I’ve strayed onto local history once or twice before in these pages but in a week when the Evening News decided to launch it’s first paid for digital content to promote the Dream Factory (a celebration of 100 years of Old Trafford) one can’t help but think back to those magical days at the beginning of the 20th century.
Nowhere more magical in fact than Little Italy right here in Ancoats.
Another unknown milestone we reach this year is 60 years since the passing of the remarkable Louis (Luigi) Rocca, the unsung hero and kingmaker of Old Trafford and an Ancoats Italian to boot, relevant to me three times over. While modern day football overlaps nonsensically into the world of business and celebrity, the more nostalgic aficionados cherish these stories and struggle to benchmark the 2010 vintage of association football with the romantic sport of yesteryear.
It’s a story that starts in the first half of the 19th century not a million miles away from Genoa. (Born in 1838) Luigi Rocca senior left Borzonasca, a pretty hill village on the Italian Riviera, in 1865 to search for his slice of fame and fortune. At the age of 27 and still a bachelor, Louis would eventually arrive at the smouldering grey urban metropolis that was Manchester at the peak of the Industrial Revolution.
How the colours of the Italian sea, sky and countryside must have compared with Ancoats 145 years ago, one can only imagine but Louis would eventually settle at number 3 Ancoats St, marrying an Italian girl Maria Casinelli, from Sheffield, and together they would raise a typically large Italian family. The family, like many others in the area, would start a vibrant ice cream business in 1872 but youngest son Louis jr had other plans. At the age of 12 he joined a local football team as tea-boy, a position that proved to be the first rung on a ladder that would eventually cement his name in the club’s hall of fame. After then being tasked with looking after the first team kit (quite the honour in those days), the young Italian Manc was also to become the club’s first groundsman.
However, Louis was to make his first real mark on the history and future of the club on April 26 1902 at a meeting to choose a new name for Newton Heath LYR. Having relocated to Clayton some years earlier, ‘the Heathens’ now saw no need to retain the unpopular ties with the area that borders Ancoats to the slightly north slightly east side of Manchester. After Manchester Central and Manchester Celtic had been rejected it was Louis who proposed the legendary words ‘Manchester United’.
This was hardly the end of Rocca’s immense influence over the future direction of the club. It was he who persuaded James W Gibson to famously save United from near certain bankruptcy in the 1930s and it was he who introduced the first organised scouting system in British football. One that would eventually lead to the finest crop of young footballing talent these shores have ever seen. However, probably his finest hour was being the ‘convincer’ in wrestling Sir Matt Busby away from the clutches of Liverpool where he was seeing out his playing career. Busby had previously played with Manchester City and Rocca had maintained a friendship developed through the local Catholic Church.
The rest as they say is history.
Louis Rocca, born in Ancoats, Manchester was to be spared the pain of Munich, but equally never really experienced the immense glory and worldwide renown that would follow, the fruits of his labour if you like. For someone who dedicated over half a century to the cause he is rarely given the credit for such unswerving loyalty, a rare commodity in the modern game. The superstars of today Beckham, Ronaldo, Cantona, Rooney et al have many of the finer things in life and will each be remembered for different things, but they will never be able to say they were Manchester United supporter, tea boy, kitman, groundsman, assistant manager, director, chief scout and brand naming genius!
Molto grazie Signor Fix-it.