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White Horse Final: When 300,000 people watched Bolton v West Ham

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Nat Lofthouse
Nat Lofthouse
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Some estimate that nearly 300,000 people packed into the brand new Empire Stadium to watch Bolton Wanderers lift the FA Cup for the first time with a 2-0 victory against West Ham United.

But for some of those making the long journey down from the North West, it would be a fruitless trip.

Billed as the world’s greatest sporting arena, work on the new stadium was only completed four days before the final itself. Wembley’s capacity was estimated at 127,000 – a figure considered quite ample considering the previous year’s final between Huddersfield Town and Preston North End had attracted an official attendance of 53,000.

The lure of the new arena was considerable, however, and though the Bolton contingent was thought to be around 5,000, around half a million people are believed to have converged on North London that day.

“Wembley Stadium was stampeded by the greatest crowd that has ever assembled in the history of the game,” screamed the Evening News Buff. “It had been confidently stated that this new amphitheatre, the home of English sport, was structurally and scientifically perfect, offering comfortable accommodation and an unobstructed view to upwards of 125,000 spectators. Clearly, the authorities were totally unprepared for what happened.”

Wanderers had made the Russell Hotel their headquarters for the weekend, with Charles Foweraker and his team travelling a day earlier and spending the last few hours before the game in Harrow.

It was reported in the Evening News Buff that the team made “excellent time” to the game – but the directors and friends who journeyed from London in charabanc had an experience they would never forget.

“Dozens of Bolton people saw none of the game,” wrote The Olympian. “None of the directors, except for the chairman, Mr J W Makant JP, saw the first goal and several of them did not get so much as a glimpse of the game.

“Never in the history of the game has there been such a tragedy and for the credit to those who are responsible for the good government of Soccer, the most popular of all pastimes, it is hoped it will never be repeated.”

At the stadium itself the scenes were chaotic. This would be the first of three cup victories for Bolton in the twenties – the others coming in 1926 and 1929 – in which just 17 different players were used.

The day, however, would belong to a Bristolian mounted policeman, George Albert Scorey, and his equine partner, Billy.

With nearly all photos of the game printed in black and white, the distinctive white horse would take centre stage in nearly all press coverage of the national final.

Police had initially been powerless to deal with the crowd surge prior to kick-off, which saw a main exit broken down and people scaling high walls to get a better view. Fans spilled over the cinder circles which surrounded the pitch and the green turf was quickly enveloped by a dark mass of bodies.

Slowly and surely, Billy – and others – inched supporters back towards the touchline, meaning at 3.46pm the game could finally begin.

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Early in the game there was another 10-minute stoppage as crowds pushed back on to the field. And on several occasions players were unable to prevent themselves from falling into the fans, now within touching distance.

By that stage Bolton were ahead, as David Jack preserved his record of scoring in every round since the first.

In the second half, Ted Vizard laid off a pass to John Smith, whose shot bounced out of a taught net but was correctly spotted as having crossed the line by referee, Mr Asson.

When the final whistle sounded, young Bolton defender Alex Finney grabbed the matchball and a wave of fans spilled once more on to the playing surface leaving the players – according to The Olympian’s report from the press box – “a white shirt dotted here and there among the black mass of human beings.”

Police helped them reach the Royal Box to meet the King and the cup was passed to Bolton’s captain, Joe Smith. Each player was also given a handsome gold medal.

Wembley learned some lessons and the following year, 91,625 people watched Newcastle United beat Aston Villa in a game which became known as the ‘Rainy Day Final’ for obvious reasons.

Never again would a sporting event, with the possible exception of horse racing, attract such a crowd.

Scorey was offered free cup final tickets for the rest of his life by the Football Association but had little interest in the game, preferring instead to concentrate on music.

The keen trumpeter was a part of the Metropolitan Police band and remained so until 1939 when he was forced to retire because of failing eyesight.

Billy died in December 1930, and as a mark of his service to the police force one of his hooves was made into an inkwell and given to Scorey as a gift. It remains the property of the Metropolitan Police mounted branch museum and is kept at Imber Court, Surrey.

As Wembley was being rebuilt in 2005 a public vote decided that the bridge which crosses from Wembley rail station should be re-named the White Horse Bridge, from a shortlist which had been whittled down to include three World Cup heroes – Sir Bobby Charlton, Sir Geoff Hurst and Sir Alf Ramsey, and the Live Aid concert.

Cheeky German fans had tired to hijack the poll, suggesting the bridge should be named after the most temporary of Bolton Wanderers players, Dietmar Hamann, who had scored the last goal at the old Wembley.

Mementoes of the event continue to fetch big sums at action.

A ticket, which cost just 15 shillings at the time, went for £1,200 at in 2011 and Jimmy Seddon’s winner’s medal fetched £8,640 in 2010.

The game also provided the backdrop to a successful production, ‘And Did Those Feet’ which was originally produced for the 40th anniversary of The Octagon by writers Les Smith and Martin Thomasson.

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