Modern history

Joyce Woolridge explains why a guided tour of Old Trafford left her with mixed feelings

A confused Japanese woman on Piccadilly Metro Station had asked me, in what amounted to sign language, what tram she needed to board to get to Old Trafford. She waved a photocopied tourist information sheet which presumably suggested that there was only one place worth visiting in England outside London, and that was the self-styled Theatre of Dreams.

With complete disregard for her safety, she then pulled a wad of travellers’ cheques out of her bag and announced, “I buy, buy buy. Three hundred pound. There is shop?” Boy, had she come to the right place. I was escorting Martin Edwards’s wet dream to the Megastore.

When we reached the forecourt, my new friend jumped up and down in sheer delight at having made it to the ground of the team she had adopted after avidly watching the Premier League on Japanese television. Filled with pride at the worldwide fame of my club, I pointed to the wall of the stadium and announced, with an affecting catch in my voice, “The Munich Clock.” “I sorry, Munich?” She looked blank. I gave up at this point; my thespian powers were woefully inadequate for a re-enactment of the tragedy, especially since the last place in the world you’d want to be seen doing aeroplane impressions is outside Old Trafford.

I took her to the “Museum and Tour Centre”, packed out, even though it was a wet Friday outside school holidays. Our tourist could learn all about Munich there, though it was the modern Manchester United she had come to see.

Ground tours are now a firmly established part of the football industry. All but two of the Premiership clubs offer them, and they can be hugely successful. United’s attracts up to 150,000 people a year. The people who gathered inside the cafe (also the entrance to the museum and trophy room) were a mixture of first-time visitors who had come to see a stadium and might know very little of the team’s past, and dedicated United fans who had come to wallow in a story with which they were very familiar, and hopefully peek behind the curtains which separated them from their heroes. Those of us belonging to the latter group were to be slightly disappointed that we were on the mini tour, so-called because it omitted the dressing rooms, where the kit had already been laid out in preparation for a match the next day.

The trophy room proved to be a brilliant demonstration of what you could do with those unwanted gifts: put them on display and charge people to see them. The “tokens of esteem” presented by teams which lost to United during their 1990-91 European Cup Winners’ Cup campaign were a wonderful selection: a miner’s lamp from Wrexham; ugly ceramics from the Eastern European clubs, Legia Warsaw and Pecsi Munkas; a pretentious modern bronze sculpture from Montpellier; and, the most grandiose of all, a large silver and gilt enthroned queen, in a coach drawn by two lions, set on a marble plinth – from Barcelona. It is not recorded what Man U gave in return.

One of the few interesting points made by Eric Cantona in his autobiography was that British clubs are distinguished from most of those on the continent by their strong sense of history. There was ample evidence on both the tour and in the museum of a careful fostering of the club’s past. The key word to describe the main theme is continuity; there is a constant emphasis that the new Manchester United plc is the heir of the railway men who founded Newton Heath in 1873. In this version there is an unbroken line which passes through the Munich disaster and the Busby years to the commercial grandees who hold sway now.

It reminds me forcibly of new money buying up a stately home and then aping the squirearchy to avoid the accusation of being parvenus. Some might say that in fact there is very little connection between those beginnings and the big business of today, but it is obviously very valuable to the new brigade to maintain the fiction that they are the trustworthy custodians of the club’s heritage.

This claim to stewardship is made more difficult to swallow when it is set against the cavalier attitude the current ownership have been seen to have in recent years to less desirable (in their eyes) elements of the background of this club. The most famous example of this must be the rechristening of the Stretford End as the bland, unhistorical West Stand (we are told for safety reasons), ditching generations of a particular type of support that doesn’t fit in with the new Vision.

It is possible to be selective in what one chooses to conserve. Thus, in one of my favourite parts of the tour, we were taken down the old tunnel which came out near the halfway line and which had, “the steepest slope of any tunnel in Europe”. It is the intention of United to “preserve” this relic, the scene of so many historic entrances to great victories, lest we forget. An unlovely spot it is certainly, very steep, cold and dank, in stark contrast to the carpeted new version. You could imagine visitors being shown along it in the future, in a parody of mining museums which take you down a shaft to show you what things used to be like before there was progress.

The new tunnel has to be historicized too, of course, and two tasteful plaques have recently been erected there commemorating deservedly benefactors of Manchester United who helped to ensure the survival of the club when it had nothing. Will these be joined in the future by memorials to those who have made an awful lot of money out of it in times of plenty?

A second theme of any ground tour is the celebration of the technological marvels of the post Taylor rebuilding: the numbers of close circuit television cameras, executive boxes, seats in stands and so on. Despite myself, I found it all very interesting. This must be how tours of new stadia where the club has sold off and demolished its history altogether are maintained. When discussing the commemorative plaques with a bitter Yeovil Town fan (there is no tour at their present ground, by the way) he pointed out that a marker of Yeovil’s greatest moments would have to be placed somewhere near the cold meat counter of the supermarket which occupies the site – a reminder that the owners can just as easily jettison years of history should it suit their purposes.

It has to be acknowledged that United’s museum doesn’t always omit the “difficult” parts of the club’s history: in fact, at times it even celebrates United’s “rebel past”, devoting a big section to Billy Meredith, Charlie Roberts and others who led the players’ strike in the early part of this century. The ground tour also probably represents the best value for money you can get at Old Trafford from the non-footballing activities on offer. I will have to go again just to see what the dressing rooms look like.

That said, however, I can’t help but think that ground tours present us with heritage football which invests the new commercial orders with a legitimacy, prestige and tradition which, frankly, don’t belong to them.

From WSC 122 April 1997. What was happening this month