CITY DECADES: THE TRIUMPHANT TWENTIES
As part of a series, Matt Hale looks back in time to document Cardiff City’s history decade by decade
The 1920s are rightly regarded as one of the most significant and successful decades in the history of Cardiff City Football Club. During this action-packed period, the Bluebirds secured immediate promotion from the Second Division, came within 0.024 of a goal of becoming league champions and reached the FA Cup final twice, in 1925 and 1927. They lost the first final through a calamitous defensive error, however City returned victorious just two years later. In doing so they became the first team to prise the FA Cup away from England. To this day Cardiff City are still the only non-English team to win the famous trophy.
FAST OUT OF THE BLOCKS
Cardiff City had been playing in the Southern League as recently as the 1919/1920 season. However, thanks to the tireless efforts of secretary/manager Fred Stewart, City were elected to the English Second Division for the following season. Clun founder Bartley Wilson can be described as a hero of the era, a man that did more than most to see Cardiff succeed through both his enthusiasm and financial support. He was recognised for years after through the Club’s mascot, named Bartley.
City’s rapid progression led to a raft of new signings by manager Fred Stewart as well as the 1920/21 erection of the Canton Stand, with more family friendly seating. If the Bluebirds were well organised off the pitch, when the season began they were faultless on it, securing promotion to the Top Division at the first attempt. They only finished second to Birmingham City on goal average. This was also achieved with an average attendance of 28,000, significantly better than Southern League gates. The team even excelled themselves in the FA Cup, reaching the semi finals of the competition, only to lose to Wolverhampton Wanderers in a replay. Not bad for the new Welsh kids on the block.
Life in the First Division seemed tough going for Fred Stewart’s men to begin with. The Bluebirds secured only three points from their first seven games. Thankfully this worrying trend wasn’t to continue and they recovered well to finish fourth in the Club’s first season in the top flight.
It was the 1923/24 season when Wales’ premier team made their push. Throughout the campaign, City were neck and neck with both Sunderland and Huddersfield Town for the First Division crown. Going into the final game, it was down to just two, the Bluebirds and Huddersfield. Unfortunately for Cardiff, the Terriers ran out 3-0 winners against Nottingham Forest, meaning that Cardiff would have to beat Birmingham City to win their first ever league title. The Bluebirds couldn’t find a way through in the first half and the match remained deadlocked well into the second period. However, with around twenty minutes of the frantic contest still to be played, City thought they had finally forced the issue. They were awarded a penalty and prolific scorer Len Davies stepped up to take it, only to see his attempt fail. This moment was a sucker punch to the Bluebirds’ spirit and they were unable to conjure up another chance.
With both results in, Huddersfield were crowned champions, triumphing by 0.024 of a goal on the old goal average system. Crushingly, no First Division title has ever been decided by a smaller margin. Contemporary commentators argued that this was a thoroughly unsatisfactory way to decide a league title. Some even suggested a one-off game between the two sides to determine the rightful champion. As it stood, Cardiff fans had to wait many more years before they experienced the emotional roller coaster that is a playoff game.
WEMBLEY: ROUND ONE
Having dispatched Blackburn Rovers in the Semis, Cardiff City appeared in their first FA Cup final in 1925. The opponents were four-time cup winners Sheffield United and over 90,000 fans packed into Wembley to witness the contest. The build up to the match was dominated by people queueing up to brand the Bluebirds as ‘favourites’. Welsh legend Billy Meredith assured Cardiff fans that City’s greater experience of big matches would see them emerge triumphant. Yet for all their experience it was the Bluebirds that froze on the day. They arrived at Wembley far too early and by the time the team took to the pitch they were ‘shaking like kittens’ according to defender Billy Hardy. The ‘favourites’ didn’t live up to their billing, they were nervous in their play and this was evident in the game’s defining moment. A lapse in concentration by normally reliable defender Harry Wake allowed Sheffield’s Fred Tunstall to score the game’s only goal.
In spite of the defeat, the team returned to Cardiff with a welcome that would have delighted the final victors. Crowds lined the streets to welcome their heroes home and the atmosphere was punctuated by the unmistakeable tones of ‘Men of Harlech’, courtesy of the St Saviours Brass Band. Defeat had not dampened fan’s spirits; they knew there was more to come.
THE FINEST HOUR
On the morning of April 23, 1927, it was said that London was woken by Welsh songs. The travelling men, women and children were certainly in good spirits and desperate to see their team avenge the events of two years earlier.
The team faced formidable opposition in the form of Arsenal. The Gunners were managed by the legendary Herbert Chapman and were tipped by many to overcome their Welsh opposition and keep the Cup in England. The game, by all accounts, was a pretty dour affair, with both side’s defences clearly on top. At least City appeared to be handling the pressure better this time around and began to make more incisive inroads in the second half. To the shock of many inside the ground and perhaps the whole of England, it was the Welsh side that made the crucial breakthrough and it was certainly in bizarre circumstances. City’s Scottish striker, Hughie Ferguson, received the ball and with not much else on he decided to try his luck from range. As the ball left his boot there didn’t seem to be any apparent danger as it was skidding along the ground towards Arsenal’s Welsh goalkeeper, Dan Lewis. However, to the horror of the watching Arsenal fans, Lewis was unable to successfully gather the ball and his shot squirmed out of his jersey and trickled agonizingly over the line, despite his desperate efforts.
The Gunners were unable to respond and that was that. Cardiff City had won the FA Cup – cue sheer jubilation! The welcome received by the players after their defeat two years previously was impressive, yet it had nothing on the scenes after Fred Keenor lifted the famous trophy. A reported 150,000 people took to the streets to give their victorious team a welcome of wonderful enthusiasm. This team had truly captured the imagination of its city.
In truth, the Bluebirds won the 1927 final with a team already in decline. They did go on to lift both the Welsh Cup and the Charity shield shortly after. However, by 1929 they were relegated to the English second tier. This set the wheels in motion for the nightmare decade that followed.
MAN OF THE DECADE: FRED KEENOR
Who else? On the 23rd of April 1927, the Western Mail printed a picture of Keenor knocking former Prime Minister, David Lloyd George off his pedestal as the most important man in Wales. It is easy to see why. Keenor served in the ‘Footballers battalion’ (Seventeenth Middlesex) in the First World War. During the conflict, he survived the horrific Battle of the Somme and was also twice injured in action. These experiences could have broken lesser men, not Fred.
He returned home and resumed his playing career with his hometown club. He became captain in 1926 and set about continuing the task of driving Cardiff City towards success. There is no doubt that his inspirational leadership skills and uncompromising mastery of the defensive arts were crucial factors in City’s twenties success. He was a colossus for both Cardiff City and Wales and earned every accolade bestowed upon him. If any player deserved a statue outside Cardiff City’s gleaming new home, it was Frederick Charles Keenor.
TOP GUN: LEN DAVIES
City’s all time leading scorer and the only man to score over 100 league goals for the club. Davies was also the first Bluebird to net an English League hat-trick, achieving the feat in a 6-3 win over Bradford City in 1922. In total he bagged 128 league goals for the club between the years 1920-31. His goals were the bedrock of the Bluebirds strong league performances and his tally will take some beating. Yet he could not be described as the team’s ‘Ice Man’ as his missed penalty ultimately cost City the league title in 1924. Ultimately though, he should be remembered for the vast amount of goals he scored, rather than one missed opportunity.
DID YOU KNOW?
• Before the 1927 Cup Final, the Cardiff faithful broke out into a rousing chorus of ‘Land of My Fathers’. The Watching King George V was so impressed that he asked them to sing it again!
• The Bluebirds seized the Cup from England on Saint George’s day of all days.
• The 1927 Final was the first to be broadcast live on the radio.
• Arsenal Goalkeeper, Dan Lewis, later blamed his error on the fact that he was wearing a brand new jumper which had become greasy. Consequently, he was unable to properly grasp Ferguson’s speculative effort.
• FA rules barred Cardiff City Chairman W.H. Parker from rewarding the victorious players with gifts to commemorate their win. He sidestepped this problem by presenting a broach to each player’s wife.
• Throughout the 1920s, Cardiff City were hampered by international fixtures. In the days before ‘International windows’ Wales and Cardiff games were often scheduled on the same day. Adding to this problem was the fact that the club also had regular internationals from other home nations on their books. It was the policy of the club’s hierarchy that they would not stand in the way of their players representing their country. Consequently, City frequently played important fixtures with a severely depleted squad. ‘Club v Country’ disputes were unheard of in those days.
DECADE RATING: 9.5/10
The Bluebirds of the 1920s soared higher than they ever had before and still the crowning achievement of FA Cup glory has yet to be matched (although this came very close to changing in 2008). It is easy to forget that when the club entered the Football League, the team in their ‘Cardiff City’ guise had only been in existence for around a decade. For City to achieve all they did was nothing short of remarkable. The only slight blot on this period however is the 1929 relegation which signalled darker days on the horizon.