Pop quiz, hotshot: Who is the only man to score a hat trick in a Wembley FA Cup final? Who was the first post-war footballer to score in every round of the FA Cup? Who scored England’s first ever goal in World Cup qualifying? Who scored England’s first ever goal at a World Cup finals? The answer to all four questions is Stan Mortensen. Seriously, why haven’t films been made about this man? His career reads like Roy of the Rovers as written by Ian Fleming. Plane crash survivor. Wartime spiv. International goal machine. Posthumous symbol of hope.
It is a travesty that thus far, the only man to have played him on screen is Bush frontman (and erstwhile Mr Gwen Stefani) Gavin Rossdale, of all people, in risible 1950 World Cup ‘reimagining’ The Game of Their Lives. Rossdale portrayed the humble Mortensen, plucked from a South Shields lumber yard as a teenager by Blackpool, as a toffee-nosed snob begging for his comeuppance after patronising the underdogs of the USA. Thumbs. Down.
Mortensen could be found at the heart of all of English football’s pivotal moments in that first post-WW2 decade. He was on the pitch for England’s twin nadirs at Belo Horizonte and against the Mighty Magyars. He had his Wembley dreams dashed by Matt Busby, then Jackie Milburn. And of course, he saw his finest hour named after somebody else. Only in the pages of Stanley Matthews’ autobiography will you see the 1953 FA Cup Final referred to as ‘The Mortensen Final’. Yet while Matthews was embarrassed by the adulation he received before, during and after perhaps the most famous FA Cup match in history, Mortensen simply considered himself blessed to be a footballer. Indeed, he considered himself blessed to even be alive…
The grandson of a Norwegian sailor, Mortensen grew up in County Durham, and was spotted by Blackpool’s scouts in 1937 at the age of 17 playing for South Shields Ex-Schoolboys. Initially struggling and on the verge of being released (due among other things to a lack of pace), he worked relentlessly to improve and quickened to the point that he would earn the nickname ‘electric heels’. Just as he was starting to make his mark in Lancashire, war broke out.
Don’t Mention The War
Joining the RAF, Mortensen continued to play in the Wartime League, forging a fearsome partnership with Stoke’s Stanley Matthews that would serve as ominous foreshadowing. His off-field exploits with the future first knight, however, would land him in serious mither. Posted to Brussels, the two Stanleys were reprimanded by their commanding officer for illegally selling coffee and soap on the black market. Luckily for them, some incredibly convenient lapses in protocol by the RAF’s Special Investigation Branch saw the enquiry fizzle out. It was a lucky escape, and it wouldn’t be his last.
Having survived an accident in which he was nearly strangled by his own parachute, Mortensen, serving as a wireless operator in a Wellington Bomber, suffered serious head injuries when his plane caught fire and crashed into a fir plantation near RAF Lossiemouth in Scotland. The crash claimed the lives of the pilot and bomber, while the navigator lost a leg. Mortensen was told he’d never play again, that the risks of heading the dense, leaden balls of the age were too great. He was back on the pitch within three weeks.
When league football resumed in 1946-47, Mortensen wasted little time in establishing himself as perhaps the quintessential centre forward of the age. He possessed a veritable blunderbuss of a shot with either boot and was perhaps even deadlier with his head, owing much, according to Matthews, to ‘cornflake box shoulders’ and an ability to hang in the air ‘as if the gods held him there’. He was the club’s top scorer for 11 seasons in a row, averaging 24 goals a season in that time.
This freakish consistency soon caught the eye of the England selectors. His first international call-up actually came during the war, against Wales, where he’d add yet another nugget of pub quiz gold, proving the answer to the question ‘which England player made his international debut against England?’ An injury to Welsh star man Ivor Allchurch saw the English lend them Morty to take his place, with many in the 80,000-strong crowd not realising who the new, impromptu dragon really was.
True to form, once he was given occasion to wear the three lions, he didn’t hang around – his official England bow saw him fire four goals against Portugal in a 10-0 win. In Rome, against a fearsome Azzurri side undefeated at home for 14 years, he scored a wondergoal from a seemingly impossible angle that caused the 75,000 home fans to emit, in the words of The Times’ correspondent Geoffrey Green, ‘an astonished, painful grunt…like some huge animal stopped in its tracks by a hunter’s bullet’. By this time, Matthews had joined him at Bloomfield Road, and the pair’s near-telepathic understanding had transferred to the world stage. On one occasion, Tom Finney delivered a peach of a ball for the striker to head home, only for Mortensen to tell him “Stanley always crosses them so the laces face away from you”.
Medals would elude the pair, however, though not for lack of trying.
After his hat trick put Blackpool into the 1948 FA Cup Final, Mortensen and his team mates met Manchester United at Wembley, led by new manager Matt Busby. Busby, light years ahead of his time as a rare tactician in the English game, devised a plan to stop Matthews, having his players double up on him and instructing his keeper direct his kicks to the opposite flank. Mortensen grabbed his customary goal (he’d scored in every previous round) but The Tangerines were pipped (pun lamentably intended) 4-2.
Morty would be narrowly beaten once again that year in the inaugural PFA Player of the Year ballot, losing out to Matthews by just five votes.
Three years later, Mortensen dragged Blackpool back to Wembley, giving them the lead in the final. This time it was Jackie Milburn who’d administer the heartbreak, his brace ensuring it was Newcastle who’d climb the 39 steps. By the time Blackpool reached their third final in five years, in 1953, Mortensen was as desperate as Matthews to finally get that medal.
1953 and all that
Has there been a football match in English history more mythologised than the 1953 FA Cup Final? Seven goals, a last minute winner, and a heroic comeback led by the country’s first true footballing superstar – at the age of 38 no less – determined to honour the promise he made to his father on his deathbed to win the cup in his honour. If anything, it feels today as if we’ve gone full circle, and people talk more about Mortensen’s hat trick being overlooked in favour of the Matthews narrative. In 2013, to mark the 60th anniversary of the final, Opta released stats they’d compiled on re-watching it, and listed Matthews as only the game’s sixth most influential player. Mortensen came top.
Yet Mortensen’s legend won him a similar benefit of the doubt. His famous cup final hat trick was cooked up retrospectively; his first goal, halving Bolton’s first half lead, was widely considered an own goal by Harold Hassell at the time, so significant was the deflection from Morty’s shot. Kenneth Wolstenholme on commentary attributed it to Hassell on the day, as did the Sunday papers the following morning. According to David Tossell in the excellent The Great English Final, it wasn’t until the publication of the FA Yearbook two months later, which quietly awarded Mortensen all three goals, that the hat trick became accepted as fact.
Regardless, Mortensen was sensational at Wembley. He hadn’t even expected to be there, a knee injury sustained in January considered a season-ender. Yet he was back, good as new, for the semi final, and immediately started another reign of (polite, good-natured) terror. The first half of the final had been a disaster for Blackpool, barring Morty’s deflected strike. After the interval however, the injured Eric Bell was moved to Matthews’ wing, and his limitations gave Matthews greater freedom to influence proceedings. It was his blocked shot that led to Mortensen’s ‘second’, scuffing over the line to reduce the arrears once again, 3-2. The momentum as the final moved towards its breathless conclusion was entirely with The Tangerines, and in the final minute, a counter attack brought a free kick, some 25 yards out.
Mortensen was shattered, carrying a knock, but he summoned everything he’d got left and truly blootered a kick that fizzed into the top corner, leaving goalkeeper Stan Hanson standing. In the stands, Matthews’ mother-in-law fainted. She’d revive only to faint again minutes later, when Matthews crossed for the speedy, South African born Joe Perry to knock home, completing the greatest of comebacks. Finally, the two Stanleys had their medals.
Tossell posits the view that the final was a last hurrah for the English style, with its dazzling wing play and bulldozing centre forwards. So exciting had it been, it was credited with increasing attendances across the country the following season. Six months later, Gusztáv Sebes brought Hungary to Wembley. The sting of the humiliation Puskas, Hidegkuti and friends doled out that day to a flabbergasted England was felt particularly keenly at Bloomfield Road, with four of the starting XI having stood on the same pitch as cup winners the previous May. As the Golden Team set about demolishing everything the English thought they knew about the game, there was at least one reliable constant. Mortensen scored his 23rd goal in 25 internationals. He would never play for England again.
Life After Morty
Within two years, he’d be ruthlessly jettisoned by Blackpool as well, kicking off a nomadic Indian summer that took in Hull, Southport, Bath and Lancaster. He’d return briefly as manager at the end of the 1960s for a brief, popular spell as manager, stopping the rot after relegation from the First Division. Blackpool’s decline really began in earnest over the next 20 years, and they slipped through the divisions. Morty remained a pillar of the community, running his postcard shop on the Golden Mile and serving as a local councillor. Sadly, he began to show symptoms of Alzheimer’s during the 1980s. On 22nd May 1991, David Eyres scored the winner in the Fourth Division Play Off semi final, taking The Seasiders back to Wembley for the first time since 1953. Stanley Mortensen died that same day.
Blackpool have risen and fallen again in his absence, with new heroes born – Ormerod, Adam (it’s probably pushing it to put Gary Taylor-Fletcher in the same breath), but none held in the same esteem as the player Half Man, Half Biscuit dubbed ‘The Jesus Christ of Bloomfield Road’. In 2005 a statue was unveiled by his widow Jean, who spoke of the love her husband had for the town:
“Of all the honours Stan won in football, he’d think this was top of the league. He was so very proud of playing for Blackpool and loved everything about the town. Nothing was ever too much trouble for him when the club or town came knocking.”
A decade later, that statue was settled on by Blackpool supporters as a meeting place for a planned fans’ protest against the hated Oystons’ ownership of the club. Classy as ever, the owners responded by having Mortensen’s statue removed, ignominiously stuffed out of sight in a shed. So loud, so furious, so forceful was the outcry, they were forced to restore it to its rightful place at the stadium. Born in County Durham, of Norwegian stock, Stanley Mortensen was nevertheless the very soul of Blackpool FC. Even in death, he was more powerful than the Oystons in life.