup. More than 110,000 fans watched the first game at Crystal Palace, which was a 2-2 draw.
- 1916-1919, No FA Cup – The 1915 cup final had controversially gone ahead despite the First World War but there was no FA Cup the following season, or until 1919/20.
- 1923, Welcome to Wembley – The 1923 was the first FA Cup final to be held at Wembley, then known as the Empire Stadium. It is thought that more than 200,000 people attended – not bad for a venue with a capacity of 127,000.
- 1925/26, Big Boys Byes – From this season onward teams from the top two divisions entered the FA Cup at the Third Round.
- 1927, Win for Welsh wonders – Cardiff, beaten finalists in 1925, beat Arsenal 1-0 in the final, becoming the first, indeed only, Welsh side to win the FA Cup.
- 1940-1946, WWII Stops Play – Again the FA Cup, and much of sport – and indeed life – was put on hold due to global conflict. This meant that Portsmouth held the FA Cup from 1939 to 1946!
- 1953, “Matthews Final” – Blackpool’s legendary outside right Sir Stanley Matthews finally won the FA Cup at the third time of asking and at the ripe old age of 38. It was a brilliant game too, as Bolton led 3-1 with just over 20 minutes remaining. Stan Mortensen netted two goals, the second in the 89th minute to complete his hat-trick (the only one ever in an FA Cup final), and incredibly Blackpool made it 4-3 in the 92nd minute!
- 1970, First Third-Place Play-Off – Man United finished third in this season’s FA Cup in the first of what proved a short-lived experiment with this rather pointless and largely unwanted fixture.
- 1972, Leeds Win Centenary FA Cup – Leeds beat Arsenal to win the FA Cup 100 years after it was first played.
- 1981, Spurs Win 100th final – In what was the 100th FA Cup final, and again a year ending in 1, Spurs beat Man City in a replay, the replay also held at Wembley, the first time this had happened.
- 1988, Beasant Saves Penalty – Minnows Wimbledon defeated Liverpool 1-0 and Dons stopped Dave Beasant made history by becoming the first goalkeeper to save a penalty in the final.
- 1991, Replays Limited – In the Fourth Round, Leeds and Arsenal needed three replays to be separated. As such, the FA decided that in future, there would only be one replay, with extra time and penalties used in that if needed to separate the sides.
- 1991, Wembley Semi – The Spurs v Arsenal semi became the first ever to be held at Wembley.
- 1993, Wembley to Host All Semis – This was the first season where semis, which were previously held at venues such as Hillsborough and Villa Park, were all moved to Wembley.
- 2000, No Replays from Semis Onwards – To try and ease fixture congestion it was decided that the semis and final would go straight to extra time and penalties with replays scrapped at this stage of the FA Cup.
- 2001-2006, Wales Hosts Finals – With Wembley being redeveloped Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium became the temporary home for the FA Cup final.
- 2007, Hello New Wembley – Chelsea beat Man United 1-0 in the first final at the new Wembley.
- 2012, Seven up for Cole – Ashley Cole won the FA Cup for a seventh time, which was a record for a single player.
- 2016/17, Replays Scrapped from Quarters Onwards – The removal of replays was extended to a round earlier, with last-eight ties played to completion on the day.
- 2017, Wenger’s Magnificent Seven – When Arsenal won the 2017 FA Cup it was boss Arsène Wenger’s seventh success. No manager can match that.