Leicester City in 1940

Leicester City & The Second World War: Setting The Scene

Ahead of Leicester City's Annual Remembrance Fixture, Club Historian John Hutchinson's new series recounts how the Football Club adjusted to the challenges of wartime Britain between 1939 and 1945.

The 1939/40 Football League season, the first in which it was compulsory for the players to wear numbers on their shirts, kicked off on 26 August, 1939.

Nine days later, the season was cancelled due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

Leicester City, newly relegated from the old First Division, began the season under their new manager, the ex-Liverpool and England international, Tom Bromilow.

They won their opening fixture 4-3 against Manchester City at Filbert Street. Four days later, on 30 August, they lost 2-0 at Birmingham City and three days after that, on 2 September, they beat West Ham United at Upton Park with George Dewis and Mal Griffiths scoring in a 2-0 victory.

By this time, war looked inevitable. Adolf Hitler had already absorbed Austria and Czechoslovakia into the German Reich and he had Poland in his sights after signing a non-aggression pact with Stalin’s Soviet Russia.

Britain had made it clear that if Hitler did invade Poland, they would declare war on Germany.

On the day before the fixture at West Ham, the evacuation of children from London began as a precaution in case war did break out. Hitler did invade Poland - on the same day City faced West Ham.

In view of this, it was surprising that the league fixtures took place that day. Britain was already on a war footing.

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West Ham vs. Leicester City programme
West Ham vs. Leicester City programme

War broke out on the same day as Leicester City's fixture against West Ham United.

Some sides were depleted because players were needed for Air Raid Precaution (ARP) duty, military training or other military duties. For example, eight Liverpool players were unavailable for their match against Chelsea.

The next day, 3 September, Britain declared war on Germany. Unlike the First World War, when Football League matches continued for a full season after war broke out, the Football League immediately cancelled the 1939/40 season.

It had lasted for only nine days and three rounds of matches. The Club’s collection contains a season ticket from that season. Only the first three detachable paper tickets have been used.

There was to be no more league football for another seven seasons. On 6 September, all players’ contracts were suspended, depriving them of any income. Season ticket refunds were denied.

England’s proposed inter-league games against Scotland and Ireland were cancelled. Several clubs offered the Armed Services the use of their grounds and amenities.

By 14 September, friendly matches were allowed with local police approval. Leicester City played an Army XI, defeating them 7-2 at Filbert Street.

In the interests of public safety, admissions were limited to 8,000 or half the ground, whichever was less. For grounds with a 60,000 or more capacity, crowds of 15,000 were allowed.

Initially, these matches were all-ticket, although this was later revised, allowing payment at the turnstiles. The minimum admission price was set at one shilling (5p) but clubs could charge less for servicemen, women and boys.

Clubs were confined to only playing opponents within a 50-mile radius, but after 25 September, this limit was lifted provided clubs could make the return journey on the same day.

By the end of September, clubs were allowed to pay 11 players and one reserve one pound, ten shillings a week (£1.50), which was significantly less than their pre-war contracts paid.

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Mal Griffiths
Mal Griffiths

Mal Griffiths was among the players on Leicester City's books.

This payment was later extended to other players in the squads. By October 1939, plans were in place for regional competitions to be activated.

Clubs were to be split into eight geographical groups regardless of their pre-war status.

Aston Villa, Derby County, Exeter City, Gateshead, Ipswich Town and Sunderland declined to participate in these arrangements and this list of non-participants grew in subsequent seasons.

In addition, Arsenal and Birmingham City were unable to use their own grounds. Arsenal went to play at White Hart Lane.

The eight regions were subdivided, not without some controversy, into 10 regional divisions. These were South A, South B, South C, South D, North East, East Midland, South-West, Midland, Western and North-West.

There were to be two points for a win and one point for a draw. The FA and the Football League agreed to raise money from these matches for the Red Cross and St. John’s Ambulance.

Leicester City were placed in the Midland Division along with Wolverhampton Wanderers, West Bromwich Albion, Coventry City, Birmingham City, Luton Town, Northampton Town and Walsall.

These regional divisions commenced their programme on 21 October. City’s first fixture in the Midland Division was a 2-1 home defeat against Walsall in front of a crowd of 2,500.

October 1939 also saw the birth of the Football League War Cup. In the first season of this competition, Leicester beat Clapton Orient before losing to the eventual winners West Ham.

Therefore, by the end of 1939, the scene was set for professional football to enter a very different world which was to last for the next seven years.

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