The White Horse Bridge

An unlikely hero remembered

February 2005. A friend of mine was leaving London for Los Angeles to take part in a reality TV show (spoiler: he didn’t make it big in Hollywood) and planned a drinks gathering before he left. In those days, friends selected drinking venues based on (a) proximity to tube stations, (b) cheapness of beer, and (c) availability of quiz machines.

Five pounds down and four Carrie Fisher movies short of a time extension, I gave up on the film quiz machine and returned to the bar. Standing next to me was a man carrying a three-day-old copy of the evening paper. He proudly showed me a full-page spread about a competition that he was running to name a new footbridge. The bridge was to be part of the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium, he explained.

Wembley, which is a few miles northwest of central London, is known as the National Stadium. That means that it hosts England international football matches and Coldplay concerts (among other things). The original structure was demolished in 2003 to make way for a new stadium, which was eventually completed in 2007. The proposed footbridge would connect the new stadium with the nearby town by crossing a railway.

The London Development Agency wanted some democracy to the bridge’s naming process and established a poll that allowed anybody to suggest a name. A group of German football fans embraced the opportunity and nominated Dietmar Hamann, scorer of the last ever goal at the old Wembley Stadium. Among the hundreds of thousands of nominations for Hamann, 80,000 came from the same email address. The website crashed, of course.

The Wembley story had always been a good one for our radio station: It perfectly straddled our often awkward directive to cover news and sport. I sensed an opportunity and suggested to the guy running the competition that once the initial round of nominations for the footbridge was over, we could help. Besides being the “Home of Live Sport,” I explained that the BBC also had the technical expertise to support a large-scale and secure vote (as the vote-riggers in Germany discovered, we could also limit votes to one per IP address — fancy tech for 2005!).

We assembled a shortlist of possible names from which listeners would choose their favorite. Voting would be online — through the 5 Live website — and would last for ten days, including the final weekend of the football season. On-air, we’d sustain interest with the “Breakfast” programme (which had over two million listeners) focusing on a different nominee each day.

Constructing the shortlist was hard. By the time the nominations round had closed, Hamann and a Scottish footballer topped the list with the most nominations. We decided that the best plan was to gather some experts, lock them in a studio with the microphones on, and not let them out until they’d produced a list of five names they thought were appropriate for a new National Stadium.

There were 670,000 nominations. Plenty were associated with 1966 (the only year that England have won the World Cup); many others were sportsmen that had contributed to the history of Wembley. Some were ingenious (the “Stuart Pearce Flyover — because it goes over the top”), others plain stupid (amazingly, four different people took the trouble to nominate “your mum”). One of the most frequently mentioned English names was Bobby Moore, captain of the 1966 England team.

Early on I’d found myself drawn to names that represented more than an individual. Wembley is a home to team sports, and I liked the idea that we reflected that. “Bridge ‘66" was a popular nomination; I think it would have made the shortlist were it not for a phone call from National Rail. They explained that every bridge that crosses a railway (as ours would do once it was built) is assigned a unique number. That way, if there were any problem with the bridge, train drivers could immediately identify it to signalmen and emergency services. Somewhere in the UK, there was a Bridge ‘66 already.

Our shortlisting panel spent nearly an hour working through some of the other possible options before they finally agreed on the list of five names. It included three names from 1966 — “Sir Alf Ramsay,” “Sir Bobby Charlton” and “Sir Geoff Hurst” — together with “Live Aid” (a nod to the greatest non-sporting event held at the stadium) and “White Horse”, for true history buffs.

For those that didn’t catch the 1923 FA Cup Final, Billy the White Horse was a hero.

The new Empire Stadium at Wembley was barely finished in time for the first major event to be held there — the Football Association Cup Final. No tickets went on sale; spectators were encouraged to just turn up. Even so, the organizers didn’t believe that they’d fill the new arena to its 120,000 person capacity, so they promoted the game right up until matchday, promising “plenty of space and excellent views.” In fact, over 200,000 people attended. There was only “plenty of space” if you stood on the pitch, which many had to do.

Until Billy appeared. The grey horse (who appeared white in newsreel footage), ridden by a policeman, walked around the perimeter of the pitch, ensuring that people were kept back behind the sidelines.

While Billy pushed some fans by nudging them with his nose, Police Constable George Scorey would ask the crowd, “Don’t you want to see the game?” He urged them to “join hands and heave” backwards.

Eventually the game was started, and was only interrupted twice to clear the pitch of supporters. Billy was a hero, making the newsreels and the front pages of the papers.

I don’t think any of us really believed that the name “White Horse” stood much of a chance in a public vote. Names such as Ramsay, Charlton and Hurst were crowd-pleasers, and we assumed that any vote unrelated to 1966 would be for “Live Aid.” The bookmakers Ladbrokes made the same assumption: When we first announced the shortlist, you could buy “White Horse” as an outside 17-1.

As voting progressed, we stayed alert to public campaigns that might sway the result. The Scottish Sunday Herald suggested that Scots get behind “White Horse,” because it was the name of a whisky. There was also some evidence that disgruntled Germans were backing “Live Aid”. But it was never clear that any campaigns had much impact on the voting. Of course, these were the days before Twitter and Facebook; I doubt we’d be able to say the same if we ran the vote today.

“White Horse” was a come-from-behind winner. In the final days of voting, it gained momentum and ended up with a definitive lead by the time the competition was closed. It wasn’t even close.

I couldn’t have been happier about it: “White Horse” represented a great story, and something truly heroic. There were so many other positives: the first ever event at Wembley, safety, bravery, teamwork, individual contribution. And conveniently, the bridge would even be white!

So please don’t tell anybody that the white horse was really grey.

This article originally appeared in the BBC internal newspaper Ariel in 2005. I re-wrote it to remove BBC jargon and make (some) sense to an American audience.