Fallowfield Stadium was built in 1892, as a new home for the Manchester Athletic Club, who’d been kicked off their Old Trafford track by railway development. The stadium dramatically changed this quiet Manchester suburb. It shot to fame the following year, when it held the 1893 FA Cup final, the first outside of London, but was marred by massive overcrowding.
It also held the first Northern Union (rugby league) Challenge Cup Finals outside of Yorkshire in 1899 and 1900, and both were great successes. The stadium remained the home of Manchester athletics and cycling for decades, but fell on hard times after the war. Manchester University bought the site in the 1960s, and tore the decaying ground down in 1994, building a Halls of Residence in its place.
Fallowfield Stadium was opened on the 24th June 1892, as a new facility for Manchester Athletic Club. MAC was set up in the 1880s by Tom Sutton, the editor of Athletic News, as an exclusive home for “Purely Amateur Athletics.”
MAC initially used a track in Old Trafford, next door to the cricket ground. However, that land was soon earmarked for railway development as Manchester continued to grow unperturbed, and the club were forced to move. They got hold of a patch of land off Whitworth Street, helped by the £150 compensation from the railway, and got to work on a new arena.
Back then Fallowfield was on the edge of town, built up along the Wilmslow Road, but flanked by fields and open space. Next door was Owens College and its sporting facilites at The Firs, that would one day form the Manchester University Fallowfield Campus. There were far, far fewer students around back then, so the arrival of a stadium fit to host national events made quite a change to this otherwise sleepy suburb.
FA Cup crush
The peace was well and truly disturbed on the 25th March 1893, when the new stadium held the FA Cup final between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Everton. Close to 60 000 spectators piled into the new ground, which was about 30 000 too many, and spectators frequently spilled out onto the playing surface, leading the teams to adopt a narrow, long ball game to circumvent the crowds obstructing the wings. Wolves won 1-0.
This match was a key moment in association football’s capture of the once rugby-dominated city of Manchester, and the FA made a fortune from gate receipts. However, the crowd issues damaged the reputation of the fledgling stadium.
The pitch was bordered first by a cinder track for athletics, and then a banked velodrome, upon which the crowd stood for football matches. This gave the stadium an advantage, in that spectators could watch a match well from any vantage point, but the ground had no provision for crowd control.
Fallowfield – the Brief Home of Lancashire Rugby
Whalley Range used to be the centre of Lancashire rugby. However, as with the Old Trafford Athletic track, the land was poached for development. Fallowfield Stadium overnight became the go-to destination for big games. In 1897, it hosted the Calcutta Cup fixture between England and Scotland, the last time it was played outside of London or Scotland. England won in front of 15 000 spectators.
Encouraged by this success, the FA cup returned in 1899 for a semi-final replay between Liverpool and Sheffield Wednesday. It was a disaster. The crush was such that the game had to be abandoned, and the match was rescheduled elsewhere (Derby).
In this light, the Northern Union’s decision to hold the Challenge Cup Final there a month later seemed confusing. After two years of Headingley finals, there was pressure from Lancashire clubs to hold the final on this side of the Pennines, and Fallowfield was the best option for a match of this calibre.
The organisers put in a lot of work to make sure the stadium was ready, and the meeting between Oldham and Hunslet went off without a hitch. The official attendance was 15 763, but most acknowledged that over 20 000 were present. Only Yorkshiremen quoted the official attendance, still grumbling that the final should have been held in God’s Own Country.
Even more people packed in the following year to watch local rivals Salford meet Swinton in the 1900 final, and once again the fixture was a great success.
The cup did not return to Fallowfield, but rugby continued here. At the turn of the century MAC ran both a rugby union and northern union team, and later the stadium became home to Broughton Park rugby union club.
Fallowfield Sporting Life
The stadium remained a central part of Manchester sporting life for the next few decades, attracting great crowds for athletic meets and especially for cycling, as the Manchester Wheelers competed here.
Famous local athletes such as Emil Voigt, 1908 Olympic gold medallist, provided a regular draw, and throughout the early 20th century the club were able to attract big names such as the legendary Finn Paavo Nurmi, and Sydney Wooderson, who broke the ¾ mile world record in 1939 at Fallowfield. Wooderson dipped below the 3-minute mark for the first time, in front of a crowd the size of which had not been seen since the Challenge Cup final.
In 1934, the velodrome held the cycling events for the British Empire Games, the forerunner of the Commonwealth Games.
After the Second World War, athletics and cycling weren’t quite the draw they used to be, despite the efforts of Reg Harris, Manchester Wheeler, 1948 Olympic silver medallist and Britain’s first ever cycling celebrity.
In 1955, Tom Spedding tried to move Broughton Rangers to Fallowfield and bring rugby league back to the stadium, but the move was nixed by the RFL, who argued that Fallowfield’s facilities were not up to scratch. This brought the sad end of Broughton Rangers, one of Manchester’s most successful ever sports clubs.
Two years later, Reg Harris bought the stadium and renamed it after himself. However, it made no money and Harris soon sold it to Manchester University, Harris preferring to make a living running his garage in Didsbury (now the Shell petrol station on Wilmslow Road).
The uni finally knocked down the old stadium in 1994, and built some halls of residence over it. In this new guise, the stadium’s most recent contribution to Manchester sporting life was housing competitors for the 2002 Commonwealth Games.
Go to Richmond Park Halls today, and you would never know that there, once upon a time, a grand old stadium once stood.