When the Hammers meet Bolton Wanderers in the Carabao Cup, mention will inevitably be made of the first-ever meeting of the two clubs, the F. A. Cup Final of 1923.
In the early 1970s, when I was working for one of the then ‘Big Five’ banks in the City of London, my office took on a one-off job that required a dozen or more temporary staff to come in and help. Those ‘temps’ proved to be a group of retirees, men who had worked for the bank’s Pall Mall branch. I was, nominally at any rate, their supervisor! What a great bunch of characters they proved to be.
One of them went by the name of J. T. Corcoran. I never knew what the J. T. stood for; he was always referred to as, and always answered to the name of, Corky. As a young man, Corky had been at Wembley to witness that 1923 Cup Final. Whether he was one of those who had a ticket, or one of those who clambered over the wall to gain entry, I know not. In fact, it is one of the great regrets of my life that I never once took the opportunity to quiz Corky on his experiences that day. What a wasted opportunity!
So, my knowledge of the 1923 Cup Final lacks that edge, that little extra that could have been provided by someone I knew all those years ago, someone who was actually there that day. But, on the other hand, I do possess a copy of ‘The Athletic News and Cyclists Journal’ of Monday, May 7th, 1923, a fascinating (and, after nearly a century, a decidedly fragile) newspaper which, despite its somewhat misleading title, covered the world of football with a wealth of detail which is often sadly lacking in modern football reporting.
My edition of this worthy newspaper was issued nine days after the Final had taken place. The match itself was ‘old news’, but the ramifications went on. Questions had been asked in Parliament and the offices of the F. A. in Russell Square had had to cope with the complaints of spectators (including many who had purchased tickets but found it impossible to take up their seats).
But, as ‘The Athletic News’ pointed out, responsibility for the arrangements for the Final did, in fact, lie with those in charge of the British Empire Exhibition, who had entered into an agreement with the F. A. to undertake ‘the sale of all tickets, the police arrangements, and the control of the ground.’ In other words, ‘the management was entrusted to highly paid officials of the Exhibition, almost entirely military men who are not accustomed to being dictated to or to accept advice. It would seem that they did not know what was before them.’
The official attendance at the 1923 F.A. Cup Final was 126.047. ‘The Athletic News’ breaks that figure down into 90,520 people passing through the turnstiles, paying 2/- each, plus 35,527 who held tickets. These figure ‘do not, of course, take into account those who climbed over the decorative and toy-like entrances and walked in where they could without the formality of paying their dues, A few thousand swept away the gates at the royal entrance and poured into the Stadium.’
Every one of those who converged on Wembley would have had their own personal memories of that day. One man complained that he had paid a guinea for a seat but couldn’t get to it, whilst another said he would have paid 5 guineas to escape the melee. One man had lost a £1 note in the dining-room (would the caterers kindly return it?), another had lost his collar at the match (and would be glad to have it back), whilst one Bolton supporter returned to Lancashire ‘with trousers in tatters and boots cut to ribbons’. Another man suggested a fund be raised for the ‘constable mounted on a grey horse’, only for someone else to enquire ‘who will pay for the damage done by the mounted police to the people?’
On the Monday after the Cup Final, West Ham won 2-0 away to The Wednesday, with one full weekend of League fixtures still to be played, to which my ‘Athletic News’ gave full coverage. On the final day of the League season, West Ham were at home to Notts County, a match which was crucial in terms of promotion, with West Ham, Notts County and Leicester City (who were away at Bury) all jostling one another at the top of the Second Division table.
Things did not look good for the Hammers’ promotion hopes when, despite having most of the early play, they fell behind after 38 minutes, to what proved to be the only goal of the game. But all was not lost, as the ‘Athletic News’ dramatically reported: ‘Just in the last seven minutes, when the folks of West Ham were draining the bitter lees of a goblet of sour wine, the news flashed through the air that Bury, the last team that West Ham had really thrashed, had defeated Leicester City, and so contributed to the promotion of the London club … applause like a tremendous hailstorm on a galvanised iron roof burst from the 30,000 spectators.’
We West Ham fans have drained the lees of a few goblets of sour wine over the years, but 1923, despite the defeat at Wembley, was a year of achievement, a year to celebrate.