It wasn’t just the importance of the fixture and the appeal of the Champions League itself that made European nights at Old Trafford so special for Sir Alex Ferguson. More than anything, it was the different sound the old stadium made when packed to the rafters with a different type of supporter.
“Old Trafford is a special place on European nights, when the stadium’s full, the floodlights are on and the fans are up for it,” explained the legendary manager back in 2010. “It’s an enormous lift to the players when the fans are really behind them – the Barcelona semi-final in 2008 is a great example.”
By comparison, he was often left frustrated by the more mundane feeling in the stands at Premier League fixtures.
“The growing number of hospitality packages has attracted a different type of audience,” he noted in 1996. “A visiting party might come to Manchester for a nice weekend, sit and admire the ground and then wait to be entertained, just as if they were at the theatre or a musical. No passion, no commitment, just a lovely day out.”
It is an issue which did not end with Ferguson’s reign in 2013. When served up the dull, frustrating football of Louis van Gaal which produced 0-0 draw after 0-0 draw it was perhaps understandable, but even during the recent nine-match winning run under Jose Mourinho, the 70,000-plus home fans have been regularly drowned out by boisterous away sections.
Mourinho’s response has been to challenge the fans ahead of Sunday’s visit of Liverpool. “The players have to improve, I have to improve and I’m sorry to say that I think the fans also have to improve for a big match on Sunday,” he said after Tuesday’s EFL Cup win over Hull City.
“The players have to do better, I have to do better and the fans can also do better. Sunday is a special game. My invitation for them is don’t come to the theatre, come to play, play with us.”
It is perhaps a bold step for a relatively new manager to appeal for more from an Old Trafford crowd given the reputation many United fans hold dear to their hearts, but there can be no escaping the fact that Mourinho is right to be underwhelmed.
Until this week he has treaded lightly with the supporters, claiming his love for them, backing them at almost every turn and insisting that his players throw shirts to the travelling hordes at West Brom before Christmas as festive gifts.
The following at The Hawthorns that day had been typically outstanding; United’s away support is among the best in the country. Whether lauding former greats such as Eric Cantona and George Best or coming up with canny new chants for their current stars, the travelling army are notorious for bringing the house down wherever they go.
But that simply makes it all the more frustrating when Old Trafford sits silent for minutes on end. Against Tottenham in December there was a particularly eerie stretch when it felt as though an impromptu period of silence had been called 10 minutes from the end of the game. Sure, United were hanging on to a 1-0 lead in a game which followed a number of late concessions and the supporters were feeling nervous, but it can have done the players no favours whatsoever to feel like they were playing in front of 75 fans rather than 75,000.
United’s biggest strength is sometimes their greatest weakness too. They are the most attractive proposition in world football, but global demand for tickets can result in the theatre-esque atmosphere for which Old Trafford has become notorious.
The package tourists, the weekend-trippers, the far-and-wide reds perhaps expect the atmosphere to come to them. There may well be a designated singing section in the north-west corner of the ground, and a buoyant and willing area at the back of the Stretford End, but for the most part the corporate air reigns supreme.
Against Liverpool on Sunday there needs to be a positive response to Mourinho’s call to arms. Unlike the fixture at Anfield in October, United head into this match as the form side and the team in prime position to collect three points and continue their charge towards to the top four. But even the slightest shift in momentum will be enough for Jurgen Klopp’s side to pounce, and if that were to come from being out-sung, out-shouted and out-enthused in the stands then it would simply be unforgivable.
It is sometimes considered as football’s chicken-and-egg scenario. Is it up to players to give supporters something to cheer about, or do the fans need to create an atmosphere in which players can thrive? United have done everything they can over the last nine matches to encourage the Old Trafford crowd to come out of their shells. Now it is the job of the fans to raise their game to the same level.