Book review: Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914



Season’s over and it’s time for ‘trusted sources’ and those ‘in-the-know’ to shine – the period when wild transfer speculation takes over. Considering that the summer ahead is arguably the most important for Manchester United in recent years, and the  Glazers’ generosity is to be tested once again, it’s hard not to find the guessing game more than a little annoying and ultimately disappointing. So step away from it all with a great read – one featuring a world-class United midfield, Championship winning glory and FA scandals to boot…

There are few books covering the birth of the club, while many writers have explored United since Sir Matt Busby’s era. But just as Busby discovered in 1945, United has never been just another football team; it is a club with a rich history. And for the most part, the expectation of success that has endured for so long in the modern era was in no small part due to the period of time squeezed between the yearly years (1878-1902) and the crisis years (1919-1932).

They were years that saw United develop into a team that became champions twice, won the FA Cup and became inaugural Charity Shield holders. It is a period that would come to be known as the ‘Golden Age’ of football.

Thomas Taw’s Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth does not attempt to review every match of every season, instead each chapter presents an overview of a significant period in that Golden Age. In 1903-1906: Towards the Holy Grail Taw takes the reader through United’s struggles on the way to the First Division; the final chapter 1911-14: Towards the Precipice recalls the reasons behind United’s subsequent fall.

Manchester United's Golden AgeOften what’s happening on the pitch is not the most important part of the story. Taw reveals the stories behind the curtains; the war between the Outcasts and FA, or the consequences of building Old Trafford, for example. Frequently, Taw’s curiosity simply reflects on the issues of the day, touching on Edwardian era life, and football’s role in it.

Unusually, Taw tells the story through a central character, Dick Duckworth – the only player to play for United throughout 1903-1914. In it Taw contrasts the hidden tale with what Taw calls “public story of Dick Duckworth and Manchester United.” It’s a fascinating portrait, marrying the struggle faced by both Duckworth and United to break through.

Duckworth gained his place in the first team just in time to lead United side to success, staying with the club for over a decade. A “Manchester lad, a true local hero,” Duckworth was an integral part of the best midfield in the country – Duckworth, Roberts and Bell.

Manchester United’s Golden Age is also a story that Taw tells “through the medium of contemporary newspapers,” offering the reader plenty of quotes – and at times quotes within quotes, and then some. It can be hard to tell where one ends, and another begins, but the humour shines through. From “…the cup-ties bring caperings which serve as a foil to the stately minuet of the League tournament,” to the “… fizzing, explosive excitement… warm the average man in “shivering times”… It is a force as mysterious as electricity.”

Perhaps the only complaint, especially the for the stats nerd, is the absence of a results and achievements section to offer the detail behind the story. In The Matt Busby Chronicles…, a book by the same publisher, the huge chapter devoted to tables on all matches played enhances the reader’s understanding of an important era.

Despite this Manchester United’s Golden Age offers great insight into a pivotal time in United’s story. And at a time when there’s little fit to print other than transfer rumours readers will find no disappointment in a fascinating period in the club’s rich history.

Manchester United’s Golden Age 1903-1914 – The Life and Times of Dick Duckworth by Thomas Taw is available in paperback and hardcover. Published by Desert Island Books and retailing on Amazon from £11.99. Also in Kindle edition.

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  • http://damiangarside.com Damian Garside

    If 1903 to 1914 was our golden age, what were 1993-1999 and 2007-2010 (silver?, diamond?). Looking back from 2020 the age we are entering now will probably be called the `pewter’ years (coz it sounds like `putrid’. It threatens to make 1969- 1974 see halcyon by comparison

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