It was a little before 1.00pm that the Manchester United supporters started to gather outside Old Trafford, but it was days earlier that the preparation started. This demonstration against the Glazer family, the club’s owners, was planned for the afternoon of the game against Liverpool and was about to start.
Numbers quickly swelled close to 1,000. It was the biggest crowd at an English football stadium for some time. As the angst grew, yellow and green flares were lit and yet more and more banners and flags were held aloft, stewards decided to create an opening in the barricades surrounding the ground.
That was when this contained protest turned into a much wider affair. Soon enough, supporters had breached the separation and made their way towards the Munich Tunnel, which runs underneath the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand. It was clear the authorities on the ground were overwhelmed. Then, the decisive twist of the afternoon: a group of protesters found a way into the stadium through "exit" door AE8.
Swiftly, hundreds clambered through, onto the concourse and then into the stands from where they entered the Old Trafford pitch. Those in the stadium, including Sky Sports’s broadcast team who were situated on a raised platform at the other end of the stand, were shocked to suddenly see a flood of individuals rushing in.
Flares were once again lit, chants against the Glazers were sung, phones took pictures and some items were hurled at people in the stands. Then some of the demonstrators found a football and started shooting at goal in front of the Stretford End. This was at about 2.30pm, around two hours before it should have been Marcus Rashford or Mo Salah creating a shooting chance on that very patch of turf.
It took time for the stewards and police inside the stadium to remove those who had trespassed, but that came after some individuals were able to enter the players’ tunnel and the managers’ dugout. By 3.00pm, the stadium had been cleared - or so the authorities thought.
Another smaller group of protesters had made their way into the stadium and into the executives box in the stand. They didn’t make it onto the pitch and were quickly ushered back down the stairwell and out of the stadium. At this stage, the start of the match had been delayed to an unspecified time.
Once things had moved back outside, the atmosphere started to take a turn for the worse. Some bottles were thrown and it is then that it’s believed a police officer was slashed across the face requiring hospital treatment.
The police present quickly realised that the situation had to be quelled and the protesters dispersed. Mounted horses and police armed with batons slowly marched the demonstrators away from the ground, down Sir Matt Busby Way, past Hotel football and onto Warfside Way.
At 5.00pm, a tannoy announcement inside the stadium declared the stadium “secure” but only half-an-hour later the game between United and Liverpool was postponed due to continuing “safety concerns”. It was a decision made in tandem by the police, both clubs, the Premier League and local authorities
While this was happening, a separate group of protestors had gathered outside The Lowry Hotel nearer the city centre, which is where the United squad were staying ahead of the match. The players remained in their rooms, and occasionally peered out of the hotel windows, as supporters let off flares and chanted against the Glazers.
Their presence put the safety of the players at risk and prevented the team bus from moving out of the hotel grounds. Even once the situation at the stadium had been suppressed, those present at the Lowry remained steadfast. It is not believed that any protestors congregated outside the Hilton hotel on Deansgate, which is where the Liverpool team were staying.
The reasons behind the demonstrations are clear and stem from the collapsed proposals of the Super League, which was due to feature United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
The anger which the proposed breakaway league created only added to the existing angst that United supporters hold against the Glazer family who have continued to take money out of the club since buying a controlling stake in United in 2005.
What is more questionable and certainly more disappointing is the way in which the protest situation was managed. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer himself commented on the planned protests in his pre-match press conference on Friday by saying: "It's important that the fans' views are listened to and that we communicate better. When the protests are on, it is important they go in a good fashion and that we keep it peaceful.”
So everyone should have been aware that feelings were running high and, if not, that is just a sign of yet more ignorance on United’s part. There has been plenty of it around the owners in recent weeks but this time it was those in charge on the ground who were guilty. Those in charge of matchday security should have been ready but instead more embarrassment was suffered by the club after another shambolic failure.
To force this ‘Super Sunday’ Premier League game to be postponed is unprecedented and will have been broadcast and analysed around the globe. The anger that the supporters released was pent-up but they simply should not have been allowed to enter Old Trafford and put the game in doubt. The reason that the rather peaceful demonstrations effected the afternoon’s game was due to failure on the match commander’s part. Entering a stadium a few hours before a top-flight game should not be that easy.
Especially at Old Trafford which only has two main access points from the surrounding areas. There are no houses near by nor tight streets, just open expanses and carparks which are surrounded by a main road. Cordoning off the stadium should be an easy exercise.
Furthermore, given some trespasses entered “red zones” inside the stadium there was an impact on the Covid-19 protocols that have been in place at Premier League stadia since football resumed in June last year. The pitch and its perimeter, including the tunnel and dugout, are designated areas for playing and coaching staff, few other personnel are allowed to enter.
Those who enter a stadium on matchday must agree to comply with the host club’s Covid-19 policy and confirm that they are not exhibiting any symptoms related to the virus. Clearly, the protestors didn’t complete such due diligence.
Given Premier League teams still remain in their own covid-secure bubbles a breach of such protocols will have required a “deep clean” of the stadium, which could have taken over 90 minutes. Whether it was this which led the authorities to call-off the game, or that players will have not been in the right frame of mind after the day’s events, it was an afternoon of many firsts.
The United protestors wanted to be heard, they were, but they didn’t want the game to be postponed. That came due to the lack of security presence and the overt ignorance of those in charge - they brought this dark day for football on themselves.