As Bad As Things Got: Manchester United, 5th May 1934
At a time when there is a concerted effort going on to preserve the currently biggest clubs at the top of the Premier League, it’s probably worth taking a moment to remember that, even for the most successful of all, life hasn’t always been days of wine and roses. Five of the current “Big Six” have spent time in the second tier since the end of the Second World War, and one of them, Manchester City, has spent a season in the third, as well.
Manchester United’s successes have largely come about during two periods during which they were managed by visionaries who stayed. Eighteen of their twenty league championships, ten of their twelve FA Cups, and all three of their Champions League titles have come under the managerships of Matt Busby (1945-1969) and Alex Ferguson (1986-2013), with the periods before, between, between and after these periods being substantially more fallow.
The years between the two world wars were particularly difficult for the club. Manchester United didn’t win a major trophy between the Football League championship in 1911 and the FA Cup in 1948, and they spent just ten of the twenty years between 1919 and 1939 in the First Division of the Football League. Their highest league position during this entire period was a ninth placed finish in 1926, and that season saw them reach their only FA Cup semi-final of this period as well, losing 3-0 to Manchester City at Bramall Lane.
The club resumed their place in the Football League Division One in 1919, but were relegated three years later in bottom place, having recorded just eight league wins all season. It was a season of heavy interruption for the club. Manager Jack Robson retired on ill-health grounds in October 1921 and died of pneumonia less than three months later. His replacement, John Chapman, arrived at Old Trafford after fifteen years managing the Scottish club Airdrieonians, but was unable to stop the slump on the pitch. Following relegation, their first season back in the Second Division saw them miss out on promotion by three points, and the following season they slumped to fourteenth place, but in 1925 Chapman managed to get United back into the First Division, as runners-up behind champions Leiecester City, despite having scored just 57 goals in 42 league matches.
A return to the First Division, however, didn’t cure the ills that had blighted the club since the the post-war return. Their first season back saw their highest league finish since 1913 (it would be their highest league finish until League football returned for the 1946/47 season), but the following season brought a fresh crisis when, on the 7th October 1926, the FA announced that Chapman had been suspended from “taking part in football or football management” for the 1926/27 season “for improper conduct in his position as Secretary-Manager of the Manchester United Football Club”. No further explanation for this suspension was ever given.
United had little alternative but to relieve Chapman of his duties and wing-half Lal Hilditch replaced him for the remainder of the season, becoming the club’s first player-manager in the process. He could only ease the team to fifteenth place in the table by the end of the 1926/27 season, but worse was ahead. Hilditch was replaced by Herbert Bamlett, a former referee, and for those with long enough memories, it was a controversial decision. In 1909, Bamlett refereed an FA Cup fourth round match between Manchester United and Burnley, but called the game off to to heavy snow with only 18 minutes left and Burnley leading by a goal to nil. United won the rearranged game 3–2 and went on to win the FA Cup for the first time.
Bamlett was an experienced manager, with previous spells at Oldham Athletic, Wigan Borough and Middlesbrough, but his arrival at Old Trafford was to coincide with events that would stifle his chances of reviving Manchester United’s fortunes. Brewery owner John Henry Davies had been the saviour of Manchester United a quarter of a century earlier. Newton Heath were labouring under a £2,670 debt and had a winding up order hanging over their heads when Davies was convinced to invest in the club in 1902. He changed their name to Manchester United and steadied the club’s finances. Facilties were improved, and new players being brought in led to promotion to the First Division in 1906. He moved the club to Old Trafford four years later.
Davies, however, suffered ill-health in the 1920s and died at the age of 63 in October 1927. Shorn of his munificence, the club quickly veered back towards crisis again. At the end of the 1927/28 season they only avoided relegation by a single point, and by 1930 there were serious doubts over whether they would be able to keep going. They started the 1930/31 season with twelve successive defeats, and by Christmas they were hopelessly marooned to the bottom of the First Division table with just six points from twenty matches. On the 27th December 1930, playing their third game in three days, they lost 7-0 to Aston Villa.
Manchester United were relegated at the end of the season in bottom place in the First Division, ten points adrift of safety – at a time when there were only two relegation places and only two points for a win – having conceded 115 goals from their 42 league matches. Bamlett struggled on until November 1931, but the club’s fortunes hadn’t improved at all with relegation to the Second Division. Crowds collapsed – just 3,507 people turned out for their second league match of the season against Southampton – and form didn’t seem much better than it had the year before. When Leeds United came to Old Trafford on the 7th November 1931 and won by five goals to two, the game was up for Herbert Bamlett.
He was sacked two days later, and United handed the job to club secretary Walter Crickmer until the end of the season. With Davies’ death and the tail wind of the Great Depression, though, United’s financial position was in ruins by the end of 1931. Players turning up to pick up their Christmas wage packets were told that there was no money to give them, and on Boxing Day 1931 they lost 7-0 to Wolverhampton Wanderers. Considerably more significant to the club’s overall health, though, new investment was found again. James W. Gibson, arrived in the same month. He was approached by a Manchester sportswriter, Stacey Lintott and met with the board, offering to help on condition that he became chairman and could choose his own directors. They had little choice but to agree, and Gibson invested £30,000 into the club.
Crickmer rescued the team, on the pitch. Eight wins in ten matches between the end of January and the end of March resulted in United ending the season in twelfth place in the Second Division. This wasn’t enough to keep Crickmer in the manager’s job, though, and at the end of the the season he was replaced by Scott Duncan, a former player with Rangers and Newcastle United who’d spent the previous seven years as the secretary-manager of Cowdenbeath, where he’d received considerable praise for keeping the club in the Scottish First Division following their promotion in 1924.
The improvement that had started throughout the second half of the 1931/32 season continued the following year. United finished that season in sixth place in the Second Division, but in a very tight division only two points separated United from Portsmouth in fourteenth. With a higher league position than they’d managed since relegation and with some money to spend on new players, hopes were reasonably high for the 1933/34 season. Duncan, however, didn’t spend the investment money very wisely and United had another disastrous start to the season, failing to win any of their first five games, scoring just three goals while conceding twelve. Form remained patchy throughout the autumn period, but a dreadful run of one win and one draw from thirteen matches between December 1933 and the end of February 1934 plummeted the club back into the relegation places.
By the end of March, the crisis on the pitch had hit new depths. West Ham United had been chasing promotion to the First Division, but their chances of securing one of the two promotion places had broadly disappeared by this time. When they travelled to Old Trafford, their second-highest crowd of the season, more than 29,000 people, turned out. It was a match that United had to win, but Edward Fenton scored the only goal of the game. Two days later, United travelled to London for the return fixture and lost by two goals to one.
Staring relegation into the Third Division North for the first time in the club’s history in the face, the team finally started to get their act together on the pitch. They had five games of the season left after their loss at West Ham, and picked up a crucial five points – a win against Port Vale and draws against Bradford City, Notts County and Swansea Town – to get themselves back into the game for the last day of the season. In one of those coincidences that fixture schedulers occasionally manage to throw up, United’s last game of the season was away to Millwall, who were one point and one place above them in the table.
It was shoot-out between the three clubs, alongside Millwall and Swansea Town. Lincoln City were already relegated with twenty-five points, and United had to win to avoid joining them. Anything else, and Millwall would stay up alongside Swansea Town with Manchester United being relegated into the Third Division North. A crowd of 24,000 turn out for the match at The Den, but Manchester United’s players rise to the occasion, this time. An eighth minute goal from Thomas Manley settled their nerves, and a minute into the second half Jack Cape scored a second goal that ensured survival in the Second Division for another season for the visitors.
Things would never quite get as bad again for Manchester United. Under Gibson’s ownership the club’s financial position started to improve, and in 1936 they won the Second Division championship. They only lasted a season back in the First Division, relegated back at the first attempt in bottom place in the table, but in 1938 they were promoted back again, this time as runners-up behind Aston Villa, on goal average above Sheffield United and one point above Coventry City, who’d never played top flight football at that time and wouldn’t do for almost another three decades.
Scott Duncan, however, wasn’t there for this. He resigned in November 1937 to take over as the manager of Southern League Ipswich Town. Walter Crickmer returned to take his place, and remained as the club’s manager until Gibson replaced him at the end of the war with an Army coach who’d spent the previous seventeen years playing for Manchester City and Liverpool by the name of Matt Busby. United had enquired about signing Busby from City as a player in 1930, but such had been the state of their finances at that time that they couldn’t afford the £150 transfer fee that City quoted them.
Under Busby, of course, Manchester United truly were transformed. Despite the fact that they had to play their home matches at Maine Road – bomb damage and fire from German raids in December 1940 and March 1941 left Old Trafford unusable until 1949 – they finished the first three seasons back after the war as runners-up in the First Division and won the FA Cup in 1948. The Manchester United youth academy that would go on to produce the Busby Babes was also introduced during this period, but James Gibson wouldn’t quite live to see it truly bear fruit. He died in September 1951, a month before his 74th birthday. The Busby Babes lifted their first First Division title, Manchester United’s first in more than forty years, the following May.
It’ll never be this way again, of course. Manchester United are a global brand nowadays, and already enjoy considerable insulation from the occasional life-threatening events that occasionally consume other clubs. Had they failed to beat Millwall on the 5th of May 1934, it might have been a minor blip. They may have bounced back straight away, and the equilibrium of the universe might have been completely restored by the time that war intervened in 1939. After all, it was with the arrival of Matt Busby in 1945 that Manchester United really took their great leaps forward.
There’s a big ‘BUT’ to add to this, though. Promotion back from the Third Division North was tight the following season, with just six points separating the top six clubs in a high-scoring division, with almost 3.5 goals per game and no club scoring fewer than fifty-one. There is the possibility that with relegation happening at this time and with the effects of the Great Depression still being felt in industrial communities, United may have ended up in the place within Manchester’s football landscape, that, say, Bury or Bolton Wanderers ended up taking. Such are the fine margins within football operates that Manchester United’s win at Millwall on the last day of the 1933/34 season might just be one of the most important in the history of the club.