In the Pulpit: Why is Old Trafford so Quiet?

On Saturday, United defeated Huddersfield in a comfortable 2-0 win. After the game, Jose Mourinho stated that he thought the atmosphere was “a bit quiet.”

“It’s not Portsmouth. I remember Portsmouth – such a small stadium, the atmosphere was absolutely incredible. In here, the atmosphere is a bit quiet and there is not very [much enthusiasm]. But the players like to play at home.”

Now, I’m not sure if Fratton Park should be used as the barometer of a raucous atmosphere, but Mourinho is right. Old Trafford is quiet. I don’t think there’s any doubt about this, both in person and on the television footage, there’s barely any singing at the ground. Unlike some other grounds in England, there’s a really low decibel level at the aptly named Theatre of Dreams.

But why? If I was an academic, I would perform several surveys, asking multiple fans why they don’t sing at the ground. However, I don’t have the time, resources or desire to do this. Instead, I’ll just give you my opinion, as that’s why you’re here anyway.

One of the theories put forward as to why specifically Old Trafford is quiet is that the football is boring. National embarrassment Matthew Syed recently argued that the attritional style of football that has been played under Mourinho and Van Gaal before him would never liven up a crowd. Punters have gone to Old Trafford to see the best football can offer, not this dross! Gone are the raucous days under Ferguson, where the terraces bounced with passion!

That doesn’t quite hold water for me (Clive). Although I do agree that the football played in the last few years hasn’t been brilliant, the volume had been steadily decreasing during Ferguson’s time there anyway. Also, several utterly terrible teams still manage to generate an atmosphere, so the performance of the side can’t be the primary influence. Just look at Crystal Palace and Stoke.

When discussing the poor atmosphere in modern grounds, the major reason often put forward by the media is rising ticket prices. The idea is that the fact ticket prices are so high (they can be as much as £50 for United), the more vocal supporters are priced out of the ground. Instead, the middle-class fans go the game in their place. These fans, raised on timber deckings and Pimms, would rather sit quietly and attentively until something of note happens. Then they will politely applaud.

I don’t think it’s quite this simple. Ticket prices rising has meant that a different type of fan is attending. But it’s not that the richer the fan, the quieter and more civilised they are. No, in my opinion, the reason that it’s getting quieter is that fans are there for a different reason than they used to be. In fact, they’re not fans at all. They’re customers.

Why do these customers attend games? Because of the deep, emotional connection that they have with the football club? Nope. It’s because they’ve seen them on TV, watched the vines or played as them on Football Manager. They want to be entertained.

They’ve probably paid in excess of £40 to attend. I don’t want to reveal too much about my monthly earnings, but that would be quite a significant outlay for me. That money could have been put towards far more important things, like the weekly shop, filling up the car or most important of all, a new PS4 game. For that amount, they expect to have a grand day out. Basically, football is to this modern audience what film and theatre have been in the past. They pay the money, they get entertained.

But football isn’t entertaining for ninety minutes in the way that a film or play is. These mediums rely on the viewer being emotionally invested in the characters. They spend the first act getting you to that point. Football doesn’t do that. If you just walk in off the street with no attachment to anyone involved, you’re not going to create noise. You’ll just sit and observe. After all, why would you make a show of yourself in public and start singing? No one does that at the cinema.

Mourinho can hit out at the fans all he wants, but asking them to be louder won’t change anything. The actual fans are already singing their hearts out. They already care. But the tourists, the hipsters, the theatre-goers will never be louder. They have no reason to be. If Jose wants noise and an atmosphere, he needs to somehow get the real fans in and keep the tourists out.

What can United do? Lowering ticket prices would certainly help, as you’re opening up the experience to more people. They could try and get younger fans in, create links with the local community and local organisations. What would go much further, I feel, is to change the culture of the club and why it’s there. Manchester United is a brand and a business. It’s not a football club in the way it began. To get people enthused, they need ultras (not violent ones), die-hard fans all throughout the ground. We know that they exist, they go to all the away games. But the club needs to breed more of them by the way they market themselves.

Sadly, this seems to be a losing battle. The board don’t care what type of customer enters, as long as they pay. No matter how high the prices are, a team with United’s global reach will be able to find 70,000 people to fill those seats.

The good news is that the more businesslike the club becomes, the more it loses its soul. Eventually, the club will become so soulless that the tourists will stop attending. Especially if the prices continue to be prohibitive and all the games are on TV. The tourists will leave, moving on to the latest fad. That is when the club will have to return their actual fans. That’s when we take it back.