90 years since James W Gibson saved United

Sunday 19 December 2021 07:00

It is 90 years today since James W Gibson saved Manchester United from extinction.

Gibson was a visionary businessman who helped to lay the foundation of the modern United.

He was the man who answered the club's desperate calls at the height of the Great Depression, who worked with secretary Walter Crickmer to create the MUJAC - the predecessor to the Academy, and who appointed and trusted a fresh-faced Matt Busby after the second world war.

Gibson was born in Salford in 1877.


In early December 1931, Christmas was approaching, the cold was setting in and United were a poor team.

Club president John Henry Davies had died in 1927 after a quarter-of-a-century in charge of United, who had been called Newton Heath when he'd taken over in 1902.

"The death of this great benefactor heralded the most anxious period in the history of the Club," journalist Percy Young would later write.

It would. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 heralded the start of the Great Depression, an event with enormous global ramifications and to which Manchester United's extinction would have been merely a footnote.

Manchester and Salford was hugely affected by the economic crisis. Unemployment rose rapidly and in turn, crowds at Old Trafford - the enormous arena Davies had moved the club into in 1910 - dwindled. In fact, they plummeted, just like the stock exchange. People just didn't have the money to watch the game.

In April 1931, Herbert Bamlett had been sacked as manager. The Sportsman complained that "Manchester United have robbed us of half our relegation thrill - by becoming certs for the honour before the season was even half over!"

New Inside United on sale


Find out what is in the final edition of 2021, with interim boss Ralf Rangnick on the cover.

The Athletic News said there'd would be a "big task ahead for his successor."

That successor was to be Walter Crickmer, promoted from secretary to secretary-manager. His appointment was a temporary one and United soon had their relegation confirmed.

Only 3,507 fans turned up to watch the club's first home game of the 1931/32 season, Southampton ending 3-2 winners, and by the start of December, United sat 14th in England's second division. The magnificent Old Trafford stadium was almost empty, its team a shadow of their former selves.

So, December came, and Crickmer, still fulfilling his duties as club secretary as well as manager, went to the bank to pick up his players' wages. They waited patiently in his office, but Walter was delayed. At the bank, he was told that MUFC could not pay its players' wages.

Around the same time, James W Gibson, a sports fan but not a football fan on any serious scale, was at a dinner in Manchester. He was told about United's struggles, possibly by football journalist Stacey Lintott.

Walter Crickmer, who worked with James Gibson to build the modern Manchester United.

A couple of days later, Walter Crickmer headed to Gibson's house in Hale Barns. He left with a cheque for £2,000, enough to pay the backlog of player and staff salaries. In fact, there was even enough to buy them all a Christmas turkey too, a club tradition for the time of year.

Gibson saved the club, and was soon convinced by the support shown for his actions to invest more. He became club chairman and President and transformed United into one of English football's juggernauts.

A red plaque in honour of James Gibson at Old Trafford.


After James' death in 1951, his wife Lillian and son Alan continued to serve United on the board of directors.

90 years on from the 'Gibson Guarantee' as it became known, relatives of the Gibson family - great-nephew Alan Embling and his son Andrew - were set to attend our match against Brighton & Hove Albion.

Sadly, the match was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad. However, the Embling family will be welcome at Old Trafford soon, and both Alan and Andrew have written about James in an upcoming matchday programme.

Alan knew James Gibson personally and stayed at his Hale Barns house regularly as a child. In a touching piece of memories in the programme, he explains why his great-uncle became involved with United and remembers holding the FA Cup trophy in 1948. Andrew, meanwhile, helps to tell the fairytale story of James W. Gibson and Manchester United.

In the latest edition of Inside United, the life and story of Gibson is looked at in greater detail. You can order a copy here.

For today, though, we just remember one of the most important men in the history of our football club: James W. Gibson.