Right. First up, here is tonight’s FA Trophy results service:
Aveley 0-2 Ilford
FC United of Manchester 1-4 Bradford Park Avenue (what the hell happened there, hmm?)
Newcastle Blue Star 1-0 Woodley Sports
Redbridge 0-3 Bury Town
I can’t imagine how relieved you must all be to know that. In lieu of any of the above matches being covered on the BBC (well, on the television, at least), I had to seek my thrills elsewhere. Fortunately, due to the wonders of the internet, I haven’t been short on material. I downloaded some videos of Manchester derby matches from the 1960s and 1970s a few weeks ago (City seemed to beat United all the time then, I can tell you), and had a few other bits and pieces that I needed to catch up on – England-Argentina from the 1986 World Cup, an “Official History Of Arsenal FC” (which was switched off when I opened Winamp and saw that it’s two and a half hours long) and some BBC3 nonsense called “Goals Galore” which mixed some interesting archive footage with the sort of “cheeky chappie” voice-over that makes me want to gouge my own eyes out with a cheese knife.
I eschewed all of these delights in favour of the 1958 FA Cup Final. It is, after all, the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Cup this weekend. The Conference Premier joins in the Fourth Qualifying Round, and the bottom two divisions of the Football League join in the First Round Proper, so we’re moving in the direction of the “tournament proper” now. It’s not, by and large, roped off park pitches any more. The 1958 FA Cup Final was one of the most emotive Cup Finals of the post-war period. United’s team had been decimated by the Munich air disaster just four months previously. Indeed, the first match that they played after the crash was a long-delayed Fifth Round match against Sheffield Wednesday at Old Trafford. Their make-shift team had propelled itself to Wembley seemingly on emotion alone, beating West Bromwich Albion and Fuham (after a replay) after Wednesday to take their place at Wembley.
So close was the match to the Munich disaster that Sir Matt Busby, although at Wembley that day, his assistant, the doughty Jimmy Murphy was in charge. This was still a Manchester United team largely made up of make-weights and reserve team players. Only four of United’s starters had been involved in the accident (including Bobby Charlton – still resplendent with a headful of hair), and a fixture backlog had also taken its toll on the players. There are many people that say that the Munich air disaster as the catalyst for what would come to be the “United legend”, and it is well documented that the wave of popular support was very much behind them in the build-up to the match. It was, however, to be a game too far.
The match coverage that I watched was from the BBC and, in spite of the warming familiarity of commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme (whose clipped tones are simultaneously enormously reassuring and utterly, utterly alien sounding), it’s like watching a football match that was played five hundred years ago, and on another planet. The BBC seem to have invested a massive three cameras in what must have been the biggest televised sporting event of the year in Britain. There’s a small hand-held camera (which one or two of the United players walk straight into as they come out of the tunnel at the start of the match – ah, to return to such innocent days), one camera in the stand, on which the whole match is caught, and one above the stadium, which is used for largely pointless long shots of Wembley stadium. There are no graphics of any sort whatsoever (Wolstenholme hurriedly – indeed, I rather suspect absent-mindedly – reads the teams out just after kick-off, and there are no action replays whatsoever (these weren’t introduced for another decade).
Wembley itself is only distinguishable from the huge, voluptuous goals at either end of the pitch. The perspex roof (which, such was the colour that it was by the time that it was torn down, should surely have been examined by bacteriologists at some point – I suspect that they might have found whole new civilizations coming to life in some of the darker spots) wasn’t put on it until 1963. The noise around the ground is more or less constant from when the players take the pitch until the end of the broadcast, and what is really noticeable about the pre-match is how perfunctory everything is. There are no memorials for the fallen of Munich (the players don’t even wear black arm bands), and it’s just the players, Prince Philip (who seems, surprisingly to those of use that have grown up with him as a grumpy and occasionally racist old man, very chipper, to the point of being pretty happy to be there) and a brass band.
Within three minutes of kick-off, Bolton take the lead through Nat Lofthouse, and as the match progresses… well, it’s pretty good. Especially considering that the players are wearing boots made of oak and kicking a ball that weighs about as much as a modern medicine ball. Bolton are clearly the stronger of two good teams, and Harry Gregg pulls off a string of excellent saves in the first half to keep United in the game, before Lofthouse bundles both Gregg and the ball over the line for Bolton’s second and ultimately conclusive goal. With both teams playing the de rigeur 2-3-5 formation, the play is fast and fluid and with only the occasional stray pass (no more than you would get in a modern Premier League match, certainly). In short, if you can see past the grainy, black & white picture, it looks like more like a modern match than you might expect.
There can be few complaints about Lofthouse’s controversial second goal. To modern eyes, it looks like a horrific foul, but there is no question that it was legitimate at the time. Lofthouse had been charging Gregg every time the ball went anywhere near him (with no complaint from the United players) and the charge passes largely without comment from Wolstenholme itself. There is no argument from the United players. After sustained treatment, Gregg did eventually play one, though I would guess that he was seeing at least two of everything for at least the rest of the match.
So, no fairytale end to the season Manchester United. Bolton won 2-0, and United would be back at Wembley five years later to beat Leicester City 3-1 in the FA Cup Final, and ten years later to beat Benfica in the European Cup final. One can’t help but feel a little sorry for Bolton Wanderers. Their part in the magnificent 1953 Final was overshadowed by Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortenson, and their deserved victory in this final was overshadowed by the tragedy of Munich and, on the day itself, the injury to Gregg. They would never hit such heights whilst, within ten years, Manchester United would become arguably the most famous football club in the world.