All famous football clubs in the North West of England have some kind of connection with North Wales – and Manchester United are no exception.
One of the Red Devils’ finest players in the early 1900’s was the great Billy Meredith from Chirk, who made more than 300 appearances for United between and won 48 caps for Wales.
Not long before the Meredith era there emerged a strange but true tale about how the club adopted the name now renowned all around the world.
Guest writer DON HALE, who lives in Conwy, takes up the story…..
It’s quite strange by today’s modern standards when you consider that Manchester United Football Club and its multi-million pound financial and sporting empire may not have come into existence, had it not been for the City Police, and a notorious lost dog!
The curious tale of the dog – excuse the pun – is still a legendary story in the region and dates back to 1902 just before the original Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway) football team changed their name to Manchester United.
Founded in 1878 from an enthusiastic bunch of young railway workers at the local Carriage and Wagon Works, the club had made tremendous strides since first joining the Football Alliance in 1889/90, and then being elected to the Football League, Division One in 1892/3.
This progress however, came at a cost, with a full-time club secretary, professional players’ wages to consider and the increased expenses of playing matches up and down the country in a national league.
By early 1902, and following some indifferent results on the pitch, Newton Heath LYC was in severe financial difficulties.
Desperate for cash, they held a series of fundraising events, with one staged at the village hall, and organised by Heath captain Henry Stafford. The intention was to raise at least £100 to help stave off bankruptcy from many pressing creditors.
Stafford, who was a popular sporting character, attended with his St Bernard dog, Major. And as a publicity stunt, he tied a collecting box around the dog’s neck, as if highlighting an immediate rescue plea.
During the event though, the dog escaped from the packed hall and suddenly vanished! The matter was then reported to the local police.
Major was later found slightly confused and wandering the streets by a pub landlord. The man was unsure as to exactly what to do with the pet, and unaware as to whom it belonged, so decided to take it back to his pub.
The landlord showed the dog to a local businessman, John Henry Davies, who at that time was the managing director of Manchester Breweries. The dog seemed to take a liking to the man, so Davies paid the landlord for it and went home.
Perhaps guilt eventually got the better of Davies, for he began to make inquiries about the dog, and via the police found it really belonged to the Newton Heath skipper.
He contacted the club and invited the player to come and collect ‘Major’ from his home, whereby Stafford explained the reasons for the dog’s disappearance.
The two men formed an immediate bond and Davies took an interest in the club and offered to help financially.
Davies later met with a small consortium of friends and other prominent local businessmen, who agreed to pay off the debts, on condition they changed the name and put the new management under their control.
All this was quickly agreed. However, deciding on a new name for the club became a major problem in itself and various suggestions were made, including Manchester Celtic and Manchester Central – which some directors said, sounded more like a railway station.
Eventually, chief scout Louis Rocco announced: ‘Gentleman, we have a Manchester United.’
The name was accepted and adopted, and the rest, as they say, is history. The club then introduced a new playing strip, abandoning the existing colours of white shirts and blue shorts for a new bold kit of red shirts, white shorts and black socks. And it seems that shortly after this, the club also inherited the nickname of the ‘Reds.’
The club played in various colours during their short life. The first being green and yellow halved shirts, and later white shirts with a deep red V-shape. The old green and yellow kit was later used in more recent times during the 1990s as United’s commemorative away strip.
The loss of the name of their local Newton Heath ‘Loco’ was a bitter blow to regulars, for the ‘Heathens,’ as they were then commonly known, had fast gained a reputation for skill, flair and style, despite a rather heavy pitch.
Attendances too were fairly-healthy, with their first-ever home league match against Blackburn, attracting over 8,000 spectators.
Many other games were equally well attended but the new directors soon realised the bulk of support was not necessarily from locals, but from many others travelling in from far afield.
Much of the ‘Heathens’ success – and problems – came after they had turned professional in 1885.
The club had constantly attracted top players, including several Welsh internationals, because Newton Heath LYC, in addition to paying players’ wages, could also provide additional regular employment on the railways.
In just 24 years, this small-town band of amateur railway workers had achieved miracles and made unbelievable progress through the leagues. Their first ground was at North Road, close to an old clay pit, where players had to change in the local pub, the ‘Three Crowns.’
In later years, and following major re-organisation, they moved again, this time to a similarly muddy pitch across town at Bank Street, Clayton, where the players at least enjoyed the luxury of their own changing facilities – in a small wooden pavilion – yet had to endure the threat of heavy pollution from an adjacent chemical factory.
The ground was overshadowed and dominated by an enormous chimney, which often belched out black smoke across the pitch halfway through a match, and was surrounded by several daunting high walls.
Moving to Old Trafford
Following the take-over and name change in 1902, the club’s directors then launched very ambitious plans for future progress and decided to promote the club throughout the North West.
Six-years later, they made provision to build a brand new, state of the art, and purpose-built football stadium at Old Trafford.
My great grandfather, then as a Chief Inspector of the Manchester City force, was based at the police station at 627 Oldham Road, Newton Heath. He both lived and worked in the area, knew of the missing dog story, and apparently spoke of mixed feelings for this proposed move.
As a resident and sporting man, he had witnessed a period of growth and the introduction of professional standards. He also knew the level of support and realised the potential impact such a move could have on the local community and economy.
And yet, much like the town in general, he had helplessly watched many other changes throughout this incredible industrial revolution.
James Wood was a down to earth realist, and as a senior and very experienced police officer, responsible for many other major projects in the City, he was given the joint task on a powerful committee, to help evaluate this latest and exciting development.
In 1909, Manchester United later won the FA Cup, defeating Bristol City 1-0 at Crystal Palace and by 1910, the club were in a very strong financial position to expand and were eager to move from their much-criticised Bank Street ground at Clayton to Old Trafford.
Plans had been prepared a year or so before and were based on proposals from Archibald Leitch, a renowned architect and sports fan, who had already been involved with other similar schemes for Tottenham Hotspur FC at White Hart Lane in London, and at both Ibrox Park, and Hampden Park in Glasgow.
Old Trafford cost a staggering £60,000 to build in 1910, but now boasted a fine seated and covered main stand, and three other large terraced areas, plus a superb grass pitch!
The fans and directors soon welcomed the move, and everyone understood the need to provide improved facilities, and to cater for the demands of supporters in this rapidly growing spectator sport.
In 1911, their judgement was proven, when Old Trafford was selected by the Football League for an FA Cup Final replay between Bradford City and Newcastle United. Bradford eventually won the day 1-0, after previously drawing 0-0 at Crystal Palace.
And just four years later, Manchester United staged the 1915 FA Cup Final at this stadium, when Sheffield United beat Chelsea 3-0.
The closure of this successful early chapter in the club’s history was recorded a mere eight years after their name change, and confirmed they had finally left the past behind, but remained keen to explore the future – with all its potential opportunities.
I wonder however, what would have happened had it not been for that lost dog?
And even more interesting, I am still slightly puzzled as to why there is still little mention of this amazing story in the club’s archives, and no certainly no memorial or dedication to this extraordinary canine creature’s memory?
The move to Old Trafford was indeed quite an occasion. The following words are taken from an extract published in Manchester’s Sporting Chronicle, dated 19th February 1910.
‘The most handsome, the most spacious and the most remarkable arena that I have ever seen. As a football ground, it is unrivalled in the world. It is an honour to Manchester, and the home of a team who can do wonders when they are disposed.’