When you think of Manchester United, you probably think of the trophies won, the players, the teams and the key moments that have happened throughout the club’s history. Compared to most clubs, United have a pretty good honours list and are regarded as one of the biggest clubs in the world. All of this however, might never have happened.
Long before United became the mega-club that they are today, the club went by the name of Newton Heath LYR Football Club. Founded in 1878, it was a work team for the railway workers of the Carriage and Wagon department of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway depot at Newton Heath. The railway workers had new found leisure time on Saturday afternoons and as a result, decided to use it to play football. The Heathens as they were known as had some reasonable success.
The Manchester Cup was picked up in 1886 and after playing in the Football Alliance for several years, (a competition set up for sides that wanted competitive football but were rejected by the Football League.) Newton Heath were accepted into the Football League for the start of the 1892-93 season after the Alliance merged with the Football League.
It hadn’t been an ideal first season for the Heathens. Despite their first win being a 10-1 thrashing of Wolverhampton Wanderers, (a record that still stands today as United’s biggest league win.) Newton Heath had to play a test match against Division Two side Small Heath, (who later became Birmingham City) in a test match to keep their League status. Think the Bundesliga relegation Play-off.
The Heathens kept their league status after a 5-2 win but the club was in peril. By this point, the railway company had separated from the football club after there was a falling out over the purchase of grandstands for the North Road ground they played at. LYR had been removed from the name of the club and the club was now a completely separate entity to the railway company.
This now meant that all of the finances for the club had to be covered by the workers of the railway company. As the rent increased on the ground, Newton Heath ended up being evicted from North Road after more financial problems. The Cathedral that also owned North Road felt it was wrong to charge admission prices for matches.
The new ground called Bank Street in Clayton, that the Heathens moved to for the following season also had its problems. Walsall Town Swifts refused to play on it after calling it a ‘toxic waste dump’ and the pitch had an almost unplayable surface. A factory was adjacent to the ground which covered Bank Street with smoke and thick fog.
Another disappointing season where the club had finished bottom again was not a surprise. The Heathens lost the test match to Liverpool and were relegated to Division Two in 1894. As form started to suffer, crowds started to dwindle and the club was in serious financial trouble. After several years of mediocrity in the second tier, it looked like this was the end for the club.
In 1902, the president of Newton Heath at the time, William Healey went to court to apply a winding up order of the club. The gates of Bank Street were locked and if a buyer wasn’t found, the club would fold. The captain of the side Harry Stafford borrowed money just to scrape the Heathens through their next two games but the club was still on life support.
Newton Heath ended up being saved at the very last minute. A wealthy British brewery owner John Henry Davies and three other local businessmen decided to chip in £200 each, to save the club. The story goes that Stafford was at a Newton Heath fundraising event and in a desperate bid to save the club, he put his dog up for auction. Davies was offered the dog but instead decided to make a donation to save the club. Because this was 1902, there isn’t much evidence to show this really happened but what is important is that Davies and his acquaintances saved the club.
Davies was at the forefront of this mini consortium and his impact was instant. After the club had grown further and further away from its roots as a work side, Davies and the directors decided on a new name. Names such as Manchester Celtic and Manchester Central were thrown around as ideas but the directors decided on the name that is now synonyms with English football. Manchester United. The kit colours would also be changed from Green and Gold to the Red and White we see today.
Under legendary manager Ernest Magnall, United finally got promotion back to the First Division in 1906 after 12 years in Division Two. Davies had used his money to pick up centre-back Charlie Roberts for £400 in 1904, from Grimsby Town. Roberts was widely regarded as one of the best players in the world at that time. More players had joined from Manchester City as well after the FA launched an inquiry into City’s financial dealings. (No change there.) 18 Players were banned forever playing from playing for them and as a result United picked up the best available talent.
Big names such as Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull were signed alongside Herbet Burgess and Jimmy Bannister. By 1908, United were champions of England for the first time. United finished nine points ahead of second place Aston Villa and the style of play that United is now famous for was first adopted in the 1907/08 season. United played a fast, skilful brand of football which had never been seen before in the First Division. Turnbull topped the scoring charts with 25 for the season and United were averaging 22,000 for home matches.
There would be more success the following season as well in the form of the FA Cup. United saw off Bristol City at Crystal Palace in front of 71,000, after a single goal from Sandy Turnball was enough to give United the cup for the first time.
Six weeks before United’s FA Cup triumph, Davies had announced he was taking the club to the next level. He announced he was going to buy a plot of land on Warwick Road in the Trafford Park area to build a new stadium for the club. No one had enjoyed playing at Bank Street, United needed a bigger home that was fit for purpose and could bring in larger crowds.
Davies sought the help of famous architect Archibald Leitch who also designed Villa Park, Highbury, Ibrox, Anfield and countless iconic grounds to build a new stadium for United with a budget of £30,000. The new ground was named Old Trafford and the first game at United’s new home was a 4-3 defeat to Liverpool in February 1910, in front of an attendance of 50,000.
The capacity was now 77,000 compared to the 50,000 that Bank Street could hold. Davies initially wanted a capacity of 100,000 but his grand plans had to be scaled back to fit costs. This was still a state of the art stadium though for 1910. The team was also as impressive as the stadium and United picked up their second First Division title at the end of the 1910/11 season.
Davies’ turnaround of the side had been complete. He’d turned around a side that was on the brink of collapse and had turned it into the best side in the country, in the best ground in the country.
Unfortunately, the breakout of the First World War ended the first period of prosperity for United and Davies would later die 16 years later.
His impact however is still a massive part of the fabric of United. It was him that moved the club to Old Trafford, it was him that was at that meeting that decided to change the name of the club and it was him that saved the club at the very last minute. There is a genuine possibility that if Davies didn’t come in to save the club at the last hour, we would never have had Manchester United. Manchester could just be like other towns and cities in England that had two clubs to begin with but now only have one and we’d all be City fans.
New Brighton Tower, Burton United and Loughborough were all sides that played League football in the Football League’s early seasons but ended up going the same way as Newton Heath would’ve done if it wasn’t for Davies.
John Henry Davies is a name that should be in the conversations with the best players and icons who have been a part of United’s history as without him we wouldn’t have had Matt Busby or Bobby Charlton or Sir Alex Ferguson. In a period where we’re constantly berated about old players and are fed bitesize clips of players from yesteryear with On this days and Happy Birthdays on the timeline to remind of us David Beckham’s free-kick against Barcelona or Robin Van Persie’s volley against Aston Villa, just think to yourself that none of this would’ve ever happened if it wasn’t for a local businessman that saved the club.18