A result bequeathed to Manchester

The match was far from the top quality and most of the players would love to play it again with less pressure on the result but justice was seen to be done.

A banner by Manchester United fans for the victims of the Manchester terror attack on May 22, reads: ‘your hate makes us stronger’ in the streets of Stockholm, Sweden, prior to the Europa League final against Ajax Amsterdam on Wednesday, May 24. Manchester United won the title defeating Ajax 2-0.   -  AP

I confess that I — an 82-year-old, hard-bitten, cynical, dirt under the fingernails tabloid reporter — have wept bitter tears for four days since a terrorist blew himself and 20 young men, women and children to bits in my home town.

All in the name of religion and a desire for vengeance.

Of course, it threw the city where I learnt to be a man, into the biggest state of shock since their footballing favourites of Manchester United died a snowy death in Munich nearly 70 years ago. Queues formed to give blood, placards appeared throughout the city saying its citizens must not despair and its latest team at Old Trafford quietly prepared for their biggest battle of the season in Stockholm.

That final of the Europa League would not just settle the competition but provide an entry into the senior European event next season and end suggestions that United had had a poor year.

I did not arrive in Manchester until I was 29 but it took very little time to absorb its traditions, its tragic love of fooball, of the tainted hero George Best, and Alex Ferguson, the greatest manager of them all.

In many ways it was my mother and father. In fact, my grandfather, a young Baptist minister, preached his first sermon there. So we have our historical connection going back more than a century.

My three daughters were the first to take on board the accent, the frankness of the Manchester woman — “I gave him a VVQ (very very quick) farewell”, is their way of talking about an unsatisfactory boyfriend — but my son was born in Manchester and I soon learnt to love its acerbic ways.

In my role as a soccer reporter I gathered friends at Old Trafford. There was the Scot Paddy Crerand — “my kids are just as happy with a stone in a tin as an expensive present from Harrods”, he would say, the remote Bobby Charlton in his many footballing guises and ever optimistic Denis Law, who once shouted his good wishes across my office when I returned unscathed from the tour on which Mrs. Indira Gandhi was assassinated.

Influenced by neighbours, schoolmates and the local passionate media my children all declared themselves Reds — United fans in other words. It was one way of announcing that you were a Mancunian.

At one point I tried to buy the house belonging to the great painter Lowry and in the next 25 years while my son became a reporter, my eldest daughter married and roamed the world and her sisters emigrated to Scotland and then London, still Manchester was home. Even now Adam, my boy, will ask “have you seen what they have done back home.”

Soon we had all made our lives elsewhere. I toured the old Commonwealth reporting cricket but everywhere the name of Manchester United brought friendship. “I sometimes think I must be very special,” Charlton once said to me. “They all know Manchester, United and me.”

But, of course, we forgot as new alliances, new wonders and new problems filled our lives.

Thus I was 200 miles away in Cambridgeshire when my new partner Jo King shouted:”Come and see what has happened in Manchester.”

Truly it was a horrible story. Kids had gathered for a concert designed for them and as they left, this man, proclaiming himself a religious zealot, carried his murderous body armour of explosives where he must have known there were children and blown himself to pieces.

With him went a score of young people, including an off duty police woman, young children, teenagers and their parents, all sacrificial lambs in this ceaseless war over what way God should be worshipped. Thank heavens I and my children are non believers.

From that moment Manchester came alive. Ladies without medical training but with huge hearts, tended to the wounded, parents carried their injured children to hospitals as best they might, taxi drivers turned off their meters, hotels offered food to the hungry. Now that is worthwhile religious feeling.

The city that had suffered at the hands of IRA bombers knew how to react to save lives but there was still a price to be paid. What is more there was an important football match to be played and, as its inhabitants know, Manchester runs on football.

Mourhino saved the day and one day, perhaps, the Queen will recognise his call for fortitude in the face of the enemy and offer him that rarity, an honorary knighthood to mark the effect he had in rallying the city.

This Special One, as he calls himself, is already a fixture in Manchester. They love a character, a man who says the impossible just takes a little longer but, in particular, they love a football manager who can mould teams as he and Ferguson and the old hero Busby have done down all the years.

Yes, we can win, he said, as his team flew out. He asked for calm and he required his players to think before they acted on the field and he implied the spectators must behave themselves. Which they did most properly until three or four minutes before the end when — with the score 2-0 to United — they raced to the edge of the pitch and shook their arms showing they had won, their faces wreathed in smiles, the journey to Sweden a joy to be remembered whenever their family history is mentioned.

One fluke goal which took a right angle turn and another forced into the Ajax net just after half-time showed how the Gods viewed this match which was far from the top quality. I am sure most of the players would love to play it again with less pressure on the result but, hey, justice was seen to be done.

Paul Pogba, a £86m “waste of space” in the verdict of many United fans until now, said the result was bequeathed to Manchester just as another United side had won their way to the English Cup Final after the tragedy in Munich in 1959.

They are not a great side but Mourhino has money to spare to rebuild, the security forces will work hard to capture the villains who remain free and Manchester sleeps easy for a while.

Well, that is the way this Mancunian saw it after another frightful few days in the city I will always call home.

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