The boy was 10 when he first saw it and it was a thrilling experience. Wembley stadium in London was 200 miles from home and trips to the capital from northern towns happened very rarely. The year was 1967 and it was the amateur cup final between Enfield FC and Skelmersdale United (all subsequent trips involved Rugby League games) and the boy was going to the great stadium for the first time. In the company of his father and a favourite uncle, the walk up the famous Wembley way was magical; to stand in the shadow of the great old cathedral was overwhelming; that first vision of a lush, green expansive turf was similar to casting eyes on a great work of art for the first time. The entire vista was awe-inspiring and the boy (now the old man and this writer) has never forgotten that initial exuberance; and long may it remains so.
What is it about walking into a great sporting venue for the first time? Most of us can recall the thrill, the excitement and the anticipation. It thrilled us then and still casts a spell over us even when the ravages of time take their inevitable toll. There are many great sporting venues in the world: The Maracana in Rio lays claim to be one of the most iconic in World football; Yankee Stadium, Fenway Park and Wrigley Field have many American fans espousing the almost mythical atmosphere at those three great stadia; walking through the Long room at Lords cricket ground in London is akin to taking a stroll through history and time; and the Australians hold special reverence for the Sydney Cricket Ground (SCG).
However, London’s Wembley stadium can claim to hold an almost unique and mystical place in the sporting world. The stadium, both old and new, is synonymous with sport and has seen more than its fair share of great moments. World and European cups have been played, won and lost on the ground; in 1948 a flying Dutchwomen astounded an Olympic crowd in it; some of the greatest rugby players in history have graced it’s turf; Muhammed Ali retained a World title in it and in more recent times American grid iron players have been overawed by it. To play at Wembley is a dream that very few sportsmen and women get to experience.
One of England’s most famous domestic sporting occasions takes place every May at Wembley. The Football Association (FA) Cup Final holds special significance in the sporting calendar. The 2017 Emirates FA cup final will kick off at 5:30pm on Saturday 21st May at the great Stadium. Those great London rivals, Chelsea and Arsenal, face each other in the yearly showpiece event.
The 2017 FA Cup Final is the 136th final and the FA Cup is the world’s oldest football cup competition, dating back to 1871–72. It has been played every year since then, apart from being temporarily suspended during the first and second World Wars. Traditionally, the final always takes place at Wembley. The old Wembley stadium was built in 1922-23 and was originally the centerpiece of the British Empire Exhibition; the grand old Stadium, the new one was constructed in 2007, was built in under a year at a cost of £750,000. Some 250,000 tons of clay had to be dug out to form the bowl of the stadium and the stands and terraces were built with 25,000 tons of concrete, reinforced with 600 tons of steel rods.
The FA cup competition begins many months prior to the final and is open to many clubs outside the regular professional teams. Many of the lower ranked teams in the earlier rounds hope to progress through and, with a favourable draw, play games against the top teams in the country; this is one of the main reasons that the FA Cup is so popular. There’s something eternally appealing about the underdog overcoming great odds to triumph against more accomplished teams. It reignites our hope and optimism and has a feel good factor about it. So unless you are a firm supporter of the stronger teams, you can back the underdog and very often surprises can take place. Aside from its long history, there is something special about the FA Cup. Many people hold it dear in their hearts. But what is its allure? Why is it so popular? Even people who don’t normally follow football seem to have anecdotal memories to share about the FA Cup. Over the years there have been many great and memorable finals and none more so than the first final at Wembley in 1923. That day went into the history books for a number of reasons.
Though not officially opened by King George V until 23 April 1924, the stadium hosted its first final the previous year, when an estimated 200,000 people crammed in to watch Bolton Wanderers FC defeat West Ham United FC 2-0. That match famously became known as the “’White Horse final”’, as a mounted policeman took to the pitch to keep the fans at bay. “Billy” was the horses’ name and he was a big grey; with Police Constable George Scorey on his back they presented an imposing spectacle. With so many people in attendance the crowd eventually spilled over onto the playing surface (goodness knows what the reaction would be if the scenes were played out today). Even before a ball was kicked, the police had to take action and get some type of order to the proceedings. The horse is commemorated to this day at Wembley; in 2006 a bridge was built linking the local train station with the stadium and called, appropriately, “ The White Horse Bridge”.
The organizers of the Final had expected an attendance similar to those in previous years, but the new stadium — capable of holding 126,000 — drew an enormous crowd. By 2:00 p.m. an estimated 115,000 people had entered the ground and the turnstiles were locked; even so, a further 50,000 to 100,000 spectators gained access by climbing over the gates. Keeping order inside were just 596 policemen and a few civilian stewards. With no more room on the terraces, thousands of fans spilled onto the pitch, prompting a call for reserve officers to be brought in. PC Scorey and Billy, with nine other mounted policemen, successfully cleared the playing surface by edging back the crowd. Billy, with the careful guidance of PC Scorey, used his powerful flanks and shoulders to guide, cajole and edge the crowd into place.
What about the game itself? Remarkably, the game began just an hour after the planned kick-off. It was virtually impossible to observe the laws of the game. When a player took a corner kick, for example, the crowd was so close to the touch-line that he could not take his run until a policeman had forced people away from that corner of the field. But Bolton managed to score within three minutes of the kick-off, David Jack smashing the ball into the net to score the first ever goal at Wembley
Bolton increased their lead in the second half, when Ted Vizard’s cross was volleyed against the underside of the bar by Jack ‘JR’ Smith. The referee, David Asson from West Bromwich, ruled that the ball had crossed the line before rebounding back into play. It happened so quickly that most of the crowd was unaware that a goal had been scored.
Thousands in that mostly good-tempered crowd, 20 deep in places, saw very little of Wembley’s debut match. Miraculously there was no loss of life and there were only a few injuries. An inquiry was held and The FA returned money to ticket holders who claimed never to have reached their seats. Officials also publicly stated that if it had not been for PC Scorey and his white horse, The Final would never have gone ahead that afternoon.
Bolton, 2-0 winners, lifted The FA Cup twice more in the 1920s. West Ham had to wait another 41 years before they finally got their hands on the trophy. But the Hammers’ consolation in 1923 was to clinch promotion to the First Division in the week after the final. In only their fourth season in the League they were runners-up on goal average to Notts County. West Ham manager Charlie Paynter actually partially blamed Billy the horse for his side’s defeat, claiming that, “It was that white horse thumping its big feet into the pitch that made it hopeless. Our wingers were tumbling all over the place, tripping up in great ruts and holes”.
Officials later stated that the match would never have been able to start without the actions of PC Scorey. When asked about his actions in an interview with the BBC some years later, Scorey said, “As my horse picked his way onto the field, I saw nothing but a sea of heads. I thought, we can’t do it. It’s impossible. But I happened to see an opening near one of the goals and the horse was very good – easing them back with his nose and tail until we got a goal-line cleared. I told them in front to join hands and heave and they went back step by step until we reached the line. Then they sat down and we went on like that … it was mainly due to the horse. Perhaps because he was white he commanded more attention. But more than that, he seemed to understand what was required of him. The other helpful thing was the good nature of the crowd”.
The old and iconic stadium was demolished in 1999 and the Cup Final was staged at another location until the new and modern stadium was completed in the same location. Many sport fans with nostalgic leanings (this writer is proud to be one of them), whilst understanding the need for change, decried the fact that nothing was left from the old and incorporated into the new. Sacrilege! The old stadium was demolished (like so many memories) without any consideration by soulless architects and builders. But like sports fans the world over and in many different sports; our opinions don’t count.
The image of Billy, the white horse, remains famous within English football lore, and the match went into history as “The White Horse Final”. Billy’s rider, George Scorey, was rewarded by the Football Association with free tickets to subsequent finals, but to the surprise of many, he had no interest in football and and had no wish to attend.