Manchester United’s Premier League game with Bournemouth on the final day of the season was abandoned after security officials discovered a suspect package that had been left during a training exercise held at the Old Trafford stadium four days earlier.
In a development that will prove hugely embarrassing to the club, Greater Manchester Police confirmed late on Sunday that the controlled explosion that took place to neutralise the device was carried out on a dummy “bomb” left in toilets in the Stretford End on Wednesday.
GMP Assistant Chief Constable John O’Hare said: “Following today’s controlled explosion, we have since found out that the item was a training device which had accidentally been left by a private company following a training exercise involving explosive search dogs.
“Whilst this item did not turn out to be a viable explosive, on appearance this device was as real as could be, and the decision to evacuate the stadium was the right thing to do, until we could be sure that people were not at risk.”
The Premier League confirmed late on Sunday that the rescheduled fixture will now be played on Tuesday night, with an 8pm kick-off.
But the postponement of the original game raises a number of embarrassing questions for United and their security protocol — not least the fact that the device remained in place for four days.
The vast expense and inconvenience suffered by a capacity crowd of over 75,000 will also leave the English club red-faced. In addition to numerous supporters who travelled from overseas for the fixture, around 3,500 Bournemouth supporters made a round trip of 500-miles from the south coast.
United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward issued a statement in conjunction with GMP. “The safety of fans is always our highest priority,” said Woodward. “I’d like to thank the support from the police which was first class and the impeccable response from fans of both teams.
“The Club takes security very seriously and staff are regularly trained with the police and emergency services to identify and deal with these incidents.
“We will investigate the incident to inform future actions and decisions.”
The fire engines and bomb disposal team were still in situ inside a sureally deserted Old Trafford last night when social media started to issue a stream of light-hearted responses to what could have been a very real tragedy.
Mercifully, and thanks in no small part to the excellent reaction of police and stewards, the bomb hoax that forced the abandonment of Manchester United’s final Premier League game of the season with Bournemouth passed without any of the 75,000-plus capacity crowd suffering even a scratch during the pre-match mass evacuation of half the stadium.
But the longer, further reaching implications seem certain to extend beyond the issue of whether Marouane Fellaini will be able to serve the third and final match of his suspension in time to be available for Louis van Gaal to select for Saturday’s FA Cup final with Crystal Palace.
Beyond the inconvenience, and expense, of a ruined day for the 3,500 who had made the round trip from Bournemouth and “home” supporters who contacted local media to describe their “day trips” to see the game from places as far flung as Sierra Leone and India, sprung issues about security and safety at high-profile sporting events.
Few sporting events carry the mass global exposure and appeal enjoyed by the Premier League and no clubs, in England or elsewhere, boast the profile of Manchester United.
“Bomb disposal experts carried out controlled explosion at Old Trafford on what is described as incredibly lifelike explosive device…” tweeted police after the army rendered the stadium safe a couple of hours after the 3.15pm decision to postpone the game.
But while the security firm’s gaffe proved very costly, the fact remains that the potential to derail an English football game with 75,000 people in attendance, and millions watching worldwide, is now a present and real threat.
This is not new territory for football, sport and, certainly not society. A dozen years ago, the final two minutes of a game between Real Madrid and Real Sociedad were played over a month later after the original game was abandoned and players, including David Beckham, forced onto the streets outside still wearing their kit.
Closer to home, the 1997 Grand National at Aintree was delayed by two days after an IRA bomb threat forced the original race to be postponed, while the dark, bloody history of terrorism in sport also features the Munich Olympics, the 2013 Boston Marathon and gun attacks on the Sri Lanka cricket team in Lahore and Togo football team, in Angola.
All of which, sadly, led to events in Paris last November, centred upon a friendly match between France and Germany, which left 130 dead and 368 injured by the hands of so-called Islamic State.
A mobile phone taped to a gas pipe in the north-west quadrant of Old Trafford is, mercifully, a world away from the horrors of that night in Paris, however “incredibly lifelike” it may have been. But this is the new world order, the new way in which authorities have to look at every unguarded carrier bag, every mislaid handheld device and this will not be the last time an event is affected this way.
“We are still in the dressing room and it seems we’ll be the last to leave the stadium,” United midfielder Ander Herrera told Spanish radio while he and colleagues from United and Bournemouth sheltered in their dressing rooms. “It has been very tense and we have all been nervous.”
Sean Bones, vice-chairman of the Manchester United Supporters’ Trust, said: “It is obviously a dark day in Premier League history. We have obviously got to give our thanks to the club and the authorities for getting supporters out of the ground safely.”
It was a theme developed by a media security correspondents who found themselves called upon to provide commentary on an affair which would normally have been the preserve of analysing Louis van Gaal’s shortcomings in team selection and attacking formation, where the most serious issue to be dissected would usually have been Memphis Depay’s consistent failure to find the back of the opposition net.
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