Last updated : 18 August 2004 By editor
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Last month Red Issue caught up with a little known figure from United’s past. Ex-player, Johnny ‘Johnny’ Moston spoke for the first time about what life was like at Manchester United during the inter-war years and the hardships some of our older players had to contend with.

“I was brought up in a tiny terraced house on the outskirts of Salford in a mining village which was so deprived the local Corporation wouldn’t even name it. Lots of footballers had hailed from our village and it was said that if you shouted down a pit shaft, a footballer or a fast bowler would come up (I can never remember which!).

“We played our football in a narrow cobbled street. Far too poor to afford an actual football, or even a bunch of rags tied together, we played “air” football. I was a keen lad and when all the other boys had gone off round the back alley to talk to the girls, I was still kicking my air football against the wall of the alleyway until I could time each shot or header to perfection and was equally strong with both feet.

“I wasn’t the brightest tool in the picnic basket and having failed to secure an apprenticeship down the pit or on the railway there was only one alternative – Manchester United. Crying my eyes out, I was dragged by my dad to Old Trafford and he left me in the capable hands of Ex-Lance-Corporal Davies (who we called Lance Corporal Davies for short). He was a fitness fanatic who had us running up and down the terraces all day. We never saw a football at all. To toughen us up he made us run through the Stretford End toilets while he fired mustard gas, smoke bombs and sometimes even live rounds at us.

“We had such a Spartan training regime that the fact that I’d still never seen a real football didn’t come to light until my debut for the Reserves against Blackburn Rovers in 1919. The Manchester Guardian remarked: ‘In the first half, Moston’s mazy off-the-ball dribbles puzzled the small crowd. The referee was also forced to book him for ungentlemanly conduct for making persistent “crowd” noises. In the second half, Moston re-emerged from the dressing-room sporting a black eye, and managed to get his foot in a few times.” In recent years, when watching Luke Chadwick, I think I can see a little of my former self.

“It was with great anticipation that I entered the 1st team dressing room. I was immediately introduced by captain Nobby Entwistle to the rest of the team. They were a mixture of cheery local Manchester lads, dour Scots, talkative Irish, dark, squat Welsh and of course the token cheeky Cockney. The recipe for just about every United team ever since. They were salt of the earth - a grand bunch of lads who would take anything from you

“Everybody ribbed the cockney, Alfie “Cockney” Wedge! He wore his shorts a full half an inch shorter than the rest of us, used Brylcreem and had a silver-plate bell on his push-bike with its own special ring.

“The years following the Great War were difficult for United. Financially it got so bad that you daren’t leave your bike outside Old Trafford in case management raffled it. We looked on with envy at Manchester City, who during the whole of United’s 30-odd year slump had bagged the princely haul of an FA Cup and the First Division! At the end of the 2nd World War, large crowds flocked back to football. Because of the unfortunate bombing incident at Old Trafford, we were forced to play at Maine Road but soon started to draw bigger crowds than our landlords.

“While I should by now have been in the twilight of my career, I instead hit my peak. I perfected what was known as the “Moston Dribble.” This consisted of my shuffling down the wing with the ball at slow speed, walking the ball round the keeper and into the net.

“Disaster followed though! An official from the FA was listening to the match on the wireless when the commentator said: ‘It’s almost as if Moston has got the ball tied to his boot’. An expert panel was convened, listened to the wireless commentary many times over at slow speed and found that I had, indeed, tied the ball to my boot. I was the first player ever to be convicted on radio evidence. I was fined thruppence and banned for the next six matches. The good news though was that I was back a month later for the FA Cup Final against Blackpool.

“I well remember the feeling as we bicycled up Wembley Way. We wound our way through 100,000 people dressed identically in caps, coats, and mufflers. We got changed in the dressing room but then in the tunnel a calamity occurred! I ‘accidentally’ bumped into Bert Nazi, Blackpool’s German goalkeeper. I was never too keen on the Germans, blaming them for the tragic loss of my father in the first ‘shout’. Words were exchanged, and Bert pulled a Luger from his knickerbockers and shot me in the kneecap. With no substitutes allowed the trainer could only douse my wounded knee in Dubbin and I bravely carried on, even providing a vital assist for United’s winning goal.

“After the game, an operation resulted in one of my legs being two inches shorter than the other. Mr. Busby took me to one side at the pre-season trials and gently explained that he was letting me go on a pension of 10 bob and an ounce of rolling tobacco a week.

“Of course these days it’s all about money. It makes me weep when I read about David Beckham’s chauffeur earning more in a single lunchtime than I earned in a lifetime’s service to the game. Unlike these modern-day namby-pambies we played the proper game of Association Football.

“Take the balls they use today: coated in plastic and weighing less than a balloon! In our day, when those old leather balls with stitching used to get wet, it was like heading a lump of concrete. Never did us any harm. Where was I again…..oh yes fixture congestion.

“These days, they moan like mad when they have to play more than once a fortnight. In our day, it was quite common to play six times a week, I was only excused a seventh because I was opening batsman for Lancashire. I remember playing against Salford Lads in the Manchester Senior Cup in the morning and then cycling to Wembley to play in the FA Cup Final. That very evening I was back in my local hostelry, captaining the winning skittles team!

“In fact, we nearly always cycled to away games and matches were never postponed because of bad weather. On one occasion there was so much snow on the pitch that our “goalie” Charlie Beswick made a snowman in the goalmouth and had a cheeky fag behind the goal, while the crowd sang ‘White Christmas’.

“Nevertheless, we still didn’t go down like a sack of spuds when tackled and then have six weeks off to recover. It was quite common to play on with broken legs, broken backs and even when clinically dead. Old Albert Holt had a fatal stroke on the pitch at Burnden Park, but still managed to ghost through and score the winner in a thrilling 9-8 win.

“There was always the odd whiff of scandal of course. I was once asked to throw a match against Liverpool for £10 guineas – a small fortune in those days! I bought a box of Bryant & May and when the time came struck a match and threw it at Tommy Scouser as he came running down the wing with the ball. Quick as a flash he whipped out a Woodbine (which most players tucked behind their ear for half-time in those days) lit it and blew smoke rings, while the crowd spontaneously burst into ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’. Oh, those were the days…

“Of course, all the players were characters, not like today’s pre-Maradonas. Oh how we laughed as skipper Nobby Entwistle did his impressions of George Formby (or was it Gracie Fields?)! And whenever old Bobby Dazzler set off down the wing, he would always enliven his dribbles with either a Max Wall or Nat Jackley funny walk, while the crowd sang ‘Where Did You Get That Hat?’

“And so came the sad day when I finally had to hang my boots up at the ripe old age of 49! In those days players didn’t just go off and become managers, who were mostly military types who’d done their bit in the war. For a while I tried scouting, but after an unfortunate incident with a Wolf-Cub’s woggle, I had to give that up too. Nevertheless, I’ve stayed involved in football on a part-time basis and can claim to have ‘discovered’ some of the best of them, including Pele, whom I spotted playing for Droylsden Old Pals.”

Johnny ‘Johnny’ Moston will be signing copies of his autobiography next week between 10–11am in the lounge of Prestwich Nursing Home.