- Maine Road
- Old Trafford
It has been three years since my last football trip. So much has happened since then. Brexit, Covid, war in Europe. On top of that, my osteoarthritis now makes it hard for me to get around. So, I am a little apprehensive as I set off to the UK. Fortunately, my friend Dale – who I met at the Manchester United training ground the Cliff some 40 years ago – has offered to drive me around, as I plan to make up for lost time. Five matches, thirty grounds – former, present, and future.
Dale picks me up at Manchester Airport in the morning. We start off in Moss Side, Manchester, the site of Manchester City’s Maine Road ground from 1923 to 2003. On the way to the ground, I tell Dale that I, actually, visited Maine Road as a teenager on one of my trips back in 1980. It was midweek with no match on. But I remember feeling very uncomfortable, as a number of school kids spotted me through a fence, pointing and shouting at me in a not very welcoming way. Eight months later, Moss Side turned into a riot area, as a thousand youths stormed the local police station. I didn’t feel like going again on my subsequent visits to Manchester.
Dale’s memories of Maine Road are even worse. He went to the FA Cup semi-final replay between Manchester United and Liverpool in 1985 and got separated from his friends in the mayhem in the streets following United’s win. A terrible experience.
But as we drive up Kippax Street and park, it all seems quiet and peaceful. I have brought a photo of the Kippax Stand taken on the final match day back in 2003, and I take a photo from the same spot. The terraced housing in the streets around the ground still looks the same, but where the stand used to hover 20 years ago, there are now modern residential houses.
The Kippax used to be the popular side of City’s ground, with terraces extending the full length of the pitch. In its heydays, it could hold more than 30,000, but in its final days in 1994, the capacity was reduced to 18,000. With the conversion of grounds into all-seaters, a three-tier stand with more than 10,000 seats was opened in 1995, at the time the highest stand in England. It rose so high about the terraced housing that many of the houses had to get extensions for their tv-antennas, as the signal was disturbed. And people around the ground complained that their back gardens now were literally in the shadow of the imposing stand.
It lasted only eight years, however, before Manchester City jumped on the chance to take over the City of Manchester Stadium, built for the Commonwealth Games 2002. And the new stand was demolished along with the rest of the ground in 2003.
As I am taking my photo, a woman in her thirties asks me, if I come from the estate agent. I have to disappoint her and tell that I am just travelling around to visit sites of old football grounds. Her face turns into a mixture of surprise and disbelief. A football ground? Here? She had never heard of it.
Now it is me turning into disbelief. Especially as Dale and I shortly after come to what used to be the centre circle of the ground. It is clearly marked out – how can you not be aware that this used to be football ground?
The centre circle is surrounded by the new residential houses that in turn are surrounded by the old terraced housing. I would like to walk on into the old streets, but it turns out that all the little passages from the new housing estate are locked off. It almost feels like a throw-back to being fenced in at the old grounds. We have to take the long way to find a road.
I have read descriptions on how City fans made their way to the ground through the many small passages connecting the streets of terraced houses, finding their usual pubs and fish ‘n chips shops along the way (Edensor & Millington: Going to the Match. The Transformation of the Match-day Routine at Manchester City FC). But pubs as well as chippies have gone with the football ground. I recently read that only one out of 19 pubs has survived. Sad. I have found a photo of an old chippy at the corner of Maine Road, and we go to see what is there now. “Khartoum Mini Market”.
I have always been fascinated by aerial photos of Maine Road, as the ground was totally hemmed in by rows and rows of almost identical terraced housing. They must have been built at the same date. They all have the same decoration on the gable. Some of the housing in Kippax Street was put on sale in 1903 – twenty years before the ground was built. I guess that the rest of the housing must predate the football ground as well. The housing has not grown up around the football ground. Rather, the football ground has been squeezed in among the housing.
The site of the ground is oddly trapezoid shaped. It used to be the site of the Moss Side Brick Works. As late as in 1903, the owner of the brick work was fined at Manchester County Police Court for the nuisance caused by the emission of black smoke from his chimneys, that was carried the 40 yards into the Corporations area, when the wind was from the south.
But four years later the machinery of the brick work was put up for sale, and the site was sold by the owners, Fairhaven Estate Company in 1913. It was, however, a further nine years, before Manchester City decided to buy the site, as they had been refused extension of their lease by the Tramways that owned the site of their former ground, Hyde Road. And because their attempt to find a new ground at the Belle Vue had failed.
Whereas most other main league grounds in the first decades of the 20th century were constructed by football ground architect Archibald Leitch, Manchester City went for the local architect Charles Swain – with Maine Road being the one and only football ground he ever designed (he did, though, design the greyhound racing track in White City, Old Trafford, four years later). Swain has undoubtedly relied heavily on the experience and expertise of his contractor, Sir Robert McAlpine and Co, who at the time was erecting the first Wembley Stadium.
Among the features of the ground were no fewer than 90 turnstiles around the ground, and that “every spectator, no matter where he may be located, will be able to obtain an uninterrupted view of the game”. It also applied for the goalkeepers, as the stadium was designed so that the sun would never shine directly into their eyes.
The era of the motor car was emerging, so the ground was also fitted out with a car park – making use of all the space within the trapezoid ground. All cars and cabs taking spectators to the ground were, according to council regulations, to turn off the Wilmslow Road at Claremont Road, and then go down Maine Road and drop off their passengers by the reserved stand – presuming that everybody going by car would also be seated in that stand. Omnibusses and charabancs were to proceed down Wilmslow Road to Platt Lane, and then go up Yew Tree Road on the other side of the ground – the cheap, popular side. The convenience of a class society.
Similarly, 60 cabs were to take up position in the streets on the side of the main stand, the first ten of them advancing to the main entrance “immediately after the half-time interval”, with the next ones ready to advance in rotation as vacancies occurred. Only 24 cabs were to take up position around the popular stand in Kippax Street, even though this was where the vast majority went.
There was also good service of tramways, so Maine Road, at the time of building, was considered geared to handle the heavy traffic of a match day. But walking around the streets now, it truly feels like a residential area, so remote from modern stadiums placed next to motorways.
In some places, the football grounds have swallowed up the houses immediately surrounding them. In this case, housing has swallowed up the football ground. If City had stayed at Maine Road, they would probably have tried to buy up some of the housing to demolish it, so they would have been able to expand the ground. That is, if they managed to make it to the top of English football, which is questionable. They were not particularly successful when they made the move to the City of Manchester Stadium, and they were in dire straits just after the move. But then – possibly attracted by the combination of a top modern stadium and an old traditional football brand – Sheik Mansour bought the club and put so much money into it, that City rose to the top of English football. It is highly unlikely that he would have bought the club, if it still had been at Maine Road with little room for building a brand new stadium.
Going down a street behind the former site of the Kippax stand, we see an elderly lady standing outside her house, talking to a neighbor. Dale asks her, if she lived here, when the football ground was still in use. “I still work for Manchester City!” she says proudly.
Rose, as she introduces herself, is truly amazing. We talk with her and her son for 45 minutes. She moved into the house back in 1958. “All the houses here”, her son tells us, “are made of bricks from the old brick work”. A few of the houses further down the street had toilets in the kitchen, whereas the others had them at the back. “Imagine having a toilet in the kitchen”.
Rose started working for Manchester City in 1974, so she has been working for them for almost half a century. Nowadays, they send a limousine to pick her up on match days – and to take her home around half-time. She really has become an institution at the club. But she has no interest whatsoever in football. She cannot get why people get so worked up over it. And she leaves at half-time, when her job is done.
She is sometimes referred to as the tea-lady, but this annoys her. She has done a number of different jobs at the club, but now she takes care of the 25 photographers, who are allowed in on matchdays. She shows us photos of her office – the walls are covered in photos of Rose together with former and present football celebrities. She shows us a photo from last season of Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp, bringing her flowers when Liverpool played City. Even though I am not a Liverpool fan, it is things like this that make me respect Klopp. In contrast, Rose tells us that City boss Guardiola never has been around her office to say hello. He is the only City manager, she has never spoken to. She shows a photo of Guardiola – and then decides to present it to me. Her favorite manager, without a doubt, was Kevin Keegan.
But there have been many other good moments. When City played Barcelona a few years ago – one of the matches at the Etihad I have attended – everybody in the photographers room were talking of Messi. “Don’t you dare call my room messy!” she had said – which probably was why she had been presented with a photo signed “To Rose – Messi”.
Rose keeps going into the house to find more photos to show us – she also gives us a number of old match day programmes – while her son tells about what it was like growing up next to the ground. The only particular match that he mentions, is the FA Cup semi-final 1985 that Dale had attended. He points to the nearby passage. The Liverpool fans kicked the gate to the passage open after losing the match and ran up and down the street smashing windows in all the houses. Frightening.
But it had not just been football. Back in the 1970’s Jehovah’s witnesses had held a congregation at the ground. They had left the place much tidier than they found it. They had even painted it. I browse the internet and find a video from 1971 about the congregation. It seems that Maine Road was used by the Jehovah’s witnesses several more times, from 1960 till the mid 1990’s. But the visits in the 1980’s Rose’s son remembers, are the rock concerts. David Bowie, Rolling Stones, Queen etc. For some of the concerts, they were handed free tickets because of all the hassle in their back garden.
Since the days of the football ground, the area has changed. Prices on housing has gone up dramatically, and lots of new people have moved in. But Rose has still got nice neighbours. And there are one or two of the old ones remaining.
Not a neighbor of hers, but Rose goes on to talk about the Queen. She didn’t look well two days ago, when she welcomed new prime minister Liz Truss. It is strange to think that Rose moved into her house only five years after the Queen’s coronation. And Rose seems still to be going strong.
Dale and I break up, after promising to go round her house on my next visit. It is a nice walk back to the car. I much prefer to walk down these old streets to going to Manchester City’s new ground, which seems to be a desolate place. Maybe because we have been lifted by talking with Rose, the streets around Main Road look friendly and welcoming to us.
We had planned to go to Stockport County’s Edgeley Park in the afternoon, before going to Old Trafford for the night’s Europa League match against Real Sociedad. But we have spent so long talking with Rose and her son that we decide to postpone Edgeley Park till Sunday morning. Instead, we go to Dale’s house in Irlam to pick up his son Aarran, who will be joining us for the match.
By the time we get to Irlam, all the media are alerted by the poor condition of the Queen. “The entire country will grind to a halt, if she dies” Dale says. I suddenly panic. Imagine waiting three years to make sure that Brexit and Covid wouldn’t destroy my plans and going in early autumn to avoid matches being called off by bad weather, only for them to possibly be called off because of the Queen dying. Around 4, just before we leave for the ground, rumors on social media say that she has died – but the BBC keep saying that the doctors are merely concerned, and the family is therefore on their way to be with her.
I normally get to Old Trafford from Chorlton, walking down the lovely streets to the station, past the Cricket Ground and up the Warwick Road to Chester Road. There you find the chippies, the cafés, the pubs, and the fabulous Red Star ‘alternative’ souvenir shop. Stalls are set up, selling souvenirs, burgers all sorts of stuff. You find the sellers of fanzines – and ticket touts.
This time, though, we come from the other side of the ground, on the new metro line, and get off at the new Wharfside station. This is where the Sam Platts Pub used to be. It was shut down to make way for the metro in 2017 – and only a few days afterwards the building was burned down.
You cannot help but admire the foresight of the directors of Manchester United, when they chose Old Trafford as the site of a new ground back in 1908. An industrial area some way away from their old ground Bank Street (which ironically now is the site of the cycling arena in the Stadium of Manchester complex). But it has allowed United to buy up more land, as the industries by the harbor have left, so United have had it much easier adapting to the spatial demands of a modern football ground than other clubs. And the entire harbor area has become a modern cultural stronghold, with the Lowry, the BBC headquarters and the Imperial War Museum North.
The downside, however, has been that United started the development of OId Trafford into a modern all-seater ground right from the kick-off of the Premier League in 1992. It was expanded in the successful 1990’s with extra tiers added to the East, West and North stands, before quadrants were added in the corners in the early 2000’s. United had the money and the land to make this expansion and move ahead of the other clubs in terms of capacity and facilities. But since then, the money in football has become so much bigger, and it really shows that Old Trafford was transformed in the relatively poor 1990’s. The stands are a bit parking house like. The concourses are dull, there is very little room between the seats, the roof is leaking, and the acoustics are poor. I am to visit the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium and Anfield Road later on my trip for comparison. But there is little doubt that Old Trafford is no longer state of the art.
There are ongoing discussions at United as what to do about it. One idea is to add another tier on the Southern stand – but that will not improve the existing three stands from the 1990’s; and there are problems building over the railway that runs just behind the southern stand. They would probably have to buy up and knock down the terraced housing along the railroad. Another idea, therefore, is to “do a Tottenham”. To build a new ground next to the old one in the huge car park next to the current (original) ground, before demolishing it or turning it into an alternative venue for less attractive matches.
While the club is considering its options, they have done something to make the ground look less weary. They have in recent weeks repainted the red steel work. Somehow, the hue of the red doesn’t seem quite right; or maybe I have just gone used to looking at the old faded one. The new color looks ok on the 2000-ish quadrants of glass in the corners, but not really on the concrete and steel stands of the 1990’s.
Another new feature, are two walls hemming in away supporters, waiting to enter through the turnstiles. Allegedly, they were erected for the match against Liverpool a couple of weeks ago to prevent fighting. And there is a new line of security guard searching all visitors to the souvenir shop, probably fearing that anti-Glazer protesters will storm the shop.
Maybe it is because it is just a Europa League match, maybe because of the rumours of the Queen dying, but the place seems more quiet than usual on a matchday. We head for the residential and chippy/pub area behind the south stand by Chester Road.
Back in 1981, three days prior to United playing at Anfield, a ticket tout here offered me a ticket for the match. I told him that I already had one – through the supporters’ club. “Seat?” “No, standing”. “Standing at Anfield is murderous. They use knives” he told me. I got so apprehensive that I went down to the supporters’ club office and asked, if there was any chance, I could swop my standing ticket for a seat. I could. I went back to the ticket tout and thanked him for his advice. He was about to find the ticket in his pocket, when I said, “oh no, I already swopped it”. I still remember the expression of annoyance in his face. Ever since, I have spotted him at every single match I have gone to, hanging around the Chester Road. And he is still there.
We go into Angelo’s Red Star Souvenir Shop. Angelo’s wife recognizes me and calls for Angelo who is having a small break. So good to see him and chat again after three years. I leave the shop with a new Cantona-hoodie. We go to Lou Macari’s chippy next to Angelo – a fish ‘n chips from there is essential in my pre-match rituals. When I didn’t do it for the local derby in 2013, we lost 2-1.
As usual, we eat outside Angelo’s shop, next to the Bishop Blaize pub, which, as usual, is packed with singing United supporters. While we are eating, a man is chased down the streets by a couple of policemen, soon followed by two police horses. Apparently, he gets away, because after a few minutes the police officers return with a group of their colleagues, deep in conversation. While we are observing this scene, we suddenly notice that the tune from the Bishop Blaize has changed. For the first time ever, I hear them sing the National Anthem. I don’t notice whether they sing “the Queen” or the “the King”. But I notice that once they have ended it, all the singing and chanting stop. We check our phones, and yes, news of the Queen passing away has been announced. Maybe that is what the policemen are talking about. Will the match go ahead? It is just about an hour till kick-off.
Suddenly, everything has gone quiet and somber. I must admit that all my thoughts are on this and the subsequent four matches. Will they be postponed? Having finished our fish ‘n chips, we walk down the streets of terraced housing to the little bridge across the railroad to the Stretford End. We start to wander around. I had planned to take a lot of photos of the surrounding area, but I am to worried about the match going ahead to concentrate on it. Instead, we enter the ground – somehow irrationally feeling that maybe it will make it little more awkward to postpone the match, if the ground is already full.
We have got tickets for the new safe-standing section. Usually, we go to the Stretford End, where everybody is standing in front of their seat throughout the match, anyway. There only seems to be two differences. Before the match and during half-time you can sit on your seat in the Stretford End. You are also supposed to be able to do that in the safe standing area, as a seat has been attached to the crush barrier behind you. But there is even less leg room than in the normal seats, and I find it impossible to squeeze in my long legs. So, it means standing uninterruptedly for three hours. The only positive is that you now have the crush barrier behind you to lean against. Which, I suppose, is an improvement, but nothing really to get too excited about.
The atmosphere inside the ground is just about the strangest atmosphere I have encountered at a football match. Everybody seems anxious and uncertain about the match going ahead. Even when we read confirmation on our phones, there are still rumours circulating that it will be called off. There is no music being played over the PA system, no messages or information on line-ups. The electronic advertising boards are switched off and black. Some half-an-hour before the kick-off, the Spanish supporters start chanting, but it is quenched by booing around the ground.
It is not until the tunnel area gets busy, preparing for the players to enter the field that an anti-Glazer chant is heard from the Stretford End, and when the players enter, they are accompanied by the usual “U-N-I-T-E-D, United are the team for me”. There is an announcement of the Queen’s death. The players wear black armbands and line up around the centre circle for the observance of a minute’s silence. It is observed impeccably by everybody – the Spanish supporters holding up their scarves – although you can hear some distant music, probably from one of the stalls on the concourse.
The match is a strange, flat non-event. Maybe it is the somber atmosphere. Maybe it is because the static Maguire, Lindeloff, Casimero and Ronaldo along with the erratic Fred have replaced the dynamic Martinez, Varane, McTominay, Fernandez and Rashford in the line-up. The match has a scoreless draw written all over it, when the referee decides to give the Spanish team a very soft penalty in the second half. They take the lead, which should have sparked a reaction from United to get back into it. But it is the Spanish team that is buoyed by it, and they are closer to adding a second goal than United to equalizing.
After the match, it is back to the somber silence. Usually, you would be listening to post-match interviews with managers and players, and analysis from the pundits. But there is absolutely nothing. In a way, it is a throw-back to the 1980’s, before the advent of Sky Sports. In those days, at least you bought the match day Pink Final that was printed or sold literally 30 minutes after the final whistle. I subscribed to the Pink Final as a boy in Copenhagen. It arrived Thursday after the match – and the match reports were basically written as the game progressed. You could have a report describing all United’s good play and many chances, as a storyboard that would end saluting a famous United win – only for the last two lines of the report laconically informing that the opposition won 2-1 thanks to two last minute goals. But that disappeared with the internet – which is now all about the Queen.
We get back to Dale’s house. Even Sky Sports is all about the Queen. But there are still two – worrying – football related news. All Friday matches have already been called off, and the possible cancellation of all weekend games will be discussed in the morning. So, Friday’s match at Tranmere Rovers’ Prenton Park is already off. Usually, the frustration with that and the anxiety about the other matches would have kept me awake, but as I have been up for 21 hours, I do manage to fall asleep.
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