Thursday, April 03, 2008

When Cardiff Won The Cup

Over the next couple of days, we'll be looking at the previous FA Cup exploits of this year's four semi-finalists, starting with Cardiff City, who take on Barnsley at Wembley on Sunday afternoon. It's a myth that requires some deconstruction - over the last few days, certain quarters of the Welsh press have been building up the "Wales vs England" aspect of the match, echoing former owner Sam Hammam's invocation of Welsh folklore and talk of Cardiff being the club representing "all of Wales", talk which was made to the chagrin of Swansea City supporters, to say the least. The 1927 FA Cup run has very much been a part of that mythology, but it was somewhat less remarkable than some people might have you believe.

The truth of the matter is that, whilst Cardiff's run to the FA Cup final was an outstanding achievement, it wasn't quite the major upset that one might expect that it was. Cardiff had been voted into the Football League in 1920 and went straight into Division Two, winning promotion at the first attempt. The following season they finished fourth in Division One, and in 1924 they almost won the Football League championship - level on points with Huddersfield Town, they lost out on goal average, when under current rules they would have won the league on goals scored. Their opponents in the 1927 Final, Arsenal, were also hardly the aristocrats that you might think. Herbert Chapman had arrived as their manager in 1925, but in 1927 they had never won a major trophy (their first, the FA Cup, would come in 1930) and in the 1926/27 season they had finished just three places and two points above Cardiff City in the league.

Cardiff's FA Cup run started with a Third Round win against Aston Villa an Ninian Park. The big result of their run came in the Fifth Round, when they beat Bolton Wanderers, the previous year's FA Cup winners and a club that were, at the time of the match, still challenging for that year's league title, 2-0 at Burnden Park. In the quarter-finals, they beat Chelsea after a replay and the semi-finals saw them brush aside Second Division side Reading at Molineux. It wasn't Cardiff's first trip to Wembley - two years before they had reached the FA Cup final, losing to Sheffield United. Arsenal's run to the final was a similarly mixed bag of opponents. They also had a difficult Third Round match, beating Sheffield United 3-2, before beating Port Vale, Liverpool and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Their semi-final also pitted them against Second Division opposition. They beat Southampton 2-1 at Stamford Bridge in a controversial match which reportedly saw Southampton denied two clear penalties.

The Final was played at Wembley on St George's Day - the 23rd of April 1927, and was the first to be broadcast live on the radio by the BBC. It was, by all accounts, a disappointing match, with both teams having adopted defensive formations. The key moment came in the seventy-third minute, when Cardiff's Hughie Ferguson shot tamely at Arsenal goalkeeper Dan Lewis. Lewis, possibly taking his eye off the ball to watch out for strikers that were chasing in for a potential follow-up, spilled the ball and seemed to almost throw the ball into the goal. The goal took on mythical qualities in both Cardiff and North London. For Cardiff, it proved to be enough to win the club its only major honour. After the match, Lewis blamed the error on his new shirt, claiming that the ball had slipped through his grasp because it hadn't been washed before the match. To this day, all Arsenal goalkeeper shirts are washed before they're used in matches. After the match, the film recording of the match were sent by courier to Cardiff, where it was shown in cinemas that evening.

On the basis of that result, one might have expected Cardiff City to go on to become one of the powerhouses of English football, but they failed to build on their success. They did manage to finish in sixth place in 1929, but were relegated the following season and then went down into the Third Division South the following year. This Sunday's match against Barnsley will be their first visit to Wembley since 1927. For Arsenal, the match proved to be a dress rehearsal for greater things. Under Chapman's leadership, they returned to Wembley in 1930 to win the FA Cup, and then won three successive league championships before his untimely death from pneumonia in January 1934. Chapman was one of the game's greatest innovators - he introduced white sleeves to Arsenal's shirts, was the first person to experiment with white footballs (which he did by keeping a bucket of whitewash by the touchline which balls were dipped in every time they went out of play) and has also had the idea of numbers on the backs of players' shirts and also carried out experiments with floodlighting, although this idea wasn't approved by the FA until almost two decades after his death.

There is also a sad footnote to the story of the 1927 FA Cup final in relation to two of the key characters involved. Dan Lewis, the Arsenal goalkeeper, remained as their first choice goalkeeper until the 1930 FA Cup Final, when he was surprisingly dropped by Herbert Chapman, who explained the decision by stating that he didn't think that Lewis would be able to cope with the pressure of the match. After this, his career went into a steep decline and he retired in 1932, after having been transferred to Gillingham. For the Cardiff goalscorer Hughie Ferguson, the story would end in tragedy. A Scot by birth (Ferguson had been signed by Cardiff after having scored 284 goals in nine seasons for Motherwell), he returned to Scotland in 1929 to play for Dundee. Unfairly burdened with the weight of expectation as a result of his previous goalscoring record, he was unable to deliver, sank into depression and committed suicide by gassing himself at Dundee's Dens Park in January 1930.

Few would have predicted in 1927 that it would take Cardiff City over eighty years to earn a return trip to Wembley, and even fewer would have been able to guess what that Wembley stadium would look like. There has been considerable disquiet about the fact that this year's semi-finals are being played there as well as the final, but I suspect that the primary factor behind this decision is the need to claw back as much money as possible to cover the stadium's vast construction costs. The media will continue to build the match up as being a match between England and Wales, although the fact that the opposition may have dissipated the worst excesses of the press in that respect. Cardiff supporters will be hoping amongst hopes that it is less than eighty years before their next visit to Wembley.

You can see (exceptionally brief) highlights of the 1927 FA Cup Final here.


Will said...

Great post, and some interesting stuff I didn't know. One more thing to add on the Hughie Ferguson angle was that apparently he was never going to be able to score for Dundee like he had for Cardiff because of chronic back pain. It was the pain on top of the pressure and sense of disappointment that most likely led him to take his own life.

Eric the Red said...

As I recall ( maybe wrongly), Ferguson had problems with depression before 1927, and his suicide wasn't related to football matters, as convenient as that would be to the myth. Great post.

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