Manchester United are at an important moment their 146-year history. Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s arrival as a 25% shareholder sees the British billionaire also take over sporting operations at the club and with it a shift in control rarely witnessed over the last century and a half.
Although the Glazer family retain overall majority ownership, Ratcliffe and his INEOS contingent will be calling the shots when it comes to what fans value most – the football. That covers the players and football staff, but also looks set to address the future of Old Trafford too.
In a report by the Daily Telegraph, Ratcliffe is described by a source close to him as wanting Old Trafford to become a “Wembley of the north”. Right now, it has lost its sparkle.
United moved into Old Trafford in 1910, the club’s third home since being formed as Newton Heath in 1878. Bank Street was where they had played since 1893, through near bankruptcy and the name change to ‘Manchester United’, winning a maiden First Division title in 1907. But it was that success which prompted the change, with owner John Henry Davies considering Bank Street unfit.
Famed architect Archibald Leitch, whose fingerprints are all over British football’s oldest iconic stadiums – Anfield, Villa Park, Stamford Bridge and Hampden Park, included – was tasked with the design and Old Trafford was built on a wedge of land in the heavily industrialised Trafford Park area of Manchester, tucked between the Bridgewater Canal and the Cheshire Lines Railway.
It has undergone several renovations since, notably in the wake of the Second World War when major damage was inflicted during bombing raids targeting nearby factories. The 1990 Taylor Report later saw all top flight stadia become all-seater, while a demand for tickets as United dominated the early Premier League era resulted in the North Stand being torn down and rebuilt to increase capacity. The larger glass-fronted East Stand – the famous facade as accessed from Sir Matt Busby Way – was opened in 2000, followed by an additional tier on the West Stand (Stretford End). By 2006, both quadrants adjacent to the North Stand were added to, bringing total capacity to more than 76,000. But no major work has been carried out in the 18 years since.
Once the leading and most prestigious club stadium in the country even hosting several early 20th century FA Cup finals before the original Wembley was built in 1923, the Theatre of Dreams is in need of modernisation. Its omission as a host venue from the successful joint British and Irish bid to host Euro 2028 was a damning blow, deemed inferior to the Etihad Stadium across town.
Where the Etihad, converted for use by Manchester City in 2003 after hosting the Commonwealth Games the previous year, and other new stadiums like Wembley, the Emirates and Tottenham Hotspur, have big airy concourses, a more open and spacious feel, and state of the art facilities, Old Trafford is a bit more closed in, much less comfortable and generally lacking by direct comparison.
United now have three options when it comes to Old Trafford: redevelop and renovate the current stadium, demolish it and rebuild a brand new one from the ground up on the current site, or demolish it and rebuild somewhere completely different.
Example: Real Madrid, Barcelona
The big plus in the argument to redevelop the current Old Trafford is that all of the history built up over the last 114 years is retained within the same core building. Although the actual grass is obviously different, every United player who steps out onto the pitch is following in literal footsteps of countless legends like Sir Bobby Charlton, George Best, Duncan Edwards and Paul Scholes.
Old Trafford, in its very essence, would still be Old Trafford.
The downside is that space for a modern stadium in its exact current location is at a premium. There is a reason the South Stand, renamed for Sir Bobby Charlton in 2016, is undersized compared to the other three. The railway line runs directly across the back of it and the engineering feat required to redevelop the stand has always seemed a Herculean and disproportionately expensive task.
And when it comes to opening up those grey stone and airless concourses, even tearing down whole sections of stands might be the only real option, at which point, would it ultimately make more sense to do that job somewhere else – whether 100 yards to the left or 10 miles away – if it solves the South Stand conundrum in a much more simple way.
History and nods to the past can also still be retained if a demolition and rebuild job is done tactfully.
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Rebuilding somewhere new is a fresh start and a blank canvas. It could also mean that, like Arsenal moving from Highbury to the Emirates Stadium in 2006, there would be a seamless transition as one stadium remains in use while the other is built without interfering. In that respect, Tottenham spent over a year at Wembley, Barcelona are currently playing away from Camp Nou and Chelsea face a similar headache if they push ahead with plans to redevelop Stamford Bridge.
The flipside is that it’s much harder to retain history if you’re somewhere completely different.
Then, on a more practical level, the current Old Trafford site is pretty easy to get to. It is directly served by two tram stops, which between them give access from all over the Greater Manchester network, including central station Manchester Piccadilly, a hub for local, regional and national trains.
The other issue is where United would go in the event of moving. The amount of land required isn’t readily available in a city that has been consistently going through ongoing transformation and enormous property development, which has boomed even more recently, for close to 30 years.
Moving ‘out of town’ might be the solution, but one that feels inherently soulless.
The Telegraph’s report notes that Ratcliffe, himself a boyhood United fan, is “broadly opposed” to relocating, which makes it unlikely. Instead, he considers that fans would be “amenable to the idea of a world-leading new stadium on land immediately surrounding Old Trafford.”
Example: Tottenham Hotspur
United own a broad enough amount of land, most of which currently serves as car parking, in the area immediately surrounding the current Old Trafford that building a new stadium slightly to the north west, far enough away from the railway line to eradicate the problems that a redevelopment alone encounters, seems the best overall solution.
It helps overcome the engineering issues, whilst also retaining the club’s soul, and has the added benefit of every individual aspect being newly designed from the ground up. The cost would likely be higher, but it feels more worth it in that respect because the club is getting more back. And if the capacity is increased, revenue maximised and success on the pitch returns to make United a more lucrative brand once more, building a new stadium ultimately pays for itself in the end.
Even if the stadium is brand new and not in exactly the same location, retaining history is possible. If the orientation is deliberately kept the same, the Stretford End can still be the Stretford End, the Munich Tunnel under the South Stand can be recreated and the permanent tributes to those who tragically lost their lives in the 1958 plane crash lovingly moved. Indeed, the South Stand should still be the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, and the north the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. The statues of Sir Matt Busby, Ferguson and the ‘Trinity’ too, all would have pride of place in a new Old Trafford just as they do now. But it would simultaneously have all the perks of being brand new with state of the art facilities and in a better location to also future proof further redevelopment in the years to come.
Where there is no perfect answer, it is the best of both worlds.