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Summertime Madness: Manchester United Sign Player For Ice Cream

Conor Heffernan continues his look at the wacky and wonderful world of transfers by remembering the time Manchester United bought a player for a freezer full of ice cream.

Transfers can take all shapes and sizes. As supporters we have become accustomed to players being traded for money, often lots of money at that. But there are many ways to play the game. The transfer market is about striking a deal no matter what. At the heart of it, the market is about bartering with whatever you have at your disposal.

In the past we have seen players traded for things like pork, training gear and in one exceptional case, two tonnes of shrimp. As we’re in the middle of a fantastic Irish summer, it seems only right to shed light on a transfer involving a favourite summer treat, ice cream. Today we’ll be looking at the curious case of Hugh McLenahan, a man bought by Manchester United for no less than a freezer full of ice cream.

Three freezers full of ice cream no less!

Changed Times

Today Manchester United are valued at over $3 billion on the US Stock Exchange. They’ve been labelled the most valuable sports team in the world by people in the know and have already spent over £50 million this summer. It’s interesting that many United fans are disappointed the club has seemingly spent so little this summer, despite the fact the Club spent £37million last January on Juan Mata. Maybe fans will be happy when the Club breaks the £100 million mark? The joys of supporting a rich club are alas lost on a Leeds fan.

Nevertheless, it’s clear that these days money talks for many supporters and not just supporters of Manchester United. This however is a relatively new phenomenon. Times were once much leaner in the footballing world. Talk of £1 million being spent on a player, let alone £37million would have seen you laughed out of most clubs.

Times change and football has become a multimillion and in United’s case, billion pound enterprise. Yet nearly a century ago transfers were done differently. How differently? United’s 1927 signing of Stockport County wing-half Hugh McLenahan gives us the answer.

Hugh Who?

So who was Hugh McLenahan and why did United want him anyway?

Born in 1909, Hugh, or ‘Hughie’ to you and me, was an English footballer who played at half back (midfield for us modern football connoisseurs) for several Football League clubs, including Stockport County, Manchester United and Notts County. He began his footballing career in Manchester with Blackpool before moving on to Stockport County. He signed on for Stockport as an amateur but his style of play was anything but amateurish. Hughie was a revelation in the centre of the park for Stockport. A versatile commanding player, Hughie had it all. Less than three months after joining Stockport, Hughie had caught the eye of Manchester United Manager, Herbert Bamlett. Bamlett had become Manchester United’s manager at the beginning of the 1927/28 season and was determined to make his mark at the club. Signing Hughie would be a statement of intent.

The Strangest Transfer in the World

Fortune seemed to be with United’s new manager as Stockport were struggling financially at the time. In their desperate bid to generate some form of cash to keep the club afloat, Stockport began holding markets to gain money. There is something nice about a club holding markets to gain money rather than a fire-sale of players but I digress. Sensing an opportunity in the making and a chance to impress his new boss, United’s Assistant Manager Louis Rocca offered Stockport an opportunity of a lifetime.

As mentioned, Stockport were holding markets to ease their financial difficulties. Who goes to markets? People go to markets. What do people like? People like ice cream. It was so obvious and yet so ingenious. When not assisting at United, Rocca was also the owner of an ice cream business. Rocca decided to combine both of his jobs together into one delicious transfer.

United offered Stockport three, that’s right, three full freezers of ice cream in return for the services of Hugh McLenahan. Stockport gleefully accepted. Snigger all you want at the transfer but Stockport are still in business today, thanks in part to the ice cream transfer.

One may question why United didn’t just offer money to Stockport but where would be the fun in that? What if today clubs had such creativity in the transfer market? What if United bought Fellaini 55 million Cornettos instead of £27 million? What if United had sold Cristiano Ronaldo to Real Madrid for 96 million Magnums? I for one would be much happier watching Sky Sports explain the logistics of these transfers rather than some boring transfer involving money.

So how did he do?

Of course the next question is how did our ice cream man do? The answer is quite well all things considered. While McLenahan joined during an era that was not the most glittering of Man United’s illustrious history he did make his mark at the club. He played in the heart of midfield for nearly a decade, playing 116 times and scoring 12 goals. He even captained the club on several occasions (the ice cream captain anyone?) That’s the good news.

The bad news is that during his time with United, Hughie was regularly injured, suffering everything from bruises to broken legs. Coupled with this, his time at United from 1927-1936 was a time of great turmoil for the club. The same year Hughie joined United, the club’s principal sugar daddy, John Henry Davies died leaving the club almost penniless. The death of Davies nearly saw the club go bankrupt as they struggled to find funding. United were only saved in 1931 following a cash injection from James W. Gibson, who invested £2,000 into United and assumed control of the club.

If off the pitch matters were shaky, on the field matters were not much better. United finished bottom of the First Division in 1931 and were relegated to the Second Division. 1934 saw United drop to their lowest ever league position in the Second Division. Not a great time to support Man U.

Let’s end on a positive note however. In the 1935/36 season, Hughie was fully fit and once more a regular at the heart of the United midfield. United were storming through the Second Division with a vigour not seen in previous seasons. They were on course for promotion with one game left.

United went into their final game of the season against Hull City just two points ahead of Charlton Athletic, who were in second place. United needed a win or draw or for Charlton to lose or draw to become Champions. The tension in Manchester was palpable.

United had been out of the top flight for five seasons. The Second Division was no place for the Red Devils. They needed to shine on England’s largest stage. Hull stood in their way. Ninety minutes of agony and ecstasy stood in their way. The game went back and forth. Hull attacked, United defended. United attacked, Hull defended. Goal! Goal! The final whistle goes, the dust settles.

What was the outcome?

Manchester United 1–1 Hull City. A draw. A draw which took United back into England’s top flight. The promised land. Hughie’s last season with United saw them return to the top flight. That alone is worth all the freezers full of ice cream in Manchester.

You may never have heard about Hugh McLenahan before today but his story is nevertheless an important one. It reminds us that the transfer window is indeed a fickle thing. Nowadays players are traded for cash but this wasn’t always the case. Who’s to say ice cream won’t become the means of bartering in the future? What about Mars Bars? Heck I’d be happy if clubs started paying for players with Stinger Bars, but that’s just me.

Hughie’s story reminds us that football is really a ridiculous business at heart and that’s part of the reason why we love it so much.

Join us next week as we delve further into the weird, wacky and wonderful of the football transfer market.

Conor Heffernan, Pundit Arena.

About Conor Heffernan

Conor is a recent graduate History and Political Science graduate with an interest in health and football. He has been a long-suffering Leeds United fan since the late 1990s but as always remains optimistic for next season!