Many people remember exactly where they were when war was declared. At 11am on September 3 1939, Peter Croker told me: “I was at the cricket. Both teams were there. The game was due to start at 11.30. There was some umming and awing about whether we should play or not. Then it was decided, on a majority of the married players, that it would be better if we went home.”
On that morning 70 years ago, when Britain’s prime minister Neville Chamberlain croaked over the wireless that “consequently this country is at war with Germany”, British sport ceased. Before long, however, it resumed. For most of the war in Britain, as in Germany, the ball rolled on.
Days after British football was suspended, the Home Office urged the game’s resumption. However, the regional leagues and friendly football that ensued bored most fans. Anyway, many couldn’t go to watch because of Saturday working, blackouts, evacuations and the like.
Mass Observation, a new social research institution, decided to study the consequences. Unusually for the time, Mass Observation was interested in what the common man thought, and believed that the best way to find out was to ask him. This revolutionary method produced surprising results.
“Sport is the biggest English industry,” Mass Observation’s report of December 13 1939 began. “The amount spent in betting alone each year is worth more than the amount of money spent in the largest staple industry, building.” Mass Observation found that people still read sports news more closely than war news. It concluded: “People find the war at present completely unsatisfactory as a compensation for sport one Saturday afternoon of League matches could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 government poster campaign urging cheerfulness, even if it were repeated six times over and six times better.”
Soon British football picked up again. Late in May 1940, as the German army appeared to have trapped the British Expeditionary Force near Dunkirk, with Britain braced for a Nazi invasion and the war cabinet debating making peace with Hitler, the Huddersfield Town team made a nine-hour motor trip to London to play in the War Cup. Then, while the BEF was fleeing Dunkirk on the armada of little boats, Chelsea-West Ham drew 32,797 spectators. The racing correspondent of the Daily Mail reported after the fall of France: “The people were stunned by the news just after the first race at Wolverhampton yesterday but, of course, carried on”
It was similar in the US, where President Franklin Roosevelt famously told baseball to continue; in the Netherlands, where sales of tickets to sports matches doubled during the war; and even in Germany, where in the midst of “total war” in summer 1944, 70,000 people attended the football league final. Millions of Britons in particular seem to have spent much of the war thinking about football. Tom Finney, whose Preston team beat Arsenal in the 1941 War Cup final replay in Blackburn after a draw at London’s Wembley, told me: “I wasn’t all that interested in the war when I was playing. And to hold them to a draw in London was really quite an achievement.” Finney added that, of course, he wanted “England” to win the war.
We now recall the war as a succession of terrible events – Dunkirk, Burma, Auschwitz – yet that’s not how people like Finney experienced it. The first few months of the British war are often referred to as the “phoney war”, but in fact for many Britons whose lives revolved around sport the same was true of the next few years.
Thirty thousand Londoners were killed by bombs, and other cities suffered terribly too. About 300,000 British soldiers died. It would be mad to minimise any of this. But many Britons spent much of the war thinking harder about football than fighting.