Let’s take a trip in the way back machine. The Guardians Simon Burnton:” During the second world war competitive football continued in an irregular, somewhat confused manner, organisation being considerably more difficult when every able-bodied man of fighting – and therefore playing – age was in the armed forces or, at the very least, full-time employment. All unnecessary complications were avoided; tournaments were played regionally and quickly.
In 1940 West Ham won the Football League War Cup, a tournament of some 137 games played in the space of only nine weeks. But replays, officials decided, had complicated matters unnecessarily. The following year drawn ties were awarded to the team with the superior league record, but this too caused unhappiness.
Meanwhile the Lancashire Cup experimented with a new method of settling contests: simply not stopping them until somebody scored. The first time this was tried Burnley beat Everton without an enormous amount of additional time or effort, and the experiment was considered a success. In 1942 the Play to a Finish rule was adopted by the War Cup, and over the following few years it was also taken up – though not often actually used – by a variety of knockout competitions in England and Scotland. Occasionally, wacky variations were proposed: in the 1942-43 League South Cup, after 20 minutes’ extra time the match would be won by the first team to either score a goal or win a corner.
There was, however, a problem inherent in the system. “There was always a danger,” the Liverpool Echo reported in April 1944, “that two sides some time would find that the finish wouldn’t come, not even by the time the cows came home.”
Another Lancashire Cup match, between Liverpool and Everton this time, had gone to not-so-sudden death. “The longer it went on the less likely did a decision appear to be,” the Echo wrote. “After 130 minutes we had the remarkable sight of directors and managers of both sides confabbing with the players and referee on the sideline in search of a solution. Liverpool suggested tossing, but the Everton players, who seemed slightly less exhausted by the ordeal, voted for carrying on. To keep things within reasonable bounds, however, Mr Walter Cartwright representing the Lancashire FA instructed the referee to abandon the game if there was no further score in the next five minutes. There wasn’t, and the players trooped wearily off.”
This was complete lawlessness, a game played to a soundtrack of discussions on the sidelines between people attempting to improvise a way of finishing it and which ended only when a local FA official took it upon himself to change the rules of the competition to make them less inconvenient.
“We’ve got to remember that all the players are either in the forces or working. There’s no ‘laying in’ until midday. Lots of the civilian players put in a good morning’s work before the match, while service men frequently have to do morning duty before leaving camp,” the Echo complained. “I know many instances where service players have done heavy cross-country exercises with full pack on Saturday mornings, stood up most of the way by train or bus to the match, often with nothing to eat, and have then been criticised by those who didn’t know for being ‘out of condition’. They’re not out of condition. On the contrary, they must be in tip-top trim to stand what they do, but there are limits to everything.”
Players continued to strain them. In the following season’s War Cup, a match between Cardiff City and Bristol City continued for – excluding intervals – three hours and 20 minutes before Bill Rees capitalised on a goalkeeping error to head in a winner. “Pandemonium broke out,” reported the Western Mail. “The big crowd of more than 20,000, the excitement and tension over, invaded the field and carried shoulder-high those young City players eager hands could grasp.
“As the marathon unfolded itself both sides suffered. Would it never end, we thought as each side became more exhausted, and yet like super-humans contrived to put as much energy into their football as the human body would permit. I am certain that after this experience administrators will be wary about perpetuating a rule which makes such a physical and mental strain on players and public. I know the ‘play to a finish’ rule is only a war-time measure, but in the interests of the game it should be scrapped immediately.”
Perhaps it was the conviction that this would indeed happen that encouraged the Western Mail’s reporter to insist that this game was “an endurance test which will for ever hold a place in the records”. In fact, its place was taken within 12 months.
On 30 March 1946 Stockport County hosted Doncaster Rovers in the second leg of a League III North Cup match. The first game had finished 2-2, as did the second. So they played out extra time and, with no further goals having been scored, continued. And continued.
After a little under three hours Les Cocker, the Stockport striker, turned the ball into the net. The crowd spilled on to the pitch and headed for the delirious scorer – and then they heard the whistle. The referee, a Mr Baker from Crewe, had spotted a handball, disallowed the goal and waved play on. “In the final minutes the players were collapsing with exhaustion and the crowd was calling upon the referee to stop the game,” wrote the Yorkshire Post. Eventually the sunlight, like everybody’s enthusiasm, faded.
“Finally in the dusk and with a haze of smoke from the railway settling over the ground, Mr Baker decided that light was too bad to continue, and 22 weary players and three tired officials hobbled off the field,” wrote the Post. At 203 minutes, excluding intervals, the match had pipped the Cardiff game by three minutes. The teams were instructed to toss a coin for the right to host a replay; Doncaster won, and four days later they met again. After nearly 400 minutes the sides were finally – and emphatically – separated. Ralph Maddison scored a hat-trick as Doncaster romped to a 4-0 win, and amid widespread criticism – “Nothing,” the Guardian concluded in their report of the game, “could be more absurd” – the Play to a Finish rule lasted only a few months longer.