FOOTBALL: United we stand for our right to stand in new stands

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The Independent Online
It has not been a good week for Manchester United. Blackburn have drawn away almost beyond the horizon, Andrei Kancheslskis wants to go a bit further and disappear over Hadrian's Wall, Eric Cantona has metamorphosed into a PE teacher, and now their fans are getting uppity. Not, in the standard revolting fan way, with the chairman, the team, nor - Heaven forfend - with the manager, but with a new regulation which appeared in the small print of the match programme for their game against Arsenal.

"Standing up during play is an offence which is liable to lead to ejection," it read. During the match, several people, rising to their feet to express their affection for Andy Cole, to applaud the efforts of Brian McClair, to sing encouraging chants even, found themselves out of their seats permanently, on the wrong side of the stadium gates, dispatched thence by stewards in florescent Umbro-sponsored waistcoats. The ejected were not people running 11 rows to deliver abuse, nor were they uttering racist or threatening language; these were people doing something that has, until now, always been thought of as part of the fabric of attending a football game: they were getting on their feet to encourage their team. And they were not happy to be summarily removed.

"This restriction goes to the very essence of supporting a football team," said Peter Boyle, a renowned instigator of chants at United matches. "Alex Ferguson is constantly encouraging us to turn up the volume, yet faceless bureaucrats are now trying to prevent us doing it."

And it is not so easy chanting from a seated position, he reckons. So distressed was Boyle and other hard-core elements by this new assault on the civil rights of football supporters, that they leafletted the entire K Stand at Old Trafford before the game against Leeds last Sunday. At a pre-arranged signal midway through the second half, 4,500 people stood up and refused to sit down again, even though United failed to score.

At Highbury on Thursday, during the match against Sampdoria, thousands of fans, moved by the unexpected sight of a gripping game at the Arsenal, stood up as one. Immediately Tannoy instructions informed everyone to sit down or face ejection. The response was to remain upstanding for the rest of the game, chanting: "We'll stand in the Clock End."

"You see this is not a one-club issue," said Richard Kurt, of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association, a body formed last month to combat the new rule, among other things. "Most weeks on Match of the Day you can hear Tannoy announcements telling people to sit down or get out."

At the Extraordinary General Meeting called on Thursday to discuss the board's plans to build a new Old Trafford stand, Martin Edwards, the chief executive, explained the ban was a safety measure. It was, it seems, justified as a post-Dublin, post-Simmons attempt to clean up the game, never mind that it interfered with the innocent pleasure of hundreds.

Richard Kurt, however, believes that the rule has a wider motive: it is part of a move to drive out the traditional young male supporter who is economically less attractive than the family or the businessman. If that is true, it has come at an opportune moment: when the capacity at Old Trafford is due to be cut during building work, meaning precious few tickets for anyone except those in possession of a season ticket and corporate entertaining facilities.

United have been in their current pre-eminence beyond reproach in the manner in which their merchandise machine - derided, pilloried and Hunter Daviesed though it might be - has subsidised ticket prices at Old Trafford: a season ticket for Spurs, for instance, costs twice one to watch United. Milton Friedman would regard this as crazy. United have the largest demand for seats, and should thus be able to charge the highest prices. Next season prices are going up to reflect scarcity value. The worry is among the less well-heeled that the resistance against economic logic can conveniently end with the rebuilding.

"It seems from the plans issued at the EGM that the new stand is to be largely accounted for by shifting existing season ticket holders and replacing their positions with premium-priced seating," Kurt said. "So they'll be no extra room for the ordinary fan. We're saying to the board, here's an opportunity to rebuild Old Trafford accommodating everyone, allow both ends to be occupied by those who want to stand up and chant and encourage the team, and put the day trippers and the executives at the sides. What they don't seem to appreciate is they need us just as much as the rich, because if things don't go well in the future, we'll be the ones who are still there, long after the bandwagon jumpers have gone elsewhere."

To further the battle against the new sit-down rule and the fight for more space at Old Trafford for the ordinary fan, Kurt's organisation has hired the Free Trade Hall in Manchester on 24 April for a mass meeting: "All welcome," he says. It will be standing room only.