The first FA Cup Final at Old Wembley stadium took place in 1923, and would be remembered for a lot more than the play on the pitch.
These days, frankly, the FA Cup is more of a distraction than a bonus for most teams with higher ambitions. Unless you’re poor Liverpool or Chelsea with no European competition, you probably don’t care too much.
In post-war Britain, the FA Cup was huge. The original Wembley stadium had just been built. The FA Cup Final would provide a great first chance to see how much of the 127,000-capacity park could be packed full of fans. Massive advertising campaigns and the fact that a London club, West Ham, would face Bolton Wanderers were all factors that impacted the day’s legendary turnout. (The fact that the tickets sold outnumbered the capacity of the stadium probably helped, too.)
Gates opened at 11:30am that day, April 28th. Fans swamped the public transit system and flocked to Wembley in herds. Two hours later, gates were closed — the stadium was already over capacity. Staff and gate security personnel were totally overwhelmed as fans continued to force their way in. Check out this sea of people…the chaos began here.
As kick-off got closer, fans in the stands had to start overflowing down onto the pitch itself to avoid being trampled. Bolton Wanderers actually had to abandon their bus (it couldn’t make its way through the crowds) and walk their way to the stadium. If, say, a Mourinho-led team ever had to walk into a stadium before a game…he’d probably blow a few blood vessels.
The start of the match was pushed back by 45 minutes as police on horseback tried to clear the overrun pitch. Really, though, there were no end lines — at all. Fans were standing on the out-of-bounds lines, forming the backs of the goal nets, holding onto the posts and essentially taking over everything. Later, the first goal scored by Bolton would actually knock a fan out cold.
One grey police horse named Billie was particularly helpful; he stood out in the sea of black trench coats and was able to push the crowd back to the end lines so that the game could be played. Since Billie showed up white in photos, the game would forever be known as the “White Horse Final.”
Bolton would go on to win 2-0, beating lower-division West Ham and disappointing the London crowd that looked on. Since most of Old Wembley was standing-room-only, attendance estimates are all over the place. Most fall somewhere between 200,000 and 250,000 fans actually in the stadium, a straight-up ridiculous total. The rest of the crowd marooned outside the gates would’ve easily pushed it over 300,000.
This was probably the highest-attended single football match ever — any time, any place. The 1950 World Cup final at Brazil’s Maracanã had a higher official attendance, but the anarchy at the ‘White Horse Final’ meant that FA and stadium staff likely had no clue how many people showed up.
Can you imagine a crowd anywhere close to 300k coming to watch Louis van Gaal’s sad, tired Manchester United side hold off Crystal Palace last year?