Cast your mind back to some of the most iconic moments in English FA Cup history. The Steven Gerrard final, Trevor Sinclair’s bicycle kick, the Crazy Gang, Gazza’s 35-yard screamer against Arsenal and Di Matteo’s wonder goal are some that would come to the mind of most football fans. These are the moments synonymous with the FA Cup, the oldest association football competition in the World.
Few football fans, though, will associate Fred Keenor with the FA Cup. Few football fans outside of South Wales will even know who Keenor is.
The son of a bricklayer, Keenor was born in the Roath area of Cardiff in 1894. He attended the Stacey Road primary school in Adamsdown, where he was taught by Walter Riden – the man who would later take him to Cardiff City.
Like many footballers of his generation, Keenor demonstrated his ability with a ball at his feet from a young age.
“His rise to the status of professional footballer followed the conventional path of so many of his contemporaries. His first taste of organised soccer was at schoolboy level where he won a variety of honours.”
— Martin Jones (2015), Fred Keenor: A Welsh Soccer Hero
At schoolboy level, Keenor was the standout player; captaining his Stacey Road side to the local league title. It was the first sign of Keenor’s leadership skills on a football pitch that would be so evident in years to come. He also played for his city and county’s representative schoolboy sides.
As was the case with so many footballers at the time, Keenor had to turn to a trade to earn a living, but continued to play in the local leagues. It was there that he was snapped up by his former teacher Walter Riden, who was part of the new club’s board by this point.
“Keenor was ‘pounced upon’ after a game in a local park by one of his former schoolmasters who was now a Cardiff City director. He was pressured into signing amateur terms for the club and, by the end of the year, had turned professional for a weekly wage of ten shillings.” (Jones, 2015)
Cardiff as a club was only 7 years old at this point, having changed its name from Riverside A.F.C in 1905 after King Edward VII granted Cardiff city status.
As a player, Keenor was a tough tackling midfielder; the type who would grab the game by the scruff of the neck. He has been described as football’s original hard man. “I would have liked to see him against today’s fancy dans with their elbowing, shirt-pulling and poking out tongues. Fred would have tackled them once – they wouldn’t have come back for more.” (Jones, 2015)
The Cardiff-born midfielder would spend the next two years progressing and pushing towards the Cardiff first team. In 1914, though, just as Keenor had established himself in the Cardiff first XI, War broke out.
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Initially the professional game in Britain continued, but in 1915 the game suspended competitive fixtures; a combination of low attendances and hostility from others.
Keenor, like many, faced no other choice. He was out of work and his country needed him; he enlisted in the British Army.
The Welshman joined the 17th Middlesex Battalion, famously nicknamed the Footballer’s Battalion, which was formed as a pals battalion. It was a group like no other; every single member of the 17th Battalion of the Middlesex regiment was a professional footballer.
Fred 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.
“A sergeant-major told Keenor that he was the worst rifle marksman that he had ever met. His rifle skills apparently reflected his shooting with the ball since he was later told that he was just about the worst shot in the Football League.”
— Jones, 2015
The Footballer’s Battalion was led by Bradford City’s England international Frank Buckley, who was appointed Norwich City manager after returning from the Great War with an injury to his lung and shoulder. Their battalion experienced over 25 fatalities during the war.
Keenor returned to Britain after being injured in the Battle of Somme (1916), where a leg wound threatened to end his footballing career. He worked as Army Gymnastic staff in Aldershot, before returning to Wales. “He took a serious leg injury from shrapnel at the battle of the Somme, and doctors told him that he’d never be able to play again. But Fred had other ideas. He never knew when he was beaten.” said Keenor’s nephew Graham Keenor in 2012.
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Upon returning to Wales, Keenor found work in a gasworks and on a milk-round, which only proved temporary until professional football recommenced in 1919, a year after the Great War ended.
He re-joined Cardiff City, as the club established itself as one of Britain’s leading clubs in the early 1920s. The club was led by Fred Stewart, who had been the club’s manager since 1911, and attracted large crowds from the working class areas of the city.
“The team rose rapidly from the Southern League to the First Division of the Football League, missing out on the Championship in 1923-24 by a fraction of a goal.” – Jones (2015)
Despite losing out on the league title by one of the narrowest margins ever recorded in English football history, it was the FA Cup where Cardiff saw their greatest glory.
In 1921, the club lost in the semi-final of the cup after a replay gave Wolves a 3-1 victory, before losing in the 1925 final to Sheffield United.
“When Cardiff lost the 1925 FA Cup final, he 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 took Keenor just two years to secure his hometown club the FA Cup, defeating Arsenal in the 1927 final. It was, and still is, the only time the cup has left England – ironically the match took place on the 23rd of April, St George’s Day.
The match was an historic one; firstly for the reason listed above, but secondly as it was the first ever cup final to be broadcast by BBC Radio.
Cardiff started their journey in the 1927 FA Cup against Aston Villa before beating Darlington, Bolton, Chelsea and Reading to reach the final. Arsenal on the other hand beat Sheffield United, Port Vale, Liverpool, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Southampton to reach Wembley.
Whilst the final wasn’t billed as a David vs Goliath contest, as it would now if the two clubs met, Arsenal were the firm favourites. The legendary Herbert Chapman was the Arsenal manager, having taken over the club two years prior, and the Gunners were expected to keep the cup in the English capital.
The game itself was an end to end clash with little to report on, according to a match report in the Manchester Guardian in 1927. The game, however, will forever be remembered for the famous winning goal or perhaps the infamous error from the Arsenal goalkeeper.
A hit and hope shot from Cardiff centre forward Hughie Ferguson turned out to be the winning goal after Arsenal goalkeeper Dan Lewis let the ball slip out of his arms, despite the shot looking incredibly comfortable to deal with.
Cardiff, led by captain Fred Keenor, returned home to the Welsh capital at 6:30pm that evening to a hero’s welcome. They were received by the Lord Mayor of Cardiff and were paraded to the fans.
“When the train arrived there was a mighty roar as Keenor, the Cardiff captain, was seen at the window with the cup in his hands. ”
— The Guardian, 26th April 1927
Ferguson was the goal scorer, but Keenor was the true hero; leading the side to their first ever FA Cup victory. Despite this, not many know that Keenor almost didn’t make the final, according to Cardiff club historian Richard Shepherd.
“Fred Keenor asked for a transfer in January 1927. He had been left out of the side for a few games, partly through injury, and he couldn’t get his place back.
Bristol Rovers came in for him but nothing came of the move and that’s about the time Cardiff started on the cup run.”
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For many, Fred Keenor is synonymous with the FA Cup triumph of 1927, with a statue of him lifting the trophy standing tall outside the Cardiff City Stadium.
Keenor is one of the only true winners in the club’s history. In his 19 years at the club, he led Cardiff City to glory in the FA Cup and the Charity Shield, as well as runners-up in the First Division and the FA Cup two years prior to winning it. In 32 caps for Wales, he led them to the Home Nations’ Championship title in 1920, 1924 and 1928.
For Cardiff, there will never be another man like Fred Keenor; the driving force behind the most successful period in the club’s history.
This article originally appeared on In Bed With Maradona.
Scott is a lifelong Cardiff City fan and freelance football writer. Scott hosts the VFTN podcast.