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Charlie Roberts, Manchester United's Revolutionary Footballer

John Simkin

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Charles (Charlie) Roberts was a real superstar in the early part of the 20th century. He was born in Darlington on 6th April 1883. As a teenager he played football for Bishop Auckland. An impressive centre-half, Roberts signed for Grimsby Town in 1903.

Ernest Mangnall became the new manager of Manchester United that season. After only playing 31 games for Grimsby, Mangnall paid a record transfer fee of £600 for Roberts. At the time Mangnall was criticised for paying such a large sum for such an inexperienced player. However, it proved to be an inspired decision and it was not long before Roberts established himself as the keystone of the Manchester United defence.

Charlie Roberts upset the Football Association by starting the fashion of wearing very short knickers. In 1904 the FA took action by passing a regulation that stipulated that football knickers covered the knees. Roberts and some other players ignored this regulation. However, it was one of the reasons that long baggy knickers remained fashionable until after the Second World War.

In the 1905-06 season Manchester United won promotion to the First Division when they finished second to Bristol City. The form of Roberts was so good that the 22 year old won his first international cap playing for England against Ireland on 25th February, 1905. This was followed by games against Wales (27th March) and Scotland (1st April).

Ernest Mangnal signed Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull in 1906. Both were socialists who were interested in the rights of footballers. At the time they were only allowed to earn a maximum wage of £4.

In April 1907 Thomas Blackstock, a colleague at Manchester United, collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St. Helens. 25 year old Blackstock died soon afterwards. An inquest into his death returned a verdict of "Natural Causes" and once again a football player's family received no compensation. Roberts was appalled by the way Blackstock's family was treated and joined up with colleagues, Billy Meredith, Charlie Sagar, Herbert Burgess and Sandy Turnbull to form a new Players' Union.

The union activities of Charlie Roberts brought an end to his international career. The Football Association made it clear that they were unwilling to pick players who challenged their authority. Roberts had developed into a fantastic player by 1907. As Garth Dykes (The United Alphabet) has pointed out: "Tall and slim, Roberts tackled, placed and controlled the ball with exceptional ability and was a quite superb pivot who became an inspirational captain of United's first great team during the era prior to the First World War.... Roberts was an outstanding attacking centre half-back with tremendous stamina, who was not only quick off the mark (he could complete 100 yards in 11 seconds!) but was also swift-thinking."

Manchester United started off the 1907-08 season with three straight wins. They were then beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough. However, this was followed by another ten wins and United quickly built up a good advantage over the rest of the First Division. Although Liverpool beat them 7-4 on 25th March, 1908, Manchester United went on to win the title by nine points. The following year they won the FA Cup.

At the 1908 Annual General Meeting the Football Association decided to reaffirm the £4 maximum wage. However, they did raise the possibility of a bonus system being introduced whereby players would receive 50% of club profits at the end of the season.

The AFPU continued to have negotiations with the Football Association but in April 1909 these came to an end without agreement. In June the FA ordered that all players should leave the AFPU. They were warned that if they did not do so by the 1st July, their registrations as professionals would be cancelled. The AFPU responded by joining the General Federation of Trades Unions.

Most players resigned from the union. All 28 professionals at Aston Villa signed a public declaration that they had left the AFPU and would not rejoin until given permission by the FA. However, the whole of the Manchester United team refused to back down. As a result they were all suspended by their club. The same thing happened to seventeen Sunderland players who also refused to leave the AFPU.

The players put their careers in jeopardy by staying in the union. As Charlie Roberts pointed out: "I had a benefit due with a guarantee of £500 at the time and if the sentence was not removed I would lose that also, besides my wages, so that it was quite a serious matter for me."

Colin Veitch, who had resigned from the AFPU in order to carry on negotiations with the Football Association, led the struggle to have players reinstated. At a meeting in Birmingham on 31st August 1909, the FA agreed that professional players could be members of the AFPU and the dispute came to an end.

Charlie Roberts saw the decision as a defeat for the Association Football Players Union: "As far as I am concerned, I would have seen the FA in Jericho before I would have resigned membership of that body, because it was our strength and right arm, but I was only one member of the Players' Union. To the shame of the majority they voted the only power they had away from themselves and the FA knew it."

Billy Meredith also saw the decision as a defeat for the Association Football Players Union: "The unfortunate thing is that so many players refuse to take things seriously but are content to live a kind of schoolboy life and to do just what they are told ... instead of thinking and acting for himself and his class."

When the Manchester United team played in the first match of the season on 1st September, 1909, they all wore AFPU arm-bands. However, it took six months for the players to receive their back wages. Charlie Roberts never got his benefit match and like other union activists was never picked again to play for their country.

Roberts and Manchester United also won the league title in the 1910-11 season. In 1913 Roberts, now aged 30 and considered to be at the end of his career, joined Oldham Athletic for a transfer fee of £1,750. Roberts brought success to Oldham and in the 1914-15 he captained the club to the highest position in the club's history, runners-up to Everton in the First Division championship. Whereas Manchester United just avoided relegation.

The First World War brought an end to Roberts' career. For a while he worked as chairman of the Association Football Players Union. During this period he got the maximum wage increased to £9 plus the payment of bonuses.

Roberts later became a very successful businessman in Manchester. Not surprisingly he also became more right-wing and was an active member of the Conservative Party.



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