MANCHESTER UNITED’s FIRST GREAT CAPTAIN MARVEL
Written by John White for Manchester United Then & Now
Harry Stafford was born on 29 November 1869 in Crewe, England.
Stafford began his playing career with his hometown club’s junior side, Crewe Alexandra Hornets. After impressing the club’s first team selectors, a 20-year old Stafford was given his first team debut for Crewe Alexandra on 22 September 1890, in a Football Alliance match at home versus Birmingham St. George’s at the Alexandra Recreation Ground (also known as Nantwich Road). The home side lost 4-1 and that same season Stafford played League matches against Newton Heath Football Club
Stafford played some 150 games for “The Railwaymen,” before he became a railwayman and signed for Newton Heath Football Club in March 1896, turning professional on 22 March 1897 after the ban on professional sportsmen being employed at the Crewe Works of the London & North Western Railway (LNWR) was lifted. Newton Heath severed their ties with the Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway in 1892 and were simply known as Newton Heathen by the time Stafford signed for the club.
During his career at the Alexandra Recreation Ground, he won Cheshire Senior Cup winners medals in 1891-92 and 1892–93. In addition to his football career, Stafford was a capable athlete who ran various distances from 100 yards to the half-mile. He was also an exceptional hurdler and represented the Crewe Alexandra Athletic Club for several years until turning professional with Newton Heath disqualified him from competing in amateur athletics.
On 3 April 1896, Stafford made his debut for Newton Heath in a 4-0 home victory in the English Second Division Championship over Darwen at Bank Street, Clayton. William Kennedy scored a hat-trick with James McNaught also scoring in the game.
In February 1900, after 16 years of service, Stafford left his job as a boilermaker at the LNWR to became the landlord of the Bridge House Inn in Wrexham, Wales. On 2 March 1901, Stafford’s St Bernard dog went missing from St James’ Hall, Oxford Street, Manchester after the club’s fund-raising Bazaar to help raise much needed monies to clear the club’s increasing indebtedness and was taken in by John Henry Davies, a wealthy brewery owner from Manchester. Stafford reclaimed his dog after turning down an offer from Davies to buy it from him for his daughter who fell in love with the animal.
On 6 March 1901, Stafford’s Testimonial Match took place versus New Brighton at Bank Street, Clayton. The game was to be played with a gilded ball and the pitch illuminated by Wells Lights, contraptions that generated gas from tar oil. Unfortunately the weather was extremely wet and windy and the lights kept going out, causing the match to be abandoned after 15 minutes. The following week the game was replayed when New Brighton lined-up against a Manchester Select XI billed as “Manchester United,” the first time the words had been used together in a footballing context.
Stafford took over as landlord of the Bridge Inn, Mill Street, Ancoats, Manchester in July 1901, a pub owned by John Henry Davies. In January 1902, Newton Heath Football Club were served with a Winding-Up Order by the Court and were locked out of their Bank Street home by the Official Receiver. Stafford, realising the quite perilous financial state the club were in, contacted Davies and offered to let him have Major if he helped out the club. Davies agreed and on 18 March 1902, Stafford took to the stage at the New Islington Hall, Manchester to announce that he and four other gentlemen were willing to stake £200.00 each to save the club. The four were Davies and three of Davies’s business acquaintances, Mr Jabez James Bown (Davies’ right hand man at his Brewery), Mr Charles Jones (a Cashier employed by Davies) and Mr James Taylor (a major shareholder in the Eagle Brewery).
Harry captained Newton Heath Football Club for the last time in a League game on 23 April 1902, in a 2-0 English Second Division home win over Chesterfield at Bank Street, Clayton. It was the second last ever game played by The Heathens with Stephen Preston scoring the club’s last ever League goal. Three days later Harry captained the club for the last time when he lifted the Manchester Senior Cup after they beat Manchester City 2-1 at Hyde Road, Manchester(City’s home), with Fred Erentz scoring the winner from the penalty spot.
On 24 April 1902, Newton Heath were adjudicated bankrupt and forced into liquidation, but thanks to Stafford raising the £1,000.00, the club was saved. Newton Heath Football Club were no more but in their place a new club was born, Manchester United Football Club, a new beginning for the officials and players.
Over the summer of 1902, the first ever Board of Directors of Manchester United Football Club was established. Manchester United’s first Chairman was Liberal Councillor, Dr Edward Bishop. Not surprisingly given his tab as “The Saviour of the Club,” John Henry Davies was appointed the club’s first ever President. These two gentlemen were supported by four Directors; Mr Jabez James Bown (Davies’ right hand man at his Brewery), Mr Charles Jones (a Cashier employed by Davies), Mr James Taylor (a major shareholder in the Eagle Brewery) and Harry Stafford, who became the only Player/Director in the club’s history and was thus forced to revert back to his amateur status as a player.
James West continued in post as Secretary-Manager whilst Harry Stafford took charge of first team affairs. After the change of club name Stafford was in effect club captain, player/manager/director/scout and sometimes groundsman.
On 6 September 1902, Manchester United Football Club played their first ever game defeating Gainsborough Trinity 1-0 away in a Division Two game. Inside-right, Chas Richards, had the honour of scoring the club’s first ever goal but Stafford stole the headlines becoming the last ever captain of Newton Heath Football Club and the first ever captain of Manchester United Football Club. United ended their inaugural season (1902-03) in 5th place in the League but had to watch their nearest rivals, Manchester City, clinch the Division Two crown and secure promotion to the top flight of English football. A home match programme cost one penny and beneath the listings for the two teams the following notice appeared: “NOTE – In case of any alteration in the teams a notice will be sent round the ground giving the name of the substituted player and the number of the position in which he will play.” It is worth noting at this point that substitutes were not officially sanctioned by the Football League until the 1965-66 season.
On 7 February 1903, Harry Stafford became the first Manchester United player ever to be sent off when he was dismissed during a 2-1 FA Cup First Round win against Liverpool at Bank Street, Clayton (Jack Peddie scored both goals). The match referee sent Stafford off in the second half after the United defender had been warned about his conduct for persistent fouling and failed to heed the referee’s warning.
During the 1902-03 season an unusual incident happened involving the Manchester United team when they travelled to Goodison Park, Liverpool on 21 February 1903, to face Everton in Round 2 of the FA Cup. The game was played in appalling weather conditions with a non-stop barrage of rain almost making the pitch unplayable as it cut up and began to resemble a quagmire. In the first half United wore their red jerseys but when they took to the pitch for the second half they wore blue and white striped shirts. The change of kit at the interval wasn’t enough to prevent them from losing the tie 3-1, and it wasn’t the only time they would do a shirt swap at half-time in a game. The team wore this blue and white striped jersey in those away games where their red home jersey clashed with the opposition’s home jersey until the 1920s with a couple of exceptions. During the 1907-08 season, Manchester United wore a white home jersey and in the 1909 FA Cup Final they swapped their red jersey for an all-white kit with a red “V” and the rose of Lancashire whilst their opponents, Bristol City, were also forced to change their red jerseys and instead wore blue.Just a few weeks before the FA Cup Final, United visited Bristol City for a Division One game and wore a white jersey but this time minus the red rose.
Ironically a similar incident occurred 93 years later when United visited The Dell to face Southampton in the Premier League on 13 April 1996. United, the soon to be crowned Premiership Champions for a third time, wore their second choice away kit, an all grey number, and after trailing 3-0 at half-time they re-appeared for the second half wearing their second choice away kit of blue and white stripes. According to the players their dismal first half performance was because they were finding it difficult to pick one another out against the backdrop of the crowd. However, as with the 1903 occasion, the switch did them no good whatsoever losing the game by the very same score, 3-1.
In August 1903 Dr Bishop was replaced as club Chairman by J. J. Bentley, President of the Football League and a vice-President of the Football Association and who at the time, was the most powerful man in the English game. The following month, 20 September 1903, James West resigned from his role as club secretary and was replaced by former Burnley boss Ernest Mangnall, an old friend of J. J. Bentley.
Then on 12 December 1904, the Football Association suspended James West and Harry Stafford for two and a half years each for making “illegal payments” to players, a regular practice among clubs in England at the time. When he was asked to give his side of the story at an FA inquiry, the ever loyal Stafford, said: “Everything I have done has been in the interests of the club.” However, this is not entirely an accurate record of events. It has been claimed that Stafford and West took the rap for Davies and Bentley and were rewarded accordingly. West became the landlord of the Union Inn on Princess Street, Manchester and Stafford was given the stewardship of The Imperial Hotel on Manchester’s Piccadilly.
Stafford hung-up his boots and resigned his place on the Board of Directors. He was the first of only four Manchester United players who went on to be appointed a Director of the club (the other three were Harold Hardman, Bobby Charlton and Les Olive).
Despite his 5 feet, 9 inches height, Stafford weighed almost 13 stones (12 stones, 9 lbs) and was as solid as a rock in his position at full-back. Not too many opposing players fancied taking on Stafford who in boxing terms for his size was a Welterweight (10 stones, 7 lbs) but was more like a light heavyweight (12 stones, 7 lbs) and when he tackled a player it felt like a freight train hitting him. Such was Stafford’s reputation, many left sided outside-halves switched wings to avoid the thunder which came with a Stafford crunch tackle.
Stafford played 200 games for the club (Newton Heath Football Club/Manchester United Football Club) from season 1895-96 to 1902-03, and scored one goal. Stafford’s only strike for the club came on 5 January 1901, in a 3-0 home win over Portsmouth in the FA Cup.
Did You Know That?
According to Manchester United folklore, Harry Stafford left Manchester in the summer of 1909, just two months after the club won the FA Cup for the first time in their history, and in 1911, he emigrated to Australia due to an unnamed illness. Stafford even tapped Davies for £50.00 to flee the country.
In reality, Stafford was actually bound for another railway company in the United States of America, before his death in Quebec, Canada on 24 October 1940, aged 70. Quite sadly, Harry Stafford’s grave in Quebec is unmarked. There is no statue of Stafford and his St. Bernard dog, Major, at Old Trafford, but on the same equilibrium as Sir Christopher Wren and his architectural masterpiece, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, Manchester United fans searching for a monument to celebrate Stafford’s contribution to the very fabric of the club, just need to look around Old Trafford today. Had it not been for Harry Stafford and Major in 1902, and their chance meeting with John Henry Davies after Major got lost and turned up at the door of the wealthy Manchester Brewer, Manchester United would quite simply not exist today. Davies may well have saved the club from extinction, James W. Gibson most definitely deserves his title as “The Saviour of Manchester United,” Matt Busby will always be referred to as “The Father of Manchester United,” the Busby Babes are Legend, United’s Triumvirate (Denis Law, George Best & Bobby Charlton) are the envy of every club’s history, Eric Cantona was an enigma but magnificent, Fergie’s Fledglings spread their wings and Alex Ferguson won the Treble. But, Harry Stafford stands above them all in the history of both Newton Heath Football Club and Manchester United Football Club. He was Manchester United’s first Captain Marvel.