As a supporter of Burnley Football Club for over 40 years, I am quick to judge the team managers of my era in terms of the good (step forward, Mr. Dyche), the bad (sorry, Chris Waddle) and the ugly (not even going there). However, I must confess that for most of those years I have taken little interest in the managers who came before. It genuinely came as a shock, therefore, when recent research into an old black and white postcard from the first part of the 20th century led to the discovery of a tragic tale concerning one of the club’s early managers.

The postcard in question shows a Burnley team picture from the early 1900s. The man in the straw boater at the right-hand end of the back row is named as “Mr. S. Whittaker, Secretary”. He may be termed “Secretary”, but around this time the role was beginning to change, becoming more like the role of team manager we know today. So, who was this manager from the early days of the club’s history?

Spencer Whittaker (known as “Spen”) was born in nearby Oswaldtwistle in February 1871. A passion for football clearly ran in the family. His brother, Nathan, was a member of the FA Council and Secretary of the Southern League. Spen played for his local club, Oswaldtwistle Rovers, before becoming the club’s secretary and then chairman, all by the age of 32.

Meanwhile, in nearby Burnley, the 1902-03 season had proved unmemorable to say the least. Burnley FC had finished bottom of the entire Football League, resulting in the club having to apply for re-election. Echoing practices in the modern game, this led to boss, Ernest Mangnall, leaving the club.  It is much more difficult to imagine in the present day, however, that after leaving Burnley under a cloud, Mangnall’s next stop as manager was Manchester United!

Burnley now looked to local boy, Spen Whittaker, to stop the rot. Aged just 32 when he was appointed secretary/manager, he remains the club’s youngest ever manager to this day. His first season in charge proved reasonably successful. Whittaker began to rebuild the team with a number of signings and the club finished fifth in the Second Division, a big improvement on the previous season. However, for the most part the players he signed were solid rather than spectacular and promotion to the promised land of Division One proved elusive over the following four seasons.

To their credit, the board remained loyal to their young manager and the 1909-10 season saw Whittaker renew his efforts to rebuild the squad.   Towards the end of that season, on Friday April 15th, 1910 the club announced that they had signed a defender from Accrington Stanley called Harry Swift. The team were due to play a vital league game against Manchester City the following day and Burnley were keen to give Swift his debut in the match. However, in an early 20th century equivalent of today’s transfer deadline day mayhem, the player’s registration papers would have to be physically lodged in London before the 3pm kick-off the following day in order for that to happen.

The manager personally took on the responsibility of ensuring the registration papers were lodged in time. Whittaker set off on the overnight train from Burnley to London in order to complete the registration. According to a newspaper report at the time, another passenger entered the train compartment in which Whittaker was travelling at Crewe and promptly went to sleep. When the train stopped at Stafford, the passenger awoke to find himself alone in the compartment and the carriage door swinging open. There was no sign of the Burnley manager.

Railway officials were immediately informed and the alarm raised. The report goes on to say that the driver of the northbound express train from London found Whittaker lying near the track at a place called Whitmore between Stafford and Crewe. Miraculously he was still alive, but was unconscious and very seriously injured. He was taken to a hospital in Crewe and died shortly after noon that day, with his wife at his side. He was just 39 years old. It is reported that Whittaker did regain consciousness before he died, but had no recollection of how he had come to fall out of the train. The most likely theory is that he had mistaken the outside door for the door leading to the corridor, but we shall never know for certain.

Amazingly, the game against Manchester City went ahead as planned.   Life was very different then and for most fans attending the game the first clue that anything was amiss was when they arrived at the ground to see the flag flying at half-mast. As the game started, the tragic news began to spread around the ground. The players tried their best for their manager and at one point led league leaders, Manchester City, 3-1, but were eventually pegged back to a 3-3 draw. The town went into mourning and a testimonial game against Manchester United subsequently raised funds for Whittaker’s widow and their three young daughters.

Following Whittaker’s tragic death, the club appointed John Haworth in July 1910 as their new manager. More successful times were to follow, including a famous victory in the FA Cup final of 1914. However, if Whittaker had not been there to steady the ship back in 1903, it is conceivable that the club could have subsequently dropped out of the Football League altogether. Who knows, Accrington Stanley may now have been flying high in the Premier League and Burnley FC a little known non-league club!

Researching this story has brought home to me how important these long-forgotten figures from football’s past have been in the development of our clubs to what they are today. They deserve to be remembered by modern fans, none more so than Spen Whittaker, who came to such a tragic and untimely end whilst serving his club. He would definitely be judged a good Burnley manager in any age.

Margaret Brecknell is a freelance writer covering sport and other topics. She can be contacted at Follow her on Twitter @mabrecknell