Some might see it as a cause for celebration, an anniversary possibly deserving of the minute's applause that has become the fashion nowadays. But the reality is that the bombing raid was one of the key events that shaped City's post-war decline - and helped cast us in the shadow of our neighbours for the following decades.
March 1941: proof that some Germans do have a sense of humour
United were in a perilous financial state at the end of WWII. According to Gas Masks for Goal Posts, a history of football during the war, the club had a £15,000 overdraft and had to wait until March 1948 before the War Damage Commission awarded them £17,478 to rebuild the heavily bombed Old Trafford.
The solution was to share Maine Road for three seasons, starting in 1946-47. The deal, no doubt made in the spirit of post-war unity, also looked like a good one for City, with United agreeing to pay an annual rent of £5,000 plus 10% of gate receipts. City also got the use of The Cliff for reserve matches.
But the timing of the ground-share could not have been worse for us. City had gone into a slump before the war, and after being relegated in 1938 (a year after we won the title) started the 1946-47 season in Division 2. United, on the other hand, were on the brink of an exciting new era, guided by their greatest ever chairman, James Gibson, and his new appointment as manager, Matt Busby.
One of Gibson's greatest achievements was the creation of the Manchester United Junior Athletic Club in 1938. A precursor of today's academies, United's Juniors produced four members of their 1948 FA Cup winning side and later nurtured the Busby Babes. City, who had also suffered financial losses during the war, had no such youth system to fall back on. It had paid little attention to youth development in the 1930s, illustrated by the fact that every player from the 1937 title-winning team was signed from another club. In fact, the only Manchester-born player in that side was Billy Dale - who was actually signed from United.
Other forces also conspired to make this ground-share a unique situation. During this period it was common for Mancunians to have season tickets for both clubs, with a combination of post-war unity and strong regional identity meaning that many were happy for both clubs to do well.
The problem was, United were now performing a whole lot better than City, and their brand of successful attacking football stood in stark contrast to struggling City. As the table below shows, the ground-share marked a dramatic shift in the relative fan bases of the two clubs. Here are the attendance figures for the five seasons before and after the war, along with each club's league and FA Cup finishes:
In the 1980s City's chief scout, Harry Goodwin, recalled the drift in support to United after the war:
"Because they were a better team than City (United) took over a lot of the support of the men whose loyalties had strayed while they were away in the services, and of those youngsters who were just getting interested."
Gary James's Manchester: The Greatest City also reveals the financial boost United received from their stay at Maine Road. According to a story in the Manchester Evening News from October 1949, United were poised to announce an aggregate profit of £75,000 over the three seasons at Maine Road. Another report claimed they were £100,000 in the black by 1948.
The Evening News also noted that the 1949-50 season, when United returned to Old Trafford, was not expected to be as as profitable. ‘Attendances at the remodeled Old Trafford are limited to 60,000 and therefore, United might not be able to show such handsome dividends at the end of the current season,’ the paper wrote.
Of course, it wasn't until the Munich tragedy in 1958 that the gap between the two clubs became a gulf. But in my view, it was during the years between 1946 to 1949 that the two clubs developed their own distinct characteristics.
United, drawing a large section of support from former City fans and neutrals, developed a fanbase that held success, glamour and importance as their key values.
And standing in stark contrast were City's fans, unswayed by such temporal matters as trophies, who prided themselves in loyalty above all else.
Old Trafford in Mar 1941 (top), and what it looks like nowadays
~ This article is an abbreviated extract from the upcoming book, Purely Man City: Writings, Reference & Miscellany, which will be published in May 2008.