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Footballers at War: The Might-Have-Beens

Richard Evans has been researching footballers whose prime playing years coincided with the Second World War, considering the 'might-have beens' of the sport...

Len Shackleton - A player whose carrer was hit by WW2

On Saturday 2nd September 1939, a complete fixture card was in place for the third game of the football season, with Blackpool topping the First Division at the final whistle. The following day though, the Emergency Powers Act was implemented; gatherings of large crowds were prohibited. As a result, it was 1946 before teams next began to officially compete again.

Nevertheless, football was not put entirely into hibernation during these dark years. It endured, but, where the fascist powers in Germany and Italy kept their leagues running, exempting some registered players from active duty, Britain shipped many of its footballers into combat overseas. 

Indeed, those who remained in Blighty long enough to play at all were only able to do so in the Wartime League, whose matches – designed to boost morale on the Home Front - were only afforded the status of friendlies. Formed while the Blitz was still taking place, strict restrictions were placed upon travelling and spectator numbers. Come Saturday, players posted in the forces would simply turn out for whichever side was closest. However, from the outset, fixtures were fraught with personnel issues; matches were frequently forfeited owing to lack of available players.

Of course, football’s loss is of minuscule significance in the face of the untold suffering caused by hostilities. However, the prime playing years of a number of notable talents coincided with the global conflict. In such cases, it is tempting to wonder what might have been. What might some of those players who rose to prominence after 1945 have potentially accomplished had the world not been at war?

To ponder the question, it’s worth thinking about a few key figures.

Firstly, there was Len Shackleton (the ‘Clown Prince of Soccer’) who was 17 at the onset of hostilities. He scored 171 goals in the Wartime League (though none of them counted towards official records). Later in the War, he became a Bevin Boy and worked in coal mines but, finding the experience too gruelling, opted instead to join the RAF. 

Stan Mortensen

Then, consider Stan Mortensen (the only player ever to score a hat-trick in a Wembley FA Cup Final), who was the sole survivor of an RAF bomber crash in 1939. He became something of a Wartime League journeyman. Between the ages of 18 and 24 he turned out for Aberdeen, Blackpool and Arsenal. Famously, he also represented England for one half of an inter-war friendly, and Wales in the second.

Tommy Lawton is another player to consider: a championship winner with Everton in 1939 at age 20, he guested for a number of clubs in the years up to 1945, including Everton, Tranmere Rovers and Aldershot. He also scored 24 goals in 23 wartime internationals, but, of course, these were not officially recognised – nor did he receive any caps for his efforts. 

The famous Tom Finney image

The War also saw football from Tom Finney who experienced combat in the Royal Armoured Corps in Egypt as part of Montgomery’s Eighth Army. Alongside this, he began to build a reputation in Wartime tournaments that he played in between the ages of 17 and 23. 

Finally, mention must be given to Stanley Matthews (‘The Wizard of Dribble’). Though he had a ludicrously long playing career, one can only dream at what he might have achieved had he been able to play between the ages of 24 and 30. As it was, he split his performances in the Wartime League with service in the RAF.

Of course, we’ll never know what might have transpired. But one thing that can be said is that these players all had long careers. Shackleton played until 35; Lawton until 37; neither Mortensen nor Finney hung up their boots until the ripe old age of 38 and Stanley Matthews famously played on until the ripe old age of 50. Might this have had something to so with their ‘years of rest’?

Maybe. Although playing beyond 30 wasn’t as uncommon in the top flight as it is now. This, after all, was an era of rather static W-M formations as opposed to the aggressive, high-intensity Gegenpress of today. But still, looking at the 1950 World Cup squad: Mortensen, Finney and Matthews were all still present and correct at ages 29, 28, 35 and 26 respectively.

Stanley Matthews

Although the FA did not deem the World Cup a competition worthy of entry until 1950, it is tempting to wonder what a 1946 England team might have looked like had the competition taken place and the team been allowed to compete. This ‘golden generation’ would surely have been at the peak of their powers.

And what about 1942? Although the competition had not been officially awarded, Germany had applied to host it in 1936 at the 23rd FIFA Congress. Some of those players might well have been selected had circumstances been different.

Looking at the quality on offer, they might even have won it…


By Rich Evans, written for @TFHBs

©The Football History Boys, 2021
(All pictures borrowed and not owned in any form by TFHB)

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