Chants were sung on repeat over the 90 minutes. The concourse at half-time was bouncing, with the beer flowing and fans climbing on to each other’s shoulders.
When the second goal went in, a flare was set off. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think these scenes came from a top away day, yet in reality this was the goings on of the L Stand during Manchester United’s 2-0 home win over Brighton.
Supporters have been looking for a way to improve the atmosphere at Old Trafford for some time. Given the worldwide appeal of United, the stadium often has more than its fair share of people who have gone to the ground for a day out.
They’ll buy a half-and-half scarf as a souvenir, sit in silence and contribute nothing to the atmosphere.
United’s problem isn’t an isolated one, with stadiums around the country becoming quieter and quieter. Many longstanding match-going fans have been priced out, the average age of supporters inside the grounds is on the rise and the whole experience has become overly sanitised.
Match days today are a far cry from a few decades ago, when supporters were crammed into any space they could find to stand in and roared their team on.
While many clubs have resigned themselves to the new ways of modern football, United have tried to do something to fix it, although that hasn’t come without mocking or scorn from some.
The idea of a ‘singing section’ was first mooted a decade or more ago and reports in 2012 claimed the fans had got their wish.
The following season, United trialled the singing section for their Champions League group stage game against Real Sociedad. The fans arrived to the ground early to get the atmosphere building ahead of kick-off and were encouraged to bring flags and banners with them.
Later in the season, for United’s league game against Fulham, the singing section made a re-appearance. The club employed a specialist noise acoustic firm to look into and measure its impact and found that for the game against Fulham the sound reached the same levels that it did during United’s 2-1 win over Liverpool from the previous season, when the club were on their way to winning the record breaking 20th title.
Not only was that end of the ground louder, it sparked a reaction from the Stretford End too, which in turn had an impact on the other stands (OK, other stand. It’s hard to know what would have to happen to bring the South Stand to life).
As a result of the success, the club decided to make the singing section permanent from the following season, with 1,600 supporters moved in to the lower corner of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand and East Stand.
While this area, J Stand, has enjoyed varying success during the few years that have followed, it has become clear that not all of the fans who made the commitment to improving the stadium’s atmosphere have stuck to their end of the bargain. Given that season-ticket holders who weren’t as keen to be a part of this had to be relocated to other parts of the ground, it’s understandable why it would cause frustration that some supporters took their seat only to fail to sing and add nothing to the atmosphere.
The singing section hasn’t been helped by its location either. While this area was identified as one of the better ones, the greatest location is in the opposite corner which is currently home to the away fans. The low roof traps the sound inside the ground, rather than letting it escape up and out of the stadium.
For Brighton in the Cup, with the larger away allocation meaning their fans had tier 2 of the East Stand, United moved the singing section to the L Stand and the results were very positive.
Among the usual classics being sung throughout the 90 minutes, the second half saw a 15 minute chorus given to Sergio Romero, following a great save, to the tune formerly used for Radamel Falcao, as well as the new Scott McTominay chant getting a few airings.
Given the freezing temperatures, the coldest many had ever experienced during a visit to Old Trafford, to generate such an atmosphere while watching an average game was impressive.
Going forward, United may struggle to make the L Stand the permanent home of the singing section. This is the best area in the ground to keep safe segregation between the away supporters and it’s more problematic to move them to the opposite corner.
Another option would be to house them where Brighton were for the Cup game, or in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson stand, like it was trialled for the match against Aston Villa in 2013, although the Premier League is keen to have away areas in the lower sections. That said, there are clubs who seat their away fans higher up, like Newcastle, so United must push for this too.
Longer-term, supporters are keen to see safe standing areas in the ground which would also help generate better atmospheres.
More immediately, the club has confirmed that there will be a singing section in place at Wembley for United’s FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham Hotspur next month, with fan groups urging this section to be where the cheapest tickets for the game are held.
Rival fans may scoff at the idea, but when they’re sitting in near silent stadiums during their next home game, they may wonder what the sound levels might be like if they employed a similar tactic. The idea of needing to force an atmosphere in such a way might be sad to many but the time to grumble about nu-football has been and gone. This is the way it is now, unfortunately.
Intervention was needed to give a taste of the good ol’ days and it worked. Having spent years ignoring the fans’ pleas for changes to improve the atmosphere, the club is finally listening. Time will tell if other clubs choose to follow suit.