While many footballers fought and died in the twentieth century’s two great wars, the generation who were just too young to serve in the second of these conflicts have clear memories of it – and went on to do national service in the years that followed.
The most vivid of these memories belong to those who recall the blitzes. These were not confined to London and the south-east. They included cities across the land, from Bristol and Plymouth in the south-west, Cardiff and Swansea in Wales, Birmingham and Coventry in the Midlands and Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north and the Clydebank Blitz in Scotland..
Tony McNamara, who would represent Liverpool’s two great clubs, remembers intense bombing raids, notably the Christmas Blitz of 1940. The school he attended was hit on one occasion and parents opened their homes so lessons could continue. The school football team hardly played because of the disruption.
McNamara says quite a bit of bombing took place around where he lived in Sandyville Road. He and his three sisters and brother used to take cover in the Anderson shelters set up in the road outside their home. ‘Most nights during the Liverpool Blitz we’d go into the shelters at around seven o’clock and often stay there until as late as midnight.’
McNamara’s father eventually tired of the routine. ‘He got fed up and took to staying indoors,’ McNamara says. ‘When we came back into the house one night the windows had been blown in and my father was lying there in bed with glass splinters all around him. It didn’t seem to worry him.’
In fact not much seemed to worry the McNamara patriarch. On another occasion a landmine attached to a parachute went off at the bottom of the road and blew the soot from the chimney all over his wife. McNamara recalls that his father just sat there laughing and told her she looked like Eugene Stratton, a music-hall artist who used to black his face for a singing routine.’
But the luckiest escape McNamara’s father had was when the road in which he managed a bakery shop was hit in an air raid. Fortunately for him he had been called to another of Scott’s bakeries a couple of miles away to sort out a problem.
‘While he was away a landmine struck a building in Durning Road and this building collapsed on the air-raid shelter where my father would have been. More than 100 people were killed.’
Roy Wood, who was born in Wallasey on the Mersey in 1930 and was Leeds United’s goalie for much of the 1950s, produces a photograph of a wrecked building. ‘This is the house I used to live in,’ he tells me, ‘which gives you some idea of what happened when it got bombed and burnt out on the twelfth of March 1941. Buxton House it was called, my grandfather’s house, and it was in Wallasey Village.’
Wood, his grandfather and parents, his sister and brother Ronnie – two more brothers would arrive in due course – were taking shelter in the cellar when the bomb struck. ‘When I saw it four or five weeks later when we came back to the area – we’d been at my mother’s sister’s in Sale near Manchester – there was a great big dent in a girder above the cellar, so I’m surmising that the bomb had hit that.’
Others were less fortunate. An incendiary bomb coming down by parachute and blown by the wind hit a row of old people’s houses 200 yards from the Woods’ house. ‘It landed in School Lane and wiped them all out,’ Wood says. ‘They all got it, every one of them. At that stage my father was upstairs and got blown back into the house by the blast.’
Not far away from Wallasey, George Eastham was growing up with his family in Blackpool. He has slightly less fraught memories of bombing raids.
‘My father was in the Desert Rats in Africa with Montgomery,’ he says, ‘so it was the war that dominated our lives, not football. It was a case of: “Here we go into the shelters. The bombs are coming over.”
‘Nothing very serious ever happened, but you had to go to the shelters to keep out of the way. It was just a precaution. I think they might have flown over Blackpool on the way to somewhere else. Nothing fell on Blackpool. They must have known it was a holiday resort.’
For Dave Whelan, who not only went on to play professional football but to own a Football League club, the privations of war are what stick in his mind. These included basic essentials such as food and also being without a father after he joined up in 1939.
Whelan, who played for Blackburn Rovers and Crewe Alexandra before making enough money in business to buy Wigan Athletic, was three and living in Wigan when his father was sent off to Iceland, part of a force tasked with denying the Germans bases for their submarines in the North Atlantic. ‘I never saw my father for four years.’
‘Like everybody else I was hungry throughout the war,’ Whelan says. ‘All we used to live on was chips and pea wet, which was the water the mushy peas had been boiled in.
‘You’d buy fish, chips and peas if you could afford it. We couldn’t because my mum had four of us and was living on 19 shillings and sixpence [97p] a week. So we used to go and ask for threepence worth of chips with some pea wet on it. You used to get that in a basin. And that was basically your best meal of the day.’
Nearly every player who was too young to serve in the Second World War but was old enough to play professionally before the end of the maximum wage – pegged at £20 a week before it was abolished in 1961 – had eventually to submit to national service.
In McNamara’s case his club, Everton, actually saw to it that he was posted close to home so he was available for Football League matches.
‘Everton reckoned I had a future in football,’ he says, ‘and I wouldn’t have been much use to them if I’d been sent abroad, which was where most of the other recruits went. So they arranged with the RAF that I got sent to the Liver Building in the centre of Liverpool. I was given a desk job, paperwork and so on, distributing kit and other equipment to members of the armed forces going overseas.’
Sunderland did not indulge Stan Anderson to quite the same extent. But he was not sent far and, like a number of others, admits to quite enjoying national service simply because of the amount of football he played.
Based at Catterick with the Seventh Royal Tank Regiment, he says he played football all the time. ‘In two years I don’t think I did army training for more than a couple of days because I was playing football three or four times a week.’ As well as still turning out for Sunderland, Anderson represented the British Army, which he captained for a while, his regiment and the Northern Command team.
The Army team in the Fifties was more than just a random selection of good players. It contained several Football League players and had a fixture list that included trips to Germany and France. Anderson reels off a list of contemporaries who played for the Army that includes Duncan Edwards of Manchester United, Sheffield United’s Graham Shaw and Alan Hodgkinson, Jimmy Armfield of Blackpool and Phil Woosnam of Leyton Orient, West Ham and Aston Villa.
Tommy Banks, on the other hand, is quite scornful about the impact national service had on his career as a professional footballer. He could not step out of uniform quickly enough and get back to playing for Bolton Wanderers.
Initially, while he was working underground as a miner, Banks was exempt from being called up. After he surfaced to start as a full-time pro with Bolton, he lasted only a few weeks before His Majesty’s Armed Forces – George VI was still on the throne in 1950 – sought him out.
He was packed off to Aldershot to be drilled in the ways of army life with the 17th Training Regiment Royal Artillery, after which he volunteered to join the Parachute Regiment.
The Paras were also stationed at the Hampshire base and Banks, never scared of a bit of hard physical toil, watched admiringly as the men in the maroon berets were put through rigorous routines. ‘They were always running, running, running,’ he says. ‘They never stopped. Carrying heavy kit as well.’ He pauses before adding with a beaming smile: ‘It were terrible.’
But his ambition to join the Paras was thwarted because the army had other ideas for him. As a professional footballer he was barred from joining the rugby-playing parachutists. ‘You’re stopping with us, Banks,’ he was told. He was kept on to be a physical training instructor and play in the regimental football team.
Banks thought it was a very poor substitute for playing in the Football League. When the army offered him an extra twelve months’ service so he could attain the rank of sergeant – and play a bit more football – he was horrified.
As soon as his two years were up he caught the first train home to continue his quest for the one thing he wanted in life, permanent ownership of the left back’s No 3 shirt in the Bolton first team.
This is an edited extract from When Footballers Were Skint by Jon Henderson / @hendojon published by Biteback Publishing.