The FA Cup, known officially as The Football Association Challenge Cup, is an annual knockout football competition in men’s domestic English football. First played during the 1871–72 season, it is the oldest national football competition in the world. It is organised by and named after The Football Association (The FA). Since 2015, it has been known as The Emirates FA Cup after its headline sponsor.
The FA Cup is open to any eligible club down to Level 10 of the English football league system – all 92 professional clubs in the Premier League (Level 1) and the English Football League (Levels 2 to 4), and several hundred “non-league” teams in Steps 1 to 6 of the National League System (Levels 5 to 10).
History of the FA Cup
The history of the FA Cup dates back to 1871 when it was first contested. Some key facts about the history of the tournament:
- The first FA Cup was played in 1871-72 with 15 teams entering.
- Wanderers won the first final 1-0 against Royal Engineers at Kennington Oval.
- The Cup was not contested during the First and Second World Wars.
- Early finals were played at Kennington Oval and Crystal Palace before switching to Wembley Stadium in 1923.
- The first final at (old) Wembley was the White Horse Final in 1923 between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United.
- Over 1,800 clubs have entered the FA Cup over time.
- Arsenal hold the record for most wins with 14.
The FA Cup has gone through various format changes over the decades, but has always remained a knockout style tournament open to clubs at many levels of the English game.
Format and Schedule of the FA Cup
The FA Cup begins with 6 qualifying rounds in August-September to narrow down the large field of entrants. The First Round Proper then commences in November when League 1 and League 2 teams enter.
Here is an overview of the schedule and format:
- August-September: 6 qualifying rounds for lower level and amateur clubs
- November: First Round Proper with 48 League 1 and League 2 clubs entering
- December: Second Round Proper with Premier League and Championship clubs entering
- January: Third Round Proper (round of 64)
- February: Fourth Round Proper (round of 32)
- March: Fifth Round Proper (round of 16)
- April: Quarter-finals
- May: Semi-finals
- May: Final at Wembley Stadium
The tournament is a straight knockout format with each tie contested over one match. If level after 90 minutes, extra time and penalties are used to determine a winner.
Number of Rounds
So in total, how many rounds are there in the FA Cup?
There are 6 qualifying rounds followed by the First Round Proper. Then there are 5 rounds leading up to the semi-finals and final.
Therefore, in total there are 12 stages to reach the final, but generally the rounds leading up to the First Round Proper are considered qualifying and the proper FA Cup is considered to start with the First Round Proper.
So in summary:
- 6 Qualifying Rounds
- First Round Proper
- Second Round Proper
- Third Round Proper
- Fourth Round Proper
- Fifth Round Proper
Therefore, most would say the FA Cup has 6 Proper Rounds but in total there are 12 stages from the start of qualifying to the final.
Key FA Cup Statistics
Here are some key stats and facts on the FA Cup’s long history:
- Most wins: Arsenal (14)
- Most appearances: Arsenal (21)
- Most consecutive wins: Wanderers (5 straight from 1872-1876)
- Top scorer: Ian Rush (39 goals)
- Oldest winner: 41 years, 3 months – Teddy Sheringham for Portsmouth in 2008
- Youngest winner: 16 years, 280 days – Curtis Weston for Millwall in 2004
- Biggest win: Preston North End 26–0 Hyde United in 1887
The FA Cup tends to produce unexpected results and storylines with lower league teams sometimes knocking off Premier League giants. It is known for upsets and drama.
The FA Cup is famous for stories of lower division teams knocking off more famous opponents from the top flight in what are called “giant killings”. Here are some of the most famous:
- 1995-96: Manchester United beaten 1–0 by York City in the 3rd Round
- 1997-98: Manchester United beaten 3-2 by Barnsley in the 4th Round
- 2000-01: Manchester United beaten 3-0 by West Ham United
- 2001-02: Liverpool beaten 2-1 by Grimsby Town in the 3rd Round
- 2013-14: Manchester City beaten 2-0 by Wigan Athletic in the Quarter Finals
These dramatic upsets help contribute to the magic and mystique of the FA Cup. Any team can beat any opponent on their day, making for exciting underdog stories.
Most Successful Teams
Due to its long history dating back to 1871, many top English clubs have had success in winning the FA Cup. Here are the most successful teams:
|Arsenal||14||1930, 1936, 1950, 1971, 1979, 1993, 1998, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2020|
|Manchester United||12||1909, 1948, 1963, 1977, 1983, 1985, 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004, 2016|
|Chelsea||8||1970, 1997, 2000, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2018|
|Tottenham||8||1901, 1921, 1961, 1962, 1967, 1981, 1982, 1991|
|Liverpool||7||1965, 1974, 1986, 1989, 1992, 2001, 2006|
Manchester United dominated the 1990s and early 2000s while Arsenal has the most overall wins at 14. More recently, the trophy has been evenly split between the top Premier League clubs.
Arsenal also holds the record for most FA Cup appearances with 21. Manchester United is next with 20. Here are the all-time leaders:
The FA Cup has long been a priority for Arsenal as evidenced by their record number of appearances. Maintaining consistency and longevity is key to success.
In over 150 years of the FA Cup, some unusual records have been set along the way:
- Youngest player: Eamon Collins – 14 years and 181 days for Blackpool in 1980
- Oldest player: Billy Hampson – 48 years and 20 days for Newcastle in 1926
- Most goals in a game: Ted MacDougall scored 9 goals for AFC Bournemouth in an 11–0 win over Margate in 1971
- Fastest goal: 4 seconds by Ashton Villa’s Bob Chatt in 1888
- Most consecutive clean sheets: 7 by Manchester United’s Edwin Van der Sar in 2004-05
These odd and intriguing records show some of the special moments created in the FA Cup over the decades.
Why the FA Cup Matters
The FA Cup remains one of the most prestigious domestic trophies in English football despite the growing prominence of the Premier League and League Cup competitions. Here’s why it still matters:
- History and tradition – The oldest football tournament in the world dating back to 1871-72. Provides continuity.
- Opportunity for “giant killings” – Chance for lower league teams to taking down top clubs.
- Finals at Wembley – Playing at the iconic Wembley Stadium adds gravitas.
- Earns qualification to Europa League – The winner qualifies for Europe.
- Level playing field – Single match knockout format means anything can happen.
- Momentous moments – Produces memorable goals, drama, and storylines.
Winning the FA Cup still represents a special achievement in English football and captures the essence of the sport – the possibility of the underdog defeating the giants on the big stage.
The FA Cup is the oldest and most storied domestic cup competition in English football. While considered to have 6 Proper Rounds, there are also 6 qualifying rounds bringing the total to 12 stages.
Its history is filled with upsets, drama, and great moments. Winning the Cup represents a special achievement. While other trophies have grown in stature, the magic and unpredictability of the FA Cup keeps it a vital part of the English football calendar.