UEFA Cup Final 2008 – Is Manchester Ready?

Editor: The author’s worst fears were realised as fan violence marred the UEFA Cup Final. Marco has the match report, Guardian has the eyewitness account of the police officer who was attacked by the angry fans.

It won’t be long now until Rangers prepare to take on Zenit St Petersburg in the UEFA Cup Final as part of their quest for an unprecedented quadruple of trophies in the 2007-8 campaign, but how will the host city of Manchester cope with the anticipated invasion of between 80,000 and 100,000 fans for this fixture?

There is no doubting that, with its experience of hosting the Commonwealth Games back in 2002, Manchester gained an invaluable insight into what was required for such an occasion to succeed in the right spirit. Considering that the city also boasts Old Trafford and the City of Manchester Stadium among its facilities, Lord Coe’s recent comments that some Northern cities are 30 years ahead of London in terms of arenas and transport links seem to hold some substance. There is also the fact that Old Trafford hosted the Champions League Final in 2003 between Juventus and Milan with a considerable amount of success and prestige. However, issues and events like that are one thing and, with the memory of Celtic’s visit to Seville that year still relatively fresh in the memory, this event could be a different proposition altogether.

For some weeks now, the Manchester Evening News and Scottish Daily Record have been reporting on the way that Manchester will be swamped on May 14th, largely in terms of the respective clubs’ ticketing allocations and of accommodation for the fans. The fact that the City of Manchester Stadium only has a capacity of 48,000 at the best of times probably would have been completely overlooked had the semi-final favourites, Bayern Munich and Fiorentina, made it beyond that stage.

Tickets for the final were divided roughly as follows; 13,000 per club (later adjusted to 17,000 for Rangers and 9,000 for Zenit), 11,000 on general sale via the UEFA website ballot in the early months of 2008 and then around 7,000 on the corporate side. The figures above take into consideration that the capacity is already reduced by between 3,500 and 4,000 for the fixture. Tickets that had a face value of under £100 are now changing hands over the internet for numerous times more, but we are familiar with this – thinking more about Moscow the week after, England World Cup games and the Hatton-Mayweather fight in particular.

One does not need to be Einstein to work out that this is around a maximum of 35,000 if the thousands of the Ibrox masses manage to obtain the tickets they have been so desperately scouring the internet for in the last 10 days, even swamping a Manchester Evening News competition and inundating Manchester City’s ticket office with so many requests that they were prompted to issue at least 2 articles on their website stating that the club did not have any tickets on sale, aside of hospitality, which sold out quickly as well.

Anticipating a maximum of 100,000 Rangers fans descending on the North of England, this still leaves around 65,000 ticketless, which is where Manchester Council bowl into the fray. They will be establishing, after some initial hesitation as a consequence of talks with the GMP, 3 specialist ‘fan-zones’ in the city centre itself, which is a 20-minute walk from Eastlands. This is all well and good, in theory, leaving followers of both clubs to mingle, separately, in a carnival atmosphere while they watch the match. The 3 zones are divided as follows; 15,000 spaces for Rangers fans to watch in both Cathedral and Albert Squares respectively and a third zone for Zenit fans, based in Piccadilly Gardens. Quite why the final one was established when Zenit returned 4,000 tickets for the match itself is open to debate, perhaps it will house some of the Russians living in England. One has memories of a similar ‘fan-zone’ in Exchange Square for England fans during the 2006 World Cup, which caused a lot of controversy and was eventually removed.

The author has not seen much of the Auld Firm fans in action, but does recall a good atmosphere in the day when Roy Keane’s testimonial took place at Old Trafford against Celtic, although the ‘locals’ became slightly agitated at the visiting cries of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ later that night…but that’s another story.

In theory, it should be a great occasion, there have been some complaints but those making complaints are sometimes reminded that it is only what the locals have to endure whenever England travel abroad for European and World Championship qualifiers. Additionally, Rangers have had barely any arrests on their travels this season, despite taking large amounts of fans Europe-wide. Still, one would suppose it is easy to say it should be a cracking day, this invasion, living miles away in Northern Ireland, as I do, which incorporates the next point — it is not just those travelling from Scotland and within England itself…

Hence, still around 50,000 ticketless fans, certainly from a Glaswegian perspective. But that would be too parochial, of course, and FlyBe alone has reported that sales on its flights from Belfast, Glasgow and Edinburgh have risen by 50% this week alone compared to the same time last year for the Manchester route. Incidentally, the English section of Zenit’s website was reporting around a week ago that they were addressing the problem of dramatic price-hikes on their routes from Russia to Manchester, which may strike a chord with the Manchester United and Chelsea fans that will be making plans as I type to descend on the Russian capital in a week’s time.

Anyhow, without wishing to digress too much, the 80,000-100,000 also have to contend with finding accommodation. The vast majority of what Manchester has to offer was snapped up within days, leaving followers of the Teddy Bears searching for alternative places. Fortunately, there are places like Bury, Bolton, Liverpool and Blackpool not too far away and those are the options that have also been investigated thoroughly.

There will, on the bright side again, be a beaming of the game at Ibrox laid on, presumably to ease the burden on Manchester, with thousands expected to attend and alleviate some of that pressure. Facilities like this ought to reduce that weight considerably, and is a step in the right direction, but will Manchester be able to cope? I am not so sure, but all will be revealed! Hopefully it will be a wonderful occasion. Enjoy the game.

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