In 1952, visit by Manchester more low-key

Originally published Jan. 1, 2010.

Manchester United has been here before.

On May 11, 1952, long before Man U was a marketing brand, the club showed up in Philadelphia, fresh off winning the English League, and took out a team of local all-stars at Lighthouse Field in Kensington.

"They were on exhibit," said Walter Bahr , probably Philadelphia's most famous soccer product, who played that day and had a key role when the United States shocked England at the 1950 World Cup. "They were showing what professional soccer was all about. "

According to the next day's newspaper account, 3,000 soccer fans, including the British consul, were at Lighthouse. (The headline: ENGLISH BOOTERS BEAT STARS, 4-0. )

The Americans were not naïve about the sport. This was no "picnic game," Bahr said. A number of the Philly guys, cobbled together mostly from the two Philadelphia teams in the American Soccer League, the Americans and the Nationals, had national team experience. But they also had full-time jobs. The team was put together without even a practice. After a scoreless first half - another Kensington product, John Hughes, hit the crossbar before halftime for the locals' best chance - Manchester United took it to them.

Bahr said he was surprised looking back that the game wasn't held at Shibe Park or Temple Stadium, where games featuring foreign professional clubs often were played. But the Lighthouse Boys Club at Front and Erie produced most of the city's stars, at a time when the sport was woven into the fabric of the city's neighborhoods.

"The heart of United States soccer was at Lighthouse," said Hughes, who went on to coach the sport for 48 years, mostly at George Washington High in the Northeast and across the river at Delran High.

Legendary Manchester United coach Matt Busby had approached Bahr a couple of years earlier about joining Manchester United.

"I was interested," Bahr said. But the standard English League salary, he said, was 12 pounds a week, or $36. "Plus you got three pounds for a win, one pound for a tie. I had just gotten married. I was teaching at Jones Junior High School, making $50 a week, and probably $20 a game on Sundays. "

He talked to Ben McLaughlin, another local star and a teammate of Bahr 's on the 1948 Olympic team, to see whether his friend had any interest in moving overseas, but McLaughlin also stuck with his full-time job.

"He could have played for any team in the world," Hughes said of McLaughlin, who began playing in the American Soccer League when he was still a junior at North Catholic and had to skip the 1950 World Cup because he couldn't get off work.

Bahr knew of English League players who made the reverse move some decades earlier, coming over and taking jobs at places such as Bethlehem Steel and playing in the weekend leagues, making more money than they could at home.

But that Sunday afternoon over half a century back, the locals realized they were there as fodder for the English champions.

"We knew we were going to get whacked, that was for sure," McLaughlin said.


Contact staff writer Mike Jensen at 215-854-4489 or mjensen@phillynews.com.