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Remembrance Sunday - War & Football

A day to remember the fallen and football’s contribution to society in times of conflict...

Fans and volunteers clear debris from Millwall’s Den following a war-time air raid.

As we pause today to remember the fallen of two World Wars who fought to preserve the freedom enjoyed by all, it’s a good time to reflect on the effects of war on football and the positive role it played even in times of strife and conflict.

It’s clear to say the game rolled on, though not always smoothly, throughout all its challenges of the past 100 or so years. Where coronavirus succeeded for a few months this year, war was unable ever to bring a complete cessation to professional football.

The importance of the game in many people’s lives is not as recent a discovery as it is in North America for instance. In Europe and South America for decades football has been part of life’s very fabric. Not just playing or watching, but even in following the daily, perhaps now hourly, news, which for many became has become an involuntary pastime.

The War Office in the UK allowed football to continue at the outbreak of The Great War in 1914, despite the FA offering to abandon soccer indefinitely.

The government saw it as a way to maintain morale in the country, but also eventually as a great recruiting ground with a flowing source of fit young men.

Not everyone was convinced however. Many pro-war types were upset and outraged that young men could remain and play football professionally when they should be fighting against the slaughter befalling their peers amongst the shrapnel and shells in the not so green fields of France.

Football was the sport of the British working class and its continuation provided the middle and upper classes a reason to chastise the workers for ‘lack of patriotism’ leading also to some newspapers refusing to publish match results.

Officers v Other Ranks football match being played by members of the 26th Divisional Ammunition Train near the Greek city of Salonika on Christmas Day 1915.

The anti-alcohol campaigner Frederick Charrington often mocked wartime footballers as effeminate and on one occasion when he rose at half-time to make a speech on military recruitment at Craven Cottage, Fulham officials dragged him away, despite the club having given prior permission to speak.

As the result of continued harassment the Football Association decided to restrict football activities. In January 1916, single men aged between 18 and 40 were called up. By June this was extended to married men too. Yet local competitions between professional clubs remained throughout the war.

Over in France, the war’s main battleground, the national cup competition (Coupe de France) was actually held for the first time before the war ended in 1917/18.

The competition, intended to unite France, whose northern and eastern regions, not forgetting Belgium, had seen almost four million die, was named after the football official Charles Simon, himself killed in battle in 1915.

Fast-forward 21 years after the cessation of hostilities in World War I, English football was in fact halted on the day Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939. Three rounds of the season’s league fixtures had been played, but after government intervention advising it wanted recreation to continue where possible, the FA reversed track. The scheduled league fixtures did not resume, however regional leagues and friendlies were permitted with crowds at first restricted to 8,000.

Early research institutions found through survey, that more people actually read sports news more closely than news of the war, and the government understood football to be an inexpensive way to keep the working classes happy and keep peoples’ spirits up.

Still, many sportsmen went off to war. By April 1940, according to Picture Post magazine, 629 professional footballers had joined the services. Others went into war work. One factory in Oldbury, employed 18 West Bromwich Albion players. Elsewhere players and coaches were used by the armed forces as physical training (PT) instructors.

Using a chest telephone, Mr P C “Lofty” Austin, former professional footballer for Tottenham Hotspur, reports to the Corps Centre, as his colleague works the plotting instrument at their post at Kings Langley, Hertfordshire.

At least 80 professional footballers were killed during the course of the war and many more were injured or became prisoners of war (POWs).

For those stationed at home, many players attached to one club guested for others, often depending on where they were stationed as soldiers.

The game picked up again despite natural restrictions which increased haphazardness and introduced inevitable inconsistencies; players hitch-hiking to matches from barracks, hoping to arrive on time, and occasionally over-confident crowd volunteers taking their place should they not arrive.

Manchester United, Arsenal and Irish League club, Glentoran all played on through the war despite having their home grounds bombed by the German Luftwaffe. United moved in with City, Arsenal shared with Tottenham and Glentoran became the tenants of Distillery FC. In the cases of Manchester United and Glentoran, their grounds were adjacent to major industrial areas, prime targets for enemy bombs. The Belfast club was worst affected of all, not being able to return to their Oval ground for seven long years.

March 1941 - Old Trafford the home of Manchester United, devastated after Luftwaffe bombs were dropped on the area.

The game itself became more relaxed and light-hearted. There was less pressure, players tried things they wouldn’t normally attempt, to show-off and entertain the crowds. Results mattered less, the regional leagues and cups considered less serious than a full-blooded, real season.

One of England’s greatest-ever players, Tom Finney won the War Time Cup with his hometown club, Preston North End, who defeated mighty Arsenal after a replay at Blackburn. Despite being named Football Writers Player of the Year twice, it was the only medal Finney would win in the whole of his illustrious career. He saw out most of the rest of the war playing top-level football in Egypt, where he was stationed.

German wartime football was even less restricted than in England. The day Germany invaded the Soviet Union, 90,000 fans watched the German League final in Berlin. Austria by then had been annexed by Hitler, and it was their Rapid Vienna who prevailed, defeating Schalke 4-3.

Football in Germany continued right up until the bitter end. In April 1945, with the Allies about to enter the city, Bayern Munich played local rivals 1860 in a friendly.

The last all-England war-time cup final was won by Bolton Wanderers who defeated Manchester United over two legs in the Northern final, before defeating Chelsea, who had won the Southern final, in June 1945.

31 January 1944 - Gunners of 111 Battery, 80th (Scottish Horse) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery playing football near their guns in the Anzio area of Italy.

In much of occupied western Europe, football continued unabated. In fact in some countries it even boomed. In 1940 in the Netherlands, the year the Germans invaded, over four million tickets were sold to sports events. By 1943 that had doubled. Soccer-mania astonished the authorities.

For certain big games there exist stories of people exchanging scarce and hard-earned foodstuffs for match tickets. Dutch amateur sports clubs struggled to cope with the flood of new members.

Many in these days of coronavirus will understand and appreciate better than ever before, the appetite for football during historical times of conflict. There can be little doubt the game upheld morale and kept spirit burning in many jurisdictions as war and uncertainty raged all around.

There were many from the football fraternity on all sides of the conflict who lost their lives throughout history’s many wars and conflicts, we salute their sacrifice and retain them in our thoughts along with the rest of the fallen, each year on this day.

Despite all our rivalries football remains a game that unites, a universal language that finds a common place in all our hearts and minds.

German and British soldiers never had much in common to talk about, or even understand what each other was saying as they emerged from the trenches of death and destruction during the well-documented Christmas Truce of 1914.

Someone produced a ball and a game was born.

The Germans probably won it on penalties, but did anyone really care?


I dedicate this piece to James Arthur Drennan an uncle my mother never knew.

Fuelled no doubt by bravado, excitement and a sense of duty, James ran off from Donaghadee, County Down to Belfast to enlist, lied about his age and was shipped off to France to fight.

He died of his wounds under immensely unpleasant conditions, at the military field hospital at Etaples in France, near Bolougne, aged 18 on Saturday 14 April 1917.

My mother and I visited James’ grave in June 2015. It was an immensely uplifting and poignant moment for us both.