Charlie Roberts would become the first ever Manchester United player to represent England. He was brought in by Harry Stafford (the subject of episode two of United Through Time) in a game-changing transfer for Manchester’s football scene. It was a sign that the new Reds in town meant business and could do that business well.
United chairman JJ Bentley was also chairman of the Football League. It was a fact that often caused quite significant controversy, although Bentley was actually a Bolton fan.
Bentley travelled down to London with the Manchester City party in his role as Football League boss. The Blues of Manchester were going to play in the FA Cup Final of 1903. Unbeknown to them, Bentley had arranged an appointment at the plush Holborn restaurant in London. He was meeting with Mr Joseph Bellows, the chairman of Grimsby Town.
Grimsby had a fantastic central defender called Charlie Roberts. He was the sought-after man of English football. Everyone wanted him, including City. While Bentley and Bellows met in London, Harry Stafford was on the end of a telephone line with Charlie Roberts beside him. He had gone on what was called a ‘fishing trip’ and managed to catch Roberts rather than a pike or a cod.
The deal was done for £600, Stafford got Roberts’ signature and the following morning, on Cup final day, Stafford took Roberts to Manchester. While City were ‘distracted’ by becoming the first Mancunian club to win the Cup, United had pounced and it was a sign that things might be beginning to shift very slightly in Manchester.
Later that day, Roberts made his debut in a 2-0 home win against Burton United. He was 6ft, a mountainous man for the era, and wore short shorts, much to the frustration of the Football Association. Everyone else at the time was wearing shorts down below their knees.
Roberts went on to play 302 times for Manchester United in central defence. He formed part of the ‘Ducrobell’ back line of Duckworth-Roberts-Bell which had a brand of cigar named after it.