WAS IT REALLY “THE MATTHEWS FINAL”?

DAVID TOSSELL looks back at the 1953 FA Cup final when Blackpool beat Bolton Wanderers 4-3 but...

WAS IT REALLY “THE MATTHEWS FINAL”?

By CHRISTOPHER DAVIES

IT IS forever known as the Matthews Final – Blackpool 4, Bolton Wanderers 3, May 2, 1953. Stanley Matthews, the first ever Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year in 1948, was the most popular player of his generation, more Bobby Charlton than David Beckham in his appeal, but who had twice been on the losing side in FA Cup finals with the Seasiders, in 1948 and 1951.  At 38, the clock was ticking – could the man nicknamed the Wizard of the Dribble make it third time lucky?

Nat Lofthouse, the great Bolton and England centre-forward, conceded: “Everybody in England, except the people of Bolton, wanted Stanley to get his medal. We had a huge emotional barrier to break down.”

The country, Bolton excepted, had its wish, but was it really the Matthews Final? Did the emotions of the nation and the media create an image that was more fantasy than reality? Stan Mortensen was credited with a hat-trick and Bill Perry scored the dramatic late winner - even Matthews was to say: “To be honest, I found the whole thing one big embarrassment. Every time I hear the words [Matthews Final] I cringe with embarrassment because quite simply it’s not true.”

In a fascinating and superbly researched book – The Great English Final – David Tossell has separated fact from fiction, including doubts surrounding the scorers of two goals, of one of the greatest games Wembley has ever staged.

THE COVERAGE of the 2012/13 FA Cup final between Manchester City and Wigan Athletic will be intense, supplements published, with television and radio providing a fitting hors d’euvres to a match that retains a special place in the English sporting calendar, despite the growing emphasis on the Barclays Premier League.

In 1953 things were rather different. Media interest in the preparation for the final was minimal, the Evening Gazette reporting that Blackpool were watched by “a couple of dozen men, two women, four press photographers and a dog” during a pre-Wembley training session. A dozen fans were at the station to see Bolton off. There were no “exclusives” or the sort of hard-hitting back page stories demanded now by sports desks.

Sixty years ago football was wary of the presence of television cameras, believing it could affect attendances and 16 Football League games were played on the same day as the final. The BBC secured the rights to televise the Wembley game for a fee of £1,000, the Football Association stating: “The national interest in soccer [yes, soccer] must come first.” However, the Light Programme broadcast only a second-half commentary, having failed to persuade the FA to mirror television’s coverage of the entire game. Ten million people, huddling around five million TV sets, watched the match – more than some finals in recent years have attracted - with as many again listening on the radio. In 1953 the FA Cup final was as much a social event as a football match.

Some things have remained constant, though. Each finalist was allocated 12,500 tickets, underlying the FA’s policy was the feeling that they were simply unwilling to have their national event dominated by the working-class masses that typically made up most clubs’ fan bases. Far better to allow in the lords and colonels who dominated the committee rooms of the amateur game. Ticket prices at Wembley ranged from £2.10s to 3s 6d, with Nat Lofthouse having 97 requests for tickets dropped through his door.

The FA sent Blackpool’s allocation by train, a bemused-looking porter captured by photographers as he pushed his trolley bearing a priceless brown paper package. Blackpool gave 10 tickets to the Blackpool Corporation, the names of the lucky councillors drawn out of a hat by the Mayor. When the Evening Gazette tried to find the names of the recipients they were told: “No comment.”

The players were paid £12 a week, Bolton’s promised win bonus was £25 per player, £5 more than Blackpool’s. Matthews, probably English football’s first superstar, earned £15 a week from a boot sponsorship with the Co-op, the deal requiring him to make personal appearances at stores on the morning of away games between nine and 11.

Future BBC commentator John Motson, who grew up in Lewisham, south-east London, attended one such appearance and said: “Matthews was undoubtedly the most famous footballer in the country. He sat at a table in the store and we all queued up for his autograph. I remember being very shy and just said: ‘Thank you very much.’”

Matthews, the first player to have a ghosted column in a newspaper, the Sunday Express, also promoted Craven cigarettes – “The cigarettes for me” – in newspaper advertisements, despite admitting: “I’ve never smoked in my life.” Emphasising the difference in attitude towards smoking then and now, the last line of Blackpool manager Joe Smith’s team-talk was invariably: “Get two goals up before half-time, lads, so I can enjoy my cigar in the second-half.”

THE DUKE of Edinburgh performed the pre-game ceremonial duties on behalf of The Queen, his wife of five and a half months, his acerbic wit evident even then as he remarked that Bolton’s shiny satin navy britches made them look like “a bunch of pansies.” The kick-off was almost delayed as Blackpool centre-half Harry Johnston, the Footballer of the Year in 1951, had forgotten to take out his dentures and had to dash to the touchline, 12th man Johnny Crosland the lucky recipient of his captain’s choppers. As Johnston later stood in line to receive his winner’s medal he suddenly realised he had not reclaimed his dentures. “Quick John,” he shouted to Crosland. “My teeth, my teeth, I’ve got to meet The Queen.”

Nat Lofthouse gave Bolton a second minute lead, Stan Mortensen equalising on 35 minutes, a goal generously awarded to the striker as it took a significant deflection off Harold Hassell. Going outside full-back Johnny Ball, Mortensen shot left-footed across the goal towards the far post and Hassell, racing back to cover, diverted the ball inside the near post, leaving goalkeeper Stan Hanson helpless. Mortensen’s cup final hat-trick has become established as historical fact, but Kenneth Wolstenholme, the BBC’s commentator, called it as a Hassall own-goal. The keeper seemed likely to have saved Mortensen’s scuffed shot and in modern times the Premier League’s dubious goals committee would most certainly have ruled against Mortensen, though few begrudged the achievement of one of the most popular men in the game.

Five minutes later Bobby Langton is credited with restoring Bolton’s advantage, but again there are doubts about who had the last significant touch. Langton clipped the ball left-footed towards the far post. Arriving late, Willie Moir ran across goalkeeper George Farm’s line of sight. As both men stretched for the ball – Moir with his head, Farm with fist – it continued unimpeded on its path and nestled in the far bottom corner of the net. Wolstenholme said later in his commentary: “We’ve just received confirmation from the Bolton dressing-room that Willie Moir scored the second goal. He must have touched it with his head.” Yet the record books give the goal to Langton.

Eric Bell made it 3-1 after 55 minutes and it seemed as if Matthews was going to be a three-times Wembley loser. But Mortensen struck again in the 68th minute, converting an overhit centre from Matthews that was flapped at by Hanson, allowing the centre-forward to slide between two defenders and steer the ball home from two yards. However, there were signs that belatedly the great man was stepping further towards the front of the stage

With one minute of regulation time remaining referee Sandy Griffiths signalled a Blackpool free-kick, apparently penalising the merest brush by Doug Holden on Jackie Mudie. A group of four Bolton players stood momentarily with hands on hips, looking quizzically at the official – the closest the era ever came to a present day all-too-familiar surrounding of the referee. Mortensen completed his [alleged] hat-trick, blasting the ball past the wall and inside the left post.

In the second minute of stoppage time Matthews made his most significant contribution to the final, slipping slightly as he crossed the ball for Bill Perry to fire home Blackpool’s winner. Matthews was at last able to lift the FA Cup.

There were no after-match TV or radio interviews on the pitch, a handful of photographers capturing Blackpool players with the cup. Remarkably, both teams had booked the Cafe Royal for their post-match banquets, with champagne drunk and humble pie eaten in the finalists’ respective rooms.

A FAMILIAR cry in Fleet Street after a big match has been: “What’s the line?” This time there was only one angle. The News of the World’s headline was: “That Old Matthews Magic Delights The Queen.” The Sunday Chronicle: “Magnificent Matthews,” saying “Matthews 4, Bolton 3 is more correctly the result.”

In the modern day of tabloid reporting, where the events of a game are often prioritised in order to fit around the newspapers’ chosen storyline, such side-steppoing of objectivity is commonplace. In 1953, pre-determining the narrative was rare. And to be sure, it was pre-determined. A week before the final Frank Butler of the News of the World had written: “If they [Blackpool] do win, it will go down in soccer history as the Stanley Matthews final. Never have so many wished so much for one man to get a winner’s medal.”

It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming the tag was applied purely because of what happened on the field, in which case it is also easy to feel sympathy for the overlooked Stan Mortensen and Bill Perry. The Opta report commissioned by The Times to mark the 50th anniversary of the final listed the contribution of Matthews behind, in descending order, Mortensen, Willie Moir, Johnny Wheeler, Ernie Taylor and Perry.

The conclusion the newspaper drew - “Put simply, the Matthews final is a myth” and is based purely on a statistical breakdown of the action, ignoring the environment in which it took place. It is a verdict as flawed as that of the reporters who, in their excitement, sought to credit Matthews with single-handedly winning the game.

Yet while Matthews may not have been Man of the Match, Tossell told footballwriters.co.uk the way the final is remember is still justified. He said: “In my view the Matthews Final is merited, not because of misplaced perception that he won the game single-handedly, although he was clearly the classiest player on the field, but because of the way he dominated the narrative both in the build-up and on the day. It's impossible in these times to fully appreciate the widespread love - it's the appropriate word - the public had for Matthews, who was considered a model of all that was good about England.

“It's apparent in the reverential commentary of Kenneth Wolstenholme throughout. As I mention at one point in the book, it could have been Bolton who scored the last-minute winner yet it might still have reasonably been remembered as the Matthews Final.”

Adapted from The Great English Final by David Tossell (Pitch Publishing, £16.99).

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