As a season ticket holder in the second tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson stand, I’d been eyeing the Aston Villa home game with interest. For the first time ever at Old Trafford (previously my ticket was in the Stretford End) I was going to have away fans sitting above and behind me. And it might be permanent.
First of all, let’s get this straight. This was not a representative test of what life will be like for every game if away fans are permanently relocated to the top tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson stand. As far as I’m aware there was no trouble, which I’m sure means the council, fire and safety officers, the club itself and whoever else wants to can give the experiment a big shiny red tick and consider it a marvellous success. But sitting the Villa fans up there and sticking Liverpool or Manchester City fans up there will be a very different kettle of fish.
As I leave Old Trafford the stairs running down next to mine come down from Tier 3 and let fans out at the next exit. I counted five police officers in the vicinity. Obviously for a game against major rivals that’s going to be hilariously inadequate and the whole operation will be stepped up, so at this stage it’s impossible to comment on what life will be like when police try to usher thousands who support our fiercest rivals away from the back of the North Stand.
One Villa fan maybe allowed me a small insight though by calling me a ‘cockney c***’ as we went down the stairs together separated by a bit of wire mesh. No comment on the second part of that phrase, but I am most definitely not a cockney.
But Aston Villa fans are unlikely to bother throwing things. We’re all familiar with the stories and songs about what can be launched at us by rivals. My seat is a few rows below the overhang of Tier 3. In other words, prime missile launching range. I’ve never believed that watching a highly-charged game can be improved by taking a bottle, or perhaps even faeces, in the back of the head. But it’s now become a realistic possibility.
In terms of atmosphere, I was really surprised to get out of the ground, into the pub and discover people saying that the Villa fans had been really quiet. Apart from singing “let him die” when Ashley Young went down, I was actually quite impressed with them. They sang for most of the game including the chant for Petrov in the 19th minute (which United ruined a bit by launching an exciting attack at the same time). By contrast, I could barely hear a peep out of the Stretford End. Rivals unable to hear each other during the average league game doesn’t fill me with confidence.
Obviously, it’s difficult to judge how the atmosphere will change if this is approved and the new Singing Section comes hurtling into existence. That might be (and hopefully will be) the one positive to come out of this mess. Improving the atmosphere generated by United fans in Old Trafford would be a big plus, even if the cynical part of me thinks this will be aided by moving the away contingent as far as possible from the TV camera microphones.
But in doing that, United are doing opposition fans a disservice.
I’ve been in the away end at St James’ Park and complained bitterly about the way Newcastle see fit to shove the away support in the furthest possible seats from the action. It’s not fun climbing what feels like at least 300 floors of a skyscraper to your seat, especially when you do it this year and are rewarded with a dire 3-0 loss and arguably the worst away performance of the season. Every single football fan I know who has travelled to Newcastle is unhappy with the arrangement, and most see it as one of the worst grounds in the league for the view you get as an away fan, even if the atmosphere is good.
Quite honestly, if United go ahead with this arrangement I don’t think I’ll ever be able to complain about it again with a straight face. What it smacks of to me is treating away fans as an inconvenience and throwing them as far away from the action as possible without making them watch it from the car park outside.
In theory at least, those who travel to away games with their team are the most committed supporters around. If a Sunderland fan is going to trek down to Old Trafford from the north east on a Monday night in January, it’s safe to assume that they care quite passionately about their team. Let’s treat them properly and be expected to be treated properly in return.
Blackburn gave United 7,000 seats, the whole area behind the goal. Of course, that was because they can’t sell out the ground and Manchester United can sell all those seats for them, but when Liverpool arrived the following week (and didn’t sell out their allocation) the supporters who did turn up were allocated space in the same Darwen End. At the other end is the Ronnie Clayton stand, where most of the Blackburn atmosphere is generated from. Singing home fans behind one goal, away fans behind the other? What a wild idea! Noise created by fans singing at each other so people can hear them.
Some people have told me to embrace change and get on with it. But this trial hasn’t done anything to convince me of the positives.