The England national team is having a Euro 2020 tournament to remember, with fans across the country chanting ‘It’s Coming Home’ as the team breaks through to the semi-finals.
Back then, the game wasn’t even professional: in the early 1870s it was a recreational pastime for a small pocket of Victorian society, and way behind more popular sports like cricket and rugby.
However, in 1872 the first FA Challenge Cup was established. 50 clubs were eligible, but only 15 entered.
Many were deterred by the expense and complexity of nationwide travel.
Only two clubs came from north of Hertfordshire: Queen’s Park, based in Glasgow, and Donnington Grammar School from Lincoln.
The semi-finals saw Wanderers, a team founded in Leytonstone in 1859 without a home ground (hence their name), eliminate Queen’s Park when the Scots could not afford to come back down to London for a replay after the two sides drew the previous game.
The Royal Engineers, known as the ‘Sappers’, beat the South London team Crystal Palace in the other semi-final.
The final was held at the Oval cricket ground on 16 March 1872.
2,000 people saw Morton Betts score the game’s only goal as the Wanderers defeated the Engineers 1-0 in the first FA Cup Final.
The Engineers, who were formed in the British Army, were praised for their innovative use of passing, then referred to as the ‘Combination Game’, at a time when most teams relied almost solely on dribbling tactics.
The winning Wanderers team did not receive the trophy until the following month when it was presented to them at a special reception at the Pall Mall Restaurant.
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As was common at the time, both teams focused mainly on attack rather than defence, the Engineers lining up with seven forwards and Wanderers with eight – a pretty low-scoring affair all things considered.
Wanderers forward Morton Betts played under the pseudonym ‘A. H. Chequer’, derived from his membership of the Harrow Chequers club.
Some sources state that he played under an assumed name to disguise the fact that he was cup-tied, having been a registered player of the Chequers club at the start of the competition and therefore ineligible to play for another club in that season’s cup.
The Wanderers were initially formed as Forest Football Club in 1859 by several former public school pupils, primarily recent Old Harrovian school leavers who wanted to continue to play the sport.
For the first two years of the club’s existence, the players organised matches among themselves at Snaresbrook near Epping Forest, probably on a part of Epping Forest between the Infant Orphan Asylum and Forest Place.
In 1864, possibly because of the expense the club was incurring by owning its own ground, the club became a ‘wandering’ team with no fixed home venue and subsequently changed their name to fit suit.
During this period, the club played several ‘home’ matches at Battersea Park and Middlesex County Cricket Club’s Lillie Bridge Grounds.
Wanderers subsequently made Kennington Oval its semi-permanent home in 1869.
The Royal Engineers did eventually taste cup success in 1875.
A decade later, the English football league was formed, and the sport became professional.
Over 130 years later, and football might be coming home once again.
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