Forget controversial goals, yellow cards, shock exits, missed penalties, even accusations of back-handers and corruption; the greatest World Cup story ever told took place in London in 1966 and, no, it’s not the one you’re thinking of.
On Sunday, March 20, 1966, the FIFA World Cup trophy was stolen, sparking a global news sensation, not to mention blind panic and more than just a few red faces at the Football Association who would be hosting the tournament in just a matter of months.
Everyone, including London’s Metropolitan Police, was baffled at the disappearance. But the day was eventually saved by a dog called Pickles and his owner David Corbett who became overnight celebrities thanks to their discovery.
It’s an event that still resonates with football fans around the globe today and while the Border Collie ultimately became the hero of the hour, the story that led to Pickles’ becoming the most famous dog in the country is intriguing in its own right, even before the hairy hero intervened.
Jules Rimet Trophy stolen
The trophy went missing from the Methodist Central Hall in Westminster where it was being exhibited in a glass cabinet at the Stanley Gibbons Stampex stamp Exhibition, a classic example of a PR stunt that went horribly wrong.
With the tournament taking place that summer then FIFA President Stanley Rous was concerned about the most coveted trophy in world sport making an appearance. But he agreed to the request as long as the trophy – which was to be insured for £30,000 – was placed in a locked glass case which was guarded 24 hours a day.
On the Sunday, though, the guard stationed next to the trophy had been given the day off and when the cabinet was inspected just after midday, it became apparent that the Jules Rimet trophy was no longer there.
Initially, and not wanting the story to become common knowledge, an investigation began with Detective Inspector Bill Little dispatched to take witness statements from senior guard Frank Hudson and Margaret Coombes, a woman attending a Sunday-school service in the hall next door.
Both said they had seen a man loitering by the toilets but their descriptions differed, leading to police confusion. Meanwhile, the FA attempted to deal with the crisis in its own way before word got out of the most audacious raid since the great train robbery three years previously.
FA secretary Denis Follows promptly visited silversmith George Bird at his workshop in Fenchurch Street and asked Bird to make an exact replica of the trophy from the same solid gold as the original. Bird himself wasn’t told about the theft or why a replica was needed and was instructed to tell nobody about the request – even Rous knew nothing about the visit.
Police left chasing their tail
Once news of the burglary had got out, however, a deluge of crank theories arrived at Scotland Yard, hindering their attempts to find the modest statuette, which measured only about eight inches in height but whose true value was priceless.
One man wrote to say the trophy was in Wicklow, Ireland, while a certain Adolf Hieke sent a photograph from a German newspaper and placed an ‘X’ on it against the man he believed to be guilty – the Met was now becoming something of an international laughing stock.
But the first solid lead came when FA chairman Joe Mears received a ransom note which it was hoped would lead to the end of one of the biggest mysteries in British crime history.
“Dear Joe,” it read. “No doubt you view with very much concern the loss of the World Cup. To me it is only so much scrap gold. If I don’t hear from you by Thursday or Friday at the latest I assume it’s one for the POT.”
The sender, known simply as ‘Jackson’ also demanded £15,000 for the safe return of the trophy and sent a parcel to Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge ground, containing what he claimed was part of the trophy.
He eventually agreed to a meeting in Battersea Park, though instead of Mears, Detective Inspector Len Buggy – posing as the chairman’s assistant ‘Mr McPhee’ – would bring the £15,000 in a briefcase.
The case actually only contained £500 in cash with a newspaper being placed under the banknotes to give the impression there was more. After being told to drive around South London for 10 minutes the supposed-thief, real name Edward Bletchley, caught sight of the police backup vehicle that was parked nearby and ran, only to be arrested by those lying in wait.
Bletchley turned out to be nothing more than a chancer and the 46-year-old former soldier, who had served in the Royal Armoured Corps during the Second World War in Egypt and Italy, was eventually sentenced to two years for demanding money with menaces. But that didn’t help the police or, indeed, the FA find their trophy with the World Cup weeks away.
An unlikely hero
A week after the robbery, by which time the story had been splashed across the national press in every minute detail, it was time for the most unlikely crime solving duo since Batman and Robin to enter the stage.
On the night of March 27th, David Corbett left his ground-floor flat in Norwood, South London, to make a telephone call from the phone box across the road. With him was Pickles, the four-year-old mongrel he had taken off brother’s hands when he was a puppy because he chewed furniture.
On his way, the black and white dog started sniffing around at an unusual package. “It was wrapped in tightly-bound newspaper and string, laying against my neighbour’s car wheel,” Corbett remembers.
“At the time the IRA were active, so I thought it was a bomb. So I put it down. Picked it up, put it down again. Then curiosity took hold. I tore a bit off the bottom and there was a plain disc. Then I tore around and there was Brazil, Germany, Uruguay. I ran back in and said to my wife: ‘I think I’ve found the World Cup!’”
Breathless and still in his slippers, he took his find to Gypsy Hill police station in Crystal Palace where he was met with a far from enthusiastic response. “I bounded in, whacked it on the desk and said ‘I’ve found the World Cup’. The desk guy looked up and said: ‘That doesn’t look very world-cuppy to me’.”
Unfortunately, Corbett’s intervention and honesty meant that he instantly became the prime suspect for the theft in the eyes of the bungling Metropolitan Police, who immediately put him in the frame. “I was suspect number one,” he explained some years later. “I went into this bloody great incident room with 20 coppers taking calls. They questioned me until 2.30 in the morning. I wondered if I should’ve chucked it back in the road. I was up at six the next day for work.”
15 minutes of fame
The mystery surrounding the trophy’s disappearance was never solved but Corbett’s name was eventually cleared after several hours of questioning and a few weeks on a list of suspects by which time the pair had become global stars.
They appeared on television shows Blue Peter and Magpie and even at grand openings as well as receiving a cash reward. Pickles was even an extra in a film – the Spy with a Cold Nose – and was given a medal, not to mention a year’s supply of dog food.
They were even granted an invite to the party on the evening of England’s 4-2 victory over West Germany in the World Cup Final and, as crowds gathered to celebrate the famous win, Corbett strolled into the team hotel in Kensington with Pickles under his arm while the likes of Bobby Charlton and Bobby Moore came over to make a fuss of the doggy detective.
Pickles died just a year later and remains buried in the garden of the house that his owner purchased with his reward money when the inseparable pair made their famous discovery, “I received £3,000 and paid £3,100 for this house,” says Corbett, who still lives there. “I’ve put a plaque up and I go outside on a summer evening and remember him with a nice glass of Chardonnay.”
Incredibly, there was another twist in this astonishing story when in 1970, Bird’s replica was returned to him and the original given permanently to Brazil after they had won it for the third time in 1983.
But once again the famous old trophy was stolen, this time never to be found again, leading to Bird’s replica being the only version of the Jules Rimet trophy in existence. It was later sold for £254,000 when FIFA purchased it for the National Football Museum in Manchester where it now stands, appropriately, alongside Pickles’ collar.
“It is amazing really,” Corbett later said of his and Pickle’s involvement in that incredible sequence of events. “I think it’s the fact that every four years it comes up again, it’s not like something that happens and then it’s forgotten. But people remember the dog, they don’t remember me!”