Manchester's Triumph: Team of the world carried home on a sea of euphoria to city painted red

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EVERYONE IN Manchester seemed to be celebrating last night.

Characters such as the Sports minister, Tony Banks, may have tried to appropriate United's triumph for the nation. Opinion polls may have shown that 86 per cent of the country's football fans wanted them to win in Barcelona. Cultural commentators even may have pontificated about how the victorious progress of the team was, like the death of Diana (I am not making this up), a Shared National Experience.

But in the end the team belongs to a place. And Manchester United were coming home. Last night the squad made a triumphal progress through the city. "Excursion" it said on the front of their open-top bus. And, where the route number should have been, instead it said "2-1" - the team's score against Bayern Munich.

The nearer they got to the centre the slower they went, so dense were the crowds. More than half a million people turned out to greet their heroes, who held aloft from the top of the double-decker the three silver trophies that marked the club's unprecedented treble triumph, taking the Premiership, the FA Cup and now becoming champions of Europe.

By the time the bus reached Deansgate it had taken them almost three hours to cover the seven-mile journey, and the street was so packed that eight police horse riders had gently to prize apart the throng to allow the vehicle through.

But it was not just the seasoned fans who turned out. Office workers in their pinstripes were among the throng. Dads carried toddlers in miniature United strips on their shoulders. Elderly matrons, who looked as though they would be more at home in a concert by the Halle, applauded with exact decorum.

The ticker-tape that showered down from the offices was made from the office shredder. The booze that was sprayed around with shrieks of celebration was beer rather than champagne.

The revellers toasted one another as much as they did they team. Young girls kissed complete strangers - so long as they were wearing the right T-shirt.

When the crowd applauded the United bus, the players clapped them back. When the people produced their cameras, the footballers got out their videos to film the crowd. It was a family affair. And there was something of old-fashioned civic pride in the air.

Earlier, next to a pub called The Trafford, diagonally opposite Sir Matt Busby Way, the more exuberant fans jigged dangerously in the road, weaving in and out of the traffic that was pouring out of the city centre to escape the growing grid-lock.

The highway dancers carried in both hands massive flags, newly emblazoned with the catalogue of their team's treble triumph. Egged on by their peers sitting atop the junction's traffic lights, they darted like matadors in front of the cars, draping the flags across the windscreens of the vehicles so that their drivers, unable to see, had to slow down or stop. Only when the cloth was raised could the cars continue on their way.

The striking thing about the drivers as they sped off was that, almost to a man and a woman, they were not scowling as a delayed city centre motorist usually does. Rather they were smiling, and as they pulled away many beat out the rhythm of a football chant on their horns.

Some had even been prevailed upon, in the jam, to buy a smaller flag, which streamed from their window or sun-roof as they left.

This was their team, and their home town, the laughter of the motorists seemed to say. Even the occupants of a passing police car waved good- naturedly and smiled.

When a drunken Manchester City fan leant from the window of a passing bus to shout at the red army "Come on You Blues" he was greeted only with sardonic laughter.

Some of the fans had been in place eight hours before the team bus was due to leave Marsland Road in Sale. Amiable spivs moved among them selling "Champions of Europe" T-shirts on which the ink bearing the score - Man Utd 2, Bayern Munich 1 - was still damp.

"I had my printer on standby," said one enterprising character who had come up from Southend with 250 flags and 1,000 T-shirts. "If Bayern had won, we'd have printed them and flown out to Germany."

As the evening ended, hand-held radios blared out, for those outside the 17,000-seater Manchester Arena, the words of the manager, Alex Ferguson, that this was the proudest day of his life. He seemed to be speaking for an entire city.