Showjumping at Wembley (1970) | Johnny Meynell

It’s one of those stories of mythical proportions, one that has become an almost established fact and believed and regurgitated by many. Like a five-year-old being convinced of fairies living at the bottom of the garden or that Father Christmas really does come down the chimney delivering presents. Or on football lines, that referee Ray Tinkler was solely responsible for costing Leeds United the League title in 1971 (forgetting that there were 41 other matches where points were won and lost) and Denis Law’s famous back-heeled goal for Manchester City really did relegate his former Manchester United team in April 1974. These are footballing fallacies. At some point, the truth will out.

The FA Cup Winners in 1970 - Chelsea

Add to these the stories of show jumping held at Wembley a week before the 1970 FA Cup Final. It’s even been suggested that horses were marauding around the Wembley turf just two days before that footballing showpiece. Whoever or whenever this notion was first made is unclear. The Hamlyn Book of World Soccer, compiled by Peter Arnold and Christopher Davies and published in 1973, just three years after the cup final in question, referenced a show-jumping event ‘held there earlier’ when highlighting the awful state of the Wembley pitch. Perhaps the authors should have done their homework. For let’s set the record straight. No show-jumping took place at Wembley Stadium in the days, weeks, or even nine months before Chelsea took on Leeds United for the right to lift the FA Cup on April 11.

So, what is the truth? Were horses seen leaping fences on Wembley’s hallowed turf? Well, yes, for an annual horse show, and there’s the suggestion that their presence indeed impacted the pitch to such a degree that the FA decided it would be best to dig it up and re-lay the worst bits. The event in question was the Royal International Horse Show, a showcase which had history and tradition stretching as far back as 1907. Initially held at London’s Olympia, the event was so popular that, according to the British Miniature Horse Society website, ‘it became an essential part of the London social scene.’ There were no jumping horses back then; they were introduced gradually, whilst the event itself shifted from the Olympia to White City, where it was staged after the Second World War up to 1967. But the British Show Jumping Committee hit financial problems in 1967 and approached the FA with a view to holding the event at Wembley the following year.

Prior to then, the only horse to have made any sort of impact at the stadium was Billy, ridden by PC George Scorey, which shifted the crowds back behind the touchlines at the first-ever Wembley FA Cup Final in April 1923. West Ham United defeated Bolton Wanderers 2-0 in the match which became known as ‘the White Horse Final’, although Billy was actually a grey.

So from 23 to 27 July 1968 the Royal International Horse Show was staged on Wembley’s hallowed turf. By now, big name riders such as David Broome, Harvey Smith, Ted Edgar and Alison Westwood were the attractions, big enough for the BBC to film the five-day event, with commentary provided by the excellent Dorian Williams. One of the top draws that year was Stroller, but the horse came a cropper in the in the sixteen-horse jump-off for the Horse and Hounds Cup, which was eventually won by Broome on Mr Softee. Attempting a triple spread, rider Marion Mould (née Coakes) fell off and was taken to hospital with badly strained knee ligaments. But she returned the following night to mount Stroller and finish third in the Country Life and Riding Cup.

Marion Mould (née Coakes) and her famous horse Stroller

But it was in the aftermath of that year’s International Horse Show that the Wembley pitch began to deteriorate, and quite rapidly, too. The pounding of the horses’ hooves, not to mention the crashing down when landing from jumping fences, did the turf nor the drains underneath any good. Wembley went on to stage a series of matches throughout the 1968-69 season but the terrible state of the pitch was noticeable when Third Division Swindon Town shocked top flight Arsenal in extra-time to win the League Cup on 15 March 1969. Swindon full-back John Trollope later claimed he could see the hoof marks where the horses had landed, and at that point, he well may have done. Such was the damage, that the FA immediately re-turfed sixty percent of the pitch, but towards the end of the following month, it wasn’t in a much better state when Neil Young’s solitary goal gave Manchester City victory over Leicester in that season’s FA Cup Final on April 26. Victorious manager Joe Mercer, whilst delighted at his side’s success, remarked of the pitch, ‘It used to be a bowling green. Now it is a cabbage patch.’

Nevertheless, with agreements already in place with the show-jumping authorities, and despite the eerie open spaces on the terracing, Wembley was used again for the Royal International Horse Show the following year, between 22 and 27 July, against the backdrop of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin becoming the first men to walk on the moon. Marion Coakes, who had gained a silver medal at the Mexico Olympics the previous October, returned to win the Country Life and Riding Cup, whilst Harvey Smith was the winner in the Nizefela Stakes. One of the highlights of the Royal International Horse Show was always that of the Puissance, when riders performed on horseback their own version of athletics’ high jump, attempting to clear a wall made up of red bricks – the Red Wall – over two metres high, but when they landed they hit the deck with quite a force.

With the damage clearly done, the FA in their wisdom, politely suggested the Show Jumping Committee find another venue, and in 1970 the Royal International Horse Show shifted across the way to the Empire Pool, later to be known as the Wembley Arena. It was staged there up until 1982, returned to White City for one year before moving north to the NEC in Birmingham in 1984, where it remained until finding a permanent home at Hickstead in 1992.

Still, the cavorting horses and their riders had left a legacy, one that the FA needed fixing, and within weeks of the conclusion of the show jumping, the whole pitch was dug up with a view to being re-laid. As the diggers moved in, head groundsman Percy Young claimed that to the best of his knowledge the pitch had only been totally re-turfed once, that being in 1924 after a rodeo (horses again, eh?!) at the British Empire Exhibition. The FA sought to raise money from the old turf by selling it off in squares ranging from one shilling to 5s a slice, though comically, a twenty-foot square section was acquired by the Birmingham Mail and displayed at a Sydenham-Notcott garden centre as part of a competition, with the chance for a reader to win it. Laid out in jigsaw fashion, the turf was described as being ‘a bit off-colour’. Meantime, Neil Hawkins, a West Bromwich Albion fan, bought a slice and kept it in his bedroom. ‘There is a chance that Jeff Astle might have been standing on this piece when he scored the winner against Everton,’ he gleefully remarked, referring to Astle’s FA Cup winner in 1968.

Jeff Astle scored the winner in 1968

At a cost of £10,000, work was set to be completed by mid-September, though there were delays due to the staging of the World Speedway Championships on 15 September. The new turf had been cut from the Solway Firth in Cumberland and with the drains repaired or replaced, it was hoped that the new pitch would return to its old pristine self. Indeed, a spokesman for the ground said in November that, ‘It will be perfect. Wembley will be a players’ pitch once again.’ However, those who played on it were far from convinced. The first game staged was the Oxford and Cambridge Varsity match on 3 December, but players from both sides bemoaned the fact that the pitch was very heavy. Said Oxford skipper David Walker, making his fourth appearance at Wembley, ‘This was the most strenuous match I have had here. You could not play the ball hard through. You had to hit it hard all the time and we all tired very quickly.’ With heavy rain having recently fallen, the pitch was very soggy and, according to Walker, ‘it was difficult to get your feet up.’

A week later, England hosted Portugal in an international friendly, with the Portuguese liaison officer Carlos Lino claiming on the eve of the match that his party was already unhappy with the state of the pitch. He grumbled that the turf was too soft, adding, ‘We looked at the pitch yesterday and were all disappointed in its condition.’ As a precaution, and in view of the local weather forecast, a protective sheeting was placed over the pitch overnight, but its effect was minimal. Once underway the turf churned up quite quickly and images from the game, which England won 1-0 courtesy of Jack Charlton’ s goalline header from brother Bobby’s corner, would not have had people believing that the pitch was so new. Francis Lee may have blamed the softness underfoot as the reason for ballooning high and wide a penalty which, had he scored it, would have made victory more emphatic. Interviewed after the game, both managers criticised the new Wembley surface. Said England boss Sir Alf Ramsey, ‘The heaviness slowed the players up in the second half. It must have been very tiring for the man with the ball.’ Dr Jose Antunes, Portugal’s manager, agreed. ‘It was very heavy and our players found difficulty controlling themselves as well as the ball.’

England returned to a much protected Wembley for a friendly with the Netherlands on January 14, with twenty tons of straw covered by plastic sheeting keeping the pitch from the elements. But things got worse. Just days prior to the League Cup Final, set to be staged at Wembley on 7 March, London was hit by an Arctic blast, one that threatened to put the game in doubt with a 6in covering of snow lying across the Wembley pitch. Said a spokesman, ‘If it is necessary we could get 120 men working under floodlights on Friday night and again on Saturday morning to get the pitch fit to play.’ There’s no record of just how many men toiled with spades and shovels, but the game went ahead, though conditions were far from perfect. Straw had been laid across certain parts of the pitch once more and bales were in evidence, as were clumps of snow, around the perimeter of the pitch as City defeated West Brom 2-1 in extra-time to lift the cup.

And so to the FA Cup Final, one which brought together those polar opposites, the professionalism of Leeds United and the Chelsea ‘King’s Road swingers’. The 1969-70 season was one which started and finished early because of the impending World Cup in Mexico, with the cup final brought forward and scheduled for April 11. Who knows, had it been held the following month, the pitch may have dried out better and wouldn’t have necessitated tons of sand being spread across the most worn out sections. 

The terrible Wembley pitch that day in 1970

Again, it was noted how leg-weary some of the players became as they played out a classic in sapping conditions, with the pitch playing its part in two of the goals scored that day. Leeds’ Jack Charlton, as he had done for England back in December, got his head to a corner, this time delivered over by Eddie Gray, nodding the ball downwards and onto the line. Ordinarily, either Chelsea defenders Ron Harris and Eddie McCreadie would have lumped clear, but both swung a boot at a ball which failed to bounce on the pudding-like surface and they watched helplessly as it trickled over the line. Then, minutes before half-time, the much maligned Leeds keeper Gary Sprake became a victim of Wembley’s lifeless surface. When Peter Houseman tried a speculative shot from outside the box, it was one that seemed harmless enough and required only a routine save. Sprake got down to the ball but while he expected it to bounce up into his hands, to his horror and that of his team mates, the ball squirmed under his body and over the line for an unexpected Chelsea equaliser. The game ended all-square at 2-2 after extra-time and a replay was necessary.

There is a suggestion that the replay was held at Old Trafford because of the sorry nature of the Wembley pitch, but that decision had been made weeks earlier by the FA, and the way the pitch performed in the original match had no bearing on where the replay would be staged. So famously, the two sides reconvened in Manchester, playing out one of the dirtiest games ever in front of a television audience of over 28 million, one that was won by the London side. They came from behind to snatch the cup in extra-time, with David Webb, who’d been given something of a roasting by Gray at Wembley, the unlikely goal-winning hero.

Wembley resembling a battlefield more than a football pitch

The FA Cup Final wasn’t the last game played at Wembley that season. Ten days later, England played hosts to Northern Ireland in the Home International Championships, a game in which Bobby Charlton, on his 100th appearance for his country, was made skipper and celebrated by sliding in to score his side’s third goal of a 3-1 win. On May 2, Macclesfield Town and Telford United contested the first non-league FA Trophy Final in front of a generally perceived disappointing 28,000 crowd – Macclesfield won 2-0 – and a week later with Wembley having benefited from a full week’s worth of solid sunshine – remarkably, the groundsmen had felt the need to water the pitch – Castleford overcame Wigan 7-2 towin the Rugby League Challenge Cup, though the pitch still looked bare down the middle.

So while Sir Alf and his England boys boarded the plane for the sunny climes of Mexico to defend the World Cup they’d won at Wembley four years earlier, when the pitch was as lush as ever, the stadium authorities still had much pondering to do over a surface that clearly needed more remedial work doing to it. At the end of May, some £30,000 was made available to the Sports Turf Research Institution, and work began re-laying the pitch once more, this time with turf cut from Ganton golf course in North Yorkshire, the face-lift all in an effort to restore Wembley’s image.

The work paid off and England, playing their first game since being sensationally knocked out of the World Cup by West Germany in Leon, returned to Wembley and secured a 3-1 win over East Germany in a European Nations group qualifier on November 25. The following March, Spurs lifted the League Cup with victory over Third Division Aston Villa, whilst on May 8, Arsenal came from behind to beat Liverpool to win the FA Cup, Charlie George cracking in the winner from eighteen yards. The pitch was perfect, and the image of him lying on his back, arms spread out in celebration, is an enduring one. Had the playing surface been in the same state as in the previous year, he may not have bothered.

So there lies the real truth behind Wembley’s chequered playing surface. The next time an image of the 1970 FA Cup Final, with its sanded surface, crops up on social media and some wag tells you that it was because a horse show had been held there the week before, you reply and tell ‘em, ‘Neigh.’

Written by Johnny Meynell and kindly given to The Football History Boys  (Follow us on Twitter/X: @TFHBs)  

©The Football History Boys, 2023 
(All images borrowed and do not belong to The Football History Boys)

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