Manchester police and an army bomb-disposal unit used a controlled explosion to destroy a suspicious package that was found Sunday just before kickoff of Manchester United’s Premier League finale at Old Trafford, later determining that it “wasn’t viable.”
The discovery of the device came just as fans were filing in and Bournemouth players had begun their warmups for the 3 p.m. (GMT) match in the storied stadium, which holds 75,653 fans. Players immediately left the field, and an evacuation began. Less than two hours later, Manchester police said that detonation of the package, which multiple reports indicated contained a cell phone strapped to a gas pipe, had taken place. The package was found in a bathroom in the northwest quadrant of the stadium, between the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand and the Stretford End, by stadium personnel.
“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,” Manchester assistant chief constable John O’Hare said in a statement released by the club.
“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 statement continued. “Everyone remained calm, followed instructions, and worked with officers and stewards to ensure that a safe evacuation was quickly completed. Those present today were a credit to the football family and their actions should be recognized.”
Authorities were understandably edgy after Britain last week raised the terrorist threat level from “moderate” to “substantial,” linking it to Northern Ireland and what Theresa May, Britain’s home secretary, said was “the continuing threat from dissident republican activity.”
Fans in the north and west stands were told to leave just before kickoff, with fans in the two remaining areas evacuated thereafter. The game was delayed for 45 minutes before being postponed by what the club was calling an “operation code red.”
Fans who had not yet entered the stadium made their way to pubs, focusing on their disappointment on United’s season. “It sums up our season, that. Just fizzling out – something and nothing,” a supporter named Matt Crew told The Guardian.
As authorities did their work, Manchester United and Bournemouth players left Old Trafford, too, learning later that the match has been rescheduled for Tuesday night.
Hours later, there was a sense of relief that a possible tragedy involving one of world’s most valuable and popular teams had been averted.