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Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull

Wed Jan 14, 2009 4:48 pm

Turnbull, the scorer of United's winning goal in their first FA Cup final, led an interesting and sadly brief life. This old article I've found by John Lichfield from the Independent makes very interesting reading:
Image In the western outskirts of Arras, in northern France, there is an elegant, curving colonnade, inscribed with column after column of fading British names. There are nearly 35,000 listed here; an entire football crowd of young men who died an obscure death in the fighting around Arras during the First World War. They are "the missing": the soldiers whose remains were never found, or if found, not identified.

Their memorial, designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, is 150ft long and 20ft high. Two-thirds of the way along, in Bay Six, near the top, there is the section devoted to the East Surrey Regiment. In the sub- section for non-commissioned officers, there is an inscription, which is only just legible from ground level. It reads: "Lce-Serjeant Turnbull A."

Lance Sergeant Alexander Turnbull, 28427, of the 8th Battalion, the East Surrey Regiment, died an anonymous death like scores of thousands of others in Flanders and Picardy. Before the war, however, he was not an anonymous man. He was a player, not a part of the crowd. Had he lived a century later, he would have been a multi- millionaire and a back-page tabloid hero (and, most probably, a tabloid villain).

Alec "Sandy" Turnbull was one of the stars of the first great Manchester Utd team. Before that he was a leading player with Manchester City. He remains one of only a handful of players who have been prominent performers for both clubs (who meet tomorrow).

Turnbull won an FA Cup winner's medal with City. He was transferred to United in scandalous circumstances in 1906. He scored the first goal ever to be scored at Old Trafford, when the stadium opened in 1910. He scored the only goal in Man Utd's first FA Cup win. He is still, with 100 goals, one of the club's top scorers of all time.

Sandy Turnbull was held in great affection by the fans of the day. He may have been the first footballer to have had a song, or at least a poem, written about him (celebrating that "Blithesome Sandy... Lucky Sandy... Champion Sandy" played through injury to win the Cup for United in 1909).

There was also a darker, rebellious side to Turnbull, who clearly felt that, at £4 a match (the equivalent of about £200 today), his talents as a goal-scoring inside left were under- rewarded. He was involved in an illegal payments scandal at City and a betting and match-fixing scandal at United. He was one of the leaders of a players' revolt at United that led to the recognition of the players' union and, in the course of time, to the immense salaries earned by professional footballers today.

In 1909, on the morning after the Cup Final, the FA Cup went missing and was found in Turnbull's pocket in what was passed off as (and may have been) a prank.

On 3 May 1917, at the age of 33, leaving a widow and four young children, he was killed near Arras, in a typically pointless skirmish in one of the must murderous, but lesser known battles of the First World War.

Why talk about Turnbull after all this time? He was far from being the only professional footballer killed in the Great War, although he was probably the most talented and famous (and notorious) of them. He was serving a lifetime ban from the game for match-fixing when he enlisted in 1916.

This is Remembrance weekend and Monday is Remembrance Day, the anniversary of the end of the First World War. Tomorrow, the two Manchester clubs, Turnbull's two main professional clubs, play each other in what will be the last Manchester derby to be played at Maine Road.

It seemed like as good a time as any to remember Sandy Turnbull.

I have been a Man Utd fan for 48 years (since I was five). My father was, briefly, also a Man Utd fan, when the club was in the doldrums in the 1930s. My grandfather, a small cotton trader in Manchester, was a fan of City before the First World War and afterwards. I never met him but he must have seen Turnbull play many times, first for City and then for the upstart United.

Sandy Turnbull, the footballer, is far from forgotten. All the Man Utd history books, and the club's website, record his prowess. The museum at Old Trafford displays his shirt from the 1909 Cup Final.

There is, however, comparatively little known about Sandy Turnbull the man; about where he came from, and how he died. For the last few weeks, with help from the British Army, his hometown library, First World War historians, the Wilfred Owen Association and the Manchester United Museum, I have been trying to fill in some of the gaps. The more I looked at his story, the more fascinated I became.

SANDY TURNBULL stares out from the old team pictures, unsmiling, hair- receding, robust knees pulled together, one eyebrow quizzically raised. He looks like a bruising character (he was 5ft 7in tall and 12 stone). There is something in his expression that says "don't mess with me".

Turnbull was the first player to be sent off in a Manchester derby (playing for United against City in December 1907). The United board minutes from the 1900s record that he was, on several occasions, fined by the club for being "insubordinate to directors". And yet, in his 13 years as a professional, Turnbull built a reputation as a great team player and a footballer of intelligence, delicate skills and great courage.

After Man Utd won the First Division for the first time in their history in 1908 - with Turnbull scoring 25 goals - the Manchester Evening News football reporter, "Wanderer", wrote: "A man of big shoulders and quick feet and active brain, `Sandy' is a great player, and a more unselfish inside man I never saw. A great opportunist with class written all over his football."

Alexander, "Alec" or "Sandy", Turnbull was born at Hurlford, near Kilmarnock, in Scotland in 1884. His father, James, was a miner. By the time of the 1901 census, Sandy's father, who would have been 41, was dead. Sandy was 16, the second of seven children, and listed in the census as a "coal miner". He probably went into the pits at the age of 14, while playing for his local football club, Hurlford Thistle.

The next year, in 1902, Sandy, aged 17, left his mother Jessie and his six brothers and sisters, the youngest aged two, and signed a professional contract with Manchester City. Sandy was part of a group of six City stars who were snapped up by United in 1906 when they were banned from playing for the rival club for taking payments above the League-imposed limit.

In the next nine years, he played 245 senior games for United. He was an important part of the first great team in the club's history: the team that first made United a significant club in English football.

On the strength of that success, the club built a new stadium in 1910. Give or take a few stands, this was the same neat oval, with wooden, wicket fences where I first watched United in the late 1950s. That Old Trafford has now disappeared beneath the outlandish spaceship of the new stadium built in the last 10 years. Of all the thousands of goals scored on this hallowed ground, the first one was scored by Sandy Turnbull on 19 February 1910 after a few minutes of the inaugural game against Liverpool before a crowd of 50,000 (United lost 3-4).

The previous year, Turnbull had been too badly injured to play in the FA Cup final against Bristol City but played anyway, scoring the only goal after a shot from Harold Halse rebounded from the Bristol bar.

The following Monday, the Athletic News, carried a supporters' song, including the following lines:
When you beat the Stalwart City,
Shooting Sandy,
Topping off a glorious day,
Blithesome Sandy,
We could scarce believe our eyes,
It was such a glad surprise,
But of course you ne'er loved ties,
Did you Sandy?,
When Halse hit the shiv-ring bar,
Lucky Sandy,
There were groans heard near and far,
Deep ones Sandy,
But the ball was on the bound,
And your boot was safe and sound,
When the net your great shot found,
Champion Sandy...
At the start of the next season, "blithesome" Sandy and the whole United team were briefly banned for refusing to leave the newly formed players' union. They posed for a picture as "The Outcasts". Other players supported them. The Football League finally gave way.

The young miner from Kilmarnock was now moving in celebrated company. A menu has survived from a United celebration dinner in 1911 - "puree saint germain, fillets of sole orly, haggis" - signed by, among others, the music-hall entertainer George Robey and A Turnbull.

The arrival of the players' union boosted the professionals' maximum match fee from £3 to £4, something like three times the average age of a miner or factory worker in the Edwardian era. However, a full crowd at Old Trafford in 1911 brought in receipts of around £3,000 - of which roughly£50 went to the players and officials. Turnbull was not the only player of the time to feel hard done by.

By the time the First World War started, Turnbull's career was running down. He had married a local woman, Florence Amy, and they had had four children - James, Irene, Ronald and Alexander - between 1909 and 1913.

On Good Friday, 1915, with the war already seven months old, Turnbull, three other United players, and four Liverpool players were found to have fixed a 2-0 United win at Old Trafford as part of a betting coup. Turnbull was not even playing in the game but he was given a lifetime ban later that year.

In any case, football was falling apart. Players were under pressure to show an example and "join the colours". Early in 1916, Turnbull enlisted in the "footballers' battalion" of the Middlesex Regiment.

THE VILLAGE of Cherisy probably looks today much as it did when Turnbull and his comrades in the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment captured it on the misty morning of 3 May 1917. It is a straggling village of farms around a crossroads in the valley of the River Sensee, little more than a ditch, 10 miles east of Arras, close to the A1 motorway from Paris to the north .

In May 1917, this was the German front line. The Battle of Arras had been raging intermittently since mid-April to try to relieve pressure on the French, who were attacking - and whose armies were rebelling - further south.

Sandy Turnbull's unit was supposed to capture Cherisy and then establish a new defensive line beyond the river to the east. This was not trench warfare proper. The gently undulating land around Cherisy had been little disturbed by the war until the British bombardment in the previous two days (with shells and poison gas). This was virtually open country - with disastrous results for the the 8th East Surreys, who were amateur soldiers trained only for trench fighting.

Why, and when, Lance Sergeant Alexander Turnbull transferred to the East Surreys is a mystery. His Army records were destroyed during the Blitz in London in the Second World War. His battalion was the unit that, in a celebrated, romantic (and insane) gesture, dribbled footballs into the Battle of the Somme the previous July. Was Turnbull with them that day? The remaining records are silent. More likely, he was transferred to the East Surreys to fill one of the many gaps left by the slaughter on the Somme.

According to the official history of the East Surrey Regiment "the men were in boisterous spirits" as they launched their attack in mist and darkness at 3.45am on 3 May. They captured Cherisy and reached their objective with few casualties. Unfortunately, the units on either side were not so successful. The 8th East Surreys were isolated and overrun within a couple of hours by a German counter- attack.

Both the British and German official histories of the war make much of the fact that the British soldiers could barely use their rifles effectively that day and were confused by being out in the open, away from the familiar barbed-wire and trenches. Of the 500 or so men in the battalion, 90 were killed, 175 wounded and more than 100 captured.

Somewhere in this battle - which lasted eight hours - "Lucky Sandy's" luck ran out.

There is no recently published record of what exactly happened to Turnbull - until now. Anne Geddes, community historian for East Ayrshire, has tracked down this moving article from the Kilmarnock Herald, dated 18 May 1917.

"Former Hurlford footballer: wounded prisoner of war.

"Sandy Turnbull, famous Manchester United forward, and a native of Hurlford, has been wounded and made a prisoner. He has been fighting for about a year. The information concerning him was conveyed in a letter from a comrade received by Mrs Turnbull at her home at Stretford. The message stated:

" `I am writing to try to explain what has happened to your dear husband, Alec. He was wounded, and much to our sorrow, fell into German hands, so I hope you will hear from him. After Alec was wounded he `carried on' and led his men for a mile, playing the game until the last we saw of him. We all loved him, and he was a father to us all and the most popular man in the regiment. All here send our deepest sympathy.'

"Another letter from the front says: `Turnbull was missing during an attack on the Germans. I have very little hope of him being alive. I spoke to him when he got his first wound and asked him if he was badly done. `No,' he said, and from all accounts he must have continued going along with us, and when last seen had four separate wounds.'

"A postcard to hand from the same source says: `Turnbull is missing, and from all accounts very seriously wounded. I have little hopes of him being alive.' "

Even allowing for the Boys' Own tone typical of such letters from the battlefield, it seems that Turnbull died because he "played the game" while injured, just like in the 1909 Cup Final. Most likely, he died in captivity and was buried by the Germans in a grave that was obliterated in the fighting which followed. His body probably lies somewhere under the fields of Cherisy to this day.

AS THE First World War passes over the horizon of living memory, new ways are needed to keep remembrance fresh, to personalise the scale of the calamity. The death of a footballer was no more tragic than any of the deaths that day, on either side. But what better, in this football-mad age, than the story of a footballer's death to illuminate the memory of the passing generations?

Sandy Turnbull was an important figure in the history of Man Utd and the Professional Footballers Association. They might wish to consider some sort of suitable memorial to "Blithesome Sandy" - whether a sports field in his name in the village of Cherisy, or a plaque at Old Trafford, or both.

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Re: Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull

Thu Jan 15, 2009 6:26 pm

Is interesting reading that Tim (Y)

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Re: Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull

Thu Jan 15, 2009 11:13 pm

Great find Tim. A true legend (l)

My old man said be a City fan...

Nothing significant and lasting will ever come of FFP! - RedSte (2012)

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Re: Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull

Fri Jan 16, 2009 5:06 am

I miss John..cause i only know about him when John mentioned about the match fixing incident..didnt know much about him other than that thou so Tim thanks for posting it. (Y)

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