A long Shadow
At dawn on Friday 1st September 1939 the German battleship Schleswig-Holstein opened fire on the Polish garrison of the Westerplatte, Danzig (modern-day Gdansk), in what was to become the first military action in World War Two in Europe. Simultaneously, 62 German divisions supported by 1,300 aircraft of the Luftwaffe commenced the invasion and destruction of Poland. It would take the Wehrmacht just over a month to subdue Poland and the fate of the country was sealed when the Red Army invaded from the east in accordance with the Nazi-Soviet Pact.
A thousand miles away from the unfolding tragedy in Poland the people of Scotland awoke to find their country on the brink of joining a war which Treaties with Poland suggested they surely would. The Scottish Football League had been awaiting instructions from the Home Office on what to do in the result of the UK going to war and there was an initial period of uncertainty. League matches would go ahead until clubs were notified differently. Saturday 2 September 1939 saw Celtic at Home to Clyde in a bruising match which the Hoops won 1-0. Rangers played on that same day at Cathkin Park where they defeated Third Lanark 2-1.
The following day Britain and France declared war on Germany after the Nazis ignored their ultimatum to withdraw from Poland. Of course the Scottish league simply couldn’t continue when the realisation of what war with Hitler’s Germany would mean. The Scottish League suspended the competition just 5 matches into the season. Players’ contracts were declared void and many full time professionals were forced to seek work outside football. Those at bigger clubs saw their wages slashed and some earned just £2 per week. Hastily organised ‘Emergency’ regional leagues were cobbled together with the clubs in the west joining the Western League and those in Tayside, Edinburgh and Aberdeen joining the Eastern League. It was thought that the shorter journeys to away fixtures would save petrol. These leagues played games and various Emergency Cup competitions with no real break for the whole war. It was felt that some recreation might be good for morale. These leagues were of course unofficial as no team could claim to be Scottish champions when facing just half of the country’s leading teams in their league competition.
One of the great controversies of the time was the amount of professional footballers who received offers of work in protected professions which excluded them from a call up to the armed forces. This lead to the legend of big strapping men hiding out in the shipyards being born and it was not without some substance. The erudite Bob Crampsey in his excellent history of the Scottish Football League stated…
‘Both Old Firm clubs would be severely criticised for their microscopic contribution of leading players to forces. Of the 22 players who wore the first team jerseys in September 1939 and those whose claim to such was unchallenged, only Willie Thornton and Dave Kinnear of Rangers and George Patterson and Willie Lyon of Celtic would end up in uniform.’
It remains a touchy subject among those who follow Rangers that so many of their leading players of the era were employed in ‘reserved occupations’ and thus avoided the call up to military service. As Crampsey points out though it is nonetheless a verifiable fact. That being said Rangers and Celtic players who did go to war such as Willie Lyon or Willie Thornton were undoubtedly brave men who would shake their heads at the petty point scoring of a minority of modern fans who have no comprehension of the horrors they witnessed on active service.
If the Western League had one great failing it was that Celtic didn’t approach it with any enthusiasm whatsoever. Players had to fit training and matches around their other occupations which in time of war made great demands on them. Men would wearily pull on their kit after a tough shift and the standard of football suffered. Good players were allowed to leave and younger, less experienced replacements brought in. On one occasion three of Celtic’s excellent Empire Exhibition cup winning side played against the Hoops. Good players such as Matt Busby were stationed in Scotland but Celtic ignored them and they took their services elsewhere. The club initially ran with a squad of just 14 players. Willie Maley was retired and Jimmy McStay brought in to mind the shop until normality returned.
Bob Crampsey also alludes to an age old issue in Scotland and that is the standard of refereeing. There were some hotly disputed games in the war years including one which ended in a virtual riot and the closure of Celtic Park for a month. Crampsey said…
‘Many of the Press were uneasy about what they considered to be scandalously partial refereeing. There had been disputed decisions in Rangers favour in both matches (Cup ties) and when Dumbarton were equally dissatisfied with the handling of a league match at Ibrox, Waverley, a normally phlegmatic Journalist was moved to reply to a plea from Mr R Lindsay, Chairman of Dumbarton, ‘’You are right in saying that Rangers don’t want favours from Referees but they certainly get them. I appeal to the SFA to let it be known that so far as whistlers are concerned all clubs are equal.’’
The war years saw guest players playing for many clubs in order to help them field a team. Hibs started a match at Tynecastle with players named in the programme as ‘Newman, Junior and Trialist’ playing up front. Some clubs didn’t know until near kick off time who could make it and who was still at work. On one occasion Rangers travelled to Pittodrie for a cup tie and had to call on a player spectating in the stand to fill their ranks. St Mirren were fined for ‘under the counter’ payments to Jimmy Caskie of Everton and Leslie McDowell of Manchester City who turned out for the Saints while stationed in Scotland. Five St Mirren Directors were suspended from the game indefinitely for paying the English players.
A game involving Celtic and Rangers at Ibrox in September 1941 ended in tumultuous scenes when Celtic’s supporters took umbrage at Refereeing decisions against their team. A full scale riot ensued as the home supporters gave as good as they got. Undoubtedly the trouble had been started by Celtic fans initially but the press again alluded to inexplicable Refereeing decisions. Sandy Anderson of the Glasgow Evening News wrote…
‘Then came one of those dreary penalty awards to Rangers and the next thirty minutes was hard to endure.’’
Celtic Park was closed for a month following the scenes at Ibrox and the team played their home matches at Shawfield. Jimmy McStay, try as he might, could not convince the Celtic Board to take wartime football seriously. The club floundered as Rangers swept all before them with the core of their pre-war side still available to them.
Those days built up much suspicion of officials among a generation of Celtic fans. That so called ‘paranoia’ lingered down the decades and incidents became magnified and viewed through the prism of a Scottish society which was in places still hostile to Celtic and all they thought the club represented. My old man could rhyme of incidents and the names of Referees he perceived as treating Celtic harshly. From MC Dale to RH Davidson, they were, in his book, unlikely to give Celtic a fair shake. While there is some substance to his belief that the playing field wasn’t level, the fact that Celtic underachieved on a huge level in those years added greatly to the frustration of the fans and perhaps magnified the poor decisions.
The war ended in the summer of 1945 and a weary nation looked to football to entertain the masses and brighten the austere post war years. Crowds boomed and the Edinburgh derby would see 65,000 fill Easter Road. Pittodrie held 45,016 for a cup tie with Hearts and clubs all over the land saw crowds show up in record numbers. Celtic seemed unable to shake of their wartime slumber though and took years to build a side capable of challenging for the title. It wasn’t until 1954 that McGrory’s side captained by Jock Stein finally won the title; it was their first since 1938 and their last until 1966.
It was reported in the media this week that some Rangers fans would like the titles won in the unofficial war years to be added to their official honours. You wonder if they seriously believe this to be a credible claim given the fact they were Champions of a regional league in those years. To be national champions, a side must win a national league and unlike in World War One, such an entity simply didn’t exist between 1939-45. It may be that the fine Rangers side of the era would have won a national league but we’ll never know.
The argument that winning Regional titles in the sometimes farcical conditions of wartime football in Scotland could be construed as valid national championship wins is simply unsustainable. So too is any point scoring about players ‘hiding in the shipyards’ as both Celtic and Rangers had players in ‘reserved occupations.’ For some though, it’s all about sophistry. Winning the argument is more important than the truth. When it comes to football in Glasgow, the past casts a long shadow and old wrongs are not easily forgotten.
The game and society have moved on so much since those days even if a few who follow football remain stuck in the past.