By Andrew Embling
- Without James Gibson we wouldn’t have Manchester United as we know it today
- Gibson put £40,000 of his money to save the club
- Gibson introduced youth team football, his greatest legacy to Manchester United
Imagine a world without United – no Theatre of Dreams, no superstars to cheer on – just the blue half of Manchester taking centre stage.
That image is a nightmare for all United supporters, but it almost became a reality but for one man’s courage and commitment to his local community. When United needed a saviour most of all, one man took a risk to not only keep the club afloat, but had the vision to set in place the foundations to make United the great institution that we see today.
Not only did he safeguard the future prosperity of the club by putting into place the youth team system which continues to serve United to this day, but he also recognised the importance of the supporters as the lifeblood of the club. And when United needed rebuilding a second time, this time with bricks and mortar after the bombing of Old Trafford during the Second World War, he once again came to the club’s rescue.
This man wanted no fame or fortune from the club, he just wanted to give it a future and a future worth having….his name was James Gibson. There has been little written about the man who, without doubt, brought United back from the brink of extinction and much that has been written has been far from accurate.
What we do know is that James Gibson put in over £40,000 of his own money (the equivalent of over £2 million in today’s money) and built a future for the club.
His tireless devotion to United may have ended with his death in 1951 – a death which was mourned by those within the club at the time, as can be seen in the newspapers and official programme in the days following his passing – but his dream lived on, his son Alan taking over the family mantle as he too gave almost 50 years of service to the Red Devils.
How James Gibson came to be involved in the club’s survival is now part of legend. Back in the late 1920s United’s first great benefactor, JH Davies, had died and with the onset of the Wall Street Crash and the ensuing financial crisis and what can only be seen as mismanagement in the Board Room at Old Trafford, United began to fall into financial difficulty.
There was little to encourage the supporters either, largely abandoned by the Board and with the team failing to produce on the pitch, attendances steadily fell. United’s ‘Great Matter’ continued to go from bad to worse as they were relegated to the then Second Division, where the team continued to struggle.
By December 1931 United were in so much debt that they were unable to pay the players’ wages and the banks refused to allow them any further credit. It seemed like the end of United; unless help could be found quickly they may not have lasted long past the festive season.
Christmas looked far from a time of celebration as the club lurched towards bankruptcy and the closure of the turnstiles at Old Trafford for good. But their fortunes were to take a turn for the better on 19th December. On the day the team lost once again, a 1-0 home defeat to Bristol City, there was reason to raise a smile.
Club secretary Walter Crickmer, who would later be one of those souls to lose his life at Munich, went to a meeting with a local businessman which was to change the fortunes of United and hand them survival.
James Gibson had not had an easy childhood, losing his parents early in life, but had shown a great aptitude for business – something he had learned from his uncle William Fell, who had brought James up and taught him all he knew.
Born in Salford, James had been a keen supporter of the community and local area, and had heard about United’s plight. He had felt saddened by the situation of the club and had agreed to meet with Crickmer to see if there was anything that could be done to help.
So when Crickmer left that meeting holding a cheque for £2,000 – enough to keep the creditors at bay over the festive period, pay the backlog of wages and have enough left over to buy each player a turkey for Christmas – and the promise that Gibson would see what else could be done, he must have felt a huge sense of relief.
Gibson was as good as his word. Having attended the matches over Christmas, he promised more help would follow and that he would take the reins in the Boardroom by becoming Chairman. The incumbent Board resigned and Gibson took up office with his own men at the helm as he looked to steady the ship.
James W Gibson, without whom United would be just a distant memory
One of the first things he had to do was to bring the supporters back to Old Trafford, and he met with supporters groups to take them into his confidence and explain his vision for the future. He also asked the supporters for help in the form of Patrons Tickets and, whilst the uptake was not as he would have hoped, one response in particular galvanised him to continue his quest to re-establish United as a force.
With Crickmer picking the team in the absence of a manager Gibson knew he had to find someone to oversee an improvement on the playing field. Scott Duncan was the man he put in charge of proceedings, but United initially continued to struggle on the pitch, whilst behind the scenes Gibson stood guarantor to the club debt which was in excess of £25,000.
Duncan had plenty of new ideas and Gibson was a man for progression. In those days few clubs enjoyed a relaxed approach, they simply trained, played then trained for the next match – there was no down time – but Gibson extolled the virtue of allowing players to unwind and was known to take the players on trips to places like Wales, although foreign travel was largely uncommon before the War.
Gibson was beginning to lay the foundations for the future and one of those was to ensure the stadium was full on match days. Up until 1933-34 Old Trafford had been relatively inaccessible for those supporters in outlying areas, but the Chairman was to change this when he negotiated with the Midland Railway to make unscheduled stops at the small station near Old Trafford on match days.
With steps from the station also built, fans no longer had to walk miles to the stadium, shortening their journey time to the ground and increasing their comfort as a result.
Attendances began to rise steadily, but United almost sunk to new depths on the pitch as they narrowly avoided plummeting into the old Third Division with a 2-0 win on the last day of the season against Millwall, the Londoners falling through the relegation trap door as a result.
Two years later United were promoted as Champions of Division Two, but were relegated again the next year, but only for one season.
With new players needed and little money for transfers a new strategy was required. Gibson set about revolutionising the club by forming the youth team, the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJACs).
The youth team system was to become perhaps Gibson’s greatest legacy to United, and whilst it may have had many revamps over the years the bedrock of youth development is something which is now part of the club’s DNA and synonymous with the club all over the world.
Aided by the loyal Crickmer, MUJACs would nurture talent from the local areas and give them the opportunity to develop. It is incredible to think that an unprecedented 3,700+ games in succession have been played with at least one youth team player in the first team squad, dating back to October 1937 and the MUJACs era.
Having begun the development of the youth team, Gibson turned his attention to finding a place where they could play. He signed a lease on the Old Broughton Rangers Rugby Ground – known as The Cliff – and with their new home the MUJACs thrived.
But just as United were on an upward spiral the Second World War intervened. Players and staff left for foreign fields to fight for their country and never returned home. The War didn’t just rage overseas, but on the home front too, and Manchester was not to escape damage.
One fateful day in March 1941 a German mission flew over Manchester and dropped their bombs. Old Trafford was hit, the grandstand destroyed. Having spent a decade securing United’s existence all James Gibson’s hard work was to go up in flames. He was devastated.
But, running the club from his offices at Cornbrook Cold Storage, Gibson set about once again rebuilding the club he loved, this time with bricks and mortar. The Chairman also negotiated with neighbours City to play their home matches at Maine Road, with Old Trafford out of commission whilst the War raged on.
Despite hostilities finally coming to an end materials were hard to come by and a license had to be granted to allow the club to rebuild the damaged sections of the ground. It was not until 1944 that a license was granted to demolish the grandstand and would take even longer before the ground could be made playable once again.
Gibson worked tirelessly to get the plight of not just United, but a further nine clubs who had suffered War damage, heard by the government and with the help of the MP for Stoke, Ellis Smith, finally had the matter debated in parliament.
Finally, the clubs were granted the license to rebuild and, almost seven years to the day after Old Trafford had been bombed, United were able to look to the future. With the War over and the return of formal competition, Gibson also needed to turn his attention to restoring the fortunes of United on the pitch.
A new manager was needed, the Chairman wanting to find an exceptional candidate to take the reins. He came across a young man with little managerial experience, but who showed promise. Matt Busby was given the post and United, with MUJACs producing talented players such as Charlie Mitten into the first team, began to prosper.
That development came to a head in 1948 when United went to Wembley and defeated Blackpool in the FA Cup final.
It was the crowning glory of all James Gibson’s hard work, but he was unable to go to see his side lift the cup having suffered a stroke a few months before. With their Chairman unable to be at Wembley, the team returned to Manchester and stopped off at Gibson’s house to present their saviour with the Cup.
It was a great gesture, showing the respect and love they had for their Chairman and acknowledgment of the blood, toil, sweat and tears he had shed to keep United in existence.
The plaque on the railway bridge outside Old Trafford, plus there by Trafford Council to James Gibson, the man who saved United
The same year James’s son, Alan, was voted to the club Board, the start of his long service to United. Busby’s side continued to come close to the title, ending as runners-up in consecutive seasons before they finally won the First Division in 1952.
Sadly, James Gibson was not able to see their triumph having died in September 1951. The United Review summed it up perfectly when writing of the loss of the Chairman:
‘There could be no doubt that he was sincerely devoted to Manchester United…none felt the game more than he. His name is indelibly written in the annals of Manchester United.’
James Gibson was a quiet unassuming businessman, the man who saved a dying club and breathed new life into it. 84 years on from his great endeavour the club he saved, the club he nurtured, has become one of the most well-known sporting institutions across the world.
Millions now follow their fortune, both on and off the pitch, but how many truly understand the debt we all have as supporters to the man who saved United.