This coming weekend sees the fourth round of the FA Cup, and the same old names will be battling it out for this year’s trophy. On Saturday six-times winners Newcastle United travel to ten-times winners Arsenal, while Tottenham, who have won the cup eight times, face Manchester United (the most successful team in FA Cup history, with eleven wins) on Sunday. It seems impossible to look outside the ‘Big Four’ of Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea when considering who might triumph in this year’s final at Wembley in May. Indeed, many in the game have questioned whether the world’s oldest cup competition has lost its ability to shock. 

However, things were never thus, and a quick glance at the records shows that the early years of the trophy were dominated by clubs which would be unknown to the modern fan. The first two finals, held at the Kennington Oval in 1872 and 1873 were won by Battersea-based amateur outfit The Wanderers, while subsequent editions were dominated by clubs such as the now defunct Clapham Rovers, who triumphed in 1880. Early editions of the trophy were limited to amateur teams only, and were initially dominated by public-school teams such as the Old Etonians and the Old Carthusians. This was to be expected, as it was in the English public schools that the rules and conventions of modern football had recently been developed. Another nineteenth century institution which was dominated by these public schools was, of course, Oxford University. This created a situation that would appear perverse to any modern observer of football, namely that many of the country’s most talented footballers could be found within the ancient walls of this university.

This, incredibly, made Oxford University one of the most feared footballing outfits in the country. The team was packed with internationals, and indeed no less than twenty-nine alumni of this university have gone on to receive full England caps. The team first entered the FA Cup in 1872-3, and defeated Crystal Palace 3-2 in their very first game. They went on to reach the final that year, before losing 2-0 to The Wanderers. The following year they went one better, seeing off the Royal Engineers 2-0 with goals from Charles Mackarness and Frederick Patton. Interestingly, this is the only cup final to date when two brothers have lined up on opposing teams, as Oxford’s William Rawson faced his brother Herbert. Perhaps this record is something for Phil and Gary Neville of Everton and Manchester United respectively to aim for. In the next few years, the University continued its remarkable cup success, reaching three more finals but unfortunately failing to lift the famous trophy again.

As the advent of professionalism dawned, Oxford naturally declined as a footballing force. Blackburn Olympic’s 1883 victory over the Old Etonians is often seen as a turning point as football ceased to be the domain of the universities and public schools. The University last entered the cup in 1879/80 but the statistics speak for themselves. Oxford have won the FA Cup, unlike established Premiership clubs such as Middlesbrough, Wigan Athletic and Reading. Furthermore, they were losing finalists in no less than four more finals, the same number as the likes of Chelsea, Manchester City and Wolves. Perhaps most impressive is Oxford University’s all-time FA Cup record which reads 30 wins from 45 matches. This is an extraordinary win rate of sixty-six percent and a rate better than virtually every modern team in the land. Who cares if these records were set in an age when crossbars were yet to be invented and when games were played wearing caps and trousers! When watching this year’s competition develop therefore, it might be interesting to look back to a day when Oxford University could boast an all- conquering team of the sort Sir Alex Ferguson or Arsene Wenger could only dream. by Matt Miskimmin References from- ouafc.com, thefa.com, fa-cupfinals.co.uk