The FA Cup Years: Marking 100 years since West Ham made the very first final

In the first of a new series, we look at a decade of cup action following our first Wembley visit

King George V exclaimed ‘Our citadel has been stormed!’ as he surveyed the unfolding chaos of the first Wembley Cup Final 100 years ago. Many trees have fallen in telling the story of that sunny April day in 1923. What’s remarkable is that no one died, as an estimated 200,000 fans entered a stadium designed to hold half that number.

The Sunday Pictorial reported nothing worse than broken bones and a man who may lose an eye. The paper happily listed some of the injured with their name, age, address and details of their condition. It had been a momentous season for the Hammers, who had secured promotion to the First Division just four years after election to the Football League.

The icing on the cake was completed by a fine run to the FA Cup Final. Handily, we avoided top flight opposition until the final. Hull were beaten 3-2 but a replay was required to see Brighton off. Plymouth fell in the next round, although Southampton proved a different proposition.

The second replay at Villa Park was edged 1-0 although the scoreline belied the Hammers’ dominance. In the semi-final West Ham played their best football of the season. They cruised to a 5-2 win against Derby as the Stratford Express hailed a ‘masterly and brilliant display of football’.

In retrospect the final should have been abandoned. As fans edged back they formed a human touchline; it was impossible to tell when the ball went out of play as it immediately bounced back in. The Hammers’ trainer Charlie Paynter complained with some justification at the state of the pitch.

With thousands of spectators and police horses traipsing over, the turf had been ripped to shreds. West Ham had no chance of playing their normal passing game. Bolton adapted to the playing conditions more quickly and won 2-0.  The Cup campaign of 1923-24 was barely a footnote as Leeds put the Hammers out after a second round replay.

The following season brought a long running saga with Arsenal which extended to a second replay. A third win against the Gooners that season led to victory against Nottingham Forest. But hopes were ultimately dashed in the fifth round against Blackpool.  The next three seasons saw an exit by the fourth round. But the final season of the decade saw a run to the quarter finals of the Cup.

A last minute goal by Stan Earle clinched a third round victory against Sunderland while the Corinthians were beaten 3-0. After disposing of Bournemouth in the fifth round the Hammers faced Portsmouth at Fratton Park, where Pompey caught West Ham cold and raced into a 3-0 lead by half time.

But a tactical switch almost paid off as centre half Jim Barrett switched positions with centre forward Vic Watson. Barrett scored two goals but couldn’t prevent a 3-2 defeat. The 1929-30 season again saw the Hammers reach the last eight. In the third round, Notts County were dispatched 4-0 while Leeds United was similarly put to the sword in a 4-1 victory.

Vic Watson scored all four goals in the latter game and would go on to hit nine goals against Leeds that season. This set up a fifth round clash with Millwall and a guaranteed lively encounter.  In West Ham United: An Illustrated History, John Northcutt and Roy Shoesmith uncovered a curious tale about our South London rivals.

The Bermondsey boys requested that the fixture be switched to Wembley Stadium. They reasoned that thousands would be denied the chance to see the game if it was played at Upton Park. No doubt eyeing up increased gate receipts, it proved to be a forlorn hope. West Ham countered any increased demand by raising admission prices to an exorbitant 2 shillings (10p).

It was enough to scare some punters off as only 24,000 witnessed another 4-0 win. Alas, the run ended in the sixth round when the Hammers were soundly beaten by Arsenal 3-0.  The next two seasons brought little joy as Chelsea applied the killer blow in the third and fourth rounds respectively. By 1932 West Ham were adjusting to life back in the Second Division, but there was some light relief with an enthralling journey to the semi-finals in 1933.  

The run began when the Corinthians were defeated at the old Crystal Palace, the regular venue for pre-Wembley finals. The Hammers made light work of top flight opponents West Bromwich Albion, while Brighton & Hove Albion were drawn in the 5th round.  

It was a miracle the Seagulls were even there; particularly when they forgot to enter the FA Cup that season. The club secretary had failed to submit the forms by the required deadline. This meant Brighton had to go through four qualifying rounds before reaching the first round proper. Nevertheless, they forced a replay where we shaded the tie by a single goal after extra time.

Birmingham became our second Midlands scalp after a sumptuous 4-0 victory at the Boleyn.  The semi-final against Everton was inevitably billed as a David v Goliath contest. The Toffees had been league champions two years previously and boasted Dixie Dean, the most prolific striker of the inter-war years.

West Ham were 19th in the second division and occupied underdog status with distinction. After going behind early doors, we drew level and held Everton until seven minutes from time; a narrow 2-1 defeat to the eventual winners wasn’t too shabby?

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