Saturday, January 05, 2008

Prawn sandwich time again


Prawn sandwich time again


Sir Alex Ferguson's comments about the lack of atmosphere at Old Trafford in the match against Birmingham City last Tuesday has ruffled a few feathers amongst the fans.

"The crowd were dead," he said. "It's like a funeral out there."

Some Manchester United fans still make a noise.

No one would dispute Fergie's assertion about the quiet stadium, although it is hard to imagine how any stadium with more than 75,000 people crammed into it can be quiet. But the reasons for the somnolent mood are a matter of some debate.

The fact it was a boring match certainly was a major factor. Old Trafford crowds are used to entertainment in abundance, but that was sadly lacking. The game was briefly lit up by a classy move between Cristiano Ronaldo and Carlos Tevez which created the only goal of the match.

The only other highlight was the Argentinian's curious goal celebration with a baby's dummy in his mouth, apparently a carry over from his days with the Corinthians in Brazil, but not seen before in England and hopefully not to be seen again.

The fans are furious at Fergie's comments, blaming the club's regulations for the lack of atmosphere. They claim that if they stand up in the all-seater stadium and make a noise they are likely to be ejected and possibly have their 1,000 season ticket confiscated.

"If you stand up, people will take your arm, put it behind the back of your neck and throw you out," complained one fan.

One problem is partly the changing fan base which has been going on for more than a decade. Ticket prices are such that a lot of the traditional "working class" fans simply cannot afford to attend matches every week, if at all. There has been an increase in the middle class spectators who are less inclined to shout their heads off and sing silly chants, unless things are going well.

Then there is the "day-tripper" element with no firm commitment to the club, who go along to be entertained, which is a fair enough expectation considering how much they've paid for the ticket. But they are more like an audience at a theatre than at a football match. They want to see goals whizzing in all the time. They will applaud and maybe cheer when United score, but when things are a bit dour, like last Tuesday, there will be silence and a sense of being let down.

Of course you can argue that anyone who pays more than 50 (about 3,000 baht) for a ticket has the right to remain silent, or even boo a player earning more than 60,000 a week, especially if he can't pass the ball straight. But the fans at Old Trafford didn't even boo - they just fell asleep.

Incidentally, we must not forget that booing is the privilege of a football fan. One of the traditional reasons for going to a match is to let off steam, vent rage and and generally behave in a boorish manner, without really upsetting anyone.

Fergie's reaction to the lack of atmosphere was very similar to Roy Keane's celebrated "prawn sandwich brigade" speech seven years ago when he was United's captain.

It is worth recalling what Keane said: "Some people come to Old Trafford and I don't think they can spell football, never mind understand it. They have their few drinks and a pile of prawn sandwiches, but they don't realise what's going on out on the pitch."

A poll at the time showed that Keane's comments received considerable backing.

One fan described Old Trafford as resembling a "middle-aged theme park" while another said you heard more noise in a public library.

It is not just Old Trafford that has this problem. There is no doubt the advent of all-seater stadiums has much to do with the lack of atmosphere at many clubs. In the days when you stood on the terraces in the wind and rain it seemed appropriate to shout your head off and scream blue murder at the referee just to take your mind off how uncomfortable you were.

In those days, at the big grounds when a goal was scored, if you were standing behind the goal you would be swept off your feet by the seething mass and sometimes end up yards away from where you were originally standing. If you stand up now when a goal is scored you get told off by the stewards. So much for football passion.

There are some that miss those old days and are calling for the reintroduction of standing for fans in certain sections of the ground. This would enable all those who like to sing, shout, scream and swear to create the "atmosphere" that Fergie was looking for.

This is unlikely to happen. Most clubs are proud of their new stadiums with decent facilities and any move back towards the old days would be frowned upon. And fans standing up are potentially a lot more trouble than when they are sitting down.

It's still hard to imagine a capacity crowd at Old Trafford lacking atmosphere. Watching Reading play at Elm Park in the 1960s in front of 4,000 spectators - now that's what Nobby calls lacking atmosphere, especially when it was piddling down with rain. And there definitely weren't any prawn sandwiches. A cup of lukewarm tea and stale meat pie was the best you could hope for.

Mind you, a match ticket did only cost five shillings.

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