The story of Cardiff’s Fred Keenor and the only Welsh side to lift the FA Cup

Words by Scott Salter Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 6, 2018
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Cast your mind back to some of English football’s greatest FA Cup winners. Bill Shankly won the cup with Liverpool in 1965 and 1974, Sir Alex Ferguson won the cup five times and Don Revie won it for Leeds in 1972.

The FA Cup is one of world football’s greatest tournaments. It’s magic. Despite all of the money invested in the Premier League, the FA Cup remains a prestigious competition that every team wants to win. Of those that have lifted the cup, only one has been based outside of England. Cardiff City, under the guidance of captain and war veteran Fred Keenor, won the FA Cup in 1927 when they faced Arsenal at Wembley. It is the only time that the English FA Cup has left England.

The son of a bricklayer, Keenor’s individual story is fascinating in itself. A standout player as a youngster, the Cardiff-born Keenor had to turn to a trade in order to earn a living. He continued to play in local leagues, where he was snapped up by his former teacher Walter Riden, who was a part of the Cardiff – a new club – board by this point. Just as Keenor established himself in Cardiff’s first team, war broke out. A year later, the professional game in Britain was suspended and Keenor, like many, faced no choice but to enrol in military service.

The Welshman joined the 17th Middlesex Battalion, famously dubbed the ‘Footballer’s Battalion’. It was a unique group in that every single member of the Battalion was a professional footballer. Keenor, under the service number F/653, served as a Senior Non-Commissioned Officer alongside Huddersfield’s Jack Cock and Fred Bullock, Coventry’s Jack Doran and Chelsea’s Vivian Woodward, all of whom were internationals prior to, or after, their service.

Led by Bradford City’s England international Frank Buckley, who would later be appointed Norwich City manager after returning from the Great War with an injury to his lung and shoulder, the battalion experienced over 25 fatalities during the war. Keenor, though, returned to Britain after getting injured in the Battle of the Somme (1916), where a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career. He worked in Aldershot before returning to Wales. Despite being told he’d never play again, Keenor ‘never knew when he was beaten,’ according his nephew Graham.

As the War ended and professional football resumed in 1919, Keenor re-joined Cardiff City and the club rose rapidly from the Southern League to the First Division of the Football League.

In 1923/24, Cardiff would lose out on the league title by one of the narrowest margins ever recorded in English football history – a fraction of a goal – but it was in the FA Cup where the club saw their greatest glory.

A semi-final appearance in 1921 was followed by a runners-up medal in 1925, where they lost to Sheffield United.

"When Cardiff lost the 1925 FA Cup final, he [Keenor] told reporters that he was proud to have got so far, and that supporters shouldn't be down-in-the-mouth as he could confidently say that Cardiff would go one better sometime soon - and he was right." Graham Keenor (2012)

It would take just two years for Keenor to lead Cardiff back to Wembley and an FA Cup final appearance, with wins against Aston Villa, Darlington, Bolton, Chelsea and Reading sending them to the final.

Arsenal, led by the iconic Herbert Chapman, were Cardiff’s final opponents – the first ever to be broadcast by BBC radio. While the match-up was not billed as the David v Goliath clash it would be if the two sides met now, Arsenal were expected to keep the cup in the English capital.

The game itself was a bit of a stale affair. The Manchester Guardian reported that the game was tight and the end-to-end nature left little to report on. The game is, however, remembered for the famous winning goal, or perhaps the part the Arsenal goalkeeper had to play in the goal.

A true hit and hope shot from Cardiff centre forward Hughie Ferguson was spilled into the net by Arsenal goalkeeper Dan Lewis – a howler of the highest nature.

The team, led by captain Keenor, returned home to the Welsh capital at 6:30pm that evening to an unbelievable reception. Crowds gather to welcome home their heroes and the team were received by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff. Ferguson was the goalscorer, but Keenor was the true hero; leading the side to their first ever FA Cup victory. Today, a statue stands outside the Cardiff City Stadium of Keenor holding the trophy aloft.

Keenor remains the face of that historic Cardiff side – the first non-English based side to win the FA Cup. The best part? The final took place on St George’s Day.

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