Written by John White
Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club
Northern Ireland’s No.1 Branch & the Home of Irish Reds
Today Manchester United celebrates a historic day in the club’s history. Exactly 117 years ago, 6 September 1902, Manchester United played their first ever League game (5 days earlier they played a friendly versus Preston North End) and in doing so, wore their world-famous red shirts for the first time.
But this in-depth article by John White, the author of 17 books on Manchester United, and the Branch Secretary of Carryduff Manchester United Supporters’ Club (Ireland), the 5th largest official MUSC in the world – top-40-official-man-utd-supporters-club-branches-revealed– will reveal that the club we have all come to love, almost became extinct more than a century ago.
The St Bernard Dog That Saved The Club
A new season, 1900-01, brought with it a new appointment, James West as Secretary-Manager, and increased financial problems which placed the club on the brink of bankruptcy and with it the ignominy of being kicked out of the Football League and the team being disbanded.
The financial plight of Newton Heath FC was so bad that the fans conducted whip-rounds to pay for the team’s railway fares to away fixtures now that Mr Sedgwick was no longer the Station Master at Victoria Station.
Travelling to an away game the players’ pre-match meal consisted of bread and cheese and a bottle of beer, a far cry from today’s choreographed meals which ensure the players consume the right balance of nutrients, protein and vitamins.
Wages for the players were still based around the takings at the gate. On 27 February, 28 February, 1 March and 2 March 1901, the players and officials of Newton Heath FC organised a Grand Bazaar at St James’s Hall, Oxford Street, Manchester in an effort to boost the finances of the dwindling club and raise £1,000 to prevent the club from becoming bankrupt.
The Manchester Evening News reported that the Northern military and Bess-o’th’-barn Brass bands would be playing at the event. Admission to the hall cost 3s, 6d for the four days but patrons could purchase one day tickets.
At the bazaar the club captain’s dog, Harry Stafford’s St Bernard named Major, walked around the stalls in the hall with a collection box fastened around his collar whereby parents would call Major over to them for their children to see and in return drop some pennies in his box. Even Manchester City made a financial contribution to assist their neighbours.
Major also doubled-up as an overnight guard dog but on one of the days he strayed from the hall out into Oxford Street and wandered off. He ended up at a nearby public house which was run by a Mr Thomas who leased the premises from Mr John H. Davies, a very wealthy local brewery owner.
Thomas showed the dog to Davies whose young daughter fell in love with the animal as soon as she saw it. Davies, the Managing Director of the Manchester Brewers, purchased the dog from Thomas and took it home not knowing that his owner was searching high and low around Manchester for his beloved pet. Stafford placed an advertisement in a local newspaper seeking information which would hopefully lead him to Major’s present whereabouts. Davies saw the advertisement and immediately contacted Stafford who a short time later arrived at the home of Davies to retrieve his pet.
This chance meeting between the two men led to them discussing the current plight of Newton Heath after Davies invited Stafford in for a chat and a cup of tea. It was at this meeting that Davies promised to help the club out finically when he became so impressed with Stafford’s enthusiasm for the team. Davies offered Stafford a job running one of his many pubs in Manchester whilst Newton Heath ended the 1900-01 league campaign in 10th position.
The Death of Newton Heath & Birth of Manchester United
The 1901-02 season was to be a historic one for Newton Heath Football Club as it would cease to exist five days after it played its final league game of the season. In January 1902, the club’s crippling debts amounted to £2,670 (equivalent to £280,000 in 2019) and a number of creditors pressed for payment.
Not for the first time the club was staring bankruptcy in the face. One of these creditors was the club’s President William Healey who when he was a director sponsored a cup in his name. Healey was one of the club’s principal creditors and on 9th January 1902, he had a winding-up order issued by the court against Newton Heath FC for the sum of £242, 17s and 10d which was a considerable amount of money in the early part of the 20th century.
The Manchester Guardian at the time covered the situation with:
“Attention was directed to the Second League by the unusual experience of Newton Heath. The club is financially in a bad way. A winding up order to meet a debt of £242 precipitated matters last week and no arrangements could be made for playing the game fixed for Saturday. One hears that a new club will be formed out of the ashes of the old one, but this has not been decided definitely.”
The club simply did not have the money to pay Healey and so they were declared bankrupt.
Following up, the Manchester Evening News, at the time, reported:
“There was no question of extinction. It is certain that when the immediate stress of financial resources has been removed, a big effort will be made to put the club on a much sounder basis than it has been for the past two years.”
The bailiffs were called in and took possession of the club office and contents. The future of the club was in a perilous position and not only faced not only expulsion from the Football League, but extinction. When the Official Receiver locked the gates to the club’s Bank Street ground prior to the team’s next home game in Division Two, versus Blackpool on 25th January 1902 (lost 1-0), Harry Stafford decided to call in John H. Davies’s promise to help.
Immediately the two men set about reviving the club’s fortunes. Stafford, a former boiler-maker, raised enough money to pay for the team’s railway fare to their next game away at Bristol City on 18th January 1902 (lost 4-0). Davies and Stafford even managed to find an interim ground to play home games at and secured a pitch at Harpurhey.
However, the club’s precarious financial position led to a meeting of the club’s shareholders which was held at Islington Town Hall, Ancoats, Manchester on 18th March 1902. Those in attendance at the meeting were informed by Harry Stafford that he knew of four local businessmen, Mr John H, Davies, Mr J. Brown, Mr Jones and Mr Taylor, who were each prepared to put up the sum of £500 to guarantee the existence of the club in return for them taking control.
Newton Heath’s existing Board of Directors agreed to the takeover. Mr F. Palmer, President of the shareholders, announced that the Football Association had given their blessing to the reformation of the club under a different name. For once in a very long-time things were starting to brighten up for the ailing club which just four months earlier faced oblivion.
On 23 April 1902, Newton Heath FC beat Chesterfield 2-0 at home in Division Two and finished 15th in the table, their last ever league game as Newton Heath FC. Three days later, The Heathens beat Manchester City 2-1 in the Manchester F.A. Senior Cup Final which was the club’s last ever game under the Newton Heath FC banner and in their famous green and gold jerseys. The club’s last ever FA Cup game as Newton Heath FC saw them lose 2-1 to Lincoln City at home in Round 1 on 1st December 1901.
On 28 April 1902, the most important meeting in the history of the club took place and at this gathering it was agreed to form a new club. Those at the meeting were invited to suggest a new name for the club and “Manchester Celtic” and “Manchester Central” were both suggested.
Manchester Celtic was rejected as it might be seen to be favouring one side of the city over the other, Manchester had a huge Irish population at the turn of the 20th century including a part of the city named “Little Ireland.”
Manchester Central was rejected as a nearby train station was called “Manchester Central Railway Station.” It was Louis Rocca, who would later serve United as a scout under Matt Busby, suggested the name of Manchester United. Rocca’s suggestion was unanimously accepted and Manchester United Football Club was formed. The team’s new colours would be red jerseys and white shorts. In May 1902, the Lancashire Football Association approved the name change.
A New Beginning
Over the summer of 1902, the first ever Board of directors of Manchester United Football Club was established. Not surprisingly given his tab as “The Saviour of the Club,” John H. Davies was appointed the club’s first ever Chairman and President. He was supported by five Directors; Mr Brown, Mr Jones, Mr Taylor and Mr J. J. Bentley who at the time was the President of the Football League. James West continued in post as Secretary-Manager whilst Harry Stafford took charge of team affairs.
On 6 September 1902, Manchester United played its first ever game defeating Gainsborough Trinity 1-0 away in a Division Two game. Inside-right, Chas Richards, had the honour of scoring the club’s first ever goal. United ended the season in 5th place in the league and had to watch their nearest rivals, Manchester City, clinch the Division Two crown and secure promotion to the top-flight.
A home match programme cost one penny and beneath the listings for the two teams the following notice appeared:
“NOTE – In case of any alteration in the teams’ a notice will be sent round the ground giving the name of the substituted player and the number of the position in which he will play.”
It is worth noting at this point that substitutes were not officially sanctioned by the Football League until the 1965-66 season. During the 1902-03 season an unusual incident happened involving the team when they travelled to Goodison Park on 21 February 1903, to face Everton in Round 2 of the FA Cup.
The game was played in appalling weather conditions with a non-stop barrage of rain almost making the pitch unplayable as it cut up and began to resemble a quagmire. In the first half United wore their red jerseys but when they took to the pitch for the second half they wore blue and white striped shirts. The change of kit at the interval wasn’t enough to prevent them from losing the tie 3-1. United wore this blue and white striped jersey in those away games where their red home jersey clashed with the opposition’s home jersey until the 1920s with a couple of exceptions.
During the 1907-08 season, Manchester United wore a white home jersey and in the 1909 FA Cup final they swapped their red jersey for an all-white kit with a red “V” and the rose of Lancashire whilst their opponents, Bristol City, were also forced to change their red jerseys and instead wore blue. United won the 1909 FA Cup final (scorer: Sandy Turnbull) played at The Crystal Palace, London on 24th April 1909, the club’s second trophy success following our English First Division Championship winning season in 1907-08. Just a few weeks before the FA Cup final, United visited Bristol City for a Division One game and wore a white jersey but this time minus the red rose.
Ironically a similar incident occurred 93 years later when United visited The Dell to face Southampton in the Premier League on 13th April 1996. United, the soon to be crowned Premiership Champions for a third time, wore their second choice away kit, an all grey number, and after trailing 3-0 at half-time they re-appeared for the second half wearing their second choice away kit of blue and white stripes. According to the players their dismal first half performance was because they were finding it difficult to pick one another out against the backdrop of the crowd. However, as with the 1903 occasion, the switch did them no good whatsoever losing the game by the very same score, 3-1.
At the end of the 1902-03 season, the Football Association suspended James West and Harry Stafford for making “illegal payments” to players, a regular practice among clubs in England at the time. When he was asked to give his side of the story at an FA inquiry, the ever-loyal Stafford, said:
“Everything I have done has been in the interests of the club.”
Stafford hung-up his boots and was made a director of the club but also acted as groundsman. Stafford was the first of only four Manchester United players who went on to be appointed a director of the club (the others were Charles Hardman, Bobby Charlton and Les Olive).
Over the course of the following 116 years, Manchester United has become the best known, most revered and best supported football club in the world. Today the club enjoys a global attraction of 20 million Twitter followers, 31 million Instagram followers, 72 million Facebook followers and 660 million fans, which equates to 8.55% of the estimated population of the world. So, around the world 1 in every 9 people support my club, your club, our club, Manchester United, but had Major not got out of the hall that night back in early 1902, then it is highly unlikely that Manchester United would even exist today.
A true shaggy dog story!
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