Chelsea players line up with bouquets of flowers to greet their Russian guests.

by Stuart Moriarty-Patten

On 4 November 1945 an airplane carrying the first team from the Soviet Union to visit these shores, Dynamo Moscow, landed at Croydon Airport.  They had been invited by the FA as part of the resumption of competitive football following the Second World War.

Much to their disappointment though the Muscovites were met with little fanfare, leaving the Russian radio commentator who was following the tour to remark “In England, the fatherland of football, we were met according to the English fashion: rather dryly without flags, music or flowers. Officials of the British federation coldly shook our hands…” It was planned for the team to be accommodated in the Coldstream Guards’ Wellington barracks in St James’s.  However when they discovered the pre-Crimean war conditions, with mould on the walls and hard bolsters on the beds instead of pillows, they left to stay in the Soviet Embassy, again disappointed with the English football authorities.

With the superiority felt by the English at the time in all matters football, a hostile press gave the visitors little chance of success, dismissing them as mere factory workers.     It was true that Russian football before the war had hardly set the world alight, and they were mostly well known for a 16-0 defeat by the Germans in the 1912 Stockholm Olympics.  That was however in the pre-Soviet era, and with the support of the government, who saw sport as a way to demonstrate communist might to the rest of the world, the game had improved leaps and bounds since.  This was demonstrated by a Soviet Armed Forces XI beating their British counterparts 2-0 a month before in an exhibition game, and Dynamo Moscow were no mugs either, having just romped to the title back home with 19 wins in their 22 games and just one defeat.

The first game was against Chelsea and although the official attendance was given as 74,496, thousands had continued to enter the ground after the gates had officially closed taking advantage of any vantage point they could find.  Fans crowded the edge of the pitch and climbed on to the roof of the stands.  It is estimated that around 100,000 to 120,00 people finally squeezed in to Stamford Bridge to be impressed by the Russians before the game had even begun due to their smart track suits, their 10 minute warm-up (which was not a feature of English football), and their gift of bouquets of flowers to each Chelsea player.

Despite the English pre-match confidence Dynamo Moscow surprised the Chelsea team with their ability and slick passing, but poor finishing, a missed penalty and a goal disallowed because it had gone in off a spectator, they finished the first half 2-0 down.  In the second half Moscow turned the game around though and pulled back to 2-2 before a goal by record £11,000 new signing Tommy Lawton, who the Russians claimed was a panic signing that showed how scared Chelsea were of playing them, added a third for Chelsea.  The Moscow side equalised late on with a goal that looked yards offside but gave them a deserved draw.

Their next game took them up to Wales where they met a hopelessly outclassed Cardiff City, who, at the time, were in the Third Division.  The Cardiff side consisted mostly of part-timers, several of whom came to the game straight from finishing work in the coal-mines, and were on the end of a 10-1 drubbing in front of a crowd of 60,000 by a Dynamo team that were furthering their reputation.

As part of the trip the Russians had insisted that they were to play Arsenal, who had been English football’s premier club before the intervention of war, and these were their next opponents.  Highbury was out of action as it was still being commanded by the Ministry of Defence as an air-raid control center, so the game was played at White Hart Lane.  This was much to the annoyance of the visiting team who had particularly wanted to play at Wembley but were told this was not possible as a greyhound meet was on that night.   The Arsenal team had seen nine of its players killed in the war and was missing several more who were still away on active service, including the England captain Eddie Hapgood and the Compton brothers Leslie and Denis.  So they invited a few of England’s best players, including Stan Matthews and Stan Mortenson to make a guest appearance.  The Russians, feeling increasingly bitter about their treatment in England, accused the Arsenal team of cheating and effectively bringing in ringers, but Arsenal manager George Allison insisted it was for the benefit of the Russians as they would not get much of a game against the Arsenal players available and instead they were being given a chance to pit themselves against some of the finest in players in England.

When the game kicked off it quickly became a farce.  The Russians had bought their own referee with them and insisted that he be allowed to referee at least one game, and this was the one he was given.  On the day of the game North London was covered with a thick fog and despite Stan Matthews later recalling in his autobiography that when he stood on the centre-spot he was unable to see the centre circle, the Russian ref insisted on it being played.    Over 54,000 fans stood bemused in the ground unable to see Moscow Dynamo take a 30 second lead.  Arsenal though fought back and went in at half-time 3-2 up with Matthews and Mortenson both scoring.  During the second half some of the referees decisions were becoming increasingly dubious and the match descended further into farce.  He allowed a winning fourth goal for the Russians to stand despite being obviously offside, before disallowing a seemingly good one for Arsenal.  Then it was noticed that Dynamo had twelve players on the pitch, which was explained away as a mix up during a substitution because of the fog. The lack of visibility also allowed the Arsenal player, George Drury, who was sent off for fighting, to venture over to the far touchline and continue playing hidden from the ref’s view.  Some reports also stated that the Arsenal goalkeeper knocked himself out by running into a post that he failed to see and was replaced by a member of the crowd

Matthews later described the Moscow Dynamo team as the finest ever to visit the British Isles, but the aftermath of the game was accusation and counter-accusation as Arsenal and Dynamo officials accused each other of cheating, during the game.

The tour was rounded off with a robust 2-2 draw against Rangers at Ibrox in front of 92,000, and Moscow Dynamo, undefeated, returned to the Soviet Union to a heroes’ welcome.   Brian Glanville in his book Soccer Nemesis summed up their performance by writing, in his usual erudite manner, “From first to last their football remained cogent and incisive, a triumph of socialism over individualism, for the ball was never held by one man, but transferred bewilderingly and immediately to another.”  Indeed the tour had been notable for the Dynamo’s slick passing and movement serving as a warning to the insular FA that foreigners were not only catching up with the English, but that they were actually beginning to leave them behind.