This is Part Two of my ‘Lost in…Manchester: City v United Special’. The idea to compare the two stadiums came about after visiting both clubs’ respective grounds during 2 days in February: the Etihad for a Wednesday evening Europa League fixture against Porto and Old Trafford for a Thursday night clash against Ajax in the same competition. I did plan on writing Part Two the week after Part One, but I opted to write it now instead, as Swansea fans (myself included) prepare to visit United’s famous stadium for their Premier League clash against the Champ19ns. Having now written about both stadiums I will offer my verdict on which is the better stadium to watch football at the end of this article (I thought about what there is to do there, the fans, atmosphere, prices etc.)
Read Part One here
Old Trafford. The two words together ooze football grandeur. It is a place that is known the world over and is acknowledged as one of the greatest cathedrals in world football. “The Theatre of Dreams” as Sir Bobby Charlton dubbed the place. On the train to work every morning, I travel right down the side of the stadium’s South Stand, where the ‘Munich Tunnel’ is situated and I can’t help being amazed at the place every time I go passed – especially when I think of the football goliaths that have graced the place: Edwards, Charlton, Law, Best, Busby, Cantona, Beckham, Ronaldo, Keane, Scholes, Giggs and of course Sir Alex Ferguson – a man now credited with his own stand named after him. History seeps out of the place: The Matt Busby statue, now moved onto the roof of the club superstore to oversee the thousands that pass along Sir Matt Busby Way, the statue opposite him of the Holy Trinity of Law, Best and Charlton, the huge 19 sign emblazoned on the glass front of the stadium, the Munich clock and plaque to commemorate the souls that were tragically lost in 58 and of course the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand. United acknowledges its history like no other club. You probably think from reading this hyperbole about Old Trafford that I think it is the greatest place on this planet to watch football – in fact I feel quite the opposite; I‘m still not very comfortable watching football matches at Old Trafford.
Through a number of different circumstances, I have visited Old Trafford 4 times, all in the past 2 years: Manchester United v Wigan in a Premier League fixture, Manchester United v Juventus for Gary Neville’s testimonial, United v Palace where they lost to the Championship side in the Carling Cup Quarter final and most recently a Europa League clash against Ajax. Each time I have set off for these games, I have been filled with excitement about the idea of going to Old Trafford; the pre-match build-up has always been enjoyable; walking around the stadium is great; drinking in the pubs around the stadium is great; drinking on the concourse is great; the problem lies once you are sat in your seat (very little leg room by the way – they do try to cram as many in there as possible) and awaiting kick off. After a brief chorus of “United! United!” from the Stretford End…silence. The atmosphere in the place is completely stale and this has been the case for all 4 games I have attended there. Palace and Ajax fans were putting everything into create some noise in the place, but somehow the sound was drowned out by the huge stands of the ground.
The gargantuan stands that now tower over Trafford Park are still a fairly recent development in the history of the stadium. Apart from an 8 year absence from 1941-49 after bombing in the Second World War, Old Trafford has been the club’s home since 1910. During this 8 year period United ground-shared with Manchester City at Maine Road – amazing to think of that happening now. In United’s former guise as Newton Heath, they played in East Manchester (generally considered the stomping ground of their ‘noisy neighbours’ these days) at North Road and then at Bank Street. Both grounds were considered inadequate for the club and when new United chairman John Henry Davies came to the club’s rescue following financial troubles and he commissioned the building of a new ground in the Trafford area of Manchester (Old Trafford is in Manchester NOT Salford as some people suggest). Davies had decided that Bank Street was a ground not worthy of the recently crowned First Division champions and FA Cup winners. Old Trafford was finished in 1909 and United played their first game there in February 1910. The opening game was against the old enemy of Liverpool, a game which United lost 4-3. One journalist at the opening game claimed about the new ground:
“The most handsomest, 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 and the home of a team who can do wonders when they are so disposed”
Since the opening day the stadium has been talked about in superlatives and as the club began to grow bigger at the dawn of the Premiership, the stadium had no choice but to grow with it. A significant factor on the stadium’s development was the post-Hillsborough Taylor Report, which forced the club to completely transform (at a cost £3.5m) the huge terrace of the Stretford End into an all-seater stand. The ground began expanding throughout the 90s and into the 00s. The Taylor report lowered Old Trafford’s capacity to 44,000; over 20 years later the capacity now stands at around 75,000 after another tier was added to north-west and north-east quadrants of the stadium. However, the constant evolution of the ground does give it a bit of a disjointed look in certain areas. There are apparently plans to boost the capacity further by developing the single-tiered South Stand.
The stadium is a stunning sight, but is there much to do pre-match? On first glance it appears not with the ground situated on the edge of Trafford Park industrial estate, but when I reflected on my past Old Trafford experiences, I realised that I have always had an enjoyable time before the main events of the games themselves. First of all, Manchester city centre, where there is obviously plenty to keep you occupied, is around 10 minutes away on the tram; the Mancheser United Football Groud tram station is located about 10 minutes down the road from the stadium near the cricket ground – which brings me on to Old Trafford Cricket Ground.
On my first ever trip to Old Trafford, having wandered around the Trafford area for a suitable place for a drink before the game, we were greeted by packed to the rafter pubs. We wandered back towards the cricket ground only to be gestured by a steward to come drink in the ground itself. We spent a pleasant afternoon drinking on the concourse (admittedly in match day standard plastic cups), watching a highly entertaining Arsenal v Spurs (they are always entertaining these days) and getting served quickly – not a queue in site. The prices were also just under the £3 mark – a relative bargain for a match day drink. I’m not sure if the cricket ground is open before every home game, but I highly recommend it if it is.
Following a drink at the cricket ground we headed to the ground for the 3pm kick off between United and Wigan. Our seats could not be further up in the heavens of the East stand (the stand now renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand). As you would imagine the concourses at Old Trafford are very spacious and the queues for food/drink outlets were surprisingly rather small. Also, to the club’s credit, food/drink prices are no more expensive than your average football ground. Like all good football grounds should, the ground sells my match day favourite: chicken balti pies – and they are too a good standard as well. One of my favourite features of Old Trafford, however, is the Indian beer, Singha, which they sell in bottles; it is the only place I’ve ever had it and have always enjoyed a bottle or 2 when visiting the ground.
Although Wigan had two red cards, the game was generally uneventful with United scoring twice through Patrice Evra and Javier Hernandez. The game was probably most memorable for the return of Wayne Rooney (to a mixed reception from the crowd) after his infamous transfer request saga. The atmosphere was dire, but I put this down to how far away I was from the pitch and the fact that the game was rather dull with United not even stepping outof first gear to win the game.
My next visit would come on the 24th May 2011, the day after my 23rd birthday, for Gary Neville’s testimonial. This was a thoroughly enjoyable game, but the highlight would be witnessing one of my footballing heroes play in the flesh and witness him slipping back into his old United number 7 shirt for his pal G-Nev: David Beckham. Even more pleasing was the fact that he played brilliantly with some United fans around me suggesting that Fergie should re-sign him –most were very serious. Every time he got near the touchline, which was a lot, the crowd nearest him would give him a standing ovation – a player still revered in these parts. To top his performance, Becks even captured a lone pitch invader for the hapless stewards who had been chasing the fan around the pitch. Many of the big names featured in the first half hour only to depart from the game early in preparation for United’s Champions League Final against Barcelona 4 days later. Rooney scored the opener, Juventus equalised through Simone Pepe and Juventus secured a (meaningless) 2-1 victory through a sublime free kick from Giandonato. A great evening all-round and a soothing football relaxant before Swansea’s playoff final, which was next on my fixture list 6 days later.
Carling Cup games are crucial for a lot of United fans, as some never get to experience the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ for Premier League fixtures due to the high demand for tickets and the high price of league games. I was offered a friend’s season ticket for United’s Carling Cup quarter-final v Crystal Palace and I thought why not. I made the 30 minute walk from my house to Old Trafford to collect the season ticket and then decided to sample the local drinking haunts that the area has to offer whilst the crowds were small. First up was the The Bishop Blaize, a Wetherspoons pub, about 5 minutes around the corner from Old Trafford. The place was quite empty but I did have some interesting conversations with the Red Army, many who informed me that they had a “mad time” down Swansea. I also encountered Fantasy Football legend Angus Loughran, aka Statto, who is apparently a huge United fan; I did speak to him very briefly but about what I can’t recall. Legend.
After a pit stop at Lou Macari’s Fish and Chip Shop (yes, that is really its name and it is apparently owned by the man himself) I crossed the road to United’s most renowned pub: The Trafford. The place is packed on a standard match day and away supporters do not get near the place, but today, with it being a measly Carling Cup quarter final, I was able to walk in and get to the bar straightaway. The place is draped from floor to ceiling in United colours and memorabilia – the pool table even has a red braize.
The brilliant atmosphere of The Trafford was still present that night, but a lot of it was coming from the Palace fans that had gained entry that night. There were friendly conversations between Untied and Palace fans (and myself) and it really was a very enjoyable hour spent in there before kick-off. In fact, I kept trying to leave the place but people (United and Palace fans) kept buying me drinks as they regaled me with their football tales. I was even invited back to the Trafford to join the party after the game.
I was excited to take my seat as I would be sitting on the famous Stretford End, where I was sure there would be an atmosphere no matter who the opposition was or what competition United were playing in. On taking my seat (after 2 sneaky bottles of Singha) I was greeted by some noise from the crowd, but unfortunately it was only resonating from the Palace fans who had consumed the upper tier of Sir Alex Ferguson Stand (away fans are usually positioned in the south east corner, but Palace were given a larger allocation due to it being a cup game). Palace were loud throughout the game, but the vastness of the stadium and the lack of United support ate the atmosphere up. The game was fairly slow paced and not much was happening, although Palace did show some signs that they meant business. Then something brilliant happened: the best live goal I have ever seen! The 2nd half had begun in a similarly uneventful manner when, whilst daydreaming into space, I noticed Darren Ambrose shuffle the ball past a United player and set himself up to shoot from 30-35 yards out – it was way too far out to score. Next thing I remember I had jumped up, in the Stretford End, screaming “What a goal! What a goal!” as the ball had piledrivered into the top corner. Haven’t got my bearings and timidly sat back down, I tried to hide myself from the staring eyes of the clearly irritated United fans. Kiko Macheda (remember him) leveled from the penalty spot to send the game to extra time – I just wanted to go home by now. In extra time Glenn Murray (I’ve always really liked him) secured a deserved victory for Palace, igniting wild Palace celebrations.
As mentioned in my previous Mancunian based post about the Etihad Stadium, in my school’s half term holiday (I’m a teacher, not a student by the way) I attended a Europa League game at the Etihad on the Wednesday and another Europa League game the next day at Old Trafford. I hadn’t planned on going, but I was offered a season ticket hours before kick-off and reacted by agreeing to go, despite me fearing it would be a dull game with United already ahead in the tie after a 2-0 first leg victory out in Amsterdam.
My ticket was coming up from South Wales with the South Wales Manchester United Supporters Group, so I headed to a working men’s club near the cricket ground to meet the group and get my ticket. After circling many streets around Trafford I discovered the place, an old, traditional working men’s club (I cannot remember the name of it!) with someone on the door requesting a pound for entry. As with any place like this, there was plenty of space inside and it was also fairly cheap. Compared to places such as The Trafford and Bishops Blaize the place was not jam packed either, as it was about a 15 minute walk away from the ground.
On the walk to the ground we were met by riot police, head to toe in body armour, who had apparently been dealing with crowd trouble between United and Ajax fans about 15 minutes before kick-off. Although United are viewed these days as a family and tourist friendly club these days, their more ardent ‘fans’ are just as likely to burst into violent action as that of any of club with a notorious reputation, a fact that is sometimes ignored by away fans.
Once again, I witnessed a very slow affair at Old Trafford and despite Hernandez scoring an early opener, the game died down very quickly despite Ajax scoring twice to win on the night (United won the tie 3-2 on aggregate overall). All the noise came from the Ajax fans and we were even treated with a standard continental football fan past time with Ajax lighting a flare in their end.
I’ve read about a lot of other football fans’ views on Old Trafford and many agree with the opinion that although it is a great symbol of football grandiose, it somehow never lives up to expectation when you are there. The website Away Grounds perhaps sums it up best by saying:
“Numerous fans have reported being disappointed by their visit to the “Theatre of Dreams.” However, this may partly be due to unduly high expectations brought about by the stadium’s somewhat pretentious nickname.”
I think there is not a fan in the country that wouldn’t look forward to watching their team play at Old Trafford, but this inevitably builds up very high expectations, which perhaps the match day experience impossibly cannot strive to meet.
I must also note that every game I have been to at the ground has been pretty awful or just not been a very big fixture, so maybe the quality of the action on the pitch has affected my opinion of the place.
This Sunday I shall be there once again to watch Swansea City take on the current champions, who will be fighting for their lives having just been knocked off top spot by their Manchester rivals this week. On paper, it looks like this could be a fantastic fixture and I hope this will enhance the atmosphere within the ground. It will also be my first taste of the Old Trafford away end, which I am told offers a great view of the action. I’ll be spending the hours before the game in the city centre , as it is probably not advisable to go around wearing the white of Swansea around the bars in the near vicinity of OT. Here’s to hoping that this time Old Trafford delivers fully for me (and that my run of 4 visits, 3 away team victories continues.)
Highlights: The nods to the history of the club (the statues, Munich clock); a huge club store; the Trafford pub; Singha Beer; spacious concourses; United museum; you might meet Statto
Low Points: Expensive tickets; some aggressive fans; not many pubs around the ground/pubs are always full (and no away fans); seats have little leg room; some seats are really high up and far away from the action; NO ATMOSPHERE!
City v United: Etihad v Old Trafford – The Verdict
Externally, both stadiums are magnificent sites; the sheer vastness of Old Trafford creates an awe-inspiring feel to the place, whilst the Etihad’s attractiveness comes from its slick modern design.
Going to Old Trafford is a much more special feeling than visiting the Etihad, obviously because of United’s history and the fact that the stadium is synonymous with greatness; with City’s latest successes, which will inevitably be followed by more in the next few seasons, City will be hoping to ignite a new era in their history and perhaps the Etihad could exude a similar presence further down the line in history. Old Trafford exudes an absolute United-ness with the statues, Munich clock etc. which immediately makes it feel a bit more special than the Etihad. However, as I said to one City fan recently, I could not really explain why, but the Etihad Stadium just seems to fit in with the style of City as a club at the moment.
Despite the reputation of the ‘Theatre of Dreams, I have to say that I much the football experience at the Etihad Stadium. Firstly, for pre-match indulgencies, there is the city centre on its doorstep and the ground hosts its own magnificent fan zone with City Square. Then there is the whole atmosphere issue: the globalisation of Manchester United has clearly alienated some of its local fans (look at how some have transferred their fandom to the newly formed FC United of Manchester) which has maybe diminished the boisterous atmosphere that was once associated with Old Trafford. From my experiences, the Etihad has a much better atmosphere, although City fans are still clearly finding their voices there, as it still doesn’t quite offer the intimidating roar of Maine Road.
Price-wise the Etihad, also just pips Old Trafford with the average price for a Premier League fixture being around the £38 mark, whilst United’s average ticket price is closer to £45; although I found the prices of food/drink a little bit cheaper at Old Trafford.
Apologies to United, I am really excited to go to Old Trafford again Sunday, but I’m still sure it will let me down somehow. The Etihad is the winner for me and I look forward to returning there next season again to watch the Swans.