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The Arrival Of Ernest Mangnall And A Change In The Fortunes Of Manchester United

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John White, Branch Secretary, Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, the 5th Largest Official MUSC in the World, takes a look back at the career of Manchester United’s first great manager.


It was on this day, 116 years ago that Manchester United’s first great manager was appointed.

Hopes were high at Manchester United at the start of the 1903-04 season for promotion to Division One with recent arrivals including Alexander “Alec” Bell (Half-Back from Ayr Parkhouse, January 1903), Harry Moger (Goalkeeper from Southampton, May 1903) and Thomas Arkesden (Forward from Burton United, February 1903) all expected to drive the team on to greater things. Indeed, Bell and Moger would go on to serve the club for 10 years and play a part in Manchester United claiming their first pieces of silverware. On 29 September 1903, just 24 days into the new season with United’s record reading – Played 4, Won 1, Drew 1 & Lost 2 – James West resigned from his position as Secretary-Manager. United’s poor start to the season coupled with a previous FA charge culminated in West’s decision to step down.

At the end of the 1902-03 season, the Football Association suspended James West and club captain, Harry Stafford, for making “illegal payments” to players, a regular practice among clubs in England at the time. When he was asked to give his side of the story at an FA inquiry, the ever-loyal Stafford, said:

“Everything I have done has been in the interests of the club.”

Stafford hung-up his boots and was made a director of the club but also acted as groundsman. Stafford was the first of only four Manchester United players who went on to be appointed a director of the club (the others were Charles Hardman, Bobby Charlton and Les Olive). The decision to appoint Ernest Mangnall as West’s successor on 30 September 1903, proved to be a masterstroke by the directors.

Only three men have succeeded in making Manchester United great and the first of this magnificent trio was Ernest Mangnall. Just like Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson after him, Mangnall possessed an unquenchable thirst for success, a highly motivated individual who strove for perfection in everything the team did and had a keen eye for spotting up and coming talent.

Mangnall left his position as Secretary of Burnley FC and immediately set about transforming Manchester United, a run-of-the-mill Division Two side at the time, into a team that was feared up and down the breadth of England. Mangnall’s recipe for success was simple; supreme physical fitness, an unbreakable team spirit and he believed that the players should only train with a football one day per week which he claimed would make them all the keener to get hold of the ball on a Saturday.

Just a month into his tenure at Clayton he signed a talented forward named Richard “Dick” Duckworth from Newton Heath Athletic after watching him score twice against United in a reserve team fixture. However, it wasn’t long before Mangnall discovered that the young Duckworth’s true strength lay at half-back. In April 1904, the astute Mangnall signed Charlie Roberts from Grimsby Town which proved to be an inspired decision and a bargain at £600 although many sports writers at the time questioned his decision to break the club’s record purchase transfer fee for a player who was of yet “unproven.” Roberts made his Manchester United debut in the third last league game of the season, a 2-0 home win over Burton United on 23 April 1904. He was a quick thinking footballer, strong in the tackle, a good passer of the ball and had an abundance of natural pace.

At the start of the 1904-05 season, Mangnall made Roberts captain and set about creating a dominating presence in the United half-back line comprising Duckworth, Roberts and Bell. Although the club missed out on promotion, the highlight of the 1904-05 season was undoubtedly United captain, Charlie Roberts nicknamed “The Ghost In Boots,” being capped by England for the first time, the first Manchester United player to receive international recognition by England.

Roberts, aged 22, made his international debut on 25 February 1905 against Ireland at Ayresome Park, Middlesbrough in a Home International Championship game which ended 1-1. Roberts was the first footballer to wear very short knickers (football shorts) and more than once angered the FA leading the sport’s governing body in England to ban short shorts in 1904. The FA ruled that a player’s shorts must cover his knees. However, Roberts and several other players ignored the ban but it was not until the end of World War II that baggy long shorts became a thing of the past for footballers.

In season 1907-08, Mangnall’s United side won the English First Division Championship, their first title, and they followed this up the following season, 1908-09, by winning the FA Cup for the first time in the club’s history. In season 1910-11, United won a second First Division crown and despite bringing success to United in the form of winning the club’s first silverware, Mangnall left Manchester United on 9 September 1912 to take charge of Manchester City. His last game as the manager of Manchester United was a Manchester Derby played two days earlier, a 1-0 League loss at Old Trafford.

Written by John White
Branch Secretary
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club

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