Manchester United are arguably the biggest football club on the planet. They are the richest, the most famous and certainly in their home country the most successful. They boast over 50 million fans around the world and regularly seat around 70,000 of them at the ‘theatre of dreams’ at Old Trafford.
Charlton, Best, Robson, Giggs and Beckham are but a few names that have worn the red shirt over the many years they have dominated English and European football. It’s hard to think of a team that strike more fear into their opposition than the Red Devils. There aren’t many of us who don’t have a friend or acquaintance who supports them. It’s especially hard to summarise how important Manchester United are to the game of football. You wouldn’t have thought in 1902 that they had the bailiffs round to repossess them, would you?
From the Red Bricks to Red Devils
At the dawning of the 20th Century, football was a way of escaping from the grind of working at the factories, on the railways and down the pits. Manchester was a thriving ‘Cottonopolis’. It was a city of clothes’ warehouses and of rows upon rows of red-bricked terraces that housed the workers. The expansive working population and the surge in trade brought with it the need for superior transport links to the city, and during the late 1800s and early 1900s the Manchester canal system was strengthened and the railway system vastly improved.
It was the railway that would give birth to Newton Heath FC in 1878, which was a gang of railway workers who kicked a ball about in green and gold shirts at the weekends for fun. The club fell into financial trouble, but was saved by local entrepreneur J H Davies, who owned Manchester Breweries. With his investment, and the club captain’s faith, they changed their colours to red and white and became Manchester United.
With determination, and a few decent new players, the new look Manchester United were rewarded with promotion to the First Division in 1905/06. They didn’t cut the mustard immediately though and struggled to compete with the big boys, especially their city rivals playing in sky blue, Manchester City. But Man City got in trouble with the FA and all their star players were auctioned off. United nabbed a few and this put them well on course to fulfill their expectations.
In the 1907/08 season, Manchester United won their first league title and by a hefty nine point margin – something their fans certainly hoped would become a regular occurrence. Although United had a profitable next couple of years in the First Division, with FA Cup wins in 1909 and the First Division title again in the 1910/11 season, they would sadly fall from grace in the years that followed and where the twenties were ‘roaring’ for some, for the Red Devils, they seemed to be soaring…to the Second Division.
Just before the war broke out, United managed to get back up to the First Division where they were once champions. But Germany had other plans for the players and they would have to focus on winning a different type of battle for a few years.
The Busby Babes
Matt Busby could be said to have been the first ‘modern’ English football manager. Before his appointment as Manchester United manager in 1945, football managers’ roles were ostensibly what we would now consider coach’s to be. Busby was one of the first men to insist on full control over team selection, as well as players and staff transfers, alongside the coaching too. He began his campaign by appointing Jimmy Murphy as his assistant and almost immediately returned United to their past glory days in the First Division, by taking them into the top two during the late 40s and winning the FA Cup in 1948.
Another groundbreaking tactic of Busby’s was to focus on the improvement of his young players in the youth team, something that would become a staple part of the Manchester United ethos for years to come and produce the likes of Giggs, Scholes, Beckham and many more. Busby saw huge potential in the likes of Roger Byrne and Dennis Viollet and regularly played them in the first team. These young lads soon made a name for themselves and that name was The Busby Babes. With an average age of merely 22, The Busby Babes won the 1956 league title and continued their success in the league, in the cup and also in the European competitions throughout the late 50s. But then one of the most tragic disasters in the history of football struck Man United in Feb 1958 that many feared would mean the end of the entire club.
Whilst flying home from Munich airport, after a European game, the plane carrying the entire Man United team careered off the runway and crashed into a nearby building. 23 people died at the scene, including 8 of the United first team. Amongst the few survivors was boss Matt Busby, although he would spend two months in hospital, and goalie Harry Clegg who dragged two young players Dennis Viollet and 21 year old Bobby Charlton from the burning plane to safety.
Many thought the club would disband but Busby had other ideas. With a team as cobbled together as the streets of their city, Manchester United rose from the ashes and reached the FA Cup final in only the following season. By the early 60s Busby was beginning to rebuild a team that would put behind them the events in Munich and go on to conqueror English football.
One of the shining examples of the newly formed United was the magician that was George Best, the young lad from the rough streets of Belfast who is, to many, the greatest Man United player of all time. He played 361 games for United and scored 137 goals, but his principle weapon was running with the ball. With Best, Bobby Charlton and Busby at the helm, United won the FA Cup in 1963, the league title in ’65 and ’67 and the European Cup in 1968. When Busby was 60 he stepped down as manager, leaving quite a hole to be filled.
After Busby but before Ferguson
The seventies was certainly not the best decade for Man United. Finding someone to replace Busby was going to be impossible. When his replacement Wilf McGuinness didn’t perform, Busby was begged to return and did for one season but then left again for good in 1971. What followed was a string of hopeful new managers but all of them were disappointing. Following these men out of the door were all United’s big names like George Best, Nobby Stiles, Bobby Charlton and Dennis Law. Law ended up making the fateful move to rivals Man City and scoring the goal in 1973 that relegated his old club.
Tommy ‘the Doc’ Doherty found a brief cure for the club’s illnesses in the late seventies and with new signing Steve Coppell they made it back to familiar ground in the FA Cup final in 1976 and 77. The Doc, however, was then given the boot too and replaced with Dave Sexton, who seemed to want to turn United from attack into defence. Fans hated it and so did the big boys upstairs and in 1981 he too was given his P45 and United were saying their prayers that ‘Big’ Ron Atkinson would save them from the disastrous decade that they’d endured and return them to the winning ways of old.
Big Ron seemed to have the formula to start with and his charismatic grin and big wallet wooed the likes of Bryan Robson, Paul McGrath and Gordon Strachan to Old Trafford. They won the FA Cup in 1983 and 1985 but once again the Busby curse came back to haunt the manager’s chair at United and following a poor season in 1986, Atkinson was also sent marching to the Job Centre. But his replacement was a man even Matt Busby himself would struggle to compete with. Who’d have thought to look to Aberdeen to find him?
Alex Fergusson arrived from managing Aberdeen, where he had amazingly taken them to victory in the European Cup Winners Cup. He saw a great deal of potential with Man United but on first arrival he saw a bunch of players who were drinking too much, getting a bit old, and were generally not as tough as the burly Scot wanted them to be. He didn’t start as well as many had hoped though and was actually near to being sacked in 1990.
However, it was going to be an "out with the old and in with the new" attitude for Alex and he brought in Viv Anderson, Steve Bruce, Brian McClair and Jim Leighton to help United. They returned to European success by winning the European Cup Winners Cup in 1990/91. In the final year of the old First Division, United were outmatched by Leeds United and the Yorkshire side’s star-signing Eric Cantona. But if you can’t beat them…sign them and in 1992 the je ne sais quoi for United became their beloved legend that was ooo ahhh Cantona.
Ferguson’s Man United was the greatest period for the club and arguably for any English club ever. With experienced men such as Bruce, Pallister, Ince, Cantona and Hughes, Ferguson fielded a starting eleven that for many years rarely changed week to week. But if it aint broke then don’t fix it and when in 1992/93 season United won the league for the first time since 1967, Ferguson could finally call himself the new Matt Busby.
The defining year in Ferguson’s reign, and in United’s entire history, came in the 1998/99 season. Ferguson, much like his predecessor Matt Busby, had been a great champion of the youth team and his surprise decision to field the likes of Paul Scholes, David Beckham, Gary Neville and Nicky Butt would eventually be rewarded. Although Cantona had just retired early, albeit with a whopping 84 goals in 143 games, United won the treble in 1998/99, which included the Premiership title (which Ferguson claims was the toughest challenge), the FA Cup (beating Newcastle 2-0) and finally the European Champions League (beating Bayern Munich in injury time with a winning goal in the last minute of stoppage time). Ferguson was honoured by the Queen for this and all his achievements, and became Sir Alex.
After this, United continued to win silverware and attract all the big names from around the world. For the first time in about ten years though, they were starting to face stiff competition from the likes of Arsenal and Chelsea, the latter of whom were intent on buying their way to success using foreign investments that were increasingly becoming part of the English game.
Big name signings from Ferguson though saw goal-scoring machine Ruud Van Nistelrooy join the club, not to mention the most promising player to come from England for many years, Wayne Rooney. In 2005 Rooney joined United at the age of 17 from Everton for an English record fee of around £30 million in total. He’s more than proved his worth since though, scoring in just under half the games he’s played in.
Following a two year period of domination by Chelsea under Jose Mourinho (but more significantly billionaire Roman Abramovich), Man U proved they weren’t going to take second place for long and in the 2006-07 season, United reclaimed the Premiership title having had an outstanding season, highlighted with the exceptional performances from the likes of Rooney, Scholes, Giggs and new wonder kid Christiano Ronaldo, who won the PFA Players player and Young Player of the Year that year.
Like so many of the big clubs, Man United weren’t an exception when it came to billionaire take-overs. In May 2005, Man United were bought by US business giant Malcolm Glazer for £800 million. Unlike rivals Chelsea however, Glazer was more than happy to let Fergie run the show.
Glory Glory Man United
When they go through a bad patch, they find their feet, dust themselves down and come back fighting and very often win. At Old Trafford, which in 2006 opened its newly extended gates to over 80,000 football fans, they have a place that every single club fears playing at. They have children wearing their shirts in the deepest depths of the world and make a few hundred million quid with sponsorship from the likes of Nike and AIG for doing so.
As proven when the players, the manager and the fans survived the 1958 Munich plane crash, the Red Devils won’t ever give up. Even when their current boss Sir Alex parts company with them, they are sure to find a suitable replacement within no time. From Newton Heath FC to the biggest club in the world, Manchester United deserve their legendary status.
- Premier League (including (Old) First Division)
1907-08, 1910-11, 1951-52, 1955-56, 1956-57, 1964-65, 1966-67, 1992-93, 1993-94, 1995-96, 1996-97, 1998-99, 1999-2000, 2000-01, 2002-03, 2006-07, 2007-08.
- (Old) Second Division
- FA Cup: 11
1909, 1948, 1963, 1977, 1983, 1985, 1990, 1994, 1996, 1999, 2004
- League Cup: 2
- FA Charity/Community Shield: 16 (12 outright, 4 shared)
1908, 1911, 1952, 1956, 1957, 1965*, 1967*, 1977*, 1983, 1990*, 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2003, 2007 (* joint holders)
- European Cup / UEFA Champions League: 2
- UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup: 1
- European Super Cup: 1
- Intercontinental Cup/World Club Championship: 1
- Record League victory: 10-1 v Wolves, Division 1, 15 October 1892
- Record Premiership victory: 9-0 v Ipswich Town, 4 March 1995
- Record European Cup victory: 10-0 v Anderlecht, European Champion Clubs’ Cup, Preliminary Round, 26 September 1956
- Record European Cup (Champions League era) victory: 7-1 v AS Roma, 10 April 2007
- Record home win 10-0 v Anderlecht, 26 September 1956
- Record away win: 8-1 v Nottingham Forest, 6 February 1999
- Record League defeat: 0-7 v Blackburn Rovers, Division 1, 10 April 1926 / v Aston Villa, Division 1, 27 December 1930 / v Wolves, Division 2, 26 December 1931
- Record Cup defeat: 1-7 v Burnley, FA Cup, 1st Round, 13 February 1901
- Record ‘Home’ attendance: 83,250 v Arsenal, Division 1, Maine Road, 7 January 1948
- Record League attendance (at Old Trafford): 76,098 v Blackburn Rovers, 31 March 2007.
- Longest unbeaten run : 45 (all competitions), 24 December 1998 to 3 October 1999
- Most appearances : 759 Bobby Charlton
- Most League appearances: 606 – Bobby Charlton
- Most goals scored : 249 – Bobby Charlton
- Most League goals: 199 – Bobby Charlton
- Most Premier League goals: 96 – Paul Scholes
- Most League goals in a season: 32 – Dennis Viollet, Division 1, 1959-60
- Most goals in a season in all competitions: 46 – Denis Law, 1963-64
- Most goals scored in a match: 6 – Harold Halse v Swindon Town, 25 September 1911 / George Best v Northampton Town, 7 February 1970
- Most goals scored in European competition: 38 – Ruud van Nistelrooy
- Goals in consecutive league matches: 10 consecutive matches – Ruud van Nistelrooy, 22 March 2003 to 23 August 2003
- Highest transfer fee paid: £31.12 million – Rio Ferdinand, 2002/2003 (includes £300k in agents fees)
- Most League goals in a season (by team): 103 1956/57, 1958/59
- Most points in a 42-game season: 92 – 1993/94
- Most points in a 38-game Season: 91 – 1999/2000
- Most international caps (total): 129 – Peter Schmeichel – Denmark (76 whilst with United)
- Most international caps as a United player: 106 – Sir Bobby Charlton – England
- Fastest goal: 15 seconds – Ryan Giggs v Southampton, Premiership, 18 November 1995
- Fastest four goals: 13 minutes – Ole Gunnar Solskjær v Nottingham Forest, Premiership, 6 February 1999