June 13, 2023 5 min read
The recent passing of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth caused the postponement of a weekend of football fixtures. Strangely, this did not happen in 1952, when her father King George died. Seven decades ago, who were the champions of football in Britain and which teams were struggling down in the Third Division (North) and (South)?
The 1951/52 season fell in those postwar years where association football had a surge in popularity. Manchester United, as discussed in a new book called From Kids To Champions, were benefitting from their policy of promoting young players and won the First Division. It was their first in four decades and cemented manager Matt Busby as an important figure in their history even before success in the European Cup.
This was the United side led from the front by Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson, who scored 52 league goals between them, as well as midfielder Johnny Berry and Johnny Carey. Berry’s career was ended by the Munich air disaster which claimed the life of his team-mates Roger Byrne and put his manager in hospital. At the time of writing, defender Don Gibson is still alive at 93; he married his manager’s daughter and, when she passed away, the pair were a few months shy of their diamond wedding anniversary.
Tottenham finished second, the season after their Push & Run side won the 1950/51 league title. Their XI featured future England manager Alf Ramsey at right-back and future Spurs gaffer Bill Nicholson in midfield. The Arsenal were in third: their team included Joe Mercer of England and two Scots, Jimmy Logie and Alex Forbes. The Gooners took the 1952/53 First Division on goal average having achieved exactly the same results (21 wins, 12 draws) as Tom Finney’s Preston North End.
Preston had finished seventh in 1951/52, a place ahead of Newcastle United whose away results were woeful, as was the quotient of goals conceded: in a season which would have impressed Kevin Keegan, they let in 73 and scored 98. They beat Tottenham 7-2, Burnley 7-1 and both Charlton and Stoke 6-0, all at home, but also lost 6-3 at Blackpool. They boasted the league’s top scorer in George Robledo, a striker from Chile who was the hero of Tyneside and was the goalscorer in the FA Cup Final of that year as Newcastle beat Arsenal 1-0 in front of a packed stadium.
This was the era of the ‘big number nine’. Nat Lofthouse was at Bolton, who finished fifth, edged out of fourth place on goal average by Portsmouth. Stan Mortensen was Blackpool’s centre-forward, scoring a famous hat-trick in the 1953 FA Cup a year after a top-half finish in ninth, two places above Liverpool. The international team, which included both Ramsey and future caretaker England manager Mercer, was captained by Wolves defender Billy Wright, who would marry Joy Beverley, one of the singing Beverley sisters who reached number six on the Hit Parade with I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus in 1953.
Everton, those Premier League perennials, finished mid-table in the Second Division behind several teams whose fans are able to buy branded drinks from this website. They include Birmingham City, Nottingham Forest and Leeds United. West Ham finished 12th while QPR were relegated in last place thanks to their hopeless goal average of 0.642; for comparison, Everton’s was 1.103. The league’s top scorer with a mighty 46 goals was Derek Dooley, who played for Wednesday but became a beloved figure at Sheffield United, serving on the board. Imagine if Harry Kane did the same at Arsenal after his playing career finished!
When comparing then and now, there are several things that are remarkably different. Players’ wages were capped at £20 per week (even less in the off-season), and the terraces would accommodate many more fans than could fit in an all-seater stadium of 2022. Boots were heavier, balls would retain moisture during the game and weigh a lot more at the final whistle than at kick-off. Most important of all, nobody could log into their Twitter account and demand that Arthur Rowe had taken Spurs as far as they could go, although they could write a letter to their local newspaper if they were so angry that they couldn’t go to the pub for a postmatch drink and smoke.
There was also no relegation from the Third Division (North) or (South). Darlington, Workington, Exeter City and Walsall were all re-elected, as was the custom back then, by other Football League chairmen. Merthyr Tydfil finished top of the Southern Football League for the third season in a row but only gained one vote in the election, despite scoring 128 times and winning 27 of their 42 games. In the North, Bishop Auckland lost only one of their 26 games, while Penrith only won once; both clubs compete in the same division today, with Auckland winning eight of their first ten games in the 2022/23 season.
Back in 1952, Port Vale would spend consecutive seasons playing different clubs in the same tier: they were transferred from South to North because two Southern teams (Coventry and QPR) dropped into the division which would have made the number of teams in the third tier uneven.
The likes of Barrow, Accrington Stanley, Southport and Bradford Park Avenue were all in the Third Division (North). In the Third Division (South), which was won by Plymouth Argyle, Watford finished fourth from bottom, two places behind Crystal Palace. Fans of both clubs who started going in the postwar era and whose grandchildren sit with them today must gasp at the distance their clubs have come from those gloomier days.
Up in Scotland, the 16-team Division A was won by Hibernian, the finest Scottish team of the era. They scored 92 goals in 30 league games and who only lost once before Christmas Day. The club from Leith, who would eventually enter the European Cup before any English team did so, contained three local heroes and Scottish international forwards: Lawrie Reilly, Gordon Smith and Bobby Johnstone. Seven decades on, these names are still sung at Easter Road. In a mark of the era, East Fife (who are now in the fourth tier) finished third behind Glasgow Rangers while Celtic were only four points off relegation. Poor Stirling Albion were the league’s whipping boys, conceding 99 goals, 12 of them to Hibs.
Today’s players may be quicker, pitches flatter and, at many clubs, fans more involved in how the club operates. In addition, every player is free to move clubs thanks to the work done by the likes of Jimmy Hill to abolish the ‘retain and transfer’ system, and of course not every team is made up of players from the home nations.
There is still much to celebrate in how football was at the beginning of the Elizabethan Age, which drew to a close this September. The new Prince of Wales remains President of the English FA, and England welcome Germany to Wembley Stadium on Monday night to remind fans that old foes can be united in kicking a ball on a field. Sometimes, the Germans fail to win on penalties!!
Have a browse of the bottles on offer from 22 clubs around Britain plus one international side and raise a glass to the late Queen whomever you support!