INTERVIEW: ‘He built a worldwide institution’… the man who saved Man Utd honoured 65 years on

The man who saved Manchester United is to receive a memorial compass in his honour, marking the 65th anniversary of his passing.

Salford businessman James Gibson, who made his fortune in the manufacturing of military uniforms, rescued the club from the brink of bankruptcy during the global depression of the early 1930s.

The memorial compass is to be unveiled at Halecroft Park, Hale Barns on September 5 at 11.30am which Gibson’s great nephew Alan Embling described as fitting.

“What my great uncle lay down were strong, firm, foundation stones,” Embling told MM.

“I think of him and his newly constructed Old Trafford as the centre of the compass and this thing that he built reaching all four corners of the globe.

“He built a worldwide institution.”

Gibson’s association with the club began in December 1931 with Manchester United on the brink of extinction, a scenario many of today’s clubs will feel all too familiar with.

Desperate, then club secretary and manager Walter Crickmer enlisted Gibson’s help.

After little more than an hour of their hastily organised meeting, Crickmer left Gibson’s Alamor home with £2,000, signalling the beginning of a long and illustrious relationship.

Mr Embling, 78, remembers his uncle ‘doing what he could to help.’

He said: “You have to remember what he did: he was very brave investing like that during a depression.

“Britain was struggling with many people surviving on rations. It’s not like it is today, there was no merchandise, no sponsorship, no Premiership, he just did what he could to save the club.

“His view was that there was enough room for two clubs in Manchester and he was determined to make it so. Though the one thing he always stressed was that without the magnificent supporters, there would be no Manchester United.

“That £2,000 investment paid for maintenance costs, a backlog of wages, club debts: he even bought the entire workforce of players and staff a full Christmas dinner. He really was a remarkable man.”

After investing further capital and standing as a guarantor to the bank, Gibson had successfully stabilized his local team. However, it wouldn’t be the last time his powers of salvation would be called upon.

Following the damage caused to stadia in the WWII, Gibson successfully campaigned for the affected clubs to be given a license to rebuild. And rebuild they did, with Gibson leading the resurgence.

He funded the Old Trafford restructure, negotiated an emergency switch to Maine Road, and introduced the United Youth Academy, a blueprint for all national soccer academies.

Yet perhaps his greatest masterstroke was the appointment of his first post war manager, a former Liverpool and Manchester City forward and rookie Scotsman, Alexander Matthew Busby.

Gibson suffered a stroke in 1948 and was therefore unable to attend United’s F.A. Cup final victory over Blackpool in May of that year, Busby’s first silverware at the football club.

Such was Gibson’s stature at Old Trafford, the team bus drove straight to his house on its return to Manchester, and the players presented the trophy to their Chairman.

James Gibson died three years later at the age of 73 having suffering a second stroke in September 1951. Rather fittingly, the club went on to win their third league title – and first in over 40 years – later that same season.

Remarkably though ‘the man who saved United’ wasn’t actually a United fan at all, but a follower of rugby and cricket.

Nevertheless, his tireless acts of charity and unrelenting loyalty laid the foundations for one of the world’s most recognisable brands.

And though he remains a fundamental figure in the club’s massive success, Mr Embling believes his uncle would be left “speechless” were he to visit Old Trafford today.

“He’d be dumbfounded at the amount of money in the game today but he’d be over the moon at what they’ve achieved.”

Monday’s ceremony not only commemorates the anniversary of James Gibson’s death but also recognises the family’s legacy and significant community impact thereafter.

The family is keen to stress that all members of the public are most welcome to attend.

Image courtesy of Community Channel TV, with thanks.

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