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The record books show that the 1923 Football Association Cup final was won by First Division Bolton Wanderers. Their victory over their Second Division opponents West Ham United was achieved under conditions and amid scenes unparalleled in sport.
With the game kicking off under extremely difficult conditions, the Hammers match ploy was to use their fast outside forwards Dick Richards and Jimmy Ruffell. However, after a little more than a minute's play Jack Young, the West Ham left back, was guilty of what proved to be a fatal mistake. He had the opportunity to kick clear and end a raid begun by Billy Butler. He preferred to attempt a little dribble, and was robbed of the ball by David Jack who went forward with it, and with a light, fast drive beat Ted Hufton in the West Ham goal.
Wembley Stadium was built on the site of ‘Watkins Folly’. An attempt by railway entrepreneur Sir Edward Watkins in 1891 to design and build a steel tower to rival the Eiffel Tower in Paris. The partially completed iron lattice tower was later demolished in 1907.
The 1920, 1921 and 1922 FA Cup Finals had been held at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground which the Football Association felt was inadequate for such a grand event. As the 1922 Final between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End had only attracted 53,000 fans, the FA thought that a new stadium with capacity for 125,00 was called for.
The Empire Stadium, as it was originally named, was the centrepiece of the Empire Exhibition of 1924. Costing £750,000 the stadium was constructed in exactly 300 days and a full year ahead of schedule.
The new stadium hosted the first ever FA Cup final just four days after building work was completed, between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United.
However the FA’s showpiece event would be remembered more for what happened off the pitch than on it.
In the run up to the big event the FA had concerns it would be unable to fill the new ground’s huge 125,000 capacity. With the Trotters and the Hammers averaging home attendances around 20,000 the authorities were unsure if they could fill the stadium, they decided to launch an advertising campaign to drum up some interest.
The FA boasted that it was the greatest venue of its kind and also announced that tickets would be on sale at the turnstiles on the day.
However, they failed to take into account that a London team were taking part in the final, and as such many local people and neutrals alike viewed the game more as a north versus south game and the rivalry that associated with it.
Coupled with the presence of King George V, improvements to infrastructure, public transport, including new stations and bus routes together with exceptional fine weather the lure of a newly built stadium all meant that the crowd was to exceed anyone’s expectations.
West Ham United reached the showpiece occasion with victories over Hull City, Brighton & Hove Albion, Plymouth Argyle, Southampton and Derby County in the semi-final, and all less than a quarter of a century after their formation as West Ham United in 1900.
125,000 Official Capacity
With accommodation built for 125,000 spectators, estimates of the number of fans in attendance range from 240,000 to well over 300,000 inside Wembley on April 28, 1923. It is also estimated that another 60,000 were locked outside the gates. For the record the FA’s official attendance total has been put at 126,047.
Countdown to Chaos
At 11:30am the turnstiles opened, by 1:00pm the terrace accommodation was almost full, and at 1:45pm the turnstiles and gates were closed. The London Midland and Scottish Railway were instructed not to bring anymore trains into North Wembley Station.
Admission, even to ticket-holders was now refused. Incidentally, this also included the entire Bolton Wanderers players and officials, who still making their way to the stadium and were forced to abandon their team bus a mile from the ground. At 2:00pm Scotland Yard were asked to send mounted police.
Although the crowd were in good spirits, the sheer numbers that were now locked outside meant that something had to give.
At 2:15pm the turnstiles were rushed, police and officials were powerless to prevent the influx of so many people. With the terraces already full the crowds were forced towards the playing pitch which in no time was completely covered.
Amazingly, out of 300,000 that made it into the stadium, only 900 needed treatment for minor injuries, and just 12 required a visit to hospital.
15 minutes before the scheduled kick-off time the pitch was still covered by spectators and casualties were littered throughout as the King took up his place in the Royal box. Although he was advised by officials to leave, the King insisted on staying.
On the pitch players from both teams stood in little groups, not knowing what would eventually happen, most expecting the match to be abandoned. Mounted police entered the arena and started to push the crowds back as the anthem “God Save the King” rang out around the stadium.
The King takes his place in the Royal Box
Scorey and Billie Save the Day
For one such Police Constable and his horse, their actions that April afternoon in restoring order to allow the game to proceed, would forever be known as ‘The White Horse Final’.
PC George Scorey and his horse Billie stood out that afternoon as fans from both sides responded to his instructions, along with other mounted officers they managed to slowly ease the spectators back beyond the white lines of the playing area. Finally, with the pitch cleared, play could kick-off, just 46 minutes late.
Billie was the only white horse in the stadium that afternoon, and in the black and white footage and photographs of the day the other black horses were mostly indistinguishable from the rest of the crowd. Appearing as though it was the solitary attempts of PC Scorey and Billie that were responsible for the controlling the encroaching fans and come the morning newspapers Billie was pictured on every back page across the country.
Bolton Wanderers 2 - 0 West Ham United (HT 1-0)
Empire Stadium Wembley
Saturday April 28, 1923
Joe Smith (c)
West Ham United
George Kay (c)
Extremely Difficult Conditions
At the half-time break the players were unable to get through the crowd on the side of the pitch to reach the dressing rooms, so play started again after just a five-minute break on the pitch. Within eight minutes of the restart Bolton scored a second, but again the proximity of the crowd to the pitch led to controversy. West Ham insisted that Jack Smith’s shot had not entered the goal but rebounded off the post, but referee Asson was convinced that the rebound had come off a spectator behind the net and allowed the goal to stand. To add insult to injury, West Ham were also adamant that Vizard, who supplied the pass for Smith’s goal, had initially received the ball from a kick by a spectator, but again the referee was unmoved.
In truth when David Jack gave Bolton their second minute lead, his marker, West Ham’s Jack Tresadern became trapped in the crowd after taking a throw in and was trying to get back on to the pitch when the now unmarked Jack not only gave Bolton the lead, but also knocked over a whole group of spectators who were pressed up against the net, rendering one of them unconscious to become the first goalscorer at Wembley.
Eleven minutes into the game the crowd again surged onto the pitch leading the game to be halted and mounted police again being required.
After that the game drifted to its climax, leaving Bolton to become the first Wembley cup winners. West Ham were left bemoaning their luck and the state of the pitch, which had been carved up by the police horses’ hooves.
At the conclusion of the game, the King presented the Cup to Joe Smith, the Bolton captain and the medals to the players. In an official statement issued by the exhibition authorities, it was estimated that over 150,000 were present inside the stadium.
Things though would look rosier for the Hammers the next weekend when, despite a 1-0 home loss to Notts County, they still managed to achieve promotion from the Second Division on goal average as their main rivals Leicester lost 2-0.
The FA’s inquiry into the whole affair stated that “Next year’s Final will be organised on an all-ticket basis” and that’s how it’s remained ever since.
David Jack scores for Bolton
Bolton and West Ham United players are just visable in a sea of cloth caps
FA Cup Runners-up Medal