This page is dedicated to James W Gibson - the man who saved Manchester United
Not much is known about James W Gibson. A businessman from Manchester and a lover of sport, his greatest legacy was his dedication to Manchester United football club. In 1931, when United were at the depths of despair and literally an extinct club, James W Gibson breathed new life into a dying club. This is his story - how he came to be involved in United, how he saved the club and how he set the foundations to make United the world's greatest football team.


A Photo of James Gibson


Background

The eldest of three children, James Gibson was born on 21st October 1877. It was a tough beginning to his life – both his parents died when he was very young and he and his siblings were brought up by their paternal grandmother, Mary Gibson. Soon after his parents died, his younger sister, Florence, also passed away, leaving just James and his brother to continue a family who had a long history of serving in military campaigns including Waterloo and the Crimea; the military link would continue in another way through James’ life.

James was an astute businessman and had a keen eye for changing the fortunes of struggling businesses. James went into business, starting his own factory manufacturing military uniforms. After the First World War, understanding the needs of those in the area, he also began to manufacture uniforms for transport workers amongst other things. His success in business led him to expand the business, joining up with Messer’s Briggs and Jones to form a larger company; Briggs, Jones and Gibson.

James had a very happy home life. He married Annie Lillian Ward (known as Lillian) on 23rd January 1902 in Chorlton, Manchester. They had a number of children, however, most died very young. Their surviving son, James Alan (known as Alan) would later serve the United for over half a century as a member of the Board, vice-Chairman and vice-President. Lillian also had a long association with United, holding the club together after the death of James and controlling the club behind the scenes until her 90th birthday, as well as attending matches regularly at Old Trafford.


A Photo of James Gibson


Saviour


Humble Beginnings

Newton Heath LYR was formed in 1878 by a group of railway workers from the Lancaster and Yorkshire Railway Company. Having been admitted to the Football League the club went through a bad time financially in 1902, when a brewer by the name of JH Davies stepped in. He changed the team name to Manchester United and the team colours changed from the green and gold of Newton Heath to the red and white we are familiar with today. The team had a period of success and won the FA Cup for the first time in 1909.


Financial Ruin

In 1927 Mr Davies died and United were once again in financial trouble. This time, however, it was in a backdrop of world depression, with high inflation and in September 1929 the Wall Street Crash. Things continued to look bleak for United, and by December 1931 arrived the club were in dire straits. The club was in severe debt, the banks refused to offer any further assistance and with no help or guarantor for the debt they were in, the club was hours from being wound up. They needed a miracle to even get to Christmas.

It is at times of adversity that the brave stand up to be counted and heroes are made. The situation the club found themselves in demanded someone to take a bold step into the unknown and effectively take a very big gamble at a time when there had never before been such a bleak financial outlook to the world in which we live. Nobody wanted to invest in a football club, particularly one which seemed to have little prospects. It was now that James W Gibson stepped forward.

The 19th December is a day all United supporters should remember with great affection. It was on this day that the club secretary, Walter Crinkmer, visited James Gibson at his home “Alanor”, in Hale Barnes and told him of the club’s situation. After only a short meeting, Mr Crickmer left “Alanor” with a cheque for £2,000 – an outright gift from James Gibson to be used to pay all wages that were owed to the players and officials, cover wages until the middle of January 1932 and with the remaining money left purchase a large turkey for each player and official of the club. However, Walter Crickmer left with far more than just a cheque – he left with a promise from Mr Gibson that he would continue to support the club in the near future and would attend the home games over Christmas and New Year with the view to giving more help once Christmas was over, James Gibson took on responsibility to shape and build the strong foundations for the club. With City the driving force of the City at the time, his words that ‘there is room in Manchester for two clubs’ was music to the United supporters – he was to be proved right. The question was how he could turn around the fortunes of a club which had little prospects both on and off the pitch. With pantomime season still in place the club needed a Fairy Godfather, and the newspapers of the time weren’t shy in picking up the pantomime feel, showing a cartoon likening James Gibson to Prince Charming, awakening Sleeping Beauty – the cartoon was to be known as The Gibson Guarantee.


'The Gibson Guarantee'


James Gibson always had a close affiliation and affection for the supporters, a fact that would be borne out over the many years the Gibson family have been associated with United. It was to the supporters that James Gibson put his hopes early in 1932. He proposed a new issue of Patron’s Tickets, in the hope that money would be forthcoming to help with the financial burden the club was facing. Despite a disappointing response, James Gibson was touched by the gesture of one fan, who could not get to the games but who hoped that his small contribution would help A proud Mancunian himself, Mr Gibson knew what it meant to the supporters to have a team to follow. Buoyed by this, Mr Gibson decided to pledge more of his own money to turn the club’s fortunes around. There was only one condition that was to be attached – that he would become both the club’s new Chairman and President. The dawning of a new age was upon United.


Scottish Managers

Despite a firm commitment and more stability in the Boardroom, on the pitch United continued to struggle. At one stage the club had no manager, and it was left to the Chairman to pick the team. Once again, he wisely sought out the opinion of the people who matter most, the supporters. However, this could not go on and a new manager had to be found quickly. It was now that, in December of 1932, James Gibson was to set a precedent for the future, by appointing the club’s first Scottish manager, Scott Duncan.

As 1932 gave way to 1933, the overdraft at the bank stood at more than £17,000 and Mr Gibson continued to stand as guarantor for the debt. Results on the pitch were as bad, and with one game to go in the 1933/34 season, United were on the brink of falling into the Third tier of English football for the first time. They had to win their last game against Millwall to stand any chance of surviving, but win they did. With other results going their way, United survived the drop, and it was their opponents on the day, Millwall, that slipped down to the next level. In contrast to United, the blue half of Manchester was celebrating an FA Cup success. City continued to hold the upper hand in Manchester but he was resolute in his belief that he could turn the club’s fortunes and set the foundations to make them a great club.


Railway

The United fans showed tremendous faith in their football club, despite their fortunes off the pitch. Many walked to watch the matches, with transport limited to the ground. It was once again James Gibson who had the magic touch, negotiating with the Railways Authority for steps to be built from the platform just outside the ground and for trains to stop there on match days. It meant that the journey to Old Trafford for the fans would be quicker and more comfortable. Attendances would steadily rise throughout the next few seasons, and the train station would remain a focal point for those meeting on match days. The station is still used to this day by supporters, so now almost 80 years on Mr Gibson’s legacy to the supporters’ lives on. It is fitting that a red plaque, unveiled by Trafford Borough Council in memory of James Gibson in 2001, is set on the bridge over the railway at Old Trafford, a lasting memory to the legacy of United’s saviour.


James Gibson and his wife Lillian naming the Manchester United train


MUJACs

With missed fortunes on the pitch, United remained heavily in debt. The mortgage on the ground alone was £25,000 by 1937 and there was little money to pay for new players. James Gibson continued to plough money into the club, and even paid for transfer fees out of his own pocket, but this couldn’t continue. There had to be a way to attract new and talented players to the club without having to spend additional money they couldn’t afford. With an aptitude for trying new things, it was now that James Gibson embarked on perhaps the greatest innovation in the club’s history – one synonymous with Manchester United until the present day. Manchester boasted a good supply of talented youngsters, and James Gibson decided that they needed a vehicle to harness this talent and bring them to the club. Together with Walter Crickmer, the Manchester United Junior Athletic was formed in the 1936/37 season. It was to be the basis of youth development which, long after the death of the founders would go on to create some of the greatest players to ever play in the red shirt of United. To ensure the MUJACs had somewhere to play, James Gibson also secured a tenancy for the youth team at the Old Broughton Rangers Rugby Ground – later to be known as The Cliff.


Bombing

Things were looking brighter for United, but then World War II intervened. One fateful day in March 1941, the German Luftwaffe dropped their bombs on Manchester. Old Trafford was hit in the raid, the ground destroyed. Having spent 10 years rebuilding the club, James Gibson’s efforts now lay in the wreckage of the stadium. Many people would have walked away, but Mr Gibson remained resolute. He would rebuild the club again. The first thing that was needed was a place for the team to play their games. Old Trafford was completely wrecked; there was no chance of playing there. It was not safe for the players or the fans. He quickly negotiated with neighbours City for United to play their home games at their stadium, and Maine Road was to become United’s surrogate home for a number of years until Old Trafford could be rebuilt.

During the remaining years of the War United’s Chairman had spent hours tirelessly trying to persuade the Government to grant the club finance to redevelop and rebuild Old Trafford. After considerable effort Mr Gibson finally won a license in November 1944 for the demolition of the grandstand to begin.

In all, 10 clubs had been bombed during the Nazi raids in England, United amongst them. James Gibson, along with the assistance of the local MP for Stoke-on-Trent, Ellis Smith, continued to press Parliament to grant financial support to the stricken clubs. This lobbying proved to be a catalyst for a debate in the House of Commons for clubs affected by the war; for them to be helped to repair the damage from the war. Having finally received a grant in March 1948 to rebuild the ground, United’s Chairman now turned his attention to rebuilding their fortunes on the pitch.


Success At Last

At the end of the War, James Gibson had once again looked to the future. He saw something in a young man who had played for two of United’s fiercest rivals - across town for Manchester City and for Liverpool. Matt Busby was untried in management, but James Gibson was a tremendous judge of character and offered the vacant role of manager to Busby. Slowly, the team had improved, with players returning from the War and the team strengthened by those coming through the youth team ranks. In the two years after the resumption of the Football League United had finished as runner-up on both occasions. In 1948, they had also fought their way through to Wembley to reach the FA Cup Final., where they would play a Blackpool side brimming with talent.

Shortly before the final, James Gibson had been struck down by a stroke and he was not well enough to make the long journey down to London to see his side win 4-2. However, was not to miss out on the celebrations – the players showing how much they felt for their great philanthropist by retuning to Manchester with one notable detour to Hale Barns, to present James Gibson with the trophy as a dedication for all he achieved for them, for the supporters and for United.

Two years later, in 1951-52, United were to fulfil their undoubted potential by winning the league -up in the league. Sadly, James Gibson was not to see them lift the trophy. After years of tireless work, and worn out by the many years of struggle, James Gibson suffered another stroke in September 1951. It was to prove fatal. However, his spirit was to live on at Old Trafford – a portrait of the great man was given to the club by his widow, Lillian, to hang in the Boardroom. It was gratefully accepted by the then Chairman, Harold Hardman, as a source of inspiration to United’s new decision makers. The portrait was to hang there for many years, although no longer remains.


The Portrait of James Gibson - It was to hang in the United Boardroom for perpetuity


His legacy remains at Old Trafford to this day, in the spirit of United, with the team and through the supporters.