The noise was deafening, incessant, vibrating through his whole body, making the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end, creating a nervous tension, a feeling surpassing all others. But this wasn’t a familiar arena such as Hyde Road or Ewood Park, nor was it the more familiar, much loved environs of the depleted Clayton and the ultra-modern Old Trafford. No, this was far from home. It was Arras, France, around seventy miles south-east of Calais and to some, hell on earth.
Those alongside Lance Sergeant ALEXANDER (SANDY) TURNBULL, service no. 28427, of the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment, shared his nerves and anxieties and like their colleague at arms, they were never to depart this grim, unfamiliar and totally unfriendly place.
For once, Sandy Turnbull could not claim victory through his undoubted skill as a goal scorer and creator and as he climbed the roughly built wooden ladder out of the mudded trench around 3.45 on the morning of May 3rd 1917, he was not simply venturing into the unknown, he was taking the first steps in his final journey, a journey that led to his ultimate death, but a demise that even today has a huge question mark over it.
Alexander Turnbull was born on July 30th 1884 at 1 Gibson Street, Hurlford, a small Ayrshire village a handful of miles south west of Kilmarnock. It was a mining community, like so many others in the area, with the coal face providing the major money earning source for male of the villager and the surrounding area, with Turnbull’s father Jimmy one of those who spent his working life in such a dark, dismal claustrophobic environment. Hurlford, and indeed Ayrshire itself, was also a footballing hot-bed, providing the necessary ‘get away from it all’ distraction that held ones sanity together away from the mundane life underground.
Football, for those not young enough to take on adult responsibilities, was also a pleasant distraction from the three R’s and the classroom desk and as was common at the time, the day to day drudgery of school work was abandoned around the age of fourteen, with young master Turnbull forsaking his short trousers and learning to become the bread winner of the family following his father early untimely death, taking on a similar profession of a miner, while his mother Jessie, remained at home raising her other six children, all but one younger than Sandy.
But Sandy Turnbull was more fortunate than his late father and many others within the community, as he had a talent, an undoubted ability, something that would enable him to escape the dark unhealthy confines of the coal face. He was a highly rated footballer.
If Hurlford had been without a football team, then there was no shortage of others close by, with a host of excellent junior sides within easy travelling distance. But there was little need for the promising young footballer to venture outside the village boundaries, as Hurlford Thistle a team he most probably watched win the Ayrshire Junior Challenge Cup in 1895-96, offered him a place within their ranks.
So, Saturday afternoon’s were now spent plying his trade at Struthers Park and other frugal, spartan grounds scattered across the Ayrshire countryside, but it was a countryside that contained more than green fields and coal mines, as many promising footballers were nurtured amongst the kick and rush merchants who, more often than not, played to simply make up the numbers, forcing others to develop their skills lest they suffered some horrific injury from the rock hard toe caps of either football or working boot, depending on the individuals financial predicament as to whether or not they could afford a pair of the former.
As the English Football League began to develop, with the promise of employment often used as an incentive to attract players from other areas, clubs also began to travel further a field in the search for new additions to their playing staff. A prime area for recruiting new players was Scotland, as many of the players from north of Hadrian’s Wall were considered of a superior talent to those from nearer home. They possessed a finer degree of ball skills and their often diminutive stature, which gave them a lower centre of gravity, enabled them to do things with a ball that seemed beyond the scope of others.
The first club to find themselves captivated by the stocky 5’7”, 12 stone figure of Sandy Turnbull, as they cast their nets far and wide in their attempt to become one of the top sides in the land, were Bolton Wanderers and so impressed were they by his imposing stature, and certainly one which could look after himself in the physical hustle and bustle of the free-for-all penalty area, that they quickly agreed to sign him in the summer of 1902.
Whilst looking forward to a completely new lease of life in Lancashire with Bolton, Manchester City, under the guidance of Tom Maley, (brother of Glasgow Celtic manager Willie), had also cast their eyes over the player and were impressed by his goal scoring prowess. So much so, that they moved in before the contractual papers from the Wanderers had arrived at the Turnbull home and offered the player better terms to move a few miles further down the road.
Signed on a contract that would pay something in the region of £3 per week, a figure that many today would perceive as a paltry sum, but what was actually exceptionally good money compared with that of a miner, who would earn around a third of that, the young Ayrshireman, who would certainly have informed his mother that she had no need to worry about his weekly wage no longer coming directly into the house, as he would send some of his new found wealth back to Scotland, headed south to join a football club that had been relegated from the First Division at the end of the 1901-02 season, but one that would immediately spring right back into the top flight the following season, as Bolton, ironically enough, dropped down to Division Two. So, it was a Second Division footballer that Sandy Turnbull began his fledgling Football League career.
Leaving his family may have been a wrench, but giving up the long hard toil of working in the mines would not have cost him any sleep and he would have snatched the professional contract offered by City and instantly scribbled his signature on it before any of the City officials could have had a change of heart.
Exchanging the rural countryside of Ayrshire, with its vast acres of farm land, for the industrial sprawl of Manchester must, however, have been something of a rude awakening for the budding footballer and more of a journey into the unknown rather than the road to fame and fortune.
There was certainly no fanfare of trumpets to herald Sandy Turnbull’s arrival in Manchester and undoubtedly, he would not have expected one as it was not as if he had been signed from one of the top sides in the Scottish game, but even he must have been uncertain as to what lay ahead, as the Manchester Evening Chronicle reported in their July 22nd edition that ‘Manchester City had signed Turnbull from Hereford (sic).’ At least they had spelt his name correctly!
The Manchester City supporters were given their first real sight of the new arrival in the ‘Blues’ versus the ‘Stripes’ pre-season practise match on August 16th 1902 and his early appearances in the City second team were certainly more than promising. Two goals against Bury Reserves on October 4th were followed by another against Preston North End’s second string seven days later, with a second double strike on October 18th against Liverpool Reserves. Even Manchester United’s first team under studies could not contain the new arrival when their respective second eleven’s met on November 8th as the name of Turnbull once again appeared amongst the scorers, notching City’s third in a 3-3 draw.
For those who watched the Manchester City reserve side, they would be slightly aggrieved if they did not witness a Sandy Turnbull goal and as each game passed by, great things were soon expected of the player, who had taken up a role that would be classed as that of a mid-fielder in the modern game, tucked in behind the deeper lying centre-forward.. It has, however, also been written that the new signing failed to make an immediate impact at his new home and that some even held the opinion that the club should cut their losses and either send him back to Ayrshire or try and sell him. His early record in the City Reserves suggests otherwise and it was on the back of those goals and his all round performances that he was given his first team debut as the right sided partner to a certain Billy Meredith, against Bristol City at St John’s Gate on November 15th 1902.
In a confident debut, Turnbull scored one of City’s goals in the 3-2 defeat, claiming another seven days later on his Hyde Road debut against Glossop in what was a 5-2 victory. The opportunity presented to him had certainly been snatched with both hands, or perhaps more emphatically, both feet.
City were to lead the Second Division for most of the season, but it was the Christmas holiday period that was to see them edge their way in front of challengers Small Heath. On December 20th, they could found be a mere one point in front of their Midlands rivals, but a 1-1 draw against United on Christmas Day, a 2-0 win at Preston on Boxing Day and a 2-1 win at Doncaster twenty-four hours later saw them three points in front with a game in hand.
Everyone needs that little piece of luck if they are to achieve anything and City had theirs, as they sought the Second Division championship and a return to the top flight of the English game, on January 10th, when their table-topping fixture against Small Heath at Hyde Road was abandoned after forty minutes. Had the visitors managed to clinch a victory, then the records books may well have told a much different story.
As it was, City more or less wrapped the title up between January 31st and March 7th, when the showed devastating form, scoring thirty-one goals in five successive games, all of which must be added, were played at Hyde Road. A run that included a 9-0 victory over Gainsborough Trinity and 7-1 against Burslem Port Vale.
Sandy Turnbull’s name, however, wasn’t exactly prominent in the list of scorers, managing only three in those five fixtures, outshone by the likes of Gillespie with nine, Bannister with eight and Meredith with seven.
United almost threw a spanner in the works on April 10th, winning 2-0 at Hyde Road, but three days later Birmingham lost 3-0 at Barnsley, a game they needed to win and a defeat that left them three points behind with only one game remaining. City were Champions.
Twelve goals in twenty-two appearances from Turnbull was a healthy return and certainly contributed to Manchester City’s return to the top flight. But alongside players such as the above mentioned trio it would have been difficult not to shine, but as the weeks and months moved on, the boy from Ayrshire would soon be up there alongside his, for now, more illustrious team mates. Becoming a firm favourite of the Hyde Road crowd due to his devil may care approach, his all-round contribution to the team and without any doubt whatsoever, his goals.
Back in the First Division, Turnbull, described in the ‘Athletic News’ as “a clever, virile player”, continued to score goals, improving on his first season’s tally, with sixteen from his thirty-two outings, along with a further five in the F. A. Cup and it was in the latter that he really hit the headlines.
He kick-started City’s assault on the famous old trophy with a First Round double in the 3-2 victory over Sunderland at Hyde Road. This was followed by another in the 2-0 Second Round victory at Woolwich Arsenal’s Manor Ground. Middlesbrough’s Third Round visit to Hyde Road was to end goal less, but four days later at Ayresome Park, he scored City’s third in their 3-1 win, a victory that clinched a place in the last four. The semi-final paired City with Sheffield Wednesday at Goodison Park and a Turnbull double (or one depending on what sources you read) secured a 3-2 victory.
According to team mate Billy Meredith, Turnbull’s sixty-seventh minute goal, City’s third, in that semi-final against Sheffield Wednesday, was the “best I’ve ever seen”. The Welsh wizard said: “I never saw anything like it. I had centred square, and ‘Sandy’ took the ball first time when it was well off the ground and drove it into the net with marvellous force. The amazing thing was that the ball kept low all the way. You will understand the pace of the shot when I say the ball hit the net at Goodison Park and came out while the goalkeeper was still tumbling.”
At Crystal Palace in the Final, however, it was the irresistible Meredith and not Sandy Turnbull who claimed the plaudits in the 1-0 victory over Bolton Wanderers in the Final, a victory that presented City with their first major trophy.
In the First Division, however, there were some indifferent displays and conceding eight goals in four games, while only scoring once, could be looked back upon in anguish, as could the final five games of the campaign, when they won two, lost two and drew one. Had the results been better, then they certainly would not have finished in second place, three points behind the Wednesday.
He was soon scoring goals for fun and in season 1904-05, he put away ten in seven games, a tally that included a hit trick against Sunderland in a 5-2 win on December 3rd and four in the 6-0 hammering of Derby County a fortnight later. These were goals that saw him not simply finish top of the City goal scoring chart, but also that of the Football League. It was also a season that saw City push for the ultimate crown of First Division champions and as the season moved towards its finale, they were only two points separating the Hyde Road side and title rivals Everton and Newcastle United.
A 1-1 draw against Sheffield Wednesday at Hyde Road, knocked City back somewhat, although a 2-0 win against Everton at Goodison Park kept the dream alive. Strangely, the Turnbull goal machine had not simply stuttered along in those final few games of the season, but had virtually dried up.
His goals against Notts County at Hyde Road and Sheffield United at Bramall Lane on January 14th and 21st were his last in the League until March 11th when he found the net against Blackburn Rovers at Hyde, but this was not about to signal something of a return to scoring form, as the final seven games of the campaign were to produce only one further goal.
That was to come on the final day of the season at Villa Park Birmingham on April 29th, a game that City had to win in order to take the title, whilst hoping that Newcastle United would slip up against Middlesbrough. Victory for Villa and the Gallowgate club would see Newcastle clinch the championship on goal average.
Villa had won the FA Cup the previous Saturday and so were on something of a high, looking towards clinching the ever elusive ‘double’, while City knew what they had to achieve, setting up a pulsating encounter, with the volatile and partisan crowd adding to the atmosphere around the packed ground. At the final whistle there was much unrest as the players made their way off the pitch, with some of the crowd determined to rent some physical abuse upon the City players, making it necessary for the police to use considerable force in order to restrain the home support.
As the second half progressed, with things clearly not going City’s way as they were 3-1 down, (they were to eventually lose 3-2), tempers became frayed and some rather over physical challenges, brought retaliation in the form of mud throwing between players, which soon progressed to punches, with Sandy Turnbull well into the thick of things.
As the ‘Bolton Football Field’ reported: “Turnbull was in his dourest dribbling mood, dashing about with the ball with his whole heart set on victory. Leake (the Aston Villa captain) found him a real hard opponent and, becoming annoyed at the rough impact, gathered up a handful of dirt and hurled it at the City man. Turnbull was not hurt and responded with an acknowledgement favoured by the bourgeoisie – thrusting two fingers in a figurative manner at the Villa man.” He then says that Leake appeared to look towards the referee as though appealing, and not catching his eye and as he did so, ‘gave Turnbull a backhander’. Adding that “The latter immediately responded with his fists and Leake was restrained by his fellow players from retaliating further.”
Closer to home, the ‘Manchester Evening News’, under the heading of ‘Disgraceful Scenes at the Villa Ground. City Lost Championship’ included the following in their report of the afternoon’s events – “Had Turnbull taken advantage of a very easy chance, the visitors might at least have made a draw of it.
“An Unpleasant Incident – There was little doubt that Turnbull’s failure was due to the excitement caused by the unpleasant incident which had just previously taken place. There is a difference of opinion as to what actually happened. On the one hand it is alleged that Leake, the Villa centre-half first attempted to strike Turnbull and that the latter retaliated by striking the Villa player on the mouth with the back of his hand. Others aver that Turnbull was the aggressor, though no-one suggests that the blow was such a one as Turnbull would have struck had he seriously intended to strike Leake.
“That the latter had been provoked in some way was plainly shown by his desperate rush to get at Turnbull; indeed it was only with difficulty that he was restrained. What the referee thought about the incident was plainly shown by the fact that after consulting both linesmen, he threw the ball up and allowed play to process.
“Mr John’s was apparently in an excellent position to see what happened and unless he was guilty of unpardonable weakness, nothing had happened to justify his sending either or both players off the field.
“There is something to be said in extenuation of a resort to fisticuffs in the heat of the moment, though it would be for the better for the game if all such offences were seriously dealt with, but nothing can excuse the conduct of several Villa players at the close of the game.”
With football as divided regionally then as it is today, it was only to be expected that the Birmingham based ‘Sports Argus’ saw matters in a completely different light, their correspondent writing – “To think that Leake, the mildest mannered man and the most jovial who ever stepped on to a football field should be the victim of so unprovoked an assault as that committed by Turnbull is entirely to make one’s blood boil. It is a mistake to say Alec (Leake) tried to retaliate after being struck once, as my correspondent seems to think. He had good-naturedly asked Turnbull – “what he was doing” on the first offence, thinking that it might have been one of the mishaps of the game, when the City sharpshooter struck home a second time. This was too much even for Leake’s complacency and through George clung to his neck like the ‘Old Man of the Sea’ and four to five other Villa players assisted the pacificatory efforts of the goalkeeper, Leake was with difficulty held in a leash. This was not the last of the affair but I am not going to raise the veil that ought to enshroud the proceedings in the dressing room.”
It is little wonder that the ‘Sports Argus’ were rather reluctant to mention anything relating to “the proceedings in the dressing room”, as this would have cast a completely different light on the whole affair, bringing to question the actions of the Aston Villa players that afternoon. The ‘Bolton Football Field’, however, had little to lose or gain by publishing the events as they saw, or were related them by an eyewitness, portraying Turnbull as not so much as a sinner, but more the sinned upon. The same eye-witness was to relate what he saw to the Manchester Evening News.
The man on the spot recalled the events off the pitch as follows: “What I saw was this – Turnbull was coming off the ground (I think he was almost the first of the City players) and was going down the covered passage to the visitors dressing rooms when someone, not a player, sprang out from the urinal and grabbed Turnbull, pulled him inside the Villa dressing room and the door was shut behind him. I thought the whole thing was in fun until, within a few seconds, the door was opened and Turnbull was pitched out heavily, by whom I could not see. He was yelling with pain and fright, and he had obviously been badly handled for his right cheek was grazed with a black mark or dirt (something like a cyclist describes as a cinder rash) and he had a mark on his ribs where he had been kicked (so he said).”
“Naturally, this caused a great uproar and for a few seconds it looked as though there would be a free fight, but the officials kept their heads and so did the players.
“Turnbull was in such pain that a doctor was called for, but there was not one to be got on the ground and after being attended to by the trainer, the injured player was able to leave the ground with his fellow players.”
Having been unable to get within striking distance of the City players, the local Brummies decided to hang around outside the ground and as the City coach attempted to leave, stones were thrown and police reinforcements called in an effort to disperse the unruly mob.
Unable to hide behind a veil of ignorance and indeed without the proverbial leg to stand on, the Birmingham newspapers were later to admit that yes, something had occurred, although they were not as forward as their Bolton or Manchester counterparts in pointing any fingers at the Villa players.
A commission was set up to look into the events at Villa Park, but it soon transpired that there was much more to the picture than the incidents involving Sandy Turnbull and Alec Leake and it came to the fore that Billy Meredith had reportedly offered a sum of money to a Villa player in order to allow City to win the match. Although it must be added that Commission was clearly out to get City for anything that they possibly could and it they add the throw the Villa match into the boiling pot well and good.
Meredith, in his defence, protested that he had done nothing more than offer his congratulations to Leake upon his team winning the FA Cup and although no evidence was produced to portray the Welshman as being guilty, he was banned from football from August 4th 1905 until April 1906.
What was even stranger, was the fact that the FA Commission also banned Sandy Turnbull for a month for his involvement in the incidents on and off the pitch, while the referee R. T. Johns, was also suspended for failing to control the match properly. No-one who had worn claret and blue faced any charges or received any suspension or warning.
Having won the FA Cup and challenged for the First Division championship up until the final day of the season, City should have built on such success, but failed to do so and before long, everything suddenly crumbled around them with an almighty crash.
Billy Meredith was somewhat aggrieved that due to his suspension, as he continued to plead his innocence, Manchester City was unable to offer any financial support, due to already being under the watchful eye of the Football Association Commission and the Welshman took it upon himself to publicly criticise the club and open a huge can of worms when he claimed that he had indeed offered Leake the bribe and had been authorised to do so by his manager Tom Maley. There was now no turning back.
The Football Association had already, perhaps due to some southern bias and jealousy, carried out an investigation into the financial side of City, which had brought about their sudden surge to the top of the English game, but with only one or two minor irregularities found they took no action. This time, however, when one of the clubs employees was making the accusations, they decided to look a little more closely into their affairs.
On Thursday May 31st 1906, the FA reported its findings, having discovered that despite the maximum wage of £4 per week, City had been constantly overpaying over a number of years, with Meredith earning £6 and Livingstone £6.10s. A total of seventeen players, some having already left the club, were suspended until January 1st 1907, while manager Maley and Chairman Forrest were suspended sine-die, with two directors suspended for seven months. City were also fined £250 and the suspended players ordered to pay a total of £900 in fines.
Amongst those seventeen players left kicking their heels was Sandy Turnbull, as the whole episode became rather unsavoury, with one party blaming the other for the mess in which Manchester City found itself.
As the day that their suspension was due to be lifted due nearer, numerous clubs began to show more than just a passing interest in a number of the banned City players, including Sandy Turnbull and following the Manchester ‘derby’ on December 1st 1906, the first meeting between the two clubs in the top flight of the Football League and a game won 3-0 by City, United officials made their move for the contracts of a number of those suspended Hyde Road players. The FA had agreed that deals could be done in December, but no-one was to know if any of the players had been approached well before then, with signing on fees already agreed.
Glasgow Celtic were rumoured to have made a £1,000 bid for full back Herbert Burgess, while it was also suggested that he was going to Everton as part of a player exchange. He eventually signed for United for £750.
Four days after the Hyde Road ‘derby’, it was reported that United had not just signed Burgess, but also Jimmy Bannister, Sandy Turnbull and the man at the centre of it all, Billy Meredith. The latter costing Ernest Mangnall nothing, as the Welshman had an outstanding agreement with City, saying that he was entitled to a benefit match and at least £600, something that the FA said that they could force City into honouring. In the end, they agreed to a free transfer and upon signing for United, Meredith was handed £500 by an ‘unknown gentleman’, who also paid his outstanding £100 fine. A mere £350 secured the signature of Sandy Turnbull.
Part II will be out later today.
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