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Andy Mitten column: Manchester United’s response to football’s hiatus shows a club starting to do the right thing again

​United’s football success in the 1990s came with a period where fans and community was marginalised. There are signs now that’s being reversed

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It may have only been £50,000, but it was a decent gesture from Manchester United as they combined with Manchester City to support the Manchester’s foodbanks at the weekend. Those foodbanks have been fan-led initiatives, stocked up and replenished by collections at games to help others in their community, in supposedly a first world economy where people still go hungry.  

Ahead of their final game before the suspension of football, United gave all 700 fans who’d bought a ticket to travel to the away game in Austria £350 in compensation, which they didn’t need to do. LASK, their opponents, would be in no such position to compensate all their fans who were set to travel to Manchester for the second leg. It was another thoughtful deed by United, something that wasn’t expected and something which was appreciated by the type of hardcore fans who book to travel to away games in Austria at very short notice. The biggest issue I found among the United fans who’d already set off to Linz before finding out that the game was to be behind closed doors was that they didn’t want their wives finding out about the £350.  

United are doing much right at present. They were the first club to announce last week that they would continue to pay all of their matchday staff at least until the end of the season. Chelsea and Liverpool were among those who followed suit.

I spoke to someone who has worked at Old Trafford in a permanent role for a very long time.

“The club has been absolutely brilliant,” was the verdict. “They couldn’t do more.” Other examples why United is a good employer were cited, but of course not everyone will share that view. 

In a company of 900 full time staff, people get dismissed, they feel slighted, they get overlooked or they get their salaries frozen. But there’s a consensus that the club are handling the effects of coronavirus well. The players are on a separate site in Carrington, but they’ve been training at home for a week now. None have tested positive for the virus yet.  

And what of the club’s biggest outgoing, the players’ salaries? They’re heavily incentivised and dependent on results and appearances in games, but United’s is the second-highest wage bill in world football. The biggest is Barcelona’s – and they’re busy negotiating salary reductions with their first team players. Barça sail close to the wind financially, and they simply won’t be able to pay them if this goes on for an extended period.

That’s a nettle United and other clubs will have to grasp if this goes on and on, though the British government will pay up to 80% of their salary up to £2,500 per month. Which is less than 0.25% of some player salaries. 

Before the lockdown, United announced that season ticket prices were to be frozen for a ninth consecutive year. Those prices rose exponentially in the early ‘90s and in the five years after the unpopular Glazer takeover went through in 2005. Fans were genuinely priced out of going to game in the 1990s, the packed buses with local fans who’d paid to stand in Old Trafford’s Paddocks, Ends and Roads emptied. The club shrugged their shoulders – Old Trafford was full and the team was successful, it barely mattered to them that the demographic of the fans was changing. 

Matchday revenues are no longer as crucial to the bottom line as they once were, but United could have increased prices for next season. There’s a waiting list for season tickets: one of my mates let his go when three kids came along. Now he wants to go back every week rather than continually applying for tickets through a membership.

“If you can get one then they’ll put you in the third tier first,” he sighed. “I can’t be doing with a season up there first, you’re miles from the pitch.”

It’s another reason why United should expand Old Trafford.  

  

United have also given thousands of tickets away for free to young fans this season. You want a cynical view? (And believe me, football fans do cynicism better than anyone.) The ground is unlikely to sell out to its 74,000 (down 2,000 on three years ago) capacity for League Cup or Europa League games – there were no free tickets distributed for Barcelona or PSG at home last season, but that doesn’t matter to the thousands of kids who have been the recipients this term. 

United know they have to work to get local fans to see games, know that Manchester City and Salford City are engaging more with fans on their doorstep to encourage them to watch live football.

Fan groups are being consulted to make sure the tickets get into the heart of the community where Manchester United play. United, in case you’d forgotten, are from Manchester. The club’s former training ground at The Cliff in Salford could have been sold off just as Liverpool, Everton and Manchester City sold their old training grounds, but United want to keep The Cliff, keep it in the community and in the club. Good.

Too often in the past the club overlooked its local support as it sought to conquer the world. Diehard fans would go on pre-season tours to the other side of the globe and see players do meet and greets with local fans… but had no idea that the fans who’d travelled vast distances to see them were even there.

There have been efforts on both sides to put atmosphere back into a stadium where it has been in decline since the late 1980s. Part of that downturn was because of horrendous decisions made by the club, such as a section of executive seating in the middle of the vocal heartland of the Stretford End, coupled with price rises. Protests were arrogantly waved away; journalists barely even wrote about it. There’s a vogue now for journalists to write about fan issues. There wasn’t for a very, very long time.   

The club staff is stocked with United fans who want their team and club to do well. Maybe a few poor years off the pitch has brought a new humility. There are countless behind the scenes gestures that the club makes which require no press release or never make it into the public eye. 

The reaction from United fans online can be lost. Almost everyone the club posts on social media is buried in a flurry of responses from transfer junkies who insist that they buy the player they want. Or that the manager or entire team is sold whenever they lose a game, but it’s not just on the pitch where United have been making the right decisions in recent months. 

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