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The season abandoned on the eve of war

As Europe stood on the brink, the 1939/40 season was abandoned after three games. Typically, the Blades were in prime position. Brendan Moffett chronicles the forgotten season.

The 48th English Football League season, 1939/40, kicked-off on Saturday 26 August 1939.

The Blades had been promoted the previous season, going up in second place behind Blackburn with 54 points from 42 games, pipping Wednesday to promotion by a solitary point! Jock Dodds (up there in the Blades Strikers Hall of fame with Doc Pace, Keith Edwards, Brian Deane and Billy Sharp) had been top scorer in 1938/39 for the fifth successive season, weighing in with 17.

A few days later, on Friday 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland. On Saturday 2nd September 1939, all divisions of the Football League still played their third and final game of the season. On Wednesday 6th September the English and Scottish Football Leagues held separate meetings at which both decided that all contracts between clubs and their professionals should be suspended, and thus “all organised football remains in abeyance” for the duration of hostilities. This meant that the 1939/40 football season was effectively ‘abandoned’ with most First Division clubs having played only three fixtures.

Normandy Invasion, 1944, US Navy National Archives

Typically, the newly-promoted Blades had got off to a flyer, beating Liverpool 2-1 at home, winning 1-0 at Leeds and drawing 0-0 at Preston. Sadly all results were declared null and void with players’ appearances and goals not included in their official career totals.

The Blades squad for that season included the legendary Jimmy Hagan and other iconic names such as Jesse Pye, Eddie Shimwell and George Jones. From what could have been a First Division Championship title tilt, what followed was a complete anti-climax. A series of regional mini leagues were created, United being placed in the East Midlands League.

Several players joined the armed forces or found work in munitions factories, and this left many clubs to field depleted teams often made up of reserves, juniors, trialists, guest players and even local amateurs. A significantly-depleted Blades squad eventually finished third behind local neighbours Chesterfield and Barnsley.

These temporary regional competitions then took place from 1939/40 for seven seasons as war raged, up to and including 1945/46. Fascinatingly, crowds at these regional games were ‘to be limited to 8,000 or half the capacity of the ground in question’, whichever was lowest. At larger stadiums, local Chief Constables apparently had the power to allow bigger crowds as long as they were all-ticket with tickets sold before the day.

It’s very hard to imagine a similar scenario having played out in the 2019/20 season, given the dramatic changes to the game. Today’s Premier League is a distant relation to that pre-war first division: it boasts the largest domestic TV Deal globally, with a number of packages shared between Sky Sports, BT, Amazon and the BBC for around 200 live matches per season worth circa £5bn for the three years to 2022. This is before any international rights; there is simply ‘too much riding on it’ .

Luckily, The Blades have been able to complete the 19/20 season, thanks to Project Restart. While we fell short of fulfilling our European dream, the good news for us Blades is that the incredible efforts of the staff and players this campaign will never be considered ‘null and void’.

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