The Last Time Fans Risked Their Lives To Watch Football

Government restrictions on freedom limiting the risk of death. Sound familiar?

Caps on the number of people allowed in one place, a limit on the amount of miles you could travel away from your home, businesses closing their doors and hoping for the bad times to pass. Sounds familiar, right?

But we are not talking about 2021 and the heavy restrictions placed on the public's freedom to go about their everyday lives. No, we are, in fact, talking about the rushed out rules that had to be established following the outbreak of World War Two.

When the war was declared on Sunday, September 3, 1939, the football league was just three games into the season.

With uncertainly and caution, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and his cabinet announced a raft of measures designed to keep the general public safe from a possible Nazi attack. This resulted in, among other things, mass gatherings becoming illegal.

Those measures led to the cessation of sport, including professional football.

Here, exploring how WW2 restrictions chime with those witnessed more recently in the face of COVID-19, we look at the remarkable story of how football found a way through the long, dark days of World War Two, revealing a proud story of the national game's perseverance in the face of adversity.

Servicemen make up a large portion of the crowd at international friendly England v Scotland in 1941. Credit: Alamy

Hundreds of thousands of people have, in 2021, taken part in the government's Event Research Programme, designed to measure the consequences of holding large-scale public events in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Most recently, this included a sell-out capacity crowd of 140,000 people at the British Grand Prix, ahead of which spectators were treated to a thrilling air display by the Red Arrows.

But a little-known fact is that a widescale national research initiative like that undertaken this year traces its origins to a model designed during the dark years of the Second World War.

It was instead called the Mass Observation Programme, and it culminated with a jam-packed Wembley Stadium capacity of 90,000 for a football match in 1945.

What Happened To Football During World War Two?

The professional men's game was just a handful of fixtures into the 1939/1940 season when Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939.

Instantly, normality was halted as a grave cloud settled over everyday life for men and women in the United Kingdom. The impact was cross societal, affecting all sectors of industry. A significant outcome of this immediate change to life was felt by factory workers, who, on Saturdays, flooded football stadia and terraces up and down Britain after a long week of labour.

The immediate consequences on the football leagues were complicated. They would ultimately lead to a major re-organisation in the delivery of the sport for teams and supporters nationwide. This was because, within hours of the declaration of war, the government banned the mass gathering of crowds and introduced a ban on travelling more than 50 miles from your place of living - two measures almost identical to those initiated by Boris Johnson some 80 years later.   

Some teams, including Aston Villa and Derby County, had to pack in altogether after too many of their first and second-team players signed up to fight in the war.

Another critical matter was the public's worry over attack from above while crammed into stadia supporting their local team. The government understood the importance of morale and football's unique role in providing relief to a war-worried nation. So a desire was present to get the game going again.

This conflict of imposed restrictions balanced with a hunger to allow the game to commence led to the creation of the Joint FA War League Emergency Committee. A way forward for the national game was soon figured out. This matter was aided by a general lack of action, known more commonly as the Phoney War, at the start of World War Two.

The plan was to establish regional competitions under the banner of War Leagues and introduce a wartime-based cup competition known as the Football League War Cup. Football was coming home.

Dunkirk To Wembley In Three Days

The Phoney War came to an abrupt end upon Hitler's invasion of France and the Low Countries and the British Expeditionary Force's disastrous defeat at Dunkirk.

Yet out of that low, the country found courage in the recovery of so many men off the beaches of Dunkirk by the Royal Navy and the fleet of civilian crafts sent over the channel to rescue the soldiers.

Just three days after the last men were rescued off the beach at Dunkirk, Wembley's inaugural War Cup final kicked off between West Ham and Blackburn.

The game saw a test capacity crowd of 43,000 after newly appointed Winston Churchill and his government gave the okay to a lifting of crowd restrictions. 

In the masses of the Wembley audience were hundreds of bruised British Expeditionary Force (BEF) soldiers, who were facing the prospect of death at Dunkirk just days before. Their presence that day lifted the crowd and players alike.

West Ham won the match, but many of the players retired to the Boleyn Tavern on Green Street in East London for celebratory drinks in place of a medal giving ceremony.

A ban on football during periods of “Alert” was changed to allow fixtures go on except in cases of imminent danger. Trained observers operated allowing enthusiasts to be able to enjoy their favourite game. Photo shows Mr R G Brown. Alamy

"Keep Life Moving" – The Blitz Is Over

Boris Johnson's government is reportedly set to drop the "hands, face, space" slogan for a new one this summer – the not-so-catchy phrase, "keep life moving."

But in 1941, after London had endured possibly its worst nine months in history with The Blitz, a similar motif was in the air as 60,000 Londoners took their place in Wembley for the War Cup final between Preston and Arsenal.

In the months leading to the professional game's culmination during The Blitz, stadia up and down the country had taken direct hits from the ever-aggressive Luftwaffe.

These direct bombing targets included Birmingham City, Manchester United and Coventry, who had to pull out of competitions due to the damage caused when its stadium was struck. Elsewhere, Arsenal lost Highbury because it was needed for air raid protection purposes and moved into long-term rivals Tottenham Hotspur's White Hart Lane home.

Preston North End won the War Cup that year. They counted among their number future Liverpool manager and Anfield legend Bill Shankly, who scored against the Gunners. That night, just a short while after the final whistle, London endured its worst night of The Blitz. Perhaps Shankly's famous line about the importance of football was based on his brush with Nazi bombers that day in May 1941.

"Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I don't like that attitude. I can assure them it is much more serious than that." Bill Shankly. 

In October that year, during a period of relative air safety for Londoners while Hitler's forces were needed elsewhere, having lost the Battle of Britain, an international friendly between England and Scotland saw special guest Winston Churchill in attendance. This fixture, which England won, resulted in a crowd of 78,000 fans at Wembley – the largest crowd so far seen during the war.

A programme for the 1944 War Cup Final at Wembley between Chelsea and Charlton. Thanks to Lockdale Auctioneers and Valuers for permission to include.

No Football On Sundays Please, We're British

We take football's placement throughout the weekend for granted nowadays. Still, before World War Two, it was the case that professional matches could not be played on Sundays.

The change was brought about thanks to a desire from officials to aid the country in its need for morale in the face of Blitz attacks and families saying farewell to loved ones. So, it was decided that football could be temporarily played on Sundays so that men and women working the factories would have every chance of seeing a match at the weekend.

Other initiatives included football clubs hiring spotters so that when an air raid siren was sounded, fixtures could continue until the lookouts above the pitches saw the approaching Luftwaffe with their own eyes. It was a risky business.

Death From Above

By 1944, the threat in the skies had changed from Luftwaffe to V1 and then V2 rockets.

The rockets, which were fired at targets in cities such as London and other key locations in the southeast from the mainland of Europe, wreaked devastation wherever they fell.

The V2 was the world's first intercontinental rocket, travelling at supersonic speed, meaning their impacts came with little or no warning. The consequence for those who survived was a constant worry that at any moment, a terrible bomb could fall from the sky and wipe out entire streets of families.

The deadly fear of V2 Rockets created so much panic that the government needed, more than ever, morale-boosting occasions designed to lift the public spirits. And so, encouragement was given for people to get out and about, in a similar vein to Boris Johnson's "keep life moving" message. 

A massive 85,000 crowd got to Wembley to shout on Charlton beating Chelsea in the 1944 War Cup final. The guest of honour that day was future US President Dwight Eisenhower.  

Victory In Europe, Victory At Wembley

By the time the sixth and last War Cup final was played at Wembley (for the War Cup Final South) on June 2, 1945, Britain and her allies had emerged as the victors of the war in Europe. Occurring just a couple of weeks after VE Day, the cup final that day was reported as being like a festival of freedom.

The War Leagues and War Cup had provided a country of football lovers a means to forget the perils associated with the war for just a couple of hours each week.  

On the day of the last War Cup final to be played at Wembley Stadium, the fans celebrated what had been a long, drawn-out process of difficult times for the country as a whole. 

It was, in many respects, Freedom Day. 

No rockets were going to fall from above at supersonic speed. No squadrons of RAF Spitfires would be needed to take to the skies and fend off enemy bombers from attacking the cities, and football stadia, of England below.  

Britain had gotten through it … and football, just like we have seen with the European Championships this year, played a small – but essential - part in the process. Perhaps that's why it is called the beautiful game.