Business as normal is easier said than done in Stockholm
Manchester Arena holds happy memories for United, who now try to create some more
A view of the Europa League trophy at the Friends Arena, Stockholm, in Sweden, ahead of the final between Manchester United and Ajax. Photograph: PA
In happier times it was the Manchester Arena where Alex Ferguson and his players ended up on that sunny day, 18 years ago this week, when they brought the European Cup back to the city for the first time since the 1960s.
They reckon there were upwards of 750,000 people to welcome Manchester United back from Barcelona that day. They hung off lamp-posts and balconies and scaffolding and spires, and there has never been another homecoming quite like it on the city’s streets.
And for the 12,000 who packed inside the arena, it culminated in that moment when Ferguson came through the doors holding the trophy above his head. He was followed by his players and for a brief moment the most successful manager of his generation actually ducked because of the din.
“I can’t talk,” he said. And it is difficult to think there has been any other occasion inside this venue when the volume has gone higher.
Stockholm, a city recovering from its own recent devastation
It’s a great football city, Manchester – a divided one, red and blue – and nobody should be taken in by the myth that United have forgotten where they are from. Yes, it’s become a global club, with Florida owners, a cosmopolitan team and all those camera-clicking tourists, but it is still a local one, too. The accents behind the scenes at Old Trafford, or Carrington on the other side of the M60, are still mostly Mancunian.
It is still a club, just like Manchester City, with a deep affinity to its city and people.
It certainly won’t be easy for United to adhere to the mantra of the new mayor, Andy Burnham, if going about their business as normal means clearing their minds of Monday’s horrors now the club’s players, staff and management, along with thousands of supporters, have arrived in Stockholm, a city recovering from its own recent devastation, for the Europa League final.
The reminders of what happened in Sweden’s capital can still be seen in Drottninggatan, Stockholm’s main shopping street, in the huge display of thousands of different-coloured adhesive notes bearing messages of love and remembrance on the boarded-up windows of Ahlens, the department store where the hijacked lorry that careered down this street last month, killing five people and injuring many others, came to rest.
Back in Manchester, there had not even been time to choreograph those kinds of tribute as the finalists left for Sweden and José Mourinho took the sensible decision to cancel his pre-match press conference, sparing us the possibility that someone might want the club’s manager to discuss trivialities such as injury news.
Football suddenly feels very secondary when, at the time Mourinho was scheduled to speak, thousands of people were gathering for a vigil outside Manchester town hall and, one by one, we were learning more about the people who had died.
By that stage, United’s players had already held their own minute’s silence, standing in a circle with their heads bowed, on the pitches at Carrington. Once they arrived in Stockholm they did visit the Friends Arena to have a look at the stadium where they will play Ajax, passing the place where a statue of Zlatan Ibrahimovic is going up and trying to fix their minds on the job in hand. But it will not be straightforward.
The statement from Mourinho explained the decision to excuse himself from media obligations because of “the effect this has had on everyone here at the club and within our city”. Another release noted that pupils from some of the schools affiliated to the Manchester United Foundation were among the audience at that Ariana Grande concert.
A lot of the players’ Twitter accounts are controlled by their own PR people. Not all of them, though. “Devastating,” was the word Wayne Rooney used. “Much rage, much pain,” David de Gea wrote.
The mind goes back to France’s visit to Wembley in November 2015
Perhaps Mourinho will try to lift his players by encouraging them to believe they can bring the trophy back to Manchester and dedicate it to the city. Over 90 minutes, footballers tend to be pretty good at filtering out everything else and, ultimately, it is still a significant occasion in United’s recent history. Hence Mourinho’s comments that “we have a job to do and we will fly to Sweden to do that job”.
Again, though, business as normal is easier said than done right now. The mind goes back to France’s visit to Wembley in November 2015, just a few days after the Paris attacks, and the sapping effect it had on their players. They lost 2-0 and nobody should have been surprised that England’s opponents found it so difficult.
Likewise, it is no surprise the mood in Stockholm feels so different to what might usually be expected before a European final. There were plenty of United supporters in Gamla Stan, Stockholm’s old town, or drinking in the pubs and hotels near Central Station, but it was nothing like as boisterous as usual.
They came from many more places than just Manchester but all of them had an affinity with the city – and they will all understand the most emotive lines from Mourinho.
“We cannot take out of our minds and our hearts the victims and their families,” his statement read. “It is a pity we cannot fly with the happiness that we always have before a big game.”