Old Trafford | 1975-1991
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Hooliganism stalked football in the 1970s and left its unwelcome mark at Old Trafford. By 1976, security fences behind the goals were extended down both touchlines, presenting a grim image more in keeping with a prison yard than a place of entertainment. But not even spiky iron bars spoiled the exhilarating fare served up by Tommy Docherty’s swashbuckling young team, which shrugged off relegation and regained a top-flight place at the first time of asking in 1975.
By then, work had started on rebuilding the main stand, with a spacious executive suite extending back towards the railway station and featuring panoramic stadium views. But to see the action, diners in two restaurants had to move to seats outside – now covered with a cantilever roof to match the United Road and Scoreboard End constructions – or to new exec boxes. Soon these handsome facilities were paying for themselves, with some opened to the public at selected times or available for hire. Extra function rooms were added in the 1980s, by which time the cantilever roof was extended to encompass the whole ground apart from the Stretford End.
A return to European competition – the Reds qualified for the 1976/77 UEFA Cup by finishing third in the First Division – underlined the need for new floodlights. These were duly installed, and, with so many facilities now offered by the lavishly upgraded stadium, naturally new uses emerged. In September 1981, cricket made its debut at the ground as Lancashire faced Yorkshire, and Nottinghamshire met Derbyshire in the floodlit Lambert & Butler seven-a-side tournament. Black sightscreens, white balls and yellow pads made for a somewhat surreal atmosphere. Rather more controversial was the suggestion that rock concerts could be staged on the sacred turf, with plans for Queen to perform in May 1982. Objections by local residents were upheld by the council, however, and the event switched to Elland Road, Leeds. It would not be until the next decade that Old Trafford would host leading music acts.
A more popular innovation was the family open day, which led to the introduction of behind-the-scenes tours. Fans from all over the world lined up to be shown around United’s inner sanctum. The trend towards turning the Reds’ HQ into an attraction on non-matchdays continued with the opening of the United Visitors’ Centre, including the Sir Matt Busby Suite, which fans used as a rendezvous point. This was part of a larger redevelopment involving replacing standing room with seats in the Scoreboard End paddock in 1985. The club also introduced a family stand, a seated section to which adults were admitted only if accompanied by a child.
Equally ambitious was the club museum, believed to be the first of its kind, which was sited above the Busby Suite. It was opened by club chairman Martin Edwards in May 1986, with Duncan Edwards’ mother among the ceremony’s guests. The museum cost an initial £100,000 and, with its bust of Sir Matt stationed at the entrance and its fabulous, ever-growing collection of evocative memorabilia, would prove an enduring magnet to United disciples everywhere.
The second half of the 1980s saw further diversification as Old Trafford was established as a venue for top-level rugby league, with a Great Britain v Australia test match in 1986. But that year’s most significant contribution to the future prosperity of United was the appointment of a new manager – one Alex Ferguson, from Aberdeen. The inspirational Scot’s unprecedented achievements would enable the club to embark on comprehensive redevelopment, transforming the Reds’ home into a state-of-the-art stadium. But the first priority was to spend cash on new players, so no major building projects were initiated for a few years.
In April 1989, the landscape of ground design was plunged into a new epoch when 95 people lost their lives in the Hillsborough tragedy. In line with the subsequent report by Lord Justice Taylor, United reduced the height of Old Trafford’s fences. And when the government endorsed the judge’s view that all First and Second Division stadia should be seating-only by 1994, the Stretford End terrace was doomed.
Clearly the work involved would be both time-consuming and enormously expensive but, in 1990, the club made a significant step by converting the United Road paddock from a standing to a seated area. The terrace in front of the main stand underwent a similar process in 1991, and that summer Old Trafford echoed to the strains of live music for the first time. But as Rod Stewart, Status Quo and Joe Cocker strutted their stuff on a stage in front of the Stretford End, the requiem for that hallowed hill of concrete loomed large.