Last week saw the draws made for the very first round of next season’s FA Trophy. The FA Trophy has regained some of the sheen that it lost at the turn of this century when the old Wembley stadium was demolished and the venue for the final was moved to Villa Park, but it will probably never attain the place in the public’s imagination that was held by the FA Amateur Cup. The Amateur Cup, in its heyday during the 1950s, regularly filled Wembley to its 100,000 capacity for the final, but when the FA ended the distinction between professional and amateur clubs in 1974, the competition came to an end and the majority of its clubs had to settle for a place in FA Vase instead.
It’s important to clarify why the FA felt the need to have an Amateur Cup final in the first place, because its very existence says a lot about the development of the game during the nineteenth century. Football as we understand it came from a curious mixture of the louche amateurism of the public schools of the south of England and the keen professionalism of the north of England and Scotland. In the 1880s, before the professional Football League had even started, clubs had started to pay players in strict contradiction to the rules of the game at the time. The first professional club to win the FA Cup were Blackburn Olympic, who beat Old Etonians at the Kennington Oval in 1883. It soon became apparent that the future of the game was to be professional, but the majority of people within the corridors of power of the game came from the public schools, so the FA Amateur Cup was established in 1893 with the aim of maintaining interest in the amateur game in England.
The first competition featured quite a few household names, including Tottenham Hotspur, Middlesbrough, Ipswich Town, Reading and Shrewsbury Town, alongside long-forgotten names such as Leadgate Exiles, the pleasingly onomatopoeic Lincoln Lindum, Chirk and Sherwood Foresters, who made the semi-final before losing to Casuals, who in turn lost the final to Old Carthusians at Richmond. The early competitions were fraught with problems. Matches were frequently scratched because teams couldn’t afford the travelling expenses to away matches, resulting in a number of walk-overs for some fortunate clubs. In 1898, the quarter-final match between Middlesbrough and Thornaby was postponed three times because of an outbreak of smallpox in the two towns. The FA eventually ordered the match to be played at Darlington, but Darlington officials refused the teams to play there for fear that the players would be contaminated with the disease. Eventually, the match was played at a village called Brotton, near Redcar, twenty miles from Middlesbrough with no spectators present.
Protests were a common part of the early FA Amateur Cup competitions. Many of them concerned definitions of “professionalism” itself. In the competition’s first season, Tottenham Hotspur were thrown out of the competition after becoming embroiled in what became known as the “Payne’s Boots Affair”. After a London Senior Cup match against a team called St Marks, they were found to have lent a professional player that had turned out for them (free of charge) ten shillings to buy a pair of boots. The harsh treatment that the club received was enough to persuade them to turn professional in 1895. In 1899, Royal Artillery Portsmouth’s players went away to a training camp, and the complimentary cigars and wine that the players received were considered to be “payment”, leading to the club’s expulsion from the competition. The professional Portsmouth FC were formed later that year. The FA, curiously, didn’t seem to able to please anyone in this respect – the gentleman Old Boys clubs of the 1870s and 1880s started to to withdraw from the competition almost from the beginning, and in 1902 the formation of the Arthur Dunn Cup (which is still contested to this day) meant that the days of louche gentlemen with walrus moustaches and pipes winning the FA Amateur Cup were largely over.
Two regions became the powerhouses of the competition – London and the south-east, and the north-east. The Southern Football League had been a largely professional league since the nineteenth century, but the Isthmian & Athenian Leagues, its amateur alternatives, were powerful leagues in their own right. In the north, the Northern Football League remained solidly amateur (the Northern League’s claim to fame is that it is the second oldest football league in the world after the Football League). The kings of the competition were Bishop Auckland who, in their famous navy and sky blue shirts, won the competition ten times and were runners-up eight times between 1896 and 1957. Other northern winners of the competition included South Bank, Stockton, West Hartlepool (who would go on to be absorbed into Hartlepool United) and Crook Town. Honours amongst the southern clubs were more evenly spread out, with Kingstonian, Barnet, Enfield, Leytonstone, Wycombe Wanderers, Clapton, Bromley, Casuals, London Caledonians, Wimbledon, Woking, Walton & Hersham, Wealdstone, Hendon and Dulwich Hamlet all winning the competition from the Isthmian and Athenian Leagues.
The curious exception to the north-south divide were Pegasus FC, the Oxford-based club that was formed by future FA chairman Harold Wallace Thompson in 1948 to promote amateur ideals within the game. The club initially took players that were recent graduates from Oxford and Cambridge universities (the name Pegasus was chosen because it comprised elements of the logos of both universities – a horse (representing Oxford) with wings (representing the falcon that symbolises Cambridge), although the club’s rules were soon relaxed, alowwing any amateur players, such as former Tottenham Hotspur star Vic Buckingham, to play for them. Pegasus first entered the competition in the 1948/49 season – the first in which the final was held at Wembley – and won it in 1951 and 1953, but soon faded from view after a number of their best players defected to the London-based Corinthian-Casuals and were wound up in 1963. Buckingham, once a player for one of the last of the truly “corinthian” clubs, ended up heavily implicated in (although never charged over) the 1964 betting scandal when, as the manager of Sheffield Wednesday, three of his players were banned for life after betting on Wednesday to lose a match against Ipswich Town.
By the mid-to-late 1960s, the appeal of the FA Amateur Cup was starting to wane. Although it was still capable of great moments of drama (in 1967, Enfield goalkeeper Ian Wolstenholme saved a last minute penalty against Skelmersdale United to keep the score level at 0-0 in front of 75,000 at Wembley, and the London side won the replay 3-0 at Maine Road), the balance of power in terms of non-league football was swinging back towards the semi-professional clubs of the Southern League and the newly-formed Northern Premier League. In 1969, the FA introduced the FA Trophy for semi-professional non-league clubs, and the writing was on the wall for the FA Amateur Cup. The death sentence was finally announced in 1974, when the FA confirmed that they were to end the distinction between amateur and professional clubs. Clubs that were nominally regarded as “amateur” had been paying players for years (it had become widely known as “shamateurism”), and this move was, in many ways, moving the last traces of the Victorian class system from the game’s formal structure. From 1975 onwards, the larger clubs would join the FA Trophy and there would be a new competition, the FA Vase, for the smaller clubs. It’s an arrangement that remains in place to this day. Bishops Stortford won the last competition, beating Ilford 4-1 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 30,500 people – still more than many FA Trophy finals have managed over the last thirty year or so.
In some respects, the non-league game took many, many years to survive from the FA’s failure to abolish this difference earlier than it did, and one can trace an almost direct line from the cahotic structure that existed within the non-league game from its amateur roots right up to the final streamlining of the non-league pyramid in 2004. Clubs had an agonising choice to make – join the professional leagues and have a once-a-decade chance of joining the Football League (and a very slim one at that) or remain amateur and have a chance of a Wembley final every year, but with no serious chance of progressing towards the Football League. Clubs would frequently use an FA Amateur Cup win as the springboard to turn professional (as Wimbledon did after their 1963 win against Sutton United). The lack of a coherent system within non-league football damaged the game for a long time, as did the perpetual rumours (often true) about under the counter payments to players were unnecessary and damaging to the image of the games and the clubs. In the twenty-first century, crowds for FA Trophy finals are getting back towards the 40-50,000 average of the 1960s, and it’s often difficult not to pine for those great matches of the 1950s, when capacity crowds would descend on Wembley to see the likes of Walthamstow Avenue and Bishop Auckland. It would take a peculiar form of rose-tinted nostalgia, however, to not understand why the FA Amateur Cup had to be abolished in time.
Below are the goals from the 1965 FA Amateur Cup Final at Wembley, between Hendon and Whitby Town.