“United’s ability to do well in League football was hit on the head by the action of a certain Herr Hitler, former painter in civilian life,” decreed the Manchester United match programme ahead of the club’s only ever league fixture previously played in June.
Stanley Matthews, a man with an almost incomparable legend in English football, turned out for United. He never had nor would he ever play for the Reds again. But needs must. This was ‘war football’ stretching on into the summer of 1940.
Churchill’s proclamation of war with Nazi Germany had come only a day after the second round of fixtures of the 1939/40 Football League season. Thus there were few concerns over the ‘integrity of the game’, a phrase that has become synonymous with Premier League football in 2020.
The Football League quickly abandoned its season with Blackpool sitting atop its First Division. Manchester United had opened their season in fine form, dispatching of Grimsby Town at Old Trafford with four goals and none in reply.
It was a peculiar time for a sleeping giant of English football. In early August of that year, Charlie Roberts, the club’s greatest captain, had died at the age of 56. The halcyon days which he led at United had passed on many decades before. United had done little of note since before the Great War, when Charlie had moved the short distance up the road to Oldham Athletic to see out his career. He carried on his business in East Manchester, though, a newsagent and tobacconist shop just a short walk from United’s old ground in Clayton. The business blossomed in the inter-war years and carried on flourishing until 1992 when it was forced to close after two arson attacks on successive nights.
Billy Meredith was one of the pallbearers at Charlie’s funeral. The Welsh great, widely accepted as the sport’s first superstar, was still involved at United to a certain extent, recommending players and doing bits of coaching and punditry here and there. When the Busby Babes came along in the 1950s, they’d often stop by Billy’s house in Withington to have a chat and pick his brains.
But Meredith and Roberts were both names that represented a past version of United. The club’s ground was in fact a bit of a white elephant. It had promised so much and was hailed at the time of its opening as the finest sporting arena in the world but in spite of its enormous capacity and unmatched architecture, crowds were pitifully petite. In the 1930/31 season, a year where the club’s funds were so tight that it had to cancel its tradition of buying its players their Christmas turkeys, the average attendance at this “fine old arena” was a mere 11,685.
It had, in fairness, recovered back up to 30,000 in the season preceding the war years, but nevertheless, Old Trafford had yet to ever be completely full.
“Well, well, well,” said the United programme as it welcomed fans for the final match of the West League, “What a team!”
With the Football League having quickly gone into hiding as war began, football was re-organised. The league was divided up into ten mini regional competitions, and the FA replaced the normal Cup with the Football League War Cup.
United’s West League brothers were from Lancashire, Merseyside, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with a couple of exceptions. Down in London, the Cockney sides were split across a number of Southern divisions, four to be precise. Arsenal became 1940 Champions of South League A.
Stanley Matthews was 25 at this point and labelled as “a star in himself, the greatest outside right since the days of Billy Meredith.”
The pre-war Matthews story is an unremarkable one in truth. It was his Cup final performance in 1953 that means his name is still as famous today as it was then. His ability to play into his 50s, as Billy Meredith almost did, also helps to construct his almost mythical tale. He had the peak of his career, in traditional terms, robbed by war. Matthews was 24 at the start of the war and so came out the other side as a 30-year-old.
Though a sunny day in Manchester, it was a mere 17 degrees compared to the 20+ expected when United travel to Tottenham Hotspur in 2020.
The United team was a cluttered goulash of players from across the country, a mixture of youth players from the blossoming MUJAC, the forerunner to the Academy, and stars who had been given short spells of leave from the army.
MUJAC stood for Manchester United Junior Athletic Club and was the working project of James W. Gibson, the benefactor who had saved the Reds in 1931 after Turkey-gate, Walter Crickmer, club secretary, and Louis Rocca, a second-generation Italian immigrant and all-round fixer who had held every role at the club since joining in 1892.
The three men brought together the best talent they could find from the surrounding areas and trained them up. Tom Manley was the first to break into the first team and Jackie Wassall, Johnny Carey, Stan Pearson and Johnny Hanlon all followed before the war.
Referred to by the programme only as the “national emergency” rather than ‘war’, United welcomed not only Stanley Matthews but also Alec Herd and Peter Doherty, both of whom were Manchester City players. Alec, who was the father of future United striker David Herd, was a Scottish international and a member of the 1934 Cup-winning side and 1937 title-lifting City team. While Alec made a rare and extraordinary appearance for United in 1940, six-year-old son David was at home. He joined United from Arsenal in 1961 and scored in an Inter-Cities Fairs Cup tie against Hungarian outfit Ferencvaros. Though David’s double in the first leg was at the very end of May, he started both the following games in Budapest which are the only other competitive fixtures that United have ever played in June.
Alec’s teammate Peter Doherty was a talented forward who would in later life discover Kevin Keegan playing for Scunthorpe United and recommend him to Bill Shankly’s Liverpool.
Raich Carter, real name Horatio Carter, was also involved in a “vanguard that should fear nothing.” Carter was a “bewildering clever” inside-forward who was stationed at Loughborough with the RAF. He had guided his hometown side, Sunderland, to the league title in 1936 and an FA Cup in 1937. After appearing for Derby, the local team to Loughborough, during the war, he signed for them, won the Cup again and became the only player to lift the FA Cup either side of the Second World War. Carter was also a first-class cricketer who batted with his right hand and bowled with his left.
Together with the brilliant Matthews, it was thought the star-studded forward line would present a serious challenge to a good Everton side. That wasn’t really the case. Herd’s shooting boots were missing and Matthews was restricted by Norman Greenhalgh.
The Goodison boys were the Football League’s most recent champions. They had also been champions in the final season before World War One leading to an oft-told joke from opposition fans that Everton always looked forward to wars.
In the last five minutes of the game, Stevenson scored an incredible hat-trick that offered an uncomplimentary result to United out of nowhere.
One man was conspicuous by his absence and that was Matt Busby.
Busby was, at this point, a right half-back for Liverpool who he had signed for from Manchester City some years previously. He had taken time to settle in at City but was a key figure in the 1934 FA Cup win. His time at Liverpool was cut short by war.
This was four-and-a-half years before Louis Rocca, United’s fixer, would pen a letter to Busby. “I have a great job for you if you are willing to take it on,” Rocca would write. It was the culmination of a long interest in Busby, who had been recommended to United’s chairman, James W. Gibson, by a friend, Captain Bill Williams, in charge of sport for the Southern Command of the Army. Gibson had been told about Busby by Williams during a visit to Dorset in 1942.
Two years earlier than even that leisure trip, the first connection had almost been made. “It is also hoped to include Matt Busby, the Liverpool and ex-City player, at right half back,” wrote “Casual” of the Manchester Evening Chronicle in the matchday programme.
Busby couldn’t play, though. He wasn’t given leave from the army and so it would be another five years before he returned to Manchester with his suitcases and plonked them down on the floor in Heaton Chapel at the home of Joe Armstrong, United’s chief scout and a friend of his. Busby rolled up his sleeves and began to rebuild a bombed Old Trafford with the help of Rocca, Walter Crickmer and Jimmy Murphy.
The builders who helped to re-construct the wrecked stadium used to spend their lunch breaks kicking a ball about on the pitch which did remain somewhat in tact despite the razed stands where pieces of metal grotesquely protruded into the sky. When football did return, United’s fans would pass hats round the ground, collecting money to help fund the rebuilding of this grand old stadium ruined by Nazi bombers. This was all in the future back in June 1940.
“I regard him as one of the most polished right half backs I have ever seen,” said the reporter. But it wasn’t to be then. Busby went on to make ‘guest appearances’ for Hibernian on a few occasions instead.
“I did not need any persuasion to play for such a great club,” Busby said, “the Hibs result is still one of the first I look for.”
The Scot played as much as he could during the war, knowing his playing career was its end. But duties with the army meant he missed more than just an end-of-season game for United against Everton. Though he tried to turn out for Hibs regularly and made an impressive 40 appearances in total, he missed the club’s famous 8-1 wartime trouncing of Rangers who have never again been beaten so emphatically.
In Edinburgh, Busby became good friends with Gordon Smith who broke through as a 16-year-old during the war when he scored a hat-trick on his debut. As Smith was rewarded for his brilliance with a testimonial in 1952, Busby took his United side, recently crowned English champions for the first time since 1911, to Edinburgh for a dramatic ‘friendly’ game.
United led 3-2 at half-time but ended up as 7-3 losers. Although 10 goals had been scored, another three were disallowed, United missed a penalty and both sides missed multiple chances. The Edinburgh Evening News insisted that Hibs had, in the second half, “proceeded to reach the heights of football perfection and pugnacity.”
Busby also turned out for Reading, Chelsea and Aldershot during the war, the closest teams to his station in England. It’s a shame he didn’t get leave to play for Manchester United, but he kept in touch with Louis Rocca.
The pair had developed into close friends through their joint-membership of Manchester’s Catholic community. Rocca leant on the footballing knowledge of the local Catholic priests for recommendations as to which schoolboys to sign for MUJAC. Eventually, the letter would come from Rocca to bring Busby to United as manager.
The North Lanarkshire man would demand more control over United than almost any other manager had enjoyed in football. James W. Gibson was convinced by his philosophy and bought into it. By 1952 when United went up to Edinburgh, the extent to which that had paid off by obvious. The average crowd at Old Trafford was up to almost 50,000 by then.
It is worth nothing quite how remarkable it is, then, that once again Manchester United will play a league fixture in June. The club has been a member of the Football League for nigh on 130 years but this is only their second match in June. This time, though, they certainly will not be welcoming City’s stars of the day into their team.