by Andi Thomas

On Saturday 2 September, 1939, the day after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Poland, Britain woke up to a full Football League programme. Blackpool went top of Division One with three wins from three after defeating Wolves 2-1 at Bloomfield Road, Sheffield United and Arsenal were one point behind, both also undefeated. Luton Town headed up Division Two, while Accrington Stanley and Reading led Division Three North and South respectively.

However, in 1914 the Football Association had come under criticism for failing to suspend competition until the end of the 1914/15 seasons, and so when war was declared on 3rd September, football was an early casualty. All fixtures were suspended immediately and Blackpool were left marooned at the top of the pyramid.

‘All Sport Brought to a Halt, Restart When Safe for Crowds’, reported the Daily Mail. But the game wasn’t gone for too long. The FA authorised friendlies on September 14th, albeit with crowds limited to 8,000 in evacuation areas (15,000 in others), while teams were only permitted to travel a maximum of fifty miles.

Regional wartime leagues were quickly established, though the restrictions on travel coupled with military assignations meant that player attendance was erratic and the games frequently acquired a slightly haphazard if not outright farcical air.

Watching soldiers or civilians were often press-ganged into playing: Charlton Athletic fielded a milkman, apparently by accident, while an East Lancashire derby was decided by a goal from a Sgt. Major Bryson, who emerged from the crowd to score the winner for Blackburn in a 2-1 defeat of Burnley. Less romantically, Brighton and Hove Albion were forced to supplement a mere five first-team regulars with soldiers and opposition reserves, and were duly thrashed 18-0 by Norwich City.

Most of the more notable players to join the forces were assigned roles as ‘Temporary Sergeant Instructors’, the idea being that their reputation and their athletic prowess would prove inspirational for troops making preparations to depart for Europe.

Players were released from their contracts and generally turned out for whichever team was nearest to their base. This enabled third division Aldershot – a town whose concentration of barracks makes it the proverbial ‘Home of the British Army’ – to acquire a number of England internationals. They spent the war dominating a Southern League made up largely of their traditional betters. Manager Bill McCracken described himself as “a kid in a chocolate factory”.

The official attitude toward football from Britain’s political classes was, on the whole, overt approval: the game was seen as not only important for morale, but as a measure to allay potential disquiet amongst the wartime populace.

King George VI and Winston Churchill occasionally attended games, while the restrictions on crowds imposed at the outbreak of war were unofficially relaxed to the extent that they were largely ignored, at least for the regular wartime internationals between England and the other Home Nations, which drew tens of thousands of fans.

In fact, international fixtures were common all across the continent; the only European country not to contest at least one international during the war was Poland. England won 22 of their 36 unofficial wartime internationals (including the post-war Victory Internationals), drew 7, and scored 98 goals in the process.

Whilst the opposition was limited largely to Scotland and Wales – who, having typically thinner playing resources, were likely more affected by the war – and the circumstances naturally precluded competitive games, the quality of the players is unarguable.

A composite team, playing Herbert Chapman’s classical W-M, would  see the legendary Stanley Matthews – still a Stoke player at this stage – accompanied by Sunderland’s prolific inside-right Raich Carter, who Matthews described as his “ideal partner”.

On the left wing, Denis Compton, a fine amateur footballer who never won a full England football cap. He did, however, play 72 tests as an England cricketer, ending with a batting average over fifty, and more than 100 first-class centuries. Inside him, the tricky and skilful Jimmy Hagan of Sheffield United, while at centre-forward the Everton legend Tommy Lawton, whose 34 goals had taken the Liverpool side to the title in 1938/39.

At the back, Frank Swift of Manchester City, later to die in the Munich air crash, would be in nets. In front of him: Eddie Hapgood, who led Arsenal to five titles during the 1930s; Stan Cullis, captain of Wolves and wartime England; and George Hardwick, the finest defender in Middlesbrough’s history, who captained England immediately after the war. (It should be noted that Hardwick normally played on the left, but has agreed to switch sides in this instance.)

Making up the points of the defensive ‘M’: Joe Mercer and Cliff Britton, Everton’s supremely talented half-back line. There was young promise as well: the end of the war brought unofficial débuts for both Billy Wright and Stan Mortensen. Mortensen, curiously, actually made his first international appearance for Wales against England in 1943, as an ad hoc half-time injury replacement, some twenty-odd years before substitutions were officially permitted in the English league.

For a spell, this team was as dominant as any modern England side has ever been. Beginning with a 5-3 defeat of Wales on 27th February 1943 and ending with a 1-0 victory over Northern Ireland on 15th September 1945, England went 15 games undefeated, winning 12 and scoring a remarkable 60 goals.

The twin peaks were two back-to-back eight-goal victories, first against Wales (who mustered three in response) and then Scotland (who failed to trouble the scoreboard). Against Wales, Cullis, anticipating that the Welsh would attempt to double-mark Matthews, instructed the team to funnel play down the left-wing through Compton. Eight goals later, Cullis was surprised to receive a “rollicking” from the papers, outraged at his treatment of Matthews, already well on the way to super-stardom.

Fortunately for Cullis, and for the sensibilities of the press, Matthews was the driving force of the victory over Scotland. Not for the first time, he overshadowed his goal scoring colleagues – Lawton netted four – with his wing play, eventually dancing the eighth into the net from the halfway line.

Perhaps even more impressive is the breadth of managerial talent that emerged from the war. Of those that turned out for England, Mercer would win the League Cup with Aston Villa, before guiding Manchester City to the league title. Cullis would manage Wolverhampton Wanderers to three titles and two FA Cups, plus a famous 3-2 win over Hungarian champions Honvéd.

Vic Buckingham

Also worthy of note is Vic Buckingham, who, while not as frequent a wartime international as some of his contemporaries, went on to win the FA Cup with West Bromwich Albion before hopping over the North Sea to Ajax, where he would build on Jack Reynolds’ philosophy, lay the foundations of Total Football, and spot a young Johan Cruyff. He also became the first in an illustrious tradition of Ajax men to subsequently move to Barcelona.

Writing in When Saturday Comes, Guardian journalist Barney Ronay has reflected that “there is a sense of incompleteness about the playing careers of most great managers”. He cites Sir Alf Ramsey, who began his playing career for Portsmouth in the wartime leagues (though didn’t make an international appearance until 1948).

But the war also interrupted the playing careers of two of the finest and most influential managers in the British post-war game, who between them only gained six full caps for Scotland but played intermittently during the war, perhaps most notably alongside one another in a 5-4 victory over in England in April 1942: Matt Busby and Bill Shankly.

Shankly’s war was spent moving around the country from one RAF base and ground crew to another, turning out first for Preston but then for a number of clubs – including one appearance for Liverpool – and making five wartime appearances for Scotland. While he continued to play after the war, only retiring in 1949, he was considered too old for post-war international football.

Busby, then aged 30, had made just one appearance for Scotland when hostilities began, and while he played throughout the conflict his professional career was effectively over. The war, however, offered him his first management opportunity, as he took a British Army team to Italy on a mission to boost morale following the Allied invasion.

Eamon Dunphy has written that this trip crystallised Busby’s views on what ailed football. The chance to work with players from around the country confirmed him in his views that the problems he had diagnosed with Manchester City – the need for a coherent structure, with a manager responsible for selection at the heart of the team – were reflected throughout British football. As for Shankly, he was happy to acknowledge the influence of his military years on his management style.

As well as drawing on military training fitness regimes, he took the principles of the barracks to the boot room, informing the Liverpool Echo that “A tactical session is more like a good discussion group in the Forces, with me as the officer leading it … I start the ball rolling, but anybody who has anything to say knows that he is expected to say it.”

On the whole, English football had a good war. The unusual circumstances meant that the game could relax: football became more entertaining, goal scoring increased, and the national team were outstanding. Simon Kuper has argued that “football entered the communal British soul during the war as it never had before”, and ascribes this to ruling classes feeling “obliged” toward the working classes, victory being of course contingent upon the willingness of that same working class to fight, and die, for their country.

This is echoed by football historian David Goldblatt, who suggests that football was used by all European governments to “mobilize, brutalize, cajole and persuade” their populaces; that the game was both a “cipher for normality” and an “index of national prowess”, allowing governments to simultaneously reassure and jingoise their people.

It is a persuasive argument. International football is unparalleled as a national distraction, as an apparently spontaneous yet in reality tightly controlled catalyst for patriotism. Even the language of the game slips easily into the language of war: here are your heroes, under your flag, fighting for your country. And the internalisation of the us vs. them dialectic that a government requires of its wartime populace finds a natural reflection in the rhythms of sport.

The great wartime side of the forties exploded back into international football after the war, notching victory after thumping victory throughout 1947 and ’48. They scored five past Belgium, eight past the Netherlands, a ten past Portugal and, famously, four past Vittorio Pozzo’s Italy.

Perhaps the most encouraging signs came on 10 May 1947, when a representative Great Britain team met a Rest of Europe side at Hampden Park for the original Match of the Century. Ostensibly a ‘welcome back’ party for the Home Nations, who were re-joining FIFA after leaving in 1920, it also provided a welcome boost to the finances of the impoverished governing body, depleted by the lack of international competition. 135,000 people watched Britain – five Englishmen, three Scots, two Welshmen and an Irishman – triumph 6-1, a result widely hailed as presaging a period of English dominance.

But it was a false dawn. It is tempting to conclude that the pre-eminence of England within the wartime Home Nations contributed to the tactical staleness and complacent superiority that would ultimately lead to the humiliations of the early 1950s: first Belo Horizonte, then the Aranycsapat scalpings.

Certainly the war can only have exacerbated the international isolation that the Home Nations had assiduously cultivated since 1920. Brian Glanville, looking back on the Match of the Century, observed with perhaps a touch of ruefulness that “a match which seemed, when it was played, to confirm the power of British football in fact marked its brilliant sunset”.

Read more of Andrew’s excellent writing over on his blog, Twisted Blood, and follow him on Twitter @Twisted_Blood.