Thursday, 25 February 2010

Chapter 5 – War and Rebuilding 1915 – 1925

The First World War lasted for another three years. It was a near unique trauma with more than 800,000 British men dying between 1914 and 1918.

On the morning of July 1st 1916 the men of the Sheffield Pals battalion, the ordinary United and Wednesday supporting men who had enlisted so enthusiastically and drilled at Bramall Lane, went over the top at the Somme. By the evening 513 of them were dead. One survivor wrote “Two years in the making. Ten minutes in the destroying. That was our history.” Years later one woman recalled

“When the news came through it was terrible. Several of the boys I went to Sunday School with had joined the Sheffield Pals. We’d grown up together and they’d all joined together as a crowd. They were lovely boys. I remember I was working in the window of my father’s shop and Dad came in and said he had something very sad to tell me. They’d all been killed on the Somme. I was devastated.”

Memorial on the Somme to the Sheffield Pals

The war hit home even more directly when Sheffield was bombed by zeppelins in September 1916 killing 28 people. One man remembered the mood in the city

Searching for survivors in Burngreave after the zeppelin raid in September 1916

“People were starting to turn against the government and against the war. In my family, it was heartbreaking. My father had been killed. My mum had died just after I was born and I was brought up by my grandmother, my father’s mother. She was devastated by my father’s death. Her hair turned white in a couple of weeks. I remember watching her and my grandfather weeping, trying to console each other. And some of my uncles never came back from the war, either. That was what was happening to lots of families in Sheffield. They were exhausted and they were angry. I can only describe it as a dark cloud hanging over us. But Sheffield was a proud city that had fought for its rights, going back to the days of the French Revolution, and that’s what it did again in the war. Many times the engineering factories were out on strike”

One of the men who didn’t come home was young Jimmy Revill. As understudy to Bob Evans Revill had shone in the United side that reached the Cup semi final in 1914. He was a totally loyal club man and even when he was regularly playing he never pushed for the maximum wage he deserved. One Bank Holiday, when there was no public transport, he walked to Bramall Lane from his home in Chesterfield. He served with the Royal Engineers and was killed on the first day of the battle of Arras in April 1917 and buried along with 3,000 other men at Bethune. To modern players who complain about ‘only’ earning £55,000 per week the Jimmy Revill’s of this world ought to act as a shaming example.

Sheffield war memorial is dedicated

Early 1915 had seen the failure of the Gallipoli offensive and the Allied offensive in France and it became apparent that the war was going to last for some time. The decision was taken to suspend league football for the duration and a system of regional football was set up with United going into the Midland Section. The effects of the war made themselves felt with the emergence of guest players. As footballers joined up they found their war service moving them around the country so they would often turn out for whichever team was nearest.

In these circumstances it wasn’t such a shock when United were beaten 7-3 away at Lincoln on the opening day of 1915 – 1916 with Joe Kitchen getting a hat trick. There were four derby matches and on January 15th Brelsford and Glennon were sent off for each side after a punch up, a grotesque parody of the violence in France and Belgium. J.A.H. Catton remembered that “Mr. Clegg was sitting near me and he immediately said: ‘I thought all this animosity was a thing of the past.’ Still there was the manifestation-quick and vivid as lightning”

Crowds were predictably low and one match away at Bradford recorded a crowd of just 450. The season ended with a 3-0 win over Wednesday at the Lane the final goal coming after a comic mix up in the Wednesday defence. The full back, Womack, took a goal kick and knocked it sideways for the keeper. He was busy doing his laces up and Oliver Tummon latched on to the loose ball and knocked it into an empty net.

The make do and mend attitude threw up some bizarre incidents. For one away match against Leeds City in the 1916 – 1917 season United were short handed and one Blades fan’s dreams came true when he was asked to fill in. A match against Grimsby in the final wartime season saw the linesman sent off for arguing with the referee. Against Hull the Blades arrived without a kit and had to play in borrowed boots. Hull’s David Mercer rattled in 6 goals before the match was abandoned due to bad light.

One of the bright spots of wartime football was the opportunity it gave young players and the best of the bunch was centre forward Harry Johnson. The son of Harry Johnson who had won the League and Cup with United, he broke into the first team in 1916 after one reserve match where a fan threatened him with a gun. On his return from the army Harry quickly became a crowd favourite with his tireless effort and good looks becoming a bit of a heart throb for female fans. A local writer said

“Harry Johnson – they ought to call him Harry Hotspur – may not be the ideal centre forward. He may not be able to ‘kill’ the ball as Billy Gillespie does; he may not distribute adroitly; but, like Her Majesty’s Jolly, once in a while he can finish in style, and it his electric, deadly finish which makes him a matchwinner”

In the first full season after the war, 1919 – 1920, Johnson scored 11 goals in 24 League games including a hat trick against Bolton but it was apparent that four seasons off had taken their toll on some of the teams major players, specifically Sturges, Brelsford, Utley and Simmons. Some comfort was to be had by Wednesday’s relegation but the presence of so many senior servants not only indicated that United could be following them but caused a fall out among the players. Back when Utley had signed one of the terms of his contract was that a League match would be named a benefit and he would be guaranteed £500. This rankled with some of the other players and, after a protest, United were forced to award the same to the rest of them.

Other players came through who would go on to feature after the war. Defender and heavy smoker Harold Pantling joined from Watford in 1914 and soon established himself as a player who wasn’t afraid to get stuck in but not always fairly and in 1918 he had become the first Blades player to be sent off twice in a season. He was capped for England in 1923. Left back Ernest Milton was another, joining the Blades from Kilnhurst Town in 1917 aged 20.

The wartime investment in Sheffield’s steel industry reaped dividends in peacetime and Sheffield, like much of the country, enjoyed an economic boom, which was well under way by mid 1920. United sold every reserved seat for the 1920 – 1921 season and crowds over 20,000 were now the norm. But many of the pre war stars they turned up to see were moving on and it was just as well that local players were coming through. Jimmy Simmons headed to east London to play for the emerging West Ham United and, at the end of the season, Joe Kitchen left for Hull City returning to Sheffield at the end of his career to become landlord of the Wheatsheaf Hotel near Bramall Lane.

Fred Tunstall

With such transition it was a grim season for the Blades and they battled relegation from the start. The alarming statistic of three homes wins before Christmas led the normally frugal United board to splash the cash and in December outside left Fred Tunstall arrived from Scunthorpe United for a hefty £1,000. Tunstall had grown up in Darfield near Barnsley and had worked down Houghton Colliery before the war. It was during his time in the Royal Horse Artillery that he took up football and he developed a searing striking ability. After just 19 appearances for the Lincolnshire side he became a hot property, not the sort of player that tight fisted Sheffield United would normally stump up for. United’s bold move into the transfer market was so surprising that “at the very moment that Tunstall was making his debut for the Blades at White Hart Lane, Peter McWilliam, the Spurs manager, was taking his seat at Scunthorpe to watch this brilliant new prospect”. Fred Tunstall won 7 England caps whilst with United.

At the same time United moved to strengthen their right flank with the signing of David Mercer the Hull player who had ripped United to pieces in a wartime game. Mercer came with a price tag of £4,250 but failed to show much of the ability that had tormented the Blades until the other new signing, right half Tommy Sampy, slotted in behind him from March 1921 onwards.

David Mercer

Sampy’s second game was away against Derby County on March 5th in a desperate relegation clash. United, placed 20th, had lost at home to the 21st placed Rams in the previous match and it was 1-1 at the Baseball Ground, Johnson having missed two golden chances, when the Blades were awarded a penalty. In scenes which would be repeated 60 years later the players began arguing over who was going to take the it, even George Waller got involved. Eventually Gillespie stepped forward but even his nerve failed and he rattled his kick against the post.

The situation was gloomy with another double header looming against high flying Bolton and Unitedites worst fears looked to be confirmed at Bramall Lane with the Blades two goals down with 20 minutes left. It was time for the new men, Tunstall and Sampy, to repay their fees with two goals which snatched a vital point. A week later United gave the Trotters another two goal start and even saw Harold Pantling sent off but the same two, Tunstall and Sampy, nicked another two goals to earn a draw.

But the most remarkable result of the season came at Highbury on March 26th. Without an away win all season United hammered six goals past the Gunners with Harry Johnson getting a hat trick, David Mercer scoring from the spot and Tunstall and Sampy getting one each gain. It was 2-1 to the Blades at half time when Arsenal were ordered to change their red shirts for blue ones.

The four points gained in the two Bolton games and at Highbury probably kept United up at the end of the season with Derby winning only one match in the same period and going down instead. At the AGM it became clear how important this had been with £14,145 being spent on players but just £7,795 recouped. Never again would United be involved in record transfers.

A further bit of good news came in May when United beat Wednesday 2-1 in the first County Cup final in front of a crowd of 21,000.

The 1921 – 1922 season represented some progress with United eventually finishing 11th, well clear of the relegation that had threatened at the turn of the year, but United were knocked out of the Cup in the first round by Third Division opposition as they had been the previous year. Once again it was time to say goodbye to one of the old guard when George Utley left for Manchester City. In the coming season there were further changes in the team with Bill Brelsford ending his playing days and joining the coaching staff, where he remained until 1939, while Albert Sturgess was transferred to Norwich.

The Blades had a promising start to the 1922 – 1923 season, recovering from a wobbly start to win four games in December, but it was in the best Cup run since the bittersweet days of 1915 that this United side exploded into life. The Blades were drawn at home for the first time since 1920 and the game against Nottingham Forest caused great excitement. In a time of political, social and economic upheaval, the Telegraph noted on the morning of the game that

“…Football, however, is not an end in itself; it is a means to an end. These almost gladiatorial contests may not secure the ideal combination of a healthy body and a healthy mind, but they head towards this and they certainly act as a deterrent from unhealthiness in both. They are a safety valve against Communism, fanaticism, discontent, and any worse evils there may be, and they help to maintain that standard of manliness of which we as a nation are so justly proud”

Billy Gillespie, having been made team captain, led United out on January 13th but the occasion was a bit of a let down ending 0-0. Indeed, the tie became a dour endurance test needing a further three games to separate the two First Division sides. In the end, after results of 0-0 (in which centre forward Bert Menlove, signed from Crystal Palace at the end of the previous season, broke his collar bone) and 1-1 the ball finally skimmed in off Gillespie’s shin at Hillsborough on January 25th.

Another First Division side, Middlesbrough, were drawn in the next round and, after another 1-1 draw, required another replay which United easily won 3-0 with Gillespie, Johnson and Sampy scoring in a performance described as “virile, competent, persistent and progressive”. But the draw was no kinder to United this time pairing them away against top flight opponents again this time Liverpool at Anfield.

United triumphed in horrendous conditions earning themselves the nickname ‘Mudlarks’ which followed them through the decade; Mercer was especially outstanding. Gillespie and half back James Waugh scored in a 2-1 win in front of a then record crowd of nearly 52,000. United played their first game against lower league opposition in the fourth round in their first meeting with Queens Park Rangers. It was another struggle though and this time United had to rely on Tommy Sampy’s nose to get the ball across the line. Either way United were facing Bolton Wanderers in the semi final, the prize being an appearance in the first Cup final at the new Wembley stadium.

Footage of the match against QPR (Film)

Back in December United had suffered a blow when Harold Gough was injured and his replacement throughout the Cup run was Ernest Blackwell. But Blackwell, a lay preacher, was a brooding character who tended to dwell on mistakes to the detriment of the rest of his game. The upcoming match was to change his life.

Whatever his thoughts were on the morning of March 24th 1923 those of Unitedites were firmly on the biggest match the club had played since the war. The official crowd of 72,000 at Old Trafford was a then record for a match outside London but the gates had been closed an hour before kick off and when the turnstiles were forced thousands more flooded into the ground. In scenes which would be famously repeated in the Final Policemen on horseback had to try and keep the estimated 100,000 fans off the pitch.

Crowd control at the semi final

Gillespie shakes hands with Bolton's John Red Smith

Amid such scenes it’s perhaps not surprising that recollections vary. Some sources claim the match offered fans “little to excite them” while others describe “a most exacting and exciting battle”. What is certain is that the game was won late on with a goal from Bolton’s David Jack. Ted Vizard sent a cross into the United area, Joe Smith failed to make a clean contact and the ball was zipping wide until it clipped Jack’s toe. The ball looked to be looping over the bar but a last minute dip saw it loop over Blackwell and into the net. Blackwell was so riddled with self doubt after the match that he asked to be dropped and Gough was brought back into the team. After just nine more appearances in two seasons Blackwell retired from football.

Sampy, Richardson, Brelsford, Johnson and Milton on the beach

Despite the pain of semi final defeat United had a decent league season which saw them beat Birmingham 7-1, with Harry Johnson getting four, on the way to a finish of 10th. Having survived the transitional period after the war United were putting the finishing touches to a very strong team which played attractive, attacking football, and one of the key pieces in the jigsaw was the signing of George Green from Nuneaton for the start of the 1923 – 1924 season.

According to John Nicholson, the long serving United secretary, left half Green’s £400 transfer was “secured under rather peculiar circumstances” but these remain a mystery. In his time with United he earned eight England caps and took over as captain from Gillespie in 1931. With Green at left half, Tunstall in front on the wing and Gillespie tucked inside, United’s strength lay on the left. Green said “We struck up an understanding almost straightaway”. Ernest Milton recalled

“…Green and Tunstall owed a lot to Gillespie, but the skipper profited from Green’s resilience and strength. George was not very tall, but well made and solid, robust if you like. He was what you would call a brilliant ball-winner, and his distribution was excellent; so with Gillespie’s brain and Tunstall’s speed, it added up to a very effective combination”

Billy Gillespie

The star of the side was Gillespie and after seeing him play one journalist was moved to write

“He is a great forward…A Pied Piper in drawing opponents to him, a conjurer with the ball, the quickest man on either side to “kill” and trap from any sort of pass, and despite that bald pate, smarter off the mark than many a younger one…” 

The Blades managed to build on the impressive league form of the previous season with Harry Johnson and Bert Menlove vying for the centre forward spot. Both made a strong case with Johnson getting four against Everton at the Lane in early November and Menlove getting a hat trick in a 6-2 win over Spurs in March. Johnson and Menlove finished the season with 15 and 12 goals respectively but United’s final position of fifth owed much to Gillespie’s 14 goals.

Going into the 1924 – 1925 season Blades fans were looking forward to the club pushing on and challenging for honours while Wednesday continued to languish in Division Two. But not all was rosy in the garden. That summer of 1924 33 year old Harold Gough decided to take steps to set himself up in his retirement by buying the Railway Hotel in Castleford. As licensed premises this was anathema to the tee total Charles Clegg who ordered him to get rid of the property. Gough admitted that he had “acted in ignorance” and offered to repay the wages he had received over the summer, but refused to give the hotel up as he wouldn’t actually be living there. The United board dug their heels in and destroyed Gough’s career. In September 1924 Gough was suspended by the FA and October brought the cancellation of his FA registration. The coup de grace was delivered the following August when Gough was told that United were demanding a fee for him of £2,400, enough to put off any potential buyers. Gough’s appeal to the Football League for a reduction was turned down and he was told he could not even re-register as an amateur to play for local clubs. He resumed his career in 1927 when United, their point made, sold him to Oldham for £500.

Coupled with Ernest Blackwell’s final retirement Gough’s banishment left United in desperate goal keeping straights and they were eventually forced to spend £2,400 on Rotherham keeper Charles Sutcliffe. As a young man he had missed sailing on the Titanic’s doomed maiden voyage after catching a cold and the experience may well have affected him as he was remembered as a bag of nerves in goal and he smoked a pipe prior to kick off to calm himself down.

Program for a reserve match against Wednesday, December 27th 1924

In the event the season itself was something of an anti climax. A poor start saw the Blades win just two games before the second half of November. A few more points had been picked up by the New Year which made relegation unlikely but also put any attempt for the League out of the question. When the first round of the Cup came round United faced the once great Corinthians side, now a shadow of their Victorian prime, and they were duly battered 5-0 with Harry Johnson bagging another four. Their opponents in the next round on January 31st were Sheffield Wednesday facing United in a competitive game for the first time in over five years.

Rain had been bucketing down all week and the Bramall Lane pitch was little more than a swamp. Wednesday began attacking the Shoreham Street end with the wind and rain assisting them and a blistering start saw them two goals up inside ten minutes. Tenacious play by George Wilson won the ball and he found Jimmy Trotter, on a powerful run through the defence, who dodged Leonard Birk’s tackle and slotted past Sutcliffe. Soon after George Green misread a cross which went over him and fell to Trotter again who put the Owls two goals up.

United were in trouble but kept their composure. In the early years of the twentieth century it was United who were seen as the classier footballing side while Wednesday had a reputation as ‘cloggers’. A few years previously, the Telegraph’s correspondent had commented on one derby that “(Wednesday) hustle to some tune, and Saturday put United out of their stride by these tactics”.

With twenty minutes played United clawed a goal back when a Tunstall shot was spooned into the path of Sampy who netted from a few yards. This fired the Blades up and the equaliser came from a lovely bit of football. Pantling passed to Gillespie who gave the slightest flick between his legs into the path of George Green who scored.

The light was fading fast and conditions refused to let up so both teams ditched the half time break and just swapped ends. Wednesday may have regretted this as the Blades snatched what proved to be the winner 90 seconds after the restart. Harry Johnson’s forceful goal bound run was blocked but he threaded the ball through to Tommy Sampy who dragged the ball out wide, swivelled, and cracked a tight angled shot past Jack Brown. The misery continued for Wednesdayites, only Brown’s excellent performance kept the lead to a single goal.

United faced Everton at Bramall Lane in the third round in front of a record crowd of 51,745. The match was won after three minutes when Fred Tunstall reacted quickest to a quick throw in to smash a stunning shot which the Everton keeper got a hand to but couldn’t stop.

United's Cup win against Everton (Film)

The reward was another home tie but against West Brom, one of the top sides in the First Division. The attendance record set the previous round was smashed with 57,197 fans bringing in £3,741. Gillespie, in charge of team tactics in his role as captain, gave a master class in this game, playing West Brom’s man marking against them. Mercer and Tunstall dragged the Baggies half backs out of position and Sampy and Gillespie did the same to the full backs leaving Reid, the West Brom centre half, at the mercy of Harry Johnson. This first half chess match paid off after the interval when Tunstall and Johnson scored to put United in the semi final for the second time in three years. Gillespie won more plaudits, one observer calling him “a football genius, a law unto himself, yet a brilliant individual the essence of whose play is unselfishness. His wonderful powers as a strategist are well known but rarely controlled”.

United's quarter final win over West Brom (Film)

United had fought their way to the semi final where they faced Southampton at Stamford Bridge in their 100th Cup tie. In what one newspaper branded “One of the worst semi finals ever played” the Saints collapsed and Tom Parker, Southampton’s captain, put through his own net just before the break. As the ball fell for the Southampton keeper, “Sampy and Johnson charged him immediately”, reported the Athletic News, “He lost possession and a tangle ensued. Parker thrust his foot out to intercept Sampy, a potential scorer, but the ball shot from it at a tangent just inside the post”.

Fortunately Parker had a chance to make amends early in the second half when a Pantling handball gave the Saints a penalty but Parker hit it straight at Sutcliffe. Five minutes later

“The ball rolled harmlessly down the Sheffield left. Tunstall followed up but never dreaming of such a gift as came his way. Shelley could have played safety easily. It seemed he was intimidated by Allen coming out. Of a surety Allen’s place was beneath the bar, not the edge of the penalty area. Thereby arose a misunderstanding of which Tunstall was swift to avail himself, by sliding betwixt cross purposes, and trickling the ball into an unguarded goal”.

The United players three days before the final

Going into the Final against Cardiff City Bill Cook was the only link with the 1915 side but Tommy Boyle, son of Cup winner Peter Boyle, was picked at the last minute ahead of the unfortunate Tommy Sampy.

Beer being delivered to Wembley for thirsty Unitedites

George Waller had taken four United sides to the Cup final and he drew on all his experience in preparing for the game. The United players only arrived at Wembley twenty minutes before kick off and Ernest Milton remembered that

“When we got to the ground, we could see the Cardiff lads were already stripped and waiting, while we didn’t have any time to think or get nervous. Waller said he had never forgotten the mistake Wednesday made when he played for them in the 1890 final and they arrived so early that they were nervous wrecks by the time they went out to play”

Wembley Stadium, 25th April 1925

Billy Gillespie leads the Blades out at Wembley

The Blades, in front of 91,000 fans, knew that Cardiff would have identified the left side of Green, Gillespie and Tunstall as United’s main threat so, to scupper whatever countering tactics the Welshmen had devised, Gillespie funnelled play down the right for the first part of the game. Suddenly, on 31 minutes, Gillespie finally hit a long pass out wide to the left and caught Wake, the Cardiff right half, by surprise. “Wake was the only player in the vicinity”, according the Daily News, “Tunstall was coming up a dozen yards away. The half back saw the forward’s approach but allowed the ball to roll on, intending possibly to feint and secure a more helpful clearance up the Cardiff right wing”. But as Wake waited for the ball to come onto his stronger right foot, he miscalculated Tunstall’s explosive speed. The Athletic News described how Wake

“…waited one second too long. Tunstall charged up, took the ball off his toe, and had a clear course for goal. He moved forward a few strides and shot the ball a foot or so inside the far post”

Fred Tunstall scores for the Blades

With the lead United began to play with more freedom and turned in a wonderful display. According to the Telegraph

“United never let the ball stop. If it was held it was held running. But generally it was swept swiftly from centre to wing, and from one flank like lightning to the other. No sooner had the Cardiff defenders turned in one direction than they must wheel about to meet a shifted peril.

As for the Cardiff forwards – well, ‘tis a plain fact, not to be denied, that you cannot play football without a ball. And the ball was a will o’ the wisp to them. They ran when they saw it. Hey presto! ‘twas gone. It vanished as quickly as the conjurors coin. Some fellow wearing a red and white shirt had flickered for a moment in the vision, and the next thing you knew was that the storm centre of the game was different. The ball had gone far down the field, where the other fellows in red and white shirts were proving ownership”

The Sunday Pictorial affirmed that United “were by far the most enterprising and go ahead team at Wembley yesterday”.

United beat Cardiff to win the Cup (Film)

Playing in his only Cup final Gillespie shone. According to the Athletic News

“Never has Gillespie’s generalship been more marked. No player on view trapped the ball so surely, retained it with such good judgement, and exhibited such power and precision in sending it either to the left or right wing or more delicately down the middle. Sheffield United played wonderfully well but special praise is due to Gillespie, the man who waves a wand and whose influence has played such a vital part in United’s capture of the Cup”

Bernard Wilkinson travelled to London with his 1902 winners medal for luck and said that “Sometimes he (Gillespie) was making three Cardiff men go for the ball, with none of them getting it: his tactics were wonderful”.

Unitedites could now have the celebration they had been denied in the dark days of 1915.

“Detonators rang out as the train bringing home the victorious Sheffield United football team steamed into Victoria Station. It was Tuesday, April 28th 1925, and hundreds of thousands of people were assembled in the city streets to give a rousing welcome to their heroes who, three days earlier, had beaten Cardiff City 1-0 in the FA Cup Final at Wembley.

Escorted by mounted police, a procession of coaches carrying the players, their wives, and officials slowly made its way through a city centre emblazoned with the United colours of red and white. On one coach a band played “See the conquering hero comes” but hardly anyone could hear for the deafening applause. Flags fluttered, scarves and hats were waved, and confetti bombarded onto the coaches all the way to the town hall where the team was greeted by the Lord Mayor, Alderman AJ Bailey. Outside the town hall a crowd estimated at 10,000 went wild with delight when United’s captain, Billy Gillespie, raised the FA Cup for all to see. There were special cheers for Fred Tunstall who had clinched victory with the only goal of the match. As the Sheffield Independent said the next morning: “It was a great occasion: it was a great reception – one befitting such an outstanding event”

Sheffield welcomes home the Cup winning team (Film)

1925 Cup winning side

1925 Cup final ticket

Gillespie with the Cup


  1. Hello, I am ernest blackwell's great grandson. I've been trying to find information on him for ages now. We have accumulated quite a bit but the football information. I have a picture of him for you on my computer, my email is I never new he only played 9 games.

  2. Fantastic to read about the great Billy Gillespie - this is a great Blog. I must draw your attention to an event honouring the great man on Saturday September 7th. Billy's birthplace, the village of Kerrykeel in Ireland will host delegates from Sheffield United, FAI, IFA, Derry City and Institute FC as well as Billy's family from Kent, as a plaque will be unveiled in the village that afternoon