Keep Calm, Carry on and Play Soccer: The Football League War Cup

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It is a commonly held belief that organized athletics in Europe—from the Olympics to the Ashes to League Football—ceased at the outbreak of World War II in 1939. But this was not entirely the case. Between 1939 and 1945, Britain showed its true resolve in the face of war, a resolve that would define a generation. Confronted with six long, dark years of conflict, the people kept on playing and watching football.

Despite the Blitz, despite the fact that the clubs’ squads were decimated to the point where they had to rely on volunteers to field a team, the country, and its sport, soldiered on. And the game was an important part of raising wartime morale, a welcome distraction for those left tending the homefires.

The Football War League did not produce many notable performances or matches—due in large part to the travel restrictions and the stadium attendance limits. But the Football League War Cup, the wartime replacement of the FA Cup, produced moments emblematic of the English spirit—moments worth remembering.

The first War Cup took place in June of 1940, on a Saturday evening in the shadow of the impending Blitz, as England stood alone as the only Western nation actively engaging Hitler’s Axis powers. Though Wembley stadium was a potential Luftwaffe target, 42,000 people attended War Cup final between West Ham and Blackburn Rovers (with several in the crowd being survivors of the evacuation at Dunkirk).

West Ham won the match 1-0 on a poacher’s goal by Birmingham-native Sam Small. Small scored a total of 38 goals for the Hammers between 1937 and 1948, but his goal against Blackburn didn’t count toward his career numbers, and neither did any of the other goals scored by players during the six years of the tournament. They were all “unofficial” goals.

As mentioned in the video, West Ham’s East London neighborhood would soon be savaged by German bombing, and Upton Park had in fact already been damaged in an earlier attack.

There was no medal ceremony following the match. Some of the cup winners from West Ham retired to the Boleyn public house in Green Street to celebrate, while many others returned to their units, as they were on active duty. One last afternoon in the sun, then, as the winds of war swept across Europe.

The Blitz began in earnest the following autumn, with 127 nighttime raids in London between September of 1940 and May of 1941. The bombings inflicted a mental as well as a physical toll on the entire country. But the nation stood together with its inspirational prime minister, Winston Churchill, and the failure of the Blitz to severely weaken the English will and infrastructure was the Third Reich’s first major defeat of the war. And this victory solidified the English reputation as steadfast and stoic with a steely resolve—a resolve which Hitler underestimated, and a resolve that was displayed with gusto at the 1941 War Cup final.

For despite the nine month long German bombing campaign, 60,000 war-weary Englanders turned up at Wembley on that early May day to watch Preston North End battle Arsenal to a 1-1 draw, with future Liverpool manager Bill Shankly in the Preston starting XI. The replay was held in front of 41,000 at Ewood park, which Preston North End won 2-1 thanks to a Robert Beattie brace. Arsenal went on to appear in the 1943 final, as well (the only club to appear in two War Cup finals) but the Gunners lost that match 4-2 to Blackpool.

The 1941 final was the last to be held at Wembley. In 1942 the format was changed to a two-legged final with one match at each teams’ home ground. Wolves lost to Sunderland 6-2 over the two legs that year. Scoring one of the goals for the Black Cats was Raich Carter, one of many promising players whose career was cut short by the war. Carter, however, like Shankly, would go on to a successful managerial career with several clubs, including Hull City. When Hull’s KC Stadium opened in 2002, Hull played Sunderland for what was called the Raich Carter Trophy.

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In 1943 the format was changed again to include both a Northern and Southern tournament, with the finals held at Stamford Bridge. A healthy crowd of 55,000 turned out for the 1943 final which, as mentioned, Blackpool won 4-2. In 1944, the cup was shared between Charlton and Aston Villa, watched by 38,500 at the Bridge that year. It finished 1-1 but, since the match was held just three weeks before the D-Day invasion, the replay was cancelled due to bombing threats and transportation restrictions.

In 1945, on April 30, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in Berlin. Eight days later, the Allies declared victory in Europe. One month after that, the last War Cup final was played on June 2, with Chelsea losing 2-1 to Bolton in front of 35,000 at Stamford Bridge.

The 1945-46 season would see a resumption of the FA Cup—albeit in an abbreviated format—and by August 1946, football was back in full swing in England, with the 1946-47 season being the first full program since before the war.

But through those long, dark years between 1939 and 1946, the football was still there. Providing an invaluable tonic with which to ease the bitterness of war. Beyond The Blitz, there was the rationing and the profound loss of life: 326,000 military deaths, 60,000+ civilian deaths, all of which inflicted an untold psychological toll on England’s citizens. But like the Christmas Truce of 1914, football was there to help people forget about the war, the loss, the hunger—even if just for a few hours.

It cannot be underestimated the positive effect the War Cup had on English morale. As we all know, even just a little while spent watching the beautiful game with the sun on your back can make you feel as if all is right with the world.