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!

Young, gifted and green

THINGS haven’t gone particularly well for Hitchin Town this season, the first three games yielded just one point and a refashioned team was heavily beaten 5-0 at Alvechurch. Famously loyal, the fans have kept very quiet – there was a time when such a start to the season would have prompted calls for the manager to be sacked, but there’s no sign of #burkeyout among the sexagenarians that prowl the wooden terracing at the Fishponds Road end of the ground.

Non-league has always been a game of constantly moving toy soldiers, players coming in, moving out, playing the odd game and then finding a new club. Some clubs use 50-odd players a season, not generally successful ones, but the workforce is very transient. The Canaries team that reached two play-offs a couple of years back has all but broken up. The club got a lot out of Burke’s first team, but the question is, how many of the players he is currently fielding will be with the club in two, three or six months? The two best players on show were loanees.

On the evidence of game four against Rushall Olympic, a team that plays away from home in a very fetching “aquamarine”, Hitchin could be in for a tough season unless they find the experience that can bring some stability and savvy to their team. No shortage of enthusiasm or endeavour, and one or two players are clearly skilful, but it’s all largely harem scarem with no obvious pattern.

Hitchin are no strangers to putting out young teams – in the 1980s, they often had very inexperienced and raw sides, but this also coincided with a lean spell that lasted some years. Invariably, teams that go down this road are either idealistic or they’re short of money, Hitchin probably don’t fall into either category – they must surely have enjoyed a windfall in 2018-19 from a successful FA Cup run. The smart new dugouts and some much-needed work on the clubhouse roof would have accounted for some of that, but Hitchin appear to have moved on from claiming to be paupers. Most notably for those that care about these things, the media team has done a great job remodelling the press box!

On the pitch, their current team is possibly the youngest they’ve ever had, certainly since the 1980s. Most truly successful teams are a well-constructed mix of youth and experience, but this Canaries squad is long on promise and short on achievement. Of course, there’s the impressive and dependable Dan Webb, but there are few who have any sort of CV. To add to the air of transition, Hitchin also lost their two best players in the summer in goalkeeper Michael Johnson and  winger-cum-midfielder Isaac Galliford, who went to Braintree and Hemel respectively.

It is doubtful anybody had heard of most of the new recruits before they arrived at Top Field, but Mark Burke brought back Brett Donnelly to add some zing to the dressing room. Now in the phyllosan stage of his playing career, Donnelly is a popular figure whose “run through a brick wall” approach is highly appreciated. He’s an honest broker of a player – you get what you see – and loves Hitchin Town. He is more representative of non-league of old rather than the academy outlet it is rapidly becoming.

Rushall arrived at an intensely heated Top Field in second place and unbeaten after three games. Although this was not the first time the clubs had met, Rushall is still a place people have trouble in identifying – “where is Rushall?” – although the slightly diluted Peaky Blinders accent of the visitors reveals it is in close proximity to Birmingham.

The game was fairly even in the first half, Hitchin energetic and creating some half chances, but you sensed Rushall had something in reserve – a predator waiting to pounce, perhaps. One player who caught the eye was Hitchin’s left back, Jordan Norville-Williams, who is currently on loan from Cambridge United. The 19 year-old’s composure set him apart from some of his less assured team-mates. Harry Draper, the force of nature signed on a season’s loan from Stevenage, also looked good.

Draper put Hitchin ahead from the penalty spot in the 62ndminute, a decision that looked debatable but compensated for an obvious handball just seconds earlier. Draper has scored all of Hitchin’s goals this season, underlining his obvious potential.

But it all changed suddenly, and there was a feeling that Rushall had decided to spring into action after going behind. Two quick goals, both raising question marks about the solidity of Hitchin’s defence, put Rushall in front – Levi Rowley and Jonathan Letford netting after 66 and 68. The game then went back to its familiar pattern, Rushall had done enough.

Hitchin tried to get back into the game, lots of possession and pressure, but the Rushall defence was sound. The 2-1 victory put them top of the table as leading scorers in the league, while Mark Burke’s side is one off the bottom. The Canaries looked crestfallen, especially the management team, but it is early days and Hitchin have been here before. No need for gallows to be constructed on the training pitch!