Forgotten Champions

Forgotten Champions
May 20, 2014 Chris Rowland

The Unfamiliar Story of Ashworth and McQueen.

By Andrew Mckay (TTT Subscriber orton992000).

It is a fact of football life, however much modern fans of big clubs indignantly insist otherwise, that over the historical long term, championship-winning teams are relatively rare for anybody and so, by extension, are the managers who lead them.

Liverpool do have more of such men than any other English club – eight, ahead of Arsenal’s seven and Everton’s five – but it should still not be hard to acknowledge them all. The modern day quartet from Shankly onwards can clearly all take care of themselves, but what of the other four?

George Kay’s 1947 title is still within living memory for some and, while Tom Watson’s two Edwardian championships aren’t, he looms large enough in the club’s early history to ensure he isn’t completely forgotten.

That leaves 1920s pair David Ashworth and Matt McQueen as arguably the least recognised of the group by most fans today and certainly the winners treated most casually by history. That there is confusion over such a basic detail as whether Ashworth was English or Irish is deeply unflattering to him. The pictures accompanying their profiles on the club’s website are clearly of men decades younger than they actually both were in the 1920s, despite the ready availability of contemporary images. Even an officially sanctioned history, such as Stephen F. Kelly’s version, can both miss the chronology of when one handed the job over to the other and credit McQueen’s title to Ashworth instead, as if to say that accuracy about these two is something a history of Liverpool FC can afford to lack.

They managed separately, but their stories are inextricably linked nonetheless: they won one title each in consecutive years, they both did so with essentially the same team and one would pass the manager’s role over to the other in what history regards as the strangest of circumstances. Ashworth never played the game professionally but McQueen did, winning two Second Division title medals with Liverpool themselves in the 1890s  – the latter one astonishingly earned via almost as many appearances in goal as out on the pitch – and participated in the club’s first FA Cup semi-final in 1899.

On the other hand, Ashworth arrived at Liverpool with over a decade of managerial experience at Oldham Athletic and Stockport County, having reached a Cup semi-final with Oldham in 1913 and guided them to fourth in the First Division a year later. McQueen meanwhile had no previous experience and had actually been serving as one of the club’s directors when asked to take over.

Both of these appointments look underwhelming today – Ashworth’s two good years at Oldham apart more than half of his career had been spent outside the top division, while entrusting a top club to the inexperienced McQueen looks a risky decision  – but they made sense at the time. The Liverpool directors’ policy both then and for decades afterwards asked no more of a new man than that he was a “safe pair of hands”, which was certainly the view of both of them on appointment. The added dimension of ambition lay years in the future. Indeed, of the club’s early managerial choices only the luring of three-time league winner Tom Watson from Sunderland in 1896 showed genuine ambition, while even as late as 1959 Bill Shankly’s selection owed as much to his perceived ability to get the most out of a budget as anything more inspirational. Ashworth’s CV was therefore seen as perfectly adequate, while McQueen’s standing as a current director and former player was deemed enough to compensate for his inexperience, although the temptation in his case to draw a parallel with the dynasty era’s policy of promotion from within should be resisted.

Even aside from the strict hierarchy at football clubs in those days, which meant that a journey from the boardroom to the dug-out was technically more of a demotion anyway, the manager’s job was not yet taken seriously by the English game. Club secretary George Patterson actually combined the two roles on a caretaker basis before Ashworth’s arrival and then permanently for a further eight years after McQueen retired, so it’s in this light that McQueen’s appointment should be seen: if a club couldn’t get a specialist manager then someone on the admin staff would do just as well. Indeed, neighbours Everton would take this policy to the extreme in 1939 by winning the First Division with a team run by a committee instead of a manager. It is also telling that squad photos of the era usually show the manager squeezed almost apologetically on the end of a row, in sharp contrast to the central position today, implying that even they didn’t think they were that important. The directors picked the teams at most clubs during this period anyway and while Liverpool’s managers did have autonomy over most playing matters, they were still denied the power of team selection, which of course would not change until Bill Shankly’s time.

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