If Manchester United fans felt that Sir Alex Ferguson's outburst about the funereal atmosphere at Old Trafford on New Year's Day was a flash in the pan, there were some afters to contend with yesterday. Supporters' criticism of the club's takeover by the Glazers three years ago was a mistake, said the United manager.
"At a number of clubs there have been problems with friction between managers and owners," Ferguson said. "But you can see how smoothly the United ship is running as far as that is concerned, despite early hostility over the Glazer family's ownership. Those protests were unfair because they weren't given a chance, but the Glazers kept their cool and our owners have been nothing but supportive."
Considering the feeling among fans that they are still paying the price of the Glazers' highly leveraged takeover at Old Trafford the detested decision this season to debit the accounts of 56,000 season-ticket holders for the cost of tickets for every Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup game, is considered to be symptomatic of it this was a declaration few managers would probably have been bold enough to make. Not many supporters will agree with Ferguson and only time will tell how much those words come back to haunt him, should he need more money in the transfer market and be denied it.
But Ferguson's comments on the Old Trafford atmosphere are more interesting and prompted a wide degree of agreement among fans yesterday. The causes of the silence provoked the main debate on United websites, with fans who consider themselves "traditional" attacking corporate ticket holders.
"The new regime prefers the day-tripping, glory-hunter supporter over the die-hard Red, because the latter is going to turn up for the match, sing his heart out, then go home, whereas the day-tripper will peruse the club shop, pick up some memorabilia, maybe a replica kit or two for friends, maybe take in a stadium tour the day before, and generally part with far more cash," said one of many messages. "So while we lose out in terms of atmosphere, 'we' gain financially."
Another correspondent agreed it was "not the first time this [silence] has happened", while another spoke of "14 per cent price rises, compulsory cup tickets ... some grim performances on the pitch, usual New Year's Day hangover, Wes [Brown] not wanting to sign a 60k-a-week contract. Sometimes I don't feel like singing ... but we won."
Old Trafford is most certainly not the cauldron of noise it used to be and the corporatisation of the game undoubtedly contributes to that. Yet fans believe that there is a way of restoring the passion to stadiums and are surprised that Ferguson, a man of socialist principles, has not supported them. Some United supporters propose a managed area of terracing where fans can express themselves more than in the seats where stewards' demands for those who stand to sit down immediately is a source of deep unpopularity. An image doing the rounds on some United websites is of Borussia Dortmund's Westfalenstadion where, with a combination of seats and standing, there is a capacity of 80,708, reduced to 67,000 when it becomes all-seating.
"We all know why the seating was forced in place, but you can't tell me in this hi-tech era we can't have standing areas back," said one chatroom correspondent yesterday.
However, some believe these discussions are beside the point. "Ferguson is playing the crowd like he plays the team," said one. "He said after [the defeat at] West Ham that he now wants the team to go on a long run and he wants the fans' support to drive that. The next home game [against Newcastle on Saturday week] he'll get that."
Colin Hendrie, spokesman for the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association, said Old Trafford was like a "police state". "You can't stand up to make a noise," he said. "If you try to stand up, you've got stewards who are ejecting you, they're taking your season ticket away from you. It's almost like a police state in a football ground now and if you do stand up, people will take your arm, put it behind the back of your neck and throw you out of the ground.
"Under those circumstances, what atmosphere does [Ferguson] want? The only atmosphere we've got is one where we're a little bit frightened of losing 1,000 for the season ticket we've paid for. A lot of people are pretty upset [about Ferguson's comments], because it shows a lack of understanding about what it's like to be a football fan in 2008. Fergie's going back to the days 10 years ago where it was absolutely fantastic, you could stand. But you can't do that now."
MU Confidential: What fans say online
If you keep pushing prices up you'll get suits in the crowd and real fans at FC United instead. I'd also mention apprehension caused by lacklustre displays against mediocre sides: Bolton, West Ham and, to a lesser degree, [Man] City. You don't know which team is gonna show up.
phild04, BBC 606
He just said what most say on here week in week out! It won't make a blind bit of difference to anyone, apart from the "Fergie out" bunch! I am glad he had a whinge. We expect players to perform so he has a fair point in expecting supporters to support!
olelo, Red Issue
Too many new faces where I sit, most of whom don't speak with the local accent. Yesterday was a joke [with] people sitting down in the Stretford End. Too many empty seats left by lazy cockneys who could not be arsed driving to watch a game of football.
singingmezzo, BBC 606
I'm a season-ticket holder at Old Trafford and I agree with Fergie that it was quiet [on New Year's Day] but he has no right to disrespect the fans who pay him and his players' wages. It is a poor excuse to cover up a poor performance.
addz16, BBC 606
If you start [chants] at the wrong time you get the most dirty looks. What needs to be done is to lower ticket prices so real fans can go instead of plastic fools. We also maybe need more songs. SAF's criticism could be a good thing: he said the same thing last year before the Blackburn game, and look what happened.
wingersdelight, BBC 606
You reap what you sow and SAF siding with the Glazers is a large reason for the lack of atmosphere. He helped them in, to sting the working-class fans and put tickets up 75 per cent and price out most of the lads who went for the singing. Now it is half-full of corporates and day-trippers.
philnevlegend, Red Issue
SAF is a proud socialist (or used to be). He doesn't have to publicly slag the Glazers off, but all he's done is praise them and ignore the negatives. He has taken the mick out of the FC lads, criticised the protests and ignored the true price the takeover has come at. To slate the fans for being quiet is fine, but he's ignoring the reasons behind it. You won't get day-trippers or corporate sections making noise. And as long as the Glazers continue their business plan it will get worse. He can't have it both ways.
ChrisJ, Red IssueReuse content