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Manchester United's forgotten goalscorer

A look back at the career of Jack Rowley, the great Manchester United striker who has been overshadowed by those who followed him.

Michael Regan

When historians look back at the Great Saga of Wayne Rooney's Contract, one of the odder little wrinkles will be the reports that Manchester United were offering their man not just money in large amounts, but also various little tokens and notes of prestige. The captaincy. An ear in transfer negotiations. And, strangely and perhaps slightly uncomfortably, the chance to overtake Bobby Charlton as United's all-time top goalscorer.

Whether Rooney cares for such intangibles isn't clear. After all, the significance of the record is almost entirely contingent on one's regard for the club, which isn't something with which Rooney has always appeared over-blessed. But, caring or not, he's currently in fourth position with 209, just 40 off Charlton's mark. Injury and crisis allowing, it seems a matter of time.

Whether he gets there or not, he's already in exalted company. Below him in joint fifth are Dennis Viollet, deadliest of the Busby Babes and survivor of Munich, and George Best, both with 179. Above him can be found the other two members of the Holy Trinity, Denis Law in second with 237, and Charlton out in the lead. But in third place, just two goals ahead of United's current #10 and future ambassador, is a less familiar name: Jack Rowley.

Early life

Born in Wolverhampton in 1920, John Frederick Rowley came from a footballing family. His father kept goal for Walsall, while his younger brother Arthur, born in 1926, also went on to be a notable goalscorer. While Arthur never quite made it in the top flight, he had exceptionally productive spells with Fulham, Leicester City, and Shrewsbury Town, and eventually scored a quite ridiculous 434 goals over a 619-game career. This remains the record for English league football.

Jack, however, was destined for the very top of Division One. Aged 15 he joined his hometown team Wolverhampton Wanderers as a schoolboy, but the club, having secured his signature, promptly forgot about him. After two seasons on loan at local side Cradley Heath and with no sign that he would be breaking into the Wolves side any time soon, he was allowed to move to Division Three side Bournemouth in search of first team football.

Back in the days before wingers had inverted themselves

As soon as he got it, he made the most of it. Despite playing predominantly as a left winger -- back in the days when front lines were five players wide and wingers hadn't inverted themselves -- Rowley scored a reported ten goals in his first eleven appearances. At some point in that prolific run he caught the eye of holidaymaker James W. Gibson, who regularly visited the south coast town at the weekend, looking for respite from his double life as a textile magnate, which is how he was making his money, and the owner of Manchester United, which is how he was spending it.

Rowley moved north for a fee quoted variously as either £3,000 or £3,500, a not-inconsiderable amount by the standards of the day, particularly for a purchasing club in shabby financial shape. United had been bouncing between the top two divisions for a number of seasons, and Wilson, who had saved the club from bankruptcy in 1931, was in the process of rebuilding. A youth system was being put in place, and the squad was being refreshed; Rowley, still young, was one for the future.

Rowley made his debut on 23 October 1937 against Sheffield Wednesday, though he didn't score and was dropped the following week. His second appearance didn't come until 4 December, at home to Swansea City, and he took the opportunity to advance a reasonable against being dropped again: he scored four. In all, he finished the season with nine goals, and United were promoted back to Division One. The following season he scored 10 goals in 39 games, as United avoided immediate relegation and finished 14th. He was 18 years old. And then, just as his career was truly beginning, Europe went to war.

World War Two

'All Sport Brought To A Halt, Restart When Safe For Crowds' reported the Daily Mail. The league programme was suspended on 2 September 1939 -- Blackpool were top of Division One -- and while football wasn't gone for long, travel and crowd restrictions imposed by the wartime government meant that ad hoc regional leagues had to be established. Many footballers, being fine fit examples of British youth, joined either the regular or Territorial forces, and while their parent clubs generally kept their professional registrations, circumstances and logistics meant that players often turned out for any team that had the space, and wasn't too far from their barracks.

Rowley, so the Manchester United website records, was an active soldier and participated in the 1945 D-Day landings on Normandy beach. But he also played a fair amount of football. As well as making appearances for United -- notably scoring seven in a 13-1 defeat of New Brighton -- he also turned out for Tottenham Hotspur, Aldershot and, pleasingly for fans of symmetry, his former club Wolverhampton Wanderers, for whom he scored five see-what-you-could-have-won goals against Everton. He also took his first step into international football, playing one war time international for England, though he failed to score in a 2-0 win over Wales.

British football wasn't just contained to the islands through the war. An Army team toured France in 1940; the Wanderers touring team, led by Tom Finney, played exhibition matches through Syria, Egypt, and Palestine from 1942-44; and FA invitational XIs were sent to Belgium and France in late 1944 and 1945, as the war in western Europe began to turn against the Axis. All this was done in the name of morale, of troop entertainment, and in May 1945, as the German troops surrendered across Europe, an Army team flew out to Italy for a planned celebratory tour of Italy and Greece. Rowley was amongst them, and though he missed almost all of the football -- first hospitalised with dysentery, then stricken with the hideous-sounding sandfly fever -- it was his first experience of working with the player-manager of the Army XI, former Manchester City and Liverpool right-half and soon-to-be Manchester United manager, Matt Busby.

Rowley and Busby

When Rowley returned to Busby's United, he was returning to a club on the brink of an epochal transformation. Busby's experiences with football both before and during the war had convinced him -- rightly, as it turned out -- that a club needed all footballing decisions, from training through team selection to transfers, to be concentrated in the hands of the manager. As he said: "I wanted a different kind of football club from what was normal at the time. There wasn't a human approach. I wanted to manage a team the way I thought the players wanted it. In those days the atmosphere in clubs was bad. The first team would hardly recognise the lads underneath. The manager sat at his desk and you saw him once a week."

Probably Rowley would have scored goals for anybody. A few inches shy of six foot, he wasn't as tall as the traditional centre-forward, but was nevertheless excellent in the air, and supplemented this with a left-foot shot of such force that, taken along with his war service, earned him the nickname 'the Gunner'. (It is unclear whether Arsenal attempted to sue.) But under Busby he thrived, and in his first full season after the war -- 1946/47, his first full season of professional football as an adult -- he scored 28 goals in 39 appearances. United finished second in the league, one point behind Liverpool. The following season he scored a further 28 goals, two of which are arguably as important as any in United's history.

The 1948 FA Cup final set United against Blackpool, whose forward line included England internationals and future Cup legends Stanley Matthews and Stan Mortensen. Wary of Matthews, Busby instructed United to focus play on their right, the opponent's left, to keep the ball as far away from the future knight as possible. He also asked United's left-winger, Charlie Mitten, to drop back and help the defence when Matthews had possession, which was something of a novelty at the time.

The best laid plans, and all that. After 12 minutes, Blackpool were awarded and scored an early penalty; Rowley equalised after 28 minutes, opportunistically exploiting a defensive mix-up. Ten minutes before half-time, Blackpool took the lead again, and though both sides had chances, it remained 2-1 until deep into the second half. Then, as recorded by the Times:

With 20 minutes to go, however, Morris prepared to take a free-kick gained to the right of the Blackpool penalty area. As he advanced to the kick a gentle breeze, had we but sensed it, had already begun to stir. A moment later the ball lay snug at the bottom of the Blackpool net, headed there like a flash by Rowley, who had timed his advance perfectly between Hayward and Shimwell. Manchester United were level.

It was "the beginning of the Manchester whirlwind". Goals from right half John Anderson and inside left Stan Pearson gave United the win, and gave Rowley his first trophy. The Times' ecstatic football correspondent declared that the match: "pointed a lesson to the game of football as a whole that should be marked. Defence is negation; attack, as we saw it, perfectly executed, is life". Or: football taught by Matt Busby, as the song has it.

But the significance of this goal went beyond the protagonists, and into United's future. A ten-year-old Bobby Charlton was listening:

on the radio. We had no television in those days. After a while we went out onto the street to play football ... every so often we would we come in to ask the score. I remember United equalising. The next we heard they'd won. They said it was the greatest Cup Final of all time. I think it was from that day that I wanted to be a footballer and join Manchester United.

After the Cup, the League

Over the next few seasons Rowley continued to score goals with impressive regularity, albeit at a slightly declining rate: 30 in 1948/49, 23 in 1949/50, and then 15 in 1950/51. Away from the pitch, Busby was reconfiguring the club. As the cup-winning side grew older -- or, in Mitten's case, decamped to Colombia; a move which saw Rowley revisiting the left-wing -- Busby was determined to refresh the side not solely through the transfer market, but through the targeting and development of young players. While United already had a strong youth structure -- three of the Cup-winning front-line had come through the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club, established in 1938 -- Busby's vision was not just of a team, but of a club able to compete at every level, constantly able to renew itself, with a clear and well-trodden path from schoolboy to professional. This process was well underway when, almost by accident, United won the league title in 1952.

"Consistency, artistry, and standards of behaviour"

Busby later described this title as his most unexpected, and it was won on the back of a 31-year-old Rowley's sudden resurgence. He began the season with back-to-back hat-tricks and would score 30 in all, as United tussled with double-chasing Arsenal. Having gone top at the end January, United only needed to avoid defeat at home against their London rivals; Rowley, finishing as he'd started, scored three, and United confirmed the title with a giddy 6-1 hammering. Such a last-day win these days would almost certainly melt the presses, ignite the airwaves, and shatter the internet into a billion seething pieces; as it is, the Times praised United for their tactical flexibility and described them as a side "unequalled by any since the war for sheer consistency, artistry in the modern game, and standards of behaviour on the field of play". Truly, it was a different time.

That was the last flourish of the first of Busby's great sides. November next season found them 19th in the league, and Busby began to integrate his first clutch of youngsters. In came Duncan Edwards, Dennis Viollet, and Bill Foulkes among others; out went the old guard, including league- and cup-winners Johnny Carey and John Aston. Rowley played on until 1955 -- still scoring, of course, though never as prolifically as before -- before being released to join Plymouth Argyle as player-manager. Including the war, he'd been with the club 17 years. Not including the war, he'd played 424 games, and scored 211 goals.

Why forgotten?

The reason that Rowley hasn't lodged into the general footballing consciousness in the manner of his fellow United top-scorers is, more than anything else, timing. Though he was exceptional at arriving in the box, he chose precisely the wrong time to emerge into the world.

From here in the future, football in the post-war years looks like something entirely other. The league was important, yes, but it wasn't everything; United's 1952 title win was accorded exactly as much space in the next day's Times as the result of the FA Amateur Cup. And even the cups paled against international football. Look at all the names that echo down the ages from the 1940s and 50s -- Tom Finney, Stanley Matthews, Billy Wright -- and the common denominator is not just their greatness but their greatness with England; historical weight is measured not just in goals or in trophies, but in caps. That's where the attention was. That's where the photographers were. That's where most of what television there was, was.

If Rowley has been kept from wider renown by his better-capped compatriots, then it would only be appropriate; they were, after all, also the reason that he was largely kept from the England team. In total he only collected six caps; this despite scoring on his debut against Switzerland, and then netting four in his fifth game, a 9-2 hammering of Northern Ireland. For a while he was overlooked in favour of Chelsea's Roy Bentley, who travelled to the 1950 World Cup, before the emergence of Nat Lofthouse effectively ended both their England careers. After the Bolton forward made his debut in 1951, Rowley won just one more cap, and that on the left-wing.

From a United perspective, too, he belongs very much to the pre-modern era. When it comes to the phases of Busby, the first -- from the end of the war until the emergence of the Babes -- is understandably overshadowed by what followed; by the romance and tragedy of the Babes themselves, and then by the rebuilt United of the Holy Trinity. These are the two great, gigantic stories that underpin the football club and socio-cultural institution that is Manchester United; pity the poor, overlooked warm-up act.

The age-old English systems were about to be shredded

Footballers were changing too. As Rowley left United in 1955, football in England was about to transform itself utterly and irrevocably. In the early 1960s, the maximum wage was lifted and the retain-and-transfer system -- which allowed clubs to hold players' registrations in effective perpetuity -- followed shortly afterwards. Money flowed into the pockets of the players, and then out, and George Best led his colleagues into a shiny world of glittering celebrity. Tactically, the age-old English systems -- five up front; a proper centre-forward in the middle -- were about to be shredded into tiny pieces by a group of upstart Hungarians. Such is the magnitude of this shift that it's almost easier to imagine Rowley alongside Billy Meredith in United's first title-winning teams, back at that the turn of the century, then it is to imagine him lifting the European Cup with Busby a mere 13 years later.

That said, it's possible that he would have thrived in any era. He had, by all accounts, the most transferable the striking skills: an eye for space, and an ability to kick the ball really hard with considerable accuracy. Such players will always have their value, however false the nine. And the truly frightening thing to contemplate is just how many goals he might have scored had he not lost six seasons of his youth to the war. Poor Wayne would have had to angle for a ten year contract.