One of the first facts about the FA Cup you ever learn when first diving into its history, well one of the first facts that you ever learn about English Football per se, is that Tottenham Hotspur are the only club to win the famous trophy as a Non-League club.
This is a true fact, and in all likelihood will never be repeated, but without diminishing that achievement, it did actually happen in an era when the dividing line between top League clubs and Non-League was considerably thinner than it is now.
At the turn of the 20th Century, and in 1901 in particular when Tottenham achieved their famous win, there were only two League divisions and just 36 League clubs, the majority of which were based in the Midlands and the North, where professional football had its roots. In fact Arsenal, then known as Woolwich Arsenal, were the only club based south of the West Midlands competing in League football.
All other southern based clubs at that time, historians now class as ‘Non-League’, and the better quality Southern clubs competed in the Southern League, a league considered to be on a par standard-wise with the top League Division One. So much so, in fact, that many Southern League clubs were exempted from the Qualifying Stages of the FA Cup, whilst several League clubs had to participate in those rounds. As a consequence, non-league Southern League clubs regularly appeared in FA Cup Quarter Finals, Semi-Finals and the Final itself, with Southampton twice being runners-up in the seasons either side of Tottenham lifting the trophy.
The Southern League was eventually amalgamated into the Football League in 1920 forming en masse as the Third Division. A year later a Northern Division Three was added to create the four leagues we are so familiar with in current times, albeit with an adjustment in 1958 when the regional nature of two separate Division Threes was replaced with a straightforward merit based Divisions One through to Four.
However, soon after the amalgamation of the Southern League into the Football League it became clear that the FA Cup structure needed to be amended to reflect the increase in what were regarded as League clubs, and in 1925 this new format was introduced, a format that has more-or-less remained the same ever since.
Ostensibly, clubs in the top two League Divisions were exempted until what was called the Third Round Proper, whilst all Division Three clubs were exempted until the First Round Proper. All Non-League clubs would have to qualify for the ‘Proper’ Rounds, although in the inaugural years of this new structure there were a few exceptions such as the FA Amateur Cup finalists being exempted until the First Round and, in recognition of their contribution to the development of football in England and across the world, Amateur club Corinthians were exempted until the Third Round.
These non-league exemptions were soon phased out and a final change to the structure was implemented in 1951 reflecting exactly how the FA Cup is structure now in the 21st Century. Eighty clubs compete in the First Round Proper made up of 48 lower league clubs and 32 non-league clubs. That number of 32 non-league clubs is the same regardless of how many non-league clubs participate in any one FA Cup season, and explains why it is so much harder nowadays for non-league clubs to be successful in the competition than it was in the days when Tottenham Hotspur were triumphant. But some plucky non-league clubs do occasionally gate-crash the FA Cup party.
In that first season of the current FA Cup structure, in 1925/26, three other non-league clubs battled their way to join Corinthians in the Third Round. Midland League side Boston (a forerunner to the current Boston United) started their Cup run in the 4th Qualifying Round with a 2-1 victory over Grassmoor from the Derbyshire Senior League playing in their 5th FA Cup match of the campaign. Boston were defeated 8-1 by First Division Sunderland in the Third Round. Northern Alliance club Chilton Colliery Welfare also began their run in the 4th Qualifying Round beating Tyneside League club Usworth Colliery 3-0 who had started their campaign in the 1st Qualifying Round. Chilton Colliery Welfare lost 3-0 themselves to South Shields from Football League Division Two in the Third Round. As the 1925 FA Amateur Cup winners, Isthmian League club Clapton were exempted until the 1st Round Proper where they won 3-1 at home to Division Three South side Norwich City before eventually narrowly losing 3-2 to Swindon Town from the same Division in the Third Round played at Upton Park.
Corinthians held First Division strugglers Manchester City to a 3-3 draw before succumbing to a 4-0 defeat at Maine Road in the replay. However, the amateurs became the first Non-League club to appear in the Fourth Round in the very next season. They had a comfortable 4-0 Third Round win at Walsall from Division Three North before losing 3-1 at home to First Division Newcastle United in the Fourth Round. They achieved the feat again two seasons later in the 1928/29 season (losing 3-0 at First Division West Ham United), but this time they were joined by another Non-League club who had had to qualify for the Proper Rounds.
Mansfield Town were competing in the Midland League and began their FA Cup campaign that year with a Fourth Qualifying Round 2-2 draw at Barnsley Association League outfit Ardsley Athletic who had begun their own campaign in the Preliminary Round. The Stags won the replay 2-0 before going on to win 4-2 at fellow Midland League side Shirebrook in the First Round Proper, to triumph 2-1 at Division Three North side Barrow in the Second Round and 1-0 at Division Two club Wolverhampton Wanderers in the Third. Mansfield thus became the first Non-League club to qualify for the Proper Rounds of the FA Cup and make it as far as the Fourth Round where they went down 2-0 to First Division Arsenal.
The next club to qualify for the Proper Rounds and make it all the way to the Fourth Round was North Eastern League Division One side Workington five years later in 1933/34 season. Like Mansfield before them, the Reds began their campaign in the Fourth and last Qualifying Round meaning they only had to win one match to make the Proper Rounds. This they did by defeating Cheshire County League side Manchester North End 6-3 in a replay after the two sides had played out a 3-3 draw in the first match. Workington then defeated three Division Three sides, Southport, Newport County and Gateshead, before eventually losing 2-1 at home to Second Division Preston North End in the Fourth Round.
The next Non-League club to make the Fourth Round had a more remarkable journey to get there, and set all sorts of FA Cup records in doing so. In 1938 Essex based amateur club Chelmsford folded after 60 years of existence. The football club gap in the town was filled by the formation of an aspiring to be professional club, Chelmsford City, who were admitted to the Southern League for the 1938-39 season (the amateur club had been playing in the lower Essex County League). Because of their late formation, Chelmsford City had to begin their FA Cup campaign in the Preliminary Round (other Southern League clubs began theirs in the 4th Qualifying Round or even the First Round Proper).
Chelmsford were drawn away at Athenian League club Barking whom they beat 2-1, the first of eight FA Cup victories in the same season. They beat London league Division One side Ford Sports (Dagenham) 6-2 in the First Qualifying Round, Eastern Counties League side Crittall Athletic (now Braintree Town) 4-2 in the Second Qualifying Round, the second of four incarnations of Romford (playing in the Athenian League) 3-1 in the Third Qualifying Round, and Isthmian League side Dulwich Hamlet 5-1 in the Fourth Qualifying Round. The First Round Proper saw a 4-0 home win over Birmingham and District League outfit Kidderminster Harriers, followed up by a 3-1 victory over their first League opposition, in the shape of Darlington from Division Three North, in the Second Round. Their eighth FA Cup victory of the season was a 4-1 Third Round defeat of Second Division Southampton, and the run only came to a shuddering halt with a 6-0 Fourth Round defeat to First Division Birmingham (City).
Nine FA Cup ties is the joint equal highest number of ties any club has ever played in one season of the FA Cup, and the Fourth Round is the furthest any club has ever reached in their first season since the current structure was put in place. A truly remarkable run which the club has never replicated in 72 further campaigns so far.
Another Essex based club who entered the FA Cup for the first time in the same season that Chelmsford City did, not only became the first Non-League club to reach the Fifth Round of the competition, but also became the first Non-League club to knock out a top flight opponent. Like Chelmsford City, Colchester United were formed following a former club in the town folding, in their case Colchester Town. In another connection, Colchester United began their record breaking 1947-48 campaign with a 3-1 Fourth Qualifying Round victory over fellow Southern League side Chelmsford City.
Colchester the defeated Banbury Spencer (now United) from the Birmingham Combination 2-1 in the First Round Proper before defeating Third Division North Wrexham 1-0 in the Second Round. Colchester were the only Non-League club to reach the Third Round this year and nobody would have expected there to be any in the Fourth Round as they were drawn to face First Division Huddersfield Town. However, Colchester won the match 1-0 to become the first Non-League club to knock out top flight opposition since the current structure was put in place. This terrific win was followed up by a tight 3-2 home win over Second Division Bradford (Park Avenue) in the Fourth Round to make further history for the club as the first Non-League side in the Fifth Round. Division One side Blackpool proved a hurdle too far and they lost 5-0 to the club that would eventually finish as runners-up in this year’s competition.
Just one season later history repeated itself as Southern League side Yeovil Town became the second Non-League club to reach the Fifth Round, the second Non-League club to knock out top flight opposition and the only Non-League club to make the Third Round. Yeovil’s FA Cup exploits, however, are far better documented than Colchester United due to who they beat in 1949 and their record number of victories over League clubs whilst a Non-League outfit.
Yeovil began their campaign with a tight 3-2 Fourth Qualifying Round victory over fellow Southern League side Lovell’s Athletic. The Glovers then defeated Romford (now playing in the Isthmian League) 4-0 in the First Round Proper and Western League Division One side Weymouth by the same scoreline in the Second Round. As the sole Non-League representatives in the Third Round they were drawn at home to Second Division Bury, but Yeovil had a secret weapon, their famous sloping pitch. The Shakers were defeated 3-1 and next up in the Fourth Round was the mighty Sunderland, who’d only ever known First Division football up till then. The clubs had agreed to play extra time if necessary given the distance between the two clubs, a decision that Sunderland would rue, as Yeovil won the match 2-1 in extra time amidst foggy conditions to knock out their illustrious visitors in what many regard as the greatest FA Cup shock of all time. No such fortune for Yeovil in Round Five as they were drawn away to Cup holders Manchester United and were on the wrong end of an 8-0 defeat.
Two years later, the current FA Cup structure came into being making it more difficult for Non-League clubs to make the Fourth Round, never mind the Fifth Round. Some did make the Fourth Round, of course, famously Walthamstow Avenue in 1953 (knocked out by Manchester United, but not until they had held them to a 1-1 draw), New Brighton in 1957 (having begun in the Preliminary Round the club weren’t knocked out until nine rounds later 9-0 by Burnley), Worcester City in 1959 (after having beaten Liverpool in the Third Round) and Hereford United in 1972, Ronnie Radford and all that, But it wasn’t until 1978 that a third Non-League club made it as far as the Fifth Round.
A First Qualifying Round 3-0 victory over fellow Northern League side Shildon was the start of an amazing journey for Blyth Spartans, the lowest level side ever to make it to the Fifth Round. Another Northern League side, Crook Town, were defeated 3-0 in the Second Qualifying Round, but not until after the two sides had drawn 1-1 in their first game. And a third was despatched in the Third Qualifying Round as the Spartans won 4-1 at Consett. Spartans were drawn away to a fourth Northern League club in the Fourth Qualifying Round this time winning 1-0 at Bishop Auckland.
A home draw at last in the First Round Proper resulted in a 1-0 victory over Burscough from the Cheshire County League, and this was followed up by a similar 1-0 win at home to Division Three side Chesterfield in the Second Round. A third 1-0 home win was achieved in the Third Round this time over Isthmian League Premier Division side Enfield, but it was the Fourth Round victory that made the footballing world take notice. Twice postponed at late notice, Blyth Spartans finally got to face Second Division Stoke City at their Victoria Ground, and in awful conditions, and having fallen behind in the second half, Blyth Spartans eventually won 3-2 and became TV stars overnight. After eight wins, Blyth actually went one further than the other Non-League clubs that had made the Fifth Round, by taking their opponents, Third Division Wrexham, to a replay before finally succumbing 2-1 in the second game.
Telford United were the next Non-League club to reach the Fifth Round, but by the 1984-85 season the Non-League scene had changed enormously since Blyth Spartans’ endeavours. The Non-League pyramid was put in place the following season after Blyth’s FA Cup exploits with the creation of the Alliance Premier League and a formal feeder structure below that, and many clubs competing in the Alliance Premier could easily have held their own in the Fourth Division. Telford United were members of this top level Non-League Division when they achieved their greatest FA Cup run.
Having fallen just one round short of achieving the feat of making the Fifth Round in the previous season, the Bucks were actually exempted to the First Round Proper in the 1984-85 season. There they defeated Division Three side Lincoln City 2-1 after a 1-1 draw, followed by a 4-1 win at Preston North End, also from the Third Division, in the Second Round. Another Third Division side was put to the sword in the Third Rou d as Bradford City were beaten 2-1 at home, and then Darlington from Division Four became a record fourth League club to be beaten by the same Non-League club in the same season as Telford won 3-0 after a 1-1 draw. The run only ended with a 3-0 defeat at eventual Finalists and soon-to-be League Champions Everton in the Fifth Round.
The difference in standard between the higher Non-League clubs and the lower League clubs was becoming more negligible as time went on, and more and more Non-League clubs were making it to the Third Round. However, it was to be almost 10 years before Kidderminster Harriers replicated the feat of those other four Non-League clubs as they made their way to the Fifth Round in 1993-94. Members of what was now being called the Vauxhall Conference, the Harriers started their campaign off with a 4-1 Fourth Qualifying Round victory at Isthmian League Premier Division side Chesham United. Fellow Conference side Kettering Town were defeated 3-0 in the First Round Proper and another, Woking, beaten 1-0 at home in the Second Round. The Third Round saw a famous 2-1 victory at local First Division (second tier) side Birmingham City, with Third Division (fourth tier) Preston North End defeated 1-0 in the Fourth Round. Premier League opposition in the shape of West Ham United came to Kidderminster in the Fifth Round, but the Harriers narrowly lost the tie 1-0.
Despite the lack of perceived difference in quality between Non-League and lower League clubs, it would be another 17 years before another Non-League club appeared in the Fifth Round. By 2010-11 season the Conference had expanded and Crawley Town were members of its Premier Division and heading for Football League status. The Fourth Qualifying Round saw a 1-0 victory at fellow Conference Premier League side, the re-formed Newport County. This was followed up by a convincing 5-0 win at Conference North club Guiseley in the First Round Proper. The Second Round saw League One (third tier) side Swindon Town defeated 3-2 after extra time in the replay at the County Ground. Crawley then defeated Championship side Derby County 2-1 in the Third Round before winning 1-0 at League Two (fourth tier) side Torquay United in the Fourth Round. Then came a trip to soon-to-be-crowned Premier League champions Manchester United where the lower level Red Devils were narrowly defeated 1-0 by their more illustrious fellow Red Devils.
The final club so far to make the Fifth Round as a Non-League side is actually a former FA Cup finalist and League Cup winners. In 1959 Luton Town lost 2-1 to Nottingham Forest in that season’s FA Cup Final, but by 2012-13 season the Hatters were plying their trade in what was now known as the National League and started their campaign by beating another former League club Cambridge United 2-0 in the Fourth Qualifying Round. They beat fellow National League side Nuneaton Town by the same 2-0 scoreline in the First Round Proper before seeing off Conference South outfit Dorchester Town 2-1 in the Second Round. The Third Round saw the Hatters win 1-0 at home to Championship side Wolverhampton Wanderers, but even better was to come in the Fourth Round. There they were drawn away at Premier League club Norwich City where Luton Town by winning 1-0 again became the last Non-League club to knock out a top flight club by beating them on their opponent’s ground. The journey ended for Luton, as it had for six previous Non-League clubs, with defeat in the Fifth Round, losing 3-0 at home to Championship side Millwall.
This season sees National League sides Sutton United and Lincoln City competing in the Fourth Round of the FA Cup. Will either of those two Non-League clubs join this elusive club, or do we even dare to dream they could go even further. For now, Championship sides Leeds United and Brighton & Hove Albion stand in their way, but with both Non-League sides at home there’s always hope.