The Generation Cup: The “old boys” and the FA Cup

GIVEN the nation is in the grip of Old Etonian dominance (two or our most recent Prime Ministers were members of the infamous Bullingdon Club), it is worth recalling in this 150th year of the FA Cup, that the competition threatened to become the jealously-guarded property of the privileged classes.

The Downton Abbey-esque English Game, a drama written by Julian Fellowes, gave a somewhat tame and polished view of the early days of the FA Cup. It highlighted the prejudice of the south towards the north – in one scene, a member of the Old Etonians, working for a bank, was asked to go to Lancashire. The look of fear on his face highlighted how people once viewed northern England with great suspicion. At the time, though, the north dealt in reverse snobbery, regarding the well-heeled, well-educated and well-fed southerners as pampered folk leading far easier and safer lives. 

The English Game could not resist a few cliches that underlined that the sport was rapidly becoming the pastime of the sweaty, horny-handed sons of the soil. I experienced this prejudice when I started my career in the mid-1970s, the public school fraternity at my workplace referring to me as “Comp” because I had come from an Essex comprehensive school.

The Old Etonians were one of a number of teams from the Old Boy network who championed the game and made their mark in the early years of the FA Cup. Their first appearance in the competition was in 1874-75 when they reached the final but lost to the Royal Engineers after a replay. The following season, they were beaten finalists again, this time losing to the Wanderers.

The early star of the FA Cup was Alfred Lord Kinnaird, who played in nine finals, winning five with firstly the Wanderers (1873, 1877 and 1878) and then the Old Etonians (1879 and 1882). Kinnaird’s lifetime achievements marks him as a man very much of his time, as well as a prominent figure in the development of football, he was also president of the YMCA, a director of Barclays Bank and Lord High Commissioner to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. He was president of the Football Association between 1890 and 1923 and when he studied at Cambridge University, he was a tennis blue and a champion swimmer. As a footballer, Kinnaird was reputed to be the toughest of all tacklers and was not shy in using strong-arm techniques against his opponents. He was, nevertheless, capped by Scotland.

The Old Etonians won their first FA Cup in 1878-79 in what was considered to be the poorest final to date. They had beaten old rivals Wanderers 7-2 away, Reading, Minerva, Darwen (after three meetings) and Nottingham Forest on the way to the final at the Kennington Oval where Clapham Rovers awaited them. The winning goal came from 21 year-old Charles Clerke, another interesting character who became a gentleman farmer in Hampshire. Sadly, Clerke lost his son on the beaches of Dunkirk in 1940.

In 1881, the Old Carthusians became the second OB team to win the competition, beating the Etonians in the final. The Carthusians were old boys from Charterhouse, the school that was the starting point for the rock band Genesis, among other well-known figures. The Carthusians, in 1888, were interested in joining the Football League but were not asked to become part of the competition. One notable Old Carthusian was Andrew Amos, who would play for the first Hitchin football club and also win two caps for England. In the 1881 final, the Carthusians easily beat the Etonians by 3-0.

The day of the gifted amateur was coming to a close, however, although the Etonians won the cup in 1882. The turning point came on March 31, 1883 at the Oval. Blackburn Olympic, a team founded in 1878, beat the Etonians 3-0 to become the first team from the north to win the competition, ending the dominance of southern clubs. The old boys never went close again. Blackburn had professionals in their line-up, which was not to the Etonians liking. This was a seismic moment in the history of the game and prompted calls for the Football Association to investigate the finances of the northern clubs. Success, it would seem, has always been bought!

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