Football: United remodel their theatre of dreams

Six months after work began, they are already allowing fans into Old Trafford's new super structure. Guy Hodgson reports
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There is one thing that you can be sure of when you talk about about Old Trafford's new North Stand: it is going to end in tiers. Three to be precise, a massive 26,000-seater monument to the enduring popularity of Manchester United.

Walk into the ground and the sheer size of the thing hits you. Even in an age where the breath is regularly taken away by spectator areas such as at Elland Road, Anfield and St James' Park, this is a gargantuan structure, reaching high into the old Trafford Park docklands sky.

It dominates the theatre of dreams, at 3,600 tons looming twice the size of the existing structures - and Old Trafford was hardly a tin-pot shambles with rickety old sheds to stand under to start with. When it is complete - and the estimates are for April - some 55,300 people will be creating a noise redolent of the terrace era in support of Eric Cantona and co.

"Even though I'd seen the drawings and been involved throughout the planning stages, it surprises even me," Martin Edwards, United's chief executive, said about the stand that will be the biggest in Britain. "It's an impressive structure."

So is the speed with which the North Stand is being erected. Work began only in June and by last Saturday's match against Chelsea, the bottom tier - the equivalent of the previous cantilever stand built for the 1966 World Cup - was occupied for the first time.

Already the capacity is nudging the "sorry, no more seats" numbers of last year and the undertaking to have at least that number ready for the European Championship has been completed six months ahead of schedule.

"The simple problem was of demand," Edwards continued. "We had a beautiful concentric ground with all the stands the same size, but we couldn't fit in everyone who wanted to watch Manchester United. We had 123,000 members last year, most of whom wanted to come to Old Trafford several times a season. With a capacity of little more than 43,000, it meant we were turning thousands of people away. In those circumstances, the economics dictated we couldn't let the shape of the ground dictate what we did."

Ah, the economics. United have been accused of worrying more about pennies in the till than goals in the net, but they can hardly be accused of stinting. The North Stand is going to cost around pounds 19m, which when you include the pounds 9m to buy the land it stands on makes the total cost more than pounds 1,000 a seat.

"We've estimated we are going to need to fill Old Trafford 100 times before the stand is paid for, which means five seasons if we're lucky," Edwards said. "We're usually close to capacity for League games, but we don't always sell out for Coca-Cola Cup ties and European matches."

The stand will also provide the centre-piece for events beyond United's matches, including European club finals. It would be natural to host more FA Cup semi-finals there, too, while rugby league, which already uses the ground for internationals, will scarcely be deterred by an increase of 12,000 in potential ticket sales. Indeed, the single biggest reason why the new national stadium is unlikely to be built in the east of the city is rising on the banks of the Manchester Ship Canal.

How big can Old Trafford get? Peter Beatty, joint managing director of Hilstone Laurie, the construction consultants for the North Stand, believes that is a matter of technological advance and Manchester United's determination. "At the moment, the next stand most capable of expansion is the old Stretford End," he said, "but that was rebuilt only a couple of years ago and the club is unlikely to want to knock it down for a few years yet."

A railway line runs to the south, while police would be loath to let United expand to the east on to what is the main concourse into the stadium. "As structural engineers, we regard these problems as a challenge," Beatty said. "They said it wouldn't be possible to build a stand on the north side because of an access road, but we've managed it. In fact, it's a matter of some pride that the building has gone on without that road ever having to close."