Man United's raw emotion displays the city's unity to perfection as Europa League win lifts an unfair burden
It was well over an hour after the final whistle in Stockholm, and the Manchester United players still hadn’t left the Friends Arena dressing room, because they were still so joyously singing so many supporter chants.
Songs like ‘follow, follow, follow cos United have won in Stockholm’ could easily be heard thundering the wall of the press conference room where the international media were waiting for Jose Mourinho to come out and discuss the 2-0 Europa League final win over Ajax, although he would still be a while.
That was entirely understandable, as he joined in some of the singing. This was one of those endearing moments when the link between the terraces and a team is made clear, and it was shown how in tune some of the players are with the supporters and the supporters’ culture, something that was all the more important this week.
Because, in the middle of all the celebrations, there was also a touchingly poignant moment when all the players and Mourinho posed with a banner that featured the words ‘MANCHESTER - A CITY UNITED’.
The awful events of Monday naturally hung over everything for United, but this match - and this victory - will now always be juxtaposed with it as a glimmer of hope amid so much darkness, and ensured the players felt they had to do something for the city. If it was of course unfair to expect them to win in such situations, this is why they were even more determined to do. That was pretty much what Mourinho had told them on Tuesday morning, as he said “do it for the city, do it for the kids”. That’s what they did, and it became clear it was what they were thinking, when the players began to speak.
“It’s been a really difficult week in the city of Manchester,” Juan Mata had said. “We are happy to win for all the people that have suffered.”
Paul Pogba struck a similar theme. “We know things like this are very sad, all over the world. In London and Paris. We had to focus, it was very important. We won for Manchester, we worked for them, for the country. We play for England, for Manchester and for the people who died. We did it.”
Ander Herrera went even further, when accepting his man-of-the-match award.
“I am happy but I want to dedicate this to the victims. This is just football but what happened two day ago was horrible.
“We want peace in the world - a normal world with respect. We are just football players but we have an audience so we want to work together for a normal world.
“This happened in Manchester but everywhere we need to have a united world to fight for peace and no more attacks and deaths please.”
It was impossible not to sense a real feeling of release from the players, too, as became clear when Mourinho explained how hard Tuesday had been.
“That is why we didn’t want to have the press conference because we had to prepare ourselves to do our job and to try to organise events that are much more important than our job.”
Even as Monday rendered football’s stakes irrelevant, it oddly made this match all the more important as an occasion, but also very hard and strange for the players to prepare for. They faced an unfair and almost impossible burden.
So, when the final whistle went, the sheer extent of the celebrations and pure joy were understandable. It was as if something had been lifted, as they lifted the trophy.
Mourinho himself was utterly beaming. Having made such a conspicuous signal to his children behind the dug-out on the final whistle - and then being bear-hugged by his son - the United manager gave the trophy a long kiss, before making sure that all of his staff came to enjoy the moment. Some sprinted over. Mourinho similarly wouldn’t let the trophy itself be lifted until everyone was up on the stage.
If that seems surprisingly excessive for a manager that has excelled in greater competitions, it reflects the other inescapable side of all this: how difficult and frustrating a season it has been. The squad would not have been human had they not felt some release from that too.
They had come through, they had achieved.
They were smiling, so vibrantly.
It was just after 1am when the last United player left the dressing room. That was goalscoring hero Paul Pogba. It had been an even more emotional week for him after the death of his father, who he so conspicuously dedicated his goal to, pointing to the sky.
As he came through the mixed zone, he had his hands in the air again, but this time to salute some friends and teammates as he shouted ahead of himself “the laaaaads”.
They’d done it. They’d come together, and represented their city’s unity in the best way possible.