History / Sport

Sporting comebacks I

When this whole pandemic business began, even in the early days of national unity, there was some sniping at football and footballers, for crimes now largely obscure and forgotten. A bit like the start of the First World War.

Now, after an interregnum filled by lucrative online chess and patchily streamed home darts, live sport has spluttered back into televised (if non-spectated) life, first of all with snooker and horse racing, and now Premier League soccer itself. In early April, ashen-faced Matt Hancock saw little to please the eye in the beautiful game. A month later, a more rosy-cheeked Dominic Raab was already stating that he thought the return of the Premier League ‘would lift the spirits of the nation’.

Whether that is true or not, these strange sport-less months have left many of us bereft of finding out which group of strangers is better than another group of strangers wearing different-coloured costumes at doing a specific thing on a certain occasion. As well as potentially putting in peril hundreds of thousands of jobs. But we have been here before…1919a


As when sport was caught off guard by the outbreak of war in 1914 (less so in 1939), it had to work out how to get going again when peace came in 1918 and 1945. And, like now, a certain amount of improvisation was needed.

Sport didn’t stop totally during either war. There were still regional football competitions on an amateur basis, while horse racing continued and some special events were staged, including a 4 July US Navy v US Army baseball game at Stamford Bridge in 1918, attended by King George V.

Even more sport was played on the home front during the second war, for morale, fundraising and recruitment. Nevertheless, regular professional competitions were suspended – the FA Cup, won by Portsmouth in 1939, was secreted in a pub in a Hampshire village for the duration.

Just as leaving lockdown is more complicated than its initial imposition, so getting professional sport back up to speed after the 1918 and 1945 victories was no easy task. Especially in the first of those years, where a now all-too familiar peril was lurking.

The timing of the Armistice in November 1918 meant some sports had some time to decide what to do. Cricket had been staging ad hoc fundraising games but otherwise been in abeyance in the wartime summers, the sport’s annual journal Wisden resorting to picking schoolboys for their Cricketers of the Year in 1918.*

Cricketing authorities were concerned their sport might have lost popularity in its absence, and that caused a row familiar to those following the bickering over the arrangements for the Premier League restart today. The 16 first-class counties met at Lord’s in February 1919 and decided to cut their matches from three to two days, with longer hours. Five did vote against, though, and Wisden editor Sydney Pardon was furious.

Pardon’s editorial in the 1919 edition would not look totally out of place in certain sports pages today:

The restriction of all county matches to two days strikes me as being a sad blunder … To my thinking it would have been far better to drop the Championship entirely for one year, allowing all the counties to make such arrangements as seemed best fitted to their own needs, while the game was being gradually brought back to its old footing.

To Pardon’s relief, other proposed changes like shortening boundaries, deducting runs from batting teams for maiden overs, ruling batsmen out for falling below a certain run rate, and restricting teams to three professionals came to nothing. The two-day experiment went ahead, however, but was short-lived; after one season, the preponderance of draws meant that three-day matches were back in 1920.


Football also had some decisions to make. Although it was too late for a 1918/19 season to take place, there was a restructuring of both Football League divisions, expanded from twenty to twenty-two teams. And the way in which the top flight was reconstituted has ramifications a century on.

Chelsea, who had finished second from last in Division One in 1914/15, were reprieved from relegation. That was uncontroversial. But would the remaining spot go to Tottenham, who had finished bottom last time out? Or to the side that came third in Division Two, Barnsley?

Well, in fact it was Arsenal, the team that trailed in fifth place behind Barnsley (and behind Wolves), who got promoted, thanks to a speech in their favour league chairman John McKenna at the AGM where clubs voted on the decision.

The decision hasn’t necessarily found unanimous favour with Spurs fans over the year. There have been dark mutterings that Arsenal chairman Sir Henry Norris paid bribes, desperate for top division status to compensate for the debt incurred when the Gunners moved to Highbury in 1913 from their old south London base in Woolwich. Others say Spurs had upset other clubs with the method of their league entry a decade earlier and that the key was the lobbying of influential journalist Jimmy Catton.

Whatever the truth, Arsenal took Spurs’ top division spot and are the only team not to have been relegated in the century since. And the rivalry with Tottenham, which had already begun with Arsenal barging in on Spurs’ north London manor, has remained particularly bitter.


Speaking of bitter rivalries, the split in rugby was still fairly fresh when war began. With extreme reluctance, the amateur Rugby Football Union (RFU) lifted its lifetime ban for any serviceman who competed with players from the breakaway Northern Union (now Rugby League), conceding in 1916:

Northern Union players can only play with Rugby Union players in bona-fide naval and military teams. Rugby Union teams can play against naval and military teams in which there are Northern Union players. Munitions workers cannot be regarded as naval and military players. These rulings only obtain during the war.1919d

They were as good as their word, restoring the ban within a few weeks of the Armistice, by which time the professional game was already back in progress and growing in popularity. Rugby Union, meanwhile, had lost around a third of their players, and while their regular competitions did not return in 1919, an unusual (for the time) tournament did take place.

The King’s Cup, aka the Inter-Services and Dominions Rugby Championship, involved the combined British Army and Navy (the ‘Mother Country’), the RAF, and forces teams representing New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa. Played across Britain that April, it was the closest the sport had ever come to a world cup, with the Mother Country, Australia and New Zealand teams involving top-class talents from the amateur game. As The Times wrote:

It is a most practical means of continuing and strengthening the bonds of interest between us and our relations scattered over the world. War has brought all parts of the Empire closer… Often in the past the ties between this country and the colonies have been slender, and the strongest of them is the common interest in British games.

It was also some smart PR for the sport, which had been encouraged in the armed forces and was hoping to maintain popularity against the professional thrills of the Northern Union and soccer – Bradford was among the venues.

There was also a need to thaw the tensions between the British Rugby Football Union and its antipodean counterparts, since before the war there had been suspicions that Australia and New Zealand were embracing the horrors of professionalism. The Aussie players were allowed a small allowance during their long 1908/09 British tour, and both Scotland and Ireland refused to meet them. George V was also keen on the tournament, not least to emphasise to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada their enhanced dominion status, competing with the British as equals.

The competition proved popular and Australia were only just pipped to the final by New Zealand and the Mother Country. The New Zealand team won the final at Twickenham in front of the king himself and went on to triumph in challenge matches against France in London and Paris. The crowds and royal patronage bolstered the self-confidence of the English Rugby Football Union in dismissing New Zealander calls for any loosening of amateurism rules (which remained for more than seventy more years).

That same attitude also meant that this was the nearest Rugby Union got to a World Cup until the current tournament began in 1987 (it was an Olympic sport at the time but did not attract leading teams). Having confirmed their royal-approved amateur status, the sport’s British overlords were contemptuous of the concept of any competition beyond their Five Nations matches between the British and Irish unions and France.1919c


Individual sports, while largely amateur and without modern international circuits, returned too, and perhaps nowhere was the appetite for post-war competition seen more than at the 1919 Wimbledon tennis championships. The ladies’ singles had never been won by a non-British player, save for the Plymouth-born American May Sutton, but that all changed when Suzanne Lenglen of France breezed into town.

It was the 20-year-old’s debut, and already a hero back home, she made an impact in London. She was not afraid to talk up her own chances, and played in a one-piece dress that showed off her forearms and was cut above the calf. Uniquely among the competing women she served overarm and was not above a frustrated toss of the racket when things didn’t go her way.

Which wasn’t often. Lenglen carved her way through the field to set up a decisive showdown with  Dorothea Lambert Chambers, twice her age and the reigning champion from 1914 (as well as on six previous occasions), which gave her a bye to the final. In a true epic, there were forty-four games in all, still the second highest in a Wimbledon women’s final. Lenglen – fortified by vials of cognac thrown to her by her equally flamboyant father (suspected of coaching her against the amateur ethos) – won 10-8, 4-6, 9-7.

Over 8,000 people, including our old friend George V, had crammed into the supposedly 3,500-capacity centre court to witness the dawning of the post-war era. Tennis had never seen anything like Lenglen before, and she soon conquered the United States too, tournament officials prepared to look the other way at her in-match tippling despite Prohibition. As for Wimbledon, Lenglen was to win five years in a row, six times in all. In 1922, the Championships moved from their original home to the larger current site on Church Road, pretty much solely because of Lenglen’s popularity – born in that 1919 tournament.


The first post-war Olympics were held in Antwerp in 1920, but before that there was an Olympic-style event staged in Paris in 1919 – the Inter-Allied Games at the Pershing Stadium (built, as the name suggests, by the US military). It featured military teams from the major victorious powers, plus the likes of Guatemala, Newfoundland and the Kingdom of Hejaz (soon to become Saudi Arabia, and strictly not competitors – they sent a delegation to demonstrate Arabian horsemanship).1919b

Familiar sports like athletics, golf and rowing were joined by American football and baseball, and by some less unfamiliar events, such as the hand-grenade throwing, won by the USA’s Fred Thompson at a world-record distance of 74.93 metres.

Army chaplain Thompson, like some other future medal-winners, went on to the movies, becoming a famed cowboy in silent films made by a studio owned by Joseph Kennedy. He was discovered when Frances Marion (later the first screenwriter to win two Oscars), together with her megastar friend Mary Pickford, visited an army hospital where he was recovering from a broken leg, sustained while playing gridiron football. He went on to star successfully in the hit picture Just Around the Corner (1921), written and directed by Marion, produced by William Randolph Hearst, and based on a novel with the most un-filmlike title of Superman.

Thompson later acted alongside Pickford, and his 1925 contract with Kennedy’s studio earned him $10,000 a week. Three years later, however, he died on Christmas Day, having contracted tetanus when stepping on a rusty nail at his stables, less than a decade after his epoch-making weapon chuck in France.

The story of Fred Thompson isn’t really relevant to the rest of our story, I admit, but it’s hard to leave out a tale involving a competitive grenade throw, Mary Pickford, Joe Kennedy and William Randolph Hearst.


* Including Harry Calder, the only man ever included in the annual Wisden list never to play first-class cricket, and in fact unaware of his honour until 1994 having returned to his native South Africa seventy-five years earlier after leaving Cranleigh School.


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