On the FA Cup trail

A great mash-up of spectacle, thriller, tragedy and farce, boots, balls and small town teams who dare to dream, football fever returns to Wembley Stadium this weekend. Join us on the terraces and rediscover a fascinating legacy of 20th century football and film on the FA Cup trail.

Millions will watch the FA Cup Final, most on a screen. Modern football and the media have grown up together, from black and white newsreels in the cinema to colour television, and on into the internet age. Was the moving image a game changer for football? Well, it’s a long road from the earliest silent celluloid soccer to today’s hi-tech sports coverage, but some sports media clichés were there from the start, along with the filmmaker’s drive to capture the game’s spills, thrills, and passionate fans.
Trainee sports journalist and football fan Dom Brown, Leeds Trinity University, delved into our archive collections during a placement at North East Film Archive to select his favourite FA Cup moments on film, a competition with rich ties to the north of England.

The earliest film I found in the archives is the 1911 FA Cup Final between Bradford City and Newcastle United, where more than 69,000 fans crammed into the venue at Crystal Palace, and climbed overlooking trees for a free view. The players file onto the pitch one after the other, a theatrical gesture to please the cinematographer, which survives to this day in football matches.

This film was made by the Warwick Trading Company, a leading film production company in Britain at the turn of the century. Cameramen in the early days (often only one or two) struggled to capture the action due to the constraints of their equipment (no filming from the stands) and the high cost of film. This one was shot from the sidelines so gives at least a rudimentary flavour of the match, but leaves the contemporary viewer disappointed. The game was a goalless draw, prompting a replay in Manchester at Old Trafford on 26th April 1911. Newcastle United were favourites, but a header by Jimmy Spears secured the Cup for underdogs Bradford City in their one and only FA Cup final.

The next film features a packed Tyne-Wear derby in the 1913 FA Cup Fourth Round Replay at St James’ Park between two great rivals, Sunderland and Newcastle. This was filmed for cinema pioneer and showman George Henderson and the North of England Film Bureau, operating from Newcastle upon Tyne between 1910 and 1942. This ‘local topical’ boasts some quite sophisticated shooting and editing compared with typical sports films from the period. Sunderland scored three goals against Newcastle United but the cameras were not always there to capture them.

It’s astounding what a difference a decade or two made in the professional coverage of football matches. 80 years ago, Sunderland lifted their first ever FA Cup in the Coronation Cup Final of 1937 against Preston North End. This newsreel builds a whole narrative around the event, from the arrival of fans at the railway station, including a female fan clutching a Black Cat mascot, to the presentation of the trophy by royal celebrities George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The Featurettes Company employed a larger camera team to produce a variety of angles following play including close-ups of players, shots from behind both goals and overviews from the terraces. The shots of euphoric, hat-waving crowds were always part of the commercial imperative of newsreel companies selling to cinemas.

Live football was first broadcast on television in 1938 but it was not until the 1950s that television brought the moving image into the viewer’s home in greater numbers, as sales of TVs increased with the broadcast of Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation in 1953. Over the years, television introduced innovations such as action replays, player cam, and slo-mo. The newsreel market suffered with the popularity of television, but the media techniques developed by newsreels continued to be used in TV football broadcasts for decades, and left behind a rich archive of football’s past. 

Newcastle United had to wait until the 1950s for their real glory days, a decade also opening up with cheaper cameras for the amateur filmmaker. The team’s shy football hero Jackie Milburn is with the triumphant Magpies who return from Wembley Stadium with the coveted FA Cup in 1951 and 1952. This was the perfect opportunity for Jack Lawson, local owner of a confectionary business in Northumberland Street and director of Newcastle United, to hang out with his family on the balcony of the County Hotel and film the triumphant parade from Central Station in an open-top coach. Long-serving Newcastle captain (and later manager) Joe Harvey holds the trophy aloft to a huge crowd of emotional fans celebrating their local heroes.

The ’people’s game’ is nothing without the fans. We end with a superb amateur film from Michael and Linda Gough of the rapturous welcome from football fans celebrating a fairy tale win as rank outsiders as Sunderland return home with the FA Cup in 1973. The whole city is a sea of red and white as Second Division team Sunderland beat the odds and return to Roker Park with a magical 1-0 Wembley win against formidable ‘football machine’ Leeds United. It’s hard to imagine today’s footballers being impressed, but each Sunderland player received a gift of Pyrex tableware from Joplings department store for their win.

The experience of looking through these fascinating films in the archive collections has shown me how the FA Cup has heavily featured in the history of northern football through the 20th century. It also gives a comparison with the competition today. It is amazing to see how far the media coverage of football has progressed in such a short period – and perhaps how much it remains the same – and how football and the FA Cup are still as relevant today as they ever were.