Manchester United fans have a lot to thank James William Gibson for... although most probably don’t know it.
Today, 19 January, marks 80 years since the Salford-born, Old Trafford-based businessman made true his pledge to wipe out the debts of his local football club. But for his intervention, the Reds might not be the sporting institution of today or, possibly, even in existence.
In December 1931 United were on the brink: the players hadn’t been paid for weeks, results were poor and attendances tiny (just 4,697 for the visit of Bristol City on 19 December). After years of decline there was genuine fear that, barely two decades after being crowned champions of England for a second time, Manchester United might be declared bankrupt.
What happened next changed the course of the club’s history and, more importantly, ensured there would actually be one. Club secretary Walter Crickmer met a local businessman who loved his sport (essentially rugby and cricket). While not a great football fan, the proprietor of a uniform manufacturers was reluctant to let one of the city’s institutions disappear and agreed to help out, making £2,000 immediately available to the club. That money helped pay for match travel expenses and general expenditure. And also for the players’ Christmas turkeys!
It was a stay of execution, but more was required to stave off the threat of extinction. On 21 December 1931, Gibson – who had agreed to pay the club’s bills until 9 January 1932 – convinced the United board of directors they should resign at a point in the future convenient for him.
On 5 January he outlined plans to reorganise the club board and became a director, an overhaul that came to fruition on 19 January when the board resigned and he took full control, clearing all debts. The club was saved.
Last month, a special tribute marked Gibson’s first dealings with United. The short ceremony, by the plaque in his memory on Sir Matt Busby Way, was attended by club officials, supporters and members