In 1939 the government decided to suspend the national game altogether would deal a severe blow to national morale.
After Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s solemn declaration in September 1939 that Britain was at war with Germany, his government quickly determined that suspending professional football indefinitely would be a self-inflicted wound to national morale.
In the First World War competitive football had been suspended, which meant many professional players signed up to fight – and die in their hundreds. But in the Second, although the Football League programme was abandoned with only three rounds of matches completed at the start of the 1939-40 season, the decree from above was that the show must go on even if no one was quite sure what form the show would or should take.
This decision did not mean players were spared joining up – and many more lost their lives. Those who died included two Bolton players, Harry Goslin, a defender who represented England against Scotland at the start of the Second World War, and Walter Sidebottom.
Goslin, the Bolton captain, told a crowd of more than 20,000 at Burnden Park in April 1939 that after the match against Sunderland he would lead his teammates to the local Territorial Army hall to sign up. He was killed in action in Itay in 1943 when a mortar exploded in a tree under which he had set up an observation post.
Sidetbottom, aged 22, died the same year, drowned when his ship was torpedoed in the English Channel.
But many top players in particular were given home postings rather than sent to the front in order to ensure the football that was played was as entertaining as possible.
The format settled upon was for Football League teams to take part in regional competitions and for regular helpings of international matches between the home nations, which proved especially popular.
In 1943 and 1944, a strong England team scored 45 goals in 10 unbeaten matches against Scotland and Wales. The great Backpool winger Stanley Matthews, who was serving in the RAF and was a huge favourite with crowds, appeared in nine of these.
A crowd of 133,000 saw England win 3-2 at Hampden in April 1944 and six months later 90,000 were at Wembley to watch a 6-2 win over the Scots.
This was way above the turnout for club matches, although, in time, even some of these games started to attract gates that compared to pre-war figures.
Blackpool, once Matthews became a regular for them, were a particular magnet and the team achieved a celebrity that has never really been recognised. Attendances swelled wherever they played. A showdown between a Matthews-inspired Blackpool and Arsenal at Stamford Bridge in the spring of 1943 engaged the interest of the whole nation, drawing a vast gathering to west London.
But even more mundane matches in the makeshift regional leagues attracted substantial crowds and it was men such as Colin Collindridge, a fleet-footed forward, who kept these going.
Collindridge, who was conscripted in 1941, served in the RAF as a bomb armourer while at the same time turning out for a number of Football League clubs competing in the wartime competitions.
Taking advantage of the temporary freedom to guest for whichever club wanted him, Collindridge wore the colours of his peacetime club Sheffield United, Notts County, which was close to his RAF posting, Lincoln City and Oldham Athletic.
Although he admits to some resentment that the war coincided with what would probably have been his best footballing years, he counts himself lucky. ‘A local lad, Ernest England, was captured by the Germans at Dunkirk. He’d worked down the coalmine at Woolley and when he was taken prisoner they stuck him down a coalmine in Germany.
‘He came home and he’d been back for a week when he died. I’m not sure what he died of, but what happened to me was nothing compared to that.’
The war also threw up instances of grim humour. Just before a match at Preston’s Deepdale ground, an air-raid siren sounded. As the players hurried to the nearest shelter, one of them remembered he had left his top set of false teeth in the dressing room. He had to be forcibly persuaded not to go back to retrieve them.
Not surprisingly, given football’s paranoia at this time about how much players earned, wartime gave officials an excuse to be even more parsimonious than usual. Earnings that were capped in peacetime were now set at no more than 30 shillings (£1 50p) per game.
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.