Sep Smith

Leicester City & The Second World War: The Brink Of Closure

Club Historian John Hutchinson's new series continues with the story of how Leicester City Football Club encountered major off-field problems amid the backdrop of The Battle of Britain.
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When the 1940/41 season kicked off on 31 August, the United Kingdom was in extreme danger. Adolf Hitler was dominant in Europe. Already in control of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland by the end of 1939, in the summer of 1940 he also conquered Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France.

The British Army was in tatters after the evacuation from Dunkirk following the fall of France. Hitler's next plan was to invade the United Kingdom.

On 10 July, 1940, the Luftwaffe began a three-month campaign designed to destroy the Royal Air Force and its airfields. This was seen by Hitler as an essential prerequisite to a seaborne invasion. The stakes were high. The RAF had to defeat the Luftwaffe in order to deny them air superiority and prevent the invasion.

The airborne conflict which followed was known as The Battle of Britain, which lasted from 10 July to 31 October in 1940.

The RAF’s victory in this battle was Hitler’s first defeat. In the words of Winston Churchill: ‘Never was so much owed by so many to so few.’

That summer, as the Battle of Britain was raging, Leicester City Football Club was also facing a threat which endangered its very existence. The directors of the Club were worried. At a board meeting on 7 February, 1940 they recorded that, while accepting that new Wartime Regional Leagues avoided long journeys in times of wartime petrol rationing, they were very concerned about the lack of spectator interest.

Gates at Filbert Street during the first wartime season averaged about 3,000, with the lowest being only 850. This dramatic fall in crowds resulted in the Club sinking into deep financial trouble.

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Len Shipman
Len Shipman

Industrialists Len Shipman was one of those to step up in a bid to save the Club.

Not long before this meeting, three directors had resigned because they had refused, as part of a financial restructuring of the Club’s finances, to increase their own financial liability.

They were replaced by local industrialists Alf Pallett, Len Shipman, and Leslie Lovell Green.

This trio provided the required new investment, but they also discovered a set of circumstances which almost ended Leicester City’s existence.

By now, the Club, heavily in debt, was in danger of going into liquidation. They did not own Filbert Street and their only asset, the playing staff, was now of little worth as all transfers had ceased due to the war, and anyway, many of the players had dispersed into the armed forces or the reserved occupations.

Leicester City's position was so precarious that at a board meeting on 20 August, 1940, just 11 days before the new season was due to start, the directors seriously discussed the possibility of closing down Leicester City.

They decided, however, that the Club should carry on, despite the difficult conditions. They had three main reasons for doing this.

Firstly, as the board’s minutes record, the directors were confident that if they provided attractive football, the public would give increased support, although they accepted that this would come second to ‘the many works of national importance which regular supporters of the City are now undertaking.’

Secondly, the directors were more than pleased with their recently established Colt’s scheme which aimed to coach young players aged between 15 and 17.

Thirdly, they wished to ‘provide outdoor winter entertainment, particularly for members of His Majesty’s Forces.’

Eleven days later, Leicester City opened the new season at Coventry City, although within days the FA Commission concluded an investigation into the Club by suspending 12 former and current players for a year.

The Club had survived by the skin of its teeth, totally unaware that there were more major shocks looming on the horizon. 

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