As the oldest competition in football, dating all the way back to 1871, the FA Cup commands a huge amount of respect and prestige throughout the English leagues, and is one of the most famed domestic cups in the world.
With so many teams battling for supremacy, it can be difficult to know where to start with all the rounds that take place before the Premier League teams even get close to playing their first games. We’ll walk you through everything that leads up to that all-important final.
Who is eligible?
Any club down to Level 10 of the English football league system (also known as the football pyramid) can take part in the FA Cup, as long as they meet the FA’s eligibility rules.
All clubs in top four levels of the football pyramid are automatically eligible to take part.
Clubs in levels five to ten are also allowed to take part in the competition during any given year, as long as they did so in the previous season. To enter the competition, a club must also have a suitable stadium.
Welsh clubs that play in the English football league system are eligible, and these six teams are: Swansea City, Cardiff City (still the one non-English team to win the FA Cup, in 1927), Wrexham, Newport County, Colwyn Bay and Merthyr Town.
Number of clubs in the competition
The number of clubs entering the FA Cup has increased dramatically in recent years. 660 clubs took part in the 2004-05 season, which the beat the 83-year-old record of 656 from 1921-22. The number of entrants increased steadily each year until reaching a peak of 763 in 2011-12.
The FA Cup is remarkable for the sheer number of entrants each year. By comparison, the League Cup only allows the 92 teams from the Premier League and Football League to enter.
The FA Cup is an annual knockout competition. This means that the losing teams of each round are eliminated and do not progress to the next stage.
The tournament starts in August of each year and consists of 14 rounds in total. The FA Cup uses a system of byes to ensure that clubs in the Premier League and Football League Championship (the top two tiers of the pyramid) enter at later stages.
The first six rounds act as qualifiers for the competition proper. The first matches involve teams from Levels 9 and 10 in the Extra Preliminary Round.
The draw for the six qualifying rounds takes place on a regional basis. This helps to reduce travel costs for the smaller – and therefore less wealthy – non-league clubs. The draw for each of the ‘proper’ rounds is completely random and is broadcast on television.
The tournament begins with the Extra Preliminary Round which typically takes place in August. This first round involves entrants from the Levels 9 and 10, and the three subsequent stages see teams from progressively higher levels enter.
This is frozen at the Third Round, before Level 5 clubs join the competition in the Fourth Round.
In the Competition Proper, clubs from Levels 4 and 3 enter in the First Round, and the remaining teams from Levels 2 and 1 join in the Third Round.
The months in which rounds occur are set, but the exact dates on which each match of each round are played depends on the calendar in each year.
The FA Cup Final is traditionally held on the Saturday after the end of the Premier League season in May.