The Khaki Cup Final: Sheffield Utd vs Chelsea, 1915

By the summer of 1915, the First World War had caused an unthinkable amount of destruction and despair. Despite an initially positive reaction from across Europe, as war was declared, it soon became clear that this one was different. August 1914 saw the Football League in England continue as usual. After all, it seemed that a war on the continent was no reason to alter daily lives and routines and football was to remain. 

It was widely said that the War would be over by Christmas with British soldiers returning home victorious once more. Unfortunately, as winter set in and military tactics on both sides became alarmingly outdated, a new style of warfare was to begin. Dug into the trenches in Flanders, it seemed that an end to the conflict was nowhere in sight. Still, football remained a major highlight to the lives of many. Most will have heard the stories of Christmas Truce football matches (or kickabouts) in 1914. Debated, though they are, what is an intriguing thought is that the one thing used to united sides so opposed in ideology was a love of football.

In terms of the Football League, it was initially seen as an important practice in maintaining domestic morale. However, it wasn’t long before calls for the league’s suspension became widespread. It is interesting the note, that the great deal of articles concerning suspension start after Christmas 1914, as the sheer extent and horror of war became increasingly apparent. The Western Mail printed an article in January 1915 detailing a protest group which had been formed by Mr F. N. Charrington. Charrington had argued against professional football continuing in wartime and received the support of many leading Archbishops and wider clergymen. Further examples from within the press are easy to find as they attempt to undermine the necessity of football in wartime.

In December 1914, football had contributed to the war effort, to some extent. The famous Football Battalion had been established that Christmas and players were indeed starting to enlist. Despite this, for historian Matthew Taylor the FA was ‘losing the argument hands down’, but were still adamant that the Football League had ‘helped to ensure normality and sooth disquiet’. The Burnley News made the position clear in March 1915, ‘Never in its history has the game been in such a critical position’. It wasn't long before the House of Commons was also debating the issue.  It is here that debates are seen over when any suspension will take place and whether or not the public should be fined for not wearing uniforms to professional matches. In a debate with the then Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Sir John Lonsdale made his views quite clear,

"asked the Prime Minister if he is aware that recruiting meetings held in connection with assemblies of men to watch football matches have produced disappointing results: and whether, in view of the gravity of the crisis and the need for recruits, he will introduce legislation taking powers to suppress all professional football matches during the continuance of the War?"

The eventual fall in attendances across British grounds (which were often used for military drills) meant the writing was on the wall for the Football Association. The game would have to be suspended. European Football Statistics record that the average attendance at Football League grounds fell from just below 22,000 in 1914 to 13,500 the following year. Articles can be found in regional newspapers from 1915 in which clubs begin to come to terms with the fact that a greater battle is needed and that the country comes before the football.

Despite growing agitation amongst some areas of society (in particular upper-class amateur sportsmen), the FA Cup Final would still go ahead in April. Sheffield United would face Chelsea at Old Trafford in front of a raucous, yet underwhelming 49,000 fans. Again, the fact it took place caused a rift in public opinion. Prior to the match The Sports Argus named the final the 'subdued' or 'armageddon' final. It was clear to them that this final was relatively pointless in the grand scheme of things and the use of armageddon provides the notion that this could have in been the last to exist. The article continues in true patriotic spirit and notes that many will be opposed to its taking place. However, it references the soldiers abroad and notes that the 'carrying on' of public life will be of great comfort overall and the playing of the final will do more good than bad.

Utley leads out Sheffield United

Sheffield forward Jimmy Simmons would open the scoring nine minutes before half-time. Half-volleying into the back of the net, he invigorated the crowd. The second half was a tight affair until the last ten minutes. Goals from Stanley Fazackerley and Joe Kitchen were enough to settle the tie. After the match’s conclusion, it was the spectators which earned the focus of the British press. The Sussex Agricultural Express mentions that ‘khaki-clad soldiers [were] very prominent in the crowd’. Their attendance had brought the reality of war into view for all in attendance,

‘There were so many men in His Majesty’s uniform among the crowd on Saturday that one is justified in referring to the match as the “khaki final.” More grim as evidence as of the dread realities of the war, was the inclusion among the khaki men of numbers of soldiers who had been under the enemy’s fire. Bandaged heads, strapped limbs, crutches and here and there the support of a crippled hero on the shoulder of [his] comrades’.

Despite many believing that the final had ‘disgrace attached to it’, the Earl of Derby who would present the cup to Sheffield United captain George Utley after the game. Derby used the platform to urge the enlisting of more individuals into the armed forces. The later Secretary of State for War would compliment both sides for a great match before adding that he hoped to see them play a greater game for England. Derby was clear in his view that football needed to be suspended.

The 1915 final has since become known as the ‘Khaki Cup Final’ due to those in attendance. As a game it highlights the impact war can have on ordinary life, right down to football. It also promotes the importance of football to lives of millions around the world. From the attendance of thousands of khaki-clad soldiers, football is shown to be a source of escape and peace. In the modern day, it is hard to imagine our current crop of players putting on military uniform and going off to fight a war but World War One was different. It shook the very fabric of society and caused issues many wouldn’t have initially considered in 1914. A greater match was about to begin.

©The Football History Boys, 2020


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