Nestled between the Bridgewater Canal on its northern side and a railway line on its southern side, Old Trafford springs up from its foundations to overshadow the industrial estates, streets of terraced houses and even Lancashire County Cricket club, making a statement to all who approach it.
'This is Manchester United football club, this is the theatre of dreams.'
The phrase coined by Sir Bobby Charlton in John Riley's book simply entitled ‘Soccer’ 26 years ago has stuck in the period of unprecedented success which the Red Devils enjoyed under the tenure of Sir Alex Ferguson. From the Glaswegian's appointment in November 1986, this cathedral of British football has undergone a dramatic transformation to become arguably the finest club ground in English football.
Indeed, it is the second-largest football stadium in the United Kingdom after Wembley and currently the ninth-largest in Europe. It is been United's home since 1910 and was designed by that celebrated architect Archibald Leitch, whose iconic work can still be viewed at Everton's Goodison Park and Rangers’ Ibrox Stadium.
United originally played at North Road and then Bank Street in nearby Clayton. However, the quality of the pitch, not to mention the clouds of fumes from nearby factories, proved problematic. The club’s influential chairman John Henry Davies decided that the club needed a ground fit for purpose and, on 19 February 1910, the first game at Old Trafford was played against traditional rivals Liverpool. A journalist at the game described the stadium, which had just one covered stand, as “the most handsomest [sic], the most spacious and the most remarkable arena I have ever seen. As a football ground it is unrivalled in the world, it is an honour to Manchester."
The stadium quickly became the envy of English football clubs, hosting the 1911 FA Cup final replay, and the 1915 final. Eleven years later it hosted its first international, a game between England and Scotland.
When the Second World War broke out, Old Trafford was requisitioned by the Army to be used as a depot, yet football continued to be played there. The stadium suffered two destructive bombing raids, the first on 22 December 1940, and the second on 11 March 1941, which destroyed most of the stadium, including the club's prize asset; the main stand on the south side of the stadium. The ground was not fit for purpose and Manchester United were forced to play their home games at Maine Road, the home of cross-town rivals Manchester City.
The rental costs were onerous for United and the club ran up debts of £15,000, yet the pressure eased slightly when Old Trafford reopened in 1949 following an absence of league football of almost ten years. Piece by piece, the rebuild began. Floodlights were added in 1959 and a new North Stand was built in 1965, which contained the first private boxes at a British football ground.
With the rise of hooliganism in Britain in the early 1970s, Manchester United became the first club to erect a perimeter fence in order to keep spectators from entering the field of play. However, following the 1990 Taylor Report, which came in the wake of the Hillsborough disaster and recommended that all top-flight grounds in England be converted to all-seater stadiums, more work was needed and in 80 years the capacity of Old Trafford had dropped from 80,000 to 44,000.
Manchester United's dominance of the early years of the Premier League led to a surge in popularity which necessitated a further redevelopment of the stadium. Old Trafford hosted three group games, a quarter-final and semi-final at UEFA EURO 96 in front of a brand new three-tiered North Stand. With further improvements to the East and West Stands, the attendance of Old Trafford had risen to 68,217 by the time it hosted its first major European final in 2003, an all-Italian UEFA Champions League affair between AC Milan and Juventus.
Currently, the capacity of the stadium stands at 75,957 following the addition of second tiers to both the north-west and north-east quadrants of the ground.
Old Trafford celebrated its centenary on 19 February 2010 and in November 2011, the North Stand was renamed as the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand in honour of the Scot's 25 years as manager. There are plenty of bows to history at Old Trafford. The old tunnel, the only remaining part of the original stadium, has been renamed the Munich tunnel, as a memorial for the 50th anniversary of the 1958 Munich air disaster. There is also a plaque dedicated to the victims of the Munich disaster on the South end of the East Stand, while the clubs famous Munich clock is also given a prominent place.
There are three statues outside Old Trafford, the first being of Sir Matt Busby the second, a statue of George Best, Dennis Law and Bobby Charlton entitled ‘the United Trinity’, while the most recent is a nine foot statue of Sir Alex Ferguson installed on 23 November 2012.
Just as Manchester United do not like to rest on their laurels on the pitch, there are plans to increase the capacity of Old Trafford even further, with a redevelopment of the single-tiered South Stand likely to happen in the future, seeing the total capacity rise to an estimated 95,000.