Newton Heath take offence: Victorian football’s libel sensation

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”.

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Newton Heath, pictured in 1892, Alf Albut 2nd left, middle row

The first witness called was Heath secretary Alf Albut. He said he had thought the match fairly ordinary, and had not noticed any bad conduct. When asked whether, at a recent football dinner, he had admitted his players were guilty of rough play, Albut said he could not remember as he had been drunk. “It was a very merry dinner,” he said.

JH Strawson, the match referee, said the Gazette’s report was “a very false account”, and the match had been fair and sportsmanlike. A local rector, Reverend Reid, said he had been disappointed by an “unusually tame” match. EA Davies of the Manchester Evening News said it had been one of the fairest games he had ever seen, and three other newspaper reporters agreed. William Jephcott, in his defence, said he had seen more of the match than the other reporters as he only took shorthand notes.

West Brom players, including Geddes, testified that Newton Heath had been rough in their play, and claimed the Gazette report had been accurate. But Mr Shee said they were biased, while his witnesses – the pressmen, the referee and a clergyman – were entirely independent. He said the evidence overwhelmingly showed the match had been “a thoroughly well-contested game, played on the best of terms, and free from brute force and illegality”.

The jury agreed, and found in favour of Newton Heath. However, while the Judge, Mr Justice Day, accepted the jury’s consideration, he noted the Gazette’s accusations had been made against individual players, and could not see how any attack had been made on the football club as a company. It was a case, he said, that should never have been brought before him. He awarded Newton Heath the tiny sum of one farthing, and ordered the club to pay its own costs.

The Heathens were stung by their hollow victory, while the Birmingham Gazette was celebrated for its defence of the case, which set a precedent that continues to be relevant today. Football clubs remain litigious, and libel laws are not to be crossed, but criticism of dirty, dishonest and useless play is fair comment. “The Gazette has rendered service to the football world, and to newspaper reporters,” observed the Dart in the aftermath of the case. “As a result, it is improbable that any other club will venture to imitate Newton Heath.”

Published in the February 2013 issue of When Saturday Comes.

Published by Paul Brown

Writes about football, history, true adventure. The Guardian, Four Four Two, When Saturday Comes, The Blizzard, Longreads, Deadspin, etc. Latest book: The Ruhleben Football Association. Twitter: @paulbrownUK