The first FA Cup final was played between Wanderers and Royal Engineers at Kennington Oval on 16 March 1872. That much is true and indisputable. But which players actually played in the match?
It's fairly well-known that one Wanderers player played under a pseudonym. "AH Chequer" was actually Morton Betts. He was a ringer who usually played for Harrow Chequers (hence the pseudonym, "A Harrow Chequer"), although he had previously played for - and captained - Wanderers in a match against Royal Engineers in November 1871.
Football was a wholly-amateur pursuit, and players, without contracts, could turn out for whichever team they liked. But it was frowned upon for teams to play ringers in big matches, and the first FA Cup final was the biggest match there had ever been.
So Betts played under the jokey pseudonym. And, perhaps inevitably, he scored the only goal in a 1-0 win for Wanderers. But was there another ringer in the Wanderers team? And perhaps one playing for Royal Engineers? Conflicting match reports from the time suggest there might have been.
The generally-accepted team line-ups for the first FA Cup final, quoted by most modern sources including Wikipedia, are:
Wanderers: Reginald Courtenay Welch, Edgar Lubbock, Albert Thompson, CW Alcock, Edward Bowen, Alexander Bonsor, Morton Betts (as AH Chequer), William Crake, Thomas Hooman, Walpole Vidal, Charles Wollaston.
Royal Engineers: William Merriman, Francis Marindin, George Addison, Alfred Goodwyn, Hugh Mitchell, Edmund Creswell, Henry Renny-Tailyour, Henry Rich, Herbert Muirhead, Edmond Cotter, Adam Bogle.
These line-ups only seems to appear in one contemporary source. At least seven other sources give slightly different line-ups. The source that printed this line-up, alongside a match report, was the Sportsman. This is an important source for early football, most notably because it was where football pioneer CW Alcock began his journalistic career.
Alcock, as FA secretary, instigated the FA Cup and actually played for Wanderers in the first final. It's possible that the match report and line-ups were submitted by Alcock (it was common at the time for club secretaries to submit reports to newspapers), and it's probable that he at least saw them before they were published. So the Sportsman's line-up must be accurate, right? Possibly. But the Sportsman's line-up names Morton Betts as AH Chequer, which indicates that there was some form of subterfuge - or at least horseplay - going on.
Another newspaper, the Morning Post, names a slightly different Wanderers line-up. Instead of Edward Bowen and Walpole Vidal, it names HE Crawford and RC Wilson. As other sources suggest Vidal played a significant part in the final, this line-up appears to be incorrect. The Morning Advertiser, meanwhile, omits Edward Bowen from its line-up, and only names ten players. This man-short line-up was also printed in Bell's Life and other sources. It's clear that a mistake has been made, and the ten-man line-ups should be disregarded. However, it's intriguing that all of these sources name Morton Betts as AH Chequer, and all omit Edward Bowen.
Perhaps the most interesting contemporary source is the Sheffield Independent. Football was well-developed in Sheffield in 1872 - more so than it was in London - and the Independent is a good source for early football, with relatively lengthy, knowledgeable match reports. The first thing to note about the Wanderers line-up printed in the Sheffield Independent on 19 March 1872 is that it names Morton Betts as Morton Betts. This suggests the newspaper's reporter was well-acquainted enough with the players to recognise that Betts was not AH Chequer. The second interesting thing about the Independent line-up is that it again omits Edward Bowen, and instead names HH Stewart.
The Reverend Henry Holmes Stewart was a Scot who played for the Cambridge University team. So, if he had played for Wanderers in the 1872 Cup Final he would have been considered a ringer, and might have played under a pseudonym, like Morton Betts did. Or could he, perhaps, have been a late replacement for an injured Bowen? (And could that explain why Bowen was omitted from the ten-man line-ups in other sources?) What's really interesting about the naming of Reverend Stewart is that, while he doesn't seem to have played for Wanderers in competitive games prior to the 1872 FA Cup final, he did play for Wanderers subsequently, and indeed played for them in the 1873 FA Cup final (alongside Edward Bowen!).
And then we come to the Royal Engineers line-up. The Sheffield Independent omits Hugh Mitchell and instead names G Barker. To further complicate matters, the Morning Post names 12 players - the Sportsman's eleven plus G Barker. The Morning Advertiser and other sources name the Sportsman's eleven. Was G Barker an alternate or replacement (in an era before substitutes)?
Lieutenant G Barker (not to be confused with England's, and later Wanderers', Robert Barker) did play regularly for Royal Engineers before and after the 1872 cup final, so was closely associated with the club. Both Barker and Mitchell played for Royal Engineers against Wanderers in November 1871, and both appear in the team photo shown on this page. (Although Wikipedia states the photo was taken in 1872, the line-up suggests it was taken before the November 1871 match.)
The Sheffield Independent isn't the only newspaper to name Holmes instead of Bowen, and Barker instead of Mitchell, for the 1872 cup final, although other sources printed their reports on later dates, so may have taken their line-ups from the Independent's report. The full line-up printed in the Independent and subsequent sources is:
Wanderers: Reginald Courtenay Welch, Edgar Lubbock, Albert Thompson, CW Alcock, Henry Holmes Stewart, Alexander Bonsor, Morton Betts, William Crake, Thomas Hooman, Walpole Vidal, Charles Wollaston.
Royal Engineers: William Merriman, Francis Marindin, George Addison, Alfred Goodwyn, G Barker, Edmund Creswell, Henry Renny-Tailyour, Henry Rich, Herbert Muirhead, Edmond Cotter, Adam Bogle.
Were these the real teams that played in the 1872 FA Cup final? It will probably never be possible to say for certain. While the Sportsman's line-up should be accurate due to Alcock's involvement, the naming of "AH Chequer" suggests that it isn't. And the Sheffield Independent's line-up, in naming Morton Betts, gains extra credibility. But football reporting was difficult and not always reliable in the 1870s. If the above proves anything, it's that contemporary newspaper reports cannot always be trusted.