The Singing Section

As a non-Manchester United fan I can’t help but laugh at the news that they are going to trial a ‘singing section’ at their Champion’s League match vs Real Sociedad next month. Manchester United, the club with 659 million* fans seems to be having difficulty getting its stands at Old Trafford to make enough noise.

Old Trafford on a noisy day

Old Trafford on a noisy day

What a come down for current Manchester United manager David Moyes. I had the chance to watch his final game as Everton’s manager at Goodison Park and they sang for him throughout the game, the sound from the Gwladys Street stand was deafening, and all he had to do was give a slight wave in acknowledgement of the singing and the stand went nuts, louder than before. Goodison Park’s capacity is just over 40,000, but the old fashioned stands cram them in so tight it feels like you’re right next to the pitch and everyone is in a bit of a fishbowl. Old Trafford, now rebuilt to 75,000 seems to struggle to develop as much noise with nearly twice the capacity. Both stadia were originally designed by Archibald Leitch, the godfather of football grounds in England, although expansions and modifications over the years have changed what he designed a century ago. In the case of Old Trafford, the expanded capacity and the need for sightlines for those extra fans has probably diminished the closeness that the smaller, older version of Old Trafford provided, and altered the acoustics by opening up the stadium somewhat. There are similar concerns about the new Wembley, as the shallow bowl of seating allows for better viewing, but apparently at the cost of the noise that can be generated by the fans. This perhaps demonstrates why Man U felt is was necessary to hire a acoustic engineer last season to assist with the atmosphere.

Manchester United’s inability to generate noise at Old Trafford has become a bit of a joke among its opposition teams, and one that neither they, nor I, would put down exclusively to the architectural configuration of the stadium. The creation of the singing section would seem to show that what really is concerning the club is the ability to get a mass of fans together that can even make the required noise. Remember there are two (big) clubs in Manchester – United and City. City doesn’t seem to be having these problems because they draw the majority of their support from the local community, ones who are ready to sing their hearts out for the club.

United has become the tourist team, drawing fans from all over the world coming just to see a game at Old Trafford. This again touches on the debate of what a true fan is. Is it someone who lives and breathes the team because they are the local heroes? Or someone who is willing to follow from across the globe, and just prays for that chance to one day get to a game? United’s dominance of English football for the last 20 years, and the bandwagon effect of that success is probably part of the reason behind that rather bloated number of 659 million fans. Some of them are reds through and through, others are reds because…, hey they do win a lot of games! But bandwagon fans are not necessarily the most attached fans, nor are they the most informed and passionate fans should they ever get to a game at Old Trafford.

In Liverpool, the Kop is seen as a refuge for the local fans, you have to be ready to sing and you’d better be ready to cheer on Liverpool if you’re going to sit there. As I sat in the Kop, I heard some man yelling behind me, “If you’re not singing, go sit in the Main Stand!” And I know exactly what he meant, having sat in the Main Stand at the previous game, that Main Stand is filled with tourists there to watch Liverpool because it’s Liverpool. They may know “You’ll Never Walk Alone” but many won’t be singing it, because they are too busy taking a video of it to prove they were there. As for the rest of the songs, they may not even know them, and instead watch the Kop perform its repertoire. United has the same problems, but on a bigger 75,000 seat scale.

So to solve this problem, the ‘singing section’ idea has come about. A section dedicated to people who will loudly sing and cheer for United. It’s being first offered to season ticket holders, then general United members to try to get the most passionate supporters involved. Interestingly, they are being located in the South East corner of the stands – this is where the visitors’ fans usually sit. Have they accidentally been seating the opposing fans in an acoustic sweet spot? And what to do with the Real Sociedad fans that now have to sit elsewhere? The original plan was to stick them up in the third tier of the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – sounds like a nosebleed section to me. Thankfully the police vetoed this plan (not a fan of sticking away fans that far away from the game), and United instead has configured an away section in the East Stand.

So one part of the East side will be dedicated to singing United supporters, and another section of the East end will be filled with noisy Spaniards. That’s going to make for an interesting dynamic, rather than the usual division between two ends, both the loudest groups of supporters will be located within singing distance from each other.

* 659 million fans based on a study last year, including 110 million fans in China alone.

D-Day (Derby Day)

As I sit here surrounded by the news of Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement and the buzz over his successor, I’d best get my thoughts out over what appears to have been the final Merseyside Derby for both Jamie Carragher and David Moyes. Carragher had announced months ago that he’d be retiring at the end of the season, and Moyes looks increasingly like he’ll be moving up the M-62 to take over at Old Trafford.

My first experience was trying to get to Anfield itself. The local bus network operates a special line on matchdays on double-decker buses from downtown. However, these weren’t as full as I had imagined and the passengers were reflective of some of the knocks against Liverpool compared to Everton. Liverpool is the glamour club that has a huge international reputation based on its successes through the ’70s, ’80s, and up to the “Miracle in Istanbul” in 2005. Everton is the local team, it has always pulled its fans from the area and although it has success as well, not at the same level as Liverpool. The added twist to this history is that Everton was the first team to play at Anfield. A falling out between the Everton board and Anfield’s owner, John Houlding, in 1892 led to a split and Everton’s move to Goodison park, and Houlding setting up a new club called Liverpool at his now vacant stadium. So this rivalry becomes still more tangled through the family history of the two clubs.

Back to the buses, my bus remained nearly empty but for a French family, two Australians, a Canadian (me) and two locals. On arrival at Anfield the streets were filled with fans and vendors and crowded pubs literally spilled into the street as fans attempted to get a few pints before the game. One pub right next to Anfield is covered inside with scarves from teams from around Europe and the rest of the world. But to show what a rather small world it is, I no sooner got to the pub when I ran into two Belgians who had travelled down to Sheffield with me the previous day (same idea as me, make the most of the fixture change). I had to buy a souvenir, so naturally I chose the match day scarf that was half Liverpool red, half Everton blue (only to find out later that people who bought those are called day-trippers).

After a walk around the stadium I headed in to find my seat. It became clear to me as the crowd filled up that there was something about my particular section’s seat allocations that lent itself to resales to visitors: to my right were two Icelanders and a Mongolian, and my left were two Irish, and two Dutch. All of the complaints from locals that games are increasingly difficult to attend seemed to be on display, and that I was also part of the problem. That said, for the 42,000 seats available to Liverpool fans – and every single one was filled – the majority are clearly in the hands of locals. Particularly in the Kop end for the most rabid fans and the section that was only converted to seats in 1994. At the opposite side from the Kop, in the Anfield Rd stand, 3000 blues took their place for the game.

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

The Kop raises their banners prior to the game

There is certainly a routine aspect to parts of the performances between the fans, the chants and songs almost play off each other. From my seat in the Main Stand, near the Kop it was nearly impossible to make out the chants of the Evertonians, but going the other way it was easy to hear taunts of “No trophies for 18 years” (to Que Sera Sera) “Always a blue, almost a Manc” (clearly insulting to anyone from Liverpool) and their own tunes “Glory of Anfield Rd”. All of this of course is nothing to the introduction of the teams and the requisite singing of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. During this particular game, Liverpool had planned a tribute for the support of Everton through all of the ongoing struggles about Hillsborough. On cue and just as the YNWA tune began to play, the Kop all held up placards thank Everton through a Tifo. Being at the angle I was at, unfortunately, made the design difficult to make out completely.

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans

Blue smoke rising from the Everton fans after the match

In a new twist to the performances this season, both teams brought smoke bombs for YNWA, a red for the Kop and a blue for the blues. Evertonians actually set off about 5 through the course of the game, and each time stewards attempted to find the source, but as it was occurring in the middle of their section, it was difficult for them to pinpoint an individual. In talking to a steward the next day, she said this is a problem for some of the disabled spectators, who are seated nearby, as some of them have breathing difficulties that are triggered by the smoke.

I’m not actually going to go into the game in much detail, as it was generally regarded by all as a bore draw. For all of the tension that goes into the lead up to that particular fixture, the fans were left disappointed by the actual play of the game. However, if there was one group that was relieved by the outcome it was the police and stewards, who find a bore draw much nicer to deal with than a win, blow out, or controversial game. After the game, I managed to get out to Anfield Rd quickly to watch the toffees (Everton fans) march back to their pubs near Goodison Park. As I stood on the side of the road, listening to the buzz of the police helicopter, the fans continued their chants along the way back, and began to point at the Liverpool supporters along the road chanting, “You’re not from here. You’re not from here.” Again emphasizing the “localness” of their own supporters. Moving down the road, I joined a number of Liverpool fans at The Arkles pub, one of the approximately thirteen pubs in the immediate area where fans gather after the game.

In the hours after the game the pub traffic then generally moves to the downtown core where the blues and reds then mix. This is done with far less animosity than in many other English cities, as many of the supporters come from families with mixed support or friends from either side. There is also the shadow of Hillsborough over the fans in the city. As so many Liverpudlians either knew some one killed or injured in the tragedy, fans from both sides seem to have some accord of respect for each other, and save their more vicious rivalry for the Mancunians, who both sides can agree to hate.

Local is the word that frames discussions around football in this city. Local players such as Gerrard and Carragher are celebrated, and local support is key to both sides (even if Everton claim to be more local) and the impending loss of Everton’s manager after a decade to one of their rivals is a sting for many toffees today (and the source of some Schadenfreude for many reds). Local access to the games is important for fans of both clubs, yet there is also an acknowledgement of the importance that a larger following brings the money required for success on the field. The paradox of local dreams in a global sporting environment.

Field Work Awaits

This is my last post on this side of the Atlantic for the next month. Tomorrow I leave for Liverpool and a month of field research on the football fans of that city. My plan is to watch a several games there over the next few weeks and to meet and interview some of the fans of the teams (primarily Liverpool and Everton).

I did a test run of my research methods at the Toronto FC – Montreal Impact game on Wed., so I have some idea of what it is I’m getting into, but I don’t think a sparse crowd of 11,000 at BMO will in anyway compare to the crowd at Anfield or Goodison Park. The biggest limitation is that I can only be in one place at a time, so I will undoubtedly miss some of the action that I’m interested in, but at the same time, in being at a game and watching the crowd (and the game too) gave me some confidence that this is actually doable.

Interesting observations of the TFC Impact game:

  • When the weather sucks it can be more of a factor than any crowd, and will keep the home supporters away (if you came from Montreal for the game you were going to stick it out no matter what);
  • Standing is waaaaay better than sitting in freezing, windy, and wet conditions;
  • I like that TFC fans swear in both official languages – how Canadian can you get;
  • Taking pictures is really easy since everyone else is doing it;
  • Taking audio clips looks odd, but maybe I’m just holding a weirdly shaped phone;
  • The best chant of the night was the “The Massive” chant that goes on between section 112-13 and 109-111. The call and response part of the chant really gets everyone into it – you feel like you’re part of the group and it takes over the whole corner of the stadium – my best instance of how the TFC fans claimed their territory;
  • Biggest limitation – it was difficult to observe the Impact fans as I was at the opposite end of the same East Stand – gotta be more careful in my seat selection (not that I have much choice in England).

So here I go, first match up is this Wednesday. AFC Liverpool vs. Squires Gate in the North West Counties Premier League (9th tier of English Football). Average crowd is about 100, so this should be a bit of a different experience. Will keep you posted about the footy on the Merseyside.

Without You I’m Nothing

I’m in the midst of writing midterm papers and marking assignments, which is going to put a serious crimp in blogging time. Right now┬áI need to get a quick note down that may work into yet another idea for me.

My seminar today was talking about the meaning of place and the the ideas of different geographers and philosophers. I was thinking while we were discussing Bachelard that his idea of place meant created an interior and exterior, in order to understand home and place, you had to be able to differentiate it from something outside. So what if I were to extend this to my subject.

I was thinking about supporters groups and the intense rivalries they create with select other groups. At their base they are all football supporters (thinking English case here, so its football). They differentiate themselves by which team they support and how much they support them. Having created an identity for themselves they are now free to have a rivalry with another team’s supporters. They’ll contest space and identity with these others who often come from the same town as them and in another context could be friends. These manufactured rivalries depend on the ‘other’. Without someone to fight what is the point of the supporter’s identity existing? So these two supporters groups have created a situation mutually sustained hostility. They effectively need each other to survive, as threatening and awful they are to each other, deep down they need that other to validate their own behaviour. Kind of twisted.

Each imagined or real slight informs the long dance that the two group play out with each other. I’m thinking about the Liverpool – Man U match a couple of weeks ago after the release of the Hillsborough papers. The Man U supporters mock the Liverpudlians with songs about murderers (1985 Heysel and 1989 Hillsborough) while the Liverpool fans act out airplane wings for the Mancunians (1958 Munich Air disaster). The memories are collective and help to sustain the animosity between groups.

Is there some grudging respect or acknowledgement of what they mean to each other? Could be fun to find out.