The magic of the Football League War Cup


Day seven of our look back at articles from the last decade and today it is a post on the Football League War Cup.

On the 1st September 1939, Adolf Hitler invaded Poland, sparking outrage across Europe and in the corridors of power in Westminster.  However, twenty four hours later, the third “round” of games in the Football League took place as normal with barely a murmur of concern for events that were to unfold in the next few years.  On that Saturday Blackpool’s 2-1 at Bloomfield Road meant they had won three out of three in the Football League Division one, just a point ahead of Sheffield United and Arsenal.

A few hours later, on Sunday 3rd September, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain declared war on Germany and ordered an immediate ban on the assembly of crowds for safety reasons.  Faced with a potential long campaign, the Football League announced that the 1939/40 season would be terminated with immediate effect.  Whilst Blackpool (and Luton Town in the Second, Accrington Stanley in the Third North and Reading in the Third South) topped their division, they were not awarded any trophy.

However, regulations were soon relaxed and the government announced that football could return but with maximum capacities of 8,000 and no travel outside a fifty mile radius.  So the guys at the Football League got their thinking caps on and came up with the idea of a cup competition instead of a league competition.  And so was born the Football League War Cup.

The competition consisted of 137 games (including replays) which commenced in October and were all complete bar the final by January 1940.  However, with London under constant threat of the commencement of bombing raids, no floodlights could be used and so it was decided to play the final during the summer months.  The date was set as Saturday 8th June 1940, with West Ham United and Blackburn Rovers due to contest the final at Wembley Stadium.  However, on the 10th May the Germans pushed into France and the threat of invasion increased.

But the English showed their stiff upper lip and carried on regardless, turning out in numbers for the final.  Over 40,000 spectators filed into Wembley Stadium to see Sam Small score the only goal for the Hammers and they became the first ever winners of the new trophy, commissioned by the Football League.  It is reported that after the game there was no official reception for the team but instead they headed back to Upton Park for a “few pints in the Boleyn”.

The following season saw the commencement of bombing raids on Britain, with London heavily hit.  But football still carried on, as the government saw it as “good for morale”.  The War Cup provided a great tonic for many Londoners who had been almost under siege for months and in May 1941 the second final took place at Wembley with over 60,000 coming out to see Preston North End take on Arsenal.  A Denis Compton goal for the Gunners was enough to earn them a replay at Ewood Park where over 45,000 saw the Lancastrians run out 2-1 winners, who featured a very young Bill Shankley in their line up.

The cup was still an important part of “business as usual” in England during the almost daily bombing raids.  Attendances remained very high, and a number of clubs had players on active military duty, returning to the first team when they came back to Blighty.  The Football League kept tinkering with the format in the next few years, firstly introducing a two legged final (won by Wolves 6-3 against Sunderland), and then in 1943 with Northern and Southern Finals with the winners meeting at Stamford Bridge (won by Blackpool who beat Arsenal).

In 1944 with the threat of bombing still high the title was shared between Aston Villa and Charlton Athletic after a 1-1 draw at Stamford Bridge.  The southern semi-final saw Charlton beat Chelsea in front of over 85,000 at Wembley which caused some panic for the authorities.

Whilst the Second World War didn’t finish until September 1945 when the Japanese forces surrendered, the war in Europe effectively ended in May of the same year, meaning the cup in that year was the last time it was ever held.  On the 2nd June 1945 35,000 people saw Bolton Wanderers beat Chelsea 2-1 to win the cup which fortunately since has never been competed for.

Whilst Portsmouth’s 4-1 over Wolverhampton Wanderers in May 1939 was officially the last FA Cup final until 1946, many will class the War Cup as a continuation of the competition.  It cannot be underestimated the effect the cup had on morale of the English general public and for that reason it will always have a special place in the history of our game.

If…


Day six and I’m touching on my poetic side for today’s retrospective with my Lewes FC version of Rudyard Kipling’s If….

“If you can keep your cool when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming results on you,
If you can trust yourself when all fans moan at you,
But don’t slag them off for their moaning too;
If you can wait for an away win and not be tired by waiting,
Or talking your chances up but dealing in lies,
Or being hated, yet don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too smart, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream of an FA Cup run and not make that dream your master;
If you can imagine a 3rd Round home tie and not make gate receipts your aim;
If you can meet with floodlight failure and waterlogged disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by anonymous forum trolls to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the players you rely on, on the floor broken,
Whilst the poor officials obviously don’t know the rules:

If you can make one gamble with half your weekly budget
And risk it on one big name ex-Premier League midfield boss
And see him break down on his debut, and have to think again
Or smile outwardly after their mistake causes another loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To stay behind the goal in the rain long after the others have gone,
And hold on when there is no warmth left in you
Because nobody else will shout at your winger to warn him: “Man on!”

If you can stand on the Jungle and keep your pint safe,
Or talk with Codge—remembering the common touch,
If neither fanzines nor the Philcox chants can hurt you,
If all fans count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving half time break
With fifteen minutes worth of Non-League boardroom small talk,
Yours is the Dripping Pan and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be the chairman, my son”

With thanks to Kipling (Rudyard, not Mr) for the original words.

The Blueprint for the future of Non-League football – The FA Cup


Day five and a superb piece from back in 2013 about how the FA Cup could be revamped to give the Non League sides more of a slice of the pie, thanks to Mr Real FA Cup, Damon Threadgold.  

The 2013 final saw one of the biggest upsets in FA Cup history, but that’s an outlier – the competition has been one almost exclusively by clubs from the traditional big six for two decades.

English football is geared towards benefitting the top teams – but there is still plenty of work that can be done to change football for the better.

The FA Cup is, arguably, a tarnished bastion of English professional football in times where the collection of wealth has become a greater priority than glory. League status and European qualification is more lucrative than the kudos of a cup win or run, so priorities have been adjusted accordingly. As a consequence this oldest of cup tournaments is now not taken seriously by the vast majority of clubs in the top two tiers of the English pyramid. The majority of Championship clubs have their eye on the main prize of promotion to the cash cow, the majority of lower Premier League clubs are too busy sucking nervously at the udders to bother with the Cup*, and the top Premier League sides are more interested in getting in to, or retaining their place in, the top four.

That’s life, and the lure of cold hard cash is not just the preserve of the elite, it is also a driver for those in the lower and non leagues, it’s just the figures are lower and the need is greater. That lucrative promise of a tie against higher opposition focuses the mind of the lower league sides. While some non-league teams view the early Preliminary/Qualifying rounds in similar ways, the revenue that can be generated just by winning a few games might mean the difference between the club house getting a lick of paint and it being pulled down for houses. But the kudos does also play a part, ask the Giuliano Grazioli’s of the world, taking the tournament seriously can invigorate your career.

So, my proposal for improving non-league football is to shake up the FA Cup to give more non-league sides a shot at a league side.

There is an appetite for the Cup in the non-leagues like at no other level.  To many clubs it’s still the oldest and best loved cup, players can say they played in it despite never playing above the amateur game and a spot in Round 1 is coveted as much as the odd pro covets a Wembley date. The fans feel the same, just look at the (admittedly slightly selective) stats. Southern League (now Isthmian League) Cambridge City got to Round 1 this year and it took them 5 games to get there. In those 5 games, four of them were attended by significantly more than their average league gate of 333. Given they largely played teams in or around the same level in the pyramid, that says a lot about their fans’ view of the tournament itself, especially when you consider the attendance drop off when similarly ranked PL or Championship teams are drawn against each other.

The story was even more marked for Hastings United, who got to the dizzy heights of the 3rd Round. Until they got there, they only played fellow non-league sides. In the 2nd Round they played Harrogate Town, who were only one tier above them in the pyramid and a club of similar stature. Hastings’ crowd for the home replay was a mind-boggling 4,028, ten times their average league gate of 404. Similarly to Cambridge City they only had one home FA cup attendance below their league average gate – and even in that very 1st Qualifying Round game the attendance was actually higher than their league average at that time of the season, despite playing a team further down the pyramid.

That’s not to say that this applies across the board, of course, some ties turn out to be damp squibs and, as implied above, getting back into pro football can turn higher placed Conference sides off the FA Cup temporarily. And, due to regionalisation of the early rounds, the very smallest teams often find themselves pitted against their fellow league sides, which is a bit dull for fans. A bit like if Norwich were to face Stoke in the 3rd Round, the world and indeed both sets of fans would shrug with indifference. But, that appetite of NL clubs/fans should be embraced, it could invigorate both the non leagues and the FA Cup. Which brings me to the proposition for improving non league football:

Firstly, change the names of the rounds to be more inclusive. The current 1st Round is actually the 7th round of the competition, let’s not pretend it isn’t. This separatism suggests non league sides don’t count and are playing in a different competition just to get into the real competition, a feeling exemplified by the exclusionist colloquialism for the 1st Round onwards, the ‘propers’. The football league is now an open shop to non-league teams, why not make the FA Cup seem like that too and start the thing off at Round 1 and be inclusive?

Secondly, bring forward the time when professional clubs enter the competition. Why should these teams be treated so favourably when so many treat the competition with such disdain? Top-two-tier sides have to win less games to win the Cup than many non league sides currently have to win to even get a chance to play those big sides. This seems very unfair. The pot is skewed as it is, why not even it up a bit, make the league sides work harder to win it and make the non league sides feel further included in their national cup?

Three, (in fact a consequence of the second one) increase the number of non league sides with the potential to draw a league side. At present only 36 non league sides have a chance to draw a league side in the 1st Round. The chances of those sides being from outside the National League system are extremely low, due to the fact that the Conference Premier sides only have to play one game to get in to the main draw and often they only have to beat a side further down the pyramid. When the Conference is full of professional ex-football league sides, the chances for the lower non league sides to progress to the current 1st Round are further distorted. Under our proposals the league clubs would enter with all of the National Leagues sides. Under this system, what would become the 5th Round would comprise 256 teams – with 92 of them from the Football League and Premier League and, therefore, 164 non league sides get the chance to draw a plum tie instead of 36.

OK, so in this system a club in the top 2 tiers drawing a minnow won’t field their strongest side but, then again, the vast majority don’t field their strongest side in the FA Cup anyway. Also. many pro sides send development or reserve sides to play local non league sides in pre-season now anyway – and those games attract larger than normal crowds at those non league grounds. So, in a competitive match, who is to say that number won’t be even larger.

Finally, as happens in France, the lower league side in any tie always plays at home. Many big clubs won’t relish this but it makes perfect sense and means they get forced to put something back into the lower leagues.

At present, the trickle down of cash to the lower leagues is minimal, this system would arguably widen the spread of income around the pyramid.

Simple Plan:

1st Round – Effectively the Qualifying Round, to even up the numbers – There are usually about 600 clubs below the National Leagues who enter the FA Cup so the lowest will play-off to whittle down to 384.
2nd Round – 384 NL Clubs
3rd Round – 192 NL Clubs
4th Round – 256 Football Clubs (96 NL CLubs from 3rd Round, 68 National League Clubs + 92 League Clubs)
5th Round – 128 Clubs
6th Round – 64 Clubs
7th Round – 32 Clubs
8th Round – 16 Clubs
QF – 8 Clubs
SF – 4 Clubs
Final – 2 Clubs

*Couldn’t let this pass without commending Wigan, they pretty much sacrificed their league status for Cup glory. TOP NOTCH. Time won’t pay much heed to their league position in 2012-13, their ‘honours’ section, though, will say “FA CUP WINNERS”, you can’t take that away.

Only four teams on Merseyside


As part of the series I wrote on Football League clubs that are gone and almost forgotten, I stumbled on the amazing story of New Brighton FC and their ground, which today would have been the largest stadium in the UK.  Despite attempts to keep a club going, today there’s not a club based on the area sporting the famous name.

Name four teams that have played League football on Merseyside? Liverpool, Everton, Tranmere Rovers and who else? Well, go back to the 1898 and Tranmere Rovers biggest rivals would have been just around the corner from Prenton Park. On tip of the Wirral you will still find today the lonely spot of New Brighton, and it was here at the start of the 20th century that league football was being played by New Brighton Tower FC. Clubs came and went all the time at this point, with the likes of Loughborough, Darwen and Glossop North End making up the 2nd tier of English football.

Thanks to Les Ward for this one

The club were formed in 1896 and moved immediately into a ground adjacent to the New Brighton Tower (hence their name). What made this so unique was that at the time it had a capacity for 100,000, and thus one of the largest stadiums in Britain. The development included the actual Tower, which when opened in 1900 was the tallest building in Great Britain at 189 metres tall, looking out over the Mersey and the Estuary and modelled on the Eiffel Tower. With a ballroom at the bottom, the whole area was THE place to be seen in Merseyside.

The club won the Lancashire League in only their second season and were elected to the Football League in 1898, taking their place in the newly expanded Second Division. Their record in the first season was good – finishing 5th and just three points off 2nd place and promotion. One of the reasons for this success was the club’s intention to sign up as many of the top footballers in the country as they could. After all, who else could offer the bright lights and glamour that New Brighton could at the time? The Football League were aghast at such behaviour and strongly rebuked the club for their strategy.

Thanks to Les Ward for the use of this picture

Did it have any affect? Not really. The club continued to try and offer the best salaries and in the following season they gambled on promotion to the top tier. The local authorities were desperate to make New Brighton an all year attraction to rival, if not beat Blackpool amongst others, and saw a successful football team playing during the winter months as key to this strategy. Unfortunately the gamble didn’t work as less than 1,000 spectators on average saw the club finish in tenth place and then in fourth in 1901. The consortium that had been bank rolling the club admitted failure. They simply could not keep bankrolling the experiment so it was with some relief that the Football League accepted their resignation in September 1901 with their position being taken by Doncaster Rovers.

The ground was still used for other sports including cycling and motor bike racing. However, the company struggled to make anything really work. They even tried a live action Cowboys and Indians show during the summer months of 1908 with over 500 performers.

With the onset of World War One the tower was deemed too dangerous to use, and by June 1919 it had been decided to dismantle the structure. The ballroom and the stadium stayed, although the terraces were reduced in size. In 1921 a new club was formed after the demise of South Liverpool FC, and two seasons later they were elected into the Football League 3rd Division North. Initially they played at Rakes Lane close by but after the Second World War games were played back at The Tower, although by this stage the capacity was a shadow of its former self. In 1951 the club finished bottom of the Third Division North and were voted out of the league in favour of Workington.

The club continued to play in the regional leagues, still using the New Tower Athletics Ground but it was clear the future wasn’t bright. Finally, the left home in 1970’s after fire and vandalism had made it unusable, and the ground lay vacant until purchased by a developer who over time turned the site into houses.

Today nothing is left of one of Great Britain’s biggest ever football stadiums bar a memory. The Wirral has returned to a one club area (although step 6 Vauxhall Motors may say otherwise), but for a couple of glorious years, one club tried to break the mould of English football, and basically failed. Kevin Costner may have been told “Build it and they will come” in his dreams in Field of Dreams, but for New Brighton Tower it was all just a Nightmare on Egerton Street.

What will you be watching on Boxing Day?


On the two days after Christmas, Amazon Prime will once again take over the screening of the Premier League games, offering back to back games for ten solid hours on Boxing Day. This is their second set of games they will be screening this season, having shown the midweek round of matches a few weeks ago as part of the deal they won back in 2018 for approximately £90million for the right to screen 20 games per season.

Amazon, and their streaming rivals Netflix, have already raised the bar in football coverage with their fly on the wall documentaries such as All or Nothing (Manchester City), Take Us Home (Leeds United) and Inside Borussia (Borussia Dortmund) so it was a logical step to bid for the right to screen games as well. They have promised to revolutionise the viewing experience for fans as they move into live streaming for the first time.

The key to their success is being able to increase the number of subscribers to their Prime service. It is certainly a compelling offer, starting from just £7.99 per month that allows subscribers to access the live games on any device in addition to their whole catalogue of movies and TV shows, a music library of over 40 million songs and the ability to get next day delivery on hundreds of thousands of items from their online marketplace. Compared to the cost of accessing Sky Sports, it is a bargain but what does the future hold for them?

There was some criticism for their first round of games in early December, ranging from the quality of the studio pundits to being able to access the games, especially when viewers switched between different streams. However, there can be no denying that Amazon have the technology and deep pockets to develop their offering. I’m sure Netflix, Apple and Facebook will be looking on with interest at the reviews and more importantly, viewing figures, for these games with an eye on the next round of bidding for the TV packages due to start in 2020.

Whilst the thought of watching any one of the six 3pm games on Boxing Day may be appealing to many, especially for those games where tickets are scarce, for Non-League clubs who hope to see bumper crowds over the festive period, it is another reason for fans not to come to games. Many clubs rely on the big crowds they get from local derbies over Christmas and the money they spend in the ground for the rest of the season. With little or no public transport, many Premier League fans choose to go and support their local team but with every game being shown live on Boxing Day (plus Wolves v Man City on the 27th), how many may decide to stay at home in front of the TV?

Indirectly some of the £90million paid by Amazon will make its way down into the Non-League game through the likes of the Football Foundation and FA Facilities Fund but it flows very slowly and the criteria to access it is strenuous to say the least.