1940-1949 So Near Yet So Far

WHO knows what Bob McGrory's brilliant, up-and-coming side might have achieved but for the outbreak of World War Two?

In 1939, with the likes of Stanley Matthews, Freddie Steele and Tommy Sale in their prime, plus the emergence of a brilliant young centre-half by the name of Neil Franklin, the feeling that they were about to dominate English football was manifest far beyond the boundaries of Stoke-on-Trent. The war wiped out a six-year period which may indeed have proved to be a golden one.

A long-awaited First Division championship, maybe even an FA Cup win, separately or together - even the fancy that Stoke were capable of the 'double' was not beyond the bounds of possibility. Sadly, none of it happened. By the time League football resumed in 1946 great players had seen a chunk of the best years of their lives swallowed up.

The FA Cup preceded the return of the League, but for City brought tragedy when 33 spectators died and 520 were injured when crush barriers gave way during the sixth round tie at Bolton. Most of the pre-war squad was re-assembled as McGrory plotted a belated title challenge in 1946/47. It was a time when the manager could, if he wished, field an entirely local team - an astonishing tribute to the quality of the Club's youth system. One point from the first four games questioned the huge local expectation, but once in their stride the team mounted the anticipated championship assault. A season put on hold by a bitter and prolonged winter ultimately ended in bitter disappointment in June. City needed to win their final game at Sheffield United to take the title. But a 2-1 defeat handed the crown to Liverpool.

Worse, Matthews, now 32, left to join Blackpool in May with three games remaining. The feeling of anti-climax at the and of a long and exhausting campaign was overwhelming. Little surprise the team failed to mount any sort of challenge in the next two years, finishing 15th and 11th, and that all the old doubts came creeping back again as the decade drew to its close.