Alexander ‘Sandy’ McLaren

Leicester City In The Second World War: Swapping Filbert Street For Arctic Convoys

The story of Leicester City’s Scotland international goalkeeper Alexander ‘Sandy’ McLaren offers an insight into the life of a professional footballer during the Second World War.
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Before he arrived at Filbert Street in February 1933, to replace his namesake Jim McLaren in the Leicester goal, Perth-born Sandy had played over 200 games for St Johnstone, his hometown club.

He became an international at the age of 18, going on to win five international caps. He remains Scotland’s youngest-ever goalkeeper and the fourth youngest player ever to play for the country.

Following his Filbert Street debut, he went on to play 102 consecutive games, eventually amassing a total of 256 league and FA Cup games for Leicester City.

This run ended when the 1939/40 season was cancelled after the team had played only three games due to the outbreak of the Second World War.

In common with all other professional players, Sandy’s contract was cancelled, but he continued to play for City throughout the first wartime season, both in the Wartime Midland Division and in the War Cup.

For three of these games, he was in the same Leicester side as the young England star Tommy Lawton, who was playing as a wartime guest player for the Club.

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Leicester City 1939/40
Leicester City 1939/40

The Leicester City squad for the 1939/40 season.

With more time on his hands, he became a part-time taxi driver in Leicester, although he had a shock one morning when he realised his cab wasn’t parked outside his Aylestone home in Middleton Street.

He had forgotten to put the handbrake on and it had rolled down the street much to the amusement of his neighbours, one of whom was Jack Cohen, who later became one of the founders of Tesco with T.E.S Stockwell (hence Tesco, a combination of the two names).

At this time, Sandy also tried his hand at breeding budgerigars, commonly called parakeets. This sort of diversification was the common experience of many footballers.

An example of this can be found in a letter to Sandy from a friend of his, the Heart of Midlothian and Scotland international Tommy Walker, who wrote to say that he was spending his time filling sandbags.

Sandy’s last game for Leicester was a wartime Midland Division league game on 8 June, 1940. This was a 2-0 victory over Northampton Town in front of a Filbert Street crowd of only 850.

His family then returned to Perth. His local club, St Johnstone, had ceased to contest fixtures during the War, but this didn’t stop him playing.

In October 1940, he played the first of nine games that season for Greenock Morton in the Scottish Wartime Southern Division.

Towards the end of the season, he also made two Wartime Cup appearances for Airdrieonians, covering for their injured goalkeeper.

Playing his last game for Morton, Sandy, as had been the case at Leicester, once again found himself in the same side as the young England international guest player Tommy Lawton, who was honeymooning in the Greenock area at the time.

Lawton scored a great goal and Sandy made a spectacular save. Nearly seven years later, Lawton became Britain’s first £20,000 player when he left Chelsea for Notts County.

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Sandy McLaren's taxi
Sandy McLaren's taxi

Sandy McLaren's taxi, which was involved in a dramatic, yet humorous, skirmish one morning.

At the end of the 1940/41 season, Sandy, who had volunteered for the Royal Navy, was called up for active service.

He remained in the Royal Navy for the rest of the war as a gunner on several warships as well as serving in shore establishments at home and abroad.

For some of the War, Sandy was based at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, escorting the Arctic convoys which sailed from Britain, North America and Iceland to the Russian Arctic ports of Archangel and Murmansk.

This was dangerous. He was a gunner on a naval auxiliary ship called the Black Ranger, which supplied fuel and dry stores to ships at sea.

Harsh weather and the ever-present threat of German submarines resulted in the loss, between 1941 and 1945, of 85 Allied merchant vessels and 16 warships.

On one occasion, Sandy witnessed Black Ranger’s sister ship on a convoy being hit by a torpedo and sink.

Life as a sailor also enabled Sandy to see the world. On one trip to South Africa, he played for the British Forces against South Africa.

He also served on a ship operating out of the oil refinery port of Abadan in the Persian Gulf and, in March 1944, he was in New York.

Sandy was demobilised from the Navy in November 1945. Approaching his 35th birthday, he played a further seven games for his first club, St Johnstone, before hanging up his boots.

However, his connection with the Navy continued as he worked at a Royal Navy Depot near Perth, first as a fireman and then as a Ministry of Defence policeman, until he died from bronchial pneumonia in 1960 at the age of 49.

Sandy had lived a very full life, but one which had changed direction completely as a result of the Second World War.

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