At the turn of the 20th Century, Manchester United were far from the domineering trophy winners which we know today. Known by their founding name, Newton Heath LYR Football Club in the Victorian era, they were playing in the second division of the English football pyramid after only joining the official football league structure in 1892.
Newton Heath had remained in the second division for the majority of the clubs formative years but endured a tough period of financial difficulties during 1902 and 1903. A winding-up order had been set upon the club by then President, William Healey who had claimed he was owed around £242. Newton Heath were grappling with severe debt and still required around £2,700 in order to continue to operate and fulfil their fixtures for the season. By April 1903 four local business men had come together and stumped up the cash to save the club from liquidation.
John Henry Davies was named President and subsequently renamed Newton Heath, Manchester United Football Club. United played their first full season under the house-hold brand name which the world knows today in the 1902-1903 campaign.
Despite, being saved from liquidation and rejoining the football league under the new guise of Manchester United, the problems did not dissipate straight away. The Football Association suspended the club secretary (the club secretary was the name for the manager of the team), James West and team captain Harry Stafford for making illegal payments to players.
Ernest Mangnall was instated as club secretary for the start of the 1903-1904 season, much to the surprise of the United fan base. Mangnall was seen as a manager who built his teams around supreme physical fitness and camaraderie and believed that his team should only be given a football once a week. In this aspect, Mangnall personifies the original English coach of the twentieth century, subscribing to the philosophy of physique over technique.
However, Mangnall’s methods were to prove very successful during his time at Manchester United. Club President, John Henry Davies was willing to give Mangnall the money to build a side and build he did. Mangnall spent a record transfer fee of £600 on centre-half, Charlie Roberts along with full-back, Tommy Blackstock and half-back, Alex Bell. He also acquired the attacking trio of John Picken, John Peddie and Charlie Sagar in the forthcoming seasons as he built a side to achieve promotion.
The most recognised formation for a team to employ back in the early days of footballs development was the 2-3-5 formation. This would consist of two full-backs playing in front of the goalkeeper which mirrors the modern day central defenders. In front of the defence there would be two half-backs and a centre-half, which in modern terms forms a central midfield three. Finally, there would be five forward players spread out across the attacking line, a left winger, a right winger, two inside forwards and a centre forward.
Tommy Blackstock was amongst Mangnall’s first signings when he took over as United’s club secretary in 1903. Born in Kirkcaldy, Scotland in 1882 he appeared for a number of clubs in his native country. Beginning his football career at Raith Athletic as a teenager, Blackstock had shown particular promise, blossoming into an impressive full-back and catching the eye of Cowdenbeath. A season with the Miners saw Blackstock continue his development and once again he found himself under the admiring gaze of another club. Leith Athletic recognised young Balckstock’s promise where he then spent a further two seasons, showing all of his early promise and becoming a popular player.
Blackstock’s performances in Scotland had caught the eye of those across the border in the south and Mangnall brought him to United in 1903. The young Scotsman didn’t make any real impression during his initial years at Manchester United, spending most of his time playing in the reserves he made a total of 13 appearances for the first team from 1903 to the end of the 1904-1905 season. However, he was to make his breakthrough to the first team in the following campaign.
Blackstock proved to be one of the stalwart full-backs of the Manchester United side which won promotion to the first division in the 1905-1906 season. Not only did United win promotion, they also conceded only 28 goals, boasting one of the strongest defences in the league, demonstrating their strong defensive work ethic facilitated by Mangnall’s focus on the physical condition of his players. Blackstock made 21 appearances during that campaign alongside fellow full-backs, Bob Bonthron and Dick Holden.
The team scored a total of 90 goals that season, finishing as joint top scorers with league winners Bristol City. Picken, Peddie and Sagar scored 54 goals between them as they finished runners-up. United were on the up, boasting a set of ruthless front-men all with prolific goal records and a strong, almost immovable defence. Blackstock, still in his early twenties, seemed to have a long and successful career ahead of him at the heart of Manchester United’s defence.
After such a successful season on a personal level and winning promotion to the first division, it was unfortunate the Blackstock found himself out of the side the following season, making only a handful of appearances for the first team and spending most of his time back in the reserve side. It is likely that Blackstock was ousted from the side by new full-back Herbert Burgess who was signed with a host of players from local rivals Manchester City. Funded by John Henry Davies, these included the forward, Sandy Turnbull; inside forward, Jimmy Bannister and the £500 star-forward, Billy Meredith.
The Scotsman, Blackstock, still only 25-years-of-age was left in the reserves to prove his worth to the first team when called upon. He made only three league appearances in that season, a 1-2 victory away at Stoke City, a 2-4 defeat at home to Bury and a 0-0 home draw with Liverpool. He also made an FA Cup appearance in a 2-2 draw away to Portsmouth. However, his season was to be cut short in the most tragic of circumstances.
Blackstock’s final match was for the United reserve side against St. Helens Recreation FC in the Manchester suburb of Clayton on 8th April 1907. With only ten minutes of the game played and with no one around him, the Scot headed the football and subsequently collapsed to the ground, laying unconscious on the field of play. He was carried off the pitch and into the dressing room but his state had deteriorated and he was pronounced dead.
The strange circumstances surrounding Blackstock’s death were to continue throughout the inquest. The Manchester Evening Courier reported that he had died of ‘natural causes’ after the Manchester City Coroner had concluded his inquiry. The Dundee Courier also reported that Doctors had said there were no internal injuries and that there was nothing physically wrong with Blackstock, further adding to the unexplained circumstances surrounding his death and the Evening Telegraph had reported that it seemed that there was “little occasion to place any great strain on the heart.”
Blackstock’s death was eerily similar to that of Leeds City centre forward, David Wilson who collapsed and died of heart failure in a match against Barnsley in October 1906. However, as the game against St. Helens had only been under-way for around ten minutes, heart failure seemed an unlikely cause of death.
The Manchester Courier and Lancashire Central Advertiser also reported a similar story, comparing Blackstock’s death to Wilson’s. However, the papers also stated it had been almost impossible to fully determine the causes of his death and suggested that it may have been a fatal seizure after heading the ball. The official verdict still reads as ‘death by natural causes.’
Blackstock’s body was returned to his home-town, Kirkcaldy for the funeral procession which ran from his father’s residence to the New Cemetery on 11th April 1907. Many of the local, well-known gentry attended the funeral, along with team mates, club officials, fellow professional players, close friends and family.
His death was both tragic and unfortunate and the treatment of his family after his death only added to the pain already suffered as United had withheld the insurance money that was rightly due to his next -of-kin. However, if football as a whole took any positive out of his untimely passing then it has to be the establishment of the Association Football Players Union (AFPU) which was set-up by several of Blackstock’s team-mates in wake of the treatment of his family. Meredith, Roberts, Sagar, Burgess and Turnbull, sparked by the controversy over Blackstock’s insurance money, all collaborated to form the AFPU, a forerunner to today’s Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA).
There was a lot of praise reserved for Blackstock by many of those in the football community at the time. His manager, Ernest Mangnall was shaken by the events and he held particular praise for Blackstock during his time playing professional football for Manchester United, stating that he trained harder than any other player despite spending much of his time in the reserves and he was one of the favourites around the squad.
An obituary by Mr J. J. Bentley, a co-founder of the Football League, in the Evening Standard on 10th April 1907 also spoke highly of Blackstock. Bentley spoke of Blackstock as a cultured individual having experienced life in foreign countries like Australia and also an intelligent young man who could recount the particulars of the Russo-Japanese war which had broken out in 1904.
Bentley also referred to the last game he saw Blackstock play for the United first team against Liverpool. The full-back put in a heroic defensive performance, flinging himself in-front of the Liverpool forwards and putting his body on the line to help his team to capture a 0-0 draw.
The game epitomised Blackstock as a player in a staunch, defensive performance reminiscent to that of the 1905/1906 promotion season which was the highlight of his career.