Eric Bell’s pitiable hobble away from the Blackpool goalmouth in the 55th minute of the 1953 FA Cup final may have indicative of the torn hamstring he was courageously playing through the pain of, but the right arm he simultaneously punched into the air was indicative of his putting Bolton Wanderers into a seemingly unassailable 3-1 lead against the underdogs. What a story he had written. The 23-year-old shouldn’t have even been on the pitch, yet with a movement- and jump-hindering injury the defensive midfielder had not only managed to get into the opposition box, but also to outleap an opponent and head home a goal.
Bolton were poised to win world football’s oldest club competition for the fourth time. The oldest man on the pitch decided he was going to do everything in his considerable power to avoid claiming an unwanted FA Cup runners-up medal for the third time.
Blackpool right-winger Stanley Matthews had already been in electrifying form, to little avail, but now was the time to crank it up. On 68 minutes he employed sprinter’s pace that belied his 38 years and left two opponents for dead, before crossing to the back post, where Stan Mortensen was on hand to bundle home his second of the game and slice Bolton’s lead to just one.
Thereafter, everything went through Matthews, whose mercurial footwork and accurate final balls presented chances for Mortensen, Jackie Mudie and Ernie Taylor. With the clock on 89, however, the scoreboard still read Bolton 3-2 Blackpool.
On the stroke of injury time, though, Mortensen crashed home a free-kick from just outside the box to become the first – and to date only – man to score a hat-trick in an FA Cup final at Wembley. It would seem inconceivable that, individually, such a feat could have been overshadowed, but it was.
Immediately after the equaliser, Matthews employed a hypnotising hip-shake to turn Bolton left-back Ralph Banks inside out. The Blackpool No7’s delightful cross to the back post looped out the reach of goalkeeper Stan Hanson, but Mudie was unable to turn it in at the back post.
A similar play transpired with just seconds remaining, but on this occasion it had a different outcome. Matthews started a Blackpool attack from deep, and recollected possession ten yards from the Bolton byline. From there, he jinked past Banks and, rather than shoot, cut the ball through a petite passage into the path of South Africa-born Bill Perry, who stabbed it home to make it 4-3.
Matthews had inspired Blackpool to an incredible comeback and what remains their only major honour. Elizabeth II, who was set to be crowned Queen shortly afterwards and was attending her first FA Cup final, applauded in awe of the ‘Wizard of the Dribble’. So, too, did the 100,000-plus supporters inside Wembley. Even Bolton’s Nat Lofthouse, whose deadlock-breaker had made him the first man to score in every round of the competition, could not help but clap Matthews for what is arguably the greatest individual performance in FA Cup final history – one for which the fixture is now known as ‘Mathews final’.