Have you ever wondered why are Manchester United called ‘The Rags’?
Or in fact, is it a term you have ever heard used before?
If you haven’t heard it there is a chance your father or grandfather might have done.
It is a term that was coined almost 100 years ago and it is still used very sparingly today.
So let’s find out why.
Why Are Manchester United Called the Rags? (Explained)
Manchester United’s own fans gave them the nickname ‘The Rags’ in the 1920s. It came about as the club was in such a dire financial situation at the time that they could not even afford to buy new kit and would often turn out wearing kit that was years old, tatty and looked like rags.
The Name Came About as United Were in Ruins (Literally)
As unlikely as it might seem now, at the end of the 1920s Manchester United was an incredibly poor club.
Despite being in the top division of English football, they were attracting crowds of less than 4,000 for some games and were on the verge of bankruptcy.
The 1930s didn’t bring any relief, as the Great Depression affected the vast majority of people in the UK.
In fact, things got even worse when in 1931 United finished bottom of the First Division and were relegated.
The season had seen them lose their first 12 games and win just 7 games all season. The last game of the season, a draw against Middlesbrough, drew an attendance of 3,969.
They posted a loss of £2,500 for the season, a huge amount at the time.
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So dire was the club’s financial situation, they regularly wore kits used many years earlier, as they were unable to afford new ones.
The collars were often held together with laces or worn open.
This led to the club’s own fans jokingly referring to them as ‘The Rags’.
Gary James’ book, “Manchester: The Greatest City” elaborates on this, with an account from Harry Hughes, a City fan working in Trafford:
“I worked in Trafford then, and all the locals were United fans. I was working nights and when Saturday morning arrived a couple of them asked ‘are you going to see the Rags today?’ I didn’t know what that meant, and then they explained that United fans had started to call their own team the ‘Rags’ because they were so poor and that their kit looked liked rags. So after that I knew who they meant, but when I mentioned the Rags, they’d go, ‘who the Hell are you talking about?’ They didn’t like the opposition saying it.”
So the nickname, ‘The Rags’ was something coined by their own fans due to the ragged kits they were wearing in the 1920s and 930s when the club was in financial peril.
United’s Finances Collapse
After relegation in the 1930-31 season, United’s first home game in the Second Division on 2 September 1931 drew an attendance of just 3,507.
And this was even after United had reduced admission prices!
In fact, the club was about to go bankrupt before James Gibson, a local businessman, personally guaranteed the club’s expenses and took over as owner of United in January 1932.
United finished 12th in Division Two, and the different nature of the club in those days is shown by the fact their post-season trip away was to Bournemouth!
By the 1932-33 season crowds were returning, with home gates being in the 15,000 to 20,000 bracket and at the end of the season United posted a profit of £658.
A couple of seasons later, by 1934-35, things were looking much healthier. United’s average attendance was 23,000 and they posted a profit of £4,490.
By 1935-36 the average attendance was 26,000, and the club reported a profit of over £6,500. That season they also won the Second Division to return to the top flight of English football.
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On the Way Back Up
Despite suffering immediate relegation after one season in the First Division, United’s finances were now on an upward trajectory and the woes of the later 1920s and early 1930s were most definitely behind them.
The club did suffer more hardship during World War Two though.
In March 1941 Old Trafford was bombed, and in the aftermath United had to rely on borrowed kits from local sides including their neighbours Manchester City. United also used Maine Road for wartime home games at the end of the 1940/41 season.
Directly after the war United appointed Matt Busby as manager and finished second in the First Division for three successive seasons.
At this time the local businessman who had saved the club in 1932, James Gibson, was still at the helm.
Unfortunately, he died in 1951, the year before Busby brought United the First Division championship.
However United’s troubled financial situation was well behind them by then, and they were on the cusp of much greater things.
It is strange to think how different things were for United 100 years ago.
A club now that has sponsorship deals for anything you can think of and is worth in excess of £4billion couldn’t even afford a new set of kit in the 1920s.
It was this lack of kit that lead to Manchester United’s own fans dubbing them ‘The Rags’, due to the fact the kit their team was wearing was old and tatty.
United’s finances were dire for much of the 1920s and early 1930s, with bankruptcy a real possibility.
It was the intervention of local businessman James Gibson in 1932 that turned the tide and put the club on an upward trajectory.
Otherwise, they could have been known as The Rags for a few more years!