As soon as Brentford had beaten Newcastle United in the League Cup quarter-finals, talk centred around the club’s first appearance in a major semi-final in their 131-year history. The Bees’ trophy cabinet is not exactly bursting at the seams, but the club did enjoy cup success 80 years ago, which included a semi-final victory against Tottenham, the club they play this week in the League Cup semi-finals.
Having spent their formative years in non-league, Brentford were elected to the Football League in 1920. In 1926, the former referee and Gillingham manager Harry Curtis began his 23-year managerial spell at Griffin Park, overseeing the most successful period in their history. In 1929-30 Brentford won all 21 of their home games in the league although their poor away form let them down and Plymouth Argyle won the title. Brentford would have to wait until 1933 to earn promotion to the Second Division. They finally reached the top flight for the first time in their history in 1935. 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 worthy of their elevated status, finishing fifth in their very first season in the top flight, above Arsenal and Chelsea as the highest-placed London club. They finished sixth in the two following campaigns and, alongside Arsenal, were the only club to finish in the top six during all three of those 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 when the second world war 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 semi-finals of the first ever London War Cup in 1941, 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, they beat Tottenham 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 included in the competition as there were not enough clubs from the capital willing to make up two groups of six. So, rather incongruously, it was Reading who prevailed 3-2 in the final to become the winners of the inaugural London War Cup.
Brentford bounced back the following season, reaching the second London War Cup final by beating Arsenal in the semi-finals – largely thanks to a Chelsea player. During the war clubs were allowed to field “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 and he made a big impact for Brentford in the semi-final. He saved a Cliff Bastin penalty to preserve Brentford’s 2-1 lead in a replay after the first game had been drawn.
In Portsmouth, Brentford met another non-London club in the 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, but their pre-match preparations were disrupted by a notable absentee. As the players were getting ready to go out on to the pitch, one of their key men was missing. Leslie Smith, who had made his England debut against Romania in May 1939, was nowhere to be seen as kick-off approached.
At the time Smith was stationed at RAF Hornchurch, where he had struck up a friendship with reigning British heavyweight boxing champion Len Harvey. As he explained in an interview with Dave Lane of the Beesotted fanzine, the pair 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 and opened 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 at Stamford Bridge to contest 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 still rankles with Bees fans to this day. In 1943, the London War Cup was replaced by the Football League (South) Cup, with Chelsea winning the last wartime final in 1945 before normal service was resumed when the FA Cup returned the following year. Chelsea were 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.