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"The British national character has been mummified in many a genteel novel and drawing-room play as one of reserved emotion and decorous behavior. Even in sports the true-born Briton is thought of as one who rarely allows himself more than a subdued "Well played, sir!" at a cricket match. But this reticence has its soft underbelly. It is in what the English call association football or soccer.
England's Football Association Cup Final annually stirs the interest of millions of men, from miners in cloth caps to Etonians i n old school ties. The excitement among soccer fans is as feverish as that kindled by the Kentucky Derby, the World Series and a dozen top college football encounters rolled into one. It is therefore a measure of their place in the game's history that a policeman and a white horse are today remembered more vividly in connection with the 1923 Cup Final than the teams which took part.
That year marked a significant step forward in the cup tournament. The Football Association had long needed a larger ground to accommodate the crowd; in 1921 plans were made to build a great stadium in Wembley in the suburbs of north London. Two years later, a mere four days after the last seat had been screwed into place and the final fleck of paint left to dry, the first Final was scheduled to take place there on April 28.
Wembley's huge oval stadium was built to hold 127,000 people, but when the gates were closed to the crowd that first year the rejected multitude outside turned reckless and stormed the place. In their passion to see London's West Ham United play Lancashire's Bolton Wanderers, the soccer zealots made Wembley look more like a battlefield than a site for the nation's greatest sports event. Some of the newspaper reports read like dispatches from the front line.
Estimates of the numbers that turned up at Wembley run as high as 300,000, and some eyewitnesses were certain that 250,000 got in. Iron gates were torn open, barriers broken, and more than a thousand people were injured. The crowd was so dense that some men were able to roll on the heads of the standing spectators down to ground level from the top of one of the terraces.
The mob surged onto the playing field, and by the time King George V arrived, hoping to see the game, Wembley was a chaos. The monarch had to sit for almost an hour while some show of order was created.
The order—such as it was—was largely brought about by Police Constable George Scorey on Billy, a white horse who had a way with people. Scorey, a placid man, sensed the seriousness of the situation before almost anybody.
Now 78 years old, a veteran of the Boer War and World War I, Scorey lives in retirement in Chislehurst, Kent. "I saw an opening," he recalls of that hectic afternoon almost four decades ago, "and in I went. I told the people to link their arms together and told them to heave, heave, heave. When they got to the touchline I told them to sit down. Billy was on his best behavior that day."
Inch by inch the field was cleared, the players coming out to help also, and Scorey, with nine other mounted policemen, was everywhere. "He was never turned from his purpose, this efficient constable," wrote one reporter. "He rode from side to side of the ground, and pushed his intelligent mount into the wall of faces."
The game started 40 minutes late, with human walls as touchlines. The Bolton Wanderers won 2-0. It was a crazy, mixed-up game. One of the goals was scored while a player on the London team was still lost in the crowd, which had engulfed him as he retrieved the ball. Or so the story goes. It's hard to prove or disprove anything about what happened that lunatic day. The imbroglio achieved the ultimate in status in British controversy: questions were asked in the House of Commons. Sir Oswald Mosley, who later became Britain's most notorious Fascist but was then an independent M.P. for the constituency in which Wembley Stadium is situated, was among those who prodded the House Secretary for explanations of the disorder. Elderly gentlemen wrote scathing letters to The Times. Ever since, admittance to the Cup Final has been by ticket only, the pregame sale limited to about 100,000.