Moving Manchester

The last time City played United in an FA Cup semi-final was 1926. Gary James explains how some things have hardly changed

A match being promoted as the greatest ever is not a modern phenomenon. Eighty-five years ago one newspaper previewed the first all-Manchester FA Cup semi-final as “the greatest of the Cup ties that have ever been played”. Another claimed it was “an historic event – one that may never occur again”. That was close – it has taken 85 years for the feat to be repeated.

Researching the 1926 semi-final has highlighted several similarities with today – there was discontent with the choice of venue, complaints about ticket allocations, ridicule over training methods, frustration over City’s consistency and, of course, consternation at the rivalry of the fans.

City, managerless since November, had performed exceptionally well in Cup ties but were rock bottom of Division One, causing the Manchester Evening Chronicle to headline them as the “most amazing team of the year: topsy-turvy form of Manchester City”. Meanwhile, sixth-placed United were more concerned about organisational issues. They were far from happy with the selection of Sheffield Utd as hosts, as a spokesman explained: “I think the choice of Bramall Lane will be very disappointing to all our supporters. After all, what would have been wrong with Bolton? It would have saved both players and spectators from travelling.”

The Manchester Evening News felt Bramall Lane’s unusual layout – it also staged cricket – would cause organisational problems: “Those who have bought tickets for the cricket pavilion will not be content to witness the game ‘from a distance’ and will make an invasion of what is regarded as sacred ground.” The Evening Chronicle described the choice as “nothing short of deplorable” although it did admit that “no ground will ever be built that would accommodate anything like the number of spectators, even from Lancashire alone, who would like to be present”.

Sheffield Utd were given a third of the tickets, which angered Man Utd officials. Two weeks before the tie the press reported that City’s allocation was oversubscribed three times over. However, it was revealed that some tickets were on open sale at Old Trafford for five shillings. Inevitably, the publicity meant they soon disappeared – City fans later paid touts 30 shillings (£1.50) for 5s (25p) seat tickets.

City travelled to Buxton two days before the game for special “modern” Cup-tie training including billiard tournaments, games of golf, walking and “brine baths”. United’s captain Frank Barson scoffed: “We are not having brine baths or golfing in our training, but we are keeping to the old-fashioned methods.” United’s traditional approach meant training at Old Trafford, watching boxing tournaments and, on the eve of the game, attending a variety show which included such delights as Hamilton Conrad’s Pigeons.

Fans travelled together on the morning of the game. The Evening Chronicle reported: “Special trains are being run from all parts of the country and enthusiasts are travelling from even as far afield as London. As many saloon parties have been arranged as for a final.” There was one reported incident which led to a red rosette being thrown out of a window but others urged everyone to stick together and watch out for the “Sheffield Blades”. Once inside the ground, however, supporters mingled without any reported issues between locals and visitors. The Evening Chronicle previewed the game as “a duel between a great defence and a clever and penetrative attack. There is no club in the country better served behind than the United, and on their day there is no more clever line of forwards than those of the City.”

The Chronicle seemed spot on as City took a 14th-minute lead via a header – United claimed the ball had not crossed the line but the press said it had. United’s play deteriorated as they became more negative, culminating in Barson cynically fouling a City man. The Athletic News: “Cowan was knocked flat down and out! A merciless crash it was, and altogether too vigorous. Cowan lay flat; Barson crouched on his knees and the crowd, suspecting ‘the old soldier’, roared the more.” Barson was later investigated and ultimately banned for eight weeks.

In the second half City’s attacking superiority told and the match ended 3-0. They lost the final 1-0 to Bolton and became the first Cup finalists to be relegated in the same season – one aspect of 1926 that won’t be repeated this year.

Gary James is the author of Manchester, A Football History. Published by James Ward. Further details at

From WSC 291 May 2011