Wembley will be packed with 90,000 fans when Liverpool and Chelsea contest the FA Cup final this Saturday.
But English football’s showpiece game is merely the culmination of the extraordinary annual journey that is the world’s oldest knockout competition.
This nine-month, 14 round, 2,750-mile odyssey began way back on August 6, when minnows from the ninth and tenth tiers of the game competed in the extra preliminary round, a million miles removed from the multi-millionaire players gracing the Wembley stage.
Photographer Duncan Elliott set out to capture the ‘Road to Wembley’ and those dreams of glory, starting with a tie between West Didsbury and Chorlton AFC and neighbouring Avro, which attracted 355 hardy and hopeful spectators.
Avro won that game 3-1 at Brookburn Road, so Elliott picked them up as his team to follow, and so on with all the winners through the rounds all the way to Saturday’s final.
Chris Rowley, the manager of West Didsbury and Chorlton of the 10th-tier North West Counties League Division One South. It was at the club’s Brookburn Road ground that photographer Duncan Elliott began his ‘Road to Wembley’ journey
Kyle Jacobs, the captain of ninth-tier Avro FC, pictured in their dressing room at the FA Cup preliminary round game
Calum McIntyre, manager of Northern Premier League Division One West side Runcorn Linnets, in their dressing room
Elliott followed Runcorn through three rounds of the FA Cup – pictured is their defender Peter Wylie in team colours
National League North club Gateshead defeated the Linnets and Elliott photographed their club captain Greg Olley
It was all going well for Elliott until he reached the first round proper, when the League One and Two clubs enter the fray, as Covid restrictions started to affect which games he could get accreditation for.
He decided to shift focus slightly to take in more of the colour of each occasion, focusing on the cup hopes of the supporters.
Elliott said: ‘For years I’d heard about Groundhoppers trying to get to all of the League’s 92 grounds or doing something like My Road To Wembley and thought I’d like to try it one year.
‘Last season I followed the winning team through the cups and followed the results for something to do during all the lockdowns.
‘This season I thought I’d give getting to all the games a go as a fan but it was too good an opportunity not to try and make it into a photography project.
‘As the competition went on and the clubs grew bigger I wanted to show how the money changes the surroundings but not necessarily the people.
Gateshead kitman Dave Allen looks out at the International Stadium. Elliott watched The Heed beat Marske and Altrincham
Charlton supporters watch on at The Valley during their third round defeat to Premier League club Norwich City
The League One side beat Gateshead but the challenge of Premier League Norwich proved too strong as they went down 1-0
There was plenty of passion on display among a crowd of almost 14,000 spectators at The Valley for the third round tie
Charlton mascot ‘Floyd the Dog’ (left) and two fans (right) pose for photographer Duncan Elliott outside The Valley
‘I wasn’t able to get the same access as I had done during the previous rounds. So I adapted the project to take on a fans view point of the cup; traveling to the game, pre-match build up, the passion in the stands and the action on the pitch.’
Avro lost out to Runcorn Linnets in a replay in the preliminary round but Elliott’s new side overcame Liversedge and Bamber Bridge before going down 3-2 to Gateshead of the National League North before 907 fans in the third qualifying round in early October.
He picked up with Gateshead, who beat Marske United and then Altrincham to make it into the second round proper. The non-leaguers’ dreams of Wembley were ended by League One Charlton Athletic, who won 2-0 in front of a crowd of 3,746.
That earned Charlton a third round meeting with Premier League Norwich City, who won 1-0 at The Valley in January.
Delighted Norwich fans celebrate their passage into the fifth round following a 1-0 win at fellow top-flight club Wolves
The Canaries had a large contingent at Molineux for the fourth round win as they put their league relegation worries aside
Canaries manager Dean Smith gives a post-match interview following a satisfactory afternoon at Molineux against Wolves
Norwich then won 1-0 at Wolverhampton Wanderers in the fourth round but a trip to Liverpool proved too far as they went down 2-1 in the fifth round.
Following Jurgen Klopp’s men took Elliott to Nottingham Forest for a quarter-final they won 1-0 and then to Wembley for a crunch semi-final match against Manchester City.
The Reds produced a stunning first-half performance and won 3-2, setting up Saturday’s clash with Chelsea.
‘There’s so much passion there,’ Leeds fan Elliott said.
Red smoke billows onto the pitch at the City Ground after Liverpool score their winning goal against Nottingham Forest
There was an old school feel about the Forest-Liverpool quarter-final as two of England’s traditional giants went head-to-head
Forest fans pictured at the nearby boathouse on the River Trent ahead of the Liverpool game – with a ‘Forest are magic’ flag
A Forest fan at the City Ground shushes the Liverpool contingent as the club’s many honours are displayed in the background
Pin badges and scarves, two staples of matchday in England, on sale outside the City Ground ahead of the quarter-final
Wild celebrations among the travelling Liverpool fans at Nottingham Forest as Diogo Jota sends them into the semi-finals
‘People can really lose themselves in football, especially when they’re in a group surrounded by other like minded people. It’s tribal, that belonging, the unity of it, it’s really powerful.
‘It’s a global language. You could be anywhere in the world, mention a club or a player to someone and you can usually strike up some form of conversation.
‘It can be played in the streets with something cobbled together for a ball to the World Cup Final in a stadium that costs millions, with billions of people watching on TV.
‘There are so many stories to tell, finding those stories and photographing them is a fantastic challenge.’
The sun shines on Liverpool as they beat Manchester City 3-2 at Wembley to reach this Saturday’s FA Cup final
The semi-final was bathed in sunshine with these two Liverpool fans enjoying the pre-match build-up outside Wembley
It was a great day for beers in the sunshine as tens of thousands of Liverpool fans descended on the national stadium
But there were contrasting emotions for the Manchester City supporters as their side lost out to their big rivals at Wembley
Merchandise and souvenirs on sale on Wembley Way, as captured by Duncan Elliott on his ‘Road to Wembley’ journey
Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp revs up the fans after they booked their passage to the final by seeing off Manchester City
See more on Elliott’s Lower Block website and his Instagram page.
Elliott’s FA Cup journey in full
August 7, 2021 – Extra Preliminary Round – West Didsbury and Chorlton 1-3 Avro (Attendance: 355)
August 21 – Preliminary Round – Avro 1-1 Runcorn Linnets (175)
August 24 – Preliminary Round Replay – Runcorn Linnets 4-1 Avro, after extra time (473)
September 4 – First Qualifying Round – Runcorn Linnets 2-0 Liversedge (603)
September 18 – Second Qualifying Round – Runcorn Linnets 3-1 Bamber Bridge (618)
October 2 – Third Qualifying Round – Runcorn Linnets 2-3 Gateshead (907)
October 16 – Fourth Qualifying Round – Marske United 0-0 Gateshead (1,320)
October 19 – Fourth Qualifying Round Replay – Gateshead 3-2 Marske United (1,135)
November 6 – First Round Proper – Gateshead 2-2 Altrincham (1,066)
November 16 – First Round Replay – Altrincham 2-3 Gateshead (1,390)
December 3 – Second Round – Gateshead 0-2 Charlton Athletic (3,746)
January 9, 2022 – Third Round – Charlton Athletic 0-1 Norwich City (13,835)
February 5 – Fourth Round – Wolverhampton Wanderers 0-1 Norwich City (30,736)
March 2 – Fifth Round – Liverpool 2-1 Norwich City (52,231)
March 20 – Quarter-finals – Nottingham Forest 0-1 Liverpool (28,584)
April 16 – Semi-finals – Manchester City 2-3 Liverpool (Wembley, 73,793)
May 14 – Final – Chelsea vs Liverpool (Wembley, c 90,000)