Scott Patterson: Why are Manchester City expanding a stadium that they rarely fill to capacity?

Scott Patterson busts the myth that Manchester is blue, and says United have always boasted a larger local fanbase...


On Monday, Manchester City put tickets on general sale for their Champions League quarter-final against Liverpool, with season ticket holders and members able to purchase an additional two tickets on Wednesday, yet it took until Thursday for the club to sell out. By contrast, Liverpool all of the tickets for the game at Anfield were shifted in minutes, leaving many disappointed paid members without a ticket. The idea that a game of such magnitude could get to general sale before it was a sell out is quite remarkable.

This isn’t the first time that City have struggled to sell tickets though, which is why their decision to extend the stadium came as a surprise, given how many empty seats could regularly be seen at the Etihad even before the plans to create a larger capacity ground.

The past few seasons have provided an eye-opening glimpse in to football support in Manchester for rival fans from outside of the city that had believed the myth perpetuated by City supporters, claiming that Manchester was blue. The lie told was that the majority of fans within Manchester were City supporters, while United’s fan base was made up of glory supporters from around the country and the world.

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United fans have long protested to the contrary but this largely fell on deaf ears. It was lost on many that United having lots of fans from outside of Manchester didn’t negate the fact they also had loads of supporters inside the city too. The same claims aren’t made about other cities with more than one club, that all proper scousers support Everton, or all Brummies support Aston Villa, or all Londoners support West Ham, yet the claim made by City fans was accepted by many.

To be fair to City supporters, it’s not as if they had much else to brag about before Sheikh Mansour took charge, so claiming ownership of Manchester gave them some pride. It can’t have been easy seeing their rivals celebrate winning the unprecedented treble in 1999 while they were languishing in the third tier watching their team play against the likes of Chesterfield, Walsall and Darlington.

Regardless, there has never been any foundation to their argument but it’s only now that their team plays the most attractive football in the league and still can’t fill the stadium that the truth is beginning to be unearthed.

The fact is that United have had larger attendances than City every single season since World War Two. United have been the better side for much of this time, so that’s not a huge surprise, but even in the years where their fortunes were reversed, United pulled in more fans.

In the 1974-75 season, United were playing in Division 2, yet still had the highest average attendance of every team in the country, with over 48,000 fans at Old Trafford the match day average. Liverpool were second with over 45,000, while City, who finished eighth in Division 1, averaged almost 33,000.

When City won the league in the 1968, they had the sixth highest attendance in the country. United had the highest average attendance of over 57,000, which was more than 10,000 higher than any club that season, and over 20,000 more than City.

The most damning statistic though comes from the seasons between 1946 and 1949 when United played at Maine Road whilst reconstruction work was being done on Old Trafford after the bombings in the war. More fans came to watch United than City at their own ground, averaging close to 10,000 more fans each game over the three years they played there. We can presume those fans were Mancunians and not out of towners making the journey to the city.

In recent years, City have desperately tried to shift their tickets, offering buy one get one free deals on Champions League tickets or giving them away for free to local schools after failing to sell out. We’re not just talking about meaningless cup games against sides from lower divisions here either. Two seasons ago, Champions League finalists from the year before, Juventus, came to the Etihad for a group stage game and the club failed to sell out, despite flogging discounted tickets up until kick-off.

A few years before that, with the Etihad literally half empty for FA Cup games despite tickets costing just £15 for adults and £5 for kids, Dave Wallace, editor of club fanzine King Of The Kippax, attempted to explain why their attendances were so low.

“It’s a strange one,” he said. “It’s definitely not an issue with ticket prices, because the club do their best in that respect. The standard of the opposition was a factor, and the fact the fans aren’t sure what sort of team will be put out – although it was a very strong side on Sunday. I know the weather would have been a factor with some too, because it wasn’t the warmest day. Churchgoers would have found it tricky to get to the ground in time for a 2pm Sunday kick-off as well. But City’s fans are interested in the FA Cup. If we get to Wembley, just wait and see the clamour for tickets then!”

Who knew City supporters were so religious, eh?

Of course, United fans would love it if they only had to pay a fiver to get their kids in to Old Trafford or were given free tickets, but the demand means that is impossible. It’s not as if City are giving away tickets out of the goodness of their heart either, rather desperately trying anything to fill the stadium. If they could charge full price and still sell them, they would, but they can’t, so they don’t.

For eight decades straight there have been more fans watching United play live, yet the presumption from some was that this only happened because of the glory years that were overseen by Sir Alex Ferguson that attracted supporters from outside of Manchester.

There weren’t glory fans coming to Manchester from the south in the 1940s, 50s or 60s though, so what happened to them and their families? Did they decide to snub United and Ferguson in the 90s in preference of watching City in the third tier? Even the most biased of City fans would struggle to make that argument.

Reports today have revealed that City have averaged nearly 10,000 empty seats for Premier League games this season, as they’ve cruised to the title. Are the supposed masses of City fans in Manchester snubbing Pep Guardiola’s football and a team that boasts the supreme talents of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne and Sergio Aguero? Or is the simple reality just that there aren’t that many City fans?

There’s no shame in that. There’s no embarrassment in having a solid fanbase of around 30,000 who have supported the club through thick and thin. Their attendances in the late 1990s and early 2000s when the club was really struggling is something they can rightly take great pride from. They averaged over 28,000 fans a week when in Division 2, which was higher than what nine Premier League clubs managed that year.

If you speak to any honest or reasonable City fan, they’ll tell you the truth. There’s no need for them to be bitter anymore, given how much success they’re enjoying on the pitch, regardless of how few supporters might be there in the stands to watch it live. They will all know plenty of Reds, from their family to the workplace, their mates to the local pub.

City have things that are actually worth celebrating now, like their imminent title win, so they don’t need to persist with the lie about the divide of fans in their city. But even if they wanted to, they’d struggle to push this myth any longer. Manchester is red.

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