John Bentley was born in Turton in June 1860. A keen footballer, he became club secretary of Bolton Wanderers in 1885.
On 20th July, 1885, the Football Association announced that it was "in the interests of Association Football, to legalise the employment of professional football players, but only under certain restrictions". Clubs were allowed to pay players provided that they had either been born or had lived for two years within a six-mile radius of the ground.
The decision to pay players increased club's wage bills. It was therefore necessary to arrange more matches that could be played in front of large crowds. On 2nd March, 1888, William McGregorcirculated a letter to Aston Villa, Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers, Preston North End, and West Bromwich Albion suggesting that "ten or twelve of the most prominent clubs in England combine to arrange home and away fixtures each season."
John Bentley of Bolton Wanderers and Tom Mitchell of Blackburn Rovers responded very positively to the suggestion. They suggested that other clubs should be invited to the meeting being held on 23rd March, 1888. This included Accrington, Burnley, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, Wolverhampton Wanderers, Old Carthusians, and Everton should be invited to the meeting.
The following month the Football League was formed. It consisted of six clubs from Lancashire (Preston North End, Accrington, Blackburn Rovers, Burnley, Bolton Wanderers and Everton) and six from the Midlands (Aston Villa, Derby County, Notts County, Stoke, West Bromwich Albion and Wolverhampton Wanderers). The main reason Sunderland was excluded was because the other clubs in the league objected to the costs of travelling to the North-East. McGregor also wanted to restrict the league to twelve clubs. Therefore, the applications of Sheffield Wednesday, Nottingham Forest, Darwen and Bootle were rejected.
In 1893 John Bentley became president of the Football League. Bentley opposed the power of the Football Association and objected to the decision that stated that no transfer fee of more than £10 be paid by football clubs. As Bentley pointed out in 1899: "The serious battle will be fought on what the League considers a principle and that is being allowed to work its own particular competition in its own particular way whilst at the same time observing the rules of the parent body."
In 1902 Newton Heath was £2,670 in debt and faced a winding-up order. At a shareholders' meeting in the New Islington Hall, Harry Stafford announced that he and four local businessmen, including John Henry Davies, were willing to takeover the club's debts. The Football League approved the plan and Newton Heath now became Manchester United. Davies arranged for J.J. Bentley to be appointed as president of the club.
Bentley was in favour of using the wealth of John Henry Davies to buy the best players available. He was therefore against the imposition of a maximum wage and restrictions on transfer fees.
The Association Football Players Union (AFPU) continued to have negotiations with the Football Association about the maximum wage but in April 1909 these came to an end without agreement. In June the FA ordered that all players should leave the AFPU. They were warned that if they did not do so by the 1st July, their registrations as professionals would be cancelled. The AFPU responded by joining the General Federation of Trades Unions.
Most players resigned from the union. All 28 professionals at Aston Villa signed a public declaration that they had left the AFPU and would not rejoin until given permission by the FA. However, the whole of the Manchester United team refused to back down. As a result they were all suspended by their club. The same thing happened to seventeen Sunderland players who also refused to leave the AFPU.
The players put their careers in jeopardy by staying in the union. As Charlie Roberts, the Manchester United captain pointed out: "I had a benefit due with a guarantee of £500 at the time and if the sentence was not removed I would lose that also, besides my wages, so that it was quite a serious matter for me."
John Bentley, who had earlier supported the abolition of the maximum wage, now attacked the activities of the AFPU. "The very suggestion of a strike of footballers shows the meanness of the motives behind it and in my judgement cannot be too strongly condemned."
Colin Veitch, who had resigned from the AFPU in order to carry on negotiations with the Football Association, led the struggle to have players reinstated. At a meeting in Birmingham on 31st August 1909, the FA agreed that professional players could be members of the AFPU and the dispute came to an end.
When the Manchester United team played in the first match of the season on 1st September, 1909, they all wore AFPU arm-bands. However, it took six months for the players to receive their back wages. Charlie Roberts never got his benefit match and several union activists were never picked again to play for their country.
In August 1912, Ernest Mangnal, the Manchester United manager, decided to move to Manchester City. During his nine years at the club, Mangnal had completely transformed the fortunes of the club. He was replaced by John Bentley.
At the end of the season John Bentley upset the United fans when he sold club captain, Charlie Roberts, to Oldham Athletic for a transfer fee of £1,750. This was a turning point in the history of Manchester United. In the 1913-14 season United finished in 14th place. Oldham, on the other hand, reached its highest position in its history, finishing runners-up to Everton. J. J. Bentley now resigned from the post of manager.