A Brief History Of: Louis Rocca, Manchester United’s ideological father

Words by Harry Robinson Illustration by Philippe Fenner
November 28, 2018

“He has been down coal mines, inside flour factories and anywhere in his hunt for future ace footballers” – ‘Good Morning’ newspaper, October 1943

When Louis Rocca passed away in June 1950, so too did the heart of the original Manchester United. Meanwhile, the Reds were embarking on a tour of Canada and the USA.

It was Newton Heath LYR who Rocca represented when the charismatic Italian first got involved with the club. Newton Heath couldn’t afford to even cover their own players’ railway fares, they played with the smells and tastes of a chemical works wafting over their pitch and they played in green and gold.

By that June of 1950, Newton Heath had become Manchester United and that Manchester United had won their second FA Cup. The majority of the starting line-up had been Louis Rocca’s signings and United now entertained in red shirts and white shorts. Busby’s revolution had begun and it wouldn’t be too long before joyous United fans would be jiving to Eric Williams’ catchy ‘United Calypso’.

All of the factors that made Manchester United great emerged on Rocca’s watch as he held every possible role at the club over six decades.

Matt Busby received news of Rocca’s death via cablegram and relayed it to his players in the dressing room prior to a game in Toronto against the FA Touring side. For the players, it was upsetting, although the residue of war remaining deeply imprinted on Britain meant the hurt would have hardly been abnormal.

For Matt, Rocca had had a greater impact on his life than almost any other person had or would, even if Busby himself did not yet profess it. The pair had known each other for many years, having first become acquainted due to their shared membership of the Manchester Catholic Sportsman’s Club. In 1944, as the end of war beckoned, Rocca penned a note to Sergeant Busby. It was delivered to his army base at Sandhurst and he disclosed to Busby that he had a ‘great job’ available and signed the letter off with ‘Your Old Pal, Louis Rocca’.

By this point, Rocca had already assembled the foundations on which Busby’s empire would flourish.

Busby was a devout Catholic, just like Rocca. The North Lanarkshire-born United boss appointed the Welsh Jimmy Murphy as his assistant, another Catholic. His first captain was Johnny Carey, signed by Rocca for pennies back in the 1930s. Carey, the ‘gentleman footballer’, was an Irish Catholic.

This ecclesiastical link was initiated by Rocca’s scouting set-up. It was one of the first organised networks of scouts in British football. Rocca arrived on the scene at Newton Heath scrambling underneath the boards to try and watch a fixture for free. He became an eight-year-old teaboy in 1892. A couple of decades later, after the club had been re-named to Manchester United, he was chief scout.

A charismatic and engaging man, Rocca employed the football-mad Catholic priests of Manchester to scout for him.

In the 1930s, Rocca was recommended towards Johnny Hanlon, who’d play for United either side of World War II. Hanlon studied at St. Wilfrid’s Roman Catholic School in Hulme and Rocca decided to sign the striker on the bidding of an eager school staff member. A 16-year-old Hanlon would compete with professional footballers near twice his age in United’s A team. As with any successful system, Rocca had a diverse network that ensured very few players would slip through Manchester United’s clutches. He had tipsters, yes, but it was also his dogged determination which enabled him to sign legions of Britain’s finest talent.

Every Monday morning, a fat stack of Saturday evening newspapers would be sitting on Rocca’s desk ripe for his inspection. These were the local papers of Manchester. Not just the Evening Chronicle or Lancashire Courier, but papers from Gorton and Cheshire, Salford and Ancoats, Rochdale and Collyhurst. Rocca’s pen would scribble away as he slapped away at the pages, noting down any young footballer whose name appeared regularly. They were to be pursued. Many would go on to play at Old Trafford.

Thus, when Alf Clarke, the Evening Chronicle journalist, wrote that “in England, Scotland and Ireland, there is not one person in the game who does not know Louis”, he was correct, to an extent. But the same was true in the reverse in Manchester; Louis knew every talented footballer from their early teenage years.

It wasn’t just Rocca’s undeniable charm as United fixer that ensured his wide reputation in Manchester. Rocca’s status in the ice cream manufacturing industry of the city was equally illustrious. While 1907 had seen him assume the post of chief scout, he took over the family ice cream business in 1911. Luigi Rocca Senior had immigrated into Ancoats in 1865, as one of the earliest Italians to arrive. His ice cream business, founded in 1872, had already been in place for years when his Italian compatriots came in significant numbers in the 1890s.

As well as being the “prince of soccer scouts”, as per the Liverpool Echo, Louis was an ice cream tycoon. In certain cases, that aided his perpetual pursuit of players. A previous tip from Gorton’s St. Francis Monastery meant Stockport County’s young talent Hughie McLenahan was known to Rocca. In 1928, the ice cream and the football synthesised in a remarkable transfer.

The second-generation Italian immigrant strode up to Stockport’s ground with the intention of sounding out the club committee about McLenahan’s availability. Within minutes, he’d made an unofficial deal. Noticing a banner advertising a “bazaar to clear the club of debt”, Rocca was spotted by the Hatters director Jack Martin.

“What are you going to do for us, Louis?” the Stockport man asked, knowing full well of Rocca’s formidable reputation as a poacher.

“A freezer of ice cream for every day of the bazaar if you release McLenahan,” was Rocca’s immediate reply.

Soon after, McLenahan had made his debut for Rocca’s United in a 4-1 away drubbing at Tottenham Hotspur. His transfer fee? Four freezers of ice cream.

Rocca was an opportunist and a schemer. When Harry Worrall arrived home for a lunch after his shift as a bricklayer to find Louis Rocca, the English full-back pulled out a chair, sat down and pitched into a lunch. Rocca watched in amazement as Worrall tucked into steak, chips, bread, butter and rice pudding. He spurred him on, with every intention of making him eat “the largest meal” he’d “ever seen a lad eat,” exclaiming “go on Harry, that’s the stuff to feed on – you’ll show them all how to play!”

Worrall did exactly that and doubtless finished lunch with the bloated feeling of Mr. Creosote in Monty Python when offered a ‘wafer-thin mint’. Yet still, he took off for Winsford United’s Wednesday afternoon game.

Ten minutes in, Worrall had hardly touched the ball and the majority of Rocca’s competing scouts had departed. Despite great and wide interest, Rocca was left contending with only one club and Worrall was signed “for a sum of hundreds rather than the thousands he’d soon be worth.”

Rocca insatiably pursued talent and after decades in the game, he was well-accustomed to the challenge of beating his rivals. Once scouting for a player in the north-east, Rocca claimed he signed a player halfway down a mine after learning that the player in question was down the pit. The other scouts in pursuit had hardly yet left the train station.

The old Newton Heath had played on a clay pitch with not even a morsel of grass on show, so Rocca was hardly averse to trudging down a mine, tricking a competitor or a player to gain an advantage. He was inventive, wily and an entertaining titan of the game for decades.

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