What round do Premier league teams enter the FA Cup?

The FA Cup is England’s main football cup competition. It is the oldest football competition in the world, having started in 1871. The FA Cup is open to all clubs in the top 10 tiers of English football, which means over 700 clubs can enter each season.

When do Premier League teams enter the FA Cup?

Premier League teams enter the FA Cup in the third round proper, which usually takes place in early January each year. This means Premier League clubs miss the initial early qualifying rounds and first two proper rounds of the competition.

The early rounds feature non-league and lower league clubs competing to reach the third round. Once the third round comes around, the 20 Premier League teams join the 32 winners from the second round to make up the third round draw.

This structure gives lower ranked clubs a chance to progress in the competition before facing top flight opposition. It makes the early rounds meaningful for smaller clubs while the big teams can concentrate on the league until January.

Why do Premier League teams enter so late?

There are several reasons why Premier League clubs join the FA Cup in the third round:

  • It avoids fixture congestion – Premier League teams already play a lot of matches in the league and cup competitions like the EFL Cup.
  • Gives lower league clubs a chance – Earlier rounds allow non-league and EFL clubs to progress further without facing PL giants early on.
  • Makes third round more exciting – The draw pits minnows against giants, leading to ‘giant-killing’ upsets.
  • Tradition – The third round has always been the stage top teams enter the FA Cup.

While some argue the top clubs should enter earlier, the established third round entry point adds to the magic and allure of the world’s oldest cup competition.

What happens in the early rounds before Premier League teams enter?

There are five rounds prior to the third round that take place before Premier League clubs join the competition:

  1. Extra Preliminary Round – Features clubs from Level 9 and 10 of English football (ninth and tenth tiers).
  2. Preliminary Round – Teams from Level 8 join the winners from the Extra Preliminary Round.
  3. First Round Qualifying – Clubs from Level 7 enter.
  4. Second Round Qualifying – Teams from Level 6 join.
  5. Third Round Qualifying – Sides from Level 5 enter.
  6. Fourth Round Qualifying – Clubs from Level 4 join.
  7. First Round Proper – Teams from Level 3 (League One) enter.
  8. Second Round Proper – Level 2 clubs (Championship) join.

In the initial rounds, clubs are placed into groups based on location to minimize travel costs. The draw becomes national from the First Round Proper onwards.

A breakdown of when each league enters the FA Cup:

Here is a breakdown of when clubs from each tier of English football enter the FA Cup:

Round Level League
Extra Preliminary Round Level 10 Counties Leagues
Preliminary Round Level 9 Counties Leagues
First Round Qualifying Level 8 NLS Divisions One
Second Round Qualifying Level 7 NLS Premier Divisions
Third Round Qualifying Level 6 National League North/South
Fourth Round Qualifying Level 5 National League
First Round Proper Level 4 EFL League Two
Second Round Proper Level 3 EFL League One
Third Round Proper Levels 1-2 Championship, Premier League

As you can see, Premier League and Championship clubs from the top two tiers enter in the Third Round Proper along with the 32 winners from the Second Round Proper.

What happens after the third round?

After the third round draw is complete and those matches are played, the FA Cup continues as follows:

  • Fourth Round – 32 teams progress to this stage.
  • Fifth Round – 16 teams remain.
  • Quarter-Finals – 8 teams left.
  • Semi-Finals – 4 teams compete at Wembley Stadium over one weekend.
  • Final – 2 remaining teams contest the showpiece final to win the FA Cup.

The semi-finals and final are held at Wembley Stadium. The winner of the FA Cup earns a place in the following season’s UEFA Europa League group stage.

When was the third round entry point introduced?

The established format of top flight clubs entering in the third round proper has been in place since the 1925-26 season.

Prior to this, Football League clubs used to enter the FA Cup in earlier stages. It began with the Football League founders – Preston, Aston Villa, West Brom, Bolton, Accrington, Blackburn, Burnley, Derby, Everton, Notts County, Stoke, Wolves – all entering in the Fourth Qualifying Round in 1888-89.

Over the next few decades, the entry points for league clubs changed numerous times. Yet by the mid-1920s, the third round entry point for First Division clubs had become standard and has remained so ever since.

Have any Premier League teams ever entered before the third round?

In the modern era since the Premier League began in 1992, no top flight clubs have entered the FA Cup before the third round proper.

However, there are some examples of elite clubs entering in earlier rounds many decades ago:

  • 1945-46 – First post-WW2 season, wartime leagues were regional so top flight clubs entered in the Fourth Qualifying Round.
  • 1921-22 – Tottenham Hotspur entered in the First Qualifying Round.
  • 1898-99 – League runners-up Sheffield United entered in the First Qualifying Round.

So there is some precedent of big teams entering before the third round, but not in the past 70-80 years since the established format took hold.

Could Premier League teams ever enter in an earlier round?

It is highly unlikely Premier League clubs would break the tradition and enter the FA Cup before the third round any time soon. The established structure benefits all clubs and the competition.

However, in the 2016-17 season, Manchester United boss Jose Mourinho did propose that the top Premier League clubs should enter the FA Cup earlier. This was following an exit to lower league opposition in the third round.

Mourinho argued it would give clubs more matches and revenue, while also making the early rounds more meaningful with Premier League clubs involved. His suggestion sparked some debate but no changes were made.

Unless there is a strong consensus from Premier League clubs to change the entry criteria, the status quo will likely remain in place for the foreseeable future.

Notable third round games involving Premier League clubs

While Premier League clubs expect to progress past lower league opposition in the third round, there have been some famous giant-killing upsets:

  • 2008 – Havant & Waterlooville (Level 6) draw 2-2 with Liverpool.
  • 2010 – Leeds United (Level 3) beat Manchester United 1-0.
  • 2013 – Oldham Athletic (Level 3) beat Liverpool 3-2.
  • 2018 – Wigan Athletic (Level 2) beat Manchester City 1-0.
  • 2019 – Newport County (Level 4) draw 1-1 with Leicester City, losing in a replay.

There have also been some big clashes between top flight clubs in the third round, such as:

  • 2007 – Liverpool vs Arsenal
  • 2009 – Manchester United vs Chelsea
  • 2019 – Manchester City vs Rotherham United
  • 2022 – Manchester City vs Chelsea

The possibility of lower league giant-killings or big clashes adds excitement and drama to the third round stage when the Premier League clubs enter the FA Cup.


The entry point for Premier League clubs in the third round proper of the FA Cup has become an established tradition and format of the competition.

It provides lower league clubs their chance to progress through the early rounds and ensures top flight clubs are only involved at the business end of the tournament from January onwards.

While unlikely to change anytime soon, the third round creates magical moments and the possibility of giant-killing upsets when the minnows face the elite.

For Premier League clubs, the road to FA Cup glory begins when they enter the fray in the famous third round.

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