When shutdowns began to happen around the world as a result of the 2020 Coronavirus outbreak, one of the most immediate casualties was mass gatherings. Anything that could result in the virus being spread became a ‘no-no’, with the Cheltenham Festival in horse racing becoming one of the final examples of a large crowd gathering to watch sport (although that almost didn’t happen either).
Football started to cease all over Europe, with the Premier League, Championship and Leagues One and Two all suspending action. It was unprecedented in the modern era, as was the shutdown of leagues in the likes of Spain, Germany and France. Soon the question was asked about not only if football could resume at any point but also if it had ever happened before.
The Second World War
When war was declared in 1914 the English top-flight initially made the decision to carry on playing. The same was not the case at the outbreak of the Second World War, with the Football Association immediately declaring that all football, with the exception of that being organised by the armed forces, would be suspended indefinitely.
A big part of the reason behind the Second World War’s football suspension was the fact that conscription meant that a good number of players would be fighting. On top of that, the constant threat of aerial attacks made the playing of football as good as impossible. Believe it or not, though, this suspension of footballing activities didn’t continue for long.
On the twenty-first of September 1939 the Home Office decided that it was ok for football to continue, with certain restrictions in place. The first was that it absolutely could not interfere with industry and national service. The second was that crowds would be limited to eight thousand in evacuation areas and fifteen thousand everywhere else.
The idea was that a limited football programme could continue, with a regional league being matched with a cup programme. On top of the both of those, inter-service matches and home international could also be played, with the sport remaining popular on the home front. Of course, these regional leagues were set up in place of the English top-flight.
Even with the desire to carry on football for reasons of morale, only a few of the newly formed regional leagues were actually able to complete their seasons. Between footballers signing up for duty and grounds being taken over by the government, many clubs couldn’t fulfil their fixtures and simply had to resign from these newly formed leagues.
The Top-Flight Shuts Down
Blackpool had never won the title heading into the 1939 to 1940 campaign. After the first three games of the new season, however, they sat top of the table after winning all of their games. Leeds, on the other hand, had lost all of their games and were rooted to the bottom of the table. It was still early doors, but there was a sense of dismay at a campaign curtailed.
The biggest question many were asking was not only about whether football would be able to resume, but also what it would look like if it did. Whilst the war might generally have been a cause of doom and gloom, the popularity of football continued to rise. Surely it would be able to find its way back as a sport once the hostilities were over?
The records show that more than seven hundred footballers joined the war effort between 1939 and 1945, leaving clubs short of players. The Football Association was forced to abandon the idea of players needing contracts and allowed the signings of ‘guest players‘ to help them fulfil fixtures where that was at all possible to do.
The likes of Tommy Lawton, who was an Everton player, also turned out for Leicester City, Tranmere Rovers, Chester City and Aldershot, amongst other teams, all whilst being in the British army. Bill Shankly, meanwhile, played for Norwich City, Arsenal, Partick Thistle and Luton long before he took over as manager of Liverpool and became a club legend.
The question about whether or not football would return to normal continued after the death of Adolf Hitler and the surrender of Germany in May of 1945. The FA Cup was brought back for the 1945-1946 season, but the top-flight remained suspended and only the regional divisions carried on being played. It return properly until the following season.
The Problem Post-Resumption
It’s easy to assume that football got back underway for the 1946-1947 season and everything went swimmingly, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. The issue began on the twelfth of March in 1947, when the English top-flight was just a couple of months away from its conclusion. The Home Office asked to speak to representatives from spectator sports, including football.
The country was still struggling to get back on its feet after the war and the government wanted to do what it could to drive productivity in factories. One of the key plans to help with that productivity was the suspension of midweek sport. That was going to affect football in a big way because the awful winter of 1946 had resulted in many games being cancelled.
There was a need for the sport to play catch-up, with midweek games seen as a way of achieving that. Will Cearns, who was the Chairman of West Ham United, said that opposition to the suspension of sport would be so great that ‘it will never come to force‘. He was wrong, however, with the government standing firm and sport soon falling into line.
It was felt by JT Bolton, writing in the The Observer, the that line that would be most popular would be the nulling and voiding of the season. Instead, it was decided that the season would be extended until the fourteenth of June. The shift in the season resulted in it being the longest league campaign up until that point, with Liverpool eventually being declared champions.
English Football Hasn’t Been Cancelled Since
There have been other moments since the Second World Way when football might well have faced calls to be suspended, whether it be because of the outbreak of the likes of foot and mouth disease or because of severe weather, football has always gamely struggled on and only taken minor breaks, with games rescheduled as soon as possible.
Since the launch of the Premier League, the sport has developed into being one of the richest in the world. English clubs pay millions of pounds per year to footballers contracted to them, with hundreds of millions spent on player transfers. The desire to ensure that football is played until it’s virtually impossible for it to be so is mainly driven by money.
That being said, even during the Second World War it was understood what a morale boost football could provide for people who otherwise had little to distract them from what was taking place around the world. The same has been true ever since, which is why Premier League clubs constantly had meetings to figure out when it could return to action in spite of Covid-19.
Why Football Continues To Be Played
Whilst the example of the money involved in the Premier League being a large part of the reason why it takes a world crisis for play to be suspended is true, it doesn’t necessarily apply to other leagues. There is obviously less money in the likes of League One and League Two, but even the likes of the Bundesliga in Germany and La Liga in Spain aren’t as rich as England’s top-flight.
Why, then, does football tend to continue for as long as possible regardless of what is going on around the world? Money will always play a part, but with many clubs lower down the footballing pyramid in England only able to survive thanks to the gate receipts that they receive every weekend. It’s far from the only thing, though, with morale being equally as important.
Millions if not billions of people get joy and pleasure from watching football matches, which is why countless governments have seen the need for the sport to carry on in almost any circumstance. Whether it be watching games live or on the television, too much pleasure is taken from people to mean that leagues can simply be abandoned if it can be helped.
Times Leagues Have Been Ended Early
Sometimes, however, football simply has to take a back seat. That was certainly the case in Chile in 2019, when security concerns over anti-government protests meant that the football federation decided to cancel the rest of the season. There were only six fixtures remaining, but the decision meant that no teams would be relegated or promoted.
The team that were top of the table by thirteen points at the time, Universidad Católica, were awarded the title after opposing teams decided it was the fair thing to do. Twenty-six people were killed and hundreds injured in the build-up to football’s suspension, so it was with the safety of the Chilean people in mind that the league was ended prematurely.
It was a similar story in Moldova in 1992, in the sense that violent outbreaks resulted in the league being suspended. Again, the Moldovan Divizia Nationale was only a few games away from being concluded, but the escalating military conflict resulted in it being abandoned. Tiligul Tiraspol should have been champions if they’d won their final three games, but didn’t win and disbanded in 2006.
The Exceptions That Prove The Rule
Similar tales can be told about the Russian Second League in 1989, but the point really is that the number of seasons that have been cancelled are few and far between. In many ways, they’re the exceptions that prove the rule, with football being played on through countless other circumstances that aren’t based around military conflicts.
Football is a sport that is quite resilient, being able to withstand attacks from numerous different places. Even when the Coronavirus was resulting in leagues being suspended, cancelled or abandoned around the world, there was little thought from most that it wouldn’t resume once the crisis was over.
There were questions from some quarters about what form football would take when it resumed, but the overall presiding thought process was that it would be as close to how it was as possible. That’s a sign of football’s resilience and the wish of both supporters and organisers for the sport to be a sense of normality in a world still getting back on its feet.