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How Manchester United got to the Theatre of Dreams

Old Trafford

On Friday 19 February 2010, Old Trafford celebrated its centenary, but the team that has made it one of the most famous football grounds in the world is much older - and had two grounds before it.

Manchester United was formed as Newton Heath Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway Football Club in 1878, as the works team for the local railway depot.

The team played in green and gold - two highly appropriate colours for the young club as the former signifies growth and new birth, while the latter is aspirational and regal.

Their home ground wasn't quite so lofty in its ideals though. North Road in Newton Heath was chosen more for its proximity to the railway than it was for its suitability for football.

North Road with football pitch in the distance
The football pitches off North Road were a far cry from Old Trafford

Barely more than a muddy field strewn with gravel when the team took it on, it eventually had a capacity of 12,000, though even with that many supporters, the club didn't think themselves ready to apply for the newly-formed Football League in 1888.

Not that they didn't want to be part of it. Football had become a professional game three years earlier and Newton Heath signed their first professional players in 1886.

But a professional club needed a professional ground, and in 1891, the club made a decision that would lead it away from Newton Heath.

Building a future

Scraping together what money they could raise, the club bought two grandstands, but the railway refused to give any money towards the deal.

It left the footballers at odds with their employers and when they found themselves in financial problems the following year, a split was on the cards.

Map showing the North Road Stadium
North Road was picked more for its proximity than its suitability

In addition to the money issues, the owners of the North Road site, Manchester Cathedral, were uncomfortable with their tenants charging an entry fee to watch games.

Things came to a head in 1893. Following their first season in the Football League, in which they finished bottom of the First Division, the team were served with an eviction notice and a move away from Newton Heath was a certainty.

A short step up

A new home was found three miles away in Clayton on Bank Street - interestingly, it was a site very close to where Manchester City's Eastlands stadium now stands.

Taking residence in June 1893, the now-newly monikered Newton Heath FC started to remodel the stand-less ground.

They had completed the building of two new stands for the start of the new season, opening two more within three weeks of their first Football League match at the new ground.

While they may have been successful with their building, sadly Newton Heath weren't so good on the pitch and found themselves relegated after finishing bottom for a second season (a play-off victory had kept in the First Division 12 months earlier).

Manchester power station and Ashton canal
Bank Street was next to an Electricity Generating Station and a canal

Worse was to come. Suffering like its predecessor from its surrounds, Bank Street was in the midst of a myriad of industrial buildings and the conditions were so bad that when Walsall Town Swifts arrived for a game, they lodged an official complaint with the Football League about it.

Initially, they were probably glad they did, as they went on to lose 14-0, though when the League ruled that the game should be replayed, they fared little better, losing 9-0.

Bank Street was gradually expanded to take the increasing numbers of supporters interested in watching the professional game and by 1906, it had a capacity of around 50,000.

Close to the edge

That expansion almost came at a heavy cost. The financial burden of the stadium combined with the increasing wages expected by the professional players meant the club came close to extinction.

A winding-up order was served in 1902 and Bank Street was on the brink of being repossessed.

However, local brewer John Henry Davies came to the rescue - though local legend puts the then captain Harry Stafford's dog as the true saviour.

Map showing the Bank Street Stadium
Bank Street grew to a capacity of 50,000

The story goes that the defender's dog ran over to Davies at a fundraising event and, after initailly wanting to buy the pup, the brewer was persuaded instead to put his money into the ailing club.

However it happened, Davies' money - along with that of Stafford himself and three others - saved Newton Heath, though the input would eventually alter the club forever.

Davies was an ambitious man and wanted success for his new charges, but he also wanted changes.

He implemented a change in name, from Newton Heath to Manchester United, and swapped the team colours from green and gold to the now famous red and white.

By 1906, United had been promoted back to the First Division and two years later, they took the first of their League titles.

From East to South

In 1909, after winning the FA Cup, Davies decided the Bank Street site was too restrictive and couldn't be expanded as he wished.

He looked round Manchester for an appropriate site, settling on a patch of land next to the Bridgewater Canal in Old Trafford.

Bank Street was sold to the Manchester Corporation and leased back while the new stadium was completed.

The team finally moved in February 1910 and as a postscript to their time before Old Trafford, the move happened just in time in terms of safety, as shortly after the team departed Bank Street, a storm took the roof off a stand, smashing it into the houses that stood opposite it.

The disrepair of it couldn't have been more at odds with the newly finished Old Trafford, a ground that would become one of the biggest stadiums in the world.

100 years of Old Trafford
19 Feb 10 |  Man Utd


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