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TRA Interview – Independent group of Manchester United fans working towards a better atmosphere at Old Trafford

TRA (The Red Army) is a fan group that believe that for the atmosphere to return across the entire stadium, there should be significant vocal areas, managed by TRA, in both the Stretford Paddock and the East end of the stadium.

They also push for all TRA areas to be fitted with rail seating to ensure a safe environment for persistent standing.

‘Tricky’ of TRA answered some questions we had about the group. For more information on becoming a member click here.

Brian Murphy: Hey Rick, thanks for taking some time to talk to Stretty News on TRA. To open, let’s take it back to the inception of TRA, how did it all begin?

Tricky: “It was at a home game v Hull back in early 2017 in J stand thinking how sh*t the atmosphere was, J stand has a long standing history of quality support and this was an all-time low. I gripped Pete Boyle as he walked past and said that we needed to sort something out, my take was that unless things improved and fast it would be my last season going to home games. We had a few meetings in Costa in Sale – a poor venue choice in hindsight given Pete’s penchant for ceaseless chatter. We decided to put on a meeting for anyone who might be interested at Hotel Football on a Friday evening, I almost bailed but at the last minute Pete persuaded me to come down. I thought fuck it, let’s see how many people actually care about the atmosphere. A grand total of 15 people turned up, it wasn’t the most auspicious start. That was Pete’s last involvement in what would later become TRA.”

Murphy: How difficult a task was it, at the start, to open discussion in an official capacity with the club and subsequently, be granted a portion of the famous Stretford End as TRA’s home section?

Tricky: “Getting in front of Utd officials was relatively simple but it soon became apparent that we had a monumental task on our hands just to convince them of the scale and importance of the atmosphere problem. Between April 2017 and July 2019 we submitted 61 official requests relating to the atmosphere, everything from slashing beer prices to turning the music off prior to kick off. 61 of our 61 requests were either refused or received no response. The low point was a meeting when we were told that all of our latest ideas had been rejected in favour of having a brass band playing Utd songs at the Stretford End before kick-off in order to ‘get the atmosphere going’. Ambulances and trombone insertions were discussed. They only did it once.

“As for the Stretford End well that was never our intention, we always wanted L-stand which is widely recognised as having the best acoustics inside OT. To us it’s madness that Utd give it over to the away fans, it’s essentially giving the away team a head start and we must be the only Club in Europe that doesn’t weight everything in favour of the home support. We battled long and hard for it and submitted a detailed proposal explaining why L-Stand should be given over to the most vocal Reds but let’s just say our efforts.. met with a political end. So, it may come as a surprise that the offer of the Stretford End was taken somewhat reluctantly and that it took us a while to adjust to the idea.”

Murphy: An idea for a movement is one thing, but to take it to fruition and actually create the systems involved to not just have membership sign up systems in place, but the ticketing setup, forum etc.. must take a monster workload to organise and good lads in the setup. That can’t have been either easy to do or cheap, I’d imagine a lot of favours pulled in and lads voluntarily getting stuck in?

Tricky: Today we have a team of four who are what you might call the decision makers. Rick McGagh who runs the Monkey Bus to away games handles much of our comms with Utd, which is nice for them because it gives them a break from having to deal with me! Gav is our events expert, Duts project manages everything but far more importantly also does a cracking job of sanity checking some of my more ‘ambitious’ ideas. I mainly now deal with TRA strategy and ultimately the decision making but I’m also responsible for much of the creative side including the name TRA, the logo design, pin badge designs and so on. Then there’s another dozen or so who help us with ‘feet on the ground’ requirements, these are the lads who get things done on and around match day. Up until fairly recently though it was just me running things along with Duts and between us we literally put in hundreds of hours conceiving, designing and implementing every system and strategy from scratch. What you need to remember is that no one has done anything like this before and we basically just made up the rules and came up with the ideas as we went. Neither of us take a wage or have taken a penny from TRA funds, we took a trip to Cologne where we were guests of one of their main Ultra groups which was more of a laugh than anything else, again we paid for it all out of our own pockets. TRA has been a massive task and both our personal and work lives suffered as a result, something as seemingly straight forward as placing people into seats within a TRA section had to be done manually in excel for each game until very recently – that alone would sometimes take me 6 or 7 hours – and that’s just scratching the surface.”

“Neither of us would change a thing though, TRA is fucking brilliant and we’re honoured to be responsible for it and I don’t think either of us would still be going to OT without it.

“In 2019 we reluctantly decided we would have to introduce a membership fee to cover our running costs. We polled our members asking if they agreed to a membership fee and how much they would consider reasonable. 100% of them agreed and we settled on a figure of £5 – we could have charged much more but it was important to us (me & Duts) that we only took what we needed to stay afloat. Any excess money we raise is donated to local charities or spent on our members. We’re a big family and we like to give back, for example, put £2 in the pot and you could be one of the people getting your ST paid for. Next season existing members won’t be asked to pay and as always its free for under 18s to join.”

Murphy: When TRA came to the public eye for the first time after its announcement, what was the reaction like? Obviously there’s the usual “it’s just another singing section” and such negatives, but overall positive?

Tricky: “TRA has never really come to the public eye as such but that’s a result of it being an organic process with no ‘launch date’ or anything. What started off as probably 50 or 60 lads who stood near each other in J stand has gradually snowballed into the 3000 members we have today. I’d say that even now we are relatively unknown amongst our match going support and Utd fans, quite rightly, treat anything that they view as ‘orchestrated’ with suspicion. Right at the heart of our philosophy though has always been the importance of staying true to our traditions and culture which means showing wit, spontaneity and showing a certain level of class.

“Overall the reaction has been very supportive and to us at least, the right sort of people have given us their backing – the likes of Andy Mitten, Barney from Red News and plenty of well respected ‘old school’ Reds who understand what it means to support Utd in the right way. You’ll notice that the very small number of people who do troll us, always on twitter, don’t even go to games.

“One of the things we’re proudest of is our complete independence from The Club or any other official group. We’ve been offered money by Utd to help out as well as sponsorship from a well-known gambling firm, we turned both offers down and remain entirely self-funded. We also made it crystal clear to The Club that under no circumstances would we ever be dictated to about what we sing, whether our members choose to protest against them or how we support the team, we also refused their demand that we sign up to their fan group charter.”

Murphy: That first game, the first time TRA became real…goosebumps? Nerves? Pre-game meet up and match itself, you must have been buzzing afterwards? (I know I was!)

Tricky: “I suppose the closest we came to having a ‘first time’ was when we managed to get L-stand for the Brighton FA Cup game. That happened by chance when we asked Sam Kelleher if we could have it and he laughed and said ‘yeah why not’? It was that simple but we were then up against it with 1700 seats to sell in less than a week, it was one of those ‘oh shit’ moments where we’d been mithering Utd for something like this and suddenly we had to deliver. The game was on a Friday night and it was pissing down with freezing rain, we had no idea whether anyone would even bother turn up but when we go to the ground.. fuck me.. the noise was incredible – I had lads calling me who could hear us on Chester Road. That night was the first time we knew we were onto something really special, every single person in L-Stand gave 100% and we were all buzzing for weeks after it. In fact many of our regulars would tell you that those games in L-Stand against lesser opposition have been the highlights of TRA. Mention Reading, Colchester or Astana and you’ll see knowing smiles and hear the kind tales that used to be reserved for the better away games. These games where the atmosphere would usually have been utterly absent are now often the best laugh if you’re in there with TRA and they’re the games that we all really buzz off.”

Murphy: I’d assume that interest in being in SERS exploded after that, do you find it hard to manage expectations of people wanting to be there every game, or to you find the current system to be a fair way to provide tickets to those who are more suitable to that section of the ground?

Tricky: “Well, SERS is a relatively recent development for TRA, prior to last season we were in either Utd Rd or L-Stand when we could swing it but when we moved to SERS things started to feel ‘real’ although it wasn’t long before we hit the same old problems. We had our promised allocation of 1200 seats slashed to 900 for ‘safety reasons’ and it became clear that the health & safety mob were determined to continue sticking the boot in at every opportunity. This meant that we had to knock back around 500 for the first few games which was a fucking disgrace but unfortunately it was something we’d come to expect when dealing with certain members of Utd’s team back then. Now we have a much improved relationship and a much bigger allocation – around 4000 seats when we eventually get back to games so the problem has been flipped on its head in that we have to find ways of persuading more people to join us in there. You’d think that having negotiated £3 pints on draught in an area where you can stand next to your mates and sing for 90 minutes, where the stewards turn a blind eye to standing and the atmosphere and faces you see make it more like an away game.. you’d think that more people would want in but that’s the nature of our support I suppose and it may take a little while before everyone twigs on to just how much better it is in there than sitting in their usual seat…”

Murphy: A big end of the season was lying in wait, a summer of planning and a new season to come. Coronavirus hit, what setback’s did that bring to the TRA table? Apart from the obvious loss of going to games, did it stunt plans that were already in place?

Tricky: “From an ‘official’ TRA perspective, the biggest disappointment was that we were looking forward to seeing what impact the 1000 cheap Youth season tickets would have in SERS. British football is on its arse off the pitch with the youth culture having been almost entirely wiped out since the inception of the Premier League and unless we can fix that then within a handful of years the atmosphere will be gone and will never return. When I was a kid we stood on The Stretford End and then Utd Rd with thousands of others, the majority who were teenagers. Now it’s the norm for that age group to go with their dads to the game and whilst there’s nothing wrong with that, there needs to be far more in place to encourage younger Reds to go to games together.

“That’s why last year we called Sam Kelleher and asked if it was possible to get some slashed price tickets for 16-25yr olds in TRA. A week or so later it was signed off. We don’t fuck about, when something needs doing we just get on with it and aren’t afraid of upsetting the status quo, we’re not into playing politics, everything we do is with complete transparency and we’ve always said ‘judge us by what we do, not what we say’. If people feel the same way then they are free to join us and help us sort out the shit-show that is the ‘match day experience’ at OT.”

The future ahead, what’s in the plans for TRA, what’s up your sleeves? Bigger? Better? Louder? What can we expect and look forward to?

Tricky: “For me TRA has achieved only a fraction of its potential and the dream for me at least would be the entire first tier of the Stretford End filled with 7000 absolute maniacs blowing the roof off every other week. For that to happen though we’ll need Reds to buy into the idea of Old Trafford becoming the loudest stadium in England again, we’ll need an independent and active youth culture, we’ll need the execs gone from the Stretford End, we’ll need cheap beers and better facilities across the entire stadium and a Club who recognise that the atmosphere and youth culture should be their number one priorities and not just playing the idea lip-service.

“Take a look at any European side that comes to OT, they’ll often have 3000 or more supporters who are fanatical and their average age? 25 years old maybe? Compare that with our own support at home and the average age is in the 50s and that creates a huge problem that no one is willing to address – until TRA. Now take those European fans and how our fanbase will often be the first to say how brilliant they are but in the same breath will slate any attempt by fellow Reds to improve the atmosphere. That’s classic Utd.
With a little luck and with more Reds buying into the idea of treating home games like aways, Old Trafford could well be far and away the loudest ground in England. That’s the ultimate goal.”

Murphy: Let’s finish on this one, in your own words, describe the experience of being in TRA for a match day to someone who’s yet to become a part of the membership!

Tricky: “TRA means different things to us all but my own experience is typically heading down to Barca in town, this is our boozer and is run by a fellow Red. We’ll usually arrive around opening time and there’s always a crowd of Reds knocking about waiting for the doors to open and flags will already be hanging up outside. Give it an hour and the place will be buzzing but you won’t see many colours on show and whilst the singing might be loud there is zero tolerance for dickhead behaviour like chucking beer or abusing passers-by. Barca is a big part of the day for a lot of the main lads (and ladies!) in TRA, its where a lot of Reds get to know each other and some of the best times we’ve had have been in there before games.

“At some point everyone will drain pints and set off with one or two big groups making their way to the tram or into taxis. The tram experience is something else and not for the faint hearted, we had a few lads from Dortmund with us last season and they were shocked by it which probably tells you all you need to know. Whilst the younger lot jump on the tram, many of us older lads tend to jump in taxis and head for the ground, often getting in 45 minutes before KO which was completely unheard of for us until we managed to persuade Utd to slash the price of booze. Once you get inside the noise hits you like a wall and the buzz is on, 15 minutes before KO and there will be 200 in the seats already singing and from then on it doesn’t stop until 10 minutes after the final whistle and every player and staff member have left the pitch.

“SERS is as close to an away game as its possible to get at home, you can group up with your mates, stand all game and sing without a steward or tourist asking you to sit down and shut up. There’s a ban on filming in there too which makes a big difference and whilst the average age is probably in the 30s, there are young kids with their dads, women and teenagers stood side-by-side with time-served Red Army veterans of the ‘60s and ‘70s. In short everyone is welcome, all that’s expected is that you sing your hearts out for 90 minutes and keep your phone in your pocket.

“If you list some of our achievements then it does make us proud – 1000 slashed price STs for 16-25yr olds, £6000 donated to local charities by our members, kits & equipment bought for a local youth football team, £3 draught lager (which we’ve also demanded for the entire stadium), an outdoor bar at the back of the Stretford End, groups of mates allowed to stand together & not split up across the stadium, a great relationship with the stewards who turn a blind eye to standing, free membership to under 18s and a massive lift in the atmosphere inside OT over recent seasons. Not too shabby for a couple of grumpy old Mancs.”

Follow TRA on Twitter.

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