This is going to be the least interesting of the three posts about my expedition to Portsmouth, because it’s about the coming away again, and that is never inspiring.
There couldn’t be much more of a contrast between yesterday and today. I really did fll on my feet for that one, because when I raise the blind, everything is grey: dry, cold but enwrapped in a light mist, several points short of a fog, with vision limited to about a hundred yards.
Technically, I should be getting down to Portsmouth Harbour Station for 9.45am, but when I’m less that ten minutes walk from Fratton Station, two stops nearer, why should I? The twitchiness returns, especially as I am boarding the train at the wrong station, and besides, I prefer to do my waiting in the cold of Platform 1 rather than the comfort of my room.
So farewell the Ibis Budget Hotel, which was simple, neat and clean and ideal for my short break. I rattle my suitcase along, over the bridge and into the Sttion where no-one gives a toss about my ticket. I’ve nearly an hour to wait here, so I inculcate patience and a blank mind upon myself.
Trains tick away, each one moving my service nearer to the top of the teleboard. I finished the penultimate chapter of my current novel last night and I have a complex last chapter to write, of which I wrote three paragraphs before going to bed, and I am trying to avoid serious thought until I’m somewhere where I can write at length. But a structure is evolving in my head, no matter how much I try to keep to the business at hand.
The last train before mine is for Southampton Central. As it eases in, I estimate there are fewer people on it already than are waiting to board at Fratton. Guess it must be true what they say about the rivalry, eh?
At last, my train approaches. I board, select a quiet little space and lever my suitcase awkwardly onto the rack. I then board my headphones and resumewhere I left off with Jerusalem. We’re a long way past Petersfield before I look up and realise that we’ve outrun the southern mist, and that the sun is now beaming down and crowding it into small, feeble pockets.
In fact, by the time we reach Woking, the last stop before Waterloo, it’s a really nice day again, the sun warmer in its light than yesterday on the water. It’s too nice a day for long train journeys now, especially ones with no better purpose than coming back.
Truth to tell, I’ve spent most of the journey alternately immersed in Alan Moore’s mighty tome and developing the structure of this important chapter. Sometimes, I have lines to write down, brief paragraphs, things I don’t want to lose. The rest of it: all I need to know is what each movement is about, not the exact way it plays. This is what I mean about building a structure. As long as I know, and understand, the steps, I don’t need all of the words.
As we ease in sslowly through Clapham and Vauxhall, I pay a bit more attention to my surroundings. For a few moments we follow the line of the grey, churning Thames, four or five views between tower blocks. I catch sight of part of the London Eye. We pull in about ten minutes late.
That shouldn’t make a difference as my schedule allows me an hour here to get to Euston, so I don’t panic, even when the Northern Line ticket machine won’t accept my Bank Card. I have the cash, I get the ticket, I walk straight onto a Tube Train and I walk off it six stops later with nearly half an hour to spare.
When the Manchester Piccadilly train is called, my reservation in Coach B turns out to be a bloody long walk away. I get there only just in time to board and wrestle with the suitcase again before we’re moving off.
And it’s more of the same, reading, mp3, the occasional note, slotting words into place, for the next two hours.
I think that I can tell I’m heading North in this November of 2019 when the rain starts sluicing down some time after Milton Keynes Central. But I’m wrong about that, it’s a South Midlands belt that dires up before we reach Stoke-on-Trent. Rain streams aross my window, the theme from Department S across my ears: why do all the best theme musics come from the Sixties?
At last, I start filing my shoulderbag with all the things that have alleviated the boredom of travel, and I haul down the suitcase and get out at Stockport, where no-one shows the slightest interest in my ticket. That completes the set: no-one bothered at Euston or on the train. Outside, the wind is something fierce.
There’s a final spit in the eye from the weather, which starts to rain just as I get off the bus, and blows in my face all the way to the end, where I live. The first thing I do when I get in is stick the kettle on: I need a coffee. I also need to unpack my case, put everything away, and flop out.
Usually, when I take the week off for my birthday, Thursday is my day for heading up to the Lakes. This time, I chose something more ambitious, something I’m glad I did. Though none of this post is really about Portsmouth, I’m going to signal the end with a photo taken down there. Maybe I’ll go back, one day.
I wake up in Portsmouth, after a soothing, warm night’s sleep, to a sky that couldn’t be bettered if I could afford to order it from the most exclusive Harrods catalogue. It’s a clear blue, with trace amounts of cloud around the edges, and that sharpness of sight that only comes in the cold. If I were in the Lakes, I’d be looking to get up Scafell Pike and strain my eyes for the Irish mountains.
But I’m not in Cumbria, I’m in Hampshire, where breakfast is a continental affair of fresh crusty baguettes, ham, soft cheese and orange juice, and there’s a bus stop round the corner to take me to the Harbour in fifteen minutes. The route number is 1: I’m 64 years and two days old and this is the first time I’ve ridden on a number 1 bus.
It’s a single decker which means that from my lowly position I don’t get to see much, and what I can see is mostly meaningless to me, even when we’re going through the City Centre. Later, maybe. At least I know how to get back, not to mention how close Fratton Station is for tomorrow morning.
I get off the bus under the shadow of the Spinnaker Tower, which defintely wasn’t here in Dad’s day and would have scared the seagulls if it was. Near at hand is HMS Warrior, the Navy’s first steel-plated ship according to its plaque, and it is the subject of the first photo I take with a camera loaned to me by my mate Andy after my own digital compact packed up on me.
The entrance to the Dockard is near at hand. After I’ve had my bag searched – Alan Moore doesn’t appear to be contraband, though the Counter-Terrorism Status – Heightened signs are prominent – I’m free to wander the public areas as I will, though some attractions, such as HMS Warrior, or the mock-up of HMS Victory – yes, that Victory – cost an additional fee to board and explore, the latter in guided tour parties only.
I’ve paid for two Attractions and the most importnt one is at hand, the Harbour Tour. First trip is 12.00, which is the best part of two hours away, so I take a leisurely stroll along old buildings that have manifestly not changed since my Dad was here, inspect the Victory from outside (without, sadly, feeling the least breath of History) and step into the Royal Navy National Museum.
Strangely, or perhaps not strangely at all, I find I cannot take ny interest in any modern history, that is, anything post 1949. It strikes me that what is missing is one man I came here hoping to see in some sense. I would give the world to have him here beside me, to see these souvenirs and relics through his eyes, to have him lead me around, making everything come alive for a boy who wishes to be ten years old again. You can never have the things you want most.
I come outside and stroll back towards the Harbour Tours wharf. It’s still more than early, but this is me, hey? I buy a Diet Coke from Costa Coffee and sit myself on a three-stone bench that’s like a shortarse trilithon from Stonehenge to drink it and draft some of this piece. I’m under the sun, unexpectedly warm for mid-November, and the tide is washing in, a constant surge that’s a backdrop to my thoughts. Near at hand are buildings my Dad must have known, yet the wider sky-line screams of the modern age. I find the past invisible.
That is until I board the Solent Cat. There’s a closed saloon below, with hot and cold drinks available, and an open deck above, and I am up those steps to where the real views will be available. And this is where I start to feel something more. I’m on the water, and this is where I will find that link.
And that’s before we back out of the wharf and into the Harbour proper, and I can see the sheer expaanse of it, from the prominent harbour mouth close by on our left, backed by a low skyline of green hills and wooded slopes that I surmise (correctly) is the Isle of Wight, to the immense spread to our right.
We turn in that direction, leisurely following the east shore, the Naval side, diverting around a Police Boat with flashing blue lights that’s supervising divers. There are yards and wharfs and steel-coloured destroyers, with docks and bays beyond, identified by a commentary from the nearby cabin. It should be cold up here, on the water, and yes I’m got a thick maroon pullover on under a big coat, but I feel no cold.
I’m not usually good on water. On the last day of our honeymoon on Madeira, my wife and I went on a Dolphin Watch cruise off the south of the island, in the more placid waters below Funchal. As soon as I sat down, I grabbed hold of a thick coil of rope and would not let it go the whole time we were on the ocean. I didn’t relinquish my life-line until we were once again docked at the Marina, at which point my sympathetic wife said that she wasn’t going to say this whilst we were sailing but she didn’tthink the rope was attached to anything. To which I replied, “I didn’t think it was either but I damned well wasn’t going to check!”
Portsmouth Harbour’s a long stretch from the Atlantic Ocean but today I’m my father’s son, without the slightest concern for what we’re floating upon, up the Naval side and back down the Commercial side, the Gosport shore, and I am taking photograph after photograph.
Is this why he joined the Navy? To be on the water? How much was he influenced by Uncle Arthur, who served in the Navy in the War, in the South China Seas? Could he choose that freely? Questions coming too late to be answered, but in a way my pilgrimage has fulfilled some of its purpose. I will not be frightened on the water again.
As we turn to cross the Harbour entrance, and again as we lie ‘at anchor’ at Gunwharf Quay, there’s a gentle swell rocking the boat evenly.Though the cloud has the sky more or less surrounded by now, there’s a broad shaft of sun beaming down on me, and I’d be content to sit here the rest of the afternoon, on the edge of this vast, circumscribed expanse.
The last lap to the Dockyard Quay is just a crossing from one side of the Spinnaker Tower to the other. After that, there’s nothing more the Dockyard can do for me so I stroll out in search of somewhere quiet and convenient for a spot of lunch. The Ship Anson qualifies on the first two counts but its food is a bit on the pricey side, given its setting, so I take my time over a pint and a bit more of Jerusalem (I have outrun what I managed before by now).
The signpost tells me it’s only three-quarters of a mile to the City Centre and I’ve got the afternoon to play with, so I walk it. It seems I wasn’t as unobservant as I thought on the bus as I remember shopfronts and the splendid gates of the HMS Nelson, but the Centre was a bit disappointing. I definitely fancied a bit of Pizza Hut so strolled round looking for the familiar frontage, without any luck. Another KFC, a Burger King, yes. Also a Waterstones, and I never pass those. For a mad moment, I considered buying a book they had, a souvenir of my visit, but I couldn’t find a price on it anywhere, and when that happens, you know that the price is Too Fucking Expensive.
The need for food was now getting important. I enquired of a nearby newsseller who told me there is no Pizza Hut in the centre now, since it’s dead there after 5.00pm, except over Xmas, they only do online deliveries now. He points me to Debenhams restaurant where they do hot food, except not after 2.30pm, so I say a loud internal “Soddit!” and spring for a double burger with onions from a well set-up cart: pretty bloody good too.
So. I’ve got a lot of writing to do, and nightfall’s visible down the other end of the block so I grab a bus back and get off at the Pompey Centre. I know I’m in the vicinity of Fratton Park, Portsmouth FC’s ground, but it’s not until I walk up to the Tesco Centre, for sandwiches for tea, that I realise, in daylight, the ground’s right behind it!
It all makes for a long evening but this is not the only piece of writing I shall be working on tonight, and an early bed is on the cards. The photos attached to this piece are all my own work (if not my camera!).
I’m off on another Expedition, a longer one than any before, for I’ll be away three days and two nights and blogging each day’s experience. This Expedition is to a place I’ve never been before, in a County that’s one of the handful remaining that I’ve never visited before, and it’s less a break at an odd time of year for holidays than a pilgrimage. A pilgrimage wiithout religious significance, save only in my own head. I am going to Portsmouth, to HM Naval Dockyards. Seventy years ago, my father completed his post-War National Service, stationed here. As some of you already know, he died before my fifteenth birthday, after a long illness, before I could sitand talk to him about experiences I would never share, even vicariously. I am here to see what he saw, or what is left of it seventy years on. I am here to try to capture even a tiny fragment of what was taken way.
Most of today’s episode is going to be about travelling, and that means paranoia. I have now defined myself as a twitchy traveller. It comes from the independence and control I enjoyed as a car driver, until ten years ago, and from my experiences with the decaying public transport of this country. When you have to rely on the 203 to get to Stockport Rail Station, you set out early, which is how I ended up composing the first draft of this on Platform 2, a half hour before the London Euston train is due.
Counting the 203, this journey had five legs. I don’t get to relax this early. But the 11.43 is on time and, at risk of spoiling the dramatic tension, the whole journey goes off without a hitch.
The only thing resembling one is that I’m supposed to have a reserved seat in Coach F, the exact midpoint of the train, only it’s not reserved. It’s still free, mind you, but then so are nearly fifty percent of Coach F’s seats, so hardly had we set off but I transferred myself to a table-seat, though this meant the suitcase I’d struggled to lift into the luggage compartment opposite ‘my’ seat, was left a way down the coach. Twitch.
I’ve done this journey mny times, but never quite this lte in the morning, which I suppose explains the empty seats. Usually, London is a visit, back in a day, but this time it’s a way-station. So I don’t bother with the scenery, which is damp and dull under expectant clouds.
Having finally completed Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, I need another massive book to read on railways rides, and I have the perfect replcement in Alan Moore’s Jerusalem, a 1,000 page hardback. This was a Xmas gift to myself back in 2016, but I only got about 200 pages through it then. Having no other reading material on me, I anticipate serious headway this time.
Between the music and the reading, the journey goes well. The next twitch starts on coming into Euston, five minutes late. I have forty-five minutes to get to London Waterloo, which is six stops on the Northern Line, so that shouldn’t be a problem. Can’t keep the boy from worrying but I’m at Waterloo with fifteen minutes to spare, which is positively last minute for me, panicking because I can’t see the teleboard to learn which platform I need, and then I can’t find the entrance which, in keeping with the pantomime I’m descending into is, yes, behind me. Platform 13. Good job I’m notsuperstitious.
I’m now in new country, South of the River for maybe only the third or fourth time in my life. I’ve only ever been to the South Coast once before, to Worthing, to deliver a letter.
But this is flat country. First there are London streets and skyline cranes, then nondescript hedges and fields that are not made any more appealing by the slowly fading light. There are no heights to look up to in wonder, looking for routes to ascend, not any to be crossed, providing no vistas to look across and upon. Everything is of a level.
We pass through Woking, Guildford, Godalming and lessr places. A gaggle of schoolchildren get on at Petersfield, including one tall, long-haired blonde with an appealing face who looked like it wouldn’t take much effort to make herself look sixteen, though she might be pushing it for eighteen. They depart at Fratton, which puzzled me slightly given Portsmouth FC play at Fratton Park. But the last few stations are thick and fast and, almost bang on time, I debouch at Portsmouth Harbour.
Crossing the bridge above the platforms, I see the first sign of ships, masts and riggings, and I emerge from the sttion overlooking a prt of the Harbour and queues for the Gosport Ferry to the Isle of Wight. Under my breath, I speak to someone who is not there: “I’m here, Dad. Took a long time, but I’m here.”
The entrance to the Dockyards is only a few minutes walk away. I head there to buy a two-attractions ticket for tomorrow but I cn’t bring my suitcase through the gate: security, it might contain a bomb (it doesn’t). I was allowed to leave it in charge of a helpful lady whilst I nipped inside for tickets.
I’m staying at the Ibis Budget Hotel on Fratton Way. The hotel sent me directions on how to get there, but after pretty near five hours of train travel, not to mention lugging a suitcase around with my laptop in it (as well as a shoulder bag with a 1,000 page hardback in it), I bottle out and get a taxi. Long before I get to the Hotel, I’m bloody glad I didn’t try walking. And along the way, I discover I’m only about five minutes walk from Fratton Station, so I know what I’m going to do on Thursday morning.
When I arrive, I get a choice of rooms on three floors. The Ground is good enough for my arthritic knee and hip and it’s real close to Reception. It’s a triple room, which means it could have slept three: someone to share the double with me and a voyeuristic third sleeping cross-wise in a bunk-bed single (or maybe sneaking down to join us if she’s a she… first night away from home in nearly two years and I’m already having erotic fantasies).
There isn’t a Pizza Hut within easy walking distance of the Hotel, but there’s a KFC opposite (there’s a MacDonalds too, but I’m talking food here) so that’s tonight’s evening meal sewn up.
I’m here. There are no photos to post because the light was bloody miserable by the time I got to the Harbour. But tomorrow’s the big day, and I hope it’ll do me a favour and be drive. This is where my Dad served his country, and I’m damned glad he never got to see what his country has become. Tomorrow, maybe I’ll catch a sight of a spectre, a face I’ve not seen in nearly fifty years. It’s what I’m here for.
Finally, we reach the last complete decade of the FA Cup’s history, taking it to the competition’s 140thAnniversary and its 130th Final. It was a decade of decay and degradation, as the elements that made the Cup special were stripped away. For many years, the League Cup had been the tournament that teams failed to take seriously, playing reserves and juniors without thought of progressing, and saving their strongest sides for the League. In this decade, the same approach began to take over the Cup.
Once, a Cup run was a wonderful distraction from a dismal relegation struggle. Now, with the monetary perils of relegation grown life-threatening, a Cup run was the last thing a manager wanted if he had his eye set on keeping his job. And, with the ‘Big Four’ having more or less cornered the Final, what price the unforgettable run of glory?
In 2002, in the fourth London Derby Final, Arsenal emulated Manchester United by completing a Third Double. The Double was once so rare that, in the first 114 years of the Cup, it had only been achieved five times: indeed, until 1961 it had long been thought impossible given the longer League programmes of the Twentieth Century. But a further five Doubles had been completed in only nine years, and they had been shared by only two teams. Many thought that the Double had been devalued, and it’s hard not to think that they’re right, but what it was was another demonstration of the way Football itself was coming under the domination of a handful of teams, made rich by television money and establishing an informal, yet unbreakable hierarchy under which all trophies were slowly becoming the exclusive province of a tiny number of Clubs. After all, Arsenal’s Double was their second in five years, which meant they’d beaten Manchester United to the Premier League title. But United had already won seven of the ten Premierships played.
But winning the Cup was traditionally the completion of the Double. The ever-increasing improvements in ground maintenance had all but done away with match day postponements through water-logged and frozen pitches, and television’s influence on the fixture list had long since prompted a strict adherence to ending the League programme(s) the weekend before Cup Final day.
Not this year. For a second successive season, a final round of Premier League games was scheduled for after the Cup Final. Arsenal still had to play Manchester United, needing a win to secure the League, and they achieved that at Old Trafford. Sky’s pet competition was now the great wrap-up to a football year.
Terrestrial coverage of the Final reverted to the BBC after three years of ITV.
And Arsenal were back at Cardiff twelve months later to win the Cup again. It was their third successive Final appearance, and they became the only club to reach a hat trick of Finals twice, having already achieved this between 1978 and 1980. Their opponents were Southampton, appearing in their first Final for twenty-seven years but unable to duplicate their success as a Second Division club. Both clubs defeated second-tier opposition in the semi-finals.
This was the first Final to be played indoors: due to rain, the retractable roof of the Millennium Stadium was closed. The artificiality of the proceedings, which meant that the game was played wholly under artificial light (on a Saturday afternoon!), removing the spectacle yet further from football as we know it, increasingly attempting to pursue a sterile, plastic perfection.
It was the first time since Tottenham Hotspur in 1982 that the holders retained the Cup the following season, and only the tenth such instance in the Cup’s history.
Arsenal’s successive wins had put them only one behind Manchester United, but the Reds made their first Final appearance at the Milliennium Stadium in 2004, extending their Cup record to eleven wins by defeating First-Time Finalists, Millwall 3-0. Millwall were the first team outside the top tier since Sunderland in 1992 to reach the Final, ironically beating the Wearsiders – also of Division One – in the semi-final, but dreams of glory were easily dispelled. Millwall player-manager Dennis Wise suffered at United’s hands for a second time, having been captain of the Chelsea side beaten by United in the Final ten years previously. United became the first and only team to be awarded, and score penalties in three different Finals (which will not surprise those who feel that United have had an exceptional favourable deal with referees for far too long). All three penalties have been scored by non-British players, Ruud van Nistlerooy making it two Dutchmen and a Frenchman.
Millwall substitute Curtis Weston set a record as the youngest player ever in a Cup Final when he came on in the 89th minute. At 17 years 119 days, he broke the record set in 1879 by James Prinsep of Clapham Rovers by 126 days.
Millwall’s appearance made them the fifty-fourth team to reach the Cup Final and the ninth team to have lost on their only appearance. Bizarrely, they were the fourth such to suffer this fate against Manchester United, joining Bristol City (1909), Brighton (1983) and Crystal Palace (1990).
To receive and parade the Cup, the Manchester United team all donned shirts bearing the name and squad number of promising midfielder Jimmy Davies, who had died in a car accident in the opening month of the season.
From the moment that Cup Final replays were abolished in 1999, all true Cup fans and purists feared that the day would come when the Cup would be decided by the lottery of a penalty shoot-out. And six years after that fateful decision, it duly occurred. The 2005 Final, between Manchester United, the holders and record-holders, and Arsenal, in their fourth Final in five years, and second in the record tables, ended goalless at the Millennium Stadium, and Arsenal lifted the Cup when United’s Paul Scholes saw his penalty saved.
I hated it. Not the losing: I have witnesses to prove that, as extra-time wore down, I was openly willing for Arsenal to score, if that was what it took to avoid that indignity. A penalty shoot-out is a horrible way to end any game, but especially to win a trophy, and even more so this trophy, the original, the very first, the Cup of Cups. Once again, the Cup was diminished, because its defenders were not prepared to defend it.
The game itself, between two such well-matched team, was astonishingly one-sided, with United battering Arsenal for 120 minutes but only putting the ball in the net once, from an offside position. This was the first, and thankfully only time since 1912 that the Final had ended goalless, and it also featured only the second sending off in the Final, when Arsenal’s Jose Antonio Reyes received a second yellow card in the last second of extra-time.
Again and again, we see the Cup’s penchant for ironic reverses: only two players have been sent off in Finals, one for Manchester United, the other, exactly twenty years later, against Manchester United.
But it had been done: penalties had been needed. The Cup had been spoiled yet further, and twelve months later, it happened all over again.
The 2006 Final was the sixth to be played in Cardiff. Originally, the deal had been for three years, and then five, but uncertainty as to whether New Wembley would be ready in time for a slightly earlier than usual Final forced the Cup’s exile to endure another season.
En route to Cardiff, there were a few surprises. For a second successive season, Manchester United were held to a goalless draw in the Third Round against lowly opposition, this time Football Conference side Burton Albion. But their hopes of a third successive Final appearance were dashed by defeat in the Fifth Round to Liverpool, the latter’s first Cup win over United in the 85 years since their first such meeting.
With England having qualified for the 2006 World Cup in Germany – the tournament that Manchester United’s defection in 2000 was supposed to secure – the FA acceded to manager Sven-Goran Eriksen’s request to bring forward the Final date by moving the Sixth Round into mid-week. It was another rare instance of an all top-tier quarter-final stage, and Liverpool’s 7-0 win away to Birmingham City was one of the biggest victory margins ever at this stage.
Liverpool’s opponents in Cardiff were West Ham United, playing their first Final in twenty-six years, an event sadly recalled by the death of then manager John Lyall, six days before the semi-final.
The Final was one of the most thrilling games in modern times, with unfancied West Ham taking a two-goal lead, and regaining it after Liverpool fought back to equalise. They were clinging on into added time when Liverpool captain Steve Gerrard hit a screaming shot from thirty-five yards to secure extra-time. When that ended without further score, a second successive penalty shoot-out was required. This time, the full allocation of penalties was not needed and Liverpool won 3-1.
By 2007, the New Wembley was open and available for Cup Finals and Internationals. It had taken twice as long as anticipated to build, and cost several billions more than budgeted. The FA were now concerned about getting in money to service their debts. After years of reluctant resistance, the FA wore paper-thin and accepted sponsorship for the Cup.
At first, it was genteel, and shame-faced: The FA Cup, sponsored by E.ON. But everybody knew it was only a matter of time before the World’s oldest trophy would be purloined to shill for an advertiser too stupid to understand that they were contributing to destroying the worth of the trophy they sought to get a hit off.
There was a throwback to ancient times in the Second Round, when Bury beat Chester City, only to be expelled for fielding an ineligible player, but the remainder of the competition proceeded without notable incident and the Final paired Premier League Champions Manchester United, playing their third Final in four years, with the League Cup Winners, Chelsea. United were bidding to extend their Cup-winning record, and to secure an unprecedented Fourth Double, whilst Chelsea were looking to become only the third club to do the domestic Cup Double.
To celebrate the opening of the new Stadium, above which the famous, elegant and iconic Twin Towers had been replaced by an illuminated, angled arch, a parade was held before the game, featuring one player from every Empire Stadium Final between 1959 and 2000.
In the event, after the extravaganza of 2006, the Final was a crashing bore. Both teams played in a cagey manner, but the New Wembley turf was a major factor, being heavy and lifeless, and cutting up quickly. In the end, Chelsea became the first Cup-Winners at the New Wembley, as they had been the last Winners at the Old Wembley, again winning 1-0, with a Didier Drogba goal four minutes from the end of extra-time, and preventing the monstrous indignity of the third consecutive penalty shoot-out.
It was by far and away the worst Cup Final I have ever watched, and I again have witnesses to confirm that after 80 minutes, I said that if the FA had any guts, they would walk onto the field, confiscate the ball and call off the Final, on the grounds that neither team deserved to win it, playing like this.
For the last seventeen seasons, every Cup Final had featured one of the ‘Big Four’ clubs. For none of them to even feature in the semi-finals (only Manchester United and Chelsea even reached the Sixth Round) marked the 2007/08 Cup out as something different and therefore, for a season at least, special. This was a year in which its traditional role as the great leveller was back in force.
Leeds United, once giants of the game, had slipped into the third tier for the first time ever: they played in the First Round at Hereford, and lost their home replay. Both Havant & Waterlooville and Chasetown played in the Third Round for the first time ever. Chasetown are the lowest tier club ever to reach this stage, then playing in the Midland Alliance, a feeder League to the Southern League, at the ninth tier. The club enjoyed its record gate but were beaten at home by the eventual Finalists, Cardiff City, who, in a wonderful gesture, invited the Staffordshire club to play the first official game at their new stadium, in the following July.
Havant went one better. Also drawn against Welsh opposition in Swansea City, they reached the Fourth Round with a splendid 4-2 replay victory, though they then lost 5-2 at Liverpool.
On a more prosaic level, Manchester United were drawn against Aston Villa in the Third Round for the second successive season and the fourth time in seven seasons.
But the quarter-finals produced a round of shocks, without a replay being required, producing a semi-final line-up consisting of only one Premier League club, and three second tier teams. For a moment, it looked like the unthinkable – an all second tier Final – might be on, but Portsmouth, who had beaten Manchester United, put out West Bromwich Albion and Cardiff City defeated Barnsley, who had put out Chelsea (and Liverpool before them).
Having rejoiced in the unpredictability of this season’s competition, the Press reversed itself and started spreading doom and gloom about the prospects of a Final without a Big Four club to ‘guarantee’ quality (did they even watch the 2007 Final?). Both Finalists had won the Cup once before, Portsmouth in 1939, who had held it for the longest period ever, and Cardiff in 1927, the only time the Cup had left England.
It was, of course, an irony that they should reach the Final again, only two years after it had left their city.
In order to service their debts, the FA decided as of this season to move all semi-finals to Wembley, permanently. It was particularly inappropriate in this of all seasons, with the frisson the fans experienced at a return after so long an absence being dissipated in advance, but what cared the FA for their prize? In the end, status told, with Portsmouth scoring the only goal and qualifying for European competition for the first time ever.
Not that it did them much good. The Club suffered crippling financial problems within a year, went into administration twice, and slid down the Leagues to the fourth tier within five seasons. They are now debt-free, and the largest Club in England to be owned by their fans through a Supporters Trust.
Cardiff are, to date, the last second tier team to reach the Cup Final. And, despite the Press carping about an unappealing Final, Portsmouth vs Cardiff holds the record for the highest attendance in a New Wembley Cup Final.
It was back to business in 2008/09, however. The Cup began with its highest ever number of participants, 762 clubs entering, although one club folded before the competition started, making the actual intake 761. Remember that in 1871/72, only fifteen teams thought to enter this new Cup?
The First Round featured some notable non-League successes, with Curzon Ashton beating Exeter City, four levels above them, whilst Blyth Spartans, Droylsden and Histon overcame clubs two levels higher.
In the Second Round, Droylsden were drawn away to Chesterfield, resulting in the first tie since the introduction of penalty shoot-outs to go to more than two games. The original tie was abandoned at half-time, with Droylsden 1-0 up, due to fog, and when re-played resulted in a 2-2 draw. The replay was abandoned due to floodlight failure with twenty minutes remaining and Chesterfield 2-0 up, and when this game was re-played, Droylsden won 2-1, to reach the Third Round for the first time ever.
The club were then expelled for fielding an ineligible player in their eventual win. The player – who had scored both Droylsden goals – was suspended thanks to a yellow card received in the first, fog-abandoned game, and the club had designated the match from which he was to be suspended the day before the floodlight-abandoned game. In the rush to rearrange the tie again, no-one noticed that the suspension now fell on that additional match.
Histon and Blyth won their Second Round ties, the former beating Leeds United, but were knocked out in the Third Round.
Television rights to FA Cup coverage had once again returned to ITV, whilst the short-lived Setanta outbid Sky for the satellite coverage, but the terrestrial broadcaster was involved in controversy during live coverage of the Fourth Round replay of Everton v Liverpool, cutting to commercials before the final whistle and missing the game’s only goal.
Unlike the previous season, the semi-finals featured three of the ‘Big Four’, with Chelsea beating Arsenal and Manchester United knocked out on penalties after a goalless draw with Everton. It was United’s first defeat in the semi-final since 1970, bringing to an end a run of thirteen semi-final successes.
The Final began with a shock, as Louis Saha beat Roberto di Matteo’s Wembley record, scoring the fastest Cup Final goal after only twenty-five seconds (so fast, I missed it, turning the TV on fractionally late). It also beat the all-time record, set by Bob Chatt, for Aston Villa in 1895, which had taken thirty seconds. It was of no avail: this was the business as usual year and Chelsea recovered to win 2-1.
This was the first year in which the current arrangement whereby teams can name seven substitutes, though still only introduce three, featured in the Cup Final.
For a second successive season, 762 teams entered the FA Cup, and for a second successive season, one folded before playing, although as they were not due to enter the Cup until the First Qualifying Round, this resulted in their opponents being awarded a walkover.
In the Third Round, Manchester United were knocked out at home by Leeds United, still of the third tier. It was their first Third Round defeat since the upset at Bournemouth twenty-six years earlier, in 1984, as holders, and their first Cup defeat by lower opposition since that same game.
With Liverpool also defeated at that stage, and Arsenal following suit in the Fourth Round, only holders Chelsea remained of the ‘Big Four’. They would go all the way to Wembley, facing the 2008 Winners, Portsmouth.
The club’s fortunes were radically different. Chelsea had secured the Premier League and became the seventh Team to complete the Double, as well as becoming only the fifth club to win successive Cup Finals. Portsmouth, in administration, were already relegated, having incurred a nine point penalty deduction. They were the first first tier team to enter administration, and given that almost every Premier League club operated at a loss, there were fears of a domino effect that never, thankfully, materialised.
The Final was significant for the first, and only to date, in which both teams were awarded penalties, and the first in which two penalties were not scored. Kevin-Prince Boateng’s shot, to give Portsmouth the lead, was saved, but Frank Lampard’s late effort, to increase Chelsea’s lead, missed the target, the first Final penalty to do so since Charlie Wallace for Aston Villa in 1913. Like Wallace, Lampard’s team won 1-0, thanks to a goal by Didier Drogba.
Drogba became only the second player, after Ian Rush, to score in three different Finals. Chelsea defender Ashley Cole also set a personal record by winning his sixth Winners Medal. No other player has won the Cup as often.
Structural changes to the UEFA Cup saw it adopt a group format similar to that of the Champions League with effect from the 2010/11 season. Chelsea’s League Title meant that they qualified for the Champions League, but Portsmouth’s financial status saw them denied a licence to compete in Europe and they were thus denied a Europa League place based on their status as runners-up.
As the last completed decade of the FA Cup’s history came to an end, there were the first signs that the so-called ‘Big Four’ might have to be redefined as a ‘Big Five’. For the second time in four years, none of them reached the Final, Manchester United losing in the semi-final again. But oil money was transforming, had transformed their neighbours, Manchester City, who inflicted that defeat on United, and who were clearly going to be a much greater force in football than they had ever before been in their often-chequered history.
There was a slight drop in entrants for this latest season, to 759, though 806 clubs in all applied for entry. FC United of Manchester, the Club formed by Manchester United supporters grown frustrated with the ever-increasing corporatisation of football, and spurred on by United’s takeover by American businessmen, reached the First Round for the first time in only their sixth season of existence, beating League opposition in Rochdale in a live televised match. They would then draw League One leaders Brighton away in the Second Round, with the Seasiders requiring a late equaliser to avoid being knocked out, before comprehensively winning the replay, 4-0.
Droylsden, in the Second Round for only the third time in their history, led Leyton Orient 2-0 away with only twenty minutes of their replay left, but crumbled as Orient first forced extra-time, then added six more goals to finished 8-2 winners.
Crawley Town of the Conference reached the Fifth Round before losing to Manchester United at Old Trafford, by 1-0. They were the first non-League club to reach this stage since Blyth Spartans in 1994.
The semi-finals were an all-Premier League affair, with the Manchester Derby out-glamourising the tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stoke City. The latter’s comprehensive 5-0 win saw them reach their first Cup Final, the first First-Time Finalist since Millwall in 2004. A single goal by Yaya Toure took City to their first Final in twenty years, and the same player scored the only goal of the Final, to bring the club to its first Cup Win since 1969, ending an overall trophy drought that had lasted thirty-five years (as celebrated visually at Old Trafford).
Stoke, as runners-up, became the first English team to qualify for the Europa League via the FA Cup.
But it was not the game but its scheduling that marked another step along the long road of decline. For once, the situation was forced upon the FA rather than of their increasingly spineless, money-fixated making. The 2011 European Champions League Final was set to take place at Wembley on 28 May (where Manchester United would, for the second time in three years, be beaten by Barcelona). UEFA rules insist that no games should take place for fourteen days before the Final, forcing the Cup Final to be played on the weekend of the penultimate round of Premier League games.
This time, the programme was not suspended or re-scheduled, as it is for England Internationals. The League programme went ahead on the same day as the Final. Coincidentally, Manchester City and Stoke would have played each other in the League that day, leaving only nine matches to distract from the Final. Four were played at 12.45 on Cup Final day, the other five on Sunday at 4.00pm.
Even then, Manchester United’s lunch-time win to secure their third successive League title (the second time they had achieved this) overshadowed the Cup Final, and particularly their neighbours’ success, which should have been allowed to stand alone and celebrated without distraction.
One hundred and forty years had passed. What had once been the great glory of English football had become something to be pushed around, got out of the way any old how. Increasingly, teams were seeing the Cup as an unwanted distraction from the day to day business of League positions, where money could be made. It had always been a distraction, but it had been a wonderful one, filled with a magic of its own, a dream of glory. Now, it didn’t make anybody any money. It never did, that was it’s whole point, but now clubs sent out weakened sides, squad players and youth teamers, paying lip service to glory and thinking more of the grind.
And there was more disservice to come.
(all Finals played at the Millennium Stadium, Cardiff up to and including 2006, and the New Wembley Stadium thereafter)
2001/02 Arsenal 2 Chelsea 0
2002/03 Arsenal 1 Southampton 0
2003/04 Manchester United 3 Millwall 0
2004/05 Arsenal 0 Manchester United 0 (aet)
(Arsenal win 5-4 on penalties)
2005/06 Liverpool 3 West Ham United 3 (aet)
(Liverpool win 3-1 on penalties)
2006/07 Chelsea 1 Manchester United 0 (aet)
2007/08 Portsmouth 1 Cardiff City 0
2008/09 Chelsea 2 Everton 1
2009/10 Chelsea 1 Portsmouth 0
2010/11 Manchester City 1 Stoke City 0
The fourth decade of the FA Cup’s second century featured twelve clubs, and six winners. Arsenal, with three, were the most successful team, and there were two wins for Chelsea, with both teams winning back to back Finals. Manchester United and Chelsea also reached three Finals, with Chelsea losing one of theirs and United the decade’s biggest losers, with two defeats. Two Finals were, shamefully, decided by penalties. Portsmouth were the surprise winners of the decade whilst Stoke closed out this era as the only First-Time Finalists. United’s 2007 defeat kept them from securing their Fourth Double, whilst their conquerors, Chelsea, went on to record their own Double, the seventh club to do so and the eleventh overall, three years later.
The FA Cup was now entering its seventh decade. A lifetime had passed, and few, if any, of the players who had represented those original fifteen teams were left to witness the way the competition had grown, grown and changed. There was an organised League of professional teams, eighty-eight of them, more than any other country before or since, supplemented by the fragmented, regionalised, but nevertheless lively and enthusiastic collection of semi-professional and amateur clubs all across England.
The Cup had changed its format multiple times to take account of an entry that had climbed from fifteen to over five hundred, to allow for the stratification of football. In it’s sixtieth year, it had finally reached the perfect, logical, inevitable system whereby the non-League clubs competed throughe the Qualifying Rounds, the two lower League Divisions entered at the First Round Proper, and the two higher Divisions at the Third Round Proper.
Then the FA promptly threw this idea away in 1931 and for the rest of the decade, a decade that would be ended prematurely by the resumption of War.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to see a calm and orderly process once again thrown into illogical confusion, but it’s no less ridiculous for all that. The FA simply decided that 44 byes into the Third Round, for the First and Second Divisions were insufficient, and extended the number to forty-seven. For 1931/32, the three extra places went to two Third Division clubs, one from each region, and the last, nostalgically, to the amateurs, Corinthian, not that they did any better than in the previous ten years.
This at least was a one-off, as from 1932/33 onwards, the three bonus byes went to the Third Division. As a result, with only forty-one Third Division clubs entering at Round One, further byes to non-League clubs (including Corinthian on a few occasions) brought them directly into the Rounds Proper.
But though the ongoing efforts of the FA to make the structure of the Cup look shambolic, there were far more important things to worry about in the Thirties. The Cup, and Football in general, was played out against the background of the Great Depression, of unemployment, poverty and misery. And as the economic fortunes of the era began to improve, such concerns were replaced about the growing spectre of Fascism, and an even more overt anti-Semitism than had already been the case. Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, even the would-be English dictator Sir Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts: these were the things that the Saturday afternoon game were the truest and best escape from.
The first tournament of the decade had, in addition to the reversion to messing around with the structure, a couple of oddities to itself. Non-League Bath City reached the Fourth Qualifying Round only to be given a bye through it, whilst in the First Round Burton Town were awarded the first walk-over in decades, when their opponents Wigan Borough went out of business and resigned from the League.
But it was the Final that was notable, for Newcastle United becoming the first team to come from behind to win a Wembley Final (and only the third ever to win the Cup after conceding the first goal in the Final). The Geordies beat Arsenal 2-1 but it was their equalising goal which gave its name to the ‘Over the Line’ Final. Arsenal protested that the ball had gone out of play behind the goalline before being crossed for Jack Allen to convert. The referee refused the protests, but photographic evidence after the game proved him wrong. One of television’s future roles was set.
The following season, Brighton and Hove Albion made the elementary mistake of forgetting to apply for their exemption, as a Third Division South Club, into the First Round and so had to work their way up through the Qualifying Rounds. This they did to great effect, eventually reaching the Fifth Round on one of the longest Cup runs played by a League team. This year’s Final was the first in which the players wore numbered shirts, with Everton wearing numbers 1 – 11, representing the traditional positioning from goalkeeper to left-winger. Unusually, Manchester City’s team was kitted out as nos 12 – 22, reversing the order from left-winger to goalkeeper.
Everton were the winners by 3-0, but twelve months later, not for the last time, City bounced back to win, defeating Portsmouth 2-1. Both teams wore 1 – 11 that year, and thereafter until squad numbers were accepted by the Cup. City’s team included right-half Matt Busby, who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself away from Maine Road, and keeper Frank Swift, one of the finest keepers England ever had, who was so wound up by the tension of defending a single goal lead that he fainted on hearing the final whistle!
The Final was next won by Sheffield Wednesday, defeating West Bromwich Albion 4-2 after the Midlanders had twice equalised. It was Wednesday’s third Cup win, one less than their neighbours, but their only one under the banner of their home-town, having only adopted the Sheffield name in 1929. Though Sheffield United, as a Second Division club) would follow their footsteps to Wembley twelve months later, this was to be the last occasion when the Cup went to the Steel City.
The 1935 Final was the third successive Final in which a clash of colours had seen both teams adopted their away strip but the 1935/36 Final saw Arsenal and Sheffield United both utilise their home colours, despite both playing in combinations of red and white. The game was significant for the failure of the newsreel companies to reach an agreement with the Wembley Stadium authorities over rights to cover the game. As a result, all media were banned except for the official Stadium cameraman. In order to cover the game, journalists resorted to hiring autogyros (an early form of helicopter) to overfly the Stadium!
Sunderland became the only first-time winners in 1937, coming from behind to defeat Preston North End 3-1, but Proud Preston, like Manchester City, were back in 1938, thus time to win the Cup. This Final, a repeat of the 1922 Final, was the first to be televised by the BBC. First time round, Huddersfield had won by the only goal, a penalty, but this time it was Preston who won, by the same score and same means. The penalty was awarded in the penultimate minute of extra-time, the only 120 minute Final of this period, and was converted off the underside of the bar.
Seconds before the penalty was awarded, BBC commentator Thomas Woodruffe, convinced the game would be goalless, said he would eat his hat if anyone scored now. And he did. It’s something I’d have loved to see repeated many times with other commentators…
For Preston, it was their second, and last FA Cup win: the other had been the year of the Double, and the Invincibles.
And so we come to the last Final of the seventh decade. It was the first year that the Third Round was played on the first Saturday in January, Football’s New Year. Before then, in the Second Round, the Halifax Town/Mansfield Town tie became the first to go to a Third Replay before being settled in Halifax’s favour. And Portsmouth, after two failures, at last won the Cup, defeating Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1.
On 3 September 1939, two days after the German invasion of Poland, Britain and France declared War. The Football League had gone through three rounds of game: the season was suspended. The FA Cup had not even held its Extra Preliminary Round. Unlike during the First World War, the Government recognised the importance of football to the country’s morale. There would be war-time games, Leagues and Cups, played in regions to avoid unnecessary travelling, with players appearing for clubs nearest to where they might be stationed.
Many players would lose their lives in combat. Many more would see their careers destroyed, their best years, their peak reached and passed during the years of War. Portsmouth would hold the Cup for seven years, the longest reign of any, and a record that hopefully will be unrepeatable, unless a club comes along to dominate the FA Cup to an extent hitherto impossible.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley)
1931/32 Newcastle United 2 Arsenal 1
1932/33 Everton 3 Manchester City 0
1933/34 Manchester City 2 Portsmouth 1
1934/35 Sheffield Wednesday 4 West Bromwich Albion 2
1935/36 Arsenal 1 Sheffield United 0
1936/37 Sunderland 3 Preston North End 1
1937/38 Preston North End 1 Huddersfield Town 0 (aet)
1938/39 Portsmouth 4 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1
The seventh decade, once again truncated by War, enjoyed eight Finals, featuring twelve different Finalists, with Arsenal, Manchester City, Portsmouth and Preston North End each appearing twice. All four clubs would win one and lose one. Sunderland were to be the only first-time winners of the decade, and Sheffield United the only Second Division team to reach the Final. Of the eight winners, only two, Sheffield Wednesday and Preston North End, would not have future Cup wins ahead of them, on the other side of a War that would be an even greater clash of history and great forces.
It seems to have taken almost forever, but in the last year of its sixth decade (notwithstanding four fallow years), the FA Cup reached the form that we have known for so long and, those of us of a certain age, loved for its simplicity and beautiful logic. After the years of lop-sided draws, of byes, walkovers and eccentric notions on how to bring Football League clubs into the competition and when, the 1930/31 season saw two Preliminary Rounds, four Qualifying Rounds, six Rounds Proper, semi-finals and Finals, at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, beneath the Twin Towers. The clubs of the two lower Divisions entered at the First Round Proper, those of the two higher Divisions at the Third Round Proper. Only the detail that the Third Round was played on the second, not first Saturday in January, renders the picture slightly off-key.
Crazily, that pure form would exist for one season only, And there would be twenty years yet of more eccentricity before this format would be adopted permanently, before the Cup would become the Cup in all its proper glory. And there was still a crazy amount of irrational choices to go through to get there even once.
As at the end of the fifth decade, the Cup started its next phase responding to changes in the Football League. The creation of a Third Division by purloining the entire Southern League top flight had led to understandable fears of an overly southern bias. The League accepted this, renaming the new level Division 3 South, and inviting into membership twenty northern and midlands based clubs – drawn from a variety of local Leagues – to create a parallel Division 3 North.
The new Division might officially be on a par with its southern equivalent but it was hardly treated as such. To begin with, it comprised only twenty teams to Division 3 South’s twenty-two, though the two Divisions would achieve parity in that respect in 1923. But as far as the Cup was concerned, there was no such notion.
The1921/22 campaigns illustrates the pattern. Only 41 of the First and Second Division teams went directly into the First Round Proper. Admittedly, Birmingham (who would not adopt the City suffix for another dozen years) failed to lodge the paperwork in time, thus becoming the first First Division club not to compete in the Cup (this should not be seen as a precedent for Manchester United’s defection in 2000), but two Second Division clubs started in the Fifth Qualifying Round, whilst no less than eleven Division 3 South clubs received byes into the First Round.
The rest of Division 3 South were slotted in at different Qualifying Rounds, except for Charlton Athletic, who didn’t enter, whilst the Division 3 North Clubs, excluding the two who, like Charlton, didn’t enter, were spread across the Fourth and Fifth Qualifying Rounds.
It must be admitted that whilst this scattergun approach lacked logic, it was not totally unfair in terms of playing standards. The Third Division South clubs had stepped up as a Division, a practiced League where the clubs were relatively equal, whilst the Northern clubs had been drawn from all over the shop, from Leagues in which they’d been one of a mere handful of strong teams, regularly battering the weaker opposition.
And the Southern clubs were generally richer (in relative terms) than the industrial North.
As for the Cup itself that year, it went to Huddersfield Town, for the first and only time. This was the last Final played at Stamford Bridge and the game was decided by a penalty, scored past Preston North end keeper James Mitchell, the only player to appear in a Cup Final whilst wearing glasses! Mitchell was also the only England International to play in glasses.
So far as the eccentric draw was concerned, this was repeated throughout most of the decade with minor changes in numbers. The First Division was now privileged to the extent that all its teams (if they’d filed their paperwork promptly) entered at the First Round Proper, with between two and four Second Division clubs joining in the Qualifying Rounds. The Second Division finally achieved its automatic entrance in the (now) Third Round Proper in 1927/28.
On the other hand, a number of Third Division South teams were still receiving byes directly into the First Round. Though on a couple of occasions, one or two Third Division North teams were similarly distinguished, the vast majority of their teams (excluding one or two who would not enter the Cup in certain years) had to start in the Fourth and Fifth Qualifying Rounds alongside the remaining Third Division South teams, and there was still a massive discrepancy between the two Divisions over whose clubs started in the Fifth Qualifier.
The FA complicated the situation even further when, in 1923, they extended an invitation to the famous amateur club, Corinthian, to enter the Cup in the First (and later Third) Round Proper, an arrangement that ran for seven seasons.
This was an astonishing decision, inexplicable to modern eyes, but it reckons without the fact that, even after three and a half decades of the League, amateur football was still both popular and strong. In certain areas of the country – the south-east and the north-east – amateurism was the stronghold of the game. Corinthian were the giants of amateur football, but until 1923 their constitution forbade them from playing in any competitive game, save for charity.
Wikipedia suggests that, but for that self-imposed restriction, Corinthian might well have been one of the giant names of the early Cup. There are records of games in which Corinthian played – and completely thrashed – recent Cup winners who were employing virtually all of their Cup-winning teams. Whether that’s likely or not can only be speculation, but in 1923 Corinthian amended their constitution, the FA responded with invitations, and for seven seasons the amateurs joined in on a par with the ‘big’ boys of the First Division.
They never progressed more than into a second round, and they were frequently thrashed. But Corinthian could hand out thrashings of their own, given a chance.
The Cup’s fiftieth season, 1924/25, was the last year for the six Qualifying Rounds. The following season, the final two Rounds were re-named the First and Second Rounds Proper, and the other Rounds became those we now know. It was almost there, but the convolutions over where exactly each team joined the competition persisted, with four Second Division clubs still entering at Round 1 and three Third Division South teams at Round 3, as well as Corinthian. And, to balance out the numbers, seven non-League clubs also went straight in at the First Round Proper.
But the shape was coming into place. In 1927/28, the entire First and Second Divisions, no holdouts or exceptions, entered at the Third Round, but with two Third Division South teams and Corinthian alongside them, whilst Third Division North team Barrow started in the Fourth Qualifying Round. These last, awkward remnants of an imbalanced system remained for a couple more years, but at last, in 1930/31, the final, logical step was taken. All the Third Division sides, South and North, and no other clubs, joined the Cup in the First Round, all the First and Second Division sides in the Third.
Infuriatingly, as we already know, this was to be a one-season development.
The other major development of this decade was the Cup finding its permanent home at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, behind the Twin Towers, in the 1923 Final. It is probably the best known Final of all time, and likely to remain so. The attendance is an official record, 126,047 according to the books, but in reality the figure could have been anything between 150,000 and 300,000.
The Empire Stadium was not supposed to be completed until 1924, but it was finished ahead of schedule, and the FA, who had been concerned at the low gates attending the three Stamford Bridge Finals, hastened to switch to the new stadium. Though tickets were sold in advance to fans of the participating teams, the majority of tickets were sold at the gate, to spectators turning up ad hoc.
It was a fine, sunny day. The FA, fearing they would not fill Wembley, had advertised the game heavily. And there was a London team involved. Public transport was plentiful and efficient. People started making their way to North-West London. The area filled up. The Bolton coach got stuck a mile from the ground and the players had to walk to reach the stadium. The crowd overflowed the turnstiles, pushing through them, climbing over them, ordinary, respectable people forcing their way in to the ground until everywhere was full. As Kenneth Wolstenholme said, forty-three years later, some people were on the pitch: the pitch was invisible.
Mounted Police – in particular, PC George Scorey, on a grey, ‘Billie’ – were summoned for crowd control under impossible, shambolic circumstances. The grey – white to non-equestrians – was a highly visible symbol in rallying the crowd to co-operate, as was the arrival of King George V. Eventually, the Final kicked off 45 minutes late, with the crowds packed in so tightly that they were, in effect, the goal-lines and touch-lines.
Bolton, famously, were winners by 2-0, going ahead after two minutes through centre forward David Jack, scorer of the only goal in each of the three previous rounds. The crowd was so tight that, effectively, West Ham were reduced to ten men as their throw-in taker couldn’t get back onto the field, and Jack’s shot reputedly struck a spectator pressed up against the net and knocked him out!
Bolton’s second goal was even more controversial, West Ham claiming the shot had rebounded from the post without going in, the referee that it had rebounded from a spectator crammed up to the net!
West Ham, a Second Division club, had set a unique record of their own in reaching the Final, having played Second Division or lower opposition in every round: Bolton were their only First Division opponents. They also set a new record for ungraciousness, blaming their defeat on the White Horse that has given its name to this most famous of Finals – for kicking lumps out of the turf.
This shambles never happened again, and never again have Cup Final tickets been (officially) available on the day.
But despite the prominence of this Final, those of the rest of the decade remained full of incident. Newcastle left it late in the 1924 Final, scoring twice in three minutes, with only seven minutes left to beat Aston Villa. This was, much less famously, known as the Rainy Day Final, and its programmes are the most valuable to collectors, so few having survived their use as makeshift umbrellas.
The following year, Cardiff City became the first non-English Finalists since Queens Park, forty years previously, losing to Sheffield United. They would return, two seasons later, against much-fancied Arsenal, and would win the Cup, the first and only time it has gone out of England. That Final was also decided by a famous incident that created a tradition: Cardiff’s goal came from a mistake by the Arsenal keeper, letting the ball squirm out of his hands and into the net. The keeper blamed this on the greasiness of his new jersey. Thereafter, at least into the Eighties (though I don’t know if it’s still maintained today), Cup Final teams lined up in brand new kit, except for the keeper wearing an old – and definitely not shiny – jersey.
The 1927 Final was also the first to benefit from full radio commentary on the BBC, giving rise to the popular adage, ‘Back to Square One’.
In between those two Finals, Bolton Wanderers had won the Cup a second time, beating Manchester City in a reverse of the 1904 Final. It’s a remarkable commentary on the gulf between Football then and now to note that ten of Bolton’s side had also played in the Cup Final win of three years earlier. The goal was also scored by none other than David Jack.
And Manchester City set an unwelcome record on their own. They had appeared in the Final – which was still not yet the last match of the season – whilst being second bottom of the First Division, and one win in their two remaining League games was insufficient to preserve their status. City became the first club to be beaten Cup Finalists and relegated from Division 1 in the same season.
This ‘feat’ would not be repeated until 1969, when City were the winning finalists, and it has only occurred four times in all. The most recent relegated Finalists, Wigan Athletic in 2013, are in a class of their own, having actually won the Cup, ironically at the expense of Manchester City.
The 1928 Final saw Blackburn Rovers regain the Cup, thirty-seven years after the last of their five wins in the second decade. In doing so, they regained parity with Aston Villa on six wins, a record they would share for the next twenty-nine years. The beaten Finalists, Huddersfield Town, did at least manage to become the first defeated Finalists to score since 1910.
Bolton reaffirmed themselves as the dominant FA Cup team of the decade by winning their third Final in seven years in 1929 against Portsmouth: sadly, David Jack was not around to score. Arsenal, the current record holders, would win their first Cup the following season, beating Huddersfield. This Final was noted for the first half appearance, looming hauntingly over the ground, of the German Airship, the Graf Spee.
It’s also amusing to note that Arsenal’s previous game, their last League fixture of the season, had ended in a 6-6 draw, still the highest-scoring draw in English top-flight football: one Arsenal player scored four goals in that game, and was left out from the Cup Final!
The decade ended with a Midlands derby, with West Bromwich Albion beating Birmingham 2-1 in a competition that had seen three of the four Sixth Round ties go to replays whilst Everton had demolished Third Division North Southport 9-1 in the fourth, Dixie Dean scoring four goals. West Brom became the sixth Second Division team to win the Cup, and the first and only to pair this with winning promotion in the same season.
Birmingham, sadly, would go on, a quarter century later, to emulate Queens Park in being the only teams to lost two Finals without ever lifting the Cup. Later still, a club that, at this time, had ever even reached the Cup Final, would go on to outdo both of them.
The Cup now existed, however briefly, as we understand it today. Football, however, still had a long way to go. In the next decade, it would once again be shaped by War.
(all Finals played at the Empire Stadium, Wembley, unless otherwise stated)
1921/22 Huddersfield Town 1 Preston North End 0 (Stamford Bridge)
1922/23 Bolton Wanderers 2 West Ham United 0
1923/24 Newcastle United 2 Aston Villa 0
1924/25 Sheffield United 1 Cardiff City 0
1925/26 Bolton Wanderers 1 Manchester City 0
1926/27 Cardiff City 1 Arsenal 0
1927/28 Blackburn Rovers 3 Huddersfield Town 1
1928/29 Bolton Wanderers 2 Portsmouth 0
1929/30 Arsenal 2 Huddersfield Town 0
1930/31 West Bromwich Albion 2 Birmingham 1
The sixth decade, happily with a Cup every year again, saw thirteen different finalists. Bolton wanderers and Huddersfield Town reached three Finals each, though Bolton were clear winners, winning all three of their appearances to Huddersfield’s single victory. No other club won the Final more than once during this decade, though Arsenal and Cardiff City would have two attempts on the trophy, winning and losing one each. Six clubs would reach their first Final, three of whom added their names to the winners’ list. Two others would go on to win the trophy in future years, but Birmingham would be destined to be the second Club to appear in more than one Final without lifting the Cup. Two Second Division teams reached the Final, with past Winners West Brom becoming the fourth such club to win.