It was an ordinary Saturday afternoon in Manchester but, even by the standards of Manchester United Plc, the exchange at the taxi rank at Piccadilly station a few minutes earlier was extraordinary. A group of supporters, festooned with United leisure clothing, jumped in a taxi. "Where are we going?" inquired one. "Old Trafford." "Oh yeah, that's it."
This is not a "No Manchester United supporters come from Manchester" piece - quite a lot do. But it is undeniable that United's support is now drawn from all parts of Britain, Ireland and the world. United's marketing men may feel delighted with this but their manager is not. It has become increasingly obvious that the changing nature of matchday at Old Trafford is not benefiting the team.
The opening period of United's win over Arsenal on Saturday was conducted, like the matches with Chelsea and Fenerbahce, to a relative hush. At times Arsenal's 3,000 supporters outsung United's nominal 52,000. It was only when the public address asked supporters in K stand - the transplanted Stretford End - to sit down that United's fans were stirred. Their anger at the club's attitude developed into noisy support for the players.
Before the match Alex Ferguson had appealed for better support. "The growing number of hospitality packages has brought in a different type of audience," he wrote in the programme. "They sit and admire the ground and wait to be entertained just as if they were at a theatre or musical." After the match he added: "We have a lot of visitors, for whom it is a weekend holiday. That may be alright for some people but it is no use to me or the players."
United's problem may be more acute but it is not unique. In the recent Premiership fans' survey almost two-thirds of respondents said grounds were not as lively as a few years ago. Nearly 30 per cent thought they were "quieter than I would like".
Some clubs are making an attempt to remedy this. Highbury has had a 500- seat "singing" area all season but it does not appear to have made any difference. This is partly because it is in the North Bank, traditionally Arsenal's home end but, since redevelopment, superseded as such by the Clock End where seats are cheaper.
Redevelopment also killed off the Stretford End. Once a 20,000 terrace it is now 10,000 seats, half of which are allocated to executive seating or as a family stand.
"The more vociferous supporters have gradually moved to K stand," Johnny Flacks of the Independent Manchester United Supporters' Association said. It was the IMUSA which suggested to the club that they make tomorrow's European Champions' League tie against Juventus a "flag day". The club agreed and fans are to be allowed to bring flags in an attempt to lift the atmosphere.
"A lot of supporters are concerned about the lack of atmosphere," Flacks said. "I can remember when opposing teams used to be frightened by it. It is not the same now.
"Last year the club said they were considering a `singing area' but it has been dropped. They said only 100 applied but we put in 500 applications immediately and, if they had given season-ticket holders the option when they renewed they would have had thousands."
"People want to get behind the team but they feel inhibited," Flacks added. "It is partly because of the security people and partly because supporters around them don't want to actively participate. We're not saying people have to but they should be given the chance. We say there is a place at Old Trafford for everybody, but everybody should have a place and that should include supporters who want to sing."
The chant that roused Old Trafford on Saturday was "Stand up for the champions." It is no coincidence that variations of this have been heard all over the country.
Yes, something needed to be done after Hillsborough and the Taylor Report was long overdue. The new grounds are magnificent and it is wonderful to see football booming. But if the grounds become too sanitised there is a risk of losing one of the core aspects of football supporting.
Already the richness and diversity of chants is being eroded. "Blue Moon", "Delilah", "Keep Right On to the End of the Road", "You'll Never Walk Alone" and "Fer it's a Grand Old Team to Play For" are part of the fabric of the game. Clubs - and police - need to recognise that just because a supporter wants to sing does not mean he wants to fight.Reuse content