The people round here

SIR Alex Ferguson might want to take a few words of advice from the comedian Mark Steel, who once wrote: “Travelling around the country, I get the impression that there’s only marginal differences between the level of apathy in one place and the next.”

Steel wrote that in a very perceptive piece for his brilliant 1996 autobiography ‘It’s Not A Runner Bean’. The point he was making in the piece is that people who blame public apathy for the atmosphere/attendance at events are usually apportioning blame in the wrong direction. And that they might want to look more at the people who organise those events.

The piece came back to me after Fergie’s frankly baffling complaints about the atmosphere during Manchester United’s 1-0 win over Birmingham on Tuesday. Yes, Fergie, it was a bit quiet. But it’s not cheap to get into Old Trafford these days, you know.

If Fergie was hoping this would serve as a rallying call to the United fans, I can’t help but feel it’s gone off half-cocked.

First, it gave the nation’s football comedians (oxymoron alert) a chance to regurgitate the hilarious ‘Nick Hancock They Think It’s All Over Oh Bugger We’ve Run Out Of Script Again And Rory McGrath Can Only Get Away With Fondling The Female Athlete In The Feel The Sportsman Round For So Long Before It Becomes An Arrestable Offence So What Shall We Do Now’ standby joke that all United fans come from Cornwall.

(As statements go, the suggestion that United don’t have any Mancunian fans is as patently ridiculous as suggesting that all Stoke fans were educated at one of the top fee-paying schools in the country and served as president of the Cambridge Footlights.)

Secondly, it led to the self-proclaimed hardcore of United’s support turning the blame on so-called ‘day trippers’ (ie. the fans who do travel long distances and buy stuff from the club megastore before the match).

Now, in a third development, Colin Hendrie of the Independent Manchester United Supporters Association has claimed that over-aggressive stewarding is to blame, saying it has made Old Trafford like a “police state”.

So as rallying calls go, Fergie, you could say this one has worked perfectly, apart from turning sections of the United support on each other and making the club as a whole look as if the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing.

I don’t buy the idea that football crowds were somehow better in the 1970s and 80s before all-seater stadiums, any more than I buy the idea that the Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special was unfettered TV gold. In both cases, nostalgia blinds people to the flaws of the era, and football stadiums were pretty horrible places back then.

But I do remember. as recently as the early 1990s, that it was possible to get into a game at Old Trafford for around £3. And I also remember when United fans could buy season tickets without every Champions League, FA Cup and Carling Cup game being bundled in at a huge extra cost.

In an era when it is as easy for supporters to have their say (on phone-ins and internet messageboards) as it is for managers and players, no one should ever consider themselves above criticism; not even supporters. But to criticise fans who have seen their season-ticket prices rocket over the last few years because they’re not making enough noise for you seems rather churlish.

Mark Steel suggested in his book that, if certain places were packed with apathetic people, then surely there would be a counterbalance of ‘brilliant towns’ where, no matter what was put on, hundreds of people would turn up on a Tuesday afternoon.

Well, football crowds are a bit like that. When United’s reserve side were dumped out of the Carling Cup at home by Coventry in September, 74,055 turned up to watch. If that’s not loyal support, I don’t know what is.

But that’s not enough for some people, is it?

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