Harold Hardman was among the last of the generation of gentleman footballers, the group of keen middle class amateurs who played for love of the game and were crucial to the development of football during the nineteenth century.
Contrary to its reputation as a working class game, football was established as an organised sport by middle class enthusiasts in the 1860s. With a missionary zeal they spread word of football throughout the world, retained control of the Football Association and dominated the ranks of the England team until the early-1900s. Many of these gentlemen players frowned upon the creation of the Football League in 1888 and would have nothing to do with professionals, who they thought undermined the sense of fair play they deemed inherent to their sport.
Hardman was a diminutive winger who graced the Everton flank on a Saturday and bestrode the chambers of his Manchester law firm during the week, where he practised as a solicitor. Unlike many of his ‘gentleman’ contemporaries, he seemingly had no problem reconciling his affluent background with his role for Everton.
Born in suburban Manchester in 1882, Hardman started his career at Blackpool, joining Everton in 1903 for £100. A left-winger of skill and panache, he immediately formed a formidable left-sided partnership with Jimmy Settle. They were an outstanding supply line for Sandy Young, who blossomed when playing alongside them.
‘The season 1903-04 marked a revival, the club securing third place on the chart,’ wrote Thomas Keates. ‘Taking it all through, the team, varied at times, combined well and gave some entrancing displays.’ In particular, Everton’s first historian singled Hardman and Settle out ‘for excellence on the left wing.’
Everton came within a whisker of winning the league title the next season, losing out to Newcastle by only a point after losing a rearranged match to Woolwich Arsenal, having led the abandoned game 3-1 the previous Autumn. Hardman’s superb displays for Everton were nevertheless rewarded with a full England cap, when his country faced Wales at the Racecourse Ground in March. In total he would win four caps, but his most telling contribution would come for England’s amateur team.
Perhaps his finest moments for Everton came during its victorious FA Cup run in 1906. 31 March 1906 saw Birmingham taken over by the blue, red and white ribbons of Everton and Liverpool fans who had converged on the city to see their respective teams at Villa Park vying for a place in the FA Cup Final. The Liverpool team had stayed overnight in Tamworth, and Everton had taken a morning train journey arriving in time for lunch at the Grand Hotel.
Once hostilities commenced on the pitch it was Liverpool who took the early initiative, holding much of the possession and having the best chances. Everton defended doughtily and made occasional counter attacks, particularly down the right. As the game progressed into the second half, Everton began to come to terms with their opponents and became more confident in their attacks. In one of their forays into the Liverpool half, Walter Abbott let fly with one of his characteristic long shots and, via the forlorn Liverpool defender Dunlop, it crept into the back of the goal. With Liverpool disorientated, Hardman seized the moment. A minute later he took possession, ran towards goal and shot. Hardy saved his effort, but the ball fell only as far as Jack Sharp. He played it back to Hardman, who tapped home the goal that sent Everton to their third FA Cup final, in which they defeated Newcastle United 1-0.
As evidenced by his playing record from the 1906/07 season, Hardman was finding it harder to combine work as a solicitor with football for Everton. He played a game, missed a game, played a brace of games and missed a couple and so it went on. He was a close friend of Everton’s secretary, Will Cuff, a fellow solicitor who would rise through football’s committee rooms to have a huge influence on the wider game. The two shared a lengthy correspondence, in which Cuff empathised with Hardman’s struggles at combining training with Everton in Liverpool with work as a solicitor in Manchester. Perhaps it was this empathy that led to Hardman’s release at the end of the 1907/08 season so that he could concentrate on his profession.
Hardman joined Northern Nomads, one of the leading amateur clubs of the era. They had reached the first round of the FA Cup that year and would later win the FA Amateur Cup. While playing for them Hardman was part of the England team that won the 1908 Olympic football tournament, in London. In winning gold he was Everton’s only successful Olympian until Daniel Amokachi matched his achievement at Atlanta in 1996.
Northern Nomads, who didn’t even have their own home, were no fit stage for Hardman, however, and he had joined Manchester United by the end of 1908. After just a handful of appearances he joined Bradford City in 1909, playing in their first two seasons in the First Division. In April 1909 he made an emotional return to Goodison, playing in Bradford’s 1-0 win over Everton – a victory that ultimately secured Bradford’s survival as a First Division team. In 1910 he joined Stoke City where he played out the remainder of his top class career.
In 1912 Hardman returned to Old Trafford as a director and thus began his third career, as a football administrator. Like his friend Will Cuff he blazed a trail through football’s committee rooms and would serve on the FA Council.
In 1951 he became Manchester United chairman and his leadership of the club – in partnership with Matt Busby – is credited with the making of United as the modern institution known today. Certainly he took the lead in supporting United’s groundbreaking entry into European football in 1956, a move that ended in tragedy two years later when Busby’s great team was decimated by the Munich air disaster. ‘United will rise again’ proclaimed Hardman, and they did – although the club’s hierarchy was accused of ignoring the plight of many of the survivors and the victim’s families.
Hardman lived long enough to see the advent of George Best and United’s renaissance under Busby. He also saw Everton lift the league title once more in 1963, a feat that had eluded him as a player. Quite what he made of Johnny Morrissey and Derek Temple dodging a path down the Goodison flank we do not know, but one thing is certain - Hardman was every bit as illustrious as these revered figures who succeeded him on the Everton flank.