History / Sport

Sporting comebacks II

Sport as mass entertainment had proved robust enough to recapture its place in British life after World War One, slightly altered but more popular than ever. There were different challenges on VE Day twenty-seven years later.

For a start, technically the war was not over. Japan was still to be defeated and this stayed the hand of football, which had been able to continue with regional club competitions after not repeating its uneasy national continuation in 1914/15. Crowds, after the early restrictions on numbers due to fears of German bombing raids, had been high, raising funds and morale.

But when Football League clubs met on 7 May 1945 to work out what to do when victory was declared, they opted against beginning a new season in the coming months, with a Far Eastern war still raging; indeed many of their players were engaged there. But while the wartime regional leagues continued for another year, the FA Cup returned for 1945/46.

It was an FA Cup like none other, and there have been quite a few. Once it reached the first-round proper in November, where the lower-division professional teams joined the non-league qualifiers, a unique two-legged format was used, teams playing home and away, with the aggregate score decisive. From the third round, these games were held on Saturdays and Wednesdays, the midweek matches in the afternoons (floodlights were still not permitted by football authorities, peace or not).1946a

Regardless, crowds were huge. The appetite for the game had never been higher, and that continued as the Football League returned, with aggregate attendances rising to over 35 million in 1946/47, above 40 million the following season and 41,271,414 in 1948/49, a record never since matched.

This would have tragic consequences, however, as a crush at Burnden Park for a tie between Bolton Wanderers and Stanley Matthews’s Stoke City watched by an estimated 85,000 led to thirty-three deaths and hundreds of injuries. In those hardened times, the game resumed with sawdust-marking separating the pitch from the corpses. Home secretary James Chuter Ede appointed R. Moelwyn Hughes QC to lead an enquiry. This identified failings and recommended safety measures, some of which were implemented, though not enough to prevent future disasters and similar stern official reports over the coming decades.

The crowds kept coming, and in 1947 there were 135,000 fans at Glasgow’s Hampden Park to watch a combined UK team face a Rest of the World team. The game was a fundraiser for football’s global governing body FIFA, impoverished by the war. The four British national football associations had twice left FIFA in the 1920s, the second time over the definition of amateurism (choosing to sit out the first three World Cups in 1930, 1934 and 1938). But, as FA secretary Stanley Rous put it:

Britain’s part in the war perhaps made Europeans even keen to have us back in their football community and us much readier to rejoin. The sense of comradeship and interdependence was the one happy relic of the conflict.

Rous led the four British associations back into FIFA in 1946 and, having learned of the world body’s financial woes, suggested the fundraising game that earned FIFA a crucial £30,000. In 1950, England travelled to the World Cup for the first time as British champions. (Runners-up Scotland refused to go, saying they only wanted to compete in Brazil had they won the Home International competition.)

England were to get a rude awakening in Brazil, a calamitous defeat by the USA and loss to Spain rather disabusing the inventor of football of their self-image as the game’s masters. When Scotland had compete, travelling to Switzerland four years later, they lost 7-0 to Uruguay. Britain’s soccer self-confidence was one of the last, belated casualties of war.


Cricket, fortunately, didn’t have to worry about suspicious non-Commonwealth nations like America and Uruguay being unsportsmanlike and trying to win. It was able to return swiftly in May 1945 with a series of Victory Tests between England and an Australian Services XI, made up of cricketing airmen and soldiers, who had been deliberately stationed in the UK by prime minister John Curtin so that top-level cricket could resume swiftly once peace came.

The three-day matches attracted an aggregate attendance of 367,000, ensuring it wasn’t only football that benefitted from a post-war sporting boom. Although only one of the Australians had previous test experience, English fans got their first look at an all-time great, Keith Miller, an all-rounder whose match-winning innings in the first and third matches (and another century in the drawn fourth rubber), were key to tying the five-game series 2-2 against a more experienced home side.1946b

Even more impressively, Miller, who had set out his stall with a memorable 105 at Lord’s in the opening game, returned to his air force duties. He was flying a Mosquito over the Ruhr when his starboard motor caught fire, setting alight the wooden wings. He and his navigator were able to dowse the flames, and get back to base in England with a single remaining engine, surviving a crash-landing. Miller stepping out a few weeks later at Lord’s for the third match of the series, making a crucial 71 not out.

Miller also scored a stunning 185 in less than three hours at the same ground for a Dominions XI against England that August. He had declared earlier in the summer: ‘I’ll tell you what pressure is. Pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse. Cricket is not.’ The man Neville Cardus later dubbed ‘The Australian in excelsis’ had arrived and, if I were a hackier writer, I would say Miller had invaded Britain with bat and ball in a way that all the odious apparatus of the Nazi military arranged across the Channel never could.


Maybe never in the long history of this proud island nation (sorry, it’s hard to stop once you get started) has sport captured the public imagination as in the euphoric aftermath of World War II. Not just in football and cricket but also in disciplines like speedway, greyhound racing and athletics, even if not all of them maintained that momentum come the 1950s; the vagaries of entertainment tax and of television sapped live attendances, the small screen not yet in a position to promote sport in its own right.

There was one sport, or collection of sports, that might not have experienced the same immediate post-1945 boom but started its growth as a direct result of the war. In 1948 London staged the Olympics, having been initially picked to host the 1944 Games. (Putative 1940 hosts Toyko had to wait a further 24 years for that honour, not the city’s last such postponement.)1946c

The story of the Austerity Games is well-known, but on the day of the 1948 opening ceremony at White City Stadium, another event was held at Stoke Mandeville. Organised by neurosurgeon Dr Ludwig Guttman, a Jewish refugee from Germany who had been tasked with setting up a Spinal Injuries Unit at the Buckinghamshire hospital, the Stoke Mandeville Games were a wheelchair archery competition involving fourteen men and two women.

Guttman used sport for physical and mental rehabilitation of injured veterans, and the Stoke Mandeville Games became an annual event with more sports and disabled foreign veterans becoming involved. By 1960 they had moved well beyond their original post-war purpose and were held in Rome alongside the Olympics, non-veterans also competing in what are now known as the Paralympics. Whether sport returns more popular or less from the Covid interlude, transformed or familiar, it’s hard to see such an equivalent bloom to emerge from the manure of international tragedy as Dr Guttmann’s Games.


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