This new series will look at significant pitch invasions from the past. We start with one of the most memorable: the 1923 F.A. Cup final, the first to be held at the new Empire Stadium (which would later be known as Wembley), and one which attracted the largest crowd ever assembled for a football match by that time: and one whose sheer vastness literally flooded the pitch with people and whose myth resonates to this day.
The stadium had been built in the Wembley area of London as part of the British Empire Exhibition, a massive celebration of colonialism that attracted a world record 27 million visitors. The match was between Lancashire’s Bolton Wanderers and London’s West Ham United. Whether due to excitement over the new stadium, the drama of a north-south match-up or the presence of a London team in the final, an unexpectedly large crowd showed up on April 28, 1923 for the final.
The fact that transportation to the stadium was so well arranged was surely a factor in the massive numbers who congregated that day: four railways stations were within easy distance of the stadium, and 120 special trains converged on London from around the country just for the event. Special arrangements were even made for 2,000 parking spots for motor vehicles. The game was seen as a showpiece event in the imperial celebrations.
The stadium was built to hold 125,000, but the crowd that showed up was at least double that. The Times reported that.
From about 2.15, nearly three hours after the gates were first opened, and long before the match was timed to begin, they were unable, once they were inside, to make their way up the gangways to the crowded terraces above, and were irresistibly urged forward, by the pressure of the surging and jostling throng behind them, to swarm across the running track on to the field of play.
Remarkably, over the double the stadium capacity showed up: at least 300,000 were probably in attendence, pouring in to see the game in any way possible. Despite the huge crowd that spilled onto the pitch and threatened to cause complete chaos, there were few serious injuries, no-one was killed, and the game went ahead with only short delays (Bolton won 2-0). One attendee at the game, 92 year-old Denis Higham, recently reminisced about the day on the occasion of the new Wembley Stadium’s inauguration.
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Despite much clear evidence of spectators scaling walls and overwhelming the authorities on their way into the stadium (David Goldblatt, in his history of football The Ball is Round, describes the crowd as “something closer to a mob than a merry band”), it is the civilised behaviour of the crowd that was ultimately immortalised.
As The Times reported the next day,
There seems to have been no hooliganism or wanton disorder. They simply could not help themselves, but swept on…like a tidal wave, carried along by the force of their own momentum, till they covered the whole of the arena.
The pitch invasion was thus seen as unwilling but civilised by most contemporary observers, who were only sorry about the orange peel oddly discarded on the previously pristine playing surface.
The press reaction to overcrowding at football games would change considerably several decades later; but then, the establishment’s view of football crowds and the masses would also be very different by the 1980s.
So how was it explained that this great crowd could control itself enough to allow the actual game to take place? Interestingly, newspaper reports — perhaps fittingly for an event at a stadium named for the empire — attributed it to the power of the monarch himself, present at the game (right). As one journalist wrote the next day:
That play could ever be begun and continue seemed, at one time, quite impossible. That the seemingly impossible did happen was, one must believe, owing to the presence of the King, whose reception when he reached the ground was an event to remember. It was after “God Save the King” had been sung with boundless enthusiasm that the people began, slowly enough, it is true, to help rather than hinder in the clearing of the ground.
Yet the game is remembered today not for the King’s mystical powers of crowd control, but rather for the sense of British self-control and the brave diligence of the undermanned forces of law and order, symbolised by the mounted policeman on a white horse known as Billie (who was actually grey).
At the time, though, the game was used for the political symbolism of British Empire: David Lloyd George, former Prime Minister and speaking in the House of Commons, attributed the prevalence of order to “a very great triumph of British pluck, British endurance, and, above all, British sportsmanship and good temper. I doubt whether there is any other country in the world where in these conditions the crowd would have conducted itself in the manner it did.”
In this sense, the event was seen as a shining example of Britain’s more advanced civilisation and the strength of its order based on the monarchy. Thus a pitch invasion at the cup final was deemed a fitting central event at what was, after all, a stadium built in celebration of the virtues of British imperial rule.
References and photos: The Times (London) April 27-30, 1923