Published: 04 January 2000
A Millenium Editorial - by OUR SALFORD LASS
One good thing about supporting United is that no matter how quiet things are on the pitch, there's always some off-pitch issue to get hot under the collar about! This season has been a cracker, with a whole plethora of issues to choose from. The latest, and the one that has got me all het up recently, has been the club's intention to extend the disabled section into (and probably over) my precious seat in East Lower, rather than extend into South Stand, and the proposed "singing end" in the new second tier. Considering the effort and guile it took to get myself back into the Scoreboard Paddock after two seasons of exile, it's not surprising that I take it rather personally when the powers-that-be decide to make such a dramatic change with no consultation and (it seems) no intelligent debate.
Before the building of the new North Stand, my son and I had been regulars in the Scoreboard, as ordinary members. I had never been able to afford to buy LMTB's for us but it didn't really matter as far as home games were concerned. In those days members were rewarded for loyalty and, with our bulging voucher sheets we rarely missed a game, even during the building of the North Stand when capacity was down to 40,000 - of which only a couple of thousand were ordinary members. We even managed to get tickets for the occasional away game - Coventry, Notts Forest and unpopular League Cup ties at various crap stadia around the country. I remember that last season as a member as a very special one - in hindsight, it was more special than any of us realised at the time - because everything has changed so much at Old Trafford since then. Looking back, I realise now that that last season, before the new North Stand opened, was the beginning of the end for much of the traditional support at Old Trafford.
What I remember most about that season was the endless queuing. Every ticket for every game had to be queued for. The same couple of thousand people, with our precious voucher sheets clutched in our hands, we were there at least once a week - sometimes more - during the freezing cold of November, December and January. From 8am in the morning for anything up to 4/5 hours we stood in a long crocodile which wound from the ticket office, under South Stand and sometimes as far as the back of the Stretford End. A lot of the time we were miserable, but we made a lot of good friends that winter - there were no "suits" or "glory hunters" just ordinary United fans, dedicated enough to skive off work or play hookey from school so we could get in to support the lads. An abiding memory of that time was the morning before Eric's return against the Scousers. Since the team were training behind closed doors at OT, the press were out in force. They couldn't get at Eric, so they had to make do with us instead! We were filmed walking up to the queue, standing in the queue, going into the ticket office - riveting stuff! Some were interviewed, with the seagulls doing their best to get a negative comment about Eric - but these were loyal fans and their questions were met with either a request to "**** off" or a eulogy on Eric Cantona as God and hero of the people. We were queuing down the length of the tunnel under South Stand when the players began to arrive, driving past in their fancy cars (not as fancy as these days, though!). Some ignored us, some slowed down and waved (Pally and Bruce in particular), most just smiled at us sympathetically. Then Alex Ferguson drove up. He slowed down, rolled down his window and drove at walking pace down the full length of the queue, talking to all the fans - asking how long we'd been waiting, where we came from, whether we were looking forward to seeing Eric again. The following afternoon we were up in J Stand, the air full of red and white confetti, as the King himself strode onto the pitch to reclaim his kingdom.
The following season we got what we'd always longed for - the elusive season ticket. The day it arrived I just sat gazing at it with disbelief - I'd wanted one for so long and I couldn't believe I finally had a season ticket to Old Trafford! Unfortunately, it was in the new second tier of the North Stand. We had thought long and hard about this, whether we should forego the chance to have a season ticket, so as to be able to stay in the Scoreboard Paddock, but the security of that small book was too tempting and we decided to say a sad goodbye to the Scoreboard. In retrospect, we did the right thing (the days of members going to every game being now ancient history) but when we found ourselves perched high in the air amongst the living dead of the second tier we would cast envious and regretful glances towards the Paddock. I have to admit that during that season, I came the closest I have ever come to giving up and finding something else to do on Saturday afternoons (or Sunday mornings, Monday nights etc etc). This was an experience of football that was nothing like anything I had ever experienced before. No chanting, no singing, no passion. Voices were only raised to moan and complain and abuse the players. And the pitch was so far away I could only tell who was who when they were actually running around and in their appropriate positions - it was like watching the game on the tele, at the other end of the pub, with the sound turned down and a pub full of miserable bastards to share it with.
When we could, we escaped back to the Scoreboard. European games would find us in two smashing seats, behind the goal, in the middle of the best atmosphere in the whole stadium. Towards the end of that season I was "lucky" enough to contract an illness which made it impossible for me to climb more than a few stairs - I approached the ticket office and a lovely, lovely man (who I shall remain grateful to til my dying day) said he would arrange for us to transfer our season tickets to our Euro seats. We held our breaths throughout the summer and when our new season tickets arrived, back in the Scoreboard, there were celebrations in our household which almost reached the euphoric levels of a last-minute Ole goal. So back we came to our spiritual home. Four rows from the front where we could see the sweat on their legs, share in the goal celebrations, exchange abuse with opposition players. Where we could spend 45 minutes of every game "communing" with Peter Schmeichel and 90 minutes exchanging pleasantaries with the away fans. East Lower - the "popular end", where the atmosphere pulsed with passion and commitment. It was the only part of the stadium left that was like the Old Trafford of old.
Many didn't understand why we wanted to be there so much - after all it had the crappiest view of the whole game in the stadium but our view of the goal in front of us was only bettered by that of the keeper himself. We have some wonderful memories: David May sliding on his stomach against Porto, Peter admonishing us for not singing loudly enough, Keane's occasional grin or wink, Cole and Yorke dancing, Eric leaping into the crowd, Becks' grin as he takes corners, Scholes' Euro goals, Sparky scoring at Fergie's testimonial. In short, being in the Scoreboard makes us feel at one with the lads on the pitch - it's us they celebrate with when they score and us they look to for that extra bit of support when things aren't going well. But just as important was the atmosphere - the wall of sound that surrounded us on Euro nights or (in days long ago) on Derby days or for a visit of the Scousers.
And of course it was the Scoreboard that spawned Action135 and Imusa during that awful season of anger and despair as we watched with furious impotency as the SPS threw fans out (getting in a sly punch or two along the way) for simply getting behind the team. In our first season back we saw lads dragged along the floor, women pushed around and terrified kids crying as their dream visit to OT turned to tatters. Treated like animals, we had the furious, spitting faces of SPS thrust into ours as we were threatened with eviction for "arguing" or "having a poor attitude". In our own ground, where some of us had been supporting our beloved Reds for over 40 years, we were treated like scum. One of the proudest moments of my life was the reaction of the whole of Old Trafford to that announcement at the Arsenal game. We were still in exile in the second tier then and in a perfect position to watch as the whole of Old Trafford came to its feet to sing "Stand up for the Champions". Even the living dead around us and the execs in South Stand got to their feet. The following season, I was of course back at the front line, facing the SPS goons and discovering that I did indeed have within me the capacity to thump someone - all that stopped me was the fear of losing that precious season ticket.
From everything I've said above, it is easy to imagine how devastated I was to discover that I might lost my precious seat in the Scoreboard again - and not only that, but I may find myself back in a second tier. Well actually, devastated is probably a little strong since these days I find it difficult to even get angry anymore at what goes on at Old Trafford. The Scoreboard, like the rest of the stadium, has changed so much in recent years that this latest move came as no surprise (particularly as the SPS goons have been hinting at it for months). This is simply the final step in a process that began as soon as the powers-that-be at Old Trafford realised that they couldn't beat us by force and intimidation. A process of social engineering has taken place in the Scoreboard over the last 2/3 seasons that has seen the atmosphere dwindle to the point where not even a vital Euro game against Valencia could raise much of an atmosphere. Either deliberately, or accidentally (probably the latter, a deliberate policy would lead to an assumption of intelligence) MUFC PLC have stumbled on the perfect answer to the Scoreboard "problem". Give them a "singing end" in the second tier - out of sight and out of ear-shot of the sanitized fans that United want to encourage.
So what has all this got to do with the new millenium? I believe that the changes that have happened, both at Old Trafford and in football in general, over the last few years are as nothing compared to some of the changes still to come. If it to be a happy new millenium for United fans, then at all levels we have to first decide what our priorities are and then how we are to respond to the changes which are already happening. In the immediate future, we fans have to decide how to respond to the club's offer of a "singing section". At the purely personal level, for me this is a difficult one - do I support this, knowing that it is one of the things we have been working for for what seems like forever, despite the fact it could mean me having to give up once again my seat in the Scoreboard and moving back to a dreaded second tier? Or do I refuse - insist on staying in the Scoreboard and risk being isolated away from those who sing? Do I really want to stay in the Scoreboard as it is now? We fans as a group also have to decide our priorities - do we take the club up on an offer which is at best not ideal or do we hold out for a real popular end, preferably the Stretford End? And as for the club - well only they know whether this offer of a "singing end" is a genuine offer or simply a ruse to rid themselves of a problem. If it is genuine, then they have to be prepared to negotiate with fans to find a solution which will not only keep the fans happy, but which will begin to generate again an atmosphere which will support the team and be worth a goal a game - just like in the old days.
This is an exciting time to be a fan of Manchester United - never before has there been such potential for fans to influence the future of both their club and football as a whole. It is also a terrifying time - it could all go very wrong very easily. At the moment, we are seeing what could be the future for football if a true European League became reality. Sitting here in the UK yesterday, watching the rest of the Premiership playing their games whilst our lads are thousands of miles away, it was very easy to imagine what it could be like to be a United fan in the future. Next weekend, we will do the same again as the FA Cup continues without us. For match-going Reds, this is a frustrating experience - and perhaps the clubs should think carefully before taking it any further - after all, give us any more empty weeks without our fix and we addicts might just find that there is more to life than football after all!
So we move into the new millenium with a team that is glorious and with a trophy cabinet bulging in a way it never has before, but also with fear and trepidation about what the future holds, particularly for the match-going fan. We have shown, with the beating of Murdoch, that we fans can work together and achieve the seemingly impossible. So lets see if we can work some more magic and bring back the people's game to the people in the 21st century.
OUR SALFORD LASS
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