The Giant Killers

Every F A cup giant killing since 1888

All time greatest F A cup giant killings

Number 35

 

Leicester City 3-1 Portsmouth 

Semi Final

Saturday March 26th 1949

Attendance: 60,000

Highbury, London

Scorers: Don Revie {8, 78}, Sandy Scott {own goal 28} Ken Chisholm {47}

Post war clothes rationing finally ended, Laurence Olivier celebrated the first British film to win best picture at the Oscars with 'Hamlet' During a BBC programme on astronomy, Fred Hoyle coined the phrase 'Big Bang', Russ Morgan & The Skylarks were 'Crusing Down The River' and 'Russian Hero' won the Grand National at Aintree.

 

The players of Leicester City were getting used to having been suddenly thrust into the limelight. In a year of huge giant killings, their surprise slayings of struggling top flight Birmingham, at the third time of asking, and then equally struggling Preston passed with only fleeting mention during their cup run. Indeed it was probably their two games against league rivals, Luton, which attracted more press attention after finishing with an aggregate score over three and a half hours of Football at 10-8 in their favour.

Now, via a more routine quarter final victory over Brentford, they were facing a Portsmouth side that sat five points clear at the top of the First Division with just ten games remaining and were already being hailed as Champions Elect of 1949. The players woke on semi-final day to the back page headline ‘Lambs to the slaughter.’

Former Leicester legend Johnny Duncan was the man the Filbert Street board had tasked with the role of taking Leicester back into the First Division in 1946. But after two mediocre mid table seasons it was now all going very wrong. The Foxes went into their game on New Year’s Day on the back of a run of seven games without a win and sitting just a point clear of the relegation zone. The prospect of dropping into the Third Division for the first time ever, after forty years in the top two tiers, hung very real over the club.

Duncan’s time as a player at Filbert Street had been very different. As club captain two decades earlier he had taken The Foxes as close as they had ever come to being League Champions, ending as runners up in 1929. Duncan’s team were nothing like the class of that side but were an honest hard working team shored up at the back by goalkeeper, Ian McGraw and full backs, Ted Jelly and Jimmy Harrison and a half back line of Walter Harrison, Norman Plummer and Johnny King, all of whom had spent their careers in the lower divisions.

In the forward line Jack Lee and Sandy Scott were regularly joined up front by Charlie Adam, the only pre-war survivor of the Leicester side that had dropped out of the top flight in 1939. Conversely to Adam, Mal Griffiths had been celebrating winning the title with Arsenal before the war but found his way to Filbert Street to become arguably the only major name in the team. It was a youngster from Middlesbrough who most often caught the eye of the crowds in a side regarded as strong going forward but very suspect at the back. Don Revie arrived through a feeder club system during the war and even at this stage in his career he was tipped to one day grace the First Division.

Their New Year’s Day game ended in a rare victory to prepare them for the start of their cup run. Two hours of Football failed to settle the tie as Leicester left with a creditable 1-1 draw to bring the tie back to Filbert Street the following Saturday. Over thirty thousand were there when yet again the ninety minutes failed to find a winner before Birmingham took the lead early in extra time. Leicester looked to be heading out and that feeling of doom swept over the ground when Don Revie missed a spot kick. Minutes later Mal Griffiths saved his side and forced a second replay back in Birmingham.

The two clubs rather sportingly agreed that the third game would be at a neutral venue chosen by the winner of the coin toss, rather than them taking the home advantage they were entitled to. So when Birmingham won the toss they chose nearby Villa Park. Unfortunately for Leicester, Villa themselves were also involved in a cup marathon of their own and required their ground, leaving Birmingham with no choice but to take their home advantage.

The second game two days earlier had taken its toll on the First Division side as illness and injury forced them into a host of changes while an unchanged Leicester coped better with the heavy conditions. Jimmy Harrison deservedly gave the Foxes the lead shortly before the interval only for Don Dorman to level the game yet again two minutes into the second half. Any thoughts among the 30,000 fans that this tie might yet again stretch into extra time were quickly ended when Revie made amends for his penalty miss two days earlier to finally settle matters.

Waiting patiently for their fourth round opponents were another struggling top flight outfit, Preston who, despite their lowly position, always drew a crowd eager to see one of the biggest stars in the game, Tom Finney.

Leicester made just one change from the eleven that played out the marathon with Birmingham as club captain Ken Chisholm returned from injury to take Sandy Scott’s place in the forward line and they helped make it a day to forget for Finney as they took the game by the scruff of the neck from the early stages.

An early penalty set the tone for the day as Revie, this time, decided not to take responsibility, leaving Jack Lee to put the Foxes in front before Mal Griffiths gave Preston a mountain to climb by adding a second goal before the interval. The visitor’s cause wasn’t helped by Tom Finney having to play most of the game in pain from what was later confirmed to be a broken jaw picked up in the early stages of the match.

Once again events elsewhere overshadowed Leicester’s giant killing act and the draw did little to propel them onto the back pages when they were paired with fellow Second Division side Luton Town, a venue where Leicester had picked up a precious point back in October. Fans don’t start to dream until the latter stages of any cup and to have avoided top flight opposition allowed Leicester fans to dare to dream. Win at Luton and they would be in a quarter final line up that could be short of top flight teams. Then? Who knew?

The emotions of the Leicester travelling support were thrown this way and that in a tie where the Foxes led twice and trailed twice and looked to be passing out of the competition until a last gasp extra time equaliser from Jack Lee rescued a replay in a crazy game, which ended 5-5.

The draw for the quarter finals guaranteed that a Second Division side would be in the last four as Leicester’s shared ball avoided the top flight big guns for an away trip to Brentford. First came a replay against Luton almost as crazy as the first game. Fans began queuing outside the ground at 7am for the prospect of a tie similar to that at Kenilworth Road and they weren’t disappointed as Leicester were 3-1 up at the break and seemingly comfortable at 4-1 with half an hour to go. Luton made a fist of it to fight back before The Foxes booked their quarter final slot 5-3.

Hopes were high on quarter final day as Leicester travelled to fellow Second Division strugglers, Brentford. They trailed their hosts by one place and one point in the League and had beaten them at Griffin Park back in September. For good measure they had also hammered them 4-1 in the cup two years earlier, when Brentford had still been a top flight side.

This tie perhaps proved to be Leicester’s most routine of the entire cup run as Jack Lee opened the scoring in the first half and Mal Griffiths settled affairs in the second on a day when Ken Chisholm stood out as the conductor of Brentford’s doom. There was little in the way of sympathy for the home fans who were roundly criticised in the press for their treatment of the Leicester players and Lee in particular.

So Leicester now went into the hat for an F A cup semi-final for only the second time in their history and fate ensured they would face the team that defeated them in their previous appearance fifteen years earlier, Portsmouth.

This though was the greatest Pompey side in the club’s history with names like Barlow, Dickenson, Froggatt and Scoular. All household names who were being widely tipped to be more than capable of beating either the present cup holders, Manchester United or their semi-final opponents, Wolves, such was the confidence held by the press that their appointment with Leicester was a mere formality.

It still didn’t stop over 20,000 Leicester fans flocking to London for their big day out and for a lucky few who arrived at Highbury as early as 7am there were still a small number of tickets available for what was billed as a sell-out game. One guest who wouldn’t need to queue for a ticket was World War Two hero, Field Marshall Montgomery, the honorary President of Portsmouth who took the applause of the crowd before the game.

Few gave Leicester a hope but manager, Johnny Duncan refused to entertain any thoughts of them being the underdog. He felt that while Portsmouth were a strong team, individually Leicester were as good as them man for man and he drummed it into his players in the dressing room before the game to the point that his Leicester players emerged feeling ten feet tall.

The early exchanges saw Portsmouth pressing but they were unable to string any serious passing moves together and were quickly closed down by a feverish Leicester back line any time they came within sight of Ian McGraw’s goal. It was eight minutes into the game before Leicester got any real sight of the opposite net and when they did, they took full advantage.

With Pompey heavily committed to attack, the ball was intercepted and slid to Chisholm on the half way line. With speed of thought he found Mal Griffiths steaming up the wing with half of Highbury virtually to himself as Jack Lee raced into the box. Griffith’s initial ball fell behind Lee but he had enough time to tee it up for Don Revie to latch on to it and lash a first time shot past a stranded Ernest Butler.

Leicester in front suited a day when Cambridge had already stunned the most favoured Oxford crew for years in the boat race and 66/1 shot Russian Hero was milling around at the start of a Grand National that he was to win just a few minutes later.

Indeed just as Irishman, Leo McMorrow was steering his mount into the winner’s enclosure at Aintree, Pompey full back Jesper Yeuell sent a long through ball that cut the suspect Leicester defence in two and allowed Peter Harris to race through on goal. McGraw came out to meet him and for a split second it looked as though Leicester might survive as the ball stuck under Harris’ feet only for Sandy Scott to stick out a leg to try and save the situation and instead steer the ball exactly where Harris wanted it, into McGraw’s net.

With Leicester having been the better of the two sides in the first half, expectation was high that they had blown their chance and Portsmouth would sweep into the final in the second period but there was barely two minutes on the clock in the second period when Jack Lee got to the byline and swung the ball back to Ken Chisholm on the edge of the area. Butler looked to have Chisholm’s goal bound shot covered before it came off Harry Ferrier’s shin and past the helpless keeper to put the Foxes back in front.

{Image right: Game, set and match. Don Revie [out of picture] scores to cap a 3-1 win for Leicester} 

Portsmouth would now spend the next half hour throwing the kitchen sink at Leicester in a bid to save the game but not everyone was on board with the Pompey cause. Bert Barlow was told after the goal to move from inside right and swap places with winger, Peter Harris. The call from Pompey manager Bob Jackson would only be made in one of two circumstances. Either Barlow was injured, remember these were the days before substitutes, or Jackson felt he wasn’t contributing to Portsmouth’s cause. Jackson wasn’t wrong either. Barlow, Pompey’s hero of their 1939 F A Cup win, was having a stinker and, worse still, now began to sulk. In a lull in play he turned to his nearest Leicester opponent, Norman Plummer and said “Look at them.” Meaning his Portsmouth team mates. “You know we’ve already booked the dinner for the final and I was the only one who spoke up and said shouldn’t we beat Leicester first? Had tickets printed and everything! And now they’ve stuck me out here on the wing. Well I tell you what. If that bloody ball comes anywhere near me you can just have it ‘cause I’m not gonna’ go for it.” A bemused Plummer could say little but fair enough and the game went on.

Pompey almost saved the tie with fifteen minutes to go when Len Phillips got into the Leicester penalty area, shook off Ted Jelly’s challenge and, as McGraw raced out of goal, slipped the ball across the six yard box to Peter Harris who had the simple task of tapping the ball into a net guarded only be defender, Sandy Scott.

The whole thing seemed to happen in slow motion but inexplicably Harris chose not to apply the simplest of touches with his left foot and instead let the ball run through to his right. Off balance and stretching, he dragged the ball wide of the empty net and Pompey’s double dreams went with it.

A minute later the ball was at the other end of the field where Butler came for a cross and got nowhere near it to leave Don Revie to squeeze the ball into the net over Ferrier’s head and off the bar.

The remaining minutes ticked by like hours as many of the Leicester players looked up at the big clock in the north bank and the realisation set in that, if they could hang on for another few minutes, they were going to Wembley. Portsmouth continued to press but never again created a clear opportunity to get back into the game. The Pathe Newsreel commentator had said they had no chance but Leicester were in the cup final with room to spare.

{Image left: Johnny King is mobbed as he leaves the field at Highbury}

When the players came into the dressing room at the end of the game they were each presented with a bottle of whiskey, which even the rare drinkers began to enjoy like lemonade, to the extent that the team doctor passed out! Bottles were held outside the windows of the dressing room and poured onto the jubilant Leicester fans outside as well and it was some time before the inebriated players were able to make their way to the station for the train home. By then of course Portsmouth’s forlorn outfit had long gone, although within a month they would have the consolation of being crowned League Champions.

There was to be more celebrating on the train for the Leicester lads though as their achievement truly sank in and sure enough there was more whiskey too, which left Johnny Duncan having to tell his players to pull themselves together for their arrival at the station where thousands had gathered to greet the victorious players.  

Cup fever now gripped the city with blue and white favours appearing in shops, offices and schools across the whole of Leicester while every bus for forty miles was secured to transport excited fans to London for their big day out.

Meanwhile The Foxes were playing out a gruelling run in of twelve games in six weeks to save their Second Division status and it wasn’t going well. A combination of winning just twice and picking up a series of niggling injuries threatened to provide the club with a very disappointing end to their campaign.

By cup final week nine of the semi-final winning eleven were passed fit to play at Wembley. The two unfortunates to miss out being keeper, Ian McGraw, after a freak finger accident at home, and potentially Leicester’s best match winner, Don Revie. The Twenty-one year old took a blow to the face at Plymouth the week before the final, bursting a blood vessel so badly that he required a blood transfusion. The unfortunate forward listened to the final unfold on a radio in hospital.

The team followed all the normal cup final traditions of taking a training base near London and then setting up at a city hotel the night before the final while the player’s wives and sweethearts were presented with commemorative head scarves depicting caricatures of the team to be worn at Wembley. That probably made them easy to spot for the players as they walked out alongside their Wolves counterparts into the cauldron of Wembley.

The first half of the final proved to be the one sided affair many expected and Wolves cruised into a two goal lead but Leicester got the lift they needed at the start of the second half when Mal Griffiths pulled a goal back. The goal set up a nervy ten minute spell when Leicester threatened to equalise and thought they had when Ken Chisholm fired in from close range, only for the goal to be ruled out for a close offside call that the newsreels suggested but didn’t confirm was a correct decision. The scare seemed to wake Wolves back up and they soon had restored their two goal lead, which they never again looked in danger of losing.

Disappointment among the Leicester camp and fans was only minimal and the players left Wembley to enjoy a cup final celebration dinner in Mayfair before returning home. There were still three Leagues games to play in the space of four days to avoid relegation and with the first won and the second lost they went into their final game needing a point at Cardiff to survive. A 1-1 draw secured their Second Division place and no club in the sixty plus years since has yet reached the cup final and ended the season in such a lowly position. Over the next five years however Leicester steadily climbed the table to win promotion as champions in 1954. By that time only Norman Plummer, Johnny King and Mal Griffiths remained from a side that quickly broke up after Johnny Duncan was sacked in October 1949 over a transfer dispute with the board.

Most of the players continued careers in the lower divisions, initially including Don Revie who would go on to a cup winning playing career at Manchester City before taking charge of the great Leeds team that won every honour in the domestic game. Revie was the natural choice to become England manager in the mid-seventies but then incurred the anger of the public when he turned his back on his national team to take a lucrative job in the Middle East.

City: 1:Ian McGraw, 2:Ted Jelly, 3:Sandy Scott, 4:Walter Harrison, 5:Norman Plummer, 6:Johnny King, 7:Mal Griffiths, 8:Jack Lee, 9:Don Revie, 10:Ken Chisholm, 11:Charlie Adam  {Manager-Johnny Duncan}
 
Portsmouth: 1:Ernest Butler, 2:Jasper Yeuell, 3:Harry Ferrier, 4:Jimmy Scoular, 5:Reg Flewin, 6:Jimmy Dickenson, 7:Peter Harris, 8:Bert Barlow, 9:Ike Clarke, 10:Len Phillips, 11:Jack Froggatt