Lancashire was the heartland of early industrial football. Look at the first Football League of 1888-89 and you’ll see that five of the 12 pioneers were Lancastrian. Bolton Wanderers were one of the five and it fifth place was where they ended up in 1888-89. The “Trotters” were not one of the more successful clubs from the region, although they finished runners-up in 1894 and reached the FA Cup final in 1904. It wasn’t until the 1920s that Bolton really made their name.
In the days when winning the FA Cup meant as much as topping the championship table, Bolton won the competition three times in eight years: 1923, 1926 and 1929. During the decade, they also finished third in the Football League First Division twice, in 1921 and 1925. In short, Bolton were one of the top clubs in the period following World War One and the nearest challengers to Huddersfield Town in the 1920s.
The level of consistency shown by Bolton Wanderers during this era was largely due to continuity and discipline as much as the relative abilities of their players at the time. In the three cup finals, Bolton used just 17 players, including five, Dick Pym, Bob Haworth, James Seddon, Henry Nuttall and Jack Butler, who played in all three. Of that quintet, only Haworth was not picked to play for England. The high level of familiarity played its part in building a near-telepathic understanding among the team and an infectious team spirit.
Discipline came from the very conservative leadership adopted by the club’s directors, whose near-puritanical approach was demonstrated by their refusal to allow a member of the club to become a licensee. They also provided fatherly support to some players in the form of money and advice. It was therefore a happy band that won silverware for Bolton Wanderers for the first time in 1923.
Bolton were no more than a mid-table team in 1922-23, but their home record was good and this was why more than 20,000 people packed into Burnden Park every fortnight. Bolton had seemingly strengthened their team in the summer of 1922 by signing J.R. (Jack) Smith from Kilmarnock, a prolific goalscorer who had won the Scottish Cup with his old club. Also arriving at Burnden Park was a young full back named Alex Finney, who was plucked from obscurity at New Brighton.
Bolton’s FA Cup run started with a 2-0 win at Norwich City in the first round, Jack and Joe Smith scoring the goals. Leeds were beaten 3-1 in the next round, with David Jack netting two and Joe Smith again on the scoresheet. Then came one of those “ties of the round” against Huddersfield Town. It went to two games, with Burnden Park overflowing with almost 62,000 people inside. Jack, who had scored in the 1-1 draw at Leeds Road, scored the only goal of the replay. In the last eight, Bolton edged past Charlton Athletic by 1-0, with Jack again the matchwinner.
The semi-final, at Old Trafford, pitched Bolton against Sheffield United and it was that man Jack again who scored the only goal. Bolton would face second division promotion chasers West Ham in the first Wembley final.
Amid the chaos of that first game at the Empire Stadium on April 28, 1923, Bolton kept their heads and won 2-0. Just three minutes into the game, Jack hit a “high ball on its oblique course into the net, before anyone could touch him.”
In the 55th minute, despite some dogged resistance from West Ham, Bolton scored again, Ted Vizard hitting the ball so sharply into the net that it rebounded out and was scrambled away from West Ham’s defence. The referee, Mr D.H. Asson, had seen it enter the net and awarded the goal. 2-0, game over. Bolton’s players, having won the club’s first honours, were treated royally for the next few days, indeed weeks, including a luncheon at the House of Commons and civic reception when they returned home.
After winning the Cup, Bolton’s sights were firmly fixed on having a stab at the League title. In 1923-24, they finished fourth, but were among the top scorers in the country. The front trio of David Jack, Joe Smith and Jack Smith all netted regularly during the campaign. A year later, they finished third, just three points behind champions Huddersfield. They were actually one of the few sides to beat Herbert Chapman’s side that season and won three points out of four from the Yorkshiremen. But Bolton fell short because of their failure to beat the lower-placed teams in the division.
In 1925-26, they dropped to eighth, but the FA Cup again provided plenty of excitement. The only change to the Bolton side from 1923 was Harry Greenhalgh, a local full back who made the breakthrough in January 1926.
David Jack, who was now being courted by none other than Arsenal, set Bolton on the way to Wembley with the only goal in the first round tie against Accrington Stanley. Throughout the rest of the competition, Bolton found goals easy to come by. Six were scored against Bournemouth, three found the back of the net against South Shields and after beating Nottingham Forest in a three-game saga, Swansea Town were overcome by 3-0 in the semi-final. Manchester City, the team that had beaten Bolton in the 1904 final, were their opponents at Wembley.
In the build-up to the final, Bolton’s players were pictured trying some new-fangled “nerve powder” to calm themselves before the big day. Goalkeeper Dick Pym, late in life (in September 1986), told me it was little more than a publicity stunt:
“Ted Vizard was friendly with a young chemist in Bolton who was trying to put a headache powder on the market, which was going to be called ‘Sune-Eze’. They invited a reporter to Burnden Park to see one or two players taking this headache powder. As they came on the scene, Billy Butler was taking this powder in the middle of the pitch. They took a photo and then someone, as a joke, told the reporter it was a ‘nerve powder’. My own opinion is that the 1926 team needed no nerve powder to enable them to play football!!.”
As for the game, Bolton had to wait until 14 minutes from time to score the decisive goal, Jack receiving a pass from Vizard – after a fine flowing move -and shooting past goalkeeper Jim Goodchild. Vizard recalled the build-up:
“I had to do three things and do them all at once. I had first to reach the spot where the pass [from Joe Smith] was about to land; I had to screw it back on the half-volley; and I had to keep the ball low. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see David Jack making for the goalmouth, and to find him in an open spot I had to do all three things in an instant. It came off, David scored and we won the cup.”
The following seasons saw the gradual replacement of the cup-winning heroes of 1923 and 1926. Joe Smith lost his place in 1926-27, his long-term replacement being George Gibson, a Scottish inside-forward from Hamilton Academical who cost Bolton £ 4,000. Also new to the club was Harold Blackmore, signed from Exeter City. A relatively small centre-forward, Blackmore was surprisingly good in the air. In 1926-27, Bolton finished fourth, but at the end of the season, more old faces started to be phased out. New players like Scot Jim McClelland, a £ 6,300 signing who never lived up to his promise, arrived. Another forward from north of the border, Willie Cook, also joined the club. The 1927-28 season was disappointing and league form further deteriorated in 1928-29. But to complete the three-year cycle, Bolton ended the season back at Wembley. There was no David Jack, however, as he had joined Arsenal in the autumn of 1928, yielding his club £10,890 – almost double the previous transfer record.
Bolton had made a loss of £1,200 in 1928 and the club’s finances were none too healthy when they decided to sell Jack, but they were looking for a fee greatly in excess of the near £11,000 paid by Herbert Chapman. Jack also had a successful career with the Gunners and his replacement in the Bolton front-line was Blackmore, who scored 30 league goals in 1928-29, a total Jack never reached with the club.
The 1929 FA Cup run began with a home tie with Oldham Athletic and then went on to include victories against title-chasing Liverpool, Leicester City, Blackburn, and in the semi-final, Huddersfield. In the final, relegation-threatened Portsmouth would line-up against the Trotters.
Daily Sketch reporter L.V. Manning, previewing the contest on Cup Final morning, predicted a Portsmouth victory: “I believe Bolton to be the better team judged strictly by the highest academic football standard, but I expect to see Portsmouth first shake the Wanderers’ faith in themselves and then sweep on to victory.”
He was almost right with his prediction. In the first half, Portsmouth did more of the attacking, but Bolton’s defence soaked up the pressure. With 12 minutes to go, Bolton opened the scoring. A description courtesy of the Daily Sketch:
“A shot from Butler, Bolton’s outside right, beat Gilfillan and although Mackie, the Portsmouth right back, tried to clear, the ball struck the inside of the post and rebounded into the net.”
With less than a minute to go, Bolton scored again, Butler crossed to Blackmore and he shot home with his left-foot. A third FA Cup final win was secured.
After 1929, Bolton continued to slip down the First Division table and in 1933, they were relegated. They took two years to come back. The club’s next FA Cup final was in 1953. Bolton would rarely see such days as those experienced in the 1920s. Nevertheless, three Wembley wins in that decade made them the undisputed cup kings of their age.
In memory of Dick Pym (1893-1988), Bolton Wanderers’ three-time FA Cup winner, who spent time telling me about the Bolton team of the 1920s.