When Old Trafford opened its doors for the first time in February 1910, Manchester United were en-route to securing just their second ever league championship that May. Despite the optimism abound at the time, few spectators that were at the Theatre of Dreams’ inaugural game could have imagined the global phenomenon the Red Devils would one day become. Even fewer could have foreseen that the arena they were watching in would, a century later, be one of the most famous football venues in the world.
Manchester United came from humble beginnings, especially in respect to their stadia. The club’s first ground on North Road, Newton Heath can best be described as a ‘rustic’ style home. The ground’s changing rooms were a ten minute walk away at the Three Crowns pub and the pitch has was described as being ‘a bog at one end and rocky as a quarry at the other’ in an early match report. Bank Street, United’s second ground in nearby Clayton had an equally poor reputation. The stadium was near to a smoky chemical factory and had a terrible pitch too with very little grass. Walsall Town Swifts famously refused to play a game there in the 1890’s, such were the conditions.
Near bankruptcy in 1902 saw the bailiffs close Bank Street due to the club’s insolvency and it was at this time United were forced into a search for yet another home ground. It was in 1909 that the land Old Trafford stands on today was indentified and purchased, for the seemingly modest sum of £60,000.
Chairman John Henry Davies hired the renowned stadium architect Archibald Leitch, who designed other famous grounds such as Ibrox, Goodison Park, Roker Park and White Hart Lane, to build an arena for the club and allocated a budget of £30,000 for its construction.
The first stadium was designed to hold a similar capacity to today’s ground – around the 76,000 mark. Of course, much of this capacity was standing room only back then. It was old rivals Liverpool that were United’s first opponents at the Salford-based venue, resulting in a 4-3 win for the visitors on 19 February 1910.
The new stadium made an instant impression on the Football Association, who selected the venue as venue for a FA Cup Semi Final within months of it opening. A year later it hosted an FA Cup Final replay between Bradford City and Newcastle and in 1915 staged the famous ‘Khaki Cup Final’ – Sheffield United v Chelsea.
John Henry Davies vision for Old Trafford to gain international recognition was achieved in 1926 when England played Scotland at the ground. And in 1939, a record O.T attendance of 76,962 crammed into the Theatre of Dreams to watch an FA Cup Semi Final between Wolves and Grimsby.
Old Trafford had cemented its place in the heart of football supporters by the time the Second World War broke out in 1939. But tragedy was about to strike. During the conflict, the ground was to suffer extensive damage which rendered the venue out of action for eight years. German bombs fell on the stadium on two occasions – 22nd December 1940 and 11th March 1941. The second blast saw the main stand completely destroyed.
United were awarded a grant of £22,278 from the War Damage Commission which enabled Old Trafford to be rebuilt. While construction work took place the Red Devils played at rivals Manchester City’s old Maine Road ground until they were able to return to their re-built home ground in 1949.
Development work continued a pace at the stadium throughout the following decades. Floodlights were erected in 1957, allowing Manchester United to play night time fixtures. The most partisan of the four stands at Old Trafford - the Stretford End - had a roof installed in 1959 and in 1965 a new North Stand opened with the ground’s first executive boxes.
By the dawn of the Premier League in 1992, Old Trafford was one of the largest and most modern football stadiums in England. By 1993/94, the stadium had become all-seater, with the last standing area of the ground – the Stretford End – converted into a new £12m stand. Cantilevered roofing now swept the entire length of the stadium, now a perfect bowl arena. Five major expansion projects have since taken place. Firstly, the development of the £18.6m, four tiered, North Stand in 1996. A second tier of seating was added to the East Stand and Stretford End in 2000 and four years ago, the North-East and North-West quadrants of the stadium were filled in. The capacity of Old Trafford is now 75,957.
The continued changing appearance of Old Trafford over the decades is just one part of the stadium’s amazing life story. The colour, the noise, the fans and the players are all part of the Theatre of Dreams’ rich tapestry. As you think of the great ground’s history, names like Edwards, Busby, Charlton, Best, Giggs and Ferguson spring to mind.
There’s the thousands of memorable games. Denis Law’s back-heeled goal for Manchester City in 1974, which condemned United to relegation. A Bryan Robson inspired come back from two goals down to victory over Barcelona in the European Cup Winners Cup in 1984. The sight of Sir Alex Ferguson leaping onto the pitch in joy as Steve Bruce headed a stoppage time goal against Sheffield Wednesday in 1993 en-route to United’s first title since 1967. And of course the 7-1 drubbing of Roma in 2007.
Old Trafford has brought joyous and agonising moments for more than just Manchester United fans too. The most famous international ever to be played there is undoubtedly England’s 2-2 draw with Greece in 2001. A David Beckham free-kick deep into stoppage time secured a World Cup place for England, who had twice trailed. AC Milan fans have fond memories of the great old ground, as it was the scene of their 2003 Champions League triumph over old rivals Juventus.
Old Trafford’s worth even extends to non-football fans. Rugby League supporters have viewed the ground as their Mecca, ever since the Super League Grand Final was switched their in 1998. It also hosted the 2000 Rugby League World Cup final between Australia and New Zealand.
As 100 years of Old Trafford are celebrated this month, here’s hoping for another great century at the Theatre of Dreams.
© Andy Greeves & Soccerphile.com