Old Trafford | 1910-1930
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Manchester United’s history contains big names who have defined the club, but in more than a century of Old Trafford’s existence two stand out above all others.
You may not have heard of them, but without Davies and Leitch, the largest stadium in British club football could never have been built and United’s historic home, which has staged so many great triumphs, simply would not exist.
The story starts with John Henry Davies. When in 1902 he became involved with the club, it was at its lowest point; rooted to the bottom of the Second Division and playing at a ground in Bank Street, Clayton that was more village hall than Theatre of Dreams, while Newton Heath (as United were then known) were on the brink of bankruptcy.
Even Bank Street had been an improvement on the club’s first ground at North Road, Monsall. The pitch there was cloaked in smog from a nearby chemical plant and was described as “hard flint” at one end and “a mudheap” at the other. The changing rooms were in the local pub, which enabled the club to set new standards in matchday hospitality, but it was half a mile away from the ground.
Newton Heath finally left North Road for Bank Street after being evicted following a disagreement about charging admissions. Davies, having invested heavily in the club, changed its name to Manchester United and altered the strip to red and white, then turned his attention to the stadium. By 1906, Bank Street had the first covered stand in the country and a capacity of over 50,000.
With money behind the club, United were storming the Football League, and won a first league title in 1908. Manchester’s population had risen to two million, and with the introduction of reduced working hours, people had more time on their hands. Football began to increase in popularity, and Davies began planning a totally new 100,000-capacity stadium to ensure his club capitalised.
Details of the new stadium had been revealed in March 1909 as United were on their way to the first FA Cup triumph of their history. The stadium and the ground that it was built on would cost Davies and the club £60,000.
A site was found five miles away from Bank Street, close to the Manchester Ship Canal and the Trafford Park industrial estate. Davies appointed Scottish architect Archibald Leitch to design the new stadium. Leitch, who built Craven Cottage and White Hart Lane, had a simple brief: “Create the finest stadium in the North.” And although he had to scale the capacity down to 80,000 to save money, he succeeded.
The new stadium seated 12,000 under cover, with room for up to 70,000 on open terraces. Leitch had completely enclosed the ground by curving terracing around the corners, and had also included a gym and a plunge bath, as well as billiards, massage and laundry rooms. The better-off fans no longer had to walk half a mile for their half-time snacks either – attendants were on hand to guide them between tea rooms and their theatre-style tip-up seats.
The first game in the new stadium was played on 19 February 1910, against Liverpool. Despite having stars Billy Meredith and Charlie Roberts in the team, United lost 4-3. But the team went almost a year before losing at Old Trafford again, and this impressive home form helped to land the league title in 1911.
Weeks later, Old Trafford was chosen to host one of the FA Cup semi-finals. In 1915 it hosted the final, between Chelsea and Sheffield United – later known as the “Khaki Cup Final” because most of the 49,557 crowd were in uniform. The first international at Old Trafford was played in 1926 between England and Scotland, when 49,000 fans saw the Scots win 1-0.
In the space of a year, the stadium set two attendance records – 70,504 was the largest pre-war crowd at Old Trafford for a United league match (Aston Villa on 27 December 1920) while the lowest attendance of 13 saw Stockport County play Leicester City in 1921, in a game moved from Edgeley Park which was closed due to crowd trouble.
When the Railway Stand roof was extended a few years later, it marked the first of several improvements that led to Old Trafford being developed beyond recognition. Unlike many rivals who have had to consider leaving their city-centre homes to find space to expand, Davies’ choice of location meant the ground could grow with the club. To this day, Old Trafford remains the envy of other clubs. If Davies and Leitch were around today, they would know at least one thing had never changed.