When war meets sport. And sport wins. ANTON RIPPON reports.
IT’S a year this month since spectators at The Oval were urged to take cover for their own safety as armed police rushed the ground. On the last day of August 2017, a bolt, apparently fired from a crossbow, landed on the pitch, and the match between Surrey and Middlesex was abandoned.
A few days later a man was arrested on suspicion of attempting to cause grevious bodily harm. Eventually he was released with no further action and there the matter ended.
It wasn’t the first time that a first-class cricket ground had come under fire. In July 1944, at Lord’s, a match between the Army and the Royal Air Force was stopped when a doodlebug – a V1 rocket – was heard approaching the ground. The players lay on the turf, and spectators disappeared under the stands. But the rocket landed in Regent’s Park. Middlesex and England opening batsmen Jack Robertson dusted himself down and celebrated the narrow escape by hitting the next ball for six.
An outraged Wisden later reported that this was “the first flying-bomb to menace Lord’s during the progress of a match”.
British sport certainly took the Second World War in its stride. As far it was concerned, life had to go on as normally as possible. Nowhere was this more apparent that at golf clubs where special rules had to be devised to deal with the interruption caused by air-raids.
In 1940, Richmond Golf Club in Surrey conceded: “In all competitions, during gunfire, or when bombs are falling, players may take cover without penalty for ceasing play.”
However, another rule said: “A player whose stroke is affected by simultaneous explosion of bomb or shell, or by machine-gun fire, may play the ball from the same place. Penalty: 1 stroke.”
“A ball moved by enemy action may be placed as near as possible where it lay, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole, without penalty.” Well, you couldn’t say fair than that.
Nowhere, though, did the war disrupt sport as much as it did football. The Home Office had ruled that play must be stopped whenever the air-raid alert sounded. Clubs attempted to counter this with a system of “spotters”; play would continue until the spotter on the roof of the stadium signalled the actual presence of enemy aircraft.
A ball moved by enemy action may be placed as near as possible where it lay, or if lost or destroyed, a ball may be dropped not nearer the hole, without penalty
The blackout was as much a nuisance to sportsmen as it was to the general public. Southampton FC’s coach driver, returning from a game at Cardiff, became lost in the blackout, then he hit a brick wall, and finally the vehicle suffered a burst tyre.
After a Great Western Combination game at Slough, the Wycombe team had to walk the 15 miles back to High Wycombe.
The authorities came down very hard on petrol rationing. There was a court case where a man was fined for wasting petrol because he was caught driving to watch Derby County. Another Derby supporter, from Belper, got round this by taking his mates to the football in a furniture van.
They all crowded inside around a piano. His plan was that, if the police stopped him, he would say that his journey was essential because he was delivering the piano to the NAAFI. He was never stopped and that piano went back and forth, from his house to the football ground, for about two years.
Sport played a vital role in maintaining the nation’s morale. Sometimes amateur players found themselves lining with with the stars.
Jack Smith of Leicester: “I was working at an electrical factory and playing amateur football when the war started. In 1940-41, at the age of 17, I found myself in Leicester City’s first team, playing inside-right to a little right winger called Billy Wright, whose own club, Wolverhampton Wanderers, had closed down for that season. I had no idea that my right-wing partner would one day win a record number of England caps from the half-back line.
Make-do-and-mend-football certainly threw up some strange incidents. On Christmas Day 1941, Bristol City set off in three cars to play Southampton at The Dell. By kick-off time, only the car carrying the kit and two players had arrived.
The match eventually kicked off one hour late, with the Bristol team completed by five Southampton reserves, the Saints’ trainer, and three spectators. Twenty minutes into the game, the missing Bristol players arrived, crammed into one car. The other vehicle had broken down.
At half-time Southampton were winning 3-0 and one of the spectators in the Bristol team decided that he could not carry on. City decided to slip on one of the late arrivals, Ernie Brinton, who changed into the dirty kit and rubbed mud on his knees before trotting out for the second half.
Within seconds of the restart, a linesman spotted the ringer and Brinton had to leave the field. In the circumstances it was surprising that Southampton won by only 5-2.
Southend United goalkeeper Ted Hankey sneaked away from his Royal Artillery unit to play under an assumed name for the reserves against Reading and lost his sergeant’s stripes when his deception was discovered
Southend United goalkeeper Ted Hankey sneaked away from his Royal Artillery unit to play under an assumed name for the reserves against Reading and lost his sergeant’s stripes when his deception was discovered.
Liverpool’s Billy Liddell had better luck. Posted to an RAF camp at Heaton, near Manchester, he discovered that personnel were not allowed out until 4.30pm on Saturdays. Liverpool were playing Manchester City at Maine Road and when Liddell’s application to be released at midday was refused, he climbed over the wall and joined up with his team-mates at the railway station.
Military police were checking passes outside the station but they ignored the party of footballers and Liddell, who later became a JP, got away with it.