February 19th 1910 saw the curtain rise on the new Old Trafford home, a venue considered the most modern in the land, with tip up seats and a playing surface akin to a billiard table. The setting was perfect. The result was certainly not.
As on the previous Saturday, United shared seven goals with their opponents, but on this occasion they could only manage the lesser amount, their first-footers, Liverpool, failing to be the perfect guests, notching four. But taking everything into account, it is fair to say that United were as familiar with the arena as their opponents, so home advantage, for once, could be discarded.
Watched by some 45,000 on a fine Mancunian afternoon, the occasion could not have asked for a better start than United christening their new ground by scoring the opening goal, with the honour falling to none other than Alexander Turnbull.
With half an hour played, United were awarded a free kick and Duckworth sent the ball towards the Liverpool goal. Keeping his eye firmly on the brown leather sphere, Sandy through himself forward, his head connecting with the ball, which flew past the outstretched hand of Hardy to put United in front.
A few minutes later, it was 2-0. Hardy managing to stop a shot from Halse, but failing to hold the ball, which rolled towards the feet of Homer, who gratefully accepted the opportunity to give United a 2-0 half time advantage.
The second forty-five minutes saw Liverpool claw themselves back into the game with a goal from Goddard, the ball going in off the underside of the bar, but any immediate thoughts of a fight back were forgotten, when Wall resorted United’s two goal lead, surging past Robinson and Rogers, before beating Hardy at his left hand post from what looked like an impossible goal scoring angle.
There was seldom time to draw breath, as the pace was relentless as both teams pressed forward. But it was the visitors who made the breakthrough, with Goddard snatching his second of the afternoon when he shot across Moger and into the net.
Liverpool sensed that they were in with a chance of at least securing a draw and within the space of a couple of minutes, they weren’t simply on level terms, but in front, both goals coming from Stewart.
So, the first fixture at Old Trafford ended in disappointment, leaving United floundering in eighth place, seven points behind leaders Notts County but, as often was the case, they had two games in hand.
Things failed to improve the following Saturday, as the visit to Villa Park brought a 7-1 reversal, a game that was to be Sandy Turnbull’s last until March 26th due to injury, but even then, he was only back for one solitary outing before missing a further three fixtures.
In his absence, United ironically enjoyed a change of fortune, winning five, drawing one and losing one of the seven fixtures. The most noteworthy, a 5-0 victory over near neighbours Bolton Wanderers.
The run took United up to third, but they were seven points behind leaders Aston Villa, so any hopes of following the cup success with a League Championship were highly unlikely. More so, as the games in hand had now become a game more than the team at the top.
Sandy rounded off his season with two goals in the final three games and although outshone in the final fixture of the season by Picken who notched all four in the 4-1 victory over Middlesborough at Old Trafford, it was good to see that he was back to his best, with the ‘Athletic News’ informing its readers that along with Meredith and Roberts, much of the game was devoted to ‘exhibition football’, showing ‘some remarkable juggling’. ‘Boro’s McLeod, we are told, ‘was helpless against Turnbull’, who ‘fed his partner (Wall) in beautiful fashion’.
The summer of 1910 saw a number of new faces arrive at Old Trafford, amongst whom were Hofton from Glossop, Dean from Eccles, Aspinall from Southport, Green from Chesterfield, Hodge from Stenhousemuir and West from Nottingham Forest.
Of those new additions to the United playing squad, it was the latter, Enoch ‘Knocker’ West, who was to make the biggest impact, taking over the number nine jersey and to a certain extent Sandy Turnbull’s mantle of the teams main goal scoring threat. He was also not simply to become a partner on the field of play, Sandy playing alongside him at inside left, they became firm friends off the pitch as well.
West opened his United goals account on the opening day of the 1910-11 season in the 2-1 win over Woolwich Arsenal, Harold Halse claiming the other, with Sandy Turnbull having to wait until the second fixture of the new campaign before claiming his first, but he was still playing catch up with his new team mate, as he also scored in the 3-2 home win against Blackburn Rovers.
West’s arrival on the scene seemed to act as something of an inspiration to Turnbull, not that he needed such a thing, but it began to look as if the duo had a personal wager, which perhaps they did, as to who would finish as leading scorer.
It was Sandy Turnbull who notched the solitary United goal in the 2-1 defeat at Nottingham Forest on September 10th, a game that attracted the largest crowd at the City Ground for some time, with the Forest directors rubbing their hands when the loose change was counted to the sum of £420, with a further £160 taken in season tickets. For the former, it might simply have been a case of having come to see United.
He made it three in three games, scoring the opener in the 2-1 victory over Manchester City the following week and maintained his place as top scorer with the only goal of the game in the next fixture against Everton at Goodison Park and before long West was struggling to keep up with his striking partner as the goals continued to flow.
Following that strike against Everton, he failed to find the net against Sheffield Wednesday and then missed the trip to Bristol City, but he was soon back in the groove, with seven goals in the following eight games. West in the meantime could only manage to increase his total by three. Two of those coming in the 2-2 draw against Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane.
Scanning through the match reports of the period, the name of Sandy Turnbull was never far from being that of United’s ‘man-of-the-match’, whether he had notched yet another goal or not. Even in a no scoring draw against Notts County, the first time in fourteen League games that United had failed to find the back of the net, or indeed suffered defeat he was considered to be ‘the pick of the bunch’ or a ‘shining light’.
He could also, however, make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. On November 19th, seven days after the 0-0 draw at home to Notts County, he was back amongst the goals with a double in the 3-1 win over local rivals Oldhan Athletic. During the game, he was cautioned by the referee for making what were considered to be degrading remarks to the referee, with the official warning him that, should he repeat his comments, then he would be left with no alternative but to send him off.
The game continued with no further conversations between player and official, but at full time, as everyone was leaving the pitch, Sandy slipped alongside the referee and said that he wanted to tell him that he had said the offending words again, but he had not heard him!
The 2-0 defeat at Sheffield United on December 10th left United in third place in the First Division, two points behind leaders Aston Villa, whilst also having played a game more. But by Boxing Day, three games later, they had climbed to the top, with a one point advantage over the Midlands side, thanks mainly to a Turnbull and West inspired victory over Villa, although the 2-1 win at Sunderland and the 5-0 hammering of Woolwich Arsenal at Old Trafford also helped considerably.
Villa’s visit to Manchester on December 17th was undoubtedly the match of the season to date and an eagerly awaited encounter between the current First Division champions and a team with aspirations towards their crown. A team that was growing in respect, with the Aston Villa directors being reported as considering United to be “the finest in the country as to the conception of the Association game and its practical possibilities”.
Two minutes before the interval, Sandy Turnbull gave United the lead, shooting through a forest of legs and just inside the post and with United regaining possession almost immediately from the restart, he just failed to increase the advantage when his head was mere inches away from connecting with the ball in front of goal. He was also involved in United’s second, his shot being deflected wide for a corner from which West got on the end of Wall’s kick to nudge home.
His goal in the 2-1 win at Sunderland on Christmas Eve was strangely his last for some six games and perhaps more significantly the end of what could be described as a purple patch in front of goal, as he was to score only five more in the remaining four months of the season, despite missing only two games.
Following the goal against Sunderland, his next would not come until almost a month later, on January 21st and the 1-1 draw against Manchester City at Hyde Road, when he accepted yet another Billy Meredith crafted opening to give United the lead.
Despite his lack of goals, however, his presence in the team was essential and his contribution second to none, something emphasised by ‘Harricus’ in his report of the City encounter in the ‘Athletic News’. He wrote; “Wall was at his best in the first half, for Turnbull allowed him to rest after changing ends, and Turnbull is one of those players who seem to do as the spirit moves them. Apparently he is indifferent, but watch him closely and his seeming lack of energy is part of his programme, with intent to deceive the opposition. They forget he is playing, as it were, but does not.”
Despite the lack of goals from Sandy Turnbull and two consecutive 1-0 defeats in the final two fixtures of 1910, United maintained there push for the First Division title and an unbeaten run between January 2nd and March 15th kept them three points ahead of an Aston Villa side determined to keep a hold of the champions crown. United had a one game advantage over their rivals, but all could well hinge on the meeting between the two at Villa Park on the penultimate day of the season.
A goal against Middlesborough in a 2-2 draw on March 4th was Sandy’s first in four games and it seemed to have rekindled his prowess in front of goal, as he scored in the following two fixtures, a 5-0 win over Preston North End and a 3-2 triumph over Tottenham Hotspur.
Suddenly, the nerves began to kick in, as the games became fewer and the season rose to a crescendo. Notts County took both points with a 1-0 home win, in which United were poor, although ‘Jacques’ of the ‘Athletic News’ wrote: “There was one Manchester forward, however, who played brilliantly. He was head and shoulders the finest inside man in the match – I allude to Turnbull, who all through the second half dribbled and passed superbly in an attempt to galvanise the line into life. He was laid out in a collision with Morely – both men were hurt – and he ws also kicked on the head, but right to the end he was still the one man to threaten the Nottingham goal.”
That same afternoon, Villa lost at Newcastle United, but then came a 0-0 draw against Oldham Athletic at Old Trafford and what was generally considered a fair result. It kept United in top spot, but with Villa involved in the F. A. Cup, United had now played two games more and held a four point advantage.
A ‘Knocker’ West double saw Liverpool beaten 2-0 at Old Trafford, with Villa winning at Middlesborough to maintain the challenge, but a 2-0 defeat at Preston did little to help their cause, on an afternoon that saw United dismiss Bury 3-0. Easter weekend left the outcome still shrouded in mystery, as Villa defeated Sheffield United 3-0 on Good Friday, followed by a 2-0 win over Notts County twenty-four hours later. United could only draw 1-1 with Sheffield United on the Saturday and 0-0 with Sheffield Wednesday on Easter Monday.
It was now, United in front by two points, but they only had two games left and one of those at Villa Park. Their rivals had three left to play and held more than a distinct advantage.
Villa indeed gained the upper hand with a 4-2 win in the crucial confrontation, but undid all their good work forty-eight hours later when they could only draw 0-0 with Blackburn Rovers, although it was a point good enough to give them the advantage at the top of the First Division. It all now hinged on the outcome of the fixtures of Saturday April 29th – United at home to Sunderland and Villa, a few miles down the road at Liverpool. One point between the two teams, with Villa also holding a .05 goal average advantage.
Strangely, there were only around 12,000 at Old Trafford on that final afternoon of the season, an afternoon that could see Manchester United crowned First Division champions for only the second time in their history. The rain undoubtedly putting many off, despite the events that threatened to unfold.
The United players knew it was simply a case of win or bust and went about their task from the opening whistle and by half time had stormed into a 3-1 lead, with United’s left wing partnership of Turnbull and Blott given the Sunderland right sided pairing of Forster and Tait a torrid afternoon.
Turnbull constantly supplied his left wing partner with exquisite passes and the former Southend United player, whose favoured position was on the opposite side of the field at either outside right or right half, was a constant thorn in the side of the Sunderland defence, with the crowd warming to what was his first senior outing of the season.
West headed home a Duckworth cross early on, only for the goal to be disallowed as the ball was judged to half crossed the dead ball line prior to the United right half’s centre. But it was the visitors who unexpectedly took the lead in the twenty-third minute, causing much anxiety amongst the sparse numbers around the stadium. Bridgett made the initial run forward, passing the ball towards Mordue. The Sunderland inside right proceeded to send the ball into the United area, where a number of his team mates lay in wait and it was Holley who pounced, sending the ball up against the underside of the bar and into the net. Halse added a third before the interval.
With the wind on their faces, United went searching for an equaliser and the dual wing threat of Meredith and Blott soon had the Sunderland defence back-tracking. On the half hour, the Welshman was fouled by Milton near the goal line and from the free kick, he dropped the ball menacingly close to the Wearsiders goal, where Turnbull leaped to head home.
Ten minutes later, United were in front. Meredith, again in the thick of the action, swung over a corner kick. Such was the danger that Sandy Turnbull posed, half the Sunderland team seemed to be gathered around him, but the Scot suddenly began walking away from goal, taking his numerous markers with him, allowing West to move into the vacant space and score with something of a backward header.
In the second half, it was almost all United. Halse scored with a shot on the run from a Meredith centre to make it 4-1, with the scoring rounded off when Milton put the ball past his own goalkeeper as it bobbled around a packed goalmouth.
The crowd had cheered at half time when the telegraph board showed that Villa were behind at Liverpool and they cheered even louder at full time, when the full time result found its way to Manchester – Liverpool 3 Aston Villa 1. Manchester United were champions.
During a close season, during which manager Ernest Mangnall made only one addition, bringing in George Anderson from Bury in a £50 deal, Old Trafford staged the Players Union Athletic Festival and it was reported that one of the funniest things ever to be seen at Old Trafford was the sight of Sandy Turnbull timing the sprints with a clock that he had carried from the dressing room!
The 1911-12 season kicked off in a rather unspectacular fashion for the Champions, with four draws, four defeats and four wins in the opening dozen games. Sandy found himself one behind ‘Knocker’ West in the goal scoring charts, while United were thirteenth in the First Division, six points adrift of Newcastle United and seven in front of bottom placed Bury.
Sandy Turnbull was noted primarily for his actions in the opposition penalty area, but he was not adverse to rolling up his sleeves and giving his defenders a helping hand. He was also labelled in some quarters as being “slow”, but this was something of a miss-judgement by those on the opposite side of the touch-line, as there were not many forwards quicker off their marks when a half chance raised its head in front of goal.
December 2nd saw United travel to the north-east to face First Division leaders Newcastle United, a fixture that in the past had seen a glut of goals with score lines such as 5-0, 6-1 and 4-3. This encounter only conjured up five goals, but it gave out a clear indication to all concerned, that the current champions were not going to give up their title without a fight.
There was no ‘Turnbull’ to be found among the scorers in the visitors, perhaps surprising to some, 3-2 victory, but as always, he played his part, keeping the black and white striped shirted defenders on their toes. Perhaps even more strangely, the name of ‘Turnbull’ would be found amongst the United scorers on one occasion following his goal in the 2-0 win over Bolton Wanderers on December 23rd.
Sandy’s return of seven goals from thirty appearances was his poorest season since he had made the cross town move from Manchester City. He had scored five in season 1908-09, but during that campaign, he had played in only nineteen games, compared more than double that this time around.
United’s drop from Champions to thirteenth was nothing short of a huge disappointment, but something that was perhaps not entirely unexpected, as it was often considered that too much expectancy was placed on the shoulders of a select few. What was perhaps totally unexpected was the deflection of manager Ernest Mangnall to Manchester City. But then again, did the manger suspect that his League Championship and F. A. Cup winning side had achieved everything they could and that it was time for him to move on to another challenge?
Mangnall, although classed as manager, was in effect the club secretary and his vacant position was filled by a similar office bearer in J. J. Bentley. The new man at the helm certainly had a footballing pedigree, beginning as a player with Turton FC, whilst at the same time finding time to pen match reports for the local newspaper, going on to become secretary and treasurer of the Lancashire club.
Hanging up his boots, he moved into accountancy and was soon to become secretary of Bolton Wanderers, going on to be regarded by many as one of the most influential figures in English football due to his involvement in the formation of the Football League.
He was soon to pick up his pen in earnest once again, moving back into the world of journalism whilst continuing in his role with Bolton Wanderers, but when United came calling, like many before and after him, he found it irresistable and moved to Old Trafford.
Many considered him out of his depth in the managerial role with United, but a look at the First Division table at the end of season 1912-13 shows a distinct improvement on that of the previous campaign.
Goals were also in short supply as season 1912-13 got underway, or more to the point, they were non-existent for both United and their robust inside forward. The 0-0 draw on the opening day at Woolwich Arsenal was in reality an acceptable point, but losing 1-0, five days later, against neighbours Manchester City was an early set back that they could have done without.
Goals from Turnbull and Livingstone were enough to earn the first victory of the season, a 2-1 win against West Bromwich Albion, but five defeats in the following eleven games left United in fourteenth position, some eight points of the leaders – Ernest Mangnall’s Manchester City.
The 4-2 defeat at Aston Villa on November 16th was Sandy Turnbull’s last outing of the season at inside left as, after missing two games, he returned to the side on the opposite flank, switching positions with West. Although it saw him back alongside Billy Meredith, this was only for one game, as the Welshman was to find himself dropped for the first time in his career. He did return to the side, but during this season, his appearances were to be few and far between.
But while Meredith’s star was falling from the sky, that of Sandy Turnbull’s continued to shine brightly, as the United programme editor described him as “the cleverest manipulator of the ball the game has known for a decade”, whilst he explained that the player had been switched from inside left to inside right in an effort to help Meredith regain something of his old form. The programme editor continued: “In his own sphere, Turnbull ranks equal to Meredith and the selection robbed the latter of any grumble he might have had of being inadequately partnered.”
At inside right, Sandy Turnbull continued to deliver, although his goals did not flow quite so frequently as in the past. Strangely, his goals, during this and in past seasons, were almost all solitary efforts, but on Boxing Day, he notched his first ‘double’ since November 19th 1910, in the 4-2 win over Chelsea at Old Trafford. Twenty four hours previously, the Londoners had been beaten 4-1 on their own ground.
Against Chelsea, Turnbull in fact scored three. However, one of those, Chelsea’s first, was past Beale, the United ‘keeper. His double came from a twenty-five yard drive that gave Brebner in the Chelsea goal no chance, and a header from a Wall centre, that once again left the visiting ‘keeper helpless.
Those victories over Chelsea had contributed to an improved League position, climbing to tenth, three points behind leaders Aston Villa. City had dropped to fourth and were due to host the return leg of this particular seasons ‘battle of Manchester’ on December 28th, when a victory for United could see them leap frog their arch rivals. And leap frog them they did, gaining revenge for their early season defeat, with a 2-0 victory, both goals coming from West in the opening forty-five minutes.
Goals, however, still manage to elude Sandy Turnbull, as he could only manage a meager three in the second half of the season and on occasion his usual creditable performance and honorable mentions within the match reports were nowhere to be seen. Against Sunderland on March 15th his only mention from ‘Jacques’ in the ‘Athletic News’ was due to a kick on the head seeing him seldom in the game and as the final few games of the campaign approached, United were unable to claw themselves any higher than third, but had played more games than their immediate rivals, eventually finishing in fourth place.
He began season 1913-14 in good enough form, scoring on the opening day in the 3-1 win over Sheffield Wednesday and again the following fixture against Sunderland, clawing himself back into the spotlight and into the match reports of the national press
Unfortunately, Sandy Turnbull’s star was waning; no longer twinkling brightly in the northern sky and his name was soon not to be one of the first penciled in by J. J. Bentley on his United team sheets. This, however, was not entirely due to his on the field performances being no longer up the standards expected by the man at the helm.
A dressing room argument between the two, coming on the back of the Football Association deciding to install a form of tax on each professionals wages, in order to assemble a relief fund to help club’s as they began to suffer the loss of players due to them entering the armed forces.
A number of the professionals refused to pay, while the Player’s Union refused to co-operate and suddenly it was Manchester United who found themselves singled out, with Bentley’s former source of employment – the Athletic News, where he was editor, were quick to condemn the United players.
Bentley suspended Turnbull, but his actions brought even more ill feeling into the dressing room, with the remainder of the players threatening to go on strike unless their team mate was re-instated.
By the turn of the year, Sandy Turnbull was no longer a regular first team choice. A report of the match against West Bromwich Albion on New Years Day 1914 mentions; “The latter (Potts) played so cleverly that Turnbull cannot expect to regain his position for some time.” Regain his position he did, against Bolton Wanderers, three days later, remaining in the side for the F.A. Cup tie against Swindon Town the following Saturday, where he was once again mentioned in dispatches as having a good game alongside his old friend Meredith. However, the cup-tie brought something of a shock result, a last minute goal taking the southern based side through and the end of a glowing career was now edging over the horizon.
Sandy Turnbull was to make only one more appearance in the red of Manchester United that season and that was on February 7th in his old inside left position, away at Tottenham Hotspur, a game that would not produce any headlines, only a 2-1 defeat.
On April 11th, Turnbull, along with George Stacey, was allowed to have the game against Manchester City as a benefit match, but due to injury, Sandy was unable to play, instead, accepting the plaudits of both sets of supporters from the touchline.
City won the game 1-0, with the ‘Umpire’ recoding that the visitors received a more encouraging welcome than United when they took the field prior to kick-off, but while the result was perhaps not what Turnbull, or Stacey for that matter, had wanted, the takings of £1,216, certainly softened their disappointment.
United finished season 1913-14 in fourteenth place in the First Division, with everything at Old Trafford far from perfect. Their problems, however, were distinctly minor compared with what was bubbling away elsewhere.
On June 28th 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by a Yugoslav nationalist, an event that was to in turn trigger off the First World War. Despite the under current of increasing threat to world peace, he 1914-15 season kicked off as normal on September 2nd, with United losing 3-1 at home to Oldham Athletic.
Sandy Turnbull was missing from that opening day line up and indeed for the following two fixtures, a 0-0 draw against City at Old Trafford and a 3-0 defeat at Bolton, but he was back into the thick of things for the fourth match if the campaign against Blackburn Rovers, where two Enoch West goals secured the first victory of the season.
Sandy claimed one of United’s goals seven days later in the 4-2 defeat against Notts County and played in one more game before missing the next three. He then enjoyed a run of seven outings between the end of October and mid-December, but was then out of the side until April 6th when he returned for the 1-0 defeat against Oldham.
Four days later, in the 2-2 draw against Middlesbrough on April 10th, he scored what was to be his final goal for United and the following Saturday at Sheffield United, the final whistle finally brought down the curtain on not just his Manchester United career, but his Football League career at this level. His name, however, along with those of a handful of team mates, was soon to be on everyone’s lips once again, as well as the front and back pages of the local and national newspapers.
On April 2nd, Good Friday 1915, Liverpool made the short journey along the East Lancs Road to face United at Old Trafford, a fixture that should, in reality, have seen the visitors secure victory without too much of a problem, as a look at the First Division table on the morning of the match saw United third from bottom, level on points with second bottom Notts County and only one point ahead of Chelsea who were propping up the table. Liverpool were five places above and six points better off.
United, rather unexpectedly as there wasn’t the same intensity surrounding such fixtures then as there is now, won 2-0, with both goals coming from George Anderson. At the end of the season, United were still third bottom. One point better off than Chelsea and two above bottom club Tottenham. It was indeed a significant victory.
“A Moderate Game – Manchester United Get Two Points From Liverpool” proclaimed the headline above the ‘Sporting Chronicle’ match report, while the ‘Manchester Football Chronicle’ had the headline “A Surprising Display” above its report.
‘The Wanderer’, reporting on the match for the latter, wrote: “Personally I was surprised and disgusted at the spectacle the second half presented. While in the ‘Chronicle’, their correspondent wrote of the play in the second half being too poor to describe”. Neither they, or any of the other reporters present voiced their opinions as to how the play was so dire, but the crowd were certainly not slow in making their feelings known, with many heard to comment amongst themselves that they felt the game was rigged. Especially after United had taken a 2-0 lead, when they did little in the way of attempting to increase it, happy to simply plod away, without putting the Liverpool defence under any form of pressure.
In the ‘Daily Dispatch’ their correspondent ‘Veteran’ wrote that West, in the second half, “was chiefly employed in the second half in kicking the ball as far out of play as he could”. So disgusted was the ‘Daily Mirror’ with the proceedings that it simply carried the result and no report. Even the ‘Liverpool Daily Post’ wrote “that a more one sided half would be hard to witness” and that Beale in the United goal went half an hour without touching the ball.
A missed penalty added to the drama. Taken by O’Connell and not the usual spot kick exponent Anderson, the Irishman blasting the ball well wide of the post with the score at 1-0. A miss that even sowed some seeds of doubt in the referee’s head as to the actual sincerity of the players involved, commenting later that it was “the most extraordinary match that I have ever officiated in”.
The match, however, was not going to be simply shrugged off as ‘one of those games’ and the rumblings of discontent soon developed into a full blown thunderstorm when a notice appeared in the ‘Sporting Chronicle’ from a bookmaker, under the name of ‘Football King’, which offered a reward to anyone who could supply information on the events at Old Trafford a few days previously.
It also appeared in the form of a handbill and read: “We have grounds for believing that a certain First League match played in Manchester during Easter weekend was “squared”, the home club being permitted to win by a certain score. Further, we have information that several of the players of both teams invested substantial sums on naming the correct score of this match with our firm and others. Such being the case, we wish to inform all our clients and the football public generally that we are with holding payment on those correct score transactions, also that we are causing searching investigations to be made with the object of punishing the instigators of this reprehensible conspiracy. With this object in view, we are anxious to receive reliable information bearing on the subject and we will willingly pay the substantial reward named above (which was £50) to anyone giving information which will lead to punishment of the offenders”.
The snowball was about to roll.
Within three weeks of the game, the Football Association had set up a Commission to look into the complaints that had been made and asked ‘Football King’ to come out and name the exact match he was referring to and also give his name and address, so that if they was nothing untoward about the game in question, the players of both sides could sue him for libel, whilst if he was not, then the Commission would look more thoroughly into the matter.
‘Football King’ remained anonymous, there were no claims for libel and the Commission continued in its investigations, interviewing the players of both teams and it was not until December 23rd 1915 that the final verdict was finally announced, when the ‘Sporting Chronicle’ headlines proclaimed: “Football Betting Commission Report – Eight Players Permanently Suspended”.
The eight were L. Cook of Chester, J. Sheldon, R. R. Purcell, T. Miller and T. Fairfoul of Liverpool and A. Whalley, E. West and A. Turnbull of Manchester United. Others were thought to be involved, but those eight were suspended from taking part in football or football management and were also banned from entering any football ground in future.
League football in its current format came to a halt in October 1915, by which time Sandy Turnbull could be found a couple of goal kicks, or so, away from his Old Trafford stomping ground, working for the Manchester Ship Canal Company. He did guest for Rochdale and Clapton Orient in the early days of the War, but even although his contribution to the United cause was simply now nothing more than a memory
In November 1915, he enlisted in the Footballers Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, so whether the outcome of the Commission’s enquiry a month later had any real effect on him we will never know. He had taken no part in the match itself, but was a firm friend of Enoch West and he had also met Liverpool captain Jackie Sheldon, a former team mate in the Dog and Partridge public house, a mere stones throw away from the ground, prior to the game. He had little in the way of his defence.
(Lance Sergeant) Alexander Turnbull’s army records were destroyed during the blitz on London during the Second World War, making details of his time on the French battlefields of the First World War sketchy to say the least.
As a member of the Middlesex Regiment, he may well have been involved in the first day of battle at the Somme on July 1st 1916, when 60,000 men died in that initial period of fighting. But we do know that if he was present on that horrendous day, he somehow survived, as he is recorded as having later joined the ranks of the East Surreys 8th Battalion, being with them in the spring of the following year as they waited to join the assault on the Hidenburg Line.
Had he been ‘excommunicated’ from the ranks for the ‘Footballers Battalion’ due to his suspension from the game? Most probably not. His ‘transfer’ would more than likely have been brought about due the depletion of the East Surrey’s ranks, having suffered heavy casualties during the hostilities to date. It was a move that would cost Sandy Turnbull dear.
By some coincidence, the East Surrey’s had a football team, and one of considerable note, while they are also remembered due to some of their men went over the top of the trenches on that fateful day at the Somme, dribbling football’s as the advanced across no-mans land. Such was the strength of their noted team, it swept all before them to win the divisional championship and it is more than possible, that although banned from the game at home, Turnbull played an active part in the Battalion fixtures, as one letter back to Manchester from the front, he spoke of having played in a game, but had not slept since as he had forgotten to ask permission from the Football Association.
One fixture that was recorded was the semi-final of the divisional tournament at Boeseghem, when the east Surrey’s defeated the 7th Buffs 4-1. No teams or goal scorers are noted amongst the Battalion’s records, so again whether or not an A. Turnbull was involved is something we will never know.
What we do know is that the Final of the tournament was never played due to the Battalion being called into action of an entirely different kind, with disastrous consequences.
With the sun still to rise on the misty morning of May 3rd 1917, the 8th East Surrey’s advanced towards the village of Chèrisy, ten miles east of Arras, hoping to catch the German front line somewhat unawares. The village was captured, by the relatively untrained soldiers and they reached the banks of the river Sensèe almost intact. However, on either side of the village, the units were not as successful and the isolated Battalion came under heavy shell fire and within a couple of hours were completely overrun when the German’s counter-attacked, leaving many either dead or captured, while a few were fortunate to retreat from whence they had come. Of the 500 or so 8th Surreys who attacked Chérisy, for no gain, 90 were killed, 175 wounded and more than 100 captured.
At first, it was presumed that Sandy Turnbull was amongst those who had miraculously survived, as on the 18th May, the ‘Kilmarnock Herald’ reported that “Sandy Turnbull, famous Manchester United forward, and a native of Hurlford, has been wounded and made a prisoner. He has been fighting for about a year.” The information had been conveyed in a letter from a comrade by Sandy’s wife Florence at her home at 17 Portland Road, Gorse Hill Stretford.
The message to the Turnbull home read: ‘I am writing to try to explain what has happened to your dear husband, Alec. He was wounded, and much to our sorrow, fell into German hands, so I hope you will hear from him. After Alec was wounded he ‘carried on’ and led his men for a mile, playing the game until the last we saw of him. We all loved him, and he was a father to us all and the most popular man in the regiment. All here send our deepest sympathy.’
Elusive on the battlefield as he was on the football pitch, there were hopes back in Manchester that one day, the family man and the former hero of both the City and United supporters would return. Sadly, it was not to be.
In another letter to the Turnbull home, this time in August 1918, Captain C. J. Lonergan of the 8th Battalion, who had returned to England after being held a prisoner of war, wrote:
“It was a great shock to me to hear that my best NCO, ie Sergeant turnbull, was still missing. Of course, I knew there was no hope of him turning up after suc a long epriod. He was one of the finest fellows I have ever met. A great sportsman and as keen a soldier as he was a footballer. He had been hit through the leg early on in the fight. When I saw him his leg was very much swollen, so I ordered him back to thedressing station. He pleaded so hard, however, to be allowed to stay on until we had gained our objective that I gave way. Sandy was in command of a platoon. The men would simply go anywhere with him. Well. Theend of it all was that, although we gained all our objectives, the division on our left did not. Consequently, the enemy got round our flanks and we had to get back as best we could. We came under very heavy machine-gun fire during the withdrawal. This was when I was hit. As I fell I saw your husband pass me a few yards away. I saw him get to the village which we had taken that morning. There was some shelter here from the bullets so heaved a sigh of relief when I saw him disappear among the houses. I knew he could get back to our lines with comparative safety from there. I never heard anything more from him. Those who were wounded all thought sandy had got back. It was a bitter disappointment to me to hear that he had not been heard of. The only explanation I can give is that he must have been ‘sniped’ by a German who ws lying low in one of the houses. It was a rotten bit of luck. I would have recommended him from Germany, but I had my doubts whether the German Censor would allow it to come through. However, I put his case strongly when I wrote from Holland and I do hope he will get the highest distinction possible. He certainly deserves it”.
The assumsion that Sandy Turnbull met a fatal end as he attempted to get back to his own lines is one that we have to make.
There are two lasting memorials to A. Turnbull the soldier. One in the British war cemetary in Arras, where his name appears amongst the ‘missing’, the other, a short walk from Old Trafford, on a war memorial by the side of Chester Road.
Three years after his death, when he would still only have been thirty-six, he was posthumously pardoned by the Football Association for his part in the bribery scandal.
Despite his involvement in the events of Good Friday 1915, one cannot deny Sandy Turnbull his place amongst the Manchester United ‘greats’. What he did was certainly wrong, if indeed he was guilty of the offence, but it must be remembered that he lived in a time of widespread poverty and the footballers maximum wage. It must also be remembered that Eric Cantona, still hero worshiped from the stands today assaulted a supporter during a game, while Roy Keane all but assualted a fellow professional, again during a game.
Of the trio, whose ‘offence’ was worse?
For me it certainly wasn’t Turnbull’s, the stocky built goal machine. Manchester United footballing legend.