When the 1939-40 Football League season kicked off on Saturday 26 August 1939, players were wearing numbered shirts for the first time. Bigger changes were to come. Germany invaded Poland the following Friday and the four divisions and FA Cup were halted once war was declared on 3 September. The action stopped after three rounds of fixtures, with Blackpool boasting the only 100% record in the top flight and Leeds bottom of the table having failed to score a goal.
Clubs arranged some friendlies but, when the threatened bombings did not materialise, the thirst for competitive football resurfaced and the Home Office agreed to a restructured football programme. Aston Villa and Derby County were among half a dozen clubs who withdrew, principally because many of their players were enlisting for the armed forces.
The remaining 82 Football League clubs were distributed into 10 regional leagues and football started again on 28 October. The only hiccup that day came at Grimsby, where their game with Mansfield was delayed by 30 minutes because of an air raid warning. A 50-mile radius was imposed for each game and crowds were limited to 8,000, although these restrictions were relaxed over time.
Alongside the various leagues, the War Cup was introduced in April 1940. In a tremendous feat of organisation, the competition squeezed 137 games into just nine weeks. Restriction on crowd sizes were lifted for later rounds, giving 42,399 people the chance to see West Ham beat Blackburn 1-0 in the final at Wembley. The game kicked off at 6.30pm on 8 June, a few days after the evacuation from Dunkirk had been completed. Quite a few soldiers who had been rescued from northern France attended the match, which gave the nation a much-needed fillip.
By the beginning of the 1940-41 season, the Battle of Britain was raging in the air and the Blitz was causing major damage and loss of life on the ground. Coventry and Sheffield were targeted towards the end of 1940, with Highfield Road damaged so badly that Coventry City had to withdraw from the league. Sheffield United had to play at Hillsborough after Bramall Lane was put out of action.
This was not the only enforced groundshare. Highbury was turned into an Air Raid Precautions stronghold, which meant that Arsenal had to play at White Hart Lane – a reversal of what had happened in the first world war. Manchester United also had to move in with their neighbours. Old Trafford was damaged extensively in March 1941 and did not host football for another eight and a half years. The club’s biggest attendance for a home league game is still the crowd of 83,260 that watched them play Arsenal at Maine Road in January 1948.
Despite their big fanbases, neither United nor City could keep up with Preston in the 1940-41 season. The Football League was divided into north and south regions and, given that clubs played different numbers of games, the tables were arranged by goal average rather than points. Preston ended up winning the league even though Chesterfield (who had played six more games) picked up more points.
Preston went on to complete a double by beating Arsenal in the War Cup final. Tom Finney and Bill Shankly both played for the Lilywhites, with the Compton brothers both in the Arsenal team. Although 60,000 were at Wembley for that Preston v Arsenal game and an impressive 78,000 watched England beat Scotland at Hampden Park, attendances were in decline and the aggregate of 2.8 million was well below the 5.4 million who had watched the previous season.
The War Cup was not the only new competition. In January 1941 a dozen clubs started the London War Cup, much to the chagrin of the league and other southern clubs, such as Portsmouth, who were excluded. Bizarrely, Reading were included and they ended up winning it, beating Brentford in the final.
Having set up a breakaway cup, the London clubs decided to go it alone with a London league in the 1941-42 season, which did include Portsmouth this time. The rebel clubs were expelled by the Football League. Arsenal won the league and Brentford won the London Cup final in front of nearly 70,000 fans at Wembley. Their victory earned them a place in the newly formed Cup Winners’ Cup with Wolves, who had beaten Sunderland in the Football War Cup.
By 1942-43, the Football League regained its control of the football calendar. The London clubs were re-admitted and formed part of the 18-club southern league, which also included a few amateur teams. The season was split in two, with the first title contested from August to Christmas Day and the second starting on Boxing Day and finishing in May. Liverpool won the northern league in the spring of 1943, but it was the runners-up who provided the sweetest story of wartime football.
The emergence of a team of workers from a sweet factory in Newport was extraordinary, but they were no flash in the pan. Lovell’s Athletic had won the western league and cup the previous season, so were a real force to be reckoned with. Lovell’s finished above both Manchester clubs and Aston Villa in the 1943 season and also reached the west’s cup final, which they lost 7-6 to Swansea Town over two legs.
Another amateur side outdid Lovell’s achievement the following season. Bath City won the northern league in spring 1944, finishing level on points with Wrexham but above them on goal average. For Bath, who had been trying to join the Football League for many years, this was some sort of redemption. They also won the last Football League West Cup in 1945 but, once the war ended, both clubs’ reward for their achievements was to be jettisoned back to non-league. Lovell’s eventually disbanded in 1969.
Crowds kept rising, with 85,000 at Wembley to watch Charlton beat Chelsea 3-1 in the Southern War Cup – including guest of honour Dwight Eisenhower, the army general who would be elected US president within the next decade. Eisenhower did not know who to support. “I started cheering for the blues but, when I saw the Reds winning, well, then I had to go on cheering for them,” he told reporters after the game. Eisenhower was not the only military leader to take in a big game. General Montgomery was among the 133,000 crowd at Hampden Park to watch England beat Scotland in April 1945.
In what proved to be the last wartime season, in 1944-45, attendances rose significantly, reaching 10.3 million overall. The various cup finals drew huge crowds, with the northern cup final between Manchester United and Bolton attracting more than 98,000 over two legs and the southern final at Wembley between Millwall and Chelsea drawing in 90,000 fans – the largest single wartime crowd for a club match.
The Cup Winners’ Cup between Bolton and Chelsea was played in June, several weeks after VE Day. Bolton’s 2-1 victory made them the last winners of the War Cup, yet it was a celebration for everyone at Stamford Bridge that day.
The Football League returned to something approaching normality in time for the 1945-46 season, although the league was still being run on a regional basis, with 22 clubs in each of the southern and northern divisions. The third tier was even split into four regions – east, west and north and south of the Thames. The FA Cup was also re-introduced.
Crowds continued to grow and really boomed after the war. By 1948-49, attendances were at 41 million, the peak for the Football League. To put that in some context, the total attendance for the Premier League and EFL last season was just under 33 million. Finally, in an encouraging precedent for Liverpool fans, when the old structure of four divisions that had begun in 1939-40 was re-introduced for the 1946-47 season, the Reds pipped Manchester United to the First Division title by a point.
The Guardian Sport