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Martin Kelner, Journalist, Author and Radio Presenter.
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The rise and rise of football - the history of it.
By Martin Kelner on Mar 18, 2019 - 2:06:09 PM


        4. A Working Class Hero – and the       

                 Takeover of Football


The 1953 FA Cup Final, between Bolton Wanderers and Blackpool changed everything.   If you have ever wondered when the seeds were sown for the ludicrous, self-important, over-inflated all-consuming leviathan of a game (yes, despite everything you read and hear, it is just a game) we have today, it was on that first Saturday in May in 1953, the so-called Matthews Final.  


Football on TV started properly then, and then was pumped up and pumped up, to the extent that in February 2011 several newspapers led – the main story on the front page, most important thing in the world - with the story of two chaps who do not even play football, but just talk about it on the telly, being sacked for some injudicious off-air badinage.   I myself was on four separate media outlets discussing the sackings, on one occasion beating to air the BBC’s Middle East specialist, who merely wanted to talk about the possible fall of two governments in the Arab world.


Very rarely do those of us who fill the sports pages of newspapers, and airtime on radio and TV, stop to think football may not be quite as important as we keep making it out to be.   It hit me particularly forcibly one night in the ‘90s when I was presenting a regional evening radio show in the North of England.   On busy football nights I used to take regular reports from the various matches in our region - as many as 20 sometimes - from Liverpool, Newcastle, Manchester United and so on, as well as the lower league fixtures at places like Fleetwood and Blyth Spartans.


The show was an uncomfortable blend of sport and news which meant booking a studio guest, who on the night in question was veteran Liberal politician Michael Meadowcroft, recently returned from a UN-sponsored trip to former Yugoslavia to advise on the organisation of democratic elections.   I was asking him about the prospects for the troubled region, and he launched into an explanation of how instability in that part of Europe could spell disaster for those of us in the West. “This may be the most important issue in the world today,” he explained,   “I cannot stress strongly enough that if this opportunity for peace and democracy is not taken….,” at which point I said, “I am afraid I am going to have to stop you there, Michael, there’s been a goal at Worksop.”


I venture to suggest there was a time when world peace would have been considered more important than football – in the years immediately after the Second World War, for instance.   Before the Matthews Final, a football game was just a football game, of huge interest, of course, in the towns the teams represented but not matters of national moment.


Certainly, our great national broadcaster made no great fuss of football.   On the contrary.     As we have pointed out, Orr-Ewing and Dimmock’s pioneering, under-funded, outside broadcast department was predominantly officer class, bringing the benefits Dimmock told us about, but also meaning sports favoured by England’s public schools, especially cricket and rugby union, loomed a little larger at the BBC than they did in working class England, and especially Scotland.


As Grace Wyndham Goldie confessed, there was a degree of snobbery at the BBC, fostered no doubt by the patrician spirit of the first Director General haunting the corridors of Broadcasting House.   According to Dick Booth’s book, Talking Of Sport, Seymour Joly de Lotbiniere, who laid down the rules for the BBC’s sports commentary, owned up to being infected: “I may have concentrated mostly on the Oxford and Cambridge accents and backgrounds,” admitted Lobby, “ so that a Howard Marshall may have been preferred to a John Arlott.   Incidentally, I think a Wolstenholme was a fair compromise since he sounds neither posh nor common.”


Bolton-born Kenneth Wolstenholme, of whom much more later, commentated on the 1953 final, and played his part in securing Matthews - already a local hero - a place in the national pantheon.   Before the Matthews Final, it is fair to say that cricketers were bigger stars than footballers.   Names like Len Hutton, Alec Bedser, and Denis Compton meant more than any from the winter game.  


Some idea of how central to the nation’s conversation cricket used to be can be gleaned from a casual viewing of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1938 film The Lady Vanishes.   It seems perfectly natural in the movie to have the two comic characters on the train, Charters and Caldicott (Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne), quiz every English passenger they come across about the progress of the Test Match.   English people, even travelling through Europe, would have been expected to know.    If you were concocting a similar scenario during the 2010 Ashes series in Australia, C and C would have had to scour the train for someone with a subscription to Sky TV.   Cricket is undeniably still popular but, like pornography, if you want it, you have to pay for it.

Back in 1950, it was free and everywhere.   Its players were household names.   It was Denis Compton, rather than any footballer – though Compton also played football, cricket was the source of his renown - who was able to cash in on his fame, and earn £1,000 a year over a nine-year deal selling himself as the face of Brylcreem hair products.   Not quite the millions that ex-international footballer Gary Lineker pockets for hawking potato crisps, but an indication of the cultural primacy of cricket, before the TV broadcast of the 1953 Cup Final.  

The sport was a surefire topic for comedians of the day, too – especially if the England team was playing poorly - alongside staples like seaside landladies and British Rail pork pies.   The following is from a website collecting jokes of the 1940s:   A batsman, scoring freely against a fast bowler, is handed a note.   He reads it, frowns, and tells the umpire, ‘It’s about my wife.   She’s seriously ill, and I need to get to her.   Can you get the bowler to shorten his run-up?’

No explanation needed.   Cricket was as central to the English way of life as the weather.   All that began to change after May 2nd, 1953.  

Do not take my word for it.   In a letter to The Times , published on May 6th, 1953, the influential cricket writer Neville Cardus wondered whether the “drama and heroism” of the Final was indicative of football replacing cricket as “the game of the people.”  

Here is his letter in full, because it is entertaining what with the arbitrary Dickens reference and all, and as an illustration of how one of the leading sports writers of the era, viewed the sporting landscape:


In his brilliant report of the Cup Final, your Association Football Correspondent refers to “the game of the people” meaning Association football.   A few years ago I would have contested the description “werry fierce.” Nowadays I am not so sure.   While the drama and heroism were going forward at Wembley on Saturday afternoon I went to Lord’s for the first cricket there of the season.   Play was not possible until 3.15.   Then the players came into the field and in an hour 20-odd runs were scored without a sign of a daring gesture, without a hint of personal relish.

And then, after an hour of what I can fairly call a creeping paralysis the players left the field – for tea.   The small crowd looked on in silence.   As I departed from the ground I felt pretty certain that I had been attending a decaying contemporary industry which, but for the artificial respiration applied from time to time by the Australians, would before long pass into the hands of the brokers, and gradually disappear, not greatly lamented, into profound oblivion.   Yours faithfully, Neville Cardus, 112 Bickenhall Mansions, W1.”

A number of points arise from Cardus’s letter.   Firstly, how genteel society must have been that a journalist could publish his home address in a newspaper; secondly, what tricks memory plays on us - I have visited numerous websites reminiscing about the 1953 Final, and most recall it as having been played in warm, spring sunshine, but if no play was possible at Lord’s until 3.15, surely the weather was not that clement.   Maybe the warm, spring sunshine was metaphorical rather than literal, after the dark days of the war and the privations that followed.   Also, you cannot help admiring Cardus for smuggling in a letter about cricket under cover of a comment about The Times’s football coverage.

In some ways, Cardus is merely marking the first stages of the interminably slow death of county cricket, for which artificial respiration arrived in the form of the one-day game (to be addressed in a later chapter), but you also get the impression of the writer’s regret at being in the wrong place at the wrong time.   Cardus clearly felt history – and “drama and heroism” – was happening elsewhere, and the rest of the nation was present.   In this, he was spot on.

Two academics, Martin Johnes, of the University of Wales, and Gavin Mellor, a research fellow at Manchester Metropolitan University wrote a long piece about the match for Contemporary British History, Volume 20, Number 2 (June 2006) , in which they report on its significance: “Like the Coronation,” they write, “it was television that enabled the 1953 Cup Final to become a genuinely shared and national event.  

“Estimates at the television audience for the 1953 final were as high as 12 million, but were more often put at ten million.   This was significantly less than the 20 million estimated to have watched the Coronation, but it was still a huge audience for the time.   Those who did not have their own sets crammed into the houses of friends and neighbours.   A cartoon in a Blackpool paper (the West Lancashire Evening Gazette ) showed a man asking his neighbours if he could watch the game at their house: ‘I can’t get near mine ,’ he is saying, ‘for unexpected visitors.’”

There was a sense in which the match was part of a year of great national celebration; Elizabeth ll was crowned, Everest was conquered, Churchill was back as Prime Minister following consensus policies, and for the first time since 1933 – pace Cardus – England even won the Ashes.   And the story surrounding the 1953 Final was unbeatable.

The match was universally believed to be a last shot at a Cup Winners Medal for Blackpool’s mesmeric 38-year-old right winger Stanley Matthews, nicknamed Wizard of the Dribble for his ability to shimmy past defenders at speed without losing control of the ball.  

Emerging from the grime and poverty of the Potteries, one of England’s most deprived areas, Matthews signed for his local club Stoke City as a 17-year-old in 1932.   In 1947, after years of being underpaid – in fairness, all footballers were then – and undervalued for his loyalty, he moved to struggling Blackpool whose fortunes he revived.   He helped them reach the Cup Final, then the pinnacle of British football, in 1948, where they were defeated 4-2 by Manchester United.   In 1951, with Matthews now 36, Blackpool reached the Final again, and were beaten 2-nil by Newcastle United.   At 38 years old was this working class hero to be a three-time loser?

Matthews, though, was not a working class hero in the way that later models like George Best, Alex Higgins, or John Lennon were – dragging themselves out of the backwoods and boondocks and using their talents to cock a snook at the establishment, to tell polite society what it could do with its polite society, sticking it to the man, as the modern idiom has it (or so my children tell me).   Britain may not yet have been ready for that kind of working class hero.

Matthews was the chap on the shop floor who did not make a fuss but got the job done, the kind of chap that had won the war for us.   Arthur Hopcraft, in his famous book The Football Man , had Matthews about right: “He was the opposite of glamorous; a non-drinker, non-smoker, careful with his money.   He had a habitual little cough.   He was representative of his age and his class, brought up among thrift and the ever-looming threat of dole and debt.

“We were always afraid for Matthews, the non-athlete; the sadly impassive face, with its high cheekbones, pale lips and hooded eyes, had a lot of pain in it, the deep hurt that came from prolonged effort and the certainty of more blows…For as long as he was one of the world’s fleetest movers he never had exuberance.”

So what happened to the working class hero on May 2nd?   More hurt?   Or redemption?   In truth, for the first hour the Final had all the hallmarks of a stinker.   Lofthouse scored a soft goal from distance for Bolton after 75 seconds, the ball bouncing over Blackpool goalkeeper Farm’s outstretched arm, Mortensen equalized for Blackpool with the first of his three goals, though it actually took what nowadays would be termed a wicked deflection (is there any other sort?) and should have been credited (or debited) as an own goal to Bolton’s Hassall.   A mix-up between Farm and his defender Moir gifted Bolton a second goal.   Ten minutes into the second half Bolton appeared to have the game wrapped up when half back Bell, despite carrying an injury, headed a third.   But it was a match noted more for its calamities than the beauty of the football.

Indeed, TV commentator Wolstenholme felt obliged to apologise for the misplaced passes and the general dullness of the spectacle, ascribing it to the wind, and the lushness of the Wembley pitch.   (Wolstenholme was obsessed with the Wembley turf.   His default position as a final kicked off was to give us chapter and verse on the state of the grass – invariably lush – on whether the players were taking any special stud-related measures to account for it, and how they were coping with the unusual eventuality of playing on a grass-covered surface.   Pretty well anything untoward that took place during a match was blamed by Wolstenholme on the Wembley surface.   I have been watching the BBC coverage of Tottenham Hotspur beating Burnley in the 1962 Cup Final, in which Burnley struggle during the first half to put a half-decent move together.   “The Tottenham players seem to have judged the pace of the turf better than Burnley,” says Wolstenholme.   Maybe he was just a good, decent chap, who did not want to criticise honest footballers, but if were around to try it today, chaps like myself at The Guardian and Giles Smith at The Times would be flexing our sarcasm muscles).

For the best part of an hour-and-a-quarter it was that kind of final, one during which your thoughts are encouraged to drift.   But with Bolton 3-1 up, and carrying a number of injuries – notably Bell, who seemed in real pain, and in no condition to chase Matthews as he might have been expected to do – Matthews took over.  

One of his many menacing right-wing crosses not dealt with by the tiring and injury-stricken Bolton defence led to Stan Mortensen scrambling a goal at the far post, and Mortensen also scored the equalizer in the last minute of normal time with a powerfully struck free kick.

Injury time now, and The Times’s Geoffrey Green, to whom all of us who write about sport in the quality press owe a debt of gratitude, describes the climax thus: “With the last minute already ticking away, the ball again went out to Matthews.   He beat one man on the inside, swerved past another on the outside, and weaved his incredible passage in towards the by-line.   As Barrass came across from the middle to challenge, over came a perfect centre.   Perry, moving into the centre, flashed it home, and with only seconds left the incredible had happened.

“Blackpool had won 4-3 at the very last breath.   People were all but crying in their emotion.   The Press box itself was a bedlam as papers and pencils flew in all directions.   The crowd was on its feet, cheering hysterically.   And there as a last sight was Matthews being chaired off the field by his colleagues, shoulder high with his captain, Johnston, each of them with a hand on the Cup.   Nothing like that had ever happened before.   I doubt if it will ever happen again.   That was the ‘Matthews Final.’”

It was, despite a fine performance by Blackpool’s Ernie Taylor, playing in the role of what used to be called a “schemer,” and Mortensen’s generously awarded hat-trick, the only one scored at a Wembley cup final.   It was cruel but inevitable that when Mortensen died in 1991, most of the obituaries majored on the “Matthews Final,” prompting some wag to venture that Mortensen’s burial at St. John’s Parish Church, Blackpool would probably be known as “the Matthews Funeral.”

If TV viewers needed to take a deep breath after the drama of the Final, there was plenty of opportunity.   Coverage from Wembley finished at 4.50, in time for Children’s Television, and there was no highlights programme later, re-living the drama.   The big prime time show that Saturday evening was a Party Political Broadcast, from 8.30 to 8.50, entitled Housing - A Progress Report by Mr Harold MacMillan , followed by something called Looking At Animals .

From this we can see how crucial sport was to television in those early days.   I cannot imagine there were would have been too many people laying out £66 10s on the new Murphy V210 to look at animals and Mr Harold MacMillan.

“Sport was terribly important to the BBC,” Peter Dimmock told me, “It was 60 per cent of our outside broadcasts, and it delivered good viewing figures, especially if there was any sort of royal involvement.   We would always get an extra 20 per cent if a Royal were present.   People would switch on just to watch a member of the Royal Family.”

In that respect, the 1953 final hit the jackpot.   Queen Elizabeth was there – the first reigning monarch to attend a Wembley Cup Final - with the Duke of Edinburgh.   That Times report that so captivated Neville Cardus waxed lyrical: “It will live with the countless multitude that viewed it second-hand upon the magic screen of television…not only because of its highly colourful and emotional climax…but because here in the presence of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh the game of football, the game of the people, was crowned with all felicity in this year of Coronation and national rejoicing.”

1953 was undoubtedly a watershed.    Looking at the fixtures for that weekend, I see there was a first division match, Portsmouth v Middlesbrough kicking off concurrently with the Cup Final at 3pm.    It was the last time that would happen.  

By Cup Final day 1954, there were only Third Division matches scheduled, at Norwich, Ipswich, and Shrewsbury, all starting at 6.30.   By 1956, top billing after the Cup Final was taken by the Glasgow Charity Cup.     1953 was the year the Cup Final on TV began to become enshrined in the national calendar.

Incidentally, a final word on the relative positions of football and cricket in Britain’s sporting hierarchy; the Light Programme , BBC radio’s sports network, did not even carry the first half of the 1953 Final, picking the match up after half-time, after coverage of the touring Australian cricket team at Leicestershire and a county match between Hampshire and Essex.   It was not for much longer that the start of the cricket season would eclipse the climax of football’s.   

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