Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Sheikh Jassim continue to wait for an update on their bids to become the Premier League giant’s next guardians but whoever takes over will be given more than 40 acres of land that is ripe for high-end redevelopment
With its leaky roof and rusting girders, Old Trafford is a symbol of Manchester United ’s decay under the Glazers. But it could become a cash cow for the club’s next owners if they invest in more than 40 acres of land that will come as part of the sale.
Both groups in the interminable race to become United’s next owners, fronted by Sheikh Jassim and Sir Jim Ratcliffe, have assured that investing in the club’s infrastructure forms a key part of their plans.
But while the ground’s future and multiple potential development scenarios, none of them without significant flaws, appears a front and centre issue, followed by improvements to the Carrington training ground, factoring in the land owned by the incumbent owners presents a lucrative opportunity.
When the Glazers purchased the club in 2005, courtesy of a controversial leveraged buy out that still sees the club with debts exceeding £500m, they initially had plans to improve Old Trafford. A year into their stewardship the upper tier quadrants on the north side of the stadium boosted attendance to 74,310 but those plans were in place well before their arrival.
Since then any improvements have been cosmetic and, regular attendees say, the level of maintenance has been insufficient. In 2022 the club appointed an inspector to examine leakage issues when it rains, a not infrequent occurrence, and staff have previously been pictured scurrying along the cramped concourses with buckets during games.
Not helped by the nearby canal, there have been problems with rodent infestation to the extent that, in 2015, Trafford Council filed a report that said the club was “failing to implement adequate procedures to control pests.”
And while rival clubs have sought to improve their food and drink offerings, both for the normal matchgoing fan and corporate big spenders, United’s has been stagnant. Prawn sandwiches no longer seem high end when others boast of Michelin-quality food and world-famous chefs.
United insist £100m has been spent on the stadium since 2005, including £11m recently on improving disabled facilities that they have said is among the best in Europe. “Part of the allure of Old Trafford is the fact that it’s a stadium that was built in 1910,” they said in a statement two years ago. “Our vision is to rejuvenate the stadium but keep it feeling like it is Old Trafford. That’s the perfect solution for us.”
Manchester United fans gather outside Old Trafford yesterday as they protest against the ownership of the club. (Image:PA)
In April 2022 the club said that a consultancy team led by Legends International and Populous, who were behind the new Tottenham Hotspur stadium, would immediately begin working on a redevelopment masterplan. They made a presentation late last year, offering a number of proposals that included renovating the existing structure and demolishing the stadium with a new ground on the land adjacent to it.
Yet that process has been paused by the decision to put the club up for sale and will be one of many crucial matters for the new owners to decide upon whenever a deal is completed.
It has mostly been framed as a problem for the next owner because they would likely need to spend at least £1bn after coughing up several to be handed the keys in the first place. Except the Glazers’ indolent approach affords Ratcliffe or Sheikh Jassim the freedom to transform the surrounding area into a massive money maker.
Leaks have been a common issue at Old Trafford for several years.
The Glazers were proactive in their early years when it came to buying up the derelict land surrounding the stadium with the intention of developing it. Into what has never been entirely clear and much of it remains a vast expanse of concrete that serves as car parking on matchday and lies vacant the rest of the time.
Among the deals completed by the Glazers was the purchase of more than six acres of industrial properties next to the stadium in 2011. They paid SEGRO, an industrial development firm which at the time was landlord to more 110 small businesses in Trafford Park, about £8.2m only for no development to take place in the dozen years since.
In total there is an estimated 43 acres of Glazer-owned land ripe for development and previous reports suggest that when factoring in disused buildings in the surrounding area there could be more than 100 acres should the next owners attempt to gobble it up.
Local politicians are supportive of any future plans to redevelop, with Labour MP Andrew Western telling the Financial Times that it had “the potential to be a game-changer” for the borough, adding that “Trafford council has huge aspirations for the area.”
What the land could become is open-ended.
The opening of Hotel Football, the 12-floor, 133-room accommodation owned by former players including Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, in 2015 was framed as both a missed opportunity from the club and a measure of what investment could be worth.
Pre-pandemic the hotel’s accounts showed it had a revenue of more than £6m a year – modest in isolation but a handsome profit if multiplied. And anyone who has attempted to stay in Manchester on the night of a big event will be aware of the limited hotel options available and there is plenty of demand.
Previously there had been suggestions of a large events space being constructed to rival the 21,000-capacity Manchester Arena. History suggests that planning permission for such a plan is far more complicated than, say, developing new homes.
Arsenal are a reference point for football clubs becoming property developers having constructed hundreds of apartments to help pay off the debts associated with building their new stadium. In the financial year of 2009/10, for instance, accounts show that 362 apartments were sold at Highbury Square producing revenue of £133.6m, while the Ashburton Triangle continues to generate income – despite controversy and complaints around cladding issues. The latest accounts showed a £2.2m annual profit.
For whomever of Ratcliffe or Sheikh Jassim ends up taking over (unless the Glazers back out, of course, which is still possible), this will not be top of their to-do list. But in the long-term they will find that this is much more than the purchase of one of the world’s biggest football clubs but a £1bn goldmine ripe for high-end development.