MANCHESTER: The Premier League season comes to an end tomorrow rather than last Sunday. To blame is an incident which left the faces of Manchester United directors as red as their players’ shirts.
But a security alert over a suspicious package which proved thankfully harmless illustrated the febrile atmosphere surrounding major public events, a level of tension which will stalk every match at the Euro 2016 finals in France next month.
United were scheduled to wrap up their season at the same time as everyone else, at home to Bournemouth. They needed to win to have any hope of snatching the fourth and last Champions League slot while also needing neighbours City to lose, simultaneously, at Swansea.
City drew 1-1 in south Wales. Hence United and Louis Van Gaal will not be in the Champions League next season – unless they beat Bournemouth in their rescheduled match by a fantastical 19 goals. Van Gaal’s only hope of a season’s consolation and maybe hanging on to his job will then depend on Saturday’s FA Cup Final against Crystal Palace.
In the meantime recriminations will continue about events at Old Trafford on Sunday.
More than 75,000 fans and staff were evacuated from Old Trafford less than half an hour before the scheduled kickoff after a suspicious device, believed to be a mobile phone attached to a pipe, was discovered in a toilet.
Initially a police spokesman said that the package was “an incredibly lifelike-looking device” but assessed later as not dangerous. Of course, at that stage, police and United officials could not afford to take any chances.
An emergency code signal was issued over the public address system at 2.40pm, some 20 minutes before kick-off and with the players warming up on the pitch. Initially, 20,000 fans in the Sir Alex Ferguson and Stretford End stands were evacuated. The abandonment announcement followed and the rest of the fans were ushered out.
An army bomb disposal team was summoned and, two hours later, detonated the package with a so-called ‘controlled explosion.’
This was when it emerged that the suspected ‘bomb’ was a decoy which had been mistakenly left in the toilet after a training exercise for security dogs earlier in the week. United, accepting responsibility, offered to refund match ticketholders as well as allowing them into the stadium free of charge tonight.
Not that this will be much use to most of the Bournemouth fans, who would have to make the long journey from south coast on a working day.
Tony Lloyd, the region’s police commissioner described the incident as “outrageous” and a costly waste of time, effort and money by the police and military services. One consolation: at least United now know that their stadium evacuation procedures work effectively and quickly.
As for City, their fans not only enjoyed United’s discomfiture but cheered out Manuel Pellegrini happy at the prospect of another Champions League campaign. Kelechi Iheanacho shot City ahead on five minutes against Swansea who levelled with a free-kick just before half-time from Andre Ayew.
Pep Guardiola will be in charge at City next season. Whether Van Gaal will be awaiting him across town remains open to doubt for one more week at least.