Middlemarch

The 1872 FA Challenge Cup Final (rematch) – Royal Engineers AFC v Wanderers AFC
Wednesday, 7th November 2012, 7pm
The Oval
Distance 15 miles, Attendance 2257
As The Football Association “Challenge” Cup, the original competition rules dictated that the champions were entitled to be “challenged” to defend their title the following year. This rule would however only ever be applied once, with Wanderers – as the winners of the inaugural FA Cup Final – being the sole beneficiary.
In that 1872 Final at The Oval – having had fifteen teams whittled down to two – Wanderers 1-0 victory over The Royal Engineers came courtesy of a Morton Betts goal. The “innovative passing game” of the Royal Engineers (remembers Liverpool circa 1988) was no match for Wanderers more traditional approach (Wimbledon). Betts, interestingly – having represented Harrow Chequers FC (but without kicking a ball) earlier in the competition – played for Wanderers in The Final under the pseudonym of “A.H.Chequer”. How this wasn’t spotted seems fairly inexplicable as, back then, Harrow Chequers played their home matches at The Oval too.
The win in 1872 gave Wanderers the bye to the following year’s FA Cup Final, where they duly beat Oxford University 2-0 and the bye rule was changed for good.
Illustrating connections between the different sporting codes: having played The Final on Surrey’s cricket ground, the FA Cup trophy was presented to Wanderers sometime later at The Pall Mall Restaurant (now the “Texas Embassy Cantina”), where Rugby Union had been founded the year before.
With Victoria on the throne and Gladstone as her Prime Minister, elsewhere in the country – in the leap year of 1872 – cartoonist Heath Robinson was born, George Eliot wrote something my mother would appreciate, Hastings Pier was opened, the Licensing Act came into being, and a meteorite struck Banbury. In the growing football universe, the first FIFA recognised International Football match took place between Scotland and England at Glasgow’s Hamilton Crescent cricket ground, where, before 4000 spectators the score was 0-0.

Almost 140 years after the first FA Cup match was played, last night – heartening many a groundhopper – saw the total rematch of this 1872 game; the original FA Cup Final, at The Oval (both of which are tragically sponsored now) between Royal Engineers and Wanderers.
It wasn’t the best game I’ve ever attended, nor certainly the best publicised, and the excitement clearly got to the heads of some players but, as a night out in at football well it was a damn sight more real than the televised stuff on last night. Those who knew about the event enjoyed a laid back evening, in a lovely old pavilion, steeped in history, with beer on tap and football on the pitch.
Both FA Cups appeared in The Long Room for some fan-friendly photo opportunities whilst, Messrs Gold and Gould happily posed (and pontificated) to any camera trained on them. Cricket aficionados and Chelsea Pensioners mingled freely with a crowd from another code, and out on the balcony groundhoppers and the blogging glitterati stood tall (well the view behind the screen wasn’t too great when seated).
Once the teams finished their warm up, a marching band strode purposefully onto the green, before “Abide With Me” was sung at a thankfully lower pitch than The (last) Cup Final. Of course there may be another excuse but, as the teams lined up – in modern versions of old colours – Wanderers realising how close they were to Bobby Gould, quickly shook hands with the opposition and walked smartly away only to line up again beyond The Royal Engineers as The National Anthem struck up from the band (marching no more). As this scene played out the amassed TV crews and paps scuttled to and fro, earning their keep; looking for missed handshakes, team shots in goalmouths, coin tossing, and one would imagine the orange glow of Bobby’s reaction.

“Royal Engineers, five nil” piped up Adam moments into the game. Looking out the teams were clearly mismatched; not in ability but in strength and fitness. The Engineers seemed focussed and disciplined whilst Wanderers were seemingly caught in the headlights.  It would be 43 minutes before they first tested the keeper but, by then (shot, header, shot, shot, direct free kick missed by all sneaking in at far post) it was 5-0 already. Others might really know the scorers but given they all had the same “REAFC” surname, mortals like me hadn’t a hope. Looking over, my companion was clearly reassessing his prediction, whilst I was once again gnawing on the possibility of seeing the mythical ten goal game. As the sixth goal went in following a mix up between keeper and defender, I could hardly contain myself.

   

The second period however proved a different contest. The Engineers had taken their foot of the pedal a little and Wanderers were getting stuck in at last. Five minutes in a fine Wanderers shot – despite missing the target – brought the biggest cheer of the night. From then on the crowd in festive spirit urged on every Wanderers attack and booed loudly at every offside given against them.
On the balcony we were by now discussing the introduction of long shorts, heavy cotton shirts, and a speeded up game in black and white. Down below Bobby Gould was probably animated in a different way.
Having had a couple more fine shots Wanderers bought on Flash (yes it was mentioned) who with almost his first decent touch headed in off the crossbar (and sung). In wasn’t that pretty but, the evenly match footballing contest that played out the half spoilt my hopes of double figures, which could not be restored even when another chap named REAFC lobbed the keeper to end the scoring at 7-1.
Did I feel cheated? No. It had felt just like being at Wembley. Seats were empty, people were talking during the action which didn’t live up to expectations, and the losing manager’s head was called for as the final whistle went. It was however a truly enjoyable night out with friends, under floodlights, at an FA Cup match, where The Original Cup was presented (to anyone wearing protective white gloves).
Both my mother and mother-in-law would have you believe that the eight part serialisation of George Eliot’s Middlemarch was the big event of 1872 but they’re wrong. The breakthrough was the realisation of Charles Alcock’s sporting idea, which landed in our world, smack-bang in the middle of March. I’ve tried thinking of a time when I haven’t wanted to score it’s winning goal in it, but that time doesn’t exist.
Three cheers from Charles Alcock… HIP, HIP!
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