Graham Hughes recounts the only season of English League football to have been played during war time
The long-term significance
This was the only time that a full English League programme has gone ahead during wartime. Since its formation 26 years earlier, the Football League had been growing in membership and popularity. It now faced its first real setback, with a barrage of criticism over the decision to play on while Britain’s young men were being asked to go to war.
Many fee-paying schools would soon discard this supposedly unpatriotic, cowardly sport, in favour of rugby union. Although the public school old-boy brigade would continue to play a big part in the FA, the developments of the 1920s, with a growing emphasis on professionalism, commerce and gambling, would just about complete the game’s transformation from an affluent men’s pastime to a working-class way of life.
Story of the season
On August 4, Britain declared war on Germany. Secretary of State for War Lord Kitchener called for a “mass army” of able-bodied men to volunteer for service. Hundreds of thousands obliged and British forces were soon fighting in Belgium.
The county cricket season was curtailed, and the Rugby Football Union suspended normal play for the war’s duration, but the FA and Football League (along with the Northern Union – precursor to the Rugby Football League) let their competitions go ahead. Although the FA consulted the War Office and pledged to support the war effort, football was lambasted by politicians, religious leaders and the press. Players and supporters were condemned for indulging in sport while compatriots were risking their lives, and clubs were accused of helping the enemy by “bribing” players away from military duties.
The FA and clubs, however, raised money for war charities, made grounds available for military drills and organised recruitment at matches. Football was a useful medium for appealing to working-class men and was thought to have encouraged half a million to join the armed forces by early 1915, while also providing some relief from the misery of wartime.
As players and fans went off to war during the season, teams were depleted, attendances plummeted and finances suffered. By the spring, with hostilities dragging on, the League’s future looked uncertain and players were being easily led astray. A 2-0 home win for relegation-threatened Manchester Utd over Liverpool on Good Friday turned out to have been fixed; seven players were banned from football for life, although most were pardoned after the war.
After Oldham had led the table in March, a four-match winning streak put Everton a point ahead with a week remaining. Oldham lost their last two games, allowing Everton to clinch the title with a 2-2 home draw against Chelsea on the Monday after Oldham’s last match. Tottenham were relegated (to be controversially replaced by new neighbours Arsenal), but Chelsea were reprieved as the First Division expanded to 22 clubs when it resumed in 1919.
As the season closed, horrific stories of poison gas on the battlefields of Ypres were reaching home, and the FA Cup final was played in a sombre mood at Old Trafford. After Sheffield Utd’s 3-0 win over Chelsea, Lord Derby told the players: “You have played with one another and against one another for the Cup. It is now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England.”
Conscription was looming and wartime reality was biting. In July, the League and FA suspended normal operations. For the rest of the war, English football was amateur, regional and loosely organised.
For the record books
Everton would remain as champions for five years – longer than anyone else had done so far – without having to win another title. Their Scottish centre-forward Bobby Parker was the division’s top scorer with 36 goals. Runners-up Oldham achieved their highest-ever final position.
Same place today
Twelve of the clubs are in the Premier League today, although none has stayed in the top tier continuously: Aston Villa, Blackburn, Bolton, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool, Man City, Man Utd, Newcastle, Sunderland, Tottenham and West Brom.
Moved furthest away
Bradford Park Avenue were relegated in 1921 and never made it back to the First Division, before losing their League place in 1970. The present-day Northern Premier League club was formed four years later, after the old club was liquidated. Neighbours Bradford City are currently in League Two, while Burnley, Notts County and Oldham have all come close to dropping out of the League.
Went on to greater things
Elisha Scott: Liverpool’s longest-serving player (right), with 430 league appearances in just under 22 years, established himself as first-choice goalkeeper at Anfield towards the end of the season.
Billy Walker: A future England captain, Aston Villa’s all-time top scorer (244 goals in all competitions) made his amateur debut for the club in March.
Andy Wilson: The first season for the Middlesbrough forward who was twice leading club goalscorer and the first (and second) player to be sent off at Ayresome Park. Wilson also tallied 13 goals in 12 Scotland games.
Disappearing from view
Lost in combat: Hundreds of British footballers were killed or maimed in the Great War. Tottenham lost a team’s worth of players, while Newcastle lost seven.
“Gentlemen” footballers: Oxbridge graduates from the amateur tradition, such as CB Fry (right), had still appeared in top-class football in the preceding years. As elite schools rejected the game in the 1920s, this became a thing of the past.
Cup finals at Crystal Palace: After staging 20 consecutive FA Cup finals, the south London stadium was turned into a war service depot. Old Trafford hosted the 1915 match, followed by Stamford Bridge and Wembley from 1923.
From WSC 287 January 2011