Written by John White for Manchester United Did You Know That
On 6 May 1939, Manchester United beat Liverpool 2-0 at Old Trafford in the English First Division thanks to two goals from their leading goal scorer in the season, Jimmy Hanlon, 12 goals in all competitions. A certain Matt Busby played at right-half for Liverpool in the game, his 122nd and last ever game for the Merseyside club (he scored 3 goals). Indeed, it was his final competitive game. Only 12,000 fans turned up to watch the game as Salford were playing Halifax in the 1939 Rugby Challenge Cup final at Wembley Stadium, London that same day. Salford lost the game 20-3 before a crowd of 55,453 fans.
United ended the 1938-39 campaign in 14th place in the table which was won by Everton, their fifth English crown.
United went into the 1939-40 season with hopes of winning their first League Championship since 1910-11, and possibly a second FA Cup success following their 1909 victory. Walter Crickmer, the Manchester United club Secretary, was still in charge of first team affairs whilst his eventual successor, Matt Busby, was playing for Liverpool after joining them from Manchester City in 1936. Busby joined City from Denny Hibernian on 11 February 1928 on a one-year contract which paid the 18-year old boy from Bellshill, Scotland £5.00 per week. Prior to moving to Manchester to embark on a career as a professional footballer, Busby was working full-time as a collier at his local coal mine and at the weekends he played amateur football for his hometown Stirlingshire club, Denny Hibernian.
Although United had only achieved a placing of 14th in the 1938-39 First Division, there was more than an air of optimism at the club that season 1939-40 would be a successful one. A number of youngsters had progressed from the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJAC), the name given to Manchester United’s Youth Team many years before the term “The Busby Babes” was first used, including Johnny Carey, Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson. All three had made their first team debuts in season 1937-38 helping United to runners-up spot in the Second Division and promotion to the top flight, and going into the 1939-40 season, all three were aged just 20. The future looked bright, bright red. To confirm the optimism held by Crickmer and his coaching staff, in season 1937-38, Manchester United won the Central League Championship for the first time in 18 years, the club’s “A” Team lifted the Manchester League title and the youngsters, MUJAC, won the Chorlton League. United also won the Manchester Senior Cup
On the opening day of the 1939-40 season, Manchester United defeated Grimsby Town 4-0 at Old Trafford on 26 August 1939, and four days later they drew 1-1 with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, London. United were back in the capital three days later when they lost 2-0 at The Valley to Charlton Athletic. It would be 49 days before United would play again, a 4-0 home loss to Manchester City at Old Trafford on 21 October 1939, but by this time, the world had changed immensely, and for the first time in 21 years, the world was once again at war. Nazi Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, which resulted in France and the United Kingdom declaring war on Germany.
The 4-0 loss to their neighbours was the first of 25 games the club played in the War Regional League (Western Division) as the Football League had suspended English League football following Britain’s declaration of war against Nazi Germany. The dreams of many young promising players up and down the country earning a living as a professional footballer were shattered as a result of League football being suspended until the hostilities ended. United finished fourth in the War Regional League (Western Division). Games 26-29 of the 1939-40 season, were classified as War League Cup games as the FA Cup was also suspended as a result of the ongoing atrocities in Europe. Portsmouth beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 4-1 in the 1939 FA Cup final at Wembley Stadium, London.
In season 1940-41, United played 35 games. Games 1-19 were in the North Regional League First Competition. Games 20 and 21 were League War Cup matches, a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford with Everton on 15 February 1940 and a 2-1 defeat to the same opponents at Goodison Park, Liverpool the following Saturday. Games 22-35 were in the North Regional League Second Competition. A total of 36 teams played in the League with the final League positions decided on goal average. No points were awarded for a win or a draw. Manchester United finished 7th in the table. During the season, United were to play Blackburn Rovers at Old Trafford on 28 December 1940. However, on the nights of 22 & 23 December 1940, the German Luftwaffe carried out an aerial bombing of Manchester, Salford and Trafford Park which became known as “The Manchester Blitz.” The British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, said: “Hitler did his worst, and Mancunians did their best.” The game was played at a neutral venue, Stockport County’s Edgley Park ground, which proved lucky for the Reds as they walloped Blackburn Rovers 9-0 with John “Jack” Smith netting five goals.
Then on the nights of 11 & 12 March 1941, just a few days after United whacked Bury 7-3 at Old Trafford (Johnny Carey & Jack Rowley both scored a hat-trick), Hitler’s bombers were back over the city and dropped tonnes of bombs on the Trafford area which demolished the stands at Old Trafford and destroyed the pitch. Carey later recalled the bombing: “On the Tuesday I had just finished a 12-hour shift working overnight at Metrovicks in Trafford Park when I was riding home on my bike, and in the distance a huge ball of flame was hovering over the old ground. It not only did not look good, but would see the end of first team football for seven years.” United’s Irish international was quite correct as the club were forced to play their remaining League games of the season (and for the following 8 years) at the home of their neighbours, Manchester City’s Maine Road ground. On 14 April 1941, United were “away” to Manchester City and hammered them 7-1 on their own turf, with Jack Rowley scoring four times. It was City’s heaviest home defeat since Maine Road was opened in 1923.
The 1941-42 season saw United play 37 matches with the season split into two League Championships. Games 1-18 were played in the Football League Northern Section (First Championship) with United finishing in fourth position. Games 19-37 were for the Football League Northern Section (Second Championship) which United won. In the Second Championship points were calculated on 23 games and the results also included games played in the League War Cup Qualifying and Knockout Rounds plus Regional Cup games, in United’s case the Lancashire Cup.
The two Leagues in one season continued for the next three seasons with mixed fortunes for United. In season 1942-43 they ended the campaign in fourth and sixth places respectively in the table. The following season, 1943-44, brought a runners-up place in the First Competition and a 9th place finish in the Second Competition. Season 1944-45, saw United finish the first half of the campaign in an embarrassing 30th place followed by a 9th place end to the second half of the season. However, the club did reach the 1945 North Cup final but lost 3-2 over two legs to Bolton Wanderers which was played home (Maine Road) and away (Burnden Park, Bolton). The final season of the War League was contested in 1945-46, with Manchester United finishing in a respectable fourth place in the Football League North under the leadership of their new manager, Matt Busby.
During the war, footballers would guest for clubs wherever they were stationed at that time. Whilst serving in the British Army, Johnny Carey guested for Middlesbrough, Cardiff City, Manchester City, Shamrock Rovers, Everton and Liverpool.
The 1946-47 season saw a return to the English First and Second Division Championships.
Did You Know That?
Despite the Second World War, on 16 September 1939, Manchester United played Bolton Wanderers. This was the club’s first ever friendly game. At the start of the war part of the premises at Old Trafford and at the club’s Cliff Training Ground at Lower Broughton, Manchester were taken over by the military and the Royal Air Force respectively. Just as in the First World War, the fighting in Europe claimed the lives of Manchester United senior and reserve team players: Francis Carpenter was killed during the retreat to Dunkirk, being listed as missing; George Curliss was flying from RAF Kelstern in Lincolnshire when his aircraft disappeared on a bombing raid of the Kiel Canal in northern Germany. The squadron war diary recorded “no contact” from his plane whilst it was his very first ever mission; Frederick Okoro was killed in action on 2 November 1942 and Hubert Redwood died of tuberculosis on 28 September 1943. George Gladwin was injured so badly in 1942 that his football career was prematurely ended and Allenby Chilton was wounded but not seriously. Walter Spratt represented Manchester United 12 times during the First World War having signed for the club from Brentford in early 1915 and played only one game after the conflict ended. During the Second World War he was living in London and working in Southwark as a dispatcher for Mosers and was among 35 people killed by a German V2 rocket attack on Southwark on 22 January 1945.