Manchester United Football Club, as on today, is one of the most recognizable brands in the world, a team whose popularity extends to the farthest and most remote corners of the globe, a modern-day sporting behemoth. But little do the majority of their millions of supporters know that it all could have been very different had it not been for some canine intervention over a century ago and Manchester, like Newcastle, could so easily have ended up being a city with one football club.
Indeed, if ever a roll call is taken of all great individuals whose peerless efforts and telling contributions have made Manchester United the global icon that it is today, a place must be reserved alongside the likes of Busby, Charlton, Best, Ferguson, et al, for a nondescript little St. Bernard dog named Major. In fact had it not been for Major, none of those much more illustrious names would have had any role to play with Manchester United in the first place.
But for all the efforts of Major, Manchester United would surely have ended up with a plight similar to those of 19th century football clubs such as New Brighton Tower, Ashford United, and Burton Swifts, none of which ever made it out of infancy. In order to grasp the significance of the occasion, a trip needs to be taken over a century of years back in time to the humble origins of Manchester United Football Club.
The world’s most famous football club was launched in 1878 as Newton Heath L&YR (Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway) FC by a band of railway workers wanting to partake in some Saturday afternoon physical activities. During its nascent years the club participated in matches against other railway works teams in the northwest of England. The Heathens, as they were commonly known back then, won their first trophy of real consequence when they lifted the Manchester Cup in 1886 by defeating Manchester F.C. in the final. Soon it became evident that Newton Heath was ready to leave behind their amateur days and ready to take the leap into the realms of profession football.
In 1889, the club applied to join the Football Leagues, established back in 1882, but was unfortunately denied acceptance. Undeterred, Newton Heath proceeded to sign up for the nationwide league, under the auspices of Football Alliance, which served as the stepping stone to the Football League. After continuing to impress in the Football Alliance for three consecutive seasons, the club was finally accepted into the Football League in 1892.
Newton Heath kick-started their existence in the Football League on 3rd September, 1892 with a visit to the mighty Blackburn Rovers, a founding member of the League. Even after falling behind by 3 goals early on in the match, Heathens fought back and ultimately came away with an honourable 4-3 defeat. The rest of the season was dotted with a few memorable results such as the 10-1 demolition of Wolverhampton Wanderers (which apart from being United’s first ever league victory is also, astonishingly, their biggest till date) and 7-1 thrashing of Derby County.
The season as a whole though, panned out in despairing manner as the Heathen finished their inaugural league campaign rooted to the bottom of the table. They managed to avoid relegation that season by the virtue of defeating second division champions Small Heath (precursor of modern-day Birmingham City) in what was termed those days as Test Match. Heathens’ second league campaign turned out to be even grimmer. After finding themselves at the bottom of the table yet again, Heathens were pitted against Liverpool in the Test Match. This time, however, there was no escape. A 2-0 defeat condemned Newton Heath to second division.
The remaining part of the last decade of the century saw Newton Heath firmly established as a mid-table second division team flirting with promotion on rare occasions. Back then the club used to play their home games at Bank Street, a ground characterized by its shocking playing surface, which was wretched even by relatively low standards of those days. On top of it, the stadium was located adjacent to a factory, which spewed pungent smoke and mists of steam over the spectators and players. Soon enough, the ground garnered notorious reputation among the opponents and there were even numerous instances matches being called off due to unsuitable playing conditions.
At the turn of the century though, the team’s continuous failure to secure promotion and the dodgy playing ground seemed to be of much lesser concern to Newton Heath as compared to the parlous state of club’s finances. The fledgling club seemed to be unable to cope with spiraling administrative costs especially with the limited gate receipts at 2nd division level to cover it. The situation became precarious when the club’s own president, William Healey, requested the court to issue a winding-up order for the £242 owed to him. The club’s total debt amounted to £2,500 and with no benefactor in sight, the court declared the club bankrupt. The gates of Bank Street were accordingly locked and the club stared into certain extinction. It is at their most perilous juncture did the club find their two great saviours – captain Harry Stafford and his St. Bernard, Major.
Harry Stafford, a boiler-maker by profession, was the club’s skipper and long-serving full back. He, more so than any other player, cared deeply about the club’s well-being and even before the crisis had hit, used to send his dog around the Bank Street ground on match-days to collect donations to run the club. After the winding-up order was issued, Stafford was instrumental in keeping the club afloat. He begged and borrowed enough money in the ensuing days to arrange for club’s next game away to Bristol City. However, for the club to save itself from oblivion, much greater investment was required and quick. For this purpose, a four-day fund-raising event was held in Manchester and Stafford’s dog, Major, was a showpiece attraction in it.
The legend goes that at the end of the fourth day the dog ran away and entered into a pub in which John Henry Davis, owner of a flourishing local brewery, was present. Davis’ daughter took fancy to the dog and enquired about its ownership. Finally when the dog was tracked back to Stafford, did Davies get to meet the club captain. It was such sheer happenstance that led to perhaps the most momentous meeting in the history of Manchester United. Stafford convinced Davies to invest in the bankrupt club, clear off its debt and provide the much-needed financial stability. Under Davies’ ownership the club soon changed its name to the now famous Manchester United Football Club and assumed a new identity.
The club was finally ready to announce itself to world. The generation of Ernest Mangnall , Charlie Roberts, 1909 Cup victory, league titles and the magnificent new stadium named Old Trafford was ushered in. Even though there had been inevitable swings in the club’s fortune with the passage of time, the club has never had to endure those darkest days of 1902. The fact that it survived through that shambolic period is largely down to the resourceful acts of a dog to which the club and its legion of supporter’s shall forever remain indebted.
~ Written by guest author – Arjun Some ~