To Play On or Not To Play On: Football in the Great War

Alexander Jackson

The decision to continue with football matches during the war was a momentous one for the game
Tom Maley and some of his “brave boys” in 1914.
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Football in the Great War.

On the 19 July 1915, a grieving father stood to address the great and the good of the football world. In the room were representatives from clubs in the prestigious Football League. They had come to address the question of the hour: should football continue? and if so, in what form? The meeting had been underway for a little while, and the early speeches had been in favour of shutting down their clubs. For these speakers, organised football before spectators was incompatible with wartime values. The very idea of wartime football seemed to be ebbing away until others rose in opposition.

For the cartoonist of the Sheffield Green’Un, the game’s wartime record was as source of pride. Credit: Sheffield Libraries and Archives Service

Among them was a grieving father. He was Tom Maley, manager of Bradford Park Avenue in the First Division. He was a man with the golden touch, who had taken Manchester City to their first FA Cup win and Bradford to the First Division. He was also a proud father, proud of the fact that his two eldest sons had joined the forces. But a few months earlier, Joseph Maley, the second eldest, was killed in a trench raid shortly before he was due home on leave. A devastated Tom attempted to join up but was rejected as being over-age.

At this vital moment, Tom sought to articulate the reason why wartime football mattered, and why it should continue. One newspaper captured his heartfelt contribution.

They in Bradford had given men to the colours – men who had been slain and men who had been wounded. He, the speaker, had given his son. Another son was also serving, and they could take the father too. But because of that, why should hard-working people, sober and industrious, be deprived of their only recreation on a Saturday afternoon?

Maley’s argument won the day and continued to manager his club throughout three more years of war. The author of a regular newspaper column, he chronicled how he battled to keep the club going in face of all the trials and tribulations that wartime football brought. And he kept his readers up to date with all the news of the club’s players in the forces, his “big band of noble and heroic boys.”

These wartime seasons, so important to many that lived through them, have been a forgotten chapter in the history of the game. Until now there had been no sole book focusing on them. Existing coverage has tended to concentrate on the controversial 1914/15 season, football behind the lines or the rise of women’s football.

Moreover, it is often assumed that men’s football on the Home Front came to an end in the summer of the 1915, when the FA banned the payment of players. It didn’t. Instead, the FA’s ban heralded an important, but hitherto unexplored period when the game’s growing commercialisation was temporarily disrupted by total war. A decades old dispute between the game’s amateur origins and values, and its modern links to the world of capital and lucrative entertainment was brought sharply into focus.

Just as importantly, the game did continue. Clubs kept on playing, from the lowliest grassroots teams to the richest clubs in the land. It continued to attract fans, to occupy the attentions of directors, to matter to its players, and to stimulate media coverage, gambling, and corruption.

Finally, it was also a place in which the impact of the war on everyday life was brought home. It was also an escape from that war, a release from long hours in munitions factories or a temporary respite from service in the trenches. And it provided another community in which the dead might be mourned.

In the summer of 1915, Tom Maley argued for the game’s importance to English society. Football’s Great War attempts to tell this story.

Alexander Jackson is the author of Football’s Great War: Association Football on the English Home Front 1914-1918 published by Pen and Sword Books.

Football in the Great War.