The FA was looking for a permanent home for The FA Cup Final. The ‘Empire Stadium’ at Wembley, which was to be built as a centrepiece of the 1924 British Empire Exhibition, seemed to be ideal in terms of its projected size and its location in north-west London. An agreement was signed after several visits to the site by The FA’s Ground Committee and work on the stadium commenced.
It was completed in 300 working days at a cost of £750,000. The workmen made use of 25,000 tons of concrete, 1,500 tons of steel and half a million rivets. A few days before Wembley’s first match, The FA Cup Final between Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United on 28 April 1923, a battalion of infantry marked time on the terraces for 15 minutes to test their strength.
The Final, famously, did not run according to plan. Wembley was designed to hold 127,000 but the match was not ‘all ticket’ and an estimated 200,000 people invaded the stadium and swarmed all over the pitch. The match, also attended by King George V, kicked off 46 minutes late after the police had finally managed to drive the crowds back to the touch-lines.
One police horse called ‘Billie’ had more success than most, probably because of its colouring, and the match subsequently became known as ‘The White Horse Final’. 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.”
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.
Thousands in that mostly good-tempered crowd, 20 deep in places, saw very little of Wembley’s debut match. Miraculously there was no loss of life and there were only a few injuries. An inquiry was held and The FA returned money to ticket holders who claimed never to have reached their seats. Officials also publicly stated that if it had not been for PC Scorey and his white horse, The Final would never have gone ahead that afternoon.
Bolton, 2-0 winners, were to lift The FA Cup twice more in the 1920s. West Ham had to wait another 41 years before they finally got their hands on the trophy. But the Hammers’ consolation in 1923 was to clinch promotion to the First Division in the week after The Final. In only their fourth season in the League they were runners-up on goal average to Notts County.
1. The first Wembley turf was cut by the Duke of York, later King George VI, on 10 January 1922. Construction of the stadium got underway three months later.
2. The stadium was an all-British creation – the combined work of an English architect, a Welsh engineer and a Scottish contractor.
3. Two towers on the North front rose to 160 feet – the same elevation as the Colosseum in Rome. They were surmounted by concrete flagstaffs, each capped by a concrete crown.
4. Wembley’s turf, measuring 390 feet long by 300 feet wide, was selected from the local golf course and laid within two hours of being cut.
5. While David Jack was hammering Bolton into an early lead, West Ham right-half Jack Tresadern was trapped in the crowd, unable to get back onto the pitch after a throw-in.
6. West Ham skipper George Kay had wanted referee Asson to abandon the match. But Bolton counterpart Joe Smith said: “We’re doing fine, ref. We’ll play until dark to finish the match if necessary”.
7. PC Scorey, who rode ‘Billie’ into history, lived to be 82 but was not a football fan. Thirty years after he helped save The Cup Final he admitted: “I never went to another game in my life”.
8. It was announced that, despite concerns about forged tickets, the following year’s Cup Final and all football matches at Wembley thereafter would be all-ticket affairs.
9. In 1924 millions passed through the turnstiles to witness a Pageant of Empire, a Military Tattoo, an International Rodeo, rugby union, boxing – and England’s first Wembley international against Scotland.
10. By the time the winning team got back to Lancashire with The Cup, news of events in north-west London had made headlines everywhere. That opening day had made sure that Wembley was already on its way to becoming the most famous stadium in the world.