In the grand scheme of things it doesn’t really matter who won the Europa League this season, not 48 hours after the worst terrorist atrocity on British soil for twelve years. Football never truly matters in the complex and savage world we live in. Nothing can matter after terrorism takes its grim hold.
And yet it really can sometimes.
Asking people to care about a football match can seem almost perverse so soon after a tragedy that claimed the lives of 22 people, mostly children, one as young as eight. But it’s that Mancunian spirit that perseveres and compels to carry on that helps us to do that very thing. That true act of defiance that says no and takes a stand to terrorism and lets them know that nothing stops a Manc’s daily way of life, football especially included.
Thus the game went ahead in Stockholm’s Friends Arena. Black armbands were worn. Festivities in the build-up to kick off were cut short as a mark of respect. A minute’s silence was observed. But then it was a minute’s applause. Then the fans broke out into choruses of “Manchester tra la la”. Signs were everywhere stating how Manchester, regardless of footballing creed, was a city united. Tears were down many a fan’s face in the crowd. Easy to imagine there was innumerable tears from those watching at home too.
The game was by no means a classic. Ajax were poor throughout. They boasted the youngest ever side fielded in a European cup final but their inexperience showed. Their usual play was stilted, unimaginative and predictable. Mourinho’s United were composed, steady and struck on the break at will. Lucky for Ajax, the blunt United attack of many a game this season was once again proving ineffective against their tight defence. It was one moment of luck and a loss of concentration that proved to be their undoing. United’s first, a left-footed strike by Paul Pogba which struck the leg of Ajax’s Davinson Sánchez, looping over the wrong-footed Andres Onana in goal. United’s second was down to poor defending from Ajax. A United corner found Chris Smalling unmarked who nodded onto Henrikh Mkhitaryan who then hooked the ball in from six yards out. Game effectively over after 48 minutes. United never looked back.
Manchester United came to Stockholm to do a job and they did it, but in doing so for two hours Manchester got to feel a glimmer of joy and hope again. The people of Manchester, and the country as a whole, got to feel like our collective hurt was soothed for a short time. Once the glow of victory has worn off, the grieving will continue and so will the repairing, but this night we got given a break.
This was only a football match that, in the grand scheme of things, didn’t really matter. But for one night the country bonded, and Manchester was a city united. Nothing can truly take away the hurt of losing somebody in the most horrific of ways. A football match can’t take away our collective hurt at a callous coward’s act against our country’s greatest city. It can, however, unite us in the universal language of football, if only for a few hours. The city needed a win, however trivial, and Manchester United provided.
This wasn’t just about winning the Europa League trophy. This was for the club. For the people. For Manchester.
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