Manchester United History: 1878-1899

Kyle Diller@kdiller6Contributor IIIMarch 27, 2012

Manchester United rewrote the history books last season when the club secured a record-breaking 19th Premier League title.

That league title was just one of the more recent triumphs in a long and illustrious history that stretches back to 1878, not that it would be recognizable to the club we all know and love today. Nevertheless, it is important that the supporters of the club know of the humble roots from which it came to become one of the world's biggest and most successful teams.

Rather than the famous red shirt known worldwide in the 21st century, the players of those early days wore a green and gold shirt, the same as the scarves that have become a popular protest against the club's ownership in recent seasons.

In fact, those scarves were a tribute to the early days of the club, in a time far before the Glazers reigned. A day before the club was even known as Manchester United Football Club. Back when the club came into existence in 1878, the name was Newton Heath LYR Football Club.

The club was founded by the Carriage and Wagon department at the Newton Heath depot of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway, thus Newton Heath LYR. In those early days, Newton Heath were financed by the railroad company and the team played against other railway teams in friendlies.

Well before the days of Old Trafford, the team took to the pitch at North Road. The Heathens did not even play a competitive match there until the 1883-84 season when they entered the Lancashire Cup. This first taste of competitive football hardly compares with the club's success today, as Newton Heath lost 7-2 in the first round of the cup to the Blackburn Olympic reserves.

Bryan Robson wearing the Manchester United third kit from 1992-94. The jersey is reminiscent of Newton Heath's green and gold.
Bryan Robson wearing the Manchester United third kit from 1992-94. The jersey is reminiscent of Newton Heath's green and gold.Getty Images/Getty Images

The Heathens quickly took to competitive football after their initial failure; however, despite losing in the second round of the Lancashire Cup in 1884-85, the club reached the final of Manchester Cup only to be defeated 3-0. Just one season later, the club tasted the first of what would become many successes, securing the Manchester Cup after beating Manchester 2-1 in the final.

Some fans may already be familiar with the Manchester Cup, as it is now the Manchester Senior Cup of which our Reserves are the reigning champions. United remain the most successful team in the competition to this day. It is hard to imagine the club was already finding success in the tournament back in the late 19th century.

Taking the first steps into something recognizable today, Newton Heath entered the FA Cup in 1886-87 for a noteworthy first campaign. The team secured a 2-2 draw against Fleetwood Rangers, and the referee was of the understanding that extra time would be played. The Heathens' captain Jack Powell refused and Fleetwood Rangers were awarded the tie after appealing to the FA. Newton Heath then boycotted the FA Cup briefly until 1889.

In the following 1887-88 season, the club reached a fourth consecutive Manchester Cup final, winning 7-0 over Hooley Hill. The club added two further Manchester Cup triumphs in the following two seasons and won their fifth and final Manchester Cup of the century in 1892-93 over a familiar foe, beating Bolton 2-1 in the final.

Newton Heath had their first test of league football as a founding member of The Combination after being rejected by the Football League. The Heathens had the best record in the league during the debut season, but The Combination folded due to financial difficulties in April 1889 before the end of the campaign.

The green and gold scarves used to protest the Glazers were symbolic of the Newton Heath colors.
The green and gold scarves used to protest the Glazers were symbolic of the Newton Heath colors.Michael Regan/Getty Images

The club tried league football again the following season in the Football Alliance after another rejection by the Football League, finishing in eighth place. In 1890, Newton Heath cut ties with the railway company and dropped the LYR from the club's name.

After finishing second in the Football Alliance during the 1891-92 season, the Football League and Football Alliance merged and United was finally accepted to the First Division of the Football League.

However, in their first season of Football League competition, Newton Heath finished last in the first division. This was before the current relegation system, and instead the team played a two-leg test match with the first-place team of the Second Division. Newton Heath prevailed over Small Heath, who you might know today as Birmingham City.

Newton Heath finished last yet again in the following season, but this time lost 2-0 in the test to none other than Liverpool. And as Manchester United have been the first to accomplish so many feats in the years since, Newton Heath unfortunately became the first English team to be relegated to the Second Division.

There they would remain until the turn of the century, although they came close to returning in both 1894-95 and 1896-97, only to be defeated in the test matches for promotion on both occasions.

Certainly a far cry from the Manchester United we know today, but the groundwork was laid in the late days of the 19th century under the name of Newton Heath.

It would only be a short time until the club began the transition to Manchester United, in the days of the first league title and one of the club's first stars. The legacy of Newton Heath, however, should long remain an important part of history in the mind of United supporters.


Manchester Cup: 1885-86, 1887-88, 1888-89, 1889-90, 1892-93

This is the first article in a weekly series documenting the history of Manchester United. Next week's entry will focus on the first decade of the 20th century, from 1900 through 1909.