Turning back the Clock: Football a hundred years ago – The 1920 FA Cup Final

It’s the time of year when the attention of fans around the world usually turns to celebrating League titles and enjoying the prospect of the annual Cup Final. But with championships and Cups delayed or even cancelled we turn the clock back 100 years to see how the football season finished at a time when the world was recovering from another pandemic – the Spanish Flu. From January 1918 until December 1920 the Spanish flu virus swept around the world and is thought to have infected 500 million people, a quarter of the world's population. Estimated deaths vary from 17 million to 50 million. At the peak of the infection, in 1918, football had already largely been brought to halt by the First World War, in Europe at least, and it wouldn’t be until September 1919 that the game kicked into life again for the start of the 1919-20 season.

Aston Villa 1-0 Huddersfield Town
Kirton or Wilson OG 98 for Villa
Stamford Bridge, London, 24-04-1920, 15:00, 50,018
Referee: JT (Jack) Howcroft (Bolton); Linesmen: HA Ayling (Sussex) & A Scholey (Sheffield)
Aston Villa - Sam Hardy - Tommy Smart, Tommy Weston - Andy Ducat (c), Frank Barson, Frank Moss - Charlie Wallace, Billy Kirton, Billy Walker, Clem Stephenson, Arthur Dorrell. George Ramsay
Huddersfield - Sandy Mutch - James Wood, Fred Bullock (c) - Charlie Slade, Tom Wilson, Billy Watson - George Richardson, Frank Mann, Sam Taylor, Jack Swann, Ernie Islip. Ambrose Langley

At the start of the 1920s, the football world was very different from today. FIFA was just 16 years old and had just 27 member associations – 19 in Europe, five in South America, two in North America and one in Africa. In the first of a series of articles spanning all four of those continents we look at how that first season after the war reached its conclusion and we start with perhaps the most high-profile game of them all – The FA Cup Final.

The greatest show on earth?
Anticipation was high on the night of Friday 23rd April as fans of Aston Villa and Huddersfield Town started to gather outside Stamford Bridge in west London. They had come early to guarantee themselves a place in the ground to witness the first Cup Final for five years and were prepared to queue up overnight. The Globe newspaper painted a picture of football supporters converging on London from all over the country. "To London's thousands of enthusiasts were added to-day thousands more from all over the country. Not merely from Birmingham and the Midlands or the crowded industrial towns of Yorkshire, but from all corners of the land they flocked in to see the great battle between Huddersfield and the Villa.”

Played 100 years ago today, the 1920 Cup Final seemed to capture the imagination of the British public six years on from the start of the First World War. But the game also marked a break with the past. For a quarter-of-a-century finals had been staged in the grounds of Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace, in an arena capable of holding over 120,000, created from a natural bowl. A record 121,919 turned up to the 1913 Final. Apart from a stand to one side of the pitch, the view of the game at the Palace was notoriously poor, but the tradition of a Cup Final day out with football fans from the all over the country indulging in picnics in the grounds as well as taking in the wonders of the Crystal Palace itself, had become part of the fabric and folklore of British life.

All down to the Bridge!
In 1920 those days abruptly came to an end. The Crystal Palace had been requisitioned for the war effort and was unavailable for The FA to hire so London’s next biggest ground, Stamford Bridge, was hired instead. But Stamford Bridge offered none of the non-football attractions of the Crystal Palace. And it seemed that the overnight queues were not needed, because although 30,000 fans had gathered before the gates opened at noon, three hours before kick-off, only 20,000 more had joined them by the time the match kicked-off. That left the crowd a good 30,000 below the official capacity.

While The Globe appeared to be looking back fondly to the pre-war Cup Finals, The Yorkshire Post gave a far more subdued overview. "Compared with past cup-ties, this was a quiet and decorous final. There were a few sight-seeing wagonette parties about, but there was no Cup atmosphere as we know it. Nor is it likely that there ever will be, until the final gets back to the Crystal Palace, or the Football Association secures the use of a national ground like Hampden Park in Glasgow.”

Outshone by the Scottish Cup Final
The FA Cup Final may well have been the most famous game in world football, but it no longer had a ground to match its reputation. Just the week before, 95,000 fans had gathered at Glasgows Hampden Park to watch the Scottish Cup Final. The FA Cup was in danger of losing its prestige and for three years, until the completion of Wembley in 1923, the Cup Final had to make do with Stamford Bridge.

The official attendance for the 1920 Final was recorded as 50,018, though some newspapers quoted a figure as high as 75,000. The poor attendance wasn’t helped by the expense of the round trip from Yorkshire or Birmingham. With an economy still reeling from the war, it proved to be a day out beyond the reach of most fans. Yet, the costs didn’t keep everybody from traveling to the final. The reporter from The Yorkshire Post met some Huddersfield fans who by 11 o’clock in the morning had already visited the Tower of London, Tower Bridge, the Bank of England, Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, and who were determined, win or lose, to visit Madame Tussaud’s later that night. Stamford Bridge may not have offered the same sort of day out as the Crystal Palace, but London still had plenty to offer.

The aristocrats take on the upstarts
The 1920 Final marked a clash between the aristocrats of English football and a team with whom very few were familiar. Aston Villa were one of the oldest and most successful clubs of the pre-war era with 11 major honours to their name - a record six League titles and a joint-record five FA Cups, an honour they shared with Wanderers and Blackburn Rovers. While this was their seventh appearance in the Final (another record), it was Huddersfield’s first. A Second Division club that had been formed just 12 years previously, they were based in a rugby league stronghold and had almost gone out of business earlier in the season. It was their Cup run, along with promotion to the First Division, that helped save the club from extinction and also put an end to speculation that they would move from Huddersfield to Leeds following the demise of Leeds City.

Their supporters could never have guessed it at the time, but the 1920 Final was the first act in a golden decade for Huddersfield Town. A decade that would see them appear in four FA Cup Finals, winning the trophy two years later in 1922, while also picking up a hat-trick of League titles, in 1924, 1925 and 1926. Indeed, they could with some justification claim to be the team of the 1920s. The key player in the rise of Huddersfield Town was forward Clem Stephenson. He was the player around whom the manager Herbert Chapman would build the team. The problem for Huddersfield was that Stephenson and Chapman hadn’t yet joined them and Stephenson was playing for Villa in the 1920 Final, against his future teammates! A cup winner with Villa in 1913, Stephenson was described before the match as the “great strategist and the brains of the Villa attack.”

A tale of two captains
In goal Villa could boast perhaps the most famous keeper in pre-war English football. At 37, Sam Hardy was coming to the end of an outstanding career that had seen him win the League with Liverpool in 1906 and the Cup with Villa in 1913, while boasting the longest England career before Stanley Matthews. In midfield Villa relied on one of the great ‘hard’ men in English football history, Frank Barson. “His style is typical in vigour and thrust” wrote one newspaper and his reputation preceded him. In the changing room before the Final, referee Jack Howcroft reportedly went up to him and said, "The first wrong move you make Barson, off you go." Villa were captained by Andy Ducat, an all-round sportsman who was an England international in both football and cricket. After retiring from football, he became a sports journalist and has the somewhat dubious distinction of being the only player to die when batting at Lords, the home of English cricket.

Huddersfield’s captain Fred Bullock also suffered an untimely death and in tragic circumstances. Having served in the 1st Football Battalion during the war, Bullock saw action during the Battle of the Somme and never fully recovered. Just two years after the 1920 Final he was found dead in his pub after consuming a bottle of ammonia that he kept in a beer bottle. A tragic mistake perhaps, but the coroner reported that he had been suffering from nerves and recorded his death as suicide. Of his teammates in 1920, midfielders Tom Wilson and Billie Watson would enjoy long and successful careers with Huddersfield as Herbert Chapman rebuilt the side, but seven of the side that lost this game to Villa managed to get a winners medal in 1922 under Chapman.

“Villa win exciting match”
As to the game itself, The Midland Daily Telegraph ran the headline “Villa win exciting match,” and it was a close-run contest that didn’t produce a goal until extra-time but plenty of excitement. In the first half Villa’s Wallace headed against the bar from a corner while Ducat cleared of the line from a goal mouth scramble at the other end. Playing the captain’s role instead of the injured Jimmy Harrop, Ducat again saved Villa in the second half, while Walker nearly won the game for Villa two minutes from the end of normal time with a shot that Scotsman Sandy Mutch, the only non-English player on the pitch, saved to force extra-time. The famous Derby centre-forward Steve Bloomer, who was reporting on the game for Scotland’s Sunday Post, described the save as “sensational, adding that “the ball sped low and true, but Mutch shot out his left hand and saved a certainty. It was the shot and save of the match.”

Who scored the winner?
The game continued at the same high pace in extra time but the goal when it came was courtesy of a set piece. It produced the major talking point of the game - who scored the winning goal for Villa? Was it Billy Kirton or was it an own goal by Tom Wilson? We will never know for sure. Arthur Dorrell took a corner from the left and in the crowded box Kirton seemed to get his head to the ball and is credited by many sources with the match winner. But after the match Tom Wilson spoke to the reporters. “We do not complain about losing. In fact, we think Villa just about deserved to win, but we regret that they won by a goal which I scored. In that sense, and that sense alone, we think Villa were very lucky.”

Andy Ducat received the Cup from Prince Henry, the third son of King George V, and then lavished praise on his opponents. “Naturally we are very pleased we won, but we can never look back on this, a great final, without vividly recalling the credit due to Huddersfield for having played a fine sporting game.” For Villa, their sixth FA Cup triumph now put them as record winners in their own right, but the Final can be seen as something as a swansong for the club. They have won the Cup just once since, in 1957, although they remained the leading team in the history of the Cup until overtaken by Tottenham Hotspur in 1991. Although almost permanent members of the top-flight, they have won the League title just once since, in 1981, a success that was followed in 1982 by their remarkable 1-0 victory over Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final.

For Huddersfield, their star may have shone brightly in the decade after the 1920 Final, but following relegation from the First Division in 1956 they have spent all bar four seasons in the lower leagues including two spells at the fourth level.


Going south
Next in this series we will turn our attention to how Barcelona became champions of Spain in the 1920 Spanish Cup Final.