Manchester City vs Manchester United, A Football History: Gary James Interview

When it comes to chronicling the history of Manchester City and Manchester United, the number one expert is Gary James, a football historian who is the author of several books regarding Manchester football clubs. In 2009, I interviewed Gary regarding the history of how Manchester City formed (you can listen to the interview in our archives). And now, in the build-up to this Saturday’s FA Cup semi-final featuring both Manchester clubs, Gary was kind enough to be interviewed again but this time focusing on the history of City against United in the FA Cup and one semi-final in particular 85 years ago.

Here is the interview:

The Gaffer: So much of the focus for the upcoming FA Cup semi-final will be on the present, in terms of who’ll be playing or who won’t in the Manchester derby. But what, for you, is the historical significance of this game?

Gary James: “Surprisingly, considering the successes of both clubs over the years, this is only the second FA Cup semi-final they’ve ever met in. The first was in 1926, so we’ve waited a long time for a re-match.

If United win the tie then I’m not certain whether the game will actually prove that significant in terms of history. Obviously, United will get to the final and could be on the verge of a treble – or at least a double – and City will have missed out, but I don’t think it would change much at all.

If City win, though, the significance will be greater. Not only will they have overcome United but there’ll also be at their first major final since 1981 and so that in itself would be significant. It could be the start of a great period for the Blues but we’ll only know in a few years time.”

Gaffer: Sir Alex Ferguson has warned about the potential of fan violence surrounding the FA Cup semi-final. But the 1926 FA Cup semi-final between both clubs was a different time where the fans traveled together in the same train to Sheffield. What are some of the stories that are most memorable from that day?

Gary: “They actually put on quite a few special trains and they did travel together. Having said that though there were a few minor incidents. It was all reported in a fairly light hearted manner and described as ‘Cheery Banter’. In one train a rather large City fan was boasting that his side would win so long as United didn’t resort to physical play. A smaller man wearing a red rosette then kicked him! The City fan then grabbed the red rosette and threw it out of the train window. A scuffle followed before someone else piped up that all Mancunians should stick together: ‘Tha’ll be slashed to ribbons wi’ th’ gangs at Sheffield!’

There were loads of interesting angles to that game. City went on special cup tie training while United stayed in Manchester and even went to watch a variety theatre show which included an act involving pigeons! I did an article for the Manchester Evening News on the full story of it all and everything surrounding it. (it can be accessed via my Facebook page). It sounds like a different world to be honest.”

Gaffer: Even though City beat United 3-0 in the 1926 FA Cup semi-final, City lost in the final against Bolton and were relegated. From your research, did you get a sense for whether City supporters considered the win over United as a “victory” for their season?

Gary: “At the time City’s relegation was a major blow but the victory over United wasn’t viewed as the highlight of the season or anything. In fact most Mancunians felt it was a shame the two sides hadn’t met in the final, and so there was a general feeling that there had been a missed opportunity. There had of course been a greater victory for City over United that season – the Blues beat the Reds 6-1 in the Old Trafford league game and this remains the highest score in an all-Manchester match.

It has to be remembered that in 1926 City were still the better supported of the two sides (the Blues topped the attendance chart twice later in the decade and were second best supported side in 1926) while United were struggling for support and finance during the 1920s and 1930s.”

Gaffer: Where would you say this weekend’s FA Cup semi-final ranks in the importance of Manchester derbies?

Gary: “As the first all-Manchester match to be played at Wembley, that lifts its importance. In addition, unless something out of the ordinary happens it will be the best attended Manchester derby of all time – the record currently stands at 78,000 for the September 1947 Maine Road derby.

People will inevitably hype this up as the most-important Manchester derby of all time, but as mentioned earlier there was a FA Cup semi final in 1926. Personally, I think there are several contenders for most important derby of all time – March 1968 (set City on a positive trajectory towards winning the League title), 1963 (gave United the edge over City in the relegation battle between the sides – City were relegated) and 1974 (the famous Denis Law goal, though ultimately United would have been relegated anyway).”

Gaffer: As a City supporter, what would it mean to you to beat Manchester United at Wembley?

Gary: “It’s a step closer to re-establishing City as a major side. Since the 80s life has not been too great for Blues and the Club slipped down the pecking order somewhat. As a football historian, I spend a lot of my time trying to highlight the true stories of all clubs and it irritates me a little that people think the last 30 years have been the ‘norm’ for City but in truth these have been out of character with the Club. For most of their history City have been one of English football’s giants – it often makes me laugh when people say City have no history – every club has history! I try to remind people that City won a major trophy 5 years before United, 26 years before Arsenal, and an incredible 51 years before Chelsea. City also won a European trophy before Liverpool (and Michel Platini’s Juventus). City, of course, have not had as much success as those clubs today, but it’s wrong to say City have ‘no history’.

As I said before, every club has history. One of City and United’s local sides Bury actually won the FA Cup twice before City or United had even appeared in a final!”

Gaffer: Tell us more about your book “Joe Mercer, OBE: Football With A Smile”? And where can interested readers purchase this?

Gary: “Joe was a great footballer with Everton, Arsenal and England, and he was a trophy winning manager with Aston Villa and Manchester City. He was often viewed as one of the biggest names in English football and was loved for his warmth and humour, which ironically sometimes means that his footballing record isn’t given the profile it deserves. I was fortunate to meet Joe a few times before he passed away in 1990 on his 76th birthday and always wanted to write his life story. In 1993 I first published it and it sold out within a year. A couple of years ago I realised that Joe’s story had started to slip out of the public consciousness and I felt that was wrong. I talked with his widow Norah – she’s a remarkable woman who at the age of 91 still attends City games – and agreed to republish the book, although Norah said “only if you want to and it’s not too much trouble for you!” Rather than simply reprint though I decided to update the book with new stories, imagery and so on – I even found a photo of Joe sharing a dinner table with Manchester United’s new manager Alex Ferguson shortly before Joe’s death. I didn’t think the two men had ever met.

The book should appeal to anyone interested in any of Joe’s clubs (Everton, Arsenal, Villa, Sheffield United, City, Coventry City and of course England) or of football from the early 1900s onwards.

It can be bought direct from the publishers or from retailers like Amazon.”

Gaffer: Your book “Manchester: A Football History” sounds like a fascinating book capturing the history of the two teams, but what do you think the attraction would be for football supporters of clubs other than the Manchester rivals?

Gary: “It covers all the clubs in the Manchester area and talks about the way they inter-relate. To me the story of the sides is so intertwined that the book actually reveals much new information because I’ve tried to look at the wider area and how the successes and failures of each team actually impacts on the others. The book helps put the record straight in a number of areas and corrects a few myths, but for me the most significant aspect is the relationship between the sides. City and United for much of their history have been like two sides of the same coin. Sometimes one is on top, sometimes the other, but neither can function properly without the other.”

Gaffer: Any new books in the works that you can tell us about?

Gary: “I’ve always got about 3 books in the process of being researched at any one time, but the one that I can say most about is possibly the most exciting – “The Journey: Rebuilding Manchester City”. That is the story of the last few years for City and, most significantly, covers exclusive material on the Abu Dhabi takeover and behind-the-scenes activity. I’ve really enjoyed researching it and, fingers crossed, if all goes to plan it will be on sale later this year (hopefully details and special offers will be announced on my Facebook page this summer).”

Gaffer: Last question. What one piece of missing information about Manchester City’s history would you love to uncover or find?

Gary: “Ah! There are two significant items and both connected to the 1904 FA Cup final. One is the ball used – I know that in 1934 that was on display in a shop owned by City’s keeper Jack Hillman in Lancashire but its whereabouts after 1934 are unknown – and the other is actual film/footage of the 1904 final.

I know that sections of that game were filmed, including Billy Meredith’s goal, and that this was shown in various pubs and clubs in Manchester and Bolton within days of the final. As it was shown in multiple locations at the same time I’m certain there must be at least one surviving copy out there somewhere, but despite searching various archives I’ve still not found it.

Hopefully, someone reading this will have a look in their cellar or attic and an old film canister marked “Meredith goal 1904” or “The English Cup 1904” will be in there!”

Editor’s note: Readers in the US can buy “Manchester A Football History” or “Joe Mercer, OBE: Football With A Smile” books from Amazon.

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