Legendary Manchester United skipper Bryan Robson will head under the stands before Sunday’s Premier League opener against West Ham at Old Trafford to see a new mural unveiled that has been paid for by fans.
The smart artwork, depicting Robson being carried off the pitch by delighted supporters after the 3-0 victory in Barcelona in 1984, fills one of the walls beneath J Stand where many of United’s most vocal fans watch their team.
Despite the cost of trips to Stockholm and season-ticket renewals, £3,000 has been raised so the areas beneath the stands can be decorated. The club have been happy to take a back seat and let the fans do their thing.
Older fans remember that night in ’84 when United came from a 2-0 deficit in the first leg to beat Diego Maradona’s Barca 3-0 in a Cup Winners’ Cup quarterfinal tie, as one of the greatest atmospheres at Old Trafford — if not the greatest.
“That night was easily the best atmosphere I’ve experienced,” Frank Stapleton told ESPN FC.
“Officially it was 58,000, but I’m convinced there were thousands more in the ground that night. We just knew we were going to win, and the Barca players knew it too; you could see how nervous they were. Their goalkeeper fumbled a weak shot from Ray Wilkins and Robbo followed up to knock in the first goal.”
Old Trafford has long struggled to recreate such nights. There have been many notable great atmospheres at the old ground, with the victorious Champions League semifinal second leg win over Barca in 2008 the best so far this century, but in common with every big British ground, the atmosphere has slipped.
All-seater stadia, a changing demographic and expensive tickets are three of the reasons — that and English fans aren’t as well-organised as their counterparts on the Continent. Once the standard bearers of fan culture admired by the rest, English fans may be loyal in the number of games they travel to — Manchester United had 10 times more travelling fans than Real Madrid in Skopje on Tuesday — but they often arrive late at stadiums, where their vocal efforts can be drowned out by public address systems so loud they hurt the ears.
Yet those fans could do better, especially when they see how impressive others can be. St Etienne supporters were magnificent in both legs of the Europa League match against United last season. Even the loudest public address system would not have stood a chance against those in green. United won the tie but St Etienne support won easily in the stands.
It hurts writing that because United fans are more loyal and more numerous than any club they played last season. There are those who want to improve things. Regulars in J Stand have made some smart flags and songs in recent seasons. The flags are unveiled before most matches, while songs like “Ole, Ole, Ander Herrera” have taken off.
Fans who stand together have been meeting in pubs like the Tollgate close to Old Trafford and walking towards the ground together before the game, singing and waving their flags.
A small group have had informal talks with the club about improving things. United’s officials have struggled to understand the nuances of fan culture in the past. Fans don’t want cheesy sounding fan zones, nor to be told what to sing. The culture has to be organic; it has to grow and come from within. Most of the influential United fans at Old Trafford had made their name by the age of 20, yet a lack of affordable tickets for youngsters makes it hard for them to travel to games in groups.
Those who popped their head above the parapet to try to improve the atmosphere were immediately shot at by cynics who either hated the commercial beast that United had become or felt that contrived terms like “singing sections” shouldn’t be needed. Of course they shouldn’t, but the atmosphere had become that bad.
There are signs that things could change among younger fans. Ticket prices are no longer rising and the issue of atmosphere, so long brushed under the carpet as a byword for hooliganism by clubs, is no longer tainted. The rail seating at Celtic Park in Glasgow has been a success.
United, who are not against safe standing either, can help. Cheaper beers in the bars beneath the stands would encourage people to get inside Old Trafford earlier and build the atmosphere. Sympathetic, clued up stewarding helps. As does dimming the noise in the minutes leading up to kick-off, which will help those who want to fire the atmosphere up around the ground, from the Stretford End to J Stand. This will encourage like-minded vocal fans who want to watch the game together. That’s where the atmosphere comes from, with groups starting songs, creating their own culture, friendships and bonds which go far beyond a 90-minute game of football.
Manchester is a creative city, famed for its football and music. The two should go hand in hand at the match and United’s brilliant songs are often copied elsewhere. The raffish, raucous away support is envied and respected even by those with no time for the club, but home is where things are lacking.
With the team far from complete, support is needed. In recent years as form has declined, United fans at Old Trafford have been far more supportive. David Moyes and Louis van Gaal were genuinely surprised. Jose Mourinho told me last season he remembered his first visit to Old Trafford as a manager being “hell” because of the atmosphere.
“In our culture when you score in minute 88, the opponent is dead, the stadium is dead,” he said after his Porto team had scored a killer goal in a 2004 Champions League tie.
“Instead, we had five minutes where the goalkeeper made an amazing save, where the rebound comes, where my left-back was on the post. We thought it was over. Old Trafford did not think it was over.”
Old Trafford’s famous old atmosphere isn’t over either, but it needs more to join those who are already doing their bit.