How the Commonwealth Games resurrected East Manchester

PUBLISHED: 00:00 30 July 2014

Manchester Eastlands

Manchester Eastlands

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The redevelopment of East Manchester has given the former industrial heartland a sporting chance, writes Ray King

Sport City Etihad CampusSport City Etihad Campus

Monte Carlo is the place for a gamble. But it wasn’t in Monaco’s famous casino that Manchester placed its multi-million pound bet, but in the bar of Loews Hotel overlooking a harbour containing some of the most expensive private yachts in the world.

It was September 1993 and the city’s bid to stage the 2000 Olympics had just fallen at the third hurdle, leaving the eventual winner Sydney to vie with Beijing. The men who had fronted Manchester’s bid, Bob – later Sir Bob – Scott and Graham Stringer, then city council leader, had headed to the landmark hotel for a consolation drink.

Meanwhile in Manchester, despite the defeat, the party was still in full swing; thousands of people had turned out to watch the International Olympic Committee’s voting on big open air screens in Castlefield. The momentum was tangible and the two men were determined to harness it.

‘Why don’t we go for the Commonwealth Games?’, asked Scott; Stringer agreed and three weeks later, the suggestion that the city bid to host the Commonwealth Games in the Queen’s Golden Jubilee year of 2002 was formalised at a press conference.

Manchester EastlandsManchester Eastlands

For Stringer the decision to go for the Commonwealth Games was a logical one – as the Olympic ambition had been – not so much to do with sport, but as a means of regenerating East Manchester devastated by the collapse of traditional industries in the 1970s and 1980s.

He said: ‘The regeneration momentum had been stopped by the economic fall-out from Black Wednesday. In our view, by far the most powerful regenerative element would be a new stadium and we saw the Commonwealth Games as the way of securing it.’

Fast-forward 21 years and the stadium is now the Etihad Stadium, home of Premier League champions Manchester City and the epicentre of a remarkable sporting complex, ever growing, in what was the former workshop of the world.

What isn’t generally known is that the kind of Commonwealth Games Manchester set out to host wasn’t the spectacle eventually staged in 2002. The XV Commonwealth Games in Canada in 1994 had been relatively small-scale. Organisers ‘borrowed’ the University of Victoria’s stadium for track and field events. The ante was upped considerably in Kuala Lumpur in 1998 by a showboating Malaysian government out to prove the success of its ‘Tiger economy’.

Manchester EastlandsManchester Eastlands

By 2002 the scale and prestige of the Games would inflate still further – and it was just as well (for the blue half of the city, at least) because without a stadium big enough to make it attractive enough for Manchester City Football Club to agree to move into for the start of the 2003-4 season, who knows whether the astonishing events that followed the takeover of the club by the rulers of oil rich emirate Abu Dhabi – or even the takeover itself – would have happened.

Sir Richard Leese, leader of Manchester City Council since 1996 said: ‘The remarkable transformation of East Manchester, still in progress, was triggered by the city’s decision to bid for the Olympics, then the Commonwealth Games.

‘The first major venue there, the Velodrome – built on the site of the old Stuart Street power station – was part of the Olympic bid. There was some scepticism at the time, because British cycling was at a very low ebb. Look at the sport now. How likely would it have been for British track cyclists to dominate world competitions and win the Tour de France without the Manchester Velodrome? It put British cycling back in the saddle.’

Sir Richard added: ‘I think the stadium has been key to what’s happened since. Actually Manchester City wasn’t the first choice as anchor club. The original intention was to use the stadium for a couple of major games per season but the Football Association, which had taken over Wembley, wanted everything to take place there.’

When the foundation stone for the stadium was laid by Tony Blair 25 years ago in 1999, Manchester City were playing in the Football League’s first division having won promotion from the third tier of English football in a legendary Wembley play-off cliffhanger.

Sir Richard admitted there were serious concerns about the East Manchester project until the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City in 2009 from Thailand’s controversial former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra for £210m in the middle of the recession. He said: ‘It took us from a position of being of being deeply worried to a high measure of optimism, because the Abu Dhabi group made a very clear commitment not just to building a successful football club on the world stage, but also to ongoing support for the regeneration of East Manchester and continuing the club’s excellent record in community involvement.’

What was originally the City of Manchester Stadium was built for the Commonwealth Games on time and on budget – a stark contrast with the shambles at Wembley – with a capacity of 38,000. Temporary stands at one end allowed in heavy equipment to move in after the Games to remove the running track, dig down another tier and increase the capacity by 10,000 at a cost of £40m. The Games had made a small operating surplus, and Sport England agreed this could be reinvested in converting the athletics warm-up track adjacent to the main stadium into the 6,000 seat Manchester Regional Arena at a cost of £3.5m. As things are turning out, that was just a start.

The club’s development project, the Etihad Campus, includes the provision of ‘the best training facility in the world’, almost complete, on the site of the former Clayton Aniline chemical factory - derelict for 10 years – and work has already begun on increasing the capacity of the stadium itself towards 60,000.

Tom Glick, Chief Commercial Officer for Manchester City FC said: ‘The expansion of the stadium is a hugely significant moment for City. We are striving to provide supporters and visiting fans with one of the best possible matchday experiences in the Premier League and European football. The success of this is demonstrated by games being sold out and rising demand from supporters for more season tickets, matchday tickets and premium seating.’

Manchester City’s Academy, to develop young talent, will include a 7,000-capacity stadium, now taking shape, which will host youth and reserve team games; changing rooms, a cutting-edge gym, refectory and state of the art injury and rehab centre. The site will also feature 16 pitches and a half-sized goalkeepers’ training pitch. The huge 80 acre site will eventually be connected to the stadium by a new footbridge over Alan Turing Way.

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