By Tony Attwood
This coming weekend, as we all know, Arsenal play in the FA Cup third round – which as always is their first match in the competition.
The FA Cup, as you’ll know if you follow Untold Arsenal, starts way back in August with the Extra Preliminary Round, and this season we saw some of our ex-players come back to the pitch to play for Wembley in the early rounds.
However Arsenal hasn’t always started in the third round of the cup.
From 1904/5 until 1924/5 Arsenal as a league side entered in the first round of the Cup. Prior to that Woolwich Arsenal were often required to play in the earlier preliminary rounds. Indeed in 1893 in their first season as a league club Arsenal began in October in the first qualifying round. They got through four qualifying rounds before being knocked out in the first round proper by The Wednesday.
By 1896 it must have been clear to everyone in the FA that Woolwich Arsenal were not yet ready to take on First Division clubs, but were clearly a class above the local sides that populated the early stages of the FA Cup. The club was therefore given a middle way being excused some of the earliest qualifying rounds and in 1896/7 Arsenal entered in the fourth qualifying round where they played Leyton at home on 12th December and won 5-0 with a crowd of 4,000
This is the Leyton club that was founded in 1868, and was disbanded in the late 1890s. They reformed again in 1905 and joined the Southern League but were disbanded again in 1911, and following another comeback they disbanded for a third time in 1914. In between all these comings and goings they signed a young forward from Woolwich Arsenal in 1910. Charlie Buchan only stayed with Leyton for a few months before going on to become one of the most revered names in English football.
This game will be remembered as being played on the same day as Arsenal’s biggest ever defeat – the 0-8 debacle in the league against Loughborough. Woolwich Arsenal’s team against Leyton contained one player that could be considered a first-teamer (goalkeeper William Fairclough), two fringe players (James Boyle and Frank McAvoy) and the rest were reserve team players.
And so we move on to the match played in the 5th Qualifying Round on this day – 2nd January – in 1897 against Chatham at home. Woolwich Arsenal won 4-0, with an attendance of 4,500
In the earlier part of the decade Chatham had been considered one of Royal Arsenal’s biggest rivals. Games between the clubs were watched by some of the biggest crowds at both teams’ grounds.
Chatham were founder members of both the Southern League and the original Kent League, becoming the first winners of the latter competition.
So there we are 116 years ago, playing in the FA Cup qualifying rounds against an old rival. But even then we were not through to the competition proper, for we next had to play in the Final Supplementary Round, in a match against our current deadly rivals Millwall Athletic. The game was played on 16th January 1897 and we lost 2‑4, with an attendance of 14,000.
Here’s an extract from one of the commentaries on the Millwall game.
“It is not very difficult to get to Millwall, if you know how; there is more difficulty in getting back again, but that’s another story, as Kipling would say.
I was determined to see the match, although other and more pressing business claimed my attention, and so I drove along the Lower Road and into East Greenwich.
From the small street leading up to Maze Hill Station a fearfully excited crowd came rushing as I passed, and, judging by their numbers that it would be a close fit on the ferry, I whipped up and arriving there just as the earliest of them were making their appearance, got on board in a thick crowd, and saw any number left on the pier lamenting.
I was told that afterwards for an hour at least – this was at 1pm – it was a hard job to keep the small steamers from being absolutely swamped by force of numbers and weight of human carcases.
On the other side we got out, and I, following the crowd, made my way up to the Athletic Ground. From the outside it isn’t at all an impressive place. There’s a sort of bilgey smell about it, and the very railings remind one of Coleridge’s “Ancient Mariner.’ At a small hole a couple of officials passed in boys. There was quite a crowd of the latter around them. The Millwall small boy has twice the ordinary boy’s abhorrence of soap and water; it would never do to put him upon a Pears Poster….
The full story of this game, and many others, with the complete record of Woolwich Arsenal in the FA Cup, is given in Woolwich Arsenal the club that changed football.