Stuart Moriarty-Patten looks back on a Wembley final played out to a backdrop of air wardens seeking out the Luftwaffe.

8 June 1940: West Ham win the first Football League War Cup

West Ham United won the 1940 Football League War Cup Final when they defeated Blackburn 1-0 at Wembley on 8 June 1940.  The Hammers’ captain Charlie Bicknell lifted the trophy courtesy of a 34th minute goal by Sam Small.

The 1939/40 season had already begun with Blackpool undefeated at the top of the table, a point ahead of Arsenal and Sheffield United, when it was suspended after three games due to the onset of the Second World War. Most sporting competitions were affected after the government imposed a ban on the assembly of crowds, but later that month when the ban was relaxed it was felt that a return of a football competition would help the public morale.  As a result the League devised a War League divided into regions designed to save on travelling and resources.   Also, with the FA Cup competition for that season also cancelled, the Football League drew up plans for a national League War Cup to take its place.  This would take place between April and June 1940 and see 137 games, including replays, squeezed into the allotted 9-week period in order to reach the two teams who would contest the final of the inaugural Football League War Cup.

The matches were played over two legs in the early rounds, and West Ham beat Chelsea home and away to kick off the campaign with a 5-2 win on aggregate in the first round.  They then defeated Leicester City 4-1 over two legs, winning the second leg 3-0 at Upton Park.  The competition then switched to a single leg format for the later rounds, West Ham though were to need two games to overcome Huddersfield, winning a replay 3-1 after drawing 3-3 at Huddersfield.  In the next round West Ham came from behind to win 4-2 at Upton Park over Birmingham City to set up an all London semi-final with Fulham, and ensure there would be a team from the capital at Wembley in June.

The semi-final against Fulham, who had reached the semi by beating last season’s champions Everton 5-2 and had berate West Ham 2-1 in the league five days before, was played at Stamford Bridge a week before the final. With a 6.40pm kick-off to allow those doing essential war work to attend, nearly 33,000 turned out and were treated to a game that would take their mind off the troubles facing them and the country at the time. An own-goal by Fulham defender Brown put West Ham in front after 12 minutes, before Len Goulden doubled the lead before half-time with a well-placed shot. Joseph Foxall made it 3-0 shortly after the break before Sam Small added a fourth. Seemingly the game was all but over, but Fulham, who had not played as badly as the scoreline may have suggested, fought back to score three goals in the space of 25 minutes through Woodward and then Rooke, who scored twice, the second from the penalty spot, to make the score 4-3.  In the ascendancy and desperate for the equaliser, Fulham threw everything they could at West Ham who managed to hold on though, to set up a final with Blackburn Rovers at Wembley.  They had beaten Newcastle 1-0 at Ewood Park on the same day, a toss of a coin between the two sides deciding the venue and giving Blackburn home advantage.

Despite the fears of London being bombed at that time by the Luftwaffe a sizeable attendance of over 42,000 attended Wembley to watch the final, which again kicked off in the early evening.  This was West Ham’s first appearance at Wembley since the famous final in 1923, Wembley’s first, when the iconic police man on a white horse helped restore order after overcrowding led to the pitch being swarmed with spectators.  It was Blackburn’s second appearance at Wembley too; they had previously been there when they surprisingly beat Huddersfield to win the 1928 FA Cup.

West Ham’s previous display at Wembley had ended in defeat at the hands of Bolton but this time they were considered hot favourites despite the fact that the previous season they had lost home and away to Blackburn in the old Second Division.  They had been showing excellent form during the season, especially in attack where the performances of the England international Len Goulden in particular had been catching the eye.

Although the ground was only half-full the Times reported that the atmosphere resembled something approaching a “real Cup Final.”  West Ham made a nervous start and Blackburn went close in the first minute, but then the game settled down into a pattern.  West Ham were playing a passing game through the centre of the park, while Blackburn were getting the ball early out to their wingers.  The game was a close fought affair until the 35th minute when smart play by West Ham’s Stan Foxall and Len Goulden set up a chance for George Foreman.  His shot was magnificently saved by Barron the Blackburn keeper only for him to be beaten by Sam Small following up on the loose ball.

Following the goal the game continued relatively uneventfully with West Ham very much in charge with Macaulay and Goulden being the star performers for the Hammers.  At the end of the game Blackburn had given their best and had a couple of chances to equalise, but West Ham, according to The Times, always seemed like they had something in reserve and were deserved winners of what was a fairly low key game.

Just as low key were the celebrations.  Because of the wartime regulations and hardships no reception was held for the players so most of the team went back to the East End to the Boleyn public house in Green Street to celebrate, although others had to return to their service units.

The War Cup was to be played for a further five times and no London team would win it again, although Charlton and Aston Villa agreed to share it after a draw in 1944.  Preston, Wolves Blackpool and Bolton were to be the other winners before life, and football, resumed to a semblance of normality after the war ended in 1945 and the FA Cup resumed for the 1945/46 season.