How Manchester United’s talent factory The Cliff became a crumbling relic
It was once the beating heart of Manchester United. The talent factory where Busby’s Babes were moulded, the finishing school from which the Class of ’92 graduated with honours.
Like Sir Matt decades earlier, Sir Alex Ferguson used it as a headquarters to mastermind one of English football’s greatest eras. It was here where the plot to topple Liverpool from their perch was hatched.
Here where he would patrol his office, glaring out of his floor-to-ceiling window onto the training pitch – ready to chastise anyone not putting in the expected shift in an era well before data analysts and filmed sessions.
Here where he would sit behind the full-length desk that covered nearly all of his tiny nerve centre in front of the sign which read ‘AHCUMFIGOVIN’ which never let him forget his Glasgow dockyard roots.
And here where he would turn up every morning ahead of the rest at 7.30am, read the papers with breakfast and rollock the groundsman for not putting enough water on the pitch (‘f*****g flood the thing!’).
How Manchester United’s iconic training ground, The Cliff, looks today following years of neglect and under-investment
The Cliff, where one of the main buildings is now covered in scaffolding, was the nerve centre where Sir Matt Busby and Sir Alex Ferguson plotted trophy campaigns
How the entrance to The Cliff, first used by United back in 1938, looked in the 1960s
Gary Neville (top right) and Paul Scholes (bottom, second right) on the subs bench during a match between United and Liverpool at The Cliff
This is the place where George Best fine-tuned his skills and where the historic treble was orchestrated. It was at one time the envy of rivals. It had floodlights before Old Trafford.
The Cliff is Manchester United. It is etched into the club’s rich history. Its role, from 1938 to the turn of the century, will never be erased. It is as United as the Holy Trinity, the Stretford End and Duncan Edwards. As 1968 and 1999.
But these days The Cliff is something else.
It is a crumbling, neglected relic. An afterthought. The building where the magic was made, where the post-Munich rebuild was designed and where Ferguson’s phone rang off the hook is now surrounded by scaffolding.
Kids from United’s younger age groups who still practice there nervously joke about bits of it falling off. A sign warning visitors against entering is stuck above the main entrance. It is dated 2014.
To some, The Cliff is now a stark symbol of the Glazer family’s ownership of Manchester United.
‘If you want to know about the Glazers and what they feel about the club get yourself to The Cliff,’ a contact had told me as we spoke about the ongoing sale process and their hope of a new buyer.
‘The place should be a museum, somewhere to be proud of. But it’s had hardly any money spent on it in 20 years and it is falling to bits. It’s shameful and it shows that the Americans do not care.’
United’s American owners, the Glazer family, have been blamed for neglect of The Cliff
The entrance to The Cliff as it appears today and one of the training pitches on the site
But you don’t have to walk too far to find evidence this famous place has been abandoned
A notice dating back to March 2014 warning visitors not to enter one of the buildings
Cracked glass and graffiti on the walls are what confronts visitors to The Cliff nowadays
A view looking over one of the match pitches to the grandstand on the far touchline
A chair with the padding ripped out is dumped outside one of the decaying buildings
The interior of one of the buildings is something of a time warp after years of neglect
The first impression, on a grey March evening, is that they were not wrong.
Nothing has changed from the days when journalists would hang around the car park, desperate for a quote and local kids would do likewise, only with their autograph books instead of notepads.
The giant indoor school remains in use, as does the outdoor pitch. The cowshed style-stand that looks like something out of a Lowry painting. But the famous red-brick building, which deserves a blue plaque, has to be seen to be believed.
Scaffolding surrounds all four sides. At the main entrance, one of the windows has a large crack. There is graffiti on the walls.
An abandoned, ripped office chair here, an upturned one there. Slabs of concrete have become loose on the ground. Window panes are rotting, covered in black mould. Dislodged paving stones pockmark the way to the entrance. The brickwork is chipped and corroded.
There are rumours that it has been condemned. Salford council say that is not the case, but it cannot be far off.
The United photo call for the 1987-88 season as (left to right) Graeme Hogg, Paul McGrath, Viv Anderson, Chris Turner and Norman Whiteside await their close-ups
George Best (right) with actor Hywel Bennett and actress Penny Brahms during the filming of ‘Percy’ at the Cliff training ground in August 1970
United coach Johnny Ashton oversees a fitness session in the Cliff gym with George Best, John Ashton and Denis Law among the players
A peek through the window shows it is not much better on the inside. Where Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt and Gary Neville would once sit down to lunch in a boisterous canteen now looks like the set of a zombie movie.
The corridors walked by greats lie empty. A single, faded picture of Old Trafford remains. The reception area is deserted, bar a sorry-looking red mop propped against the wall.
‘It’s utterly heartbreaking,’ said another insider who did not wish to be named for fear of recriminations.
‘You read about Old Trafford and all the money that needs to be spent on it, the roof leaking – the real neglect is at The Cliff. This place should be sparkling, looked after forever. It’s not had any investment in years.’
Coaches at the complex, just three miles north of Manchester city centre, would often tell their young hopefuls how they were getting changed in the same place as the legends of the club.
How the likes of David Beckham, Scholes and Ryan Giggs had once sat where they were sitting. How many of the greats had all been in their shoes once.
How, with hard work and desire, they could forge their own careers with one of the biggest football clubs in the world. Now, those dressing rooms are shut, presumably for safety reasons.
Bryan Robson on the sewing machine in the Cliff laundry room in a picture from 1986
Darren Ferguson reading his father’s book ‘Just champion’ at the training ground in 1994
George Best on the treatment table at The Cliff in a photograph from United’s 60s heyday
‘You wonder what parents think when they turn up here with their kids for training,’ the insider added. ‘A lot of them could be at City where it’s all gleaming and new – but they’re here in this dump. It’s not what it should be for a club like Manchester United.’
In 2019, in the midst of a terrible run, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took his players back to The Cliff before a Manchester derby for a ‘reality check’. You would imagine Erik ten Hag would not let his squad anywhere near the place.
In 2018 United said they would improve facilities and base their women’s team there. It never happened – and former coach Casey Stoney later resigned in protest at the lack of support.
When contacted over this piece they said that, away from the famous building, the pitch and the indoor centre have received investment and are maintained to a decent standard.
Alex Ferguson at his desk and in front of the floor-to-ceiling window from which he could observe everything happening on the training pitch
An ITV Granada documentary went behind the scenes at The Cliff late in the 1997/98 season
Ferguson (left) and his staff eat in the Cliff canteen while reading the day’s newspapers
They added that proposed works that include a new roof and windows and upgrades to the indoor arena and car park. Whether they materialise remains to be seen.
Over the past two weeks, prospective buyers including the Qatari-bid revealed by this newspaper and rival Sir Jim Ratcliffe and his team were given tours of Old Trafford and Carrington.
Both are currently enlisting independent experts to cost rebuild or revamp projects. Both will want to win hearts and minds ahead of a decision around Easter.
It is to be hoped that if there is a winner of that battle they pay more attention to this place than those they are replacing. A new lease of life is needed for this forgotten temple of United.
https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sport/football/article-11906765/How-Manchester-Uniteds-talent-factory-Cliff-crumbling-relic.html?ns_mchannel=rss&ns_campaign=1490&ito=1490 How Manchester United’s talent factory The Cliff became a crumbling relic