Watching Manchester United fans storm the hallowed grounds of Old Trafford on Sunday to protest the Glazer family’s ownership was prime material for Americans who secretly look down on our old friends across the sea.
We may lead the world by a wide margin in greedy, self-serving professional sports owners, but our fans generally refrain from invading stadiums and going onto the field in an attempt to force the owners to sell the team.
It doesn’t work, first of all, as we’ll soon discover in Manchester. But more important, we all would be concerned stadium security would beat our brains in and we’d be in jail within an hour. It’s also a felony here in Illinois, as a 19-year-old suburban man named Liam Wolfer recently learned after zigzagging his way across the field at Guaranteed Rate Field last month during a Chicago White Sox-Texas Rangers game.
According to CWBChicago.com, the Plainfield resident was charged with criminal trespass to a place of public amusement and held on $5,000 bail. And unlike some of the protesting English soccer fans who got a chance to play goalie or kick around a soccer ball on their field of dreams, Wolfer didn’t even get to hit or throw a baseball while trespassing at Sox Park. (He did, however, receive a big ovation from Sox fans during his outfield romp, which proves again baseball fans want more action.)
As someone who once stormed a field 42 years ago for no good reason, I watched the events in Manchester with great interest. Were there any similarities between the Old Trafford incident and the one the “Insane Coho Lips” staged at old Comiskey Park on July 12, 1979?
Here’s a brief comparison of the Manchester protest and the Disco Demolition Night riot.
Manchester United fans were protesting the Glazers, an American family that owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is despised in Manchester, where the team is as popular as the Bears are in Chicago. According to a BBC report, Manchester United was a debt-free organization before the Glazers took control of the club in 2005 in a leveraged buyout. Now the team carries $629 million in debt.
The Glazers’ decision to join the ill-fated Super League, in addition to their management of the club, drove fans to the point of protesting against the owners Sunday at the stadium and at the Lowry Hotel, where the team stayed. Club Chairman Joel Glazer was nowhere to be found and did not comment publicly on the protest or the break-in.
Anti-disco fans on the South Side of Chicago knew they weren’t protesting anything of real importance, but they gathered at old Comiskey to chant “disco sucks” and watch thousands of disco records blown up between games of a Chicago White Sox-Detroit Tigers doubleheader.
The event was a marketing scheme involving popular radio personality Steve Dahl and was created by Sox marketing executive Michael Veeck, the son of owner Bill Veeck. The elder Veeck was a beloved baseball maverick whose crazy ideas, including sending 3-foot-7 Eddie Gaedel to the plate when he owned the St. Louis Browns, made national headlines.
A ticket to the game cost 98 cents plus a disco record that Dahl would explode. It was basically a party that got completely out of hand when hundreds of fans rushed the field shortly after the explosion.
Old Trafford was built in 1909 and has been home to Manchester United since 1910. It was closed to the public Sunday because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the protests occurred a few hours before the scheduled game between Manchester United and Liverpool, leading some fans to scale the walls and storm the pitch.
Old Comiskey, home of the White Sox from 1910 to 1990, was crammed to the gills with more than 50,000 fans, including paying customers who shelled out the 98 cents, season ticket holders who were there only for the games and a few hundred trespassers who scaled the walls or gates.
Both the protesters who stormed the pitch at Old Trafford and the revelers who jumped onto the field at old Comiskey — or scaled down the foul poles — predominantly consisted of young males (including myself at Comiskey). The Manchester protesters did some minor damage, as did the Disco Demolition mob, which set a batting cage on fire and watched people jump through it. Some people on the field in Manchester kicked balls and climbed onto the net.
At Comiskey fans ran around the bases and slid into home plate. Bill Veeck pleaded with them to leave the field, to no avail. He then tried to get announcer Harry Caray to help by singing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” The fans sang but still didn’t leave until Chicago cops stormed the field long afterward.
The Chicago incident was fueled by a combination of cheap beer and weed. “I’m walking up the ramp, and there are all these young kids wanting my autograph,” Caray later told the Tribune. “I finally got upstairs and I find Bill Veeck. I said, ‘Bill, I hope you’ve got the pot concessions tonight. You’ll make a million dollars.’ ”
The Manchester United-Liverpool game was postponed and will be played at a later date. Assistant Chief Constable Russ Jackson told the Manchester Evening News: “The behaviour displayed today by those at both Old Trafford and The Lowry Hotel was reckless and dangerous.” Manchester police said six officers were injured during the unrest, including one whose eye socket was fractured by a thrown glass bottle.
The second game of the Sox-Tigers doubleheader was canceled, and the Sox were forced to forfeit because of unplayable conditions. “Bill was upset at having to forfeit the game,” his wife, Mary Frances, later told the Tribune. “He had never had anything that had ever interfered with the playing of a game, including (Gaedel). That upset him. And he was distressed that there hadn’t been more security.”
Bill Veeck sold the Sox within two years, Comiskey Park went under the wrecking ball in 1990 and Dahl continues as a podcaster after a long career in Chicago radio. The Sox no longer look at the event as an embarrassment. On the 40th anniversary of the event, Dahl was feted by the Sox and commemorative T-shirts were given away to fans.
In the book “Disco Demolition,” former Sox outfielder Thad Bosley said: “The thing that fascinated me most about the event is that, boom, the next day disco died.” It may not have happened overnight, but the disco craze would not last much longer.
Whether the storming of the pitch will affect the ownership of Manchester United remains to be seen, but I doubt they’ll be handing out commemorative 40th anniversary T-shirts at Old Trafford in 2061.