Expanding Old Trafford will happen ‘one day’ but can’t come too soon for Manchester United

Plans to make the ground fit 88,000 would make the venue the second-largest football-specific stadium in Europe after Barcelona’s Camp Nou

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 5:57pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 April, 2018, 5:57pm

Liverpool fans managed it last week – though some of their number ruined things for the majority who made Anfield so loud by throwing objects at the Manchester City team coach.

Manchester City fans will attempt it tonight when they play Liverpool and hope to come back from 3-0 down in a Uefa Champions League quarter-final tie. The Etihad is not an intimidating arena, but City need their fans like no other time at the moment after two successive defeats by Liverpool and Manchester United.

Roma fans will do the same in Olimpico, one of Europe’s most febrile arenas, with 80,000 seats on a single, sweeping tier amid the granite statues, boulevards and rich mosaics at the foot of Monte Mario. Roma also have a tall order as they attempt to come back from a 4-1 deficit against Barcelona, but the noise will be far superior than anything generated by the spoiled, sated Camp Nou in the first leg.

In another last-eight tie, Bayern Munich may lead 2-1 from their first leg in Sevilla, but the Allianz Arena will still be a deafening cauldron for the return – as would any big German ground. They have affordable tickets, safe standing for domestic games and a strong terrace culture where fans stand together.

Atmosphere is that great intangible. When done well, as at Anfield last week, it can help inspire a team on to greater things. Every player will say that.

When lacking, it’s a problem. Imagine football being played without fans? Imagine the lack of spectacle, a game of interest to few but tactical buffs.

Nowhere is atmosphere more of an issue than at English Premier League side Manchester United, the biggest English club ground with the highest demand for tickets. Jose Mourinho has been rightly critical of the lack of atmosphere several times. United have recognised that there’s a problem and are trying to do several things to remedy it. They have given their support to safe standing, which has been a success at Celtic’s Parkhead and in Germany.

“We have pushed for it, but we have to fit into the environment that we’re in,” states the club’s managing director Richard Arnold in an interview in the latest United We Stand fanzine. “We need to bring people with us, such as the local safety advisory group, the police, the government. We’re applying constant encouragement.”

United are also looking at increasing the number of areas where young, vocal fans can be together to watch games. A trial at the recent FA Cup game at Brighton, where 2,000 like-minded supporters stood together, was a success, while the club are working to have vocal fans concentrated in one area at the forthcoming FA Cup semi-final against Tottenham at Wembley. Given United’s recent atrocious record against Spurs in London, those fans will be needed.

England’s 20-time champions are also working with supporters’ groups on several other ideas and announced last week that season ticket prices would be frozen for a seventh successive year, with some reductions for younger fans.

While most of their domestic rivals have built new stands, stadia or have plans to, United have done little since a sustained development of Old Trafford finished in 2006. That is set to change as the club have looked at expanding Old Trafford beyond its current 76,000 capacity, discounting plans to move to a purpose-built stadium in favour of adding an extra tier to the smallest stand, now named after a United legend.

“We haven’t left the easiest stand until last,” observes Arnold. “The South Stand – the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand – is the last unexpanded stand. It’s sandwiched in a fairly narrow strip of land between the pitch and the main Manchester to Liverpool railway. There’s not much space on either side of the stand meaning that it’s a very complex engineering challenge to deliver. It would be a multi-season challenge and it isn’t certain that there’s a way of doing it which doesn’t render us homeless.

“We have the biggest fanbase in the country and we’re not in London, where we could use Wembley [as Tottenham are doing this season as White Hart Lane is rebuilt]. So that’s not a light challenge for us and we don’t want to give up the home advantage that we have here. Moving elsewhere would be difficult and the logistical issues associated with expanding the South Stand are not negligible. And that’s before you start getting into how big the expanded stadium should be.”

Plans produced internally and yet to be given the go-ahead show Old Trafford with an extra tier on the South Stand. An 88,000 capacity would make it the second-biggest club-specific stadium in the world football after Camp Nou, which is also starting a redevelopment to roof the stadium and expand the capacity to 105,000. The United plans also show Old Trafford wrapped in red and black to give the stadium a formidable new exterior.

Arnold favours expansion, believes it will happen “one day” and that United’s owners, the American Glazer family “are 100 per cent aligned in terms of the continuing development of the stadium”.

The capacity would be even higher if safe standing is introduced as United hope.

Not only would that create more tickets for more fans, but free up spaces in other areas of the stadium which have an ageing demographic, so that vocal fans can watch games together rather than be spread around, and fresh blood can mingle with older, long-time attendees

Those vocal fans standing together in the away section in the Manchester derby on Saturday didn’t do too badly. While at Old Trafford, Jose Mourinho’s team would appreciate the lift, the fans would enjoy the experience more and the club would be paid back for their investment in more ways than one.