The cry against professional football at the present time [is] right. [I can] not understand men who had any feeling, any respect for their country, men in the prime of life, taking large salaries at a time like this for kicking a ball about.
It might sound like a broadside from Matt Hancock at a tricky Downing Street press briefing, but that was in fact the first Bishop of Chelmsford, John Watts Ditchfield, giving a sermon in Bethnal Green on 2 December 1914, as quoted in the Stratford Express. Dr Ditchfield was calling for professional footballers to join up rather than take a pay cut, but the minister’s words have a distinct echo in the posturing of the Minister (okay, Secretary of State) just over a century hence.
In the face of the COVID-19 crisis, football and sport in general, haltingly at first, halted. At least in Britain, this is unprecedented in recent decades; in the Three-Day Week in 1974, floodlight games were banned, but fixtures merely spilled over into otherwise sacrosanct territories like Sundays and midweek afternoons. The only real parallels in the era of professional sport in the UK are the world wars.
Just like last month, the outbreak of war in August 1914 caused something of a dilemma for those running sport. Rugby Union, still then strictly amateur, was almost immediately suspended, and within weeks cricket followed. But the new season of what was to become Rugby League did begin*, horse racing continued despite the requisition of some courses, and soccer’s 1914-15 season went ahead.
Football’s hierarchy decided carrying on as usual would be good for morale, fundraising and military recruitment. Well, not quite as usual, since players’ training now included military drill and a different kind of shooting to the type they usually did on the pitch, while plans were made for prominent figures to address fans before games to encourage those that could to enlist.
That did not satisfy some critics of the clubs, the players they employed, or the fans that paid to watch them. In a speech on 6 September 1914, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a former goalkeeper for Portsmouth A.F.C.** (under the pseudonym of A.C. Smith) and no stranger to politics, was reported to have said:
There was a time for all things in the world. There was a time for games, there was a time for business, and there was a time for domestic life. There was a time for everything, but there is only time for one thing now, and that thing is war … If a footballer had strength of limb let them serve and march in the field of battle.
A couple of weeks earlier, the famed Field Marshal Lord Roberts had addressed a newly-formed battalion of City stockbrokers: ‘How very different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket*** and football, as if the very existence of the country were not at stake.’
Amateur sport doyen C.B. Fry, yet to go into politics, also had his say, demanding that football should be banned, or at least that all under-forties be barred from attending matches. Oddly, contemporary politicians tended not to wade in, despite occasional questions in the House about why rail companies were still selling cheap tickets to fans wishing to travel to matches, and whether admission prices could be taxed. The government played those questions with a straight bat, and the War Office gave no guidance one way or another to the football authorities, something quite familiar this time around.
Today, while the likes of Matt Hancock, Julian Knight and Oliver Dowden have been more than happy to point at footballers and scream ‘look over there’, the media has, if anything, tended to stick up for them, other than a bit of social distancing shaming. The press was more outspoken 106 years ago.
The editorial line of The Times is reflected by this letter to the paper in November 1914: ‘We view with indignation and alarm the persistence of Association Football Clubs in doing their best for the enemy.’ Historian and future parliamentary candidate A.F. Polland agreed: ‘Every club who employs a professional player is bribing a needed recruit to refrain from enlistment, and every spectator who pays his gate money is contributing so much towards a German victory.’
The Evening News suspended its Saturday-night special edition. ‘This is no time for football editions,’ it explained. ‘This is no time for football. This nation, this Empire, has got to occupy itself with more serious business.’ Other popular newspapers pointedly dropped sport results altogether.
This didn’t go unnoticed in Germany. Frankfurter Zeitung gleefully noted: ‘Young Britons prefer to exercise their long limbs on the football ground, rather than expose them to any sort of risk in the service of their country.
However, there was – like today – a backlash to the backlash. The Manchester-based Athletic News, long a champion of professional sport against the sneering of Corinthian amateurism (though generally on the side of club directors, rather than players), wrote in opposition to the Matt Hancocks of the day:
The whole agitation is nothing less than an attempt by the ruling classes to stop the recreation on one day in the week of the masses … The poor are giving their lives for this country in thousands. In many cases they have nothing else … These should, according to a small clique of virulent snobs, be deprived of the one distraction that they have had for over thirty years.
As for the players, it was to be around half-a-century before football’s maximum wage was abolished, but even so – not unlike today – they faced a pay cut, as gate receipts were well down. Those on the £5-a-week maximum (around £580 in today’s prices) agreed a cut of 15 per cent while those on £3 saw their money reduced by 5 per cent, with the cash saved put into a contingency fund for clubs struggling with cashflow.
Even in terms of war-charity drives, football had contributed more than £7,000 to the Prince of Wales’ National Relief Fund by the end of August 1914, comfortably the biggest sum received. Nevertheless, while the government showed no interest in pressurising football to stop (and was happy for horse racing to continue ‘in the interests of thoroughbred horse breeding’), soccer knew the game was up.
The 1914-15 season ended with a low-key FA Cup final in Manchester, notable for a speech by future Secretary of War, the Earl of Derby, calling for attendees to now play ‘a sterner game for England’, After that, professional football went into abeyance.
The sport did continue with regional competitions held for fundraising and morale, clubs fielding players who happened to be available in the local area, such as those at army bases. Young women wearing sashes made their way through the crowds to collect money, and wounded soldiers were taken to matches as rare treats.
In fact, the women (bless ’em) were not just parading around in sashes – some of them were, if you can imagine it, actually playing. Many top football clubs, such as Manchester United, had begun as works’ teams. Now a female workforce were being employed in industry to fill the male-shaped gap, and were starting to face off in increasingly competitive intra-factory fixtures too, encouraged by David Lloyd George to show that women could indeed fulfil these traditional masculine roles, as well as to raise funds.
A successful Munitionettes’ Cup was held in the north-east. Elsewhere, there were the likes of Dick, Kerr Ladies F.C. from Preston – the new women apprentices, having beaten the men of the ammunition factory in an informal game, formed a team that attracted a 10,000 crowd to face Arundel Coulthard Factory on Christmas Day 1917, and were to be playing in front of more than 50,000 before the FA opted to ban women’s football in 1921.
Many male footballers of course were now at the front, and their initial recruitment proved an incentive for fans to join up and fight alongside their heroes (and even play since sporting contests were organised for soldiers). A specific footballers’ battalion (open to officials and fans as well as players), attached to the Middlesex Regiment, had been set up in December 1914 at the suggestion of Lord Kitchener, and lost more than 1,000 men. Among those was Walter Tull, who had been only the second black British professional footballer and was the British Army’s first black officer.
No such sacrifices will have to be made by footballers now to satisfy their critics, but how the sport will return in 2020 is far from clear. In fact, after the Armistice, soccer reappeared pretty promptly, though regular league and cups did not begin in earnest until the following summer with the start of the new season. However, in perhaps a deadly lesson for today, Victory competitions were played in what would have been the 1918-19 season, attracting large sport-hungry crowds in the midst of the pandemic of the day, H1N1 influenza.
The thinking at the time was that fresh air was a ‘keystone of defence’ against contagion, but several players did succumb, as did, no doubt, some or many of the attending fans too. However, the 1919-20 season began as usual with the Football League expanding (including the controversial off-pitch promotion of Arsenal to the top division, where they have remained ever since). The game’s popularity, which had taken a hit in the early years of the war, was up, not least as many men had been introduced to regular football in the organised sport in the services. The Athletic News, the staunch defender of football clubs in the first year of the war, was recording a record circulation by 1919.
Twenty years later, football wasn’t given a choice. As soon as war was declared on Germany, the British government banned the assembly of crowds and the barely two-week old season was abandoned.**** In any case, many players (including the entire Bolton squad) had joined up in the preceding months.
With the feared bombing raids not immediately materialising, the government decided to allow friendly football tournaments, though a 50-mile travel limit was imposed and crowds were initially restricted to 8,000 and later 15,000. And as the phoney war period continued, a Football League War Cup was permitted. By June 1940 the final between West Ham and Blackburn attracted 40,000 fans to Wembley despite the Blitz having extinguished any phoniness about the conflict.
In fact, as wartime football continued on a semi-competitive basis, there was little of the criticism directed at soccer as there had been in 1914. In a wartime international between England and Scotland in October 1941 – one of a series of matches between the home nations to raise funds for the Red Cross and St John’s Ambulance – Winston Churchill was among the 65,000 crowd at Wembley, believing such games boosted public morale.
So, although the leagues and FA Cup stopped during the Second World War, football didn’t but avoided the sniping from twenty-five years before or eight decades hence. Obviously, there was less ambiguity about the seriousness of the situation on 3 September 1939 than early August 1914 or March 2020, but soccer had doubtless learned from its troubled 1914-15 experience, whether that opprobrium had been deserved or not.
Today, no one is expecting footballers to volunteer to put their lives on the line or (like many of us) do anything else but stay put, but they still found themselves in the PR firing line, as briefly did the sport as a whole in some quarters, as they mulled over a suspension without much in the way of government direction one way or the other.
Whether the sport and its players deserved such treatment, or was an easy target, possibly isn’t the biggest issue gripping the UK right now. But it was at least in a proud historic tradition.
* So recent was the split in rugby that the professional Northern Rugby Football Union was yet to adopt its more familiar name.
** An amateur side that preceded the current Portsmouth F.C.
*** Abandonment of cricket followed in the next few days.
**** Tom Finney pointed out in his autobiography the clubs informed supporters that ‘there would be no refund on season tickets’ while naturally him and fellow players saw their wages stopped with a week’s notice.