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Olympic Spirit: the amateurs who played for Manchester United

These days it would normally be a term of abuse to call a Manchester United footballer ‘an amateur’, but it wasn’t always so. Sometimes it’s simply been a statement of fact, albeit applying to less than a dozen players in United’s history from the 1880s to the 1960s.

Thoughts about this select band who pulled on the red shirt for nothing but expenses were prompted by the possibility that such Old Trafford luminaries as David Beckham, Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs may play for Team GB in the London Olympics. In the old days professionals were totally excluded but times have changed and assumptions about some innate moral superiority among amateur competitors have more or less evaporated. It was ‘shamateurs’ who did the damage, competitors who took ‘under the counter’ payments or bent the rules through taking salaries for non-existent jobs and dodgy sponsorship deals.The global spread of television added to the problem, as the massive – not to say obscene – rewards of sporting success have driven out those who competed purely for the love of it.

That’s why I want to pay tribute to the handful of authentic spare-timers who made admirably uncynical contributions to the history of Manchester United, in two cases of profound importance to what might be called the ‘Manchester United way’. For some the involvement was fleeting, but valuable none the less, including a player I never saw but remember well, an old-fashioned amateur who solved an acute goalkeeping crisis in 1961. All the standard United histories ignore this brief episode, but it caught my imagination when I was 14, perhaps because I loved the idea as a child of the man of honour riding to the rescue.

The hero on that occasion over half a century ago was one Mike Pinner, a quietly spoken solicitor with floppy hair who had already taken part in two Olympic Games, and was now with Third Division Queen’s Park Rangers. He was doing his National Service with the RAF when he got the call from United manager Matt Busby, a man with a deep respect for the Olympic ideal.

At that time in 1960-61 United were maddeningly inconsistent as they struggled to re-build after the Munich Air Crash which had killed 8 players three years before. With a team built round the great Bobby Charlton that could put six past Chelsea, five past Manchester City or beat eventual Double winners Tottenham Hotspur 2-0, they could as easily lose 6-0 to unsung Leicester City the following week.

14 into 3: Ronnie Briggs’ Nightmare

United were languishing in mid-table in January 1961 when Munich hero Harry Gregg got injured against Spurs at a time when understudy Dave Gaskell was also crocked. Busby had no option but put his one remaining fit goalkeeper between the posts, an “A” team rookie, Ronnie Briggs. In keeping with the tradition of the Busby Babes, this promising 17-year old was the seventh teenager to make his first team debut for United in that season. Hopes were high for the powerfully built Northern Irish youngster, but it turned into a complete nightmare. It was too much, too soon as he conceded six goals in his first game, that shock defeat to Leicester City. He did better in his next match, a 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup, but when United humiliatingly lost the replay 7-2 at Old Trafford , he looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights. At the final whistle, Briggs was seen leaving the floodlit pitch struggling to hide his tears having let in 14 goals in only three matches, many of them directly down to him.

According to the Daily Mirror, Busby consoled the distraught teenager in the dressing room, saying, ‘It’s a team game, son, and the better team won’. More remarkably the Wednesday manager, Harry Catterick wrote a sympathetic and encouraging letter to Briggs, saying ,’You showed sufficient ability at Hillsborough in the first cup-tie to convince me and many good judges of the game that you have a bright future’. A grateful Busby told the Daily Mail that this was ‘One of the nicest gestures I can remember in 30 years’.

Nevertheless, he knew he had to take Briggs out of the firing line to re-build his shattered confidence. That’s when Mike Pinner came into the equation.

Stock character

A desperate Busby contacted that archetypal old-school football man, QPR boss Alec Stock (later said to be the basis for the Paul Whitehouse TV comedy character ‘Ron Manager’), and asked for a short-term loan of Pinner, then playing with the reserves. Stock generously agreed the deal and Pinner got to Old Trafford just in time to join his new team mates for lunch a couple of hours before kick-off against Aston Villa. One of those welcoming him was Les Olive, the mild-mannered club secretary who with perfect symmetry happened to be the last amateur to play for United, as a stand-in goalkeeper in similar cirumstances in 1953.

Les Olive worked closely with another former amateur with United, club Chairman Harold Hardman, who’d turned out for the Reds way back in 1908. They were both men of great integrity who served United between them for over a century, in many ways combining the best of the amateur sensibility with total professionalism. These were qualities Mike Pinner must have felt at home with, especially as Hardman was also a solicitor. Certainly Pinner was a thoroughly decent man, taking time to express sympathy for Ronnie Briggs, telling the Mail, ‘I know how he feels. I once let in six – and wished the earth would open up’.

Mike Pinner, the amateur with ‘holes in his sweater’

Mike Pinner only played four times for United and anyone skimming through the records might easily dismiss him as one of the many goalkeepers who failed to make the grade at Old Trafford, which would be unfair. In fact he had an outstanding amateur career from the mid-1950s to the mid-’60s in which he won over fifty caps as an England Amateur international as well as representing Britain at the Olympics in 1956 and 1960. Even before his dramatic rescue act at Old Trafford he’d clocked up 30 league appearances as an amateur for Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and QPR and he ultimately went on to make a further 80-odd appearances with other league teams, including Chelsea and Leyton Orient, where he belatedly turned pro at the age of 29 in 1963.

But in my eyes, as a child drawn to support United after Munich in 1958, it was Pinner’s exploits in his brief sojourn at Old Trafford that have stuck in the mind.

It’s hard to know what Pinner made of Munich, whose third anniversary occurred just as he arrived at United.It was a near-taboo subject at Old Trafford yet it inevitably haunted the club from top to bottom, even as elsewhere in some quarters there were signs of growing resentment towards the supposed romantic appeal of the tragically stricken club.

One suspects that when Pinner played for other league clubs he’d had far less media attention than he got with the Red Devils, who even in mid-table attracted enormous national coverage. There were the inevitable attempts to frame Pinner in the ‘jumpers for goalposts’ mode, with one paper claiming that the amateur keeper wouldn’t ‘take it too seriously’ with United. Bizarrely another paper said that, ‘It wouldn’t be surprising if he turned out in a jersey with a few holes in it, or boots that need new laces and a bit of dubbin. He’s done that before on occasions just as big’. As it happens, that’s almost certainly a total fantasy as United’s trainer Jack Crompton, himself a goalkeeper in the 1948 FA Cup winning team, was full of praise for Pinner’s preparations. He told the Manchester Evening Chronicle, ‘He’s the best-equiped unpaid goalkeeper I’ve met. He had three of everything!’

Feb – March 1961: Pinner’s 4 games for United

Pinner acquitted himself well in each of his four matches, helping secure a 1-1 draw against Villa in the first, on February 4. He made some crucial saves, including palming a fierce Gerry Hitchens header from close range over the bar. The United players still seemed shell-shocked after the FA Cup 7-2 debacle, and it took what the Evening Chronicle ”Pink ‘un” called a ‘blockbusting drive’ from Bobby Charlton to earn a point in the 85th minute.

The next match was away against recent Champions Wolverhampton Wanderers, then second in the table behind Spurs. United were still pretty poor but gradually showed signs of recovery, as the Sunday Times noted: ‘United’s defence started uncertainly but improved as they gained confidence in Pinner, the amateur goalkeeper, one of their few players who can look back on the match with satisfaction’. Wolves won 2-1 but United’s late goal from 17-year old Northern Irish half back Jimmy Nicholson gave the Molineux faithful some nervy final minutes which must have lifted spirits in the United camp. The crisis was receding.

Pinner’s third appearance was the most satisfying of all, an excellent 3-1 win over Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford, one of the last matches in which Munich survivor Ken Morgans played for the Reds, shortly before the once-promising Welsh winger was transferred to Swansea, the seventh player to leave United that season.

Harry Gregg briefly returned to the first team enabling Pinner to play for England Amateurs in an international against Eire, a nice addition to his short United CV.

With Gregg injured again, Pinner played just one more time, in a hard-fought 1-1 draw against Newcastle United at St James’ Park on 11 March 1961. Bobby Charlton scored after four minutes with a ‘special’ from the edge of the area but it was then all Newcastle who inevitably equalised through former Babe, Albert Scanlon, another survivor of Munich whose game was never quite the same again.

Following Pinner’s final stop-gap appearance , Dave Gaskell returned and played through to the end of the season. It was he who was in goal when United won the FA Cup two years later, the first trophy since Munich.

What Pinner gave United

It would be false to exaggerate the importance of Mike Pinner’s contribution to Manchester United in just four games, but it’s neverthless true that he helped steady the ship at a critical moment. There was a definite air of crisis which Pinner’s studious presence helped calm down. The numerous young players were not only learning their craft, but having to cope with the unique pressures of expectation at the post-Munich Old Trafford, when the whole world seemed to be watching their every move. Some of the young players Pinner lined up with were at the beginning of their careers, such as Shay Brennan , Johnny Giles, Nobby Stiles, and even Bobby Charlton, all of whom went on to achieve great things in the game. It would be nice to think that the calm, reassuring demeanour of the responsible young solicitor in their dressing room showed them all that there was still something an amateur had to offer the professional game.

The amateur ethos at Old Trafford

What gave Mike Pinner’s time at Old Trafford an added resonance was the presence of the two ex-amateur players who had done so much to shape the United philosophy behind the scenes over decades, especially the dignified , elderly ,ascetic club chairman Harold Hardman, an Olympic champion over fifty years before, as noted in the programme for one of Pinner’s matches. He and Les Olive only played a total of six matches for United but what they gave the club off the pitch in good times and bad was of almost immeasurable importance.

Their combined service at Manchester United eventually amounted to well over a hundred years, and everything they did was steeped in certain values they had lived by as amateur footballers. In their desk jobs their service at Old Trafford was utterly professional in every way, but they still both embodied an ethos which should remain an inspiration to anyone who cares about the club and its supporters to this day.

Harold Hardman: Olympic Champion, United amateur, MUFC Chairman

Hardman was a skilful winger who played as an amateur for Blackpool and then Everton, with whom he played in two FA Cup Finals, winning one in 1906, thus becoming one of only three amateurs to win that trophy. As a regular amateur international he was especially proud of the fact that he also won four caps with the full England team. Then, shortly before joining league champions United in the summer of 1908, he was part of the England team that won football gold at the 1908 Olympics. He played four times for United before moving on to Bradford City and then Stoke City.

A man of steely determination, Hardman qualified as a solicitor and became a United director in 1912, astonishingly while still playing as an amateur for Stoke. He served on the United board for the next half century, and was United chairman from 1951 until his death in 1965, a period during which United won the FA Cup and four league titles but also witnessed the tragedy of Munich.

The day after the crash, Hardman called a board meeting where he insisted that United should carry on and fulfill all fixtures, in the full knowledge that with more than a complete team dead or seriously injured, every match might end in heavy defeat. It wasn’t even clear who acting manager Jimmy Murphy could put in the team, as famously shown in the programme for the first match after Munich, against Sheffield Wednesday in the FA Cup 13 days after the disaster. Everyone remembers how the United team sheet in that programme poignantly consisted of eleven blanks but the words of Harold Hardman on the front page should equally be etched in United’s collective memory:

“United will go on …. Although we mourn our dead and grieve for our wounded we believe that great days are not done for us. The sympathy and encouragement of the football world and particularly of our supporters will justify and inspire us. The road back may be long and hard but with the memory of those who died at Munich, of their stirring achievements and wonderful sportsmanship ever with us, Manchester United will rise again. HP Hardman Chairman.” (United Review, Man United v Sheffield Wednesday, 19 February, 1958)

The phrase that leaps out there is ‘stirring achievements and wonderful sportsmanship’, encapsulating his entire philosophy.

Hardman had a reputation for being tight with the club purse-strings, which caused some conflict with Busby, especially when the latter was trying to re-build after Munich. The two men were never close but each had great respect for the other, and it should be remembered that Hardman did in fact authorise record-breaking signings, including Tommy Taylor, Harry Gregg, Albert Quixall and Denis Law, a deal that put the club in the red following the signing of Noel Cantwell, Maurice Setters, David Herd and Pat Crerand.

There’s no doubt Hardman brought a considered responsibility to the way the club was run, having lived through the near catastrophic 1930s when the club nearly went bust. He was determined that would never happen again, and yet in other ways he could be a risk-taker when he believed in something, as when he gave Busby his full backing in taking United into the European Cup in 1956. Hardman helped outflank the stiff opposition of the reactionary Harold Hardaker and the Football League and took United into Europe as pioneers. Busby is usually depicted as the visionary at that moment, but some of the credit should go to the quiet solicitor who had played football as an amateur half a century before and never lost his passion for the game.

Les Olive: amateur player, professional administrator

The man working closely with Hardman, club secretary Les Olive was of course much younger and had played for the first team as an amateur far more recently, but they had a similar set of values. Busby didn’t hesitate to pick Les when faced with a goalkeeping crisis, knowing he’d give his all for the team despite not being a specialist goalkeeper. In fact Les much preferred to play at full back or centre half, having appeared in every position except left wing for the junior and reserve teams in the 1940s and early ’50s, always as an amateur. Nevertheless when Busby had three regular goalkeepers injured in April 1953 – Jack Crompton, Reg Allen and Ray Wood – Les uncomplainingly took up his post between the sticks.

His two appearances in goal happened to coincide with an important landmark, the debut of Busby Babe Dennis Viollet, one of United’s all-time great goal-scorers, a Munich survivor who was still at Old Trafford when Mike Pinner arrived . Les gamely helped United beat Newcastle United 2-1 at St James’ Park, watched by a youthful Bobby Charlton as future Munich victim Tommy Taylor scored both goals. In the second match United were held to a 2-2 home draw against West Bromwich Albion, with Viollet scoring his first goal for United, veteran Stan Pearson netting one of his last.

Les Olive’s emergency appearances for United as an amateur in 1953 were mentioned several times by the press when Mike Pinner came to Old Trafford in ’61 to fulfil a similar role. But Les’s brief footballing career shouldn’t obscure what an immense contribution he made in other ways, over a very long period of time. He had been on the groundstaff since the age of 14 in 1942 , becoming a bit of a dogsbody , helping out with whatever needed doing, from checking the toilets to playing in goal for the first team.

He rose to become assistant secretary in 1955, serving the much-loved Walter Crickmer until his death at Munich. Olive then had to take over and deal with all the practical and emotional ramifications of the disaster, informing victims’ relatives, arranging for the coffins to be transported from Germany to the Old Trafford gym, organising the funerals, all the while running the club as best he could, dealing with the extraordinary demand for tickets as United went on their astonishing Phoenix-from-the ashes FA Cup run to Wembley.

The way Les coped with the situation as a 26 year old was remarkable, and typical of the man. He was appointed secretary full-time, serving in that capacity for thirty years until 1988. He then joined the board , serving as a director specialising in the youth set-up until shortly before his death from prostate cancer in 2006. It was a remarkable one-club career, stretching from before the Busby era to the golden days of Sir Alex Ferguson, who had enormous respect for him, saying he was one of the most decent men he’d known in football.

I will always think of Les Olive as a by-word for calm reliability and a gentlemanly style, not in some stupid snobbish sense but in the way he conducted himself. He was totally committed to youth football, not just at United but at the grassroots level locally and it’s pleasing to think that the period of his responsibility for youth as a director coincided with the ‘Golden Generation’ of Giggs, Beckham, Butt, Scholes and the Nevilles.

He was also completely committed to serving supporters properly, as I can confirm from the infinitely polite letters I received from him as a kid in the ’60s, responding to my tiresome requests for programmes and autographs. A good man, filled with the true spirit of the amateur, a passionate devotion to the game for what it could bring to people’s lives.

Other amateurs at United (and Newton Heath)

There have been several other amateurs who have played for Manchester United over the years whose contributions range from minor historical curiosities to something more substantial. One of those in the latter category, Sam Black, never played for United as such, but played a crucial role in the early days when the club was known as Newton Heath (LYR) , appearing some 45 times in non-first class matches as a powerful and skillful defender, and was the first club captain . This is what one reference book has to say about Black, in an invaluable section on United amateurs:

‘A great defender with a superb technique, Black’s part in the early days of the club cannot be (overstated). His superhuman efforts both on and off the field enabled the fledgling club to make progress as one of the best in the area…without the likes of Sam Black there might not be a Manchester United today!’ (The complete Encyclopaedia of Manchester United Football Club, compiled by Tony Matthews & John Russell, 2002)

One of the great amateur footballing institutions has always been Bishops Auckland, who crop up on a couple of occasions in United’s history, the first time in 1904 when a high-scoring forward called Jack Allan joined United, having played in a couple of Amateur Cup Finals. He scored 22 goals in only 36 appearances at United, a remarkable rate even in those more open days. He became a pro while at United but regained his amateur status in 1906 when he returned to the Aucks.

It was then some thirty years later before another amateur played for United, and then only briefly, when one Len Bradbury briefly joined the club in 1935 from that other great amateur institution Corinthians (who had dominated the early days of football in Victorian times, the era of the gentleman amateur). Len rejoined United in 1938, and scored on his debut against Chelsea in January 1939, and then only played once more in the first team, retiring from the game in 1942.

All the other amateur appearances with Manchester United then happened after World War 2, in Matt Busby’s era, when you might have expected a more rigorous insistence on professionalism. But that would be to misunderstand what Matt stood for.

Matt Busby and the 1948 London Olympics

In accounts of Matt Busby’s life there is seldom much mention of his brief tenure as manager of the Great Britain football team at the 1948 London Olympic Games, yet it was one of his proudest achievements, such that he devoted a whole chapter to the story in his autobiography, Matt Busby: My Story (1st edition, 1957). Having just taken United to victory in the FA Cup Final against Stanley Matthews’ Blackpool, the club’s first trophy since 1911, Busby immediately had to plunge straight into managing the amateur team, drawn from England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. He was presented with a named squad of 26 players, only one of whom he’d ever met, the great Bob Hardisty of Bishop Auckland, and then had to work his alchemy on them as quickly as possible. As he wryly remarked,

‘My first task was to shake hands all round, and try to remember some of the names’ (Matt Busby: My Story, p102)

Matt was highly critical of the fact that Britain could never realistically compete with foreign teams in the Olympics because so many nations picked players from their domestic professional leagues, which the authorities did nothing to stop.

Nevertheless, he wholeheartedly set about knocking this genuinely amateur collection of ‘footballer-clerks, footballer-grocers, footballer-pitmen’ into shape, helped by United’s trainer Tom Curry (yet another of those who died at Munich) and , physiotherapist Ted Dalton plus many of the United first team. He heaped praise on such United greats as Jack Rowley ( often depicted by others as a hard-bitten, tough old pro), Stan Pearson and ‘Gentleman’ Johnny Carey for their unstinting efforts to help the GB team (and remember Carey was an Eire international), all done in their summer break. This again is an untold, forgotten story.

Somehow the GB team got to the semi-finals in ’48, and, as Matt says,

‘As manager of the British team on that occasion I did a job of work which I shall always regard as one of my best. Steering Manchester United to the championship of the Football League First Division was child’s play beside the problems of sorting out a winning team from twenty-six spare-time footballers from four different countries’ (Matt Busby: My Story p.101-2)

On the way to the semis GB beat Holland at Highbury and France at Craven Cottage before facing Yugoslavia at Wembley, a team of professionals who drew with the full England team at Highbury soon after. It was thus no surprise that the South Slav pros beat the authentic amateurs 3-1. Britain then lost the third-place play-off to Denmark, missing out on medals completely. Matt nevertheless summed up his feelings of pride:

‘It was disappointing for my boys not to get the bronze medals, but it was some consolation to know they had done better than anyone really anticipated.For myself, the 1948 Olympic Games will for ever remain a proud memory, not only for the respectable results obtained, but also because I got a great kick out of working with such a grand team of amateur footballers’ (My Story, p105)

I am glad Matt wrote at length and with pride about his Olympic episode because it demonstrates his genuine respect for the amateur ethic, which he was to demonstrate again later on , not just with Les Olive and Mike Pinner but in other ways too, before and after Munich.

John Walton, the only amateur who helped United win a trophy

Before Les Olive’s emergency appearances in goal in 1953, there had already been one other amateur playing for United in the Busby era, a skilful inside-forward called John Walton who played a couple of times in the 1951-52 Championship-winning season. Again, this is one of those little noticed football achievements, the only time Manchester United have won a major trophy with the help of an amateur. While still with United Walton turned out for the England Amateur team but he’d left by the time of his single appearance in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, when GB suffered humiliating defeat to Luxembourg.

The Aucks squad in ’58

Immediately after Munich United had a real problem, not just with the decimated first team, but throughout the club at all levels as youth teamers and reserves had to be pushed up the ladder, ready or not, leaving gaping holes in all the teams below. There was a very real danger that United would not be able to fulfil contractual obligations to compete in all the various competitions they were signed up for. Several clubs made offers of help, most of which came to nothing, with the noble exception of the amateur giants Bishop Auckland, who provided three players, including that stalwart of Matt’s ’48 GB Olympics team, Bob Hardisty (who’d once played with Matt as a wartime guest player for Middlesborough), plus Derek Lewin and the flying winger Warren Bradley. Hardisty and Lewin were invaluable in the reserves, but the real surprise was the school teacher Bradley.

Warren ‘Teach’ Bradley

I have a special fondness for Warren Bradley, nicknamed ‘Teach’ by one tabloid, who I saw several times when I first started attending matches. He lit up United’s right flank for a couple of years, speeding his way to the by-line to cross with un-erring accuracy for the predatory Dennis Viollet or Bobby Charlton to bury in the back of the net, or to cut inside and fire off an unstoppable shot himself. He’d already won a couple of Amateur Cups with Bishops Auckland, in 1956 and ’57, and was an England Amateur international but everyone was amazed at how well Bradley adapted to the professional game. In fact he ceased to be an amateur in November 1958 when he made his first team debut, although he remained part-time for the rest of his career with the Reds. He was part of the brilliant W-formation forward-line – Bradley, Quixall, Viollet, Charlton, Scanlon – that astonishingly finished the first season after Munich as runners-up to Wolves. With his diminuitive stature and ‘jug’ ears, Bradley stood out for his team-ethic hard running, scoring a remarkable 21 goals as a winger in 66 league and cup matches. To my delight , he also forced his way into the England team, winning three caps and playing well – at least I thought so, watching on TV.

Bradley joined Bury in 1962 and he continued his commitment to teaching, becoming the head of a comprehensive school in Manchester in the 1970s. He later became very active in the association of ex-United players, which combined organising social events with welfare activities for members who’d fallen on hard times. One could purchase copies of the association’s magazine and other memorabilia in the 1990s, and I was always pleased to see the signature Warren Bradley on the friendly accompanying letters. Sadly he died in 2007, but his contribution to the United tradition of exciting wing-play should not be forgotten.

Alan Gowling, United’s last amateur

If you discount players such as Norman Whiteside who were aged under-17 and thus too young to sign professional forms, the last full amateur to play for United was Alan Gowling, who also happens to be the only player to participate in the Olympics as a United player. In truth his amateur status was never going to last, as it was always pretty clear he would ultimately turn professional, in all likelihood after the Olympic Games in 1968.

I was at university in Nottingham myself when Gowling made his United debut as an economics student at Manchester University in 1968, and I had a certain liking for the idea that you could combine studying for a degree with playing for United, just as Steve Coppell did a few years later. However, although Gowling had a very respectable goal-scoring ratio in his time at Old Trafford, 21 goals in 87 appearances, he never quite nailed down a regular spot, either as a forward under Busby or later as a midfielder with early ’70s manager Frank O’Farrell.

Gowling’s gangly, angular ,ungainly style never really endeared him to United supporters who’d feasted on the grace and aesthetic appeal of the Holy Trinity of Charlton, Law and Best. I have to admit my heart sank when he came on as a sub against Sunderland in the last league match of the 1967-68 season, when United desperately needed a win to retain the league title. United lost, City won the title and United never won the league again for 26 years. Hard to blame Gowling for that, but there was an unmistakeable whiff of decline at United in Gowling’s era. Better to remember his amazing four goals against Southampton in February 1971, given rave treatment on Match of the Day. By that time he’d long been a full professional and he went on to have a decent career with Huddersfield, Newcastle, Bolton and Preston. He was a highly articulate, thoughtful man and was elected chairman of the Player’s union, the PFA, and also the United Former Player’s Association. Certainly in the latter role, a voluntary position, there was something of the amateur ethos in his involvement, as with Warren Bradley’s.

The legacy

Since Gowling’s time at United, where he was only an amateur in the early days, there have been no true amateurs in the first team, and the whole concept has largely disappeared, at least in the sense of those players who had some sort of commitment to the idea of playing football for its own sake, rather than for financial reward. The rules have changed and no-one needs to be strictly segregated in the game any more, which is perhaps for the best.

However, I do think the beliefs that players such as Harold Hardman, Les Olive and Mike Pinner brought to United , which were deeply rooted in the amateur philosophy still have a place. And it’s also very good to remember in this year of the London Olympics, just how committed the great Matt Busby was to the cause when he managed the GB Amateurs 64 years ago. The fact that he selected more amateurs than any other manager in United history shows how deep his respect was for ‘spare-timers’.

When those three past and present amateurs came together in February 1961 they were the inheritors of a shared value system going back decades that still had much to offer and went to the heart of what had made United great. If for no other reason that makes their stories worth re-telling, as a way of celebrating those qualities of team spirit, sportsmanship and the never-ceasing quest for glory on behalf of the great mass of supporters.

What happened to Ronnie Briggs?

And what of poor Ronnie Briggs? Well, with Gregg and Gaskell around, opportunities were limited but the athletic Irishman still managed a creditable 8 appearances in the season following his traumatic early baptism of fire. Thankfully, he never had a repeat of his nightmare 14-in-3 , as he helped a still struggling United to win win three and draw two, only twice conceding more than one goal. His finest moment was probably when he kept a clean sheet against the ultimate League Champions Ipswich, who were surprisingly thrashed 5-0 at Old Trafford. Briggs also won two caps for Northern Ireland in 1962 and then in 1965, by which time he’d moved on, first to Swansea and then to Bristol Rovers. Not a brilliant career, but not a failure either, as it might have been if Mike Pinner hadn’t answered Matt Busby’s SOS call.

….and Mike Pinner?

Mike Pinner is evidently still active as a solicitor, specialising as a property development and investmnent lawyer. On his company website there’s a paragraph outlining his legal experience, ending with the briefest of mentions of his distinguished life in football. It’s clear from this terse, modest summation that even after half a century his four matches in goal for Manchester United were something of a highlight:

‘Early in his career he played football for Great Britain in the Olympics and later for Manchester United’

That’s the spirit.


 

106 Comments

  1. Bobby Charlton's combover says:

    Someone said above that you should write a book. I second that. You have a great story to tell and a great way of telling it.

  2. Red Letter says:

    Great Giles!!

    Remember reading about Warren Bradley and Mike Pinner ‘volunteering’ for United as a young boy
    in Dublin. Didn’t really sink in how honorable their ‘gesture’ was.

    I never was really convinced about Alan Gowling ,with his awkward gait he always looked an amateur to me. He did seemed to pick up a bit when Frank O’Farrell moved him into midfield, but his form went when the team went into free-fall and I don’t ever remember him playing well for us again.
    He did however score one of the most unlikely winning goals for United at Stamford Bridge in Jan 1971. George went AWOL before the game and this seemed to inspire the team . With the score 1-1 coming to the final quarter and Chelsea pressing United broke and Gowling got the ball and from very far out tried a speculative lop which completely deceived Bonetti ending up in the net. As us United supporters were at the far end of the ground and it was really misty we were not sure what happened and obviously delighted when the ref gave a goal.Even Brian Moore on ‘The Big Match’ next day seemed a bit perplexed as to how this fluke happened. We always seemed to win there
    and Chelsea would do like wise at OT. I remember us winning 3-1 there the year we were relegated (1974) near the end of the season it was the first time that season The Doc’s team played out-and-out attacking football ,but it was too late!! Were you there Giles??

  3. Giles Oakley says:

    Hi Red Letter, loved your post. I didn’t see the Gowling goal at Stamford Bridge, but I dimly (sic) remember it on TV. I was at the 3-1 win in the relegation year, however. I remember Willie Morgan, largely playing wide midfield rather than as an outright winger, got a belter of a goal from the edge of the area. I really thought United could avoid the drop after that display, but that attacking spirit disappeared and down we went…

  4. Red Letter says:

    Giles,

    I recall we played attacking football till we got relegated finally against Citeh. We United
    supporters know ’tis complete tosh The King send us down. We were down barring a miracle
    before the Citeh game, Law’s goal, awful as it was coming from one our heroes, was just the
    final nail in the coffin.
    What a glorious return!! playing exciting attacking football and filling grounds around the
    country as we did in the sixties, it was certainly a vast improvement on the fare dished up in the
    early ’70′s and on the Doc’s earliest period.
    Giles, people keep asking you about you writing a book, my question would be I have not yet seen an article by you on The Doc’s reign. You may have written something and I’ve missed it. It has to be said he certainly revived United. He was without doubt a controversial figure, just like at Chelsea players had conflicting views on him, some loved playing for him and others despised him.
    He certainly made enemies when he came and decided ‘the old guard’ were not going to get him the sack as (in my view) they had contributed to McGuinness’s and O’Farrell’s demise. He decided they were past their best and had to go – and he was right!! He always claimed had United’s board
    sanctioned the purchase of Shilton he may have won the league, and if a Forest team with such very
    ordinary players as Lloyd, Burns, McGovern, O’Hare, Birtles(don’t we know!!) Clarke could, he may be right. I tend to agree with Keith Dewhurst in his excellent book ‘When You Put On A Red Shirt’
    that for all the Doc’s teams exciting helter-skelter attacking football when confronted with technically and tactically superior teams they were found wanting and just like Big Ron’s teams, would never win a league. I was really thrilled to beat Liverpool in the cup final in ’77(our first trophy since ’68)
    but deep in my heart thought they were unlucky and were a far better team then.They certainly were when they signed Dagleish to replace Keegan and Souness in ’77-78 season, and much to our dismay would remain so for a long time even tough we had a good record against them in the games we played.

    Don’t know if you saw the programme on Irish TV in Dec about Frank O’Farrell at United called’ In The Shadow Of Busby’. The Doc come out with one of his classic one-liners about Frank signing Wyn Davies ” Wyn Davies had everything put ability” …………priceless!!

  5. Benner says:

    Hi Giles

    Great piece. I am a big fan of your United writings.

    I wonder if you’d be interested in contributing to a written publication?

    Please get in contact if you would.

    Ben

  6. Giles Oakley says:

    Hi Ben,

    Sorry I only just noticed your message as I just happened to check something on this thread. The answer is yes, I would be ineterested. Do please contact me at:

    gilesoakley@tiscali.co.uk

    or

    gilesoakley@hotmail.com

    All the best
    Giles

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