This weekend marks the first “Non-League Day”, a concerted attempt to try and persuade supporters of the biggest clubs in Britain to take a step back from the thrills and spills of the Premier League and the Championship (since they have a day off anyway, on account of the weekend’s international matches) and take in the sights, sounds and – yes – smells of their local non-league club. By Premier League and Football League standards, even a relatively modest turn-out would make a great deal of difference to many non-league clubs, particularly the smaller ones, so we are throwing our full wait behind this concept and, to mark it, we’re giving over the rest of this week to non-league football, kicking off this evening by taking a look at the competition that was, for eighty years, the pinnacle of the non-league game: The FA Amateur Cup.
In a modern age of sponsors’ names, play-offs and the occasional feeling that we have reached a point in football at which change is the only constant, The FA Amateur Cup is a name that is absolutely reeks of a different age. It calls to mind an era of oak-panelled board rooms infused with the aroma of cigar smoke, of The Great And The Good, decked out with monocles and walrus moustaches, making decisions for the benefit of “The Game”, but which largely served to benefit themselves the most. It is a long lost world of obsolete phrases such as “Old Boys”, “gentleman players” and “shamateurism”, and its decline was rapid as the FA ended one of its most enduring idiosyncracies in the face of a problem that threatened to mushroom out of all control. Yet at its height the FA Amateur Cup Final was, albeit briefly, a sporting event that could almost rival the FA Cup Final itself.
The formation of the competition came at the behest of the oldest football club in the world, Sheffield FC. By the start of the 1890s, the professionals had won the argument over who provided the best players. The Football League had begun in 1888 and this was a challenge to the autocracy of the FA, to the extent that the clubs threatened to break away and form a British Football Association. To this extent, the FA was obviously conflicted. It was still (as it would be for many years) run by the upper classes and amateurism (including but not limited to the notion of players that weren’t paid to play because they didn’t need to be) was a part of its make up. The first professional player to represent England, for example, wore a blue shirt while the others on his team wore white. Something had to give, and it was a difficult act to juggle the mutually suspicious worlds of professional and amateur football.
The FA turned down Sheffield’s original offer to pay for a trophy for a competition for amateur clubs, but they began a competition for amateur clubs only themselves in the 1893/94 season, with Old Carthusians (the “Old Boys” team for the public school, Charterhouse) beating Bishop Auckland in the first final. The appearance of the Bishops in the first final was a warning that the FA Amateur Cup wouldn’t be a safe house for the Old Boys for long and, indeed, Bishop Auckland would go on to win the trophy ten times, by far and away an Amateur Cup record. The clubs of the already well-established Northern League won seven of the next ten competitions, and the formation of the Arthur Dunn Cup in 1902 for the former public school teams and the formation of the Amateur Football Association in 1907 deprived the competition of many of its other southern entrants, which further tightened the Northern League’s strangle-hold on the competition in the years immediately prior to the start of the First World War.
The years immediately after the end of the war, however, were dominated by clubs from London and the south-east of England. The Isthmian League had founded in 1905 and expanded in the years after the war, and only Bishop Auckland and the Manchester-based Northern Nomads (one-off winners in 1926) won the competition from outside of this area between 1915 and 1950. The powerful Southern League had been professional from the outset and didn’t enter the competition. The possibility of election to the Football League – not possible from the Isthmian League – was a strong enough pull for many smaller southern clubs, although the Southern League was weakened when the Football League expanded to three divisions in 1920, taking the overwhelming majority of the strongest teams from its top division.
Still, though, Amateur Cup crowds continued to rise. In the years immediately after the end of the Second World War, they shot up in the same way that attendances had throughout the rest of the game, and the Amateur Cup was rewarded accordingly with a Wembley final from the 1948/49 season on. Bromley beat Romford in the first Wembley final, but this season was also notable for the entry for the entry of Pegasus, the last hurrah of “Corinthian” values within the game. Formed by Sir Harold Thompson (a former Oxford University blue who would go on to be the Chairman of the FA), they were a team that were supposed to revive such values but, while they won the Amateur Cup in 1951 and 1953, they folded in 1963. Indeed, their appearance in the 1951 final arguably marked the peak of the competition’s success, with a capacity crowd of 100,000 seeing them beat Bishop Auckland.
The final managed capacity crowds at Wembley for much of the 1950s, but the end of the line for the amateur game was already on the horizon. The notion of “shamateurism” (making under the counter payments to supposedly amateur players) was as old as the game itself, but the FA had largely turned a blind eye to the problem. However, in 1960 the maximum wage was abolished and professional players’ wages began to rise significantly. If “shamateur” payments rose in line with these, the FA and clubs themselves could find itself facing major difficulties from the taxman. The Amateur Cup remained competitive and (albeit to a lesser degree) popular – 75,000 people, the highest crowd in the competition for ten years, turned out to watch the 1967 final between Enfield and Skelmersdale United – but the FA gave its clearest signal that its days were numbered when they introduced the FA Trophy for semi-professional clubs for the 1969/70 season.
The bell was tolled on the 27th of November 1972, when the FA Council voted to abolish the difference in status between professional and amateur players. The FA’s secretary, Denis Follows, noted soberly that, “My headache has gone. It’s been passed to the tax man”. The final FA Amateur Cup Final was played on the 20th of April 1974 at Wembley in front of a crowd of 30,500 people, with Bishops Stortford beating Ilford by four goals to one. The larger former amateur clubs were subsumed into the FA Trophy for the following season whilst a new competition, the FA Vase, was introduced for the smaller clubs. Both competitions still exist to this day, although neither has reached the status that the FA Amateur Cup did in its heyday and the FA Trophy in particular has suffered with the change in make-up of the Football Conference, even more so since the introduction of play-offs for a second promotion place into the Football League.
The death of the FA Amateur Cup was inevitable for, as we have seen, a number of different reasons, and that the FA Trophy and FA Vase have, between them, failed to catch the public’s imagination in the same way is likely to be more about changes in public perception than anything else. In the same way the the FA Cup has started to pall in comparison with the Premier League, so have the FA Trophy and FA Vase lost their sheen in the face of the relentless promotion of the league game. For the FA, the question of quite how the FA Trophy, in particular, can maintain its credibility when faced with the onslaught of the Blue Square Premier (particularly when an ever-growing number of its member clubs’ supporters are grumpy enough about having been relegated from the Football League and don’t seem to want much reminding of their new, reduced, status) remains one of the great unanswerables of modern non-league football.