The games when both teams were wearing khaki

When today’s England team travelled to Brazil, they didn’t have to endure hours in the back of a military truck, or sleep under canvas, or shave in cold tea, as their 1945 predecessors did, writes ANTON RIPPON

Sixty-eight years ago, a group of soldiers reported to the Great Western Hotel at Paddington ready for a foreign posting. Their mission would not take long – a month at most – but the prospect might still have produced the usual moans of wartime conscripts.

Yet everyone was in good heart on that evening in May 1945. The previous day all German forces in north-west Germany, Holland and Denmark had surrendered. The lights were going on again all over Europe.

And, anyway, these 18 men were not ordinary squaddies. They were some of Britain’s most famous footballers: England internationals like Joe Mercer and Tommy Lawton of Everton and Frank Swift, Manchester City’s goalkeeper, all looking forward to resuming their careers in peacetime. Also in the party was Matt Busby, lately of Liverpool and Scotland and soon to take up the manager’s job at bombed-out Manchester United.

But no matter what their future plans, the players’ immediate duties lay in Italy where they had been ordered by the War Office to play football. They were the game’s equivalent of an ENSA concert party. They were football’s Vera Lynns. It is hard to imagine Ashley Cole living in a tent and shaving in cold tea, or the current England team bouncing along a dusty road in the back of an Army lorry, but during the Second World War even the nation’s leading footballers endured such hardships. Many saw active service, some won gallantry medals on land, sea and in the air.

We just wear the shirts: the Army football team during its tour of Italy in May 1945
We just wear the shirts: the Army football team during its tour of Italy in May 1945

Many, though, found themselves in the PT corps, and when they weren’t putting new recruits through their paces, they were playing football. Although the Football League and the FA Cup had been suspended in 1939, the game still had a role to play.

Football was the great morale booster and when the general public had been sorted out with regional leagues using guest players, there were still the troops to entertain; consequently the British Army found itself with the best football team in its history. As early as the moonless night of February 9, 1940, a squad of Army footballers, including Busby, Lawton and Stan Cullis of Wolves and England, had been landed in France to play matches for men of the British Expeditionary Force who would soon be evacuated from Dunkirk.

Four years later, as the Allied invasion of Europe gained momentum, an FA Services team which included the captains of England, Scotland and Wales played in Paris and Brussels, only 30 miles behind the front line. Now, the Army’s best footballers were ready to tour again.

It was a wonderful weekend, that final weekend of the war in Europe, and the players’ last glimpse of England was the sea front at Bournemouth where early bathers were reserving the best spots in anticipation of the glorious day ahead. Five and a half hours later, at an airfield near Naples, the footballers climbed out of the noisy, uncomfortable Warwick transport plane, stiff-legged and almost looking forward to the night under canvas that lay ahead.

By then they knew that the war which had robbed them of six years of their careers was over, yet the celebrations were muted. Manchester United’s Jack Rowley could be excused; he was taken straight to hospital with dysentery. Frank Swift was also distracted; he had left his football boots in England. The NAAFI came to the rescue and the following afternoon the tourists played their first match against 3 Army District. On a bone-hard pitch, in scorching conditions, they won 6-0 despite their opponents enjoying the services of Swift who substituted when Bert Hoyle, a Wolves reserve, was injured.

In his new boots, army-issue khaki shorts and Hoyle’s jersey, several sizes too small, Swift was beaten only once, by a penalty.

A 150-mile trip to Rome aboard an army lorry provided vivid reminders of the war just ended. At Monte Cassino the players saw the ruins of the monastery, destroyed by Allied bombing. In Valmontone, they saw people living in caves and in the shells of ruined houses. The following day’s audience with the Pope, and their night at the opera, sat uneasily with them after that.

When the team played in khaki: footballing Army sergeants Joe Mercer (left), Matt Busby (centre) and Don Welsh, the Charlton player who was to become Liverpool's first post-war manager
When the team played in khaki: footballing Army sergeants Joe Mercer (left), Matt Busby (centre) and Don Welsh, the Charlton player who was to become Liverpool’s first post-war manager

Then back to business. They beat an Army in Italy team 10-2 before another long road trip to Ancona and the 7-1 defeat of a District Services team. In Rimini they faced a Naples Area side which included Bryn Jones, Arsenal’s record signing in 1938. The Army had to work hard for their 2-0 win.

In the municipal stadium in Florence, on a decent pitch far removed from the baked earth of previous grounds, the Fifth Army was beaten 10-0, but here the Army’s footballing tourists came to realise that they were not always welcome.

Many of the khaki-clad crowd resented pre-war professionals who seemed to do nothing but play football. “Come on the D-Day dodgers,” was one of the more polite insults.

“Being criticised by men who’d seen real action hurt, but I wasn’t ashamed,” Lawton said. “We went where we were told. Back home we’d entertained people who’d been through hell in the Blitz. We just wanted to do the same for the troops.”

Minus Lawton and Mercer, who left to play for England against France at Wembley, the party returned to Naples and a game against the Central Mediterranean Forces, a needle match so important that a neutral referee was recruited, one Corporal Rosner of the American Army. Considering his country’s lack of soccer tradition, Rosner did a good job in front of a crowd of 30,000 who had their first glimpse of Tom Finney, an emerging winger with Preston North End before war intervened.

As a tank driver, Finney had experienced fierce fighting during the slog up Italy’s boot. He was pleased to be playing football again. The footballing soldiers rounded off their tour with a short visit to Greece, where everyone except Swift went down with sandfly fever. It had been an adventure in which Mercer, in particular, had distinguished himself both on and off the field.

His non-footballing duties were those of messing officer, or “scrounger-in-chief” as Busby, the team’s player-manager, called him. Mercer’s job was to cadge food. Lawton and Swift had responsibility for all the baggage except the football kit. That fell to Bert Sproston of Manchester City and England. In times of war, even international footballers had to muck in. For the game’s Vera Lynns, however, the job was almost done.


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