Monday, 30 April 2012

Season by Season: 1938/9

Fred Hanley's groundbreaking signing in Aug 1938

In May 1938, just over a year before war broke out, anEngland side featuring Chelsea goalkeeper Vic Woodley, future Blue Len Goulden and the renowned StanleyMatthews, then just 23, all performed a Nazi salute in front of 110,000fanatics and an array of Hitler’s top brass at Berlin’s Olympic Stadium. 

Thepress at the time were more concerned with England beating the Germans 6-1, buthistory has hollowed the victory with the symbolism of that unnecessarypre-match gesture.

It is impossible not to view the events of Chelsea’s 1938/9 season as anything other than peripheral to far, far more important matters.Talk of a second world war was everywhere, and Germany had already “annexed”Austria at the time of England’s visit. Everyone, including the players,recognised the threat of another European horror story, especially with theGreat War still a raw memory.

Nevertheless football continued to provide a distractionfor the masses, and George Mills’, Joe Payne’s and Dickie Spence’s prowess infront of goal was one of the most enjoyable diversions. Between them they wouldmanaged 42 goals. All the more impressive because, as if recognising thefutility of investing heavily at that time, the Chelsea board had not carriedout the staff overhaul desperately required to shore up Leslie Knighton’sstruggling squad.

The most expensive signing was Alf Hanson (ominouslyrecorded as Adolf in some Chelsea histories), an outside left from Liverpoolnoted for his pinpoint crossing ability, but who weighed in with eight goalshimself. Knighton hailed him as Chelsea’s finest winger for fourteen years.

More interestingly there is the story is Fred Hanley,who arrived at the Bridge in August 1938 and is almost certainly the firstblack or mixed-race professional to be put on Chelsea’s books. The son of aJamaican sailor and a white Merseysider, discovered playing for Skelmersdale,young Fred’s talent excited his manager: 
“I expect much from (Fred) Hanley. I can see him shaping into one of the great personalities ofthe game.” Chelsea boss Leslie Knighton
The youngster was a success for the Londoners at reservelevel but his progress was thwartedwhen the benign Knighton was dismissed in April 1939. One of new manager Billy Birrells first acts was to transfer Hanley to Leyton Orient.

Over the course of 1938/9 the Pensioners’ away form inparticular was appalling, with two wins in the entire campaign. As a result, wewere reacquainted with the lower echelons of Division One all season, andavoided relegation (that would have lasted seven long years) by a single point.

As a rare respite, the Pensioners at last again showedan appetite for the Cup. Arsenal, with record-setting goalscorer Cliff Bastinnetting, were beaten at the Bridge 2-1 in front of 58,000, flame-haired JimmyArgue doing the damage on behalf of west London. Fulham were trounced 3-0, andthen Sheffield Wednesday, on the third attempt, succumbed 3-1 at neutralHighbury.

Enjoying the run, in February the BBC’s famous ‘In TownTonight’ made Chelsea FC its main subject, sealing the connection with West Endglamour.

Typically, heartbreakingly, we then contrived to lose0-1 to Grimsby in the sixth round – a week before slamming them 5-1 in theLeague.  Same old Chelsea.

In 1938/9...
Facts & figures: 45,409 watched us lose to Grimsby in theCup; 17,102 turned up for the League win.
League finish: A disappointing tenth.
Cup run: Reached the quarter-finals, losing to Grimsby.
All the rage: Praying for peace, dreading the call-up.

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