Football during the Second World War

22 June 2018

History | War and Conflict

The 2018 Football World Cup is in full swing, after kicking off (no pun intended, I promise) with Russia vs. Saudi Arabia. Football has long been accepted as crucial form of recreation and relaxation for the masses, and this is evident in reports on spectator sports during the Second World War, which can be found in Mass Observation Online. During times of crisis, Sport, particularly football in Britain was recognised as a way in which to raise morale.

Image © University of Sussex. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see the document in the collection please click the image. Available free for 30 days.

A report from 1939 on sport during wartime, which can be found in Mass Observation Online, stated that “sports like football have an absolute major effect on the morale of the people, and one Saturday afternoon of League matches could probably do more to affect people’s spirits than the recent £50,000 Government poster campaign urging for cheerfulness”.

Image © Bolton Library and Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Footballers themselves had a huge influence on the war effort. On Easter Saturday 1939, Harry Goslin, the Bolton Wanderers captain made a speech at the match that he was playing in, willing the spectators who were eligible to join the war effort. Goslin and the entire first team joined the 53rd Field Regiment, Royal Artillery the following week. Many players from a number of other clubs, including Liverpool FC, also joined up as a group; Liverpool’s players formed a club section within the Kings Regiment.

Harry Goslin was killed while serving in Italy in December 1944. The Bolton Evening News wrote after his death that “Harry Goslin was one of the finest types [of] professional football breeds. Not only in the personal sense, but for the club’s sake, and the game’s sake. I regret his life has had to be sacrificed in the cause of war.”

Some of the controversial features of football during wartime included the guest player system and the localisation of competition. Complex programmes of regional leagues and cups, which were necessary due to travel restrictions, made following the football season difficult for both supporters and reporters as opposed to the usual structure during peacetime. These results of these matches were unpredictable and were very often abandoned. As stated in the Mass Observation report, spectators “feel hurry and disappointed that they should be deprived of their favourite pastime.”

Image © University of Sussex. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see the document in the collection please click the image. Available free for 30 days.

Another Mass Observation report from November 1939 suggested that the ‘free borrowing’ of players that became common practice during wartime had ‘annoyed real supporters’ and ‘killed much of the incentive to go and see “my team.” A Northampton fan recalled that while he enjoyed seeing top international players make appearances for his club, he ‘never accepted any of them as a Cobblers player because they could play for you one match and against you the next’.

Image © Bolton Library and Museum. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

Sport has undoubtably throughout history played a huge part in shaping national character and culture.

About the Author

Becca Richards

Becca Richards

I joined Adam Matthew in September 2014, and I now work as an Assistant Development Editor. I have been able to put my degree in History to good use while working on a variety of different projects. My academic interests lie in Russian history from the late-imperial to mid-Soviet period, with a particular focus on the history of violence.

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