Retro Match: Why Stanley Matthews was fortunate to have the 1953 FA Cup Final remembered in his name

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1953 FA Cup Final Matthews

May 2nd 1953: FA Cup Final, Wembley – Blackpool 4 Bolton Wanderers 3

The 1953 FA Cup Final is often referred to as “the Matthews Final”, in reference to the late, great Stanley Matthews of Blackpool FC. It was a highly anticipated match between Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool, with both teams having strong records leading up to the final. This would be the first time that these two teams had met in an FA Cup Final.

Stanley Matthews was one of the most renowned players of his time and was considered to be Blackpool’s star player. His performance in the 1953 FA Cup Final is often cited as one of the greatest ever. Stan Mortensen, who played for Bolton Wanderers, also had a strong game. He scored a hat-trick in the match, which is still the only hat-trick ever scored in an FA Cup Final to this day.

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Despite Bolton Wanderers taking an early lead and holding on to it for much of the game, Blackpool came back in the second half with two goals, eventually winning 3-2. The 1953 FA Cup Final was an exciting and historic match and one that is still remembered fondly by football fans today.

In this Time Machine piece, we will look back on the 1953 FA Cup Final and understand in full why it has become known as “the Matthews Final”.

The 1953 FA Cup

The 1952/53 FA Cup was the 72nd edition of the oldest cup competition in the world.

The previous season, Newcastle United had climbed the Wembley steps to lift the cup for the fifth time – having beaten Arsenal 1-0 in front of 127,000 spectators. Chilean George Robledo scored the winner in the 84th minute.

This season’s tournament would end in a classic final on the 2nd May – the first to be given major TV coverage as many in the UK had invested in sets for the Queen’s coronation.

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The 4-3 result was the highest-scoring final on record at this point – but how did Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers get there?

Matthews’ Blackpool side started with a tough away fixture in the 3rd Round. They were up against Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough but left the famous old stadium with a 2-1 win.

Bolton were drawn against Fulham at Burndean Park and saw them off easily enough, 4-1.

In the 4th Round, Blackpool edged past Huddersfield 1-0 whilst Bolton were held twice by Notts County, 1-1 and then 2-2. The second replay saw Bolton through, 1-0.

The 5th Round saw Blackpool need a replay this one – they drew with Southampton at home before winning 2-1 at the Dell. Bolton got a 1-0 against Luton at Kenilworth Road to progress.

In the quarter-finals, Blackpool faced their toughest test – a trip to last season’s runners-up, playing Arsenal at Highbury. They won 2-1 whilst Bolton beat the competition’s surprise package Gateshead 1-0.

The semi-finals saw Blackpool play the other side from North London, Tottenham Hotspur. The Tangerines were victorious, 2-1 in a game played at Villa Park. Bolton were involved in a classic – beating Everton 4-3 at Maine Road.

The excellent Guardian minute-by-minute blog which replayed the Final on May 2nd 2020 during lockdown, saw the semis as thus;

First up: Bolton v Everton at Maine Road. The goalfest began when Nat Lofthouse came flying out of the blocks: within minutes there were reports of a “stinging shot”, a “subtle flick”, and an “abrupt downward header” that “had the Everton defenders kicking anywhere and everywhere for safety”. Lofthouse scored twice in the first half from “dramatic breakaways”, adding to goals from Doug Holden and Willie Moir as Bolton romped into a 4-0 half-time lead. As if that wasn’t bad enough for Everton, their pain was compounded as striker Dave Hickson was forced to leave the pitch concussed for 15 minutes, and Tommy Clinton skewed a penalty wide just before the break.

But the Second Division strugglers – Everton are at a low ebb right now – came roaring back at Bolton in the second period. John Willie Parker pulled one back immediately, and though Lofthouse then hit a post, Everton went on to unleash an “onslaught”: Peter Farrell slapped home a free kick and Parker added his second and Everton’s third. But luck wasn’t with the Merseysiders as they tried to reach Wembley for the first time in 20 years, and Bolton held on as “the game passed beyond the frontier of the normal into the realm of pure delirium”. Worth the few shillings admission, huh? Final score: Bolton Wanderers 4-3 Everton.

Meanwhile at Villa Park, Blackpool and Tottenham were playing out a mini classic of their own. Stanley Matthews set up Bill Perry for the opening goal after seven minutes. Blackpool began to dominate, Matthews totally bossing Charlie Withers, but soon enough Spurs, champions of England just two years ago, began to get a grip. Their attacks “swept and flowed”, according to this very paper. “One glorious move went the length of the field with the ball on the ground and not a Blackpool player touching it.” Eddie Baily headed against the bar, then Len Duquemin equalised at the start of a second half that would be all Tottenham.

But George Farm was inspired in the Blackpool goal, and the score remained 1-1 until the final minute … at which point Spurs full back Alf Ramsey attempted to calmly poke a backpass into the hands of keeper Ted Ditchburn. The attempt ended in sad farce, Ramsey allowing the ball to clank off his thigh. Jackie Mudie nipped in to score an unanswerable winner. Ramsey walked off distraught. It was the sort of mistake that could destroy a man. That’ll weigh heavy on him for a long time. You wouldn’t be surprised if you never hear anything of him again. Final score: Blackpool 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur.

And so, to Wembley.

1953 FA Cup Final: Blackpool vs Bolton Wanderers

Growing up as a kid, I was fortunate enough to see some amazing FA Cup Finals on the TV. My first one was the 1987 final between Coventry and Tottenham. Keith Houchen’s diving header is one of the iconic FA Cup goals and I’ll always remember it. 1988 and the Crazy Gang was a huge surprise. 1989 was also an incredible game between Liverpool and Everton, set in the shadow of the Hillsborough Disaster. Liverpool won 3-2 in extra-time, Ian Rush coming off the bench to score twice.

1990 was decent too if we forget the replay. United and Palace put on a 3-3 classic before United bored us all with a 1-0 win in the replay – Lee Martin scoring the winner.

As a child, the FA Cup was still huge – therefore my interest in finals gone by increased so even as a ten or eleven year old, I was aware of “the Matthews Final” thanks to my Granny and her love of Sir Stanley Matthews.

It remains the only final to really be known by the name of a player and, in fairness, he isn’t the one who scored a hat-trick. Imagine how Mr Mortensen must have felt all these years.

How did a match between the two Lancashire rivals become to be known by the name Matthews instead of Mortensen?

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To answer that, we have to remind you of exactly what Sir Stanley Matthews meant to the English public in general and not just my Grandmother.

Matthews was the first English football superstar even though that meant a completely different thing in his era. That said, it had commercial benefits even back then and he could certainly have been considered the David Beckham of his day – and not just because they played the same position.

The wing wizard had lost his previous two FA Cup Finals and with his advancing years (although he would go on to play for many more), many felt this would be his final chance to lift the famous trophy.

It also has to be mentioned that this particular Final piggybacked another huge event in the consciousness of England – Queen Elizabeth’s coronation was happening a few weeks later and in the clamour to watch a historic event TV sales in the country had soared. This inspired the BBC to take the jump – they paid £1,000 to show the match live. It is believed over 10m people watched the Final with many millions more listening more traditionally on the radio, although they were only able to listen to the second half.

Matthews was up against another national treasure in the shape of Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse. He had scored in every round and was also yet to win the FA Cup. Matthews’ previous two failures had come at the hands of Manchester United in 1948 and Newcastle United in 1951.

At 38, this really had to be the last-chance saloon.

Even Lofthouse, the great Bolton and England centre-forward, conceded:

“Everybody in England, except the people of Bolton, wanted Stanley to get his medal. We had a huge emotional barrier to break down.”

The stage was set. Two of the best sides in the country featuring two of the country’s most loved players. And, as ever, fans were exploited for this reason – ticket prices went up and were too expensive for the majority of ‘regular’ football fans.

Even back then, the FA prioritised the suits ahead of the fans – each club got an allocation of just 12,500 and the other 75,000 tickets were sold on a ballot or preferred allocation basis.

At Wembley, the two sides were presented to the Duke of Edinburgh who made a soon-to-be traditional gaffe of opening his mouth commenting on the Bolton shorts which had been specially tailored in Macclesfield.

The game started at as an electric pace as games in the 50s possibly could.

Bolton led in the second minute – right-winger Doug Holden beating his man and crossing for captain Willie Moir who took a complete air shot. Harold Hassall picked up the loose ball and fed Holden for a second time. On this occasion, he teed up Lofthouse who saw his shot bobble up over the hands of Blackpool keeper George Farm. Already, it was looking like third-time unlucky for Matthews.

Lofthouse’s strike meant he had scored in every single round.

Just before the 20th minute, Bolton were reduced to ten men. Left-half Eric Bell seemed to pull his hamstring and with no subs in those days – well, you can do the rest. Bell took up station on the left-wing, purely a warm body unable to do anything to help his side.

Yet, moments after this Wanderers nearly doubled their lead – Lofthouse hitting the post.

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Half an hour into the Final, there was nothing to suggest how this one would go down in history and certainly nothing that would have made you think that Mortensen would score once let alone thrice and that Matthews would end his losing run and have this name attached to the outcome forevermore.

But, five minutes later it all changed. Blackpool levelled it up – Mortensen, in an early show of “how is it not my name everyone remembers”, picking up a loose ball and drifting past two Bolton defenders. His shot was deflected and went in off Hassall who commentator Kenneth Wolstenhume gave the goal to – incorrectly, as we know.

1-1 and now there was a game on.

Bolton refused to let their heads drop though, and just four minutes later they were back in the lead. Holden again caused problems on the right, Bobby Langton crossed and Farm flapped. Captain Moir took full advantage of his fellow countryman’s error – Scottish keepers, eh?

The score remained 2-1 at halftime with Bolton, virtually a man down due to Bell’s hamstring, hoping they could hold on in the second half.

Yet, they were made of strong stuff in the 50s. Ten minutes into the second half and Holden beat his man again – at this point the better of the two number 7s on show – and slung a ball into the box. Who met it with a point-blank header? Eric Bell of course – leaving Farm without the opportunity to make another mistake.

3-1 down and it looked like Blackpool and Matthews were on course for three FA Cup Final defeats in six years. At what point does it become a curse? Probably around now.

Bolton continued to push forward, sensing their opponents were done and were there for the kill. Over an hour was now played at Blackpool had not been near Stan Hanson’s goal in the second 45.

Then bang, out of nowhere – 3-2. Matthews, who was not putting in his finest showing at this point, accelerated down the right and finally put a better ball into the box. Hanson was deceived and fumbled the cross – not a good day for the keepers – and Mortensen was there to claw one back.

Suddenly, it was Blackpool in the ascendency. Tables completely turned, they were pinning Bolton back – who weren’t helped when Lofthouse took one hell of a whack and was down injured the better part of five minutes. Matthews was now in the game, demanding the ball at every opportunity. But could they find an equaliser?

10 minutes remained and Bolton left-back Eddie Banks was finished – his right thigh meaning he would be a virtual spectator for the remainder. Bolton effectively had nine men playing and Lofthouse not looking his best.

In the 88th minute, with Bolton desperately hanging on in the hope they could survive the last two minutes plus stoppage time, the outstanding Holden was penalised for a slightly cheap free-kick just outside the area.

It was one of those moments that were made for heroes – surely Beckham would have been imagining this moment as he stepped up to take his free kick against Greece all those years later.

Mortensen placed the ball down. Was he thinking about a hat-trick or just getting Blackpool level? Or both?

Now, remember – these old footballs were bloody heavy. So for the other Stanley M to cannonball this one into the top corner like he did was nothing short of a miracle. It was quite the way to score the first-ever Wembley FA Cup Final hat-trick.

Extra-time, surely?

Understandably, Bolton were now spent. Carrying two and a half passengers on that big Wembley pitch, notorious for sapping the energy from footballers’ legs when they have a fully fit side, you could not blame them for having nothing left in the tank.

In the first minute of injury time, Matthews received the ball once more. He beat Banks, at this point not the hardest of jobs in football. His cross was inch-perfect and Bill Perrie arrived to smash home the winner and complete a thrilling comeback.

One minute later, the scoreboard showed 4-4! But, it was a human error – Bolton had not found the strength to get down the other end and score again. It was over, Blackpool and Stanley Matthews finally had their hands on the FA Cup.

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As we have deduced from watching the game back, Matthews may have created a couple of goals – most notably the winner of course – but this was far from his finest performance. His name will always be attached to this FA Cup Final but that is more out of respect for the great man rather than his 7/10 showing on the day.

On the flipside, though many of his crosses were poor, when it really, really mattered Matthews delivered – and Blackpool won the FA Cup.

Mind you, I’d still be a bit miffed if I was Stan Mortensen.