An FA Cup final like no other – it is how today’s behind-closed-doors meeting between Chelsea and Arsenal at an almost empty Wembley is being described, and quite rightly so.
It is not, however, the only unusual FA Cup final in which Chelsea have taken part. Back in 1915, the club’s first appearance in the famous showpiece event, it was not a global pandemic that was the backdrop to the sporting event but the First World War, and although fans were present in numbers, circumstances conspired to mean that like today, many Chelsea supporters who would have loved to be there were excluded.
Indeed the match 105 years ago is one of those finals that stands out sufficiently to join the likes of the ‘White Horse Final’ and the ‘Matthew’s Final’ in earning its own, specific moniker.
Chelsea versus Sheffield United in 1915 was the ‘Khaki Final’ and here we look back on the story surrounding that match…
The Pensioners, as was Chelsea’s nickname then, were 10 years into our existence and even the FA Cup as a competition was a mere 43 years old.
Although we were beaten by Sheffield United on the big day, the match retains an important place in Chelsea history, and in English football’s as well with it played under the dark shadow of the war that had covered Europe and beyond.
From the photograph above of army uniformed supporters watching from the terraces, it is clear why the game came to be known as the ‘Khaki Cup Final’.
The county had been informed that football as it was known would cease the following month, and that Chelsea – in whichever form – would ply our trade under the localised auspices of the London Combination, not the Football League.
When so many loved ones were perishing in the trenches and oceans enveloped by the Great War, the threat of relegation was always the lesser one. The possibility that fate might befall the Pensioners was suspended, and glory still awaited in the FA Cup final.
Kick-off at Old Trafford on Saturday 24 April was at 3.30pm and Chelsea were looking to their stars of the day like Bob Thomson and Jack Harrow to take us to a first trophy triumph.
‘They don’t play a bit like a club at the bottom of the League!’ exclaimed one reporter from the West Bromwich area after his men had been routed by four goals to one in the league the week before, and the remark was quite justified by Chelsea’s display in that win.
Harry Ford was in fine form down the wing although Lieutenant Vivian Woodward was not quite on his mettle after his engagements with the German army in France.
There were two main arguments for the continuance of football during the war, despite campaigning from the Fleet Street press for it to end. The first was that the ‘game’ was a professional business, with livelihoods, profit and shareholdings at stake.
The second argument for carrying on the great game was that it was good for public morale. There was no more eloquent evidence of that aspect than in the pages of the Chelsea FC Chronicle, where dozens of letters each week demanded news of the team’s progress, or for a match-day programme to be sent to the fighting front.
And everyone wished to be present for the Pensioners’ maiden bow in the FA Cup final, it seemed. The window-cleaners of Blackburn, for instance, who had been on strike for want of another penny an hour, agreed to resume work only if their employers might see their way clear to awarding them a day’s holiday as well as free passage to the final at Manchester.
Mention of Manchester raises the issue of the choice of venue by the Football Association. It had long been rumoured the owners of the FA Cup final venue the previous season, Crystal Palace FC, were unhappy with arrangements, which required them not to play at their own stadium for 12 days before the final. They understandably requested considerable financial compensation for the moving and rearranging of matches.
It appeared no agreement on this was concluded, yet Crystal Palace and Villa Park were announced as the only bidders to stage the Association’s 1915 showpiece. Shortly after that, word came out that neither was successful but that the final would definitely not take place in London. This became all the more curious a decision when The Den at Millwall was considered suitable for the FA Amateur Cup between Clapton and Bishop Auckland the weekend before.
The home of Manchester United was a splendidly equipped for the era and the city of Manchester, in addition to being a centre of football itself, had the advantage of easy accessibility by road and rail to the densely populated townships of Lancashire and Yorkshire, not to forget the Potteries and even the Midlands itself.
For Chelsea, there was the ironical circumstance of the final being banished to the provinces in the very year when this London team had gallantly fought our way to this concluding round.
The decision not to offer reduced-fare travel from the South is one the club vehemently protested. A full-price rail fare in straitened times was a rough deal.
The movement of troops and armaments had priority and fuel was at a premium but several thousand Chelsea fans made the trip by train or charabanc from London. They were outnumbered by those making the short trip across the Pennines in red-and-white from Sheffield, at a ratio of approximately four to one in a turn-out of just under 50,000.
There was characteristic fog and rain in Manchester but it was possible to pick out from the crowd our former favourite goalkeeper Willie Foulke, although he said he was supporting the team of his home town of Sheffield. United were making their third appearance in the final.
Officers from all services and all over the country made applications for tickets. In addition, hundreds of wounded soldiers were present.
The game was a clash of styles: the tricky and clever combination play of the Anglo-Scottish Blues pitted against the all-English Sheffield with their superior strength and cutting edge, hardened in previous cup battles.
Chelsea’s forward Harry Halse had won the FA Cup once apiece with Manchester United and Aston Villa and his experience was welcome against one of the best defences in the league but before the game, doubts remained as to the fitness of regular no.9 Bob Thomson, rated the best in the country at the time, following the dislocation of his left elbow. The renowned Lieutenant V Woodward, who was home on leave from the army was on standby.
In the end Thomson played with his arm in bandages, symbolic kinship with the many injured servicemen who had been invited to the match. He already played with a disability, having the use of only one eye since the age of seven.
Woodward, the finest ever England captain, let it be known that he would not stand in the way of a man who had performed heroics in the glorious cup run, while he was fighting an even greater battle in France. As an amateur he wanted to see any medal go to a professional man, to whom it may mean more.
However Chelsea, under the management of David Calderhead, suffered disappointment beaten 3-0 in the Old Trafford fog.
One goal before half-time and two more late on in the game ended the Pensioners’ hopes of lifting silverware for the first time in our then 10-year history. It was, according to the Times match report published on the following Monday, ‘a poor football match, but an interesting spectacle’.
The crowd enjoyed pre-match entertainment, included a rousing rendition of ‘God Save the King’, before the handshakes (Chelsea captain Fred Taylor performing the honours below) and action started on the pitch.
United came out of the blocks quicker and were ahead on 36 minutes when James Simmons netted. Chelsea’s best chances of a response came between then and half-time but a clear breakthrough proved hard to come by against a mean red-and-white rearguard.
Conditions worsened in the second half making visibility tricky, but in truth the fog did not help our cause. Our attackers ‘played without any conception of combination,’ wrote the Mirror, but at least ‘Chelsea had nothing to reproach themselves with in regard to defence’. It took a number of excellent saves from Jim Molyneux to keep the Blades just a solitary goal ahead.
However our keeper, ever-present in the competition during the season, could do nothing about Stanley Fazackerley’s strike seven minutes from time. Joseph Kitchen, with a ‘brilliant individual effort’, got Sheffield’s third to send the Pensioners back to London empty-handed.
After presenting the cup and medals, Edward Stanley, Lord Derby (pictured below, on the stage to the left of our Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George) made an impassioned address to the huge crowd with the war-time effort in mind, as recalled by the Mirror.
‘He said that the clubs and their supporters had seen the Cup played for, and it was now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England. He felt sure he would not appeal in vain; we had a duty before us which every man must face and do his best.’
The Chelsea line-up that day was: Molyneux, Bettridge, Harrow, Taylor (c), Logan, Walker, Ford, Halse, McNeil, Thomson, Croal.