With football currently suspended due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, Jeff Goulding looks back at the last time English football was halted in 1939 and tells the story of the Anfield game against Chelsea, played just hours before the outbreak of war.
The 1939/40 Football League season began under a terrible cloud. Just two decades after the last world war had torn Europe to shreds and robbed the flower of its youth, another conflagration was imminent.
Britain was preparing for the worst. The mandatory enlistment of men aged 20 and 21 had begun, bomb shelters were being built in London and trials in the River Mersey of the submarine Thetis ended in tragedy, with the loss of 99 men.
To the east, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler was gearing up to invade Poland and Britain was preparing to defend its borders. Against this backdrop, Liverpool Football Club travelled to Bramall Lane in Sheffield to kick off a season that would last just three games.
Within days, war would be declared, children would be evacuated from the major cities and the Football League would begin a suspension that would last seven years.
These three games have been expunged from the football records. They no longer count to football statisticians, but they happened.
This, then, is the story of a lost Liverpool campaign, and the Redmen who featured in it before leaving for war.
Travelling to Sheffield for that first game of the season, on August 26, 1939, were two future football managers. Matt Busby, who had become the club’s new captain, would go on to manage Manchester United to European glory, and Phil Taylor’s ill-fated reign at Anfield in the 1950s would pave the way for Bill Shankly’s revolution that spanned the 1960s and the early part of the 1970s.
In the Liverpool dugout was the Reds’ Mancunian manager, George Kay, who would lead the club to their first championship in 24 years in 1947.
The Scouser in the team was Jack Balmer, a bald-headed striker who played 309 times for Liverpool, scoring 110 goals. He would feature for the Reds in 101 wartime friendlies, scoring 64 times.
Jack was a cultured player, not fond of getting stuck in. His style of play may have been more suited to the modern game, and his perceived aversion to physicality, coupled with the fact that he was a former Everton player, may have contributed to him becoming something of a whipping boy amongst the supporters.
As you’d expect this was a Liverpool team that boasted a sprinkling of Scottish grit and flare. Players like Busby, Jim Harley, Jimmy McInnes and Willie Fagan made up the Reds’ proud Celtic contingent. However just two, Harley and Fagan, would still be at the club when the war was over.
Aside from Balmer, Liverpool’s Englishmen were Bernard Ramsden, Tom Bush and Phil Taylor. Making up the XI, and adding an international flavour, was a South African trio which included goalkeeper Dirk Kemp, the unpronounceable Berry Nieuwenhuys and Harman van den Berg.
Of the three, perhaps the most notable was Nieuwenhuys, who the supporters and journalists—who feared their typewriters couldn’t deal with the strain of spelling out his name—simply referred to as Nivvy.
Nivvy became an instant Kop favourite, his silky skills and ability to both create and score goals making him a hero of Anfield. He would score 79 in 257 appearances for the Reds, and would return after the war to lift the league title.
As with many of his team-mates, who knows what he and Liverpool would have achieved had it not been for the war.
Liverpool had entered into pre-season training under George Kay, with the motto ‘Clean, Clever, Attractive Football’. Kay had joined the club in 1936.
The season opener in Sheffield, watched by a decent crowd of 25,000, would end in defeat for the Reds thanks to a late winner by Jimmy Hagan in the 85th minute. Liverpool had fought back in the first half after going a goal down in the third minute, with McInnes providing the leveller.
The game seemed to be heading for a draw when United struck in the dying moments to take all the points.
There was little time to dwell on the defeat, though, as Liverpool had to prepare for the visit of Middlesborough the following Wednesday. With war just days away now, a crowd of just 16,762 turned out at Anfield to watch Liverpool run out 4-1 winners.
The goalscorers for the Reds that day would be Jack Balmer, Phil Taylor (twice) and Harman van den Berg. The Reds had been a goal behind at half-time, but a spirited second-half display gave the supporters who turned out something to cheer.
The players will have contested the match with mixed emotions and heavy hearts, and their minds would have been filled with anxieties about what the future held for them and their loved ones.
The Daily Mail reported on August 30, 1939 that all but nine players in a 29-man squad had been called up the day before to serve in the Territorials. They would report for military duty on Monday morning.
That would present the Anfield hierarchy with a huge problem. The league had not yet been suspended and they would be expected to line up against Chelsea at home on Saturday, September 2. With virtually the entire squad called up, Liverpool would potentially have just nine players to call upon for the game, which was played in front of almost 20,000.
However, dispensation must have been granted as the Reds were able to field a first XI with just one change. In place of Phil Taylor for the visit of the Londoners was a Scouse centre-forward, Cyril Done. He would score the only goal in a 1-0 victory. The Reds would finish the match with 10 men, though, with Jim Harley seeing red.
Lining up against the Reds that day was Alf Hanson. Born in Bootle, Liverpool in 1912, Alf played one season for Everton before joining Liverpool in 1931.
Having been signed directly from the Blues, he is part of a small and elite group of Merseyside footballers. Hanson played 177 times for Liverpool and scored 52 goals. He would also turn out for his hometown club as a guest during the war years.
The 1939/40 season ended around 18 hours later, with the declaration of war by the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, at 11.45am on Sunday, September 3, 1939. Many of the men who featured in that game would see active service.
Football would not officially return until 1946. Five of the men who lined up against Chelsea in 1939 would open the 1946/47 season with the Reds. They were Jim Harley, Bernard Ramsden, Phil Taylor, Berry Nieuwenhuys and Jack Balmer.
Interestingly, Liverpool’s first three games that season were a repeat of their last three: Sheffield United, Middlesborough and Chelsea.
Again, they would win two out of three, but they would end this campaign as champions.
Being able to perform under pressure is a pre-requisite for any professional footballer.
But how did Liverpool FC Women duo Sophie Bradley-Auckland and Christie Murray handle the Difficult Questions thrown at them during the latest edition of Kop Kids, presented by Joie Baby?
We invited a local girls' team to grill the Reds captain and midfielder, with topics such as karaoke, bucket lists and childhood heroes all covered.
And how exactly did Bradley-Auckland mix up the Roberto Firmino song with mascara?!
Find out by watching the feature in full below...
Our compilations of every Liverpool Premier League goal continue today with a look back on the 65 strikes from the 1994-95 campaign.
We're currently reminiscing on the Reds' hauls in each Premier League season, with new videos released every Saturday and Sunday.
Take a look at the YouTube video below for every top-flight goal Roy Evans' side netted in 1994-95...
Retro Reds: The Golden Hour will continue on LFCTV on Saturday night with highlights of four more classic Liverpool matches.
Each weekend we are delving into the archives to bring you footage of memorable Reds fixtures from the dominant years of the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s that you may never have seen before.
Episode three is packed with a quartet of notable First Division encounters and you can see them all by tuning in to LFCTV from 10.30pm BST this evening.
Here’s what’s in store this week…
Manchester United (a) – April 6, 1968
Matt Busby’s reigning league champions were heading towards European glory in the spring of 1968 but on a sun-kissed afternoon at Old Trafford they were no match for Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
Aston Villa (h) – May 7, 1983
On the penultimate Saturday of the 1982-83 league season, Bob Paisley took charge of his final home game as Liverpool manager and, with the title having already been clinched a few weeks earlier, the stage was set for a day of celebration.
Norwich City (a) – February 9, 1980
This unforgettable eight-goal thriller at Carrow Road featured Justin Fashanu’s famous ‘goal of the season’ past Ray Clemence and a clinically executed David Fairclough hat-trick.
Everton (h) – November 1, 1987
Just four days after being knocked out the League Cup by the Blues, Liverpool had an immediate chance for revenge. Three vital league points and the small matter of local pride were up for grabs.
Virgil van Dijk surprised Liverpool fan Ben Price on an online chat, in the latest heartwarming gesture by the club.
Liverpool’s No. 4 is no stranger to providing fans with a welcome surprise having delivered Father’s Day messages to dads last year and later meeting die-hard Red David, just to name a few.
And this time Ben was the unsuspecting fan on the receiving end when a chat with Liverpool’s Peter Mcdowall soon saw Van Dijk make his presence known.
Ben is a Liverpool Foundation participant who has battled with anxiety, and his work with the organisation has had a profound impact and has seen him take the plunge to make his dream of becoming a barber a reality.
But the recent government shutdown has put a temporary hold on his plans and at a time of uncertainty, Van Dijk was on hand to lift his spirits.
And after hearing Ben’s news that he was an expecting dad, he was quick to share his congratulations “on the most beautiful thing in life” before saying that “maybe one day [you can] come to Melwood and cut some of the player’s hair.”
The conversation which ensues is one which immediately puts a smile on your face, as the power of football and its form of escapism comes to the fore.
For Ben, and so many other fans around the world, Liverpool’s fixtures are the “bookmark” in one’s week and during the 90 minutes “nothing else matters.”
And Van Dijk was quick to admit that the emotion and the importance of the game is not lost on the players, with the feeling reciprocated as the fans’ support is “something we won’t take for granted.”
It’s another incredible gesture and one where Liverpool’s spirit of unity and community comes to the fore.
A Liverpool fan was given an unusual surprise earlier this week when a routine call about his participation in an LFC Foundation programme ended in a chat with one of the Reds' first-team stars.
Ben Price is a member of one of LFC Foundation’s targeted employability schemes, which seeks to help vulnerable and homeless young people get back on their feet. The programme aims to promote physical and mental well-being and provide important life skills – and it has certainly made a profound and positive impact upon the 23-year-old.
Since enrolling on the course, Ben has turned his life around and is hoping to realise his lifelong passion of becoming a barber and eventually open up his own shop.
The Wirral-born Red even cut the hair of a number of participants on the last youth homelessness programme – and has volunteered to help with the next street soccer programme to mentor those taking part.
He is expecting a first child with his girlfriend, though he is currently self-isolating in sheltered accommodation. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Ben has been benefiting from the LFC Connect initiative, which aims to tackle social isolation and sees LFC staff and volunteers calling members of LFC Foundation and Red Neighbours programmes for a weekly friendly chat during the ongoing crisis.
Highly regarded by everyone he worked with on the programme, Ben was identified by the LFC Foundation team as someone whose positive attitude, enthusiasm and story was something that deserved to be told.
So, when he dialled into a video call with LFCTV presenter Peter McDowall, he was given something of a surprise as Virgil van Dijk decided to join the conversation, too.
The centre-back chatted to Ben about his journey, his hopes and dreams and about forthcoming fatherhood.
You can see the conversation between the pair in our free video below...
Broadcasters will be able to screen Premier League games kicking off at 3pm live for the remainder of the season after UEFA lifted restrictions.
The English and Scottish Football Associations have been granted permission to remove the traditional 3pm blackout by European football’s governing body.
The move would appear to be another step towards matches being played behind closed doors in order to complete the season after the coronavirus pandemic caused mass postponements across league and cup competitions.
A UEFA statement read: “Taking into account the current exceptional circumstances, UEFA has lifted the ‘blocked hours’ protection granted to the UEFA Member Associations for England and Scotland for the remainder of the 2019/20 football season, following requests from the relevant National Associations as a result of measures taken in relation to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
It was confirmed on Friday that professional football would not return at the start of May, with a restart date being kept under constant review.
The Premier League and EFL remain committed to completing the 2019-20 season, with UEFA having warned that clubs in competitions which it deems have been cancelled prematurely may not be eligible to play in next season’s Champions League or Europa League.
Premier League clubs are also conscious of the financial impact that the failure to complete the season would have. It has been reported that clubs stand to lose around £750million if no further matches are played.
It was reported on Monday that a World Cup-style camp is one solution being considered by Premier League clubs as a means to complete the current campaign.
Clubs could gather in a neutral location to play out the remainder of the season behind closed doors, with only those personnel essential to staging and broadcasting the games allowed to attend to minimise the chance of a coronavirus infection.
The clubs remain committed to completing the season and are keen to avoid facing any financial penalties from broadcasters for failing to fulfil fixtures.
It has been reported that if no further matches were played, it could cost clubs £750million.
There are a number of difficulties with the idea, not least how to deal with the necessity to have medical staff on hand during a public health crisis, and how the format could survive even one positive Covid-19 test.
But the idea of multiple matches being televised on a daily basis throughout June and July, if the infection curve has flattened by then, could have some merit.
Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain thundered home a long-range piledriver against Manchester City two years ago today.
The Liverpool midfielder took aim from distance and then unleashed a venomous shot into the Kop-end net to put his side two up in their Champions League quarter-final first leg.
Enjoy Oxlade-Chamberlain's moment of brutal brilliance from every angle below.