Oh, the magic of the FA Cup! The oldest national football competition on the planet gives the minnows from around England (and indeed beyond) the chance to mix it with the big boys… and hopefully undertake a giant killing or two. Indeed, at the time of writing, the Third Qualifying Round is about to take place. Among others, this early stage of the 2023/24 tournament features the likes of Biggleswade Town, South Shields, Berkhamsted and the mighty Cray Valley Paper Mills (who beat Northwood 4-3 after extra time in the last round).
Most teams entering the competition in the qualifying rounds won’t be overly optimistic about their chances of making it to the Third Round-proper, let alone going all the way in the FA Cup. But there will always be the hopeful few who dream of making it to Wembley and – against all the odds – lifting the FA Cup. But the question is, has any non-league side ever achieved the all-but-impossible and won the FA Cup?
What Do We Mean by Non-League?
Just to clarify, when we say a team is non-league, we mean they play in a division that is not within the Football League (or indeed, since 1992, the Premier League). But then, the FA Cup was first contested in the 1871/72 season, and the Football League did not begin until the 1888/89 season.
As such, if we’re being technical, the first 17 FA Cup tournaments were all won by non-league sides. That batch of pre-Football League FA Cup winners included familiar names like West Bromwich Albion, Blackburn Rovers and Aston Villa, but also teams like Old Carthusians, Old Etonians, Royal Engineers and Oxford University.
But, given that you can’t really be non-league before the league in which you don’t play even exists, we’re going to commence our analysis from the 1888/89 season onwards.
The Only Non-League Team to Win the FA Cup is… Tottenham
Yes, there has only ever been one non-league side to have gone all the way in the FA Cup, and that team was Tottenham Hotspur way back in the 1900/01 season. At that time, the Football League consisted of two divisions – aptly named the First Division and the Second Division. But Tottenham played in the Southern League at the time, which was no part of the Football League. Spurs joined the Football League in 1908.
On the way to FA Cup glory, which was their first of eight FA Cups to date, Spurs overcame Preston North End (after a replay), Bury, and Reading (after a replay), before tonking West Brom 4-0 in the semi-final at Villa Park.
The final was against Sheffield United and was played at Crystal Palace (not the club but a separate venue) in front of a crowd of more than 114,000 fans. It ended as a 2-2 draw, Sandy Brown getting both Tottenham’s goals. In the replay (in front of a much more modest crowd of around 20,000 at Burnden Park, Bolton), Tottenham won 3-1 after coming back from a goal down.
Non-League Teams Who Lost in the FA Cup Final (Since 1888/89)
There have been two sides who played outside of the Football League (and hence can be classed as non-league) that have lost in the FA Cup final. Although one of the two sides managed to lose two finals!
- The Wednesday – A member of the short-lived Football Alliance, The Wednesday (a forerunner of Sheffield Wednesday) lost 6-1 to Blackburn Rovers in the 1889/90 FA Cup final.
- Southampton (2) – Southampton, who played in the Southern League with Spurs, lost the FA Cup finals of 1899/1900 (4-0 to Bury) and again in 1901/02 (2-1 to Sheffield United in a replay after drawing the first game 1-1).
Best FA Cup Runs By Non-League Sides Since 1925/26
In 1921, changes to the Football League took place which saw the introduction of the Third Division South and the Third Division North, which essentially caused the demise of the Southern League as a force to rival the Football League. Then later, ahead of the 1925/26 seasons, the structure of the FA Cup was changed to include six rounds (proper) before the semi-finals and final (as it is today). Hence we will look at non-league FA Cup runs since this tournament format was introduced.
Only Non-League Side to Reach the Quarter-finals (Sixth Round) since 1925/26… Lincoln City
Although several non-league sides have made it to the Fifth Round (last 16) of the FA Cup since the 1925/26 tournament, only Lincoln City have made it to the next round (the quarters). This happened in the 2016/17 season when The Imps were playing in the National League (the fifth tier of English football).
Their FA Cup journey began in the Fourth Qualifying Round of the FA Cup, and it took a replay for them to overcome Guiseley. But then Lincoln got the better of Altrincham in the First Round and once-decent Oldham Athletic in the Second. In the Third Round, Lincoln faced 1978 FA Cup winners Ipswich Town, and though it took another replay, the Imps prevailed.
They faced another Championship side in the Fourth Round in Brighton and Hove Albion (who would end up finishing second and gained promotion to the Premier League, where they have been ever since). Lincoln were fearless, however, and won the match 3-1 to set up a Fifth Round tie against Premier League side Burnley.
Despite being away from home, Lincoln got the better of Sean Dyche’s men and their reward was a trip to the Emirates to face the side who have won the cup more than any other team: Arsenal. This is where Lincoln’s dream came to an end as Arsene Wenger’s men made short work of their non-league opponents and won the match 5-0. At least the Gunners went on the win the cup that year though, so Lincoln at least lost to the eventual victors.
Non-League Sides to Reach Fifth Round of FA Cup Since 1925/26
Here are the sides who have made it to the last 16 of the FA Cup since the 1925/26 tournament, correct ahead of the 2023/24 FA Cup.
|Team||League||Season||Fifth Round Result|
|Colchester United||Southern League||1947/48||Blackpool 5-0 Colchester|
|Yeovil Town||Southern League||1948/49||Man United 8-0 Yeovil|
|Blyth Spartans||Northern League||1977/78||Blyth 1-2 Wrexham (replay)|
|Telford United||Alliance Premier League||1984/85||Everton 3-0 Telford|
|Kidderminster Harriers||Football Conference||1993/94||Kidderminster 0-1 West Ham|
|Crawley Town||Conference National||2010/11||Man United 1-0 Crawley|
|Luton Town||Conference National||2012/13||Luton 0-3 Millwall|
|Sutton United||National League||2016/17||Sutton 0-2 Arsenal|
|Boreham Wood||National League||2021/22||Everton 2-0 Boreham Wood|