Wembley has long been regarded as the home of the FA Cup final but the first 47 finals – 1872-1922 (competition suspended during World War I) – were played elsewhere, mainly at two other London grounds, the Kennington Oval and Crystal Palace. It was 96 years ago today – 28 April 1923 – that the final moved to what is now its traditional home.
When the FA Cup final first moved to north London in 1923, the world’s oldest football competition was at its most popular.
The official attendance to watch Bolton Wanderers beat West Ham United 2-0 in the new stadium was 126,047, while some estimates put it at more than 200,000. It was so crammed that spectators from the terraces spilt onto the pitch, causing a delay.
Mounted policemen rode to the rescue. They cleared the playing area, including one officer who rode what was described as a white horse. The officer and his steed hogged the newspaper headlines the next day and the match has become known as the White Horse Final.
For many years the Cup final retained its status as the most popular event in the sporting calendar.
The first World Cup followed nearly 60 years after the inaugural FA Cup, only to be ignored by the English. It was widely regarded in the UK as an impudent upstart.
Having ignored the first three World Cups, the FA finally deigned to enter the national team in the global event in 1950. Even so very few people in England took much notice. The domestic game’s competitions were what mattered, particularly the FA Cup, surpassing the relevance of whatever was on offer elsewhere.
It was not until towards the end of the twentieth century that domestic interest in the FA Cup started to wane.
The really steep decline in its popularity came after 1992 when massive investment saw the First Division repackaged, rebranded and reborn as the Premiership.
Having been the fancy dan of the English game, the FA Cup suddenly found itself being pushed aside by a hustler not afraid to flex its commercial independence to exploit football’s popularity like never before.
Players’ wages surged as clubs fought for the considerable financial rewards, made possible by TV money, for achieving success in the new league.
The FA Cup was now a distraction viewed, increasingly, with condescension by the top clubs. Infamously, the FA themselves did not help by backing the disrespectful idea that Manchester United, the holders, skip the 1999-2000 competition to play in the world club championship.
Despite the Cup’s great status in its early years, a good run in the competition meant very little in terms of financial reward for the players.
For the last Cup Final before the maximum wage of £20 a week was abolished, Wolves v Blackburn in 1960, Dave Whelan recalls the Blackburn players each received a princely six quid from a Milk Marketing Board advertisement of the team drinking the board’s product. This bumped up Whelan’s Cup Final extras to eight pounds. He cannot recall the source of the other two pounds.
With his £20 weekly wage and with Blackburn’s defeat meaning he was denied a win bonus, Whelan made £28. It was the most he ever earned from football in a single week.
Howard Riley was on the losing side a year later when Tottenham completed the Double with their 2-0 win over Leicester City. ‘The maximum wage had ended shortly before the final,’ Riley says, ‘but I think we were still probably on 20 quid a week or not much more – and I’m not sure we were on a win bonus even if we had won, in front of 100,000 spectators.’
The improvement in pay would continue but the relentless upward mobility of the Premier League in recent years means FA Cup finals at Wembley are unlikely ever again to achieve the status it enjoyed when footballers were paid buttons.
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing and now out in paperback.