Old Trafford Needs Its Soul Back

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By Matthew Jones

ILLNESS, a hangover and a lack of finances have all contributed to my non-attendance at Old Trafford so far this season, but when I did finally make my season debut, it was certainly worth it.

I was one of the 1,400 or so season ticket holders who successfully managed to swap my seasonal seat for a place in the much hyped and also much maligned ‘singing section’ for the home Champions League tie against Real Sociedad in October.

The trial has been as eagerly anticipated by United fans as it has been mocked by them, along with critics and supporters of other clubs.

Many anti-United observers have jeered the club and its fans for finally acknowledging that the atmosphere at Old Trafford is akin to a library, finally admitting that the now infamous term ‘prawn sandwich brigade’, derived by newspapers from quotes Roy Keane made after a Champions League game against Dynamo Kiev in 2000, were in fact painfully accurate all along.

In reality, as is often the case, the truth lies somewhere in between.

Yes, the match day atmosphere at Old Trafford has deteriorated over the last decade or so, but it’s not like the Theatre of Dreams is the only stadium in Britain to have experienced the decline. I am reliably informed by several friends who go to watch Liverpool regularly that this is exactly the case at Anfield too, while contrary to popular belief, the famed noise and passion emanating from Newcastle United’s St James’ Park has also been uncovered as a myth, or at least a thing of the past.

While opposition supporters will point and mock United’s trialing of a new singing section, which was housed for the Sociedad game in the old ‘L’ stand, today used to house visiting supporters for league games, at least United are listening to their supporters and willing to help.

The trial was just that. A testing of the waters. But it has been hailed a success and now comes the interesting part. Where do we go from here?

It was arguably the best fan experience I’ve ever had following United. It was truly something different. The best way I can describe it is that it was like being an away United fan – at home.

Cynics scoffed at the idea. Keyboard warrior opposition fans took to the internet during and after the Sociedad game and poured scorn on the singing section.

Even some Reds fans, who despise everything about the modern day Manchester United, wanted it to fail too.

But it didn’t. It worked. It was loud and the fans were proud.

I was in the ground 30 minutes before kick off and it wasn’t long before the song book came out.

It was exciting, it was loud and it was constant, from half an hour before the game and all the way through it.

Oddly, even though we were watching the game and the players and what was going on, we weren’t acknowledging it. Apart from celebrating the goal, for the most part our only mission was to keep singing. It was awesome.

I was at Stamford Bridge a few seasons ago when we came back from 3-0 down to snatch a dramatic late draw, while even in defeat to Spurs at home last season, Old Trafford really got behind the team in the second half. Real Madrid in the second leg of the Champions League last season was also a memorably loud experience.

Stories began to appear in newspapers last season about United insiders planning to employ sound engineers to test the atmosphere and acoustics inside Old Trafford. After research and pressure from fan groups, it was decided that the old Scoreboard End would be the best place for any trial as it’s relatively low down and the sound emerging from it is trapped underneath the roof, which is lower than the bigger, extended sections of the stadium, and so stops the sound from exiting the ground.

Of course, that is the area of the ground where visiting supporters sit these days and, while this initial trial is expected to lead to further experiments in cup competitions this season, with our final Champions League group game against Shakhtar Donetsk in December being earmarked as the next date, it cannot yet become a fixture in league games because of the fact that away fans are situated there.

For cup games, away fans are moved to the top tier of the east stand and while initial findings suggested that away fans could be re-homed in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand, health and safety fears, especially concerning fans in the bigger games, such as against Liverpool and Manchester City, mean that that is unlikely to happen.

Everything possible must be done though to make the singing section a permanent fixture.

1,400 supporters re-located to the singing section for the Sociedad game. That an estimated 6,000 fans applied for tickets there suggests there is a real desire from United fans to commit to an improvement in the atmosphere at Old Trafford.

I’m a Stretford Ender. Have been for two years. This is my third season there and my fourth as a season ticket holder overall. I sat just off the West Stand in 2010/11, in the north west corner lower. The atmosphere there was abysmal and I longed to sit up with the hardcore element. Generally I love sitting there and love referring to myself as a Stretford Ender. Being in there was pretty much my only priority when first applying for a season ticket – but I would gladly move to a singing section in a heartbeat.

While critics and opposing fans may mock, in truth, the game in Britain in general is in need of an injection, a boost.

Following the Sociedad game, The Telegraph’s Luke Edwards wrote ‘Visiting fans have long mocked the meek nature of Manchester United’s home support. Jealous of the team’s success on the pitch, rivals have targeted their supporters for what they do off it instead’.

Freelance journalist Andy Mitten, who also edits United fanzine United We Stand, said ‘There’s not a single Premier League stadium which doesn’t need a lift. Prices, seats, commercialisation and changing demographics have all affected the noise levels inside English football grounds’.

The UK needs to follow the lead of Germany (in more way than one).

The country is experiencing a golden period. While the national team is bristling with talent and they are a world class side, with high hopes of World Cup glory next summer, their domestic league is growing in reputation and stature. The Champions League final was played last season between two German sides.

Their stadiums, match day atmospheres and treatment of fans are also something to behold.

Anyone who watches German football regularly will be familiar with Borussia Dortmund’s ‘Yellow Wall’. 25,000 fans who occupy the Signal Iduna Park’s south stand, a mesmerisingly high standing area. It is one of European football’s great spectacles.

Fans there pay around £8.95 per game to stand – another issue that vocal United fans would like to be addressed by the club and more importantly the FA – to watch Dortmund.

Ticket prices in Germany are low. In the Bundesliga, the average price for the cheapest tickets is just over £10. In the Premier League, fans pay upwards of £28.

For a season ticket, the average price in Germany’s top flight is £207, compared with £468 in England.

United’s cheapest season ticket is £532. At Bayern Munich, who won the treble of the Bundesliga title, DFB Pokal (essentially the equivalent of the FA Cup) and Champion League crown last season, it’s £104.

Bayern president Uli Hoeness, when once asked why the club didn’t have higher ticket prices, said ‘We do not think the fans are like cows to be milked. Football has got to be for everybody. That’s the biggest difference between us and England’.

Without getting too political, German clubs are organised in a very different way from British clubs.

Billionaires own the top clubs in England but in Germany, there is the ’50 + 1′ rule, whereby the association or club has to have a controlling stake, so commercial interests can’t gain control. At Bayern, Audi and Adidas each own nine per cent but the rest is controlled by the members via the club.

There are two exceptions. Wolfsburg is owned by Volkswagen and Bayer Leverkusen is owned by the chemical company Bayer, but both clubs originated as works sporting clubs.

Generally a club in Germany is a true club for the members.

On YouTube, there is a video, published by Red Army TV, that every United fan really should take the time to watch. It describes all the issues and changes over the years at Old Trafford.

Local fans have steadily been driven away. I can’t say much because I’m not from Manchester, I travel two-and-a-half hours to games, and the reason I’ve been able to obtain a season ticket is because someone else gave theirs up.

Day trippers, megastore visitors, people taking pictures in the shadow of Old Trafford or by the ‘Holy Trinity’ or newly built Sir Alex Ferguson statues and lots of foreign visitors are now the norm on match days in Manchester.

Changes from the authorities to reduce the hooligan element from British stadiums that was rife in the 80s by introducing family areas in grounds, and the introduction of all-seater stadiums and the removal of terracing in the aftermath of Hillsborough were all aimed to make watching football safer.

Ultimately it has worked, but it’s taken something away from football too. It’s removed its soul.

Family stands and better quality seating, while largely positive, has led to increased ticket prices. It has unwittingly, in turn, nurtured an increase in the slimy, corporate element of the beautiful game too, something Keane alluded to 13 years ago.

This has all contributed to the deterioration in the atmosphere at Old Trafford, which has led to the rise in popularity of venues like Red Square, with generally lots of local United fans deciding to now watch home games in the pubs or at home.

Thankfully, in my opinion at least, the Sociedad trial was a success and everything possible now needs to be done to make this a re-occurring experience, and possibly even a permanent fixture.

I’m a passionate Red and I want my famous Old Trafford atmosphere back.

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2 Comments

  1. Definitely….and the new singing section is working well….we could see that in the match against arsenal..they were very loud!!!!!

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