Tuesday 23 January 2018

Happy birthday Old Trafford, a theatre of dreams light years ahead of its time

Henry Winter

For the workers hurrying from their factories 100 years ago today, crossing the Canal Bridge and streaming towards the gleaming turnstiles, Manchester United's new abode appeared more than a home fit for footballing heroes.

Old Trafford was a mission statement, a declaration of ambition, a trait the club has never lost even during the dark moments which have punctuated the ensuing, eventful century.

For the young apprentices leading the charge as their Saturday shift ended, Old Trafford truly dominated their horizon. Unlike United's former residence, the Bank Street ground hemmed in by terraced housing, a place so dilapidated it had blown over in a gale two days before, this sporting palace was set in 16 acres. Anticipation rose and rose as supporters flocked towards it like pilgrims.

Old Trafford is not a ground chanced upon; like the club at times, it brashly proclaims its presence from some distance. It is built to impress.

Archibald Leitch's original design has been updated, in keeping with the demands of the Taylor Report and the corporate classes, but it has always been a stadium with stature.

Results reflect that: of the 1,550 games United have played at Old Trafford in the Premier League and old First Division, they have won 916 and drawn 368, scoring 3,009 goals.

For the club's ardent followers arriving for that historic first match, appropriately against their great rivals Liverpool, the inside inspired as much awe as Leitch's imposing exterior.

Confirming that overspending is not a new phenomenon, Leitch went wildly over budget, doubling the £30,000 initial estimate. Fortunately for United, they had a generous patron in John H Davies.

Never mind the cost, thought the fans, feel the quality of what one newspaper hailed as "a tip-top home". The supporters were too busy scampering along Leitch's tunnels, discovering what would soon become familiar trails to favoured vantage points.

Weaving through the crush barriers, all patented by the resourceful Leitch, some fans raced to the front, standing as close as they could to the action. Those on the lowest step were eye-level with the pitch. Their idols, men such as Sandy Turnbull and Billy Meredith, must have looked immense, almost God-like figures, stretching up to the heavens.

"My dad attended the game as a teenage apprentice millwright, having walked through from Trafford Park in his working clothes -- complete with hobnailed boots and the obligatory flat cap -- and paying his tanner at the turnstile," recalls the football statistician John Russell, who inherited his father's passion for United.

"He told me the pitch looked good enough to play cricket on, even in February. To see his heroes, Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts, Sandy Turnbull et al, running out in their red shirts was a great thrill."

With players of that calibre, United needed a good playing surface. Bank Street, by all contemporary accounts, was home to a quagmire. In constructing a new habitat for Ernest Mangnall's team, Leitch understood the importance of drainage, sunlight and airflow in maintaining the grass. (Modern architects, please take note).

Having moved into their new home, United finished fifth, first, 13th, fourth, 14th and 18th before the Kaiser stopped play in the league for four years.

In its century of existence, Old Trafford has staged 2,224 United first-team games, comprising those 1,550 top-flight League games and 210 old Second Division matches, 133 European games, 141 FA Cup matches, 85 League Cup ties, 98 wartime fixtures (72 WW1, 26 WW2), four Charity Shield games, two Screen Sports Super Cup ties and one FIFA World Club Championship match.

United's frequent investment in the ground is reflected in the record attendances. While many stadiums have shrunk in capacity as all-seat requirements consumed the broad expanses of the old terraces, Old Trafford's record has stayed constant: 76,962 under the old Leitch design (Wolves-Grimsby Town in an FA Cup semi-final of 1939) and the current modernised stadium of 76,098 (versus Blackburn Rovers in 2007).

The joy of Old Trafford is that the best numerical figures are associated with the best flesh-and-blood figures. Ryan Giggs has made the most appearances (398). Bobby Charlton has the most starts (370) and also the most goals (141). Denis Law has scored the most hat-tricks (12).

With such great stars providing such grand statistics, millions have fallen in love with Old Trafford over the past century. Players and supporters make stadiums special but in Old Trafford, Leitch designed a setting to inspire everybody. No wonder those workers rushed from the factory.

A century on, if you stand in front of the boastful steel and glass frontage of the modern Old Trafford, you will find yourself shoulder to shoulder with tourists from Singapore, Cyprus, Sydney and beyond, photographing its signage and statuary. In every snap they are confirming Davies' concept.

United is the entity that has put Manchester on the world map. Millions across the world know of the city not because of cotton or coal or Coronation Street but because of the city's most prominent cultural asset: United.

Much to the chagrin of United's noisy neighbours, the club are more generally known in Barcelona, Madrid and Milan simply as 'Manchester'.

These days people associate Cottonopolis with the exploits of Law, Best and Charlton; Giggs, Keane and Cantona and, latterly the new golden trinity of Old Trafford: Rooney, Rooney and Rooney.

Old Trafford truly is the Theatre of Dreams. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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