Old Trafford's atmosphere, like Man United's results, gives cause for optimism
There were several high points from Manchester United's FA Cup third round win vs. Reading at Old Trafford, where a much-changed line-up gave caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer his fifth straight win.
There was another goal for Romelu Lukaku, while Sergio Romero kept a clean sheet against spirited Championship opponents and other fringe players got a chance to impress. None of them let their boss down, including 19-year-old winger Tahith Chong, who made his first-team debut.
But the day's real highlight came off the pitch, with another successful vocal section being trialled in "L Stand" with 1,800 noisy fans. More than five years after a similar experiment in the same part of the ground, the wedge-shaped area usually occupied by away fans was instead home to a loud, vibrant group of United followers.
Organised by the Red Army Group, who would like a similar arrangement for next month's Champions League game against Paris Saint-Germain, it represents a step in the right direction after two decades of noisy fans being viewed almost as a hindrance, rather than a help, by the club. Viewed through a sceptical eye, they need to be: The mood inside Old Trafford has been too flat for too long.
The decline goes back to the 1980s when, before the mandate for all-seater stadia in England's top flight following the Hillsborough disaster in which 96 Liverpool fans lost their lives after being crushed while standing on terraces, United's home boasted one of the best atmospheres in the world.
However, too many older club officials associated noise with the hooliganism they wanted rid of and a section of executive seating was built in the middle of the Stretford End, the famous stand that United traditionally attack in the second half of games.
Martin Edwards, the chairman who made that decision, later admitted to me that it had been a mistake. Another error was made in 1995 when, for a game against Sunderland, a band of non-football fans -- trumpets and all -- were paid to play inside the ground. It was not popular and they did not return!
No subject has occupied more space in the pages of United fanzines over the last 30 years than that of the declining atmosphere, with fans' frustration reflecting a belief felt by supporters of other big English clubs, as well as some on the continent.
Barcelona and Real Madrid faced similar problems and both clubs liaised with fans to organise vocal sections. The 2,000-strong section at Camp Nou really works, while the Bernabeu version is a little too choreographed, with everyone wearing white shirts.
Other European clubs have no such issue building atmosphere -- at Marseille vs. PSG last year, the noise, colour and organization was magnificent -- but, even then, opinions can vary. While I was taken aback, ex-United left-back Patrice Evra, with whom I watched the game, said that Old Trafford was better because the roars heard were natural and spontaneous. Players, he added, prefer that accompanying, encouraging sound to anything generated by ultra-style fan groups.
But while events on the pitch can often spur them into life and United's away following is often praised, the late arrival of many fans at home games makes it impossible to properly build the atmosphere. The pubs might be bouncing around Old Trafford, but inside all is quiet. Meanwhile, songs are needlessly speeded up, which reduces passion and feeling; the tune of the moment, a version of "Waterfall" by The Stones Roses, is a case in point.
All of which is why the there is a buzz about vocal sections. I stood in one -- standing is tolerated -- for October's home game vs. Valencia and found that, in addition to the decibel level being higher, stewards were smart about the section they were in. The fans organise and police themselves and want like-minded people around them, who attend games regularly and prefer singing to posting selfies on social media.
The club are happy with this arrangement and, against a wall of cynicism even from some United fans, it is working. Pockets of the crowd are making the most noise, even if the football played under Louis van Gaal and Jose Mourinho, who was right to complain about the lack of noise at home games, did not always encourage great energy from those watching.
Next season, a further section of the Stretford End will be given to the Red Army Group and there is excitement among those who want to be part of the vocal renaissance. It can work, as the singing section showed against Reading, when plenty of noise was generated despite an unattractive match that had an unattractive kickoff time.