This year marks the 90th anniversary of the first FA Cup final at Wembley between Bolton and West Ham — a scene we're unlikely to ever see again unless the zombie apocalypse happens and it turns out they really like football. So ahead of the final between Wigan and Man City on Saturday, let's take a look back at some truly wonderful images from the 1923 final.
The Empire Stadium at Wembley (which became Wembley Stadium) was built for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition and its very first event was the 1923 FA Cup final. The world's oldest association football competition had already been around for 52 years at this point and with a London club taking part in the final, there was hope that the locals could fill the 127,000-capacity stadium. The size of the crowd that arrived on the day of the match was far beyond what anyone expected, though.
Tickets were sold before the match, but were also made available at the turnstiles, and since the stadium was so easily accessible, hordes of people swarmed the venue on the day of the final. The unprepared stewards and undermanned police presence were outmatched by the massive crowd, so the stadium's gates were closed before kickoff after a large number of people already made their way in. A short time later, as kickoff drew near, the crowd still outside invaded the stadium, forcing those already in the lower level of the ground to escape a potential crush to climb down onto the pitch, engulfing it in a sea of humanity.
The official attendance on the day was 126,047, but anywhere from 150,000 to over 300,000 people were actually in the stadium (the official all-time record for a match is held by the 1950 World Cup final between Brazil and Uruguay at the Maracana, which had an official attendance of 173,850 and an estimated 210,000 people actually present). By the time Bolton arrived for the match, they couldn't get anywhere near the stadium and had to abandon their bus and then walk a mile through the throngs of hopeful spectators.
Once both teams made it in and King George V had arrived to watch, the challenge became clearing the playing surface enough to actually play a match. Cops on horseback were tasked with the job of making room. One horse in particular — a grey steed named "Billie" that looked white in pictures and film footage — became the star of the day and gave the match its nickname, "The White Horse Final." Enamored by the horse and the appeals of its rider, eventually did as they were told.
Its rider, PC George Scorey, recalled the scene in a BBC Radio interview…
“The horse was very good, easing them back with his nose and his tail until we got the crowd back along one of the goal-lines.
"We continued up the touch-lines until some of them got a bit stubborn. ‘Don’t you want to see the game?’ I said. They said ‘Yes’ and I said ‘So do I. Now those in front join hands.’ Then I gave the word to heave and they went back, step by step, until they reached the line.”
Thanks to the efforts of Billie, PC Scorey and pleas from the players, the crowd was pushed back just beyond the touchline and the match amazingly began 45 minutes after its scheduled kickoff.
Given the conditions, playing a proper game of football was difficult and it turned out they could've used some goal-line technology, as well.
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 past Hammers ‘keeper Ted Hufton.
The Lancashire side 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 were unaware that a goal had been scored.
Bolton beat second-division West Ham (who won promotion to the first division shortly thereafter) 2-0 — a result many in the stadium couldn't see. Yet "only" 22 people had to be taken to the hospital for injuries.
In the wake of the match, the stadium was better fortified and the FA decided it was probably a good idea to require that tickets must be pre-purchased before gaining entry to future finals.
And finally, here's some excellent footage of the match: