Journalists often criticise players, managers and clubs, but in the 1890s Newton Heath (now Manchester United) sued the Birmingham Gazette for libel. The case set a precedent that is still relevant today. This article for When Saturday Comes tells the story.
It is taken for granted that in these pages and elsewhere football writers can criticise football clubs as they see fit. Manchester United are cheats, Liverpool are divers, and Arsenal are just plain rubbish. Those are a selection of opinions gleaned from newspaper reports following recent Premier League matches. It would be ridiculous, would it not, if a football club were to sue a newspaper because they did not like a match report? However, back in 1894, Manchester United (then Newton Heath) did exactly that.
The offending report appeared in the Birmingham Gazette, and concerned a First Division match between Newton Heath and West Bromwich Albion. The Heathens won 4-1, but reporter William Jephcott was unimpressed by their rough play. “It was not football, it was simply brutality,” he wrote, “and, if these are to be the tactics Newton Heath adopt to win their matches, the sooner the Football Association deal severely with them the better it will be for the game generally.”
According to Jephcott, the West Brom players were subjected to violent “dirty tricks”. Alf Geddes was forced to leave the pitch after receiving a kick to the spine that raised “a lump as big as a duck egg”, and several others were kicked in the head and ankles. “It was simply weight and brute force that enabled Newton Heath to win,” Jephcott wrote, adding that, should the Heathens continue to play in this style, “it will perhaps create an extra run of business for the undertakers.”
Heath sued the Gazette for libel, and the case was heard at the Manchester Assizes. Mr Shee QC, for the plaintiffs, explained that the club relied on drawing spectators in order to generate gate receipts. He argued that it was therefore “of considerable importance that the players should not be accused of improper play”. He said that, if foul play had taken place, it was the responsibility of the FA to take action, and no business of the Gazette.
Mr Gully, for the defence, said the match report had been written in good faith, and if the writer honestly thought he saw a kick that was a foul, he was entitled to report it without fear of legal action, even if he was mistaken. In any case, Mr Gully said he could not accept that spectators would be frightened away by “the chance of seeing a leg broken”. In fact, he argued, the prospect might attract more spectators than ever. It seemed to him to be “the very madness of litigation”.Embed from Getty Images