No fans but new flags to spur Manchester United players on at Old Trafford

One banner honouring European Cup winner Tony Dunne to hang in Stretford End for Sheffield United's visit

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Before he signed his next contract which will keep him at Old Trafford until 2025, Scott McTominay's last major act in a Manchester United shirt came when he scored a 90th minute goal in front of the Stretford End in March's Manchester derby – the last game to be staged there before lockdown.

The famous old end will be very different against Sheffield United on Wednesday, empty of fans, but those supporters in the Red Army (TRA) who have been so vocal this season will have a large, simple, red and white flag covering seats bearing the statement: ‘Football is nothing without fans – Sir Matt Busby’.

The words of the legendary United manager are relevant right now and the 3,000 strong group, the majority who are season ticket holders, felt so strongly about the message that they brushed aside suggestions for another idea, the words to a famous United terrace chant on a flag surrounded by empty seats: ‘This is how it feels to be City’. Football behind closed doors isn’t anything like the real thing and fans can’t wait to get back to watching games at Old Trafford.

United have engaged with their supporter groups in recent years and the result has been a louder, improved atmosphere at home matches. There will also be a trial of rail seating inside the stadium. In the final game before the lockdown, 900 fans who had bought tickets to the away game at LASK in Austria were given £350 compensation by the club after the tie was switched behind closed doors at short notice.

The club also paid for travel for supporters to fly to Astana in Kazakstan in November for United’s furthest ever European game. The club have also agreed to 1,000 youth season tickets in the Red Army Section for fans aged 16-25 from next season at a cost of £15 per game.

United are still in the Europa League, a competition which will be concluded in north west Germany in August. Immediate attention is on the Sheffield United game at Old Trafford, where a further new flag celebrating the life of Tony Dunne will hang from the upper tier of the Stretford End reading: ‘The Quiet Man - Tony Dunne’. Paid for by the Stretford End Flags group, it will feature an image of the man who played 535 games for the club - more than any other player from outside the UK - and the European Cup he helped United win in 1968.

Dunne’s funeral was held on Tuesday and his cortege passed Old Trafford where fans applauded the former right-back, who also represented Bolton Wanderers with distinction after leaving United in 1973.

Courtesy image
Courtesy image

Shortly before it did, The National asked Ole Gunnar Solskjaer if there were elements of playing matches in front of no fans which made things easier for the players.

“I’m not sure if easier is the right word, it’s a different way of playing,” Solskjaer replied. “It’s a different mental challenge. It might make some players be more at ease and relax a bit more. Some thrive off the enthusiasm of the fans and get that bit of extra energy. For us coaches, we can get the message across better but then the opponents’ coach can listen.

“It's certainly a very different way. It might be when you’re at home and struggling with the home fans on your back you can relax a bit more, but for us we’ll miss our fans. I’ve not heard fans anywhere in the world be so supportive of their team and spurring them on. It’s more difficult for us to play at Old Trafford with no fans than with fans because they’re so passionate.”