If today Manchester United were making their debut in a brand new Stadium it would undoubtedly be major news. Yet this was far from the case when Old Trafford first threw open its doors more than a century ago in February 1910 for the first of many subsequent thrilling matches against arch rivals Liverpool that the away side won 4-3 after being 2-0 down at half time in a Division 1 match.
Much more important for football fans that weekend were the matches between the last 16 of the then biggest competition in the world - the FA Cup, with ties that included Barnsley [eventual finalists] against WBA and Newcastle [eventual winners for the first time] against Blackburn Rovers.
This lack of publicity, of course, wasn’t the only difference when it came to football in 1910. Firstly there were no substitutes, so if a player got injured he was usually required to limp out the match on the [left] wing.
There was also no such thing as advertising on strips, and numbering on shirts was a good thirty years away never mind the actual names of players themselves. Boots were different, players being required to hammer their studs into the soles.
The ball used was rock hard and when it got wet it became a very heavy object that also went out of shape. As a consequence many a player would have a headache after 90 minutes play. Some, although there are no figures on how many, subsequently died early deaths from the constant heading of the ball.
Without adequate drainage systems pitches bore no similarity to the fabulous billiard like surfaces of the Premier League today and had little grass on them, especially in the winter. Heavy rain brought puddles for the players to overcome, and on particularly rainy days the middle of the pitch would soon resemble a mud bath. This made it essential for teams to get the ball out to their wingers to attack the full-backs.
In 1910 Manchester United had one of the finest wingers ever seen in this country in Billy Meredith. The Welshman was signed, with three others in 1906 from Manchester City, after United’s rivals had been found guilty of paying players more than the agreed maximum wage of £4 a week. The following year it was Meredith who was instrumental in establishing the Players Union that 50 years later finally broke through the pay barrier and led the way towards the fabulous rewards that top paid players can expect today. The downside of which, of course, has been that the best players end up at the clubs with the most money. This wasn’t the case back in 1910 when talent was more evenly spread around the clubs in the north.
Hence Blackburn Rovers had the inimitable Robert Crompton, who was later described by the Arsenal, Sunderland and England legend Charlie Buchan as the “the finest footballer in the world before World War One.”
Although solidly built he was not typical of the bruising defenders of his time and was a master tactician and superb passer of the ball. Crompton was to be capped 41 times by England, 22 as captain, a record that stood until well after the Second World War. Considering there were only three regular international games per season then the modern day equivalent would be well over 100 caps.
Crompton won two league winners medals, in 1911-12 and at the end of the 1913-14 season, and later managed Rovers as they won the FA Cup for a then record equalling [with Aston Villa] 6th time by beating Huddersfield 3-1 at Wembley in 1928. Many of his caps, medals and memorabilia are now on display at the National Football Museum in Preston. Rovers also had Billy Bradshaw, who featured at left half that season for England in the British Home Championship tournament that lasted until 1984 when hooliganism put an end to matches.
Liverpool had the best keeper though, Sam Hardy, who featured on the opening day at Old Trafford. The Derbyshire man gained 21 caps for England and made over 600 professional appearances between 1907 and 1921. Twenty one According to Buchan Hardy was “the finest goalkeeper I played against. By uncanny anticipation and wonderful positional sense he seemed to act like a magnet to the ball.”
Bradford City in outside right Dicky Bond were also represented in the England side in 1910, as were Bury in the shape of Billy Hibbert and Sheffield United with Harold Hardinge.
The type of football that was played had altered radically as initially, when football had kicked off in the Public Schools in the mid 19th century, team formations had been entirely attack devoted with just two defenders and eight forwards, the aim being to rush forward with the ball, with individualism the key. Whilst it is Scottish side Queens Park who are believed to have been the first side to have recognised the value of ‘letting the ball do the work’ it is Preston North End, as winners of the first two Division 1 Championships in 1889 and 1890, who are credited with inventing the passing game.
This brought with it the need to adopt team formations for both attack and defence leading to the 2-3-5 set up of two full backs, three half backs and five forwards then in place in 1910. The key player in this was the centre-half who would be expected to surge forward in support of his forwards and it was usual for most sides to play their best most creative player in this key position. It was to be 1925 before the role of the centre-half changed when the offside rule was altered after concerns about how few goals were being scored. It meant that players could now be onside if there were only two players between themselves and their opponent’s goal rather than three.
One other significant difference compared to today was that in 1910 goalkeepers were allowed to handle the ball anywhere in their own half. If that might have made it easier for the men between the sticks what didn’t was the rule that allowed them to be shoulder charged, just like any other player, with or without the ball and there were some very rough challenges indeed in 1910.
At the start of the 1909-10 season Newcastle United were the reigning League Champions whilst Manchester United were the FA Cup holders. Manchester City were in Division 2, although they and Oldham Athletic were to gain promotion at the season’s end from, what was until Division 3 North and South were formed after World War 1, the bottom league.
With Villa running away with the 1st Division title there was even more attention that usual being paid to the FA Cup. This meant that in Barnsley there was enthusiasm on an unprecedented scale for the quarter final match with QPR such that a record crowd of 24,000, with many more locked out, were cock-a-hoop after a single Wilf Bartrop goal took them onwards to a semi-final spot. In this ‘the Tykes’ beat Everton 3-0, after a replay, at Old Trafford before a record crowd of 55,000. Football even by 1910 had become the number one spectator sport, which may just be the only thing not to have changed in the game in the hundred plus years since.