Competition Structure


There are two phases to the competition, a qualifying phase in which hundreds of small semi-professional (commonly known as "non-league") clubs play, and the competition proper where the qualifiers are joined by the league clubs.

The qualifying phase was introduced in 1888-89 to cut down on the increasing number of mismatched contests which resulted from an all in draw (e.g. Preston North End 26 Hyde 0 in the previous season). From season 1970-71 the qualifying rounds produced 28 qualifiers for the competition proper who joined 4 exempted semi-professional clubs (the previous year's FA Challenge Trophy finalists and two others deemed most appropriate by the FA, based on previous years' performances), and the 92 Premiership and Nationwide League clubs. Following the establishment of the Pyramid system from 1979 onwards, this increasingly led to anomolies where some clubs from one league might have to enter the competition at the First Qualifying Round stage whilst others might be exempt right through to the Fourth Qualifying Round or even the competition proper. The problem was felt to be particularly acute with the top professional clubs (i.e. Conference members) who had had poor runs in recent years (often due to being drawn against fellow Conference clubs in early rounds). To address this the exemptions system was altered for the 1998-99 such that exemptions are now based solely on the status of a clubs league and now the qualifying rounds produce 32 qualifiers who join the 92 professional clubs in the Competition Proper.

There are four Qualifying Rounds and also a Preliminary Round which is necessary if more than 472 clubs enter (as has been the case for many years). Clubs are exempted from earlier qualifying rounds depending on the status of the league that they play in. The 22 member clubs of the top semi-professional league, The Football Conference, are exempt to the Third Qualifying Round. A further 66 clubs who are members of the top division of the next tier of leagues, the Premier Division of The UniBond League, Dr Martens League and Ryman League are exempt to the Second Qualifying Round. All remaining teams are placed in the Preliminary Round draw, although many of these will receive a bye to the First Qualifying Round. All Qualifying Rounds are drawn on a regional basis (i.e. clbus are drawn with others in the same region). The draw for the First Qualifying Round is made at the same time as that of the Preliminary Round, thereafter each qualifying round is drawn on the Monday following the scheduled date of the previous round.

Note that if more than 774 teams are ever accepted into the competition then an Extra Preliminary Round would be necessary, although at its peak the number of entrants in any one year was slightly less than 700.

The first two rounds of the competition proper were previously drawn on a regional basis, however from 1998-99 this system has been abandoned and the draw is completly open. Entering the First Round proper are the 32 qualifiers and the 48 Nationwide League Divivision Two and Three clubs. This gives a total of 80 teams at this stage which is reduced to 20 by the end of the second round. The 20 Premiership clubs and 24 Nationwide League Division One clubs now join in giving a "perfect" 64 teams in the Third Round. Four further rounds will thus leave two teams to contest the Final. The draw for each round in the competition proper is made live on Satellite TV on the Saturday (early rounds) or Sunday (later rounds) afternoon of the scheduled weekend of the previous round.

Until 1998 four semi-professional clubs were exempted to the First Round Proper, as explained above. A further 20 clubs were exempted to the Fourth Qualifying Round depending on their record in previous competitions. The remaining clubs were divided into 36 "divisions" on a geographical basis (i.e. clubs were drawn with others in the same region). If necessary a preliminary round was played to reduce the number of teams in each division to 8 (this had to be done if more than 404 teams entered). Then three qualifying rounds produced 36 group winners who progressed to the 4th Qualifying Round when the 20 exempt teams mentioned above joined in to produce 28 qualifiers for the competition proper. Note that the ties in each division were pre-determined at the start of the competition (i.e. rounds were not drawn separately).

Number of clubs appearing in each round

Round No of teams exempt
to this round
No of teams qualified
from previous round
Total teams in round Total ties in round
Preliminary excess over 472 * 2 excess over 472
1st Qualifying (292 less excess over 472) excess over 472 292 146
2nd Qualifying 66 146 212 106
3rd Qualifying 22 106 128 64
4th Qualifying 64 64 32
1st Round 48 32 80 40
2nd Round 40 40 20
3rd Round 44 20 64 32
4th Round 32 32 16
5th Round 16 16 8
6th Round 8 8 4
Semi-Finals 4 4 2
Final 2 2 1

FA Cup Index

About this document

Prepared and maintained by James M. Ross

Author: James M. Ross
Last updated: 16 Nov 1998

Copyright © 1996,1998 James M. Ross
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