Manchester City’s FA Cup semi-final with Arsenal on Sunday marks the anniversary of their first-ever victory in the competition. Rob Pollard take a look at why their success in 1904 was so significant for Manchester football...
It’s hard to imagine now but at the beginning of the 1900s, as the Victorian Era drew to a close and the cotton industry boomed, football was not the most heralded sport in Manchester.
Despite the city being very much in the process of establishing its distinct identity - the women’s suffrage movement was on the rise, the Whitworth Art Gallery had been founded and the University was already making some significant breakthroughs - football was yet to truly make its mark on Manchester’s diverse population.
Rugby had been the favoured pursuit since the 1860s, with Manchester Football Club, now known as Manchester Rugby Football Club, the dominant team. While Sheffield, London, Liverpool and the Midlands all saw football as their principal pastime, Manchester was yet to embrace the beautiful game in quite the same way.
Manchester City, who had been promoted in 1899 and then again in 1903, both times as Second Division champions, were getting decent crowds - around 17,000 per game in 1902 - while Manchester United, then known as Newton Heath, attracted 4,650 that same year. Clearly, there was interest but the city’s obsession with the sport had yet to properly flourish.
The catalyst for change arrived in 1904 when City reached the FA Cup final for the first time in their history. Back then, winning England’s elite knockout competition was seen as the pinnacle of the national game but a Manchester side had yet to make it to the latter stages. However, victories over Sunderland, Arsenal, Middlesbrough and Sheffield Wednesday saw City book a place in the competition’s 32nd final where they would face Bolton Wanderers at Crystal Palace’s stadium in London.
As City progressed through each round, the column inches afforded them in local and national press increased, with captain Billy Meredith, widely regarded to be the star of the English game, central to most of the coverage. Meredith, an outside forward who would later play for United, had been key to City’s FA Cup run and was described in one press report as “the King of the Realm” after City’s 3-2 win over Sunderland in the first round proper. People were becoming increasingly aware of City’s quality and Meredith, a Welshman and adopted Mancunian, was by far their biggest name.
Summing up his and City’s growing profile, an article on the eve of the final that appeared in the Athletic News said: “Since the City have become famous… it has been considered the proper thing to give every detail of their doings and I’m quite expecting to read that, while shaving, Meredith accidentally came across a little wart and the great international actually lost ten drops of his precious blood.” This was a new level of press interest for City and their main man.
There was genuine excitement gripping the city’s people ahead of the final, too. Additional trains were chartered, pubs organised horse and cart travel for customers and City arranged for the band who played regularly at their Hyde Road stadium to go down to add some colour to the day.
It has been considered the proper thing to give every detail of their doings
The Prime Minister at the time, Arthur Balfour, who was MP for East Manchester and a patron of the Club, was invited by City officials to attend the final as their official guest, meaning they had support in the stands from the very highest strata of society. Manchester football was very much on the national agenda and it was quickly seeping through to the locals, many of whom had been desperate to see their side contest an FA Cup final for some time and couldn’t wait for their first taste of such a grand occasion. Even those who had only had a passing interest before were suddenly gripped by the game.
Yet local authorities appeared completely ill-equipped for the possibility of a City win. Manchester City Council hadn’t considered laying on a civic reception should Tom Maley’s side return victorious. And it wasn’t about not wanting to be presumptuous or temp fate; it simply wasn’t on the radar of council chiefs who failed to recognise football as a significant event.
On April 23 1904, an estimated 30,000 Mancunians descended on the capital expecting a first major trophy in the Club’s history. Meredith scored the only goal of the game, which elevated his lofty status still further, and City became the first team in Manchester to win one of the game’s biggest prizes. Balfour presented the team with the famous cup and a major trophy was finally coming back to Manchester, 26 years before Arsenal won their first silverware and 50 years before Chelsea secured theirs.
The trophy made its way to Manchester via Goodison Park, with City fulfilling a league fixture en route home on the Monday afternoon after the final. They lost 1-0, their title aspirations over, but it was the start of a significant celebration. Everton publicly congratulated them and so began a trophy parade, which had been organised by the Club in the absence of anything official being arranged by the council. The police hastily arranged some additional officers at the last minute, which turned out to be a smart, if somewhat hurried, move.
The players boarded a train to Manchester from Liverpool and arrived back around 9.30pm before beginning their route to Ardwick, via Central Street, the Midland hotel, Deansgate, Market Street, Oldham Street and Dale Street. The city was awash with supporters and reports the following day suggested this was the biggest occasion Manchester had ever seen, eclipsing the recent visit by the Prince and Princess of Wales, with the “whole population” of the city lining the streets.
The Manchester Evening Chronicle said of the homecoming: “There is nothing in the annals of football that will compare with the magnificent reception which was accorded the Manchester City football team on the occasion of their return to Manchester last night in the proud position of holders of the English Cup for the first time in Manchester’s career. Notwithstanding the lateness of their arrival, the whole population of the city seemed to have turned out to do them honour.”
The aftermath of the victory saw attendances at City games rocket and they soon became the best supported team in the Football League, surpassing Everton and Aston Villa. United, too, were growing, and four years later they would win the First Division title, before capturing their first FA Cup the following season.
Manchester was a rugby city no more; football was now the by far the most dominant sport.
There have been further significant steps since, of course. United’s European Cup triumph in 1968 moved football in Manchester to a new level, the advent of the Premier League in 1992 saw the game grow rapidly right across the country and the arrival of Pep Guardiola to City and Jose Mourinho to United this summer has seen Manchester’s global footballing profile increase still further.
But it was City’s FA Cup victory on April 23 1904 that first catapulted football to the forefront of Manchester culture and it’s remained there ever since.
Thanks to Dr Gary James for his assistance with this article. His research on the significance of the 1904 FA Cup success can be read here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14660970.2014.961378 and on origins of Manchester football here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/14660970.2016.1276238?src=recsys