John Downie: Forward who became Manchester United's most expensive player
Downie was an irrepressibly cheery player, as adept at creating goals as hitting the net himself
Saturday 23 February 2013
John Downie was the costliest footballer in Manchester United history when he arrived at Old Trafford from Bradford Park Avenue in March 1949.
Though his £18,000 fee sounds like chicken feed by modern standards – it would barely pay for a morning's work by £30.75m striker Dimitar Berbatov, still the Red Devils' current record purchase, despite his transfer to Fulham – it represented a huge sum in March 1949 to a club with recent experience of poverty and still recovering from the wartime shelling of their ground by German bombers.
But Downie, an irrepressibly cheery little Scottish inside-forward, as adept at creating goals for his colleagues as hitting the net himself, was reckoned to be worth every penny of his price, which was nearly three times the previous highest paid by the club, £6,500 to Newcastle United for centre-forward Jack Smith in 1938.
Downie had excelled at Bradford alongside his extravagantly gifted friend, the flamboyant England international Len Shackleton, and was seen as the ideal replacement for the feisty Mancunian Johnny Morris, who had just bade farewell to Old Trafford after a sharp difference of opinion with the manager, Matt Busby.
But although he made a significant contribution to United's League championship of 1951/52, the first of Busby's reign, and certainly could not be regarded as a flop overall, Downie never went close to emulating the magnificent Morris.
The principal problem was the lofty level of expectation from supporters who had loved the departed local boy as one of their own. While the Scot was pacy and plucky with a sharp football intelligence, a deft finisher and a smooth distributor with either foot, he did not equal the consistent all-round excellence of the more self-assured Morris.
Poignantly, the consensus of opinion among his more astute team- mates was that Downie never realised what an exceptional talent he possessed. Frequently he performed incandescently in training, dribbling past some of the most formidable defenders in the land as if they were so many lamp-posts, before laying off a slick pass or striking a spectacular goal. Sometimes on match-days, however, he would dither over his decision-making, surrendering possession limply instead of applying the killer touch of which he was so manifestly capable.
Downie was employed as a wartime "Bevin Boy" at Fryston Colliery, near Castleford, when he crossed the border from his Lanarkshire home to join Second Division Bradford as a 19-year-old part-timer in 1944; he turned fully professional after the conflict.
Soon he was attracting attention from a posse of top-flight clubs, all seeking to re-stock their squads after the depredations of the war, and when Busby pipped his rivals, he believed he had acquired the ideal replacement for Morris.
The newcomer averaged approximately a goal every three games as he helped United to First Division runners-up spots in both 1948/49 and 1950/51, before they finally captured the League crown a season later. It was an acceptable return as he also contributed numerous assists to senior marksmen Jack Rowley and Stan Pearson; yet throughout that sequence he was dropped periodically, Busby believing that he wasn't quite fulfilling his immense potential.
Come 1952/53, anxious about a decline in his scoring rate, Downie asked his boss to try him at wing-half, thus lifting the pressure to score goals, but United were so well served in that midfield department, especially with Busby Babes such as the prodigy Duncan Edwards about to emerge, that his request was denied.
It came as no surprise, therefore, when he was transferred to Luton Town in August 1953, United banking £10,000 in exchange for the 28-year-old who had netted 37 times in 116 senior outings for the club.
Still in his prime, Downie made an explosive start for the Hatters, netting a hat-trick in a 4-4 draw with Oldham Athletic on his debut, but then he became one of the game's wanderers, putting in shortish spells with Hull City, then Kings Lynn and Wisbech Town (both non- League), Mansfield Town and Darlington. Still active late in his thirties, he played on with Hyde United, Mossley and Stalybridge Celtic, and would have made a Third Division comeback with Halifax Town had he not already received his Football League severance payment.
When he finally laid aside his boots, Downie decided management was not for him and worked as a newsagent in Bradford until he retired in 1985. He remained enviably fit into his seventies, vaulting over walls on his long walks in the countryside and chasing after stray footballs at the local park games of which he never tired.
John Dennis Downie, footballer: born Lanarkshire 19 July 1925; played for Bradford Park Avenue 1944-49, Manchester United 1949-53, Luton Town 1953-54, Hull City 1954-55, Kings Lynn 1955-57, Wisbech Town 1957-58, Mansfield Town 1958-59, Darlington 1959-60; married (five children); died Tynemouth 19 February 2013.
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