Football: The club that nearly went broke

Chief executive Edwards is set to make a killing in sale of the century - but at what cost to the game?
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The Independent Online
WALK INTO Old Trafford today and the overwhelming impression is of affluence. A huge ground, a team full of millionaires, it is the football equivalent of Louis XIV's court at Versailles. Yet Manchester United almost never came into being, writes Guy Hodgson.

In 1902, Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway FC were broke. The players had pawned their best suits in lieu of wages, the club owed pounds 2,670 and creditors had opened bankruptcy proceedings. If you had to predict a future for the club, it would have been oblivion.

Enter John Henry Davies and the true pathfinder to the position where the club today is worth more than pounds 500m. The director of a brewery, how he became aware of the club's plight is wrapped in legend. The dog of Newton Heath's captain, Harry Stafford, is said to have strayed to Davies' home; on its return the subject of football cropped up, and a saviour was found.

Davies and Stafford bought the club, changed its name to Manchester United and its team colours from green and gold to red and white and profited to the tune of four players (including Billy Meredith) when local rivals Manchester City were found guilty of making illegal payments and ordered to transfer some of their football staff.

The rest is history? Not quite. United, who moved to Old Trafford in 1910, won the Championship in 1907-8 and 1910-11 and the FA Cup in 1909, but by the 1930s their best appeared to be behind them. Promoted from the Second Division in 1936, they went down the following year and up again in 1938 and became known as the yo-yo club. Today's Sunderland would be a good comparison.

It was in February 1945, with the ground a bombed-out shell, that greatness finally arrived in the shape of a small Scot. Matt Busby, a half-back with Liverpool, had been offered a coaching job at Anfield but chose instead the manager's job at Old Trafford. The foundation stone of the Theatre of Dreams had been laid.