How a Scottish ship builder became the first American to play for Manchester United
The first American Manchester United player was born and raised in Scotland.
James Brown was born in Kilmarnock and grew up in the town of Troon. He was the oldest brother in a family of footballers, and he became the man of the house when his father abandoned the family and left for the United States. James had to grow up fast and at only thirteen years old he started working as a riveter’s apprentice in the Troon Shipyard.
At the age of eighteen, James set sail for the United States to look for his father. He settled in New Jersey and soon found himself playing for a few local amateur clubs up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States. It wasn’t long before his exploits on the pitch were noticed.
James was called up to represent the United States at the 1930 World Cup in Uruguay. He played well in the first two matches, and scored the only goal in a 6-1 defeat to Argentina in the knockout stage. Upon his return to the United States he played professionally for a few clubs in the troubled American Soccer League, but by 1932 the league was in danger of collapsing.
Having made a name for himself both at the international level during the World Cup and professionally in the United States, Brown had already attracted genuine interest from clubs in the United Kingdom. He sailed back to the British Isles to meet with the clubs and discuss terms. Managers from across England and Scotland were gathered at the Liverpool docks, waiting with bated breath for his ship to pull in and hoping for the opportunity to secure his signature.
That opportunity never came. Manchester United’s secretary-manager, Scott Duncan, beat them all to the punch by hiring a tugboat and boarding the vessel before it ever docked. By the time Duncan and Brown walked down the gangway, he had already signed his Manchester United contract.
Unfortunately for Brown, he arrived at Old Trafford during some of the leanest years in the club’s history. The club was almost relegated to the Third Division but it certainly wasn’t due to Brown’s performance. In 40 matches spanning two seasons, his 17 goals represented the club’s second highest total. However, despite his contributions to the team, his conflicts with management regarding player unionization hastened the end of his United career. He was transferred to Brenton the following season.
After five more seasons with four different clubs, Brown put an end to his professional career, picked up his riveting tools and returned to the shipyard for a few more years. Eventually he returned to the United States where he helped form the Connecticut State Amateur League while taking on a role as a player-manager at Greenport United, one of the league’s clubs. After two seasons, James left the club and took a job as a coach at a prep school in Connecticut. He would stay there for twenty-two years.
In 1986, James Brown was inducted into the National Soccer Hall of Fame. He was posthumously inducted into the Connecticut State Hall of Fame in 2000.