1939-40 – The lost season


George Hinsley
George Hinsley

By Ian Hemmens

By 1939 the dark clouds gathering over Europe had become almost storm-like. The year before had seen Nazi Germany annexe neighbour Austria, the ‘Anschluss’ and by deception of protecting ethnic Germans in the Czech ruled Sudetenland secured more land. Czechoslovakia & Polish held Silesia were next and when British Prime Minister came back from his meeting with Adolf Hitler waving his piece of paper proclaiming ‘Peace in our time’, even the most optimistic were having doubts about a forthcoming conflict.

Even as early as April 1939, the FA had released a circular to clubs asking all professionals to join the Territorial Army to encourage the youth of the land to do likewise. Mindful of the furore in 1914-15 when football carried on despite the protests of class ridden parsimonious rantings of various branches of the establishment.

Football’s hands were tied by the contract system and in fact proved positive as recruitment vehicles for the forces. Wary of being attacked again, the FA were in fact proactive by negotiating with the War office for players to take part in military training. Although voluntary, several clubs signed up en bloc to the Territorials or potentially vital industries. The Football League also pronounced that the clubs didn’t have to pay any player who was involved in military training so as to minimise the financial strain on clubs.

The new season saw all teams re-elected to the regional 3rd Divisions, Hartlepools & Accrington Stanley in the North and Bristol Rovers & Walsall in the South being the fortunate clubs. Another new innovation was uniform numbering on shirts for specific positions. As the new season drew close, clubs took part in Jubilee Fund matches. This was a project set up the year before to celebrate the Football League’s half century and was to help raise funds for ex-players who had fallen on hard times or had to give up due to injury. It mainly featured local ‘Derby’ matches where possible and in the 1938 series, City once more succumbed to neighbours Bradford Park Avenue by a 1-4 scoreline at Valley Parade in front of a 6000 crowd.

One interesting note of this match was that it was the only senior appearance for City of Malcolm Comrie, the nephew of former City Centre Half Jimmy Comrie who had perished in the Great War.

Bradford City travelled the short distance to Park Avenue for a match which ended in a 3-2 victory for the home side in front of a crowd just short of 5000. City fielded new signings in keeper Billy McPhillips the ex-Newcastle United custodian, former Spurs schemer Almer Hall, Jimmy Lovery & Duncan Colquhoun, a forward from Southport.

These players complemented the established players like Charlie McDermott, Spud Murphy, Charlie Moore, Archie Hastie & Alf Whittingham, Hastie & debutant Colquhoun scored the goals.

Fred Westgarth
Fred Westgarth

The season before, 1938-39, City had finished a promising 3rd in the table although they never really threatened the eventual winners Barnsley who finished a full 15 points better off. City had a prolific goalscorer in Jack Deakin who had finished with 23 goals in just 28 games ably supported by Jimmy Smailes and Archie Hastie. The team had a good solid core of players with a couple of promising youngsters like George Hinsley, Joe Harvey & the aforementioned Whittingham in their ranks. Confidence was high for a concerted push for a return to 2nd tier football after a 4 year gap. Manager Fred Westgarth, despite losing promising players like Gordon Pallister to Barnsley & future stars George Swindin & Laurie Scott to Arsenal was quietly building a solid squad of experience and youth for the forthcoming campaign.

The season began on August 26th 1939 at Valley Parade against the previous seasons bottom club Accrington Stanley in front of a 7000 crowd. The 4 newcomers again lined up for City who selected the following: McPhillips, Murphy, McDermott, Molloy, Beardshaw, Moore, Lovery, Hall, Deakin, Hastie & Colquhoun. The game didn’t go to plan as Stanley managed a shock 2-0 win and took the points back to East Lancashire.

Only the previous year, Runner-up Doncaster Rovers managed a 5 figure crowd in the division. The days largest attendance was at Molineux for the 1st Division clash between Wolves and Arsenal with 47000 turning up. Opening day highlights included 4-0 wins for Manchester United against Grimsby Town! Yes, Grimsby back then were in the 1st Division and today, sadly, they are no longer in the Football League. Stoke City also recorded a 4-0 victory over Charlton Athletic, the Stoke side having a precocious winger named Stanley Matthews in their line up.

In Division 2, Bradford Park Avenue made it a sorry day for Bradford football going down to a 2-0 defeat at Saltergate against Chesterfield, whilst the result of the day was Crystal Palace’s 5-4 victory away at Mansfield in the 3rd Division (S). There were also several names other than Grimsby Town who are no longer Football League teams; Barrow, Southport, Wrexham, Chester, New Brighton, Aldershot, Torquay United, Darlington, Stockport County, Lincoln City & finally Gateshead.

The second round of matches started almost immediately 2 days later on the 28th August. A day later, Bradford Park Avenue, this time on home turf once again lost, a 3-0 reversal to Luton Town before 7000 supporters. A day later City travelled to the Wirral to face New Brighton at Sandheys Park. 5 changes were made by Manager Westgarth, 3 due to injury and 2 for selection changes. Charlie McDermott, Duncan Colquhoun & Jack Deakin were injured and City lined up with McPhillips, Murphy, Brown, Molloy, Hinsley, Moore, Lovery, Beresford, Whittingham, Hastie & Smailes.

The return of Jimmy Smailes added to the attacking prowess but again, City went down to a 2-1 defeat, Alf Whittingham opening his account for the season. 2 games & 2 defeats, not the start the club wanted after the hopes of pre-season.

September 2nd, the day before War was declared saw round 3 of the leagues programme. Ted Drake scored 4 of Arsenals 5 against Sunderland in front of only 17000 fans. The growing fears and uncertainty of the national situation was clearly having an effect on crowd participation as not one crowd in the 1st Division reached 20000. Tommy Lawton hit his 3rd goal for Everton. The surprise package with maximum points and sitting proudly at the top of the 1st division table were Blackpool.

In Division 2, Bradford Park Avenue finally got off the mark with 2-2 home draw with Millwall although this result left them bottom and propping up the table. Newcastle United had the result of the day with an 8-1 thrashing of Swindon at St. James’ Park, all 5 of their forwards contributing to the scoreline.

City travelled to Holker Park to face Barrow in their 3rd game and came away with a 2-2 draw to claim their 1st point. Stan Scrimshaw came in for Frank Beresford in the only change and goals from Hinsley & Hastie secured the point. After 3 games, City were next to bottom with only pointless Stockport County below them. The loss of ace goalgetter Jack Deakin was posing a problem. Apart from the odd Wartime game, he never played for City again leaving a very impressive record including FA Cup games of 51 Goals in only 68 games.

The next day, Sunday 3rd September 1939 at 11am came the announcement that everyone was expecting and fearing. Football was the last thing on people’s minds as it was announced that once again, the country was at war with Germany.

An immediate ban on all crowds was announced and a day later, mindful of the situation in 1915, the League Management Committee declared the season was officially over. On September 8th, all players contracts were ended though the clubs retained their registrations. Players who hadn’t already signed up or were committed to vital jobs had to find alternative employment until they were called to arms.

Six clubs immediately decided to close down for the duration of the conflict and Arsenals Highbury was taken over by the local ARP. By the 14th September it was announced that friendly games could go ahead but only in certain areas as long as police approval was given but restrictions on attendances were still in place. This time around, the Government realised that football was a release and a benefit to morale to the millions of workers aiding the War effort.

On the 25th the War Committee announced plans to start 8 regional leagues on the 21st October. Professional players would receive £1.50 a week but no bonuses. The guest system as used in the Great War would again operate. The obvious restrictions on travel were in place and because of the national blackout, long journeys by coach were not possible.

The ongoing situation once again meant that clubs had to use whoever was available with veterans, local promising youths and servicemen stationed nearby could all be called upon to fulfil fixtures. Obviously, the clubs in naval ports and garrison towns benefitted best with clubs like Aldershot able to field an almost full international side from top players stationed in the town.

From a Bradford City point of view, the club settled into the Wartime regional structure trying to get by week by week. The departure of Fred Westgarth to his old club Hartlepools in 1943 was a blow to the club but Board member Cllr. Bob Sharp stepped in to steady the ship through uncertain times with very few highlights to mention. George ‘Spud’ Murphy was selected to play for Wales in several wartime international games, although not Official games, he was the first City player to gain International honours since Irishman Sam Russell in 1930. The club managed to keep going without any real success or failures until the War finally ended in 1945.

The length of the conflict, apart from casualties, saw the end of many players careers being too old to carry on playing or unable to medically due to wounds.

Only 4 players from Citys last pre-war squad started the new full season in 1946. Stan Scrimshaw, George Murphy, George Hinsley & Alf Whittingham. A 5th place finish was an excellent finish for the club after the long dark days just gone by. The War had taken its toll on all aspects of life and from footballs point of view some players were on the cusp of a career but never played again whilst others who were given a chance were discovered almost by accident and became almost overnight heroes.

The 3 games of the 1939-40 season were officially wiped from the records as the Declaration of War overtook all aspects of any normality of lifestyle and it became known as the season that never existed.

For reference, thanks to:

  • ‘Bradford City – A Complete Record’ by Terry Frost
  • ‘The Men Who Never were’ by Jack Rollin & Mike Brown
  • Charles Buchan Football Monthly – Various
  • Various Internet Sources

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