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10 Facts About Football In The Second World War

By Jessica Talarico, Researcher

On 8 September 1939, the Football Association (FA) declared that all football except that organised by the armed forces was suspended 'until official notice to the contrary'. This was in contrast to 1914, when professional football had continued during the first year of war.

In 1939, the threat of air attack and the introduction of conscription made it impossible for football to continue as before. However, on 21 September, the Home Office agreed to allow a revised programme of football as long as it didn't interfere with national service and industry. Crowds were limited to 8,000 in evacuation areas and 15,000 elsewhere. There was a limited regional league and cup programme. Home internationals and inter-service matches also took place and football remained a popular spectator sport on the home front.

Players were called up into the forces or drafted into war work. Grounds were also badly affected by air raid damage and changes of use. When Arsenal's Highbury ground became an Air Raid Precautions (ARP) centre they had to ground share with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

In all three services, football was encouraged as a way to keep troops fit, active and entertained.

  • 1. Football was an important form of recreation for soldiers in Britain

    Over half of Britain's army - 1.5 million troops - spent most of the war in Britain. Watching and playing sport was critical in keeping these troops occupied and entertained. Football matches also raised money for service charities. In May 1943, a match at Chelsea, attended by a crowd of 55,000, raised £8,000 for the Navy Welfare League.

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  • 2. Footballers helped support recruitment

    At a match on Easter Saturday 1939, Bolton Wanderers captain Harry Goslin made a speech urging spectators to join up. The following Monday he and the entire first team joined the 53rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. Players from a number of other clubs also joined up together, including Liverpool FC, whose players formed a club section in the Kings Regiment. Harry Goslin was killed while serving in Italy in December 1944.

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  • 3. Many factories set up women's football teams

    As in the First World War, many large factories had female as well as male works football teams. This photograph, dating from 1944, shows goalkeeper Betty Stanhope, representing Fairey Aviation Company, during a match against A V Roe, another local aircraft factory. The Fairey team won the match six nil.

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  • 4. Football was popular with prisoners of war

    Football was a popular form of recreation for British prisoners of war (POWs). Balls and kits were supplied through the Red Cross and the YMCA. At many large camps, POWs organised leagues. This POW team at Stalag XXID at Poznan in Nazi-occupied Poland have been named 'Aston Villa', presumably reflecting their peacetime support for the Midlands club. Football was also popular amongst POWs of all nationalities. Manchester City's famous goalkeeper Bert Trautmann came to Britain as a German POW in 1945.

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  • 5. Football was an important form of recreation for civilians

    Playing and watching football remained a popular form of recreation on the home front. Spectators still turned out in good numbers for matches in regional leagues, cup and service competitions and, after the end of the Blitz in May 1941, attendances rose steadily. A 'guest player' system meant that spectators were sometimes able to see star players now serving in the armed forces, who would turn out for the nearest club to where they were based.

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  • 6. Many professional footballers served in the armed forces

    When football was officially suspended in September 1939, all professional footballers had their contracts terminated. By April 1940, according to Picture Post magazine, 629 professional footballers had joined the services, 514 in the army, 84 in the RAF and 31 in the Royal Navy. Others went into war work. In 1940, one factory in Oldbury employed 18 West Bromwich Albion players. Some players and coaches were used by the armed forces as physical training (PT) instructors. However, 80 professional footballers were killed during the course of the war and many more were injured or became prisoners of war (POWs).

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  • 7. Football helped maintain fitness

    Competitive inter-service and inter-unit football matches were encouraged throughout the armed forces. As well as forging links across units and increasing physical fitness, matches also provided a welcome form of entertainment for other troops stationed in the area.

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  • 8. Football was used to encourage work place productivity

    This poster produced for the Ministry of War Transport uses a humorous football themed cartoon to encourage its employees to unload their vehicles more efficiently.

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  • 9. Football boosted morale

    Football and other sports were encouraged in all branches of the services to boost morale. This photograph taken on 31 January 1944 shows gunners of 111 Battery, 80th (Scottish Horse) Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery playing football near their guns in the Anzio area of Italy.

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  • 10. Footballers played in exhibition matches to support the war effort

    As a professional footballer during the 1930s, Ted Drake played football for Southampton and Arsenal. In September 1944, he was part of an FA Services XI which visited Paris, where they defeated a French team 5-0 and then travelled to Brussels where they beat a Belgian team 3-0. The latter match took place very soon after the liberation and the terraces had to be cleared of mines before spectators could be admitted.

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