April 20, 2021

Man Utd

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Retracing the first Manchester derbies 140 years on

11 min read

139 years ago this week, the club that would become Manchester City hosted their first derby against the club that would become Manchester United, with this year marking the 140th anniversary of the first ever Manchester Derby.

The origins of St Mark’s West Gorton and Newton Heath can be traced back to the same week in November 1880, but it would be another year before the pair met for a meeting of two sides from East Manchester at a time where there were plenty of district teams fighting for local pride.

Little did they know, back on November 12 1881, that Newton Heath’s 3-0 win would be the first clash of a 140 year rivalry that has seen United and City share drama, titles, tragedy, rivalry and European success.

Both clubs have their roots within three and a half miles of eachother in East Manchester, with Newton Heath (later United) and West Gorton (later Ardwick, then Man City) starting out not far from where the Etihad stands today before leaving for Old Trafford and Maine Road respectively.

That very first derby took place at Newton Heath’s North Road ground – now called Northampton Road, the business park and GMP headquarters next to Central Park tram stop stand where Manchester United first kicked a football.

This meeting was a friendly, with a reported crowd of 3000 in attendance, although Manchester football historian Gary James, author of ‘The Emergence of Footballing Cultures, Manchester 1840-1919‘ questions the likelihood of a crowd that size.

He says: “it was claimed the crowd was around 3000 but it’s impossible for it to have been that high, but that is what is mentioned in the record books because we don’t have enough information.

“The Ashton Reporter did a very brief match report on the very first derby, calling it a ‘pleasant game’, and in the report says two goals were scored in the first half, one of which was an own goal by a West Gorton player. We don’t know who it is, it just says it was an own goal from a shot by E. Thomas. The state of the game and reporting at the time they don’t report scorers, but right at the start own goals took place in the derby.”

Four months later, and a second friendly was held, this time at West Gorton’s Kirkmanshulme Cricket Ground as they had something of a nomadic existence around East Manchester in their formative years.

It’s appropriate that this first home derby held by City was on March 4 1882, almost 139 years to the day before City host United in the Premier League on Sunday.

West Gorton got revenge for their defeat at Newton Heath by winning 2-1, and there is a little more information about the scorers in this meeting, as Gary explains.

“A City player called Charles Beastow scored the first goal and James Collinge scored the second. It was late in the game when Newton Heath scored, but the report says the Heathens ‘baffled’ the ‘City’ keeper, Edward Kitchen, by performing ‘several good passes before putting the ball into the net.’

“I can’t imagine any journalist today writing about a goalkeeper being baffled by some good passes! It was claimed the attendance was around 5000 but that would have been around a sixth of Gorton’s population which wouldn’t have happened.”

There would be another nine years of various friendly and local cup meetings until the first official competitive game between the two, and this would have been a far more significant affair.

“This was the 3rd October 1891, the FA Cup first qualifying round before round one which shows the status of both clubs at that time,” Gary says.

“Again it was before either had joined the league which was in 1892. Newton Heath again won 5-1 and City were then known as Ardwick. That was at Newton Heath, North Road again and their goals were scored by Sneddon, Doughty, Farman 2, and Edge, with Pearson scoring for Ardwick.

“It was viewed as a significant occasion, the local MP kicked off the game. Both teams had entered the FA Cup before but a meeting between the two suddenly started to feel more than just a friendly. It’s an FA Cup game, the first ever competitive game between the two teams and the local MP kicked off the game. There was supposed to be 10,000 people there and that’s more believable.



The first Manchester derby was held at North Road, now Northampton Road, close to where the GMP headquarters now stand.

“There was also a Manchester Cup final between the teams. That was the first final they ever played against each other. The Manchester Cup was for both clubs viewed as more significant than the FA Cup in the early years. They stood a chance of winning it, unlike the FA Cup until the 1900s. It was in April 1891, a few months before the FA Cup game, the first prestigious game between the two. It ended up 1-0 to Ardwick with a Dave Weir goal.

“Winning the Manchester Cup was one of the things that made Ardwick think they could actually reach the Football League, that they were growing. It was one of the stepping stones. Newton Heath had already won it, but Adrwick suddenly believed they were on a par with Newton Heath but also they could achieve bigger success. They won it in 1982 as well and both clubs joined the Football League. The Manchester Cup was a major trophy locally, and it was Ardwick’s first proper trophy.”

Despite Ardwick’s cup success, Newton Heath had the better of the early meetings over West Gorton/Ardwick.

Historian Steve Tongue, author of Lancashire Turf Wars which details the early history of football in Manchester, explains that City struggled in those first meetings, and that continued when both clubs were in the league.

He says: “In the Manchester Senior Cup, six years after they were founded, Newton Heath won 11-1 which is still the biggest derby victory when City were Gorton.



Newton Heath played at Bank Street, on the far left of this picture behind the white building, before moving to Old Trafford.

“The first league meeting, not in the Football League but the Alliance League, and the first ever FA Cup meeting was that year. Then of course when they both got into the Football League at the same time, Newton Heath managed to get straight into the first division because they’d been runners up in the Alliance and Ardwick went into the second division, so they didn’t meet in the first league derby until 3rd November 1894 when Newton Heath won 5-2 away. They won the second in January 1895 4-1 at home.

“Legendary City player Billy Meredith was just getting into the team and the 5-2 win was his home debut apparently. A bloke called Richard Smith got four goals for Newton Heath. It was obviously a pretty big thing, because although the crowds in those days are all estimates, it’s reported the crowd was 10,000 and may have been as much as 14,000. It was a big thing and by that time they were obviously the two biggest teams in Manchester.

“I added up the pre-war totals, there were 28 league games but City only won five of them to United’s 12 with 11 draws. City had a run of no wins in nine at one stage.

Back to that first Football League meeting in 1894/95 and the return fixture at Newton Heath was not at North Road, but at their Bank Street ground, interestingly within a stones’ throw of where the Etihad Stadium now stands.

Gary reveals: “The second game that season in 94/95 was the United home game which was played at Bank Street. Next to the Velodrome across the road from the Etihad is a BMX centre. Where that building is was the pitch where Newton Heath played, known as the Bank Street ground.

“On the terraced houses on Bank Street opposite the BMX building there’s a red plaque saying ‘opposite here United played before Old Trafford.’

“So when City moved into the Etihad they basically moved into United territory. Up until the 1950’s there was a pub roughly where the bridge is now from the CFA to the stadium that was called ‘The United’. Newton Heath won that second league derby 4-1 at Bank Street.”

The first top division derby was held as late as 1906, with City winning 3-0 at their Hyde Road ground that they occupied until moving to Maine Road.

“Their very first ground, they didn’t play Newton Heath, now known as Wenlock Way in West Gorton,” Gary says.

“There’s an office block now which is more or less the site of that pitch, it was only a field. Then they moved to the cricket ground and a few places. The only pitch where there’s still grass is Gorton Park. They played there for a brief while. Even the Hyde Road ground is now covered with shipping containers just behind Hyde Road, Bennet Street. It was never really built on, it was a bus depot for a while.”

The derby had to wait another two years for the first red card, as Steve explains: “The next period from 1908 when United won two titles and an FA Cup then you would say they were stronger again, they got the first sending off in the derby – the United player Sandy Turnbull got sent off for punching a City player in 1907/8.

“That’s something pretty outrageous to get sent off in those days because they weren’t too bothered about tackling. If you punched someone and knocked them over there was half a chance you’d be sent off. So having scored two goals in the game he got sent off.”

Those early days saw both clubs change their identities, move around the area, and battle a number of other local rivals to establish themselves as the two main powers.

“It’s fascinating that they started together at the same time and quickly became the two top clubs in the area,” notes Steve.

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“In many ways you never quite know why they became the two big sides in the area. It’s normally just a combination of factors, either they had particular benefactors, I’m sure the people putting money into the club, just like the present day, are very important and helped them just to keep going.

“I’ve realised writing about different clubs in different parts of the country is that every club as well as having ups and downs on the pitch, virtually all had a financial crisis and needed someone to bail them out. In the early days that applied even more. You needed to some extent just to keep going. Neither United or City were in a position to be in the football league from the start.

“What the big Manchester clubs did well was to keep going, even though they didn’t get into the league, but they got into the Alliance. They were able to hang in there and established themselves.

“The other big thing that helped United was the move to Old Trafford, similar to Arsenal when they moved from South to north London. Moving to a new ground on the other side of town, picking up the new support, that really helped United as well. They carry on. Once you build that level of support, they both were biggest crowd pullers in the country, once you build that generation it carries on and harder for smaller clubs to catch up.

“From early on, if United were at Clayton and City were Gorton way, about half a mile away from the Etihad, they had the further advantage of being close together. There were West Gorton, West Manchester, Levenshulme etc. in the first Manchester League. They were good local rivals in the sense of being local rivals but then quickly became the most successful so in terms of being the best two teams as well.

“So when United moved to Old Trafford it didn’t matter that they were moving out of Manchester, the rivalry was clearly established enough by then. The last derby at Bank Street in Clayton in 1909 they apparently got 40,000 there which must have been pretty uncomfortable there. Nine months later the first derby at Old Trafford, 60,000 saw United win 2-0. By that time it’s not just a local rivalry it’s a very big national rivalry.”

And that rivalry will always have its roots around the Etihad Stadium.

“Both City and United had their roots in East Manchester, which was a very much working class district,” says Gary.

“United were in Newton Heath and Clayton, City were in West Gorton and Ardwick. Nowadays you can drive from West Gorton to Newton Heath and not think you’ve changed area because they’re very similar, but back then they felt they were distinct, different districts of Manchester.

“But they were very similar in that there was a lot of industry, a lot of typical Coronation Street housing, working class terraced housing. And football was the main release really.

“So when the two clubs were first formed, they didn’t see each other as rivals initially. There were other teams in Gorton, there was Gorton Villa who were St Mark’s main rivals initially. So those very first friendlies in 1881/82 it was seen a match about local pride but it’s one of many games. It’s only really when it gets to playing eachother in the FA Cup and the league that’s when it becomes a proper rivalry.

“Before that their rivals were other teams from the same district. From a bragging rights point of view, Newton Heath had most of the early significant wins, but that first top flight one was a City win and Manchester City were named that from 1894 when United were still known as Newton Heath. So City perceived themselves as being the Manchester club at that time and Newton Heath were more of a district club. It took time before that changed.”

So when United are the away side at the Etihad this weekend, they are, in a way, coming home.

They will hope for more ‘baffling passes’ or fortunate own goals, while City will target a similar result to their first home derby almost exactly 139 years ago – just a mile or two away from the spires of the Etihad.

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