THERE was no stopping Nat Lofthouse at the best of times, but on a rain-sodden pitch and the fearless Lion of Vienna in a purple patch ... Birmingham’s defenders hardly stood a chance when they arrived at Burnden Park on a wet Saturday afternoon in December, 1955.
The miserable conditions – the pitch was littered by large pools of water following a treacherous pre-match deluge – kept the fans away and, consequently, the attendance was the lowest of the season.
But the hardy, rain-drenched souls who trudged along Manchester Road were handsomely rewarded by a Wanderers team at their all-attacking, free-scoring best.
And leading the way was the irrepressible Lofthouse, who scored four goals in a league game for the fourth time in his career. His tally on the day took his total for the season to 20 in 19 matches, just two short of his highest in a season – 22 in 36 games in the 1952-53 season. He followed up with a hat-trick in a 4-0 home win against Chelsea the following Saturday and ended the campaign with a staggering 33 goals in 32 league matches.
In fairness, the Birmingham defence showed little signs of being ripe for a roasting when they held out for the first half-hour in the face of relentless attacking pressure.
But they eventually buckled and once Wanderers had made the breakthrough there was just no stopping them.
Three goals came in an eight-minute spell just before half time, and two more in the first 15 minutes after the break – five in a 28-minute span that left Birmingham reeling. Indeed, Birmingham were 5-0 down before they even managed a shot on target.
Not that the 1955 Wanderers were all that formidable. A week earlier they had lost 3-0 at Newcastle, where they’d been punished for a mild-mannered approach, and, after following up the Birmingham bash with that handsome win against Chelsea, ended the year with four successive defeats.
Why the contrast?
The Bolton Evening News football writer Haydn Berry explained: “First of all, I think it was attitude of mind; secondly, playing conditions – the saturated turf and ball were much more to their liking and they got their through pass working to devastating effect once they had seized the lead.
“It laid the Birmingham middle line in ruins, pierced the goal cover and left Gill Merrick so helpless that twice he was saved by colleagues on the line, once by the upright and twice by a linesman’s flag when Lofthouse headed into the net.”
Birmingham only emerged as an attacking force – and that not very imposingly – in the last 15 minutes when the Bolton players eased up.
They had been reduced to a ragged crew by the intensity of Wanderers’ attacking game and, when they did get the ball and try to play, they were snuffed out by the Bolton tacklers.
Tommy Banks mastered the normally dangerous Gordon Astall, Malcolm Barrass gave Eddy Brown no chance to inspire his front line and Bryan Edwards, Roy Hartle, and Johnny Wheeler kept things so tight that Ken Grieves was a spectator for much of the game. Dominating the game, Wanderers were able to throw everything they had into attack and Birmingham simply had no answer to Lofthouse, Doug Holden, Dennis Stevens, Ray Parry and Ralph Gubbins.
There was something rather familiar, however, in the way Wanderers took the lead – Lofthouse climbing high to challenge Merrick, who had already caught Gubbins’ high cross, and barged the keeper and the ball into the net for what Berry described as “a debatable goal”.
Three years later Lofty would be universally condemned for scoring in identical fashion to help Wanderers beat Manchester United in the FA Cup final.
By half time Lofthouse had played a part in Stevens doubling Wanderers’ lead before heading his second.
And, within 15 minutes of the restart, he had headed his hat-trick and seen Wheeler net Wanderers’ fifth.
The game finished in poor light, as if to compound Birmingham’s misery, which was complete when Lofthouse raced through to beat the beleaguered Merrick with a cross-shot for his fourth and Wanderers’ sixth.
The result took Bill Ridding’s Bolton side up to sixth in the table, five places and two points above Birmingham, but by the end of the season the roles were reversed. Birmingham beat Wanderers 5-2 at St Andrew’s in the penultimate game and finished sixth behind runaway champions Manchester United, two places higher than Wanderers.