Having won the league championship 18 times, Manchester United is English football’s joint most successful club in terms of league titles, level with Liverpool. They are outright the most successful Premier League side however, having won it a total of 11 times since its inception in 1992 and is the club most synonymous with winning silverware to football fans in today’s game. The recent success has not always been the case for a club formed in much more humble beginnings.
Manchester United Football Club was formed in 1878 as Newton Heath LYR (Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway) as a way for the workers in the Newton Heath railway yard to compete against other departments of the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway or other railway companies. Newton Heath joined the Football League in 1892, four years after the English League was formed by such illustrious founding members in the north west of England such as Blackburn Rovers and Preston North End. At the turn of the century the club was suffering tremendously with financial problems which threatened to plunge them into extinction. Salvation was to come in the form of local brewery owner John Henry Davies who provided investment in order to obtain some interest in running the club. The new investment led to a change in identity as well as structure with the name Manchester United being settled upon over such alternatives as Manchester Central and Manchester Celtic.
This was certainly a period of progression for United with the club finishing third in the Second Division for two consecutive seasons in 1903/04 and 1904/5. The following season they were to finish runners up and gain promotion to the top flight of English football following a 12-year absence. Two seasons later United were crowned First Division Champions for the first time in the Club’s history in the 1907/08 season with inspirational performances from the duo of Billy Meredith and Sandy Turnbull seen throughout the season. The same team then went on to claim the first ever Charity Shield in 1908 and added the FA Cup to the list of successes in 1909. The 1910/11 season is one which holds dear in the hearts of many a Manchester United fan. Not only did the club win the First Division Championship for the second time it was also the first full season of football played at the club’s current home, Old Trafford. The Manchester Brewery Company owned by John Henry Davies bought the land on which the club was built, leasing it to the club with Davies himself paying for the building work. Davies was a truly inspirational figure in the history of a truly inspirational club.
Following this very successful period at the start of the 20th century the club was not able to kick on and find regular success, instead slipping into a period of transition with both the playing and coaching stuff in some form of turmoil. Just as the club was starting to get back on track during the 1913/14 season the entire country was thrown into much deeper turmoil due to the onset of the First World War. The league was suspended until 1919 with United playing in the Lancashire Principal and Subsidiary Tournaments for four seasons. Following this, a period of underachievement began in the 1920’s. United struggled with the ever-approaching retirement of Billy Meredith with the club finishing in 12th then 13th in the 1919/20 and 1920/21 seasons with the following campaign confirming many a fans worst fears with relegation to the Second Division -the club’s first season without the inspirational Meredith. United managed to reassert their top flight status in the mid 1920s, finishing runners up in the Second Division to Leicester City. The success and top flight status was again short lived with United slipping down to finish 18th the following season, and were again relegated in the 1930/31 season, the team unable to recover from the worst start to a season in the club’s history. United was one of the first so called “yo-yo” clubs, something which many of the current fans may find hard to believe and it was only following the end of the Second World War that this was to stop. League football was suspended during the period of 1939 and 1946 due to the War, a period during which Old Trafford had suffered at the hands of German bombers during an air raid in 1941. Rebuilding was taking place both on and off the pitch, with a certain Sir Matt Busby arriving at the club in 1945. During Busby’s reign until 1969 the club were to hit real highs both at home and on the continent at the same time as suffering the worst tragedy ever to befall an English football side.
Busby finished second to Liverpool in his first season at the United helm in 1946/47, the club’s highest league placing in 36 years, and added some silverware in the form of the FA Cup in 1948 (only the second time in the club’s history). Busby’s first league title arrived in 1952, the debut season of two players nicknamed “Babes” by the newspapers – Jackie Blanchflower and Roger Byrne. Busby’s first successful side has just disbanded leading to the influx of a very young crop of local players spearheaded by the aforementioned Byrne. Byrne lifted the First Division trophy as skipper in both 1956 and 1957 propelling United to be the first club to represent England in the embryonic European Cup. Eddie Colman, Mark Jones and David Pegg were all players to come through the United academy to achieve great success, but perhaps the most inspirational of the Babes was a young man from Dudley going by the name of Duncan Edwards. Edwards was powerful and supremely talented and the League’s youngest ever-player when making his debut in 1953 at the age of 16 years and 185 days. The era of the famous Busby Babes team was tragically cut short on the March 6, 1958 following a European Cup tie second leg against Red Star Belgrade which United won 5-4 on aggregate.
The plane that the team was travelling back to Manchester aboard, following a refuelling in Munich, crashed killing 22 people of which seven were players. Byrne, Colman, Jones, Pegg, Tommy Taylor, Geoff Bent and Liam Whelan all lost their lives as did Duncan Edwards 15 days later in hospital. It was a tragic disaster for the club, English football but most importantly the family members of the deceased, and the event triggered another period of transition for the club, albeit forced. Somewhat inconceivably after the disaster, United managed to reach the final of the FA Cup in 1958 and were league runners-up in 1959.
Busby’s next great side contained Munich survivors Dennis Violet, Bill Foulkes and Bobby Charlton. The new-look team managed to gain some stability with the FA Cup in 1963, the same year Busby brought in a young George Best. Sir Matt added another League title in 1964/65 with the sublime trio of Best, Charlton and Denis Law propelling United to never-before-seen heights with a European Fairs Cup semi-final appearance and FA Cup semi-final to boot. Law became the first player in the club’s history to be named European Footballer of the Year whilst Busby’s finest hour came in 1968. Following another League success in 1967, the club progressed to their first ever European Cup final, against Benfica. United claimed the title of European Champions following a 4-1 victory at Wembley, two goals provided by Charlton and one by Best. Ten years following the Munich air disaster Busby had pulled off a miraculous, near on impossible achievement.
Following Busby’s retirement a string of Managers including Wilf McGuinness, Frank O’Farrell and Tommy Docherty tried their hand at leading the side and another period of transition ensued. Following Docherty’s appointment in 1972, Charlton was to retire, Best’s off-field antics were to overshadow his on-field achievements and Law was given