Did anyone notice anything unusual about Manchester United’s 2-2 draw against Fulham last Sunday? No, it wasn’t United’s mediocrity. That’s standard these days. What was striking was the noise. United fans were actually singing. When did you last hear the home fans making a noise at Old Trafford? On a big European night or a derby game maybe, but more often than not Old Trafford is like a library. The Theatre of Silence. So what’s changed?
Undoubtedly, the return of the ‘singing section’ – first trialled against Real Sociedad in October 2013 – made a big difference. Singing sections will inevitably attract scepticism and mockery. Traditionalists will bridle at any whiff of contrived atmosphere. However, it’s clear that radical action is needed to revive the atmosphere in the Premiership’s hushed and soulless stadiums.
The funereal atmosphere at Old Trafford is not a new phenomenon. Back in September 2000, Roy Keane famously complained about a new breed of United fans who ‘have a few drinks and probably the prawn sandwiches, and they don’t realise what’s going on out on the pitch’. But his isn’t a problem confined to Old Trafford or to spectators in the corporate boxes. You’ll find the same morgue-like atmosphere at most Premier League stadiums. If anyone’s making some noise it’s invariably the away fans. The home supporters are usually muted, except when there’s a goal and they briefly jump up and clap along to a burst of goal celebration music – typically ‘Chelsea Dagger’ or ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’. It’s a sorry state of affairs.
As I said, the very notion of singing sections is anathema to traditionalists. In Britain, we prefer to create our own atmosphere. We don’t need cheerleaders or cheesy stadium DJs screaming ‘Make some noise!’. Any form of contrived atmosphere feels, well, foreign. I don’t particularly like the idea of official singing sections myself. It not only feels orchestrated, it implies that the rest of the stadium is an authorised ‘keep schtum zone’. It’s also ironic that football clubs are now trying to resuscitate the atmosphere after having spent the past two decades trying to pacify fans. Fans are ejected for standing, being drunk, swearing, lighting smoke bombs and singing offensive songs. Little wonder that the atmosphere at many English football grounds is so flat.
In fairness, the Old Trafford singing section isn’t a piece of crowd manipulation dreamt up by behavioural psychologists at the behest of the Glazers. Fan groups, such as Reclaim United and Stretford End Flags, have long campaigned for a dedicated singing section at Old Trafford. A cynic might say that supporters shouldn’t need permission to sing. The reality is that it’s not that easy to generate atmosphere in a large stadium. Before the Taylor Report ushered in the new era of sterile, all-seater stadiums, the most vocal fans – usually young blokes who’d sunk a few beers – congregated together on the terraces. They weren’t singing sections as such, but it was a minority of fans who got the chanting going.