By Philip Carter
On Saturday 5 May, Chelsea face Liverpool in this year’s FA Cup Final, the culmination of what (despite its relative, recent decline) remains the world’s most famous domestic football, i.e. ‘soccer’, tournament. If you cut your Cup teeth before the 1990s — since then the competition has been partially eclipsed by Premiership football — you’ll remember Final day as a national, indeed international, occasion when millions tuned in to events on a 115 x 75 yard field in north-west London.
The ‘romance’ of the FA Cup may have faded a little, but at its heart remains Wembley Stadium which, in its two incarnations, is about to host its 83rd Cup Final. The first Wembley, famous for its twin towers and 39 steps, was originally the Empire Stadium, designed by the architects Sir John Simpson and Maxwell Ayrton, and built by the civil engineer Owen Williams for the British Empire Exhibition held in 1924.
However, the stadium’s first football match — the so-called ‘White Horse Final’ — took place a year earlier in April 1923. Now one of the classic games in English football history, the 1923 final owes its celebrity less to the players of Bolton Wanderers or West Ham United, than to a policeman, George Scorey (1882-1965) and his horse, Billy. Organizers of the 1923 Final had expected an attendance similar to those in previous years, but the new Wembley 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. One was PC Scorey who, with nine other mounted policemen, successfully cleared the playing surface by edging back the crowds. Remarkably, the game began just an hour after the planned kick-off, and two minutes later Bolton’s David Jack scored the first ever Wembley goal.
In subsequent press and Pathé News reports, it was PC Scorey not Jack who was singled out as the day’s hero — partly for his actions and partly because, in photographs and newsreel footage, his grey mount, Billy, stood out as white against a soberly dressed crowd. These pictures from 28 April 1923 are familiar worldwide, but until recently very little was known about the life of George Scorey before and after his Wembley appearance. Later this month the Oxford DNB (in a special update featuring historical Londoners) will publish what’s thought to be the first full account of Scorey’s life: from military service in South Africa and the Western Front, to 19 years in the Met Police, and a quiet retirement in Chislehurst, Kent. In subsequent years Scorey was modest about his role at the White Horse Final, praising Billy’s intelligence and the crowd’s good humour. Not a football fan himself, he declined the offer of tickets to every Cup Final from 1924 until his death in 1965.
What of the footballers who came after those of Bolton Wanderers and West Ham? Searching the Oxford DNB for ‘Wembley’ — which is described in more than 150 ODNB biographies — reveals some of the stadium’s other great games. There’s the 5-1 thrashing of England in 1928 by Scotland’s ‘Wembley wizards’, whose team included Alex James. Or the ‘Matthews’ final’ of 1953 in which, in front of an early television audience, the great Stanley Matthews gained a Cup winners’ medal as Blackpool beat Bolton 4-3, with Matthews laying on the pass for the winning goal. In the same match Blackpool’s Stanley Mortensen became the first person to score a hat-trick in a Cup Final. Fifteen years on George Best’s characteristically cheeky goal — through a defender’s legs and round the keeper — helped Manchester United become the first English winners of the European Cup with a 4-1 win over Benfica.
To some, Wembley was a place of mixed fortunes. In November 1953 Alf Ramsey played in the England team (then unbeaten at ‘home’ for 90 years) humiliated by Ferenc Puskás and the Hungarians. Thirteen years later, with Ramsey as manager, England secured the World Cup at Wembley. “You’ve won it once. Now you must win it again,” Ramsey told his players after West Germany had scored a last-minute equalizer to take the match into extra time. Relaying proceedings to an anxious, then incredulous, then jubilant nation was the commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme, while the Jules Rimet trophy was lifted by Ramsey’s captain, Bobby Moore, whose statue Chelsea and Liverpool fans will pass as they gather for this year’s final.
As with George Scorey, good Wembley stories are not just concerned with score lines and tactics. In the 1934 Cup Final Frank Swift played in goal for a victorious Manchester City against Portsmouth. At the sound of the final whistle, the 21 year-old Swift passed out. King George V, who was present at the game and who witnessed Swift’s collapse, later sent a telegram to inquire about his health. To the press it was a perfect story. Twelve months earlier Frank had paid 2s. 6d. to watch City play Everton in the Cup Final, and the transformation from Wembley spectator to Wembley winner made Swift a household name.
And here’s one more nugget. Thirty years after Swift’s collapse, the Cup was won by West Ham United whose manager, Ron Greenwood, enjoyed a particularly close attachment to the FA’s ‘home of football’. In later life Greenwood knew Wembley as a spectator, a player, a club manager, and finally — like Ramsey — as the England coach. But as a fourteen-year-old Greenwood had first encountered Wembley as an apprentice decorator and sign-writer, employed by his father who later became the stadium’s head of maintenance.
Philip Carter is Publication Editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. The stories of George Best, Bobby Moore, and Alf Ramsey are also available as episodes of the Oxford DNB’s free biography podcast. The biography of PC George Scorey (1882-1965) will be published as part of the ODNB’s next online update on 24 May.