The final was decided by two goals from Oxford in the first twenty minutes. Their opponents had spent two weeks training for the match, an innovative concept at the time, but were repeatedly thwarted by Charles Nepean, the Oxford goalkeeper. The Engineers were said to have missed their best back, Lieut. Alfred Goodwyn, who had been posted overseas.
Oxford University and the Chatham-based Royal Engineers were among 28 entrants to the competition in the 1873–74 season. Both teams were ranked among the strongest in the country at the time, especially the Engineers who played 86 games between 1871 and 1875 and lost only three, scoring a total of 240 goals and conceding only 20.
Both teams progressed through the first round of the competition with little difficulty, Oxford defeating Upton Park 4–0 and the Engineers winning 5–0 against Brondesbury. In the second round, the University beat Barnes 2–0 and the "Sappers", as the Engineers were nicknamed, beat Uxbridge 2–1.
The Engineers comprehensively defeated their quarter-final opponents, Maidenhead, winning 7–0, the first time a team had ever scored as many as seven goals in an FA Cup match. Oxford, on the other hand, were paired with Wanderers, who had won the competition in both its first two seasons and never lost an FA Cup match. They had defeated the Engineers in the 1872 final and Oxford in the 1873 final. The first match finished in a 1–1 draw, necessitating a replay which Oxford won 1–0 to end Wanderers' grip on the competition.
Both semi-final matches were played at Kennington Oval, the home of Surrey County Cricket Club, as specified by the rules in use at the time. Royal Engineers defeated Swifts in the first match to be played, and Oxford booked their place in the final a month later with a 1–0 win over Clapham Rovers.