100 Owners: Number 87 – Louis Edwards (Manchester United)

By on Jul 23, 2012 in History, Latest | 0 comments

It has, in recent years, become standard for some Manchester United supporters to sing songs regarding the death of Malcolm Glazer. The owner of the club inspires such extreme emotions amongst the clubs fan-base that it is possible to think that him and his family are the first group of individuals to have been involved in this club for reasons that may concern motives other than merely wanting to run a football club and global institution for its own betterment, but this is, of course, untrue and if we are to look back at the history of this club, it is arguably the involvement of another family which truly set Manchester United on the course to the position in which it finds itself today: the Edwards family.

The story of Louis Edwards and Manchester United is a story that begins and ends with death, and takes in en route luck, bullying, decline and the worst sort of public exposure. Edwards, however, was a fan of the club from childhood, so how did he end up beginning a succession that would end with one of the world’s great sporting institutions paying for its own take-over by speculators from the other side of the Atlantic ocean? The story begins a week before the Munich air disaster of 1958. Manchester United had travelled to London from Manchester by train the day before with the usual gaggle of clubs great and good in tow. One of these directors was George Whittaker, but Whittaker died in his sleep the night before the match. The following day, the players wore black arm bands and The Busby Babes won by five goals to four. No one, however, the could have guessed at the time that this would be this teams last match on British soil.

There was an obvious choice to replace Whittaker on the board of directors of the club. Willie Satinoff was a fanatical supporter of Manchester United who had made his fortune from the city’s cotton trade. He was close to manager Matt Busby and travelled to every single match, home and away. This devotion, however, caused him to travel to Belgrade with the team for their European Cup match against Red Star Belgrade, and on the sixth of February Satinoff was amongst the twenty people – a further three died in hospital – that perished as Flight 609 crashed through the fencing of Munich airport and destroyed the Busby Babes forever. Often forgotten as “just” a supporter, Satinoffs death that day would come to – perhaps – change the face of Manchester United Football Club in ways that could scarcely have even been comprehended at the time. The following day, a board of directors still in shock at the previous days events appointed Louis Edwards as a director.

Edwards was born in 1914, the son of a Salford butcher. He started work in the family business immediately after the end of his education, taking it over upon the death of his father in 1943. In the post-war years, Edwards rapidly expanded the business, opening new shops and taking on several lucrative wholesale contracts to supply meat. As his influence grew in social circles in Manchester during this time he sought to capitalise on this status through his lifelong obsession, Manchester United, but, although he became acquainted with most of those that ran the club, a place of actual control at Old Trafford eluded him until the deaths of Whittaker and Satinoff occurred in such quick succession.

Initially, Edwards seemed satisfied merely to be on the board of directors of the club, but with more money came greater ambition. He floated Louis Edwards & Sons in 1962 and made himself a considerable amount of money, and with this came the desire for a greater share-holding in the club and more control. Quietly, he bought up the shares of anybody that would sell theirs too him – his share-holding rose from just seventeen at the time of his appointment to over two thousand by the start of 1964 – to such a point that the other two main shareholders in the club at the time, chairman Harold Hardman and Alan Gibson, banned the three of them from purchasing further shares in order to prevent too much control building up in one set of hands. By the time of Hardmans death in 1965, however, Edwards owned over fifty per cent of the shares in the club and there was little to prevent him from becoming its next chairman.

He was taking control of a club that was at the vanguard of change in English football throughout the 1960s. Matt Busby had survived the Munich air disaster – just – and had built a team that was finally capable of fulfilling the promises of glory of which many had felt the Busby Babes to be capable. The club won the FA Cup in 1963 – despite finishing in nineteenth place in the league table – but the signing of new players such as George Best and Denis Law improved the teams fortunes, and Manchester United would make the next three successive FA Cup semi-finals while the Football League Championship came to Old Trafford in 1965 and 1967. The summit of the clubs ambition, however, came into sight in May 1968 when, on an emotionally charged evening in at Wembley Stadium, Busbys team – featuring two of the players that had survived the accident of ten years earlier, Bobby Charlton and Bill Foulkes – beat Benfica to win the European Cup – the first English club to do so. Developments off the pitch continued at a similar pace, with redevelopment of the United Road Stand in time for the 1966 World Cup finals. The club consulted the architects Mather & Nutter for the work, and the new stand was completed in 1965 at a cost of £350,000 with a cantilever roof offering unrestricted views for all and, significantly, British footballs first executive boxes.

The majority of the decade following the European Cup win, however, was one of decline for both Manchester United and the Edwards family business. Louis appointed his son, Martin (who had shown no previous inclination towards football, preferring rugby instead), to the board of directors at the age of just twenty-four in 1970, but the clubs decline after Matt Busby was shunted upstairs at the club and replaced by Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell and Tommy Docherty was apparent and United were relegated into the Second Division in 1974. They bounced back at the first attempt, but this wasn’t the only problem that Louis Edwards was having by this time. The family business was in trouble and, with money starting to run out, in 1978 Edwards brought in Professor Roland Smith, an academic and industrialist, to seek ways raise money, both for Manchester United and for the Edwards family.

Smiths plan was simple – a rights issue which gave every shareholder the opportunity to buy 208 £1 shares for every share held by existing shareholders – and Edwards and his sons increased their share-holding in the club to 74% as a result of it. Between 1978 and 1979 the dividends paid out to share-holders increased from £312 to £50,419. By the end of the decade, though, there were ominous signs in the air for Louis Edwards. Edwards had reneged on a promise to make Busbys son Sandy a director of the club even though he had appointed his own son as long ago as 1970, and investigative journalists from Granada Television were also taking an interest in his business dealings, both at Old Trafford and elsewhere. Broadcast nationally as part of the World In Action series on the twenty-eighth of January 1980, the programme was advertised in TV Times thus:

Investigates the unorthodox way Louis Edwards became majority shareholder of Manchester United using a series of secret cash payments and incorrect share transfer entries. Cash payments were also used in winning contracts for the Louis Edwards family meat business. Includes interviews with some of the previous shareholders and records a telephone conversation between Louis Edwards and the son of one such shareholder.

The programme alleged that not only had Edwards bribed officials in order to win lucrative contracts to supply the schools of Manchester, but the meat that he had supplied had been “condemned”, or unfit for human consumption. In addition to this, it also alleged that Edwards would bribe the parents of young players in order to bring them to Old Trafford. It was alleged that 1960s it was alleged that a bribe of £5,000 (which sounds relatively small by modern standards, but the equivalent now would be in excess of £180,000) was paid to the parents of Peter Lorimer, a promising young player who ended up signing for Leeds United instead, in order to try and secure his signature. The money was reportedly returned when Lorimer opted for Elland Road rather than Old Trafford, but it remained a clear and flagrant breach of FA rules.

The police were set to investigate the programmes allegations, but nature got in the way first. On the twenty-fifth of February 1980, just four weeks after the broadcast of the episode of World In Action that arguably ruined his reputation, Louis Edwards died from a heart attack. The police investigations were dropped, and Martin Edwards replaced him as chairman in the same year. “If Matt [Busby] had gone along with the rights issue”, Martin would later say, “World In Action would probably not have had a story, but the publicity from Matt opposing it got people interested and they started to dig.” Martin Edwards remains the honorary life president of Manchester United but was forced to resign as club chairman in 2002 after a strong of allegations which ended in Sunday Mirror allegations that he had “cavorted with a prostitute” after a Champions League draw in Geneva. Andy Walsh, then the chairman of the club Independent Supporters Association and now the General Manager of FC United of Manchester, said at the time that, “Martin Edwards continues to bring shame on the club. It is time his fellow directors told him he needs to go.”

It could be argued that the charges laid at Louis Edwards’ door were a case of trial by television, and we can only speculate as to what the result of any subsequent criminal investigation might have been, whilst the profiteering through share issues was something that ended up becoming increasingly commonplace when the FA relaxed its rules during the 1980s. To that extent, it is possible to see him as a trailblazer, even if he wasn’t necessarily blazing the sort of trails that we might not have wanted to see from the owners of our football clubs. More pertinently for Manchester United supporters, his chairmanship saw a dip in the clubs fortunes that it would take a considerable period of time to set straight. As a Manchester United supporter himself at Wembley on that balmy evening in May 1968, he would likely scarcely have believed that his club, the champions of Europe, wouldn’t win another league title in his lifetime, but this was how things ended up playing out for Louis Edwards. It is, perhaps, the ultimate irony that a man appointed to be a director of the club as a direct result of the Munich air disaster would oversee the decline of a club for whom the tragedy of that day would come to be such a defining moment.

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