In 1878 workers of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) depot at Newton Heath established a football team. They played their home games on a patch of land near the railway depot. The club's shirts were green and gold halves. These were the colours of the LYR. Their changing rooms were at the Three Crowns Public House on the Oldham Road. This was over half a mile away from their pitch at North Road.
Newton Heath entered the Lancashire Cup for the first time in the 1883-84 season. They lost 7-2 to Blackburn Olympic in an early round of the competition. However, the following year the club the trophy in front of 8,000 supporters when they beat Manchester F.C. 2-1. In 1886 Newton Heath entered the FA Cup for the first time. They were knocked out by Fleetwood Rangers in the first round.
At this time Newton Heath began recruiting players by offering good jobs to talented footballers in the railway industry in Manchester. This included international players from Wales and Scotland. This included John Doughty, Roger Doughty and Jack Powell. As the Football Association insisted that football clubs could not pay players, the provision of good jobs for good players was known as "shamateurism".
In October, 1884, clubs who paid their players threatened to form a break-away British Football Association. The Football Association responded by establishing a sub-committee, which included William Sudell, to look into this issue. On 20th July, 1885, the FA 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 J. 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.
Newton Heath attempted to join the Football League in 1889. When their application was rejected they banded with a group of other clubs to form the Football Alliance.
In 1892 the Football League decided to expand into two divisions. As Newton Heath had finished in second place in the Football Alliance that year, they went into the First Division. Unfortunately they finished in 16th place in the 1893-94 season and were relegated.
In 1894 Newton Heath purchased Joe Cassidy who had briefly played for them at the end of the 1892-93 season. In his first home against Walsall Town he scored four goals in the club's 14-0 victory. However, after the game Walsall protested about the state of the pitch and the Football Association ordered a replay. They won that game 9-0. That season Cassidy scored 8 goals in 8 games.
In the 1895-96 season Newton Heath finished in 6th place in the Second Division. Cassidy was top scorer with 16 goals in 19 games. The following season he did even better with 17 goals in the league. He also got 6 goals in Newton Heath's good run in the FA Cup.
In 1896 Harry Stafford was offered a job working for the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway (LYR) as a boilermaker in on the understanding he would play for Newton Heath. Stafford was appointed captain and became the dominating force at the club. Garth Dykes pointed out in The United Alphabet that Stafford was "noted for his snappy dressing, which included a liking for white hats and brilliantly-hued waistcoats."
Newton Heath signed the international centre-half, Caesar Jenkyns from Woolwich Arsenal in May 1896. The club changed their colours to white shirts and blue shorts that year. However, they remained in the Second Division even though they did win the Lancashire Cup in 1898 when they beat the mighty Blackburn Rovers.
In April 1900 Joe Cassidy was sold to Manchester City for £250. The club directors admitted that he was the best forward they had ever had but because of Newton Heath's serious financial problems he had to be sold. During his time at the club he scored 100 goals in 174 appearances.
In 1901 the club staged a four-day grand bazaar in St James Hall, Oxford Street, Manchester. The club needed to raise £1,000 in order to avoid bankruptcy. Even though Manchester City even made a donation, by the end of the third day it seemed that the venture would prove unsuccessful.
Harry Stafford had the idea of using his St. Bernard dog, Major, to raise money. He wandered amiably between the stalls with a collection box strapped to his back. It was hoped that the dog would attract donations. On the fourth day of the grand bazaar Major escaped from St. James Hall. He eventually found his way to the home of a rich businessman, John Henry Davies, who owned a successful brewery in Manchester. Davies liked the animal and decided to buy the dog for his daughter. When he traced the dog's owner, Stafford told Davies about the financial position of Newton Heath. The two men became friends and decided to make a takeover bid for the club.
By 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. It was also decided that the club would now play in red shirts and white shorts.
Stafford, along with Davies, became a director of Manchester United and James West was appointed as manager. Davies arranged for John J. Bentley to be appointed as president of the club. However, at the end of the 1902-03 season West and Stafford were suspended by the Football Association for making illegal payments to players. In his defence, Stafford claimed: "Everything I have done has been in the interests of the club."
Ernest Mangnall became the new manager. He was recruited from Burnley and as the authors of The Essential History of Manchester United pointed out: "Mangnall... preached a gospel of physical fitness and team spirit while maintaining that players should be given a ball only once a week".
Mangnall made several new signings. Probably the most significant was Charlie Roberts, who cost a record transfer fee of £600. At the time Mangnall was criticised for paying such a large sum for such an inexperienced player. However, it proved to be an inspired decision and it was not long before Roberts established himself as the keystone of the Manchester United defence.
One of his most controversial signings was John Peddie from Newcastle United. As Paul Joannou points out in his book, The Black 'n' White Alphabet: "Peddie... was often in trouble with the club's hierarchy for a number of misdemeanours; refusing to play, being absent from training and ultimately being suspended sine-die in 1900 (later lifted)."
Over a four year period he scored 73 goals in 125 matches. However, a local newspaper report pointed out that the fans had mixed views on his abilities: "Peddie is the most highly praised and roundly abused man on the club's books. A player of moods... his nonchalant ways and easy going methods are less inspiring than his shooting."
Charlie Roberts upset the Football Association by starting the fashion of wearing very short knickers. In 1904 the FA took action by passing a regulation that stipulated that football knickers covered the knees. Roberts and some other players ignored this regulation. However, it was one of the reasons that long baggy shorts remained fashionable until after the Second World War.
In the 1905-06 season Manchester United won promotion to the First Division when they finished second to Bristol City. The club scored 90 goals in 38 games and top scorers were John Picken (20), John Peddie (18) and Charlie Sagar (16). Manchester United's defence was also impressive and only let in 28 goals that season. Charlie Roberts played at centre-half and he was flanked by two outstanding wing-halves, Dick Duckworth and Alec Bell.
The form of Charlie Roberts was so good that the 22 year old won his first international cap playing for England against Ireland on 25th February, 1905. This was followed by games against Wales (27th March) and Scotland (1st April).
Manchester City, who were playing in the First Division, also did well that season. City needed to beat Aston Villa on the final day of the season to win the championship. Villa won the game 3-1 and City finished third, two points behind Newcastle United.
After the game Alec Leake, the captain of Aston Villa, claimed that Billy Meredith had offered him £10 to throw the game. Meredith was found guilty of this offence by the Football Association and was fined and suspended from playing football for a year. Manchester City refused to provide financial help for Meredith and so he decided to go public about what really was going on at the club: "What was the secret of the success of the Manchester City team? In my opinion, the fact that the club put aside the rule that no player should receive more than four pounds a week... The team delivered the goods, the club paid for the goods delivered and both sides were satisfied." This statement created a sensation as the FA had imposed a £4 a week maximum wage on all clubs in 1901.
The Football Association now carried out an investigation into the financial activities of Manchester City. They discovered that City had been making additional payments to all their players. Tom Maley was suspended from football for life and City was fined £250. Seventeen players were fined and suspended until January 1907. City was also forced to sell their players and at an auction at the Queen's Hotel in Manchester. The Manchester United manager, Ernest Mangnal signed the outstandingly gifted Billy Meredith for only £500. Mangnal also purchased three other talented members of the City side, Herbert Burgess, Sandy Turnbull and Jimmy Bannister.
These new players did not make their debuts until the 1st January 1907. Manchester United beat Aston Villa 1-0. The only goal of the game was scored by Sandy Turnbull from a Billy Meredith cross. United only lost four games during the remainder of the season and climbed to an eighth-place finish.
Manchester United started off the 1907-08 season with three straight wins. They were then beaten 2-1 by Middlesbrough. However, this was followed by another ten wins and United quickly built up a good advantage over the rest of the First Division. Although Liverpool beat them 7-4 on 25th March, 1908, Manchester United went on to win the title by nine points. Top scorers were Sandy Turnbull (25), George Wall (19), Jimmy Turnbull (10) and Billy Meredith (10).
Ernest Mangnall had created an impressive team that was solid in defence and exciting in attack. The former Southampton player, Harry Moger, was a reliable goalkeeper who played in 38 league games that season. Dick Holden (26) or George Stacey (18) competed for the right-back position whereas Herbert Burgess (27) was the left-back. It has been argued that the half-back line of Dick Duckworth (35), Charlie Roberts (32) and Alec Bell (35) was the heart-beat of the side. Billy Meredith (37) and George Wall (36) were probably the best wingers playing in the Football League at the time and provided plenty of service for the inside trio of Sandy Turnbull (30), Jimmy Turnbull (26) and Jimmy Bannister (36). The championship winning team included four players purchased from Manchester City at an auction at the Queen's Hotel in October 1906.
After winning the league title Manchester United set off on a brief European tour. The beat teams in Czechoslovakia and Austria before thrashing the Hungarian side, Ferecvaros, 7-0. The home fans took the defeat badly and attacked the United players as they left the pitch. Police on horseback had to draw their swords in order to rescue the players.
In January 1908, the Football League imposed a £350 limit on the cost of players. Harold Halse was was purchased for £350 in 1908. He had scored 91 goals in 64 games for Southend United before joining his new club.
In April 1907 Thomas Blackstock collapsed after heading a ball during a reserve game against St. Helens. 25 year old Blackstock died soon afterwards. An inquest into his death returned a verdict of "Natural Causes". Several players at the club were angry about the way Blackstock's family was treated after his death. Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts, Charlie Sagar, Herbert Burgess and Sandy Turnbull, decided to form a new Players' Union. The first meeting was held on 2nd December, 1907, at the Imperial Hotel, Manchester and the Association Football Players Union (AFPU) was established.
The following season Manchester United enjoyed a good run in the FA Cup. They beat Brighton & Hove Albion (1-0), Everton (1-0), Blackburn Rovers (6-1), Burnley (3-2) and Newcastle United (1-0) to reach the final. Newcastle, who went onto win the league that season, was obviously disappointed by being prevented from winning the double. However, the whole of the Newcastle team waited for 15 minutes in torrential rain aboard an open coach so they could applaud their conquerors after the game.
Jimmy Turnbull (5), Harold Halse (4) and Sandy Turnbull (3) got the goals during the successful cup run that got them to the final at Crystal Palace against Bristol City. As both clubs usually wore red, Bristol played in blue whereas Manchester United played in white shirts with a deep red "V". The game was disappointing and Sandy Turnbull scored the only goal in the 22nd minute.
Manchester United was clearly one of the best clubs in the England, yet its ground was one of the worst in the First Division. John Henry Davies decided to loan the club £60,000 in order that they could build a new stadium with an 80,000 capacity. Archibald Leitch was commissioned to design this new stadium. The ground featured seating in the south stand under cover, while the remaining three stands were left as terraces and uncovered.When it was completed the stadium had the largest grandstand in the Football League. It also had a gymnasium, massage room, plunge baths, bars, lifts and tearooms.
The first game at Old Trafford took place on 19th February, 1910. A crowd of 45,000 saw Liverpool beat Manchester United 4-3. This attendance record was beaten a few weeks later when 50,000 saw United beat Bristol City 2-1. The following season, 65,000 watched a FA Cup tie against Aston Villa.
In June 1910 Ernest Mangnall purchased Enoch West from Nottingham Forest. He replaced Jimmy Turnbull in the attack and had a great season scoring 19 goals in 35 games. West formed a great partnership with Sandy Turnbull and together they scored more than half of the team's goals. On the last Saturday of the season Aston Villa led Manchester United by one point. United had to play third-place Sunderland at Old Trafford whereas Aston Villa had to go to Liverpool.
Manchester United won their game 5-1. Charlie Roberts told the Manchester Saturday Post what happened next: "At the end of the game our supporters rushed across the ground in front of the stand to wait for the final news from Liverpool. Suddenly a tremendous cheer rent the air and was renewed again and again and we knew we were the champions once again." Aston Villa had been beaten 3-1 and Manchester United had won their second championship in four years.
In April 1911 Enoch West was involved in an incident at Aston Villa. As a result he was suspended for the first four matches of the 1911-12 season. Despite missing these games he was once again leading scorer with 23 goals in 38 cup and league games. However, his fellow strikers were disappointing and Manchester United finished in only 13th position.
The only success that season was a 8-4 victory over Swindon Town in the Charity Cup. Harold Halse scored six of United's goals. Billy Meredith told the Manchester Football Chronicle: "Nobody else could get a kick of the ball but Halse and every time he scored he said to the Swindon goalkeeper, I'll be back in a minute."
In August 1912, Ernest Mangnall, 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 J. Bentley, the former president of the Football League. Thanks to the goals of Enoch West, Manchester United finished in 4th place in the 1912-13 season.
At the end of the season John J. 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.
John J. Bentley was replaced by John Robson, the former manager of Brighton & Hove Albion. However, Manchester United continued to struggle and in the 1914-15 season finished in 18th place, just one point above relegated Chelsea.
Manchester United owed its survival to a 2-0 victory over Liverpool on 2nd April, 1915. Afterwards, bookmakers claimed that they had taken a great deal of money on the 7-1 odds offered on a 2-0 United victory. They suspected that the game had been fixed and pointed out that late in the game, the Liverpool player, Jackie Sheldon, missed a penalty. The bookmakers decided not to pay out on the result and offered a £50 reward for information that would unmask the conspirators.
The Sporting Chronicle newspaper took up the story and claimed that they discovered evidence that players on both sides had got together to concoct a 2-0 scoreline. The newspaper also argued that some of the players had large bets on the result.
The Football League announced it would carry out its own investigation into the case. It published its report in December 1915. It concluded that "a considerable amount of money changed hands by betting on the match and... some of the players profited thereby." Three players in the Manchester United squad were banned for life: Enoch West, Sandy Turnbull and Arthur Whalley. Only West actually played in the game. The same sentence was imposed on four Liverpool players: Jackie Sheldon, Tom Fairfoul, Tommy Miller and Bob Pursell. An eighth player, Laurence Cook, who played for Stockport County, was also convicted of being a member of the betting ring.
It was suggested that if the men joined the armed forces their punishment would be rescinded. Enoch West, who protested his innocence, refused. After the war Arthur Whalley, Jackie Sheldon, Tom Fairfoul, Tommy Miller and Bob Pursell were allowed to play football in the Football League. The exception was Sandy Turnbull who had been killed on the Western Front in 1917. Whalley was seriously wounded at Passchendale but recovered to play in 23 games in the 1919-20 season.
Two more Manchester United's players were killed during the First World War. Oscar Linkson, who played right-back for the club joined the Middlesex Regiment and was killed during the Somme Offensive on 8th August 1916. Patrick McGuire, an amateur reserve player, also died on active service in 1916.
Frank Barson, a tough-tackling defender, was considered to be the hardest player in the Football League in the 1920s. In August 1922 he was transferred to Manchester United for a fee of £5,000. Alex Murphy argues in The Official Illustrated History of Manchester United that: "The club had just been relegated, but they knew exactly what they wanted to revive their fortunes: a tough man to put some steel back into the side and inspire the men around him to win promotion. Barson was the right man. Just the fearsome sight of him was enough to demotivate some opponents: at 6 feet tall Barson loomed over most opponents and he had the sharp features and narrow, menacing eyes of an Aztec warrior."
As Garth Dykes, the author of The United Alphabet has pointed out: "Frank Barson was probably the most controversial footballer of his day. Barrel-chested and with a broken, twisted nose he was a giant amongst centre-halves. A blacksmith by trade, his one failing was that he hardly knew his own strength and was apt to be over impetuous. His desire to always be in the thick of the fray brought him into many conflicts with the game's authorities."
At the time Manchester United was in the Second Division of the Football League. Barson was promised a pub by the club chairman, John Henry Davies, if he managed to help the club win promotion to the First Division. This was achieved in the 1924-25 season and he was given his pub in Ardwick Green.
On 27th March 1926, Manchester United played Manchester City in the semi-final of the FA Cup. During the game Sam Cowan was knocked unconscious. It was alleged after the game that Frank Barson had punched Cowan in the face. An investigation by the Football Association resulted in Barson being suspended for eight weeks.