This year marks the 100th anniversary of the first FA Cup Final played at Wembley Stadium, on 28 April 1923.
The winning goalkeeper on that day was Dick Pym. He was the most expensive keeper in the world at that time, having transferred from Exeter City to Bolton Wanderers in June 1921. Dick’s remarkable footballing career took him from poverty in Devon to national football hero, celebrated in newspapers and boy’s comics.
He was an 18-year-old salmon fisherman playing for local side Topsham St Margaret’s AFC when he was scouted in 1911 by Exeter City. He signed with the club only on condition that he could go on fishing in the summer off-season, and made his first team debut on 23 March 1912.
In 1914 he was picked for the Grecians tour to South America. The Argentinian Football Association had invited the team, offering to pay first-class travel, accommodation and a £20 fee for each player. It was an offer too good to refuse. Dress-suit dinners were obligatory during the voyage on the Royal Mail Packet boat and the players had suits specially made. None had ever seen such finery. After the tour, Dick donated his suit to his dad’s allotment scarecrow, thinking he would never have to wear such a thing again. How wrong he was!
Exeter played five matches in Argentina and the locals only scored twice. After one home goal, a penalty to Rosario, the crowd went wild. They let off fireworks, screamed and shouted. The band marched onto the pitch and played the Argentinian national anthem half a dozen times. In another game, the club secretary from league champions Racing Club de Buenos Aires drew a revolver and threatened to shoot the referee for failing to send Lagan (from Exeter) off for a ruthless foul. Play was so boisterous that in the penultimate game, Dick Pym suffered two broken ribs.
This was particularly disappointing, as the team travelled on to Brazil and Dick missed playing in the historic match in Rio de Janeiro on 21 July 1914, when the Brazilian national team played for the very first time. The Exeter players doled out bruising tackles and Brazilian star forward, Friedenreich, lost two front teeth in a shoulder-charge. Brazil drew the match 3-3. In a Brazilian television interview many years later, Dick said ‘the Brazilians deserved to win. They were much more skilful than we were and knew how to control the ball.’ How often have we heard that before?
Dick collected the ball from this historic match and brought it home as a souvenir. In 1985, he gave it as a fundraiser to Topsham Youth Club and it eventually found its way to the ECFC Museum. From April to October, it will be on display in a special exhibition at Topsham Museum.
Three team members, including Dick, brought back parrots from Brazil. Two lived at St James Park as mascots and when one died, it was given an honorary burial in the goalmouth. Before long, superstitious players began blaming it for their failure to score in that goal. The parrot was exhumed, and the Grecians went on to win the next match, scoring the only goal (guess which end)! Superstition amongst footballers was common – Dick always carried a piece of coal to team matches and sang a special song to himself before going on the pitch.
Dick Pym made a record-breaking 186 consecutive appearances in the Southern League and was by then an outstanding goalkeeper. He signed for Bolton for around £5000 in June 1921, although the transfer fee was never officially disclosed. They must have wanted him badly, as they even offered to transport his furniture from Devon to Bolton, something unheard of then. The fee helped the Grecians improve St. James Park and pay off their debts.
Dick went on to win three FA Cup medals with Bolton in 1923, 1926 and 1929. He did not concede a single goal in these three finals, a record to this day.
He died in 1988 aged 95 and was then the longest-lived England player.
Dick is remembered for humility and kindness, as well as being the best goalkeeper of the 1920s. In commemoration of his life, an Exeter Civic Society Blue Plaque will be installed on Underway, Topsham, later this year.
A temporary exhibition about Dick Pym and the 1923 FA Cup Final runs at Topsham Museum from 1 April to 30 September 2023. Rarely seen memorabilia, including caps, medals and tickets will be on display. Admission is free.
A book about Dick’s extraordinary life is available from Topsham Museum, 25 Strand, Topsham, Exeter EX3 0AX shop.topshammuseum.org.uk/product-category/books/
Written by Ian Davison, Topsham Museum