Soccer in the times of war

Jackie Robinson (left) became the first black player to play in Major League Baseball in 1946. English professional football, however, saw its first black player in Walter Tull, who played for Tottenham in 1909.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY Jackie Robinson (left) became the first black player to play in Major League Baseball in 1946. English professional football, however, saw its first black player in Walter Tull, who played for Tottenham in 1909.

In World War I no fewer than one-sixth of the troops who fought for Britain were from the Indian subcontinent. And, in parenthesis, it was a war in which the first black player ever to figure in English professional football was destined to figure heroically. Walter Tull briefly played for Tottenham Hotspurs, then found his way — coincidentally enough like the great future Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman — to modest Northampton Town. By Brian Glanville.

August has seen the 100th anniversary of the ‘Great War’. The so called ‘War to end all Wars’ which alas merely and tragically paved the way for another. It was a war in which no fewer than one-sixth of the troops who fought for Britain were from the Indian subcontinent. And, in parenthesis, it was a war in which the first black player ever to figure in English professional football was destined to figure heroically. Walter Tull briefly played for Tottenham Hotspurs, then found his way — coincidentally enough like the great future Arsenal manager Herbert Chapman — to modest Northampton Town.

Volunteering for the Army, he managed to survive the sanguinary chaos of its offensive on the Somme, but was sent back to England in 1916 with trench fever. Returning to France, he was promoted first to Sergeant, then to Lieutenant, which made him the first ever black officer in the British Army. Alas, he was killed in 1918, destined to be the last year of the war, trying to break through German lines on the Western Front. It is heartening to think that a black player should have been given his chance in English football so long ago. The first black player allowed to play Major League Baseball in the United States, Jackie Robinson, was admitted in only 1946, to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, and then only after he himself had had a gallant war, as a commissioned Lieutenant.

English professional football itself hardly emerged from the Great War, initially at least, with flying colours. Whereas in 1939, at the outbreak of Second World War in September 1939, League and FA Cup soccer was suspended till the end of the hostilities, football continued after war began in 1914 until the end of 1914/15 season, concluded by the so called Khaki Cup final, so called because the FA Cup final, played at Fallowfield, Manchester, where Sheffield United beat Chelsea, was watched by so many soldiers in uniform.

Presenting the FA Cup, the grandee Earl of Derby declared that it was everyone’s duty “to play a sterner game for England.” Field Marshall Lord Roberts went further than that when addressing an army battalion, saying: “I respect and honour you more than I can say. How different is your action from that of men who can still go on with their cricket and football as if the very existence of our nation were not at stake.”

By contrast, the manager of the celebrated Edinburgh team Heart of Midlothian, or Hearts for short, John McCartney, initiated one of the so called Pals Battalions, doomed to suffer horrific losses in the battlefield, on November 26, 1914. “Now then young men,” he said, “as you have followed the old club through sunshine and rain, roll up in your hundreds for King and Country, for right and freedom. Don’t let it be said that footballers are shirkers and cowards.”

Later there would be the so called Footballers’ Battalion, consisting wholly of professional footballers, led by Major General Frank Buckley, who had played once for England as a centre half. He would survive the war to become one of the most celebrated and successful of all English club managers, at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Nicknamed ‘The Buckley Babes’ — years before Manchester United’s so called ‘Busby Babes’ — for the youthfulness of their players, they fell short of the League and FA Cup double in 1939, runners-up in both, but sparkled at their best. Buckley himself went on to manage Leeds United, after the Second World War.

World War II saw a very different official attitude to soccer. Far from the game and its professional being criticised for supposedly staying out of the conflict, the Government actively encouraged them to join the Army and the Royal Air Force’s physical training corps administration. The idea being that though soccer was regionalised as in the First World War, and though clubs will now be allowed to utilise “guest players” from other clubs, the general public could be diverted and distracted from the hardships of war, the bombing by the Luftwaffe, the rationing of food. In a word, football was seen as means of maintaining morale.

Not that this programme too didn’t cause resentment in some quarters. I still remember an embittered letter sent to the Sunday Express, a hugely popular newspaper in those days, in which a woman bitterly recounted that with her son fighting in the services, she decided to go watch the local team which he supported so she could tell him about the young men who had replaced his heroes, engaged in fighting for their country. To her bitter surprise, she found that the team consisted of almost exactly same players as it had before the war.

Frank Butler, the Sunday Express sports columnist, wrote ironically that when the war began, the pimply young men waited to admire their sporting heroes jumping out of aeroplanes and leaping on to beaches. After a while, however, the pimply young men found that they themselves were doing just that.

It wasn’t always so. In April 1941 at Wembley Stadium, in the final of the so called League War Cup, which replaced the FA Cup for a couple of seasons, Preston North End, encountering a powerful Arsenal team, were inspired by a dazzling 19-year-old right winger called Tom Finney. The impact he made was enormous. Here was a future, major star, helping his team, very much the underdog to draw the match: they would win the replay. But Finney was shortly to disappear from the football scene for the next four years. Far from joining the Physical Training Corps, he would serve as a tank driver through the Middle Eastern and Italian campaign, never forgotten, blessedly surviving. To display on his return – resuming his occupation as a plumber – superlative form for Preston and England.

But when in 1945 a powerful Army team full of English internationals went on tour in Italy, the troops who watched their game kept up a jeering chorus of, “Come on the stay at home soldiers!” Those wartime years saw half the England team turn out as guests for third division Aldershot, the complete Britton-Cullis-Mercer half backline, the prolific Tommy Lawton at centre forward. Yet they never won any Cup or League.

A splendid book, ‘Wartime Wanderers’, chronicles the adventures and exploits of the Bolton Wanderers players, all of whom volunteered for Army service at the start of the war, and fought in France, the Middle East and Italy, where their captain, both as footballer and Army officer, was alas destined to be killed. Then there were the likes of Ian McPherson, a post war Arsenal star who won a double Distinguished Flying Crosses as a Mosquito pilot. And Harry Goslin (Bolton) was by no means the only footballer to die on active service.