This is a history of Sheffield United written by me in my spare time since 2003.
It was called Triumph and Disaster after the line from the Rudyard Kipling poem 'If', "If you can meet with triumph and disaster/And treat those two imposters just the same", which seemed fitting. Except for the Triumph part.
If you have any suggestions or corrections, please post them below the relevant chapter.
Hope you enjoy!
Thursday, 25 February 2010
Chapter 6 - Decline and Fall 1925 – 1934
Blades pre season training (Film)
Although the title of this book is ‘Triumph and Disaster’ until this point there has been much more of one than the other. This chapter tells the story of how Sheffield United slipped from being one of the country’s top sides to become also rans, a position they have occupied ever since.
Such changes are rarely apparent at the time and, in the wake of the win over Cardiff, few would have believed that Sheffield United had just won their last major honour. The victorious players were lauded as heroes and, in an early foretaste of modern celebrity culture, Billy Gillespie and Fred Tunstall appeared in a film called ‘Football’ which received a limited release in Sheffield. This provided a welcome release in a city so riven with violence between the rival Mooney and Garvin gangs that it earned the nickname ‘Little Chicago’.
In 1925 - 1926 United finished fifth in a season which saw the offside law changed so that only two players were now needed between the man and the goal for him to be on side. The goals against column exploded and Champions Huddersfield Town conceded more goals than the team that had finished third from bottom the previous season. The change suited United’s swift attacking play and they notched up a phenomenal 102 league goals, more than any other team, with Johnson and Tunstall both getting over 20 goals and Boyle, Gillespie and Menlove all getting double figures. In a particularly memorable games United hammered 8 past Manchester City, 11 past Cardiff and 6 past Burnley.
Footage of United's Cup exit against Sunderland at the Lane (Film)
The rot began to set in at the back with United conceding 82 goals also more than any other team. The new off side law, which saw the strikers netting from all angles, caused dreadful problems for United’s defence. Tellingly, of the defence that kept out Cardiff in the Cup final, only George Green was still first choice at the end of the season. Cook, Pantling and Milton had all lost their places in the team. For the 1926 - 1927 season it was clear that the defence had to be tightened up and a number of players came in but the likes of Bernard Harris, Harry Cawthorne and Albert Chandler were just not good enough. With a spate of injuries to key defenders playing its part United again had one of the divisions’ poorest defensive records but finished eighth.
A notable achievement that season, as always, was the completion of another league double over newly promoted Wednesday. The first meeting took place at Hillsborough on the opening day of the season and got off to a shambolic start for the Owls. Fred Tunstall hit a typically powerful shot at Jack Brown in the Wednesday goal who fumbled and let in Harry Johnson to score. A crowd of over 43,000 had come to the first league derby of the 1920’s and Jimmy Trotter equalised for Wednesday just before half time. After fifteen minutes of the second half Trotter put Wednesday in front. As the minutes ticked by an unlikely win was on the cards but the celebrations of the jubilant Owls were cut short when, seven minutes from the end, Johnson and Gillespie set up Walter Hoyland to get United back level. Two minutes later the Owls were left gutted when Tunstall’s cross from the left was hit first time by Harry Johnson to earn United a win.
The return match at the Lane in late January saw a 60,000 crowd led in community singing by Sir Henry Coward and the Orpheus Choir. Johnson set up Tunstall this time with a determined run through midfield and a clever switch out to the left which Tunstall struck with the full force of his awesome power into to blast United into the lead. The second goal was a scrappy affair four minutes from the end but Blades fans were left celebrating a 2-0 win. Few will have realised that footballing power in the city was about to undergo a tectonic shift.
The Radio Times advertises United's historic visit to Highbury
The following Saturday, January 22nd 1927, United’s away match against Arsenal was broadcast live on national radio, the first such football broadcast of its kind. The front page of that weeks Radio Times carried a diagram of a football pitch divided into eight numbered squares and an audience of millions tuned into hear the commentator read out ‘3, 7, 9’ etc as he tracked the ball around the pitch. It has been suggested that this was the origin of the phrase ‘back to square one’. The match finished 1-1 with Fred Tunstall scoring United’s first broadcast goal.
The 1927 – 1928 season was one of the most riveting in the history of the league with 12 teams facing relegation on the last weekend of the season, 10th placed Arsenal only avoiding relegation by 2 points. United’s strengths and weaknesses were on full display when Arsenal came to the Lane on January 7th 1928. The blistering attack fired the Blades into a 4-0 lead in the first quarter of an hour with Johnson, winger Albert Partridge, Gillespie and Johnson again getting the goals. But just five minutes later the old defensive frailties were on display when Arsenal hit twice in two minutes to pull it back to 4-2. After the break the United attack took up the slack and Harry Johnson rounded off his hat trick wit a neat solo finish. Another Arsenal goal followed but Johnson wrapped up the points 20 minutes from time when he skipped past Parker and Moody and slotted the ball into an empty net. A late Arsenal goal made it 6-4.
Harry Johnson enjoyed his most prolific season with the Blades scoring 33 goals in the league (including five against West Ham in December) and 10 in the Cup as United fought their way to the semi final. A week after beating Arsenal United beat Notts County 3-2 at Meadow Lane with Harry Johnson getting two. A home draw with Wolves followed in the fourth round and Harry Johnson struck at the double again as United won 3-1. The prize was a fifth round tie away at Hillsborough.
In front of over 57,000 United and Wednesday played out an exciting, end to end but goalless first half on a muddy pitch. A couple of minutes after the restart Strange, out on the left for the Owls, played the ball inside to Harper who found Jack Wilkinson in enough space to hit a stunning shot past Jack Alderson. United immediately pushed for the equaliser and within four minutes Billy Gillespie had held up play, picked his spot and played the ball to Bert Partridge who scored with a blistering first time shot to put the Blades back level.
Twelve minutes from the end Wednesday had a fantastic opportunity to put themselves through to the next round when, from a corner,
“(Mark) Hooper sent across a perfect pass to (Jimmy) Seed, no more than two yards from the goal. Seed put everything he knew into the shot, but Alderson was in its way. He did not see but felt the ball as it came into him. Seed in the meantime was sitting on the ground facing the field of play. Neither he nor Alderson realised that the ball had drooped dead almost on the goal line. The spectators advised both players as to the proper course of action, but before either had become aware of the actuality of the situation Birks rushed up to clear the ball to safety”
The Telegraph noted of the ‘lost ball incident’
“How Seed avoided treading on the ball, or accidentally touching it over the line was surprising, and his face as he sat on the ground in the goal, the golden opportunity which had eluded him like a will o’ the wisp just dawning on his mind, was a profound study”
The replay on the following Wednesday was a different matter. The goalless first half mirrored the previous game but in the second half United came out guns blazing with Bert Partridge scoring again before Harry Johnson hit a hat trick in fifteen minutes, the first player to score three in a major derby. “Sheffield United won their replay against the Wednesday at Bramall Lane yesterday almost as they pleased”, noted the Sunday Pictorial, “even the big score of 4-1 in no way showing the difference in the teams”. United were similarly impressive in the next round, sweeping Nottingham Forest away 3-0.
United beat Forest at the Lane in the Cup (Film)
Clem Stephenson of Huddersfield and Gillespie before the semi final
In the semi United faced the daunting task of playing Huddersfield Town (who had won the league three times and been runners up once in the previous four seasons) at Old Trafford. Despite Huddersfield’s table topping title push contrasting with United’s relegation dog fight United were the better side in Manchester leading twice with Harry Johnson goals but having to make do with a 2-2 draw.
Footage of the Cup replay at Old Trafford (Film)
The replay was at Goodison Park and was a hard fought 0-0 draw and both teams went back to Manchester, to Maine Road, for a third attempt to separate them. In the end, in front of nearly 70,000 fans, United were desperately unlucky to lose 1-0 to an Alex Jackson header just before the hour. Huddersfield’s Kelly said afterwards “In the whole of my career I have never taken part in such strenuous games. United are a magnificent Cup fighting side”.
The Bramall Lane board had sent a fair bit of cash to avoid relegation, a total of £10,000 had been spent on centre half Vince Matthews and two inside lefts, Jimmy Blair and Tom Phillipson. Even accounting for the receipts for the Cup run United’s balance on transfers was just £82 to the good. The bank overdraft had climbed to £6,500 making the decision to spend £5,000 on Forest winger Sid Gibson brave to say the least.
At the same time the economic situation in Sheffield and Britain at large was increasingly grim. In 1925 Chancellor of the Exchequer Winston Churchill had taken Britain back on to the Gold Standard at the pre war value. As a result the price of British exports rocketed overnight. To restore competitiveness wage cuts were forced on workers which provoked the General Strike in 1926.
The strike was the most widespread industrial unrest in British history. The Trade Union Congress called the strike off after nine days but mining areas, such as Sheffield, remained on strike for another eight months. 1926 saw the Labour party take control of Sheffield City Council for the first time and it would hold it for all but one of the next 73 years. In 1929 the Wall Street Crash led to a worldwide depression and by 1931 unemployment in Sheffield stood at 18.7%, 6% above the national average. As disposable income dried up attendances fell from an average of 27,619 in 1920 -1921 to 14,296 in 1932 – 1933. United tried various means to tackle the cash squeeze even joining a Football League delegation which petitioned the Chancellor to abolish Entertainment Tax. Also, as Roy Hattersley notes
“In 1931 Sheffield United tried, unsuccessfully, to persuade the League to amend rule thirty-three so as to permit the unemployed to be admitted for half the usual price”
United, like other clubs, began to run deficits. In the first full season after the war only two First Division clubs had run at a loss but in September 1926 John Nicholson warned that six First Division clubs had lost money over the last season. By 1928 it was thought that only a third of clubs were in the black and a United match programme of February that year optimistically speculated that “…the opinion that the rich clubs should be taxed to help the poorer ones is gaining adherence every day”. The AGM in 1929 reported a loss of £4,878 and plans to extend terracing in the ground were postponed.
But this blow to the city’s economic health does not fully explain United’s fall. Across the city Wednesday, whose fans were suffering from the same economic troubles, won the League title in 1929 and 1930. If the 1920’s had belonged to United the next decade would be Wednesday’s. A more relevant reason for the malaise at Bramall Lane was, perhaps, the men in charge. George Waller had been trainer since 1894 and John Nicholson had been secretary since 1899. This did not exactly encourage fresh thinking as evidenced by Club President Charles Clegg’s comments on the new found dominance of attacking play in 1925; “…there is no necessity for wing men and the centre forward being thrust out in advanced positions. Keep the line, and let the forwards maintain their places”
But as long as United’s prolific forwards could score more goals than the leaky defence conceded the Blades would keep their heads above water and evidence of both these traits could be seen at the Lane during this period. In January 1927 United crashed to their worst ever home defeat in the League when Huddersfield won 7-1 but in January 1929 United rattled an incredible 10 goals past Burnley, with Harry Johnson getting four, in the clubs record home league win.
But when the attacking players came to the end of their careers United were in trouble. 1931 – 1932 saw the last of both Fred Tunstall and Billy Gillespie. Tunstall left for Halifax and later spent three decades in various roles at Boston United. His legacy lingered at Bramall Lane though and as late as the early 1960’s a missed United penalty would prompt calls of “Fetch Tunstall!” Gillespie coached the reserves for a short while before heading back to Ireland to manage Derry City. He was so successful there that they changed their kit in his honour and, to this day, play in the red and stripes of Sheffield United. Harry Johnson’s first team days had all but come to an end in 1929 and he moved to Mansfield two years later where he went on breaking scoring records. The blow was softened by the explosion onto the Bramall Lane scene of his successor, Jimmy Dunne.
Born in Ireland in 1905, Dunne had been interned by the Free State army during the Irish Civil War for his alleged Republican sympathies. He had actually been signed from New Brighton in 1926 but his appearances in his first three seasons were kept to a minimum by Harry Johnson and a bout of appendicitis. On September 7th 1929 Dunne scored a hat trick in 3-3 draw away at Leicester and never looked back. The Independent described Dunne as “a revelation” and ex Wednesday captain Jimmy Seed called him “the ideal centre forward”. He won 8 Irish caps in his time at the Lane scoring 6 international goals.
From the Dublin Sunday Herald
There were other players gradually emerging at the Lane to replace the old guard. Sheffield born inside forward Jack Pickering made his debut in 1927 but didn’t nail down a regular spot until 1929. Groomed as a ready made successor to Gillespie Pickering was a smart passer of the ball who let his distribution do the running he didn’t fancy and he was capped by England against Scotland in 1933.
But his time at United was much less calm than his football. When he began playing he was working in a betting office, something that went down like a pint of vinegar with the staunch Methodists, such as Clegg, who ran United and Pickering was found other work, eventually qualifying as a chartered accountant. But his performances were patchy. In October 1930 the programme complained that he did not put “enough ginger” into his football and described him as “moody”. He was occasionally dropped.
Arsenal score their first of eight goals against United at Highbury in April 1930
Towards the end of 1931 United’s leaky back line was strengthened with the emergence of goalkeeper Jack Smith. Jack Alderson, Norman Wharton and Jack Kendall had all tried to stake a claim to the goalkeepers spot over the previous few seasons with little success. Smith had been born in Penistone but had grown up in the United States where he had been a talented baseball player. Known as ‘Smiler’ by his team mates for his warm personality, Jack Smith would go onto to set a club record with 193 consecutive appearances. He subsequently broke this when he played 203 consecutive games.
In front of him the pacy and hard tackling right back Harry Hooper was signed from Nelson and secured a first team berth from the 1931 – 1932 season. An apprentice tailor in his youth the immaculately styled Hooper would remain with United until 1946 eventually becoming captain. Another new addition to the starting line up that season was midfielder Bobby Barclay who was signed from Derby for £3,500. A clever creative player with a good goal scoring record Barclay would go on to make three appearances for England and against Leeds in March 1933 he dribbled past four players to score one of the goals of the season.
With the introduction of these young players United carved out a niche in the middle of the first division. In 1929 – 1930, Jimmy Dunne’s first season as a first team player, United escaped relegation on the final day of the season with a 5-1 away win against Manchester United in which Sid Gibson repaid his transfer fee playing “the game of his life” which he rounded off with a goal. League finishes of 15th and 7th came in the next two seasons with Dunne’s awesome scoring record, 36 goals, 41 goals (a club record), 33 goals and 26 goals in the four seasons to mid 1933, being the highlight.
If things on the pitch had settled into a rut there were plenty of changes off it, not all of them welcome. In 1930 George Waller retired as trainer bringing to an end an association with the club which went back 35 years. Another was the death of John Nicholson, club secretary since 1899, in April 1932. Nicholson was on his way Midland station to join the team as they travelled to Birmingham to take on Aston Villa. As he climbed off the tram he was hit and killed by a lorry. Tom Sampy remembered
“He never had a chance and was killed instantly. Most of the players were sitting in a cafe opposite the railway station and we all saw it…we were just glad to get the season over because I think we all sensed that Nicholson’s death was the end of something for the club, and, somehow, it would never be quite the same again”
Men like Waller and Nicholson had been with the club for more than six decades between them. While it is true that a sense of staleness had crept in at Bramall Lane it should be remembered that these men had been instrumental in the most successful period in the club’s history.
The board at Bramall Lane couldn’t help but see that football was changing. 1930 had seen the first World Cup held in, and won by, Uruguay (England, along with the other Home Nations, had withdrawn from FIFA in 1928 and didn’t take part). The opportunity was taken to bring United more into line with current thinking in matters of football management. Former Blade Herbert Chapman had become the first great English manager, first at Huddersfield in the 1920’s and then at Arsenal in the 1930’s. In the new role of manager he took upon himself some of the decisions, such as buying and selling players, which had been the job of the board, and team selection and tactics which had been the concern of the team captain. In June 1932 United brought in Teddy Davison to be the club’s first manager.
Davison had played in goal for Wednesday and had been capped by England despite being only 5ft 7inches. As a manager he had started at Mansfield before moving to Chesterfield where he took them up to the Second Division in 1931.
Davison’s reign at United started well. In his second game in charge United “soundly thrashed” Liverpool 6-2 at the Lane on August 29th but it went downhill from there. By mid November United had won just one more league match leaving them just one point above the drop zone. An impressive run of five league wins on the bounce was followed by a 9-2 trouncing on Christmas Eve at the hands of a wonderful Arsenal side at Highbury. Only Jack Smith’s penalty save spared United the embarrassment of conceding 10. The Blades picked up at the end of the season winning nine out of fourteen league games to finish 10th.
Davison, like many United bosses since, was expected to unearth First Division players at Third Division prices. Before the 1933 – 1934 season forwards Reg Baines and Peter Spooner were bought cheap from York City and neither worked out. There was bad luck when Charlie Wilkinson, signed from Leeds United to shore up defence, missed half the season with influenza. But if there was one thing that condemned United to the most miserable season in their history so far and relegation for the first in their history it was the sale to Arsenal of Jimmy Dunne for a massive £8,250 at the end of September 1933.
Dunne’s spectacular record had attracted bids from Birmingham and Huddersfield and Arsenal had unsuccessfully bid £10,000 for him the previous year. But, with the financial situation worsening, Dunne became the first of many United players to be sold to pay the bills. Albert Platt, the United chairman, excused the sale with the unsupportable claim that Dunne had lost form since Tunstall left, this despite 59 goals in two seasons.
With Dunne gone United’s attack had lost the ability to make good the goals the defence would concede and it was a terrible season. Going into November United had won just three league matches when they travelled to Middlesbrough on the 18th. Reg Baines scored first to put United in the lead but it turned into a horror show after that. Boro fired home 10 goals, the only time United have conceded that many in the League, and by the time United were dumped out of the Cup in the third round they had won only twice more. After a reserve game against Newcastle Unitedites pleaded “Leave us your reserve team and you can take our first team”
A bright spot was Willie Boyd, signed from Clyde in December, who scored 15 goals in 22 league games. Three of these came in a 5-1 thrashing of Wednesday at the Lane on March 3rd. Following a 1-0 win at Hillsborough in October, the Blades only away win all season, United completed another double over Wednesday.
As with most things in life it was a combination of factors which combined to send United tumbling out of the top flight in 1934 for the first time in 41 years. The city’s economic plight made it hard to replace ageing players and old fashioned ideas in tactics and coaching were found wanting in the top division. Sadly, and not for the last time, hopes of a quick return were to be dashed.