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Remembering Everton: When United won their first title

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Come back in time to April 1908, when United visited Everton in pursuit of the Football League.

No, Ryan Giggs wasn't quite old enough to be playing in 1907. But we needed a Welsh winger.
No, Ryan Giggs wasn't quite old enough to be playing in 1907. But we needed a Welsh winger.
Alex Livesey

Welcome to a new, occasional series in which tBB revisits an old match against whichever team Manchester United happen to be playing at the weekend. Today, Everton, and the distant past ...

Strange as it may seem in these heady days of 20 championships, there was once a time when Manchester United hadn't won anything much at all. Back at the turn of the century — that's the 1800s to the 1900s — Newton Heath were knocking around in the second division, until two interlinked events changed the fortunes of the club. The first was the takeover of the financially ailing club by a consortium of local businessmen, which was finalised in April 1902 and resulted in a changed name and a secure future. The second, the following year, was the appointment of Ernest Mangnall as manager.

Just as Matt Busby would many years later, so Mangnall fundamentally shifted the idea of what a football club manager was supposed to do. Even though his job title was officially "secretary," and while training at this stage in football's development was an occasional and disognaised affair, Mangnall inculcated United's squad with a great belief in fitness and the value of workrate. According to Jim White in Manchester United: The Biography, his chief methods were working harder than anybody else himself, and "making it clear he would find others to step into any malingerer's boots."

Out went any number of players; in came, among others, giant goalkeeper Harry Moger and elegant half-back Charlie Roberts. A new-found defensive solidity brought consecutive third place finishes in the second division, before promotion was achieved at the third attempt in 1905-06. United were back in the top flight, and the stage was set for one of the greatest transfer coups in the history of English football.

Across town, Manchester City had won the 1904 FA Cup with a sizzling attacking built around the brilliant Welsh winger Billy Meredith. Skilful, moustachioed, and always chewing on his trademark toothpick, Meredith scored 134 goals in 362 appearances for City, a remarkable record for a winger. But come 1905-06, things were falling apart for United's neighbours. The board was suspended after the club breached wage restrictions, while Meredith himself was suspended for attempting to bribe an opponent, an allegation he denied. The club arranged a hasty sale of their playing staff, and Mangnall, having been tipped off by a contact at City, was in pole position. By the time the rest of the league arrived at Manchester's Queen's Hotel, Meredith, along with Herbert Burgess, Jimmy Bannister and Sandy Turnbull, had already signed for United. For free.

All of which meant that going into the 1907-08 season, in White's words, "Virtually the full forward line of the most attacking side in the country was grafted on to the best defence around." And United began their campaign with a speed that would make trains blush. They won 13 of their first 14 games, scoring 48 goals (the most in the league) and conceding just 18 (the second lowest). Though their form dipped a little as winter set in, by the time United went to Goodison Park in April, they were top of the table by ten points and needed a win to virtually secure the title.

1907-08_table_before_everton_medium

Two points for a win, remember, and goal average rather than goal difference. Two more points, and United would be ten points ahead with only twelve left, and with a vastly superior goal average. But as noted above, United's form had been wobbling a touch: their preceding five games had included two wins, over Sunderland and, importantly, fellow title-chasers The Wednesday, but also two losses, 0-1 away at Arsenal and 4-7 away at Liverpool. Yes, four against seven. Ah, the joys of old football.

Everton, for their part, had been skittering around the upper reaches of mid-table for most of the season and came into the game in similarly varied form. They had, however, won three of their last four home games, and with United's away form not watching their imperious record at Bank Street — the club didn't move to Old Trafford until 1910 — a positive result for the title-chasers was far from a foregone conclusion.

Now, obviously we don't have video footage of this titanic clash. Nor do we have much in the way of national newspaper coverage. The Times, for example, in those pre-match report days, tells us only that "Manchester United beat Everton, at Everton, by three goals to one." Football results were allocated less space in that day's paper than a meeting of the Royal Commission on the Church in Wales. Apparently the Rev. Albert Owen Evans, inspector of schools for the diocese of Bangor, was not in favour of bilingual church services.

Fortunately, literature is here to help where (easily checkable) journalism has failed us. United opened the scoring through Harold Halse, a striker who had only arrived at United in March but who was playing ahead of James Turnbull at centre-forward. Just after the hour mark, however, Everton squared up the game through the great Sandy Young. And here we let Manchester United's First Championship, by Mark Metcalf, take up the story:

Having dominated their opponents, the injustice of conceding a goal saw the away side pour forward, and when Sandy Turnbull's shot was handled by Walter Balmer the United inside-left thrashed home the penalty to the joy of a small handful of the side's supporters, who had been able to make the trip for the midweek afternoon fixture.

Outside-left George Wall added a third late on; according to Metcalf, "Meredith, Turnbull and Wall had all played magnificently." With results elsewhere going their way — The Wednesday lost to Middlesbrough while Newcastle lost to Aston Villa — United were effectively champions.

Just as well, really, since their form promptly lay down and died. Their next game was a home match against Notts County, and a 1-0 loss — with the players apparently looking totally disinterested — prompted sustained abuse from the crowd. One fan even wrote to the Football Field claiming that "this was the most disgraceful exhibition of football that it has ever been my lot to witness. My complaint is purely and simply against the home team, who after the first 20 minutes never made an honest effort to score." He signed himself 'Play Straight'; the implication being that United's players were doing anything but, and that money had changed hands.

Still, both Manchester City and The Wednesday lost as well, meaning that United's first title had been confirmed, albeit in a less-than-ideal atmosphere. Mangnall would go on to win United's first FA Cup the following season — a much bigger deal than the league at the time — and then another league title in 1910-11. Meredith, meanwhile, hadn't just inspired the league win. He and his United colleagues had, in December 1907, held the first meetings of the Players' Union, an organisation that would eventually, sixty years later, successfully argue for the abolition of the maximum wage for footballers. Cristiano Ronaldo owes him plenty.

Manchester United: Herbert Broomfield; George Stacey, Herbert Burgess; Dick Duckworth, Charlie Roberts, Alexander Downie; George Wall, Sandy Turnbull, Harold Halse, James Bannister, Billy Meredith

Goals: Halse, Wall, Turnbull

Everton: Billy Scott; Walter Balmer, John Maconnachie, Harry Makepeace, Jack Taylor, Hugh Adamson, Daniel Rafferty, Tim Coleman, Sandy Young, Jimmy Settle, Joe Donnachie

Goals: Young