Following on from yesterday’s first part, in which the general story of how famous players from other clubs, including Matt Busby, George Hardwick and Walter Winterbottom, came to turn out as guests for Chelsea during the Second World War, today we look more closely at some of the individual stories involved…
This week it is 80 years since a wartime guest footballer graced the Stamford Bridge turf for the final occasion. He made only four appearances for Chelsea while on army training in the south in 1940, but the then 30-year-old Matt Busby – usually midfielder and captain of Liverpool – drew rave reviews.
Busby would later go on to become a revered manager for Manchester United. At the start of World War Two, his temporary home was announced to some fanfare in 28 October 1939 – a few days after he helped Aldershot beat Chelsea 4-3 in a benefit game – and he made his debut at right-half in a 6-2 home thrashing of Southampton
Busby’s final outing in royal blue was against Charlton in the Football League South, but he retained an affection for the Pensioners from that time, and as manager of hosts Manchester United in April 1955 he was delighted to extend a guard of honour to Ted Drake’s newly-crowned champions at Old Trafford.
Happily the Chelsea museum has recently acquired on loan a page of autographs from the same Charlton match, including that of the future European Cup-winning knight.
The Glaswegian was just one of many footballers borrowed by Chelsea manager Billy Birrell between 1939 and 1945 who made a significant contribution to the game either before or after the conflict. The club nurtured connections all over London to capture the best available players and keep the crowds coming to the Bridge.
After he was called up by the RAF in December 1942, Liverpool’s Scotland international winger Billy Liddell relocated to north London, was swiftly inducted into royal blue circles. ‘I was billeted in St John’s Wood,’ he later recalled, ‘and soon met several football folk, including the Chelsea trio of Len Goulden, Dick Spence and Joe Payne.
‘I also met Walter Winterbottom, then a Squadron Leader and later a Wing Commander, who arranged for me to play as a guest for Chelsea. I turned out for them a few times and scored a couple of goals but then I was posted to Cambridge.’
Guesting relied on the cooperation of commanding officers, and Liddell’s rugby-loving new CO flatly denied all his requests to continue playing for the Pensioners. Winterbottom, however, stationed at Stanmore, had no such problems and would simply hop on a bus to the Bridge for matches. The future England manager and coaching colossus played his only ‘professional’ games for Chelsea during the war.
As he discovered, temporary rivalries quickly caught up with age-old tribal loyalties. When his fiancée Ann, a WAAF, checked in or out of work at RAF Ruislip, military policemen and Arsenal full-backs Eddie Hapgood and George Male would remind her they would give her sweetheart ‘a good kicking’ the next time Chelsea and the Gunners met in London’s ‘battle of the roses’.
After they were wed, the Winterbottoms honeymooned in Bournemouth – during which Walter actually made an appearance for Chelsea in a friendly down just the coast at Portsmouth.The guesting arrangement meant club relationships could become blurred. The same Hapgood ended up playing for the west Londoners 16 times, and his experience of life at the Bridge led to an irreparable falling out with his parent club.In January 1943, when an RAF XI took on the Police, Chelsea had three affiliated players on show: Hardwick, Liddell, and Frank Soo for the airmen, and Dickie Spence for the boys in blue. All three RAF players were merely regular guests stars for the Pensioners.
Although Liddell’s fellow Scot and Liverpool player Bill Shankly did not feature for Chelsea during the war, the club did help him out. When the Glaswegian arrived in London for an England-Scotland international at Wembley in 1944 and complained of an injury, he was whisked off to Stamford Bridge, where the club doctor put his troubled knee through exhaustive tests before ruling him out.Chelsea’s scouting network could even extend beyond the British Isles. The club’s vice-president, AV Alexander, a Labour MP and First Lord of the Admiralty in the wartime coalition government, was impressed by the performance of exiled airman Tony Effern in a Netherlands Services XI win against Belgium in January 1944. So much so that he instantly recruited him for the Chelsea team at home to Charlton that weekend, swiftly confirmed by a telegram from Birrell the very next day.
As a result, the 26-year-old Naval air mechanic, formerly with Haarlem, became the first Dutchman to play for a professional English team. The inside-left scored, too, netting a noteworthy three times in two games: 5-2 versus the Robins, 8-0 against Aldershot. Sadly, his commanding officer blocked any further appearances.
Similarly, in summer 1945 an FA Services XI side featuring Hardwick, Soo, and imminent Chelsea signing Tommy Lawton toured Europe including neutral Switzerland and encountered ‘a 14-stone Swiss airman named [Willi] Steffen – one of the best backs I [Lawton] have ever seen’. The Chelsea connection soon meant the 20-year-old would come to the Bridge for the first post-war season, 1946/47, and win plenty of admirers.
Many guests seemed to fall for the magic of the club. When he was posted away from London in November 1944, popular Hearts and Scotland forward Walker wired a typically courteous message to Stamford Bridge: ‘To wish you all continued success. Hope to read big things of you. My stay was short but pleasant. Many thanks to all. Walker.’
One fan’s views in the programme spoke for many with a tribute to the ‘90-minute player’ and ‘his match-winning qualities’: ‘never spoken to him but I would bet my last “bob” [shilling] that Tommy is the finest type of sportsman and gentleman that ever donned a football jersey.’
More generally, football’s future became part of the debate amid the post-war euphoria of summer 1945. The same groundbreaking wartime report that produced the blueprint for the National Health Service and the Welfare State also came to the aid of players. It was called ‘Social Insurance and Allied Services’ but posterity knows it as the Beveridge report (after its author, William Beveridge).
Its recommendations for the national game included the abolition of the maximum wage, a pension scheme, compensation for injured players and the revision of transfers. It took the Players’ Union threatening to strike unless some of the recommendations were adopted in November 1945 to force the League’s hands.
By then, even well-known guest players were finding it more difficult to obtain a place in a big team. Managers were giving their own talent, be it ever so youthful, their first chance, with Birrell and Chelsea at the vanguard.
That was the plan, anyway. Chelsea’s constant desire to hire crowd-pleasers meant while Birrell waited for his first crop of youngsters to develop, the wallet had to be opened yet again.
Happily, as in World War One, some guests were so charmed by Chelsea they opted to sign permanently once hostilities had ceased. Stars such as Goulden, Harris, Walker and Winter were re-engaged through big transfer fees for the first peacetime campaigns. They had been there in a time of dire need and now they would form a key part of the club’s brave new world.
Read more about Chelsea in World War Two