When Jack Hargreaves (my great uncle) took to the field for Yeovil Town at 3pm on Saturday 29 January 1949, he was just over two hours away from footballing immortality. It was FA Cup fourth round day and non-league Yeovil, a rag-tag assortment of part-timers and old pros like Jack, were hosting mighty Sunderland. At the time, the Wearsiders had the most expensively-assembled squad in the Football League, including Len Shackleton, whom they had purchased for a record fee of £20,500.
Bookmakers offered odds of 5,000/1 against an upset but this did not deter 45,000 fans from applying for just 17,000 tickets. By the time the turnstiles opened at noon on match day, the queues were half a mile long. For Jack, it would turn out to be the defining match in a career which had been robbed of its full potential by the Second World War.
Jack was born in Rotherham in 1915. A talented schoolboy footballer (and cricketer), he soon attracted the attention of professional scouts and was signed by Leeds United in 1934.
He moved to Beeston, near Elland Road stadium, and lodged with a landlady called Daisy, who was handsomely paid by the club to house its young players. She crammed so many into her home that players referred to it as “the Ranch House”. Several years later, a young John Charles (one of the greatest players of all time) had to share a bed at the Ranch House with two other lodgers.
During his time in Beeston, Jack met and fell in love with my grandma’s sister, Madge Waite, who lived nearby. They got married shortly before the outbreak of war and honeymooned in Scarborough. That final pre-war season also saw Jack’s emergence as a regular in the first team, playing 28 times and scoring nine goals. He was called up into the RAF in 1940 but turned out for Leeds United when his service commitments allowed and, by 1945, had made 93 appearances and scored 29 times.
After the war, he was transferred to Bristol City and ended his professional career with Yeovil Town. He was an integral member of the side which began its famous FA Cup run in 1948/49 with a 3-2 victory over Lovells Athletic in the qualifying round, followed by wins against Romford, Weymouth and Bury.
The game against Sunderland was Yeovil’s first ever appearance in the fourth round and the town had been gripped with cup fever (as this newsreel shows) since the draw had been made. Player-manager, Alec Stock, had tried to gain a psychological edge in the build-up by exaggerating the extent of the slope on the club’s Huish pitch and refusing to let Sunderland practise on it.
Yeovil began the game at a ferocious pace in front of a packed crowd (with thousands more listening to the commentary on wirelesses outside) and stunned the visitors when Stock himself put them ahead after 28 minutes. Sunderland equalised just after the hour and the game finished 1-1 after 90 minutes.
The game entered extra time just as a dense blanket of fog descended onto the ground and threatened an abandonment. Fortunately, it lifted sufficiently to allow play to continue. Just before the end of the first half of extra time, Ray Wright capitalised on a rare mistake by Shackleton and put Eric Bryant through on goal who slotted the ball home. The Yeovil fans went wild but then had to endure an excruciating 15 minutes as Sunderland threw everything at them. Against all odds, however, Yeovil held on to win 2-1. It was and remains the greatest giant-killing in FA Cup history. Jack and his teammates are still fêted as heroes in Yeovil.
Sadly, Jack’s cup run ended there as a knee injury ruled him out of the glamorous fifth round tie away to Manchester United but there was to be no repeat of Yeovil’s fourth round heroics, as they were crushed 8-0 by United.
Jack and Madge retired to Bristol and, without children of their own, they doted on their niece, Hilary (my mum). I recall childhood trips to Bristol to see them and visits to Leeds by them and remember Jack as a kind, generous man who played football and cricket with me in the back garden.
Sadly, they died only weeks apart in the winter of 1978-79 but Jack’s memory is honoured every time a non-league side is drawn against a top-flight team in the FA Cup and the grainy black and white footage of that famous Saturday in 1949 is played once again.