It’s a popular tradition among football fans to look back at the opening day of any league season and reflect on how the all pervading mood at their clubs on that day always seems to be reflected in the weather – which is typically dry, hot and very sunny. A seasonal metaphor perhaps, for better times ahead on that field of green?
A century ago, rather more prosaic fields of play were occupying the hearts and minds of Englishmen, vast in terms of their scale and significance. And if those mud infested fields had only been green for fleeting seconds, then those who were led to their slaughter in France and Belgium certainly were, raw of mind and fresh as a tender green shoot. Gathered as one into the greatest and most terrible conflagration in human history. Britain declared war on expansionist Germany on 4 August 1914 with thousands rallying to the cause, desperate not to miss any of the action – it was, after all, set to be “all over by Christmas”. With that complacency came the continuation of normal day to day living, and, a month later (one day before the First Battle of the Marne started) the English football season got under way.
The FA’s decision to carry on as if nothing untoward had happened was widely condemned. Other sports had long set the example football had been expected to follow. Competitive cricket and rugby for example, ceased as its players rushed to enlist (the RFU went as far as requesting that all its members aged between 19 and 35 signed up, even turning Leicester’s Welford Road ground into a recruitment centre), despite this the ‘gentlemen’ at the FA, led by their President, Lord Kinnaird, stood their ground, seeing no reason to disrupt its schedule, despite the fact that many leading professionals had wanted to enlist.
So, as the footballing die was cast, young men signed up to die.
Regardless of the metaphorical minefield that their players now found themselves in, Norwich City, then a Southern League side, kicked off their campaign as planned on 5 September 1914 with a 1-0 defeat at Cardiff City. The previous season had ended in with mid-table mediocrity – a 14th place finish – and progress was not anticipated, especially as the board had succumbed to the advances of Newcastle United and sold the club’s best player, goalkeeper Willie Mellor. Suitably encouraged by their Norfolk raid, the Magpies returned with another bid, this time for full back Billy Hampson. The fee paid for Hampson was not revealed by the Norwich board, but it was thought to be “well in excess” of the £765 received for Mellor, and, as a consequence, became the club’s then record sale.
Norwich fans lamented the departure of Mellor and Hampson as only disillusioned football supporters can do; the loss of the duo temporarily overshadowing those far bigger clouds that were forming on the horizon.
The gate at that Cardiff game was recorded as 5,000 – an approximate figure – but was at odds with the attendance for the same fixture the previous season, which had been 15,000. This trend of falling gates illustrates just how the war was affecting the game. The FA may have declared ‘business as usual’ but with players wanting to enlist and the hardcore male working class support doing just that, attendances plummeted across the game.
A crowd of 20,000 had watched Norwich’s game at Queens Park Rangers on Christmas Day 1913 – but just 6,000 attended the following seasons game on 17 October 1914; perfectly illustrating the loss to the game of support through the war and, more critically, showing where most people’s (if not the FA) priorities lay. Yet still the season continued, and still the FA resolutely refused to abandon the campaign to the war, citing that its presence helped “morale”. The question is, the morale of who? Certainly not the fans and most definitely not the players.
This understandable lack of interest in the game from its lifeblood led to many clubs experiencing financial difficulty. Norwich City were no exception. Clubs ultimately went into discussion with the Football League and players about reducing their wages. The fledgling PFA, which had a membership of only around 300 at the time, had barely survived a legal case it had taken up on behalf of one Herbert Kingaby; an Aston Villa player, who had sued his club for preventing him from playing. The PFA had been given erroneous advice in this case and lost both members and money. In the face of growing world conflict therefore they were ill prepared, or equipped, to take on the entire football league.
The Norwich City players agreed to take a 25 per cent reduction in their wages, with more to follow. The club manager, James Stansfield volunteered to take a 40 per cent reduction.
But football continued as normal. Players were now joining up but as swiftly as they did so the clubs found eager replacements. And, after having seen off the early criticism, the FA launched the latter rounds of its famous Cup competition; now just seven years short of celebrating its fiftieth year and already its flag ship operation.
Norwich, then a Southern League club, entered at the First Round stage, beating Nottingham Forest 4-1 at the City Ground; a result that raised a few eyebrows amongst the footballing cognoscenti at the time. The reward for that success was a prize home draw in the second round against Tottenham Hotspur, then in Division One and managed by Peter McWilliam; a three time FA Cup finalist himself with Newcastle United.
Norwich City’s FA Cup run was, as you can imagine, expected to end at this point.
After his appointment in the summer of 1910, Stansfield started to bring in players known to him and who he felt were able to respond to the challenge of lifting Norwich up the leagues. One of them, Jock MacKenzie joined Stansfield at the Nest almost straight away from Carlisle United and became a virtual ever-present member of the side. He made 158 league and cup appearances for the club in the time leading up the 1914/15 season, including a run of 90 consecutive matches between December 1911 and January 1914. MacKenzie ultimately became the first Norwich player to appear in over 200 games for the club and his final tally of games played for Norwich, 204, is a club record; the highest total appearances by any Norwich City player in non-league matches.
This longevity is all the more remarkable when the playing conditions of the time are considered. The game was very physical during this period; tackling your opponent for example, was seen as a way of removing that man from play rather than merely winning the ball. Matches were as regular as they are now. During that season, Norwich played 38 league and six cup games, including three games in four days over Christmas. Away fixtures presented their own problems into the bargain as, despite the league being ‘Southern’ in name and nature, some of the trips were to places as far afield as Cardiff (550 mile round trip); Exeter (700 plus miles) and, for one cup match, Bradford (nearly 400 miles) – and all at a time when there were no motorways. Needless to say, the train would have taken the strain – at some considerable expense and logistical effort.
MacKenzie dutifully lined up for Norwich City on a cold afternoon at The Nest. Conscription was still a year away and a relatively good attendance of nearly 10,000 was recorded – the largest crowd Norwich had that season. A little way down the road from Tottenham’s White Hart Lane ground was the Royal Arsenal at Woolwich; birthplace of Tottenham’s biggest rivals and, during peak times during World War, a place of employment for 80,000 people. One wonders if any of the club’s supporters there had made the trip to Norfolk, fully expecting an easy win?
That expected comfortable victory for Tottenham looked ever more likely when Jimmy Cantrell scored barely a minute into proceedings. Shortly after that things got worse. Joe Lansdale, the Norwich goalkeeper, sliced with some sense of comic timing a clearance behind him and into his own goal. Two down and Norwich looked down and very much out.
Norwich fans will know that their team rarely performs as expected. Losing games that we are expected to win, winning those that logic dictates that we will lose – and effortlessly throwing away leads and games that looked to have been won. The same rule applied then and, right on cue, kicked in during this game. With Tottenham two up and cruising, Danny Wilson delighted the home support minutes later to bring the score back to 2-1. And, shortly before half time, he did it again. We have already discussed just how much physical the game was at this time, Wilson proving the point by charging opposing goalkeeper Jacques, before calmly heading the ball that he lost as a result of the challenge into an unguarded net. 2-2. Game on – as they probably wouldn’t have said at the time.
Jock MacKenzie would have been loving this. As captain, he and Stansfield’s voices would have worked calmly yet passionately on the team at half-time. Stansfield, the considered and matter of fact Northerner, and the passionate Scot, working together – encouraging, cajoling, enticing yet more effort from tired limbs and minds that had ploughed through winter mud and ice a total of six times the previous month, and who were now playing their fifth game that January.
To have been in the dressing room on that day and in that time. We can but wonder. But, whatever they did end up saying, it was more effective than McWilliam’s best words. Norwich were by far the better side in the second-half and pandemonium at the Nest ensued when Wally Taylor scored the winner. The victory was one of the most unexpected yet in the trophy’s history and would, perhaps, have a greater standing in the game today had that season not been the last for four years. Norwich, a Southern League side for just ten seasons, had knocked out a team from the top flight of English football. It wouldn’t be the first time Norwich City caused a cup upset – and it wouldn’t be the last time they caused one in a game against the aristocrats of the Spurs.
Tottenham’s season proceeded into freefall after that result. Precariously positioned in the bottom three of the First Division prior to their shock FA Cup exit, they won just three of their remaining fourteen league fixtures and ended the season relegated in bottom place.
Norwich, on the other hand, used their unexpected success as a springboard to greater things. Nice thought.
Only three wins from their own final fifteen league games saw them finish the campaign in fourteenth place, their final points tally (36) being just one better than their total for the previous campaign. The run-in included a 2-6 reverse at the Nest against Plymouth Argyle on 17 April 1915. It would be the last competitive league game to be played there for nearly four and a half years.
When football did resume on a bright August afternoon at the end of August 1919 just two of the Norwich City line up who had played in that Tottenham game featured – Joe Lansdale and ‘Pompey’ Martin. James Stansfield had long gone, indeed, he eventually retired from football and went into the hotelier business. He was tempted back into the game by Norwich in 1926, but struggled to adapt back into football management, and left for the second, and final time, after just eight months in charge.
MacKenzie, captain and inspiration behind that win had spent the intervening years in Africa, serving in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He made no further appearances for Norwich in a career that ultimately saw spells at Hearts, Millwall, Newcastle United and Millwall. He died at the ludicrously young age of 55 in 1940, having fought through one war but not being fortunate enough to live to see the end of another.