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Manchester United: Where the Story Begins


In the sporting world, the Manchester United Football Club has emerged as one of the greatest sports organizations of all time. They rose from a humble origin as a group of railway workers who put together a small squad in the late 19th century to become the most consistently dominant team in the largest sport in the world. The fairly recent invention of the Internet has helped spread the gospel of United world-wide and now people in every country can read page after page of stories and statistics proving just how dominant United has become. But in almost all cases, the information about United available on the Internet dates back to about 1960 when official records were first valued enough to be complied and saved for future reference. That is why I have decided to undertake the project of compiling a general history of the Manchester United Football Club starting with their first season in 1878, extending up through 1960. At that point, the story is taken over by thousands of other web page creators who focus their recaps on the last forty years of the clubís history.

The other major difference between this account of Unitedís history and those currently available on the net is that rather than simply telling what happened to the club in itís first eighty years, Iíll discuss how certain events and people are indicative of the differences between English society and American society as indicated through sports culture. Certain aspects of the clubís history, such as the focus allocated to the manager and the way English youth are incorporated into the program, are markedly different from anything associated with American professional sports. In the end the differences exemplified by Manchester United show that the English Premier League is grounded in love for sport as opposed to capitalist venture that drives professional sports in America.

One major difference between the English Premier League and all American professional sports leagues is the way teams are cycled through the top division in order to promote the highest possible degree of competition. When United first started in 1878 they were called Newton Heath, named after the suburb of Manchester where they practiced, and were comprised of players from Lancashire and Yorkshire Railways. They played at a small ground on Monsall Road in Newton Heath. They were a resounding success their first season and soon picked up the nickname "the Heathens," from Newton Heath. In 1885 they turned professional and were admitted into the Football Alliance after their efforts to join the Football League failed. The Football League was clearly the top division of English soccer and most National Team players were recruited from this league. But in 1892 the Football League was totally reconfigured. The Football League, later known as the English Premier League, added two more teams to their top division making a total of sixteen and on top of that they added sixteen additional teams which made up another entire second division. A system like this is unheard of in American professional athletics. The benefits of the new system are that it ensures to keep the league extremely competitive year in and year out. At the conclusion of every season there is a small tournament between the top two teams from the second division and the lowest two teams from the first division and those who finish one and two remain in division one for the next season and the remaining two drop to the lower division. In American professional sports there are teams who consistently finish at the bottom of the league for multiple years, and rarely play a competitive game. But with the English system, more players are able to play professional athletics and overall competition remains high every season.

The Heathens inaugural league game took place on September 3rd 1892 against then the mighty Blackburn Rovers. The attendance was 8,000 and the game was played in a torrential rainstorm with the Heathens going down in defeat 4-3. Robert Donaldson became the first player to score a league goal for the team that was to become Manchester United. Newton Heathís first season turned out to be near disaster with only one victory coming in a promotion playoff game saving them from dropping to the lower division. It would be another full season until the Heathens fell to the second group and there they would stay until the 20th Century.

In American sports when a team finishes last for multiple seasons they lose their fan support people stop supporting their team the way they would for winners. However in England, fans stay true to their teams and regardless of their win-loss record they are willing to show their support at all costs. The undying devotion of fans was made perfectly clear during the 1899 season that is most remembered for the riots between Celtic and Rangers. Supposedly after a Scottish Cup final replay the fans tried to burn down the ground and trouble continued for several hours in the streets of Glasgow with 81 policemen having to be treated in a local hospital. Newton Heath had problems of their own with a "scandal" behind the scenes when two players, Boyd and Cuningham, were suspended by the club for their extracurricular activities. The two players were said to have been drinking during the season. The Athletic News reported, "If men who are paid good wages donít think itís worth while to keep themselves in fit condition, then they are better off out of the team." These two players were suspended for their behavior back in 1899. The suspension set a precedent for how transgressions by Englandís professional athletes would be handled.(1)

The week following these suspensions the fans took their turn. After the Heathens took a 2-1 defeat at New Brighton Tower, a group of supporters took action by surrounding the referee as he walked off the field. Witnessesí claim that fans only jeered and booed but do admit that the situation could have turned much worse had there not been police to escort him to the locker room. By all accounts the refereeing had been dubious which was more than enough to spark the frustrated fans. Either way, the result of the game seriously dented any hopes of Newton Heathí promotion chances for that year.

At the turn of the century, Newton Heath was indeed at their lowest ebb. After a full decade in the league all they had to show was two years in the top flight, both years finishing at the bottom, and eight years in the second. The directors decided that new players had to be bought, but there were very minimal funds available at the time. Consequentially, the club decided to host a Bazaar to raise cash. The event started on February 27 and ran for four days. The Manchester Evening News reported that the Northern Military and Bess-oí-the-Barn brass bands would be playing. The Bazaar ended on Saturday evening but after paying off the cost of renting the hall it was found that the event had hardly raised any money at all.

However, during those four days the clubís fortune was taking a small twist for the better. Harry Stafford, the Newton Heath captain, owned a St. Bernard dog that he had taken to the Bazaar. As a joke he had tied a small collection box around the dogís neck but at some point the dog ran away. That Saturday the dog was found wandering the city by a pub landlord who showed it to a Mr. Henry Davies whom was then the managing director of the Manchester Brewers. Davies supposedly took a fancy to the dog and immediately bought it from the landlord. Feeling guilty, Davies decided to trace the dogís owner and soon found out that it originally belonged to the Newton captain. While returning the dog, Davies and Stafford hit it off and being a very successful businessman, Davies decided to provide financial assistance to the club.

Financial security was not the only major change for the club in the start of the 20th century. The name Newton Heath was not liked by many associated with the program. The team had left its home in Newton Heath nine years previously and following the reorganization of the Club, many called for a name change. Manchester Central was suggested but it was decided that it sounded too much like a railway station. Manchester Celtic was also suggested but then a Mr. Louis Rocca hit upon the name Manchester United. The name had been suggested before but had not met much support, but this time it stuck and on April 26 1902, Newton Heath became Manchester United.

After 12 unhappy seasons in the second division, 1906 was the year that United finally claimed their place again the top flight. The promotion was clinched with a 3-1 victory over Leeds City and United finished the season out in style by trouncing Burton United 6-0. When the final whistle blew the crowd invaded the pitch and carried the team shoulder high from the field. The current United manager, Ernst Mangnall, addressed the cheering fans and promised that this was only the beginning.

The 1908 season was perhaps United finest season from those earliest years. After playing their first fourteen games, United had only dropped two points and stood, for the first time, proudly on top of Division 1. Unitedís football was the talk of Englandís sports press because of stunning defeats over Newcastle, Blackburn and Arsenal. When the season closed they were champions for the first time and set a new Premier League record of with 82 goals scored. Following the seasonís end, the United board decided to reward the team with a trip to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They first played a combined Vienna Sport and Vienna FC cup team and won comfortably 4-0, and then traveled by train to Budapest for two games against the local favorites, Ferencvaros. United won the first 6-2, but the second sparked a minor diplomatic incident. United started the game in roaring style and the Hungarian fans applauded in admiration for the English Champions. But when United continued to pile it on the scene turned sour and the referee sent off three United players, a miniature riot started. Eventually police got the scene under control and United finished the game with only 8 players compared to the 11 Hungarians, and still managed to win 7-0. But as the referee blew the final whistle, stones were hurled from the terraces, players were spat on and police had to charge the crowd with swords drawn to disperse the throng. United were transported by open top bus to their hotel and were again rained on by more stones as they drove. Several players sustained head wounds before police again got the crowd under control. The Hungarian authorities apologized profusely and United diplomatically shrugged the incidents off and promised to return the following year. Upon arriving back in Manchester, Mangnall vowed that he would never go back to Hungary again.

Even before the United team returned home, word of the events in Hungary had reached Manchester. They made grand plans to welcome back their team and show appreciation for representing England so well and with such dignity. The United team arrived at Central Station at 3:30pm later the next day and were surprised to find an estimated 300,000 fans waiting to welcome then back home. While a brass band played "See the Conquering Hero Come," Mangnall opened the door of his carriage and lifted their new trophy high to hear a huge roar from the crowd. Following Mangnall dressed in a cloth cap came Charlie Roberts and the rest of the United team, many of them wearing red hats to hide their hear wounds. A motor coach took them all through the city and all along a pre-planned route as fans hung from windows, climbed statues and perched on roofs all to get a glimpse of their heroes. The procession continued to their old playing grounds at Clayton where an additional 30,000 fans had been waiting for over three hours. This truly was Claytonís finest hour, for United had already given notice that they would be soon quitting the muddy field for a new stadium being build at Old Trafford.

The move to the new stadium had been agreed to in 1908 because it was agreed that Clayton was a disgrace of a pitch. During the winter months it was a quagmire and hardly a fitting place for a team that had won the FA Cup and a League Championship. The old stadium was sold to Manchester Corporation for 5,000 pounds and the new site in Trafford Park was purchased with the help of a grant for 60,000 pounds. The new stadium was planned to be the largest and finest in the country. Originally it was designed to hold 100,000 fans, but after construction estimates soared an additional 30,000 pounds over budget the plans were revised and the gate was restricted to 60,000. United played their last game at Claytonís Bank Street ground on January 10th 1910 and defeated the Spurs 5-0. Shortly after United officially left the old ground a gale swept across Manchester and blew down the old stadium and caused damages to houses in all surrounding areas. The new ground was opened on February 19th and named ĎOld Trafford.í Liverpool was the opponent that day and spoiled the party by beating United 4-3 after United had led 2-0. But they soon became used to the new pitch and it was the 21st of October the following year before United suffered another loss at home. In those days the price of admission in Old Trafford was five shillings for quality, reserved seats and only sixpence to stand on the terraces.

The following season United again won the League Championship, but this would mark the end of Unitedís first golden era. Manager Ernst Mangnall left United for a high paying spot with cross-town rivals Manchester City. Mangnallís achievements at United cannot be underestimated. Not only did he win two Championships and an FA Cup, but he managed to buy players of class and flair who gave United a reputation of being a quality organization known for attacking, flowing football. He also built the finest stadium in the land at Old Trafford to accommodate all this talent. It would take United over forty years to recover from the loss of him.

United was back in dire financial straits in 1913 after the building of Old Trafford. Their magnificent stadium caused a huge debt for the Club and with the war years beckoning it was indeed dark days for United. The move of their fantastic manager to City was devastating to the Manchester United faithful, but it only got worse. Concerned with the debt of Old Trafford, the Club directors accepted a 1500 pound bid from Oldham Athletic for their captain and inspirational leader Charlie Roberts. The Mangnall move had marked the beginning of the end for United and the Roberts deal was merely another nail in the coffin. Players were being sold and the magnificent Manchester United team was finally broken.

War was declared on August 4, 1914. The belief at the time was that it would be a short affair and that the mainstream of public life would not be effected and therefore the League decided to continue on. Initially, there was no effect on the game but as players enlisted in the services to join Lord Kitchenerís mighty army, the ranks of players became depleted and it wasnít long before attendance fell way off as the public lost its appetite for fun. Football was officially suspended at the end of the 1914-15 season due to the war in Europe. In the place of the Football league a variety of regional divisions were established. United joined with Everton, Liverpool, Manchester City and Stockport County to form a Lancashire League southern section, but the smaller league too was a failure as more and more players were called up for active duty. It was a dark period for United and their magnificent ground at Old Trafford stood silent and empty with most of their team away fighting the war in Europe.

In 1919 League Football finally resumed after its four-year disruption. United started the season looking nothing like the powerhouse they had been before the war. Crowds were coming back to the stadiums to watch their team again, knowing full well that United had lost the majority of its team in the years preceding the war. The average gate at all 1st division matches in 1920 was 22,000 while Unitedís average was around 30,000. Old Trafford had been a drain on their capital for many years, but was now finally starting to pay dividends as it would for many years to come.

The astounding part of these figures is that the high attendance continued for the next few decades. Fans continued to support their team despite the fact that United started losing many more matches then they had in previous seasons. In fact, the Ď20s saw United finish between 12th and 15th for a couple of seasons before eventually dropping into the second division where they remained for the duration of the Ď30s. But through all the losses and disappointing seasons, the United fans remained strong supporters of the club. Itís worth contrasting the situation of United with an American professional team to measure the markedly different fan reaction. The Cleveland Browns in the National Football League finished near the bottom of their division without fail for all of the 80ís and 90ís. The cities of Manchester and Cleveland reacted in quite opposite ways of each other in showing support for their team. Attendance at Brownsí games was minimal and borderline non-existent to the point that television networks would not televise games played in Cleveland because the seats looked so empty. The Browns lost their endorsements and were verbally abused by local fans and sports analysts. Cleveland fans simply found a new favorite team to root for until their club became respectable again. But before that change could come about, the owner picked up the Browns and moved them to Baltimore in the hopes of finding better community support. There is something honorable in standing by your local team even while they are at the bottom of the pile and itís something completely absent from American professional sports. The all-star games, endorsements and media hype given to hot teams in America naturally creates a pool of fair weather fans. The pride, spirit and enthusiasm showed by English fans remains constant during hard times and good and is particularly apparent when looking at Manchester United in the Ď20s and Ď30s.

There would be a time in Unitedís future when attendance would begin to dwindle, but it had nothing to do with their recent lack of success. In 1939, there was much apprehension in the terraces of Old Trafford on the Saturday before war broke out. Everyone knew that the deadline given to Germany by the British government to pull out of Poland was only hours away and by that time it was abundantly clear that Hitler would not retreat. United were away to Charlton on what was the third game of a new season. They had begun the season brightly with a 4-0 win at Grimsby followed by a weekday tie at Chelsea, but Charlton beat them 2-0 on this day. The next morning at 11am war was declared on Germany. The football League met two days later and made the decision to cancel the League season. It would be seven years before League football reappeared, although football was played in some form or fashion throughout the painful duration of the war.

By the time war started showing signs of conclusion, Manchester United were working hard to prepare for the next League season. They would bounce back from the war stronger than any team in England, but not because they signed any number of amazing players. United showed the world that all a squad needs is strong leadership in order to be successful. This leadership came to Manchester after the war when Matt Busby signed as the new United manager. As reported in the Manchester Evening News, February 19 1945, "Company Sergeant-Major Instructor Matt Busby, a Liverpool right back and Scotland captain, today signed an agreement to become manager of Manchester United when he is demobilized. Busby has had a number of offers, but he approached us himself as he particularly wanted to come back to Manchester." Although nobody could have known it, the signing of Matt Busby was as momentous an event as any in the history of Manchester United. It ranked along side the appointment of Ernest Mangnall, and the timely intervention of JH Davies to save the club from bankruptcy. Busby was only 34 when he took over, but even so was in great demand turning down the Spurs, Liverpool, and Arsenal to join United.

In 1946 the war was over and League football was ready to be kicked off again. The crowds flocked to the games hungry for football again after the long lay-off. Crowds were averaging 50,000 and all the biggest clubs, although United was only getting 40,000 each night. The reason being that Old Trafford was a casualty of Hitlerís bombing of Manchester, and consequentially United had to play at a smaller facility on Main Road. United finished runners up that season, which was considered quite a brave showing by a young squad that lacked very many big football names. The next couple seasons were equally successful and saw the reopening of Old Trafford in 1949. Busby and United were well on their way to being great again.

On November 24, 1951, United gave a debut to two youngsters who over the next couple years would play a vital role in the clubís fortunes. The lads Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne were selected to play Unitedís match against Liverpool. The Manchester Evening News wrote, "Unitedís ĎBabesí were cool and confident in their victory this evening." The introduction of Byrne and Blanchflower signaled the beginning of changes in the team. United went on to win the Championship in 1952 with a few old guard players forming the backbone of the team, however in the reserve and youth teams, players were pushing older, established players for their spots every week.

The change that was taking place had to do with the integration of the local youth clubs with the professional league. Busby was instrumental in helping create the new system that would prove to revolutionize Professional Football in England. Manchester United naturally had their top team that represented the club in all League matches. Beyond that they had a second team used to train players who were not quite ready for the top division. Busby took this idea much further and in doing so, he grounded United into the community of Manchester further than ever before. Busby created this system as a way for the whole of Manchester to become part of the United team. As he later explained to the Manchester Evening News, "If all teams in the Premier League will implement this type of youth program within their organization then English football will compete with any nation, world wide. By training Englandís youth we will build enthusiasm for football and create a foundation of young talent to increase competition in our own leagues as well as on the international level."

Youth clubs were organized that started with young lads and followed through all the way up to the top United team. This allowed kids in the community to play under the same name as their favorite team and also inspired them to work hard and stay on track to play at the top level of professional football. Busby worked to develop the talent he wanted right there in his own community rather than buy players from other districts. The program was so successful that from 1953-1958, Busby only had to buy one player. American professional sports have nothing that resembles this sort of training system. Talented young athletes are often shipped off to Olympic Training Centers in San Diego, Colorado and New York but this disassociates the kids from their home towns and really does not help them play professional sports.

United proved that their system could be successful as 1953 saw the debut of another Club great when a 16 year old Duncan Edwards was told by Busby, "Go get your boots son. You are playing for the first team against Cardiff City." Indeed Edwards was great and surrounded by fellow youth they hammered one opponent after another. Unitedís young team were making noises that they were ready to challenge for Englandís highest honor, the League Championship. Some football writers were predicting a great future for the new exciting team, but many of them quibbled that there was too much youth and too little experience for them to actually scale the top heights. At the start of the season it looked as if the media had been correct because United saw only three wins in eight games, but from that point on the youngsters only lost four more games the rest of the season. By Christmas it was all over. United sat on top of the league and never looked back. The youngsters had proven themselves, and the English football public was in awe of the youthful champions.

The Busby Babes continued to make a name for themselves well into the 50ís. Another League Championship in 1955 qualified them for a new competition known as the European Cup. Chelsea had been invited the previous year but at the prompting of the Football League they had turned the chance down. United also heard serious argument from the football powers, but Manager Matt Busby stood defiant. He even risked sanctions to accept the offer and pave the way into Europe for the English. Busby had always been on the cutting edge of the game and he believed that his young side were a match for the best in Europe. Indeed they made a strong showing and played through to the semi-finals before falling to Real Madrid. Things were going quite well for United with a strong European Cup showing and overwhelming success on the domestic front.

However history has proven time and again that even great powers can collapse, but in the case of United it was out of their control and certainly one of the greatest sports tragedies of all time. On February 3, 1958 the team traveled to Belgrade to play the Yugoslav champions Red Star in the second leg of European Cup quarterfinals. United had beaten them at home 2-1 and were heavy favorites to fin the second leg. The game took place on Wednesday February 5th, and United started out in great style with a goal in the first 90 seconds. Two other first half goals gave United a comfortable lead going into the second period. The Red Star came on strong and tied the game at 3-3 but United held on to win by an aggregate score of 5-4.

The jubilant team was in terrific spirits as they boarded the Elizabethan airliner for the return journey back to Manchester. The flight stopped off in Munich for refueling and the weather was deteriorating quickly. Twice their twin engine BAE aircraft attempted to take off, but both times had to return to the concourse. A little after 3pm another attempt was made to take-off, but the usual power that was needed to lift the giant aircraft into the skies was missing and Flight ĎZulu Uniform 609í crashed in the snow and slush 60 yards beyond the end of the runway. They crossed a bridge and the port wing smashed into a house while the starboard side hit a wooden hut and the cockpit hit a tree while the wing and part of the tail were torn off.

Twenty-one lay dead in the immediate aftermath and two others would later add to that toll. Eight of Unitedís young stars were among the victims. Duncan Edwards had been dragged from the wreckage alive, but died in a hospital two weeks later. Manager Matt Busby hovered between life and death and eventually pulled through, but the bulk of his great side had been destroyed in a matter of moments. Two players, Barry and Blanchflower survived the crash but never were able to play football again. A few months later when United returned home only two players were in the side from the previous seasonís final. February 7, 1958 was a day that saw a great team die.

When word of the crash reached Manchester the city went into shock. The entire city was devastated by the loss of their hometown heroes. Many liken the crash to the announcement of Kennedyís assassination in the United States, in that they can tell you exactly where they were standing and what they were doing when they first received word. Schools were released for the day because young boys and girls were devastated by the loss of players they had grown up emulating. The crash also had monumental effects on the entire country because four of the players who died not only represented Manchester United, but England as a whole since they played on the National Team that was gearing up for World Cup play. Duncan Edwards would have been a sure starter for the English World Cup Team had it not been for his untimely death. Many say that the boy was the best the sport had ever known and since he would have been marked up against Brazilís Pele in another couple months, the rumors of his talent were almost put to the ultimate test.

Assistant Manager Jimmy Murphy assumed control of the club with Busby still very ill in the hospital and his immediate talk was to find enough players to represent the club. On February 19, 1958 the United team returned to Old Trafford. Over 60,000 fans watched through tearful eyes as the patched up United team ran out into the glare of the Old Trafford lights. The cover of the match program for the evening read, "United Will Go On" and inside the program blank spaces had been left in place of playerís names. Despite being the overwhelming favorites, rival club Sheffield Wednesday, was in a no win situation that night. The feeling was as if the whole world wanted United to win. The group played inspired football and indeed won 3-0 with goals coming from Unitedís youth players bumped up to the top flight for the occasion. Naturally the next couple seasons were rebuilding years for United, but to prove that miracles can happen, Busby was again able to create a Championship team by 1965, fueled by many more of his Manchester youth players.

English soccer fans have more passion, dedication and pride in their Premier League teams than America has for the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL combined. Fans stand by their teams through all wins and losses and Englandís youth grow up playing football in the legacy of the great players that represented their local club the years preceding them. It has been said that England becomes "tribal" in their passion for good football and support of their team. Part of this may stem from the fact that really until 1950 England was not a mobile society and therefore naturally fans lived their entire lives with the same home team to root for. The infrastructure of America was developed much sooner and perhaps a precedent was set that since you can change your favorite team when you move, loyalty to one club was not of great importance. The character of English society gave birth to loyal football fans in that people tended to move less often and that football started as a working class sport. From its earliest days professional football was made for the workers of England to be owners, players and club managers. Since then Englandís youth have been incorporated into the equation thanks to Unitedís Busby. The early years of the Manchester United Football Club are truly indicative of Englandís passion and commitment to ensure that professional football include and give back to entire communities. Just ask Manchester.


(1) America must have been too busy isolating themselves from all international affairs to take note of this situation because still today American athletes are not disciplined appropriately for poor decisions. Rather than suspending players for drinking during the season, we schedule court dates around important games so that players with rape charges wonít miss an important match.