Broken necks and shattered dreams: A land before substitutions when injuries spelled defeat in the days of the 'Wembley Hoodoo'

With flexible BT TV, you can make unlimited substitutions to your football line-up this season. Unfortunately, it hasn't always been this way. Here, we look at how a spate of serious injuries tarnished the FA Cup finals of the 1950s and forced English football to introduce substitutes to save the game the country loved.

Published: 28 August 2020 - 10.21pm

We live in the era of the substitute. 

After the congestion of fixtures caused by Covid-19, FIFA have permitted the use of as many as five substitutions by individual leagues and cup competitions until August 2021, citing “player welfare” as the reason behind the decision. 

It’s hard to imagine the game without substitutions, a time when teams were forbidden from replacing their players – even if they sustained a serious injury.

Yet “player welfare” was of significantly less concern to English football’s governing body even as recently as 1965. While international football had permitted the use of the substitute a decade earlier, in qualifiers for the 1954 World Cup, the Football Association were slow to adopt the rule.  

The resistance to change culminated in some absurd situations in the biggest match of the English football calendar during the 1950s. 

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Gunners left to rue four-cical situation

The 1952 FA Cup final descended into farce when  Arsenal were reduced to just seven men after four players suffered serious injuries against  Newcastle

Before the match, Gunners captain Joe Mercer rallied his team by telling them: “No one starts as favourites against the Arsenal!” However, the skipper was leading out a team ravaged by illness and injury.

Doug Lishman was only just out of hospital after battling blood poisoning, Ray Daniel was sporting a cast over a broken wrist and Jimmy Logie wore heavy strapping on his right thigh. Alex Forbes, Arsenal’s right-half that day, recalled: “Things got so bad I imagined us turning up to Wembley in an ambulance.” 

To the match itself and Walley Barnes was forced off with twisted knee ligaments in the 35th minute, despite Arsenal manager Tom Whittaker’s attempt to apply strapping to his injured player.

Cliff Holton, Don Roper and Daniel all went down and Whittaker’s walking wounded soldiered on with just seven men at Wembley. Somehow it took a full-strength Newcastle until the 84th minute to score the only goal of the game in front of 100,000 bemused supporters. 

For whom the Bell tolls

The curse struck again a year later, in the game between Blackpool and Bolton that became known as the ‘Stanley Matthews final’. 

Bolton winger Eric Bell tore his hamstring just 18 minutes into the tie but, with no substitutes permitted, was forced to hobble on and even scored ten minutes into the second half to put Wanderers 3-1 up. 

Yet Bell’s immobility would eventually handicap Bolton, allowing Matthews the space on the right-hand side to assist two of Blackpool’s three goals in a dramatic 4-3 comeback victory. 

Manchester City goalkeeper Bert Trautmann sustained a broken neck from this challenge with Birmingham City's Peter Murphy

Trautmann's trauma in tale of two Cities

Two years later and it was the same story once again.  Already trailing 1-0 to Newcastle in the 1955 FA Cup final, things went from bad to worse for Manchester City as full back Jimmy Meadows suffered a serious leg injury in the 17th minute - so serious, in fact, that it forced him to retire. 

City would go on to lose 3-1. 

The Blues recovered impressively enough from the disappointment to make the final again 12 months later and Bert Trautmann, a German who fought for his country in World War II and was captured by the British, was their starting goalkeeper against Birmingham City.

With Trautmann’s City 3-1 to the good, Birmingham’s Peter Murphy launched himself towards a loose ball in the box in the 75th minute and thrust his knee into the keeper’s neck. 

Despite being in visible pain from the challenge, Trautmann played the remaining 15 minutes of the final with what later turned out to be a broken neck.

Trautmann played the final 15 minutes in a "foggy daze"

“I couldn’t really see anything clearly,” Trautmann recalled. “It was all foggy… If I’d have known my neck was broken I’d have been off like a shot.”

He didn’t know, though, and with the help of his team-mates infamously saw out the game before receiving his winners’ medal from Prince Phillip, who commented on the crookedness of the German’s neck as he placed the ribbon around it. 

Three days later, Trautmann went for a scan and the severity of his injury was revealed. Given the injuries sustained to five vertebrates in his neck, any further damage would have likely killed him. 

Roy Dwight leaves hospital on crutches after the Nottingham Forest forward's injury in the 1959 FA Cup final
Roy Dwight leaves hospital on crutches after the Nottingham Forest forward's injury in the 1959 FA Cup final

Dwight delight cruelly curbed

The pattern continued with the 1959 FA Cup final once again descending into the ridiculous.

Roy Dwight scored Nottingham Forest’s opener against Luton, but sustained a broken leg following a challenge with Town’s Brendan McNally. 

Unlike Trautmann, Dwight left the field in the 33rd minute on a stretcher. Ten-man Forest, 2-0 up at the time, conceded but held on for a 2-1 win. 

BBC commentator Kenneth Wolstenholme mused as Forest captain Jack Burkitt collected Dwight’s winners' medal, “and there’s the medal of the saddest man – Roy Dwight”.

“I felt sorry for myself,” Dwight would later reflect.

Blackburn Rovers' Dave Whelan is carried off on a stretcher during the 1960 FA Cup final against Wolves
Blackburn Rovers' Dave Whelan is carried off on a stretcher during the 1960 FA Cup final against Wolves

Whelan's Wembley woe

A year later, what was now known as the Wembley Hoodoo struck once more. 

Blackburn had just gone a goal down to Wolves in the 1960 showpiece, when Rovers left-back Dave Whelan broke his leg following a challenge with Wanderers’ Norman Deeley. 

Whelan, the future owner of Wigan Athletic, was carried off on a stretcher and Rovers were forced to play the second half with ten men. They conceded twice more and lost the final 3-0. 

All in all, it was the seventh serious injury suffered by a player in the previous nine FA Cup finals. Yet five more years would pass before the introduction of substitutes by the FA and only then for an injured player. 

Sixty years on and this season’s Heads Up FA Cup final between Arsenal and Chelsea saw eight substitutes of a possible ten enter the fray. 

Chelsea made five. The first two were forced upon Frank Lampard due to injuries to captain Cesar Azpilicueta and Christian Pulisic, with the Blues manager also opting for a triple tactical substitution after going 2-1 down to try to get back on level terms. 

Arsenal waited until the 82nd minute to make the first of three when Eddie Nketiah came on for a tiring Alexandre Lacazette up front. 

The second arrived when Sokratis was introduced for a struggling David Luiz and the last came deep into the extended period of injury time when Sead Kolasinac entered the fray for Kieran Tierney. 

Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was permitted to make five substitutes in the 2020 FA Cup final
Arsenal coach Mikel Arteta was permitted to make five substitutes in the 2020 FA Cup final

Kolasinac’s introduction in the 13th additional minute hardly gave the Bosnian much time to influence proceedings. It was effectively a method of wasting time by Mikel Arteta. 

The Spaniard had brought a complement of nine substitutes to Wembley, so why not use them? 

Spare a thought for Arteta’s predecessor Whittaker, 68 years previous, as his fourth Arsenal player limped out of the FA Cup final through injury and reducing his team to seven men.

If only Whittaker could have done in 1952 what Arteta did in 2020.

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