Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now
Sir Matt Busby has a statue in his honour at Old Trafford and a road named after him adjacent to the stadium. Sir Bobby Charlton has a stand named after him and is part of the famous Triumvirate statue opposite Old Trafford which also features George Best and Denis Law. Denis has a statue inside the Stretford End and Sir Alex Ferguson has a stand named in his honour and a statue outside the stand. And quite fittingly there are two Munich plaques as well as the Munich Tunnel in memory of those players and officials who lost their lives in the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958.
But Sir Matt, Sir Alex, Bobby, Denis and George would not have any tributes in their name, and the current Board of Directors, would not be serving the club today had it not been for James W. Gibson.
James W. Gibson, was the Chairman of Manchester United from 19 December 1931 until his death in September 1951 and his son, Alan, was elected to the club’s Board of Directors in 1948 which was the beginning of a lifetime of serving Manchester United. There is a red plaque on the bridge over the train track at Old Trafford marking the impact James W. Gibson had on the club over the years. It is a most fitting and poignant location for this tribute as it was Gibson who in 1934 negotiated with the Midlands Railway Authorities for steps to be built from the existing platform just outside the ground so that fans no longer had to walk miles to attend matches. The services ran out of the old Manchester Central Terminus to make a stop at Old Trafford on matchdays and the United fans still use the station on match days. There is also a plaque in his honour in the Old Trafford Players’ Tunnel alongside another saviour of the club, John Henry Davies, and a display in the club’s museum.
Manchester United is world famous for nurturing young talent and developing youth team players to be good enough to play in the first team, from Busby’s Babes to Fergie’s Fledglings. Quite remarkably for the past 82 years, since season 1937-38, United have had a homegrown player in their first team squad. In season 1936-37, James W. Gibson, the Chairman of Manchester United, and Walter Crickmer , established the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJAC), the club’s first ever Youth Team. At the time Gibson, said he would like to “have a first team made entirely of home grown youngsters all from the Manchester area.” However, the promising young prospects who joined MUJAC were not forced to sign for United, on the contrary they were asked merely “to consider playing for the first team one day.” Louis Rocca was appointed as the Chief Scout of MUJAC and through his connections to the Manchester Catholic Sportsman’s Club, he appointed a network of scouts from the Catholic Church. James W. Gibson purchased the lease from his own pocket for the Old Broughton Rangers Rugby Ground for the MUJAC players to train on, which later became United’s famous Cliff training ground, where the young United stars of the future were put through their paces. The MUJAC team played under the name “United Colts.” Consequently, had it not been for James W. Gibson many United legends, Best, Hughes, the Class of ’92 et al, as well as the stars of today such as Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, would never have played for Manchester United.
But how did James W. Gibson become involved with the club? United were in difficulty on and off the pitch. Indeed, in December 1931, Manchester United almost folded as the club was heavily in debt with a £25,000 mortgage and they could not even find the money to pay the players’ wages. The impact of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Stock Market Crash on 29 October 1929, known as Black Tuesday, was felt worldwide and hit Manchester United particularly hard. Home attendances were particularly poor with a meagre 6,396 turning up to see a 2-0 win over Millwall on 5 December 1931 and a fortnight later only 4,697 were in attendance to watch United lose 1-0 to Bristol City. Stacey Lintott, a local sports writer met James Gibson at a dinner in Manchester, and he told James about the situation at United. It was agreed that Walter Crickmer would visit James at his home in Hale Barns to discuss the situation. James was the sole owner of Briggs, Jones & Gibson (he had some years earlier bought out his two partners) which was a thriving military uniform manufacturing company).
Bamlett resigned as manager on 9 November 1930 after United lost 13 of their opening 14 First Division games of the 1930-31 season. Crickmer was appointed as the club’s temporary manager and remained in post until a Scott Duncan was appointed manager on 13 July 1932. So Crickmer, with cap-in-hand, told James W. Gibson about the club’s plight and dire financial position. James Gibson agreed to help and gave a gift of £2,000 (£118,000 today) to pay the backlog of players’ wages and the wages of the club’s officials until mid-January 1932. He also bought all of the players and staff a turkey for Christmas. That night the Manchester Evening News reported the news: “Mr J. Gibson, a Manchester businessman with no previous record in big football, has taken over Manchester United for a month, and he has paid the players’ wages for this week. He has undertaken to be responsible for the Club’s expenditure from December 16 until January 9. If during that time sufficient support is forthcoming at Old Trafford then he is prepared to consider securing a new manager, four first-class players, and he construction of covered accommodation on the popular side of the ground.”
James W. Gibson’s plan was to raise monies for the club with a view to getting it back to a sound financial footing. He proposed a new issue of “Patron’s Tickets” but the response from the United fans was not what he had hoped for due to the recession. James was moved as he did receive a letter from a man who said he could not attend matches as he worked on Saturdays but enclosed a Postal Order for 6d. (2-1/2pence), and hoped it would help as he couldn’t afford more. This helped set James’s resolve even further to aid United for the long term having seen what the club meant to the supporters.
James Gibson together with his sister and younger brother were orphaned when they were young. James was just 14 years old. Their father had a small business making uniforms but this was closed at the time of his death.
James invested £40,000 (£2.36 million today) of his own money into the club and agreed to be the guarantor for the bank for an overdraft which had reached £17,000. Had United not acquired such a generous benefactor the club would have went into extinction and would not have gone on to become the world’s most famous football club it is today. Not surprisingly James W. Gibson is remembered as “The Saviour of Manchester United.” In return for his cash injection, Gibson was made the Chairman of Manchester United at a time when City were the most dominant team in Manchester and who went on to win the FA Cup in 1934 (runners-up to Everton in 1933) and the First Division Championship in season 1936-37. Perhaps it was his modest ambition or else he was keeping his future plans for United close to his chest when he said: “There is sufficient room in Manchester for two good football clubs.”
Duncan remained at the club until 7 November 1937, guiding them to the Second Division Championship in season 1935-36. After United lifted the Second Division Championship, captained by James Brown, the club produced a postcard which was set out to annoy a number of clubs they would face the following season. The poster proudly boasted that United had now joined a select band of heroes who had won English football’s Triple Crown of First Division Championship (1907-08, 1910-11), Second Division Championship (1935-36) and FA Cup (1909). The poster said United had now joined the elite of the Football World – Burnley, Everton, Preston North End, Sheffield Wednesday and West Bromwich Albion – who had also won all three trophies. In block capitals the poster pointed out that the following clubs “Couldn’t do it” – Arsenal, Bolton Wanderers, Derby County, Huddersfield Town, Manchester City, Newcastle United and Sheffield United. The postcard also stated:
MANCHESTER IS PROUD OF –
Mr J W Gibson, the Greatest Sportsman in the Kingdom
Mr Scott Duncan, Football’s Greatest Manager
The gallant band of United Supporters not forgetting the Ladies!
And the bravest man was Captain Brown
Who played his Ukulele when they won the Triple Crown!
The triumphant United players toured Manchester on an open top bus on 2 May 1936 after returning home from drawing their final League game of the season 1-1 away to Hull City. However, the boasting was all bravado as United struggled in season 1936-37 and made an immediate return to Division Two having finished second from bottom of the table.
Towards the end of the 1930s, United were in desperate need of a manager to take over from Walter Crickmer (Club Secretary & Manager, 9 November 1937-45) who decided that he would relinquish his managerial responsibilities when the atrocities of World War II would eventually come to an end. A Board meeting was called at Old Trafford in December 1944 to decide who should be asked to take charge of the team. Rocca had heard that Liverpool had already offered Busby a job as right hand man to George Kay and it was Rocca who convinced the United Board to leave it to him. Rocca wrote a letter to Busby and addressed it to his army regiment. The letter was quite vague, referring only to a job offer just in case it fell into the wrong hands, namely the Board of Directors at Liverpool.
On 1 February 1945, Busby, still in his army uniform, attended a meeting at Cornbrook Cold Storage, Trafford Park, a business unit which was owned by James W. Gibson. Homeless and almost penniless, Manchester United was hardly an appealing prospect to any potential suitor. But Busby was anxious to learn more details of the “job offer” which Rocca had written to him about. Busby, a former Manchester City (1928-36, FA Cup winner in 1934) and Liverpool (1936-41) player listened to what James W. Gibson had to say and agreed to accept the job offer to become the new manager of Manchester United provided James W. Gibson met his conditions. Busby made it clear from the outset that he, and only he, would be in charge of training, selecting the team on matchdays and having the final decision in which players would be bought and sold and all done so without any interference from the club’s Directors, who, he believed, did not know the game as well as he did. At the time there wasn’t a single club in England who offered their manager such a level of control over the team. It was totally unprecedented in the English game, but James W. Gibson was in no position to argue. Busby was originally offered a 3-year contract but the canny Scotsman managed to negotiate himself a 5-year deal after explaining to Gibson that it would take at least that long for his football revolution to have a tangible effect.
The two men signed the contract that day but it was not until 1 October 1945, that Busby officially took over the reins at Manchester United, with World War II coming to an end on 2 September 1945. In the interim, Busby returned to the Army Physical Training Corps and in the Spring of 1945, he took their football team to Bari, Italy. When he was in Bari he took in a training session for a football team made up of non-commissioned officers which was led by Jimmy Murphy. Murphy was a former player having played for West Bromwich Albion as a wing-half from 1928-39 and won 15 international caps for his native Wales (1933-38). Busby was hugely impressed by the Welshman’s oratory skills and offered him the job of Chief Coach at Manchester United when the war ended. Murphy accepted Busby’s offer verbally there and then, before joining the club officially in early 1946.
Matt Busby was a Football revolutionary and along with Murphy, his right-hand man, the former army buddies changed the history of English football. When Busby accepted Chairman James Gibson’s offer to become the new Manchester United Manager on 1 February 1945, the club had not won a major trophy in 34 years, the English First Division Championship in season 1910-11, and were regarded as a yo-yo club. Indeed, in season 1933-34, the unthinkable almost happened, relegation to Division Three for the first time in the club’s 56 year history.
On the night of 11 March 1941, Old Trafford’s Main Stand was completely destroyed by the Luftwaffe in a German bombing raid on the nearby Trafford Park Industrial Estate. Much of the stadium’s terracing was also damaged as was the pitch. Alan Gibson was to later say that he remembered his father learning the news and breaking down in tears – it was the only time he saw his father cry.
The damage meant that future home games that season would have to be played elsewhere and so United turned to their city neighbours and James orchestrated a temporary move for home games to be played at Maine Road whilst Old Trafford was out of commission. City charged United £5,000 a year to use their facilities but they never allowed United use of the home team changing room when the two teams met even when we were the home team for a Wartime Football League.
In the United Review for the opening game of the 1946-47 season, Chairman James W. Gibson said a few words: “Dear Friends, I offer my greetings and a welcome to our Supporters on the return to normal first division football after the interlude of watching teams comprised of strange personnel weary war-workers and travel stained servicemen, who, despite, numerous difficulties, gallantly succeeded in keeping our grand game alive through the darkest days of a world war. Yes, I think you will agree everybody did their best to keep the “United” flag flying al anxiously waiting and looking forward to this day when we embark on the first post-war season of serious competitive football. It is indeed gratifying to know practically all our service players are with us once more, fully trained and fit to do battle with the best. I was with them on an occasion during training and was really impressed with their activities. Mr Busby, our manager, tells me he is satisfied the team will do well, so we open up full of confidence. A number of the 1939 older players are no longer with us – six years is a long time and changes were imminent, but as you will see, our policy in fostering junior talent is now proving its worth. A lump rises in my throat when I think of our premises at Old Trafford damaged beyond repair by fire and blast in March 1941, and still looking a sorry spectacle owing to the Government policy of issuing only limited licences for building materials whilst the housing problem is so manifest. Against this, we are fortunate that our neighbours, Manchester City, to whom we ae greatly indebted, came to the rescue and offered us a temporary home, which we still enjoy. In conclusion I must say how much I appreciate your loyalty during the past war-years and sincerely trust you will be rewarded with real, enterprising football. Yours faithfully.”
After the bombing James W. Gibson spent the war years trying to persuade the Government to grant the club finance to redevelop and rebuild Old Trafford. In November 1944, the club was granted a Licence granting permission to demolish the Grandstand to allow the reconstruction work to commence. Two years later with the valuable assistance of Mr Ellis Smith, the local MP of Stoke-on-Trent, James W. Gibson was the main catalyst for a debate in the House of Commons to decide whether or not football clubs which were affected by the war were entitled to financial support. United along with nine other clubs were in need of financial support to rebuild their grounds following damage to them during the war. On 17 November 1944, more than three years after the Luftwaffe raid on the Trafford Park industrial area, the War Damage Commission wrote to the club and stated that they were of the opinion that Old Trafford was not a “total loss” and awarded United £4,800 to remove the debris and £17,478 to rebuild the stands. Although it cost £90,000 to build Old Trafford in 1909 (it officially opened on 19 February 1910 with a 4-3 First Division loss to Liverpool) the compensation package greatly helped United as the club had a debt of £15,000 at the time. With the building of the stadium now underway, James W. Gibson could now turn his attention to rebuilding the team.
Year after year and decade after decade the club’s conveyor belt of youth team talent provided players for the first team. In season 1947-48, United’s first team included a number of former Youth Team players: John Anderson (40 games, 2 goals, 1947-49), John Aston Snr (284 games, 30 goals, 1945-55), Carey, Henry Cockburn (275 games, 4 goals, 1945-55) and William McGlen (122 games, 2 goals, 1946-52).
Busby knew he had to replace his ageing side and began a revolution which would see his young side go on to dominate the English game in the latter half of the 1950s. Busby and Murphy took the bold decision to invest in the club’s youth set-up and actively set out to recruit the best local talent available by working closely with local schools and promoting Reserve Team players. Busby’s philosophy was simple: “If they are good enough, they are old enough.” During their successful 1951-52 First Division Championship winning campaign, Busby promoted two youth team players into the first team. On 24 November 1951, Busby gave Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne their United debuts versus Liverpool in the white hot atmosphere at Anfield. The game ended 0-0 with the debutants catching the eye of reporters including Tom Jackson from the Manchester Evening News who referred to the United team as “United Babes” in his match report and later the “Busby Babes.” Sadly, the one man who had been the catalyst for much of Busby’s success, James W. Gibson, did not see United lift the title or witness the revolution of the Busby Babes later in the decade as he passed away aged 74 in 1951. However, James W. Gibson’s dream continues to this day in the form of United’s Youth Team players.
James W. Gibson and his wife, Lillian, lost five children to birth complications and illness: a son, twins and two of three triplets. Their son Alan was born in 1915 and survived childhood pneumonia. Alan went on to serve as a vice-chairman and director of the club until his 70th Birthday and was Vice-President until his death in 1995. To their immense credit, the Gibson family, unlike other families that followed them, never took any money out of the club, instead they readily parted with their own savings to make the club the institution it is today. James Gibson’s original £40,000 loan (The Gibson Guarantee) was never repaid to him by the club and nor did he seek reimbursement of same. In September 2016, a piece of art, The Gibson Compass, was unveiled by Trafford Council at Halecroft Park, Hale Barns in Altrincham in recognition of his legacy at the club and the work of his wife Lillian and son Alan. It is a fitting memorial to the Gibson family and situated quite close to Alanor which no longer exists.
Today, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has followed the trend set by Matt Busby and later Alex Ferguson, by adopting James W. Gibson’s dream as he has no hesitation in promoting Academy players to his first team squad including: Tahith Chong, James Garner, Angel Gomes, Mason Greenwood, Jesse Lingard, Scott McTominay, Marcus Rashford, Axel Tuanzebe, Brandon Williams and Paul Pogba who was an Academy player from 2009-11.
Did You Know That?
Alan Gibson was booked on the chartered flight which the club organised for Manchester United’s European Cup quarter-final, 2nd leg tie away to Red Star Belgrade on 5 February 1958. However, a few days before departure, he broke an ankle and had to withdraw from the trip. His place on the trip was taken by the club secretary, Walter Crickmer, who lost his life in the Munich Air Disaster on 6 February 1958. James W. Gibson’s legacy should never be forgotten whilst his place in the history of Manchester United is forever enshrined at his beloved Old Trafford. And in another strange twist of fate, Jimmy Murphy missed the trip to Belgrade as he was in Cardiff at the time coaching the Welsh national team (he was the manager of Wales from 1956-64) for an important Fifa 1958 World Cup play-off game against Israel. The Welsh won the game 2-0 on the same night United drew 3-3 with Red Star Belgrade and Wales progressed to the World Cup Finals for the first time in the Principality’s history having lost the away play-off 2-1 on 15 January 1958 in Ramat Gan giving the Welsh a 3-2 aggregate victory. Murphy’s seat on the ill-fated flight was occupied by United’s chief coach Bert Whalley who lost his life in the disaster.