MANCHESTER, England — The gray clouds hover above the autumn morning in the northwest of England. I am outside Manchester’s busy city center, an area of council homes on one side and a chain of shops across the road. Then I turn to Bank street, off Ashton New Road, which is a few steps from Manchester City’s facilities, close to the National Cycling Center.
“This site right here used to be Manchester United‘s ground before Old Trafford,” says Manchester football historian Gary James, who’s also my walking tour guide for today. James points to a plaque on a house, stating the original location of Bank Street Ground, the birth home of Manchester United, which was Newton Heath F.C. between 1893 and 1910.
“This territory, if you like, was very much Manchester United’s — probably around World War II — and then it became more Citified … and nowadays it’s totally blue.”
History never escapes you. It’s imprinted on everything, and despite the differences between both clubs in the present day, it’s important to remember that both sides originally come from the same thread and naturally, the same people.
“Traditionally, both clubs are similar, working-class,” James says as we continue to walk around the area, one that is historically known as an epicenter of the industrial revolution formerly surrounded by chemical plants, iron and steel foundries, and textile miles where industrial capitalism and the West African slave trade drove the city’s growth and labor force. Immigrants from all over lived and commuted in these areas and so, in time, came their two football clubs.
“Both teams [were born] from east Manchester. A strong, working-class area. Newton Heath, as we saw, was near City’s stadium now. City’s original ground and foundation [Ardwick A.F.C] was about a mile south of the Etihad,” adds James.
James explains how United eventually headed west in 1910 after Old Trafford was built and therefore creating more support on the West Side of Manchester, traditionally a wealthier side of the city. City, meanwhile, left Hyde Road and headed to Maine Road and Moss Side in 1923, a ground shared by both clubs between 1941 and 1948 after the second World War damaged Old Trafford.
The similarities are not just shared in geography but also the ups and downs of their dominance. Man City were actually the best supported club in the entire league right up to the first World War, while Man United came close to going bankrupt in the 1930’s. But that changed after Sir Matt Busby’s (a former Man City player) arrival as a manager in 1945 and began the journey on creating a legacy with the Busby Babes. The memories of the Munich air disaster in 1958 are honored on the side of Old Trafford, notably alongside the legendary footprint of the Sir Bobby Charlton, one of the survivors of the tragic plane crash and one of the greatest names in the history of United and the English game who died last Saturday.
On Tuesday, the club paid a beautiful, poignant tribute to the man. The crowd were so silent, only the breeze could be heard as United manager Erik ten Hag carried a wreath and a lone piper’s sounds carried the weight of everyone’s emotions. By the end of the evening, a dramatic Champions League victory commemorating an icon reminded us of what the stadium sounds like on special European nights.
As we conclude our walk in this part of town, James takes me through a beautifully complex, historical journey of Manchester City and Manchester United. Through his encyclopedic knowledge, I understand better the significance of these two clubs and how their history also tells the story of the working class Mancunian. The industrial revolution was born here alongside football, intertwining the two.
The 1990’s and Sir Alex Ferguson’s giants globalized Man United while today’s landscape belongs to Pep Guardiola’s superpower but at the beginning, it all began with two clubs from the east side.
I want to know more about today’s Manchester. I want to explore the city and witness firsthand how it keeps changing and evolving. I want to know about its people, through the eyes of locals and Manchester City and United fans.
How does Manchester continue to grow and reconcile its past with its present? How is the city a metaphor for both clubs and their current state? As lifelong Man United fans hold on to the nostalgic memories of the past, they’re alienated by owners who don’t seem to care or see the club as more than just a business, whilst City — just like the busy city center — embraces the energy and the continued rapid growth of its kingdom.
IT’S A CLOUDY, DAMP MORNING ON THE EAST SIDE OF MANCHESTER and I am walking around the suburbs of Clayton, which is three miles from the city center and a three-minute walk from Manchester City’s Etihad empire. I call it an empire because that’s exactly what it is.
In the distance, there’s the Etihad stadium and a bridge — Sir Howard Bernstein Way — connects the club’s main stadium to the Joie stadium, the home of Man City Women and the academy. Turn your head to the right and a massive granite black structure grabs your attention: it’s a 23,500 capacity, £365million indoor arena scheduled to open next April. It is a joint venture between City Football Group and LA-based Oak View Group with pop star Harry Styles acting as investor.
City continues to grow as construction surrounds the Etihad, with plans to expand the North Stand (the aim is for a 60,000 capacity) as well as a “City Square fan zone“, with food and drink outlets, a new club shop, a museum, a workspace and a 400-bed hotel. It’s a testament to the ambition of Sheikh Mansour’s ownership, the hiring of Pep Guardiola and his vision alongside the squad’s treble-winning mentality and everything that comes with it. That includes the alleged financial breaches and irregularities, but throughout and despite it all, this area continues to grow, magnifying the almost omnipotence of Manchester City.
“When the ownership came in 2008, through hiring the right people, there was a quest of being the best on and off the field,” says my ESPN colleague Nedum Onuoha, who was raised in Manchester after emigrating from Nigeria as a child. Onuoha joined the club in 1996 when he was 10 years old and made more than 100 appearances for the club. He is now a community ambassador.
“Ultimately they wanted the best people in the best positions to try and figure out how to do it and build this. They had the vision so they traveled around the world and saw all the best teams and clubs across different sports to see how they were doing it,” says Onuoha.
Onuoha points to another aspect that is important to remember when looking at the stadium, training facilities and City’s overall success. “This came about through the creation of the Commonwealth Games in 2002,” which was an important event for Manchester. After an IRA bombing in 1996, the city had to rebuild and reinvent itself through resiliency and determination. The stadium was used for the Commonwealth games and it was attached to City, but only due to the fact that City had gained promotion to the second tier of English football — then known as Division One in 1999, funnily enough the same year their rivals had just won a historic treble.
“If that doesn’t happen, then this stadium and this area might not have been Manchester City’s and it likely gets brought down.That’s a very important crossroads in history,” Onuoha says.
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MANCHESTER IS A STRONG, PROUD AND DIVERSE CITY. One that constantly adapts and that’s looking to become the alternative to London. The last time I was here in Manchester was in 2006. I was an actor at the time and was part of a theatrical tour of Moby Dick at the Library Theater. Now, 17 years later, as I stand in the popular, youth-centric area of Spinningfields in the city center, the place is unrecognizable. “The city changes every month,” said the young barista serving me coffee that morning. “It’s faster than Marcus Rashford.”
There are stores everywhere, and maybe even more eateries in one block than perhaps New York City. The diversity of food is prevalent. From Punjabi to Caribbean, Argentinian and Catalan, including Tast Catala, where Pep Guardiola is also an investor. Students and young professionals hang around the Ancoats neighborhood, once a textile district turned wasteland in the 90’s, it’s now a vibrant area filled with tremendous character. The old mills from the 1800’s are now apartments and the local pubs adorn the canal.
Construction sites and new apartment complexes — courtesy of billions of dollars coming from overseas investors in the last eight years — sit across from older parts of the city. Even Albert Square, the city’s heart and one of the most significant buildings in the center of the country, is under renovation.
It is an unbelievable transformation, where — like any big city — there are many who prosper and others who struggle as a result of the changes, especially at a time of a cost-of-living crisis in the U.K. The population in the city center has doubled to more than 60,000 since 2014 and by 2025, it’s expected to hit 100,000. There is a young, vibrant community mainly due to the presence of five universities in the city, making it one of the most diverse student populations in Europe. But those who live inside the center are mainly 35-49 year olds, local and non-local professionals, fully pursuing the apartment market, where rent continues to surge, surpassing the national average rental growth of 14% to nearly 20%. But with this hike come more people from the outside, looking to be part of Manchester’s boom.
“There is a real narrative of a massive build within the city center, people coming across the country to work in Manchester because they can’t afford to work in London,” says Tim Desmond, chief executive of the National Football Museum, located in the city.
“So a lot of tech and media are coming to Manchester. That’s a great influx of talent across the country and indeed the actual world. The downside of that is where do the lower socioeconomic [groups] find a place in the city. I believe they left the city a while ago. Still in Manchester City, but they’re not in the city center. So the outskirts are still alive and well. Our job is to make sure that they feel part of this city in terms of access here. So they’ve been displaced already within the gentrification of the city center and it’s a bit like Manhattan. I’d be lying if I said they didn’t exist here. I think the council’s view is the more investment we can get in Manchester, the more we’ll have for social engagement.”
From a Premier League perspective and how it impacted Manchester’s tourism, back in the 1990s and early 2000s, Man United dominated the popularity that reached beyond England. Nowadays, it’s the ever-powerful Guardiola and Manchester City that attract a lot of museum-goers. The women’s game, especially the Lionesses, has also stimulated the museum’s boom. As a result, the local council funding the museum has invested in initiatives that will help grow the culture and football sector.
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“The sweet spot between culture and football is fantastic,” Desmond says. “Our number of international visitors has gone up from 20% to 50% in the summer, and it shows that Manchester is becoming a massively international city because of the global entity of football.”
The worry for Manchester, as Desmond was saying, is making sure it is also there for regular Mancunians.
“I suppose it has the same social ills that any city has. It’s great that you get to see people that get more opportunities here and it’s always healthy to have them come to your city,” says Nooruddean Choudry, a writer and journalist who wrote a fantastic book called “Inshallah United: A Story of Faith and Football,” about his upbringing in ’80s and ’90s Manchester as a Muslim Mancunian and a dedicated Man United supporter.
“Things like the BBC coming here, that’s great. However, house prices go up and places become more expensive and there’s that concern about gentrification. Take an example of Man City. There’s no denying — whatever I might think of the owners of City, or even in football terms the success of City, to a certain extent that’s helped the economy and there’s another big club in Manchester. However, this idea that Man City has helped those around the area. And that’s true to an extent, proving jobs that weren’t there. But it also acquired a piece of land, so the people that used to live there, no longer live there. They moved on,” added Choudry.
There is no doubt, however, that Choudry respects the success of his club’s local rivals and in many ways, nostalgia — just like Manchester itself — is what’s holding United fans back sometimes. Looking forward can be difficult but it is also essential. That has never been more apparent than this weekend when both teams face each other in the derby.
“City fans and fans from other teams would start to say that United are living in the past now,” he says. “We’re always referencing past glories. We’re literally sitting in front of a poster of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in the Champions League final. So that’s a good example. I think there is sometimes a danger of Manchester doing that, because we still reference the Stone Roses or Oasis and Hacienda … I think that’s a trap that the city shouldn’t get into. The city is at its best when it’s reinventing itself.”
And he can’t deny that’s exactly what Man City are doing. Around Old Trafford, where I talk to him, the area is obviously different to the Etihad as United’s stadium — adoring itself with past glory as he rightly refers — stands in need of much work. Choudry would readily admit that it’s due to the disinterest of United’s Glazer ownership as opposed to anything else. Even with Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s near-arrival and wish to control the football operations in return for his proposed £1.5 billion ($1.82bn) investment, one thing is for sure, all United fans want the Glazers gone.
“You’ll struggle to find any Man United fan who disagrees with that,” Choudry says.
“They really don’t care about what we want,” says Choudry’s 18-year-old nephew, Ali Mohammed, who also joins his uncle as we speak on the benches outside the stadium. “It’s just more commercial brands and big name signings who are not that good. It’s heartbreaking to see this club be destroyed this season. If we have bad leadership it infects everything below. I just want a good leader who will be at United and have something to look forward to.”
“The corner inside the stadium, which is the TRA [The Red Army] section, the singing section, the noisy section — whatever you want to call it, when a game begins, they will sing, ‘Stand up if you hate the Glazers,’ and I look around and everybody is standing up,” says Peter Bolton, a lifelong Man United supporter who now lives in Altrincham, south of Manchester, but who grew up in central Manchester. Bolton, a retired cab driver who has never lived further than 10 miles from Old Trafford, has gone to every home game and every Manchester derby since 1974.
“I’m retired now but I’m still excited about every game. I am never going to walk away from my football club but at the moment I feel my football club is walking away from me. You go home and ask yourself, ‘why am I doing this?’ My love for United, cause they (the owners) hate us so much. The legacy fans are unwanted.”
As I look around Old Trafford, I can’t help but appreciate the aura of historical grandiosity, notably as it pays homage to the legends of yesteryear, including of course, their recently gone legendary godfather, Sir Bobby Charlton. As I chat with Bolton, I see the car park right outside the stadium welcoming coach buses from international visitors from China, Singapore and the Philippines. Man United is Asia’s most-supported club. More than 325 million support the Red Devils, showing how powerful this club is from a global standpoint.
MY FINAL DAY TAKES ME BACK to the city center on a bright sunny day in October. An anomaly. I am impressed by Manchester’s growth and equally mindful of Desmond’s words that emphasize the need to serve all Mancunians.
I meet Alex Kirkley, Man City’s stadium announcer, on the rooftop of a brand-new office building as he shows me the landscape of his city. Kirkley always wanted to become a commentator but quickly realized there was too much statistical knowledge required so it wasn’t for him. Instead, he became the Etihad’s unique voice inside the ground.
“I think Man City’s evolution has come at the same pace and time of the city and how it has evolved as well,” he says. “I was a child of the 80s and City was very much up and down. There were some reasonable highs and incredible lows, the big highs were beating Manchester United in the local derby really…the city center was more a place for work and a place for nightlife.
“Then in the late ’80s and early ’90s, a big music scene like Acid House and dance music. Into the ’90s when City came back to the Premier League and had reasonable success until we had a nosedive in the late ’90s, just when the Gallagher brothers hit their peaks of their powers, City’s graph of success went the other way. So it wasn’t particularly cool to support Man City, though Oasis helped. I would go away on holiday and I would say that I’m from Manchester. Their reply would always be, ‘Oh, Manchester United!’ City would never come into the conversation.”
Now, as Kirkley said, things are different. Much like the city’s transformation.
“I think back to the IRA bombing in 1996,” says Kirkley, who lives in Salford (a Manchester United region) in Greater Manchester. “It was almost a reset for the city to develop. From that point on, as I was in my late teens, the city changed for the better. It’s more culturally diverse, much more going on, and a good vibe around the place. It’s become this hub now of entertainment, lifestyle and restaurants everywhere.
“You have people from all over the world. Manchester is a great place to live. We could do better on public transport but we’re working on that. We are in the midst of a cost living crisis here in the U.K., of course. It is quite expensive to live in the city center … but in the end, a lot of Mancunians wouldn’t feel misty-eyed when someone talks about London,” says Kirkley.
The trip is coming to an inevitable end, and as I say goodbye to Manchester, I spot yet another print or wall drawing of a bee. They’re everywhere around the city. On street walls and restaurant windows, on the corner of bus stops and lampposts. A regular pastime for tourists would be to see how many you can find.
It’s the symbol of the worker bee, a metaphor for the collective strength of the city. An idea born out of Victorian times and the emergence of the industrial revolution, essentially saying that this city was made by the people and not by royal influence or power.
As I find another bee around the Gay Village, en route to Piccadilly train station, I remind myself of the last words from Desmond from the National Football Museum.
“Manchester is about being practical. It’s not a pretentious city. It will change, but I think it will change in a Mancunian way,” he says. “It’s an accepting city and a melting pot and I only see it becoming more diverse and creative as time goes on with its socialist values, and if we use football as an example, it will do it with passion and engagement as well.”
Ahead of Saturday’s derby, Manchester United and Manchester City fans — for all their differences, how they view the current state of their clubs and how they exist within their communities — can remember the eternal meaning of this game and how in the end, football — just like Manchester — exists because of hard-working, passionate, open-minded people. It’s up to these communities to make sure it prospers.
Thanks to Rob Dawson, Mark Ogden and Carl Anka for extra guidance on the piece.