But the point was made, inside and out. “Once a Manc always a Manc. RIP,” ran another message displayed outside O’Leary’s bar next to the ground. And when the stadium managers, who showed great empathy, confused the crowd by calling for a minute’s silence after the audience had already tried to observe one, the United end boomed with chants of “Manchester, Manchester.” People punched the air and jumped as they sang.
VIDEO: ManU win against Ajax uplifts Manchester a bit
All the way through this game the news kept rolling in. News from another world, but one painfully close for Manchester United and their fans. On phone screens, the latest updates on Monday night’s terrorist attack vied with the chronology of a football match that offered a refuge from horrors beyond comprehension.
Because technology has placed these addictive devices in our hands, a Europa League final is capable of sharing a news feed with an attack that killed 22 people at a pop concert, and injured many more. There is no escaping reality. So all inside the Friends Arena fought to keep their concentration on the action: a second-tier European final that gave United a route back to the Champions League, and a chance to boast that they have won two of the four competitions they entered in 2016-17.
One truth was evident, from the minute Jose Mourinho tried to beat down Ajax’s youthful talent (average age – 22 years and 282 days) with his textbook of direct play.
The swathe of United supporters to our right carried their city’s trauma to Stockholm: visibly, that is, and not by journalistic supposition.
Behind the goal Sergio Romero would occupy in the first-half, United fans draped a banner saying: ‘United Against Terrorism. Lest we Forget. 22.05.2017.’ The flag disappeared before kick-off, then returned, then vanished again. It may have fallen foul of football’s intolerance of political statements inside stadiums.
You could see the emotion bursting out of spectators shouting not for their team so much as their violated city. A long red banner rippled up the tiers: ’Manchester – a City United – prayformanchester.’
On a day when Chelsea’s Premier League victory parade and a screening of the FA Cup final at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium were both cancelled on safety grounds, United’s shot at redemption came in a Swedish city that has also been the victim of an attack this year, but radiates serenity and liberal values.
Not a bad place, then, to find calm, in the face of the realisation that Monday’s suicide bomber was a student at Salford University, a 20-minute walk from Old Trafford, and that his family attended the Didsbury Mosque, where his actions have been condemned.
United have become only the fifth club to win all three major European trophies, after Juventus, Ajax, Bayern Munich and Chelsea. Liverpool tend to regard themselves as England’s continental superpower (and no wonder, with five European titles), but United have their own fine tradition.
The 1968 European Cup win over Benfica at Wembley was the first by an English club – and there have been two since, unforgettably in 1999, and again in Moscow nine years later when Chelsea were the victims. There were two subsequent salutary defeats to Barcelona, in 2009 and 2011, so this was their return to a stage where they will say they belong.
There was no ‘opening ceremony’ and no Swedish singing on the pitch. Both were dropped to avoid any hint of celebration. “Of course this won’t be the party they had imagined,” the Swedish FA’s head of security, Martin Fredman, told the Reuters news agency “The match has to be played – and we will do it in as good a way as possible, but with a lot of respect, especially for Manchester, and I’m sure Ajax will join in in those parts.”
The good news: Paul Pogba gave United a first-half lead with a shot deflected off Davinson Sanchez, the Ajax centre-back; then Henrikh Mkhitaryan, who had a dreadful first 45 minutes, flicked in a Chris Smalling header from a United corner. For much of this game, Ajax’s smaller, younger team could not cope with United’s directness, physicality and willingness to put the ball in the sky, for Marouane Fellaini, particularly, to win all the headers.
In the other type of news: armed police raiding a block of flats near Manchester Piccadilly Station, and the naming of the dead and injured, with attendant stories of kindness and unity. In these unrecognisable times, a European final can start with your chief constable confirming “extensive searches” across Manchester, and warning: “It’s very clear this is a network we are investigating.”
Sean Bones of the Manchester United Supporters Trust had told reporters: “What we want to do obviously is represent Manchester in the best way; we want the supporters to represent Manchester and we want the football team to represent Manchester, and show the Manchester spirit.”
Mission accomplished, on all fronts. On the pitch, not pretty, but effective would be the best way to describe United’s victory, which many Manchester City fans also wanted, for the uplifting effect it would have on their area. Mechanical is fine, when it matters this much.
As the clock ran down, United’s supporters roared their pleasure. Back home, we imagined, Manchester felt a semblance of normality again. Some will never hear the news. And in a small way, this was for them.