Most of football’s Hollywood-worthy plots take place on the field, featuring underdog triumphs, late goals and impossible drama. However, arguably one of the game’s greatest storylines, involving mystery, intrigue and an unlikely hero, took place away from the floodlights, featuring a church hall, a ransom note and a loyal dog.
On Sunday 20 March 1966, the FIFA World Cup Trophy was stolen. It was an event that sparked global news, panic amongst the FA – who had been granted it ahead of the upcoming FIFA World Cup™ – and London’s Metropolitan Police, before ultimately making a celebrity of the eventual finder, Pickles the dog, and his owner David Corbett.
It’s an event that still resonates with football fans around the globe today, as Corbett will testify. “It is amazing really,” he told FIFA.com. “I think it’s the fact that every four years it comes up again, it’s not like something that happens and then it’s forgotten.” Journalists from around the globe get in contact to hear his memories of the tale, though he modestly admits: “People remember the dog, they don’t remember me!”
While the Collie is the star, the plotline that led to Pickles’ ascension into football folklore is intriguing in its own right before the hairy hero enters during the final act.
With the World Cup due to kick off in four months’ time, the FA received a request to display the Trophy at the Stanley Gibbons Stampex stamp Exhibition at Methodist Central Hall in Westminster – a well-policed part of London, just a couple of hundred metres from the Houses of Parliament.
Then FIFA President Stanley Rous agreed to this, as long as these three conditions were followed: the Trophy had to be transported by a reputable security firm, it must be placed in a locked glass case which was guarded 24 hours a day and it was to be insured for £30,000. The trophy was only valued at a tenth of that, while it was surrounded by stamps worth £3m.
Crucially, though, security was not around the clock and, with the exhibition closed, somewhere between 11am and 12:10pm – with a church service taking place on the floor below – the perpetrator broke in through the back door and left without a trace. Cue hysteria and embarrassment, after the world-famous trophy was stolen from under the nose of the reputed Metropolitan Police.
A golden ransom
One member of staff on watch was quoted as saying “nothing at all went wrong with our security, the Cup just got stolen” before police issued a description of a suspect: a slim male in his 30s, sporting slicked black hair and a possible scar on the right of his face. Hoaxes causing halted underground trains and possible sightings ensued, before FA chairman Joe Mears received a ransom note.
It began: "Dear Joe Kno [sic] doubt you view with very much concern the loss of the world cup... To me it is only so much scrap gold. If I don't hear from you by Thursday or Friday at the latest I assume it's one for the POT."
Doesn’t look very World Cup-y to me
The sender, known as ‘Jackson’ eventually agreed to meet in Battersea Park, though instead of Mears, Detective Inspector Len Buggy – posing as the chairman’s assistant ‘McPhee’ – would bring the demanded £15,000. However, the case in fact contained just £500 – concealing newspaper below. After being told to drive around south London for ten minutes the supposed-thief, real name Edward Betchley, caught sight of the police back-up vehicle and ran, only to be arrested.
Claiming to just be a middle man, Betchley was eventually convicted as such – getting two years in prison – with the burglar never found, though during his court case Betchley did show he was still a fan of the game, saying: “Whatever my sentence is, I hope that England wins the World Cup.”
Heroes to the fore
Enter Pickles and Corbett to the stage. Now a week since the robbery, which had been dissected in detail across the national press, Corbett sets out to the telephone box across the road to see if his brother’s new baby had been born, with Pickles in tow.
On his way, the black and white dog started sniffing around at an unusual package. “It was wrapped in tightly-bound newspaper and string, laying against my neighbour’s car wheel,” Corbett retold, likely for around the thousandth time in the last half century. “I picked it up and it’s quite heavy, though not very big – it wasn’t a spectacular cup.
“At the time the IRA (Irish Republican Army) were at large, so I personally thought it was a bomb. So I put it down. Picked it up, put it down again. Then curiosity took hold. I tore a bit off the bottom and there was a plain disc. Then I tore around and there was Brazil, Germany, Uruguay. I ran back in and said to my wife: ‘I think I’ve found the World Cup!’”
His wife was unperturbed and when presenting it at his local police station was met with the underwhelmed response of: “Doesn’t look very World Cup-y to me.” Even so, Corbett was whisked away and, once the cup was confirmed as genuine, he suddenly had the realisation that he was in the firing-line. “I was the A1 suspect. Until I was sitting in Cannon Row police station I never even thought of that!”
After a few hours of questioning, and a few weeks on a list of suspects, his name was cleared. Stardom followed, with the pair appearing on television and at grand openings, receiving a cash reward. Pickles meanwhile was an extra in a film – the Spy with a Cold Nose – and was given a medal and a year’s supply of dog food. Corbett also remembers the two of them being invited to England’s World Cup winner’s banquet – with Pickles being a very popular guest – even if he eschewed all the pomp and circumstance by relieving himself on the five-star hotel’s elevator doors.
Corbett’s faithful friend remains close still, buried in the garden of the house he resided in South Norwood, the same home where his owner still lives today. And whenever the south London resident sees the iconic image of Bobby Moore, hoisted on shoulders, he knows he played his part. “I feel a bit of pride seeing it and, also, I know I got to hold the original trophy too!”