Heathens resurrected special: an alternate history part 1 – 1878 to 1970


The following post is, for me, an important part of my Football Manager 2018 Newton Heath 1878 save, which I consider to be essential reading if you want to enjoy the save to its fullest in the spirit in which it is intended.  Namely as a fictional retelling of an alternate history in which Manchester United were never created but where the Heathens soldiered on like many other modern mid to low league clubs.

If you have reached this page via an Internet search, please bear in mind that this is very much related to a computer game and has nothing at all to do with the club’s actual history, which of course resulted in Newton Heath becoming Manchester United in 1902. That said, if you are looking for the real Newton Heath history, you can find it here.


1878-1902: Heathens restrained

“As Satan was flying over Bank Street for hell, he was chained by the breeze, and also the smell, quoth he: ‘ I don’t know in which land I roam, but I can tell by the smell that I’m not far from home’.” 

Anonymous Manchester poet, 1898.

Founded in 1878 in the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire railway depot in Clayton, Manchester, Newton Heath L & YR FC, or the ‘Heathens’ as they had become known, enjoyed 24 years of moderate success and a growing fan base.  Beginning with local games, they soon became a member of the fledgling Football Alliance league and finally joined the First Division in the 1892-93 season.

By 1902, in the Second Divisiochainsn and with debts of £2,670 (equivalent to about £250,000 in 2018), the club was served with a bankrupcy order and the gates of their Bank Street ground were chained.  Despite all attempts by their captain, Harry Stafford, to find investors in the club, sadly no saviours were forthcoming and the club was suspended from the football league for the remainder of that season.

1903-1910: Heathens unchained

Continuing rumours that Manchester businessman John Henry Davies will bail the team out come to nothing and the team’s league suspension stands.  Harry Stafford stages a fund raising ‘Heathens vs L & YR’ home game in a nod to the team’s beginnings and also (he says later) to spot potential new talent. An estimated 36,000 fans turn up, completely overwhelming the ground’s 22,500 capacity, packing the streets outside when they can’t get in and coming so close to the pitch that the players have to step into the crowd to take throw ins. matchMany donate more than the (league-maximum) sixpence entry fee to keep the Heathens alive, much of it thrown into buckets distributed by the players at half and full time. With good financial management, by 1905 all debts are paid and the council grants a 99 year nominal-rent ground lease to the club, to the strong protestations of Manchester City, who feel that one club is enough for Manchester and that the ground’s proximity to their Hyde road ground will lose them supporters.

Image result for billy meredith

The city player Billy Meredith moves to Newton Heath in 1906, partly as a protest move because of this attitude. He then goes on to score in in the first minute of his debut appearance for the Heathens against City, of which he later says “I bear no malice but it seems fair”. A year later, together with fellow Heathens player Charlie Roberts, he forms the players union at the Imperial Hotel in Manchester in reaction to the league’s attempts to impose a maximum player wage of £4. Their efforts fail but the union is to later form the basis for the current PFA.  For much of the decade the club remain in the first division as a mid table side, but are relegated to the second division in 1909-10, having only won 5 games and drawn 7 in what is still the worse season in their history.

1911-1920: The (first) war years


In the 1911-12 season and now with the retired Billy Meredith as Newton Heath manager, the team gain promotion back to the first division at the second time of asking. New chairman Harry Stafford later remembers the pivotal 2-2 final day draw with Blackpool as “promotion on the prom!”

In August 1914 war is declared and the Newton Heath squad soon become depleted as many players sign up to fight overseas.  The league is eventually officially suspended in 1915 and the rise of the women’s industrial workforce leads to a surge in the popularity of the women’s game, with many clubs fielding women’s teams.

Lily Cottam, the inspirational captain of Newton Heath’s ‘Heathen Ladies’, becomes known as the ‘seamstress striker’ after scoring a hat trick in the final of the Manchester Munitionettes’ Cup in 1917.  The team also go onto win the league in 1918 with a key victory being a 5-1 thumping of St Helen’s ladies at Goodison Park.

Image result for women's football in ww1

In 1919 the men’s league resumes and some, but not all, players return home to packed crowds.  On the 11th November 1919 a memorial service is held at Bank Street to remember the 6 first team players who lost their lives in the war and those who were injured.   Among them was the team’s top 1912-13 scorer, Albert Cooper, who died on the first day of the battle of the Somme in 1916 aged 27 years old. The service is attended by 26,000 people, many of whom are wearing the scarves of both Newton Heath and Manchester City.

1921-1938: The inter-war years

Image result for Dr Mary Scharlieb
“..most unsuitable game, too much for a woman’s physical frame”  Dr Mary Scharlieb

In 1921 organised women’s football ends after Dr Mary Scharlieb of Harley Street declares women’s football as the “most unsuitable game, too much for a woman’s physical frame”. The FA uses this as evidence to end the women’s game and directs clubs “to refuse the use of their grounds for such matches”. With little option but to go along with the decision, Heathen Ladies are disbanded.

Lily Cottam finishes her career as the league’s all time top scorer, on 104 goals over 3 seasons with Heathen ladies.

The 1920’s proves a difficult period for Newton Heath, who towards the end of the decade struggle to remain in the First Division.   In 1926, while leading 2 nil against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup quarter final, the Heathen’s 6’4″ keeper Tommy Roberts is bundled into the net from a corner, hurting his neck. He resumes play and shrugs it off but it is later found that he has chipped two vertebrae and it prevents him playing for a further 6 months afterwards, eventually ending his career. Bolton go on to win the game 4-2.

In 1928, despite it being in place for ten years, Newton Heath fans along with others country-wide, protest at the maximum league-enforced ticket price of a shilling per game to no avail.  Still struggling in the final season of the decade, Newton Heath’s chief scout, Harold Mottershead, spots the twin fullbacks Wilfred and Patrick Feeney in an Irish non-league game whilst on holiday with his family.   He telegraphs Harry Stafford immediately, saying “Have found a pair for you with incredible speed and pass” and within the week they are heading for Manchester.   With impressive performances far ahead of their time and more akin to modern wingbacks, the Manchester Guardian hails the twins as “The Ballymena bullets” for their combined 26 assists in the 1929-30 season, saving Newton Heath from certain relegation.

The survival joy is short lived however, as the Heathens fail to repeat the feat the following year and are relegated to the Second Division for the first time in twenty years.  Several players leave (some to rivals Manchester City and Liverpool) and match attendances reach an all time low (4,754 on the 21st April 1934).

Just six months after moving to the boardroom in 1938, and supposedly disillusioned by the lack of loyalty from players, Billy Meredith retires from all involvement in football, stating simply “my game is over”.

1939-1950: The (second) war years

By October 1939 Bank Street is ringed with barrage balloons as the ground is commandeered by the war ministry for an anti-aircraft artillery site, protecting Manchester from air attacks.  The ground survives many stray bombs until September 1940, when a small 1kg incendiary bomb lodges in the eaves of the stand at the ‘Clayton road end’.  It is completely destroyed by fire.

In 1946, the league resumes and once more Newton Heath host a remembrance service at Bank Street, this time for the three players who have died and the nine who have been injured during the war.  Once more the scarves of the attendees are from both Newton Heath and Manchester City, as well as Liverpool, Preston North End, Hyde and many more clubs.  A week later, another service is held at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground, with many of the same people attending.

In 1947 the board commit to rebuilding the Clayton Road stand for the 1948-49 season with a new fire-resistant wonder material called asbestos. This increases the Bank street capacity to 32,000 (only 870 of which is seated).

The team remain in the Second Division until the end of the decade.

1951-1960: “the saddest moment since they stopped us girls” 

By 1953 and still in the Second Division, the Heathens face a final away-day crunch battle with Port Vale to stay in the league.  After a tumultous 89 minutes in terrible weather conditions, and without 6 injured first team players they win 3-2 with a bundled tap-in from Will Stafford, the Grandson of Harry Stafford, scoring on his debut at the age 16 years and 33 days.  The travelling fans go wild until news drifts in of a bigger win for rivals Chesterfield, who beat a tired Gateshead team 5 nil to snatch survival from the Heathen’s grasp by 1 goal.

Stanley Matthews(1953 FA Cup Final).jpg

Lily Cottam, the ‘seamstress striker’ from the Heathen Ladies 1921 team and still heavily involved with the club, describes the day as her “saddest moment since they stopped us girls”. Her spirits are lifted however a year later when the Heathens take Stanley Matthews’ mighty Blackpool to an FA Cup quarter final replay after a 2-2 repeat of the “promotion on the prom” result from the 1911 season. Sadly, Will Stafford, the scorer of both goals in the first game, is injured in the 12th minute and a Stanley Matthews hat-trick seals a 3 nil victory for Blackpool, a year after the famous “Matthew’s final” when he had been instrumental in inspiring the seasiders to beat Bolton Wanderers 3-1.

The drop to the Third Division proves to be a crushing blow, and with attendances dropping and players leaving, the Heathens remain there for the rest of the decade.

1961-70: “The Heathens are going places”

As the decade of love, hippies and hope begins, 21 year old Manchester City striker Denis Law brings hopes to the hearts of Heathen fans when in April 1961 he is spotted in the director’s seats of their 2-1 win against NW rivals Accrington Stanley alongside the club’s chairman and former star striker Tom Leigh. On leaving the ground he says with a smile “the Heathens are going places, we might be bigger and only a mile away at Maine Road but you’ve got a million times our passion.” Reportedly disgruntled with his comments, within seven days the City board accept a bid of £100,00 from Torino in Italy for Law.

Image result for denis law black and white
“The boy is nothing to do with us”

After a torrid time in Italy (and one car crash from his pal driving around a roundabout the wrong way), Denis Law returns to Manchester and is immediately snubbed by Manchester City, of whom the Chairman, Albert Alexander, says “..is nothing to do with us”.

Sensing an opportunity, Newton Heath make an audacious failed bid of £4,000 to Torino, who don’t even bother to reply, while rumours circulate of Law training with the Heathens behind closed doors, which he strongly denies.

Seven months of limbo follow, with Law releasing a joint statement to the Manchester Guardian and La Stampa, Turin’s daily newspaper, stating that he is “injured and hamstrung from playing in Italy“.  The reaction from the Italian press is fierce, as is Torino’s, who immediately terminate the remainder of his three year contract and start court proceedings against him in the largest legal dispute over a player’s contract since professional contracts began.  Within 5 days the case is settled out of court, leaving the path open for Law to join the Heathens, who anger Manchester City with a programme cover featuring Denis Law in a Green and Gold shirt with the line “Welcome back to Manchester” underneath.

Miraculously, Law makes a complete recovery from his injury within 4 days and scores a hat trick on his debut in a friendly against his old club Huddersfield Town. He goes on to play for the Heathens for three seasons (though he is genuinely injured for 9 months of that) before moving to Chelsea for a reported £63,500 in the 1966-67 season.

Still one of the club’s greatest players and joining the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Heathen icons alongside Billy Meredith and Harry Stafford, Law’s greatest moment came when he scored the winning goal for Newton Heath in the second leg of the 1966 league cup final against West Bromwich Albion, which the Heathens won 5-3 on aggregate.

In 1967-68, bolstered by a team strengthened with the profit from the sale of Denis Law, the team storm the league and win it in April by 10 points for automatic promotion into Division Two, remaining there until the end of the decade.


This is the end of Heathens resurrected #9: an alternate history part 1 – 1878 to 1970, join me for part 2 coming soon.

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