The atmosphere at Old Trafford has been an issue for a long time. A combination of Gazza’s tears, Fever Pitch, Euro 96 and Sky saw working class fans increasingly priced out of the game. To make matters worse, Manchester United’s near-constant success under Sir Alex Ferguson changed the mindset of many supporters attending games. Many in the stands at Old Trafford began to feel as though the team should spur them on rather than vice versa. Old Trafford became a fortress and victory became almost a minimum requirement. European nights and big games could still produce thrilling atmospheres to rival the glory days but something fundamentally shifted.
Five years on from Ferguson’s retirement and, not for the first time, the club is attempting to improve the atmosphere. Unlike Arsenal and neighbours Manchester City, United cannot blame all this on a new, soulless stadium. That being said, the constant extensions to the capacity at Old Trafford have had an effect since it is now almost impossible to get a uniform chart reverberating around the whole ground. Instead, there are pockets of singing but hardly the kind of deafening noise that strikes fear into the hearts of opposition players.
The hierarchy are aware there is a problem. At a recent fans’ forum, head of venue operations Dan Schofield said: “As you will most likely be aware, the atmosphere at Old Trafford is something which has been frequently commented on of late, both in the media and across social networks, and is a subject the club takes very seriously.
“To this end, senior management plan to further discuss this topic with fan groups and other interested parties and stakeholders to listen to concerns, ideas, etc. and then to put forward recommendations to help facilitate positive change. However, our view is that ideally initiatives should be fan-driven.”
The difficulty with all this is that any technique used to try and rectify the situation will invariably be met with scorn by supporters of a certain age. Since the start of the 2014-15 season, there has been a designated “singing section” in Old Trafford’s J and K stands. Cynics might suggest that once upon a time the “singing section” encompassed the entire ground but such churlishness misses the point; something needs to be done now performances on the pitch are no longer what they once were.
For the recent FA Cup tie against Brighton, vocal supporters were allocated tickets in L stand, a section usually made up of the away contingent. Most considered this experiment a success and something to build on. The question is, how? There has been the suggestion of printing lyrics to chants in the official matchday programme but this has been met by hostility in some quarters. For a start, those who buy the programme are unlikely to be the loudest fans and it’s hard to believe the biggest obstacle in the way of a raucous atmosphere is supporters not knowing the words to the songs. It is hard to see what the solution is but the club is to be applauded for at least attempting to combat the problem.