Before the Industrial Revolution Newton Heath, a 10 minute drive up Oldham Road from Manchester city centre, was primarily a farming community. The name “Newton Heath” means a new town on the heath; the heath in this case went from Miles Platting to Failsworth. At that time Manchester was largely an insignificant Lancashire town. However, by the start of the 19th century Manchester was growing at an impressive rate, the Industrial Revolution had begun. Out went the farm and in came the factory and the engineering workshop. With the vision and money of industrialists such as Richard Arkwright and Belfast born Samuel Greg, the landscape of Manchester was to change forever. Newton Heath became a hub of engineering workshops surrounded by the textiles mills of neighbouring towns with even a coal mine here and there. During the second half of the 19th century Manchester was the centre of the Industrial Revolution. Towards the end of the 1870’s the team that would go on to be the biggest football club the world would ever see was about to be formed. In 1878 employees at the Carriage and Wagon Department of The Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway petitioned their employers for help in starting up a football team. The help was forthcoming and the name Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) was chosen, mainly to avoid confusion with the neighbouring Newton Heath Loco football team who were the motive power division of the company. In 1879 the club decided on green and gold for its colours, colours that have gone on to be popular for many Manchester United fans. The away kit was made up of white shirts and white shorts with black socks, the club became known as “The Heathens”. A year later the clubs first recorded match took place which was against a reserve Bolton Wanderers side, Bolton walloped the fledgling railway workers club 6 - 0. They were based at North Road, on Monsall Road Newton Heath with the pitch being near to the Railway yard itself.
They moved to Bank Street in the neighbouring town of Clayton in 1893. In the early days of Newton Heath the club was run by the Dining Room Committee of the Carriage and Wagon Works. Not long after the club was established a superintendent engineer of Newton Heath LYR., Frederick Attock, was named club President. At first Newton Heath LYR. F.C. played matches against other teams made up of railway workers; in fact that’s how it was for the first 5 years of the club, essentially playing friendlies. They played many of their neighbouring teams such as Greenheys, Manchester Arcadians, Hurst Brook Olympic and Bootle Wanderers. United have always had a strong Scottish connection; due either to great players or great managers the connection’s always been there and those early days at United were no different. Striker Bob Donaldson came down from Airdrie before moving to Blackburn Rovers. In 1892 he was transferred to Newton Heath LYR playing 147 games and scoring nearly 70 goals before leaving the club in 1897. Joe Cassidy, of Lanarkshire, came via Blythe.
A forward like Donaldson, Cassidy had a spell at Glasgow Celtic which was sandwiched between his two stints at Newton Heath LYR. His second spell at Newton Heath LYR was a great time for Cassidy at the club. In just over 150 games he scored 90 goals. He was at the club until 1900, then taking the short trip to The Bitters. Then there was Frank Barret, a Dundee man and a goalkeeper. He started playing for his home town club in 1893. Barret was one of the very first players to turn out for The Dark Blues; he was there for 3 years before moving to Newton Heath. Barret played well over 100 games for Newton Heath LYR. before moving to New Brighton Tower in 1900. Interestingly Frank Barret was also one of the first players to turn out for Aberdeen FC in 1903; he was an important figure of that clubs development as well as Dundee’s. James Rankin McNaught was a pocket rocket of a “half back” (or a midfielder as we call it today) standing only 5ft 6, he hailed from Dumbarton. Frederick Charles Erentz, like Barret, came from Dundee. Son of a Danish father, he began his playing career at Dundee Our Boys F.C. before moving to Manchester and Newton Heath in 1892. He made his debut in a narrow 4-3 defeat against Blackburn Rovers. Although Erentz was mainly a defender he was often deployed further up the field. Indeed it was while playing in the forward position that he scored his first goal for Newton Heath. Erentz was to stay with Newton Heath for a decade; his last game for the club in 1902 was actually the last game that Newton Heath LYR would be known by that name.
Newton Heath’s very first competitive game was played in the October of 1883, in The Lancashire Cup. They lost to the now defunct Blackburn Olympic team, 7-2. A heavy loss but Blackburn Olympic had won the F.A. Cup the previous season and were a very decent team. It’s generally agreed by football historians that by now in 1883, the North Road ground had become an enclosed venue. A year later and Newton Heath went out early again in The Lancashire Cup, although they did reach the second round this time eventually going out to Baxenden. That season The Heathens entered a team into the Manchester and District Senior Cup for the very first time. They managed to get to the Whalley Range final but went down 3-0 to Hurst FC. It was in the 1886/87 season that Newton Heath LYR. first took part in the Football Association Cup. Unfortunately for Newton Heath it didn’t end well. In the 1st round they faced Fleetwood Rangers FC, the game ended 2-2. Both of Newton Heath’s goals came from Welshman Jack Doughty. However, Newton Heath’s captain Jack Powell refused to play extra time and Newton Heath LYR were subsequently disqualified from the competition, with Fleetwood going into the second round. Once again they did better in the Manchester and District Challenge Cup, again getting to the final, again at Whalley Range and again losing, this time to West Manchester. The Heathens had many notable players in the first twenty years of the clubs existence; of course there was Bob Donaldson and Joe Cassidy that I’ve already mentioned. I’ve also mentioned Jack Doughty. Doughty, a native of Bilston in Staffordshire and a striker by trade, arrived at Newton Heath LYR in 1886 from Ruabon Druids FC. The Druids were a Welsh club, based in the village of Ruabon which is about five miles south of Wrexham. The Staffordshire born striker spent four years playing for the Druids before he was transferred to Newton Heath LYR. The mid 1880’s were an exciting time for The Heathens and Doughty as they were about to join the Football Alliance, although the Alliance was short lived (only lasting three years) it was an important phase during the early years of English football, people were forming leagues, competitive games were being played instead of the friendly fixture which was a common occurrence for many teams back then. Doughty made his debut for Newton Heath LYR during the late October of the 1886 – 1887 season against Fleetwood Rangers in the FA Cup. Although born in England Doughty would go on to win eight international caps for Wales. One of the attractions for Jack Doughty in signing for The Heathens was that he would be lining up on the pitch with his brother Roger. Roger Doughty had signed for the club a few months before and like his brother he was acquired from the Welsh club Ruabon Druids. Joining the Doughtys at The Heathens was William Tait, an inside forward. Tait made the record books once he left Newton Heath LYR for Burnley in 1888, when during a league game he scored footballs first ever hat trick in a 4 – 3 victory over Bolton Wanderers, the game was played at Pikes Lane which was Bolton’s first ever regular home ground. Tait’s stay at Burnley was brief, he returned to The Heathens before the season was over. Another notable player for The Heathens was James Gotheridge. Gotheridge was born in Derby in 1863, he signed for Newton Heath LYR in 1884. Gotheridge is noted for being the first player to be the recipient of a lengthy suspension from football for violent conduct during a match against Walsall Swifts.
The following season would be Newton Heath LYR FC’s final season before advancing into League football. They only entered the one cup competition that season, the Manchester and District Challenge Cup. Following the previous seasons FA Cup debacle with Fleetwood Rangers they put themselves on a self-enforced exile from the FA Cup. Despite this Newton Heath LYR would go on to lift the Manchester and District Challenge Cup, with a whopping 7-1 win over Denton in front of a crowd of around 8,000 at Whalley Range. For the 1887/88 season the club changed its colours from the gold and green, the new kit would consist of red and white shirts with navy blue shorts and socks. The away kit kept its white shirt but in came navy blue shorts for the old white ones. In the summer of 1888 Newton Heath LYR became a founding member of the Combination League. The Combination League was created as an alternative to the Football League. In with Newton Heath LYR in the new Combination were such teams as Darwin, Bootle, Derby Midland and Leek. Newton Heath LYR did well in the inaugural season of the Combination, they finished that season as champions. Not only that but they won the Manchester and District Challenge Cup beating Hooley Hill 7-0, once again the final being played at Whalley Range. The only blemish on that season was Newton Heath LYR’s early exit from the Lancashire Senior Cup, which came courtesy of a 9-0 thumping at the hands of Bury. As the next season approached Newton Heath LYR got its first official team manager, the kind of manager that is singularly in charge of all team matters that we know today. Alfred Harold Albut took the reins from Frederick Attock; Albut became the very first full-time employee of Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football Club. The 1890 – 1891 season saw The Heathens changing leagues. Following another failed attempt to join the Football League, now they would play their league football in the Football Alliance. Although the crowd figures for each game was tiny compared to what United get these days, by the final decade of the 19th century the fledgling game of association football was rapidly growing in popularity. The new Football Alliance League consisted of a dozen teams, now Newton Heath would play teams from further afield not just their North West neighbours.
The Heathens were now playing competitive matches against teams such as Grimsby Town, Small Heath (who would go on to morph into Birmingham City), Nottingham Forest and Birmingham St Georges. Newton Heath ended that season in eighth position of The Football Alliance. Top scorer for The Heathens that season was Scot Willie Stewart with 11 goals. Newton Heath LYR retained the Manchester and District Challenge Cup, but went out early in the FA Cup and the Lancashire Senior Cup. The 1890 – 1891 season would see Newton Heath LYR finish empty-handed even letting slip their grip on the Manchester and District Challenge Cup, losing in the final to Ardwick. They finished ninth in the Football Alliance, with Alf Farman and Robert Ramsey being our joint top scorers for the season. A disappointing season for them but a milestone in world football would occur shortly after. During the 1891 – 1892 season English midfielder Alf Farman made history in the world of football. Newton Heath LYR were playing Blackpool in a fourth round qualifying game in the FA Cup when he scored the first penalty kick in the game of association football. That season was a decent one for the club in the league; they finished runners-up to Nottingham Forest. In the Cup tournaments Newton LYR were to be unsuccessful in all competitions but for the club in general, things were really beginning to improve. Home attendances were soaring culminating in 12,000 fans turning out for Newton Heath LYR’s New Year’s Day match versus Nottingham Forest, the game ended in a 1-1 draw. For the 1892 – 1893 season Newton Heath LYR F.C. were at last successful in gaining entry into the Football League. It wasn’t a good debut season though; they finished at the bottom in a 16 team league. Fortunately they were to escape relegation due to the fact that relegation as we know it today didn’t yet exist. Newton Heath LYR had to play what was known as a “Test Match” against a team in the Second Division, in this case Birmingham City. They beat the Midlands side over two games to retain their First Division status. The following season Newton Heath LYR returned to their gold and green colours for their home shirts which would be accompanied by navy blue shorts and socks. Sadly though, they were to finish bottom of the league again and this time they were to suffer relegation after losing the “Test Match” to Liverpool.
They were to undergo similar luck in the domestic cup competitions as well, going out very early in each tournament. Home attendances were still improving though; their highest attendance that season was a huge 18,000 with an average attendance of about 8,000. That season Bob Donaldson finished top scorer in all competitions with 10 goals. So now for the 1894/95 season Newton Heath LYR would have to get used to life in Division Two. The season finished with Newton Heath LYR in 3rd place, a point behind Notts County in 2nd. Seeing as they finished in the top three they were able to play a “Test Match” to try to regain their First Division status, they lost to the potters of Stoke City so the Division Two was where they would stay. Interestingly, the club changed the kit again. The colours stayed the same, only this time the shirt would be all over green with gold collar and cuffs, white shorts came in too with black socks. Newton Heath LYR’s away kit would stay the same of white shirt with blue shorts and socks. An interesting incident occurred that season, in a league fixture in the March of 1895 involving the Midlands team Walsall Town Swifts FC, a team that would go on to be the Walsall FC that we know today. The Heathens buried the Swifts 14-0; however before the game the team from Walsall saw fit to complain about the state of the pitch which saw a layer of sand added to the playing surface. The Swifts continued with their complaint which was upheld by the Football League, so the Swift’s 14-0 hammering was made null and void. The game would have to be played again; it didn’t make much difference as Newton Heath LYR put nine past Walsall Town Swifts without reply. It was a good season personally for The Heathens then Lancastrian forward Dick Smith, who finished top scorer in all competitions with 20 goals. The following season Newton Heath were just treading water to be honest.
They finished further down in Division Two that season, in sixth place a point above Woolwich Arsenal which meant no “Test Match” to try and regain a place in the Division One and they went out of the FA Cup in the 2nd round to Derby County after a replay. The Heathens didn’t do particularly well in the Lancashire and Manchester Cups either, losing to Bury in the Lancashire Cup and to Fairfield in the Manchester and District Cup. So the 1886 – 1887 season came along and The Heathens were again changing their colours. Their new home kit would consist of a white shirt and blue shorts and socks, the second choice kit would consist of green and gold stripped shirts with blue shorts and shorts. If you’re thinking that is just a reversal of the way the kit was only a few years before, you’d be quite correct. They did much better in the league that season which featured a Christmas Day victory over the Bitters. Newton Heath LYR finished second in the Division Two which meant once again they could regain their Division One status via a “Test Match”. This time two games would be played against the teams that finished in the bottom two of the First Division, Burnley and Sunderland. The Heathens were successful against Burnley but lost to Sunderland therefore in the Second Division they stayed. They went out at the 2nd round stage of the Lancashire Cup to Burnley but they fared better in the Manchester and District Challenge Cup, losing in the semi-final to Bury. Joe Cassidy claimed the title of the team’s top scorer in all competitions that season, Cassidy scored an impressive 25 goals. The club lifted the Lancashire Senior Cup in 1888, however the club would spend the next few years in Division Two, it wouldn’t be until the 1906/07 season that the club would gain promotion to the First Division. The 1901 – 1902 season would be one of significant change for the team. They were failing to make any headway into getting back into the First Division, the club had found the last few seasons quite difficult. Not just on the pitch, but financially also. To add insult to injury Newton Heath LYR were taken to court by the club President, William Healey. The club owed Healey about 250 pounds. The Heathens were already almost £3,000 in debt so were quite unable to pay Healey his money, because of this, the club was declared bankrupt. Step forward club captain Harry Stafford. It was Stafford who approached local businessmen such as John Henry Davies in order to pump money back into the club. Stafford’s plan worked; in fact it worked extremely well. Those local businessmen initially invested a total of 2000 pounds into Newton Heath LYR saving the club from extinction, but it was really Harry Stafford who was the man of the hour in that little chapter of our history. Davies was named the new club President and the club was renamed Manchester United. The rest as they say, is history…