Manchester United Heroes and Legends – John Henry Davies, The Last Act

The Original Old Trafford, Circa 1910.

The Final Act

Alas, welcome to the third and final installation of the life of John Henry Davies. Perhaps Manchester United‘s greatest ever hero and most preeminent legend. In the second act of his tale we left off with Davies spearheading the successful unionization of the players across professional football.

As if that wasn’t enough, what happened next was John Henry’s magnum opus.

The Theater of Dreams

Old Trafford - 'a great ground for the north'
Leaflet for the Original Old Trafford. Credit: Image: The 1888 Letter

On February 19, 1910, the spectacular happened.

Almost 80,000 people crammed into Manchester United’s new stadium, Old Trafford. The Theater of Dreams had finally been completed.

It isn’t much to look at these days. Though when it was originally erected Old Trafford really was a theater of dreams. It was the most glorious stadium in all Europe.  A fitting home for a team with aspirations to be the best in the world.

It had telephones, a training gym, bathrooms, telegraphs, executive offices, restaurants, bars, elevators. All of this was state of the art at the time. Davies paid for all of it from his own pocket to the modern tune of £7 million. It was truly opulent and hugely ambitious.

Davies Spared no Expense

Photo of Archibald Leitch. Credit: Image: Wikipedia

Davies even hired the one and only Archibald Leitch to design the stadium. If you don’t know this name, Leitch was the most famous stadium builder of all time. Almost two thirds of all football teams in Britain that currently play in the top tier of either Scottish, Welsh or Premier League football have stadiums designed by him.

The average attendance for football matches at the time was barely 20,000. At the time there had only ever been four occasions in history that a stadium for a professional sporting event had more than 80,000 in attendance. So to build a stadium to seat 80,000 was John Henry’s version of a statement of intent.

The Bank Left its Legacy

Plaque commemorating the original Newton Heath grounds down Ten Acres Lane Manchester. Credit: Image: Open Plaques

The Bank was a mud festered, rickety old pitch. Steam and smoke from the kilns that heated the grounds would coat the pitch to point that no one could see the match. There were no facilities or services. And there was no training facility, administrative offices or executive offices.

Even worse for The Bank, after Manchester United had begun its renaissance, their popularity began to skyrocket. They not only sold out most games but also regularly had to lock the gates at Bank Street and deny entry to fans after the stadium had filled. Thousands were left outside the grounds weekly to wallow at not getting a seat.

John Henry’s Legacy Solidified

Davies’ ambition was now directly reflected in all aspects of Manchester United.

His cunning went even further. Even the location for the stadium was carefully selected. It was a mere coincidence that a perfect piece of land existed that happened to be owned by one of Davies’s breweries.

In order to provide a cheap plot of land to build the new stadium, Davies “leased” this plot for the new grounds to the club for nothing. Because he owned the brewery and thus the land he was leasing back to Old Trafford this made it exceptionally cheap to build the stadium, by contemporary standards.

Essentially, he leased himself the land that he already owned to build Old Trafford. He paid himself for the land…meaning he paid nothing at all. He even sold land at his personal estate to cover the costs of building the stadium itself.

John Henry Davies, Forever a Man of the People

Alongside Trafford Wharf, Manchester Ship Canal
Construction of the Manchester ship canal near the Salford shipyard where Old Trafford would be built. Credit: Image: Shipping wonders of the World

At the time, the Salford and Trafford areas of Manchester were being heavily developed. The city had just opened the Manchester ship canal and river port for trade ships to travel to the interior of Britain. It created a hotbed of industry in the area.

Davies saw huge potential in building a stadium right in the center of this part of working-class Manchester. It also removed Manchester United from their more suburban roots and placed them in the heart of one of the liveliest cities in the United Kingdom.

It just also happened that the site was right next to an already existing tram line, another rarity of the time.  All the bricks were falling into place, figuratively and literally.

An Untapped Cohort of Potential United Fans

Davies also recognized that all the factories in the area would release their workers early for a half day every Saturday. The same day football matches were played. It doesn’t take a genius to see where Davies was going with this idea.

He envisioned workers getting off early, grabbing a pint and pie and coming to see Manchester United play. His plan worked as United regularly sold out home matches.

Over the next eighteen months, the Red Devils would see defeat only once. Davies’ perfect model of sustainability was working. (Invincibles my ass, that’s seven months longer then Arsenal’s record)

Davies’ Model of Success Prevails

File:Man utd 1910-11.jpg
The 1910/11 Manchester United team posing with the Football League Trophy they recently won. Credit: Image: Wikimedia

Attractive football, a new state of the art stadium, and key location all bolstered United’s attendance. The club was making so much money off ticket sales, they could continue to offer premium matchday services for an affordable price.

The 1910/11 season saw United win their third and fourth trophy under Davies and Mangnall. They had won back-to-back top flight titles. And they won the Community Shield, adding more silverware to the cabinet.

It had been less than a decade since Davies took control of a failing Newton Heath. In that time he turned them into Manchester United, won four trophies, built a new stadium and assembled a collection of the finest British players and coaches in the game.

All Good Things Must Come to an End

Sadly, not all great rides last. The start of the 1911/12 season would see the start of a significant stall in the progress United were making under Davies. United started the season with the best team, best manager, best chief executive and best stadium in the land, yet they struggled to string together results.

The team fell apart and tumbled into 13th place by the end of the season. For all of Davies’ investment, nothing substitutes for team chemistry.

From Bad to Worse

A close-up of the original FA Cup, in 1910
The FA Cup. Credit: Image: The FA

It only got worse for Manchester United. The FA had long had it out for Davies ever since he led the formation of the players union against them. Finally the FA had managed to seek out their revenge.

The Association had an unspoken rule that teams were required to be owned by a collective rather than an individual. After auditing United, it was discovered that Davies was the club’s sole investor and benefactor.

Seeing their opportunity, the FA made the rule official, placing United squarely in violation of said rule. The infringement gave the FA the to power to seize control of Manchester United’s finances. It was a petty move but one that was very effective.

John Henry Davies vs The Football Association

When the FA seized financial control of the club they prevented Davies from further investing into the club. This made it almost impossible to reinvigorate the team when it was in desperate need of it.

The FA even went so far as to break up the title winning side. They sold several of the teams’ best players and allowed the manager, Mangnall to leave to coach Manchester City.

The FA were tearing Manchester United apart, for nothing more than their vendetta against John Henry Davies. It was a menial act from a supposedly gentlemanly organization.

Davies’ model of sustainability was broken. Without the right coach and players, the teams’ performances floundered. They barely mustered the results to finish in the top four in the 1912/13 season.  And in the 1913/14 season they barely escaped relegation by a single point.

Fan Support Flounders

Fan support, fickle as always, began to wane. Match days barely saw 15,000 people attend and fans were swooning to the resurgence of Manchester City. Davies watched, helpless, as United’s revenue plummeted as ticket sales dropped off.

Then in 1914, as Manchester United struggled with a mostly empty stadium and an aging team, the worst happened. The Great War broke out.

World War I put a screeching halt to all football development, not just Manchester United’s. The team only won nine of their thirty-one games during that season. The following season football was suspended pending the conclusion of the war.

The FA’s Spite Knows No Bounds

Sir Frederick Wall, secretary of the FA
Head of the FA, Secretary Frederick Wall. Credit: Image: Mary Evans Picture Library

The FA’s sanctions were still in place on Manchester United, even in war time. And, thanks to the FA, in spite of a world war ensuing, the club, aka Davies, were forced to continue to pay operating and maintenance costs during the war. The FA had never stooped so low.

Huge war taxation, minimal fixtures and fans, and the FA’s corrupt treatment meant United were heading towards another financial crisis. The only solace John Henry and Co. had was that every team in the Europe was experiencing similar hardship.

Professional Football, not just Manchester United, was on the brink of collapse.

John Henry Davies to the Rescue…Again…

Fortunately, Davies’s fortune could still be leveraged against the club. This meant that while the club was in crisis, they were never in danger of total oblivion as they were a decade earlier…as long as Davies was the owner. He was the only dam holding back a torrent that could decimate the club.

On November 11, 1918 an armistice was signed officially ending the Great War. Granted, there were grander and far more important geopolitical problems at hand. But that didn’t stop fans from being overjoyed with being able to return to watching their favorite football teams.

A Chance for Recovery

Here was yet another chance at revival for Manchester United. Stadiums across the country were packed as fans returned to watch football in droves. But not at Old Trafford. Attendance remained at an all time low after the war.

For the next few seasons, United would hover around 13th place. They would rely on youth to keep them in first division, but were never serious title contenders.

Drastic inflation in the player market after the war made it difficult for Davies to keep up with purchasing the best players and managers. The post war boom in the popularity of football meant that players were one of the hottest commodities in Britain. Prices became overinflated as a result.

Sound familiar…Yet again, United’s future seemed bleak.

Fans Return to Old Trafford

Manchester United 1919-1920 team photograph | unitedkits.blo… | Flickr
1919/20 Manchester United team. Credit: Image: Flickr

The FA’s sanctions had forced huge amounts of debt on Manchester United. Davies’s strategy was to wait out the FA and player valuation boom. He wanted to use what resources the club had to prevent the team from further spiraling. His tactic was yet again spot on, as player prices began to normalize post war.

The boards’ trust in Davies was dwindling and Davies’ trust in the team was as well. But Davies was soon reminded of why he first invested in United.

On the opening day of the 1919 season United played to a crowed of 50,000. In spite of losing that game to Bolton 3-2, the fan support was fervent. That was all Davies needed as a reminder of his original vision for the club.

Davies Begins to Rebuild…In Vain

Davies immediately reinvested into the team again. He gave manager Jack Robson enough money to go out an reinvigorate the squad. Davies wanted to give back to the fans that had continued to support the team in their post war slumber.

But the players available were simply not good enough. Salary caps had been seriously laxed by the FA post war. The idea was to provide soldiers returning home from war fair wadges as a professional athlete. A novel notion for an elitist organization. (sense my sarcasm).

What resulted was teams were locking down their best players to lucrative contracts while the FA did little to prevent wealthier teams from monopolizing the market. That meant the only players available were not of the caliber of the previous generation Davies had built.

Davies spent a lot of money with little return. Despite John Henry’s and Robson’s best efforts, the team were headed for decades of inescapable mediocrity. Not unlike United’s current malady.

But this is not the end of Davies’ legend. He had one last legacy to leave United with.

John Henry Davies Always Had an Ace Up his Sleeve

Manchester United - Manchester City - logos - 2021
Credit: Image: The Sporting News

Up to this point in history the rivalry between Manchester United and Manchester City existed but was tame at best. Both teams had been more concerned with survival and revival than to have any notion of the kind of pious rivalry that exists today.

Enter yet again John Henry Davies.

In the early 1920’s there was a sense of post war union in Manchester. On a local and national scale, people supported Manchester the city, not Manchester United or Manchester City.

City’s financial situation was as bad as United’s so Davies formulated yet another master plan to capitalize on. He wanted to take advantage of the citizens’ sense of Manchester Pride and make money off of City’s plight at the same time.

Davies Births the Manchester Derby

King George meets Manchester City players after part of their stadium is burnt down. Credit: Image: Boston College

In yet another cheeky move, Davies magnanimously offered City the opportunity to share Old Trafford as a playing pitch for free. It was significantly larger capacity than City’s grounds and could offer them more revenue. United would remain owners of the stadium, but much like the San Siro in Milan both Mancunian teams would be united under one roof.

City staunchly refused. They saw Davies trying to take advantage of their financial woes. Thus they turned their noses up at the chance to united Manchester football under one roof. The fan backlash against City was prodigious.

In an unfortunate turn of events, only a few weeks later, Manchester City’s stadium burnt down under extremely suspicious circumstances. It is believed that the IRA were the ones to spark the fire. Though, still to this day it is unknown whether it was accident, the IRA or if Davies had a hand in the event.

Manchester City are Raked Against the Coals by Davies

The City board returned to Davies hat in hand. They needed a stadium to play in. Davies accepted the deal under one condition. City was only able to collect gate receipts to the amount of their previous season’s average at their home stadium.

This doesn’t sound all that bad until you realize that City’s stadium had a capacity of barely 20,000 versus 80,000 at Old Trafford. That meant that all gate receipts that exceeded 20,000 in attendance would go into the pocket of Davies and United. It was cunning demand from Davies.

If City sold out at Old Trafford, they would quadruple their normal gate receipts. This wasn’t fair to Manchester United. Davies was well within his rights to demand this stipulation.

Was it all Part of a Master Plan?

Map showing United’s and City’s various grounds through time. Credit: Image: Wikipedia

Whether this was all part of his master plan is unknown. Some rumors circulating in the press suggested that Davies had planned the whole situation. There were even unfounded suggestions he cahooted with the IRA. Why would he do any of this you ask?

Simple. He wanted to boost Manchester United’s marketability and fan support in a time when both were dwindling. If winning a trophy is out of the question, then what better way to boost support then to create a crosstown rivalry.

It was a cunning and cheeky deal. One that City did not want to accept. But Davies was a dispassionate businessman. He knew City were in a bind and he felt slighted by their refusal of his very generous previous offer.

City refused again, feeling they were still being taken advantage of. But Davies and Manchester United weren’t in a position to be a charity for their cross-town adversaries. Football was still a business and nothing other than chivalry dictates that Davies had to give all the gate receipts to City.

This whole string of events is ultimately what solidified the intensity of the modern rivalry between the two teams.

Davies Takes a Step Back

The start of the 1922 season saw John Henry take a step back from his plenary roll at United. He was getting old. He also felt that his cumulative substantial investments into the club should had been enough for the team to be more self-sustainable.

By now Davies had spent the modern equivalent of tens of millions of dollars on the Club, a substantial fortune at the time.

Had it not been for the FA’s crusade against him he may have been successful in the end. Unfortunately, United had been forced to shed too many of their top players. They had also changed managers too many times. The FA’s imposition on United’s finances and transfers was making it impossible for Davies’ dream of sustainability to continue.

United Relegated…then Promoted

man utd fa cup semi 1925 to 26 browell 1st city goal
Manchester United lose to Manchester City in the FA Cup semi final on their way to relegation. Credit: Image: Shitty Til I Die

He was watching the team deteriorate right before his eyes and there was little he could do about it. United won only eight matches that year. Robson left the club midway through the season, and the team continued their poor form.

They were relegated, finishing the season in 22nd.

It took two seasons for United to recover and return to the first division.

After finishing 9th in 1925 season, the only solace United would see in their first season back in the topflight was watching City get relegated. The team would go on to cycle through several managers and sat adrift in the middle of the table for years. They wouldn’t fully recover to win anther trophy for another 26 years.

Davies would sadly never see the team ever recover top form.

The End of an Era

John Henry Davies memorial headstone in Manchester. Credit: Image: Wikipedia

On October 24, 1927, United fans were devastated as it was announced that John Henry Davies passed away. His health had been deteriorating for years and his roll at the club by this time had become minimal. The last he would have heard about his beloved United was a 5-0 win at Derby County just days before his passing.

In his absence his impact on the club would come to an all too abrupt realization. After taking a step back from his administrative roll, Davies still continued to support the club with interest fee loans and his political clout when needed.

This structure that United had leant on for so long would crumble without John Henry’s presence. His wife Amy would continue his philanthropy to a much-tempered extent. She donated money to club on a few occasions, but nothing to the degree that Davies had.

There is No Substitute for John Henry Davies

Devoid of Davies’ presence, funds, and executive capacity United were on the slide yet again. As of the Christmas of 1931 Manchester United faced another bankruptcy and a second relegation.

James W. Gibson would come to United’s rescue to prevent them from defaulting. Thought it would still be another sixteen years before Old Trafford would see silverware again. But that is all a story for another day.

John Henry Davies didn’t just prop up Manchester United with funds and resources. He made sure the club were involved in local humanitarian efforts. He also donated huge percentages of gate receipts to local businesses, shelters, and charities. His impact was felt well beyond the club, it was imbedded into the community.

Davies was a True Legend

Davies was a visionary. A captain of industry. A benevolent dictator. But most of all he loved Manchester United. He did all in his power to lift United from the ashes and prop us up on to the shoulders of history.

His philosophy of entertaining football, a self-sustainable model, and spare no expense for the greater good of the club is what defines Manchester United’s football today.

Lately, our Red Devils haven’t been much to be proud of. We have meagerly grasped at glory like a petulant child begging for more at the feet of a jaded parent. A far cry from the legacy Davies left behind.

We are Stuck with the Glazers

The Glazers seem content to do all they can to tear down this legacy, as long as they collect their dividend. We fans are the last remnant of what Davies wanted United to stand for. We must return this club to his vision.

Sadly, the departure of the Glazers from Manchester United is only the first step towards this. Manchester United is a great club. But it is also one that has forgotten it’s way from the bottom to the top.

It is also probably safe to say that there aren’t very many wealthy business magnates out there today with the kind of respect and dedication to Manchester United as Davies. So who then, would be a good new owner?…

As long as we fans stand strong and remember the culture and heritage that Davies left to us we will see this club to greatness again. John Henry Davies always knew the fans, not the team or the stadium, were Manchester United’s true strength and his greatest legacy. It is our job to do this legacy proud.

Glory, Glory, Man United!

About Keagan Priest McNicol 26 Articles
My Name is Keagan. I am a lifelong fan of the Red Devils and the beautiful game. My favorite things in the world are my family and friends, Manchester United, good food, the great outdoors, sarcasm and tennis. Green and gold until the club is sold.

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