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How Sir Matt Busby arrived at Manchester United.

Four decades into the future, Alex Ferguson would be moved to describe Old Trafford as the "Theatre of Dreams" as he gazed round in wonderment following his appointment as manager of Manchester United, but when Matt Busby turned up for work on his first day on Oct 22, 1945, the once-magnificent stadium lay before him as a Second World War bomb site.




It was the latest masterpiece of architect Archibald Leitch, who had previously designed Hampden, Ibrox and Parkhead, and when the 80,000-capacity marvel opened in 1910 one smitten scribe on The Sporting Chronicle hailed it as "the most handsomest, the most spacious, and the most remarkable arena I have ever seen. As a football ground it is unrivalled anywhere in the world".


Amid the ruins: workers tackle the job of rebuilding Old Trafford after Second World War bombing
During a visit by the Luftwaffe on the night of March 11, 1941, however, Old Trafford took several direct hits as a result of a raid aimed at the nearby Vickers munitions factory and the Ford Motor Company, where the Rolls-Royce Spitfire engines were assembled. It was a scene of utter devastation that met the eyes of the recently demobbed Company Sgt Major Alexander Matthew Busby, of the Ninth Battalion of the King's Liverpool Regiment.

The spectacular main grandstand lay in ruins, what was left of the vast, sweeping terracing was overgrown with weeds, a thorny 6ft high bush had sprouted in the middle of the scorched pitch, a couple of threadbare Nissen huts served as dressing rooms and offices, and the 'training pitch' was a levelled-off area of rubble behind the Stretford End; the 'Theatre of Dreams' was a landscape of nightmares.

Even before being visited by Herman Goering's bombers, United, champions in 1908 and 1911 and FA Cup winners in 1909, had fallen on lean times. In the years leading up to the outbreak of war, their league record read: 1930 - 17th; 1931 - relegated (a 'crowd' of 3,969 watching the last home game of the season against Middlesbrough); 1932-35 - division two; 1936 - promoted; 1937 - relegated; 1938 - promoted; 1939 - 14th. The most popular team on earth? United were not even the most popular team in Manchester, where arch rivals City could justifiably claim to be the bigger attraction. Indeed, if you had stopped the average Mancunian in the street to ask directions to Old Trafford, in all probability you would have found yourself watching cricket.

That United were still enjoying any form of existence, however parlous, was due to the passion of two men, director/sometime chief scout/sometime manager/perennial 'Mr Fixit' Louis Rocca, and chairman James W Gibson, who had amassed a vast personal fortune through the manufacture of army uniforms.

Rocca, an Italian immigrant ice-cream tycoon, had already played a significant role in the club's history during a board meeting in 1902 called to decide on a change of name from the original Newton Heath. Manchester Central was rejected because it conjured up images of railway stations and steam trains, while Manchester Celtic was thrown out as sounding too Scots/Irish. "Gentlemen," as legend records Rocca's flash of divine inspiration, "why don't we call ourselves Manchester United?"

Come the desperate second division days of winter 1932 when, with bankruptcy looming and a crowd of less than 5,000 scattered around Old Trafford to witness once-mighty United's 1-0 defeat by bottom of the table Bristol City, it was Rocca who convinced club secretary Walter Crickmer to call upon the kindly Gibson at his Cheshire mansion to plead for deliverance from extinction.

During their summit, it was agreed that Gibson, who would become club president and chairman of a new board of directors, would inject an immediate £2,000 (about £90,000 at 2008 values) to guarantee the wages of players and staff, while guaranteeing a further £40,000 (£1.8 million) to pay off debts brought about by the Great Depression.

Although Gibson's arrival at Old Trafford would have little impact on the pitch, where United embarked upon a yo-yo period alternating between the first and second divisions, his far-sightedness would have repercussions long after he died of a heart attack in 1951 (his widow, Lillian, would continue to be the largest shareholder until her own death in 1971).

With little money available to buy players, Gibson launched the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club - a precursor of today's academies - to nurture local talent. As testimony to Gibson's initiative, when the first of the three great United sides Busby would build during his 25 years as manager won the FA Cup in 1948, four of the brilliant forward line - Johnny Morris, Jack Rowley, Stan Person and Charlie Mitten - had been raised on the cobbled streets surrounding Old Trafford.
 
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