1919 to 1939

Between The Wars
By Nick Watts

When The Football League resumed after the Great War on August 30th, 1919, it included an additional four clubs and made up two divisions of 22. The League's expansion continued apace and the crowds followed, relishing the camaraderie and escapism of football.

The following season, the leading clubs from the Southern League were invited to form a third division, which was split regionally the following year into the Third Division South and Third Division North. With one team from each division promoted to the Second Division, the two relegated clubs would be assigned to the more appropriate regional division, though Midlands clubs like Mansfield or Walsall would sometimes be moved from one to the other to maintain equal balance. In 1923, The League's membership increased again to four equal divisions of 22 clubs, which was maintained until after World War II.

After 15 years of debate, there was a notable change on the pitch too as the offside law was amended to reduce the number of opponents required between the attacking player and goal from three to two. This led to a significant increase in the number of goals scored, with the 4,700 strikes recorded in the last season of the old rule rocketing to 6,373 in the new law’s debut campaign. 

Supporters drank in the added goalmouth action but more goals didn’t always mean higher standards, as defences struggled to adjust and the likes of William ‘Dixie’ Dean forged grand reputations. Dean plundered a League record unlikely to be bettered in 1927/28, when his 60 strikes helped Everton to title glory and pipped George Camsell’s record set only a season earlier in Middlesbrough colours. 

Everton's Dixie Dean on the ball at Goodison Park in 1930

The legend of Herbert

In an era of expansion and innovation, it was one man who took up the task of expanding minds. Herbert Chapman, a former Tottenham Hotspur journeyman, had been pushing the boundaries right from his playing days – if not with his footballing skills but by sporting yellow boots more akin to modern times. Talent-spotter, organiser, motivator and businessman, Chapman set about revolutionising the role of manager and though many might suggest Sir Alex Ferguson is the greatest, the mould was first cast by a Yorkshireman at Huddersfield Town. 

Chapman joined Town in 1920 and in spite of limited budget, resource and enthusiasm amongst the club’s fanbase, he transformed The Terriers into a title-winning force between 1924 and 1926, before taking the magic touch back to North London – though this time with Arsenal. Another trio of consecutive titles, a feat matched only by Liverpool to this day, confirmed his legendary status. 

Invention and modernisation were the foundation of his then unparalleled success, as new formations with a greater emphasis on defending allowed his teams to combat the tricky new offside rule. Ironically it was a striker in Chapman’s ranks, Charlie Buchan, who pushed for a more defensive approach in an era when 2-3-5 was the formation of choice. It was only after a 7-0 thrashing at the hands of Newcastle that Chapman considered the new approach, but there was no doubt who perfected it.

Scoring goals was no less important to the Arsenal manager’s success, illustrated by the record sum paid to Bolton Wanderers for David Jack. At £10,890, his was the first five-figure transfer fee, but they would soon become commonplace as the market rapidly expanded. Chapman would go on to ask Everton to name their price for the irresistible Dixie Dean, but fearing the reaction of their fans the offer was declined. A rare failure.

Chapman was one of the game's first modernisers. As well as introducing new tactics and training methods, he championed innovations such as floodlighting, European club competitions, numbered shirts and white balls, all of which came to fruition after his premature death from pneumonia in 1934.

The Herbert Chapman statue outside Arsenal's Emirates Stadium

The Highbury model

Arsenal were involved in another slice of history under Chapman, as their clash with Sheffield United became the first match to be broadcast live on BBC radio on January 22nd, 1927. A simple chart of the pitch was made, with eight areas assigned a number so that listeners could follow where the action was taking place. Henry Wakelam then provided the running commentary during the First Division match, while a colleague called out the numbers alongside him. A year later the Gunners again played their part in another first, as they and Chelsea donned the first numbers on shirts in August, 1928. It would not become compulsory until some eleven years later.

They would not hold the record for most goals by one player in a single game however, despite striker Ted Drake racking up seven strikes in the 1935/36 season. That same season saw two players better that tally, with the surreally named Bunny Bell hitting nine for Tranmere Rovers and Luton Town’s John Payne going one better at the expense of Bristol Rovers. Payne would go on to score 55 goals for The Hatters the following season, a club record to this day. Meanwhile, Tranmere were the victors in the League’s highest scoring game, hammering Oldham Athletic 13-4 in Division 3 North on Boxing Day, 1935.

Such records mattered little in an era of domination for Arsenal, who even after Chapman’s untimely passing continued to swell the trophy cabinet, winning the Division 1 title five times and the FA Cup twice in all. Their dominance provoked widespread dislike among opposing fans and in rival boardrooms, but the Highbury club’s model was duly copied and helped drive the game forward. 

The Gunners could not lay sole claim to success in the 1930s, however, with the ‘team of boys’ at West Bromwich Albion winning a unique double unlikely to be repeated as they topped the Second Division and won the FA Cup in 1931. Led by Dixie Dean’s unparalleled scoring prowess, Everton also enjoyed a streak of silverware that took in title victories in the top two divisions and the cup in three successive seasons. Man City and Sunderland also enjoyed league and cup triumphs.

Everton's Dixie Dean holds up the FA Cup

Tale of two wars

The Great Depression defined the 1930s and football provided a welcome escape. By this time the Pools had firmly established itself as part of the Saturday ritual for thousands of fans, having been born in the previous decade.

First handed out at Old Trafford in 1923, the coupons gained a huge customer base, with life-changing winnings available in exchange for a small sum. There were wider benefits too, with the Post Office benefitting from an abundance of payments by postal order and taxation on winnings keeping government onside.

While it was hugely popular with supporters, the footballing authorities had long been unimpressed and in 1936, they launched the infamous Pools War in an effort to shut the operators down. Moral objections and fears that betting would corrupt the game had been simmering for some time, to the extent that two-years prior a Football League committee had refused to sanction an opportunity to begin taking a share of pools company’s profits. Presented by Watson Hartley, the idea was revisited in 1935 when the Liverpool accountant returned with the concept that as owners of the fixture list, The League should charge newspapers, sports publications and pools companies for the right to use them. 

Rather than achieve his goal, Hartley only succeeded in giving the committee a means to take on their nemesis. Having received assurances over their legal right to copyright, it was League President Charles Sutcliffe who proposed the advantage be used to eradicate betting on the sport, by initially withholding fixtures until the last possible moment and thereby crippling the ability to produce coupons in advance. 

The first weekend this was enforced was Saturday, 29th February but secrecy proved difficult to maintain and newspapers managed to publish full fixture lists. Attendances suffered enormously and with clubs damaged more than the pools providers, the ‘war’ was swiftly brought to an end within a fortnight. It would take more than twenty years for The Football League to be legally granted copyright for the fixture list.

Set against a backdrop of Nazi Germany re-entering the Rhineland, however, it was not long before the debate over gambling on football paled into insignificance. A month into the 1939/40 season, it was time for football to take a back seat.