The Atomic Boys
After the Second World War, Blackpool had the first organised fan club in the country
The Second World War was over but the gloom of hardship and rationing remained. January 1946, Blackpool have been drawn against Middlesbrough in the fourth round of the FA Cup. Proper league football wouldn't be back up and running until the following season and so FA Cup ties, for the only time in history, were to be played over two legs. The additional income represented a lifeline for England's emaciated football clubs.
Pool and Boro could not be separated. The two matches produced an aggregate score of 5-5, necessitating a decider at neutral Elland Road. A Seasiders fan called Syd Bevers looked around the stadium and reckoned something was missing. "Colour. I don't think you'd have known who was supporting who." Following Blackpool's 1-0 defeat in Yorkshire, Bevers made the journey back to the Fylde coast and resolved to take action. Gathering together his mates, he set about forming Britain's first group of football ultras. A plan was formed to show their colours. The lads would stain the white jackets worn by waiters in Blackpool's burgeoning hospitality trade a brilliant tangerine – definitely not orange – and wear them to Bloomfield Road on match days. During the war, it was Bevers's work in the protected fishing industry that brought him to Blackpool from Grimsby. It had also versed him in how a little bit of finnan haddock dye could go a long way.
While Blackpool quickly established itself as the nation's entertainment capital, not all of the town's flat-cap-wearing, Woodbine-smoking football fans were enthused by Bevers and co's showy support for their team. Bevers remembers receiving some less than complimentary feedback from fellow Seasiders when the tangerine jackets were debuted.
Undeterred, Bevers decided his group needed a name – something to really grab people's attention. In the late 1940s, with the world splitting along ideological and geographical lines, East versus West, the potential of nuclear war dominated newspaper headlines and wireless bulletins alike. Bevers had his inspiration and Blackpool's 'Atomic Boys' were born.
Bevers soon decided that rather than the match-day uniform of tangerine jackets, the Atomic Boys should instead wear fancy dress. There is some thought that costumes were 'loaned' from Blackpool’s vaunted waxworks' museum, Louis Tussaud’s. Bevers, who kept a shop in the town, was extremely well connected and could call in favours whenever the Atomic Boys needed a new look. Syd's son Darrell recalls as a boy going into the basement of the family shop and being greeted by an array of costumes, from Native American headdresses to Chinese emperors' robes – "all sorts". Soon enough the Atomic Boys could be found parading around town before kick-off, decked out in their eclectic getups, to drum up support for the Tangerines.
In the final years of the decade, football – offering cheap and readily available family entertainment – boomed. The FA Cup, in particular, took on ever greater importance in the nation's consciousness. Stanley Matthews was the game's biggest box-office draw. Supporters up and down the land hoped 'the Wizard' would finally be rewarded with the FA Cup medal he was said to have vowed on his father's deathbed to win. Matthews spent the war in the RAF, stationed at a base just outside Blackpool. This meant under the arrangements governing wartime football, he regularly turned out for the Tangerines as a guest player. Matthews grew to love the town and opted to make it his home in peacetime, even though he was required to resume his playing career with Stoke City, the club who'd held his registration since signing him as a schoolboy.
While for many the 1946 FA Cup served notice that life was getting back to normal after the war, it also provided a tragic reminder of the death and destruction endured during the conflict. In the highly anticipated second leg of the quarter-final between Matthews’s Stoke and Bolton Wanderers at Burnden Park, 33 spectators were killed in a crush. In his autobiography, Matthews recalls the sickening sight of dead bodies being carried past him. Incredibly, the game was not abandoned. The traumatised players played out a 0-0 draw, which saw Bolton advance 2-0 on aggregate.
Matthews's relationship with Stoke manager, Bob McGrory, deteriorated over the following 12 months and he was left out of the side for a spell in the 1946-47 season. Stoke finished the campaign just two points behind the champions Liverpool. To the dismay of Stoke's fans, a parting of the ways between the club and its favourite son became inevitable. Matthews, by then 32, signed for Blackpool.
With Matthews, Blackpool sailed through to the FA Cup quarter-finals in 1948, beating Leeds, Chester and Colchester United at home, scoring 13 goals without reply. They were drawn to play Fulham at Craven Cottage in the last eight of the competition; Syd Bevers believed Blackpool's name was on the cup. The Shields Evening News reported how the “self-styled Atomic Boys" led 500 tangerine-clad supporters on a special overnight train. They "reached London just before 4 o'clock this morning … carrying a four-feet high cartoon of the cup bearing the words ‘Up the Pool – what about the M-Plan?' referring to the Matthews-Mortensen right-wing." The report revealed that the homemade cup, constructed with paper and wire netting, had been damaged in the guard's van during the journey. Happily, using paste borrowed from a porter, it was repaired. The Blackpool Gazette reported, "Blackpool fans, who are invariably so reserved and undemonstrative, were neither today." It went on to describe one fan carrying bellows with a brass funnel fitted to them to make the maximum possible racket. Contemporary photographs of the Atomic Boys reveal the identity of that noisy fan – Syd Bevers.
Blackpool eased past Fulham 2-0, setting up a semi-final clash with Spurs at Villa Park. With only four minutes left the Seasiders trailed the north Londoners 1-0. Then Matthews teed up Stan Mortensen to equalise, forcing an additional 30 minutes. Two minutes into extra-time the Stans combined again and Mortensen gave Blackpool the lead. At which point, according to the Sunday Post, "mascots raced onto the pitch and kissed the scorer." Mortensen completed his hat-trick and the game finished 3-1. Not for the last time in his career, Mortensen's cup treble received only second billing to the "old magic of Matthews" in the Sunday papers' match reports.
The Atomic Boys were on their way to Wembley.
The final would be an all Lancashire affair against Matt Busby's Manchester United. Cue a flood of condescending reportage about unsophisticated jolly northerners descending on the capital to drink it dry. The Blackpool fans, it transpired, had a purpose beyond getting hammered and bringing home the cup. Aboard the 30 special cup final trains that arrived into Euston – the first a full 12 hours before kick-off – they carried with them 25,000 folders. Adorned with pictures of the Blackpool players, and promoting their town's “magnificent promenades and golden sands”, these folders were to be left in cafes and pubs around London. Blackpool Council's publicity department had even developed a tangerine and white hat for fans to wear to Wembley, emblazoned with the words “Blackpool is a holiday winner”.
Sadly for the Atomic Boys, it was not to be a cup winner. Despite leading United twice, the Seasiders, wearing unfamiliar white shirts, succumbed 4-2. All was not lost though, as Bevers explained when interviewed for Mike Prestage's book Blackpool: The Glory Years Remembered. "We [the Atomic Boys] really got noticed at the '48 final. Then people started playing instruments, handbells and bugles. After that, the whole thing took off."
While Blackpool's 1949 cup campaign disappointingly went no further than the fourth round, the Atomic Boys added a new act to their repertoire that made them national news. Syd's son Darrell picks up the story: "I remember coming home from school and there was a cardboard box in the hall. It started moving." The Atomic Boys now had an atomic duck. Syd would bring the duck, named Stanley of course, to matches home and away. Blackpool, recognising the publicity potential, had by now adopted the Atomic Boys as quasi-official mascots. Syd was allowed to parade Stanley the Duck on the Bloomfield Road pitch. Other teams were less keen.
In December 1949, the Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer reported how, despite written notification from Huddersfield's directors that Stanley was not welcome at Leeds Road, "a representative of the Atomic Boys dumped him in the middle of the pitch. Stanley the Duck was taken into custody by a police sergeant for loitering in and around the centre circle." Stanley spent the rest of the match remanded in a coal bunker by the side of the pitch, waiting for Bevers to collect him at full-time. He was asked to sign a slip that read, "Lost property restored to the owner."
Stanley also received the finnan haddock dye treatment. Syd remembers trying to hold him still in the bathtub. Spooked, the duck flapped its wings, splattering tangerine dye all over the walls. Unsurprisingly, Darrell recalls, "Mum and Dad used to have loads of arguments about that bloody duck."
The Atomic Duck was a hit. There are pictures of him with his namesake Stanley Mortensen, who supplemented his wage-capped football income by running a shop in the town. The ever entrepreneurial Bevers grew friendly with Mortensen and Matthews, who ran a nearby boarding house. Darrell has cherished childhood memories of kickabouts with the two Blackpool stars.
Having fallen at the quarter-final stage in 1950, Blackpool prepared to mount a charge for the 1951 FA Cup. Newspaper columns suggested that time was running out for Matthews, who was approaching 36 years of age. Did he still have time to land the winners’ medal he so craved?
Stanley the Duck was by then going by the name Donald. Blackpool and Donald navigated their way past Charlton (after a replay), Stockport and Mansfield to reach the quarter-finals. The long-time football correspondent Clifford Greenwood was prompted to write in the Blackpool Gazette, "Never in all the years I have been reporting Blackpool football have I known such intense interest in the cup." The Fulham game, said Greenwood, was the "first cup quarter-final ever played on the north-west coast; it converted Bloomfield Road into a madcap bedlam… Everywhere on the cinder track, the mascots paraded in all sorts of high jinks. The Atomic Boys for this match introduced a character as tall as a lighthouse … Yes, it was a cup-tie – only a cup-tie could have a football enclosure in such a tumult." Pathé had sent a newsreel crew to record for all posterity the Blackpool duck, the Atomic Boys and a vintage display by the "wily wizard" Stanley Matthews. A first-half penalty was enough to see Blackpool through to the semi-final.
Second Division Birmingham City, fresh from knocking out Manchester United, would be their opponents. The two sides could not be separated in a goalless game at Maine Road, so the Atomic Boys made their way to the replay at Goodison Park. The plummy-voiced Pathé reporter delighted in announcing it would be "duck soup" for Donald should the Seasiders lose to the giant-killing Blues. Matthews would again take the plaudits, but it was goals from Mortensen and Bill Perry that secured a 2-1 victory and Wembley return for Blackpool.
In the build-up to the final, where the Seasiders would face Newcastle, it was announced that owing to the configuration of the national stadium "it is not possible for invalid chairs to be accommodated as they obstruct the view of the people in the sitting and standing areas." In a more conciliatory tone, the statement concluded: "We have every sympathy with these people and would be only too pleased to help them if the circumstances permitted." The Atomic Duck was also on the prohibited list. In an interview with the Blackpool Gazette's Frank Mellor, Syd revealed his request for permission to bring Donald to Wembley had been rebuffed by the authorities. Speculation was rife among the Blackpool fans and players alike that Donald would flout this prohibition. Syd confided to Mellor he was undeterred. He "outlined in the strictest confidence" a plot by which he hoped to disguise himself as a press photographer, enabling him to smuggle in Donald undetected in a carpet-bag.
45 minutes before kick-off Syd saw his chance. "Before police and officials could bat an eyelid," he burst from the 100,000-strong Wembley crowd, releasing Donald in the centre circle. "The Blackpool supporters went berserk at this totally unexpected event and cheered themselves hoarse as Syd and Donald were surrounded by a host of photographers."
An image of Syd diving on the hallowed Wembley turf to recapture Donald made the front page of the News of the World the next day. Disappointingly for Matthews and Blackpool, it was accompanied by the headline “Donald the Duck didn't bring his team luck”. Two second-half goals from Jackie Milburn gave Newcastle the cup. Matthews's wait for a medal went on.
Further disaster struck the Atomic Boys soon after the final. "Having been worried by a cat in its pen," the Atomic Duck was dead. A Hollywood A-lister came to the rescue.
1951 saw the release of Mr Drake's Duck, a film starring Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Yolande Donlan and the future Doctor Who John Pertwee. Shot in England, the plot revolves around newlywed American couple, Donald and Penny, who have inherited a farm in Sussex. Donald (get it? – 'Donald Drake' in a film about ducks), played by Fairbanks Jr, sends his bride to a livestock auction with farmhand Pertwee. Accidentally Penny bids on five dozen Aylesbury ducks. Hilarity ensues.
As the Atomic Boys had taken their comic inspiration from the possibility of nuclear armageddon, so too Mr Drake's Duck. It transpires that one of the ducks purchased by Penny is capable of laying atomic eggs. Naturally, these eggs are of great interest to the military and could save Britain the hundreds of millions of pounds required to enrich uranium. The farm is quarantined while the question at the heart of the film plays out: given that ducks are both amphibious and capable of flight, who has jurisdiction, the Navy or the Airforce?
Attending the UK premiere of this masterpiece, Fairbanks Jr is said to have heard of the Atomic Boys’ bad luck and decided to present them with a new duck. In gratitude, they named it Douglas.
Some fans were less than thrilled with Fairbanks Jr's intervention. Come the start of the 1951-52 season the Blackpool Evening Gazette felt compelled to ask readers, “the Duck, For or Against?" Writers of the two best postcards received on the subject were to be rewarded with fountain pens.
A Mr Leighton took up the cudgels for the prosecution: "The contrast between Blackpool Football Club with its deserved prestige and brilliant record and the laboured efforts of the silly circus to raise a laugh with their bewildered duck must be a source of wonderment wherever they appear. Football is too great a game to be saddled with such nonsense."
Mr Fred Travis countered for the defence. "If anything on this earth can raise only one smile on one face it seems to me that by so doing the 'thing' is justifying its existence – let t'duck be!"
While praising the generally high standard of the postcards received, the Gazette revealed: "Analysis of them showed two thirds in favour of retaining the duck."
The Atomic Boys’ detractors were spared too much "nonsense" that season. The Tangerines crashed out of the FA Cup in the third round, defeated 2-1 away to West Ham. By the time Blackpool would get another crack at the cup, Matthews would be three weeks shy of his 38th birthday. Surely his chance – and with it Blackpool's – had gone.
The FA Cup third-round draw in January 1953 was not kind to Blackpool. The Atomic Boys made their way to Hillsborough hoping for the best but fearing the worst. At the start of the month, in what the Gazette called "one of the blackest days in Blackpool's post-war football history", the Tangerines had been battered 4-0 by Bolton. Worse still, Mortensen had damaged his knee and would require surgery. Matthews, suffering from a thigh injury, faced a race against the clock to be fit for the Sheffield Wednesday cup tie. The manager Joe Smith spoke about his team being cursed. On the Friday before the game, Matthews passed himself fit to play. Blackpool were delighted that he did.
The Wizard lobbed the Seasiders into the lead in a game played in thick fog. Wednesday equalised with 15 minutes to go and the game looked destined for a replay. But with two minutes remaining, Blackpool's Ernie Taylor volleyed in a close-range winner. The Atomic Boys were on the march again. Huddersfield were dispatched in the fourth round, Southampton after a replay in the fifth. This set up a quarter-final tie with Arsenal at Highbury. Ahead of the match, the Daily Mirror dubbed it Umbrella Man versus Atomic Man under the headline "They're cup crazy… the characters in the crowd who mean as much to soccer as the players themselves!" Umbrella Man, famed for his Arsenal suit, red and white umbrella and "quick aggressive cockney wit", didn't stand a chance. Bevers told the Mirror that he and Douglas – recently returned to him by a West London theatre following a kidnap attempt – would be back in London for the final at Wembley in May. Allan Brown's last-gasp winner took Blackpool a step closer. The goal came at great personal cost to Brown. Reaching the ball a fraction before the Arsenal keeper Jack Kelsey, Brown was clattered. He lay prone on the ground, his leg badly broken as the terraces erupted in celebration around him.
As in 1948, Blackpool would face Spurs at Villa Park for a place in the FA Cup final. The Atomic Boys were determined to put on a show. The police had other ideas. Mascots were refused permission to parade the cinder track which separated the paddock area, housing the most fervent fans, from the pitch. A torrent of boos rang out expressing the crowd's displeasure. The Atomic Boys decided to chance their arm and began climbing out of the paddock. They were quickly intercepted and told any further attempts would see them ejected from the ground.
Moments before the teams emerged, Harry 'the Clown' Richards – a dwarf entertainer who performed as part of Charlie Chester's popular Crazy Gang comedy troupe – made a run for it. As David Tossell recounts in his book The Great English Final, "Making for the penalty area, he knelt as if in Arabic prayer before being caught by a policeman and returned to the terraces." The players warming up on the pitch were soon joined by Harry the Clown, who again evaded the stewards and attempted to score past the Tangerines' keeper George Farm. While the Blackpool players indulged Richards – many of them knew him – the police had had enough. Richards was expelled from Villa Park, only to meet some late-arriving Seasiders' fans outside who had a spare ticket. He re-entered the stadium and rejoined the Atomic Boys having barely missed a kick.
As in the quarter-final, it was decided at the death. With the sides locked at 1-1 and 15 seconds remaining, Spurs' Alf Ramsey attempted to cushion an awkwardly bouncing ball to his goalkeeper. Stretching, he made poor contact and the Blackpool inside-left Jackie Mudie pounced, firing past the despairing dive of Ted Ditchburn. 2-1 to the Seasiders. The full-time whistle followed immediately. Blackpool, Stanley Matthews and the Atomic Boys could again make Wembley plans. One question dominated the press: would it be third time lucky?
In the two years since Blackpool's previous cup final appearance, King George VI – who had handed Matthews and his teammates their unwanted losers’ medals – had died. His daughter Elizabeth would be crowned Queen a few weeks after Blackpool and Bolton contested the 1953 FA Cup final.
As the Atomic Boys arrived in London on cup final morning, Syd Bevers prepared for his greatest feat yet. Dressed in a flowing tangerine robe and silver headdress, puffing away on a cigar, Syd led the Atomic Boys to Downing Street. Alerted by the group's colourful costumes – and the noise of the ship's siren they carried with them – a policeman approached Bevers. "Now then. Now then. No noise if you please." Syd reached into his cape and produced a 7lb stick of tangerine and white Blackpool rock stamped all the way through with the words "Sir Winston”. The policeman stepped aside allowing Syd to stride up to the most famous front door in the land. With a knock, he declared, "A present for Sir Winston [Churchill]". To the disbelief of his fellow Atomic Boys, Bevers was shown inside, the door closing behind him. Later Bevers would explain to his mates and Blackpool’s historian Gerry Wolstenholme what happened next. A secretary informed Bevers that the Prime Minister was out for an hour but "I assure you it [the rock] will be given to Sir Winston when he returns and I assure you, too, that he will wish Blackpool the best of luck." The picture of Bevers smiling on the steps of Number 10 Downing Street, dressed as an "Eastern potentate", featured in many newspapers' coverage of the final.
With the rock delivered, the Atomic Boys headed to Wembley for what was to become the most famous FA Cup final of them all. It was to be the first final widely broadcast on television. With the coronation to come, many people had decided to invest in their first television set. Viewers saw Nat Lofthouse give Bolton the lead inside two minutes. Mortensen equalised, but midway through the second half Blackpool found themselves 3-1 behind and desperate. Belying his years, Matthews picked up the ball on the right wing and sprinted past the Bolton left-back. Kenneth Wolstenholme commenting for the BBC fawned, "Look at the speed of that man, and they say he's slow." In truth, Matthews’s subsequent cross was poor. Stan Hanson in the Bolton goal should have gathered it easily. Instead, he dropped the ball at Mortensen's feet, and he scrambled it over the line. 3-2. It was not proving a good day for either goalkeeper.
The comeback was on, and the Blackpool fans knew it. On the Pathé footage the camera cuts to the crowd after the goal. Incongruous amongst the masses of formal jackets, ties and lacquered hair, stands Syd Bevers, robes flowing, bellows in hand and giant turban atop his head. The row behind him should have been advertised as restricted view.
Still trailing with only a minute to play, Blackpool were awarded a free-kick on the edge of Bolton's box. Mortensen thumped the ball home to complete his hat-trick, the first in a Wembley final. In injury time Matthews again received the ball on the right. Driving into the box he beat his man and cut it back to Bill Perry to fire in Blackpool's winner.
Remembering to put in his false front teeth first, the Blackpool captain Harry Johnston led his team up the Wembley steps. Queen Elizabeth presented Blackpool with the cup. At last Stanley Matthews had a winner’s medal. 300,000 people turned out to welcome the players home to Blackpool. Behind the open-top bus carrying the players followed another for the Atomic Boys.
Bevers would continue to parade Douglas and his successor Puskás at Bloomfield Road for another decade (four Blackpool players started England's 6-3 mauling at the hands of a Ferenc Puskás-inspired Hungary in 1953), but football and the town were changing. With the abolition of the game's maximum wage, Blackpool were no longer able to compete with the big city clubs for top players. They fell out of the first division. With the advent of package holidays to the Mediterranean, the town declined as well.
While Bevers’s contribution to the club was rewarded with a free season ticket, by the early 1970s he observed a change in the culture of football fandom. "It's gone now, mainly because of hooliganism. I wouldn't dare walk about now, in my old outfit, in another town. They'd be after me, wouldn't they?"
Two decades on from Blackpool's Wembley triumph over Bolton, a second-division fixture between the two clubs witnessed the murder of a 17-year-old Seasider called Kevin Olsson. Stabbed to death by rival fans on Bloomfield Road's Spion Kop, it was widely reported as the first death due to hooliganism in English football. The carnival era of the Atomic Boys was over.
Syd Bevers remained friends with Stanley Matthews for the rest of his life. His passion for the club and the town undiminished, he died in 2007.