Many fans of sports institutes up and down the country are likely to use the term “their” football, rugby or other club. It is difficult to explain how or why this largely inaccurate phrase comes from, other than somewhere within us.
Sports fans feel a huge sense of identity with what have often morphed over many years into huge corporate operations, with the fans at the very bottom of the pyramid of influence, the result is that the sense of ownership has been evaporated, but at perhaps the largest football club in Britain, a small percentage of the fans who took matters into their own hands in 2005, can rightfully say for just £12, they own the club, it is by definition “theirs”
Less than mile away from the rail yards where Newton Heath was formed in 1878, on the 29th May 2015, four thousand bloody minded individuals cheered their hearts out during the inaugural match at Broadhurst Park, Moston, against a Benfica 11, the ground had been built and paid for largely by the 3,000 co-owners, it is the brand new home of FC United of Manchester.
The club had been formed by a belligerent minority after the hostile and debt laden takeover of United in May 2005 by the Florida based Glazer family.
I’m proud to be part of that minority, but fully understand the equally Mancunain attitude of “No one is going to take my club away from me” that was the argument for the vast majority who stayed and tried to mount a fight from within.
This book tells that story, not of exploits on the pitch but of the long road to empowerment off the pitch, but we need to understand in depth the story of how we got here.
Although this is the story that I can only tell about, what I laughably used to call “my club” it has echoes right across top flight football in Britain and much further afield.
Much of the information for the Introduction was sourced from a friend from Germany, Sebastian Kristen who wrote about the history of United for his Bachelors degree.
In Victorian Britain the city of Manchester had exploded in terms of population and employment, and one of the key areas of this expansion was in the field of transport and in particular Steam Railways.
A large freight and waggon depot had evolved in the Newton Heath area owned by the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway company, and with an eye to better health for their employees along with the benefits of workforce cohesion and community links, the company had agreed to the setting up of an Association Football team.
On the 5th March 1878 Newton Heath LYR was formed and initially played games against similar yard and depot teams, home games were played at North Road, the club colours were yellow and green to compliment the company colours.
The North Road stadium was owned by the church and was rented by Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways; it had a capacity of approximately 12,000.
Four years after formation the club were ready to participate in the Lancashire Cup, it was not an auspicious beginning losing 2-7 to Blackburn Olympic reserves! This was also the first official game at North Road and admission was 3d, equivalent to around £1 today
Steadily in East Manchester, along with towns up and down the country the popularity of both playing and supporting football among the working classes had grown and admission prices started to rise, it should be remembered that football was initially played by the gentry attending the elite public schools such as Eton and Harrow, but once the working man had fallen in love with the game they embraced it as their own.
Soon it become an open secret that although the game was supposed to be played on a purely amateur basis, with competition and rivalry steadily growing, many teams including Newton Heath were using part of their admission fee to engage the best players they could find.
In 1885 the Football Association allowed the game to become professional and their own Challenge, or FA Cup had proven a very successful means to drive the popularity of the game since the official rules were established in 1871.
The game was becoming ever more competitive and in order to be a force to be reckoned with the admission price had doubled in 6 years to 6d or £2 in current value, but this had enabled the club to sign players such as Jack Powell and Tom Burke and reach the clubs first FA Cup final.
As was to become something of a benchmark for the radical nature of the Mancunian temperament, when the score reached 2-2 Jack Powell the Newton Heath captain refused to play extra time ……with the result that the club was barred from the FA Cup for the next three years!
The Football league was formally founded in 1888 with two Divisions , Newton Heath LYR was not invited to join, instead forming a combination league with other clubs. This did not work out too well and was disbanded after 3 years during which crowds only averaged around 3,000 compared to the 10,000 average in the more established and organised football league.
To make matters worse due to the high costs of maintenance and improvements at the North Road stadium the Railway Company no longer wanted to support the team and so the new club name became Newton Heath FC dropping the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway reference.
In the 1891/92 season there was an agreement that the top two clubs from the Alliance combination as the league was now known were to gain promotion to the Football League and at the end of that season, Nottingham Forrest and Newton Heath were duly promoted.
Through the sale of shares at £1 each the newly named Newton Heath FC were able to clear their debts, but since the new landlord decided to raise the rent on the North End Road stadium, as it had become known, the club decided it needed a new home.
The 1893/4 season was a significant one in the short history of the club, they had moved not too far away to Bank Street with a potential capacity of 50,000, equally as important was the fact that they were now part of the Football League and crowds increased significantly to average 8,000 which was a huge increase especially considering the clubs main rivals Ardwick AFC later to become Manchester City, averaged around 3,000, it seems little has changed in the intervening 130 years.
The teams that occupied the First and Second division were almost exclusively from the working towns of the Midlands and Northern England, the one exception being Woolwich Arsenal who joined in 1893/4.
After the first season Newton Heath maintained their place in Division One, in the following season however they were relegated and although they had developed a loyal support amongst many in East Manchester, after 8 years in division two average spectator numbers had dropped to around 4,400.
By 1902 the club was bankrupt with debts of £2,600, or a quarter of a million pounds equivalent, they could scarcely afford to keep playing, the club was at a crossroads once again.
At this point a brewery owner, John Henry Davies headed a group of businessmen who acquired the club and renamed it Manchester United FC.
Although some of the long term fans may have been sad at the renaming of the club and a break with the links to the Railway workers, many it is believed, would of welcomed the significant investment that was immediately made in the club and quickly this provided an upturn in the fortunes of …..United.
Only three years after bankruptcy the new players brought in delivered promotion to Division One with an impressive average home crowd of 16,000.
The spectacular rise of United continued and with new players who were some of the very best around at the time including Billy Meredith, Alec Turnbull and Herbert Burgess the team went on to win their first Division One Championship in 1907/8 and a year later in 1909 the FA Cup. The team was welcomed home by a parade in front of 300,000 people, and the average gate in the championship season was 22,500.
Another significant event took place in 1907 and it is very likely that most if not all of the new United supporters took no notice of it whatsoever!
United became a Limited Liability Company, which in lay man terms meant that John Davies as a Director of the new company could borrow money through the company without any personal responsibility. Indeed to this day the same Limited nature exists for many businesses including football clubs, for better or worse.
Manchester United was by no means unique in this development, many had gone down the same Limited Company route, football clubs had become companies and were managed accordingly.
In 1896 the FA had restricted the payment of dividends to 5%, and the investors were mostly well meaning local business people, who wanted to give something back to their community with their investments.
Without changing the football clubs into Limited Liability Companies the commercialisation of football would have been impossible. As a result people were no longer members of Manchester United but partners or shareholders.
Football at the start of the 20th century had attracted the interest of the general public like no other sport and in terms of actual match attendance no other game could equal Football’s popularity, primarily, but not exclusively, amongst the working classes.
The reasons lie in the simplicity of the sport. The enthusiasm of the players and the passion of the spectators, the game was a regulated competition which takes place through its rules in a relatively civilised way.
Add to this the colours of the jersey and the very strong community links, the sport became a huge pressure release valve for tens of thousands of very hard working people who in their day to day existence had little or no social life or entertainment, along with next to no control over their lives and working conditions. Their team through achieving success gave the working men and women a genuine sense of achievement and pride, which they could express loudly and raucously cheering on their heroes on the field of play.
Football can be played without a great deal of equipment, and more or less anywhere in rudimentary form, it has simple rules which, apart from offside require little or no explanation.
In addition football promotes and demands solidarity and a feeling of togetherness.
The move to Old Trafford-1909
The high increase in spectators and the bad ground conditions in Bank Street caused the board and John Davies to reach the momentous decision that the club should move to the opposite side of Manchester, adjacent to the huge and growing employment area of Trafford Park, and so in 1909 a further milestone occurred and he provided £60,000 to build Old Trafford.
The new stadium site is still Manchester United’s home today and initially offered space for 80,000 spectators. The sum of £60,000 corresponds to around £5 million today.
John Davies would not have been a businessman, had he not derived some extra benefit from the larger stadium. As a brewery owner he had each weekend a large number of potential customers, who bought his beer at Old Trafford and thus brought significant extra profits. But just as today when a new facility is provided in an area many other local businesses also benefitted from the development of Old Trafford.
The financial support of John Davies brought Manchester United the nickname, Moneybags United from their rivals, but their success was a genuine source of pride for the working class Mancunians who were the bedrock of the clubs support.
The first game in the new stadium on 19 February 1910 against Liverpool was lost 3-4 in front of 45,000 spectators, but the period from 1907 until 1911 was to be the first “Golden Era” of Manchester United.
Under Ernest Mangnall, the first team manager, the championship was won twice and the Charity Shield and the FA Cup once each.
Mangnall left however in 1912 to manage their city rivals and arch-enemy Manchester City.
This was a significant blow from which the club took some time to recover.
In spite of the lack of success in the seasons after Mangnall’s departure the average spectator numbers remained over 20,000 in the first season and 13,000 prior to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914.
However the diminishing spectator receipts and the falling away of any kind of income during the First World War brought Manchester United into a tense financial position, since the running costs for Old Trafford still had to be paid.
The Football League was interrupted between 1914 and 1918 because of World War I. In the last complete season Manchester United narrowly escaped relegation to Division Two.
As was however later established, the game between Manchester United and Liverpool had been manipulated by the players. The United players Alec Turnbull, Arthur Walley and Enoch West had sought to top up their wages, at that time around £5 per week, with bets on the result, but they were discovered, reported and banned for life.
The ban on Arthur Walley however was lifted 4 years later at the end of the First World War because of his military service to the country. Enoch West’s ban was not and his descendants still challenge this decision to the present day.
Alec Turnbull died during World War I.
On 30 August 1919 the Football League started its regular programme again. After the break due to the war the popularity of football raised again rapidly, the population naturally desperate to put the horrors of war behind them.
Manchester United in the first season after the war had an average crowd of around 28,000, although the team only finished twelfth. It was not just spectator numbers that grew significantly in the post war era but also playing participation rocketed, with the resultant expansion of the number of semi or professional clubs.
In 1921/22 there were 74 leagues and over 200 football clubs under the administration of the Lancashire FA alone!
The public who made up these large post war crowds at games were a broad range from the lower middle class down to the most poorly paid factory worker, but they all equally embraced what they regarded as “their” team.
On the pitch Manchester United had a difficult time after the First World War. Only two players from the pre-war period were in the starting eleven of the first league game of the 1919/20 season and Billy Meredith had his best days behind him. Unsurprisingly Manchester United was relegated to Division Two and did not manage to return to Division One until the summer of 1925.
The first successful period in the history of Manchester United was over. The fans despite this remained faithful to the club. 24,000 spectators on average attended during the three years in Division Two, this level of determined support would not be tested again for a further 50 years.
A video clip showing the Captains of United from early days.
The years between the wars were not only hard for Manchester United in a sporting sense, as the club had deep financial problems as well. After the death of the principal shareholder John Henry Davies in 1927 the club desperately sought a new source of finance.
In December 1931 James W. Gibson, a Manchester businessman took an interest in Manchester United and declared himself prepared to pay all the outstanding bills of the club. In addition he had himself nominated as president and asked the board to resign. The board, having little or no option, agreed to this request.
Gibson set up a new board, the limit of dividend pay-outs had already been raised from 5% to 7.5% by 1920.
However this was just one way a Director of any club could, and did, profit from being on the board. Depending on which type of business one had, the main shareholder firms may produce the jerseys, build new stands, awarding contracts to their own or closely tied companies or looked after the provision of food and drink, and thus create a variety of significant extra revenues in addition to the dividend.
The start of the 1930s brought the Depression, especially to the industrial workers’ of cities like Manchester and this had a real effect. The unemployment rate for men was around 17.5% in the early 1930s.
Not until the renewed rearmament programme before the Second World War did unemployment fall back to around 10% in 1940. As the clubs site is adjacent to Trafford Park it was something of a barometer for the economic health of the nation.
The 1930’s was a difficult time for both United and the country in general and it is fair to say that their great local rivals, City, enjoyed greater success and at times, support during this era, but United’s new owner was determined to reverse this situation.
Gibson was however not just a source of money for United but also a visionary. It was due to him that Old Trafford had its own railway stop directly behind the main stand.
James W. Gibson is also co-responsible for the success after the Second World War.
Together with Manchester United fans, Gibson founded the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, the club’s first youth section. The MUJAC was led by club secretary Walter Crickmer, who had brought Gibson to United, and by former co-trainer Louis Rocca.
Also in the 1930’s the start of Radio transmissions of football matches in England began and became popular with those who could afford this new luxury item.
BBC radio had been transmitting football matches and other sports events live since the 1920s. In 1936 the BBC for the first time regularly transmitted a sports programme and only two years later followed the first worldwide live broadcast of pictures of a football match. Sport in general, but especially football, was thus made available to an even broader mass of people and brought in more spectators to clubs like Manchester United.
The Birth of the Busby Babes
With young talents from the youth programme Manchester United managed to be promoted in 1938 to Division One, in which United were to stay for 36 years, interrupted only by WW2.
The promotion had been achieved, notably, with a large number of young talented players like the Irishman Johnny Carey. The spectator income had also increased again thanks to the improved sporting performances. In the last two complete seasons before the start of the war an average 28,500 spectators came to the home games at Old Trafford.
The war left its mark on the whole of Europe, nor was the industrial city of Manchester spared. During an air raid German bombers had destroyed Old Trafford, which had been used as a depot and was adjacent to a prime target, Trafford Park, this made an immediate return after the war impossible with repair costs of around £22,500.
The first game back at Old Trafford would not take place until 24th August 1949 in front of 41,748 spectators, Manchester United won against Bolton Wanderers.
Between 1945 and 1949 Manchester United carried out their home games in the stadium of rivals Manchester City. Per year they had to pay a fee of £5,000 as well as a percentage of ticket sales as costs.
With the restart of the Football League in 1946 there was a new coach at Manchester United, Matt Busby.
Busby, who had joined the club straight after the War in 1945, immediately started a new and revolutionary way to build and run a team as Manager and first team coach.
He took an active part in team training, wanted to decide himself about buying and selling players and negotiated a five year contract for himself. The 36 year old did not rely on established players but gave the club a new, young face.
The systematic youth work quickly paid off. Between 1947 and 1951 Manchester United were four times runners-up in the Football League Division 1 and secured the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s history in 1948.
“You have fulfilled my greatest ambition.” said James W. Gibson after the FA Cup triumph to Matt Busby.
In 1952 Manchester United won the English championship for the second time after 4 years. This title would not have been possible without the work of James W. Gibson
Tragically, Gibson died in 1951, a few months before Manchester United became champions.
His death ended a period with few trophies, but of immense importance for the further development of Manchester United. His son Alan, a member of the board, and his wife Lillian retained the family shares in Manchester United.
The hunt for titles and the attractive way of playing, brought the fans back to Old Trafford. In season 1947/48 more than one million spectators came to the Manchester United home games, which freed the club from its debts. At the time prior to almost all forms of commercial activity, attendance at matches was almost the sole form of income, and so it was the positive vibrant football provided by Matt Busby’s team which created a spiral of growth and success for the club, a very sharp contrast to some modern day football successes!
The rise in spectator numbers can also be attributed to the economic situation in post-war England. Unemployment was low, people had money, but few possibilities of spending it. Also after the war years the desire for entertainment and pleasant leisure activities was understandably high, with many United fans employed in large factories carrying out repetitive mundane work.
No wonder once Saturday came the chance to watch their team and perhaps have a glass of beer or two with your mates was very inviting. Although football supporters were largely male this was not the whole story and women and girls attended in significant numbers.
As quickly however as the boom had come, it gradually subsided. At the start of the 1950’s the spectator average at United had fallen to around 40,000. This can be explained by the fact that television played an increasingly important role and that the BBC in 1954 began the programme “Sportsview”, which showed the highlights of all games, and thus going to the actual live match for the first time ever was no longer the only way to follow your team.
The team, around coach Matt Busby was once again rejuvenated after the 1951 championship.
Instead of investing a lot of money in established players, Matt Busby brought in young, hungry players and formed a new team.
The “Busby Babes” were born. Two further championships in seasons 1955/56 and 1956/57 followed with a team whose average age was 22 and the pride of Matt Busby. As he said “In all modesty ,my summing up of 1955/6 and 1956/7 must be that no club in the country could live with Manchester United. “
The championship title of season 1955/56 made Manchester United the first English team to take part in the European Cup of Champions. The competition had been held for the first time in season 1954/55, but the Football League had forbidden champions Chelsea from taking part.
The introduction of the European Champions Cup made an invention vital, without which football today would be inconceivable: floodlights.
Only with the installation of a floodlight system in the broad area of the stadium was it possible to carry out this competition.
The officials of the Football League did not agree with the participation of Manchester United, but Matt Busby had convinced the club’s board of the potential importance of the tournament and it overruled the Football League and in the first year United went out in the semi-final to Real Madrid.
From a sporting and financial point of view the European Champions’ Cup was a success for Manchester United. For the home games in the main round against Borussia Dortmund, Athletic Bilbao and Real Madrid, Old Trafford with an average of around 70,000 was well filled and brought money into the club.
Through its title defence Manchester United took part once again the following season in the European Cup of Champions, but failed to get past AC Milan in the semi-final. However Manchester United’s sporting performance became secondary.
The away games in the European Cup could only be reached by air, as the European Cup games were always held on Wednesday evenings, and United had to play in the First Division on Saturdays. Air traffic was at this time still in its infancy and a thoroughly risky business.
On the return flight from the quarter-final in Belgrade on 6 February 1958 the Manchester United plane landed for a fuel stop in Munich. The take-off had to be twice interrupted because of snow and slush on the runway, the pilot carried out a third take-off attempt. The plane did not reach the necessary speed, shot across the runway through a fence, brushed the side of a house and came to rest at a hut in which a commercial vehicle exploded because of the crash.
Eight players and press representatives, the club secretary Walter Crickmer, two members of the coaching staff as well two further passengers, one of whom could of changed the future history of the club, died in the disaster, which achieved a sad celebrity as the “Munich Air Disaster”.
Matt Busby himself nearly died, and was so seriously injured that he abandoned coaching for the rest of the season.
Out of tragedy – a new United emerged.
Up until the events at Munich, United were a large and successful club with strong support throughout the City of Manchester and probably stretching as far as Cheshire, up into Lancashire and maybe even into West Yorkshire, but that was the extent of the fan base.
This was the 1950’s, road and transport links were rudimentary and somewhat unreliable, besides, every town and City in England had their own club whom the locals would get passionately behind, so they had no need or desire to look further afield for a club to support.
The 6th February 1958 saw all this change, the outpouring of grief and sympathy spread not just across Britain but even into Europe itself.
How could this majestic team so full of pride, ambition and youthful vibrancy have been so quickly destroyed. Over the months and years following the tragedy many people from London to Berlin and Stockholm would follow the story of United with a new interest, and in many cases, genuine passion.
This book is primarily concerned with all matters around United off the pitch, and there can be no doubt that the experience of either the contributors themselves or their parents after the Munich Air Disaster was at least partially responsible for their lifelong passion for all things United.
The club released the following statement
“United will go on…the club has a duty to the public and a duty to football. We shall carry on even if it means that we are heavily defeated. Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded, we believe that our great days are not done for us. The road back may be long and hard but with the memory of those who died at Munich, of their stirring achievements and wonderful sportsmanship ever with us, Manchester United will rise again.“
Manchester United’s Busby Babes were all but obliterated in the tragedy, but football much as life in general is not about purely physical presence and supreme talent, although now legendary players such as the peerless Duncan Edwards had died, something completely new was born, a passion, belief and sheer desire to achieve, not just amongst Matt Busby, or the indomitable Welshmen Jimmy Murphy who had took over the reins at the moment of the disaster but perhaps more importantly amongst all those both within Manchester and across Britain who were forever deeply connected with the club through their incredible support.
Although he took much persuasion once he was on the road to recovery Matt Busby became convinced that his plan of bringing young talent through the ranks alongside seasoned top professionals could once again yield rich rewards for the club, so alongside Bobby Charlton, a Munich survivor, in 1960 Denis Law was added, bought from Torino.
Success inevitably was far from instant, indeed in 1962/63 Manchester United were almost relegated, but in the same season they reached and won the FA Cup Final in front of 100,000 spectators against Leicester City.
Matt Busby’s ideas and hard work bore more fruit over the following five years, the first glorious period of the post war era for United.
Manchester United were runners up in season 1963/64, the previous year’s FA Cup success presumably giving the squad the confidence to challenge well, but also thanks to no less than 46 goals from Denis Law, the newly crowned King of the Stretford End!
After two championship in the years 1964/65 and 1966/67 as well as a fourth place in 1965/66, there followed the culmination of what should have been an impossible dream on a balmy May evening in 1968 for Matt Busby, soon afterwards Sir Matt Busby.
United beat Benfica by 4 goals to 1…….as recalled in this often sung song by the United faithful.
We went down to Wembley one fine day in May
The united fans were all gathered, so happy and gay
And when it was over, and when it was done
We’d beaten Benfica by 4 goals to 1
The first came from Bobby, he out jumped the rest
The second was scored, by wee George best
A roaring, a roaring, and a roaring we did
When the third was scored by young Brain Kidd
A roaring, a roaring, a roaring for more
When Bobby obliged with goal number 4
The team to remember, the team to recall
Is the Great Man United, the best of them all
So ends the history lesson, with only scant detail regarding the lives and social conditions of the fans who stood by the club during the previous ninety years of turmoil and success.
Although inevitably events on the field will enter into the contexts of the periods discussed in the next 50 years from 1966-2016, it is the experiences and changing nature of the fans, and how they interact with the club and Football authorities that will be focused on, these people, it should be remembered were often the grandsons and daughters of those who were at Bank Street or pre war Old Trafford, “their” story about “their” club has for too long remained ignored or untold.