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Football Foundation
Football Foundation
D-Day Anniversary – What Football looked like 75 years ago.

D-Day Anniversary – What Football looked like 75 years ago.

Date published: 06 June 2019

Press release


June 6th marks 75 years to the day since the Allies’ seaborne invasion of the German-occupied Normandy borders. In total, more than 150,000 allied troops descended upon the beaches of Utah, Omaha, Gold, Juno and Sword to begin the liberation of France, which would ultimately lead to the defeat of German forces.

The courage and sacrifice of the heroes that orchestrated the assault should never be underestimated and the D-Day generation helped light a great beacon of hope for humanity that has never since been extinguished.

During this period, football proved to be as much the fabric of Britain as it is now. Here’s how football played its part during the war.

  • Footballers join the war effort 

In this day and age, it’s almost impossible to imagine stars from the Premier League and the EFL being forced to swap their football strips for army uniform. But in 1939, after the outbreak of war, that’s exactly what was expected. 

Between September 1939 and the end of the war, more than 780 footballers joined the war effort with players joining the Army, the RAF, Navy and other war-related industries.

  • Stadiums were used as military bases

Similarly, it’s hard to imagine grounds like Stamford Bridge, Anfield and Old Trafford being used for anything other than sport, but this too was the case during the war. Football stadiums across the country were taken over by the Government and used as military bases. Arsenal’s Highbury Stadium also became an Air Raid Precautions centre, forcing them into a temporary ground share with North London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

  • But Football didn’t come to a complete halt

In spite of the disruption, football wasn’t abandoned entirely. September 1939 saw the commencement of the Wartime League which, alongside the Football League War Cup, spanned the next six years until the end of the conflict. The league experimented with 50-mile limits for team travel, new league formats and clubs fielding guest players to make up the numbers, amongst other rules changes.

By the end of the war, the league featured three regional divisions, League North, League South and League West and continued until 1946, when the league was returned to its pre-war format of four divisions or promotion and relegation.

  • Some used more guest players than others

The guest player system gave some spectators the opportunity to still see some of the country’s best footballers turn out for the club nearest to where they were based during the war. Putting a first XI together proved an incredibly difficult task at times, with Crystal Palace fielding 186 different players during the seven wartime seasons.

  • Growth of female recreational football


During the First World War, women’s football enjoyed one of its most successful periods in history, with numbers of spectators rivalling and exceeding the men’s game. However, in December 1921, The FA banned its members from allowing women’s football to be played at their grounds. 

While this was a devastating blow, many women refused to be marginalised and continued to play during the Second World War. Recreational football still proved extremely popular, with many munitions’ factories setting up women’s teams to compete against local rivals.

  • Football proved an important form of recreation for soldiers


To this day, Football is continually heralded for its positive impact on the physical, mental and social wellbeing of participants and this was no different during the war. Watching and playing sport was critical in keeping troops occupied and entertained, with inter-service and inter-unit football matches proving a popular form of recreation. 

The games allowed soldiers to forge strong links across units, improve physical fitness and provided a significant boost to morale, with soldiers able to escape the pressures of impending warfare.

  • Civilians refused to give up


Back home, football proved just as important to the morale of civilians. While wartime football had very few memorable moments – no invincible sides, no great rivalries and very few star players – this didn’t likely matter to spectators.

Indeed, despite safety fears, they still turned out in their droves, with the first War Cup between West Ham and Blackburn Rovers at Wembley attracting more than 40,000 fans to Wembley. Crowd numbers also steadily increased after the Blitz in 1941. By the time the 1944 final came around, attendances at Wembley had increased to over 84,000, highlighting civilian defiance in the face of potential danger.

Football provided people with an escape from their fears for 90 minutes every weekend and was vitally important in maintaining camaraderie.


Football provided people with an escape from their fears for 90 minutes every weekend and was vitally important in maintaining camaraderie.

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