TThere aren’t too many similarities between the football of 1953 and today, but there’s something about Saturday that means Chelsea and Liverpool players might feel like Nat Lofthouse ahead of that most famous of FA Cup finals. With a sell-out crowd returning to Wembley for the first time since 2019, Liverpool celebrating their first in a decade and many of these Chelsea players playing their first non-pandemic final, they may have the same sense of wonder that Lofthouse had in 1953’s The Hero Bolton Wanderers had played at Wembley many times but even he was struck by the uniqueness of the stage as he queued up in the tunnel that day.
“All you can see of the stadium is a little square of light about 20 or 30 yards ahead,” Lofthouse is quoted in David Tossell’s book The Great English Final. “There will be a joke and a laugh, but the tension is there. Then you begin the long journey to this square of light.”
Graeme Sharp felt the same way in 1984. “The closer you get to the top, the louder it gets,” says the Everton FA Cup hero LatestPageNews. “Then you come out of the tunnel and it’s just amazing.”
The immediate thought, Sharp says, is, “I’m in a game now.” Lofthouse described it as “in another world.”
The truth is it’s been a different world for the FA Cup final for a while, not inspiring the same level of awe. However, rather than lament once again that the competition has lost some of its relevance as it celebrates its 150th anniversary, it is worth reflecting on what that importance has been for most of this time. It’s values that are all the more important given the changes in the Champions League and two years in which everyone has been forced apart.
The FA Cup final used to be the national day of English football, when all aspects of the game came together. That was because everyone came together, especially in the communities where the finalists came from. Such gatherings were a recognition of the achievement that winning the FA Cup used to be. It was certainly a different challenge than the championship, but that’s exactly why it was considered equal for a long time. There was something “mystical” about it, like the modern Champions League final, where every moment was steeped in decades of history. That gave it a grandiosity that was only reinforced even by the smaller parts of the day, the traditions that contributed to each triumph.
This great spirit of community originally arose out of a major breakthrough and some of the same societal forces that drive the game today: the rich versus the poor; the establishment against the proletariat.
Twelve years after the formation of the FA Cup in 1871, Blackburn Olympic’s northern working-class professionals finally ended the dominance of southern aristocrats, who played the game as a pastime, when Old Etonians were beaten 2–1. This defeat heralded an immediate democratization of sport. The sudden death nature of knockout football has been a source of entertainment and inspiration as well as identity for so many people. Cities were bound around such exploits.
By 1904, 20,000 Manchester City fans took the train to London to see Billy Meredith win the trophy against Bolton.
“When I first got involved with the FA Cup I was very impressed when I read the accounts of traveling fans going to their final,” says football historian David Goldblatt. “This is the moment – Blackburn Olympic and then Blackburn Rovers won the FA Cup in the mid-1880s – that marks a transition, that transition from a mainly aristocratic pursuit to a working-class game. It’s all that sense of reach, a rare cross-class and increasingly national phenomenon. These Blackburn fans and the players would never have been to London before. That’s huge. For working-class Blackburn to be part of the national narrative, in the same sphere as the Old Etonians, must have been a really powerful and heady thing in Victorian England.”
This spirit prevailed for most of the competition’s 140 seasons. Dennis Tueart recalls similar scenes for Sunderland’s shock run, then second division side, to the 1973 final against Leeds United, in a very different England.
“We’ve grown in the cup from 11,000 spectators in November to 54,000 in April,” says Tueart. “It had an incredible impact on the community. For example, the British shipbuilders had a base on the Wear and donated £800 to reach the semi-finals and £1,200 to reach the final. That was a lot of money back then. Absenteeism was also at an all-time low and morale at an all-time high as the boys couldn’t wait to get to work on Monday and talk about the team at the weekend.”
The numbers were astonishing long before that. Back in 1899, Crystal Palace drew a world record crowd of 73,833 for Sheffield United’s 4-1 win over Derby County, which was surpassed by nearly 40,000 just two years later when Tottenham Hotspur became the first non-league team to win the competition . The famous 1923 ‘White Horses’ final between Bolton and West Ham United, the first at Wembley, drew an estimated 300,000 fans instead of the official 126,047.
There was one spectator who particularly stood out as he took his place in 1901. As part of a further development that made the event a national institution, King Edward VII took on the role of Patron of the Football Association.
“It’s a big deal,” argues Goldblatt. “King Edward doesn’t show up to see Old Etonians. It’s working class folks at the Crystal Palace. Playing in front of the Queen isn’t a big deal these days, but in 1901 it’s huge for an average working-class player and fan. It’s a really important aspect of the FA Cup.”
Royalty would bring with it loftier traditions and a few other trappings. In 1953 the late Duke of Edinburgh offered Blackpool private words of encouragement to Stanley Matthews as he was aiming for his first FA Cup after telling Bolton’s burly players that their white satin shirts made them look like ‘pansies’. Three years later, Prince Phillip urged Bert Trautmann to see a doctor when the City goalkeeper awkwardly went for his medal. It turns out the German played most of the 3-1 win over Birmingham City with a broken neck as a former Nazi soldier became a national hero.
If royals were among the privileged few to see this growing showpiece in person, another crucial development was that soon everyone could experience it in a different form. The BBC decided to broadcast the 1927 final on radio, which enabled 15,000 Cardiff City fans who couldn’t reach Wembley to listen to their team finally win their first FA Cup by beating Arsenal 1-0. This happened to be the first game announced by Abide With Me at King George V’s request. He was asked what the Grenadiers and Irish Guards bands should play and chose his wife Queen Mary’s favorite anthem. Hearing the song before the 1955 and 1956 finals, Trautmann later noted the sense of community it fostered. “Women and children from the filthy streets of the industrial city are at last on common ground with those from the mansions of England,” Trautmann wrote in his autobiography. “It’s a wonderful cause and one for which British sports lovers, regardless of politics or beliefs, must be respected.”
A key was that everyone could listen and watch until then, as Goldblatt explains.
“The fact that the league still didn’t allow radio broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s because of concerns about ticket sales means the FA Cup final is becoming a part of the national calendar in a way league football never could.
“It was in the same category of national pageantry as the Boat Race.” And soon surpass.
It is ironic that one of the few games during this period that was not fully broadcast on radio was the 1953 final, which, however, already initiated – and was influenced by – another radio revolution: television. No statement of the true meaning of the FA Cup would be complete without celebrating this famous game. It was so much more than ‘the Matthews Final’ and not just because of the credits due to Stanley Mortenson, who scored the only hat-trick in a Wembley final.
It was a day when everything came together, from so much narrative to real historical threads, to form a centerpiece in the history of the FA Cup and the beginning of its golden age. Millions of people had just bought their first television sets to watch Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation attending the game. However, the central figure of the day was an old hero rather than a new queen. Everyone outside of Bolton seemed to be wanting Matthews, on a third try and aged 38, to finally win his first FA Cup. The Duke of Edinburgh’s private conversation with Matthews illustrated how his quest had lifted football above its working-class support to encompass all sectors of society. It was a classic storyline that spawned a classic finale; maybe the ultimate finale. Blackpool went from 3-1 down to a 4-3 win thanks to a last-minute winner. It was a day that really had it all and thus permeated the entire history of the competition with captivating folklore.
Sociologist Gary Whannel described it as “probably the most mythologized moment in British sporting history”, along with Roger Bannister’s first sub-four-minute mile and the 1966 World Cup Final.
It was undeniably one of the most-watched moments up to that point. The success of this first-ever live television broadcast ensured that the BBC immediately decided to give the game its own annual schedule. Numerous new traditions were created, a national event – and a national sport.
Neville Cardus, the famous cricket author, wrote a letter to The times resigned to accepting that. After seeing a meeting between the MCC and Yorkshire completely overshadowed – and even delayed – by spectators watching the FA Cup Final, he heard everyone talking about it on the way home. Cardus realized that football had finally surpassed cricket as “the people’s game”.
What really mattered was that it also fueled people’s dreams. Such television images fired the imagination, as Tueart illustrates.
‘I’m from Newcastle, and if they [Newcastle United] After the 1955 win, my father took me to St James’ Park,” he says of the 1-0 win over Arsenal. “I was sitting on his shoulders when the team came back. I was six and it was magical. That was my first real experience of the cup final atmosphere. It was a golden age.”