Club News

Tribute: Albion 3 Preston 2 - FA Cup Final 1954

Baggies mark 60th anniversary of Wembley win (including video)

TODAY marks the 60th anniversary of Albion's 1954 FA Cup victory over Sir Tom Finney's Preston and below we pay tribute to the Baggies' Wembley heroes from that day by taking a step back in time:

On May 1, 1954, the nation gathered around its wireless sets and even the odd television or two, to take in one of the great occasions of state – the FA Cup Final at Wembley Stadium. We were ten less than nine years on from VE Day, the nation was still rebuilding from its myriad bomb sites, the end of meat rationing was still a couple of months away, austerity was everywhere. We had more important things on our mind, however much we loved our football club.  

We also had a sense of perspective. Most, all, the families in the country had known the real pressure of living day to day, wondering if they might get the knock on the door that heralded the arrival of the telegram of doom, the Grim Reaper in postal form, advising that someone was not coming home again. When that still cut a vivid scarlet gash across your memory, a football score was rather less pressing.

Nonetheless, let’s not pretend that that day at Wembley was anything other than a massive one, a day when the nation stopped and football was at the centre of the national conversation. For starters, this was the game that had to follow in the footsteps of the magical Matthews Final of 12 months earlier when Stanley Matthews rescued his Blackpool side from 3-1 down in the dying minutes to come away with a 4-3 triumph and the cup winner’s medal that finally crowned one of the great careers. 

Follow that, as they say, a mantle that dropped onto the shoulders of the Preston Plumber, Tom Finney, expected by the nation to emulate Matthews, his age old rival as the greatest player in England, a genius who had gone similarly undecorated until this Mayday dance and the opportunity it offered him to collect the golden medal his talent deserved.  

There again, we had a few who deserved a medal, just as the team and club as a whole deserved to end the 1953/54 campaign with some tangible reward for playing magnificent football that came within a hair’s breadth of the title and a crack at the double before the fates and the Football Association conspired against us. And that is where the pressure came from on that day in the capital for if Albion failed to see off the challenge of Preston and ended the season empty handed, a campaign of wonderful play, visionary invention and noble endeavour would be simply brushed from the record, a minor footnote as English football could then safely return to the comforting embrace of insularity. 

There were other pressures too, pressures that had helped derail the title bid. The horrific injury that had claimed goalkeeper Norman Heath in the defeat at Roker Park weighed heavy on The Hawthorns, Heath having suffered paralysis on his way to hospital. It was already becoming clear that his footballing career was at an end, an emotional body blow for such a tightly knit squad. After falling short in the league, there was a desire to collect the FA Cup for Heath, watching from his hospital bed a full month after the injury, and for Stan Rickaby, also ruled out of the game with injury. 

Rickaby’s injury was the one that caused Albion the greatest concern. Who would slot in at right-back? Stuart Williams had performed strongly there over the previous month, but at 23, he had just 19 Albion games behind him. Testing that inexperience at Wembley was a risk too far for Vic Buckingham and instead, he opted for Joe Kennedy to take the number two shirt. Kennedy was more normally a centre-half who only lost his place in the team to Jimmy Dugdale through injury, but he was sufficiently mobile and a good enough user of the ball to play the important full-back role dependably and intelligently. 

So it was that Albion lined up with Jimmy Sanders in goal and Kennedy and Len Millard at full-back. The half-back line featured Jimmy Dudley, Dugdale and the great Ray Barlow while up front we rolled out the most feared attacking force in the land, Frank Griffin, Paddy Ryan, Ronnie Allen, Johnnie Nicholls and George Lee, 85 goals between them across the season. 

Early morning rain had softened up the Wembley pitch and though it had relented, there was still a strong wind blowing across the stadium, the Throstles playing into it in the first 45 minutes. In spite of that, Albion almost enjoyed the perfect start, Lee pouncing on a loose clearance some 20 yards out, his shot whistling across the face of goal and just wide.

Thereafter, Preston settled the better, though it was the tenth minute before they had a first real sight of the Albion goal, Baxter’s snapshot swerving away from danger. We were back at Preston six minutes later, Nicholls haring after the ball into the right corner, bulleting in a cross for Allen whose header was saved under the bar by George Thompson. 

In spite of that, it was still slightly against the run of play when Albion took the lead in the 21st minute. The tireless Lee charged down an attempted clearance and followed the ricochet into the penalty area, squaring the ball into the six yard box for the advancing Allen to have a tap in. 

Taking a lead and holding one are, as we know, two different things and within a minute, we were back to square one after a Preston equaliser. Tommy Docherty picked up the ball on the right and fired in a deep cross, Angus Morrison sprinting in from the left and into the centre-forward position to power his header past Sanders. 

Things almost got worse when Preston came close in the 23rd minute, a good first time move involving Docherty and Willie Forbes ending with an acrobatic volley from Charlie Wayman that went just over. Albion steadied themselves and crafted a delightful move involving Millard, Nicholls and Allen, setting up Lee whose close range shot was brilliantly saved by Thompson. 

The searing pace of Ryan almost unhinged Preston in the 38th minute, taking a return pass from Allen and bursting into the box only to be denied by a fine covering tackle from Joe Walton. A couple of minutes later, Millard and Lee brought the ball out to Ryan whose raking pass was controlled beautifully by Griffin. His cross found Allen but the shot was blocked.

Preston ended the half on top though, Docherty snatching at his shot as the ball dropped sweetly for him and putting it wide before Finney finally emerged from the shadow of Millard and found space on the right side of the box, smacking his shot wide of goal.

At the change of ends, Albion, refreshed by taking oxygen in the dressing room, now had the benefit of the wind behind them, but it was taken from their sails in the 51st minute as Preston scored a hugely controversial goal. Docherty played a one-two with Finney and passed on to Jimmy Baxter who turned the ball round the corner into the path of Wayman, standing around three yards offside. Flag came there none and he rounded Sanders to score, Albion protesting vociferously to the referee, a rarity in those far off days.

The Baggies were reeling and in the 62nd minute, Sanders had to make a smart save down at the foot of his post to stop Bobby Foster’s fierce drive. That shook Albion back into action and they were straight up the other end, Barlow quickest to react to a loose ball on the edge of the box, advancing into the area, Docherty cutting across him and bringing him down. Penalty.

It was the job of Allen to take the kick, just as it had been in the semi-final. Having placed the ball, the referee wasn’t happy with its positioning and Allen was forced to stamp down the ground around the spot. Perhaps the delay unnerved him, but his penalty lacked its usual pace and accuracy, Thompson going the right way and got to the ball but couldn’t prevent it squirming beneath him and in. The roar from the crowd told Sanders, 120 yards away from Allen, that the equaliser had gone in. Sanders, a gunner pilot in the RAF before being invalided out during the war, could not bear to watch Allen take the kick, such was the tension.

Albion were in the ascendant now and in the 67th minute, a low, driven cross from Lee cannoned off Walton and was goalbound until Thompson produced a brilliant reaction save to palm the ball wide. With extra time beckoning, both sides looked to find a way to break the deadlock. Ten minutes from time, Finney set Foster away but his looping shot from distance went over the bar, then the same player drilled an effort goalwards from just inside the box, Sanders producing a superb save to his right.

The Throstles responded and four minutes from time, Allen shot wide from distance in what looked like the last opening. But in the 87th minute, destiny was on the phone and Griffin picked it up quickest. Kennedy and Ryan combined on the right, the Irishman chipping the ball into the corner of the area. Griffin nodded it on and accelerated after it before looking up and driving the ball across the face of goal from an acute angle, under Thompson and just inside the far corner. The cup was won.

Days such as those are what our club, our legend, our future is built upon, one of only five days where the FA Cup, that greatest of all trophies, was won by the Albion, the first where a complete film of the game still exists in shimmering, flickering black and white. The sad recent death of Stan Rickaby robbed us of the final member of that season’s celestial side, Stan himself robbed of that day in the sun at Wembley by injury. 

But he and Norman Heath, along with Sanders, Kennedy, Millard (captain), Dudley, Dugdale, Barlow, Griffin, Ryan, Allen, Nicholls and Lee will never really die, not as long as West Bromwich Albion exists. Sixty years to the day since their crowning achievement, we, the Throstletariat, should be united in raising a glass to their memory and to their continuing life at the heart of our story. 

By Dave Bowler