It was just over two months ago that domestic football resumed, and around one month ago that the 19/20 season reached its conclusion, on an exhilarating final day. While it is safe to say that the resumption, after around three months of absence, was more than welcome, it must be said that a lot of problems in the world of football came to light more clearly than ever due to the financial uncertainty that came with the break. Since the restart, Wigan Athletic have entered administration and were relegated due to a deduction of 12 points, and Charlton Athletic face the terrifying prospect of expulsion from the league if they do not find new owners to replace the amoral and unfit ones currently at the helm. Unfortunately, these are not uncommon circumstances in the football industry- an industry that revolves around the extortionate amount of money in it, without regard for its foundation, the fan base. The last time regular football was brought to halt as drastically as we have seen in this coronavirus pandemic was amidst another global crisis, the Second World War. However, unlike today, where the financial dog-eat-dog atmosphere of football has been highlighted, during the war years it was the fan-driven, everyday ritual of the game that was seen.
On 3rd September 1939, Blackpool boasted the only 100% record in the top flight of English football and sat proudly at the top of Division One. On the same day, war was declared on Germany after the invasion of Poland and as a result the FA suspended all forms of football, after just three games into the season. While in 1914 pro-war types were outraged that football continued, and chastised its partakers for a lack of patriotism, Neville Chamberlain’s government deemed football to be an essential form of recreation and morale-boosting activity, and within days of banning the sport the FA reintroduced it, with regional leagues and friendly matches set up to entertain the war-stricken population. The desire for football carried on unabated. Mass Observation, in one of the world’s first mass participation research projects, found in December 1939 that 49% of the population read sports news more closely than news of the war, while only 30% of those polled said they were more interested in war news. As a conclusion, Mass Observation stated that “people find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport”, and that “one Saturday afternoon of League matches could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 government poster campaign urging cheerfulness”.
The desire for football was clear to see from the outset and throughout the war. This could be seen most clearly in the ground sharing that took place across the country. Manchester United carried on playing throughout the war even after a bomb hit Old Trafford on 11 March 1941, forcing them to move in with Manchester City. Meanwhile, in north London, Highbury was taken over and turned into an ARP (Air Raid Precautions) Centre. Arsenal were forced to play home matches at White Hart Lane, the home of bitter local rivals Tottenham Hotspur, in order to cater for the demand of their following throughout the war years.
With the suspension of regular League football and the FA cup, the war saw the introduction of the Football League War Cup, a competition created to fill the hole left by the FA cup. Despite the huge danger posed by the Blitz, the War Cup was driven by the desire of bumper crowds at stadiums such as Molineux, Stamford Bridge, Ewood Park, Villa Park, and of course Wembley. Although there was worry over bombing threats, 85,000 people went to Wembley in May 1944 to see Charlton beat Chelsea 3-1 in the southern area final; before the Addicks shared the cup with Aston Villa after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge in the overall final (replays were not an option due to the bombing risks). There was a huge desire for this competitive form of football during a time where people’s minds were occupied with fear and anxiety, a desire that was enough to attend stadiums in crowds of up to 90,000, despite the clear danger that came with big gatherings. Incredibly, the lowest attendance in the War Cup area finals and national finals was 28,000, an overcapacity crowd at Bloomfield Road, the home of Blackpool, showing the popularity and sheer importance that football held in the lives of so many people at the time.
However, it was not just the desire for the sport that became so apparent during the war years, but also how it provided relief from the everyday traumas of war. It was the jokey character and light hearted fun that came with regional leagues that became a form of escapism from the wider situation in which people found themselves. The light hearted nature of the regional leagues was a product of the fact that many professional players either cut their careers short or at least put them on hold for the cause of the war effort. Over the course of the war 780 footballers enlisted into the forces (91 men joined from Wolves, 76 from Liverpool, 63 from Leicester, 62 from Charlton, and 44 from Chelsea- just to name a few). With the loss of all these players from all over the country to the forces, understandably the standard of football dropped and hence a more blithe and carefree form of football appeared. The season before World War Two broke out, the average number of goals per game was three, while in the first months of the war this figure doubled to six. With the absence of true pressure and a friendlier form of the sport being played, players felt the freedom to properly incorporate tricks and skills into matches for the first time, in order to entertain the spectators; and it is believed that the traditional post-match handshake between opposing players dates back to the war years. Due to the lighter form of football being played there were many more opportunities to get more involved in the sport. Soldiers would hitchhike to play football for the club they had been stationed nearest to. A lot of them would arrive just before or even after kick off, which would be greeted with laughter and applause rather than a telling off and moans from the crowd. Similarly, professional footballers stationed away from their clubs were allowed to play as special “guest players” for the nearest club, giving spectators the chance to see nationally renowned players that they previously would rarely, or never, get the chance to watch. As many soldiers failed to turn up for scheduled matches, spectators would get the opportunity to fill in for them and would forever have the story of how they once played for the likes of Manchester United. These circumstances allowed the Newcastle legend Jackie Milburn to launch his incredibly prolific career in 1943, at the age of 19. The striker scored 200 goals in 397 games for the north east club, and 10 goals in 13 appearances for England. Officially recognised as Newcastle United’s second highest goal scorer, if added to his tally were the goals he netted during the war (football statistics from the war are not counted in official records), he would surpass Alan Shearer’s record of 206 Newcastle goals. Although a shame not to be recorded as his club’s all-time top scorer, it must be said that the story of Milburn is a fantastic one, and a product of the light hearted nature of war-time football.
It is not just the relief provided by football, and the desire for it from people during the war that showed the importance and power held by the sport. Football in the aftermath of the Second World War demonstrated its ability to heal and unify, which was illustrated especially in the shape of Bert Trautmann. As the war was coming to an end, Trautmann was captured by British forces and became a prisoner of war, based in Lancashire. Upon his release in 1948, he rejected the offer of repatriation and, alongside doing farm work, played football for his local team, St. Helens Town FC. By the Autumn of 1949 he had impressed, and in October of that year he signed for Manchester City. Initially, the move was met with widespread discontent, as 20,000 people demonstrated against the transfer of the former enemy combatant. However, Trautmann proved to be a key figure at the club, playing in 245 of the first 250 games after his arrival. The German goalkeeper quickly became a cult hero in the blue half of Manchester, and in 1956 would enter football folklore. In front of a crowd of 100,000, he led his team to a 3-1 FA Cup final win against Birmingham, with a performance that to this day is still talked about with fascination. With 17 minutes left to play in the second half, Trautmann suffered a nasty injury in a bad collision with the Birmingham striker Peter Murphy. Despite what an X-ray scan later revealed to be a broken neck, the goalkeeper continued to play and in fact made several crucial saves in the late stages of the game to preserve Manchester City’s lead, and eventually help them to lift the trophy. Trautmann would also go on to collect the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year award that same year, and became the first non-British or Irish player to do so. The story of Bert Trautmann is a captivating one, and one of reconciliation and acceptance, through the means of football. A man whose introduction into the sport was met with severe outrage due to his past, Trautmann went on to have an impact on the lives of a significant number of people through his contribution to football in the years of his career. Many people fell in love with the German goalkeeper, especially after the 1956 FA Cup final, showing the power that football can have in terms of serving to heal and unify.
With all the financial power that drives the footballing industry nowadays, it is very easy to forget how the romance and foundations of the game led it to become the world’s most popular sport, with an estimated 3.5 billion fans globally. To remember what the game is fundamentally about, it is probably necessary to return to a period where clubs weren’t owned by people who saw them as profitable business opportunities, an era where a break from football was primarily considered detrimental to its fans rather than a club’s finances, and a time where Bryn Jones held the record transfer fee, with a figure of £14,500. What the resumption and continuation of football during the Second World War accentuated was the game’s romance- the importance of football as an everyday ritual in the lives of so many people. The capacity turn outs for games in threatened big cities and the necessity to fulfil fixtures even after the destruction of clubs’ stadiums demonstrated the fans’ desire for the game, while the fun and light hearted manner of regional leagues illustrated how it provided relief and a tool for escapism for a terrified population. Meanwhile, the story of Bert Trautmann in the aftermath of the war showed the power that the game holds to unify people. In looking back to this era, the last time football was abruptly halted, we can see how the game serves its fans, and how without the fan base, the game would cease to exist. In the most recent break, due to covid-19, the stories surrounding its consequences were focused solely on the financial impact the lack of football would have on the clubs themselves and how owners could cope with the loss of income. While, of course, this is important in today’s industry, it is also essential to look back at a time like the Second World War to remember what, and who, suffers the most in these circumstances.