Sam Wallace: The sound of silence

Sir Alex Ferguson thinks Manchester United fans should do more to support his team, but the issue is not one limited to Old Trafford
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The Independent Football

"Take me home United road". "We are the Geordies". "Dennis Wise scored a -ahem- great goal/ In the San Siro/With 10 minutes to go". That fantastically complicated song they sing at Anfield about poor scouser Tommy. And all the unrepeatable stuff about other clubs that every fan knows. English football stadiums are a treasure trove of musical improvisation. So who's complaining?

Sir Alex Ferguson does not like the noise the Manchester United supporters make. For 25 to 44 a ticket perhaps the fans feel it is the team who should be performing and not themselves. Here's a point. On United's official website you can buy versions of the fans' favourite chants (three quid a pop) as ringtones for your mobile phone. All the favourites are there, including "That boy Ronaldo", "Gary Neville is a red" and a whole section helpfully labelled "Taunt chants".

Could this be the most brilliant piece of merchandising ever? Get the customer to create, refine and popularise the product and then sell it back to him or her for a profit. It's like Nintendo asking your kids to come up with the technology for their Wii console and then selling it back to you at Christmas for 230. And just remind us exactly who is complaining about whom in the great debate over the songs sung at Old Trafford.

Whatever you do, don't try the ringtone racket in reverse and knock off a few unofficial United shirts yourself the club's intellectual property lawyers will not be so understanding. But that's an argument for a different day. The truth is that Ferguson's comments will resonate with a lot of supporters who feel that Old Trafford has got both bigger and quieter over the last decade. They will not be the only fans in the country who feel the same.

As one whose job has involved a free seat in the press box for the last nine years, I might not have the most credibility when it comes to passing judgement on the noise or otherwise of English football supporters. However, some points seem especially relevant when it comes to the quietening of English grounds and they do not all revolve around the end of the terraces.

Supporters appear to be getting to stadiums later and later, which means that the start of matches rarely has the fervour it once did. Anyone who was at Liverpool's Champions League semi-final second leg win over Chelsea in 2005 will never forget the atmosphere. That evening the noise had been building long before the game had started. The ground was full 15 minutes before kick-off and the whole place was in a frenzy.

As one who spends most of his time at the big four games, it is a personal view that Anfield retains the best atmosphere and much of it is set by the singing of "You'll Never Walk Alone" as the teams come out. It sets the tone, wakes up the latecomers and reminds everyone what they are there for. It therefore beggars belief that all the clubs signed up to play the ludicrous Premier League anthem before kick-off, which is about as conducive to a good atmosphere as a pre-match morris dancing display.

Watching from the press box, it is clear that football fans have changed in the same way as their sport. In the past, terraces were places to sing because there were not any distractions apart from the football like gourmet burgers (Wembley) or video game consoles at the back of the stand (Stamford Bridge). That raw tribal instinct has been softened as the various tribes of our national game have been introduced to some home comforts. Now there are small armies of stewards at grounds and a lot of decent-minded fans say they are unsure whether the odd bit of ripe language might have them thrown out. On the whole, they tend not to take the risk.

Of course, all those elements the improved food, the safety and the comfort have made English football better. Football fans are among the few customers, if that is the right term, who would prefer fewer luxuries in exchange for greater freedom to do whatever they like such as standing up at matches. The clubs are under immense pressure from their safety advisory groups, made up of representatives of the emergency services and the local council, to clamp down on standing. The local councils, which are also the licensing authorities, hold all the power in this case.

It is a curious fact that you can stand at a music concert held in a football stadium (and sing along if the mood takes you) but you could not do the same a few days later if you were watching your own football team in the same stadium. The singing at games is also not helped by the pricing out of one of the noisiest elements of any traditional football crowd: it is rare to see packs of teenagers, without parents, going to games. The problem has become so acute that some clubs have even begun to target that age group. Manchester City have a 95 season ticket for under-16s (5 a game) and claim to have broken their own record for under-16 fans at Sunday's game against Liverpool (7,281 saw Sven Goran Eriksson's team play for a goalless draw at home).

Unlike Roy Keane's prawn sandwich critique, Ferguson did not single out the corporate fans at United, although that element tends to be at the centre of most complaints about modern football. Who are these people who watch football from an executive box? I don't know a single one. They are football's equivalent of that sector of the population who buy country music or voted Conservative in the last three elections we know they're out there but none of them will admit to it.

Unfortunately, the reality is that it is the corporate fans who pay for the new stadiums. It is corporate money that has made United's new quadrants, opened in 2006, so profitable. It was the corporate money from Club Wembley that was the crucial financing for that project. And corporate football fans are here to stay.

Still, when the natives are in full song there is still no better place than an English football ground which has kept so much of its traditions while eliminating all the worst elements, like racism, which still exist in other European countries. After all, if United think their supporters' songs are good enough to annex and flog back to them then they must be doing something right.

Sunderland's screamers pump up the volume in battle of the eardrums, but the Riise roar is the cheer leader

Sunderland have the loudest fans, but the world's loudest cheer belongs to Liverpool.

Turn the clock back to February 2005 and it's the first minute of the Carling Cup final at the Millennium Stadium. Liverpool surge forward from the whistle and Fernando Morientes crosses for John Arne Riise to fire home. The travelling Kop erupts and the noise is the loudest in history, registering 130.7 decibels. Liverpool lost the final 3-2 after extra time, but won the battle of the sound waves, with the recorded level being two decibels higher than the previous record set by the supporters of the Denver Broncos American football team in 2000.

The Riise roar would have drowned out Concorde on take-off, but Sunderland's jet-engine fans generate almost the same level of noise.

The "Mackems" make the ground shake more than any other Premier League supporters, even though the ranks of fans at the Stadium of Light have not had much to cheer as Roy Keane's newcomers struggle to stay in the top flight. According to a study commissioned by the telephone number service 118 118, they make the biggest racket at 129.2 decibels.

The study, which looked at sound levels at grounds and the frequency of chants, discovered that Sunderland's 48,000 outshout Manchester United's 76,000 "prawn sandwiches" with ease Old Trafford being ranked 17th in the noise table.

Tottenham Hotspur fans must have had sore throats even before last Saturday's 6-4 goal fest against Reading, belting out 128.2 decibels to secure second place.

Roy Hodgson has re-entered English football aiming to show he can be a big noise in the big league and he could do worse than start by shaking up the Fulham fans as well as the team. The quietest place in the Premier League is Craven Cottage. With a 26,000 capacity, the volume at the Cottage reached only 115.4.

But if it's singing rather than Led Zeppelin levels of ear abuse you're after, Goodison Park is the place to be, with Everton fans coming out top for chanting the most frequently.

Blasting out: Premier League noise levels

1. Sunderland (av. decibels) 129.2

2. Tottenham Hotspur 128.2

3. Manchester City 127.4

4. Aston Villa 126.5

5. Everton 126.1

6. Chelsea 125.8

7. Middlesbrough 125.4

8. Derby County 124.7

9. Newcastle United 124.5

10. West Ham United 123.8

11. Birmingham City 122.7

12. Arsenal 122.3

13. Portsmouth 120.9

14. Blackburn Rovers 119.5

15. Bolton Wanderers 119.1

16. Liverpool 118.9

17. Manchester United 117.5

18. Wigan Athletic 116.8

19. Reading 116.2

20. Fulham 115.4

Source: 118 118 survey, October 2007