National League sides Lincoln City and Sutton United are making waves in this year’s FA Cup competition, both reaching the 5th Round after giant-killing after giant-killing after giant-killing.
The ill-informed mass media trumpet that this is the first time since the Football League was established in 1888 that two non-league sides have made it to the last 16 of the FA Cup in the same season. Not to denigrate the two clubs’ fantastic achievement, but that fact is baloney, a fact iterated out of the ignorance of lazy research and the desire to make a memorable soundbite.
Technically it’s true that it is the first time that two non-league clubs have made the Fifth Round in the same season since the Football League began, but not actually the last 16, as that statement conveniently forgets that for almost 40 years after the League’s formation there wasn’t actually a round known as the Fifth Round. From 1888 to 1925 the last 16 of the FA Cup was variably the Fourth Round, the Third Round and even the Second Round!
During that 37 year period, at least two non-league clubs made the last 16 of the FA Cup in the same season on 25 separate occasions – the last such occasion in 1920. Many of the non-league clubs that reached the last 16 during that time were members of the Southern League, at the time a league that more than matched the quality and standard of the Football League.
But Non-League clubs didn’t stop at the last 16, far from it. Thirty-five of the 98 clubs in the last 16 also won through to the Quarter Finals, with eleven progressing on to the Semi-Finals, four making it all the way to the Final itself, and as any football historian knows, Tottenham Hotspur winning the FA Cup as a Non-League (Southern League) club in 1901.
Southampton were runners-up either side of Tottenham lifting the trophy, but the first Non-League club to make the FA Cup Final was Sheffield Wednesday in 1890, then playing as The Wednesday in the Football Alliance, going on to lose the Final by what is now known as the second biggest margin, 6-1 to Blackburn Rovers.
When Southampton repeated the feat of The Wednesday 10 years later by reaching the Final they actually beat another Non-League club, Millwall (Athletic), in the Semi-Final, the only time two Non-League clubs made the FA Cup Semi Final in the same season.
Nottingham Forest (in 1892) and Swindon Town (twice in 1910 and 1912) are the only other Non-League clubs so far to make it as far as the Semi-Finals, but Queens Park Rangers are the last Non-League club to appear in the Quarter Finals, two years later in 1914.
Prior to QPR other Non-League Quarter Finalists were West Ham United, Coventry City, Crystal Palace, Fulham, Portsmouth, Reading (all future Football League clubs playing in the Southern League at the time), and before the Southern League was formed there was Middlesbrough Ironopolis, Stoke (City), Bootle (original club), Birmingham St George’s and Chatham (Town).
Since the FA Cup adopted its current structure in 1925 no Non-League club has been able to repeat the feat of reaching the Quarter Finals. Wouldn’t it be marvellous, though, if just one of Sutton United or Lincoln City did just that?