Freezing season ticket prices is all well and good, but the Old Trafford atmosphere must improve

Ed Woodward made the right noises about ticket prices, United fans and the atmosphere at Old Trafford this week when he delivered a call to investors as Manchester United announced their latest set of financial results in New York.

“That is the sixth year in a row we’ve done that,” he explained of the decision to hold season ticket prices for a sixth successive season. “That is a policy with regards to the core fans at the stadium.

I think the number one most important thing is a full stadium, the second most important thing is a noisy stadium and we are committed to keeping that.”

It’s so far from the uncommunicative ‘take it or leave it’ attitude of the club when ticket prices shot up in the 90s and that’s to the club’s credit. Then, ticket revenue was the most important part of the club’s income. Now, burgeoning media and commercial revenues have taken the pressure off making unpopular ticket price rises for hardcore fans.

While Woodward made the right noises, there’s likely to be a lack of it when United play at home to Watford today. Old Trafford can still make a din, but Watford at home doesn’t get the fans as excited as a match against a bigger rival. Then again, United have dropped so many points at home this season that any late winner would see the old ground, which is full for every league game, come alive.

Woodward knows there’s an issue with the atmosphere at home games. It’s not an issue at away matches where travelling Reds are among football’s noisiest, but fans are never going to take their lead from a former banker who has been learning on the job about the nuances of being a fan.

He didn’t regularly travel to matches and support a team, though he excelled in his job since arriving at United by using his ability to bring revenues in via commercial deals.

Still, the positive intentions are there and there’s much room for improvement in the noise at Old Trafford and every other big British football ground.

On Wednesday night, I stood among vocal fans of Alaves for their Copa del Rey semi-final against Celta Vigo. I was envious at how much noise could come out of a stadium with just under 20,000 present. The fan culture was organic, the vocal groups clear, organised and well respected among the Alaves fan base. One end of the stadium is given over to them and their flags. They’re allowed to decorate the area beneath the stand with murals and paintings.

It’s different – and complex - at Old Trafford. There’s a singing section in J Stand where fans bring some well designed and original flags to games. They may sing too many songs too fast, but they’re well-intentioned and try their best in the face of a wall of cynicism from fans who don’t want it to be a success.  

Why? The location of the section could have been better and it disrupted long-standing season ticket holders. I was in the section when it was first trialled against Real Sociedad in 2013 and it was superb, but that was in L stand where away fans are currently housed. It should still be there.  

Also, some football fans are at their happiest when moaning. They’ll never, ever, be satisfied and the anonymity afforded by the internet aids dissenters. Fans are also divided into numerous sub-sections at all clubs. Always have been. There’s overlap between some groups and they’ll all cheer the same goals, but unity is rare. A contact was speaking with match going Liverpool fans recently and was struck by how divided they were, how the fans who drank in one pub near Anfield didn’t have anything to do with the fans in the next one. Fans are tribal in many ways.

Other criticism can come from fans who no longer go to games and help justify their absence by saying that the match day is no longer what it was in their day. Which it may not be, but there’s little duller than a man talking about how everything used to be better. And fans were moaning about a lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford in the late 1980s.

There’s a lack of fan leaders who go to matches at United, too. At Alaves, the leaders were clear. They’d earned the respect by being respected as fans, going to all the matches and being natural leaders who inspired their followers. They’d made their names, they had the charisma and the clout, they were all well known among their community.

Nobody is going to follow – in real life at least – a fan who doesn’t go to games and makes YouTube videos from a bedroom.

Woodward wants more noise at Old Trafford, but clubs have always kept fan groups at arms’ length – sometimes with good reason on the Continent. I met a senior Ajax official and told him that I’d travelled with some hardcore fans to write about their derby with Feyenoord.

“Nest of hornets,” he replied, when I mentioned visiting one fan bar. He wasn’t referring to Watford fans, either. “We tried to reason with them, there was no reasoning. We were dealing with criminal fringes.” 

In Italy, clubs can have an unholy alliance with the ultra groups who makes the most noise and provide a colour which is lacking in English grounds, receiving tickets and travel concessions in return for support and influence. That happens in Spain too, though Barcelona and Madrid have all but eradicated the more malignant ultras and have successfully introduced vocal areas.   

Clubs like United have always been reluctant to get too close. When I asked the former chairman Martin Edwards why he hadn’t engaged further with fans, he stated that he felt that if he made one concession, he’d be asked to make two, three and four. Other board members felt that they should listen to fans because they were fans themselves. Yet they were so out of touch with the issues which affected match going fans, from the cost of tickets to the atmosphere.

Tickets prices, thankfully, have become less of an issue than they were. The atmosphere has not.  

NEXT: Remembering Tom Tyrrell, the voice of Old Trafford - By Andy Mitten