It’s the international break, and you know what that means. Yes, it’s time to start dredging up the past of club football in a desperate attempt to fill the quiet news cycle. Hooray!
We jest, of course. In fact, we’d like nothing better than the Premier League to get itself out of the way over one frantic month, leaving us most of the year to pore over old league tables and admire old footballing names. To this end, we’ve been looking back at other seasons in which United have got off to a decent start. How do they compare to Mourinho’s six wins, one draw? And what happened afterwards?
Incidentally, we’ve played a bit fast and loose with the exact number of games we’re considering “a start”. We’re not going to consider any number of games less than seven, but we reserve the right to shoot way out further if necessary. This is our scientific process, and you’ll just have to cope.
P 7, W 5, D 2, L 0, GF 18, GA 6
Off with a bang. Newton Heath LYR FC’s first season of league football came in the The Combination, an early rival to the still-young Football League. The idea was that 20 teams would compete, each playing eight fixtures at home and eight away. But as the clubs were left to organise their own fixtures, chaos ensued, and the whole endeavour collapsed in April.
Which was something of a shame for Newton Heath. They’d started with a run of seven games undefeated, and though they’d lost twice by the end of March, they likely had the best record across the league. Nobody seems to know for sure, however, not even Wikipedia. Say what you like about bureaucrats, but they usually know how to keep score.
P 10, W 8, D 1, L 1, GF 37, GA 12
After The Combination folded, Newton Heath joined The Football Alliance. Things really did have better names back then. Two indifferent midtable finishes followed until, in 1891, everything came together. The Heathens — a logical first step on the road to Devilry — lost their opening game 3-2 to Burton Swifts, then rebounded with a run of eight wins in nine and an explosion of goalscoring.
Led by Scottish forward Bob Donaldson, United put three past Birmingham St George’s, Ardwick, and Burton in the reverse fixture; scored four against Bootle, Walsall Town Swifts, and Sheffield Wednesday; and best of all, dismantled Lincoln City 10-1. Though obviously, since this win was achieved before the establishment of the Premier League, it doesn’t count for the purposes of record-keeping.
Sadly, United’s fast start didn’t last, and a few too many draws — sound familiar? — saw them finish in second behind Nottingham Forest. But that was enough for the Football League, which had previously rejected their applications, to elect them into Division One. They promptly finished bottom.
P 14, W 13, D 0, L 1, GF 48, GA 18
Manchester United, this is the Football League. Football League, this is Manchester United.
Newton Heath didn’t last long in Division One, and the club eventually spent 12 seasons in the second tier, returning in 1906. By this time they’d changed their name, and picked up a “secretary” called Ernest Mangnall, who managed the team to a midtable finish in their first year back.
Then, United suddenly got the hang of things. Captained by the brilliant Charlie Roberts, inspired by the genius of Billy Meredith, and led by the goalscoring of Sandy Turnbull, United charged to the top of the league table and stayed there all season. They eventually finished nine points clear of Aston Villa: one down, 19 more to come.
They made a pretty decent beginning the following season too, winning seven and drawing one, only to end up finishing 13th. And after winning the title in 1910-11, they began 1912-13 with nine wins in 10 ... and finished 14th. Old football was weird.
P 10, W 8, D 1, L 1, GF 17, GA 3
United were relegated from Division One in 1922, but this time around they would only be away for three seasons. This was the year they returned, and the manner of their return can be seen in the “goals against” number up there. They conceded two goals in defeat to Stockport County, one in a win against Coventry City, and otherwise kept eight clean sheets in their opening ten games.
Eventually, United were promoted in second place having scored 57 goals, conceded just 23. In all they kept 25 clean sheets over the 42-game season. This experiment in extreme parsimony stood as United’s record until 2007-08, when Edwin van der Sar, Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic let in just 22. But they had the twin advantages of a 38-game season and a game in which defending wasn’t mostly a joke. Alf Steward, goalkeeper, flat-cap wearer, and excellent name-haver, we salute you.
P 12, W 10, D 2, L 0, GF 32, GA 14
Having ended United’s 41-year wait for a title in 1952, Matt Busby’s United won their second title in 1956, then came into the following season in scintillating form. Dennis Viollet led the way with 10 goals in the opening 12, closely followed by Billy Whelan with nine, and Tommy Taylor with five.
Little did all these goalscorers know, however, that the man who would eclipse them was in their midst. On 6 October, 1956, just a few days before his 19th birthday, Bobby Charlton made his debut. It came against Charlton Athletic, which is vaguely amusing, and he scored twice. Obviously.
P 9, W 7, D 2, L 0, GF 18, GA 4
United’s most recent spell in the second tier began at serious speed and in serious style. Tommy Docherty had kept his job despite overseeing relegation, and he repaid that faith by constructing one of United’s more entertaining post-war sides. Lou Macari, Stuart Pearson, and Gerry Daly had fun at one end, while Alex Stepney, Martin Buchan, and Brian Greenhoff looked after things at the other.
They bounced straight back up to the top flight, then finished third in their first season back. Docherty had managed to construct the kind of team that Old Trafford craves — one that attacks, wins, and entertains — and looked set for a long and successful spell in the dugout ...
P 10, W 10, D 0, L 0, GF 27, GA 3
Ten from ten. Thirty points from thirty points. Ron Atkinson’s United put together the best opening to a season that any United side has ever managed. They were stingy in defence, Bryan Robson was magnificent in the middle, and Mark Hughes, before he went Full Vinegar, was doing his big-thighed thing up front. And they still didn’t win the league.
What went wrong? In short, the goals dried up. United scored 27 in their opening 10 games, then needed another 22 games to double that tally. In all, they failed to score in nine games. And it didn’t help that Robson spent half the season injured. Seven defeats after Christmas meant a fourth-placed finish, and Atkinson, having looked like a title-winner elect, was a man under pressure. He needed a similarly fast start the following season; instead he got six defeats in the opening eight games, and then he got the sack.
P 10, W 8, D 2, L 0, GF 18, GA 3
Another great start, another frustrating ending. Alex Ferguson’s run of cup wins had relieved the pressure to some extent, but the league remained the target and this season looked, for so long, like it would finally be the one.
United began with eight wins from 10 games. But where Atkinson’s side’s challenge had foundered when United started losing, here it was the draws that kept Ferguson’s team in check. At home to Liverpool, home and away to Arsenal, away to City, home and away to Leeds. The draws made a race of it ...
... and then three losses in a week killed it. Forest at home. West Ham away. And finally, irretrievably, Liverpool away. “You’ll never win the league” bouncing around Anfield. Miserable stuff.
P 7, W 6, D 1, L 0, GF 19, GA 6
There are two seasons in which Alex Ferguson managed exactly the same start as this season: six wins and a draw. We’ve gone with 1999-00, the year after the Treble, in which United strolled to a second consecutive title. Not because it was particularly memorable, or exciting: United were insultingly superior to the rest of the league, and won the league by 18 points despite the presence of Mark Bosnich and Massimo Taibi in goal.
No, we’ve gone for this one because the other one came in 2011-12. And the less said about how that turned out the better.
SPECIAL BONUS SEASON: 1930-31
P 12, W 0, D 0, L 12, GF 14, GA 49
Manchester United’s worst start to a league campaign came back at the beginning of the 1930s, and it’s a cracker. Look at those numbers. 12 games played, 49 goals conceded. This included two 4-1 defeats, a 5-1, a 6-0, a 6-2, and most magnificently of all: a 7-4 catastrollapse at home to Newcastle United. That United got relegated should come as no surprise; it was a miracle they made it to 22 points.
What was going on? The Great Depression was in full swing, and the club were skint. But from the ashes of desolation rises the phoenix of financial security. United, in their parlous state, were something of a bargain. At the urging of long-time club servant Louis Rocca, United approached local businessman James W. Gibson, who ended up saving the club from penury.
Gibson brought with him more than money. Over the following decades he set up United’s first academy, persuaded railway companies to stop near Old Trafford, and even managed to coax some money out of the government to pay for damage done to Old Trafford in the Second World War. Oh, and he and Rocca also brought Matt Busby to the club.
Sometimes, it seems, a good relegation is exactly what a football club needs.