As soon as war was declared, the Football League’s 1939/40 season was abandoned and, throughout the hostilities, clubs were divided into several regional leagues. Competitions ran for various lengths of time, ranging from a few weeks to many months, before a proper divisional structure finally returned in 1946.
No club in Division Three South opened the post-war footballing era with higher aspirations than Crystal Palace, but the club struggled for a number of seasons, even finishing bottom of the league in 1948/49. Manager Jack Butler resigned, paving the way for former reserve team striker Ronnie Rooke to return to SE25 in a player-manager capacity.
In his first season in charge, Rooke did well, lifting Palace to a much-improved 7th place finish. But that was to prove the club’s best showing in the post-war Third Division South.
In the summer of 1950, Rooke spent nearly £30,000 on new players, a sum that represented a huge outlay at the time for a team in that division. The spending spree proved to be of no avail, as Palace lost five of their opening six matches in the 1950/51 season and, by mid-November, they had been cut adrift at the foot of the table and been dumped out of the cup by local rivals Millwall.
Rooke resigned and was replaced at the helm by two men – Fred Dawes and Charlie Slade – but they were unable to prevent the Glaziers finishing bottom of the league, scoring a club-record low 33 goals in 46 games in the process.
They found themselves in similar trouble at the start of the 1951/52 season and the joint managers left the club in mid-October. England international right-back Laurie Scott was persuaded to take over and he set about trying to steady the ship. Sure enough, 1952/53 proved a much better season and, despite losing in the FA Cup at non-league Finchley, Palace went on to finish 13th in the table.
But the Glaziers’ woes soon returned. They struggled throughout the 1953/54 season and avoided the re-election places by a whisker, finishing 22nd in the 24-team division.
Despite dismissing manager Laurie Scott in September 1954, Palace won just once in their opening 11 games the following season, and went on to finish 21st, amassing two points fewer than they managed the previous term. New boss Cyril Spiers had adapted a new strategy of finding and developing young players, which was extended into the 1955/56 season. But Palace’s young guns finished second from bottom and sought re-election to the league.
Following a 20th-place finish in 1956/57, the 1957/58 season proved crucial for every club in the regional Third Divisions. It was finally decided to establish national Third and Fourth Divisions, meaning that those clubs finishing in the upper half of the regional tables would play in the Third Division, with teams finishing in the bottom half playing in the fourth tier.
Palace finished the season in a much-improved 14th place, just four points from claiming a top-half finish. But it meant that the Glaziers would be plying their trade in the Fourth Division.