The team was Leeds City; the time was 1919 and the place was a hotel in Leeds. But that is only part of the strange story that surrounds the creation of Leeds United Football Club.
Then a Second Division team, Leeds City had played only eight of their matches for that season, the first following World War I, when they incurred the displeasure of the Football Association. Illegal payments, former players turning whistleblowers, and missing financial documents, all added up as the FA and Football League called in Alderman William Clarke to hold a joint inquiry, before permanently disbanding the club.
A popular refrain of that time was “All dressed up and nowhere to go”, and if there was a parodied version of it about, the plight of the ex-‘City’ players, we wouldn’t be surprised. They were high and dry, in mid-season. “What now?” they asked, and the answer came when, at a meeting of Clubs called by the League, the out-of-work footballers were offered to the highest bidder: auctioned, in fact.
The League was severely critical: there were cries of “Slave Market” and “Blood Money” in certain quarters, but the intention behind this extraordinary football “auction” was simply to find employment for the dispossessed players – and to find it quickly.
Although the “auction” had been held in secret at the Metropole Hotel, details leaked out – they were in the evening paper! Members of the League Committee were none too pleased – “a traitor in the camp” they said. The information had, in fact, been gathered by reporters from Club representatives going to and from the meeting in the usual way.
It appeared that what the League thought to be ‘fair and just’ prices for the players, struck the ‘buyers’ as positively ‘black market’ – although that term was then unknown.
In fact, the clubs got their men at reduced rates; £1,250 was the top figure and the young full-back, W. Kirton, a recent acquisition who had distinguished himself in Leeds City’s last match at Wolverhampton went to Aston Villa for £250!
Port Vale filled the gap in the League, but that, for the time being, was the end of ‘big’ football in Leeds. It looked like being the end of ‘big’ football in Leeds. It looked like being the end of ‘big’ football too in nearby Huddersfield. Enthusiasm for the game was at a low ebb in that town, as Rugby drew in crowds there, and Fulham played there about a month later, the gate was £90, minus Fulham’s share of £11.
Hilton Crowther and his brother were the chief patrons of the game in Huddersfield. They had spent considerable sums on it and saw little return for the outlay. Now that there was no senior football team in Leeds, their chances of popularising football seemed remote indeed. Would their efforts meet with more appreciation in Leeds they wondered? And, deciding, possibly, that things couldn’t be much worse, they set about arranging for the transfer of Huddersfield Town, lock, stock and barrel to Leeds.
The League was inclined to favour the idea, but the people of Huddersfield strongly objected.
Something like a crusade developed to keep the Club in Huddersfield, and a leading figure was Mr. A. Brook Hirst (later, chairman of the Football Association).
Inspired, doubtless by the sincere display of loyalty, where there had seemed to be only indifference, Huddersfield went from success to success, win after win, home and away.
By way, perhaps, of keeping his fingers crossed, Hilton Crowther borrowed Aladdin’s lamp from the Francis Laidler’s pantomime at the Theatre Royal in Leeds, but it was hardly necessary, though it went with the team every Saturday they were irresistible, unfaltering.
It didn’t last, however. They lost to Aston Villa in the final at Stamford Bridge – after extra time!
And who scored the winning goal? None other than Kirton who had gone via the “auction,” from Leeds City to Aston Villa for £250! He got his head to the ball from a corner kick and made no mistake about it.
The Rise of Leeds United
Together with 1,000 Leeds City supporters, in the hours following the auction at the Metropole Hotel, the Crowthers headed to Salem Chapel in Holbeck, where they gave football back to Leeds when they helped to found the present Leeds United Football Club. The rest is our history!