The Beginnings Of Manchester United 1878-1918

How Did the Manchester United we know today come about? In a series of blogs over the coming months I’m going to be talking about the history of this Great Club, starting with how it all begun and taking you on a journey right up to present day.

In 1878 the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company granted permission for the employees of its Carriage and Wagons department to start a football team, which would be named Newton Heath LYR. LYR stood for Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway. The LYR was used to distinguish the team from their colleagues at the Motive Power Division. Who were known as Newton Heath Loco. The team was funded by the railway company, who also paid the lease on the clubs first ground. This was a field close to the railway yard on North Road. The Newton Heath LYR team was said to be a team of tough, diligent men who formed a powerful side.

They initially played games against other teams of railway workers, very few of these game were recorded. During the 1882/83 season Newton Heath LYR played a total of 26 recorded friendlies. The following season competed they in the Lancashire Cup but lost 7-2 in the first round to a reserve side of Blackburn Olympic. In 1884 Newton Heath LYR applied to enter the Manchester and District Cup and they reached the final. They lost the final 3-0 to Hurst at Whalley Range. Newton Heath LYR reached the final of the Manchester and District Cup a further five times, winning all but one of these finals. In 1886 the club began to expand by signing players of national reputation such as Jack Powell, who would become club captain. In 1886/87 the club entered the Fa Cup for the first time, they were drawn way to Fleetwood Rangers and drew 2-2. Club captain Jack Powell refused to play a period of extra-time so Fleetwood were awarded the tie. Newton Heath LYR appealed to the Football Association but were unsuccessful, this led to the club refusing to play in the FA Cup until 1889.

In 1889 having been spurned by the newly formed The Football League, Newton Heath LYR entered their first ever league competition, becoming founder members of The Combination. In April 1889 The Combination hit financial difficulties and was wound up before the season could be completed. In 1890 after an unsuccessful application (receiving only one vote) to join the Football League. Newton Heath LYR and 11 other clubs not in the League formed an organisation known as the Football Alliance. They finished 8th in the first season of the league. After three further unsuccessful applications the club joined the Football League in 1892 when it merged with the Football Alliance and Newton Heath were elected to the first division. In the final season in the Football Alliance the club finished 2nd to Nottingham Forest who joined them in the first division of the Football League. By the time the club had joined the Football League it had severed ties with the railway company and dropped the LYR from its name. Although most of its players were still employed by the railway company. Newton Heath had become a limited company, raising £2000 of share capital via an application form which was returned to club secretary A.H Albut, the club’s first full-time official, he would also assume managerial duties.

In their first season in the Football League Newton Heath finished bottom of the league and retained their first division status by beating second division Small Heath (later Birmingham City) in a play-off. Newton Heath moved to a new ground in 1893, this was Bank Street in Clayton. This was next to a chemical plant and it was said that when Newton Heath were losing the plant would belch out acrid fumes in a bid to affect the visiting team.

A HM Land Registry map of Bank Street and surrounding area
A HM Land Registry map of Bank Street and surrounding area

The 1893/94 campaign was no better, as they were once again in the relegation play-off, this time facing Liverpool. Newton Heath were defeated 2-0 and had the unwanted record of being the first team to be relegated to the second division. On 9th March 1895 the manager of visiting Walsall Town Swifts complained officially about the state of the Bank Street pitch. Claiming it was drab expanses of wet sand, tufted sparsely with grass. Though the game went ahead and Newton Heath won 14-0, which is unofficially the largest margin of victory in the clubs history but the game was declared null and void. The club made the play-offs in 1897 but failed to gain entry back into the first division.

In the 1901 season the club finished in 10th place losing more games than they had won, ticket sales were flagging and debt was mounting. The club decided to hold a four day event at St James Hall in Manchester to raise money. One of the attractions was a St Bernard dog, which escaped with a collection tin on one night after the event had finished for the day. The dog found its way to John Henry Davies, whose daughter became so smitten with the dog that he enquired about the origin of the tin and in doing so saved the club. It was the escape and recapturing of the dog that led to a meeting between Harry Stafford and Davies, heading a group of three other investors. Together they came up with £2000 to save the club.

John Henry Davies became club president and on 24th April 1902, given that the team now had few ties with its origin, it was no longer based in Newton Heath. The new owners renamed the club Manchester United Football Club. Some alternative names they considered were Manchester Celtic and Manchester Central. They changed the kit colours from Green and Gold that Newton Heath had worn to the Red and White that we know today. Having been saved from liquidation by the four wealthy business men, the club played its first season as Manchester United in 1902/03. The badly needed injection of cash plus new players gave the flagging side the boost it required. They won 15 league games and finished 5th in the league with a total of 38 points.

In 1903 the club hired their first real manager Ernest Mangnall, he was a charismatic publicist who knew how to work the media. Under his leadership the club finished 3rd in the second division. The following season Manchester United set a record when they went unbeaten for 18 games after losing 2-0 to Bolton in September 1904 they didn’t lose again until they lost 3-0 to Lincoln City in February 1905. They finished that season 3rd with 53 points. They suffered a setback off the field when the club were banned selling alcohol inside the ground. Though the club had solid financial backing under the ownership of Davies.

Ernest Mangnall Manchester United's first real manager
Ernest Mangnall Manchester United’s first real manager

Mangnall created Manchester United’s first successful side with a series of signings, most notable being Billy Meredith, the legendary winger who was probably the greatest player of that era. United gained promotion back to the first division in 1906, after they finished 2nd and reached the quarter-finals of the Fa Cup beating holders Aston Villa (one of the most successful teams of that era) 5-1 in the fifth round. In 1908 Manchester United won the League Championship for the first time, the following year Fa Cup success came with a 1-0 victory over Bristol City in the final, with Billy Meredith picking up the man of the match award. In 1908 moved to Old Trafford, thanks to club president John Henry Davies lending the club £60,000. The first game at Old Trafford was on 19th February 1910 against Liverpool which they lost 4-3. They finished that season fifth in the league. Ernest Mangnall brought United to their first successful era, they were the first winners of Charity Shield in 1908 and the League again in 1911 pipping Aston Villa on a tense last day of the season. They again won the Charity Shield in 1911 but this was the end of the successful era and Mangnall left the following year for Manchester City.

man utd 1910
2nd League Title and first whilst playing at Old Trafford

Manchester United players in particular Charlie Roberts and Billy Meredith were instrumental in the forming of the Association of Football Players and Trainers Union (Players Union) in December 1907, this was the second attempt to unionize the players. The Players Union is today the Professional Footballers Association. When the Football Association threatened to ban members of the union with suspension before the 1909/10 season. Manchester United players refused to relinquish their union membership and referred to themselves as The Outcasts. A compromise was reached between the Football Association and the Union before the start of the season which allowed players to be Union members.

The Outcasts
The Outcasts

Without Mangnall United stumbled to 13th place in 1912, attendances slumped to 15,000 and squad had started to age under the leadership of J.J Bentley. They narrowly escaped relegation in 1914/15 by one point. Three of United’s players were later found guilty of match fixing after they had conspired with Liverpool players in fixing a match between the two sides. The 1915 British Football Betting Scandal, the players were banned for life. The Football League was suspended at outbreak of the First World War. On 28th December 1914 Jack Robson was appointed as the club’s first official manager. Previously the club secretary had been responsible for majority of matters relating to playing of the game. Mangnall’s position as secretary was first filled by T.J Wallworth, then by Bentley whom Robson worked under. No football was played during war which meant the club was not generating any revenue but still had to pay for the running of Old Trafford. The financial situation at the club worsened because of this. Bentley died in September 1918, two months before the end of the war and a year before the resumption of league football.

Hope you all enjoy reading this and look out for the next instalment of Manchester United’s history.

Why Not Now Read The Next Chapter Of Manchester United – 1919-1939 – The Inter-War Years

About Andrew Hyslop 398 Articles

Creator of Sir Alex Ferguson Way and writer of football books

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