“There is room in Manchester for two clubs,” said James William Gibson upon effectively taking over Manchester United on 19 December 1931. Manchester City was then the region’s premier club, and United, by contrast, was on its knees after years of financial mismanagement and falling crowds. In debt to the tune of thousands, the club went cap in hand to Gibson, a successful local businessman. Salfordian by birth, Gibson became United’s second financial saviour of the early 20th century, bailing out the club and laying the foundations for success to come.
Today, there are parallels between heavily indebted modern United and the club of the 1930s, although the Reds of 1931 would not have lasted the winter but for Gibson’s significant financial aid. United’s peril deepened as the great depression took hold, and crowds fell to below 10,000 at Old Trafford, with the team sliding between First and Second Divisions.
Gibson, the eldest of three children, was brought up by his paternal grandmother after his parents died young. But the orphan owned an astute eye for business, starting his started his first company manufacturing military uniforms after 15 years working for his uncle. With the Manchester textile industry booming, Gibson’s Collyhurst factory expanded into uniforms for transport and other workers after the First World War. It proved to be a successful venture – one that would prove central to United’s rich history.
At the club’s request, Gibson ploughed £2,000 into United through the winter of 1931/32, ensuring the players’ wages were paid. Later he would spend another £40,000 to keep the club afloat through the economic downturn, funded the rebuilding of Old Trafford after the Second World War, and then had to vision to start the youth academy – Manchester United Junior Athletic – that produced the Busby Babes. More than a benefactor though, Gibson became United’s chairman, appointing Matt Busby manager after the war.
The saviour’s legacy, superbly documented in far great detail elsewhere, was recognised by Trafford Borough Council in 2001 with a bright red plaque at the railway bridge on Sir Matt Busby Way. Thousands walk past the lasting memory to an a hugely important part of the club’s history each match day.
And on Monday morning, eighty years to the day after Gibson’s gesture of solidarity with the club, the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) recognised his legacy once again. Together with Gibson’s relatives, MUST and the Mayor of Trafford laid flowers at the James Gibson Plaque. Unsurprisingly no Glazer family members chose to mark the occasion. Why would they, for Gibson’s story is antithetic to United’s current owners.
Indeed, without Gibson there would be no modern Manchester United; no 76,000 capacity Old Trafford, no multi-million pound players, no global ‘brand’, and certainly no 19th domestic title last May. With the club on the precipice of extinction in 1931, the Salfordian created the environment in which United could survive and then eventually thrive in the years to come.
Moreover, unlike the club’s current owners Gibson did it not for profit, but through genuine selflessness and at huge personal financial risk. What greater contrast to the Glazer family could there be. After all the family has invested not a penny in the modern United, while sucking out millions in personal loans, management fees and debt repayment.
Gibson’s philanthropy is also a reminder of a football world now lost, when local businessmen ran clubs not to generate untold millions in profit, but as a service to the local community. This is not simply nostalgia either. In a similar vein to the mutuals that still exist in Spain and elsewhere, local businessmen once owned for the greater good.
This, after all, is how organised football eventually thrived in England. United, formed as Newton Heath LYR FC in 1878, was a workers union until financial difficulty required the club’s first bailout, by John Henry Davies, in 1902. Clubs all over the country were formed as unions, or Church and school teams, before being taken into largely private, but local hands. At United, it was not until Martin Edwards inherited the club from his father in the 1980s that the club’s owners sought to extract significant profits. In any case, FA rules precluded directors from taking a salary until 1981.
So raise a glass in toast – one that is 80 years in the making – to James William Gibson. United’s saviour.
From the Manchester Guardian, Tuesday 22 December 1931