The Amateur Cup Final

Duration: 7:30 minutes
Accession No: TWCMS : 2009.453
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Keith describes the excitement at Wembley Stadium on 10th April 1954.

By Keith Belton

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The Amateur Cup Final, Wembley, 10th April 1954.

The county of Durham has witnessed many varied and exciting events during the past 70 odd years – victory celebrations, a coronation, cup winning football clubs, test matches, tall ships races, the list is endless. One particular occasion surpassed them all however. It dwarfed everything else in thrills, heart stopping emotion and ultimate complete exhaustion. It involved amateur football teams representing two small towns – Bishop Auckland and Crook from the south western part of the county and was played out on the hallowed turf of Wembley, the national football stadium, north London. Well over 200 miles away from the small towns and mining villages strung out along the river Wear. A capacity crowd of 100,000, yes, 100,000, assembled to witness the first episode of the most epic cup final of all time. From the late 19th century football, formed in the public schools, became a second religion among the working men of the north east. Colliery owners and iron masters encouraged the sport. Far better men kicking lumps out of each other than rioting and wrecking valuable machinery. They helped with funding and provided suitable playing pitched for the battles to come. There was rivalry and pride at stake between the communities. Matches drew large crowds. The Northern league, made possible by the extensive rail network, was formed in 1889. Now there were points in the championship to play for. The football association started a national knock out competition in 1893, the Amateur Cup. Its formula was based on the original FA Cup, the oldest football trophy in the world and the catalyst for the spirit and popularity of the game. The holy grail of the amateur football world was born and Durham teams would always be at the heart of it.

I was born on the village of Witton Park midway between the towns. Some people supported Bishop, some people supported Crook. My own family was divided, father and sons, uncles and nephews, a throng of cousins across the great divide. Myself and cousin Ronnie were fanatical about Bishop, whilst cousins Norman and Douglas were equally fanatical about Crook. We went everywhere together, good natures banter all the way. It was the days before hooliganism and there was never a hint of trouble between the armies of fans. The clubs had by far the best amateur teams in the country and matches were played before vast crowds. By some miraculous means they were kept apart in the draw throughout the competition and after beating the best in the country were to meet in the final at the Mecca of football, Wembley. The build up was unbelievable. My father had a shop in the village and he organised a coach on the supporter’s train leaving Witton Park station at midnight on the Friday and returning from London in midnight Saturday. No bed for 2 nights, who cared? People queued for seats. The deal included standing tickets for the match, priced at 2 and 6 pence, 12 and a half pence now. They were cheap even for the mid 60s. A gang of us were going, cousins, uncles, lads from school. I still had to help with my dad’s milk round Friday evening delivery instead of Saturday morning. Nobody minded and there wasn’t a fridge in the village apart from the butchers and the ice cream parlour. The station platform was packed 60 odd travelling and scores of well wishers – wives, kids, grannies, you could cut the air with a knife. Off on the great adventure. Going to the planet Mars could not have been more exciting. Not one person slept or even dozed on the way down. The steam train packed with fans pulled into Kings Cross station about 6.30am. We were all cold and hungry. Lion’s Corner House was the venue for breakfast and then it was off for sight seeing. People in the mid 50s didn’t travel far. There wouldn’t have been more than a dozen vans and cars in the whole of Witton Park. Full employment meant people had money to spend but it was train or bus if you wanted to go anywhere. The sights just had to be seen, we may never get the chance again. Buckingham Palace, Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square – everybody totally worn out walking. The party couldn’t wait to get on the tube to the great stadium. I remember having lunch, nobody used that term in the 50s, in the street leading up to the ground. Everybody in at least an hour before kick off. A military band entertained the crowd flowed by community singing led by a man dressed in a white suit standing on a podium, Arthur Cager, I’ve never forgotten his name. It was difficult, if not impossible, to sing. The tension became unbearable. I personally, a 15 year old lad, was literally shaking, heart pounding, dry mouth almost ready to faint. At last the teams entered the field. The noise ballooned down from the vast concrete terraces. The spring sunshine illuminated that scene which will remain with me forever. It was a stand out moment in my life. 12 years later I saw England win the World Cup from almost the same position in the ground. Fantastic, yes, but not anything like Bishop Auckland v Crook Town – unsurpassable. The players, of course, were all very familiar, we saw them week after week. Here on the biggest stage of all they seemed somehow different, remote, god-like even, as they went through the pre-match presentations. The game itself was a blur. Two goals a piece after extra time. The most exciting two hours of all time. Completely drained, we staggered back to central London, flopped into the nearest picture house, stayed until it closed and crawled back onto the waiting train back home to Witton Park. There was still the milk round to do before bed and oblivion. We didn’t know it then but this game started the golden age of amateur soccer in the north east. By 1960 the world and the game of football moved on. It was all over, nothing would ever be the same again.

Football, at any level, is about romance. It’s what keeps the crowd coming back week after week to endure almost constant failure in the hope that for one brief moment your team, your men, will triumph. South Durham teams did triumph, they overcame almost all opposition until the end of the decade. Visiting Wembley became an annual event. Every single time a great thrill but nothing would ever come close to those 10 minutes between the teams entering the field and kick off on 10th April 1954.

I also remember Arthur Cager he was my headmaster and I got the cane from him a few times. Happy days.Posted on 05/05/2012 at 17:14:25

I too had Arthur Cager as my headmaster at Moreland St School in 1950. He was a lovely man, and wore a white suit when he conducted the crowds on Cup Final days. pbridgland@hotmail.com. If anyone remembers a Pat Hutchings in those days please get in touch., ThanksPosted on 21/04/2014 at 18:52:22

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