Palace Struggled To Break Wartime Shackles But Formed Foundations Of What Club Is Today

The 75th anniversary of VE Day came at a time when we are all facing our own struggles that pale into insignificance when you consider what people had to deal with during the Second World War.

Just like today, much of the sporting world was put on hold but for very different reasons and for far longer than we are likely to experience during the modern day period of lockdown.

We can of course relate to a certain respect, but we cannot truly understand how people managed to cope in the face of such adversity. They did not have to cope with a lockdown, granted, but they had many more worries than we have right now which should give us enough context. There is very little in the way of comparisons to make.

In terms of Palace, Selhurst Park lived an extremely charmed life during the Blitz. A carpet of bombs landed around the ground and apart from one on the Holmesdale Road, it survived pretty much unscathed. There is a suggestion that it was not targeted by the Luftwaffe as it looked from up above that it had already been hit!

League football as everyone knew it back then ended with the conclusion of the 1938/39 season – the competition did not get back underway until 1946. The time in between it was suspended for obvious reasons with a Wartime League introduced.

Palace ended the 1938/39 season second in the Third Division South. They were runners-up to Newport County, just three points behind after 42 league matches and with a better goal average. The season culminated in a goalless draw away at Northampton Town as Palace saw out the campaign with just one defeat in eleven games. That was the last league match for the club until the competition returned in 1946 following the end of the Second World War.

After the disappointment of not winning the title, former Liverpool player Tom Bromilow left left the club after 118 games in charge to become manager at Leicester City. His replacement was George Irwin, a former goalkeeper who had played for the club in the twenties as back up to Jack Alderson. His playing career had seen him leave for Reading before retiring and returned to Palace as a coach in 1937, and he arrived in South London with some pedigree – he was assistance manager at Sheffield Wednesday who won the FA Cup in 1935.

Irwin’s tenure at the club was arguably one of most important as he saw out the wartime years where he managed the club through the Wartime League (1940, 1941 and 1946).

The Wartime League was announced by the Government in September 1939 so football could continue, but in a very different way. Travel restrictions had been imposed which meant the normal divisions could not be played, so the Football Association divided the Football League into separate regional leagues and in the interests of public safety, attendances were limited to 8,000, which were later increased to 15,000.

Complicating matters for clubs and an additional reason for not being ale to carry out the usual football league seasons was that a large number of players were called up to join the war effort, further depleting numbers and many teams had to forfeit matches even though guest players were introduced to help.

The Wartime League was altered regularly before the Football League was able to return in 1946, but Irwin managed to guide Palace to three regional titles in 1940, 1941 and 1946 during what was an exceptionally difficult time.

With the end of the war and on the resumption of the normal football calendar, Irwin took Palace into the post-war era and kicked off with back-to-back away defeats at Mansfield and a particularly heavy drubbing at the hands of Reading. That set Palace off on a run of one defeat in eight games but they never really found any consistency and followed that up with one win in seven games.

The run-in was particularly tough as Palace had to endure four away trips from the final five games of the season. They only won one of those, away at Aldershot, and ended up stumbling to an 18th place finish, a point behind Brighton and nine points off the relegation zone (clubs had to be re-elected in those days). Cardiff City were promoted as champions, finishing eleven points ahead of runners-up Queens Park Rangers.

That signalled the end of Irwin’s reign as he resigned from his position as manager. He stayed at the club as a scout until he was offered the managerial position at Darlington.

The club moved quickly to replace Irwin by bringing in former Belgium and Denmark manager Jack Butler. His playing days were spent as a centre back at Arsenal where he made over 250 appearances before ending his playing career at Torquay United. It was at Torquay where he had a brief stint as manager after his forray into international management before arriving in South London.

Butler did not fair too much better than Irwin, guiding the club to a 13th place finish before the huge disapointment of ending the 1948/49 season bottom of the table.

Palace jumped from manager to manager in quick succession until Cyril Spiers was appointed in 1954 and became the third longest serving manager in the history of the club even though he struggled to get Palace out of the doldrums. It was only with the revision of the league and the introduction of the Fourth Division did Palace start to improve.

Promotion to the Third Division in 1960/61 (Arthur Rowe) and promotion to the Second Division in 1963/64 (Dick Graham) came before the appointment of Bert Head in 1966 who guided the club into the First Division for the first time. To this day, he remains the third longest serving Palace manager behind Edmund Goodman and Steve Coppell.

The Second World War was not kind to anyone and had a huge effect on the world as a whole. It took a long time to heal the wounds and the toll it took on the population was incredible. The resumption of football took time but returned in the right way. There is no doubt that just like today, football was escapism for a lot of people.

The effect on the game was long lasting, for Palace it was especially true as the club struggled to find any kind of form for years until Arthur Rowe achieved promotion in 1961.

That signalled the start of some very interesting times and for the brakes to be released from the roller coaster that we have all become accustomed to as fans of this club.


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