Football Association Cup Primer

There are a couple of intra-season tournaments played by teams in the English football association, including the Championship League and Europa League for teams that qualify for those specific tournaments. While the Championship League is limited to the top teams from the Premier League, it is technically possible for a lower-tier team to qualify for the Europa League tournament, even though it hasn’t happened for over in the Premier League era of English football.
Two of the qualifying spots in Europa League, at least for English association football, are awarded to the winners of two English-only Cup competitions: the Football Association Cup – also know as the FA Cup – and the English League Cup (ELC).* However, as mentioned previously, a non-tier 1 team hasn’t won either cup since 1991, when Sheffield Wednesday managed to secure the EFL Cup. The last team from outside the top division to win the FA Cup was West Ham United way back in 1980 (though Cardiff City, while a member of the Championship, did lose in the final to Portsmouth in 2008).
*I’ll cover the English League Cup in a subsequent post.
But that doesn’t mean that the lower division teams don’t have a chance… it’s just that they are typically eliminated long before the tournament really begins. All teams below the top two tiers of English football enter qualifying tournaments in an attempt to qualify for the “real” tournament, where all the Premier League and Championship teams enter the fray.
The tournament begins with the Extra Preliminary Round, which features 370 teams, from Level 9 and Level 10 of English football, which starts on August 11th this year. In a single elimination round – and replays if matches end in ties – the 185 winners advance to the Preliminary Round, which adds 135 more teams from Level 8. This continues through more subsequent rounds – the First Qualifying Round adds 72 teams from Level 7, 44 teams from Level 6 join during the Second Qualifying Round, the Third Qualifying Round features only the winners from the SQR – and culminates in the Fourth Qualifying Round, which adds the 24 teams from Level 5, whose winners enter into the “Competition Proper.”
To show how rare it is for lower level teams to advance forward, let’s take a look at the 2017-18 FA Cup results. In the First Round Proper, which featured the 32 winners from the last round of qualifying and the 48 teams from League One (Level 3) and League Two (Level 4), there were only two teams from Level 8, six teams from Level 7, and eight teams from Level 6, only one-fifth of the total competitors for that round. The Second Round Proper, which featured only the winners from the previous round, there were only three teams from Level 7 and one from Level 6, who all lost during the round, which was the first time in 67 years that at least one team from below Level 5 made the Third Round Proper.
After two more rounds, the Cup entered the Quarter-finals, where only one team – Wigan Athletic – remained from Level 3, which was subsequently eliminated, leaving only four teams from the Premier League in the semi-finals. The 2018 FA Cup was eventually won by Chelsea, which therefore clinched their spot in the Europa League Tournament.
If we go to previous years, we can see just how unlikely it is for lower tier teams to make it to the Quarter-finals, let alone the Semi-finals. In looking at the eight quarter-final teams from recent FA Cups, this is readily abundant:
2018 – One Level 3 club and seven EPL clubs
2017 – One Level 5 club (which lost to Arsenal 5-0), one Level 3 club (which lost 6-0 to Tottenham Hotspur) and six EPL clubs (FA Cup won by Arsenal)
2016 – One Level 2 club and seven EPL clubs (won by Manchester United)
2015 – One Level 3 club, two Level 2 clubs, and five EPL clubs (Arsenal won)
2014 – One Level 3 club (Sheffield United, which reached the Semi-finals), two Level 2 clubs, and five EPL clubs (Arsenal won)
Will this be the year that a lower-division club survives into the quarterfinals, or even further? History seems to indicate that the chances aren’t that great for those lower division clubs, even those beyond Level 2 (the Championship). The aforementioned Cardiff City in 2008 were the last non-EPL team to make it all the way to the final.
With the Extra Preliminary Round starting alongside the Premier League on August 11th, the early rounds may get lost in the shuffle, at least until some super low division club makes it far. We’ll keep an eye on those types of developments, but probably won’t care all that much about the FA Cup until the EPL and Championship teams join the fray in the Third Round Proper, which will begin in January 2019.
Until next time…

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