Standing to lose

Although standing at football matches is forbidden, Ashley Shaw disapproves of the thuggish stewarding at Old Trafford

When eye-witness accounts talk of scuffling in the stand between stewards and supporters, it is a clear sign that all is not well at Old Trafford.

Some trouble had flared late last season when United fans in the East Stand Lower – the right-hand side of the ground for armchair viewers – made a stand at what they regarded as over-sensitive security. The trouble continued this season when, at the first home game of the season, the supporters behind the goal refused to sit down and United’s in-house security ejected fans from the ground and confiscated season ticket books.

The backlash from other supporters culminated over Christmas during the games against Aston Villa and Everton. A typical incident affected season ticket holder Darrell Kinsey: “At the Villa game I was cheering the team on as were plenty of other fans around me. The atmosphere was better than normal when suddenly this security team turned up, they told me to sit down, but because everyone around me was standing and singing it would have meant that I wouldn’t be able to see anything.

“Then they got a bit shirty telling me that standing up was illegal at Old Trafford and that they’d throw me out. Eventually I realised that they weren’t going to go away – they were determined to make a scapegoat out of me, so they dragged me out and pinned me against a wall, gave me a caution and insisted that I hand over my season ticket.

“When I refused they started searching me and got a bit rougher. But they didn’t really know what to do, I don’t think anyone had questioned their right to do it before so they were a bit dumbfounded. I refused to tell them my name or my season ticket number, they warned me again and kicked me out of the ground.

“I know why they did it to me and not the others who were standing near me. They needed a scapegoat so they picked on the weediest looking guy thinking I would just cave in to them. I don’t think they counted on my refusing to sit down, resisting arrest or my refusal to hand over the season ticket.

“By the next game against Everton on Boxing Day I turned up at the ground expecting some hassle but hoping that the club had seen sense. But when I reached my seat it was sealed off with green netting, then the security came over and made me leave. I’ve only just found out that they are giving me my season ticket back.”

The return of Darrell’s season ticket came along with an effusive apology from the club about a month after the incident, but the security gang in question still roams Old Trafford, although they have been removed from the vociferous East Stand Lower.

Special Projects Security, the force in charge of matches at Old Trafford, are headed by the shadowy Ned Kelly. He is supposed to have been one of the SAS men who stormed the Iranian embassy in 1980, while even stranger rumours say the SPS organisation has business links to a certain United board member.

Ned Kelly’s men are paid, unlike the voluntary ground stewards at exits. Their tactics appear more akin to club bouncers than the orange suited old-timers who patrol the stands. They represent the new face of football security, an extended arm of the control freaks higher up the Manchester United ladder.

It’s true that United’s Red Army was once at the vanguard of intimidatory techniques and proud of their record of inciting violence inside the ground. But the United fans involved in these incidents are far removed from the hooligan element of the 70s. They are ordinary season ticket holding United fans trying to recreate the kind of atmosphere witnessed at the Barcelona Cup Winners’ Cup game in 1984, the night that the United crowd produced the old European atmosphere as the team overturned a two goal first leg deficit.

In recent games only the win against Juventus has come close to matching that night for vociferous support and nail-chewing tension. Indeed the current team are now so good that 50,000 Trappist monks would provide more than enough atmosphere for the average match, and perhaps that is the problem.

Supporters want to think that they can influence results. Superstitions and bawling at the telly are one thing but when you are in a stadium, either standing or sitting, supporters want to make their presence felt. For United’s protesting season ticket holders the problem is how to do that with your backside tied to your seat. Many had hoped that Martin Edwards’ early season call for a return to limited terracing would improve things, but the United board have quietly dropped plans to provide an alternative to the current bucket seat monopoly.

The official MUFC plc line remains that standing in games for prolonged periods contravenes Old Trafford’s ground safety certificate and that United are only following the law of the land by forcing members of the crowd to sit down. They maintain that they are reluctantly forced to confiscate the season tickets of persistent offenders.

Alex Ferguson contributed to the debacle when he claimed in his programme notes that standing inside the ground was illegal, a claim later proved to be false – it is not illegal to stand at all-seater stadia. Indeed the Premier League have no regulation covering standing for prolonged periods. The local council, by administrating the Ground Safety Certificates, make a judgement as to the safety of the fans and in this case it appears that Trafford Borough Council have decided that the ground is unsafe while fans continue to stand.

It will also explain why Chelsea allowed both home and away fans to stand through the whole 90 minutes of their Third Round FA Cup tie with United, an irony not lost on IMUSA’s Andy Walsh: “We were allowed to stand for most of that game but when it comes to Old Trafford there seems to be no leeway. We have made progress though and it seems that the board are taking the terracing issue seriously, it is an issue we will be raising with Mellor at the FA Taskforce meeting”.

A return to terracing however remains some way off. Tony Banks has been tacit in his refusal to even think about the issue. Meanwhile terracing continues to dominate the agenda of the Taskforce roadshow, despite this issue being outside their official remit – a stance somewhat at odds with an article written by Tony Blair while in opposition which supported the return of safe standing.

But it is not hard to see why the authorities view a return to terracing with dismay – it will make supporters less identifiable and less controllable, enabling fans to protest in virtual anonymity causing more embarrassment for the club in the eyes of its shareholders.

However while a return to mass terracing is neither desirable nor possible, the technology surely exists for an improvement in the atmosphere at some of the Premier League’s more corporatised grounds without inviting another Hillsborough.

From WSC 133 March 1998. What was happening this month