Do these supporters know the relationship between war and sport?

JONATHAN McEVOY: As they gather to ‘defend’ the Cenotaph, do these ‘football supporters’ really know the complex relationship between war and sport?

  • Sport’s path should be to act as a balm, rather than a vessel for aggravation
  • Mail Sport exclusively revealed hooligans are planning to ‘protect’ the Cenotaph 
  • DOMINIC KING: I don’t understand what football is anymore – It’s All Coming Up

There are two ways of doing this. Two ways of showing some consideration for the dead of the world wars of the last century and other conflicts.

Sport, by observing silences before matches and by the wearing of poppies, demonstrates how it can and should be done. Plans, revealed in these pages, for a thousand football hooligans to ‘team up’ to ‘protect’ the Cenotaph from pro-Palestine protesters this weekend, detail how not to do it.

Specifically, as Mail Sport reported, moves are afoot for over-zealous nationalists to descend on the capital this weekend. No matter where one’s sympathies lie, it is clear these actions inflame antagonism at a delicate stage in world affairs.

Frankly, it sounds like any excuse for a ruck and those of you who have ever attended football matches have seen this kind of thuggery break out at a thousand railway stations. Sport’s intended role, at the risk of sounding naive, should be to act as balm, as a way of channelling innate urges, not as aggravation.

Football’s stance cannot be hidden from public view, however much the bureaucrats running the game would like to believe it possible. That much was illustrated last month when the FA refused to commemorate the brutal murder of Israelis by Hamas by lighting the Wembley arch.

Mail Sport revealed that hooligans are planning to ‘team up’ and ‘protect’ the Cenotaph in London

The decision had been taken not to light up the Wembley arches in honour of the Israeli dead after a Hamas attack

Plans for fans to flock to the protection of the Cenotaph memorial exemplify how not to show consideration for the dead of the world wars of the last century and other conflicts

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They were rightly dubbed ‘spineless’ and ‘weak’ for the omission, when they had marked the invasion of Ukraine, terror attacks in Paris and Pele’s death in such a manner. In fact, they banned anyone from wearing Israel kits or bringing in Israeli flags for England’s friendly against Australia. How much this played into the hands of the far-right is not difficult to understand.

One group, named ‘Football Lads Against Extremism’, claims veterans have reached out and asked for their support

‘Twice in a single generation,’ said Winston Churchill in his speech to the US Congress, ‘the catastrophe of world war has fallen upon us.’

Sport, sometimes too slowly, answered those calls. We all know a bit of this by looking at the honours board at our local sports clubs and seeing the blanks for the years 1939-1945, as the lifeblood of the nation was redirected from games to a more serious calling, namely war.

Not that this was uncomplicated. For example, it has always been my belief that English football was denuded of an entire cast of potential champions by our national sport’s tin-eared decision to play on for a long period during the Great War of 1914-1918, as the manhood of Britain fought and died.

Several schools, then the cradle of sport as it grew into an organised recreation across the world, disaffiliated themselves from football and signed up for rugby.

But on how football was damaged by losing forever a swathe of society, you might reasonably ask how well rugby has fared since. Just one World Cup triumph in the most lavishly funded union in the world, is the answer. So two fingers to that theory!

Anyway, time to bring in Field Marshal Lord Roberts, the Victorian who said, in almost his final utterance on August 29, 1914: ‘How very different is your action to that of the men who can still go on with their cricket and football, as if the very existence of the country were not at stake! This is not the time to play games, wholesome as they are in times of piping peace. We are engaged in a life and death struggle.’

This was a call to the 1,600-strong battalion of Royal Fusiliers, comprising businessmen from the City of London, not long after Lord Kitchener urged: ‘Your Country Needs YOU!’

A march calling for a ceasefire in the war in Gaza is planned for Remembrance Day on Saturday

The war in Gaza broke out after Hamas terrorists killed 1,400 people in Israel and took more than 200 hostages

Pro-Palestine protestors had graffitied a war memorial in Rochdale on Tuesday evening

The move to bring in sportsmen intensified in early September of that year with the assistance of Arthur Conan Doyle. An amateur footballer in his youth and an MCC member, the Sherlock Holmes author showed his detective instinct by urging: ‘If the cricketer had a straight eye, let him look along the barrel of a rifle. If a footballer had strength of limb, let them serve and march in the field of battle.’

The cry was answered. Of 5,000 professional footballers, more than 2,000 went to war. Several hundred died.

Tottenham staff signed up and 11 perished. Newcastle lost seven men. Hearts paid a terrible price on the first day of the Somme, that most awful of dawns on July 16, 1916. Harry Wattie, Duncan Currie and Ernie Ellis all fell. Crushingly, Paddy Crossan was put down for a leg amputation. He begged his surgeon: ‘I need my legs, I’m a footballer.’ He died aged 22.

Leyton Orient lost three players and West Ham five. The story was widespread, from north to south, and not confined to football. One in six professional cricketers who went to war died.

One of those who perished was Colin Blythe, a brilliant left-arm spinner. He had taken 100 wickets in 19 Tests. Shell-fire on a railway line during the Battle of Passchendaele did for him on November 8, 1917.

Rugby union, which was perceived to have had a ‘good war’, saw England captain Ronnie Poulton-Palmer killed by a sniper in 1915. Twenty-seven England internationals lost their lives, 30 Scottish and 11 Welsh.

Left-arm spinner Colin Blythe took 100 wickets in 19 Tests with one in six professional cricketers that went to war dying

Ronnie Poulton-Palmer (fourth left front row) was the captain of the England Rugby team, but lost his life in 1915 after being shot by a sniper

Tom Finney was called up at 20 and served as a trooper in the Royal Armoured Corps – he went on to win 76 England caps

That was the barbarity of one of the worst of all wars. Tom Finney, who played on blithely aged 17 at the start of the second great horror that was to befall mankind in 1939, came to be enlisted.

At 20 he was called up, in April 1942, as a trooper in the Royal Armoured Corps, serving with distinction in Egypt in Montgomery’s Eighth Army and still playing football. Omar Sharif was an unused sub in one game featuring the Preston Plumber.

None of it is easy and sport at times dropped the ball, while at other moments it excelled.

But, really, is football, after so much glory and some regrets, best served by historically blind fans arguing the toss at the Cenotaph?


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