Old Trafford | 1931-1962
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United were at a perilously low ebb as the 1930s dawned. While the worldwide economic depression kicked in, the Reds were on the verge of bankruptcy, the team continued to deteriorate and Old Trafford could no longer claim to be the top club ground in the country, having been made to look increasingly ordinary by plush developments at the homes of enterprising rivals.
But just as oblivion beckoned, United were saved by the intervention of local benefactor James Gibson. He couldn’t prevent relegation from the top flight at the end of a dire 1930/31 campaign, but his cash and confidence heralded a new era epitomised by the much-needed covering in 1934 of the popular United Road terrace, now the site of the majestic Sir Alex Ferguson Stand.
The club consolidated all through that decade, with a particular shift in focus to producing young players. United returned to the First Division, and by accommodating 76,962 spectators for Wolves’ FA Cup semi-final victory over Grimsby Town in March 1939 Old Trafford’s renaissance as an elite sporting arena was confirmed, and that also set a record attendance for the ground that still stands.
However, darker days loomed. Due to the proximity of Trafford Park industrial estate and the Manchester Ship Canal, United’s headquarters was at serious risk from Hitler’s bombs during World War II, and the stadium was duly pummelled by two Luftwaffe raids.
During the first bombing, on 22 December 1940, the ground suffered enough superficial damage for a Christmas Day clash with Stockport County to be moved to Edgeley Park, but normal business was soon resumed. However, there was no such rapid recovery from the second attack, on the night of 11 March, when most of the main stand was wrecked, the dressing rooms and offices devastated, while the pitch was scorched. It was the most extensive damage suffered by any league club during the war, and United were subsequently homeless. Enter Manchester City with the offer of Maine Road as a temporary venue. It was at the Blues’ former home that the Reds were destined to spend the next eight years.
In November 1944 the War Damage Commission announced that Old Trafford was not a total loss and soon local MP Ellis Smith, an avid follower of the Reds, became involved in efforts to obtain grants for rebuilding. When the war ended in 1945 the Commission came up with £4,800 to clear the debris and a further £17,478 was pledged to help reconstruct the stands. There were genuine hopes that a return to the ground would be made in time for the 1946/47 season, but with the building of houses a clear priority in the aftermath of war, there was a chronic shortage of materials, which caused a frustrating – if wholly understandable – delay in making the ground habitable again for anything but reserve or schoolboy contests.
Happily, on the playing front, there was a fruitful new beginning, signalled by the appointment as manager of a promising young coach by the name of Matt Busby. Had he been discouraged as he gazed out over his new domain shortly after taking office in 1945, with rubble all around and a large bush flourishing on the pitch, no one could have blamed him. But the softly spoken, charismatic Scot had a vision of what he might achieve with the club, and of how football should be played, and very soon he was providing lavish fare for a population that was desperate for entertainment after years of hardship.
By common consent United became the most attractive side in the land during the immediate post-war years, and in 1948 Busby’s men won the FA Cup in breathtaking style. Yet still they remained tenants at Maine Road until later that year when the Blues, who were beginning to feel restricted by the ground-sharing arrangement, issued the Reds with notice to quit. This inspired a petition by United fans to the Ministry of Works, calling for the rebuilding of their ground to be expedited and citing an urgent need for football as their only form of recreation after a hard week’s work.
The plea was duly answered. Clearance work was completed by the following spring, terraces were restored, some 3,000 uncovered seats were installed and, with shelter available for directors and press only, the Reds ran out at Old Trafford at 6.30pm on Wednesday 24 August 1949 to face Bolton Wanderers in a First Division match. Responding to the occasion, the Reds triumphed 3-0.
Busby’s teams prospered following an injection of youth in the 1950s, and their trailblazing path into continental competition hastened further refurbishment and the next landmark in ground development. That was the installation of floodlights in time for the European Cup semi-final clash with Real Madrid in April 1957, with previous night games having been played at Maine Road. What was essentially the modern footballing era was now under way. In September, with profits now soaring thanks to back-to-back League titles and the European adventure, the Reds announced an intention to increase Old Trafford’s capacity to 100,000. Work was to start the next year.
However, the Munich crash in February 1958 changed that agenda, and although the staging of a Rugby League clash between Salford and Leeds in November that year signalled a restatement of commercial ambition, improvements were limited to the covering of the Stretford End in 1959.
In the summer of 1960 work on the Stretford End, and the neighbouring paddock, increased capacity to 66,500. A year on, the United Road section was re-roofed and the stream of expenditure led the club to set up the Manchester United Development Association (MUDA), with the remit of raising cash for future improvements. The new body’s first project was the provision of 1,700 wooden seats at the back of the Stretford End, but for the ever-enterprising MUDA, a far more grandiose task was just around the corner.