As Manchester United continue to defend their position at the top of English football, the season that marks the centenary of the First World War is a good time to remember the efforts of a former soldier who helped forge the Old Trafford dynasty.
Anthony Donnelly was born in Middleton, north Manchester, in April 1886 and worked for a coal merchant on leaving school at the age of 11. Though making a name for himself as a decent full-back, ‘Tony’, as he was known to his mates, was keen for adventure and signed up for the Royal Garrison Artillery – for whom he rapidly established himself as a key player in the hard-fought military leagues.
On leaving the colours, Tony began playing in 1907 for Heywood Town in the Lancashire Combination League and won plaudits for helping turn the club’s season around. Perhaps unsurprisingly, less than 12 months later, in July 1908, Manchester United successfully stepped in for the 22 year old.
The Manchester Evening News recorded: “Negotiations have been completed for the transfer of Donnelly, the right full-back of the Heywood United club. The Manchester club was not the only league club which had been watching Donnelly, he played a splendid game for Heywood last season and was recognised as one of the best and most promising talents in the Lancashire Combination.
“Donnelly is a sturdily built young player, standing around 5ft 9ins. On leaving the Army he signed as an amateur for Heywood last season, before adding his signature to a professional form. He made his first appearances just before Christmas when the club was very low in the league and the defence was greatly strengthened by his inclusion. His displays were greatly admired… he plays with a good deal of ‘go’ and has a ‘kick’, while he is possessed of a good turn of speed. With the training he will get at Manchester United he should develop into an excellent defender.”
Despite such plaudits, Donnelly’s first start for United, against Sunderland in March 1909, was far from a success. The game was a 2-2 draw but he was singled out as being at blame for both of the Sunderland goals. Tony was dropped and only made another three appearances that season.
Nevertheless, with Manchester United now installed for their first season at their newly built home at Old Trafford, Donnelly was to become a regular fixture in the side, making 15 appearances in the “no.2” shirt and helping United to the First Division title.
He went on to play for another two seasons for the club before being transferred to the Belfast team Glentoran , who would go on to become the first British team to win a European trophy in the form of The Vienna Cup.
With the clouds of war now descending, Donnelly, who was still on the Army’s reserve list, was called back to service with the artillery. He wrote a number of letters from the front in the first year of the war, with one stating: “I have witnessed some awful sites. I saw one bayonet charge the Germans had the face to attempt – the trenches lay about 400 yards apart and our chaps saw them fixing bayonets. Up jumped the enemy in thick masses. Our infantry waited until they got within 30 yards of our trenches and up they jumped and rushed out to meet them. The first rush of our chaps and they turned on their heels… they did not all get away and left over 300 dead and wounded inside one hour and a half.”
Tony was to return home wounded in 1916, having torn the muscles in his leg while working with a gun team to extricate a large artillery piece from the Flanders’ mud. His injury ultimately resulted in him transferring to the Royal Army Medical Corp, with whom he served out the rest of the war.
After his demobilisation, Tony made cameo appearances for the likes of Chester City, but his war injury had put an end to any hopes of a return to a career as a fully professional footballer. Returning to the family home in Spring Vale, Middleton, he appears to have settled back into civilian life reasonably well and come to terms with the loss of his sporting career, fathering five children and serving as a special constable until his death in 1947.