THE STAFFORDSHIRE COUNTY F.A.
SENIOR CHALLENGE CUP
by Barry Smith
The competition is governed by the Staffordshire County F.A., which was formed in 1877, making it the third oldest County Association in the country behind the Birmingham County F.A. (1875) and Sheffield & Hallamshire F.A. (1876).
The Senior Cup Competition (or Staffordshire Cup as it was first known) was instituted in that first season, 1877-78, by T.C. Stanley, the Association's first Secretary.
Details are sketchy from the early competitions but it is recorded on the plinth of the original trophy that Stoke beat Talke Rangers 1-0 in the very first final in 1878 - Stoke's first ever trophy. It is also recorded in Stoke City F.C. history books that in one of the earlier rounds Stoke trounced Mow Cop 26-0 - which is still the club's record win to this day.
Wednesbury Strollers became the first South Staffordshire club to enter the competition in the 1878-79 season but Stoke retained the trophy by beating Cobridge 2-1 in the final. A year later, however, Wednesbury Old Athletic Club took the trophy 'South' for the first time.
Stoke again reached the final in 1883 but it was West Bromwich Albion's turn to claim their first ever trophy thanks to a 3-2 win in the Potteries played before 6,500 spectators. The successful Albion side are pictured (left) proudly displaying the cup.
Clubs mostly played friendly matches in those days, and as the game of football began to grow in popularity the Staffordshire Cup and the neighbouring Birmingham Cup became quite major events. The bigger clubs of the day like West Bromwich Albion, Aston Villa and Wolverhampton Wanderers began to dominate the competitions, and even after the formation of the Football League in 1888 the regional cup tournaments remained popular.
In 1891 caps were given to the finalists for the first time - up until then it had been the custom to get "stuck in" on the field, and all "tuck in" around the table afterwards.
In the following season goal nets were first ordered in the Senior Cup and in 1893 such was the enthusiasm for the competition that a Qualifying Competition had to be organised.
1895 saw Small Heath (now Birmingham City) enter the competition for the first time and two seasons later the Trophy was sent to the Crystal Palace on exhibition.
Stafford Rangers, then members of the Cheshire County League, were one of the first non-league sides to make an impression when they reached the final in 1954, but they were well beaten 4-0 by a strong Aston Villa side at Marston Road.
Rangers enjoyed better fortunes a year later when they were successful in reaching the final again, and this time they beat Birmingham Leaguers Leek Town 3-1 at Marston Road.
The mid-1950s marked the beginning of a new era for the Senior Cup with the leading amateur clubs taking over from the more illustrious Football League giants who either stopped entering the competition or fielded much weaker reserve and 'A' teams.
Burton Albion beat Tamworth 2-0 in the 1956 final to record their only ever success, equalling the feats of both Burton Swifts and Burton Wanderers who also won the trophy just once many years earlier.
An incredible sequence saw Stafford Rangers reach five successive finals between 1957 and 1961, amazingly they met Bilston in four of those finals with Bilston coming out on top in three of the meetings. At this stage the competition had declined significantly with only a handful of clubs taking part, which goes some way towards explaining the dominance of Stafford and Bilston.
Bilston completed a hat-trick of wins in 1962 with a 2-1 win over Brierley Hill Alliance, and then in 1963 Stafford Rangers and Bilston amazingly met in the final for the fifth time in seven seasons - this time Rangers took the honours winning 4-2.
By the end of the 1960s the competition had at last started to expand again, due mainly to a number of clubs being invited to take part. Wolves, West Bromwich Albion, Walsall, Kidderminster Harriers and Worcester City - who won the competition at the first attempt in 1976 - were among those to appear, along with several clubs from the West Midlands (Regional) League like Darlaston, Stourbridge and Eastwood (Hanley).
Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s it was the bigger semi-professional clubs - Stafford Rangers, Hednesford Town, Northwich Victoria and Kidderminster Harriers who dominated the competition. In fact Kidderminster won the cup four times in five years between 1981 and 1985, and by the early 1990s over 30 teams were entering from as far apart as Redditch United and Malvern Town in the south to Macclesfield Town and Northwich Victoria in the north.
There had been an all-Cheshire final between Northwich and Macclesfield, and Northwich were involved in a north v south final when they met Redditch over two legs in 1991. Some would say these were the competition's best years - lots of interest, big name clubs, and some big crowds, but in many ways it had been taken away from the clubs who mattered - those from Staffordshire.
Slowly the clubs from outside the county drifted away from the competition especially after some of the bigger crowd pullers like Macclesfield Town pulled out once they won their way into the Football League. It has also become more difficult for clubs to play in more than one County Cup as their Leagues have generally been reluctant to allow them to postpone League fixtures for competitions outside the club's own parent County F.A..
Now a more manageable amount of clubs enter - almost entirely Staffordshire based, and with the finals now being played as a one-off game at a major stadium rather than over two legs there is a great incentive for the players and clubs to give this famous old competition the respect it deserves.
A small change was made to competition rules prior to the 2016-17 season to allow clubs from Step 6 of the National Non-League System to enter.