Benjamin Mervyn “Sandy” Griffiths – The man behind the miracle of Berne

The 4th of July 1954, the World Cup Final which was played in the Wankdorf Stadium in Berne, Switzerland is the only occasion a Welshman has played a part in a major international football final. The man in question is Benjamin Mervyn “Sandy” Griffiths, who was a linesman that day and would play his part in determining the fate of the World Cup when he ruled out Hungarian legend Ferenc Puskas’ equalizing goal as offside and you could say started a German footballing dynasty. But more on this issue later. This article will look at the life and achievements of Griffiths and his place among the greats of Welsh football.

Griffiths’ medal from the 1954 World Cup. Picture Credit:

Griffiths was born in Blaina in Blaenau Gwent on the 17th of January 1909 and his family moved to Six Bells, near Abertillery when he was 4 years old. He was the eldest child of Blodwen and Llewellyn Griffiths and he had two brothers, William and Vernon and two sisters, Eileen and Marian. The family would continue to move in 1922 when they moved to the village of Aberbeeg, where his two sisters were born. Soon after the family would relocate once more, this time to Newport. Due to the depression that gripped South Wales in the 1920’s and 30’s, Mervyn left for Devon to take up a teaching post, but in 1932 would return to Newport to become a teacher in Durham Road Elementary School (this school no longer exists as it was closed down in 2009).

It was in 1934 that he started officiating as a referee in the Newport and District League and begin his steady rise as within five years he was appointed to the Football League List as a linesman but the Second World War curtailed his progress temporarily. On the 9th of April 1949, he became the first Welshman to referee an international at Wembley when England faced Scotland in the 1948/49 British Home Championship. This match would decide the winner of the championship as both sides had won both of their previous two matches. The England team would consist of legends such as Billy Wright, Sir Stanley Matthews, Jackie Milburn and Sir Tom Finney but in an upset, the English were emphatically defeated 3-1 in front of a Wembley crowd nearing 100,000. Later on, that year he would referee another England match when they faced Northern Ireland on the 16th of November in a World Cup Qualifier. The result would be in England’s favour this time as they thrashed the Northern Irish 9-2 at Maine Road. His performances during these matches must have impressed FIFA as he was chosen to be one of the referees to officiate at the 1950 World Cup in Brazil.

His aversion to flying meant that he travelled to the tournament by boat from Tilbury in Essex to Rio de Janeiro, which took 16 days. It is believed that his dislike of flying came from the fact that three of his relatives were amongst 80 fans that were killed in the Llandow Air Crash, as they were returning from Ireland after watching Wales win the Triple Crown in Match 1950. At the tournament, in which only 13 teams competed, Griffiths would take part in the first match as a linesman as the hosts faced Mexico at the Maracanã in Rio de Janeiro on the 24th of June. Griffiths first match as the referee was Brazil’s final group game against Yugoslavia at the Maracanã in front of 140,000 fans on the 1st of July. He would have to deal with some controversy from this match as the Yugoslavs had asked for the kick-off to be delayed after their star striker Rajko Mitic hit his head against an iron girder in the dressing room and cracked open his head. Griffiths would refuse their plea and the match kicked off on time, meaning that Yugoslavia had to start the match with 10 men and was a goal down within 4 minutes and would go on to lose the match 2-0. The next match he would officiate at the tournament was in Sao Paulo as Uruguay faced Spain in the Final Round of matches on the 9th of July. The Final Round contained the four group winners and who would play each other to determine the winner of the World Cup, it is the only World Cup that did not have a one-match final. His performance during this matched was praised as he managed to keep both sides under control and saved the match during a 2-2 draw. This was his last involvement in the tournament.

Griffiths’ medal from the 1953 FA Cup Final. Picture Credit:

On the domestic front, Griffiths was asked to officiate his first Welsh Cup final in 1950 when Swansea Town defeated Wrexham at Ninian Park. Swansea’s team that day contained great names such as Roy Paul and Ivor Allchurch. He was asked to referee the final again the following year between Merthyr Tydfil and Cardiff City at the Vetch and after this match finished in a draw he would be asked to referee the replay, which Merthyr won 3-2. He refereed his third Welsh Cup final in 1952 when Rhyl FC would defeat Merthyr Tydfil in front of 10,000 fans at Ninian Park. In 1953 Griffiths was the man in the middle once again as Rhyl would win consecutive Welsh Cup finals by defeating Chester at Farrar Road in Bangor, this was held on the 27th of April and five days later on the 2nd of May, he officiated the FA Cup final at Wembley between Blackpool and Bolton Wanderers in front of 100,000 fans. This is remembered as one of the greatest FA Cup finals of all-time as Sir Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen inspired Blackpool to a 4-3 victory, having been down 3-1 with 25 minutes to go. Griffiths played a part in Blackpool’s equalising goal as he gave them a free kick on the edge of Bolton’s box from which Stan Mortensen would score and clinch his hat-trick, the only hat-trick ever scored in an FA Cup Final. The final will be forever known as the “Matthews final” due to the brilliant performance from the 38-year-old winger. But it should also be remembered as first FA Cup final officiated by a Welshman. This occasion also meant that Griffiths became the first man to referee the Welsh and English Cup finals, but also did this in the same season.

He would return to Wembley in November of that year as he officiated a match between England and a Rest of the World XI, with both sides containing great players. The England side contained greats such as Alf Ramsey, Matthews, Wright and Nat Lofthouse among others. Whilst the Rest of the World Side contained Italian Giampiero Boniperti who is considered one of Juventus and Italy’s greatest ever players (also part of the Magical Trio with John Charles and Omar Sivori) and Gunnar Nordahl, who would become AC Milan’s all-time record goalscorer and considered one of Sweden’s greatest ever players. Griffiths played his part in the 4-4 draw as he gave England a late penalty, which was converted by Ramsey, to salvage the draw. The match was held to mark the English Football Association’s 90th anniversary.

Griffiths with the captains of France and Yugoslavia during the 1954 World Cup. Picture Credit:

Griffiths was once again selected by FIFA to officiate at the 1954 World Cup, which was held in Switzerland. He would officiate in the group game between Yugoslavia and France, which the Yugoslavs would win 1-0 in Lausanne on the 16th of June. Griffiths would be one of the linesmen in a match that would later become the World Cup final as Hungary played West Germany in a group game on the 20th of June in Basel. The result here was 8-3 to the Hungarians as Sandor Kocsis scored 4 of the goals. Griffiths was kept busy as 3 days later he was the man in the middle for another group game as the hosts played against Italy in Basel and the Swiss would come out of the match with a 4-1 victory. Griffiths would not be used for the semi-final when he refereed the match between Hungary and Uruguay in Lausanne on the 30th of June. The match would go into extra time after it finished 2-2 after 90 minutes and Kocsis would prove to be the winner once again, scoring twice to send the Hungarians into the final. This match was described as one of the greatest matches in the history of the World Cup and was the first time that Uruguay had lost a match in the tournament, having won it in 1930 and 1950. Griffiths was chosen as one of the linesmen for the final along with Italian Vincenzo Orlandini with Englishman William Ling as the referee. The Hungarians entered the match as heavy favourites, having not lost an international since 1950 and had not been beaten in 28 matches. The Hungarian line up would contain the legendary Ferenc Puskas, who would play his first game back from injury after sustaining a hairline fracture of the ankle from a tackle by Werner Liebrich in the group game against the Germans. This did not deter Puskas as he would score the opening goal after only 6 minutes on the clock and they doubled their advantage only two minutes later when Zoltan Czibor scored to make it to 2-0. To keep with the frantic start to the game, the Germans would be level after 18 minutes when Max Morlock scored after 10 minutes and Helmut Rahn equalised on 18 minutes. The Hungarians would dominate the rest of the match, but found German goalkeeper Toni Turek in form and repelled all of their attacks. In the 84th minute, Germany took the lead through Rahn again and Hungary searched frantically for a goal that would send the match into extra time. This is where Griffiths would leave his mark on the game, Puskas a few minutes after Germany took the lead, thought he had scored the equalising goal but this was ruled offside by Griffiths. He later said that Puskas came over to him and gave him a dirty look. This decision has been described as one of only two questionable decisions that have affected the result of a World Cup final, the other being in 1966, when Geoff Hurst’s shot was deemed to have crossed the line. Griffiths decision would have a profound impact on the two countries as Hungary would struggle to reach the heights this team reached and there are those who believe that the seeds of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were sown soon after the final whistle was blown. Whilst in Germany, the win would provide the country with a sense of pride not felt since the end of the Second World War and the football team would go from strength to strength, going on to win three more World Cups and three European Championship. So, it can be said that his decision to disallow Puskas’ goal had a profound effect on world football for years to come.

Griffiths with Cardiff City captain Trevor Ford and Swansea Town captain Ivor Allchurch in the 1956 Welsh Cup Final. Picture Credit:

Griffiths would return to Newport after the tournament and continue his teaching, with his next major appointment being the 1956 Welsh Cup Final at Ninian Park between Cardiff City and Swansea Town, which drew a crowd of over 37000 a record for a Welsh Cup final, the two sides would include famous names such as Trevor Ford, Ivor Allchurch, Mel Charles and Cliff Jones. Cardiff would come out on top on this occasion with a 3-2 win. In September of that year, Griffiths would officiate in his only European Cup game, with Manchester United facing Anderlecht of Belgium. It would be one to remember as it was Manchester United’s first home European tie. Due to no floodlights installed at Old Trafford, the match would be played at Manchester City’s stadium at Maine Road. The match would also be remembered as United’s largest European win as they defeated their Belgian opponents 10-0 with Tommy Taylor scoring a hat-trick and his strike partner Dennis Viollet netting four times.

Mervyn Griffiths just prior to kick off. Picture Credit:

Because of Griffiths high standard of refereeing meant that he would once again be on FIFA’s list of referees for the World Cup in Sweden in 1958. His first involvement was as a linesman in one of the opening day group matches between France and Paraguay on the 8th of June at the Idrottsparken in Norrkoping, which ended 7-3 in the Frenchmen’s favour, with legendary French striker Just Fontaine scoring three of the 13 goals that he scored in the tournament. He would be the man in the middle of France’s next group game, this time against Yugoslavia at the Arosvallen Stadium in the city of Vasteras on the 11th of June. The French would not be in luck this time as they lost 3-2 after taking the lead in the fourth minute. Griffiths was a linesman in Yugoslavia’s next group game against Paraguay on the 15th of June at the Tunavallen stadium in Eskilstuna. The match would prove to be an entertaining one that finished 3-3. His involvement in the tournament was restricted due to the success of the home nations at the tournament as his countrymen reached the quarter-final along with Northern Ireland and he would not be allowed to referee in those matches. This meant that he would not be involved until the 24th of June when he refereed the semi-final between France and Brazil at the Rasunda Stadium in Solna near Stockholm. This proved a historic match as it was Pele’s first hat-trick, which made him the youngest player to ever score a hat-trick in a World Cup. This proved to be the difference as Brazil came out on top 5-2.

Mervyn Griffiths. Picture Credit:

Griffiths would write a book this year as well titled “The Man in the Middle” but it was not well received due to the uneventful life Griffiths led outside of the football pitch as a teacher and a member of his local church. Griffiths is unfairly compared to another referee of that era, Englishman Arthur Ellis, who was a different and a more colourful character to Griffiths because of his mannerisms and wanting of recognition. Whilst Griffiths got to the top because of his fairness and fantastic fitness levels, which allowed him to become the first referee to be given dispensation to continue his career at the highest level when he reached the referee retirement age of 47. In the book, he mentions how players would try and con him into giving penalties by diving and he believed that this should be punishable, something that has only been addressed recently. The book was dedicated to his wife Violet and he made many references to her throughout the book. Griffiths would retire from refereeing in 1959 at the age of 50 and would continue in his role as a teacher in Durham Road as well as be a referee assessor.

A tragedy was to hit Griffiths in 1960, when his brother Vernon, who was 33 and a deputy at the Six Bells Colliery, and nephew Clive Griffith, who was only 18 and employed as a prop checker, were killed in the Six Bells Colliery disaster on the 28th of June, which took the lives of 43 other men.

Commemorative blue plaque at Ty Ebbw Fach, unveiled in 2014. Picture Credit:

Griffiths would sadly pass away at the Royal Gwent Hospital on the 21st of January 1974, having fallen ill the day after he celebrated his 65th birthday. What is even more tragic about this is that he was due for retirement from his role as assistant headmaster at Durham Road.

Griffiths influence cannot be understated for as soon as his career was winding down Leo Callaghan from Merthyr Tydfil would go on to have a very distinguished officiating career and after that Clive Thomas from Treorchy would state that Griffiths would be a big influence on him and inspired him to reach the heights that he did in his career. Thomas was the person that unveiled the commemorative blue plaque dedicated to Griffiths in 2014, 40 years after his death. The plaque is located on Ty Ebbw Fach, which is a heritage centre in Six Bells and close to the former Six Bells Colliery. Griffiths should be remembered for having a fantastic officiating career and shared the football field with greats such as Pele, Puskas and Fontaine, among many others and was held in such high regards that he was able to officiate in three World Cups and an FA Cup final, which was a major event at the time.

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