United price hike targets prawn sandwich brigade

Manchester United's hardcore support have been braced for the disappointment from the moment the Glazer takeover was completed but the devil in the detail of next season's ticket prices at Old Trafford, announced yesterday with an average rise of 12.3 per cent, was confirmation of how dependent the club has become on those who prefer prawns to bacon in their sandwiches. Roy Keane, look away now.

There will be 8,000 top-priced executive seats available at Old Trafford for the start of the 2006-07 campaign when the £43m redevelopment of the west and east quadrants raises the capacity of the stadium to 76,000 and United will become reliant on corporate support to generate 43 per cent of its estimated matchday revenue of £3m, up from 36 per cent this season. If there is consolation for those who share Keane's concerns about the more fickle "prawn sandwich brigade" turning up in increasing numbers, then it is confirmation that they are to be the hardest hit by the first price hike of the Glazer regime.

United officials yesterday revealed price increases of between 8.3 and 16.7 per cent for next season, with the highest figure affecting executive lounges and the most expensive season ticket rising from £684 to £741. However, the extra revenue provided by the club's new corporate facilities has arguably eased the burden on the lower end of the scale, where the cheapest matchday ticket will rise from £21 to £23 and there has been a reduction, from £12 to £10, for Family Stand juniors. Top-price match tickets are to rise from £36 to £39.

United's new prices still compare favourably with its Premiership rivals, particularly those based in the capital who have been charging £53 (West Ham), £54 (Arsenal), £60 (Chelsea) and £70 (Tottenham) for top level tickets this season. Geographically, however, Old Trafford remains one of the most expensive places to watch Premiership football in the north.

"We do not know what most of our rivals will charge next year but even a price freeze across the rest of the Premiership would mean that next year, only seven clubs will have a cheaper ticket than £23 and nine clubs will have a top price over £39 - in some cases almost double," United's finance director Nick Humby argued.

On the field, United could close the gap on Chelsea to four points on Friday when they play Sunderland and Sir Alex Ferguson has said he may use the occasion to hand defender Gabriel Heinze his comeback.

The Argentinian has not made a first team appearance since rupturing his cruciate ligament in a Champions' League group tie against Villarreal last September. However, the 27-year-old is now back in full training. "Gaby has been training for three weeks and he is looking fantastic," the United manager said yesterday; "He has shown great energy and his enthusiasm is infectious. I might just give him a go against Sunderland on Friday."

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