Miner’s son Turnbull, born near Kilmarnock in 1884, was a brilliant, stocky, 5ft 7ins striker who just attracted trouble. He was banned three times – for receiving illegal payments, joining a union and match-fixing – fined for being “insubordinate to directors” and once pinched the lid off the FA Cup.
The first ever goal at Old Trafford
But Turnbull was idolised by fans as he helped United to their first two league titles, in 1908 and 1911, and scored the only goal in their 1909 FA Cup win. When his toughness was unleashed on the Somme with the 2nd Football Battalion, he was a brave and inspirational sergeant before disappearing during a disastrous attack.
The second of seven children from the coal mining village of Hurlford, East Ayrshire, Turnbull became the family’s main breadwinner aged just 14, working down the pit. In 1902 he was spotted playing for Hurlford Thistle by Bolton Wanderers, who were about to sign him before Manchester City offered more money, around £3 a week, three times what he earned as a miner. Alongside Billy Meredith, the greatest player of the era, Turnbull won the FA Cup with City while still a teenager in 1904. But a year later he, Meredith and 15 other players were banned from City after they were found to be earning above the maximum wage in an illegal win-bonus scheme. Turnbull and his Scottish pal Meredith were snapped up by United.
It was an inspirational move; Turnbull scored 101 goals in 247 games for the red side of Manchester and is 19th in their list of top-scorers, one behind Cristiano Ronaldo. One of the goals was the first at the newly built Old Trafford as United lost 3-4 to Liverpool in February 1910. The Manchester Guardian reported: “Turnbull rushed in with lowered head. He met [the ball] with that extra-durable head of his and drove it hard into the goal.”
Banned from football for life
In 1909, Turnbull and several other United players were banned for joining the new Players Union, the forerunner of the Professional Footballers Association, which was fighting for more pay. The rebels posed for a photo in their kit holding a sign saying “The Outcasts FC”. But they won their battle as the FA relented and recognised the union.
In 1915, with his side struggling to avoid relegation, Turnbull was among three United and four Liverpool players who fixed the score in a 2-0 United win at Old Trafford. The United men had met Liverpool captain Jackie Sheldon in a pub in Manchester and agreed they would score a goal in each half. The players placed bets on the result at 7-1. Turnbull, who did not play in the match, was banned from football for life, along with the others.
Hit in the leg, he was ordered to go back but pleaded to stay with the attack
He worked for the Manchester Ship Canal Company before joining up with the 2nd Footballers’ Battalion, the 23rd of the Middlesex Regiment, then transferring to the 8th Battalion East Surrey Regiment at the end of 1916. While training in England with with the 23rd, he had been banned from playing a game against Birmingham City along with Sheldon. In a letter home from France, he admitted that he had played a game behind the lines but had hardly slept since because had forgotten to ask the FA’s permission.
In the darkness of 03.45am on May 3, 1917, 33-year-old Turnbull was leading his platoon alongside 500 other Surreys. They captured the village of Chérisy, near Arras, with few casualties. But after units on their flanks were held up they were isolated, hit by heavy shelling then crushed by a German counter-attack. More than 90 were killed, 175 wounded and 100 captured as the Surreys retreated to their original positions. Turnbull was hit in the leg early in the attack and ordered to go back but pleaded to be allowed to stay. He was last seen with four separate wounds, disappearing into the shattered houses of the village.
"The men would go anywhere with him"
A letter from a fellow soldier to Turnbull’s widow Florence in Stretford said: “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.”
In August 1918, Captain C. J. Lonergan of the 8th Battalion, who had been a PoW, wrote: “It was a great shock to me to hear that my best NCO, ie Sergeant Turnbull, was still missing. “He was one of the finest fellows I have ever met. A great sportsman and as keen a soldier as he was a footballer. He had been hit through the leg early on in the fight.
“His leg was very much swollen, so I ordered him back to the dressing station. He pleaded so hard, however, to be allowed to stay on until we had gained our objective that I gave way. The men would simply go anywhere with him."
Turnbull’s body was never found. His name is on memorials at Arras and Chester Road, Stretford, a few yards from Old Trafford. In 1919, all but one of the banned match-fixers were pardoned because of their war service. Four of them went on to play professional football again. Turnbull, who lay somewhere in a foreign field, was “reinstated posthumously”.
Remembering the Somme
This year marks the 100-year anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. The Royal British Legion is calling on communities across the UK to take the time out from their daily lives to honour those who fell. We have created a Somme 100 toolkit which contains everything you need to organise a Remembrance event in your community.
Make your own commemoration to Lance Sergeant Sandy Turnbull or one of the other casualties of the First World War by simply placing a virtual poppy in their memory on our Every Man Remembered website.