Continuing our ongoing delve into the history of our fine club.
Written by John White
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club, Northern Ireland’s No.1 Branch and the 5th Largest Official MUSC in the World
A very poignant trip back in time to when Johnny Carey became the first Irish player to captain Manchester United as told by his fellow Irishman, John White, the author of 17 Manchester United books including the official Manchester United publication, Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish.
It was on this very day, 17 years ago, 3 September 1992, the winners’ medal which was presented to Johnny Carey at Wembley Stadium on 24 April 1948, after captaining Manchester United to FA Cup glory, a 4-2 win over Blackpool (scorers: Jack Rowley, John Anderson & Stan Pearson), was sold at auction in Christie’s for £10,575. It was the first trophy United won under Matt Busby.
Johnny Carey was United’s first ever Irish captain and one of the greatest captain’s in the club’s history. In November 1936, Manchester United made not only one of the most significant signings in its history but unquestionably secured the bargain buy of the 20th century when a 17-year old Dublin kid named John Joseph “Johnny” Carey was spotted by United’s Chief Scout in Ireland, Billy Behan. Carey was playing at inside-left for his local side, St James’ Gate, when Behan, a former United player himself who possessed an uncanny eye for young talented footballers, spotted him one day and immediately recommended him to United’s Chief Scout, Louis Rocca.
Within hours Rocca was on his way over to Dublin to see this young talent play. Behan’s words were as true as gold and Rocca had no hesitation in parting with a mere £250, an Irish record transfer fee at the time, to snap up this “Wonderkid.” The young Carey had only signed for St James’s Gate in September 1936. Johnny crossed over the Irish Sea with his father and when the pair got off the train at Piccadilly Station in Manchester, Carey Junior spotted a newspaper stand with a poster which read: “United’s Big Signing.”
Johnny nudged his dad and pushed him in the direction of the newspaper stand to purchase a copy of the paper. However, much to Johnny’s disappointment he opened the pages to find he was not reading about himself but about John Ernest “Ernie” Thompson, a prolific centre forward who had just signed for United from Blackburn Rovers in a transfer deal worth £4,500 which was 18 times the fee United paid for young Johnny. Carey Senior just chuckled as his son handed him the newspaper and walked away. Just two lines of the newspaper story touched on the acquisition of Carey and yet it was he, and not Thompson who only played 3 games for United and scoring once, that went on to become one of the most accomplished footballers in Europe.
Johnny was born on 23rd February 1919 in Dublin and played for local side Home Farm whilst still at school. The young Carey loved playing football but like many of his school friends he also played Gaelic Football and was selected to represent Dublin at minor level before being banned by the Gaelic Athletic Association (GAA) because he also played a “foreign” game, football! However, the GAA’s loss was football’s considerable gain as Johnny went on to become one of the greatest ever players not only in the history of Manchester United but at international level for Ireland (North and South) too.
He was given his Manchester United debut at inside-left against Southampton in a Second Division game at Old Trafford on 25th September 1937 by manager, Scott Duncan. United lost the game 2-1 but the 18-year old retained his place in the side for United’s next League game a week later, a 1-0 home defeat to Sheffield United. On 7th November 1937, Johnny won the first of his 29 caps for the Republic of Ireland versus Norway at Dalymount Park, Dublin in a qualifying game for the 1938 Fifa World Cup Finals in France. The game ended 3-3 and the Republic of Ireland failed to qualify for the last stages of the tournament.
Carey did not play again until United visited Nottingham Forest on 28th December 1937 in the League. Duncan was sacked on 7 November 1937 and replaced by Walter Crickmer, the Club Secretary, until the end of the season. The legendary Stan Pearson, who signed for United as an amateur aged just 15 in December 1935 (signed as a professional in May 1937), was one of a few players who kept Carey out of the first team. Stan made his debut on 13th November 1937 in a 7-1 hammering of Chesterfield away, a game which saw the former United Irish international, Walter McMillen, score the home side’s consolation goal.
Pearson retained his place in the United team for the next four League games before Carey replaced him for the trip to Forest. Johnny scored his first goal for the club in Manchester United’s 3-2 victory and his performance that day was good enough to see him go on a run of 8 consecutive League games and he played in three of United’s four FA Cup games in season 1937-38. But it was Pearson who occupied the No.10 shirt for United appearing in the last 4 League games with Crickmer opting to alternate Carey and Pearson in the team depending on the state of the pitch. However, Carey had more than played his part, 16 League games and 3 goals, in helping Manchester United to runners-up spot in Division Two, four points behind Champions, Aston Villa.
United went into the final game of the campaign sitting third in the table trailing Sheffield United by two points who had completed their fixtures. With United possessing the superior goal average a home win over Bury would be good enough to secure promotion. United won the game 2-0. A number of the top First Division clubs in England contacted Walter Crickmer to enquire about Carey’s availability but all advances for their star Irishman were rebuffed.
World War II interrupted Carey’s Manchester United career from 1939 to 1945 and he could have taken the easy option and returned to neutral Ireland until the end of the hostilities. However, despite being a very patriotic Irishman, in 1943 he volunteered for service stating at the time:
“A country that gives me my living is worth fighting for.”
During the war he served in the Queen’s Royal Hussars and was stationed in North Africa and Italy and as nicknamed “Cario” by the Italians who quickly took to the affable Irishman. During the war Carey managed to make in excess of 100 Wartime League Football games for United and also made a number of guest appearances for several English League clubs. In addition to the latter, he also played some football whilst stationed in Italy. When peace was restored to the world in 1945, Johnny was asked to stay in Italy and play his club football there but luckily for United and Ireland he opted to return to his beloved Manchester United, now being managed by a former soldier and ex-Manchester City, Liverpool and Scottish international wing-half, Matt Busby who take charge of United aged just 36.
Busby’s right-hand man was Jimmy Murphy, an ex-West Bromwich Albion and Welsh international who Busby had played against. Prior to taking up his duties as the manager of Manchester United, Busby took an Army Team to Italy to play several friendlies near the end of the war and met up with Murphy. Jimmy was making a speech to a group of soldiers as Busby stood in the crowd and listened intently. Busby was so impressed with Murphy’s speech that when it ended, he walked over to him and introduced himself. The pair bonded immediately with the Scot persuading the Welshman to join him at Old Trafford when the fighting in Europe had ceased for good.
Murphy accepted the offer and so after 7 years without a manager, no home ground to play at (United were still using Maine Road for home games), and the club £15,000 in debt, Busby and Murphy set about making Manchester United one of the greatest sides British and European football had ever seen. On his first day taking training at Manchester United Matt Busby did something very few other football managers of the day did. He took to the training pitch wearing a tracksuit adopting a more-hands on approach to management of his players. When asked about Busby’s managerial style Johnny said:
“When I joined United, Scott Duncan (former United manager 1932-37), with spats and a red rose in his buttonhole, typified a football manager. But here was the new boss playing with his team in training, showing what he wanted and how to do it. He was ahead of his time.”
On 13th October 1945, much to the delight of the United fans and the fans back home in Ireland, Carey reappeared in a United shirt in a Football League North 3-0 loss at Everton. Busby knew that in Carey that he had a natural leader at his disposal, a player highly respected by his team-mates, a player he could ask to play anywhere and who would disappoint him but above all else a player who could be his general on the pitch. Not surprisingly Busby appointed Carey the captain of Manchester United upon his return to first team action after the war, succeeding George Roughton as United skipper who had moved on to become the manager of Exeter City. Therefore, not only was Carey the club’s first post war captain but he was also the first player from outside the United Kingdom to proudly lead Manchester United on the field of play.
Busby decided to try Carey out at half-back and played him in this position at home to Blackburn Rovers on 9th March 1946, a game United won 6-2. After five consecutive games at half-back, Busby and his assistant, Jimmy Murphy, asked Johnny to play at full-back away to Manchester City on 13th April 1946. By this time United were playing their home games at City’s Maine Road ground as Old Trafford had been badly damaged following a bombing raid by the German Luftwaffe on the nearby Trafford Park industrial estate on the evening of 11thMarch 1941. Old Trafford’s Main Stand and parts of the terracing were badly whilst the pitch was severely scorched. Makeshift offices were erected at Old Trafford as the club set about the rebuilding process.
With their stadium out of action, and unable to be repaired because of the wartime (and then post-war) priorities of rebuilding factories and homes, United were forced to use nearby Maine Road to play their home games and our neighbours charged us £5,000 a year to use their facilities. However, they never allowed United use of the home team changing room even when the two teams met and United were the home team in a Wartime Football League fixture. United, the worst hit of all the League clubs during the war, were awarded the paltry sum of £22,278 by the War Commission to clear the debris and rebuild Old Trafford. Carey put in an impressive performance in his new full-back role to ensure United won the Manchester Derby 3-1. Both Busby and Murphy had seen enough from Carey that day to continue playing him at full-back for the rest of the season, United finishing 4th in the Football League North Championship.
In season 1946-47, Carey captained Manchester United to runners-up spot in the First Division, a single point behind Champions Liverpool. United were a formidable attacking force throughout the League campaign and ended the season as the Division’s second highest leading goal scorers with 95 goals (Wolverhampton Wanderers scored 98) and with 54 goals conceded possessed the best goal average, 1.759. Stan Pearson scored 19 League goals whilst Charlie Mitten, later to become famously known as “The Bogota Bandit,” found the back of the net 26 times.
Across the city, The Citizens (Manchester City’s nickname) lifted the Second Division Championship to make sure Manchester had at least two Derby games the following season. On 28th September 1946, Johnny won the first of 7 his caps for Northern Ireland, England running out 7-2 winners mat Windsor Park, Belfast in a British Home International Championship game. Although United had to play Preston North End away on 10th May 1947 in what was their third last League game of the season, Johnny Carey was released by United for the day to travel to Glasgow where he was given the honour of captaining a Rest of Europe side against a Great Britain side in an exhibition match played at Hampden Park. Can you imagine the same thing happening today!
A bumper crowd of 137,000 fans poured into the stadium paying a world record £31,000 in gate receipts (the monies went straight into Fifa’s coffers) and were treated to a magnificent game of football which was played to celebrate Great Britain’s return to FIFA, an organisation they had left in 1920. The game was quickly dubbed “The Match of the Century” by the press with Great Britain easily winning the game 6-1. Another unique honour achieved by Johnny in 1947 was the fact that he captained both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland international sides.
United went into the 1947-48 season with high hopes of claiming their first Division One Championship title since 1910-11 with players including Carey, Pearson, Mitten, John Aston, Allenby Chilton, Henry Cockburn, Jack “Gunner” Rowley and Jimmy Delaney who was Busby’s first signing as Manchester United manager when he paid £4,000 to bring the prolific Scottish international striker from Glasgow Celtic to Old Trafford in February 1946. However, during the 1947-48 season United were simply no match for a well drilled Arsenal team which won the title by 7 points from runners-up, Manchester United.
But the season did produce a memorable high point when United won the FA Cup for a second time (their first success was in 1909), defeating a strong Blackpool team which included the legendary Stanley Matthews at Wembley Stadium (most Manchester United fans may not be aware that Matthews actually played for United as a Wartime Guest player in 1940 and Matt Busby played alongside him in British Armed Services teams during the conflict of the Second World War).
In the final United trailed The Seasiders 2-1 at half-time and when the players returned to the changing rooms it was Carey who spoke to them with words of encouragement for them to express themselves more in the second half. Carey’s words of wisdom did the trick as the final score was Manchester United 4, Blackpool and so on 24th April 1948, Eire’s Johnny Carey famously became the first Irishman to captain an FA Cup winning team in the illustrious 76-year history of the world’s most famous Cup competition.
The elusive domestic “Double” of First Division Championship success and FA Cup glory was still but a pipe dream for United’s most faithful fans. Over the next few seasons Carey captained the Manchester United team with distinction, a model professional both on and off the pitch who was nicknamed “Gentleman John.” In the space of just three days in 1946, Johnny played for both Irish teams, each time against England; Northern Ireland 2-7 England at Windsor Park, Belfast on 28th September 1946 & Republic of Ireland 0-1 England at Dalymount Park, Dublin on 30th September 1946. Five days later he played in United’s 1-1 First Division draw with Preston North End at Old Trafford. Contrast the latter with the managers and players of today who complain they are being asked to play too many games!
For the third successive year in a row United finished the 1948-49 season in 2nd place in the First Division, this time behind Portsmouth (their first Championship success in the top-flight of English football, and Pompey reached the FA Cup semi-finals). Season 1948-49 also witnessed Carey receiving an individual award when he was voted the Football Writers’ Association Footballer of the Year, following in the footsteps of Sir Stanley Matthews who was the inaugural winner of this most prestigious award the previous season. And as a direct result of his service in the British Army, he was eligible to play for Northern Ireland as well as the country of his birth up until the end of the 1948-49 season.
In the late 1940s, Johnny was the school coach at St. Bede’s College, Manchester where his son attended the junior school. The pupils at the school knew all about him as he was the captain of Manchester United and although he would not become a manager in the Football League until August 1953, he displayed at this early stage how good a manager he would go on to become earning the respect of all of the boys under his charge with his quiet and gentle approach to training. One ex-pupil recalled that Johnny’s most famous advice to them was: “Go to meet the ball.” Matt Busby’s son, Sandy, was also at St. Bede’s College then and Johnny spent many extra hours at the end of the school day coaching the young Busby to become a centre half.
In season 1949-50 United ended the campaign in 4th place (Portsmouth retained the title and have not won it back since, one of only 5 English sides to have won back-to-back Division One titles); in 1950-51 they were runners-up yet again with Tottenham Hotspur claiming the first of their 2 First Division Championship crowns (claiming the “Double” in 1960-61) and in season 1951-52, Johnny Carey led Manchester United to the club’s third First Division Championship success, following 1907-8 & 1910-11, to give Matt Busby the first of his 4 Championship crowns. In the process, Carey also became the first Irishman to captain a team to the First Division Championship title (and the first non-Englishman to captain an FA Cup winning team and a Division One Championship winning team). He played in 38 of United’s 42 League games and scored 3 times.
Roger Byrne had made his United debut at left-back in a First Division away game at Liverpool on 24th November 1951 (0-0 draw) and never missed another League game all that season. However, in the last 6 League games of United’s 1951-52 Championship winning season he played the 23-year old Byrne at outside-left and he scored 7 goals. At the start of the 1952-53 season Carey played at half-back having been switched to that position by Busby and it marked the 34-year old Irish international’s last full season as the captain of Manchester United with the team finishing in a disappointing 8th position in the First Division.
After playing at his unfavoured position of outside left versus Sunderland in the First Division on 27th September 1952, a game United lost 1-0, Busby Babe Roger Byrne, who had joined United aged 20 from Ryder Brow Youth Club in March 1949, did the unthinkable and handed in a transfer request. He was dropped for United’s next 2 League games and realising the talent he had at his disposal, Busby reinstated Byrne into the Manchester United line-up at left-back for their next League game and switched Carey to right-back. The switch in positions worked wonders with a rampant United winning 5-0 at Preston North End. Carey played just one more game at right-back, United’s next League game, a 3-1 home defeat to Burnley, before being omitted from the team until 6th December 1952 with United defeating Middlesbrough 3-2 at Old Trafford in the First Division.
Carey went on to play in 20 of United’s remaining 23 League games of the 1952-53 season with 19 of them in the half-back role. On 18th February 1953, Matt Busby called upon Carey to help out the team in an hour of need following an injury to goalkeeper, Ray Wood. Carey obliged and donned the United No.1 jersey for a tricky First Division away game to Sunderland at Roker Park on 18th February 1953. United drew the Division One encounter 2-2 with Carey performing admirably as the United custodian in goal. At the end of the 1952-53 season Johnny decided to leave Old Trafford after having spent almost 17 years with the club and accepted an offer in August 1953 to become the new manager of Blackburn Rovers. Amazingly, in his 344 appearances for Manchester United, the extremely versatile Johnny played in every position on the pitch except outside-left.
Johnny’s 29 Republic of Ireland caps (1937-53) and 7 Northern Ireland caps (1946-49) saw him score 3 goals, all three for the Republic of Ireland. His appearance record for Northern Ireland was: P7, W1, D2, L4. He scored the first of his three international goals for Ireland on 13th November 1938 in a 3-2 victory over Poland in a friendly at Dalymount Park, Dublin. His other international goals also came in friendly matches; against Hungary on 19th March 1939 in Ireland’s 2-2 draw at the Mardyke Arena, Cork, Ireland and against Norway on 26thNovember 1950 in a 2-2 draw at Dalymount Park.
His last match for the Republic of Ireland was on 21st March 1953 in a 4-0 friendly win over Austria at Dalymount Park. Uniquely Johnny Carey captained both Irish international teams and without question his greatest ever moment in an Irish jersey came on 21st September 1949 when he captained the Republic of Ireland in a friendly against England at Goodison Park, Liverpool. The Irish won 2-0 to inflict the first ever home defeat on England by a “foreign” side. Between 1955 and 1967 he also served as team manager of the Republic of Ireland. However, Carey had very little say in the management of the national team as a selection committee decided which players were chosen to play.
The above is an extract from my book:
“Irish Devils: The Official Story of Manchester United and the Irish.”
Previous article by John White