Man Utd would be right to leave Old Trafford - but they must avoid these classic new stadium mistakes

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Manchester United could knock Old Trafford down, according to reports - but must ensure that a sense of history follows them to their new home.

According to a new report from The Daily Telegraph, Sir Jim Ratcliffe doesn’t want to limit his involvement in Manchester United to control over sporting matters – he is also looking into the possibility of knocking down and rebuilding Old Trafford, and has a vision for a new “Wembley of the North” in Salford. Many United fans will no doubt blanche at the idea of the destruction of their Theatre of Dreams, but it may be a sad necessity. The worry, of course, is that the grand old ground’s sense of history would be lost.

Old Trafford was opened in 1910 and hums with history, but its age is showing. The Glazers have not renovated the stadium since they took over the club in 2005 and there is evidence of decay all over the stadium, from rusting metal to the infamous leaking roof. Parts of the South Stand are more suited to archaeologists than matchgoing football fans. Renovation is an option, according to the Telegraph’s report, but it is clear that at least some of the people involved are in favour of starting anew and replacing a ground whose current condition meant that it wasn’t selected as a venue for the European Championships in 2028.

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“The building is reaching the end of its natural life; the cabling, the electricity supplies, everything is nearing its sell by date”, said Chris Lee, the managing director of architectural design firm Populous who have been engaged to consult on Ratcliffe’s plans. “[A new stadium] may well turn out to be the most cost-effective solution.”

Of course, Lee may have some bias in his verdict, but the point is easy to take. Beyond the shiny, modern exterior presented by the main concourse, Old Trafford is crumbling. A new ground would apparently cost £1.5-2bn, but apparently expanding the South Stand to increase the current capacity of 74,000 would cost £800m in its own right. From a strictly economic standpoint, building an entire new stadium may well be the best option, especially given the scope for the design of a much larger edifice which could hold many more of the fans clamouring for tickets to almost every game.

Ratcliffe is apparently keen that Manchester United should not move far, if they do leave their home of 114 years. The land immediately north of the current stadium has been earmarked, and while it isn’t clear whether the owners of the freight terminal that occupies much of the area would be willing to sell, it remains a rather desolate, half-used industrial wasteland that seems ripe for development. It would be close to existing transport facilities – which desperately need improvement in their own right – and would at least spare fans much of the sense of displacement that inevitably comes when clubs move home.

But the fact remains that, for all of the economic arguments that may be made in favour of a new stadium, Old Trafford contains much of Manchester United’s soul beneath its rusting rafters. The historical monuments that litter the ground would no doubt be carefully moved – the statues of the United Trinity, the memorial to the lives lost in the Munich Air Disaster, the stopped clock beside the entrance to the Munich Tunnel – but statues and plaques are just one part of the physical apparatus that transforms a stadium for a collection of bricks and steel girders into something more.

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Many modern stadium are designed to be clean, comfortable, and packed with all requisite amenities, but lack that slice of soul and sense of belonging that fans are meant to feel in their own stadium. It would be a great shame if that fate befell Old Trafford, because for all the wear and tear there is something undeniably special about the old ground – a sense of history that a shiny steel-and-glass ground may struggle to replicate.

Not all new stadia are bad, of course – just look at the new Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, which has all the trappings of the new builds but is also atmospheric and monumentally impressive, from its gleaming façade to the vast Yellow Wall-inspired South Stand with the golden cockerel perched atop. But then again, White Hart Lane was in many ways just a classical concrete and iron box, with the straight edges, angled rooves and occasional sightline-wrecking pillars which are typical of a ground designed by Archibald Leitch, the great architect of the turn of the last century who set the blueprint for British football stadia and also designed the original Old Trafford.

But Ratcliffe’s desire for a “Wembley of the North” should ring alarm bells, to a certain degree. Wembley is an impressive stadium, well-designed to ship huge crowds in and out and ensure that they are fed and entertained with minimal fuss and crowding, but is also lacking in atmosphere, its design focused on safety and ease of watching the game rather than on aesthetic principles or on the creation of a cauldron of noise. Old Trafford, which attracts almost as many tourists as hardcore, week-to-week fans, can be somewhat quiet as is, and a new stadium needs to be built with the idea of making it loud, exciting and beautiful as well as accessible.

Many of football’s older stadiums are evocative and come packed with a sense of history, even if they are not always the easiest to get to and from, or best set-up for people to get to the concession stalls or to host pop concerts and other events. The worry is not that these elderly grounds are being replaced, but that they are being replaced by stadiums which match a modern architectural vision which lacks style or beauty.

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It's far from guaranteed that a new stadium will be built. Ineos’ £1.03bn deal to buy 28.9% of Manchester United comes with a guarantee of £237m for stadium work, but that is not close to the amount required to build a whole new ground. The Glazers would need to reach into their own deep but often inaccessible pockets to make the project work, and they have resisted calls to renovate Old Trafford over the past 19 years.

Then there are all other barriers – planning permission, government funding, land purchases and so on – which stand between Ratcliffe and a new ground on the old industrial strip between Salford Quays and the Bridgewater Canal. This is a vision, and no more, for now, but a tempting one.

One can understand the desire to knock down Old Trafford, or, for example, the desire of Milan’s two great clubs to leave or rebuild the San Siro, a project which has been put on hold after the local council refused to agree to renovate one of Europe’s most stunning but also most decrepit grounds. But the hope is that the next generation of football fans get to grow up watching their teams play in stadiums that feel special, not just ones in which they can access a pie and a pint or watch an Ed Sheeran gig slightly more easily. Let us hope that, if Manchester United do build a new home, it is a worthy successor to the Theatre of Dreams.

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