Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Unofficial FA Cup Championship

If any of you are aware of the Unofficial World Football Championships, you'll know about the simple unadulterated joy of considering a 'World Cup' where the reigning champions are decided on a match-to-match basis. You'll also be aware of the fact that seemingly any team can snatch the unofficial world title at any time, so long as they overcome the current holders at exactly their most vulnerable point. (If you're not sure what we're on about, visit the UFWC website and find out how the project works - it'll be time well spent.)

Anyway, it was with that working model in mind that we decided to do something similar. We wanted to find out who the Unofficial FA Cup Champions have been since the FA Cup first started in 1871, and who's won it most often.

To begin with we needed a starting point. Unfortunately there wasn't one single FA Cup match that preceded all the others 142 years ago (at least not from what we can tell), so a look back through the history books was required.

Because there wasn't one universal way of playing football back in the mid-1800's, it fell to Cambridge University to draw up a formal set of rules that everyone across the country could abide by. Once these 'Cambridge Rules' were drawn up, a match was organised by the newly-formed Football Association to demonstrate how the game should now be played, but because it took so long to arrange, the teams of Barnes and Richmond went ahead and played a game anyway at Mortlake on 19 December 1863. This was the first game ever to be played to official FA rules.

For a game of such importance, it seemed only natural that we should take one of these two teams as the starting point for our Unofficial FA Cup Championship (UFACC), and to that end we chose Barnes because they competed in the first ever FA Cup competition while Richmond didn't (because they weren't members of the Football Association).

And so we begin with the First Round of the FA Cup played on 11 November 1871. Barnes played Civil Service... and won 2-0! Barnes therefore became our first Unofficial FA Cup Champions... but in our system, that would only last until the next time Barnes played in the FA Cup. As long as they could avoid defeat in that match, they'd retain their UFACC title.

On 23 December 1871, they did just that - drawing 1-1 against Hampstead Heathens in the Second Round. Unfortunately in the replay, played two weeks later, Hampstead Heathens won 1-0 and in so doing became our new UFACC title holders!

(See how this works?)

Under our admittedly flimsy UFACC rules, a team gets to win the title by beating an existing holder and the holder can retain the title by not being defeated.

Now at this point you might have realised that because we're only dealing with FA Cup matches here, ultimately the UFACC title holders will be the same as the FA Cup winners at the end of every season. And yes, that is a bit of a shortcoming where this system is concerned, but in many ways that only adds greater significance to the games played earlier in the FA Cup every season. In our version, it's all about the journey rather than the destination, if you see what we mean.

So by now you might be wondering who the current UFACC title holders are? Well the answer is Manchester City, but of course if they're beaten by Wigan Athletic in today's FA Cup Final, it'll be Wigan that get to retain the title until Third Round day next season. And Manchester City only snatched the UFACC title by beating Chelsea in this season's semi finals. Before that, Chelsea held the title for seven consecutive FA Cup games stretching back to the 2011/12 Final against Liverpool.

All well and good, you might say, but which team has been UFACC title holders on the most occasions? Luckily we've worked that out (and you can take it as read we've only just come up with the answer after several weeks of number crunching - see left) - and the answer is Arsenal. Including the one UFACC win notched up under the name of Woolwich Arsenal, The Gunners have held the title for 84 matches. Not far behind them is Manchester United with 78 matches (they'll be ruing not playing in the 1999-2000 season), then it's Liverpool on 53 and Tottenham on 48.

But like we said, it's not just about the big teams stealing all the glory. Many other teams can hold the UFACC title (and have done), even if only briefly. The FA Cup is about giant-killing if nothing else, and a win for David over Goliath at the right time can mean a coveted place on our roll of honour.

As recently as five years ago, Barnsley were the UFACC title holders having dumped Chelsea out of the FA Cup. Port Vale held the title for two games back in 1998. Oldham Athletic did the same in 1994, and if you look back through the statistics for all 967 UFACC games so far, you'll see that anyone that's anyone in the English game has had their name writ large in our imaginary elysian world.

So why not take a look at the raw data we've provided for your analytical pleasure and see if your team's been the proud holder of the UFACC title. There may not be a trophy for the winners, but knowing your team once won something - no matter how small - is often all that really counts.

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