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 Bluchers 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. Although United were relegated to the Second Division in 1922, he was an ever present as he helped them to promotion as Second Division runners up in 1924-25, one of two seasons at United where he played in every game.
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.
He first represented England on their 1926 summer tour when he played in a 5-3 victory over Belgium in Antwerp, and then represented The Football League in October 1926 in a 6-1 victory over The Irish League in Belfast, winning his second England cap 11 days later, scoring in a 3-3 draw with Ireland at Anfield. He was recalled to the England squad in November 1927 for the fixture against Wales at Turf Moor but he was a non playing reserve.
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, his closest being an appearance in the 1926 FA Cup semi final where they were soundly beaten by cross city rivals Manchester City 3-0 at Bramall Lane, and it was not until he left United in 1933 that he lifted any silverware when he won 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 their top goal-scorer in the 1933-34 season with 24 goals. He left City to join Chesterfield in May 1935 winning the Third Division North Championship in his first season when an ever present and scoring 15 goals in 68 appearances for The Spireites 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.
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.
NB The photograph shows Joe Spence (right) shooting at Crystal Palace goalkeeper Jack Alderson’s goal, either at Old Trafford on 26th August 1922, or at The Nest, Croydon a week later, Manchester United winning both games by the odd goal in 3 and 5 respectively, with Spence scoring once at Old Trafford and twice in the return match.