No. 10 in an occasional series.
Can you imagine nowadays a club entering the FA Cup for the first time, battling its way through five Qualifying Rounds and then all the way to the Fourth Round, beating two Football League clubs on the way, and eventually losing to a top flight club? It sounds like a fantasy, doesn’t it? But that is exactly what Essex based Chelmsford City did in the last running of the competition before World War II broke out.
The original Chelmsford club that formed in 1878 had folded 60 years later after having only ever managed a solitary FA Cup First Round appearance in 1932 when competing in the London League Premier Division, a 7-0 defeat by Aldershot, themselves playing in the Southern League Eastern Division. Chelmsford City was formed out of the ashes of this original Chelmsford club, immediately joined the Southern League and entered the 1938/39 FA Cup. Exempted from the Extra Preliminary Round due to their League status, Chelmsford City made their bow in this illustrious competition with a trip to Essex rivals Barking, themselves playing in the Athenian League. City won a tight encounter 2-1 to go on to travel to London League Division One side Ford Sports (Dagenham) in the First Qualifying Round. A more convincing 6-2 victory made it two FA Cup wins out of two.
The Second Qualifying Round gave the club the first chance to host an FA Cup tie being drawn at home to Crittall Athletic (a former name to Braintree Town) members of the Eastern Counties League. Chelmsford came through a topsy-turvy tie, winning by the odd goal in seven, to earn the right to visit the latest Romford club in the Third Qualifying Round. Romford were members of the Athenian League and went the same way as Barking with Chelmsford winning 3-1 to move one step nearer the ‘Proper’ Rounds. In the Fourth Qualifying Round Chelmsford were drawn at home to Dulwich Hamlet who had made the First Round 12 times in the previous thirteen seasons. Chelmsford City, though, had no trouble despatching them with a resounding 5-1 victory.
Football League opposition was not to be on the cards for the club in the First Round being as they were drawn at home to Birmingham and District League side Kidderminster Harriers. Courtesy of a hat-trick from former Football League player Jack Palethorpe and a goal from Alex Wood, another comfortable 4-0 victory took City into the Second Round where they were to finally face League opposition in the shape of Darlington, then plying their trade in League Division Three North. Palethorpe was on target again as the League side were swept away 3-1, with Jackie Coulter and Landolla also on the scoresheet. The Third Round saw Second Division Southampton travel to the New Writtle Street ground for what was to become Chelmsford City’s biggest FA Cup scalp to date.
Southampton had been twice runners-up in the FA Cup and reached the Semi-Finals on four other occasions, so came to Chelmsford with a decent FA Cup pedigree. But Chelmsford were no respecter of FA Cup history and on the day ran out convincing 4-1 winners. In front of 13,000 or so spectators Jackie Coulter scored twice, alongside a goal by Wright and an own goal, to take the club on to their ninth FA Cup match of the season. Played eight, won eight was their incredible record and the Fourth Round draw sent the club to St Andrews to face First Division Birmingham (City wasn’t added until after the war). Unfortunately the difference in class told and Chelmsford were beaten by six goals to nil, to bring to an end their wonderful debut FA Cup adventure. But for WWII breaking out later that year, who knows how far Chelmsford City could have progressed from this initial success?
As it happens the club has remained as a non-league club, one application to join the Football League soundly rejected, and has made it beyond the Qualifying Rounds in the FA Cup on several occasions, but only once coming close to emulating this initial Cup run. Playing in the Southern League Premier Division in 1972/73 season, Chelmsford City despatched Southern League Division One side Crawley Town 2-0 in the Fourth Qualifying Round. A similar win over Southern League Premier Division rivals Hillingdon Borough in the First Round and a 5-0 thrashing of Telford United from the same division in the Second Round took the club into the Third Round for the first time since that infamous run. Ipswich Town became the second, and to date the last, First Division side Chelmsford City would face in the FA Cup, and despite Ray Woolcott netting his eighth goal in four FA Cup matches, it was Ipswich who won 3-1 to progress.
Chelmsford City may never have yet come close again to equalling that FA Cup run to the Fourth Round in the 1938/39 season, but no other club has ever come close to emulating their achievement that season in their own first ever FA Cup campaign, either, so the Essex based club can rightly feel proud about that record.