The postwar years: 1945 to 1947 in English football

Not many people have been bringing up the last time football had to restart after a few months of inactivity. They are far too busy speculating as to how many matches will have to take place at Old Trafford, Anfield, Villa Park, and Wembley Stadium as sufficiently neutral venues, like the old days of FA Cup semi-finals.

We celebrate VE Day on 8 May (also known as Motorhead Day). 75 years ago, Victory in Europe was declared to much happiness and joy. The Football League and the English FA instantly cranked into action to bring the national game back to life after six seasons. They decided on a compromise that I hope acts as a precedent which will make Liverpool, UEFA, and FIFA happy. Ish.

As football is a winter sport, it could not begin until August 1945, which gave the men in suits and the chairmen plenty of time to come to an agreement. The football pyramid would resume in its prior state in 1946/47. The bridging season would be a beta version of the Zenith Data Systems Trophy of the 1980s, while English clubs waited to participate in European competition after the Heysel ban.

The Manchester United team from the 1948-49 season (source: manutd.com)

France went straight back into things in 1945/46, something which was supported by Wolverhampton Wanderers, the Manchester United of their day, with the great Billy Wright, the Harry Kane of their day. July 25 was the decision day and Wolves lost the argument.

1945/46

From August 1945, clubs in the top two tiers would compete in two amalgamated leagues based on geography, matching the Third Division North and South: Football League North and Football League South.
I hope fans of Sheffield United still celebrate their North league win. They scored 112 goals, with a goal ratio of 1.806; that is, 1.806 more goals scored than conceded when finding the mean result per game (they tended to win games 1.806-1) and ran away with the league by five points. Other teams to do well included Bolton Wanderers (third), Chesterfield (seventh) and Barnsley (eighth). Manchester United were in fourth, Liverpool just six points behind in 11th. Bring back two points for a win, I say.

Winning only nine games were Leeds United. Poor Plymouth Argyle were marooned at the bottom of the Football League South, winning three of their 42 games and conceding 120 goals. Newport County were just above them (125 goals conceded) and future Premier League winners Leicester City (no longer Leicester Fosse) were in 20th place in the table. All three teams avoided relegation as nobody wanted to see a big club go down. I’m joking; there was no promotion or relegation in 1945/46.

Down south, the title was settled on goal ratio rather than points: both Birmingham clubs finished on 61 points, one ahead of Charlton Athletic, more on whom shortly. By virtue of a goal ratio of more than 2 (something also achieved by Charlton), Birmingham City pipped Aston Villa despite Villa scoring 106 goals. The Villains conceded 58, leaving their ratio of 106:58 a lot worse than their rival’s 96:45. Bring back goal ratios, I say.

Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, and Arsenal were in mid-table mediocrity, and in the end Wolves finished sixth, their mean defence only conceding 48 but their woeful attack only scoring 75. Bring on players with Jorge Mendes as their agent, I say.

FA Cup

What of the world’s oldest knockout tournament? The FA Cup returned for this new season, with the holders Portsmouth hoping to regain the trophy they had won all the way back in 1939. All rounds before the semi-finals of the 1945/46 iteration would take place over two legs. The winners of the 1945/46 FA Cup were Derby County, who won the final 4-1 against Charlton Athletic after extra time. You may have used Bert Turner’s misfortune as a pub quiz question recently: he scored an own goal and then a minute later equalised for Charlton, but still ended up on the losing side.

Derby’s number seven Reg Harrison is the only player still alive to have played in that final, and is a war veteran too, having served with FA Cup legends Royal Engineers during the Second World War. Last year Harrison received the Freedom of the City of Derby, so I fully expect Wayne Rooney to be in regular contact with him. Harrison turns 97 years old on 22 May.
Of the starting 22 players who have passed on is the great goalkeeper Sam Bartram, a one-club man who made 579 appearances for the Addicks. English international Horatio ‘Raich’ Carter played at number eight for Derby: number eight, not number 32. Shun betting sponsorships endorsed by gambling addicts and bring back the pools, I say.

1946/47

Charlton went on to have a schizophrenic 1946/47 season. By finishing a hapless 19th, they just about avoided relegation in the First Division, which was making its return after an eight-year gap. I wonder whether the recent ownership knows about their FA Cup triumph that same season. There are likely fans who protested in recent seasons who celebrated in South-East London 70 years ago.

In the league, Liverpool finished top by a single point over Manchester United and Wolves. I expect there are plenty of Liverpool fans who remember that triumph as they prepared to celebrate their 19th league title. I would love to know the story of Liverpool’s league-winning cosmopolitan squad, which included plenty of Scots, future manager Bob Paisley, and two South African midfielders.

Anfield averaged crowds of 45,732 that season, topping 52,000 in the game against Wolves. They lost 5-1. In the same week in September, they beat Chelsea 7-4 and lost 5-0 to Manchester United. Bring back uncertainty, I say.
One of the Liverpool front five was Albert Stubbins, who two decades later shared space with the great and the good on the cover of Sgt Pepper, a nod to the Beatles’ Scouse heritage. This means many millions of people own an item with Stubbins on it! Liverpool’s joint-top scorers were Stubbins and Jack Balmer, both with 24, the Mane and Salah of their day.

Incredibly, in November 1946, Balmer (whose uncles were Evertonians) scored 11 times, with three hat-tricks inside a month that makes him a football pub quiz question. It’s alright if you poach some of these questions for your Zoom quiz – it means you can say you found out from The Football Paradise!

In spite of losing four straight games in January, including 1-0 at Goodison Park, Liverpool pulled their collective fingers out and only lost once for the remainder of the season. The title decider on matchday 42 was against…Wolves. The Golden Boot winner in the league for that 1946/47 season was a Wolves player. Dennis Westcott scored 38 of his team’s 98 goals, a very good showing for a number nine. No wonder Wolves wanted the First Division to start up again.

Sky Sports would have an absolute field day (please excuse capitals) with the final game of the season: RED VS WOLVES!!! PAISLEY VS WESTCOTT!!! TED VIZARD VS GEORGE KAY!!! THE TITLE DECIDER…AND IT’S LIIIIIIIIIVE!! Bring back restraint, I say.

Balmer scored the first, Stubbins scored what turned out to be the winner and Liverpool held on to win the league at Molineux in a 2-1 win for the away side. Oh, how wretched the Wolves fans must have been. Close-up on the crying child with a Wolves crest on his face!! Close-up to Black Countrymen with a stiff upper lip and a cloth cap on their ‘ead! Close-up to Scousers holding up five fingers to celebrate their fifth First Division title. Bring back last-day drama, I say. Allez Allez Alleeeez!

Manchester City, meanwhile, won the Second Division, with FA Cup runners-up Burnley going up with them. Swansea Town and Newport County were relegated in a rotten year for Welsh football. Man City’s goalkeeper was the great Frank Swift, one of the victims of the Munich Air Disaster. City fans should thus never, ever hiss Man United fans; maybe they should just gloat about how Vinny Kompany’s head helped win them the 2011/12 Premier League, and how Denis Law’s heel relegated the Reds in 1974.

In an era of rationing, with families having to deal with all kinds of sadness, men kicking a ball about on a Saturday afternoon at 3pm (or sometimes earlier or later) brought joy and elation, hope and despair to many millions of people. Even down in the Third Division, communities in Hartlepool, Darlington, Barrow, and Southport strove for bragging rights.

On the south coast, fans of Brighton & Hove Albion (not to be confused with the Merseyside team New Brighton) and Bournemouth & Boscombe Athletic could enjoy their rivalry, with two close games ending 1-1 and 1-0 (to the Cherries of old). Poor Aldershot were thumped 9-0 by Bristol City and 7-0 by Swindon Town but still escaped the gloom of re-election to the League thanks to the even worse performances of Mansfield Town and Norwich City. Both teams were re-elected, as were Southport and Halifax Town.
At least Cardiff City could replace one of the Welsh teams in the Second Division, having run away with Third Division (South). Doncaster Rovers did the same with Third Division (North), with third-place Chester winning the Welsh Cup after a replay against Merthyr Tydfil. English teams only stopped competing in this trophy in 1995, when Wrexham beat Cardiff City 2-1 at Cardiff’s National Stadium. Strangely, more people attended the 1946/47 replay than the 1995 final.

Bring back football, I say, but until then, there’s always the 1940s.

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Jonny Brick

Jonathan Brick is a writer based in Watford, UK. His eBook A Modern Guide to Modern Football is out now.