JS: As a leading campaigner for the Singing Section, you’ll presumably be in there full-time if it becomes a permanent feature. Nowadays the top tier Stretford End is generally recognized as the most vocal, but I recall you telling me that you sit elsewhere?
PB: I did go in the Stretford End a lot as a kid; Probably until about 1983. I was bored at an average home game vs Norwich, and I sneaked through a gap in the fence into United Road. I always used to pay £2.80 to get into United Road, when I could’ve paid £1.20 to get into the Stretford End. There were no child prices, you see. But I always preferred the United Road, and I was in K Stand for a few years, which was buzzing in the late 80s/early 90s. I like the Stretford End, and I’ve got some good memories. If it would’ve been the bottom tier, I’d probably sit in the Stretford End, but I’ve always thought it’s just a bit high up in that top tier. Some people slag me off for not going in the Stretford End, seen as the unofficial singing section, but that was my reasoning. I have been up there a few times, and I do admire when they get it going for some games. But it should be rocking every game.
What’s happened is, it’s been diluted because lots of people have bought season tickets who don’t go to every game. That’s a problem all around the ground. These are people who only intend to go to a handful of games per season, and pick the big games. So they give their tickets onto whoever, so you don’t have the same faces a lot of the time. And that’s happened a lot in the Stretford End, as well as other parts of the ground. So, if we get this new Singing Section, we’ll have to watch that doesn’t happen. It’ll be hard, because anyone can apply to transfer there with the intention of going. It’d be a shame if it became like an away game, where people just wanted to experience the Singing Section, stood in there with cameras and watching everyone rather than joining in.
JS: So where do you actually sit nowadays?
PB: I’m in the bottom of J Stand basically, where the old scoreboard used to be, next to K Stand. North-East Quadrant, but I call it J Stand lower. I was in K Stand for a few years before that, but bizarrely the seats weren’t in our names.
Me and my two mates actually sat in Tier 3 for one season when the North Stand was built in ’96. It was an experience, on the very front row, and we got people singing up there, but it was really hard to create an atmosphere. We then transferred to J Stand lower, where we are now, and we’ve been there for the past 16 seasons or so. I actually love it where I am; a lot of the people directly around me don’t always sing but there are some good characters.
JS: Being a chant composer, and a chant conductor are two different things. If there’s a lull in the atmosphere, do you sometimes feel any pressure when people look to you to kick chants off?
PB: No, but with social media nowadays, every time we sign a new player, I do feel as if everyone expects me to come up with something. Whilst I’ve written a lot of United songs, I’ve never claimed to have written all of them. Sometimes I feel that I better do something for a player because everyone else is having ideas. People will ring me with chant ideas. So sometimes you end up trying too hard to write a song about something.
I don’t feel pressure at the games to sing. Sometimes I like it at home games when I don’t start as many songs. Like the big games vs Liverpool, Arsenal and City, when the crowd are up for it. It doesn’t actually bother me if I don’t start as many songs as normal. Because I’m taking it a bit easy, I can concentrate and get nervous about the game. It’s games like Southampton or West Brom at home when it grows quiet and the crowd is lacklustre, that’s when I feel the need and pressure to get up and start singing. Because people have come to expect that of me now. But at away games, it’s not usually a problem; most people are up for it. It’s only really at the bigger away games where it seems like the wrong people get the tickets.
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?
PB: Oh yes, of course they are. Unless football properly fell on its arse, and there were half-empty stadiums all round. It’s supply and demand, like anything. The only reason clubs are considering safe standing is because they can’t sell all those seats anymore. If they can get more people in for less money, they’ll claim they’re doing it for the fans, but it’s to get their revenues balanced. All clubs are paying massive overheads, they’re all on their knees with their mortgages and outgoing wages.
It’s not going to happen overnight. Atmospheres from the 60s and 70s are never going to happen again. Not in our lifetime. Football has changed, and loads of proper people have stopped going. People can now buy a season ticket at a club like United, and in 5 years they might see a couple of league titles, perhaps a couple of European cup finals. Then they start watching it on the TV, maybe go now and again. They’ve done it then. The Singing Section, or a standing one would improve it, but the fact is that it’s at least £20 too dear. But you have to start somewhere, and then build on it.
JS: And what’s your response to those who immediately criticised the Singing Section as “forced”?
PB: Well, you can’t do right for wrong. I nearly gave up on it a couple of years ago before it started. There are so many people who are negative. A lot of people don’t like anyone to push anything. If the Singing Section proves successful, as I’m certain it would do, you’ll see most clubs at the top level adopting similar ideas, despite the cynics. They all mocked MUTV in 1998 and most have their own versions now.
I couldn’t go to the last meeting because I was on holiday, though apparently it has been viewed as a success by the club. Sadly, from what I’m hearing at the moment, it’s looking like it’s going to be hard to get the away fans out of L Stand, because the authorities might object. But the club really want it to be L Stand, the best place in my opinion, and I’ll carry on campaigning for L Stand unless we must begin to look at other options. Ideally we want to be at the East End of the stadium so that the majority of the noise isn’t always originating from the Stretford End.
The problem with using a home section of the ground is that there will have been people sitting there for 40 years who might not fancy standing all game in the Singing Section. Now, they’re going to be well pissed off if they’ve got to get their seat relocated. That problem doesn’t exist with L Stand. So that’s one of my concerns; we don’t need any more divide and rule amongst our own fans, do we?!
People are always going to criticize. People just don’t like anyone putting their head above the parapet. Some of the stories that go around about me are unbelievable; about me making money. I accept that you have to deal with certain things if you make yourself a bit more high profile, but sometimes it’s unbelievable. I could start a rumour myself and it’d come back to me in a fortnight. That’s how much people adhere to hearsay. Someone had a go at me on Red Issue forum a month ago, when I posted following the WBA defeat that I was glad Moyes was given a 6-year contract. It caused a lot of debate. This bloke sent me a private message having a go at me. I responded asking what his problem was. Everything he said about me was all hearsay and I answered every point. He was telling me I had my own weekly show on MUTV, despite the fact I hadn’t worked on the channel for the past 15 months, and that it was never my own show. If enough people say something, you then get others claiming that there’s no smoke without fire. Like the Arsene Wenger rumours about pedophilia. So if people keep saying that I got 10 grand off the club for doing this and that, then it spreads. But it’s bollocks.
There’s a lot of bitter people out there, and some United fans are even against their own fans really. So you can’t do right for doing wrong. One minute, they say they need someone to lead the fans in the Singing Section and get the songs going, and they praise me for doing that. But then, you put yourself forward and other people say; “oh look at him, thinks it’s about him.” Someone slagged me off on Twitter the other week for being on the pitch at half-time. Now, anyone who knows me knows that I’m an extrovert. I’m hardly shy. I don’t come across as quiet and monotone when I’m being interviewed on TV or radio. I’m usually a bit bouncy and enjoying myself. So did they expect me to go on the pitch and turn into a shy recluse?! Which I’m not.
JS: I’d like to delve further into more details of the Singing Section. The trial vs Sociedad aroused a lot of curiosities amongst inquisitive Reds who wanted to understand more about it. Given that it’s a designated area, will there be an obligation to keep spirits high? Even at away games there are prolonged lulls during particularly poor performances.
PB: Let’s be honest right. The idea that it was always a great atmosphere in the 70s and 80s is wrong. I’ve been to games against Notts County, when there was 42,000 there, and you’d get maybe a third of the hardcore Stretford Enders singing, but never the whole ground. You see clips of the best times, but it wasn’t always glorious like that.
The thing with the Singing Section is that there’d be people like myself and others who would feel the need to keep spirits high. If it’s in a decent section, as we’ve discussed, like L Stand, it’s a smaller section than Stretford End Tier 2 and the noise does carry easier. So if it’s a low-key game, and there’s still 30 hardcore people singing in a block, it would generate a better atmosphere. But it’s not going to be like Barcelona ’84 or Sunday’s Arsenal game every single game. When Celtic are playing in front of 25,000 at a league cup game, their 100 or so fans in that corner are still singing; it’s about that.
There is going to be times when people will say that the bubble has burst. It’s hard to sing the whole time; I don’t recall it ever being done at a United game. You can sing for the majority of the game, but it’s almost impossible to sing nonstop. People who are cynical on forums are going to be negative against it. But really, there’ll be enough people for it to be good. Even without the Singing Section, both Liverpool and Arsenal at home this season showed that there are still people going to the games that are prepared to get behind it sometimes.
JS: In terms of logistics, if the Singing Section was to become a permanent feature, how would the application process work? Have such matters been considered at this stage?
PB: We’ve not got that far. It’s a difficult one because no system is foolproof. Like when United tried to do certain things with the loyalty pot, incentive schemes etc. Spurs have an away season ticket.
I imagine that originally they’d want season ticket holders to transfer there. I don’t know if it’d be available to members. If it’s successful, we’ve also discussed the potential of having a block next to the Singing Section for Under 16s, because they want to sing as well. It’s trying to take one step at a time really. Standing; that’s another issue.
It makes business sense to sell them to season ticket holders, as opposed to members, in order to guarantee income for every game. If there’s a meaningless midweek game vs Norwich towards the end of the season, with nothing to play for, the truth is, you know and I know, you can’t literally give tickets away. So they’re not going to be oversubscribed. We don’t like saying it, but like any other football club, United is a business. We can’t be going in with a list of demands, so we get it all our own way. I wasn’t able to attend when we initially went in to talk with them 2 years ago, but I said to the lads going in that we ideally want L Stand; if not, Stretford End lower, or if it came to the worst even one of the higher quadrants. So I was buzzing with L Stand.
We’ve agreed in principle, but no official decision has been made yet. We have to try and get the second singing trial out the way yet. We’ll probably have to do the next one against a higher profile team. Police know the Sociedad fans were good-spirited, so we need to test it against a team with who we have more of a rivalry; so perhaps if we draw Chelsea, West Ham, City or Leeds in the cup for example, and they took 6,000 in the upper tier, then perhaps they could try and police it. As I said, one step at a time. There are a lot of barriers to get over.
JS: Do you believe the tickets will become highly sought after, akin to away tickets even?
PB: They probably will. The club in fairness have said that they’ll try and restrict it so that only legitimately-owned, genuine family tickets will have access to the singing section. The reason we haven’t discussed the precise logistics is because we didn’t think we’d get this far. It’s an issue to deal with later on. As I said, no system is foolproof. Every system has people who abuse it. Whether it’s at Old Trafford, or housing benefits, everyone knows how to fiddle something.
JS: Do you foresee a lot of top tier Stretford Enders seeking to relocate should the Singing Section become permanent?
PB: Well, following games like Arsenal, they probably think they don’t need to. The Stretford End were very good. My mate was up there, and he said it was the first time he heard us clapping and singing in J Stand. I’m hoping the majority of them stay there and just keep the Stretford End lively, and almost see it as a chance to prove they’re the best. I won’t get upset if they’re out-singing us, as long as we’re giving it a good effort. As long as we have our end of the ground rocking, and they’re louder, so what?! It’s a bit of a friendly challenge, innit?! It’s a friendly rivalry, and that doesn’t concern me as we’re still supporting the same team. It could be a bit of banter like in the old days, when we used to have the Stretford Ender badges and the K Stand badges. It’d be good to have a bit of competition. If the Singing Section is located in L Stand for example, I know a load of decent Reds who sit in K Stand, close to the away fans’ segregation, and there’d be no need for them to move, as they’d be right next to it anyway. They’d be joining in the singing, so I think it’d create a positive domino effect across K Stand. The ideal would therefore be to have 2,500-3,000 Singing Section in L Stand, with away fans in East Stand Tier 2. So we could have all this end singing up at the away fans, with the Stretford End joining in as well.
JS: Obviously the trial took place for a European game. Are you also planning on L Stand for league/domestic cup games?
PB: That’s only ever been discussed at a brew and biscuit level. The top tier holds about 3,800 which is more than we currently give away fans. The only clubs that’d sell that amount would be City, Liverpool and Everton. An in-form Spurs might also, and Leeds if they were promoted. But every other team would shift less than 3,000. I proposed in those situations that the East Stand Tier 2 is segregated, so away fans could have half that tier. As it stands, I wouldn’t be too pissed off if we had to give our biggest rivals a few extra tickets; it’d create a better atmosphere anyway.
JS: And why specifically L Stand? Is there a definitive rationale for it? Anything to do with acoustics?
PB: Yes, I think it’s really decent for acoustics for singing. I like the old stand, and I just think it’d be great; it has a lot of good history amongst United fans, of being at the Scoreboard Paddock as we used to sing. I used to go in there when I was younger, when I’d forgot to get a ticket for a big game and the United Road had sold out.
JS: All this Singing Section discussion got me to thinking; could an official section potentially spawn an informal, unofficial-type song panel to consider new songs to trial at matches? Nothing regimented; just light-hearted regular meet-ups at the Bishops to propose new ideas. This would also eliminate the challenge of people hopelessly trying to communicate new ideas via 140-character tweets.
PB: When I went over to the Nou Camp in ’94, I found out how they do meet up to discuss what songs they sing in what order. I do admire some things about ultra groups, but I just think that’s a bit stage-managed.
It’s not a bad idea, as long as we could do it as a tongue-in-cheek thing, ensuring people don’t think we’re obligating fans to sing certain songs. We could possibly do that. At that first game vs Sociedad, we just wanted to get all the songs going. But moving forward we do want to get the better of the new songs going. We’ve already discussed a handful of decent new songs that we’d like to get going if we get a regular singing section.
There are a few lads who’ve written decent songs that’ve featured on my CDs over the last 10-12 years, and we text each other all the time, whenever we write a new song. We offer each other suggestions and amendment tips to improve the songs, before we try it out in the pub. I rarely tweet a new song before I’ve tried it in the pub. All of us have a good eye for a tune, and we’re not too proud to do that.
I hadn’t thought of an informal panel. It’s not impossible to think of. It’d actually be quite good to hold brief meetings, in order to try a few songs. If we had 30 or so lads turning up, who knew the words, then that’d be a better way to start it off and get the tempo for the next time we do it.
JS: It was just an idea that occurred to me, as I reckon it’d be decent fun. In the recent MUFC documentary “Where’s Our Famous Atmosphere?” Peter Daykin from the Football Supporters Federation proposes, in light of recent Hillsborough findings confirming that it was mis-policing rather than standing sections per se, that fans lobby for standing sections. From your experience of dealing with the powers that be, is this realistic at OT?
PB: When the old brigade was there, it would never have been entertained. They never thought the lack of atmosphere was a problem. Their attitude meant they didn’t care about fanzines and fan groups; the ground was full and we had started to win big trophies, so they literally weren’t interested. And then, when they appointed Kenyon, although he turned out to be a charlatan as we all know, he, along with Paddy Harverson, started meeting with fans groups, and speaking at IMUSA meetings for example. They didn’t have to do it, but they were trying to present a good image. Obviously there was the well-documented fallout, a political thing with the Glazers.
When I first thought about the Singing Section, there was a thread on Red Issue, and it shows how few on Red Issue forums go to the games; a few thousand commented on it. I asked them to send me messages with their details, and I only received about 60 names in a fortnight, some of which weren’t even members or season ticket holders. So I just lost heart, and couldn’t be arsed if people didn’t want to come forward. It appeared as if everyone knew about the atmosphere, but no one wanted to do anything about it.
I left it a few weeks, and a few people behind the scenes, one of whom gets some slagging, Tufty, came forward. No matter what anyone thinks of anything he’s done, he didn’t take any praise, and let people like me take the praise, but behind the scenes him and a couple others were lobbying at United through the contacts they had. And eventually United said they’d like to meet with us. Obviously they wouldn’t meet with IMUSA, which was another big issue. So they responded to our approach, which quite surprised me, as they didn’t have to meet with anybody, or listen to any of our proposals. The ground is still pretty full.
But to my surprise, they arranged to meet with us. Perhaps it’s partly because they realized that the bubble has burst with football. If we went 8 seasons without a trophy, like Arsenal, they maybe wouldn’t fill the ground. So, that’s what the cynics will say, and maybe that’s the case, but regardless, they didn’t need to meet with us. They could have just sold us the idea of another family stand, since that’s oversubscribed. But they’ve been really good letting us try to do the singing section, and really positive despite setbacks, so maybe they would be open to a standing section if they thought it was an option.
I think it’s interesting if some clubs are doing it, but let’s be honest, they’re only doing it because they realize now that their financial model isn’t sustainable; they’re all paying excessive wages to all these players, and they’ve all got loads of overheads, and meanwhile they are all struggling to sell tickets because the bubble has burst; people don’t want to pay inflated prices. If a club can double the attendance in one section of a ground by halving the prices, then they’re still covering their costs aren’t they?! So I think it’s a possibility, but in my point of view, there’s no point in going into United requesting 3,000 seats at £20 each, with a free beer. We’ve just got to take one step at a time.
JS: From what you’ve said, it sounds like it’s been fairly painless to deal with United. Given the club is such a branding juggernaut nowadays, plenty of people might not have anticipated this to be the case.
PB: They’ve actually been really good. Another thing I noticed at the Arsenal game; I had to do an interview pre-match, so I ended up getting into the ground early. I was in the ground by 3.20, and I was at the back having a coffee, and the music was absolutely brilliant that Alan Keegan was playing; loads of Manc stuff, songs they used to play in the 80s like the Stretford Enders song by Burke and Jerk, and 2-4-6-8. All the songs they used to play when I was a kid in the Stretford End.
I’d still be in the pub pre-match, but if we had a regular singing section, I’d probably get in the ground about 45-60 minutes before on a match day. If people started doing that, and the club took a pride in the section, by putting a couple of nice beers on, and a few decent snacks behind the bar, and maybe some videos up of United, maybe they’d get more income because 500 lads might get in the ground a bit earlier to have a good sing-song at the back of the stand, and have a bit of a practice, and treat it with a bit more pride, rather than everyone just strolling in at kick-off time. I suggested that to the club.
JS: Yes, absolutely. Anything to improve the fans’ match day experience would be a bonus. Have any other suggestions been made?
PB: I don’t give lectures and I don’t appoint people. Sometimes people ask me to lead causes and speak on behalf of fans. I’ve put my head above the parapet, so I expect that. If people want me to speak about something, I don’t mind doing it to a certain extent; I wouldn’t want to get involved in any political group movement to do with United anymore, but I’ll happily help out with things that are positive like this. My aims are really just to carry on with what I’m known for; the singing, try and get the songs slower, try and get a decent end so we can lift the team. In turn, if a new song comes to me, then great. I’m happy doing that; carry on pottering about with what I do.