In the days when the FA Cup was regarded as English football’s greatest prize, the modestly paid players strove that much harder for victory – often with agonising consequences.
By the 1950s, the Wembley sports complex had been a hub of sporting events for many years.
In 1937, Fred Perry, by now a professional tennis player, contested matches at Wembley’s indoor arena, earning an estimated £4,000 for less than a week’s work in front of crowds of 8,000. Boxers Henry Cooper and Cassius Clay, soon to be Muhammad Ali, would be paid a percentage of the gate when in June 1963 they fought a memorable heavyweight bout in a ring erected over the FA Cup Final pitch. Cooper was reckoned to have received 25 grand and Clay double that.
But the Cup Final itself was by far Wembley’s greatest attraction and yet the wages of the players who took part in the 1957 and 1958 Cup Finals were still pegged at a weekly £17 maximum.
And looking back it is now possible to see that such was the competitive urge to win the Cup Final, sadly devalued since the rise of the richly endowed Premier League, that players were not only short-changed in terms of what they were paid for entertaining a vast audience. It would not have been outrageous if they had claimed danger money.
Because of the great fixture’s special status either side of the Second World War players almost certainly strove that little bit harder, causing a disproportionate number of injuries compared to other matches. Things became so bad in the 1950s that the epithet the Wembley hoodoo was born.
Mostly it was outfield players who suffered, but goalies copped it, too.
Sixty years ago in 1958 Harry Gregg of Manchester United was the third keeper – all representing Manchester clubs – to be unceremoniously clobbered in successive finals. There had been Ray Wood, also of United, the year before and in 1956 Bert Trautmann of Manchesrter City had been the unfortunate victim of a very nasty collision.
Trautmann, who had settled in Lancashire after being captured and imprisoned by the British towards the end of the Second World War, was knocked unconscious when he launched himself at the feet of the Birmingham City inside-forward Peter Murphy. It would turn out that this was much more than just a nasty blow on the head.
Bill Leivers, City’s right back, was a few yards from Trautmann when the incident happened.
‘So many times I’d seen him in goal and he was absolutely fearless,’ Leivers says. ‘He’d go down head first and he’d get up and go “Woooo…”, but his pride wouldn’t let him do any more than that.
‘At Wembley he did his usual thing and went down for the ball head first. When he came round I was saying to myself, “He’s really badly hurt”, because he kept feeling his neck, which he wouldn’t normally have done.’
Trautmann kept playing until the end of the match, which City won 3-1, and it was not until four days later that he was found to have dislocated five vertebrae the second of which was broken. His recovery took seven months.
During this time, Leivers became his chauffeur. ‘Bert had a plaster on right down to his waist with four pins into his skull.’
When Ray Wood was injured in the 1957 final after a collision with Aston Villa’s Peter McParland, the BBC TV commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme said immediately that what happened was a pure accident.
Even so Wood was left with concussion and a broken cheekbone and although Wolstenholme’s contention that it was a fair challenge was not the universal view there was a far greater acceptance then of the fairness of such collisions.
McParland, who scored both Villa’s goals in their 2-1 win, apologised to Wood after the match and says he has no argument with United’s goalie not being happy. ‘He wouldn’t have been happy, I wouldn’t have been happy if I had been taken off. He reacted in a sporting way to my apology but you always had the feeling that he felt he was hard done by.’
In the 1958 final Bolton’s captain and centre forward, Nat Lofthouse, scored both his team’s goals in their one-sided 2-0 victory over a United team that, tragically, had lost a number of key players in the Munich air crash earlier in the year.
Like McParland, though, Lofthouse emerged from the match a controversial figure, his second goal having had distinct echoes of the previous year’s final. A no-nonsense shoulder charge in the fiftieth minute laid out Gregg in the United goal and sent the ball spinning into the net.
Later it became clear that the effect of Lofthouse’s challenge, within minutes of which Gregg was back in action, might have been so much worse. He had started to develop headaches soon after Munich and it was only when he visited a neurosurgeon that he found out the knock to his head when the plane crashed had fractured his skull.