Greetings from Old Trafford, says the enormous sign. The environment appears to suggest otherwise.
Rolling trash carts are parked next to a huge red skip in a parking lot beneath the sign that reads “Stretford End.” The notoriously leaky roof has deteriorated to reveal rust and metal beneath the white paint that covered the cantilevers.
There’s decay everywhere you look. An exposed wiring light fixture is suspended from a wall. 92 years ago, during a period of global economic crisis, a local businessman named James Gibson is credited with saving United from extinction. Gibson is honored with a blue plaque on the bridge that crosses the railway line down Sir Matt Busby Way. From that vantage point, one can see another Great Depression as one looks down the embankment and toward the back of the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand. It looks, with its graffiti, barbed wire, and rusting corrugated iron, like the entrance to a run-down Fourth Division ground from the 1980s.
But this isn’t the 1980s, and it’s not the Fourth Division either. It’s Old Trafford here. The powerful Old Trafford. Two instantly recognizable words from Melbourne to Manchester. One of the holiest cathedrals in world football. On a soggy, autumnal, and very Manchester-based Tuesday, however, a visit to what Sir Bobby dubbed the Theatre of Dreams serves as a sobering wake-up call.
Much has been written about the scale of neglect here under the Glazer family since they bought the club then lumped debt on it in 2005. But the stench of decline slaps you in the face.
Old Trafford was dubbed the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ but has been left to decay under the Glazers’ ownership
No wonder United and the FA decided not to include it in the Euro 2028 bid. Formerly one of the jewels in England’s crown, the club stadium with the biggest capacity in the land could not even make a list of six of the nation’s best. United claim they withdrew from the process because they could not guarantee that there would not be large-scale development going on at the time of the tournament. If they are still fixing this in five years’ time then that in itself would be an outrage.
There is, as of yet, no indication on where the cash injection, which will be staggered, will go. To put it into context, when the Glazers brought in the architects, a move that seems laughable now, they were told a proper job would cost north of £1billion. And the need is not just at Old Trafford — the training ground also requires a revamp.
At least Ratcliffe is putting money in, a welcome change that leads to an obvious question: why on earth should a man who only owns 25 per cent of the club be responsible for redeveloping a stadium that has been neglected by the people he is buying that share from — the people who will continue to own the majority?
The equally obvious answer is that, under the Glazers, United have been seen as something to take money out of, not something to invest in. Football’s cash card.
Over on the car park behind the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, an example of this obsession to squeeze every penny possible flutters in the wind. A giant white marquee, so big they needed planning permission for it, has been installed. A black and gold sign on the front reads ‘matchday hospitality’.
Such is the opportunity to cash in from the corporate crowd, punters are now sold a different kind of ‘exec’ ticket, which means they eat and drink in what is effectively a tent, before walking across the car park and into the stand. At least they are technically on the premises. For some years now, United have partnered with Lancashire Cricket Club, where customers eat their pre-match meals before schlepping half a mile up to the other Old Trafford.
United also offer a ‘Ticket Plus Museum Pre-Match’ experience. For £295, fans get to go into the club museum two hours before kick-off, and gain ‘access to kiosk to purchase food and drink’. The deal includes a ticket in the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. For reference, when purchased separately, a museum tour and match ticket would come to around £68.
Some would say United are only cashing in on the staggering interest. That this is a free market and they are breaking no laws. Others may talk of officially licensed touting, exploiting those who come from far and wide for one game and who would otherwise struggle to gain access to a ticket.
For those who pay through the nose for a corporate season ticket, there have been issues. In one suite, where tickets go for around £8,500 a year, the toilets look like they haven’t been updated since the turn of the century.