The past two seasons of the English Premier League have been a two horse race between the red and blue of Manchester. The names ‘United’ and ‘City’ are today recognised as global corporate brands generating hundreds of millions in revenue.
As both clubs are notorious rivals and considered giants within today’s game, it is therefore hard to imagine that these two clubs were once squabbling to extinguish another local outfit that they observed as a threat to the status quo. Yet 85 years ago, the football structure of Manchester was very different to that of today as the city boasted another professional team other than United and City. The year 1928 saw the creation of Manchester Central FC, largely due to the work of John Henry Iles, the managing director of Belle Vue.
In November 1920, a blaze destroyed the main stand of Manchester City at their ground in Hyde Road. Rather than attempting to repair it, Manchester City opted for a new stadium and originally entered into negotiations with the Jennison family in order to secure a new home for themselves at nearby, Belle Vue. As an agreement between both parties failed, largely due to the fact that City deemed the amount of space needed to assemble a stadium insufficient, the blues took the decision to move out of east Manchester and secured a site in the city’s Moss Side area. It was here that City constructed Maine Road in 1923 - which at the time was deemed ‘The Wembley of the North’ - and served as their home until 2003. However, City’s move away from east Manchester created a vacuum as there was now no local professional side to represent the area. In 1925, John Henry Iles assumed control of the Belle Vue Zoological Gardens and was entrusted with luring more competitive sports to take place at there, largely due to the success of the Greyhound racing, and soon after the Speedway. As a result, Iles took the decision to form Manchester Central FC with the intention of attracting the support of east Manchester and the club was established in 1928.
The new club received the backing of many local businessmen and football enthusiasts and outlined its ambitions of developing local talent from the east of the city, with the intention of eventually securing a place in the Third Division of the Football League. Iles declared that he believed that this venture had the potential for success and supported this claim by outlining the passion that Mancunians held for football and that within a five mile radius of Belle Vue, there was a population of nearly one and half million to draw support from. Consequently, there were certainly enough people to attract a considerable fan-base in order to support a Football League club.
In June 1928, the club were elected to join the Lancashire Combination League and took the decision to play in white strips. One of the first home games was a glamour exhibition match against FA Cup holders Blackburn Rovers, in which the famous trophy was paraded in front of the crowd at Belle Vue. Also equipped with a reserve side in the Manchester League, Manchester Central finished within the top half of the Lancashire Combination League in their inaugural season. Although this venture sounded bright and promising for Central and the city itself, Manchester’s other two established football clubs did not share the same sentiment. Naturally, it would seem that Manchester Central posed more of a threat to Manchester City who felt that the new club could disrupt their identity. East Manchester was after all the original heartland of Manchester City and with Central maintaining the same initials of M.C.F.C., the blues felt that this venture could potentially be disruptive to their fan base. As a result, City sought to put an end to a team that they observed as upstarts.
However, strangely enough, it was actually the red half of Manchester – located in the west - that pushed for this motion even more so than their rivals in blue. At the dawn of the 1930s, Manchester United was not the force that they are today and were relegated to the second tier of English football in 1931. Struggling financially, the club were on the verge of bankruptcy and were suffering largely due to a dramatic fall in attendances, as locals feeling the pinch of the Great Depression, could not afford to attend football matches as frequently.
These realities were made much worse for United as Manchester Central even started to notch higher attendances than themselves, despite the fact that they were not competing in the Football League. Manchester United looked upon Manchester Central FC as a threat to their existence rather than friendly competition from across the city. Consequently, when Manchester Central FC applied to join the Football League in 1931 in place of Wigan Borough, their bid was thwarted by a joint appeal from United and City. As well-established current members of the Football League, their appeal was granted and thus Manchester Central’s application to join the League was rejected.
The media in Manchester declared the actions of Manchester’s two football institutions as scandalous and both clubs received much negative publicity for their dubious actions. With the club feeling unable to grow and progress due to the actions of their neighbours, Manchester Central FC dissolved a year later in 1932.
Their story is certainly one of what could have been. If it were not for the opposition of Manchester’s two great football institutions, the whole course of history could have been very different for football in Manchester. However, it was not to be for Manchester Central FC.
After Central’s demise, Manchester City flourished throughout the decade of the 1930s and still hold claim to this day the largest home attendance of any English club as 84,569 packed into Maine Road to witness City defeat Stoke in the FA Cup Sixth Round in 1934. While Manchester United were on the brink of going out if business, they were rescued by businessman investor, James Gibson, in 1932 and the Reds soon returned to the top flight. One of his last acts as Manchester United’s owner was to appoint Matt Busby, but he did not live to see the work carried out by Sir Matt, nor witness the great Busby Babes.
However, if Central had escaped the persecution of their neighbours, Derby day in Manchester and the fortunes of the city’s two institutions could have been very different.
Thanks to Quantum Bunny for the Manchester Airport shot.