On 16 November 1949, Jack Rowley was ready to fulfil a familiar role. He stepped out on to the pitch at Maine Road, playing for a side that did not truly call it their own ground, ready for a ‘home’ match. The Manchester United star had scored over 50 goals at Manchester City’s ground over the course of three years as the Red Devils used Maine Road while Old Trafford was renovated after bombing during World War Two.
He had signed for United in 1937, and remained attached to the Red Devils throughout the Second World War, where he participated in the D-Day landings at Normandy in 1944. He became a hero in red by winning the FA Cup in 1948 and went on to score over 200 goals for the club. His finest hour in the white of England came at the ground where he had terrorised defences for three years, just a few months after his United side had made their long-awaited returned to Old Trafford in August.
Almost 70,000 packed out Maine Road on that mid-November day for a game against Northern Ireland that constituted a vital FIFA World Cup™ qualifying match. With FIFA welcoming the ‘home nations’ back into the organisation after the conclusion of the war, two qualifying places were up for grabs between the four countries. Scotland had seen off Wales a week before, meaning Walter Winterbottom’s England could reach Brazil 1950 with a victory over Northern Ireland, having themselves beaten Wales the previous month.
Rowley stepped out with the famed No9 on his back hoping to replicate some of the happier memories he had collected in United red at City’s ground, including four-goal hauls against Charlton Athletic and Huddersfield Town in 1947, and a stunning five-goal performance against Yeovil Town in February of that year.
Rowley, the Maine offender
The Northern Irish defence had every right to fear Rowley’s lethal record at Maine Road. The forward kicked proceedings off just five minutes into the match, opening the scoring after some dazzling wing play down the left by Portsmouth’s Jack Froggatt. The No11 would soon turn scorer as Tom Finney, playing “the game of his life” according to the television commentator that day, crossed for the Pompey man to turn home from inside the six yard box.
Stan Pearson and Stan Mortensen then increased the lead to 4-0 before half-time, before Rowley stole the show after the break. Froggatt crossed from the left for Rowley to nod home at the back post to double his tally for the day, before Mortensen fired past the helpless Hugh Kelly in the Northern Irish goal.
Rowley found himself one-on-one with Kelly a few minutes after Sammy Smyth had pulled one back for the visitors, and the Manchester United man smashed home to complete his hat-trick and put the Three Lions 7-1 up. Froggatt dribbled round Kelly and teed up Rowley for a simple tap-in to make it eight, before Pearson scored his second, and England’s ninth, with 15 minutes remaining.
Bobby Brennan grabbed a late consolation, meaning the game finished with a quite remarkable scoreline of 9-2, sealing England’s passage to Brazil along with Scotland. However, the story of Brazil 1950 qualification did not end there for the Scots. Remarkably, the secretary of the Scottish FA at the time, George Graham, declared that Scotland would only accept FIFA’s invitation to Brazil if they were British champions, meaning the Tartan Army would have to win the British Home Championship if they were to head to the sunny climes of South America.
England, who had told FIFA they would head to the World Cup even if they finished runner-up, travelled to Glasgow in April 1950 for their final match of the British Home Championship already mentally preparing for the finals which would begin a few months later. With the sides level on four points, Scotland, with their self-imposed qualification criteria, knew only a win would do. A single Roy Bentley goal at Hampden Park condemned the Scots to a 1-0 defeat, meaning England would be the sole British representative at the global finals. Four years later, with FIFA again offering two places to the ‘home nations’, Scotland once more finished second to England, but elected to send a side to Switzerland 1954.
Incidentally, that red letter day for Rowley on the blue side of Manchester did not earn him a ticket to Brazil. The game against Northern Ireland was the only match he played in that British Home Championship, and despite scoring in a friendly against Italy in November 1949, he was overlooked by Walter Winterbottom for his final 21-man group. Brazil 1950 would prove to be an ill-fated maiden World Cup for the Three Lions, as they suffered an ignominious 1-0 defeat to USA in Belo Horizonte and were eliminated by Spain at the Maracana.