Football was halted due to a global crisis, the lives of millions under threat.
The ‘season that went on forever’ was interrupted halfway through in unprecedented circumstances, players and supporters wondering when normality would return as executives tentatively pencilled in June as a completion date.
Eventually, after a torturous wait for weeks and months when they feared it would not happen, Liverpool were crowned champions for the first time in decades.
This is not an optimistic premonition by Jurgen Klopp and millions of Liverpool supporters. This was the 1940s version of ‘Project Restart’, when the Merseysiders ended their 24-year wait for the title, becoming the first champions after the Second World War.
“The country yearned for top-class football and nowhere was it more eagerly anticipated than in the city of Liverpool,” said Liverpool’s centre-back that season, Laurie Hughes.
As football eased back in late 1946, it faced more catastrophe due to a life-threatening European winter between January and March, 1947. Energy supplies were cut off, businesses shut down, animals froze or starved to death, and the population shut themselves away to escape the plunging temperatures which fell to -21C (-6F).
When the snow thawed, flooding caused equally horrific problems for the population, the army called in to offer humanitarian services.
It was estimated the floods cost the UK economy £375 million, the equivalent to £14.78 billion today.
As in 2020, football was deemed an irrelevance, the pitches unusable anyway. The title race involving Liverpool, Manchester United, Stoke City and favourites Wolverhampton Wanderers was temporarily suspended.
“By April, the authorities knew there was no way the season could finish on time, so a decision was made to extend until June,” says journalist Mark Platt, whose 2009 book on the subject with football historian Gary Shaw chronicled the season.
“There are some uncanny similarities with now, although the difference then was, even when football resumed, Liverpool thought their chances of winning it had gone.”
Sadly, none of the Anfield heroes of that era are still around to tell the tale, although they shared their memories of the campaign for posterity. Platt and Shaw were able to source interviews from the legendary figures, which included the men who later preceded and succeeded Bill Shankly as manager, Phil Taylor and Bob Paisley, and one of the greatest of all Liverpool players, Billy Liddell.
“It looked impossible,” Liddell recalled of the title surge. “The championship hardly entered our heads because not only had we lost our place at the top of the table but seven of our remaining 13 league games were away. We had to finish the season with four successive away matches, the last two being at Arsenal and Wolves.”
Liverpool’s prime weapon was striker Albert Stubbins, a record signing from Newcastle United in September who opted for Anfield over Everton for unorthodox reasons.
“It was a very difficult decision to make so I tossed a coin to decide which of the two teams I’d speak to first. It came down heads for Liverpool,” Stubbins recalled.
Stubbins scored 24 goals in the title year. He was later granted the honour of being one of the multitude of celebrity figures on the cover of The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper Lonely Hearts Club Band album, standing a couple of inches from Lewis Carroll and Lawrence of Arabia (the story goes that John Lennon and Paul McCartney liked the authenticity of Stubbins’ name, conjuring images of their youth).
Other stars of the era – dubbed ‘The Crazy Gang’ in a 1947 edition of The Sports Spectator – included Bill Jones, grandfather of future Liverpool full-back Rob, Welsh international goalkeeper Cyril Sidlow and South African winger Berry Nieuwenhuys.
Led by George Kay – an avid reader of psychology books and described as ‘the Shankly of his time’ – Liverpool benefited from marginal gains, 1940s style.
“At the end of the previous season, Kay took the players to the East Coast where the most important thing was that America did not have rationing, unlike the UK,” says Liverpool’s museum curator, Stephen Done.
“The genius idea was to sail to the USA and eat vast amounts of steak, fresh fruit and eggs for ten weeks, and they come back with suitcases full of nylon stockings for their wives, which they were particularly happy about.
“It may be stretching the point to say their healthy summer diet won them the league, but in a season which went on forever in an extremely harsh winter – with so little food – it probably gave them that extra edge. It is only what modern sports scientists and nutritionists are doing now.”
Shadowing Liverpool in the USA, the New York Times identified a “perceptible gain in strength on the playing field” as the winning streak of 10 consecutive tour fixtures proceeded.
Back home, Liverpool put themselves into title contention by winning 10 of their first 16 league games before the winter hit, players ankle deep in the mud. Stubbins’ most famous goal, a diving header against Birmingham in the FA Cup quarter-final, was played on a blanket of snow. It was March.
By their final league game at Molineux on May 31, Liverpool’s chances were considered so remote manager Kay opted for a scouting mission in Scotland instead.
“Wolves just had to get a draw,” said Stubbins.
“We were up against the finest centre-half that I ever played against, Stan Cullis. He was counting on winning a championship medal. He’d won everything else and captained England, but that was his last chance and it ended in defeat for him. When the final whistle blew, Cullis came up to me and tears were streaming down his cheeks.”
Liverpool presumed their 2-1 win, earned with goals from Stubbins and equally prolific strike partner Jack Balmer, gifted the title to Stoke City who needed a win at Sheffield United on June 14. But in an extraordinary act of self-sabotage, Stoke sold star player Stanley Matthews to Blackpool a month earlier.
“Just to be put into context, Sheffield United had an under-strength team. It was a 38-year-old, Jack Pickering, making his first appearance of the season who scored the winner for Sheffield Utd and handed Liverpool the title,” says Platt.
The new champions were playing a Liverpool Senior Cup tie with Everton as the game in Sheffield finished.
“Partway through the game the news came through that Liverpool had won the league,” says Stephen Done.
“The game paused and the Liverpool and Everton players shook hands. It was a stunning end. I love the idea of the Everton players stopping to say, ‘Well done, old chap’.”
That was the peak for an ageing team who had lost their best years to war. Despite reaching the FA Cup Final in 1950, Liverpool were relegated in 1954.
“It was the last great season for Liverpool before Shankly arrived in 1959 and changed everything for the club,” says Done.
Nevertheless, the 1947 side holds a place in Liverpool’s history which seems more poignant than ever.
“After war, the nation desperately wanted to be entertained,” says Done.
“Most fans were just desperate for a warm sunny day and a game of football. You only need to look at the attendances at the start of the season, hundreds of thousands flocking to games every weekend. The nation needed it, irrespective of who won the title. And it was Liverpool who gave everyone a lift with that amazing finish. It feels like a terribly pertinent story today. For that group of Liverpool players there were many uncertain weeks where there was a sense of being so close and yet so far.”