What Is the FA Cup? Your Guide to the Historic Competition

One of the cool things about sports is how the modern game connects us to traditions from the past. While things may change and evolve over the years, many core elements remain the same. Take, for example, English soccer’s FA Cup. When the competition rolls around each season, we’re witnessing another chapter of a story dating back to 1871.

But what if you’re a newer soccer fan who’s coming to things with fresh eyes and a limited grasp of English history? What is this whole FA Cup thing about?

If that’s the case, don’t worry. We’ll break it all down below.

What is the FA Cup?

The FA Cup, officially known as the Football Association Challenge Cup, is an English soccer tournament dating back to the 1871-72 campaign. It features teams from the top nine levels of the country’s football pyramid, with teams from the 10th tier also being eligible for action as replacements for clubs that enter the fray. That amounts to more than 700 entrants who play through a randomly drawn single-elimination tournament for the trophy.

If that more formal explanation doesn’t do it for you, think of the FA Cup this way. Imagine March Madness, but if every basketball team from the NBA through your local rec league was in the bracket. While the pros would inevitably take home the title, there’d be plenty of drama. Maybe a few of the elite college teams would upset the lesser NBA squads. Perhaps a beer league team would meet with the defending national champions and hang with them for a half.

Those situations are why the FA Cup is so special. Beyond the sheer history — there’s something cool about competing for a trophy that’s been around for well over 100 years — there’s a democratic element at play. You can see one of the Premier League’s elite travel to a semi-professional ground and play in front of a few thousand people. In that 90 minutes, both sides are on equal footing (aside from the talent disparity).

The single-elimination structure also makes the FA Cup the perfect environment for an upset. When it only takes one loss to end your tournament, it’s easy for even the biggest clubs to crash out of the competition if one unlucky event goes the wrong way.

FA Cup Winners: Who’s taken home the trophy over the years?

Jordan Henderson of Liverpool lifts the FA Cup in 2022.
Who will write their names in FA Cup history this year? | Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Since we’re talking about a competition dating back to the 1870s, plenty of clubs have gotten a chance to lift the trophy. The all-time FA Cup winners are as follows:

ClubNumber of FA Cup Wins
Arsenal 14
Manchester United12
Chelsea8
Liverpool 8
Tottenham Hotspur8
Aston Villa7
Newcastle United6
Manchester City6
Blackburn Rovers6
Everton5
West Bromwich Albion5
Wanderers5
Wolverhampton Wanderers4
Sheffield Wednesday3
West Ham United3
Preston North End2
Old Etonians 2
Portsmouth 2
Sunderland 2
Nottingham Forest 2
Bury2
Huddersfield Town1
Leicester City 1
Oxford University 1
Royal Engineers 1
Derby County1
Leeds United 1
Southampton 1
Burnley 1
Cardiff City1
Blackpool1
Clapham Rovers1
Notts County1
Barnsley 1
Charlton Athletic 1
Old Carthusians 1
Blackburn Olympic1
Bradford City1
Ipswich Town1
Coventry City1
Wimbledon1
Wigan Athletic1

Who’s the FA Cup’s all-time leading goalscorer?

Given the significance of the FA Cup, you’d probably expect the competition’s all-time leading goalscorer to be a household name. Unless you’re a soccer historian, however, you’re probably not too familiar with Harry Cursham.

The England international took the pitch so long ago that it’s not 100% clear when he even played his football. According to EnglandFootballOnline, he suited up for Grantham FC and Nottingham Thursday Wanderers FC before joining Notts County around 1890. A letter written to the board indicates he planned to retire in January 1889, but he did play a few matches after that date. Cursham also suited up for Corinthians, but the timeline is a bit messy.

One thing we do know, however, is that he knew how to find the back of the net. He scored 49 goals in FA Cup play, which still stands as the highest individual tally to this day.

Some additional FA Cup records

While Harry Cursham might be a blast from the past, many FA Cup records are a bit more modern. Let’s take a look at some.

  • As noted in the table above, Arsenal hold the record for the most FA Cup victories with 14. The North London club also set the high-water mark for the most appearances in the FA Cup Final with 21.
  • On a related note, legendary Gunners boss Arsene Wenger holds the record for the most FA Cup victories as a manager with seven. Ashley Cole, who won the competition with both Arsenal and Chelsea, has the player record with seven FA Cups.
  • We’ve already established that Cursham has the most total goals in the FA Cup, but what about FA Cup Finals? That record belongs to Ian Rush, who found the back of the net five times across three title matches.

What channel is the FA Cup on?

Related

Which Premier League Team Should You Support: The Ultimate Guide to Determine Your Fandom

While the FA Cup might not have the same mass appeal as the Premier League, the matches are certainly worth watching. In the early rounds of the competition, it’s an interesting opportunity to see young players get their chance and glean some insight into how managers view their squad depth. If the starting striker isn’t available, for example, who gets the call?

As things progress deeper into the competition, the stakes obviously get higher and higher. At that point, you’re bound to get some matchups between elite Premier League clubs. While you could argue they’ve got lower stakes since they don’t count for points, the single-elimination nature of those games ratchets up the pressure. No one wants to make a mistake when one misstep can end your chance at a trophy.

If you want to check out the action in the United States, ESPN holds the rights to the FA Cup. The matches can be found streaming on ESPN+.