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Remembering Middlesbrough: When Manchester United nearly ceased to exist

Back in the 1930s, Middlesbrough went to Old Trafford for a game that, at the time, might have been Manchester United's lowest point. It was a decent game though.

Richard Sellers/Getty Images

When writing these historical pieces, the temptation is always to pick out some ridiculous United victory. "Remember when Denis Law scored seven and Billy Meredith nutmegged a man to death? Yeah. Good times." And with Middlesbrough coming up tomorrow, there's plenty of choice: a 6-3 in 1908; a couple of 4-0s in the Newton Heath days; and a clutch of 4-1s and 4-2s.

Or alternatively, if we're feeling masochistic, we could go the other way, as Boro have stuck quite a few past United over the years. There was a 5-3 in 1921, as many as three 5-0s at various times, and more recently Steve McClaren's merry men thrashed United 4-1 in 2005. Gaizka Mendieta scored twice. Edwin van der Sar waved the first one in. Strange times.

But instead, we're going with a draw. A stupid, goalsoaked draw, granted, but a draw nonetheless; a 4-4 deadlock from between the wars. It was at Old Trafford, it was the last day of the 1930-31 Division One season, and if we're being honest, it didn't matter all that much. Middlesbrough were safely ensconced at the upper end of midtable, in no danger of actually winning anything, while United ... well, we'll get to that.

United's goals came from Stanley Gallimore, Welsh international Ray Bennion (who made over 300 appearances for United), and Tommy Reid, who scored twice. Reid, who scored 67 goals for United over five seasons, is most notable as one of the nine footballers to have moved directly between Liverpool and Manchester United, though he did spend a season's detoxification loan at Oldham before leaving Anfield for Old Trafford.

Boro's four goals, meanwhile, came from Teesside legend George Camsell, a player cursed to forever stand as one of those "greatest players that you've never heard of". Camsell holds the record for the most hat-tricks in a Football League season — nine — which he set in Division Two in 1926/27, a season in which he scored a comical 59 goals. At the time, that was the single-season goalscoring record in English football, and would almost certainly still be standing today had Everton's Dixie Dean not rudely scored 60 the following season. In the end, Camsell finished his Boro career with 345 goals from 419 games, as well as 18 goals in 9 games for England; you might think he deserved at least a tenth cap, but that was Dean's fault as well.

Anyway, United got a point, and in the process took their total for the season to an appalling 22. There was only two points for a win back in those days, but since United only won seven games all season and finished eight points adrift at the bottom of the table, we don't think we can blame the times. United had been bottom from the third week of the season, having begun the campaign with 12 straight losses, a run that included a 6-0 defeat away to Huddersfield Town, a 6-2 defeat away to Chelsea, and a 7-4 shredding at home to Newcastle United. It still stands as the worst ever start by any team to an English league season, and according to the Football Chronicle, United were "the worst team in senior football".

Their journey to becoming so had begun more than ten years previously, as World War One ended and English football started up again. United's squad had been hit hard by the conflict: the great Sandy Turnbull had been killed in action and numerous others had sustained injuries or aged beyond usefulness. Off the field, chairman John Henry Davies, who'd overseen the move to Old Trafford, the name change from Newton Heath, and the two title victories under Ernest Mangnall, stepped down, and his replacements failed to match his money-making nous or his eye for a player.

United were relegated to Division Two in 1922 — again, they finished eight points adrift at the bottom of the league — and spent three seasons trying to get back again. Money was splashed around to no great success, crowds drooped to an average of just over ten thousand, and it was even suggested that the Old Trafford pitch was cursed. They returned to Division One in 1925 and things briefly looked promising, as they finished ninth and reaching the semi-final of the FA Cup. Then one of football's most curious scandals cost United their manager, John Chapman, and nixed their recovery.

On 8 October 1926, the Football League suspended Chapman after an investigation found that he had been guilty of "improper conduct in his position as secretary/manager of Manchester United". He was banned for the rest of the season, and the board of United immediately dismissed him, installing Clarence Hilditch as temporary player-manager. All very dramatic. But the curious thing is, nobody knows why.

Neither the FA nor the Football League announced what he had done. Nor did United, despite having sacked him. And nor did Chapman, who took his secret to his grave. Naturally, conspiracy theories bloomed in the silence, and some felt that this was extremely well-chilled revenge for the 'Outcasts' season of 1909, when United's players went on strike in a protest over union recognition. It's also been suggested that Chapman had been covering for a player involved in match-fixing. The only clue comes from journalist Alf Clarke, who in 1948 wrote that:

I know full well all the circumstances, and I know that had John come out into the open he would have cleared himself very easily. But a player was involved and John Chapman preferred the matter to rest at that.

"Why" didn't matter to United, who were light a manager. Hilditch was no permanent solution, so in came Herbert Bamlett, poached from Middlesbrough with the hope that he could bring a bit of attacking flair back to Old Trafford. But though Joe Spence was scoring regularly, the other end of the pitch never achieved any kind of solidity over the following few seasons, and as United began the 1930-31 season, Bamlett's United had never finished higher than 12th. Worse, the Great Depression was squeezing the life out of the Manchester economy. United weren't just poor on the pitch; they, and the people who were supposed to be paying to watch them, were almost entirely skint off it.

By April 1931, Bamlett was gone, and by the time the Middlesbrough game came round, the club were already coming to terms with relegation. In terms of average attendance, the 1930-31 season stands as the lowest since United's move to Old Trafford, and the Middlesbrough game was the depressing full stop on the miserable story. Just 3,969 people watched Reid, Bennion, Gallimore and Camsell score their eight goals that day, at the time the lowest attendance ever to watch United at Old Trafford, and still the lowest ever for a top flight game. You'd be forgiven for thinking that this was a club in terminal decline.

As you can tell by the fact that you're reading this, there was a happy ending. Attendances remained low for the first few months of the following season, as United adjusted to life in Division Two. But the seeds of the club's rebirth began to flourish in December, when local businessman James Gibson took control of the club for a month. He issued the following challenge to the people of Manchester:

For a month I am at the disposal of Manchester United and during that time I want to see if the public of Manchester United desire football at Old Trafford. If in course of that month I find them coming down to the ground I will redouble my efforts. Although I have undertaken to see United through coming month, I am not going to be a milch cow.

The last home game before he took control was a 2-0 win over Millwall, watched by 6,396 people. The first under his direction actually showed a decline, as only 4.697 spectators turned up to watch a 1-0 loss to bottom-of-the-table Bristol City. But the second game, played on the 25th December, must have seemed as a Christmas miracle to Manchester United's nervous board members. 33,123 people filed through the turnstiles to watch a 3-2 win over Wolverhampton Wanderers. On 5 January 1932, Gibson took on the club's debt, and by the end of the month he was president. And a mere sixteen years and another World War later, Manchester United were champions.