The longest season: Why the 1946-47 campaign dragged on and on

March 1947. The ice was so thick they planned to use flamethrowers to clear it. And the cold – the cold was like nothing they had felt before: bitter, cutting, almost arctic.

Trains went missing, lost in the snow, and buses were left stranded, the passengers forced to wait for search parties. It was almost spring, but it seemed winter would never end.

Snow had fallen for 55 consecutive days between January and March. There was no sign of any respite, no sign of a break in the weather. And for football, it soon became a significant problem.

The 1946-47 season had started as a celebration. Fans were desperate to watch football after the end of the Second World War. There had been none in Britain since 1939; a long, painful wait for those who had grown up used to standing on the terraces.

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In August 1946, long queues were stretched outside the gates of stadiums around the country. Attendances were up; supporters were excited. Football was back, a welcome distraction for the millions impacted by a devastating war.

Times were still hard for most football fans. Rationing remained a necessity and years of austerity stretched ahead. But they could now, at least, pass the time with something that felt novel, such had been the length of time without it.

There would be no outbreak of war, no interruption to the football this year. The clubs were ready, the stadiums were ready and the fans waited in their thousands.

***

Basil Easterbrook could hardly wait. It had been a long time, too long, since he had heard the roar of a crowd, felt the stand shake in celebration. All he wanted was to watch football. He wanted to be swept away by the drama of it all; he wanted to escape reality, just for 90 minutes.

He joined the queue, a smile across his face. Easterbrook was in his mid-20s, a small, perky, intelligent young man. He had, for the past six years, served in the Second World War. Sent off to fight at the age of 19, a naïve teenager soon to be exposed, like millions of others, to the horrors of war.

Easterbrook was still on demobilisation leave in August of 1946, but that didn’t put him off from a trip to the football.

“After six years and 22 days in khaki, there was only one place I wanted to be,” he said. “A Football League ground, any Football League ground. There were over a million like me.”

He did not have much: no car, no house, no television. But he had football and the prospect of a new season stretching ahead.

Easterbrook later became a sports journalist, working for the Torquay Times and the Sheffield Star, a regular in football and cricket press boxes around the country. He was highly respected by his colleagues, an authoritative voice on sport. And his reflections on the 1946-47 season provide a fascinating insight into its uniqueness.

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“The season’s fixtures were a complete replica of those which had been made for the 1939-40 campaign—a season which was killed off by Adolf Hitler after just seven days. This fact helped to heighten the illusion that we had taken up life where it had left off,” he wrote in a 1967 piece for Football Monthly.

“Ahead lay the terrible winter of 1947, worse by far to endure than a severe winter like say, 1963, because food and fuel were so restricted. Also, it struck late and with floodlighting still another dream of the future, clubs, barred the use of midweek afternoons, could not get the alarming backlog of fixtures cleared.”

As Easterbrook touched upon, there were no midweek fixtures. The government, eager to boost productivity in factories, decided to restrict sport to the weekends, despite the protestations of the general public. They didn’t want workers to be distracted in the middle of a working week.

“The moral effect on the people [could] be disastrous,” said Will Cearns, the chairman of West Ham and director of Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. “The whole idea is incredible. I believe that opinion against a midweek sports ban will be so strong that it will never come into force.”

But it did. Football would only be played on Saturdays and Sundays and this, combined with the brutal winter, led to concerns that the season wouldn’t be completed. By May, it was clear it wouldn’t finish within the usual time frame.

There was, then, a dilemma for the Football League. If the priority was to complete the 1946-47 season, it would mean running on deep into the summer and, potentially, pushing back the following season. That would cause more logistical problems.

It was suggested that the season could be abandoned, removed from the record books. Or, perhaps, games might be played behind closed doors to get around the ban on midweek fixtures.

The debate was uncannily similar to what is taking place now, over what should be done to resolve the season during the coronavirus pandemic. How that will conclude, at the time of writing, remains to be seen.

But in 1947, the choice was made to extend the campaign until 14 June. The fixture list was a mess. Liverpool, Blackpool, Middlesbrough, Manchester United and Stoke were challenging for top spot in the First Division, but they had not played the same number of games. The after-effects of the war made for some anomalous results too.

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“The standard of football and fitness was poor by present standards, in some cases appalling. Many great players would appear no more,” wrote Easterbrook for Charles Buchan’s Football Monthly in August 1967. “Some had been killed during the war, many had been overtaken by anno domini. Others were scattered all over the country and all over the world, retained in essential industry and in the forces.

“Consequently, clubs gave League chances to men who before the war and again today would not have been allowed to lace a boot in their dressing rooms.”

Some clubs were hit harder than others. And for some it was an opportunity. Stoke enjoyed the most fruitful spell of their history, though their title campaign was disrupted irrevocably when the great Stanley Matthews was sold to Blackpool in May.

By the (long-awaited) end of the season, it had effectively become a three-horse race to win the league. Stoke, Liverpool and Wolves were separated by a single point, but it was the Potters – because of the haphazard fixture schedule – who had the chance to secure the title on the final day.

But they were beaten 2-1 by Sheffield United and the trophy went to Merseyside. By then, it was mid-June. The days were warm and long and the promise of another new season was in the air almost as soon as the final whistle blew at Bramall Lane.

Just 70 days later, it all started again. The players had barely been given a break. After six years without any football, there was now almost no respite.

“That 1946-47 season,” wrote Easterbrook, “is another world away.” It seems, though, that we are living through our very own modern-day version of it now.

The longest season: Why the 1946-47 campaign dragged on and on
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