Bill Perry: Perry the unsung hero of the 'Matthews Final'

'I just let fly with my right foot,' says the man who 50 years ago hit the winner in Blackpool's classic FA Cup victory at Wembley
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The coronation summer of 1953 is enshrined as the most glorious in the history of British sport. Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes, Gordon Richards won the Derby at his 28th attempt, England's cricketers won back the Ashes against an Australian attack spearheaded by Lindwall and Miller, and to cap it all, though it was not strictly sport and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were not, ahem, strictly British, we even conquered Everest.

The coronation summer of 1953 is enshrined as the most glorious in the history of British sport. Roger Bannister ran a mile in under four minutes, Gordon Richards won the Derby at his 28th attempt, England's cricketers won back the Ashes against an Australian attack spearheaded by Lindwall and Miller, and to cap it all, though it was not strictly sport and Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay were not, ahem, strictly British, we even conquered Everest.

But before all the above came arguably the greatest of all FA Cup finals – Bolton Wanderers 3 Blackpool 4. Most football enthusiasts know that it is immortalised as the "Matthews Final", even though it was Stanley Matthews' team-mate Stan Mortensen who scored a hat-trick. A tougher question is: who, with seconds of normal time remaining, scored Blackpool's winning goal?

The answer to that question meets me off the train at Blackpool North station. The past 50 years have been kind to Bill Perry. At 72 he is fit and dapper and able to recount, in sometimes impressive detail, the story of one of football's greatest comebacks.

We chat over lunch in a town-centre restaurant. He informs me that he is one of five survivors from the '53 Cup-winning side. "I'm the only forward still around. Cyril Robinson, the left half-back, lives here in Blackpool. Tommy Garrett, the left full-back, lives in Australia now. George Farm, the goalkeeper, lives in Scotland. And the right half-back, Ewan Fenton, lives in Ireland. But we all keep in touch."

I cannot detect a trace of the South African accent with which he arrived on the Lancashire coast in October 1949, even though, at the time, he clung on for dear life to everything that reminded him of home. He had grown up in Johannesburg, the son of a British soldier who had been posted to South Africa during the First World War, and who died when Bill was nine.

"I grew up playing rugby," he tells me. "I knew nothing about football, didn't even know the positions. When I got to senior school, the sports master was picking a football team and asked who wanted to play in which position. I didn't put my hand up for any of them, so he said: 'Right, we're short of a left-winger, you can play on the left wing.' The problem was that I was right-footed. So I would practise with a tennis-ball against the wall and, however it came back to me off the wall, I would never touch it with my right foot. Over a few months I developed a good left foot. I ended up with 129 goals in my career, from 450 games, which is a lot from the wing. And a lot of those were scored with my left foot."

The one that mattered above all the others, however, was bagged with his right. But let's not get ahead of ourselves. The teenage Perry joined Johannesburg Rangers, one of the two dominant teams in the city. "The other was Maritz Brothers, and one or other of us would always win the cup or the league. Our coach was Billy Butler, an Englishman who had played for Bolton in the first ever final at Wembley, in 1923. I remember him showing me his medal."

When League football resumed in Britain after the Second World War, the Charlton Athletic manager Jimmy Seed made regular scouting missions to South Africa. Perry caught his eye, and Seed asked him if he would consider joining Charlton.

"I told Billy Butler, who said: 'Let me get in touch with Joe Smith, the manager of Blackpool.' Joe had also played for Bolton in the 1923 Cup final and they had stayed friends. 'I recommend going to Blackpool,' Billy Butler told me. 'Stan Matthews plays for them.' I think that's what swayed me. Even in South Africa we had heard of the great Stan Matthews."

A more or less permanently shivering Perry, still trying to acclimatise to cold Lancashire drizzle, made his first-team debut for Blackpool against Manchester United at Old Trafford. It was 1950. The full-back opposing him that day was the Manchester United and Republic of Ireland captain Johnny Carey, but Perry acquitted himself well and Blackpool beat United 2-1. The following season, 1950-51, he scored against Birmingham City in the FA Cup semi-final, helping to take Blackpool to the final, where they lost 2-1 to Newcastle United. It looked as though Matthews, then aged 36 and on the losing side at Wembley for the second time (Blackpool having also lost, to Manchester United, in 1948), would be denied the FA Cup winner's medal he coveted.

But in 1953 Blackpool reached the semi-final again, and played Tottenham. This time the full-back trying to clip Perry's wings was one Alf Ramsey, who had a stinker. "I always had a good game against Alf Ramsey, actually. I felt very sorry for him that day. I scored the first, with a header. Then they equalised. But very near the end Alf Ramsey passed back to the goalkeeper, Ditchburn, and [inside-left] Jackie Mudie intercepted it, nipped in and scored our second goal."

So Blackpool – and Matthews – were in the final again. Matthews had more than lived up to the reputation that had reached Perry in South Africa. "In Preston they always said they would rather have [Tom] Finney in the team than Matthews, but I know that when Matthews was playing we always felt as if we had a goal start. When Stan got the ball anywhere near the half-way line, the rest of the forward line would just put their heads down and head for the goalmouth.

"I remember once playing against Aston Villa in the League. I have never seen a full-back so tormented. In the first-half he jumped in as soon as Matthews got the ball, and Stan just beat him on either side. By the second-half the manager had told this fellow to stand off him, but it didn't help.

"I remember Stan getting the ball on the half-way line and just walking with it towards the full-back who was back-pedalling... He must have walked 15 yards. He would just demoralise them. Sometimes he'd beat them, then wait for them to come back and take them on again.

"But he was a loner, was Stan. The rest of the team would train by running the length of the pitch, then walking the width, then running the length. That was the only training we ever did, apart from five-a-sides, and on Tuesdays a full-scale match against the reserves. Stan played in those matches, but he trained on his own. He used to go into the gym with a ball. I'm still not sure what he did.

"He could cross the ball like Beckham can now, and don't forget that it was much heavier then. The difference is that I've seldom seen Beckham beat a man. It doesn't happen much anyway these days. The one I like is Giggs. I'd want Giggs in my team before Beckham. But for me the only one who comes close to Matthews is Thierry Henry of Arsenal. Matthews always wanted the ball at his feet, and in some circumstances you'd get it back, but not often."

And so to the 1953 final, the ultimate showcase for the remarkable skills of Matthews. On Thursday 29 April, the Blackpool players travelled by coach to their hotel in Hendon, north London. On the Friday evening, Joe Smith gave a tactical team talk. It didn't amount to much. "He wasn't much of a tactician," Perry recalls. "He felt that if a player couldn't go out there and think for himself, he shouldn't be in the game."

Perry has vivid memories of the journey to Wembley the following day, of the tension hitting his stomach as soon as he caught sight of the Twin Towers, of the noise and colour outside the ground. "But the hullabaloo stopped completely when we reached the dressing-room. It was very quiet, and we didn't say much to each other. Then we emerged from the tunnel and there was this tremendous roar. I remember being introduced to the Duke of Edinburgh. Before the 1951 final it had been the king, but he had since died."

The details of the match itself have been endlessly chronicled. Suffice to say that Blackpool were losing 3-1 with 20 minutes to go. Then Mortensen scrambled a second and, with three minutes left, hammered in a free-kick, the equaliser. Extra-time seemed a certainty.

"Then Ewan Fenton passed the ball to Matthews on the right wing. He made his way up the line as full-backs knew he would, but his body swerve was so tremendous that he always got them on the wrong foot. He got to the touchline and crossed it, but slipped as he hit it, so it didn't come over in the air, it came along the ground. I was around the penalty spot, and just let fly with my right foot... When it went in my hands went up, and I looked across at Stan, and then the players came round and patted me on the back."

A far cry, I muse, from the backward somersaults and choreographed carry-on of today. Perry chuckles. "Yes. Yes, it was."

He doesn't watch football much any more. "I sometimes see 10 or 12 passes and by the end they've only moved forward five yards. I can remember on one or two occasions passing the ball backwards at Blackpool, and the crowd, who were only six feet away, would yell: 'Whose side are you on? Get it up the bloody field.' But the game has speeded up, of course. Full-backs were much more cumbersome than they are now. Today they're almost as fast as wingers. I was fast and used to get past them, but I might have a job today."

Other things, too, have changed in 50 years. Perry remembers the players being taken to a West End show after the Cup final, and being invited onto the stage during the interval. It is hard to think of the victorious Arsenal or Southampton players next Saturday night taking a bow half-way through Joseph and His Technicolour Dreamcoat. But some conventions have stayed the same. The players were rapturously received back home the next day, where they paraded the Cup from the top deck of a corporation bus. Arsenal or Southampton can expect the same.

Perry admits that Mortensen never got the credit he deserved for his hat-trick. "But he was a hell of a nice fellow, was Morty, and I don't think he ever minded. It was the media who termed it the Matthews Final. Even Stan Matthews at the town hall reception said that there were 10 other players on the field."

Perry received a £20 bonus for his part in winning the Cup. His weekly wage at the time was £17. "I had started on £12 in 1949, and by the time I finished, in 1964, it was £20. On the other hand, I rented a house from the club and the rent was just £1 a week. We used to get £2 for a win and £1 for a draw, so if we drew it paid my rent. I have no regrets. I was careful with my money and even while I was playing I was looking around for a business to buy."

Perry went into domestic appliances, then the printing business, from which he retired in 1994. He played three times for England, in 1957, and scored two goals. He left Blackpool in 1962, and played for Southport for a year, then for Hereford United. In 1964 he packed it in.

It is worth reflecting that he was just 22 when he scored the winning goal in the Cup final, while the man who supplied the cross was 38. Yet when Perry's professional football career ended more than a decade later, Matthews would carry on playing, by now for Stoke City, for another year.

Bill Perry the life and times

Born: 21 June1929, Johannesburg.

Height: 5ft 10in.

Lives: Blackpool.

Family: Married with three daughters and eight grandchildren.

Occupational status: Retired from professional football 1965. Retired full-time since 1997.

Other occupations: Owned a shop selling washing machines and vacuum cleaners, then went into printing. Perry specialised in making books of matches.

Nickname: "Champagne Perry".

Hobbies: Golf, caravaning, holiday home in Tenerife.

Clubs: Johannesburg Rangers, Blackpool (1949-62), Southport (1962-63), Hereford United. Finished career with a short spell in Australia.

Positions: Left-wing or inside-left.

Wages: Never earned more than £20 a week playing with Blackpool.

Number of England caps: Three (v Scotland, Northern Ireland and Spain). Also represented England B and Football League representative side.

Finest football moment: Scoring the winner for Blackpool in the 1953 FA Cup final – a 4-3 victory over Bolton Wanderers.

They say: "Mortensen scored a hat-trick, the only player ever to do so in an FA Cup final, but even his amazing achievement was overshadowed by Matthews. And hardly anyone remembers that Perry scored the winning goal."

He says: "It doesn't bother me that my goal has been largely forgotten. I did feel sorry for Stan Mortensen because he scored a hat-trick that day and no one said much about it."