Brentford’s wartime Final: a missing player, Wembley success and a missing trophy

As soon as Brentford had despatched Newcastle United in the Carabao Cup quarter-final talk centred around the club’s first-ever appearance in a major semi-final in their 131-year history. The Bees’ trophy cabinet is not exactly bursting at the seams but even though this will be their debut in the last four of the two main domestic cup competitions, the club did enjoy cup success eighty years ago starting with the semi-final of a short-lived tournament against Tuesday night’s opponents Tottenham.  

Having spent their formative years in non-league, including twenty years in the Southern League, Brentford were elected to the Football League in 1920. Crucially, in 1926, former referee and Gillingham manager Harry Curtis began his 23-year managerial spell at Griffin Park. Curtis oversaw the most successful period in their history and in 1929/30 they established an unrivalled league record by winning every home league match although they did not gain promotion to the Second Division until 1933. Two years later they topped the division to reach the top flight for the first, and up to now only, time and just as Brentford finally made it to the top, Tottenham were going in the opposite direction,  being relegated after finishing bottom of the First Division. 

Brentford proved well worthy of their elevated status, finishing a noteworthy fifth in their very first season, ahead of Arsenal and Chelsea, and in so doing became the highest-placed London club. In the following two seasons they were sixth both times and alongside Arsenal were the only club to finish in the top six during all those three seasons. Although they dropped to 18th out of 22 in the 1938/39 season, the Bees had just started their fifth consecutive season in the First Division before World War Two intervened. The leagues were consequently rearranged into regional competitions and various cup competitions were set up, including the London War Cup in 1941.  

In the first ever London War Cup semi-final the Bees faced Tottenham, who had not regained their First Division status in the five seasons since their relegation in 1935. In a precedent that might bring Brentford fans some confidence, Tottenham were beaten 2-0. Through a combination of administrative in-fighting and wartime expediency, Brentford’s opponents in the final at Stamford Bridge were a distinctly non-London club. Reading had been admitted into the competition as there were not enough London clubs willing to make up two groups of six, and so rather incongruously it was Reading who prevailed 3-2 to become the inaugural winners of the London War Cup.

Brentford bounced back from losing out to geographic outsiders Reading to reach the second London War Cup Final by beating Tottenham’s North London rivals Arsenal in the semi-final largely thanks to a Chelsea player. During wartime games clubs were allowed to field so-called ‘guest’ players from other clubs to compensate for their own players being called up for National Service. Chelsea’s goalkeeper, Scotland international John Jackson, was one such player who crucially saved a Cliff Bastin penalty to preserve Brentford’s 2-1 lead over Arsenal in a replay after the first game was a goalless draw. 

In Portsmouth, Brentford met another non-London club in the Cup Final, which was staged at Wembley in front of almost 70,000 spectators, by far the largest wartime club crowd up to this point. Brentford were determined to make amends for the previous year, however their pre-match preparations were disrupted by a notable absentee. As the team were getting ready to go out on to the pitch, one of their key players was missing. Leslie Smith, who had made his England debut against Romania in May 1939, was nowhere to be seen as kick-off approached causing consternation among the coaching staff. 

Leslie Smith, Brentford and England

At the time Smith was stationed at RAF Hornchurch where he had struck up a friendship with the reigning British Heavyweight boxing champion, Len Harvey and as he explained in an interview with Dave Lane of the Beesotted fanzine they had taken it upon themselves to make their own way to the ground.“Len and I decided to travel by car, but when within a few miles of Wembley it broke down, we were in a spot as there was little time before kick-off, so we phoned the local police station and explained the situation. They sent out a police car and rushed us to Wembley, past all the traffic with sirens blaring. When we arrived I dashed to the dressing room to find Harry Curtis tearing his hair out and my understudy already stripped to play.”

Despite his rather frenzied entrance, Smith recovered his poise remarkably quickly in opening the scoring after just five minutes. Soon afterwards Brentford were again indebted to their keeper Jackson, who repeated his penalty heroics by saving a Portsmouth spot kick to retain their lead. With only a few minutes remaining Smith scored his second to seal a 2-0 victory. Within a week Brentford met the winners of the Football League (War) Cup, Wolverhampton Wanderers on 6 June at Stamford Bridge, in what was called the Cup Winners Cup. The game finished 1-1 and with no replay, the spoils were shared. Brentford had won two Cups in the space of a week and are still waiting to add their third major Cup triumph, almost eight decades later.

While Brentford owe a debt of gratitude to their West London neighbours Chelsea for the use of their keeper, there is a bone of contention between the two clubs that rankles Bees’ fans even to this day. In 1943 the London War Cup Final was replaced by the Football League (South) Cup Final, with Chelsea winning the last wartime Final in 1945 before normal service was resumed when the FA Cup returned the following year. Chelsea had been presented with the London War Cup trophy even though their victory was in a different competition. That trophy still sits in the Stamford Bridge museum and Brentford fans insist that by rights the trophy should be theirs. For a club that does not boast a huge range of silverware it does seem a tad unfair that their sole Wembley triumph was not accompanied with the requisite prize.   

Published by richardfoster60

Author, broadcaster, historian, journalist. A regular contributor to the Guardian, Sky Sports and talkSPORT, my latest book is highly acclaimed Premier League Nuggets - "brilliantly written" - Darren Fletcher, "I love Premier League Nuggets" - Guy Mowbray, "the book is a labour of love" - Peter Drury.

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