Throckley, Northumberland born right winger Joe Spence was purchased in March 1919 by Manchester United from Scotswood, whom he’d joined in 1918 having played for Blutcher Juniors and Throckley Celtic before the First World War in 1914, during which he was conscripted into the Army at 17, where he served as a machine-gunner. He guested for Liverpool, Newburn and Scotswood during his years in service and won the Army Cup with his Battalion. He wasted no time making an impact: scoring four in a 5–1 Lancashire Section drubbing of Bury at Old Trafford on his debut. His Football League debut for the Old Trafford club came on 30th August 1919 against Derby County, at the start of the first Football League season after the War.
One of United’s few true stars between the wars, Spence’s wing play made “Give it to Joe” the most commonly heard terrace chant during his 14 years at Old Trafford. His first season brought 14 goals in 32 First Division games, and in his best season at the club, 1927-28 season, he scored 24 goals; 22 in the league and two in the FA Cup. However, United were relegated to the Second Division twice during his 14 years there. Indeed, such was his importance to United, and Manchester, he was known locally as “Mr Soccer” and he was a model of consistency after that, making 510 appearances and scoring 168 goals.
It was his misfortune to be at Old Trafford during some of the most difficult years of the club’s history, but in a period when United teams often failed to produce the goods, his entertaining presence was a true highlight.Sadly for Spence, he failed to win any major honours and it was not until he left United in 1933 that he lifted any silverware – the Third Division North Championship with Chesterfield, in 1936. He remains among the top 10 appearance-makers for the club and his 481 league games was a record that stood for 40 years until surpassed by Bill Foulkes. He is currently sixth on the club’s all-time goalscoring list with 168 and seventh for appearances with 510.
He left United to join Bradford City in 1933, where he played 79 games in two seasons, scoring 29 goals, including being top goal-scorer in the 1933–34 season. He left City to join Chesterfield in May 1935 winning the Third Division North Championship in his first season and scoring 15 goals in 68 appearances before retiring in 1938. When the Second World War ended in 1945, new manager Matt Busby brought Spence back to United in a coaching and scouting role.
Despite his success at club level player, he was capped only twice by England, making his debut in May 1926 against Belgium in Antwerp and receiving a second cap in October 1926, scoring against Ireland in a 3-3 draw at Anfield. He was also a reserve the following year against Wales. His chances of regular international recognition were not helped by the fact that he spent several seasons playing outside the top flight.
His son, also named Joe, was on the books of Chesterfield, but didn’t make an appearance for them before joining York City in 1950. In four years at York, he made 110 appearances before dropping into non-league football with Gainsborough Trinity. His cousin was George Brown of Huddersfield, Aston Villa and England fame.