The Run of Play is a blog about
the wonder and terror of soccer.

We left the window open during a match in October 2007 and a strange wind blew into the room.

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Toward a Provisional Theory of “Cup Magic”

Galahad before the Grail.


Whenever I am alone and, for a moment, reasonably secure in Krakow, I repair to a certain library in which, as it is situated underground and beneath a building (the Museum of Pharmacology) whose staff I trust to alert me in the event of any disturbance, I am more than usually well-protected from attacks by my unknown enemies. Here I am able to lose myself in my researches, or simply in contemplation of the feet of the passers-by as they tramp past the long, thin windows overhead. It was on one such evening, I recall, in the autumn of last year, that, as twilight glistened on the sidewalk above me, I found myself pursuing a clue in the log book of the schoolmaster of the National School for Boys at Calne, when an entry caught my eye that considerably advanced my understanding of what is suggestively known within footballing circles as “the magic of the cup.”

The entry, recorded in the neat, dry hand of John James Boden, who served as master of Calne from 1871 to 1917, merely described a spell of “intensively hot weather” in September, 1895, which left him no choice but to move all classes out of doors, allowing the boys to be “drilled” in the shade of the Green. However, there was something in this tidbit that caused a shiver to pass down the back of my neck; and rising to pace down the narrow aisle between two towering bookshelves, I put my mind to discovering what it might be. At last, with a gasp, I hurried back to the table and turned to a well-worn page in my notebook, where I confirmed that this new piece of meteorological evidence had revived a long-dormant line of my inquiry, and would perhaps enable me to postulate the existence of a rare and unnatural heat wave that broke out across English-speaking countries in the few days following the disappearance of the first football trophy to be known as the “FA Cup.”

The circumstances surrounding the disappearance are well-known. Aston Villa had returned to Birmingham with the cup in their possession after a 1-0 win in the final over West Bromwich Albion. The silver cup, which, from the moment of its completion by Martin, Hall & Co. in 1872, had exerted such a curious fascination over the public that it began to be known as “the Little Tin Idol,” was put on show in the shop window of the prominent sporting outfitter William Shillcock, who had undoubtedly been persuaded to consent to the display by the thought of the large crowds that would inevitably assemble to look at the famous totem. In the event, however, the crowds were never given the opportunity. On the cool and oddly still night of September 11, 1895, thieves broke into the shop, took a small amount of cash from the drawer, and made off with the cup, to parts and for reasons which, sadly, no amount of speculation can make known to us.

The outbreak of unseasonable heat which followed from this mistreatment of the cup was not so great as to qualify in most places as a major historical event; certainly it cannot to compare to the withering of the land and the disintegration of crops that followed from the mistreatment of the Holy Grail at the hands of the Fisher Kings. It was simply as if the land in certain places passed through a sudden fever: the intensive heat at Wiltshire; the “blast of hot, dry air” in Pittsburgh that sent temperatures surging for days; the odd concentration of sunlight over Chicago that made that September (according to the invaluable history of the climate of that city by Henry Joseph Cox and John Howard Armington) one of the hottest on record. In England for six consecutive days the average temperature exceeded 27°C. In Australia the conditions of merciless heat and aridity that became widespread around that time would ultimately constitute the beginning of the Federation Drought.

It seemed to me, as I made note of these facts in my ledger, that…but here my speculations were interrupted as, a museum attendant appearing to report a strange whirring or humming sound that had begun to emanate from an upstairs heating duct, I was once again forced to take flight.

The Grail procession.


On the train to Vienna I thought, not for the first time, of the lines of power or influence that bind certain objects to particular places upon the earth, and I wondered (fancifully, I confess) whether the crowds that packed the early football stands or “terraces” to see their teams play for the cup were ever moved to think of the plight of the denizens of the Waste Land when the sins of the Grail-keepers had doomed them to perpetual famine and dread. Or of the subjects of the giant king Bran the Blessed, whose kingdom was devastated when he lost the magical cauldron by which he had been empowered to restore the dead to life.

Barnsley 1911

Wolverhampton Wanderers had made replicas of the cup for their victorious players after their win in 1893, and the FA were thus able to replace the cup stolen from Birmingham with a replica of one of these replicas of the earlier design. Whether it possessed any of the strange influence of the original “Little Tin Idol,” I cannot say; in any case, it was the “FA Cup” only until 1910, at which point it was retired under rather vague circumstances having to do with the discovery that the design was not in fact original to the FA. It had been copied, instead, from some earlier pattern or source, which, whatever it may have been, unsettled the FA sufficiently to persuade them to withdraw it from circulation and replace it with an entirely new cup, this one to be designed by Messers. Fattorini & Sons, of Bradford.

Whether by a mere coincidence, or by some late, faint echo of the renewal effected by the Grail knights upon the completion of their quest, Bradford City, the near neighbors of the Fattorini workshop, won the FA Cup that year, achieving a major honor for the first and last time in their history.

Glastonbury Tor

The phrase “the magic of the cup” is generally taken to refer only to the heightened drama and unpredictability which are thought to attend the competition, and not to any durable curse or enchantment placed upon the silver cup itself. However when we consider that the most extraordinary quality of Bran’s cauldron and of the Arthurian Grail (as of Fionn’s cauldron of plenty, the enchanted chalice of Harenbrumm, and the “divining goblet” of Joseph) was their ability to inspire astonishing and unlikely feats from those who held and sought them, we are perhaps not unjustified in seeing the story of the cup as a sort of last continuation, ennobling and disturbing at once, of those greater and more terrible stories which preceded it, and which, perhaps, were studied under the shade of the Green by the boys at Calne, during that hot September which their master complained of in his book.


The FA Cup that was won by Bradford and designed by Fattorini remained in use until 1991, when it was retired and replaced by a replica. The older replica, which the FA mysteriously withdrew in 1910, was recently sold at auction for £420,000 to David Gold, the chairman of Birmingham City. The Holy Grail, it is believed by many, lies deep beneath Glastonbury Tor, the religious site which is traditionally thought to have been founded by Joseph of Arimathea, and which is famed for the regular sloping or “terracing” upon the steep hillside.

The Waste Land

In 1958, an 83-year-old man named Harry Burge, a former petty criminal then living in a Birmingham hostel for the homeless, claimed to have been responsible for the theft of the first cup some 63 years before. He claimed to have melted it down under high temperatures in order to make counterfeit coins; however, his story has not been confirmed. It was to this question that I intended to address myself upon arriving in Vienna, but unfortunately I had only a few moments upon checking into my hotel, in the deepest part of the night—I recall that I was unpacking my books from my valise—before I heard a bump outside my door. I rushed to the balustrade of the staircase to find the hotel clerk, slumped over, lying face-down on his desk, with a red pool spreading beneath him and a silver knife in his back.


Toward a Provisional Theory of “Cup Magic”

by Dr. Chesapeake Marchpane · April 6, 2008

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