The discovery of a fake bomb inside Old Trafford brought embarrassment and potentially a $4 million bill to Manchester United, raising serious questions about the security arrangements in place at one of the world’s biggest sports teams.
It was also a stark reminder of the vulnerability of sports stadiums ahead of upcoming events like the European Championship in France and the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and the tense atmosphere that exists among sports fans and authorities after last year’s Paris attacks.
United took no chances when a mobile-phone device, taped inside a bathroom cubicle in a corner of Old Trafford, was discovered by a member of staff shortly before the Premier League match against Bournemouth on Sunday. Two stands were evacuated immediately, and soon after the game was called off and the rest of the 75,000-seat stadium was evacuated.
Army bomb-disposal experts blew up the device, described by police as “incredibly lifelike,” before police said hours later that it had been left behind by a private company following a security training exercise using search dogs on Wednesday.
“Fiasco is the right word. It was shambolic,” Greater Manchester Mayor Tony Lloyd said Monday. “Of course, United are a huge organization. It wasn’t, I think, the fact they’re the world’s richest club, it was the fact that the security had missed something that in the end ought to have been found.”
Many people who were at the match have praised the way the evacuation by United was handled in unique circumstances. It was the first game in the Premier League’s 24-year history that has been canceled on security grounds.
United executive vice chairman Ed Woodward said he was “proud of how our staff responded” and deemed the evacuation a “complete success.”
In a statement, Woodward said the private company had signed that the device had been recovered at the end of the training drill, and that the device “could not have been detected by sniffer dogs on the routine match day search, as it contained no explosives and was used in an exercise training handlers not dogs.”
On Monday, the head of the security company apologized for leaving the device inside the stadium, saying he forgot to remove it because he had a similar one already in his bag.
Sharryn McKelvie, who attended the game as part of a group of 40 United fans from all over the world, gave a mixed assessment of the club’s handling of the evacuation. She told The Associated Press that messages by stadium announcer “were starting to cause more panic among people.”
“One of us asked a steward after the game was abandoned, ‘What’s the update, mate?” said McKelvie, who is a security manager for the University of Edinburgh. “He said the best thing you can do is go back to your car, turn the radio on and get an update that way.
“I think it’s outrageous that in this day and age, at a worldwide club that United is, that after a training exercise they didn’t have standards in place to check everything is finished at the end of it,” McKelvie said. “Somebody’s head should roll for that one. It wasn’t because of a random attack, it was because of somebody’s stupidity that caused this chaos.”
McKelvie painted a picture of women holding crying children, of people clambering over fences outside the stadium in a rush to get to their cars. It made her think of tragedies like the Hillsborough Stadium disaster of 1989 and also last year's Paris attacks, during which the Stade de France was targeted.
Since the Paris attacks, tension around major sports events and big sports stadiums is unavoidable. United, like other Premier League teams, has tightened security before matches, introducing compulsory bag checks and pat-downs before entering the stadium. Before entering the vast concourse at Old Trafford, cars are stopped and checked by a steward who uses mirrors to detect anything underneath the vehicle.
“Obviously, safety is always the top priority,” United midfielder Juan Mata wrote Monday in a weekly blog. “But what I’m really sorry about is that these kinds of issues affect football, sports and society in general. Many of us think that sport has the capability to unite people, and we must keep believing that.”
Less than a month before hosting Euro 2016, France remains in a state of emergency that was declared after the Paris attacks that killed 130 people. French Prime Minister Manuel Valls wants to extend it to cover the soccer tournament and the Tour de France but the move will require approval from parliament.
The global security budget for the 10 fan zones across France has been doubled by organizers to reach an estimated $27 million.
“Whilst this incident is an unfortunate mistake,” Malcolm Tarbitt, executive director of safety and security at the International Centre for Sport Security, told the AP, “this incident will serve as a reminder to all upcoming events and sport stadia, not just to the Euros, about the safety and security risks that sport now faces.
“The reality is that sport - particularly football and higher-profile showpiece events - attract huge public interest and international profile and as a result, will naturally have a higher perceived security risk attached to it.”
Martin Glenn, chief executive of the English Football Association, said Friday that his organization recently had a “big security meeting,” and that it will be running a “crisis simulation” event.
“We are just making sure we can respond quickly if something happens,” Glenn said.
Europe is jumpy because of recent terrorist attacks. But life, and sport, goes on.
The United-Bournemouth game has been rearranged for Tuesday, at an estimated cost of about $4 million to United because of things like compensation for supporters and policing.
Fans of Bournemouth, a club from the south coast of England, face a 500-mile (800-kilometer) round trip for the second time in three days to attend the rescheduled match. Bournemouth has offered free bus travel to its fans and United has offered a refund to all supporters inconvenienced by Sunday’s postponement, as a well as free ticket for Tuesday’s game.
Yet, for many overseas-based fans, the opportunity to watch United has passed. McKelvie said only six of her 40-strong party from Sunday - which included people from the United States, Canada and Hong Kong - were expected to attend Tuesday.