CHRIS SMALLING AND LUKE SHAW WERE THE ONLY TWO ENGLISHMAN STARTING FOR MANCHESTER UNITED in the clash against Chelsea last season at Old Trafford, having been signed for a combined total of £34 million. Alongside them was Rafael, a Brazilian scouted at a youth tournament in Hong Kong at the age of 15. Britain’s most expensive ever player, the £65 million Argentine Angel Di María, and most expensive goalkeeper, £19 million Spaniard David De Gea, also took their place in the XI. Even £27 million Marouane Fellaini was on the pitch.

But the club’s first great signing was over a century ago, and didn’t cost a penny; in fact, if it weren’t for three special men, none of the galaxy of stars that illuminate Old Trafford nor the countless millions flowing into the Glazer-controlled coffers would have a place to stay at all.

The balance of power at the turn of the 20th century was very much in favour of the blue half of Manchester. Having initially been invited to join the newly-formed First Division as Newton Heath LYR in 1891 while Ardwick, later to become Manchester City, joined the Second Division, the ancestors of the most marketable brand in world football were languishing in the second tier as their local rivals were crowned league champions in 1903 and in desperate need of quality players to match their recently expanded Bank Street ground.

A year later, Manchester City were charged with illegal payments to players as they stormed to the FA Cup and some players were found guilty of match fixing. Of this group, the star turn was without doubt Welsh wing wizard Billy Meredith, who went on to play in four different decades for the red and blue side of Manchester.

The Football Association had banned the offending players from representing Manchester City until the new year, so the champions were forced to auction off their stars – these were the days that saw the birth of player rebellion, as Meredith himself became one of the founder members of the Professional Footballers’ Association in response to the parsimonious salaries and draconian contract laws that governed the game.

Crossing the noisy neighbourhood for the first time was a sly affair in itself; United’s manager Ernest Mangnall was a canny businessman, and before the fire-sale was officially opened, he had already made a deal to sign Meredith, as well as legendary centre-forward Sandy Turnbull, who would go on to score 101 goals in 247 games for the Reds, Herbert Burgess and Jimmy Bannister. Mangnall guided his star-studded team to promotion and, in 1908, its first ever league title, but owed his success to a local brewer. Or a dog called Major – whichever story you choose to believe.

Three years earlier, the club had been on the verge of extinction as it struggled to make ends meet in the new era of professionalised football. The birth of the club in 1878 in the form of the Newton Heath Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Football and Cricket Club had seen it blossom from a means of keeping the labourers from spending their pittance of a salary down the pub to becoming a member of the Football League’s new First Division. But just over two decades later, it was money that made the world go round, and the institution that had since divorced itself from the railway company was on the verge of gasping its last breath.

Step forward local brewer John Henry Davies with a capital injection to cover debts of nearly £3,000, ensure wages were paid and Christmas turkeys bought for all club employees. The mythical tale goes that when captain Henry Stafford organised a fund raising bazaar in 1901, he sent his St. Bernard with a collecting tin to all the local pubs, but Major didn’t return. Stafford responded to a message in the local paper about the errant canine, and by chance Davies was looking for a gift to give his daughter – the two met, and agreed to exchange Major for a life-saving contribution of cash to keep the club afloat.

Davies was a wealthy businessman who didn’t accept mediocrity. Since the team had been emancipated from the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway for a decade due to a dispute involving funding for new stands at the original ground, he argued a new name should be bestowed on them. Louis Rocca, a man ingrained in the DNA of Manchester United and who would go on to hold almost every position from head scout to caretaker manager, was said to have suggested the name Manchester United.

The gold and green kits that had represented the railway were replaced with the famous red we see today, although various alternatives were tried and tested throughout the next two decades, such as white with a red chevron, and red and white hoops. A transfer kitty of £3000 was provided to boost the quality of the squad which enabled Mangnall to recruit the giant Grimsby centre-half Charlie Roberts and mould a tight defence.

It took two years to gain promotion through a solid defensive style, before the flair and firepower of Meredith, Turnbull et al completed the jigsaw and United were able to sustain a title challenge. Perhaps the most lasting legacy of Davies’ tenure was his purchase of a plot of land from the Earl of Trafford upon which he built “the finest ground in the empire”.

Old Trafford was universally acclaimed to be the most impressive stadium in the country, but it only hosted three full seasons of professional football before war broke out. The resumption of the league program saw a euphoric crush onto the terraces as people sought a release from the austerity engulfing them – over 70,000 saw the 3-1 defeat to Aston Villa in December 1920.

Most of the players had continued appearing in unofficial fixtures for army teams, but Sandy Turnbull lost his life in 1917 fighting in France, and by the time the league restarted in 1919, the fleet footed star of the pre war side, Billy Meredith, was already in his forties and was itching for a move across town to his previous employers. In fact, he played on until 1924 after returning to Manchester City for two final seasons. Ernest Mangnall had already left before war broke out in 1912 to manage the Blues, and the impetus that had been built after Davies’ resurrection of the club dissipated.

By the end of the 1920s, the club was in dire straits with no direction and waning support. The Great Depression hit hard as the stands that had originally been designed to hold 100,000 (in the days before proper crush barriers, yet alone all-seater stadia) fell increasingly silent. John Henry Davies died in 1927, leaving the ailing patient without its life support machine.

In what was the first of many major fan movements aimed at bringing about change in the running of the club, thousands of supporters, including legendary former FA Cup-winning captain Charlie Roberts, packed into Hulme Town Hall three years later to propose measures to bring an end to the apathy surrounding the management of the club. Led by a passionate speech suggesting a boycott of the following day’s home game against Arsenal from George Greenhough, chairman of the Manchester United Supporters’ Club and Shareholders Association, almost all in attendance vociferously and unanimously voted in favour. Roberts, a founding member of the PFA alongside Meredith, argued that the players needed their support now, and a walkout would affect the players more than the directors.

While the club was left in a directionless limbo, local clothes manufacturer James Gibson watched in despair at what he saw as a leading symbol of the city in which he lived and worked. Having made his fortune supplying the British Army with uniforms during the Great War and subsequently fitting out local transport services, Gibson was not a diehard sports fan but a fervent believer in Salford and Manchester, and he knew that there was no better way to portray his home city positively than to once again resurrect the famous club.

Nine out every ten men of working age in Salford were unemployed at this time, and a thick, acrid smog clung to the streets like a disease. Soldiers returning from the war had been promised adequate housing, but many were left in squalid conditions as the concept of city planning involved economy of space. Eventually Gibson came to the rescue in 1931, investing a total of £30,000 into the club on the proviso that he be made chairman and could have the final say in the makeup of the boardroom. This hands-on approach was strikingly similar to that of John Henry Davies, and essential to the success of rebuilding the club.

Where the two men differed was that Gibson went further than aesthetics; he firmly believed that to make the resurgence of the club sustainable, the essence of the club had to relate to the punters coming through the turnstiles. This meant not just blooding local lads into the team, but training, educating, nurturing them to be the very best young men in the country. He also had steps built up from the station on the railway line that ran behind the South Stand and arranged for a service running from Manchester Central to stop on match days to allow fans to arrive more easily.

The early years of Gibson’s stewardship were punctuated by a frustrating inability to retain First Division status as new manager Scott Duncan struggled to build a sustained challenge. With this instability and his vision for the club’s future in mind, the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club (MUJAC) was established by Gibson and club secretary Walter Crickmer in 1937 to provide youngsters with a competitive upbringing.

In those days, scouting of youth players did not involve lawsuits across continents for ‘tapping up’ 11-year-olds; more often than not, boys were left to finish their education before joining a professional club’s youth system formally, so at the age of sixteen, players would often have only had a schools county cup as their most stringent tests. Pushing the boundaries of opposition had long been a Manchester United tradition – after securing the first league title in 1908, Ernest Mangnall had taken his side on a hugely successful unbeaten tour of the Austro Hungarian Empire.

A year after MUJAC was founded, Duncan left the club and Crickmer took over on a temporary basis for the second time in the decade with the help of Louis Rocca. The caretaker boss began blooding some future legends such as Jonny Carey, Stan Pearson, Charlie Mitten and Jack ‘Gunner’ Rowley, and the die was cast. These young thoroughbreds plundered an astonishing 223 goals in their first season in the Chorlton Amateur League for MUJAC as a verve and swagger began to set hold in the foundations of the club.

The prestige of playing for the red shirt was slowly being restored from the basement up after a tumultuous interwar period, and United could once again hold their head high. Events the following September threatened to disrupt the renaissance of the club as the league system was suspended for seven years, but the seeds had been sown for the blueprint of the club.

As the worldwide conflict was drawing to a close, United still had no manager in situ, and little in the way of a structured coaching setup. Old Trafford was famously destroyed by the Luftwaffe in 1941, being located very close to the industrial area of Salford near the docks, and would have to rely on the generosity of their neighbours across town to put them up at the cost of £5,000 a year until a government grant subsidised the rebuilding of the grand Theatre of Dreams. In fact, when Louis Rocca came to the board with the name of the man he believed could guide them successfully, it was that of a former Maine Road player: Matt Busby.

Before the Second World War, Busby had also captained United’s north-west rivals Liverpool, but he will forever be remembered as the man who built three great teams at Old Trafford around the same principles that Gibson had laid out; most tragically the Busby Babes, a term the man himself loathed, and most gloriously the 1968 European Cup winners of Law, Best and Charlton.

Statues stand today outside the East Stand of Old Trafford of Busby, with ball in hand, facing his ‘Holy Trinity’. The road leading towards the stadium is even named after Sir Matt. But before those famous teams, there was the first United side to collect silverware in 37 years, and the Scot would be the first to admit that he could have achieved nothing without a certain fiery Welshman with Irish heritage.

As a group of soldiers stood around in a circle on a baking hot day in Bari in the spring of 1945, enraptured by the team talk being given by Jimmy Murphy, one onlooker was particularly hooked. Sergeant Major Busby was in charge of the army football team, a side that included Frank Swift, the future Manchester City keeper and journalist who was to perish on that fateful Munich afternoon along with the nucleus of the Babes, and he was touring Italy entertaining the troops stationed out there.

Murphy was giving a team talk to a group of officers in such a way that Busby knew this was the man he wanted by his side as he took up his new post in Manchester. Busby had enchanted Rocca and Gibson with his understated authority and calmness, but some fire and brimstone was necessary to inspire players, and so was born a wonderfully idiosyncratic partnership. Murphy accepted Busby’s offer to join him as reserve team coach and assistant manager without hesitation.

Busby was famed for being among the first of a new breed of ‘tracksuit managers’, taking a thoroughly hands-on approach to training, while Murphy would join in the sessions with as much passion as if he were trailing for the first team himself. This was still an era when managers starved players of the ball during the week in the belief their hunger for it during matches would be heightened.

The squad was not only permitted but wholeheartedly encouraged to play as well as build their fitness, and they certainly had to do that with an hour of hard running at the start of sessions. A strong work ethic based on complete honesty and camaraderie was fostered, and led to almost immediate success as a talented but war-hardened side of Mitten, Pearson, Allenby Chilton and Jonny Carey ended the first post-war season as First Division runners up. The following year, 1948, they went one better by winning the FA Cup, much to the delight of the convalescing Gibson, who had been too ill to make the trip down the Wembley to see fruit finally born out of his labour.

Disputes over money threatened to disrupt the harmony on the pitch – Derby’s beaten semi-finalists were said to have been due a £100 bonus to reach the final, while United stuck rigidly to the FA cap of £20 for winning the trophy – as first winger Jonny Morris was shipped off to the East Midlands for a world-record fee of £24,500.

Charlie Mitten was then persuaded to join the renegade Colombian Galácticos of Santa Fe in 1950. Louis Rocca, the man who had been imbedded in the culture of the club for forty years passed away later that summer, and in his place Busby recruited Joe Armstrong to head up his newly expanded scouting network. No longer content to simply polish local diamonds, Busby wanted a total domination of the British Isles with spies in every corner of the land. After finishing as runners up in four of the first five postwar seasons, United’s ageing team finally claimed the club’s third league title in 1952, 41 years after Ernest Mangnall’s magnificent side had been the last side crowned champions.

Through all of this, Murphy was working feverishly to develop the stars of the future, and in that title-winning season, the first graduates of his system were blooded alongside veterans such as Jack Rowley, playing in his fifteenth year at the club, whose thirty goals have only been bettered by Dennis Viollet and Cristiano Ronaldo. Roger Byrne, Jackie Blanchflower and Mark Jones made their debuts midway through the season, and were all to meet their tragic ends six years later in Munich.

Byrne was later made captain at the age of 24, while the latter two were teenagers as the stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch for the first time. That they were able to mix it with the rough and ready of First Division football speaks volumes for their strength of character, and there was one man who nurtured this more than any: Murphy. Busby created a rigid moral code of respect for each other, but it was his right hand man who instilled the toughness, both physical and mental, that would characterise the club’s essence for decades.

At the end of training, Murphy would run a large scale game ’round the back’ – on rough shale behind the North Stand, he would hack, kick, pull, needle and unsettle the players in every way possible to build their mettle. If matters got heated, they were dealt with openly and instantly, and with the air cleared his charges knew each other inside out and would run themselves into the ground for the inspirational Welshman.

The events on the slush-coated runway of Munich-Reim airport were to transform the club, robbing it of its finest crop of players, and almost claiming the life of Busby himself. After he fought and eventually won his battle with fractured ribs, a punctured lung and broken bones, he hobbled back to Old Trafford in time to see a shell-shocked makeshift side valiantly battle its way to Wembley to face Nat Lofthouse’s Bolton. Who had been there to pick up the pieces? His trusty lieutenant, good ol’ Jimmy.

Murphy had returned to Old Trafford from Cardiff in his role as Wales manager to hear the shocking news – the side he had put his heart and soul into had been torn from him, but he was the only man who could keep the whole operation going. Whether it was the right thing to do to continue playing only 13 days after such a tragedy is still debated today, but what cannot be doubted was Jimmy Murphy’s extraordinary strength of character to hold the fort and maintain the standards expected of him by ‘The Boss’.

John Henry Davies, James Gibson and Jimmy Murphy may not be the first names that roll off today’s supporters’ tongues, but without their seismic impact on the club there would, without question, be nothing that we see now. Of course they are far from being solely responsible for building the institution that we know today, but each of them brought something of everlasting value to the club.

Davies built the temple that is Old Trafford, Gibson established the youth system that spawned legends, and Murphy instilled the very core of what it was to represent the red half of Manchester. As Jim White wrote in his seminal account of the history of the club, Busby himself declared that the values that defined Manchester United were “Skill, flair and character. And the greatest of these is character.” These men had all three in abundance.

By Andrew Flint. Follow @AndrewMijFlint