When World War One football fans were branded cowards

Middlesbrough team of 1914 Image copyright TBD
Image caption Middlesbrough - pictured here in 1914 - lost four players who went to fight in the war

With thousands of British men away fighting during World War One, life at home carried on as usual for many - including the ritual of going to the match. Eventually the war caught up with the game, claiming the lives of many players from footballing hotbeds such as the North East. But when the sport was still going on, cheering from the terraces was often met with disapproval, as many thought fit men should be fighting.

Making his way through the crowds on the narrow staircase of Middlesbrough's main stand, the mayor was an angry man.

Reaching his seat, William Bruce looked out over the supporters who had come to see Boro's opening home game of the season, against West Bromwich Albion.

This was 5 September 1914 - a month after Britain had entered World War One.

What so appalled Mr Bruce was the sight of thousands cheering from Ayresome Park's terraces.

"He was greatly disturbed by the number of young men who were at the game," said historian Paul Menzies.

"He couldn't understand why these men were at a football game when many men had already gone off to fight in the war."

Image copyright Middlesbrough Gazette
Image caption Football Association matches were not suspended until a year into the war

In fact, the mayor threatened to pin a white feather - a symbol of cowardice - on the fans, and his views reflected the controversy surrounding the decision to play on.

Image copyright British Army
Image caption Football fans were targeted in Army recruitment posters

In the event, the 1914-15 first division season was to be played out in full - competitive football in England was not suspended until 1915, with the suspension lasting until 1919.

The minutes of Boro's board meetings from the time have survived and record how the FA and the War Office urged clubs to do all they could to boost recruitment for the army.

But some propaganda posters at the time implied football lacked patriotism, though others argued the game helped sustain morale.

Men who did not sign up when war broke out were not doing anything wrong - conscription for single men aged 18 to 41 was not introduced until 1916, to boost dwindling numbers of recruits.

In fact Mr Menzies, who researched the period for a book, Great War Britain: Middlesbrough, found that the knowledge their teams played on was a comfort to soldiers.

He said: "A number of letters exist and they're asking 'how did the Boro get on?'"

Pre-war glory days in the North-East

Newcastle United were league champions in 1905, 1907 and 1909 and won the FA Cup in 1910. They were beaten in the cup finals of 1905, 1906, 1908 and 1911.

Sunderland were champions in 1902 and 1913 and also reached the FA Cup final in 1913.

Middlesbrough finished third in the First Division in 1914 - still the club's best ever league season.

The pre-war years had proved a golden period for the three big North East clubs but events abroad threatened to bring at least one of them to its knees.

Club historian Rob Mason said Sunderland had built a new stand at Roker Park, which had to be paid for, and attendances - and therefore gate receipts - fell as the war progressed.

That left the club teetering on the brink of financial ruin and a meeting at a hotel in the town heard Sunderland risked going out of business.

Image caption One the day of the famous 1914 Christmas truce trenches football match, Newcastle lost to Sunderland

Coincidentally, on the day of the famous Christmas truce at the trenches - when British and German troops played football - Newcastle were meeting Sunderland at St James' Park in Division One.

"Sunderland won 5-2, with a hat-trick from Bobby Best," said Rob Mason.

"I'm sure in some respects it would have been a typical derby atmosphere. People would have been festive, there might even have been a drink or two, but people would have been conscious the war had started and it was not a normal derby."

By that stage, hopes of a short war were fading and football was eventually brought to an end in the summer of 1915, with many elite players now enlisting to fight.

Image caption The death of Sgt Harry Cook, a Middlesbrough star, was announced in the Middlesbrough Gazette

Among those heading to the Front was Sunderland's Albert Milton, a member of the 1913 championship winning squad.

Milton told a friend he did not expect to come back - and his fatalism proved to be justified. Milton died at Passchendaele in 1917.

At least six footballers with Sunderland connections were to die and five current Newcastle United players were killed in action - among them Tommy Goodwill and Dan Dunglinson, killed together on the first day of the Somme.

And of the eleven players Middlesbrough fielded in their final match of 1915, four never came back, including club captain Andy Jackson, shot dead in the closing weeks of the war.

Image caption Newcastle's Jack Thomas escaped from a Belgian POW thanks to a compass hidden in a cake

The North East footballers' war story reflects the wider mix of bravery and tragedy, from the heroism of one-time Newcastle amateur Donald Simpson Bell - the only English player to be awarded the Victoria Cross - to the principled stand of Sunderland's Norman Gaudie, who was imprisoned as a conscientious objector.

There were also notable examples of ingenuity, like Newcastle's Jack Thomas, who escaped from a Belgian prisoner of war camp, aided by a compass sent to him by his family in County Durham - concealed inside a cake.

Newcastle United historian Paul Joannou said when Thomas made it back across the Channel, his actions attracted the attention of the British authorities.

"The intelligence services thought his ingenuity in trying to escape from the continent was just what they wanted, so they enrolled him and he headed back to France as a '007' agent, if you like," says Mr Joannou.

Many of the footballers who did survive the Great War returned to their clubs when the game finally resumed in 1919.

Clearly, the impact of the horrors of the trenches upon the returning players, and the absence of their fallen comrades, is hard to imagine.

"You have to think about the effect on the players in a mental way, " says Mr Menzies.

"It must've been quite amazing for the club to reconvene in 1919 and those players are gone.

"I don't think we can quite grasp what it would've been like for these high profile players to disappear from the horizon."

One hundred years on, the sacrifices of those young men, the sporting elite of their generation, are remembered still.

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