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One of England’s most successful clubs was built around a lost dog, the pub keeper who found him, and a wealthy brewer who saw the potential in a club called Newton Heath.

Illustration by Ben Kirchner for Eight by Eight

Illustration by Ben Kirchner for Eight by Eight

St James’ Hall on Oxford Street in Manchester was a tall Gothic building, stern and imposing. A glass canopy over its entrance added a touch of grandeur, and the striped awnings that fronted it lent a dash of color.

It was built in 1884 as a theater and exhibition hall, closed in 1907, reopened as a cinema a year later, and demolished soon after for the construction of the grand St James’ Building that now occupies the site. In February 1901, it hosted what was styled as a Grand Bazaar. Such events, using a cheap exoticism to draw customers, were not uncommon, but this one was of note because it served a specific purpose: to raise £1,000 to try to save a local football club.

Newton Heath’s position was desperate. They were a second- division club and they’d been struggling for years, their debt rising to £2,670. Harry Stafford, the club’s captain, had got used to making collections from fans with his pet dog, a Saint Bernard called Major who would wear a collecting tin around his neck where rescue dogs might have carried a barrel of brandy. Stafford decided more drastic action was needed and so organized the bazaar, believing it might raise as much as £1,000. There was a military band and a brass band, and exhibitions showcasing “the craftsmanship of Italy, the Nile, India, the East, the Mediterranean and the Riviera.” Three MPs turned up, but the crowds didn’t. The bazaar was a huge financial disappointment.

Even worse, Major went missing. Stafford was distraught. He’d lost his dog, and it seemed he might soon lose his livelihood. Yet history would see that bazaar as the beginning of the rebirth of Newton Heath. Not only was the club saved, but under the name it adopted it would become one of the biggest and most glamorous in the world: Manchester United.

The club had been founded in 1878 by the Dining Room Committee of the Carriage and Wagon Works, a department of the Lancashire-Yorkshire Railway, as part of the more general trend in the late 19th century of companies offering recreation and education to their employees. The LYR had begun “improvement classes” in 1859. It came to focus on team sports that had, for three or four decades, been strongly promoted through the public schools in the belief that they would promote the muscular Christian virtues of discipline, strength, and endurance while warding off solipsism and the debilitating effects of the masturbation to which it was assumed that solipsism would inevitably lead. (This was a bizarre obsession of the Victorian public schools: as David Winner shows in Those Feet, there was a widespread belief at the time that the Empire was in decline and masturbation was to blame.)

It soon became apparent that the Carriage and Wagon Works were better than the other departmental teams. They opted out of company games to play in the local league, taking the name Newton Heath (LYR) from the northeastern suburb of Manchester in which they were based. In 1885 they reached the Manchester Senior Cup final, losing to Hurst.

Professionalism was legalized that year, and Newton Heath took advantage, finding railway jobs for a number of players, many of whom were scouted in Wales. They reached the final of the Senior Cup every year until 1891, winning the competition four times, but by then their sights were set rather higher. In 1886, Newton Heath entered the FA Cup for the first time, drawing 2-2 against Fleetwood. Believing the game would go to a replay, they walked off as the referee insisted on extra time; the FA awarded the game against them.

In autumn 1889, Newton Heath joined the Football Alliance, a rival to the league. They finished eighth and then ninth of 12 sides before, in 1891–92, inspired by the right winger Alf Farman, they finished as runners-up behind Nottingham Forest. The next season, it was decided to extend the league, incorporating the Alliance as a second division and increasing the size of the first division from 14 to 16 teams. Newton Heath found themselves promoted and responded by dropping the LYR from their name, symbolically casting off their railway origins.

Newton Heath’s rise was rapid, but success on the pitch disguised how difficult matters were off it. They played home games on a piece of land leased from the railway, which leased it from the church, on North Road. The surface was far from ideal. “In places,” according to the description in the History of the Lancashire Football Association, “it was hard as flint, with ashes underneath that had become like iron, and in others, thick with mud.” The soil had a high clay content, which meant that drainage was poor. Initially players would change at the Three Crowns pub on Oldham Road and then at the club headquarters in the Shears Hotel, half a mile away. Local dignitaries raised funds to build a stand that could hold 1,000 fans in 1891. Upon promotion, A.H. Albert, who had worked at Aston Villa, was appointed secretary, becoming the club’s first paid official. He leased a cottage to serve as an office and then moved into larger offices in a disused schoolroom in Miles Platting, turning it into a social center where players and fans could mingle and play billiards.

The first season in the top flight was tough. Newton Heath finished last, winning only 6 of 30 games, which meant a test match against the side that had finished atop the second division, Small Heath (which would later become Birmingham City), to determine promotion and relegation. A 1-1 draw in Birmingham led to a replay at North Road, which Newton Heath won 5-2.

The following season, the club was thrust into a major crisis. The ground at North Road was also used for cricket. The LYR was concerned that the football club, with which it was no longer affiliated, was damaging the surface for the summer game. In September 1893, Newton Heath moved to Bank Lane in Clayton, three miles away. The pitch drained better than the one at North Road, but it was downwind of 30 chimneys at a nearby chemical plant that belched out acrid fumes. So notorious was the area that it prompted a local song:

As Satan was flying over Clayton for Hell

He was chained in the breeze, likewise the smell

Quoth he: “I’m not sure what country I roam

But I’m sure by the smell I’m not far from home.”

A crowd of 10,000 turned out for the first game at their new home, a 3-2 win over Burnley. It was a rare high point. The following month, Newton Heath beat West Bromwich Albion 4-1, prompting William Jephcott to complain in the Birmingham Daily Gazette that “it wasn’t football, it was simply brutality.” Newton Heath sued the paper and, although they won, were awarded only a farthing in damages. Costs were split, placing a further strain on their already creaking finances. Newton Heath finished at the bottom of the table again, and this time they were beaten 2-0 by Liverpool.

Illustration by Ben Kirchner for Eight by Eight

Illustration by Ben Kirchner for Eight by Eight

The rest of the decade was a struggle, as Newton Heath kept failing to win promotion. Legend has it that one board meeting was held by the light of three candles wedged in ginger-beer bottles after the corporation had cut off the power and issued a summons. When the Manchester Evening News, the largest local newspaper, set up a hut at the Bank Lane ground to house a phone for its reporter, it allowed the club to use it as an office. So impoverished were Newton Heath that they took to paying players a proportion of gate receipts rather than a salary.

And then Major went missing at the bazaar at St James’ Hall.

With the club’s financial situation looking increasingly bleak, creditors sought to foreclose. The contractors who had worked on the Bank Lane ground looked to have the club declared bankrupt. The official receiver issued a statement on Feb. 22 outlining the debt.

Newton Heath limped on until, on March 18, a shareholders meeting was called for at New Islington Hall. The Football Association, it was announced, had agreed to the reformation of the club if it could achieve solvency. Stafford, the captain, stood up and asked how much it would cost. A figure of £2,000 was suggested. Stafford said he knew of four investors each prepared to put in £500, a figure he was prepared to match.

The missing Saint Bernard, meanwhile, was found by a Mr. Thomas, licensee of a pub that belonged to John Henry Davies, who had begun as an agent’s clerk before becoming an innkeeper and then making his fortune in brewing. He later married the niece of the sugar magnate Sir Henry Tate, increasing his fortune.

Thomas placed an ad in the local paper describing the dog. Davies thought it would be just the thing to give his daughter as a birthday present. Stafford by then had claimed the dog, but agreed to sell him to Davies. As the two men discussed the matter, Stafford outlined Newton Heath’s plight. Davies, sensing the club’s potential, decided to invest. He also made Stafford the licensee of another of his pubs.

On April 26, another meeting was called. Davies and his fellow investors had cleared the debt. Now they proposed a change from the green-and-yellow halved shirts with black shorts to red and white and—even more radically—a change of name. Manchester Central and Manchester Celtic were considered, before a 19-year-old fan called Louis Rocca, who would go on to work for the club for half a century, suggested Manchester United.

United finished 10th of the 18 clubs in the second division. The following season they sunk to 15th. They did finish fifth (with the top two being promoted) in 1903, but Stafford and the club secretary James West were accused of having made illegal payments to players. Stafford moved to Crewe; West resigned. Davies seized his chance, appointing as secretary-manager Ernest Mangnall, who had occupied a similar position at Burnley. This was an era when secretaries, inspired by Tom Watson (who won three league titles at Sunderland and two at Liverpool), rather that just looking after the accounts, began to take an interest in team selection and tactics.

Davies offered £3,000 of his own money to sign players. Mangnall, it turned out, had a keen eye for talent. He bought the giant goalkeeper Harry Moger from Southampton, the fullback Bob Bonthron and forward Sandy Robertson from Dundee. And he put together a halfback line that would become fabled: Charlie Roberts, Dick Duckworth, and Alex Bell. Crowds grew: More than 40,000 were on hand for a 2-2 draw against Bristol City on opening day. That was followed by a pair of away defeats, but there would be only four more losses that season as they finished third. They were third again in 1904–05. Finally, in 1905–06, United went up, finishing second behind Bristol City. Promotion was confirmed on April 28 with a 6-0 win over Burton United in an unseasonal snowstorm.

Almost as significant to United’s long-term story, though, were events at Manchester’s other club. City at the time were a bigger side. They’d won the FA Cup in 1904, and in 1904–05 they finished third after a turbulent season. In October, they were found to have made illegal payments in transfer dealings with Glossop. The following summer, the great Welsh winger Billy Meredith, noted for his habit of chewing a toothpick as he played, was suspended for having offered an inducement to the Aston Villa player Alex Leake to lose a game.

While banned, Meredith demanded his salary, then said he’d been acting on the instruction of the club secretary and alleged that under-the-counter payments were common practice at City. The club transfer-listed him in May 1906. United signed him for £500, even though he was still suspended. Later that month, the FA investigated Meredith’s claims and found 17 City players guilty of accepting illegal payments. They were fined, suspended until Jan. 1, 1907, and banned from playing for City again. The club put all 17 up for sale at a mass auction at the Queen’s Hotel.

Mangnall acted fast. As other secretaries arrived for the sale, they found him walking away, having secured the signatures of four players: Sandy Turnbull, Herbert Burgess, George Livingstone, and Jimmie Bannister.

United finished eighth in their first season back in the top flight. Before the start of 1907–08, the Manchester Evening News wrote that “United have never in their history opened a season with so strong a playing combination.” Their optimism was soon justified. United won 13 of their first 14 games and ultimately won the title by nine points.

Davies, though, was thinking bigger. In the summer of 1908 he unveiled plans for a new 80,000-seat stadium, costing £60,000, to be built on land he had bought from the Earl of Trafford just over the city boundary in Salford. By the standards of the day, the new ground was spectacular, featuring refreshment bars and a tea room for fans, an electric lift for officials and journalists, and, for the players, hot and cold plunge baths, a gymnasium and massage room, and a room for recreation and billiards. By the time it was completed, United had added the 1909 FA Cup to their league title of the previous season.

Their final home game at Clayton came on Jan. 22, 1910. They beat Tottenham Hotspur 5-0, with Meredith breaking a goal drought that had lasted a year. On Feb. 19 came the first home game at Old Trafford, with over 50,000 turning out for the visit of Liverpool. “Along Clayton Road they came and over Trafford Bridge in trams, buses, cabs, taxis, coster’s carts, coal lorries and all manner of strange things of wheels,” wrote the Manchester Guardian. “Those who had not had the good fortune to find a cab or to meet a friend with a coster’s cart walked it—a great stream spreading wide over the footpaths into the road, the despair of already over-harassed tram drivers, the delight of sundry small boys who trotted alongside cheerfully offering to do “ ‘20 cartwheels and a “roll-over” for a penny.’ ” Two Turnbull goals had United up 2-0 inside quarter of an hour, but they ended up losing 4-3.

A second league title followed in 1910–11. With the earning power of a vast stadium adding to United’s financial resources, the foundations seemed to have been laid for United to rule English football. It turned out not to be so simple. It was another 39 years before United won their fourth trophy. Eventually, though, domination would come. Old Trafford and the revenue it generated would be a huge part of that.

How different the story would have been if Major had not got lost at a bazaar in 1901 and ended up with a wealthy brewer who saw the potential in a club called Newton Heath.

This article originally appeared in issue 07 of Eight by Eight. To learn more about the new issue, and to subscribe, please click here

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