Old Trafford atmosphere should be no issue for Liverpool visit
"The atmosphere at Old Trafford is not what it was since, as Roy Keane said, the prawn sandwich brigade arrived," wrote John Aldridge in his column in the Liverpool Echo this week.
The former Liverpool striker had previously declared in December 2015 that "Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge are often like a morgue. So too Arsenal and City's ground. You can hear a pin drop at times."
And he said this in April 2013: "If I was a United fan then I would be appalled and embarrassed. There's over 75,000 fans in there every game and they can't make enough noise."
Aldridge hasn't been spotted at a match at Old Trafford when Liverpool aren't playing, but he clearly has forthright opinions on the atmosphere at Britain's biggest club stadium. You get the picture. Aldridge is from Liverpool, played for Liverpool and is most loved in Liverpool. He knows he'll never run for mayor in Manchester and is pandering to his audience. He knows his comments will wind United fans up, too, which will delight Liverpool fans.
Aldridge was a top striker back in the 20th century when he helped Liverpool win the league in 1988. He was part of an exceptional side and was a success when he went to Spain, too -- he was the first foreign player at Real Sociedad, no less. Aldridge won over the doubters in the Basque Country, who protested when he returned to England because they didn't want him to leave. His life story is not a dull one, and he's not afraid to speak out: where Aldridge once traded on goals he now trades on opinions, mostly about a team that last won the league almost 28 years ago.
It's true that Old Trafford isn't what it was when Aldridge appeared on the losing side for Oxford United in 1985-86 and for a defeated Liverpool team in 1986-87 or 1988-89. Aldridge drew one and lost three of his four games against United at Old Trafford, though he did score in Oxford in Sir Alex Ferguson's first game as United manager.
It's also true Anfield isn't what it was in terms of atmosphere, either, though Scousers really do get up for the United game. The best atmosphere I've experienced from home fans in the past five years in England was at Anfield when Liverpool beat United 2-0 in a 2016 Europa League game, but Old Trafford can have its moments, too. Ask the Barcelona players who were there in 2008 or the Bayern Munich players who walked off at half-time in 2010 after conceding three first-half goals to United. One commented to a United player in the tunnel that he'd never heard anything like it.
Ask the Manchester City players after they'd been knocked out of the League Cup months earlier. Or the Liverpool players who walked off the Old Trafford pitch in 2014 having won 3-0, only to hear the Stretford End singing as David Moyes' ship was sinking. Even in adversity, United fans can be brilliant even at the often-mocked Old Trafford, with all the associated issues that can have a negative effect. It can still be done.
The subject of the muted atmosphere at United games remains pertinent with manager Jose Mourinho making several critical comments about it this season. Mourinho's remarks sometimes make uncomfortable listening, but he has a point.
On Monday, Mourinho said that he hoped the noisy travelling fans who had been at Crystal Palace would be at Old Trafford for the three big homes games in a week against Liverpool, Sevilla in the Champions League and Brighton & Hove Albion in the FA Cup. They will be -- the problem is that they're usually spread about the huge stadium and making a vocal core is difficult. But it's not impossible.
Changes are underway. Mourinho's comments have put pressure on United to listen to fans who have long complained that the club aren't doing enough to help them. He had little idea that the subject had long been a prominent issue among fans. Mourinho's previous experience of Old Trafford had been as a visiting manager with Porto, Chelsea, Inter Milan and Real Madrid when he heard the crowd on top form.
When I asked him what it was like being there with Porto in 2004, Mourinho said: "my first memory of a strong Old Trafford was when Porto scored in the 88th minute. The next five minutes was hell. In our culture when you score in minute 88, the opponent is dead, the stadium is dead."
He wants that again at Old Trafford. Which manager wouldn't? He's frustrated that it can be so flat; so too are the fans.
Both the Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST) and fans in J Stand have met the club, who've agreed to put "L" stand aside for vocal fans for the Brighton game. That's the usual section where the 3,000 Liverpool fans will be on Saturday with their song about winning the European Cup five times and Manchester not being their favourite place on the planet.
Over 1,500 fans have applied to go into the section against Brighton on the condition that they make a lot of noise. A similar one-off idea in 2013 against Real Sociedad was a resounding success.
It won't be in operation on Saturday against Liverpool, but United fans should be motivated by what Aldridge has said, by what Mourinho has been saying and by the fact that it's Liverpool at home, the biggest game in English football.
It's not just the fans, either: maybe the players, for once, in this fixture which has so often underwhelmed recently, can do their bit to get the supporters off their seats.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.