Taking on the powerhouses: Grimsby’s golden age in the FA Cup
It’s hard to know what, in the year 2023, looks more far-fetched. That when Grimsby play Brighton on Sunday they will be attempting to reach the club’s third FA Cup semi-final, not the first; or that the previous runs to the last four, which included wins over Manchester City and Chelsea, had nothing to do with David or Goliath.
Grimsby’s semi-final appearances in 1936 and 1939 were highlights of the greatest period in the club’s history. From 1929–48, including a break for the second world war, they spent 10 out of 12 seasons in the top flight. All three of Grimsby’s England internationals were capped in that time: the inside-forward Jackie Bestall (described in this paper as an “artful dodger and constructive genius”), the goalkeeper George Tweedy and the inspirational centre-back Harry Betmead each made a single appearance between 1935 and 1937.
Only two powerhouses of English football – and, in one case, some grotesque ill fortune – stopped Grimsby reaching Wembley. Their first Cup run took place the season after they had finished fifth, the club’s highest-ever league position. After beating Hartlepool and Port Vale, Grimsby were drawn at home to Manchester City in the fifth round. Within 15 months City would be champions for the first time, but to describe this game as a meeting of equals would have been generous only to City: Grimsby were 10th, City 16th.
Grimsby’s stirring 3-2 win at Blundell Park was among the best FA Cup matches of the decade, one that had highfalutin reporters rhapsodising about the quality of play and the sportsmanship. City’s second equaliser, a stylish team goal scored by John McLeod, led to the lustiest cheer of the day – and that was from the Grimsby fans. This paper said that the two teams had “given Lincolnshire football one of the greatest stimulants in its history”.
The Grimsby manager, Frank Womack, confused the City defence by rotating his wingers and inside-forwards. At the same stage three years later, against Sheffield United, his successor, Frank Spencer, used a similar manoeuvre to equally good effect.
Grimsby’s tactical sophistication is one of many recurring themes in their two Cup runs. Others include replays kicking off at 2.15pm on a Tuesday, forensic reporting of gate receipts and relevant train times in the newspapers – and, most significant, the impact of injuries at a time when there were no substitutes.
Grimsby beat Middlesbrough 3-1 in the quarter-finals, a game in which Betmead and Ernie Coleman were sent off after a fist-based disagreement. It meant, crucially, that Betmead was suspended for the semi-final.
With a couple of Division Two teams in the last four, Grimsby were 5-2 second favourites to win the Cup. Alas, they drew the short straw: Arsenal, league champions in each of the previous three seasons, at Leeds Road in Huddersfield. Arsenal were having an unplanned year off in the league but were still a symbol of class, glamour and might. The match was a one-sided 1-0, settled by a goal of elegant simplicity from Cliff Bastin. Grimsby’s hero was Tweedy, who made many good saves and three astounding ones.
The game was played on a ferociously hot March day. This was a problem in a packed stadium, especially as removing a suit jacket or even a fedora was tantamount to indecent exposure, and tens of supporters were taken away on stretchers after fainting.
Grimsby’s second great Cup run occurred in the last season before the second world war; though nobody realised at the time, it was the end of the club’s golden period. They thrashed Tranmere 6-0 and beat Millwall and Sheffield United after replays. That was thanks to the goals of their combative striker Fred Howe – described after one match-winning performance, in a textbook Guardian typographical error, as a “tremendous worrier”.
They returned to London for the quarter-finals, facing a Chelsea side fighting relegation. On a Stamford Bridge quagmire, Grimsby controlled the match with calm authority, even if the only goal came when Chelsea were temporarily down to 10 men.
Luck evens itself out, so the cliche goes, but every now and then it forgets to stop. In the semi-final Grimsby were drawn to meet the most exciting team in the country, Wolves, at Old Trafford. Wolves were the favourites, but only in the bookmaking sense. “No team could be more popular as visitors to Wembley as Grimsby,” read the Times preview. “They have kept in these days of big transfers and hectic dealings a quiet individuality of their own. They are a club in the best and most intimate sense of the word.”
Grimsby announced their team five days before the game, although the papers gave as many column inches to the team’s special semi-final diet: fish for lunch and an apple a day. (Wolves preferred soda baths, visits from a chiropodist and monkey glands, but that’s another story.) An apple a day couldn’t keep the influenza away: 48 hours before game, Tweedy was taken ill and dispatched to his bed with only an electric fire and dreams of Wembley for company. It meant a Grimsby debut for the 24-year-old Irish goalkeeper George Moulson.
Grimsby started the match brilliantly and Moulson touched the ball only once in the first 20 minutes. His second touch was his last – of the game, and as a Grimsby player. Moulson suffered a serious concussion while making a brilliant and brave save at the feet of Dicky Dorsett. Both players were helped off the field, though Dorsett later returned. Jack Hodgson went in goal, and whatever chance Grimsby had evaporated. They were hammered 5-0 – “a preposterous exaggeration of Wolverhampton’s merit”, said the Guardian – with Dennis Westcott scoring four.
Moulson was treated in the dressing room for the remainder of the game. At the final whistle, when the players returned and he heard somebody say Grimsby had lost 5-0, Moulson staggered towards the door and announced that he needed to go back on the field quick-smart. He was redirected to the nearest ambulance and spent the next 10 days in hospital. Moulson’s condition, though not critical, was severe enough that he wasn’t allowed visitors for almost a week.
He was not the only person who went straight from Old Trafford to Manchester Royal Infirmary. As in Grimsby’s other semi-final, dozens of fans were taken ill. This time it wasn’t because of the weather – the match, played in late March, was decorated by a sleet shower – but dangerous overcrowding.
The attendance of 76,962 remains an Old Trafford record. Grimsby’s share of the gate receipts was £1,982, 11 shillings and seven pence. The memories – and the enduring local pride – were invaluable.