Tired, worn Old Trafford a symbol of United’s faded grandeur
Stadium was once a jewel but now it needs an urgent upgrade as their rivals lead the way
Old Trafford ahead of the Europa League match between Manchester United and AZ Alkmaar. Photograph: Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Old Trafford is one of football’s most vibrant amphitheatres. During the 109-year history of Manchester United’s home, Billy Meredith, George Best, Diego Maradona, Zinedine Zidane and Cristiano Ronaldo are a few of the greats to grace the stage of England’s record title winners.
Yet the venue has become tired and worn. When the Manchester rain poured hard last season the Bobby Charlton Stand leaked. The seating is crammed and wifi patchy. The directors’ box has an antiquated feel and the bars and suites a faded glamour. A venue that hosted 1966 World Cup and Euro 96 matches has not staged a showpiece game since the 2003 European Cup final.
For the team left trailing since Alex Ferguson retired the state of their home is an obvious emblem. Old Trafford is no sleek, 21st-century facility like Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, opened in 2006, or the new Wembley (2007), and is further behind cutting-edge venues such as Los Angeles FC’s Banc of California Stadium (April 2018) or Tottenham Hotspur Stadium (April 2019) - two bespoke builds that move spectator experience into the 2020s.
Since the Glazers’ takeover in 2005 there has been no notable modernisation of Old Trafford, the increased capacity to 75,000 via the quadrants built in 2006 having been greenlit before the American family became the proprietors.
Like the team that once glittered, Old Trafford was formerly the domestic game’s jewel. As Simon Inglis, author of Football Grounds of Britain, says: “The club were market leaders. You take it back to the 1960s, they were the first really to introduce executive boxes; to build cantilevered stands on a large scale - in ‘65, ‘66. They were the first, really, to have a master plan for the development of the stadium.
“In the 90s, it’s a long list, but you think of the megastore - the idea of having the club supermarket selling merchandise. You could say there was a tipping point where they had more people employed on the commercial side than they did on the playing side. They had a hotel in ‘95. They had the museum in ‘98. They had stadium tours. They had a credit card. They introduced a radio station, a TV station. They were pioneers.”
All this occurred when Louis Edwards, from 1965-1980, then his son Martin (1980-1991), were majority owners, and when United subsequently became a PLC.
In January 1995 United’s future owner, Malcolm Glazer, bought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the following year began construction of the Raymond James Stadium. The NFL franchise’s venue opened in 1998 and was funded by $192 million of public money, as is common in American sports.
Ira Kaufman, who began reporting on the Bucs in 1985, is a former Tampa Tribune reporter and now JoeBucsFan.com columnist. “It was imperative once the franchise was bought to get a new stadium,” he says. “People thought they were crazy.”
Malcolm Glazer died in 2014 to leave United - and the Bucs - in the control of his six children. Kaufmann says: “I believe they put around $140 million in to the Ray-Jay during the last year or two. In terms of renovation they went to the club level, which is premium. They also built an indoor facility, including air conditioning for fans.”
According to Kaufmann the Glazers take their cue from supporters, which may interest the constituency of United followers who feel disenfranchised.
“They do put a lot of stock in fan surveys and feedback,” he says. “They read those things carefully and try to address issues. I don’t know if they’re doing the same thing at Old Trafford but they consider the place like a Fenway Park (Boston Red Sox’s home) - an iconic venue that you don’t want to mess with too much.
“Unless they’re getting a strong message from the fan base that upgrades are needed, they’re going to be reticent.”
United do survey match-going supporters on an ad hoc basis and the quarterly fans’ forum, chaired by their chief operating officer, Collette Roche, and attended by the managing director, Richard Arnold, also allows feedback.
Dave Pennington, the vice-chair of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, says: “Supporters have no faith in the owners committing the substantial long-term investment needed. There’s been no major development since the quadrants were built in 2006. The subsequent investment has been limited to mandatory - but still welcome - expansion of disabled facilities and corporate hospitality. Old Trafford is still the biggest in the Premier League but it’s now far from the best - the facilities are limited and outdated.”
Barney Chilton, of Red News fanzine, says: “Old Trafford carries memories, history. And a soul. The key is what the crowd in the near future might want - and a younger audience will want what others provide elsewhere . . . I remain convinced that under different owners we’d have seen Old Trafford remain at the forefront of design and upgrades. We have had token work done on it, and doesn’t it show? The leaking roof is a fitting analogy for the recent United.”
Although cost reduced capacity from the planned 100,000 to 80,000, when United welcomed Liverpool on February 19th, 1910 for Old Trafford’s inaugural match the venue was ultra-modern with scope for upgrades. “It was unusual in the sense that it was a very large wide-open site which was ripe for expansion,” says Inglis.
Twenty-five years later a first major refurb included adding a roof to what is now the Alex Ferguson Stand, opposite the covered South Stand (now Bobby Charlton). During the second world war the site was bombed, first in 1940, then a year later when it was all but destroyed. United had to play at Manchester City’s Maine Road and went into debt, yet this would presage the venue’s second phase.
The policy adopted then regarding seating remains. Inglis says: “United’s approach was founded on the philosophy of the architect in the 1960s, Ernest Atherden. He said there was no point in spending money on things like fancy rooms and glossy architecture. What the club needed was seats or standing room; that raising the capacity was the name of the game.
“Manchester United in the 1960s took the decision to build narrow seat treads. The standard in the 60s had been 2ft 3in. United chopped an inch off that and it equates to 660mm. Now if you are anything over about 5ft 7in or 5ft 8in, you will really notice it.
“By the mid-1990s most clubs were building to 720mm, about 2ft 6in. It’s only another couple of inches but it makes a huge difference, not just in terms of how tall you are, but if somebody’s coming from the megastore with merchandise or if you’ve got kids and they need to get to the toilet, you need to move in and out: those extra few inches make a huge difference in terms of comfort levels.”
The majority of Old Trafford’s lower bowl is indeed 660mm, while in the second tier of quadrants the measurement is 710mm. Inglis says: “You’ll find that it varies in modern stands (now) between about 760 to about 800mm. There are parts of Wembley where I think it goes to 850.”
United point out that seating measurements comply with the Green Guide, the government-approved safety book. Yet Inglis states that adhering to the minimum affects match-day experience.
“It means that you could build cheaper and taller and higher - effectively more for your money. Any Manchester United supporter sitting at Wembley or at the new Tottenham Stadium and the Emirates Stadium will be aware that it’s roomier. Then you start going into the toilets, you look into the concourse areas, and the standard of finish.
“Manchester United were advised that what they were doing was not progressive, that they were going to encounter problems with it.”
Progressive is an apt characterisation of the vision of Tottenham and LAFC. “We are definitely in a sea change if you talk about generations of stadiums,” says Christopher Lee, project director for Populous, which designed Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. “Probably the biggest shift, and Tottenham’s a great example of that, is this idea that these buildings are more civic than they were in the past. Clubs have such importance in our local communities - a sort of cultural relevance.”
Old Trafford’s location is in a largely industrial and retail area, with residential streets behind the Bobby Charlton Stand. As Kaufmann states, the Glazers like to think their policy is one of retaining the stadium’s heritage via rejuvenation and regeneration, and the owners say £100 million has been invested in the last decade, including £20 million in 2019. Of this latter sum, £11 million was for improvements to accessible facilities, £4 million on security and £4 million on refurbishing hospitality locales.
Collette Roche, Manchester United’s chief operating officer, tells the Guardian: “Our investment plan for the stadium has to maintain all that makes Old Trafford special. We want to evolve and develop while keeping its allure. We have invested over £20 million into the stadium this year and we are working hard with our supporters to build the atmosphere and to continue to ensure that live football at Old Trafford is accessible and affordable.”
There are no plans to increase the capacity of the stadium, where the railway line on its south side brings limitations.
Inspiration can be found in Tottenham and Los Angeles. Around LAFC’s stadium are electric vehicle charging facilities and bicycle parking spaces, with fan experience governing design. The United hierarchy have visited and were impressed.
Tom Penn, an LAFC co-owner, says: “This is a really special experience here. That’s been validated by executives from Man United, Man City, Barcelona and other European clubs. The hottest tickets in (US) professional sports are NBA courtside seats in basketball. We’ve replicated that as we have what we call VIP bench seats that are adjacent to the player benches.” These are 11ft away, have no barrier, and incorporate “Bunker Suites” below with personal entrances.
Across Manchester, City have upgraded the Etihad Stadium via the Tunnel Club which houses a high-class restaurant and bar and has the same innovation as at Tottenham: glass that allows sight of players walking from changing room to pitch.
One of United’s most recent innovations is the Seat of Dreams, a four-seat sofa that offers a free upgrade to randomly chosen fans and is sponsored by a hotel chain.
The Glazers missed one commercial opportunity when the Class of ‘92 built Hotel Football opposite Old Trafford. Ed Woodward admits more is required regarding updating the stadium. But whether this extends to a broader vision of Old Trafford as the centre of a cultural and community hub similar to that found at Spurs and LAFC is unclear.