Royal Engineers AFC 1872

Army Football History: The Military's Only FA Cup Winners

The British Army boasted one of the top club sides during the Victorian era, winning the world's oldest football competition.

Royal Engineers AFC 1872

The FA Cup's previous winners include the likes of Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea – but did you know an Armed Forces team once won the tournament?

While the clubs which compete in the latter stages these days are worth millions of pounds, football as a sport was still finding its identity in the mid to late 19th Century, with the military well-represented among the top players of the time.

The British Army's Royal Engineers AFC, founded in 1863, were one of the most successful sides of this period, combining football with their regular service duties, and became one of the sport's first 'big' teams.

'A Dominant Team'

Famous for developing an attractive passing game, the Royal Engineers quickly became regular contenders in what was then England's major competition.

Long before European and international football was the norm, the Sappers helped put football on the map when the sport was still making its way around the UK, primarily being played by former public school pupils on an amateur basis.

Artist impression of floodlight football match at Kennington Oval 1878
An 1878 artist's impression of a floodlit football match at Kennington Oval. The ground hosted 22 of the first 24 FA Cup finals (Picture: PA).

Arguably, their best spell came during the 1870s – a decade before the Football League was founded in 1888, and when both football and the FA Cup were seeing a surge in popularity.

It was in the middle of the decade, 1875, when they became the only military team to have won the world's oldest football competition, and historians today look back on that Engineers side with high regard.

"They were clearly one of the best teams around at the time," says Professor Dilwyn Porter, Sports History and Culture Professor at De Montfort University.

"The FA Cup was the beginning of modern football, and the Royal Engineers are a part of that – they were a dominant team of that era."

During the 1870s, they were a constant feature of the competition, reaching four finals in the first seven years of the tournament's existence.

One Of The Finest Passing Sides

"They were playing a new style of football for the time," says Paul Brown, an author and writer on Victorian football.

"Until then it was a pretty basic game, involving a kick and rush style of football.

"Several players would charge after the ball – the Royal Engineers changed that.

"They started to pass the ball, relying more on teamwork."

The club is still proud of its FA Cup tradition today (Picture: Twitter/@sapperfootball).

The club was formed and based at Chatham, Kent, in the same year as the Football Association, under Crimean War veteran Major Francis Marindin's captaincy.

The Sappers reached their first FA Cup (or 'Football Association Challenge Cup' as it was then known) final nine years later, suffering a 1-0 defeat at Kennington Oval to another successful side of the era, the Wanderers.

"They were part of the evolution of tactics – most teams then tended to play with seven or eight forwards, and dribble it towards goal," says Professor Porter.

"They'd mass behind the ball like a scrum.

"The Royal Engineers were one of the first teams to go on tour in 1873 when they were quite famous for their passing game.

"They went to places like Sheffield, Derby and Nottingham – this is when their tactics began to spread north."

After the defeat to Wanderers in 1872, the Royal Engineers did not have to wait long for another go at winning the famous trophy.

In 1874, they faced Oxford University, again at the Kennington Oval.

However, it was another defeat for the Sappers, this time going down 2-0, meaning Oxford made history becoming the first university side to win the competition.

A year later, though, it was third time lucky for the Royal Engineers.

After drawing 1-1 at the Oval against the Old Etonians, the Sappers clinched the trophy in the replay three days later with a 2-0 win.

It stands as arguably the team's greatest day on a football pitch.

Paul Brown says:

"It's something that we can almost definitely say will never be repeated.

"It really shows how different football then was if you could put a side together, and have a good chance to win the FA Cup.

Professor Porter, meanwhile, says:

"The FA Cup was the making of football, and it captured the imagination. It put the game on the map.

"The Royal Engineers were the most successful English side from around 1871 until 1875, winning 84 out of 87 matches, according to some records – this is when they were at their peak."

The Sappers also received recognition on the international stage, with eight of their players receiving international caps while playing for the club.

Six played for England, and two for Scotland; the twice England-capped British Army officer Lieutenant Colonel Pelham George von Donop the most experienced international footballer to wear Sappers colours.

Royal Engineers AFC 1875
The FA Cup-winning Royal Engineers side of 1875.

The club, however, went on to feature in just one more FA Cup final, going down 3-1 to the old foe, the Wanderers in 1878.

While they would continue to enter the competition in subsequent seasons, this time marked the end of the Royal Engineers' success in the FA Cup and a shift in the game of football as a whole.

"Popularity spread to northern England, up from London and down from Scotland," says Professor Porter.

"Working men were then playing, local business owners wanted some of the glory so became club directors, and began importing players from Scotland giving them jobs in their companies.

"These are the first signs of professionalism in football, and those clubs started winning the FA Cup – a trend away from sides like the Royal Engineers."

The Sappers, though, did not disappear as a competitive force entirely.

In 1903, a Royal Engineers side won the Irish Munster Senior Cup – a competition heavily dominated by British Army sides until the outbreak of the First World War.

Then, in 1908, the club won the FA Amateur Cup – a tournament Professor Porter describes as a "big competition", set up in 1893.

At service level, the Sappers have also seen success, winning numerous titles in the Army FA Challenge Cup and the Woolwich Cup – the latter a men's inter corps competition.

In April 2018, the Engineers won the Woolwich Cup for the fifth time in six seasons after beating the Adjutant General's Corps 7-2 after extra time.

Woolwich Cup final 2017 red card
The Sappers have had modern day success in the Woolwich Cup.

In addition to this success, military football teams have come up against sides from the English football pyramid, with mixed success.

Earlier this year, the Royal Air Force beat National League North side Tamworth FC 3-0, while the service were narrowly knocked out of the Birmingham Senior Cup by Midland Football League Premier Division side Boldmere St Michaels FC at the start of the season, in a 1-0 defeat.

For the Royal Engineers, though, their FA Cup exploits shall never be forgotten.

In 2012, the first-ever FA Cup final of 1872 was commemorated by the two finalists at the competition's original final venue.

A rematch between the Sappers and the Wanderers was played at Kennington Oval – the Army side avenging their 1872 counterparts, winning the modern-day 'replay' 7-1.

The club's president, Colonel Andy Philips, told Forces News at the time: "It just shows the tradition that we've got, the history we've got and the way we play the game.

"The result was irrelevant... it was the way the game was played, in a fantastic spirit."

Looking back, just how impressive was the Royal Engineers class of 1875?

"It was a different kind of world back in the 1870s, but it was still the FA Cup, and they've won it," says Professor Porter.

"It's a unique achievement."

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