Safe standing one way of bringing back the atmosphere of 'hell' that Jose Mourinho wants Manchester United fans to create at Old Trafford
The United manager is right to be frustrated by the noise levels at home games from his club's supporters, but there are limitations on how that can change.
Following Manchester United’s bright start to the season, when Jose Mourinho’s team won a third successive league game and kept a third successive clean sheet, the United manager chose to criticise the Old Trafford atmosphere for being quiet during Saturday’s 2-0 win against Leicester City.
He did so unprompted and his motivation was to improve the noise level and make it like the “hell” he first experienced when he first visited as a manager with Porto in 2004.
This writer asked him about it and he said: “My first memory of a strong Old Trafford was when Porto scored in the 88th minute.
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"The next five minutes was hell. In our culture when you score in minute 88, the opponent is dead, the stadium is dead.
“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. They thought it could be possible, another goal. They thought it could be possible for Man United to still win. I remember that noise.
“I also remember that, with 10 or 15 minutes to go, it was 1-0. I looked to my left (along the main stand) and people had their heads in their hands. They were so worried that it was only 1-0.
"It really mattered and maybe they were right because we scored to make it 1-1 and I thought: “Game over”, but Old Trafford didn’t allow for game over. It was hell for us. Hell.”
On one level, Mourinho is right to criticise the lack of noise. United are one of the biggest clubs in world football, but for a run of the mill game at home, the noise level and singing is arguably not even in the top 100 stadiums in European football.
A second division game in Argentina has a better atmosphere than Old Trafford – or any English ground. That country produces better footballers than England and, seemingly, far more vocal fans.
They are louder, more colourful and better organised. In Europe, the noise when United visited St Etienne in February had the travelling fans watching in envy.
United fans are impressive away from home where every ticket allocation is oversubscribed by an average of four requests for each ticket.
Those fans who get tickets win respect even from those with no time for United. But it is more complicated in Britain’s biggest club stadium – just as it is at Camp Nou for Barcelona, though there have been improvements and vocal fans now stand together behind the goal, as they do at the Bernabeu at Real Madrid.
Mourinho enjoyed a strong connection with the hardcore Madrid fans.
Fans arrive too late at Old Trafford, with tens of thousands of the 75,000 seats only being filled in the 15 minutes before kick-off. Vocal fans are spread around, while younger, more vocally inclined fans are far fewer than when there was terracing at Old Trafford.
Attempts have been made to improve the atmosphere and they continue. Loyal fans put time, energy and money into making flags and an atmosphere, but it is a small drop in a very large stadium.
There are no shortage of cynics either, even among United fans, especially those that no longer go to games and almost want the atmosphere to be poor so they can feel vindication for their absence.
Mourinho does have a point and he is right in wanting his home stadium to be louder. Making Old Trafford the proverbial bear pit it was for much of the 70s and 80 (when United won no league titles) should help.
It would be a more enjoyable experience too for those fans at matches and a loud noise does not have to go hand in hand with the violence which accompanies the fan displays in Belgrade or Buenos Aires.
However, the club he works for hardly helped the atmosphere by ramping ticket prices up in the nineties and noughties.
United lost a chunk of the Stretford End to an executive area and a cohort of vocal fans to FC United in 2005, but let’s not pretend that all was well before then.
While this writer read a piece in a Norwegian magazine in 1991 that Old Trafford has the best atmosphere of any football stadium in the world, even the Stretford End terrace was derided for being as loud as a library in its final years.
Safe standing would help at Old Trafford, just as it has at Celtic Park.
Mourinho’s comments have irked some match going fans, who feel they are making an effort and that the club and the players could do more, though the club are beginning to offer small initiatives to encourage fans to arrive earlier at Old Trafford.
Sadly, there is no panacea for the flat atmosphere around the majority of Old Trafford for the majority of games. Too many fans just like to watch the game in peace.
Updated: August 30, 2017 01:16 PM