The English football season was played with a frown this year. War had broken out across Europe in the summer of 1914.
With dreadful reports of battlefield carnage in the daily papers and horror stories passed on by the war weary on leave, many felt that such a trivial exercise should be suspended. Others wished to retain the sport as a necessary diversion. At the outbreak of war, Chelsea’s directors expressed the view that “football will be played as far as possible.”
In a show of solidarity with the war effort, though, they arranged for a percentage of takings to be donated to the Prince of Wales’s war fund – a facet of the regime since its outset, and a hangover from the Victorian belief in charity. A 1-1 draw with Spurs also benefited “dependants of those who had joined the forces from the Tube, Tramway and Omnibus companies” to the tune of £200.
The club also dispatched 50 footballs off to various parts of the war front.
Millions had rallied to Lord Kitchener’s appeal for volunteers; many were drawn from the terraces and locker rooms of football. Never the less matchday recruitment drives at stadiums including Stamford Bridge were met with apathy.
In response, the British establishment began a furious campaign of shame directed against the game and its supporters, and Chelsea stars Viv Woodward and local Harry Ford were among the first 'Chelsea Die-Hards' to join the 17th Middlesex Regiment, the 'Footballers' Battalion.'
Not that the entrepreneurialism of JT Mears (brother of the late founder, and new owner of Stamford Bridge) was completely curtailed. An application for a liquor licence at the Bridge in February 1915 was wrathfully rejected by local magistrate John Grey on the grounds that “I do not like to give facilities for entertainment to football at this time.” Considering JT (host of the Swan in Richmond) and the two Janeses on the Chelsea board were licensed victuallers, this must been quite a blow.
The voice from the trenches, meanwhile, was strongly in favour of football continuing. Hundreds of letters were received on the Fulham Road asking how Chelsea were faring and passing on their best. One wrote: 'The troops (well the Londoners anyway) nearly went dotty when they heard of Chelsea's victory over Newcastle. It interested the Tommies far more than any war could.'
On the field Chelsea’s League form was as depressed as the national mood. Had the league not been suspended at the end of the season Chelsea would have been relegated.
Yet the Cup provided rare moments of joy for fans at home and in the trenches. Servicemen, some as prisoners-of-war, had keen letters of support published in the Chelsea programme as the Pensioners saw off Swindon, Arsenal, Man City, Newcastle and Everton on the way to meeting Sheffield United in the FA Cup Final in April 1915.
“The nation is engaged in a huge conflict, and has sons of Empire in action in six or seven different parts of the world. But those who are in our island will rest awhile today” The Sporting Chronicle, on the morning of the 1915 FA Cup finalIt said that so many of those who attended football at the time wore army uniforms that it was dubbed the 'Khaki Final.' Eyewitness reports barely mention the fact, though: they draw more attention to the dismal, foggy drizzle.
The venue was Old Trafford, with wartime travel restrictions imposed, and it was a wet and windy welcome for the Blues fans who had struggled north for the occasion.
History records Fred Taylor as the first skipper of a Chelsea team at a cup final - quite some achievement for a club that had not existed ten years earlier. Lieutenant Vivian Woodward had been given special leave to play but on the day of the game, in typically gentlemanly fashion, he stepped down in favour of Bob McNeil, whose goals had propelled the Pensioners there.
Sheffield United ran out easy 3-0 winners. In handing out the medals, Lord Derby caught the mood with a speech noting that “the clubs and players had seen the cup played for, and it was now the duty of everyone to join with each other and play a sterner game for England.”
Facts and figures: Chelsea estimated 200,000 supporters would have tried to go had the final been in London
Cup run: Runners-up
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