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FA Cup Beginner’s Guide

We’ve written a FA Cup beginner’s guide to explain how the world’s oldest soccer competition works, and where you can watch the matches on US television and streaming.

Of all the soccer tournaments from all corners of the globe, none are quite as steeped in tradition as the FA Cup.

Origins

The knockout tournament was set up in the 1871-72 season of the Football League, making it the oldest association affiliated soccer tournament in the world; the inaugural edition was won by Wanderers and included 15 teams, of which Crystal Palace were one. The FA Cup final was played at Kennington Oval in London. That’s a far cry from now, with the final at Wembley (as well as the FA Cup semi finals).

It’s uniqueness is based in the diversity of the teams involved, with any side in the top 10 tiers of English soccer eligible to take part and potentially make their way to the final at Wembley Stadium — which is one reason of many why we wanted to write this FA Cup beginner’s guide for you.

FA Cup beginner’s guide

Previously, winning the competition was a priority for the teams competing and for those who lifted the iconic trophy, a career highlight. However, in recent years the growth of the Premier League and the UEFA Champions League, plus the potential riches on offer in each, have prompted the elite into placing their priorities elsewhere.

Still, the FA Cup appeals to the traditionalist. Although cliches like “romance” and “magic” have grown a little tired, there’s an authenticity to the competition that’s unrivalled. Seeing a Premier League side travel to a inferior opponent and their humble surroundings still quickens pulses among those who follow the beautiful game.

They’re the kind of matches that, given the financial benefits, can keep a lower league side going for years. Plus, the perennial prospect of potential upsets is what ensures the FA Cup remains a big favorite among supporters.

Format

The format of the FA Cup has not deviated too much in its existence. Qualifying rounds were put in place in 1889 for those teams outside the Football League, while those in the top four tiers of hierarchy take their place in the competition proper.

The 128 teams who make it into Round 1 play off in a straight knockout format. The winner moves into the hat for the next round, where another draw will take place to determine which teams come up against each other. The tournament does not use a bracket.

Aside from winning your match outright, there are other ways in which you can progress. If the two teams are level after 90 minutes, the teams play a replay game. The away team from the first game gets to host the replay.

SEE MORE: Schedule of FA Cup games on US TV and streaming

Previously, the competition repeatedly used replays until a winner emerged. Now, the competition uses just one replay. The two teams compete in a 30-minute extra time period if still tied. Then, a penalty shootout comes into effect if the teams remain even.

Every stage of the competition uses replays with two exceptions. The semifinals and the final declare a victor on the day of the game. Furthermore, both rounds occur at Wembley stadium, allowing for a neutral fan base.

History

The most successful side in the history of the competition is Arsenal. Recently, the Gunners won the FA Cup in 2020, taking their tally to

No man in history has as many winners medals as Ashley Cole. The full-back won the tournament twice with Arsenal, before moving to rivals Chelsea and triumphing a further four times.

Arsenal’s iconic coach Arsene Wenger is one of two managers to have lifted the trophy six times, with his first win coming in 1998. The only other man to match that total is Aston Villa legend George Ramsay, who sampled six victories between 1887 and 1920 during his time as a coach.

Although plenty of memorable FA Cup moments have come in finals—Ricky Villa’s goal for Tottenham Hotspur against Manchester City in 1981 and Steven Gerrard’s stunning stoppage-time equalizer for Liverpool against West Ham United in 2007 stand out—goals synonymous with the competition have often been as part of upsets in the earlier rounds.

A chance for smaller teams

Wimbledon, then in the second tier, famously stung Liverpool in the 1988 final, with Lawrie Sanchez winning it for the “Crazy Gang” after Dave Beasant saved John Aldridge’s penalty.

Non-league Wrexham famously eliminated league champions Arsenal in 1992, with veteran Mickey Thomas scoring a brilliant free-kick in a 2-1 win. Ronnie Radford’s stunning strike for Southern League outfit Hereford Town, who no longer exist, was the catalyst for an upset win over top-flight Newcastle United in 1972.

 

READ MORE: Name variations of soccer leagues, cups and tournaments

 

Browse through these beginners guides to the many of the popular soccer leagues:

Soccer Beginner’s guides

 

If you have any questions about the FA Cup beginner’s guide, please let us know in the comments section below and we’ll do our best to answer your queries.

 

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Evan Jones

    December 19, 2018 at 9:19 am

    To add to Paul’s corrections, Round 1 and later has 124 clubs, not 128.

  2. Paul

    December 1, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Just reading through this FA Cup beginners guide I noticed some errors. In the first round 80 teams compete, 24 from League 1 (3rd tier), 24 from League 2 (4th tier) and 32 from the qualifying rounds. The 40 winners progress to round 2 and the 20 winners from that round progress to round 3 where they are joined by the 20 teams from the Premier League (1st tier) and 24 teams from the Championship (2nd tier) to make 64 teams.

    Wimbledon were playing in the top tier when they beat Liverpool in the 1988 final, same tier as Liverpool.

    Wrexham, although now playing at non-league level (tier 5 the National League) where in fact playing in Division 4) 4th tier of the football league at the time they beat Arsenal. (Division 1).. A more memorable shock happened in 1972 when Southern League Hereford United beat First Division Newcastle United (video highlights of this are available)

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