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Nat Lofthouse, United and the Bolton 1958 FA Cup Final‏

Nat Lofthouse, United and the 1958 FA Cup Final
My oldest friend is a life-long Bolton Wanderers supporter. That’s why for more than fifty of the sixty-odd years I have known him we have argued about whether Nat Lofthouse, who sadly died earlier this month at the age of 85, fouled Manchester United’s goalkeeper Harry Gregg in the 1958 FA Cup Final when scoring his ‘controversial’ second goal.It was the first time I’d seen United live on TV, less than three months after the Munich Air Crash and I was inconsolable when Bolton won 2-0. At the age of twelve such things matter, as they have done for a further half-century

We’ll come to that 1958 Cup Final, but first I want to step back for a moment and mark with genuine respect the passing of this indisputably great and honoured opponent who remained a good friend of numerous United players, notably Sir Bobby Charlton who spoke movingly about his old friend when he heard the news of his death. Everyone at United who knew Nat Lofthouse recognised his qualities of down-to-earth honesty and physical courage which made him one of England’s finest Post-War centre forwards. If that hadn’t been the case, if he hadn’t been one of the best, the great ‘foul’ debate with my friend would have lost much of its resonance.

‘The Lion of Vienna’
Nat Lofthouse was that rarity, a one-club man, an ordinary working class man blessed with a lean but muscular frame, hard to knock off the ball, tenacious anywhere near goal with a thumping shot in both feet plus a formidable ability to rise above defenders and head the ball with ferocious power. He has an unrivalled position in Bolton’s history as their best and most popular player who maintained connections to the club long long after his retirement in 1960. He scored 255 league goals in 452 matches, all in the top division, and was elected Footballer of the Year in 1953 when he scored in every round taking the Wanderers to Wembley to face Blackpool in the FA Cup Final. He was then unlucky to see a 3-1 lead with twenty minutes remaining turned into a dramatic 4-3 defeat by the inspirational Stanley Matthews, made no easier by the awareness that neutral spectators were all willing Stan to get his cup-winner’s medal after years of trying.

Nat’s fame as a footballer put him in the very top rank in the 1950s, almost as much of a household name as players like England Captain Billy Wright and Tom Finney. Nat scored 30 goals in just 33 matches for England, the last one coming months after the ’58 cup final when the young Bobby Charlton, recent survivor of the Munich Disaster, was alongside him as an inside-right. But Nat’s almost folk-hero status comes from his performance in a rugged, often bad-tempered encounter with Austria in 1952. In a faint pre-echo of what happened to Harry Gregg six years later, Nat was knocked out by the Austrian goalkeeper in the act of scoring, having run for 50 yards with the ball, ignoring a series of ruthless hacks and trips as he roared on past desperate defenders before being clattered by the keeper as be scored. His courageous display that day against one of the very best teams in Europe earned him the timeless epithet, ‘The Lion of Vienna’. I was only 6 at the time, but I’d certainly heard of him, without necessarily understanding quite what it all meant. But in those days, if you thought of a classic,’old-fashioned’ school-boy hero centre forward, Nat Lofthouse would be a name on everyone’s lips.

The shadow of tragedy
However, despite his undoubted general popularity, by the time Nat Lofthouse was lining up against United at Wembley in 1958, he will have had that sinking feeling that, just like in 1953 when almost everyone wanted Stanley Matthews to get his winner’s medal, this time everyone who didn’t support Bolton would have been willing United to win. In the wake of the Munich disaster there had been a huge surge of public sympathy and support, which I was certainly part of, swelling with every passing week as the make-shift team of youngsters and traumatised survivors improbably won a series of intense and emotion-charged cup-ties taking United to the Final.
The Bolton players must have been all-too aware of this public mood, especially as many of them were themselves in awe of the Busby Babes who had trounced the Wanderers 7-2 at Old Trafford only a couple of weeks before the Air Crash.

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26 Comments

  1. Jeet says:

    Brilliant piece, as usual…with your memories, have you considered writing a book about the history of Utd? It would be a corker, I’m sure!

  2. willierednut says:

    A fitting tribute from Giles to a legend. RIP Nat Lofthouse even though he done old Harry Gregg lol.

  3. KingOfStretfordEnd says:

    Great read Giles, brilliant stuff as usual.

  4. MyCowIsTheBest says:

    a great read as always. thank you Giles Oakley

  5. YorYor says:

    Brilliant! Don’t think any of those other “ghosts” who frequent RoM have got the quality or knowledge to write about a player from their own club, not to say an opposition player, with the same eloquence.

  6. kk says:

    Captivating piece.

  7. Passe says:

    Rafael only fined, no extra ban. I’m quite surprised actually.

  8. Red Diablo 19 says:

    Giles Oakley you legend

  9. 18May1985 says:

    great piece giles! Thanks for sharing with us.

  10. Paul Parker says:

    great read, puts it all in perspective.
    hope me & my mates are still around in 50 years to argue over games played today.

  11. FletchTHEMAN says:

    Great read Giles. Now we know what you have been up to these last couple of weeks!

  12. Quentin X says:

    Without a doubt this is one of the best things that I have read since the passing of ‘Sir’ Nat, and written by an opposition fan as well, which gives it a unique perspective. Obviously, I’d agree with your friend that it wasn’t a foul all day long, but the sentiments shown in your piece by the players and yourself prove, if proof is needed, in what high esteem Nat is held in football. Thank you.

  13. Warry says:

    Nat Lofthouse had a long and illustrious career. He had to work incredibly hard to achieve what he did. When he first signed as a amateur for Bolton Wanderers, he was also working down the mines, often putting in a 10 hour shift before training. His goals per game ratio for his club was exceptional and his goals per game ratio for England will never be beaten. A great footballer and a great man has passed away and all you do is to reduce his career to one incident against United. I think you should hang your head in shame

  14. mattbw7 says:

    I really well written piece but what else would we expect from you.
    I have to say that despite Gregg and Charltons equanimity at the end of the game, as a fan I can’t be the same and I wasn’t even born then, its a good example to the naysayers who say the modern game is full of cheats when that game shows that there was as much underhand tactics employed to win a game of football as there ever was or will be and that’s not just to point out Bolton as particular exponents its just most commentators employ a revisionist rosy spectacled view when looking at the good old days when sadly it was never so.

    That said Nat Lofthouse was only operating within the rules that allowed that kind of thing to go unpunished so no blame on his shoulders and it also shows that referees where as useless then as they are today.

  15. bah_humbug says:

    Giles, great writing as always, cheers!

    Nice to see your letter in the Grauniad a few weeks ago re: Harry Gregg

  16. smartalex says:

    Thank you for your input Warry, it’s likely you are alone in that thought. This article provided me with more insight into Nat Lofthouse and the role he played in a United fans life than any other I have read. If you would like to draw our attention to any other aspects of Nat Lofthouse you could write a blog and post a link here.

    Giles Oakley
    Thank you once again. I always enjoy the pieces you write.
    With regard to life-long fan-feuds between the best of friends; they are the essence of supporting football. Slow motion replays have failed to extinguish any controversies, rather they fan the flame.

  17. willierednut says:

    Giles – I’d like to hear your thoughts on Ray Wood. An unsung hero, that many United fans probably haven’t heard of before.

  18. Giles Oakley says:

    Warry, I am sorry if you think I reduced Nat’s career to one incident, which was certainly not my intention. I had hoped the section about his contribution as a Bolton and England player, with his goal-scoring stats for both , plus mention of how he came to be known as The Lion of Vienna, followed by him being elected Player of the Year in ’53 having scored in every round to get to the FA Cup Final was a reasonably fair summary of his marvellous life as a Bolton footballer. I had also hoped that the quotes from Sir Bobby Charlton and Harry Gregg about their admiration for him as a player and a man would also speak volumes. Clearly not loudly enough, so I apologise. I really did intend this piece to honour his memory, while evoking some sense of how United fans like myself felt about that Cup Final. Emotions were running high then, for obvious reasons, and I was also trying to pay tribute to Roy Hartle and Tommy Banks and other Bolton players for the way they handled that uniquely difficult situation. I really was trying to write in a peaceful spirit – more Bobby than Harry!

    Meanwhile, thanks for the positive comments, especially Quentin X, and of course the United fans here. Its important to me that real supporters enjoy my pieces. Several people have now suggested turning some of these pieces a book, and it’s certainly something I would be happy to do, obviously with Scott’s blessing as it was him who generously invited me to write at length for RoM in the first place.

    Willierednut, I never saw Ray Wood play of course, and I have only seen fleeting footage of him in action, including his ill-fated appearance in the 1957 FA Cup Final. Of course one of the additional reasons United fans were so upset in ’58 was because it was the second year running when poor refereeing had contributed to United’s defeat. In ’57 Aston Villa’s Peter McParland (ironically a pal of Harry Gregg’s) charged Wood as he gathered the ball, hitting him in the face with his shoulder, breaking his jaw, effectively reducing United to ten men after only 6 minutes. Jackie Blanchflower , the centre half went in goal and Duncan Edwards went back into defence, severely weakening United’s attacking options. McParland then scored twice, with Tommy Taylor getting one back near the end, but the Busby Babes had lost the opportunity of winning the first League & FA Cup Double of the 20th century. For many of them they never had another cahnce.

    As for Rray Wood, he was apparently a terrific shot-stopper and was very agile, but sometimes uncertain in dealing with crosses. He was injured at Munich, never really regained his form and was transferred to Huddersfield, where he became increasingly embittered about what had happened to him. He was one of those survivors who felt United had not treated them well or compensated them adequately. He became difficult to live with and was divorced by his wife, who also felt a deep sense of grievance towards United. Another of the forgotten victims of Munich, I suppose, he died a couple of years ago.

  19. willierednut says:

    Giles – Thanks Sir. I remember my old man talking about Ray Wood, sounds like he had a rough time of It, after he left United. We certainly didn’t get the rub of the green on those two occasions. There’s no way Mcparland and Lofthouse goals would stand in todays game.

  20. Dave Malaysia says:

    Giles thank you. Nat rest in peace,

  21. brisbanefan says:

    As a post-script to Giles recollections may I add that the 1957/8 season turned out to be the best season in the history of Bolton Wanderers.
    Not only did they win the FA Cup, but they finished 4th in the old 1st Division.
    In the two games v UTD, the first one at Burnden Park in October 1957, Bolton won 4-0, which I believe is still Bolton’s largest post-war victory over UTD. In the return match at Old Trafford played at the end of January 1958 – I believe this was UTD’s last match at home before Munich – UTD won 7-2, well and truly getting revenge for the humiliating defeat in October. Duncan Edwards scored from the spot and hit the ball so hard he broke the hand of the goal-keeper.
    The following week UTD played Arsenal at Highbury in what was the last match the Babes played in England before Munich. The score finished 5-4 to the Reds.
    And so onto Belgrade where the team played their last game together. Finding themselves 0-3 down at half-time. UTD’s fighting spirit saw them come back to finish the game 3-3.
    So in UTD’s last 3 games before Munich, they scored 15 goals but conceded 9.
    A record that cemented their reputation as being one of the most exciting teams to watch of all time.

  22. Rob Marrs says:

    A lovely piece – thanks for posting.

    RCM

  23. MG says:

    Giles

    Just read your piece

    Absolutely wonderful – incredible insight of a certain time long gone – thank you for sharing such memories recollections.

  24. RedScot says:

    Read it twice*

  25. wovlad says:

    Bolton fan in peace, excellent article & as REDSCOT advised so good I read it twice. I was to young to have seen Sir Nat play, but met him on many an occasion, he was such a nice man and a true gentleman. Sadly there are not many of his ilk left, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Tom Finney two that spring to mind but after them I’m struggling to find people with such an association to one club. I was in the Old Man & Scythe in Bolton shortly before his funeral on Wednesday, having a drink with Tommy Docherty who called Nat a legend, to us Boltonians he had been a legend for a long time but to hear the Doc say it brought a tear to my eye. RIP Nat you were a Legend.

  26. Giles Oakley says:

    Many thanks for your comment, wovland. I was pleased to see that Nat’s funeral got lots of covereage and that he got such a fantastic turnout. As a United fan I was very pleased that Sir Bobby spoke with genuine warmth and affection for the great man. It’s an over-used term but Nat truly was a Legend and I’m glad that as a Bolton supporter, and someone who had met Nat, you liked my article.

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