If we were to try to identify the man who has had the most influence, and cast the longest shadow over the English game, we might, say, look at Paul Gascoigne, whose tears in Turin (it has been suggested) catalysed the gentrification of the top echelons of the sport. Alternatively, we might look to George Best, whose loose-limbed genius and louche, libertine lifestyle inspired a generation of mavericks to grow their hair, frustrate their managers, and wink at cigarette girls.
We might turn to Alf Ramsey and his victorious wingless wonders, or his lieutenant Bobby Moore, the unimpeachable titan of English defending in whose footprints all subsequent national captains are diminished. Or, slightly more abstractly, look to Charles Reep or Charles Hughes, high priests of the long-ball game, whose theories on the pointlessness of ball retention and passing football still resonate today. Shouts would doubtless come for Paisley or Shankly, for Busby or Ferguson, for Chapman, Wenger, Gradi, Megson …
But we could do a lot worse than to look to Charlie Roberts, who learned his football as a teenager at Bishop Auckland, and went on to galvanise a modern titan of the game, inspire two World Cup victories, challenge and change the power structures of the domestic game, get right on the wick of the Football Association, and revolutionise football kits.
Born in Darlington in 1883, Roberts left Bishop Auckland while still a teenager, signing professional forms with Grimsby Town. Before long, however, he moved (for a reported and then considerable £600) to Manchester United, though in 1904 they were far from the universally-adored giants they are today. Trophyless, and comfortably ensconced in the middle reaches of Division Two, they were overshadowed in Manchester by a talented and entertaining City side that boasted football’s first superstar, toothpick-chewing Welsh winger Billy Meredith.
United, though, were ambitious, and secretary-manager Ernest Mangnall started to build a team around Roberts. In contrast to most centre-halves of the time – this was still the days of the 2-3-5; the centre-half the middle of the 3 – Roberts was an excellent passer of the ball, comfortable in possession, and able to act not only as a central stopper but to sweep long passes to either flank. Flanked by Alexander Bell and, from 1906, Dick Duckworth, United’s half-back line was formidable, and Roberts, Mangnall’s captain, was the heart of the team.
Once back in Division One, United were able to take advantage of a bribery scandal to snaffle four of City’s brightest talents, including Meredith. The team thus fortified, and with a genius on the wing to aim his passes toward, Roberts led the team to their first silverware – league titles in 1907/08 and 1910/11; an FA Cup in 1908/09 – and became the first United player to be capped for England.
Had he stopped there, he would merely have gone down in history as one of Manchester United’s finest players: their first title- and cup-winning captain. (Football historian Mark Metcalf places him at the heart of any all-time United XI.) But Roberts had a rebellious streak, which first manifested itself in his refusal to comply with an FA directive ordering players to wear all shorts below the knee. To the chagrin of the administrators, Roberts adopted a shorter short, believing that this allowed him greater freedom of movement.
If that ruffled a few feathers, Roberts’ next act of rebellion pretty much exploded the whole damn chicken. In the December of 1907, Roberts, along with Meredith and other professionals from a number of clubs formed the Players’ Union, partly out of a desire to negotiate for themselves a larger cut of the money pouring into football, partly out of anger at the laissez-faire stance of football’s administrators towards player safety and injury compensation. Though relations were peaceable at first, an acrimonious court battle provoked the FA into outlawing the Union. Roberts, in response, led the entire United squad out on strike. They spent the summer of 1909 locked out of the club, training elsewhere in the city, and famously proclaimed themselves the “Outcasts F.C.”
While the Players’ Union was eventually recognised by the FA, it would be a long time before any of their demands were realised. At the time it felt like a defeat, particularly for Roberts, who had to wait six months for his back pay and forfeited a £500 benefit match. It has also been speculated that his union agitation limited his international appearances to just three caps, all in 1905.
Nevertheless, Roberts would have a profound effect on international football, albeit in a roundabout way. Among Manchester United’s fans during the early twentieth century was Italian traveller and erstwhile footballer manager Vittorio Pozzo. Football historian and tactical guru Jonathan Wilson has proposed that Pozzo’s admiration for Roberts’ style of play – those quick, sweeping passes out to the wings; the centre-half directing play from deep – influenced his development of the metodo (a kind of W-W)tactic that his Italy employed, winning back-to-back World Cups in 1934 and 1938.
Roberts left United and joined Oldham, before retiring. Along with Meredith, he was involved in establishing, in 1928, the short-lived and ill-fated Manchester Central FC, the club soon squeezed out of existence by lobbying from United and City that saw the upstarts refused entry into the Football League. He died in 1939, having gone from Bishop Auckland to set Manchester United on their way; to give the wheels of player power their first stuttering spin; to help to nudge tactical thinking away from the orthodoxy of 2-3-5; and to ensure we all get to keep laughing at old footage of John Barnes in tiny shorts. However you slice it, that’s a long shadow.