Modern-day fans might find it hard to believe, but there was a time when Manchester United were in such dire financial difficulties it seemed to be just a matter of time before they would have to resign from the Football League and probably go out of business.
On 29th October 1929, the bottom finally dropped out of the US stock market, wiping $18,000million off the value of US companies. Despite a rally during the early months of 1930, confidence again slipped and by June the market was in a downward spiral that would last unabated for twenty-five months. The Wall Street Crash rippled around the world and the UK was soon gripped by the worst economic depression of the twentieth century.
It was the perfect storm. The sudden fall in export orders to the US combined with tough competition from overseas competitors for our traditional industries of coal mining, shipbuilding and iron and steel making, contributed to a sharp rise in unemployment in the UK. Additionally, the Lancashire cotton industry was hit by the boycott of British goods called by Mahatma Ghandi of the Indian Congress Party as part of the demand for independence.
Between 1931 and 1935, Government economic cuts resulted in dole (unemployment benefit) rates being set at survival level. For example, a man with a wife and three children to support received just 29/3d (around £83 in 2023).
With little money to spare, attendances at many League grounds fell, even when some of the clubs slashed admission prices. A club suffering a run of poor results could expect to see attendances fall off.
On Monday, 26th October 1931, a headline in the Liverpool Daily Echo read: WIGAN BORO F.C. RESIGN. ‘Wigan Borough FC cannot satisfy the Management Committee of the Football League of their ability to overcome their financial difficulties, and accordingly resigned Football League membership today.
A club to take over Wigan Borough’s remaining fixtures has not been named but Manchester Central FC, who have a large ground, have been talked of as successors.’
The first team ever to resign mid-season, Wigan’s liability was put at £30,000 (approx. £1.67 million in 2023). Back then, this was a massive sum that even Division One clubs would find hard to service in such straightened times, let alone a side from the Third Division North. Wigan’s 30,000 capacity ground at Springfield Park was amongst the largest in the Football League, but a run of defeats home and away had seen attendances fall and besides there was strong competition locally from Rugby League. Having lost eight of the twelve League fixtures played so far, Wigan’s appeal for financial support fell on deaf ears and the offers received amounted to less than £1200. Though the League team was disbanded, Wigan Borough continued with its Lancashire Combination fixtures.
So, who were Manchester Central?
For nearly one hundred years, Belle Vue had been a popular entertainment centre for the people of the North West in general and Manchester in particular. Beginning as a Zoological Gardens, it was famed for its innovations; firework display spectaculars; the first greyhound meeting in the UK; the first motorcycle speedway (then known as dirt track racing). So why not a professional League football team?
In 1928, Belle Vue managing director John Iles and Manchester City FC director John Ayrton formed Manchester Central FC in the belief that East Manchester needed its own League football club, though initially the team would play in the Lancashire Combination. On 11 June, the John Ayrton placed an advertisement for players in the Athletic News. ‘State full particulars – clubs played for, wages, weight and height.’ The following month, the club was registered with £5000 of capital made up from 1500 founders paying five shillings (25p) each and 4625 shares of £1 each.
Among the players who would don a Central shirt were the former St Mirren and Manchester City wing half Charlie Pringle, the former Bolton Wanderers and Manchester City inside forward Frank Roberts and the Welsh international Stan Davies.
Central’s greatest signing however was the legendary Billy Meredith as the club’s coach. One of the greatest outside rights of all time and one of the earliest football superstars, Meredith made his League debut as an amateur player for Manchester City on Saturday, 27 October 1894, in their away fixture against Newcastle United. Meredith, who was a coal miner, had pulled a full shift down the pit before catching the train to Newcastle at 2.00am on the Saturday morning. He arrived in Newcastle at 11.00am, played the game then set off home, arriving at 10.30am on the Sunday morning. That night he worked a full shift down the pit. In 1905 he was suspended following a bribes and illegal payments scandal that almost brought City to its knees. In 1906 he joined Manchester United, making a total of 332 appearances and scoring 35 goals. He rejoined City for the 1921-22 season. Meredith holds a unique ‘double’ in that he was oldest player to play in a League game for Manchester United – against Derby County on 7 May 1921, when he was 46 years 281 days old, and the oldest player to play for Manchester City in the FA competition, when he appeared in their 1923-24 semi-final against Newcastle United, aged 49 years 245 days.
With cash in the bank, Central made an immediate application to join the Football League for the 1929-30 season, but failed as York City was elected in place of Ashington FC and Hartlepools was re-elected to the Third Division North. However, Central’s first team was admitted to the Lancashire Combination League whilst the reserve side was admitted to the Cheshire County League. Central’s first season in the Lancashire Combination saw them finish runners up to Lancaster Town, the reserves in 15th position in the Cheshire County.
During the 1929-30 FA Cup competition, Central defeated Hurst 1-3; Marine 7-1 and Runcorn 1-0. In Qualifying Round Three, it took a replay to defeat Prescot Cables before they went on to beat Shirebrook 2-4 in Qualifying Round Four. Central then faced Midland League opposition in the shape of Mansfield Town at Mansfield. Central won 0-2. In Round Two, they drawn at home to Wrexham of the Third Division North. On paper, the game could have gone either way and in the end Wrexham won 0-1.
Central applied to join the Football League for the 1930-31 season, but both Halifax Town and Barrow were re-elected. There followed an application to join the Football League for the 1931-32 season. Rochdale and Nelson were up for re-election, but again Central’s hopes were again dashed when Rochdale secured enough votes and Chester FC were elected in place of Nelson.
When manager Herbert Bamlett took over at Old Trafford in April 1927, Manchester United were struggling to find their form. Promoted to the First Division, they had finished the 1925-26 season in a respectable ninth place and had reached the semi-final of the FA Cup, losing 0-3 to Manchester City at Bramall Lane. Home gates were reasonable, the highest being 48,657 against Manchester City on 23 January 1926; the lowest, 9116 against Cardiff City on 28 April.
The 1926-27 season under caretaker player-manager Clarence Hilditch was not inspiring. It ended with United in 15th position in the First Division, as well as going out in the Round Three of the FA Cup to Second Division side, Reading. During his tenure, Bamlett brought in new players such as centre forward Tommy Reid from Liverpool and inside left Harry Rowley from non-League Shrewsbury Town. Even though the pair of them frequently found the back of the net, they were unable to stop United’s slide and relegation became a reality at the end of a disastrous the 1930-31 season. Starved of success, United did not manage to pick up even a single point until 1 November, when they beat Birmingham City 2-0 at Old Trafford. Prior to that, they had lost 2-6 away at Chelsea and been hammered 0-6 at home by Huddersfield Town. On 13 September at Old Trafford, Tommy Reid scored at hat-trick and Harry Rowley found the net to make it 4 goals for United. The only trouble was Newcastle United scored 7 in reply.
Their last three home fixtures of the 1930-31: a 4-1 win over Liverpool, a 0-1 defeat at the hands of Blackburn Rovers, and a thrill a minute 4-4 draw with Middlesbrough, attracted a combined gate of just 18,442 fans, including away team supporters. United amassed just 22 points from 42 games, leaving them nine points adrift of the other team to be relegated, Leeds United. United parted company with Herbert Bamlett and club secretary Walter Crickmer and Louis Rocca took charge of the of team until a new manager could be appointed.
In their opening home fixture for the 1931-32 season, against Southampton on 2nd September, just 3507 fans passed through the turnstiles. Three days later, the home game against Swansea Town brought a gate of 6763. When the news broke that Wigan Borough had resigned from the League, United had played twelve fixtures, having won three, drawn four and lost five. Up to then their biggest gate had been the 10,834 fans who had handed over their hard to come by cash to watch the 3-1 win over Chesterfield on 26 September.
On Tuesday 27 October, the Manchester Guardian newspaper confirmed that Manchester Central would be applying to the League to take over Wigan’s fixtures, though Nelson FC who had lost their place in the League the pervious season might also apply. As it was, only Central and Merthyr Town put in applications. Some papers soon carried reports that Central’s application had been accepted by the Third Division North. However, both Manchester City and Manchester United made a formal complaint that Central’s admission to the Football League would further damage Manchester United. The League backed City and United and Central’s application was refused.
The League decided to expunge Wigan’s record. It was to be as if the games had never been played.
Wigan Borough wasn’t the only League side suffering from a lack of finances. Newport County were having problems finding sufficient cash to pay players’ wages; Rochdale FC were on the brink of calling a special meeting to decide whether they too could continue in the League and the secretary of Walsall was on the verge of resigning, worn out by the financial burden.
For Manchester United, things came to a head the following month when their bank refused the club further credit. The club’s liabilities were thought to be around £30,000 and United’s future was hanging in the balance.
During the first week of January 1932, the club appealed for public support to create a £25,000 trust fund solely to procure new players. A week later, donations from the people of Manchester had failed to reach even £100.
It was then that local businessman James Gibson came to the rescue. He offered an immediate a cash injection to pay pressing debts and meet the wages bill and to make a further funds available for United to buy players. On 21 December, Gibson clarified his position. “Though I have decided to see the United through this coming month, I am not a milch cow.” He didn’t blame the fans for staying away and much that was wrong with the club had been the direct result of the policy of United’s former board of management. The old board had resigned on 19 January, and a new one that included Gibson had been appointed.
He went on. “I am at the head of the United now and if the public will back me up and give me any justification for carrying on, I will assure them that the United will not fail.” He then said he would cover the club’s estimated expenditure for January 1932 of £1925 (approx. £110,000 in 2023). Gibson also pointed out the need for a new manager.
The former Dumbarton, Glasgow Rangers and Newcastle United player Adam Scott Duncan was appointed United’s secretary-manager in August 1932, at a salary estimated to be £800 (approx. £45,700 in 2023), though Gibson was prepared to go as high as £1000 a year for the right man.
During his first two seasons in charge, Scott Duncan spent lavishly on new talent. Among the new arrivals were: John Griffiths and left half Billy McKay from recently relegated Bolton Wanderers; centre forward Ernest Hine from Huddersfield Town; forward George Mutch came from Arbroath for £800, and Bert Whalley from Staleybridge Celtic. Even so, United only just avoided relegation in 1933-34, finishing the season in 20th position. However, Scott Duncan’s appointment paid off and United finished the 1935-36 season as Second Division champions.
And what of Manchester Central? Unable to gain admission to the Football League Central’s finances were suffering too. On Wednesday, 1 June 1932, the Northern Daily Mail reported that the club had called an extraordinary general meeting for 22 June, at which shareholders would be asked to pass the following resolution: That the company cannot, by reason of its liabilities, continue its business and that it is advisable to wind up. After less than five years, Central disappeared into the history books. Had it not been for the generosity of James Gibson, Manchester United might no longer exist.