Louis Rocca: One of Manchester United’s unsung heroes

The largest global football follower survey was conducted in May 2012 by Kantar. The results of this showed that an estimated 659 million people are fans of Manchester United.

Whilst it may be questionable just how many of those tune in to games week in, week out, one thing is for sure, Manchester United are one of the biggest, and most followed teams in football.

People in every continent of the globe could reel off trophy winning tales of every United team, from the Busby Babes to
the Class of ’92. Some would even be able to tell you about the club’s humble beginnings as Newton Heath back in 1878.

Everybody also has their own opinion who the most important, influential men in United’s history are too.

Countless people could be considered, ranging from Sir Matt Busby, to Sir Alex Ferguson or James W. Gibson, it is practically impossible to come up with a clear, definitive answer.

Fans may be familiar with a certain Louis Van Gaal, who was the first team manager between 2014-2016, during a somewhat rollercoaster spell which resulted in an FA Cup triumph in his final game in charge.

However, one Louis that some fans may not be aware even existed, is Louis Rocca. He is the man credited with giving the club their name, bringing Matt Busby to United and developing a complex and effective scouting system.

“He gave United three great gifts – their name, Matt Busby and the scouting system.”

Harold Riley, who himself was scouted by Rocca in his youth, says: “It disturbs me that the present day club does not look back to its foundations, rather concentrating on current luminaries.”

Grandson, Tony Rocca, says: “He was (in later life) hailed as United’s unsung hero.”

Louis Rocca- courtesy of the Rocca Family

Whilst Riley echoed these claims as he said: “he was a major figure in the foundation of the club as it is today.

“He was certainly Italianate and could flare up when he disagreed with things, but in general he was a man with considerable humility.”

Rocca is arguably the man who laid the foundations to make Manchester United the club they are today during an eventful 55 year affiliation with the club, and to some he is undoubtably the most important person in Manchester United’s long history.

Early beginnings in Ancoats

A copy of Louis Rocca’s birth certificate, courtesy of the Rocca Family

Louis Rocca was born in September 1882 in Ancoats, Manchester to Italian-immigrants, Louis Sr. and Mary.

His father, according to his birth certificate above, was a confectioner, making and selling ice cream from the family home.

This is how Tony remembers his late grandfather, or “the old man” as his father (Louis’ son), called him.

In his own words, he says: “I really do regret not having had the chance to get to know Grandpa, who died when I was seven years old.

“The one and only story told in the family is that Louis invited my Dad and I to a function in (what I suppose was the boardroom) at Old Trafford, at which there was ice-cream for dessert.

“It is said that I exclaimed “Grandpa, this ice-cream’s lumpy!” – to the astonishment of all the assembled.

“Louis turned and said: “Quite right, son,” and gave me ten shillings – the equivalent of ten quid or more today.”

Thankfully for Manchester United, Louis Jr’s passion was not gelato, it was football and in particular Newton Heath.

The beginning of his love affair with Newton Heath

Newton Heath in 1892, less than two years later, Rocca’s 55 year affiliation with the club would commence. Image Credit: The Graphic Newspaper

Louis’ love really began in 1894, where he began working as a tea boy for the club at just 12 years old, in a somewhat bizarre fashion.

Desperate to see a match but with no way of being able to pay for a ticket, Rocca climbed over the wooden railings at Bank Street.

He was immediately stopped by a steward who struck up a deal with the young Rocca; if he was prepared to make the tea and coffee for the players at half-time he would not be punished, furthermore he would be allowed to watch the match.

Tea and coffee duty remained a regular thing until Rocca went on to take responsibility for the players’ kits and boots, which at the time was a very envied position.

He later would become what is rumoured to be the first groundsman the club ever had.

As a comparison to modern football, most Premier League clubs employing around four full-time members of staff, including a Head Groundsman to ensure their pitches are pristine for every game, and there is even an award for ‘Premier League Grounds Team of the Year’.

Whilst the pitches from the late 1800’s/early 1900’s are a far cry from the carpet-like playing fields of today, his loyalty and work ethic for the club was admirable.

Something truly remarkable, and almost certainly unique, about Rocca is the fact that during his time with the club, he is believed to have held virtually every position possible for the club.

Newton Heath and the 20th century

As he continued to grow in both stature, and age, at the club, Newton Heath encountered severe financial difficulties as they entered the 20th Century.

Louis Rocca reflecting about Newton Heath, who would later become Manchester United in the ‘Topical Times’, February 1935 – Image Credit: Tony Park

In an extract from a newspaper column in the Topical Times, pictured above, Rocca described this period at the club: “Before Newton Heath was taken over, I was an active servant of the club and like the little band of its workers at that time, received no pay.

“We tended the ground, did running repairs to the hoardings and club quarters, and did the scouting jobs around local teams”.

Fundraisers were run over four days to help raise £1000 for the club, and as with everything else Newton Heath related, Rocca was not far away from those either.

He is believed to have helped to raise money in the day, and then spent his nights protecting the funds raised.

The club could only raise £300, which was enough to see them through to the next year, where they were saved by local businessman, John Henry Davies, in 1902.

John Henry Davies saves Manchester United from bankruptcy

Davies went about making some changes to the club, including changing the kit colours from green and gold to the now recognisable red and white combination known around the world today.

He also proposed that the club should change the name from Newton Heath to something more relevant, as they had moved out of the area nine years prior and the name was increasingly unpopular.

A meeting was held to decide the new name, with a now 19-year-old Rocca in attendance.

Legend has it that names such as “Manchester Central” and “Manchester Celtic” were suggested by various people, however they were rejected for sounding “too Scottish” and “too industrial”.

Nobody was any closer to a name for the club, until the former tea boy made a suggestion that was surprisingly well received.

“Why don’t we call ourselves Manchester United?” is rumoured to be the phrase he said.

As such, Manchester United were born.

The first ‘Manchester United’ squad, after the team’s name change from Newton Heath in 1902. Image Credit: Warwick Brookes

There has since been some scepticism as to the complete truth in this story, with author and leading Manchester United historian Tom Clare saying: “This is simply not true.

“The Lancashire Courier, The Manchester Evening News, and The Manchester Guardian, all had reporters at the first meeting, who stated quite clearly;

“Before the meeting broke up, one old supporter suggested that the name of the club should be changed to Manchester United, but this did not meet with much favour.”

“Rocca was only 18 years of age at the time of those meetings so he could never have been classed as an ‘old supporter.’

In spite of this, Rocca continued to claim he named the club until the day he died, and grandson Tony continues this same belief.

Furthermore, Harold Riley, who was a personal friend of L.S. Lowry, said: “He certainly was the one to give the club the name Manchester United”.

A scouting system made up of Roman Catholic priests?

At the age of just 24, Rocca was appointed the chief scout and revolutionised the scouting system for Manchester United, and likely many other football clubs.

Rocca built up a network of look-outs around the country, especially in the north, made up of Roman Catholic priests, school masters, and any friends who wanted to help Manchester United in any way they could.

On top of this, batches of local Saturday evening newspapers were delivered to Rocca’s office on a Monday morning.

He would then scour reports of local junior matches, and if the names of any youngsters kept surfacing, he would make a point of going out to watch them play before signing them for United.

This was something that Riley recalls from knowing Rocca, as he says: “He wrote in longhand, as he wrote to me, to the parents of promising young schoolboys, that he wished them to come and play with United Juniors.”

Manchester United Juniors in 1944. Image Credit: Leslie Millman

United Juniors – as Riley recalls them- were an amateur team set up by Rocca, under the name Manchester United Junior Athletic Club.

The club was something of an early academy, similar to the one that we know today that has produced a countless amount of professional players.

Rocca was continuing to progress through his boyhood club and although it’s near impossible to gauge how popular he was at the club, the picture below shows the 1909 FA Cup winners team under an umbrella branded “Rocca’s Brigade”.

Image courtesy of the Rocca family

 

The two names best credited to Rocca’s scouting system are Johnny Carey, who would captain the club’s 1948 FA Cup victory, and Stan Pearson, who would go on to score 127 goals for the club.

A move from Bank Street to Old Trafford

As well as saving the club, John Henry Davies would also help finance the move from their Bank Street ground to Old Trafford in 1909, citing that the poor conditions were not fit for First Division and FA Cup winners.

At a cost of £90,000 (or just under £10 million in modern times), Old Trafford was built and opened in February, 1910.

As a comparison, Alf Common moving from Sunderland to Middlesbrough for £1,000 in 1905 was the record transfer at that time and a house in London, on Cannon Street, cost £20,000- it would sell for around £2.2 million today.

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The interactive image above shows how Old Trafford looked at first, compared to how it looks in more modern times.

Rocca’s involvement with the first team

Unconfirmed stories claim that Rocca became Herbert Bamlett’s assistant manager in 1927, just as he was gaining a reputation for being the club’s ‘fixer’.

In 1931, Bamlett oversaw a spell of 12 consecutive loses and ultimately resigned from the club.

With the club in need of a manager, club secretary, Walter Crickmer’s, took control of the first team with Rocca as his assistant.

Walter Crickmer and the 1957 title-winning side Image Credit: Manchester Evening News

According to Manchester United’s records, Louis was also tasked with finding another financial saviour for Manchester United by Crickmer that same year.

It was during this time that Rocca, along with a few others, persuaded local businessman James W. Gibson to save the club.

Being a Mancunian, he was easily persuaded to invest £2,000 into the club, with other investors grouping together to match his share, meaning that Rocca was a part of saving the club twice.

Crickmer and Rocca remained in charge of the first team until 1932, when Scott Duncan was appointed.

Gibson, along with John Henry Davies, are immortalised in the Old Trafford tunnel today, as seen on the picture below:

Plaques commemorating John Henry Davies and James W. Gibson on either side of the tunnel walls. Image Credit: Per Gunnar / groundhopping.se

World War Two: A suspension of British football and Old Trafford destroyed

Crickmer and Rocca again took over the first team in 1937 for a further two seasons after Duncan resigned.

The Second World War resulted in the suspension of all football in Britain for a limited amount of time.

Unofficial games took place over the six years of the war, during which time rumours say Rocca took control of the United first team on occasions and even played as goalkeeper.

However, as no official records were kept of these games, there is no telling just how true these rumours are.

Old Trafford after the March 11, 1941 bombing Image Credit: ManUtd.com

Records were, however, kept of the night of March 11, 1941. During this night, Old Trafford was hit by German bombers and left in ruins.

It would take a further eight years to be rebuilt, meaning United had to play their home games at Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium.

United didn’t play a game at Old Trafford in almost ten years.

As the war finally drew to a close in 1945, Manchester United’s board decided upon appointing a new manager.

James W. Gibson trusted the club’s fixer with finding the right man for the job, and this potentially resulted in Rocca’s finest work.

Louis Rocca and Sir Matt Busby- a winning combination

Image Credit: PA

Rocca had previously set his sights on luring Manchester City’s wing-half, Matt Busby, to Old Trafford in 1930 when he was transfer listed at just 20 years old.

The transfer was not to be, however, as United could not afford to pay the £150 transfer fee that City asked for- a staggering comparison to the club’s fortunes today.

Rocca had remained in touch with Busby throughout the years as they were both members of the Manchester Catholic Sportsman’s Club.

He was not to be rejected twice in his pursuit of the Scotsman though, as he wrote to the then-Liverpool player and coach in 1945 to persuade him to take the vacant job at Manchester United.

Despite being offered the job at Liverpool, the now 36-year-old Busby was unhappy with the terms of the offer at the Merseyside club, as he wanted control of everything.

From appointing scouts and coaches, to buying and selling players or even overseeing training and the team’s tactics, Busby was demanding unheard of powers that Liverpool were reluctant to offer.

In stepped Rocca who wrote a letter to Busby’s army regiment to avoid being intercepted by Liverpool’s management informing him of the job at United.

Busby arrived for a meeting with Gibson and Rocca in February 1945 with his list of demands.

Rocca was convinced this was the right man for the job and Gibson took his advice.

Busby signed the contract that same day and Manchester United had finally got their man.

“He will build up the team and put it where it belongs,” proclaimed Walter Crickmer at the time. “At the top.”

The rest, as they say, is history.

Image Credit: Manchester Evening News

Later years and death

Embed from Getty Images

During the early Busby years, he was working with a team compromised almost entirely of players signed by Rocca and his scouting system.

In 1948, Rocca had the ultimate honour bestowed upon him as the FA Cup winning team was almost entirely made up of his signings.

Seven of the eleven that started the FA Cup final victory over Blackpool were products of Rocca’s youth academy and scouting system.

The team went on to win the First Division in 1949, their first league title in 38 years.

The team that day is displayed below, [the * indicates those who came through the Manchester United academy due to Rocca’s scouting system]:

This, unfortunately, was to be his last success with Manchester United.

Louis Rocca died in 1950 at the age of 67, bringing his 55 year affiliation with the club to and end.

He would be spared the pain of Munich and missed out on the glory of the 1968 European Cup victory.

His successor, Joe Armstrong, would pick up where Rocca left off, finding talents such as a 15-year-old Bobby Charlton in 1953.

Louis Rocca’s grave in Moston Cemetery. Image Credit: nimr0D14

 

Rocca is buried in St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Cemetery, which is in Moston, Manchester.

Many United players, staff and former players were in attendance of the service.

Even in death, Rocca was never far from United as a piece of the Old Trafford turf was placed on his coffin.

Rocca’s grandson, Tony, went on to contact Sir Matt Busby for a story about Louis for his father’s birthday.

Busby sent back the following letter:

Image Credit: The Rocca family

In 2005, Harold Riley, who himself had been discovered by Rocca but chose to not play football professionally, honoured Rocca by creating the ‘The Louis Rocca Trophy’.

This was an annual football match held between Salford and Glasgow Boys, due to their links with Manchester United.

Sir Alex Ferguson convinced Nike to provide kits for the inaugural occasion.

Two games were played, seniors and juniors, with Glasgow Boys winning both games 1-0 and 5-4 respectively.

Speaking about it, Riley says: “The Louis Rocca Cup was never intended to promote celebrity of any kind, rather it was a competition around a love for the sport.

“It was played on a few occasions but sadly was not supported enough to continue.”

Jackie Blanchflower, a Busby Babe who never played again after the Munich disaster, once said of Rocca: “We called him chief scout, but in times of distress he WAS Manchester United.”

Manchester United have had a plethora of key figures in their history, however no others can claim to have held almost every role within the club.

Harold Riley perfectly summarised Louis Rocca by saying: “He gave United three great gifts – their name, Matt Busby and the scouting system.”

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