Conor Heffernan takes an in depth look back at how English football was structured during World War Two.
“We shall play on the beaches, we shall play on the landing grounds, we shall play in the fields and in the streets, we shall play in the hills…”
Winston Churchill…Kind of
The years 1939 to 1945 were a time of great turmoil and great change. Cities were burnt to the ground, millions of lives were lost and untold horrors were committed. Nations on both sides of the European divide struggled to keep morale high at home. It was a seemingly impossible task.
How could a government get its people to continue to support a war effort that was costing lives and valuable resources? Across Europe, football appeared to be the answer. It was hoped by Governments in England, Germany, Italy and countless other European countries that football would at least provide the populace with some comfort, something to look forward to and something to help them escape the harsh realities of warfare.
This was no more so true than in Great Britain.
September 3rd 1939, saw Great Britain announce war on Nazi Germany following the German invasion of Poland. Plans were put in place to mobilize troops; generals sat around tables devising war plans and a nation held it breath. Knowing that some continuity must remain in public life, Neville Chamberlain’s government announced on September 14th that football in Great Britain would continue during the war but only if significant changes were undertaken.
A 50 mile travelling limit would be established, which meant that football leagues would be based on regions and not on league standings. Attendances were to be cut in the interest of public safety. At first the government limited attendance at games to 8,000 people but as the war went on, gates of up to 15,000 were allowed for league games.
Traditional football structures were shaken up. Football stadiums were taken over by the government and used as military bases. Military life had replaced home comforts. Squad sizes began to dwindle as footballers took to Europe to fight for old John Bull.
Between September 1939 and September 1945, over 780 English footballers joined the British war effort. This included 91 men from Wolverhampton Wanderers and 76 from Liverpool. In a desperate bid to put out a starting XI, many teams in the Wartime Leagues were forced to invite guest players to don their colours. It wasn’t ideal but it was something.
Regardless of such disruptions, the 1939-1940 Wartime League commenced in September 1939. Divisions The first season saw ten divisions established around Britain covering the span of the country. Before the Season began, it was announced that the FA Cup was also to be suspended, again replaced with a regional Football League War Cup. Football fans breathed a sigh of relief when the games commenced. For now Britain was insulated from the war-zone but this wasn’t to last.
May 1940 saw Adolf Hitler order German troops to invade both France and Great Britain. Bombings on British cities increased and unsurprisingly fears began to circulate that the Wartime Leagues would be suspended. Unperturbed by threats of aerial assaults, over 40,000 football fans travelled to Wembley Stadium that year to see West Ham United win the Football League War Cup when they defeated Blackburn Rovers, thanks to a Sam Small goal.
The bravery of 40,000 football fans to congregate in one area, knowing they were a legitimate target for Nazi bombers sparked something in the English FA. The FA began to realise the importance of football for the country’s moral and with that in mind, September 1940 saw the FA allow football be played on Sundays with the aim of providing relief and recreation for wartime workers.
As the seasons progressed, the FA was forced to become more creative. Ten divisions had proven too many as a lot of the teams had failed to field starting XIs.
Indeed, at the end of the 1939-40 league Season, points had been added up by goal difference or appearances as opposed to match results. Coupled with this, the summer of 1940 had seen a great aerial battle take place over British cities, which we now label as the ‘Battle of Britain’.
In line with safety and logistical concerns, the 1940-41 season saw the Wartime League restructured from ten divisions to two. Now there was a Northern Regional League and a Southern Regional League. It was hoped that reducing the number of teams would help teams field more guest players.
Prior to the 1941-42 season a London League and London War Cup were added to account for the popularity of the sport in the capital. As a measure it proved moderately successful but the standard of football was still questionable when compared with the pre-war Leagues. Regardless, the Wartime League gained huge popularity during this time from both players and fans alike who viewed the League as the perfect distraction to the war.
From 1942-1945 the Wartime League operated with three divisions split between North, South and West. Additionally, a League North Cup was established to match the London Cup.
Attendances began to soar during this time. A 1943 South League Cup Final between Arsenal and Charlton saw 75,000 football fans cram into Wembley Stadium. The following year saw 84,000 fans watch Charlton defeat Chelsea in the South League Cup Final. Football games had become a social occasions that allowed people to escape from the reality of warfare.
In May 1945 a news bulletin made its way to all four corners of England. German leader Adolf Hitler had committed suicide and Germany had surrendered effective immediately. The war was over! People took to the streets to celebrate, families waited for loved ones to return and the British public looked forward to a life free of warfare.
For fans of the beautiful game, it meant that real football would soon be returning. The 1945-46 season saw the Wartime League commence for the final time. Having to no longer worry about fan safety from aerial attacks, the FA reinstated the FA Cup and things slowly returned to normal. The following year saw the league return to its pre-war divisions (First, Second, Third, Forth).
The Wartime League had very few memorable moments, save perhaps for the début of Jackie Milburn, a man who would become a legend at Newcastle United. There were no ‘invincible teams’, there were no great rivalries and there was certainly a drop in standards, yet this hardly mattered to the crowds.
The Wartime Leagues provided something much more important. They provided hope. They allowed people to forget their woes for 90 minutes and enjoy life once more. For that alone, they were worth ten Premier League Seasons.
Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena
By H.Mason [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons