There is a scene in Fawlty Towers when one of the customers is checking out of the hotel and wants to tell Basil how much he has enjoyed his stay. So much, in fact, that he passes on what he thinks is a dead cert for the afternoon race at Exeter and puts a few coins into the tip box on his way to the door. At which point Sybil appears and Basil turns to his wife with a slightly startled expression on his face. “Satisfied customer,” he explains. “We should have him stuffed.”
If the Glazer family have spent long enough in England to understand that kind of humour, you wonder whether Manchester United’s owners would appreciate that line. They, too, don’t get many satisfied customers, which probably should not come as a surprise given the way they run the club and the mountains of debt they have stacked up in the process. Or the way, perhaps, they promised to keep an open line of communications and, 14 years on, we have not heard a peep from them since.
Perhaps one day that will change and it will be reminiscent of that final scene in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest when everybody realises Chief Bromden can talk, after all. Until then, however, it isn’t easy to be sure whether this regime knows, or particularly cares, that this might be a good time to talk about Old Trafford and, specifically, the way it is showing its age.
It certainly feels that way when Tottenham have raised the bar so dramatically with their sleek new stadium and there are so many transformational plans for the clubs that United always measure themselves against. Real Madrid start work on remodelling the Bernabéu this summer. Barcelona are upgrading the Camp Nou so it has a roof and a 105,000 capacity. San Siro, home of the two Milan clubs, will be next for a 21st-century rebuild. Bayern Munich, Juventus and Atlético Madrid have all moved into shiny new arenas during the Glazer era. Arsenal and Manchester City, too.
Old Trafford remains the biggest football stadium in England, bar Wembley, by some distance. It has one stand alone that can accommodate more people than Fulham, Watford, Huddersfield, Burnley or Bournemouth hold in their entire stadiums and when Barcelona roll into town on Wednesday it will be a reminder that Old Trafford possesses something a new-build will not necessarily have: soul. Manchester United versus Barcelona is not just a football match, it is an occasion. One of those nights, with the Champions League anthem playing, when the place comes alive.
That does not change the fact, however, that there will be street‑sellers on Sir Matt Busby Way hawking the latest edition of Red News, in which the fanzine laments how “tired and tatty” the ground looks these days and devotes considerable space to analysing why nothing is being done about it. The only logical conclusion being that the club does not want to spend the money.
Anyone who has visited Manchester recently will have seen the architectural ambition that is thrusting the city skywards amid a blur of hard hats, scaffolding and giant cranes. All sorts of new, dizzying creations are taking shape on an endlessly evolving cityscape.
Back at Old Trafford, the stand named after Sir Bobby Charlton has barely been touched structurally in 45 years. This is the stand the camera positions don’t let television viewers see and, knowing the way this club operates, perhaps they reckon that is for the best. The structure backs on to railway lines and, according to the club, that makes it impossible to arch a bigger and better stand over the tracks (impossible in this case actually meaning complicated and expensive rather than, well, impossible). The roof is so old and leaky it is quite common for torrents to gush through in times of heavy rain and, though I wouldn’t want to put anyone off their entrées in the executive suites, it probably sums up the way the place is kept that Old Trafford has had long periods with a rodent infestation.
All of which brings to mind the press conference with Sir Alex Ferguson after a photograph of a mouse running across the pitch, midway through an FA Cup tie against Burton Albion, appeared on the back page of the Sun. “Mice?” Ferguson exclaimed, glowering at his audience. “I don’t know about mice, but we’ve got a bloody big problem with rats. And you walked right into that one …”
He was always good for a one-liner, Fergie. What he would not accept, for reasons never satisfactorily explained, was criticism of the Glazers. It didn’t matter to him apparently that there was a time when virtually every supporter inside Old Trafford wore the green and gold protest colours. Or that David Gill, the then chief executive, had initially opposed the takeover before switching camps when it went through. “Loyalty has been the anchor of my life,” Ferguson wrote as the final line of his 1999 autobiography. Sadly, in his latter years as United’s manager, that meant loyalty to the people who paid him, rather than the supporters who had been warned by Gill, no less, that “debt is the road to ruin”.
Ferguson may still believe he backed the right horse. I do wonder, though, whether he has any misgivings when he sees the growth of their rivals and remembers how previous regimes at Old Trafford have always understood that a club with United’s ambitions ought to own a ground that was not just bigger but better than the rest.
“The most handsomest, the most spacious and the most remarkable arena I have ever seen,” the Sporting Chronicle wrote on the weekend in February 1910 when Old Trafford staged its first-ever match. “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.”
And now? Let’s not be too critical when Old Trafford has the history, size and eminence that will always make it one of football’s great monuments. That is not in dispute. It is more the way the place is kept these days, the lack of modernisation and how that, in turn, reflects on the people at the top of the club.
What, for instance, does it say about United that they own so much of the land around the stadium but appear to have no inclination to do anything with it?
Manchester City have a 7,000-capacity stadium opposite the Etihad to accommodate their under-23s, their women’s team and academy sides. Barcelona have the Mini Estadi, which will be rebuilt and named after Johan Cruyff as part of the new Camp Nou. United have acres of land but not the motivation or, possibly, money. Their other sides play their fixtures at Leigh Sports Village near Wigan these days and, before that, Hyde, Altrincham, Bury, a rugby ground in Salford and a couple of other places.
As for Old Trafford itself, the stadium has not changed since two quadrants started going up in 2005 – a £42m project ratified before the Glazer takeover – to take the capacity over 75,000. Otherwise, the biggest development has been the opening of Hotel Football on private land opposite the stadium. Except it was Gary Neville and the Class of ’92 crew who thought of that one, rather than United themselves.
That, in a nutshell, sums up the absence of forward thinking at Old Trafford. Just as the stadium’s issues with vermin, detailed in a 2015 Trafford council report, highlight the lack of care behind the scenes. And, yes, it is looking tired, it is looking tatty. The Trainspotting-style toilets, the cramped and dated concourses, the fact you can get a better wifi signal in the Masai Mara (no kidding), the grim options unless you are eating in the corporate areas and the press box facilities that are so out of date you expect to be engulfed in cigarette smoke and see hacks in sheepskin coats dialling through their copy with those old rotary telephones. There is a reason why Uefa no longer chooses England’s largest club stadium to host European finals. As Red News puts it: “Old Trafford should be the visible symbol of a world‑famous institution. But it’s being allowed to decay.”
Warnock threat bizarre but there is a Cup conundrum
That was a peculiar line from Neil Warnock, never the easiest man to read, when he threatened to field an under-23s side for the trip to Manchester City last Wednesday because he wanted to keep his players fresh for their assignment against Burnley.
Why? Cardiff’s trip to Turf Moor is not until next Saturday, meaning they had 10 days between the two games. It never made sense to take on Pep Guardiola’s side with a weakened team, no matter how small their chances of avoiding a defeat, and Warnock’s selection did at least seem to recognise it had always been an empty threat.
Not that this could be the only time in the next few weeks when this kind of possibility threatens to have an impact on the title race. Imagine, say, if Wolves beat Watford in their FA Cup semi-final on Sunday. The final is on 18 May and six days earlier Wolves play Liverpool at Anfield on the last weekend of the league season. How might that affect the thinking of Nuno Espírito Santo, the Wolves manager, in what could be a title-defining fixture?
You don’t have to speak Chinese to read Arnautovic’s body language
Presumably, Manuel Pellegrini is just trying to cut Marko Arnautovic a bit of slack by asking West Ham’s supporters to lay off him while expressing his own belief that, despite considerable evidence to the contrary, the player is fully committed to the club.
Unfortunately for Pellegrini, that is the crux of the matter: ever since Arnautovic missed out on the dosh of China’s Super League his performances and body language have left the clear impression he had already, in his own mind, severed whatever attachment he had to West Ham.
Either way, Arnautovic’s record during his six seasons in England with West Ham and Stoke City – on average, 7.67 goals each year – suggests his current club should be able to get by if his wanderlust kicks in again this summer.
Arnautovic, you might recall, had talked about wanting to leave so he could pursue his dream of winning titles in a new country. Brilliantly, he seemed to think West Ham’s supporters might swallow it, too. Nothing to do with the bags of gold on offer, of course – just a line of PR that brought to mind the spoof interview in FourFourTwo when Graziano Pellè joined Shandong Luneng, leaving Southampton for “what I presume to be a football club in China or thereabouts”.