NOTE: if you are looking for the first post in this set, it is here: Heathens resurrected #9: an alternate history part 1 – 1878 to 1970The 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 safe so 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.
I 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 actual history, which of course resulted in Newton Heath becoming Utd in 1902. That said, if you are looking for the real Newton Heath history, you can find it here.
“It is with great pleasure that I rename this club Newton Heath 1878. May the next 100 years be as illustrious as the last.”
Will Stafford, former player, club captain and grandson of club founder Harry Stafford, Bank Street football ground, July 1978.
1971-80: Heathens reborn
At the start of the 1970s the team do well to consolidate their position in the Second Division but by 1975 the crumbling concrete of three out of four of the Bank Street terraces are showing their age. The crisis deepens after a near-disaster when half of the East Stand stand collapses 20 minutes after the Heathens’ 3rd round FA cup defeat to Notts County. Luckily, most of the crowd had left and there are no injuries but as he is leaving the match, committed Heathen’s fan Councillor Jim Hattersall from the council’s planning committee hears the thunderous collapse of the stand from the streets outside. Despite the board’s attempts to play it down as a ‘minor accident’, Hattersall immediately convenes an extraordinary meeting of the planning committee, who unanimously vote to close the ground pending ‘serious, essential and wide reaching renovations and repairs’.
The consequences of this decision are devastating for the club, who are forced into using nearby Hyde United’s ground for the remaining 3 home games at a high rent. At 3,700 capacity, it is also seriously undersized for the Heathens’ fan base. The first game, a friendly against Hyde (which is part of the deal) is stopped in the 14th minute and soon abandoned as protesting fans flood on the pitch bearing placards demanding a return to Bank Street. In a further blow to the club’s finances, they are forced into playing all their final games games behind locked doors for the remains of the season.
With the club in deep financial crisis and repairs initially considered too costly a lifeline is offered by the newly-formed European Common Market, which offers grants for redevelopments of certain ‘allocated previously industrial sites’. With this in mind, a new site beside the ship canal at the edge of Trafford Park and near to Lancashire Cricket Club’s ‘Old Trafford’ ground is quickly found.
Anticipating the potential £1.5m grant, the Newton Heath committee have plans drawn up for a 38,000 stadium beside the railway but after a lengthy and expensive consultation process planning permission is rejected by the council planning committee on a stifling 1976 summer day with a vote of 13-12. Emotion runs high from fans outside who protest loudly as the decision is announced, with many feeling that an official objection lodged by neighbouring club Manchester City was pivotal in the decision. From that day on the already difficult rivalry between the two clubs becomes a deep and bitter resentment that lasts to this day.
Cutting their losses and with a smaller European grant, the board focus on the renovation of Bank Street and work is completed and passed by the League inspectors just two weeks before the start of the 1976-77 season, taking the new official capacity of the ground to 18,000, but now with an increase of 1,200 seated.
By the end of that season, now in recovery but with just 8 games to go in yet another relegation scrap the board look to replace their long standing manager, Eric Phelan, a lifelong Heathen’s former player and assistant manager. With perfect timing, a feud between Brian Clough and his assistant Peter Taylor at Derby County leads to Taylor being offered a ‘saviour’ contract until the end of the season, without Phelan’s knowledge. Phelan remains dignified in his enforced retirement and accepts a board position in return for his ‘long standing loyalty and service to the club’ (Manchester Evening News 18th April 1977 – “End of an Era, the Phelan years”).
Peter Taylor accepts and immediately drops half the first team in favour of the youth prospects, causing consternation among the board and fans alike. However this is soon forgotten as a six-game win streak is followed by two draws to easily ensure safety.
Riding on a renewed wave of optimism, the board announce plans for centenary celebrations in 1978 and after an application to the league is accepted, the club is formally renamed ‘Newton Heath 1878’ in honour of its illustrious history. Players old and new attend a renaming ceremony where the final and most impressive stand renovation is unveiled bearing the name of the club’s founder, Harry Stafford.
Buoyed by success and goodwill, Taylor stays for a further two years, leading the club to 4th place in the 1979-80 season, before reuniting with Clough at Brighton and Hove Albion after Derby County are relegated.
By the end of the decade the club is in a more stable position, both competitively and financially.
1981-1990: It’s you Ron Ron Ron ..
After several caretaker managers at Bank Street, (including the return of Eric Phelan for 7 disastrous games where the team lost 5 games, drew 2 and won 1) Ron Atkinson takes the reigns in September 1982 and is an instant success with his flash style and straight talking attitude.
The team is quickly transformed with a mix of several new signings and the continually improving youth prospects brought through by Peter Taylor. The Heathens complete an almost invincible season with only 3 losses and 5 draws to gain promotion into the top flight almost 50 years to the day from when they left it. Atkinson is duly acclaimed as a club legend and spoken of in the same breath as Billy Meredith and Harry Stafford.
However, at the start of his second season in 1983 and after pressuring the board to break their transfer record to sign the winger Mickey Thomas from Taylor and Cough’s Brighton for £150,000, rumours of dressing room and boardroom fallouts abound. In late July, just a week after Thomas’ unveiling and with just 4 days to go until their opening game away to bitter rivals Manchester City, Atkinson leaves amid a cloud of scandal. Ten years later in his autobiography he lays the blame at the feet of then Chairman Eric Phelan, claiming the ageing Heathen’s so called “open door” policy was only “so the old git could watch what I was up to in the room opposite.”
Managerless again, the Heathens head into the City game with Phelan again taking temporary charge. The game is a humiliation as Newton Heath lose 5-1 in a raging Manchester thunderstorm to the increasing jeers and laughter of the baying Maine Road crowd.
With one minute to go and getting increasingly frustrated, Mickey Thomas cuts inside from a blazing run only to be chopped down by not one but two City players. He is stretchered off and the resulting complex ACL injury puts him out of action for the rest of the season. Eventually sold on at a loss to Stoke at the season end, he never plays for the Heathens again.
By mid-March of 1984, Newton Heath are propping up the table and relegation comes mercifully 4 games before the season end in a devastating 6 nil loss to Liverpool at Anfield, where 2 Heathens players are sent off for fighting amongst themselves.
The pattern continues until the end of the 80s, with a series of high profile transfers ultimately providing little success until the club end the decade in 13th place in the (old) Second Division.
1991-2000: “I can tell you now that Newton Heath 1878 are most definitely Premier League material!”
In the early 90s and with problems on and off the pitch for both clubs and fans alike, English football undergoes it’s biggest overhaul, introducing a breakaway Premier League made up of the old First Division clubs above a new three Division tier starting with a (confusing, for many) ‘First Division’ and including Newton Heath in what was the old 2nd Division. As before, promotion and relegation are in force, leading the Heathens’ long standing chairman Will Stafford to announce “I can tell you now that Newton Heath 1878 are most definitely Premier League material!”
Off the pitch, the emergence of the indie and britpop music scene has Manchester dubbed the rave capital of Britain. Young people converge on the town in search of escape in the heady music of the Happy Mondays and the Stone Roses, soon to be followed by Oasis. The centre of the scene is a small club in Central Manchester called the Hacienda and it becomes a focal point for every young person in the city.
In 1994 Newton Heath are still in the (new) First Division and after a 3-2 away win against Hartlepool in the FA Cup the young Heathens players descend on the Hacienda at the same time as members of the (Premier League) Manchester City team, who had been defeated 4-1 in the same competition by Arsenal.
Harsh words are immediately exchanged between the two parties, which is soon followed by fists and thrown water bottles, resulting in 16 players being arrested. The News of the World devotes a 10 page pullout to the fight without a single picture of what actually happened.
Released on bail the following morning, the Heathens’ 6’4″ captain (big) Tom Freeman says “I don’t know what all the fuss was about – we were watching New Order and when City came in I just asked them to play Blue Monday again. Next minute I know Gary Edwards (Manchester City leftback, 1991-95) had me by the throat.”
Despite evading formal charges from the police, at the subsequent FA displinary hearings lasting a week, 14 of the players are suspended for three games, with the exception of Freeman and Edwards, who are banned for 5 games. In his biography released in 2010, Freeman writes “It was the best thing that happened to us – City lost 7 first team players and were relegated that same season, while our 8 were only kids and we didn’t miss them at all!” (My heart is Green and Gold, Tom Freeman, 2010, Heathens Press).
By the end of the 1994-95 season and after several years of mid-table finishes, Newton Heath turn to a very unlikely leader in the form of the former 80s’ Manchester City manager Mel Machin.
Initially dismissive of the rivalry between the clubs, claiming simply “a job is a job”, Machin brings a much needed air of discipline to Bank Street, most notably by transfer-listing Captain Tom Freeman within two weeks of arriving. With some fans claiming that it was a deliberate move to sabotage the Heathens on City’s behalf, it takes a 12 game unbeaten league run at the start of the 95-96 season to win them round.
However, as was frequently the case in this period in the club’s history, this is soon forgotten by the next Spring when, with the ‘Heathen Invincibles’ banners fading, Machin’s team of ageing players draw 4 and lose 3 immediately after Christmas. With the players’ heads dropping and the club plummeting from 2nd to 16th in the league, Machin’s position becomes increasingly untenable, forcing his resignation on Valentines day 1996 with the now famous words “not sure where my heart lies anymore but I can tell you one thing, it’s not in Manchester” (Parkinson talk show, BBC 21st February 1996).
Looking quickly for a stop-gap replacement for the league run-in, the board turn to an unlikely figure in the form of ex-Newcastle United inside forward Darren Miller. After a long Magpies career in which he scored 113 goals and 79 assists, the once-speedy 34 year old found himself out of favour during Kevin Keegan’s early managerial years, choosing a late career move to Newton Heath in a swap deal for Keith Gillespie, whose off the field tabloid expoits had been too much to take for a club still reeling from the Hacienda scandal.
Greeted by catcalls from the Clayton Rd end faithful of “who the f***in ‘ell are you?”, the new manager endures a difficult few games, with 3 losses and a draw. With the pressure already mounting for him to resign, he personally funds a 4-day supposed ‘team building’ retreat to Llandudno in North Wales for the whole team. Miller returns with not only an (unexplained) broken nose but also a reinvigorated team and by the start of April a 6-game unbeaten run earns him a new deal and the club a second division playoff place.
Sadly however it is not to be as the club are beaten 3-2 in extra time by Crystal Palace at Wembley after having their goalkeeper sent off in the 117th minute. The club’s subsequent appeal to the FA to have the card rescinded post-match and for a replay to be played fall on deaf ears.
However, two years later and after yet another playoff final defeat, Miller’s self-proclaimed ‘football on the bloody ground’ approach reaps rewards as his stunning brand of passing football takes the Heathens to a convincing league win in the middle of April, finishing the season 12 points above their nearest rivals Sunderland to make Newton Heath 1878 a Premier League team for the first time in their history. The club remain in the Premier League at the end of the decade.
The end of part 2 – part 3: 2000 to the present day coming soon ..