No matches for six years, angry fans and club icons who paid the ultimate price - Ipswich Town’s unique tale from the last time football was shutdown
Before the current suspension of football caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the last time the game was shutdown was during the Second World War. And, as Mark Heath found out, Ipswich Town have a unique tale to tell from that time of national crisis.
While we’ve been without football now for three weekends and know the beautiful game won’t return until April 30 at the earliest, the last time the sport was halted en masse Ipswich Town didn’t kick a ball for six years.
Indeed, the Blues stood alone in taking that stance - the only club in the football league who didn’t play a single game during the war. It is a fascinating period in both the history of our nation and our football club, and one which deserves highlighting in these times of national crisis.
Hence, with the help of an excellent paper penned by Richard Mills - An Exception in War and Peace: Ipswich Town Football Club, c. 1907-1945 – at the University of East Anglia, and a delve into our archives, I’ve done just that.
It’s important, first, to look at the war which preceded the 1939-45 conflict, and without which there probably wouldn’t have been a Second World War at all.
The First World War had a deep impact on Town, just as it did the whole country, as a generation of young men were either killed or seriously injured in what was the first global conflict featuring modern warfare weaponry, machinery and tactics.
Ipswich were in the Southern Amateur League at the time, playing at Portman Road, and played three friendly matches after war broke out in 1914, the last of which was a tussle against Norfolk Yeomanry in January 1915. Just three days later, a fatal zeppelin raid on Great Yarmouth dragged East Anglia into the war.
The Blues saw Portman Road commandeered by the military during the conflict, and it was used for housing soldiers, storing wagons and guns and tethering horses. The ground wasn’t actually returned to Ipswich until September 1919, almost a year after the armistice ended the war in November 1918.
By the time Town returned to action in a friendly against Old Bancroftians on September 4, 1920, the club had paid a heavy price. Players Cecil Fenn, ER Pallett and Alf Liffen had given their lives, while Ernie Bugg, the club’s leading scorer in the 1913/14 season, lost a leg in the fighting.
As the EADT reported from that first match in more than five years: “It was quite like old times to be watching a match on the Portman Road enclosure, with the difference that it was an altogether new Ipswich Town which took the field. “Alas! the old team suffered from war casualties greater, probably, than any other local club in the Eastern counties.”
It was against this backdrop of loss and sacrifice, then, that the Blues – now professional, with Captain John Murray Cobbold as president – arrived on the eve of the Second World War 19 years later.
Town’s last game before hostilities was a 1-1 draw with Norwich City in Division Three South on September 2, 1939. The very next day, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain told the country that Britain was at war with Germany.
Just 10,792 people attended the game against Town’s bitter rivals, a match which had been expected to challenge the attendance record of 28,194 set against Aston Villa in January.
As it was, the looming spectre of war apparently put fans off. We reported in the Evening Star: “Even with the clouds of war threatening to break there was quite a big crowd to greet the teams, and although hundreds of Norwich supporters were unable to make the journey, excursion trains and booked buses having been cancelled, the Canaries were not without local support... Few people had brought their gas masks with them, but there was a sprinkling of boys in khaki and blue who apparently had managed to get time off.”
It was to be Town’s last match for six years. The Football League was suspended, prompting the removal of the goalposts from Portman Road, and the players received their last pay packets on September 2 – a clause allowing clubs to cancel contracts ‘on any reasonable grounds’ had remained since the First World War. Many took jobs at Churchman’s Tobacco Factory or Cobbolds Breweries, as did boss Scott Duncan.
The two games Town had already played – a 2-2 draw at Clapton Orient and a 2-0 win over Bristol Rovers – were declared void, as was the Norwich draw. Player appearances and goals were wiped from the records.
Just as in today’s crisis, the outbreak of war saw a ban on mass gatherings, and all football was duly suspended by the FA. On September 13, 1939, at a special meeting of Town’s directors, Captain Cobbold proposed that the club be closed down for the duration of the war. The motion was unanimously passed.
Notes from a board meeting two weeks later recorded: “It was also decided to inform season-ticket holders that because of the many interests involved no refund of their money could be made but on resumption of League football they would have special consideration.”
However, the FA and Football League soon changed their minds. Plans for a regional competition were finalised on October 2, but Town were one of just six league clubs out of the 88 who refused to play.
The Town board, packed with nobility and army officers, and led by veteran Captain Cobbold, apparently saw their patriotic duty to support King and country as more important than playing football.
That stance was not popular with fans, however, and, with the Home Office encouraging war-time entertainment and other professional clubs up and down the land organising friendly fixtures, anger grew.
According to Mills: “The Evening Star ran an editorial on the situation. It questioned why Ipswich Town was taking a unique path: ‘Is Ipswich alone to remain unaffected by the changed conditions, and by a quite unnecessary act of abnegation to rob thousands of loyal supporters of a means of distraction from their war worries?”
Cobbold though, was unmoved. Mills wrote: “A man... described as ‘a gentleman in every sense of the word’ clearly felt that football was not a priority as he prepared to rejoin his regiment.”
Town’s players embraced the war effort too. By March 1941, nine of the club’s players were serving in the Army, with an additional three on active duty in the Royal Air Force.
And so it was then, that even as clubs played and competitions continued across the country, Town remained steadfastly dormant. Portman Road was again used by the military, but this time for hosting football matches, with more than 20 games featuring Armed Forces representatives during the conflict. Ironically, even Norwich City played there three times!
Sadly, just as in the First World War, Town suffered losses again. Mills wrote: “In particular, Ipswich mourned the death of the most important individual at the club. In June 1944 chairman Captain Cobbold, who had become a Lieutenant-Colonel during the course of the war, was killed by a bomb while attending a service at the Guard’s Chapel in London.
“In addition to this monumental loss, club director Major Robert Cobbold was killed in action in Italy earlier in the same month.”
By the end of the war, only Town and Exeter City could claim not to have played any competitive football at all – though Exeter played three friendly matches against local rivals Plymouth. Town then, stood alone as not having kicked a ball.
Boss Duncan returned to his role – having secured release from his war-time position at Churchman’s – and the Blues finally got back to action at Portman Road in the autumn of 1945 with a Division Three South match against Port Vale.
They lost, but professional football was finally back in Ipswich – and a remarkable chapter in the club’s history was closed.