These days Manchester United is one of the most marketable sports brands on the planet, a name that is known by every football fan around the world as well as being a team which has become one of the most successful in the game; but had it not been for a dog called Major things could have been so very different.
Newton Heath Lancashire & Yorkshire Railway were formed in 1878 by a group of railway workers looking for a game of football after work on a Saturday afternoon often playing other groups of railway workers from across the region.
But after progressing in the lower leagues and reaching the final of the Manchester Cup in 1887 it soon became evident that Newton Heath was ready to take the next step into the realms of professional football and they applied to join the Football League.
However, their application was declined and instead they opted to join the Football Alliance, what was seen as a stepping stone for the top-flight at the time and after continuing to impress the club was finally accepted into the Football League when it merged with the Football Alliance in 1892.
Newton Heath kick-started their existence in the Football League on September 3, 1892, with a 4-3 defeat to Blackburn Rovers in a season which would see them finish rooted to the bottom of the table and only avoiding relegation when they beat Small Heath in what was basically an early form of relegation play-off.
The following season they finished bottom once again and weren’t so lucky when they lost to Liverpool in the one-off “Test Match” which confirmed relegation.
For the remainder of the decade Newton Heath hovered in the middle reaches of English football’s second-tier, occasionally flirting with promotion and playing their football at the dilapidated Bank Street ground with its dreadful playing surface and nearby factories spewing smoke and soot over both players and spectators.
As the 20th century dawned the club’s future looked bleak with their President, William Healey, requesting the courts issue a winding-up order with the total debt amounting to a massive £2,500 and with no benefactor in sight extinction looked a formality as the gates of Bank Street were closed.
For one man Newton Heath’s plight was particularly difficult to take; the club’s captain Harry Stafford. A Newton Heath man through-and-through having signed from Crewe Alexandra, Stafford begged and borrowed to raise enough funds to keep the club afloat on a week-by-week basis. But if the club was to have any kind of long term future then greater investment would be needed.
Stafford set about organizing a four day fundraising event at St. James’ Hall in the city in an effort to raise greater funds and keep the club afloat if only temporarily and central to the festivities would be his popular St Bernard dog, Major, which he would often let run round the pitch on match days to encourage supporters to hand over donations.
The event turned out to be something of a failure and if that wasn’t enough Major went missing on the final day; the ultimate kick in the teeth for the club who had lost its mascot and Stafford who was now separated from his best friend.
But what could have been the most disastrous day for club and captain proved to be something of a turning point which would impact on football for the next 100 years and more as an advert about a dog fitting Major’s description that had been found in a pub was spotted by a number of Newton Heath players.
It turned out that the man who had found Major was none other than John Henry Davies, a local businessman who was just about to take over the Manchester Brewery, a huge company which ran a large number of pubs in and around the Manchester area.
Davies had fallen for Major as soon as he saw him and knew he would be the ideal gift for his daughter who was desperate for a pet at the time, so in one of his newly acquired pubs that March a deal was struck between the two; Davies would purchase Newton Heath and wipe-out the club’s debts but in return he would take Major as a mark of gratitude.
So, on April 26, 1902, John Henry Davies became the club president, and as a result of the team now having few ties with its origins, the new owners renamed the club Manchester United Football Club, after also considering a number of alternatives, including; Manchester Celtic and Manchester Central, while the club colours were changed from green and white halves to red shirts and white shorts.
Just five years later Manchester United won the first of their 20 top-flight titles on the way to becoming one of the most decorated clubs in the history of the game in an astonishing transformation of fortunes having been on the brink of extinction at the turn of the century.
As for Major, he spent the rest of his life being loved and looked after by Harry Stafford’s daughter as well as becoming something of an idol for the clubs fans as, after all, without his intervention there may never have been a Manchester United Football Club.