Old Trafford sums up Man Utd decline but redevelopment is tough

Ian King
Old Trafford, home of Manchester United

Manchester United have revealed the very first stage of their plans to redevelop Old Trafford, but none of the options are cheap or easy.

 

It’s certainly been a long time coming. The announcement that Manchester United are finally looking to redevelop Old Trafford is welcome news for the club’s supporters. A lack of investment over the last decade and a half has had a damaging effect on the old place, to the point that questions have even been asked over whether it’s fit for purpose in the 21st century.

The one thing that is generally agreed upon is that Old Trafford desperately needs substantial work. The roof leak prior to the Manchester derby there in April 2019 quickly became a visual metaphor for the state of disrepair into which the club had fallen. There have been numerous complaints that the media facilities – in particular the Wi-Fi – were not up to scratch, while there have been repeated rodent infestations, which has included mice making cameo appearances on the pitch during matches and, in 2015, the Health & Safety Executive criticising the club for ‘failing to implement adequate procedures to control pests within food areas’.

The last substantial redevelopment of Old Trafford took place in 2006, when two corner sections of the North Stand were expanded to increase the capacity to 74,000. But while this work was carried out under the Glazers’ watch, it had been approved under the club’s previous ownership. In other words, no significant development work has taken place there in more than a decade and a half – and it shows.

This lack of investment looks all the more startling when compared to other clubs that United consider to be their contemporaries. Since the Glazers took full control at Old Trafford in 2005, Arsenal and Spurs have both opened new grounds, while Liverpool have built a new stand at Anfield (with plans to grow still further); Manchester City have completely transformed their infrastructure.

Of the three options that have been put forward, the one that grabbed the most headlines is that which seems the least likely to be seen through: demolition of the stadium. There are two principle reasons why this seems the least likely of all. The first is cost. Building a new stadium would be expensive, especially if, as has been claimed, the redevelopment would be intended to give Old Trafford a capacity of 90,000.

The Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, for example, cost around £1bn to build and, while it has state-of-the-art facilities that are the envy of the division, it only holds two-thirds of that revised and increased capacity for Old Trafford. A complete rebuild of Old Trafford would be considerably more expensive than this – all the more so with inflation now starting to bite the economy – and though United could afford it, it seems unlikely that the current owners of the club would favour something this radical and expensive. Reducing the capacity to save costs would, it’s highly likely, be a PR disaster.

In addition, there’s the small matter of what United might do while such work is being carried out. It could be done in phases, but this would mean a reduced capacity for an extended period of time. The alternative would be to temporarily leave Old Trafford while the work is carried out. They’ve done this before; after German bombing raids destroyed much of Old Trafford in 1941, the club played the first few seasons at City’s Maine Road while rebuilding work was carried out, eventually returning home in August 1949.

But football was a very different world back then. Would United supporters accept playing a couple of years at the Etihad Stadium? Would City even allow them to do so? Unlike Spurs, United don’t have a large stadium nearby sitting idle that they could use for a couple of years while the site of Old Trafford is gutted and rebuilt from scratch. Matchday revenues are important to Manchester United and ground-sharing elsewhere would significantly impact upon those.

The second option would be to demolish the one part of the stadium which gives it a slightly lopsided look. Last renovated in 1983, the South Stand (or The Sir Bobby Charlton Stand) is now the smallest and oldest of the stands at Old Trafford, with seating best described as ‘cramped’, but redeveloping that alone isn’t straightforward. It backs onto a railway line, which isn’t insurmountable. The club could build over it. But that would likely make development expensive. It has been estimated that redeveloping the South Stand alone may cost as much as £750m. It’s still a lot of money, but undoubtedly less than rasing the site and rebuilding it would cost.

And the third option would be to leave the stadium structurally intact but conduct a comprehensive revamp of spectator and corporate areas on all four sides. This, we might reasonably assume, would not be considered a ‘major’ redevelopment by fans and would likely be seen as little more than applying a sticking plaster to problems that need to be resolved once and for all. Old Trafford has passed through the point of being charmingly old-fashioned and into a state bordering on dilapidation. What would this option look like and would it really be enough to bring United to the same level as other clubs who’ve already spent their money?

So which will the Glazers choose? Completely demolishing Old Trafford is likely to be prohibitively expensive and disruptive, but suspicious United supporters may well see ‘a comprehensive revamp’ and wonder what this might actually look like; some will likely interpret this as spending as little as possible on the bare minimum they can get away with. The sensible option would appear to be redeveloping the South Stand, and it will certainly be interesting as an indicator of their medium to long-term intentions for the club. What all United supporters will agree on is that this work desperately needs to be carried out. It seems extraordinary to be saying this in 2022 but Old Trafford, one of the iconic homes of football in England, needs to be finally brought into the 21st century.