Today it is 80 years since the most famous of several wartime guest footballers who played for Chelsea graced the Stamford Bridge turf for the final occasion.
On the anniversary of Matt Busby’s final match for Chelsea while temporarily on the club’s books during World War Two, we are celebrating the fleeting but valued contribution these guests made. Club historian Rick Glanvill takes up the story...
Busby, who nowadays is most known as one of the great Manchester United managers but was then the Liverpool captain and a Scotland international, was far from alone in being borrowed by Billy Birrell, then manager of Chelsea. As in World War One, national football was suspended and dozens of stars from other clubs donned the famous royal blue in the club’s (and country’s) time of need. Some enjoyed themselves so much in the regionalised competitions during conflict that they stayed on at the Bridge in peacetime.
While the matches they played were declared unofficial, and have largely been forgotten, they were vastly appreciated at the time. And as the war drew to a close, the Pensioners even lifted a significant piece of silverware with a team comprising eight borrowed players in front of 90,000 spectators at Wembley, including the present Queen of England.
Although for some, like Busby, this was a brief cameo in a long career, it is worth considering that erstwhile Middlesbrough and England full-back George Hardwick made 88 appearances for the west Londoners between 1941 and 1945. For context, that is the same number as Gianluca Vialli and more than all but seven of the current Chelsea squad.
On top of that, some of the temporary recruits brought goals-per-game records that cheered supporters during dark days. Hearts inside-forward Tommy Walker’s return, for instance, was nine in six (1.5 per match), George Wardle of Exeter managed 16 in 27 starts (0.9) on the wing, West Ham’s Len Goulden 17 in 36 (just under 0.5), and Manchester United legend Charlie Mitten 19 from 46 (0.4).
None, though, quite matched the achievement of Chelsea’s own Joe Payne, who struck 100 times in wartime matches.
But how did the guest system come to about, after war was declared in September 1939? The Division One season was instantly suspended, after three matches, but from the outset, the authorities’ approach was very different from the shaming of the game for continuing during the First World War.
‘Football is the best teetotal agency we can produce for the worker and others left behind at home,’ the Topical Times proclaimed. ‘If there is no football each week our cells will be full because the young men of today will have nowhere to go and will fall into mischief.’
Noting that church doors remained open to worshippers, the magazine suggested: ‘Let us have [those young men] in their customary winter quarters [i.e. stadiums], not on the streets or in the pubs.’
Winston Churchill was understood to value the morale-boost delivered by the national game, while Field-Marshall Montgomery wrote, ‘Those who fight overseas and those who work on the home front are members of one and the same team. One cannot do without the other. There are two things to be done: to fight the Germans and keep the mass of people at home from worrying.’
From 21 October 1939 football was organised into eight regional competitions, though the number of paying spectators allowed to pass through the turnstiles was initially capped at 8,000 at grounds located in ‘evacuation’ areas and 15,000 at those in supposedly safer parts of the country.
The less attractive regional competitions involving lower league clubs made it tough on clubs to draw crowds and players suddenly saw their contracts torn up, some of them within a few months of qualifying for a lucrative benefit.
‘All my prospects of fame and fortune were shattered in one swoop,’ remembered the great Tommy Lawton, who joined Chelsea straight after the war. ‘The advertising contracts that brought me in lucrative sums for using somebody’s shaving soap, and for showing a partiality for somebody else’s porridge oats, were cancelled. Still, there were thousands worse off so I said to myself, stick a feather in your hat, Tommy boy, whistle and be happy!’
Prior to the hostilities, footballers’ wages could were capped at £8 for the eight months of the season, £6 during the summer. Now, professionals in the wartime leagues could earn 30 shillings (£1.50, around £100 today) in appearance money for each game they played from autumn 1939. It was better than nothing.
Footballers had been conscripted like anyone else, though, and by September 1940 many had joined the armed services, found work in a reserved occupation in their home town, or joined the police or fire service, often far away from their former clubs.
A joint FA-League War Emergency Committee in September 1939 offered footballers the chance to enlist as Army Physical Training Corps Instructors (APTCIs), with the promise of swift advancement to the rank of Sergeant-Instructor. Busby, Lawton, Joe Mercer and Chelsea’s Albert Tennant were among those with Chelsea connections who took that route. The RAF School of Physical Training offered a similar scheme, of which the likes of Pilot Officers George Hardwick, Billy Liddell and Frank Soo – all wartime Pensioners – were a part.
By May 1940, 145 professional footballers had signed up in this fashion – 100 army, 45 air force – and when they were not putting conscripts through their paces they were playing high-profile, morale-boosting exhibition matches, at home and abroad.
‘Clubs were in the main forced to rely on more and more guest players,’ Lawton noted. ‘But that couldn’t be helped.’ Footballers registered with one club were permitted to play for another within a reasonable distance of their home or work, providing the ‘parent’ club gave permission. This system was the only way football kept going, and with their livelihood largely stripped away the players embraced the idea wholeheartedly. And amid the adversity a network of connections was created that would benefit Chelsea for years.
Watching teams run out before kick-off could be full of surprises. ‘What with some of the players in the army and others of them in the national workshop effort, there’s no way of knowing just what a bunch of lads is likely to trot on the field,’ the Daily Express observed.
Clubs close to barracks were the big beneficiaries and lowly Aldershot fielded whole elevens of star servicemen. Stamford Bridge’s wonderful rail and Underground links made the ground easily accessible – Aldershot was a little over 30 miles distant and there were RAF bases at Bovingdon (25 miles away) and Greenham Common (55 miles).
Not everyone who turned up at a football club’s gates was a genuine thoroughbred, however. Some were simply chancers. Chelsea’s wartime manager Billy Birrell told of one young man who stopped by offering his services, saying he was on Motherwell’s books. The name checked out, so Birrell asked his fellow Scot to come back to the Bridge the next day in case there was an emergency. He did, and there was, so the lad was handed a kit.
‘It was ludicrous,’ Birrell later related. ‘I walked into the dressing-room a few minutes before kick-off and the sight of the newcomer with his shirt outside his shorts told me that he had never had a stud on his sole.
‘But there was no one else and we couldn’t turn out ten men. His first kick out in the middle confirmed my fears and the good-humoured crowd were not slow to spot it.’ At half-time Birrell simply instructed his players not to pass to the imposter.
Never the less Birrell was able to mould his irregulars into a significant force. So much so that they reached the Football League South Cup final at Wembley in successive seasons, 1944 and 1945. In the first, Charlton ran out 3-1 winners of effectively the FA Cup final of the south in front of an 85,000 crowd.
The following season on 26 May 1945, just 18 days after VE Day, 90,000 people (including Princess, now Queen Elizabeth) were present to see King George VI hand over the trophy to victorious skipper Johnny Harris as the Pensioners beat Millwall 2-0. Nowadays the trophy is in the Chelsea Museum.
Chelsea’s guest players that day were Harris himself (Wolves), Ian Black (Aberdeen), George Hardwick (Middlesbrough), Danny Winter (Bolton), John McDonald (Bournemouth), Len Goulden (West Ham), George Wardle (Exeter City) and Les Smith (Brentford). Harris, Winter and Goulden wound up staying at Stamford Bridge before the national football returned in 1946.
- In part two tomorrow, we will look closer at the wartime careers of some key guest players.
Some famous wartime guests
Johnny Harris (Wolves)
World War Two Chelsea stalwart who lifted the League (South) Cup as skipper in 1945 and stayed on to become a key member of the 1954/55 title-winning team. Combining his unofficial and official matches places him seventh on Chelsea’s list of all-time appearance-makers.
108 appearances, 1 goal
George Hardwick (Middlesbrough)
England captain and full-back who was a Flight-Sergeant during World War Two, and a regular favourite at the Bridge. A statue in his honour stands outside the Riverside Stadium in Middlesbrough.
88 appearances, 2 goals
Danny Winter (Bolton)
Part of the British forces evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, but invalided in a car accident and reposted as bombardier to an anti-aircraft unit in London. Guested regularly for Chelsea, including in the 1945 Football League (South) Cup final and made the switch permanently for £5,000 in 1945.
57 appearances, 0 goals
Charlie Mitten (Manchester United)
RAF fitness instructor who proved highly effective on Chelsea’s left wing. Once missed his train from Waterloo in November 1944, causing a dressing room drama at Southampton as Chelsea were left a player short. Played under Busby at Old Trafford before signing for Santa Fe in Colombia, earning the nickname ‘the Bogota Bandit.’
46 appearances, 19 goals
Len Goulden (West Ham)
The prolific West Ham and England forward had a remarkable Chelsea debut as a guest – the 1945 Wembley final – and was eventually signed for £4,500. Had a hand in youth development at the club before taking over at Watford.
36 appearances, 17 goals
George Wardle (Exeter)
An Army Sergeant-Instructor during the war and deadly in front of goal. Scored the Pensioners’ second goal in the 1945 final as an inside-forward, and was sold by Exeter for a club record to Cardiff in 1947, before joining QPR.
27 appearances, 16 goals
Walter Winterbottom (Amateur)
Wing Commander who was Head of Physical Training for the RAF. Although he had only played amateur football, his innovative thinking was obvious and while guesting at centre-half for the Pensioners he was asked to run courses at schools in Chelsea and Dagenham. After the war he was appointed England manager aged 34 in 1946 and convinced wartime guests at the Bridge, Hardwick, Mercer and Walker, as well as Chelsea men Drake, Greenwood and Lawton, to take their badges. Later chaired FIFA’s technical committee.
26 appearances, 0 goals
Reg Mountford (Huddersfield)
RAF Flight-Officer who earned a wartime England cap. Emigrated to Denmark after the war, managing the national side there as well as BK Frem (1948-52), Chelsea’s first-ever opponents in Europe.
25 appearances, 0 goal
Willie Fagan (Liverpool)
Prolific centre-forward who was originally a PT Sergeant-Instructor before becoming Lance-Corporal in the King’s Liverpool territorial, where he became a trench mortar expert.
22 appearances, 7 goals
Eddie Hapgood (Arsenal)
Arsenal’s title-winning England full-back was a Military Policeman at RAF Ruislip in wartime. Playing for Chelsea turned his head and he left the Gunners after a dispute.
16 appearance, 1 goal
Tommy Walker (Hearts)
Hearts and Scotland inside-forward, universally renowned for his gentlemanly approach to the game. Returned as a star signing after the war.
6 appearances, 9 goals
Billy Liddell (Liverpool)
Scotland winger who became an RAF Pilot-Officer PT instructor in 1942, billeted at St John’s Wood.
5 appearances, 2 goals
Frank Soo (Stoke)
Soo was the son of a Chinese sailor and a Liverpudlian mother and, significantly, became England’s first non-white player during World War Two. Joined the RAF in 1941, skippering the force’s football team, and briefly showed his versatility on the left flank for Chelsea from January 1943. Read more
5 appearances, 1 goal
Matt Busby (Liverpool)
Liverpool skipper and midfielder who took charge of the British Army team and starred for the Pensioners in 1939/40. ‘Matt is a natural footballer,’ Tommy Lawton noted in 1945, ‘a grand companion, and one of the most gentlemanly fellows I have met in football. I hope to have the pleasure of meeting him many times when he gives up the playing side of the game, for he is to be manager of Manchester United as soon as he is demobbed.’
4 appearances, 0 goals
Joe Mercer (Everton)
Joined up as a PT instructor based at Aldershot, and played for Chelsea during the 1940/41 season. Like Winterbottom, he later became England national team manager.
3 appearances, 0 goals
Toon ‘Tony’ Effern (Haarlem)
An air mechanic in the Dutch Navy who found his own way to London, inside-left Effern was immensely proud to have become the first Netherlands player to play for a professional English team in January 1944.
2 appearances, 3 goals