Life during wartime: how the Second World War exposed football’s regional divides

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Despite its ability to raise public spirits, maintaining a coherent league programme proved problematic between 1939 and 1945 – and not just because of the constant threat of air attack

8 November ~ When war was declared on September 3, 1939, the fate of professional football may not have appeared to be the most pressing concern for the British government. But decisions over whether the game should continue or not, at national and local level, were closely wrapped up with broader debates about wartime morale.

Initially the fear of air attack led the government to close all sports grounds, along with cinemas, theatres and other entertainment venues. However, Home Office files demonstrate that while few ministers or civil servants had much time for football themselves, the government recognised its positive effect on public well-being. This was particularly true in relation to vital groups such as servicemen and workers engaged in war production.

The social research organisation Mass-Observation put the case most forcefully, informing the government that a programme of league matches was more useful in raising morale than expensive poster campaigns “urging cheerfulness”. That the government’s support for football was maintained, by and large, through crises such as the fall of France in June 1940, the blitz of 1940-41 and a press campaign against “unnecessary” sporting events in early 1942 demonstrates the recognition of football’s value as a form of relaxation and entertainment for those most in need of both.

Restrictions on crowds and the preponderance of guest players meant that wartime football generally lacked the excitement and competitive edge of peacetime. The guest player system, though necessary given the frequent mobility of service personnel and war workers, was especially contentious. Teams changed substantially from week to week and well-situated clubs could produce formidable sides. Aldershot, not surprisingly, often fielded six or seven internationals because of the club’s proximity to the army training centre. The system also offered rare opportunities for young and inexperienced footballers. Working as a Bevin Boy in the coal mines, Nat Lofthouse played alongside dozens of “guests” at Bolton. He recalled the thrill of “playing with people I’d only ever seen before a hundred yards away when I was standing on the embankment”.

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Some clubs made extensive use of the system. Notts County faced Sheffield United with no fewer than ten guests in March 1943 and Aldershot and Northampton Town fielded complete teams of guests on occasions. Arsenal manager George Allison, with more players to choose from than most, would often select his 11 and then pick up the phone to see if any of the other London clubs were short. This frustrated some supporters. As one Northampton fan recalled: “It was great seeing all these internationals but I never accepted any of them as a Cobblers player because they could play for you one match and against you the next.” A Mass-Observation report on the state of wartime football in November 1939 reported that the “free borrowing” of players had “annoyed real supporters” and “killed much of the incentive to go and see ‘my team’”.

Most controversial of all, however, were the regional divisions that were created by the Football League in order to minimise travel. During the first wartime season there were eight groupings of between eight and 12 clubs: South West, Midlands, East Midlands, West, North West, North East and two Southern sections. The latter caused the most difficulties. The League’s 11 London clubs were unhappy at having been split up, with the majority in South “A” alongside clubs to the north and east, such as Watford and Norwich City, while the others were allocated to South “B” to play against clubs mainly on the south coast. The leading clubs in the capital called for a separate London division that they could run themselves under the auspices of the London FA. At this point they backed down, but only after the League had agreed to a separate competition in the second half of the season organised by the pre-war London Combination.

The London clubs felt justified in pushing for more independence, given that a London league combining most of the same teams had operated outside Football League control during the First World War. Talk of national unity may have dominated official proclamations about wartime football, but in private a number of key London administrators were eager to strike out on their own. Arsenal’s Allison and Tottenham director G Wagstaffe Simmons were especially influential in the breakaway movement that began to gather pace during the summer of 1941.

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As in 1939-40, the Londoners had rejected the League’s fixtures and organised their own competition during the second half of the 1940-41 season. Excluded clubs such as Portsmouth, Luton, Southend and Watford complained to the management committee, which publicly condemned the London clubs but took no further action. In 1941 the London clubs went further, rejecting the fixtures and voting to break away to form their own competition. The West Ham chairman WJ Cearns was tasked by the management committee to broker a compromise but the London rebels remained intransigent. In early August all 11 London clubs plus two southern associates – Aldershot and Reading – were expelled from the Football League. Brighton, Portsmouth and Watford soon joined the rebels in order to protect their fixtures, while Southend United, with no local sides left to play, were forced to withdraw from league competition.

In putting their case, the rebels stressed the link between their plans and the national war effort. Long-distance games would involve players “absenting themselves from work of national importance”. Supporters of the London group claimed that the Football League’s scheme involved 9,000 miles of travel compared to 3,000 miles for its own league; they thus accused the League of being unpatriotic and “acting contrary to the expressed wishes of the Government”. In response, the League accused the London group of quoting figures that were exaggerated and in some cases “absurdly false”.

With no resolution, the new London War League, formally sanctioned by the FA, kicked off. Crowd restrictions, the wartime mobility of the population and travel difficulties all hampered attendances. The London League had its fair share of the depleted teams and one-sided matches that characterised wartime football. Even Arsenal, the eventual champions, could only field eight men during one match at bottom club Watford. Arsenal lost 3-1 but three months later beat Watford 11-0, underlining the unpredictability of wartime football.

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For the clubs involved, the London Wartime League was a qualified success. But it had a huge impact on those left outside the fold. Southampton, Bournemouth and Norwich were all forced to join what was left of the League South, a competition so geographically stretched that it also included Swansea, Wolves and Leicester, the eventual champions. Saints only managed to play five teams during the season – Bournemouth, Bristol City, Cardiff, Luton and Swansea – as the Midlands clubs refused to make the long and difficult wartime journey to the south coast. They had played ten games in total by the time the League South closed at Christmas. Bournemouth also completed ten games while Norwich only managed eight. With such a disparity in the number of games played, the final table was determined by a complex point average calculation. But it was all very unsatisfactory.

With problems of transportation intensifying, and no prospect of being included in a new southern section, both Bournemouth and Norwich decided to withdraw from League competition in the summer of 1942. They only returned when the war had ended. Similarly isolated, Southend United – whose directors had earlier considered moving the club to London “for the duration of the war” – also remained outside the Football League until hostilities had ceased.

Meanwhile, the mutual animosity between the London rebels and the League’s Lancashire-based leaders dragged on for most of 1941-42. After protracted negotiations, the management committee agreed to allow the London clubs back in so long as each club tendered a formal apology letter and paid a nominal fine. But with the London group continuing to argue for greater autonomy, the management committee reluctantly accepted a slightly enlarged London league, renamed League South, for the rest of the war.

The war deepened pre-existing regional tensions, even at a time of widespread commitment to the national effort. For League president Will Cuff and his management committee, the defiance of the London clubs smacked of metropolitan arrogance. For men like George Allison, well connected with London-based politicians and civil servants as well as with national bodies such as the BBC, the Football League, bunkered up in Lancashire, must have seemed more distant and out-of-touch than ever before. Football may indeed have had a “good war” in many respects. But the image of a nation pulling together did not always chime with the division and public recriminations that marked the administration of the wartime game. Matthew Taylor

Matthew Taylor is professor of history at De Montfort University and is currently writing a history of sport in Second World War Britain

This article first appeared in WSC 368, October 2017. Subscribers get free access to the complete WSC digital archive – you can find out more details here