The last pandemic was 100 years ago. But the effect on football this time is different

By Christophe Jost and Tony Attwood

History teaches us that often things happen that are a repetition of previous events.  And as a result, we can learn from the past and do it differently this time.

So it is reasonable to consider going back 100 years to the last time a pandemic swept across Europe – with the Spanish flu outbreak from July 1918 to  May 1919, and compare a little of what happened then, to what is happening today.

More than 25,000 people in Switzerland died from the last pandemic, a quarter of a million died in Britain, 50 million across the world.

In fact more people died of influenza in that single year than in the four years of the Black Death from 1347 to 1351.   This time around it could be worse.

Which means that talking about football in the midst of this seems rather odd, but football is primarily what we write about, so we’ll carry on.

In England, as you will know if you follow the daily posts from the Arsenal History Society, football kept going during the war, the 1914/15 season being completed, and then a wartime league being set up each season, with Arsenal playing in the London Combination from 1915/16 for four seasons.

Swiss Football League archives show that for football, the end of World War I was less a problem, for despite mobilisation and then demobilisation and the difficulties of importing what was needed (such as food, raw material, oil, coal etc) the season happened and was finished normally.   The Spanish flu hit Switzerland in two waves. In summer and then in the autumn.  The peak was around October 20th 1918 until mid-November. So both World War I and the Spanish plague were ending around the same time….

What at the time was called the Serie A in Switzerland (today National League A), had to cancel 55 games out of 70 in that peak period.

In England the major UK troop staging and hospital camp in Étaples in France is thought by many to have been the centre of the Spanish flu that was brought back to England by returning troops.

Between October 20th 1918 and mid-November 2018, in Switzerland of 55 planned games, only 15 can take place.  But in London, the records show that the wartime London Combination games began for the new season on 7 September 1918, and continued each and every Saturday afternoon without interruption.    Generally, the crowds were around 6,000 or 7,000 but on October 12 the home game against Tottenham attracted 30,000, and the following weekend the away game at Chelsea gained 25,000 fans.

So, aside for the big games, as the pandemic spread, each Saturday, between 5,000 and 8,000 fans attended Arsenal games home and away.  There were no ghost games (games without spectators) at the time.

In Switzerland there were no trains however (train being the prime way of getting to and from games in both countries) because of the lack of coal.  But in and around London, the overground and underground trains kept running.  The only effect on Arsenal seemed to be a run of just two wins in eight games, and just one draw, between 19 October and 7 December.

In Switzerland the clubs were very resourceful in finding ways to overcome all obstacles. They hired taxis, used carts pulled by oxen or horses, put players and staff on bikes…  Arsenal, just playing in a London League still had to travel, but no further than Millwall in the south, Brentford in the west, and West Ham in the east.

Meanwhile in Switzerland football pitches had been requisitioned, as the government had passed a law requiring self-sufficiency in terms of food.  In London the prime closure was White Hart Lane which was used as a testing site for the new Enfield rifles – hence Tottenham played most “home” games at Highbury.

Meanwhile in Austria the debate at the end of the war was about bringing in professionalism for players (who were all being paid anyway).  In England paying players during the war was forbidden, but they did get “expenses”.  In Austria, the talk was of building a national stadium for between 30,000 and 60,000 fans.  In England, the desire was for a national stadium housing 100,000 fans to be called The Empire Stadium.  Today we call it Wembley Stadium, and it’s since been rebuilt.

And of course, England had several other little matters to deal with.  Lt Col Sir Henry Norris, chairman of Arsenal and head of conscription (and later demobilisation) in the War Office, railed against the plan by Parliament to extend conscription to Ireland, but the act was passed in April 1918, and led to the start of the uprising which led to the partition of Ireland.

In football, the match-fixing antics of Liverpool and Manchester United over a number of seasons, and which finally had led to Chelsea being relegated, were still unresolved and it was not until 1919 that the League voted to elect Chelsea back to the 1st Division while letting Man U and Liverpool off, without even a word of warning to the directors (although the players were punished).  At a League meeting in 1919 Arsenal were elected to the 1st division, to complete the expansion of the League.

No one made any fuss at the time, or questioned the legitimacy of the vote, and all the newspapers the next day (even the local Tottenham paper) agreed Arsenal deserved the election.  It was not until 1946, 27 years later that anyone even hinted something might have been amiss – a falsehood still being propagated to this day by the anti-Arsenal media.    You can read the whole story of Arsenal’s election to the first division in the series Henry Norris at the Arsenal  Skip to the end of that page and you will find links to the articles concerning the election of 1919.

As we can see, people find ways to overcome hurdles, and within the massive challenges a country can face, organisations will always fight to survive.

Stay safe and take care of yourselves and your families.


3 Replies to “The last pandemic was 100 years ago. But the effect on football this time is different”

  1. The 1918 epidemic’s second wave had an effect on North American sports. The ice hockey championship, the Stanley Cup — donated in 1893 by Canada’s Governor-General, who then became the Earl of Derby — had its Finals canceled on April 1, 1919, when players on both teams got sick.

    Joe Hall of the Montreal Canadiens, one of the dirtiest players of the time, a few days later. Montreal general manager George Kennedy never fully recovered, and was dead within three years. In spite of this, the Canadiens bounced back, and have won the Cup a record 24 times, but none since 1993 — making them, I suppose, the Liverpool of hockey.

    Here’s the story:

  2. This is a football website so I won’t go into detail but…The Montreal Canadiens have never been linked to a match fixing scandal, so don’t compare them to Liverpool.

  3. This is a very serious pandemic, lets make no mistake about that but this pair of sentences needs some challenging:

    ‘More then 25,000 people in Switzerland died from the last pandemic, a quarter of a million died in Britain, 50 million across the world.

    In fact more people died of influenza in that single year than in the four years of the Black Death from 1347 to 1351. This time around it could be worse.’

    Plagues were a very regular occurrence in medieval and early modern europe and the BD was particularly virulent but there were far fewer people in the world on the 14th century. To give you a small example the population London was around 50,000, whilst today it is nearly 9,000,000. Even at the end of the FWW it was close to 7m. So you are not really making an accurate comparison.

    Then while huge numbers died in the so-called ‘Spanish Flue’ pandemic we have to factor in at least 2 things: the world had just experienced a devastating global war and there was very little in the way of any ‘national’ health provision. Indeed ‘modern’ medicine in 1919 was not very ‘modern at all. So far to date we have sadly had 115,000 register deaths across the world from CV-19. To reach 50,000,000 (given that China, the most populous country in the word, has seen no more deaths for a fortnight, and Spain is coming out of the worst of the spread of infection) there would have to be a massively drastic rise in cases in the next month, as we move into the warmer period of the year.

    Untold is a site that proves itself on facts and sensible interpretation of them. I think you might want to revise that mini paragraph lest it spoil an otherwise interesting article. Stay safe, stay at home.

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