MANCHESTER, England – A bomb disposal unit carried out a controlled explosion at Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium on Sunday after a suspect package was discovered before the Premier League game between United and Bournemouth.
The dismantling of what police described as an “incredibly lifelike explosive device” came amid increased security at Premier League stadiums following last year’s Paris attacks that targeted the Stade de France sports stadium as well as cafes, bars and a popular concert hall.
However, nearly four hours after the evacuation, Greater Manchester Police announced that the suspect package was not a “viable device.”
“Full assessment now concluded and found device wasn’t viable,” the police force said on its Twitter page. “A full search of the stadium is ongoing.”
Military personnel were dispatched to the stadium after the game was postponed following an evacuation of spectators from two stands about 30 minutes before the scheduled kickoff time of 3 p.m. local time (1400 GMT).
Players from both teams were taken off the pitch during the warm-up and kept in the changing rooms. They were then let out while spectators were also being evacuated.
“We are doing everything we can to investigate this item as quickly as possible, however our priority is obviously to ensure the safety of everyone in the stadium and surrounding area,” said John O’Hare, assistant chief constable of Greater Manchester Police.
United said the package was “found in the North West Quadrant” of Old Trafford, which has a capacity of more than 75,000 seats. Fans sitting in other stands initially had been allowed to stay inside the stadium.
There was a strong police presence outside Old Trafford and fire engines attended the scene. Sniffer dogs were also seen inside the stadium.
Greater Manchester Police said on its Twitter page that people should “avoid the area if possible.”
The match was one of 10 taking place on the final day of the Premier League season. The other nine matches went ahead.
United was vying with Manchester City to finish in fourth place in the Premier League and qualify for the Champions League. City drew 1-1 at Swansea, effectively ending United’s top-four chances.
The Premier League said in a statement that it will look to rearrange the game “as soon as practically possible.”
“It is always the last resort to abandon one of our fixtures and while we apologize for the inconvenience caused to fans, we are sure, in the circumstances, they will appreciate the need to do so,” the Premier League said.
The league said that “when it comes to matters of security, it is obviously right that Manchester United and the Premier League place the safety of supporters and employees foremost.”
United is scheduled to play Crystal Palace in the FA Cup final on Saturday.
It is the first Premier League match to be postponed because of a bomb threat. An exhibition soccer game between Germany and the Netherlands was cancelled in November after police said they received a bomb threat. No explosives were immediately found.
The most high-profile British sporting event to be postponed in similar circumstances was the Grand National horse race in Liverpool in 1997. On that occasion, an IRA bomb threat forced the evacuation of Aintree race course, where about 60,000 spectators were attending. The race was staged two days later.