The new Wembley Stadium opened in 2007 to the delight of football fans who'd been bemoaning the loss of a national stadium for some six years. For the opening event, an England Under-21 game, fans poured into the venue via a footbridge named White Horse.
It doesn't, as many might think, have anything to do with the Uffington chalk horse or that famous brand of Scottish whisky — no, that's just a coincidence. To find the origin of the name we need to travel back in time to the old Wembley Stadium and the first event to take place there in late April, 1923.
In 1922 the world was in black and white...well, maybe not the world, but moving pictures certainly were. It was a more genteel time when men were men, good manners were everything and the term 'health and safety'1 hadn't entered the vocabulary. The first Wembley Stadium had just been completed for the forthcoming British Empire Exhibition, at a cost of £750,000. The stands, which held a massive 120,000 fans, had been dutifully tested to withstand jumping, swaying and excitable football supporter-types.
Just Another Saturday
On this particular Saturday, 28 April, the FA Cup Final and opening event at the stadium was due to kick off in the presence of King George V. The organisers hadn't planned for the overwhelming interest in the venue, however, and were rather swamped by the turn-out. People just kept coming and coming in waves to purchase their tickets. This was in a simpler time when most events were 'show up and pay at the door' affairs.
The teams fighting for the Cup were Bolton Wanderers and West Ham United, and they each drew an army of fans. No replica shirts were worn that day, though; the fans were only distinguished by their scarves, and even these weren't an essential piece of kit for the terraces.
As match-time approached the 120,000 fans of the two teams filled the stadium to capacity. Unfortunately, this left 100,000 to 150,000 supporters outside the gates. What happened then provided one of the most astounding cup finals in the history of the game.
The fans outside the ground stormed the perimeter gates and, as the stadium filled to bursting point, inevitably spilled onto the pitch. More than 200,000 men2 were now standing in the ground — with no visible pitch on which to play.
In Days of Old
Health and safety wasn't the only thing unheard of in the 1920s; riots were also yet to trouble the game. So while the fans were all standing about discussing their prospects of ever seeing the cup final, at least it was all very civilised. There wasn't a sniff of violence.
A call for help was put out by the local constabulary and several police officers volunteered in an attempt to find a safe solution to the human sea, now numbering about 250,000, enclosed within the stadium. Several of those officers were mounted police and came to the rescue on their trusty steeds. They calmly went among the crowd and, with their horses, manoeuvred the throng to the touchlines.
Billy Saves the Day
News footage and press photographs of the spectacle were shown to the nation, and the most visible of the horses in those days of black-and-white images was Billy, a huge grey. Billy stood out in the footage and became known as 'the White Horse'. Billy and his rider, PC George Scorey, went on to represent the Metropolitan Police at various public relations events.
The Cup Final did take place that Saturday, albeit 45 minutes late, on a pitch surrounded by a seething mass, and with a human touchline. Now here's one for the pub quiz: the first goal to be scored at Wembley was by David Jack for Bolton Wanderers, just two minutes in. His team went on to win what became known as the 'White Horse Cup' 2-0. The events of that day led the FA to make all further Wembley fixtures ticket only in the interests of crowd safety.
White Horse Bridge
The new Wembley Stadium was eventually completed in 2007, two years late and with a considerable budget over-run. A poll was held by BBC Radio 5 Live to name the footbridge. The contending names included sporting notables as Sir Alf Ramsey, Sir Bobby Charlton and Sir Geoff Hurst. They were all beaten to goal by Billy the White Horse. Billy died in 1930. One of his hooves was polished, mounted and presented to PC Scorey. But the bridge has to be a more tasteful memorial.