By Nick Watts
Having been suspended in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II, The League returned to action seven seasons later and the nation greeted it like an old friend. The public's appetite for live sport was insatiable and aggregate crowds for the first season back were in excess of 35 million.
Attendances continued to boom and in 1948/49, the all-time high was set at 41,244,295, at a time when the estimated UK population was just 50 million. The record crowd for a league match had come the season before, as 83,260 turned up to watch Manchester United host Arsenal.
Expansion continued to accommodate more clubs and their growing number of fans, with the Third Divisions including 24 clubs by 1950, pushing the total number of team to 92. By 1958 the split Third Divisions were no longer regionalised, but divided into third and fourth tiers and so the modern structure was established.
The Wizard of the Dribble
With many of the interwar stars now retired and the next generation having missed seven years of development, the quality of football on show was no match for the level of interest. There were some players that survived the unwanted interlude, however, and no individual captured supporter affection like Sir Stanley Matthews.
His career spanned four decades, beginning as a 19-year-old in Stoke City colours and ending at the incredible age of 50 with the same club. It was with Blackpool that he most closely identified, however, as the ‘wizard of the dribble’ wowed the watching masses with an exceptional talent for beating defenders that had to be seen to be believed. The only player to have been knighted during his playing career, Matthews set numerous records including the oldest man to play a First Division match and to score a goal. He eventually retired in 1965, a Football League icon and national institution.
Other stars of the era included Arthur Rowley, whose 21-year career saw him amass a record to make even Dixie Dean glower with envy – 433 league goals in 619 appearances. There were new heroes from abroad too, with few better illustrations than 1956 FWA Footballer of the Year Bert Trautmann. The former Luftwaffe paratrooper settled in Lancashire following a spell as a prisoner of war, but his on-field skills softened attitudes and attracted acclaim sufficient for him to become the first non-British player to earn the award.
Fulham's Arthur Rowley gets a shot away
Tale of Two Managers
If Herbert Chapman was the managerial giant of the 1930s, Matt Busby would pick up the reigns in the post-war years. Like Chapman, there was a hint of irony about his later success with Manchester United given he had spent his career playing for rivals Man City and Liverpool, but Busby made more impact in his time on the pitch.
In 1945, Busby was appointed Manchester United manager and with a crop of promising players, he helped elevate the club to a new level. His impact was immediate and four second-place finishes in five seasons was just the beginning. The title was secured three times in the seasons leading up to the Munich Air Disaster in 1958, in which eight United players were among the 23 people killed. Despite the heart-wrenching setback, Busby rebuilt the team almost from scratch and added two further League titles in the 1960s.
He did have to share the managerial limelight, however, as further south Stan Cullis was making history of his own at Wolverhampton Wanderers. Cullis admitted modelling his style on Busby’s as a player, but once in management the pair had very different ideas. Known for developing so-called ‘kick-and-rush’ football, the former Wolves player (he made over 150 appearances for Wolves) set about making his team a powerhouse of world football. Wider success was built on three top flight titles between 1954 and 1959, not to mention a European clash with Honved of Budapest – a team featuring the mighty Puskas – which they won and duly crowned themselves and The Football League the world’s best.
Manchester United manager Matt Busby with his players at training
Long after his passing, Herbert Chapman's vision of floodlit football was finally realised on February 22, 1956, when Portsmouth played Newcastle United in a League match at Fratton Park. The debut was held up by more than 90 minutes courtesy of a fuse failure but once corrected, it proved a big hit with the fans. Coupled with the white ball, which itself had only been introduced in 1951, evening games became synonymous with added excitement and were soon the norm across The League.
These matches meant easing fixture congestion in bad weather, but more importantly opened up new revenue streams. Having been appointed three years earlier, Alan Hardaker made perhaps his most notable contribution as Secretary of The Football League in 1960 by proposing a new knockout competition – The League Cup. Aston Villa were fitting winners of the first final, which was played over two legs, and it was only seven years on that the final became a one-off game at Wembley Stadium.
Television companies were also fond of midweek football under the lights and with ITV competing with the BBC, the income opportunity was plain to see. In spite of fears around damaging attendances, the first League televised match went ahead in 1960, with Blackpool v Bolton Wanderers the fixture to write itself into history.
Wembley Stadium under the glow of floodlights in 1955
The Maximum Wage
First touted in the 1890s as a means to combat player poaching, the maximum wage had come into force from the 1901/02 season and restricted players to receiving no more than £4 per week. While this had risen to £20 by the early 1960s, a campaign began to bring this restrictive practice to an end entirely.
Spearheaded by the Professional Footballers' Association, and in particular by Chairman Jimmy Hill, the case for abolition was taken to the Ministry of Labour. In a new era of commercial growth and televised games, there was more money in the game than ever before, yet players were not only subject to wage caps, but also to the ‘retain and transfer system’ which restricted movement even when their contract came to an end.
Both were now subject of an official dispute and with foreign leagues offering far richer rewards – Leeds United’s John Charles was alleged to have received a £10,000 signing-on fee when he moved to Juventus – and public opinion swayed by the likes of Sir Stanley Matthews, the players had the upper hand. Even so, it took the threat of strike action to bring the matter to a head. Having rejected League proposals to first increase and then abolish the maximum wage alone, the growing threat of a League campaign without its professionals saw The League concede in January 1961. Though the battle against the retain and transfer would rumble on until George Eastham’s High Court victory over his transfer from Newcastle to Arsenal, the maximum wage was abolished with immediate effect.
George Eastham outside the High Court in 1961
Players were free to negotiate their own terms and Fulham's Johnny Haynes immediately became the first player to receive £100 a week. The move did little to stem the flow of talent to foreign shores; Haynes’ England teammate Jimmy Greaves moved to AC Milan and in the same year, Manchester City became the first English club to be involved in a six-figure transaction when they accepted Torino’s £100,000 offer for Denis Law.
The English game continued to thrive, however, as Bill Nicholson led his 1961 Tottenham Hotspur side to the first League and Cup Double since Aston Villa's at the end of the previous century. Division Four winners Peterborough United were also worthy of attention given their incredible forward line – led by 50-goal Terry Bly – set a new record of 134 league goals. Bly remains the last player to have scored a half century of league strikes in one season.