A Day Fit for Heroes by Alan Houghton
Saturday 28th April, 1923, two young pals were on their way to London. They had been friends for life since growing up next door to one another. Same school, same jobs down the pit and same answer to Lord Kitchener's 'Your Country Needs You'. Same trenches in Passchendaele and Ypres. Same traumas but somehow same luck in surviving without any major injuries. In the promised land fit for heroes, not many fulfilled promises. But this was different. Their local heroes, the mighty Bolton Wanderers had reached the final of the FA Cup. It was going to be played in the brand-new Empire Stadium, Wembley. They had conquered Norwich City, Leeds United, the invincible Huddersfield Town, Charlton Athletic and finally Sheffield United, en route. They were up against The Hammers of West Ham United. A crowd of 125,000 was expected with the vast majority from London. Outnumbered they may be, but they won't be outshouted by the Southerners.
Chaos reigned supreme as they exited Euston station. How to get to Wembley? A combination of trams and buses got them somewhere near, as they did not trust the Underground, after the horrors of tunnelling on the Western Front. The area around the stadium was just a solid mass of people. There were no tickets for this match, except for the King and other lucky VIPs in the seats.
They hooked arms and pushed their way through the throngs of people. When they got to the turnstiles, they found them locked. Despite station announcements that the stadium was full, more and more fans poured off the trains and continued to head for the stadium. The two pals were determined not to miss out on such an occasion and when they saw other fans climbing over fences and turnstiles, they took their chances and followed them in. It was even more chaotic inside. No stewards directing the crowd to any area. So, they continued to push their way through the crowd until they got to the front, where they realised they were on the pitch. It was absolute mayhem as how could they possibly play a football match on a pitch covered with spectators?
It was still chaos outside as the crowds were so huge and packed, the Wanderers players had to abandon their coach and walk the remaining mile to the ground through the masses. They were about to call the match off, but King George V arrived, and the authorities had to do something. They sent the players and mounted police down to the pitch to help clear it. The two pals were on the front row and they linked arms with fellow supporters as PC George Scorey and Billie, the most famous grey horse in football history, started in the centre spot and encouraged the crowd to back off the pitch in ever increasing circles. When 'order' had been restored, the players came out with the crowd literally on the lines around the pitch. The players had been told that the match would be played as a friendly and that the final would be played under more controlled conditions on a later date. Incredibly they reversed this decision at half time.
After two minutes, the two pals were in ecstasy as David Jack opened the scoring. No need to invade the pitch, they were already on it again! David Jack's shot actually hit a spectator behind the goal and knocked him out. At half time, the crowd was so packed, the players could not reach the dressing rooms and had to spend half time on the pitch.
The two pals, drawing on their Pinnacle Navy Cut cigarettes, were in excellent spirits as the Wanderers were on top and were over the moon when Jack Smith sealed the win in the second half. Somehow the match was finished, the cup and medals presented before fans made their way out. The pals listened to the bands of the Irish Guards and Grenadier Guards playing after the match, to encourage fans to take their time and disperse in an orderly manner. The pals finally left the stadium and made their way to Piccadilly Circus, where thousands of fans celebrated the 'White Horse Final’, the most chaotic match in English football history, and the fact that the natural order of things’ had been restored and Bolton Wanderers were the winners. They looked proudly at their collection of Bolton Wanderers players on their cigarette cards, as they sampled some of that London Pride beer, thinking that they should brew a Bolton Pride beer. This had certainly been a day fit for heroes.