Compared to the understandable concern that has followed Jan Vertonghen’s injury in Tottenham’s Champions League match on Wednesday, the response to injuries suffered by footballers in the 1950s and ’60s seems decidedly medieval...
In most cases in the days before substitutes were allowed it used to be a dab or two of the ‘magic sponge’, a pat on the back and, when a player was too badly hurt to be fully operational, a cheery instruction to hobble back on the pitch ‘and cause a bit of trouble’.
And if the injury was really bad things could be much, much worse. Excruciatingly awful, in fact, in the case of Blackburn Rovers’ Dave Whelan.
At one time things became so dismal in FA Cup finals that the epithet the ‘Wembley hoodoo’ was born.
Because of the Cup’s special status 60 years ago players strove just that little bit harder, which was almost certainly what caused the disproportionate number of injuries.
Mostly it was outfield players who suffered, but in the three finals from 1956-58 it was the goalies who copped it.
Bert Trautmann of Manchester City was the unfortunate victim in 1956.
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 and it was not until four days later that he was found to have dislocated five vertebrae the second of which was broken. He was encased in plaster down to his waist and had four pins inserted in his skull. His recovery took seven months.
The good news for Trautmann was that Manchester City beat Birmingham 3-1.
Twelve months on a collision between the Aston Villa winger Peter McParland and Ray Wood, the Manchester United keeper, was the defning moment of the 1957 final. Even though it transpired that Wood, who was carried off on a stretcher, had suffered concussion and a broken cheekbone, he came back on, first to play on the right wing and then back in goal.
Villa won the match 2-1 with McParland scoring both his team’s goals.
By 1958, when Manchester United reached the final again, this time against Bolton Wanderers, Harry Gregg was United’s keeper.
A no-nonsense shoulder charge by Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse in the fiftieth minute flattened Gregg and sent the ball spinning into the net for a goal that stood. Only later did it become clear that the effect of Lofthouse’s charge, despite which Gregg was soon back in action, might have been so much worse.
Gregg had performed heroically when he survived the Munich plane crash earlier that year, pulling from the wreckage his teammates Bobby Charlton and Dennis Viollet. But it turned out that the crack on the head he received had in fact fractured his skull and, unknowingly, he carried that injury into the 1958 final, which Bolton won 2-0.
The really wince-making injury from this time, though, was Dave Whelan’s horrific mishap playing for Blackburn against Wolverhampton Wanderers in the 1960 final.
Whelan, playing at left back, was clattered shortly before half time by the Wolves winger Norman Deeley.
‘He went for me,’ Whelan says. ‘I got the ball and he got me. Studs. Stud marks are still on my shin. He came a foot over the ball. Bang. Both bones gone.
‘My leg swung back and I managed to grab the lower part of it before I hit the ground. If I hadn’t the bone would have been protruding, coming out, because it just snapped straight in two. It was so painful and it was constant.
‘They had no injections then. Nowadays the doctor will come on and if you’ve got a break he’ll give you an injection immediately – just to kill the pain before they get you off. None of that.
‘They put me on a stretcher, which was two poles with a canvas in the middle, carried me off and in the Wembley dressing rooms they had about six baths in a row and they put me across one of the baths. Well, the canvas went up and it moved the bone. I screamed – and that happened just as our players were coming in at halftime.
‘They put me on the floor then, but I still hadn’t had anything to kill the pain, and even in the ambulance they didn’t have anything either.’
Whelan was taken to Wembley hospital where a doctor was waiting for him. He had been watching the match on TV, seen the incident and knew where Whelan would be heading. ‘When I arrived there,’ Whelan says, ‘he came into the ambulance, took one look and injected me straight in the leg.
‘It killed the pain within 30 seconds, there and then – while I was still in the ambulance. I said thank you to him afterwards because he was a very good doctor. He was from Poland.’
To add to Whelan’s agony, Blackburn lost 3-0 – and Deeley scored two.
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.