The Early Years: 1878 – 1939
The story of Manchester United begins in 1878 when employees of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company’s Carriage and Wagon Works requested permission and sponsorship from their employers to start a football team. Permission was given, and Newton Heath LYR (which stood for “Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway”) was born, playing at a pitch on North Road. Initially they played against other teams of railway workers, within their own company and against teams from other companies, but in 1885, they entered in the Manchester Cup competition and reached the final. The next year, they won the competition.
The Football Alliance
Although Newton Heath were not good enough to join the Football League, they were quickly outpacing their local competition. Newton Heath spent the first ten months of 1888 unbeaten at their home ground. However, the idea of inter-town football had caught on, and in 1889, a group of twelve clubs, Newton Heath among then, formed the Football Alliance. They finished eighth. The next year, Newton Heath began to sever their railway ties, dropping “LYR” from their official name. However, strong connections remained intact; although they no longer were sponsored by the company, most of their players were still LYR employees.
1892 proved to be a successful season for the “Heathens”, as they finished second to Nottingham Forest, after losing only three times all season. That same year, the Football League enlarged and, with the merger of the Alliance, divided into two divisions. Newton Heath and Nottingham Forest were invited to join the First Division. They finished last and needed a win against Small Heath in the test match against the Second Division champions to preserve their First Division status.
In 1893, the team moved to a new ground in Bank Street, Clayton, next to a chemical plant. It was said that when Newton Heath were losing, the plant would belch out acrid fumes in a bid to affect the visiting team. The 1893-94 campaign, however, was no better, and they once again were in the relegation playoff against Liverpool. This time Newton Heath were defeated 2-0 and gained the dubious honour of being the first team to be relegated to the Second Division.
The financial situation only worsened, dragging down their on-field play. They managed only a 10th place in the 1901 season and with ticket sales flagging and debts mounting, the club decided to hold a four-day bazaar to raise money. One of the attractions was a St. Bernard dog, which escaped on one of the nights after the bazaar had closed.
It was the escape and recapturing of the dog which led to the meeting between team captain Harry Stafford and John J Davies who would lead a group of businessmen. Together, they came up with £2,000 to save the club from bankruptcy. On April 28th 1902, Newton Heath was replaced by Manchester United Football Club, and John Henry Davies became the club president.
In 1903 the club took another important step by hiring their first real team manager, J Ernest Mangnall a charismatic publicist who knew how to work the media. Under his leadership, the team finished third in the Second Division. The following season, Manchester United set a record when they went 18 games undefeated between September 1904 and February 1905. Mangnall created United’s first successful side with a series of signings, eventually winning promotion in 1906 and reaching the quarterfinals of the F.A Cup.Among these signings was Billy Meredith the legendary winger who was probably the greatest player of that era.
Ernest Mangnall managed to sign star defender Herbert Burgess and Alec “Sandy” Turnbull also Jimmy bannister after a scandal hit Manchester City and forced them to sell off most of their team. It paid off, and Manchester United won their first League Championship in 1908. The next year, FA Cup success would follow as they beat Bristol City in the final 1-0. Sandy Turnbull scored the only goal and Billy Meredith was named man of the match.