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How Manchester United lost their fear factor at Old Trafford

A 1-0 win over Dynamo Kiev wasn’t enough for the Old Trafford faithful, who let their displeasure known, moaning and groaning throughout.

This was a Manchester United side at their peak, after all. Little more than a year previously, they had won the Treble. Expectations were high. Too high, in the opinion of Roy Keane, never one to mince his words. What he said after the game stuck. The Old Trafford crowd has been the ‘prawn sandwich brigade’ ever since.

Once revered as a cauldron of English football at its most feverish, its most fervent, Old Trafford has long been derided for its atmosphere, or lack there of. It might be the biggest stadium in the Premier League, with Manchester United home games almost always attended by over 76,000 fans, but something’s not quite right. The noise, the electricity is missing.

Jose Mourinho has been keen to underline this point, more than once pointing out the lack of backing his players receive from the stands. The Portuguese has called Old Trafford a “quiet stadium,” even holding discussions with Ed Woodward over ways to improve the atmosphere. Song sheets, cheerleaders and cheaper tickets for 18-25-year-olds have been suggested.

Whether or not these measures are enough, something has to be done. As far as Mourinho is concerned, the flat atmosphere at Man Utd home games is actually affecting the performance of his team.

While other sides receive a boost from playing in front of their own supporters, Mourinho thinks the apathy of the Old Trafford crowd trickles down to the pitch. The fear factor once held by the Theatre of Dreams is now gone.

Of course, this isn’t just a problem isolated to Man Utd home games. The issues experienced at Old Trafford are reflective of those suffered all the way across the Premier League, with clubs in the top divisions in England struggling to rouse their own fans. This, they say, is a symptom of modern football. Liverpool, for instance, have problems of the same kind at Anfield.

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Indeed, the sterilisation of the matchday experience is deemed to be one of the biggest issues facing the sport in 2018. High ticket prices are undoubtedly pricing out the younger generation, the ones who tend to make the most noise, explaining why Manchester United have proposed offering £15 tickets for 18-25-year-olds. Even more can be done, though.

Not so long ago, Old Trafford was considered to be at the forefront of modern stadium design. The expansion of the North Stand in the late 1990s gave the stadium the largest cantilever roof in Europe, designed to keep the noise in rather than let it waft into the Mancunian sky. The addition of the north-east and north-west quadrants in 2005 helped create a bowl, another measure to help generate atmosphere.

But somewhere along the way Manchester United stopped caring about the development of their home stadium and the fostering of a home atmosphere. Old Trafford might still stand as a monument to England’s biggest and most successful club, but the ground has fallen behind the curve.

In fact, Old Trafford has remained exactly as it is ever since the Glazers took over Manchester United 13 years ago. Every so often the possibility of expanding the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand, taking the total capacity to around 88,000 seats, is raised, but with such plans estimated to cost as much as £750 million, the purse strings have been pulled tight. Other clubs haven’t been so stingy.

Manchester United v Swansea City - Premier League

The Etihad might be mocked as the ‘Empty-had’ by some, in reference to the frequent sight of empty seats at games played there, but Manchester City have done much more over the past few years to foster a raucous home atmosphere than their rivals across the city. Not only have they expanded the South Stand to take total capacity to 55,000, but they have grasped the importance of fan engagement before they even file through the turnstiles.

Outside the Etihad, players walk up the ‘blue carpet,’ giving fans the chance to take selfies and get within touching distance of their heroes before kick off. There’s also a glass tunnel between the dressing room and the pitch, once again breaking down barriers between players and fans. This particular experience is part of a so-called ‘Tunnel Club,’ costing £7,500 a season, but Man City have been keen to offer this to competition winners and kids too. It increases engagement.

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Elsewhere, Everton revealed plans for their new stadium to be build at Bramley-Moore Dock this week, complete with a ‘Yellow Wall’ inspired stand behind the goal. Spurs will start play at their new stadium next season, with their ground also featuring a Kop-style stand for the hardcore. Meanwhile, Liverpool supporters groups continue to explore Safe Standing, with one such group visiting Celtic Park last week to test out Britain’s first Safe Standing section.

With the exception of West Ham, whose move to the London Stadium has descended into farce, Premier League clubs now look to have a better grasp of what generates a positive home atmosphere. The hardcore must be harnessed, with designated standing and singing sections designed to group the most vocal and demonstrative fans together.

As Keane pointed out all those years ago, Man Utd boast one of the most ardent, most committed away supports in the country, but somehow the fervour of that support is lost at Old Trafford. Are song sheets and cheerleaders really going to help harness that hardcore for home games? There must be a more comprehensive solution.

Football will never return to the 1970s or 80s, when football matches were deemed to be at their most atmospheric, and nor should it wish to. While Mourinho is right to complain about the atmosphere at Old Trafford, football has never provided a more enjoyable matchday experience than it does now.

It’s not about eradicating the ‘prawn sandwich brigade,’ but ensuring they are accommodated alongside the hardcore in an environment that makes the best of both. Old Trafford hasn’t done this for a long time.

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