Formed in 2005, Stretford End Flags (SEF) is an independent supporters group, which was initially set up to provide the banners that adorn the front of the Stretford End. The group has since branched out, often organising mosaics at Old Trafford and elsewhere, and is at the forefront of the campaign to develop a permanent ‘singing section’ at Old Trafford.
In a two-part interview occasional Rant writer Jonathan Shrager talks to SEF’s Andrew Kilduff, better known as ‘Tufty’, about the second singing section trial.
Jonathan Shrager: Evening Andrew, many thanks for your time. What’s your involvement in the Singing Section? Whose idea was it originally, and how did it come about?
Andrew Kilduff: SEF received a lot of calls from fans to do something about the atmosphere at Old Trafford, with many calling for a designated singing section or even safe standing areas. Pete Boyle had previously mooted the idea, but nothing progressed. We spoke to Pete and sent an invite to all the Manchester United supporters groups and Fanzines asking them to become involved in a campaign for a singing section. Nearly all the supporters groups backed us and a written proposal was first submitted to the club in February 2012. We decided to come together under the banner “Fans United”. We also sent the proposal to the official MUFC Fans Forum who fully supported our idea.
At the same time as submitting our proposal, MUFC also had their own plan to move the away supporters to tier 3 of the North Stand. Their suggestion meant that the current away section at Old Trafford would be free, and as such it fitted in nicely with what we wanted to achieve. Unfortunately, following the trial of away fans in tier 3 against Aston Villa in March 2012, the authorities didn’t sanction a full time move.
JS: So, if L-stand (where the first trial vs Real Sociedad took place) was ultimately selected, what’s your inkling on where away fans would be relocated?
AK: To be honest, we can’t see L-stand being used, as moving away fans is pretty much impossible. Logistically other areas of Old Trafford cannot house away fans and if away clubs bring 9,000 in the cup, then they will still require L-stand. Even if away fans were moved that would result in season ticket holders having to move to accommodate the away fans. Tier 3 of the Sir Alex Ferguson stand was the ideal solution, but that’s not possible.
JS: Was it fairly easy to deal with the branding juggernaut that MUFC has become?
AK: The club have been very refreshing in their approach to the singing section and welcoming our ideas and input. I think they realise that something has to be done and the weight of various fan groups behind Fans United also helped them buy into the idea. We have spent almost two years talking to the club, with the outcome being two trials so far this season. The club are also keen for this to be led by the fans, taking on board our ideas and suggestions. We also stated that the acoustics within the stadium don’t help the atmosphere and the club commissioned a study into this. It is the result of this study that has led to the trials.
JS: Are MUFC pioneers, certainly within UK, of introducing an official singing section?
AK: Other clubs have had singing sections in place and since the publicity of our section many other clubs have been in contact to see how we put our proposal together. Newcastle United had a singing section in place a few years ago and is looking to bring it back. Sunderland has a section close to the old away end and Liverpool has a designated block within The Kop.
JS: Peter Daykin from the Football Supporters Federation proposes that fans lobby for standing sections in light of recent Hillsborough findings confirming that it was mis-policing that caused the tragedy, rather than the standing per se. From your experience of dealing with the powers that be is this realistic at OT?
AK: As part of our call to improve the atmosphere at Old Trafford we fully support the case for safe standing areas. We know that the incidents of the past have been taken on board, technology and stadium management has changed and the removal of pitch side fences and pens has been removed. Football is safer for developments in stadia and the rail seating model has further improved the ability to offer safe standing. The rail seat model bares very little similarity to old football terraces, yet offers those supporters who want to stand an area that is safer than standing in current seated sections.
One issue that fans have now is that those who want to stand often do it at the expense of those who want to sit. There aren’t clearly defined areas for supporters’ needs. Introducing the rail seat model would then clearly define standing areas and make attending games better for those that want to sit and for those that want to stand.
We have reviewed the Safe Standing Roadshow model and have asked Manchester United to showcase this both to their own safety officers and to the club’s supporters by holding the roadshow at Old Trafford on a match day. The club realises that the law needs to change, or definitions addressed, before they can push ahead, but from talks we have had they welcome investigating the potential should the law change.
JS:Are there any other ideas/schemes in the pipeline to improve atmosphere or fans’ matchday experience?
AK: Obviously our big push is for a full time section to be in place for the start of the 2014/15 season. Offering a section for those that are like minded benefits all, as per the rail seat, it clearly defines what that section is about and should group singers with singers. People say its not needed or that we have a singing area called the Stretford End. The section isn’t designed to take anything away from the Stretford End; it is designed to add more atmosphere. Unfortunately all-seater stadia do not offer much choice to fans who want to sit together, so singers find it hard to sit with other singers and those who do not want to join in often complain that those singing or standing ruin their match day experience.
Both SEF and other groups such as Reclaim United are looking at ways to improve the atmosphere. SEF try and promote flag nights for the European Games or “Show Your Colours” where we ask fans to bring along their scarves and flags. SEF also encourage the club to put out the large surfer flags at games or to install fan mosaics for the larger European games.
JS: Could an official singing section potentially give birth to a songs panel that considers new songs to trial at matches? Pete Boyle liked this idea when I recently proposed it to him.
AK: I don’t think a songs panel is ever likely to come in. As Pete previously said, most new songs develop in the pubs, on Euro aways or on the coaches going to away games. One thing that we all hope that the singing section will allow is for songs to be sung at the right speed, far too many are currently sung too fast, meaning people struggle to join in or catch their breath! We also hope to hear a few more of the classic United songs of old, ones we don’t sing as often these days.
JS: Fair play, but I still believe that a biannual informal rendezvous in Manchester, with Reds proposing their ideas to a panel in a relaxed environment, could prove highly amusing and productive in terms of yielding fresh song ideas.
Moving on, how come L-Stand was specifically chosen for the singing section? Was there a rationale or purely what was available? Was it anything to do with acoustics?
AK: Fans United wanted a section at the opposite end to The Stretford End. We also wanted a section that was close to the pitch and visible to the players. Our initial proposal suggested using East stand lower (The old Paddock areas) as we thought this would be best suited. As well as asking the club to consider the singing section proposal, we asked them to look into the atmosphere at Old Trafford and in particular the acoustics. United commissioned an acoustics engineer to study the noise and how easily terrace chants flow throughout the stadium. This study revealed that the best areas for allowing noise to spread were the 4 lower corner quadrants of the stadium. As a result, it was decided that the two lower corner quadrants at the East end of Old Trafford would be used for trials of the singing section.
For the Sociedad trial we tested the L-stand area, which is usually home to the away supporters. This area worked well, however it was felt that South Stand didn’t really join in and that the area also didn’t allow United chants to flow upwards to the upper tier due to the location of the section. For the next singing section trial against Fulham on February 9th we will be using the other quadrant where North Stand meets East Stand – the old J and K Stand areas. This section should allow all of East Stand upper and lower to join in with the singing and for those in North Stand to also join in. With the roof of North stand also trapping the noise we feel that this will improve the atmosphere and volume within of Old Trafford.
JS: Given that top tier Stretford End is generally recognised as the main singing section, do you think Stretford Enders will now relocate to the singing section when it’s available?
AK: The singing section proposal was to have the section at the opposite end to The Streford End, so that the atmosphere and songs could be heard at both ends of Old Trafford. The section isn’t designed to take anything away from the Stretford End and we hope that the singing section can sing in unison with the Stretford End. In the initial trial, only 195 people from the whole Stretford End moved into the singing section.
One problem we have at Old Trafford, due to our varied song book, is that the stadium isn’t singing as one. Sometimes that can also occur in the same stand, with one side of the Stretford End singing a different song to the other. That doesn’t help the atmosphere and makes some songs sound muffled. We want to get everyone singing together.
JS: How does the application process operate for the singing section? I noticed that those who can apply for Fulham game trial were those who were in there for Real; how were these people originally decided? Do you believe the section will become a highly sought after section of the ground?
AK: For the Sociedad trial we had 1,431 seats and invited Season ticket holders to apply. That section was over subscribed and we knew that demand existed for a bigger allocation. For this trial we have 2,661 seats. Priority will go to those who took part in the first trial. We will then invite along the singers who currently sit in J/K stand and are moving out for the trial, then open up the application to all ST holders to fill the section. Once the section becomes full time, priority will go to those who took part in the trials. We want a full time section to remain fresh, rather than growing old together, so we will look at ways of attracting in youth. Each season or even expanding the section. We hope those that fill the section are there with the intention of singing and creating an atmosphere. This really could be like having our superb away support at home!
JS: What’s your response to longtime J-Standers grievances with the fact that they might have to be relocated permanently should the Singing Section go ahead there?
We understand the grievances of those longstanding ST holders in J/K who are being moved for the trial. This section is home to a lot of long-term season ticket holders, more so than some other areas. It’s a difficult one to address, but most people will agree that the section is needed. No matter where the section goes longstanding ST holders will have to move. We hope that some see the overall benefit to the atmosphere and move for the benefit to the team and the atmosphere.
JS: You mention inviting along the singers who currently sit in J/K stand. Are there recognised “singers” in J/K stand?
AK: There is a core block of about 100 singers who stand and sing most games at the back of K stand (E238), but all singers within J and K are welcome to be part of the trial. We want the section to be full of singers. Ideally, we don’t want people moving back in simply because they want their own seat and don’t want to sing!
JS: Do you believe it’s almost mission impossible to recreate an ‘away-end’ atmosphere inside OT? Would an away-end atmosphere within an isolated section of OT help significantly animate the rest of the stadium?
AK: If we can get the vocal fans all together then it can make a difference. The first trial was just like an away end, but at home. A lot of the same faces were there. As we have seen at away games, 2,500 United fans can make a huge difference, out-singing home fans. So if the section is loud every game, with other United fans singing along, it can only make the match day atmosphere at Old Trafford even more enjoyable. Everyone enjoys an away game – that spirit can now be in place at home games and can then make a difference to the fans’ perception of attending home games and seep through to the players on the pitch.
JS: Some people have criticised the idea of a singing section as “forced.” Will there be an obligation to keep spirits high? Even at away games there are prolonged lulls during particularly poor performances.
AK: We have to ensure that it remains fresh rather than novel. Getting the right mix of vocal fans in there will only help. Most people want to stand and sing every game and we want to capture that. Prolonged dulls often happen, but its down to the section to take a lead and ensure it remains vocal.
JS: Given the increasing percentage of corporate clients at OT coupled with the ever-increasing number of tourists, aren’t old school home atmospheres consigned to the past?
AK: On its day old Trafford is up there with any stadium in Europe, as last year’s game against Real Madrid will testify. Allowing singers to be grouped together with like-minded fans can only help. It won’t be diluted by tourists or by execs, which is the case in other stands. The decision to put an exec section within the lower tier of The Stretford End has to go down as one of the club’s worst decisions; no other club would have created that within its core supporter section.
JS: What was the general response to the first trial vs Real Sociedad? Are you confident that it’ll ultimately become a permanent feature for every home game?
AK: The response to the first trial has been better than we imagined. We expected the cynicism over the section, but the media have been right behind it. What helped was that the section worked. Fans who were reluctant to join in have now asked to become involved. The club have praised the way in which the section went and the response from the players has been superb. Most of the players in the dressing room commented that it made a difference. David Moyes was waving at the section and the players all came over and applauded at the end of the game. Phil Neville and Ashley Young praised the section via Twitter and those comments have helped the club realise that it can make a difference. If this next trial goes well, and the section acts in the way it did during the first trial, we can hopefully implement it full time next season.
JS: I heard the “Hey Jude” Keano song being sung. What’s your stance on singing his name following spat between him and Sir Alex Ferguson? Wayne Rooney’s “White Pele” song also got a rendition. What’s your stance on singing his name following multiple transfer requests?
AK: I haven’t personally joined in with the Roy Keane songs. Whilst I support him as a former player, and what a player he was, singing his name could be seen as ‘two fingers’ at Sir Alex. It would be different if we sung Fergie’s name as well, but he’s not had his name sung since he left in May. To be honest some of Keane’s comments have been quite bitter and it’s sad to see it played out in such a public platform.
I’ve not stopped singing Rooney’s name. I’ve always maintained that he’s been our most important player, even when Robin van Persie took the spotlight last season.W e should ensure that we keep Rooney fit, hungry and wanting to play for United. His goalscoring record is superb and he will probably eclipse Bobby Charlton and Denis Law. You only have to look at what he’s won for the club to see that he’s up there with the best. We didn’t like to see his comments, but his quotes on lack of investment were only what every fan was saying. His performances and fitness this season have shown the player he is and what we would miss if he left. It’s just a pity that we sacrifice him as a goalscorer to compensate for failures in other areas of the team.
JS: Well, thank you Andrew for being generous with your time, and for your efforts to try and improve the atmosphere inside OT.
AK: Thanks Jonny. Interest has been superb and section is near on full. ST holders need to ring the ticket office ASAP if they want to be a part of the second trial vs Fulham. It’s not gone on the official site as yet, we have held off the club promoting it.
Part 2 of this interview will appear on Rant shortly, addressing the role of Stretford End Flags and Tufty’s involvement with the Manchester United Supporters Team.