There are few more iconic stadiums in world football than Old Trafford. But the famous old ground has also become a symbol of the decay and lack of vision of owners who’ve been asleep at the wheel for 17 years.
And it may now prove an obstacle to quick recovery and growth for any potential buyer of Manchester United who is prepared to swallow the enormous costs involved in building a new home fit for the planet’s self-styled biggest club.
United would be a far more attractive proposition to investors if they already had a stadium to rival that of Tottenham, yet Old Trafford now stands as a monument both to the failings of the past and the forbidding challenges of the future.
Buying United would be a hugely expensive enterprise even if there was not a new stadium and training ground to finance. But even if there are suitors who resolve that the juice is worth the squeeze and opt to push on regardless of the numbers involved, there will be huge headaches to contend with down the line.
The Glazers seem to be banking on a bidding frenzy like that which occurred for Chelsea, for whom Todd Boehly and Clearlake Capital paid £2.5 billion (€2.9bn) with the guarantee of a further £1.75bn (€2.03bn) to invest in a new stadium to replace Stamford Bridge.
That deal provided some evidence the absence of a world-class stadium was not a deterrent to investment and may have encouraged the Glazers, still reeling from the collapse of the European Super League and their dream of a protectionist cash cow, that now is the time to sell.
For all the talk of United’s owners being open to a strategic partnership with an outside investor, the prospect of any meaningful equity injection would involve giving up some control and the noises coming out so far are the Americans would only realistically do that if it meant a full sale.
Whether the stadium issue ends up suppressing the price or demand is such that the most reviled owners in top-flight football disappear into the sunset with eye-watering sums. The problem is not going away and threatens a millstone inheritance.
Even for an owner with deep pockets, an ambitious new stadium on a redeveloped site with new attractions would take years to build and necessitate a long wait for a return on that investment through soaring revenues from increased capacity, enhanced hospitality, other sources and, potentially, a naming rights deal.
And all the while the clubs you are trying to catch after years of decline under the Glazers – some, like Manchester City and now Newcastle, fuelled by the sovereign wealth funds and petrostate dollars – get bigger and stronger. It is a troubling equation and one any serious party interested in buying United must weigh up. As things stand, United have been leaning towards redeveloping Old Trafford and expansion of the existing south stand but that is being estimated at a seven- to eight-year project at least.
That seems an interminable time-frame, one in which there would be plentiful opportunities for people to lose interest, and redevelopment would also necessitate closing parts of the ground while work was going on, which means fewer seats and, by extension, less income. Is it any wonder the Glazers want out?
It is also not exactly an appealing prospect to a new owner trying to rein in Manchester City and is why it is hard to believe a change of ownership at United would not lead, ultimately, to the creation of a new stadium on surrounding land.
That would take less time to complete, offer some revenue protection and mean the team could carry on playing at an undisturbed Old Trafford in the meantime. A lesser if still large headache even if a new stadium would be both spectacular and provide link to the past. Whichever way you look at it, this conundrum is an albatross around the neck.