A NEW BEGINNING – MANCHESTER UNITED’s FIRST EVER GAME

Written by John White for Manchester United Did You Know That

On 6 September 1902, Manchester United travelled to Lincolnshire to play Gainsborough Trinity in the opening game of their 1902-03 English Second Division season. The home side’s ground, The Northolme, was opened in the 1850s, and was originally used as a cricket ground. Gainsborough Trinity moved to The Northolme in 1884 and at the time the only spectator facility was a small covered stand in the south-west corner of the ground. Players used the nearby pub, The Sun Inn, for changing rooms, and the landlord of the pub built an extension to the building for use by the football club. A 200 seat grandstand was later added to The Northolme along the southern touchline and a covered terrace on the northern side of the pitch.

This was the first ever match played by Manchester United after Newton Heath Football Club went bankrupt in late April 1902 and out of its ashes a new club was formed. That club was Manchester United.  In season 1900–01, Newton Heath Football Club was on the verge of bankruptcy. Things were that bad at the club that the fans conducted whip-rounds to pay for the team’s railway fares to play away fixtures. The club organised a Grand Bazaar at St James’s Hall, Oxford Street, Manchester late in the season in an effort to boost finances and raise the £1,000 which was needed to prevent the club from becoming bankrupt. At the bazaar the club captain’s dog, Harry Stafford’s St Bernard named Major, walked around the stalls in the hall with a collection box fastened around his collar so children could drop some pennies in his box. One day Major walked out of the hall and wandered off. He eventually turned up at the home of John H. Davies, a very wealthy local brewery owner. Stafford is believed to have tracked down the dog after placing a notice in a local newspaper and Davies contacted him to tell him he had Major. When Stafford called to the home of Davies to collect Major, Davies offered to purchase the pet as his daughter had fallen in love with the animal. Stafford told Davies that Major was not for sale but during their meeting Stafford told Davies about the Heathens’ precarious financial position. As a direct result of their chance meeting, Davies saw a new business opportunity and, as a benefactor of other sports, he decided that he would get involved to financially support The Heathens when they needed his investment. It proved to be one of the most decisive moments in the club’s history.

But despite the financial success of the Grand Bazaar, the club was still in need of a major cash injection. In January 1902, the club’s crippling debts amounted to £2,670 and a number of creditors pressed for payment. The club simply did not have the money to discharge their liabilities and so Newton Heath Football Club was adjudicated bankrupt. When the gates to their Bank Street ground were locked by their landlord, Stafford decided to call in Davies’s promise to help. A meeting of the club’s shareholders was held at Islington Town Hall, Ancoats, Manchester on 18 March 1902.  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). In return for their investment they would take full control of the club. Newton Heath Football Club’s existing Board of Directors were left with no other choice but to agree to the takeover. However, the Football Association declared that the re-formed club would need to have a new name. On 23 April 1902, Newton Heath Football Club beat Chesterfield 2–0 (scorers: Jimmy Coupar & Stephen Preston) at their Bank Street, Clayton home in Division Two and finished 15th in the table, their last league game under that name. Three days later, 26 April 1902, Harry Stafford captained Newton Heath Football Club in their last ever game, a 2-1 win in the Manchester Senior Cup final against Manchester City at their rival’s Hyde Road ground. It proved to be his only winners’ medal in his time at Bank Street.

On 28 April 1902, a key meeting was arranged to form a new club. Those present were fans, Directors and interested parties and they were invited to suggest a new name. Manchester Celtic and Manchester Central were both suggested, the former perhaps reflecting links with the Irish community in the city. The latter was rejected as there was a train station named Manchester Central. Louis Rocca, who had served the club as a tea boy in the 1890s and played for the Reserve Team a few times, was in attendance. Rocca, who lived in Oldham Road, Manchester was managing the family’s ice-cream business at the time and he always maintained that he was the person who suggested the name Manchester United which was unanimously agreed at the meeting to be the club’s new name. Rocca went on to become a chief scout at United and assistant manager to Walter Crickmer. The team’s new colours would be red jerseys and white shorts, although the team had played in red and white as early as 1892. The away kit was a green and white striped shirt with black shorts.

Harry Stafford and the club’s Secretary, James West, were placed in charge of all football related matters which effectively made Stafford the club captain, joint manager and a Director.  However, now that he had a position on the Board of Directors of Manchester United, Stafford had to give up his professional status as a player and revert to amateur status.  Harry Stafford was the last ever captain of Newton Heath Football Club and the first ever captain of Manchester United.

The new look United side took to the pitch to play Gainsborough Trinity wearing their brand new red shirts replacing the famous green & gold halves worn by Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club from their formation in 1878 at the local Wagon Works at the railway yard in Newton Heath as follows:

James Whitehouse, Harry Stafford (Capt), Thomas Read, William Morgan, William Griffiths, Walter Cartwright, Charles Richards, Ernest Pegg, Jack Peddie, Frederick Williams, Daniel Hurst

With the exception of Peddie, who was born in Hutchesontown, Glasgow, Scotland, it was an all English born side. The game was played before 4,000 fans and ended 1-0 with the visitors, Manchester United, getting their season off to the perfect start thanks to a goal from Charles “Chas” Richards who holds the distinction of being the first player to score a goal for Manchester United.

Richards was a one season wonder for United after joining the newly formed Manchester United in August 1902 from Leicester Fosse. He was what you would call a journeyman of a player having had spells with Gresley Rovers, Newstead Byron, Notts County, Nottingham Forest and Grimsby Town. Richards left United for Doncaster Rovers in March 1903 having played 11 times and scoring two goals. He also scored in United’s 7-0 victory over Accrington Stanley on 1 November 1902 in the Third Qualifying Round of the FA Cup.

Gainsborough Trinity Football Club was formed in 1873 as Trinity Recreationists, set up by the vicar of the Holy Trinity Church for young parishioners. In 1889, they became members of the Midland Counties League, losing their first match 2-1 to Lincoln City and going on to finish 7th out of eleven clubs. The club quickly became well known, and won their first Midland League championship in 1890-91 and after finishing runners-up the following season were elected to the Football League Second Division.

Ironically Gainsborough Trinity’s first ever Football League match was against Newton Heath Football Cub. The Second Division game was played on 1 September 1896 at The Heathens’ Bank Street ground with the home side running out 2-0 winners (scorer: James McNaught 2). Gainsborough Trinity held on to their place in Division Two but based in an area with a small population it was always a struggle and the club returned to the Midland League in 1912. Here they were to settle and earn more success, winning the Midland Championship in 1927-28, 1948-49 and 1966-67, also finishing runners-up twice.

Did You Know That? In 1902, the novel “A True Story” by Lucian was published. The story of Newton Heath becoming Manchester United is not only a true story, it is history.

4 comments

  • Learning a lot from these articles, I was unaware that Newton Heath went bankrupt before Manchester United was formed.

  • Very interesting read John and very well written!

  • Michael Morrison

    As always a great informative read from john

  • Most Man Utd fans are aware of the name Newton Heath but little else. They will now thanks to this article by John and how important this is in the History of Man Utd. Very well written John

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