Manchester United Football Club as we know it today began to take shape at the turn of the century, but in those early days of the 1900s there was still plenty of hardships to overcome before success found its way to the club.
Still Newton Heath at the start of the 20th century, the club remained stranded in the Second Division following their relegation in 1894. To put it mildly, things would get much worse before they got better.
The club experienced two of its worst seasons in the new decade. Newton Heath could manage only 10th place in the Second Division during the 1900-01 campaign. The following season, managed only 15th place in the Second Division, three spots above the bottom of the table. That 1901-02 season remains one of the lowest finishes for club since joining the Football League.
Poor results were coupled by an even more precarious financial situation. The club had been issued a winding-up order and were struggling just to fulfill fixtures. Harry Stafford, the Heathens' captain since 1896, was doing everything he could to fight for the survival of the club, borrowing whatever he could to pay for the team's traveling costs. The club's ground had been shut down with Newton Heath declared bankrupt, and Stafford found a ground on which they could play their home fixtures during this financial crisis.
With the club nearing extinction, fortune favored the Heathens as they were offered a new lease on life by local businessman John Henry Davies in 1902. How Davies came to be involved with the club is still a slight mystery, although the popular tales include a dog that united Davies with Stafford, and consequently the club.
One of the popular tales claims Stafford's pet St. Bernard, Major, had run away from a fund-raising event only for Davies to find the dog. Stafford tracked Major down to Davies, who offered to buy the dog, only to be refused. However, upon hearing of the club's plight, Davies instead decided to get involved with Newton Heath.
Another variation of the story claims Stafford had his dog at the fundraiser for Newton Heath where Davies is said to have made an offer. In either case, the offer was declined by Stafford, and Davies was instead convinced to help the club.
The details remain unclear with many different stories still being told, but somehow Davies found the club and saved it in its time of need.
In March 1902, Davies brought together a group of businessmen to contribute to the club and wiped away the debt, saving them from the winding-up order. Quite fittingly, with this new life breathed into the club came a new identity. With all ties from the railway now severed, a new name for the club was discussed by the board. Manchester Central and Manchester Celtic were two of the popular considerations that were eventually dismissed.
Finally, one of the directors, Louis Rocca, who would be come an integral part of the club in coming years, suggested Manchester United. On 26 April, 1902, the directors confirmed the club would henceforth be known as Manchester United Football Club. The club adopted red kits with white shorts to accompany the change of identity. It was during this period that Davies also invested in the expansion of Bank Street.
Investment was needed elsewhere too, however, as the team continued to struggle in the Second Division. Davies was able to bring the necessary funds to make United competitive, and the club began making important moves to build a formidable squad. First up, the newly-christened United needed a return to the First Division.
Ernest Mangnall was hired as the club secretary in 1903, which would be the manager by today's definition. While Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson would become legends for their work in the coming decades, Mangnall is still the third-most successful manager in United history.
United also signed a talisman in Charlie Roberts, who would become the club's captain. He arrived for £400, which was quite a hefty fee in that era. A centre-half of great skill, Roberts was the ideal player to build a team with. Vittorio Pozzo, the manager who won the World Cup with Italy in 1934 and 1938, once claimed that Roberts was the world's best footballer. He was quick and strong, and rightfully became a crucial piece of the puzzle in developing a successful team.
Roberts was also rebellious, standing out for his mentality. He was one to challenge authority, wearing shorts above the knee in a time when the FA opposed to it. Also in that era, players had a wage cap of £4 per week. Roberts became heavily involved in the birth of the Players' Union, which he would set up in 1907 with his future teammate William Henry "Billy" Meredith.
In Mangnall's first two attempts, United improved immensely, but still came up just short with third-place finishes in both 1903-04 and 1904-05. Finally, in 1905-06, United finished in second place of the Second Division and earned promotion for a return to the First Division.
Around the time of their promotion in 1906, local rivals Manchester City were in the midst of a serious crisis. In 1904-05, Billy Meredith was accused of match fixing, after which he proclaimed City were breaking the wage cap.
An investigation by the FA concluded City were guilty of paying their players above the wage cap, leading to a fine and the removal of five club directors. To make matters worse, 18 players were banned from playing until January 1907.
City auctioned off these players, and United made the most of their neighbor's misfortune, signing some of their best talents ahead of the 1906-07 season, although they would remain unavailable until January 1907.
Among these signings from City was none other than Meredith, perhaps one of the club's first legendary players, largely remembered as a fan favorite among the United faithful. When he finished serving his ban in January 1907, Meredith got started on one of the most memorable early United careers.
Nicknamed the Welsh Wizard, Meredith was a right winger. History remembers him as having all the attributes one would desire of a winger even in today's game. Meredith was said to have blistering pace, fine control, an exceptional ability to cross the ball. His leadership on the pitch is also widely remembered in what Meredith brought to United. Before the day of millionaire superstars, Meredith was one of the first players to truly attract national attention.
Like Roberts, Meredith was heavily involved with the Players' Union, and he is well documented in feeling that players were not fairly compensated for their services to their clubs. Perhaps more than anyone else in the era, Meredith drew crowds to games. He was well aware the club was making large sums of money from his talent, and he fought so that he and his fellow footballers got a fair portion of that.
Hard to imagine that was ever an issue in a world of millionaire footballers, but Meredith, along with Roberts, was at the forefront of raising wages for the players.
Another key signing from City ended up being Alexander "Sandy" Turnbull, who would score one of the early goals of great importance for United. With United now in the possession of a fine squad with the recruits from City, the club were now ready to push for major honors.
Their first season back in the First Division, 1906-07, United had to settle for mid-table with an eighth-place finish.
The following season, United claimed what would be the first of many. With a fine manager in Mangnall and a squad of exceptional talents, the club excelled in the First Division. United finished the season in first place, nine points ahead of second place Aston Villa. From the brink of extinction in the beginning of the decade, United clawed their way back into the First Division and won the league title in 1907-08.
As the league champions, United were then invited to play in the inaugural Charity Shield, now known as the Community Shield. In that time, the Football League champions played the winners of the Southern League, which happened to be another club of familiarity—Queens Park Rangers. The first game resulted in a draw, but United won the replay 4-0 to become the first ever Charity Shield winners.
United struggled to follow up their league success in the following season, falling to a 13th place finish. However, they found the first of many successes in another competition. The club made it all the way to 1909 FA Cup Final against Bristol City and secured their first ever FA Cup with a solitary goal from Sandy Turnbull.
It was the truest sense of the night being darkest just before the dawn. From nearly collapsing under financial difficulties to ending the decade having won the Football League and FA Cup, United laid the foundation for something they would do many more times for decades to come—fight back from what seemed to be inevitable defeat.
First Division: 1907-08
FA Cup: 1908-09
FA Charity Shield: 1908