What happened to Old Trafford's first superstar Sandy Turnbull?

He was a Manchester United legend, the first man to score a goal at Old Trafford. But it is the mystery of his death during the First World War that fascinates us today
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Almost a century ago, a new sports stadium, regarded as one of the wonders of the Edwardian age, opened just outside the city boundary of Manchester. A large crowd, "quite 45,000, perhaps 50,000" according to the Manchester Guardian, overwhelmed the municipal tramways service on the opening day and swarmed across Trafford bridge "in taxis, costers' carts, coal lorries and all strange manner of things on wheels".

Two football teams, one in scarlet shirts, the other in white, lined up on a pitch "as spick and span, as smooth, and as green as a billiard table". A few minutes into the match, a free kick was taken by the home team from close to the right-hand corner flag. A player wearing a red jersey marked with the Number 10 – a powerful, stocky figure with a square head and receding hair, not unlike an Edwardian version of Wayne Rooney – charged into the penalty area and scored with a diving header. The fans waved their red-and-white umbrellas and rattled the doorbells which they had removed for the afternoon from front doors all over Manchester.

The following Monday, on 21 February 1910, the Manchester Guardian carried a long report on the match, which ended Manchester United 3, Liverpool 4. Here is the first goal, described in the rousing Boys' Own style of the era. "Duckworth took a free kick ... and skilfully dropped the ball some 10 yards or more from the goal-mouth. A Turnbull rushed in with lowered head. The ball was within a foot or two of the ground by the time he got it but he met it with that extra-durable head of his and drove it hard into the goal."

Many hundreds of goals have been scored at Manchester United's ground since that day: great goals, scrappy goals, home goals, away goals, headed goals, goals scored long after the match should reasonably have ended. What follows is the story of the man who scored the first of them: the man who scored the first goal at Old Trafford.

"A Turnbull" was Alexander or Alec or more often "Sandy" Turnbull, one of the great stars of the first successful Manchester United team in 1907-11. He also scored the only goal in Manchester United's first FA Cup win in 1909. He is still, with 101 goals, the club's 19th highest scorer of all time. He appears in the record books just after Wayne Rooney, who has inherited (by way of Denis Law and others) Turnbull's Number 10 shirt. Judging by old pictures and match reports, the two Number 10s, separated by a century, were uncannily similar.

Had he lived 100 years later, Sandy Turnbull, a miner's son from Scotland, would have been a multi-millionaire and a back-page tabloid star. He would also have been a front-page tabloid villain.

Turnbull was involved in an illegal-payments scandal at Manchester City in 1905-6 and was suspended for life after a betting and match-fixing scandal at United in 1915. He was one of the leaders of a players' revolt at United in 1909, which led to the recognition of the professional footballers' union and, ultimately, to the immense salaries earned by footballers today.

On 3 May 1917, at the age of 33, leaving a widow and four young children, Sandy Turnbull was killed during a muddled, unsuccessful night attack on German lines just to the east of Arras. His body was never found and lies, almost certainly, under the fields of northern France to this day. He was not the only footballer to be killed in the Great War, but was probably the most talented and famous – or notorious – of them.

Turnbull's short, eventful life is emblematic of the first two decades of the last century, the era which spawned the modern age. He was a working man's hero in the time of straw boaters and cloth caps, when the rise of professional sport foretold the rise of the common man. He died an anonymous death in the time of tin helmets, in the mud of northern France, where the common man was slaughtered in uncommon numbers.

To mark Armistice Day and the approaching centenary of Old Trafford, we have tried to reconstruct Sandy Turnbull's life from newspaper and government archives. Much remains obscure, but the picture that does emerge is of a man who was, variously, a rebel, a scoundrel, a selfless team-player and a much-loved comrade in arms. Turnbull played through injury to win the FA Cup for United in 1909. He fought on, leading his platoon despite being wounded, before he was killed in France almost exactly eight years later.

Sandy Turnbull, for all his faults, was the prototype for a series of lowland, working-class Scots, including Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson, who have made the history of Britain's most popular football club. As things stand, possibly because of his stained reputation, Manchester United plan no specific tribute to Turnbull for the Old Trafford centenary. That is a shame.

Alexander turnbull was born at Hurlford, near Kilmarnock, in Scotland in 1884. His father, James, was a miner, who died young. Sandy, the second of seven children, became the main bread-earner by the time he was 16. He is listed in the 1901 census as a "coal miner". He probably went down the pit at the age of 14, while playing on Saturday afternoons for his local football club, Hurlford Thistle.

In 1902, Turnbull, aged 17, got his first big break. The English professional league was already fabulously wealthy in Edwardian terms. Young Scottish footballers were as much prized, and hunted, as young Brazilian or African players today. Turnbull left his family and signed a professional contract with Manchester City. He would have earnt a maximum of £3 a week, three times the wage of a miner then but only the equivalent of about £250 a week today.

Two years later, still a teenager, Turnbull won the FA Cup with Manchester City. The only goal against Bolton Wanderers was scored by the greatest player of the era, Billy Meredith. In 1906, Meredith admitted to taking illegal win-and-draw bonus payments from City. He was hurriedly transferred to Manchester United but an investigation showed that City had been over-paying many other players. Seventeen of them were banned from playing for City again. Three of the best, including Turnbull, were snapped up at a pub "auction", which appears to have been rigged in advance by the first great Manchester United manager, the bowler-hatted, grim-suited and extravagantly moustachioed, Ernest Mangnall.

Sandy Turnbull went on to become an important part of the first great team in Manchester United's history: the team which made United a significant club in English football for the first time. Mangnall's United, with Meredith sending over crosses for Turnbull to put into the net, won the League Championship in 1908 and 1911, and the Cup in 1909.

After the 1907-08 season, in which Turnbull scored 25 goals, the Manchester Evening News football reporter, "Wanderer", wrote: "A man of big shoulders and quick feet and active brain, 'Sandy' is a great player, and a more unselfish inside man I never saw. A great opportunist with class written all over his football."

In November of that year, the Manchester Guardian reporter, "An Old International", paid tribute to the Meredith-Turnbull partnership. "When [Meredith] lifts the ball across the goal there are invariably three of his partners in a line ready to receive it and generally it is 'Sandy' Turnbull who puts the finishing touch to Meredith's artistry."

There was, however, a brutal, ill-disciplined side to Turnbull. He stares out from the old team pictures, unsmiling, hair-receding, robust knees pulled together, one eyebrow quizzically raised. He looks like, and was, a bruising character (he was 5ft 7in and 12 stone). Something in his expression says: "Don't mess with me".

On 21 December 1907, a year after leaving City, he became the first player to be sent off in a Manchester derby match (after scoring two goals). Here is the outraged report in the following Monday's Manchester Guardian. "Sandy Turnbull and [Bill] Eadie [Man City's striker] made themselves ridiculous early in the game by repeatedly making grimaces at each other and, in the second half Turnbull lost self-control so far as to strike Dorsett to the ground. He was promptly ordered off the field by the referee."

The United board minutes from the 1900s record that Turnbull was, on several occasions, fined by the club for being "insubordinate to directors". He appears, none the less, to have become a Mancunian folk hero, or at least a hero in the red-and-white half of Manchester. He was certainly one of the first footballers to have his own terrace song, or at least a terrace poem.

In April 1909, Turnbull was too badly injured to play in the FA Cup Final against Bristol City, but played anyway and scored the only goal. The Manchester Guardian headline was "Interesting Game at the Crystal Palace".

"Halse got the ball and kicked hard for the net ... But the ball was a couple of inches too high and hit the under-side of the cross-bar. It rebounded towards A Turnbull, who with toe kept well down, sent in a sharp 'grounder' quite beyond the reach of Clay [in the Bristol City goal]."

On the following Monday, the Athletic News carried a supporters' song, including the following lines:

"Why we thought you were 'crocked' Dashing Sandy,
That to fame your road was blocked, Hard Lines Sandy,
But you came up to the scratch,
Made an effort for THE match ...
When Halse hit the shiv-ring [sic] bar, Lucky Sandy.
There were groans heard near and far, Deep ones, Sandy,
But the ball was on the bound,
And your boot was safe and sound,
When the net your great shot found, Champion Sandy ..."

On the morning after the Cup Final, the lid of the FA Cup – an earlier version of today's well-known trophy – went missing. It was found in Turnbull's jacket pocket in what was passed off as (and may have been) a prank.

At the start of the next season, "dashing" Sandy, "lucky" Sandy, "champion" Sandy, and the whole United team were briefly banned for refusing to leave a newly formed players' union. They posed for a picture as "The Outcasts". Other players supported them. The Football League gave way.

This was the first of a series of small victories by players which led, through the abolition of the maximum wage in the 1960s and the Bosman ruling in 1995, to the fabulous salaries earnt by footballers today. The immediate impact in 1909 was limited: the professionals' maximum wage increased from £3 to £4. A full crowd at Old Trafford in 1910 brought in receipts of around £3,000 – of which roughly £50 went to the players and officials. Sandy Turnbull was not the only player of the time to feel hard done-by.

He had married a local woman, Florence Amy, and they had had four children, James, Irene, Ronald and Alexander, between 1909 and 1913.

By the time the Great War started, Turnbull's career was running down. Ernest Mangnall had committed the ultimate treachery and left United to manage City. United's results began to fall apart.

On Good Friday 1915, with the war already eight months' old, Turnbull, three other United players, and four Liverpool players, "squared" (ie. fixed) the score of a United win at Old Trafford as part of a betting coup. An investigation found that at least three United players, including Turnbull, had twice met the Liverpool captain, Jackie Sheldon, in the Dog and Partridge pub in Manchester. The day before the match, they agreed that United would score a goal in each half. The players placed bets at seven to one on a 2-0 United win.

Turnbull did not play in the match but, like the others, he was given a lifetime ban later that year. Professional football was, in any case, disintegrating. Players were under pressure to show an example and "join the colours". Early in 1916, the disgraced Sandy Turnbull enlisted in the "footballers' battalion" of the Middlesex Regiment.

Soon afterwards, he sent his wife a postcard, published here for the first time, thanks to his granddaughter, Paulette Pughe. It shows Sandy Turnbull and six other recruits, in military uniform. They appear to be cooking on a beach somewhere in Britain, before being shipped to France. The red ink from Turnbull's terse message – "Wishing you all a Happy Easter, best love, Sandy" – has smeared eerily over to the picture side of the card. It appears, like a giant blood stain, on Turnbull's tunic.

This is the last known picture of Sandy Turnbull alive. Unlike most of his football pictures, he is almost smiling.

Why, and when, Lance-Sergeant Alexander Turnbull transferred out of the Middlesex Regiment is unclear. His army records were destroyed during the blitz in London in the 1939-45 war (and his Manchester United records were destroyed when Old Trafford was blitzed in March 1941). At some point, Turnbull moved to the 8th Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment. This was the battalion which, in a celebrated, romantic (and insane) gesture, dribbled footballs into the battle of the Somme on 1 July 1916.

Was Sandy Turnbull with them that day? The remaining records are silent. More likely, he was transferred to the East Surreys to fill one of the many gaps left by the slaughter on the Somme.

He was certainly with the Surreys in the spring of the following year, as they waited to join the great British offensive on the Hindenburg Line, east of Arras. The daily diary of the East Surreys 8th Battalion is available in the public records' office at Kew. There is no mention of Turnbull (or anyone else who is not an officer). But it is noticeable, and unlikely to be coincidental, that the 8th East Surreys football team swept all before them in the divisional championship that spring.

On 18 April 1917, the diary notes: "In the afternoon the Battalion football team played against the 7th Buffs in the semi-final of the divisional tournament at Boeseghem. Result – 8/East Surreys 4 goals. 7/Buffs 1 goal."

Did Sandy Turnbull score his last goal that day, on a makeshift pitch within the sound of the front-line guns? The divisional final was never played. Two weeks later the battalion was decimated in a night-time offensive on the village of Chérisy.

The village probably looks today much as it did when Sandy Turnbull and his comrades in the 8th East Surreys stormed it before dawn on 3 May 1917. Red-brick houses straggle around a crossroads, 10 miles east of Arras, close to the A1 motorway from Paris to the north.

In May 1917, this was the remnants of the German front line – and virtually open country – with disastrous results for the 8th East Surreys, who were amateur soldiers trained only for trench fighting.

According to the official history of the East Surreys Regiment, "the men were in boisterous spirits" as they launched their attack in mist and darkness at 3.45am on 3 May. They captured Chérisy and reached their first objective on the banks of the narrow river Sensée with few casualties. Unfortunately, the units on either side were not so successful. The isolated 8th East Surreys were shelled heavily and overrun within a couple of hours by a German counter-attack. Many were killed or captured; the others retreated to the positions from which they had started.

The divisional diary of the 8th Surreys is not very helpful. It consists mostly of a whiny explanation by the battalion commander, Lt-Col Irwin, of how his men came to capture their objective and then retreat. Both the British and German official histories of the war say that the British soldiers could barely use their rifles and were confused by being away from the familiar barbed wire and trenches. The British official history remarks on the "bewilderment of the British infantry on finding itself in the open and its inability to withstand any resolute counter attack."

Of the 500 or so 8th Surreys who attacked Chérisy, for no gain, 90 were killed, 175 wounded and more than 100 captured. Somewhere in this battle – which lasted eight hours – the luck of "Lucky Sandy" and the durability of "that extra-durable head" came to an end. There is no official record of what happened to him. The Manchester Guardian, which had faithfully followed Sandy Turnbull's football exploits, never reported his death.

Not so, the Kilmarnock Herald, now long defunct. The only surviving account of Turnbull's demise sleeps in the micro-filmed files of his home-town newspaper. On 18 May 1917, the Herald carried the headline "Former Hurlford footballer: wounded prisoner of war" attached to the following story:

"Sandy Turnbull, famous Manchester United forward, and a native of Hurlford, has been wounded and made a prisoner. He has been fighting for about a year. The information was conveyed in a letter from a comrade received by Mrs Turnbull at her home at Stretford. The message stated: 'I am writing to try to explain what has happened to your dear husband, Alec. He was wounded, and much to our sorrow, fell into German hands, so I hope you will hear from him. After Alec was wounded he 'carried on' and led his men for a mile, playing the game until the last we saw of him. We all loved him, and he was a father to us all and the most popular man in the regiment. All here send our deepest sympathy.'

"Another letter from the front says: 'Turnbull was missing during an attack on the Germans. I have very little hope of him being alive. I spoke to him when he got his first wound and asked him if he was badly done. 'No,' he said, and from all accounts he must have continued going along with us, and when last seen had four separate wounds.'

"A postcard to hand from the same source says: 'Turnbull is missing, and from all accounts very seriously wounded. I have little hopes of him being alive.' "

Allowance must be made for the exaggeration, euphemism and stiff-upper-lip of letters from the battlefield. All the same, it appears that Sandy Turnbull died because he "played the game" while injured, just as he did to win the Cup in 1909.

Most likely, Turnbull died in captivity and was buried by the Germans in a shallow grave which was obliterated in the fighting which followed. His body probably lies somewhere under the fields around Chérisy. The date of his death, 3 May 1917, would in peacetime have been the week after the FA Cup final.

Turnball's only memorial is a brief inscription on the elegant, curving colonnade of the monument to "the missing" in the large British war cemetery in Arras. Two thirds of the way along, in Bay 6, there is a section devoted to the East Surrey Regiment. The soldiers are listed in rank order. Under the section for Lance-Sergeants, there is an inscription, which is only just legible from ground level. It reads: "Turnbull A".

Yvonne Edge, now aged 68 and the oldest child of Turnbull's second daughter, Irene, recalls how in April 1958, when she was 16, her mother took her to the lying in state of Sandy's great football partner, Billy Meredith, who had died aged 83. "She took me to see the body and said, 'Remember, Yvonne, this is the man who played football with your grandfather, who was once a great player for Manchester United.' Mum was very small when Grandfather died. She had no memories of him. But she never allowed us to forget him."

Most of the other Liverpool and Manchester United footballers who were banned "for life" in 1915 were pardoned, in recognition of their war service. All but two went on to play professional football again. The first exception was the Manchester United striker, Enoch "Knocker" West, who annoyed the authorities by insisting that he was innocent. The second exception was Sandy Turnbull, who was "re-instated posthumously", three years after his death.

Manchester United are planning a series of events to mark the Old Trafford centenary next year. Descendants of the 1910 team, including Turnbull's granddaughters, have been contacted by the club about attending these events. Fair enough. But the hero and rogue who scored the first goal at Old Trafford deserves, perhaps, a belated "full" pardon in the form of a more personal tribute by Manchester United in February next year.