Almost half the decade was lost to the Second World War, but on two great days, 8 May and 14 August, the end of hostilities in Europe and the Pacific were achieved and celebrated. It was far too late in the year to organise the return of the Football League, but the FA Cup could return, gloriously, joyously, excitingly. It could be one of the earliest ways by which the wounds of destruction could begin to be healed.
Because of the paucity of professional football to enjoy, for the first season back only, the Cup was played out over two legs from the First Round Proper to the Sixth Round, leaving only the semi-finals and Final to be decided on the traditional one-off basis. Home advantage went to the first drawn team in the first leg, which suited the Manchester clubs, both winning ties against lower league opposition by big margins in second legs at home after merely drawing away.
After six years absence, the Cup was back with a very full season, making the most of its isolation as the only first rank competition around. As early as the Qualifying Rounds, there were anomalies, especially in the profusion of astonishingly one-sided scores, several of which were in double figures. Works teams appeared in profusion (this might not have been unusual, but at the moment I don’t have access to pre-War Qualifying Rounds). And the Victorian era was recalled by the granting of no less than nine byes through the Second Qualifying Round.
There was no issue about imbalanced byes, though only forty-three of the forty-four Division Three teams entered the First Round, with the forty-four First and Second Division teams, and no others, entering at Round Three.
Cup-Holders Portsmouth, after holding the Cup for seven years, promptly surrendered the trophy, losing to Birmingham City by a solitary goal scored over two legs.
But the Cup’s return saw one of the thankfully few great Football Stadium disasters, in the Sixth Round Second Leg at Burnden Park, where Bolton hosted Stoke. As with Wembley in 1923, tickets were on sale on the day, but when attempts were made to shut the gates, the crowd just forced its way past them. An estimated 83,000 entered the ground and tragedy struck just before kick-off when ramshackle crush barriers collapsed. Thirty-three spectators were crushed to death.
Unbelievably, unlike the tragedy at Hillsborough, forty-one years later, the game was only suspended, not abandoned. Kick-off was delayed thirty minutes whilst the dead bodies were laid out along the touchlines, and the game started with one touchline newly-laid with sawdust. At half-time, the teams changed straight round, without an interval. Stoke winger, the legendary Stanley Matthews, later said that he was sickened by the decision to let the game continue, and few would disagree with him. Knowing what had happened, which of the twenty-two players could have given their best?
Eventual winners Derby County, succeeding at last in their fourth Final, took the two-leg principle too far by needing two games to overcome Birmingham City in the semi-final, and went even further by needing extra-time to overcome first-time Finalists, Charlton Athletic.
The Final was distinguished by many incidents. The game went goalless until the 85th minute, when Charlton’s Bert Turner became first the oldest man to score in a Cup Final, and secondly the first of only three players to score for both teams in the Final. Turner put through his own net to give Derby the lead, but equalised a minute later from a free-kick (which, ironically, took so big a deflection that it sounds as if it should have been given as an own goal itself).
Weirdly, in the minutes remaining, the ball burst during a shot at the Charlton goal. Uncannily, the same thing had happened during a wartime League game between the two clubs, seven days earlier.
It did not spare Charlton much, as they were overwhelmed in extra-time, Derby eventually winning 4-1.
In keeping with the two-leg tournament, the players got two medals, being presented with a bronze medal on day and the traditional gold metal, later in the year, when gold supplies had returned to normal.
Football was back in full for the 1946/47 season. There was a full League programme, and a reversion to the Cup’s traditional one-leg format. Unfortunately, there was also a reversion to the same system of lop-sided byes. The three strongest Third Division sides, based on the 1938/39 League programmes, went into Round Three, and the consequent gap in Round One was filled by the two FA Amateur Cup Finalists. Charlton, having reached their first ever Final the year before, reached their last ever (to date) twelve months later, this time winning the Cup against Burnley. Again, the ball burst in normal-time, again extra-time was required. This mini-spate of bursting balls was later blamed on the poor quality of leather available immediately after the war. That would not be repeated, nor would extra-time be needed again in the Final for another eighteen years.
As far as format was concerned, the Amateur Cup finalists entering at Round One and three Third Division teams at Round Three continued until the 1950/51 season. In 1947/48, Manchester United reached their second Final, playing against the Tangerines of Blackpool, whose line-up included the legendary Stanley Matthews, reaching his first Cup Final. United got to Wembley as the only Finalist in the Cup’s history to play top-flight opposition (i.e., First Division) in every round. Both teams played in change-strips, United in blue and white.
The 1948 Final has gone down in history as one of the greatest Finals of all time, indeed contemporaneously, it was regarded as the best footballing Final ever. United’s performance, under Matt Busby, was described in the press as near-perfect, with Blackpool not far behind. The Seasiders led twice, with goals from Stanley Mortenson – who scored in every Round – and Eddie Shimwell, from the penalty spot, making him the first full-back to score in a Cup Final. Blackpool led twice, but three goals in twelve minutes from United saw them take the Cup 4-2.
And, as so frequently happened in an era where weather-postponements left outstanding games that had to be played after the Cup Final, the two clubs met in a rearranged fixture on the Monday after the Final: Blackpool won 1-0.
Having taken thirty-nine years to reach their second Final, United made a valiant effort to make it two in a row, losing in the semi-final to the eventual winners, Wolverhampton Wanderers. The Final was an all-Midlands affair, with Leicester City reaching their first Final. The Cup was won on form: Leicester were a Second Division club, struggling against relegation, which they would eventually avoid by a single point.
For Leicester, it was the unexpected beginning of an unwanted record, the Cup Final’s least successful team, the only club to appear in four Finals without ever winning the trophy, thanks to three losing appearances in the Sixties. Ironically, having reached their first Final as a Second Division team, Leicester fourth appearance was coupled with relegation back to Division Two.
The first Final of the Fifties was distinguished by a pair of derby semi-finals, Merseyside and London. Liverpool beat Everton in the semi-final, but not Arsenal in the Final, which was the first Final since1923 to be given the official attendance of 100,000, Wembley’s capacity. Excluding replays, this would be the neat, well-rounded attendance figure for all Finals until 1986. As in 1948, both clubs wore change strips, Arsenal winning the Cup in the unlikely colours of yellow and white. Their team included, on the left wing, the famous England cricketer, Denis Compton, whilst Liverpool chose to drop future managerial legend Bob Paisley, despite his having scored the winner against Everton.
In the summer of 1950, the Football League decided to expand its numbers to the 92 clubs that most of us have known all our lives. Two teams were voted into each of Third Division North and South, bringing the two regional divisions to twenty-four each. The Cup responded, as it always did, albeit with the by-now expected awkwardness. Just as twenty years earlier, only the First and Second Division teams were entered at Round Three, and the forty-four existing Division Three teams at Round One. As for the four new League Clubs, they received no favours, being condemned to the Qualifying Rounds, at least three of them: Shrewsbury Town withdrew from the Cup in disgust at this treatment.
The winners were Newcastle United, entering upon a half-decade of Wembley dominance. They beat Blackpool 2-0 in a clash of legends, with Wor Jackie Milburn scoring both goals, and Stan Matthews (and Mortenson) denied again. There was a sign of the future, with the Newcastle line-up including the Chilean player, George Robledo. Many decades were yet to pass before the appearance of players from outside the British Isles in the Cup Final became a regular sight.
The FA Cup had now been in existence for eighty years, and seventy Finals had been played. Over half its history, to 2016, now lay behind it. The Final was the biggest game in English Football, every year. This would inevitably decline, but those years were still a long way ahead, and there was much glory still to be enjoyed.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)
1945/46 Derby County 4 Charlton Athletic 1 (aet)
1946/47 Charlton Athletic 1 Burnley 0 (aet)
1947/48 Manchester United 4 Blackpool 2
1948/49 Wolverhampton Wanderers 3 Leicester City 1
1949/50 Arsenal 2 Liverpool 0
1950/51 Newcastle United 2 Blackpool 0
The eighth decade, beginning late because of the ongoing War, featured only six Finals, emulating the fourth decade. There were ten Finalists in this first post-war decade, with Charlton Athletic appearing twice – and never again – and Blackpool also reaching two Finals, only to lose both. They would return to claim the Cup in the next decade, in one of the most famous Finals of all time. No club won the Cup twice in this decade and two of the six winners were first and only time victors. Both Burnley and Leicester City reached the Final as Second Division clubs, and for the latter it was the beginning of a most unwanted record: Leicester have appeared in more Cup Finals than any other club who has never won the Cup.