Rebuilding Old Trafford: What the local residents and businesses think

Dan Sheldon and Mark Critchley

Most weeks between August and May will see more than 75,000 people descend on Old Trafford to watch Manchester United.

If you take a walk down Sir Matt Busby Way on a matchday, the road is full of pop-up shops selling unofficial merchandise, and supporters — some for the very first time — making their way towards the stadium and food stands.

There is a buzz along the famous road.

But as you make that walk, you might notice the houses that line one side of the street. And as you step closer to Old Trafford, and before the security checks, you’ll spot another street, Railway Road, to the left.

The Mary Earps mural will catch your eye, but if you look beyond that, you will see hundreds of houses. The people that occupy them are Manchester United’s neighbours; many can see Old Trafford from their back garden or window.

To some, they may be the envy of United supporters who have to travel from around the country or overseas to watch their team. But the relationship between the local residents and Manchester United is not as straightforward as you may think. 

Whether it is having litter thrown into their front garden, someone urinating down the side of their house, battling for a car parking spot, or hearing the drum of extractor fans, myriad issues accompany living next door to the biggest domestic club stadium in the United Kingdom.

In February, the club and Trafford Council joined forces to explore a significant infrastructure project, with a new stadium at the heart of those ambitious plans, to regenerate the area via the Trafford Wharfside development.

Their draft Trafford Wharfside masterplan, something they hope will turn into a reality over the next 15 years, would see up to 5,000 new homes being built, improved public transport and “a high-quality setting for Manchester United as they develop their plans for a world-class football stadium”.

As the graphic above demonstrates, the club already owns a significant portion of the land that encompasses the Trafford Wharfside masterplan, meaning that United and Trafford Council will have to work hand-in-hand to turn their vision into a reality.

There are, however, already question marks concerning who would foot the bill for the plans, with United actively exploring the possibility of using public money to help fund a new stadium.

Sir Jim Ratcliffe, the club’s co-owner, has discussed plans for a 90,000-seater replacement on the same site as Old Trafford, while still keeping the upgrading of the existing venue as an option. Ratcliffe estimates a refurbishment would cost £1billion, with a new build costing double that.

But what do the plans mean for the club’s neighbours and the local businesses who rely on match days for their income?

Living in the shadow of Old Trafford can be a fruitful existence for business owners who are turning a profit due to their close proximity to the stadium.

On a match day, especially down Sir Matt Busby Way, there are countless opportunities to buy unofficial merchandise. Whether it is a scarf with your favourite player on it or a pin badge, there is plenty on offer.

Angelo Agathaggelos has been the owner of the Red Star Sports Souvenirs shop for 33 years and it has been in the family for nearly 56 years. It is a long-running family business that relies on 75,000 people descending on Old Trafford.

“It’s everything,” Agathaggelos says when asked how important match days are for business. “Without United, we wouldn’t be here and that goes for everyone else.”

That sentiment is replicated among other business owners, so what do they think of the club’s plans to either redevelop Old Trafford or build a new stadium on the same site?

“If they’re going to move the ground, that’s not fabulous for us, but also there’s opportunity in what they could do with the existing ground and development,” explains Nick Buckle, the owner of Trafford Pub, which is located over the road from Sir Matt Busby Way. 

“We need to see what’s really going to happen. If it was a new stadium and it left Old Trafford that would be a huge issue as we’re a matchday-only pub. We can only either be a pub or a matchday pub. There’s no furniture in here. You can’t cater for both markets. 

Some local businesspeople would like a bigger Old Trafford (Michael Regan/Getty Images)

“If they moved the whole ground to somewhere else, that’d be a killer to us but if they just rebuild or it’s a new stadium just behind, that’s OK. That can only add value to things, and bring more supporters.”

Agathaggelos believes a redevelopment of Old Trafford would be the “perfect” tonic for those working in the area as a new build, even though the plan is for it to be on the existing site, creates uncertainty.

He also criticised Ratcliffe, the club’s minority shareholder who spent $1.3billion to purchase a 27.7 per cent stake in February, who has injected a sense of vigour into the plans for rebuilding a new stadium.

Agathaggelos claims Ratcliffe is “not a real United fan” and that they are “businessmen” who “don’t give a toss” about the club, nor are they “thinking of United’s history and tradition”.

“And I don’t buy all these excuses, it’s (the roof) leaking, it’s leaking,” Agathaggelos added. “My house got a roof leak, I fixed it! It’s going to last another 20 years. Bigger stadium, more fans, more money. I say keep it real, Old Trafford boys! That’s the way it is.”

“I’d prefer that they refurbish the existing Old Trafford, being the Theatre of Dreams,” says Bobby, co-owner of United Cafe Bar and Off Licence at the top of Sir Matt Busby Way. 

“Old Trafford as it is, only updated, bringing it up to standards basically. They haven’t invested anything in Old Trafford’s infrastructure for years now, decades. Certainly since the Glazers have been the owners.”

Although they are on the same side of the street as the matchday businesses, the local residents have an entirely different view of what it means to live in the shadow of Old Trafford.

Even on a rainy April afternoon, and despite there being no match on, there is still a hum of activity on Sir Matt Busby Way, as people walk towards Old Trafford taking pictures and videos, while others head in the opposite direction proudly carrying their club-store shopping bags.

In that sense, it is business as usual for the club; the tills continue ringing and people keep coming. But for Andy Cavanagh and Sandra Aguilera, who live on Railway Road, their normal is somewhat different.

They talk of an ‘us and them’ relationship. On one side of the railway line is Manchester United; the other side, in their eyes, the forgotten neighbours.

“I appreciate there are human beings in their system, but it definitely isn’t geared up to listen to people or to concerns,” Cavanagh says. “We don’t want to complain about the quality of service on the pitch; they could do a great job, like most businesses, if they communicated better. 

“We live on Railway Road. OK, we know there is going to be noise from a train. But that comes and goes. The club is just in defence mode all the time.

“Everything is painting over this terrible facade of a company that has been hollowed out. I don’t know how much of that is the Glazers or the culture, but the outcome is the same. It’s them and us. There is no community.”

United say they have multiple touch points with the community, which stems from several departments across the club, while also mentioning the work of the Manchester United Foundation.

The club note how they have met directly with members of community groups on several occasions over the last 12 months, but have since created a formal process to funnel discussions through local councillors. United meet with councillors representing Gorse Hill and Cornbrook, Old Trafford and Longford every quarter, where matters raised by local businesses and residents are discussed.

The next meeting is scheduled for this evening.

The Earps mural near the stadium (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Cavanagh and Aguilera recall an issue they had with the club’s extraction fans, which they said would be left on for days on end, causing a high level of noise pollution in their back garden.

They described it as a “struggle” getting hold of anyone at United to raise their complaint, so went to Trafford Council to see if they could apply pressure on the club to remember to turn the fans off.

“The club’s way of resolving it was to give Sandra, who is from South America, an Alexis Sanchez shirt. In their mind, the issue was sorted,” Cavanagh added.

“They had given us a jersey, but the only way we could have used the jersey to resolve the issue with the extraction fans was to cut it up and stick it in our ears, because we have to live with the noise.”

This example, the pair say, sums up United. And the Sanchez shirt is no longer in their possession after they gave it away.

“When we got to the end of our communication with them, they mentioned about raising any other issues through the fans’ forum,” Cavanagh adds. “But we are not in the fans’ forum, we are not fans of Manchester United. We are neighbours of Manchester United rather than customers.”

“I think there has always been an unusual relationship between the local community and Manchester United the PLC,” Ruth Hannan, a local resident and co-founder of the community group Gorgeous Gorse Hill, says. “Loads of people who live in Stratford and Gorse Hill are Manchester United fans, but they are fans of the football team, and that is where the tension lies.

“I have spoken about the idea of businesses in a place acting like neighbours and being part of that community, and therefore having consideration for their neighbours. 

“That becomes a more and more unusual relationship when one of those neighbours has a lot more power than the others. That is the approach I have always taken and that is where my concern lies about the redevelopment proposal.

“The concern for a lot of residents is that it will be talked about ‘benefits for the local community’, but as someone who has lived here for over 20 years, those benefits are very hard to see. A bigger stadium with all the additional challenges that will come with that won’t change that relationship, nor will it change what benefits the local community.”

It’s unclear yet what will happen to local houses (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Through the quarterly meetings with councillors, United say they have increased their engagement in the community, which has led to ‘Warm Hub’ evenings that have run throughout the last two winters, as well as working with Manchester Mind and ‘Talk About It Mate’ to offer the opportunity for local residents to speak with mental health experts.

To improve dialogue, United say they have recently launched a community newsletter aimed at keeping residents and local businesses updated on club matters, while also seeking to hear their views, which will then form part of the quarterly meetings with councillors.

United also note how a significant proportion of their matchday casual workforce is from the local area, with 1,400 members of staff living within a five-mile radius of Old Trafford.

In December 2022, Trafford Council launched a survey to look at the impact events at Old Trafford have on the local community. The survey went live on January 13, 2023, and closed on February 10, 2023. There were 486 responses, of which 97 per cent stated they were local residents.

The majority of respondents — 46 per cent — claimed to have never been to a match at Old Trafford, while only five per cent said they attend events there every week.

When asked by Trafford Council what issues events at Old Trafford cause residents, 87 per cent selected travel disruption into and out of the area. Seventy per cent said illegal or dangerous parking; 63 per cent complained about the litter; 35 per cent flagged anti-social behaviour as a key issue; and 10 per cent selected criminal behaviour.

Just under half (46 per cent) of the respondents said they struggle to get on with their day-to-day life if Manchester United are playing at home, with only six per cent saying they are not impacted when a match is taking place.

United point to their work with Trafford Council and Transport for Greater Manchester to develop a traffic-management system to reduce the impact on the road network on matchdays, while also saying they have continued to support Greater Manchester Police with their clampdown on anti-social behaviour when United are playing at home.

They say £25,000 was spent towards the installation of alley gates on residential streets within the local community to reduce anti-social behaviour issues.

When it comes to complaining about such issues, which is something Cavanagh and Aguilera have had to do, the negative experiences far outweigh the positives. Only 11 per cent, however, said they had raised their complaint to Manchester United compared to 36 per cent complaining to Trafford Council.

“I have complained to the Council and GMP (Greater Manchester Police) about the parking fraudsters, the alcohol and drug consumption, public urination, illegal removal of parking restriction signs, intimidation, criminal damage and littering. It’s got me nowhere,” said a respondent.

It was not all doom and gloom, though, with another respondent saying: “The positive impact to the local economy far outweighs any issues.”

From the mid-1990s to 2008, Manchester United, via their Alderley Urban Investments company, purchased freeholds and leaseholds near Old Trafford. As well as owning most of the land in Trafford Park, the club also has a leasehold or freehold interest in around 100 properties, including on Sir Matt Busby Way, Clyne Street and Railway Road. 

They own the leasehold to Cavanagh and Aguilera’s house, which means they own the land the house sits on. Owning the freehold means you own both the property and the land it sits on.

If you own the property but not the land it sits on, then you often need to pay ground rent to the company that owns the leasehold. So for the leaseholds owned by United, they can charge a ground rent.

Cavanagh and Aguilera say that they have not had to pay any ground rent since Alderley Urban Investments bought the leasehold.

United are hopeful of some public money for the project ( OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

The club strategy of acquiring property over time is why they now have the opportunity to consider a new build or expansion of Old Trafford. Different leadership groups at the club have decided to invest in property.

In some cases where the club has sold a property, they did not sell the leasehold along with it. This has been with the notion of a potential stadium in mind, only for those plans in the early 2000s to fail to take off.

“There has been 20 years of uncertainty, maybe less so with the Glazers because they haven’t invested much, but it is always up in the air,” adds Cavanagh.

“It is difficult to know whether they would have to make a compulsory purchase and take out the road if this were to become a forecourt. But now they are talking about building another stadium on the other side, so it is up in the air.

United insist that their tenants and leaseholders will be fully consulted during the process.

The local residents and business owners are yet to be consulted by the club on the plans to either develop Old Trafford or build a new stadium, and it is something they would welcome.

Hannan believes that now presents an opportunity for United to change the way they engage with the local community and knock down the notion of there being an ‘us and them’ relationship.

United say that a range of consultation methods will be used to ensure they hear from everyone who will be impacted by the regeneration of Old Trafford and the wider area.

One of the issues raised by Hannan, Cavanagh and Aguilera is that even though the club’s newly-created task force includes Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, and Tom Ross, the leader of Trafford Council, there is no local representation.

“Rather than the club approaching the local community going, ‘This is what we are going to do, what do you think?’, it should be, ‘What are the challenges? And what does good look like for you?’,” Hannan says. “They should be asking what we want the experience of living next to a big football ground to feel like.

“There should be community representatives on the task force. There is a real chance to create a participatory experience and create a community panel, which has representatives from the local community and get them to really feed into the process and shape it. 

“There is still an opportunity for them to make things better for the community and still make money. The two don’t have to be separate.”

United insist that the task force will be made up of people with a variety of experiences, skills and backgrounds, representing the key stakeholder groups who need to support the Trafford Wharfside plan and that further appointments to the task force will follow.

They say that they want to hear from a full range of voices and perspectives as they work towards delivering the project.

“I wouldn’t say I speak for the community, I wouldn’t do that, but that relationship between the local community and the club has always been the power sitting squarely with Manchester United,” adds Hannan.

“I have lived here for over 20 years and the engagement with residents, bypassing our local councillors and engaging with us as residents, has always been poor. It’s like they will keep throwing us a bone while knowing they don’t really have to listen to us.”

Those The Athletic spoke to believe this is a good opportunity for United to, in Hannan’s words, “do things differently”. 

They want “meaningful engagement” and want the club to not only think about the money that a new stadium could generate.

“If Ratcliffe is going to bang on about being a good northerner and a Manchester United fan, then he needs to show that,” Hannan added.

“Some of that will mean the plans they end up with may not make as much money as they’d hoped. But sometimes that is worth it.

“They could really solidify a relationship with the local community, where the local community works with them and supports them and are a partner in the same way they could do that with the fans.”

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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