The FA Cup Years: The FA Cup was on hold but we won the Football League War Cup

In the second installment of our series looking back at our FA Cup exploits since appearing in the first FA Cup Final in 1923, we look at the 30s and early 40s

The 1933-34 season proved something of an oasis for West Ham with manager Charlie Paynter beginning to fashion a team capable of promotion. Future England international Len Goulden had broken through at inside left, Ted Fenton made his first team debut and showed real promise in a variety of positions, and Alf Chalkey and Joe Cockcroft were the defensive rocks, even if they did sound like characters from a wartime comic strip.

Safely ensconced in the top half of the table, conditions should have been set fair for a cup run. However, the best laid plans often come a cropper as Spurs thoroughly rinsed the Hammers 4-1 at White Hart Lane.

For a club accustomed to the occasional cup run, a fourth round exit must have been deflating. The notion of ‘concentrating on the league’ would have been much in evidence at this time. 

In 1934-35, the Hammers were denied promotion on goal difference but drawn against Stockport County in the third round. With three minutes to go we led 1-0, but centre half Jim Barrett put through his own goal and sent the tie to a replay. The inevitable defeat in the return summed up a frustrating season.

The following season was a damp squib as the Hammers were beaten 4-0 by Luton Town in a third round replay. The 1936-37 season had a familiar ring of mundanity with our interest ending in the third round. Mid-table obscurity beckoned in 1937-38 with defeat to Preston in the third round (again!).

The last season before the war provided some much needed relief in the Cup. The run started at Loftus Road, where QPR were beaten 2-1 on what was reported to be a mud heap. This set the tone nicely for the fourth round clash with Spurs. A rain swept Upton Park witnessed a 3-3 thriller.

Spurs were 3-1 up at one point; but an excellent brace from winger Stan Foxall ensured a replay. A grinding 1-1 draw at White Hart Lane took the tie to a neutral venue which surprisingly was set for Highbury.

With the game locked at 1-1, extra time descended on some weary legs. An injury to Spurs striker Johnny Morrison effectively reduced them to ten men. Archie Macaulay scored the winner as the Hammers reached the fifth round. The trip down to Portsmouth would ultimately bring disappointment. West Ham played well and enjoyed the majority of possession; but two second half goals in ten minutes killed off any hope of victory.

Portsmouth defeated Wolves to win the FA Cup in 1939. They would remain holders for the next six years as the world sank into the chaos of war. The football league season and FA Cup was abandoned when hostilities began. However, the immediate air-raids didn’t happen as the ‘phoney war’ took hold. 

The authorities soon realised the morale boosting value of football. A series of regional leagues and competitions were organised and players allowed to guest for other teams. The FA Cup was replaced by the Football League War Cup, which operated on a two leg knock-out format until the fourth round. 

The Hammers swept aside Chelsea, Leicester and Huddersfield in the early rounds. A one-off home tie against Birmingham resulted in a 4-2 win and set up a semi-final against Fulham. The game at Stamford Bridge kicked off at 6:40pm on 1 June 1940; a ruse to prevent essential workers from taking the afternoon off. 

West Ham raced into a 4-0 lead but somehow allowed Fulham to claw back three goals. We hung on to book our place in the final against Blackburn Rovers. The final at Wembley took place barely a month after the fall of France and three months before the start of the Blitz. 

The Dunkirk evacuation had been effected that very week, and wounded members of the British Expeditionary Force were in the crowd. The programme makes interesting reading. It stated ‘In the event of an air raid warning, an announcement will be made over the loudspeakers. Members of the public will be requested to leave the enclosures and make their way quietly to the circulating corridors under the stands’. 

This really summed up the sombre mood in which the game was understandably played. The Sunday Pictorial lamented how lacklustre the match was for a set piece occasion. They bemoaned the ‘lack of skill and artistry’ where ‘classic touches’ were few and far between. 

It was certainly a hard fought war of attrition. Rovers’ tendency to spring the offside trap had forced the Hammers out wide. A three-man move led to the goal that sealed victory. Stan Foxall started the move and combined with Len Goulden to feed George Foreman. He unleashed a ferocious shot which could only be parried to Sammy Small who converted a simple tap-in. 

It was West Ham’s first victory in a Wembley final. In 1941, the Hammers were knocked out in the third round by Arsenal. There was no joy beyond the group stages of the two competitions that followed. By 1943 the war had thankfully turned in the Allies’ favour. The British victory at El-Alamein had led to a German surrender in North Africa. 

For West Ham, the Football League War Cup remains our first major honour. But as a wartime competition it is strictly ‘unofficial’ and not listed as a club honour. But we should proudly reclaim this ‘lost’ honour and celebrate victory during war.

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