For over a hundred years the FA Cup was considered the most important club football tournament in the world. This was more than just English insularity. The Cup was the first national football tournament anywhere, and the first to impose a unifying set of rules on its participants.

The competition may have diminished in importance in recent years, ranking behind even qualification for the preliminary stages of the Champions League for many Premiership managers, but it remains the bedrock of the modern game. The origins of the Cup must be seen in context. Up until the mid 19th century football matches tended to be played according to an ad hoc set of rules. A murky permissiveness prevailed. Captains would agree beforehand on whether to allow ‘hacking’ (i.e. vicious limb-threatening fouls) and handling of the ball.

Conforming to the FA’s rules of the game – including the owtlawing of hacking and the introduction of the hand-ball rule – was a prerequisite for participation in the Cup. Among those willing to take their place in the Cup under these constraints, a rabble of public school dissenters went out and created something very different: rugby, a sport where hacking, handball and carrying a picnic hamper in the boot of your estate car are to this day actively encouraged. Football, meanwhile, was being led along a civilizing path.

The FA Cup was first staged in 1871. It was organized by the secretary of the Football Association, C.W. Alcock, and featured just 15 clubs. The first winners were the Wanderers, who beat the Royal Engineers 1-0 in a final staged at the Kennington Oval in London, also the scene of the first ever cricket Test Match in England. In its early years the trophy was won by a succession of southern amateur sides. Blackburn Olympic, in 1883, were the first northern team to win the Cup, ushering in an 18-year period of northern dominance. Before long the Cup Final had evolved into a great season-ending showpiece occasion. Crowds mushroomed as professionalism transformed the game. The 1913 Final at the Crystal Palace Stadium attracted more than 120,000 people and ten years later the White horse Final, the first to be played at the new Empire Stadium at Wembley, drew a crowd of around 200,000.

The particular appeal of the Cup lies not just in its finals. A competition that ends in May is also an essential part of watching football in January and February, the third and fourth rounds breathing fresh life into the middle of the season. In modern times this has been the point at which clubs in the top two divisions join the competition, taking on the lower and non-League clubs who have made it through the first two rounds. Acts of giant killing are rare but tend to stay in the memory.

In recent years it has become increasingly rare for smaller teams to lift the Cup. The last genuine surprise was Wimbledon’s 2-1 Final victory over Liverpool in 1988, which also featured the first-ever missed penalty in an FA Cup Final, Dave Beasant saving John Aldridge’s kick. Before that Sunderland’s 1-0 victory over Leeds in 1973, Southampton’s victory over Man United in 1976 and West Ham’s Final victory in 1980 – the last time a club outside the top flight won the Cup – provided similar upsets. In terms of all-round competition the Cup enjoyed a golden era from the mid-1920’s to mid-1940. From 1927, when Cardiff City became the only Welsh club ever to win the FA Cup, to Wolves’ victory in 1949, there were 14 different winners in 15 years of competition. These included the sole FA Cup-winning campaigns of Portsmouth, Derby and Charlton, which came in successive tournaments. The Matthews Final of 1953 is perhaps the most famous of all FA Cup matches. Its legend resides not just in the game itself, in which Blackpool rallied from 3-1 down late on to beat Bolton 4-3. The occasion became a centrepiece to a year of national celebration as Britain emerged from the economic depression of the 1940’s. Stan Mortensen’s hat-trick remains the only such scoring feat in an FA Cup Final (although his first goal, a deflected shot, was initially thought to have been an own goal).

During the 1950’s and early 1960’s there was much talk of the Wembley hoodoo, as FA Cup Finals were marred by a series of high-profile injuries although these were more likely to be caused by nerves and end-of-season weariness. The Cup Final has traditionally been a tense, closely fought affair and often a disappointment as a game of football. Every so often, however, a classic final comes along. In 1966 Everton came from 2-0 down to beat Sheffield Wednesday 3-2, with two goals from young Cornish striker Mike Trebilcock, one of many minor footballing names stitched into the history of the domestic game by their association with the Cup. In 1971 Arsenal won another classic Final, completing the League and Cup Double by beating Liverpool 2-1 after extra time with a memorable winning goal from Charlie George, who then unveiled the first-ever high-profile personalized goal celebration (a slow-motion backwards dive).

The 1970’s was a golden era with many gifts for the notion of the Magic of the Cup. During a time of general economic depression, 12 years without a World Cup Finals appearance for the England team, and the beginnings of the grimmer aspects of hooliganism and the running down of stadiums around the country, the Cup provided much compensatory excitement. Sunderland’s 1-0 underdog victory over Leeds United in 1973 was memorable, as was Liverpool’s 3-0 defeat of Newcastle United the following year. The 1980’s saw underdog triumphs for Wimbledon in 1988 and Coventry a year earlier. The most notable final of the decade was probably the all-Merseyside affair in 1989 that followed the Hillsborough disaster semi-final. Liverpool won 3-2 but the game was memorable more for the sense of grief inside Wembley.

During the 1990’s the decline in the relative importance of the FA Cup began in earnest, helped on its way by the superlative marketing success of the Sky TV-sponsored Premiership. The Champions’ League sharpened appetites within the game for European football, and for a revenue-chasing decade-long beano that seemed to leave the FA Cup lost somewhere in its wake. In 2000 Manchester United declined to defend the trophy after winning it the previous year, choosing instead to take part in an underwhelming Club World Championship competition in Brazil when the third and fourth rounds were due to be played. Such a decision would have been unthinkable even a decade earlier. However, the fact remains that any diminishing in the lustre of the world’s oldest football tournament exists only at the very top of the scale. Sadly, with Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Chelsea winning 13 of the last 14 FA Cup finals, it seems that those clubs who value the FA Cup least will nevertheless continue to monopolize it.