When the Irish tried to burn down Old Trafford

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It was the night before Wolverhampton Wanderers were due to take on Cardiff City in an FA Cup semi-final replay at the stadium then still known simply as Manchester United Football Ground. Doing the rounds of nearby Trafford Park, Lancashire Police Constable Thomas Carr had stopped into Glover’s Cable Works and walked up a slag heap to peer over a wall into the venue. From his heightened position, he spotted three men lurking in a doorway inside the ground. His watch showed it was 45 minutes to midnight and his investigative instincts told him the trio couldn’t be up to any good inside a soccer club at that hour.

When Carr asked what they were doing, one of the men replied they were “on guard”. The other two then promptly took out their pistols, pointed at him and fired. The shots missed as the constable lost his footing and slid down the slag heap. He then gave chase and though his attackers disappeared into the night, a wallet was found lying on the street. The police discovered an infirmary out-patient’s card inside and duly arrested 23-year-old Patrick Fennell, an Irishman living in Chorlton-on-Medlock. Fennell was charged with attempted murder arising from the incident where he and two compatriots had tried to burn down the home of Manchester United.

It was March 1921, and as the War of Independence raged at home, exiles across Britain had established the Irish Self-Determination League to support the cause and Manchester became a hotbed of legal and illegal Republican activity. At some point, the local leadership of the Irish Republican Army, having abandoned earlier plans to black out the city of Manchester, decided setting fire to what was then regarded as one of the finest stadia in the country would garner reams of publicity and cause the postponement of a high-profile Cup tie. Decades before the ABU movement was born, Sinn Fein operatives wanted to put United to the torch.

The full extent of their intentions only came to light the morning after the shooting when the club groundskeeper discovered three bottles full of paraffin. Even allowing for the largely wooden structure of the stand beneath which the men were loitering, that hardly seemed like enough fuel to reduce an arena capable of hosting crowds in excess of 70,000 to ashes. There is no evidence either of whether Michael Collins, who famously referred to soccer as “the garrison game”, had ordered this manoeuvre out of loathing for the English sport.

Whatever the motivation and whoever came up with the idea, arson was the preferred weapon of the IRA in Manchester at this time. Less than two weeks after the abortive attempt to destroy the ground, they’d embarked on a plan to simultaneously burn down a host of hotels, warehouses and cafes all around the city on the first Saturday morning in April. Nineteen Irishmen were arrested for their part in that spectacular, a conspiracy that soon became enmeshed with the case the newspapers had already dubbed “The United Football Ground Affair”.

Having been arrested while lying in bed at his lodgings hours after the shooting at the stadium, Fennell had pleaded not guilty to the charge of attempted murder and claimed to have been already asleep when the fracas happened. Having also maintained he’d never handled a weapon of any sort in his life, Fennell did however confess to being a first lieutenant in “No. 3 Company” of the Erskine Street Irish Club, the epicentre of all paramilitary activity in Manchester, a place which was the location of a bloody shoot-out with police in April. Fennell’s protestations of innocence at his trial in July of that year were bolstered from an unlikely source. One of those arrested following the April arson attacks came to his defence in court.

“Charles Harding, who was sentenced last Friday to 15 years penal servitude on a charge of treason felony, was next called as a witness,” wrote The Manchester Guardian. “He said that the three men at the football ground were himself, a man who had since gone back to Ireland, and Sean Morgan, (reputed to be the IRA’s top gunman in the city) who was shot dead in the affray at the Erskine Street Club. Fennell was not there. Before setting out for the ground, Harding had borrowed a trench coat from Fennell at the club and it might have been that the wallet was in it and fell out. Harding also revealed that it was the policeman who fired first, and that he fired in reply, but with no intention of hitting the officer.”

Although as somebody staring down the barrel of a lengthy spell in Strangeways, Harding had nothing to lose by trying to take the fall for Fennell, his testimony was corroborated somewhat by another peculiar strand to the story. During the initial round-up of the hotel arsonists, 17-year-old Daniel McNicholl had turned state’s evidence once arrested and told the authorities: “Do you know you have got the men for the Trafford Park affair, when they tried to stop the cup tie?”

Most likely because of Harding’s testimony, the jury had lengthy deliberations before eventually returning a guilty verdict. Exactly one week after the truce was signed to end the War of Independence, Patrick Fennell was sentenced to seven years penal servitude and to endure forever as a curious footnote in the historic relationship between Ireland and United.
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