Manchester City: Golden Era
While one would like to believe that the ascendance of Manchester City amongst England’s most prominent clubs occurred post the takeover of Abu Dhabi United Group in 2008, history dismisses this assumption. Following a period of success in the early 1900’s, the blue half of Manchester became the city’s first club to win a major domestic honour (FA Cup – 1904), however, narrowly missing out on the Championship the same year. In the subsequent season, City, yet again, challenged for the First Division title but an eventful 3-1 loss against Aston Villa on the final day of the season saw them settle for third place – two points behind Newcastle United.
Much to the club’s chagrin, chaos ensued followed their promising start to the millennium as City were found guilty of financial irregularities by the Football Association (FA) in 1906. Tom Maley, the club’s manager, at the time, was found guilty of making additional payments to the players; resulting in his suspension from the sport, while 17 players were fined and suspended by the FA until January 1907, as a result of the investigation. In his book, Manchester City: The Complete Record, Gary James highlights the club’s tumultuous period saying, “Basically, the entire squad that had finished as FA Cup-winners in 1904 and narrowly missed out on the Championship two years running were banned. This brought a premature end to City’s first golden age.”
City were compelled to sell their players in order to pay their fines owed to the FA. The suspension of several key players eventually resulted in rivals, Manchester United, acquiring the services of the likes of former captain, Billy Meredith, and star names such as Sandy Turnball and Jamie Bannister in the subsequent years. Although City continued to challenge for domestic honours following their financial predicaments, United eventually beat them to the League Championship in the 1907/08 season while City settled for third place. The next season, City were amongst the most inconsistent sides, which resulted in their relegation at the end of the campaign, but gained promotion back to the First Division in 1910.
A New Dawn
Following the end of World War I, the football league made its return in 1919, and Manchester City witnessed a new dawn after moving to the 85,000 capacity Maine Road in 1923. A rollercoaster campaign in 1926 saw the club become the first Manchester side to play at Wembley, record the highest Manchester derby victory (6-1 at Old Trafford), only to suffer relegation in the same season.
In 1928, City displayed tremendous ambition in the transfer market, signing the likes of Eric Brook and Fred Tilson from Barnsley and a 19-year-old named Matt Busby from Scotland. Following these signings, an ambitious decade awaited the club, starting with their Second Division Championship winning season in 1928. Soon after, the club finished third in the subsequent season but failed to continue their title-challenging form until 1932.
Following Wilf Wild’s appointment as manager in 1932, few would have envisioned the Englishman’s stellar impact during their second glorious era, being their longest-serving manager (14 years) till date. However, during the first season under his management, City only managed to secure 14th place in the league alongside a promising FA Cup run, which saw them lose to Everton in the final at Wembley that season.
Unlike previous campaigns, however, City remained unrelenting, with captain Sam Cowan earmarking his desire to lift the FA Cup title in the subsequent season, following their loss to Everton in the 1932/33 final. True to his word, Cowan returned with City to reach their second consecutive FA Cup final the following year. Though the club only managed to secure to a fifth-place finish in the league that season, City undeniably enjoyed an ambitious FA Cup run. That season, the club nearly filled their stadium capacity as approximately 84,569 – a home attendance record for an English club until 2016 – devout fans gathered at Maine Road to witness their club host Stoke City in the FA Cup quarter-final.
The inevitable eventually came to pass as City defeat Portsmouth in the final to claim their second FA Cup title in 1933. Fred Tilson, the club’s top goal-scorer (9) in the competition that season, was renowned for having a terrible injury record. During their pre-match greeting, Cowan is quoted introducing Tilson to George VI saying, “This is Tilson, your Majesty. He’s playing today with two broken legs.” Frank Swift, City’s goalkeeper, was said to be so overwhelmed by the emotion that it resulted in him fainting at the final whistle.
Regarded as FA Cup specialists at the time, City grew from strength to strength adding several consistent performers to their already magnificent roster of players. Busby, who was regarded amongst the most reliable performers at the club, heavily contributed to their success before departing for Liverpool in 1936. Tommy Lawton, a distinguished centre-forward during his era, praised Busby’s vision with the ball at his feet, “Surely football has never seen such an immaculate passer of the ball than the cheerful, likeable Scot… There was never anything slipshod about Matt. Only the best would do and no matter where the ball was he was always working, always taking up position, always thinking a couple of moves ahead of anyone else…”
Despite selling the likes of Busby and Cowan, with the emergence of several senior and young players, Manchester City were earmarked as the club capable of challenging Arsenal’s league dominance since the beginning of the decade. Following a disappointing 1935/36 season, Wild demanded the purchase of Peter Doherty from Blackpool for a then club-record fee of £10,000, in a bid to bolster the front-line and mount a title challenge.
After finishing twice as runners-up (1903/04 and 1920/21), and three third-place finishes (1904/05, 1907/08, 1929/30), City eventually claimed their maiden First Division title in 1937, scoring over 100 goals while remaining unbeaten for 22 matches that season. Although the club only managed to gain 23 of the possible 44 points before the turn of the year, City climbed up the table in the following months, eventually meeting Arsenal in a tussle to secure the title.
“It was still not Championship form, but enough to give them a foundation to build on. The New Year saw City climb up the table and, by the time of their meeting with the usual dominant Arsenal in April 1937, the two sides occupied the top two position,” writes Gary James in Manchester City: The Complete Record.
Manchester City’s maiden League title remained their only major honour until their FA Cup triumph in 1956. The club travelled to Nazi Germany to celebrate their title-winning season facing the German national team at the Berlin Olympic Stadium in 1937. Following the controversial fixture, Peter Doherty was quoted saying, “We were expected to give the Nazi salute at the line-up before the match started; but we decided merely to stand to attention. When the German national anthem was played, only 11 arms went up instead of the expected 22!” Although City, yet again, scored the most number of goals during the 1937-38 campaign, an abysmal defensive record (77 GA) led them to a 21-placed, resulting in relegation in the very next season following their title triumph.