Manchester United’s away following is loud, proud and sells out for every league game. Many of those who travel are from Manchester, as can be seen by the origins of the coaches parked outside away grounds. But many come from further afield.
John Finnegan, 58, travels to watch United home and away from Wicklow, Republic of Ireland. A former semi-professional footballer himself, Finnegan plans trips as far in advance as possible. By booking early, he gets flights and hotels at a better price. He’s as dedicated to his football team as he is to his family and returned from Cyprus - after United came from behind to win 3-2 - at 8pm on Friday.
On Sunday, he flew to Manchester at lunch time ahead of the next game against Everton. A train to Liverpool followed, then he returned to Manchester at midnight where he stayed near Piccadilly train station, slept for a few hours and took a 6am train to Manchester airport. When The National spoke to him on Monday morning, he was clearing security at Dublin airport and going straight to work.
Cyprus and Everton were all planned in advance though a 7pm kick off on a Sunday night at Everton was hardly ideal. All the flights had left by the time the game finished so it meant another night away.
There are hundreds of Manchester United fans like him who go to all the games. It requires money, sacrifices, dedication and a considerable degree of planning. United fans have a song which goes: “If the Reds should play, in Rome or Mandalay, we’ll be there, we’ll be there …” And so they are.
Usually, fans know what’s coming next, but not this month. Manchester United are travelling to Chelsea. The Premier League and London’s Metropolitan Police have known that they could fix a date and time for the game between the two clubs since August 31. All four parties needed to agree and good notice is usually given so that fans can prepare.
The game was originally scheduled for 4.30pm on Sunday, October 23, but had to be moved due to Chelsea’s involvement in the Champions League the following Tuesday. It was moved to the Saturday but there was a difficulty scheduling it as it was selected for a broadcast by Sky Sports. The time of 5.30pm was agreed. Then the Metropolitan police proposed a reduction in away fans.
It took until Friday, October 7, for the date was confirmed – October 22, 2022 with a 5.30pm kick off, just 15 days before the match. United had already allocated 2,994 tickets to their hard-core fans, priced £30 each.
Given that Chelsea were charging visiting fans £25 for seats as far back as 1993, it shows the progress that fans have had in campaigning for more affordable tickets. But cost wasn’t the issue with this game, it was about when it would take place.
The hold-up was because of the Metropolitan Police and that request that the allocation be cut to 1,500 due to “policing concerns”. United strongly opposed the reduction and worked with Chelsea to present a range of mitigations to the local safety advisory group which United believed could have led to a full allocation.
Metropolitan Police continued to insist on a reduction, United succeeded in increasing the allocation to 2,370 but remain “disappointed” with the “unjustified” decision.
On Monday, United emailed all those fans, including the 624 fans who thought they had a ticket, to tell them that they did not. United have also offered fans with a chance to swap their Chelsea ticket for a guaranteed ticket for one of their next four Premier League away games at Aston Villa, Fulham, Wolves or Arsenal.
United hope that as many of the 624 fans get tickets as possible because some of the original ticket holders offer to swap or not attend the match at Stamford Bridge.
The decision by the Metropolitan Police is odd on many grounds and could set a worrying precedent because it appears without genuine reason. Games between Chelsea and United at Stamford Bridge have not been noted for trouble, even when 6,000 United fans were part of a larger allocation. Away followings of 9,000 were normal before Stamford Bridge became all-seater in 1995.
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The police could point to resources being used elsewhere but there are no other Premier League matches at Wembley that day, and no events there either. The police were fine with the prospect of 60,000 at Spurs v Wolves on the same day, before that game was moved to the Sunday.
Fans of both clubs were not involved in the decision making, with the Chelsea Supporters Trust stating on Friday: “It is unacceptable and deeply irresponsible for a kick off time not to have been announced for the Chelsea v Man United game on October 22nd.
“We are 17 days away from the game and supporters have been given no information about what time the game will begin. The fixture date was agreed on August 30. Five weeks to agree on a time is a disgrace … We remind everyone that we are supporters, not customers. We stand with the 624 supporters who will have their tickets cancelled.”
A Met Police spokesperson said high risk fixtures in the capital had to start before 4.45pm at weekends – with no explanation given why.
“The clubs were unable to agree to an earlier kick off due to concerns about TV commitments, so an alternative solution had to be found,” the police spokesman said.
“At a meeting of the Safety Advisory Group, a compromise was reached that involved the clubs agreeing to reduce the away ticket allocation to 2,370 which, in turn, changed the risk rating of the fixture from high to medium.
While we accept that this may disappoint and inconvenience some fans, it was not the only option available to the clubs and was not a decision taken directly by the police.”
MUST, representing Manchester United fans, said: “We find it even worse this seems to be because the Met police – while able to handle all sorts of major events, not least a state funeral at short notice – cannot cope with 3,000 people in an away end.
“We are now considering legal action against the Met Police on behalf of our fans affected by this decision to reduce our allocation after tickets have been sold to fans in good faith, many of whom will have booked travel.”
On Monday, Amanda Jacks from the Football Supporters Federation tweeted: “It's bordering on surreal that the Met Police can / will police 2,370 people coming to London for a football match but can't / won't police 2,994 people. Even more so when the venue has no problem with 2,994 people. As a Londoner it worries me personally as well as professionally.”
John Finnegan checked his emails at 10.30am on Monday. He’d not lost his ticket for Chelsea but was offered a refund or to swap it for another game if he decided not to go. Not difficult to guess that, as one of the lucky ones, he’s off to Stamford Bridge.