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Friday, February 19, 2010

Tom Clare on the 100th anniversary of Old Trafford

Old Trafford – “The Theatre of Dreams”

It is ironic that it was none other than Sir Bobby Charlton who christened Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium “the Theatre of Dreams.” Speaking back in 1978 when the club was celebrating its centenary year, Sir Bobby said;

“I’ll always have a great affection for this place. I suppose that I have put a lot of blood and tears into it. And to see the place as it is now as opposed to when I first arrived here, makes me fully realise that I did have a little part in all that change. I find that so rewarding. Look at it now – it must be the envy of every club in the country.

As for the man on the street, the guys on the terraces, they’re everything. They’re not a part of the backroom politics and all the in-fighting that goes on. They don’t really understand that side of it. What they do understand is that they have their team and their whole lives revolve around coming down here to Old Trafford.

They are a part of a never ending story. They are a Theatre of Dreams!”

The “Theatre of Dreams” statement wasn’t really picked up on by the media until the middle of the 1990’s, but having made that statement a little over thirty years ago now, I wonder just how Sir Bobby feels today, when he looks out from the director’s box at Old Trafford on match days, and surveys the wonderful stadium and scene before him?

I first set foot inside Old Trafford in the Autumn of 1950, some three years before Sir Bobby joined the club, but it is true to say that that what we both saw on our initial visits, was identical. The stadium had been badly damaged by the German Luftwaffe in World War II, and it had taken over four years to raise the necessary finance through government grants and private money for the rebuilding to take place. Consequently home fixtures were played at Manchester City’s Maine Road ground until the opening home game of the 1949/50 season which was against Bolton Wanderers and took placeon August 24th 1949. But even then, the rebuilding was not complete as the roof over the main stand (now the South Stand) had not been effected. This did however, happen for the beginning of the 1950/51 season.

I first set foot inside Old Trafford for a reserve game in August 1950 when I was just five years old. Accompanied by my brother Peter, we travelled from our home in Chorlton-upon-Medlock and even though almost sixty years have elapsed since that day, I can still remember it well. I suppose that for United supporters, wherever they may hail from, your first visit to Old Trafford is something that sticks in your memory for the rest of your life! Whenever I return to Old Trafford today, I always take time to look around the magnificent arena that stands before me, and then reflect upon how grand it has become since those old days many years ago. Today’s magnificent showpiece bears no resemblance in any way, shape or form, to the old lady that once stood there and served the club so well. So let me take you on a trip down Memory Lane.

There was a lot of football played at Old Trafford back then from First Division league games, Reserve team games, youth team games, amateur representative games, and even schoolboy representative games and cup finals. So the pitch got a lot of wear and tear. Although it always seemed to be in pristine condition for the opening game of the season in August each year, I think that it is true to say that by December the pitch was certainly only ever on nodding terms with a thing called grass! January and February would see the pitch cut up badly and at times, especially if there was inclement weather, the players would be playing on a sea of mud after ten minutes play.

The first team match day experience was totally different in those days. Getting to the stadium would be either by bus (which most people preferred), electric train using the London Road – Altrincham line (it is now the Metro Link line), the steam train from London Road from which you could alight immediately outside United’s main stand, or by car.

If you were traveling by bus, Manchester Corporation Transport used to run “football specials” from Aytoun Street, and Piccadilly, in the city centre, to Old Trafford, and return after the match. There used to be lots of double decker buses in line and the fans used to queue at the bus stop. A bus inspector would call the buses forward and load the buses to capacity before waving them off. Travelling on these buses was quite an experience. The lower deck seating was filled and then in the aisle between those seats there would be a lot of people jammed in standing up. The bus conductor would have go around taking fares and issuing the bus tickets from what was a clipboard with different tickets on it. Traveling on the upstairs of these buses you could say that you risked permanently damaging your health in doing so! Upstairs was for smokers and within minutes of the bus moving off, thick, acrid cigarette smoke would permeate the air, and half way through the journey to Old Trafford, you would smell it from downstairs. The poor bus conductor having had to go upstairs to collect the fares, would then descend when his job was done, eyes watering and more often than not, coughing his lungs clear. He would spend the rest of the journey stood on the bus platform trying to get as much clean air as possible as the bus meandered the rest of its way to its destination.

Travelling by train, either the electric or steam mode, was far more sedate and comfortable. The electric train used to fill up, but this was also a scheduled service that ran from London Road through to Altrincham and return. It also catered for the everyday btraveler who wasn’t going to a match, and on the occasion of the “bigger” match, you would often find people standing in the carriages once the seating was full. They train would arrive at the Old Trafford station and the fans would disembark and make their way down Warwick Road like an army of ants on the move. Past the Cricket ground, over Talbot Road, past Stretford Town Hall, over Chester Road, and down to the ground.

Today, the Metro service has replaced what used to be the electric service, and the line has been expanded out eastwards to Bury. However, upon arrival at Old Trafford station, the scene back in those days was very different from the colourful scene that greets today’s fan. Back then there was never any ticket touts waiting to greet you as you made your way out from the station. There were no vendor’s stalls at all along the whole of the walk down Warwick road to the stadium. It wasn’t until the late 1950’s that hot dog/burger men in their white coats were seen at matches, but again, they were nothing like the giant mobile eateries that you see around the stadium today. Back then they were on tricycles!

As you crossed over Chester Road the shop on the corner of Warwick Road on the left hand side, used to be just a newsagents – there were no chip shops on that frontage at all. Over the other side of the road was Quick’s motor dealership and their premises used to run down almost to the railway bridge. As you made your way down to the stadium, just before the bridge on the left hand side was the “United Café” and on match days this place was always overflowing with people.

One of the most memorable match day scenes on that bridge was the band of buskers who played there for probably 20 years or more. The accordionist on many occasions was man named Terry Foy who originated from Dundee in Scotland and was a good friend of my father’s. Certainly, I can remember them still playing there in the early 1970’s and maybe even later.

Fans who traveled to the ground from London Road on the steam train, alighted right outside the main stand (South Stand today) and had not very far to walk upon their arrival. The forecourt of the ground at the Scoreboard End was what we used to commonly call a “croft”. On the rebuilding of the ground after the war, the forecourt was originally all cinders and over the years these cinders became trodden down making a hard surface. On match days, both first team and reserve, fans traveling by car would park their vehicles on the forecourt until it was full up. There was no charge, and no stewards organising the parking! No vendors around that area, only newspaper boys from the Manchester Evening News, and Manchester Evening Chronicle, selling their latest editions.

On the ground where the car park is today that faces the megastore, used to be a mineral water firm named “Aerowater.” Mineral used to be the common name back then for what is now termed pop! Going past the “Aerowater” company’s premises you came to the Canal bridge and immediately across that was the large black castleated building and tower that was the Kilvert’s Lard company. This was a landmark that was there for years and years and years and instantly recognizable.

As you walked past the Scoreboard End and went to the left, you came upon United Road and walked down by what was termed then the “Popular Stand”. On the right hand side was a large wall and behind that wall was the Glover’s Cables factory with its huge imposing buildings and two tall chimneys that soared into the air like two tall guardsmen on sentry duty at Buckingham Palace. United Road came to a dead end as you got towards the Stretford End of the stadium. The Glovers wall finished at a gate which enabled employees and visitors into the works and also into their sports ground which was immediately at the back of the Stretford End. The Glovers wall carried on around there until you reached the rail line. Again, the area between the back wall of the Stretford End and the Glover’s wall had been cinder and was trodden down. It was in this area that the players used to play “killer ball’ during training and kick hell out of each other. Jimmy Murphy used to cast a watching eye over a lot of those sessions because as he used to say, he learned a lot about the character and qualities of a lot of the young players who were coming through.

Around the ground there was probably 20 – 25 entrances that allowed the fans to enter the stadium, and going through them was by means of passing through the rickety turnstile. Exit from the stadium was by means of large wooden gates and there were two each at both the Scoreborad and Stretford Ends, three along the United Road, and four smaller ones along the Main Stand. The only seating area in the stadium in those days was in the main stand. It wasn’t until the Stretford End was modernized in 1959 that a further 1500 seats were installed, and then the original Cantilever Stand built in 1965/66 for the World Cup really opened up the stadium to seating. There were two Paddocks; the Old Trafford Paddock and the Stretford Paddock. The main stand and the two paddocks were covered from the elements. Both the Stretford and Scorebaord Ends were uncovered. Down along the “Popular Sde” there was a covered area that ran from approximately 18 yards line to 18 yards line.

Once you had gained entrance to the stadium through the turnstiles, normally the first person you saw were the men selling the official match programmes. There were plenty of them and they were only on sale inside the ground. When I went to my first game in September 1954, the cost of a programe was four pence (two pence in today’s currency). In the areas immediately inside the ground, at various intervals were small wooden huts/sheds that sold refreshments. Mostly it was Oxo/Bovril or tea, minerals, crisps, sweets etc. I can’t honestly recall if pies were sold then but I can say that I did start seeing them on sale around the 1960 time. Oxo/Bovril which was a hot drink with a beef base, and was always welcome on those cold winter Saturdays throughout the football season.

Entrance into the actual stadium once you had gained access to the ground was by various avenues. There were three small tunnels which you could walk through – one each at both the Scorebaord and Stretford Ends, and one in the middle of the “Popular Side.” As you cleared these tunnels, the stadium would open up in front of you in all of its glory. There was also a large number of stairways that went around the ground. Separating the stands from the running track and the actual playing pitch was a picket fence that went the whole way around the ground. Where each stairway was located, you would see a metal stanchion about six feet tall and at the top of the stanchion would be a metal circle with the number of that particular stairway painted upon it. These stanchions would be taken down by the ball boys and placed on the running track alongside the picket fence, just before the game began.

The Stretford and Scoreboard Ends back in those days were just very small terraced areas. The Scoreboard End’s main feature was the large Scoreboard at the top of the teraace. It was made of brick, wood and corrugated sheeting and was coloured for some reason black and yellow. There were 26 boxes marked with a letter of the Alphabet. Below each individual letter was a door that opened and had the facility for two cards to be inserted, one in the top half, and one in the bottom half. In the match programme on the back page would be the day’s football fixture and each game would have a letter of the Alphabet adjoining it. These letters would be matched to the letters on the scoreboard and at half time, when the doors of the boxes on the scoreboard were opened and the cards inserted, the top number would show the home team’s score and the bottom number would show the away team’s score. At full time, the process would be repeated and fans would know the results of most matches that were played that day.

The Stretford End was nondescript back then, just a small standing terrace. However what did used to happen was that id you stood at the top of the Stretford End terracing, you could look down and over into the Glover’s cables sports ground. You could see the whole of their football pitch. Hundreds of fans used to stand at the top watching the Glover’s works team play whilst waiting for kick off time in the United game. You would see and hear them all stood up there and whenever a goal was cored in the Glover’s match, a roar would go up.

Back then United’s gates fluctuated depending upon who they were playing. The end that the away team defended would always be packed with spectators. At half time it used to be funny to watch people moving from behind one goal to the other at the opposite end of the ground. Again it was like an army of ants marching towards its prey!

The players used to emerge from a tunnel in the centre of the Main Stand. On either side of the tunnel were concrete dugouts for the home and away team staff (there was no substitutes in those days) and normally United’s would be occupied by Tom Curry, and Bert Whalley. Behind the dug out was a small flight of stairs that led up to the seats in the Main Stand. Sir Matt and Jimmy Murphy had two seats on the front row where they would watch the game from. It was a better vantage point than watching from the dugout as that was quite low and you didn’t get a wider view of the game.

After a game we youngsters would hang around outside the Old Trafford main entrance. Unlike today there were never any autocratic commissionaires or security men policing the door, and often we would go inside. The area immediately inside those solid wooden doors was quite open, and led to the stairway that went up to the directors’ box and to the posh seats in the main stand. If you turned left once you were inside those main doors, there was the sliding door which led to the dressing rooms – Mecca for us, young starry eyed kids. Immediately inside the main door and facing it just 10 yards or more away, was the players’ tunnel, a surprisingly steep and narrow concrete ramp that led down and out into the stadium and then onto the pitch. The number of times that I ran down that tunnel as a young boy, imagining that I was carrying the ball and leading out my heroes to a full house – Oh! What a dream that used to be. We kids would fight to be first in the line to run down that tunnel, followed by the rest of the ‘Ragged Arsed Rangers’! It must have been so funny for the ground staff, who after a game would be tending to the playing surface, replacing divots and forking areas around the goalmouths, to watch this assembly of scruffy street urchins emerging from that old tunnel. They never chastised us or interfered with our innocent play; usually they would just smile, or make a few witty remarks. The kids would wait for the players in the area immediately outside the dressing rooms. If you waited long enough you could even travel home on the same bus with your hero. In those days there was a very close bond between the players and the fans, the community and the club.

So that’s how the old lady of a stadium used to be. Far, far, different than the magnificent arena that stands there today. However, the old stadium holds so many, many wonderful memories for people who saw it as it used to be. So much history was made there. As we celebrate the centenary of Old Trafford being opened I get a little teary when I remember that my Grandfather was present on February 19, 1910 when the first ever match was played there.

by Tom Clare

Red News contributor Tom Clare's book - Forever a Babe - order via Amazon


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