Man United are mocked by rival fans that Old Trafford is falling down. And on the day Mail Sport visit, the stench of decay after 18 years of Glazer rule is overwhelming
- Old Trafford was once one of the most impressive stadiums in world football
- However, it has been left to decay and is now in desperate need of a makeover
- It’s a three-team title race… Toney could lead Arsenal to glory: It’s All Kicking Off
The giant sign says ‘Welcome to Old Trafford’. The surroundings say anything but.
Underneath the message, displayed on a corner of the Stretford End, trolleys filled with rubbish stand on a car park next to a giant red skip. Up on the infamously leaky roof, white paint has withered from the cantilevers to expose metal and rust beneath.
Everywhere you look, there is decay. A light fitting with exposed wiring hangs from a wall. On the bridge over the railway line down Sir Matt Busby Way, there is a blue plaque dedicated to James Gibson, the local businessman credited with saving United from extinction in a time of global economic crisis 92 years ago. A look from there down across the embankment, towards the back of the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, provides sight of another Great Depression. With its rusting corrugated iron, graffiti and barbed wire, it looks like the entrance to a dilapidated Fourth Division ground from the 1980s.
Only this is not the Fourth Division and this is not the 1980s. This is Old Trafford. The mighty Old Trafford. Two words that are recognisable from Manchester to Melbourne. One of world football’s holiest of cathedrals. But a visit to what Sir Bobby christened the Theatre of Dreams on a damp, autumnal and thoroughly Mancunian Tuesday, delivers a stark 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
On the leaky roof of the Stretford End, white paint has withered to expose metal and rust
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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.
Some form of regeneration may not be far away. Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s incoming group are expected to invest £250million in ‘infrastructure’. But as Mail Sport recently reported, experts do not think such a sum will touch the sides. A year ago that figure could — just — have paid for an extension of the Sir Bobby Stand. But thanks to a global surge in the cost of materials, that is no longer the case. Any demolition job would need a vast, protective concrete case over the railway line. That alone would prove prohibitive.
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.
The back of the Sir Bobby Charlton stand now looks like the entrance to a dilapidated Fourth Division ground from the 1980s
A white marquee offering hospitality has been installed in the car park behind the Sir Alex Ferguson stand, and is an example of the obsession to squeeze every penny possible
United’s roof leak has become a symbol of the Glazers’ lack of investment in the once famous ground
Mail Sport revealed this month that morale among ground staff at the club was at an ‘all-time low’ after plans were brought in to dramatically reduce the hours of overtime. It would appear that those who look after the pitches are not the only ones being targeted. Cuts have been made to security, which meant that for the Manchester derby last month nobody was on hand to check wristbands of corporate punters when they made their way back to the lounges from their seats in the stand.
The lack of anyone on the door ensured that the already overworked staff — usually young students seeking extra income — were under even more pressure than normal thanks to the predictable increase in numbers.
‘It wasn’t fair,’ one fan who witnessed the shambles explained. ‘These are kids who work bloody hard and provide a brilliant service. They’re always smiling and happy to help but the place ended up absolutely rammed because nobody was checking wristbands. Anyone could stroll in and they couldn’t cope. They now openly tell you everybody is sick of it.’
Then there are the issues not apparent to the naked eye. Mail Sport has obtained a copy of a recent inspection visit to Old Trafford from food hygiene inspectors at nearby Trafford Council. United failed to get the expected 5 rating. Instead, they ended up with a 4 — and the report makes for damning reading. In one kitchen, sections of wall tiles were missing, lagging over a pipe had begun to disintegrate and one member of staff was unable to tell an inspector where the hand wash was located. ‘This would indicate that they had not washed their hands,’ the inspector — living up to their title — noted.
One potwash area featured a damaged floor and dirty surface and in the West Sports Bar there were issues with the temperature of the hot water, which made it difficult for staff to wash their hands. In a production kitchen, the inspector told United to ‘rectify immediately’ a safety chain which was not connected to a gas cooker and a fan unit was leaking on to raw bacon below. A shelving unit was unstable, metal storage shelves had begun to rust and there was food debris on the floor of a walk-in freezer and light switches were dirty.
It may seem minor — and a subsequent, no-doubt hastily arranged visit, restored the 5 rating — but it is all indicative of a bigger problem. Eighteen years of indifference seeps through the ground’s pores.
For their part, United say there is significant ongoing investment in the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, and add that supervised access is needed from Network Rail before planned remedial work can be carried out. They claim the security light with exposed wires is an isolated case and that ‘the selective photographs and examples cited give a distorted view of the stadium as a whole’. With regards to the rubbish, United point out they have a busy waste recycling facility and have brought in additional skips as part of a clear-out and refurbishment of hospitality suites. They add that the area in question will be reconfigured.
On the issue in hospitality suites, United say they have a 90 per cent staff retention rate which reflects loyalty and positive morale and deny that there has been a reduction in numbers of security staff.
A United spokesperson said that the club ‘invests millions a year in maintenance and improvements to Old Trafford to ensure high-quality experiences for everyone who uses the stadium’. They added: ‘Maintaining one of the world’s most historic stadiums is a never-ending process and one we are committed to continuing,’ and claim the hygiene report was ‘not representative of the high standards upheld by our staff’.
Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s incoming group are expected to invest £250million in infrastructure but that will ‘not even touch the sides’, according to industry insiders
But the ground’s gradual fall from grace has not gone unnoticed locally. If City are the noisy neighbours — and the latest chant at the Etihad gleefully observes that ‘Old Trafford is falling down’ — then United are the silent ones.
‘We never hear from them,’ one business owner says. ‘It’s sad really. We joke that you’ve got the BBC, with MediaCity and the shiny redevelopment on one side, the cricket ground that has been transformed on the other and United in the middle, stuck in the past.’
They are disturbing words and while his primary focus may be on improving the club’s fortunes off the field, Ratcliffe, as a boyhood United fan raised seven miles down the road, would do well to listen.
The grand old lady of Stretford is in desperate need of a makeover — and a major one at that.
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