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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