Losing finalists Royal Engineers.

by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

16 March 1872: The Wanderers beat the Royal Engineers in the first FA Cup Final

The very first FA Cup Final took place on 16 March 1872 between Wanderers and Royal Engineers in front of a crowd of around 2000 people at the Kennington Oval in London.

The Wanderers were at the time one of the leading clubs in England, particularly in the South, and attracted many of the leading university and public school players.  The club had initially been formed in 1859 as the Forest Football Club by a number of ex-public schoolboys, and were one of the founding members of the FA in 1863.  They adopted the name Wanderers the following year as it was decided to abandon the idea of having a fixed home ground, possibly because of the expense, and become a ‘wandering side’. Despite the name though they did in fact play a large majority of ‘home’ games at the Kennington Oval.

The Royal Engineers, as the name may suggest, was the football side of the Corps of Royal Engineers.  They were founded in 1863, and by the 1870s were one of the strongest sides in England, being particularly noted for their style of play.  This, unusually for the time, was built around passing, whereas other times mostly relied on dribbling and scrimmaging.

In 1871 the FA was now eight years old and though the original membership of 11 teams had grown to 50, it was only growing slowly.  FA secretary and Wanderers’ captain Charles Alcock, who recollected the excitement generated by playing in an inter-house knockout tournament while at Harrow School, felt that the formula could work on a bigger scale and proposed the formation a Challenge Cup, for which all clubs belonging to the FA would be invited to compete.  Alcock was hoping that this would provide the stimulus required to help grow the size of the organisation. His proposal was met “with general favour” by the rest of the FA Committee, and the rules of the new competition were agreed three months later.

Many clubs did not enter the first competition for financial reasons. All ties were to be played in London, and the clubs based in football hotbeds such as Nottingham and Sheffield found it difficult to be able to find the money to travel to the capital. Each club also had to contribute one guinea towards the cost of the £20 silver trophy, a substantial amount for a lot of clubs.  In the case of Scottish club Queen’s Park, who had been allowed to enter, it was almost a fifth of their total annual income.  As it was, just fifteen teams entered, and the draw for the First Round threw up these ties:

Wanderers v Harrow Chequers
Clapham Rovers v Upton Park
Crystal Palace v Hitchin
Maidenhead v Marlow
Royal Engineers v Reigate Priory
Barnes v Civil Service
Queen’s Park (Glasgow) v Donington School (Spalding)
With Hampstead Heathens being given a bye.

The Royal Engineers and The Wanderers were both given a walkover as both their opponents pulled out.  In fact, to reach the final Wanderers had only to win one match in the preceding four rounds.  With their first round game scratched, they managed to defeat an opposing side when they beat Clapham Rovers 3-1 away from home to set up a quarter-final with Crystal Palace (who were a different club to today’s Palace).  This game ended 0-0 but under the rules of the competition a committee decided that both teams were to be allowed to progress to the semi-finals rather than face a replay.  The Wanderers’ semi-final game was against Glasgow’s Queen’s Park who had reached this stage of the competition without having actually played a game due to a combination of byes and walkovers.  It was the furthest South the Scottish club had ever travelled, and when the game ended in another 0-0 draw, they had to forfeit a replay as they could not afford the trip to London a second time, and so Wanderers were granted a bye to the final.

The Royal Engineers had defeated Hitchin 5-0 away in the Second Round and Hampstead Heathens 2-0 to reach the semi-finals.  Here they met the Crystal Palace team who had held the Wanderers to a draw in the previous round, and again Palace got a 0-0 draw but this time had to play a replay which they lost 3-0 to set up the final between Royal Engineers and the Wanderers.

The day of the final seemed to be something of a society affair with the crowd, who had paid 1 shilling each for admission, being described as gentlemen.  Many of them had had arrived in their horse-drawn carriages, and while they watched the game their partners entertained themselves in the various refreshment tents dotted around the ground. The Engineers were being quoted as 7/4 favourites to win the game.  They had remained undefeated all season, and had a good recent record over the Wanderers, who seemed unable to cope with the Engineers style of football. The Wanderers however playing in the familiar surroundings of Kennington Oval soon saw things going their way.

Wearing their pink, black and cerise hooped shirts against the dark red and navy hoops of the Engineers, the Wanderers gained an early advantage when one of their opponents, Edmund Cresswell broke his collarbone early in the game.  As no substitutes were then allowed he stayed on the pitch, but he was little more than a spectator for the rest of the game.  Wanderers soon scored the first goal of the game in the fifteenth minute through Morton Betts after a fine run from Robert Vidal. Vidal, who was known by the nickname of “prince of dribblers”, was, at 18 years of age and still at school, the youngest player on the pitch.  The scorer, Betts, was actually playing under the pseudonym of A.H. Chequer, which presumably was referring to the fact that he had also played for Harrow Chequers that season. Betts whose position for this game was full-back would go onto play for England 5 years later against Scotland, but as a goalkeeper.

Despite their favourites tag the Engineers were outplayed throughout the whole game and the 1-0 score line flattered them.  Wanderers had seen another goal by captain Alcock disallowed for handball, another shot had rebounded off the post, and a series of fine saves from the Engineers’ goalkeeper, William Merriman, helped to keep the score down.  Wanderers were deserved winners, and the correspondent of the Field wrote “It was the fastest and hardest match that has ever been seen at The Oval … some of the best play on their [the Wanderers] part, individually and collectively, that has ever been shown in an Association game.”

The cup was not on hand to present to the winners who received it a month later at a special ceremony at the Wanderers’ Annual Dinner at the Pall Mall Restaurant in Charing Cross.  Each player received a silk badge commemorating the victory from the FA, and an inscribed gold medal from the club’s committee. In 2010 the only known surviving medal came up for auction in London.  It had been purchased by a jeweler in the 1950s and exceeded expectations by fetching over £70,000 in the winning bid by the PFA.

As cup-holders, Wanderers received a bye straight to the final of the following year’s FA Cup.  This was in keeping with the original concept of the competition being a “challenge cup”, but was the only time the rule was used.  They beat Oxford University 2-0 in that final and then over the rest of the decade they won five of the first eight FA Cup competitions played, including three in a row between 1876 and 1878.  Their dominance was not to last though and as the public schools and universities football teams, that were the traditional source of players for Wanderers, became better organised, they found it increasingly difficult to attract players. Just two years after winning the FA Cup for a fifth time they suffered the humiliation of having to withdraw from a FA Cup first round tie in 1880 as they were unable to raise a side, and by 1881 they were to play just one game a season against Harrow at Christmas for the next few seasons.  The Wanderers finally folded in 1887, only to be revived in 2009 by a group of players who gained permission of the descendants of the original founders to use the name.  They now ply their trade in Division Four of the Surrey South Eastern Combination, and in November 2012 they, and the Royal Engineers, replayed the 1872 cup final game at the Oval to raise money for charity.  The Engineers this time extracted some belated revenge by inflicting a 7-1 drubbing on the Wanderers.  After the game the Engineers were presented with the original trophy that the Wanderers had won way back in 1872 which was being given a rare outing from its home in Manchester’s National Football Museum.