Football: Pitch party time for the darling buddies of May

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THE LESSON from the most sensational game of football ever played is clear. David May should go into politics. No, no. This is not meant to disparage. The Manchester United central defender will no doubt continue to play a valuable role in a 1999-2000 season where his team will be so busy they will need to boost the famous squad into a battalion.

To suggest that May should go into politics is no reflection on his abilities as a footballer. It is a reflection, rather, on the amazing ability as a crowd choreographer, and as a master of imagery, that he displayed after a European Cup final in which he had played no visible part.

Most obviously there was that photograph that made it on to front pages all over Europe on Thursday morning. There he was with the winner's medal around his neck, arms aloft like the statue of Christ the Redeemer - or Ronaldo - over Rio, forming the triumphant apex of a beautifully framed triangle from whose base the rest of the players seemed to be looking up at him in wonderment and adoration. It was a stroke of "photo-op" manipulating genius that Alastair Campbell would have been proud of.

But it was after the photographers had gone, after the official ceremonies were over, and the United players remained in the Nou Camp alone with their fans, that May revealed a talent for moving masses that would have been frightening in the hands of an unscrupulous political leader. One half of the stadium was empty, and seemingly in darkness, save the occasional flickering shadow of what must have been a crushed remnant of a Bayern fan contemplating doing the honourable Prussian thing, you imagined, and self-immolating right there.

In the dazzlingly illuminated half of the stadium, where there were more red shirts than you could fit into Old Trafford, we United fans - gathered from all corners of the globe - were having the mother and the father of all parties.

The players were there on the pitch, alongside the goal that gave us the two minutes that shook the world, facing the euphoric red army. But not so much revelling in the adulation as sharing in the general excitement, as if they had come off their pedestals and become fans for the night. No longer heroes, but lads, who no more wanted to leave the hallowed grass than the fans wanted to abandon the terraces where they had witnessed their finest hour.

Half an hour after the final whistle the mood suggested that the party might, just, be dying down. Enter master party animal May. He picked up the giant cup and strode a couple of steps away from his clustered comrades to face the massed red ranks, who braced their larynxes for yet another mighty roar. But May did not immediately raise the cup above his head. He placed it gingerly on the grass and, looking the fans sternly in the eye, put his right index finger, perpendicularly, to his lips. He was as much the centre of attention as David Beckham is when he lines up for a free kick. But not everybody got the message. So he repeated the gesture with his finger and then, with his two hands outspread and motioning slowly down, he called for hush. Total hush.

Red devils transformed into lambs, we obeyed. More than 50,000 of us remained in the Nou Camp but for five, six, seven seconds you could have heard a pin drop. Until May, with an almighty flourish, hoisted the cup high over his blond head and - I swear - the Ramblas rattled, the Pyrenees shook, to the sound of our roar.

Where May led, the other players followed. Each coming forward in turn to have a go at the new game. The nature of the pauses differed from player to player. Dwight Yorke performed a deliciously tantalising little Caribbean jig before bringing us to yet another climax. Peter Schmeichel made as if to hoist the cup high but abruptly stopped at waist height, turning to laugh at our confusion, to mock the vast coitus interruptus he had triumphantly engineered.

It was all great fun until we realised there was someone very important missing from the party. Or rather two people, though one was more in our thoughts. We struck up the song that used to be known as "Blue Moon" but now goes by the name "Keano". No sign of him, though. He'd gone down the players' tunnel long ago. So we started baying for him. "Keano! Keano!" Finally, three quarters of an hour after the game had ended, Roy Keane obliged, with Scholesy [Paul Scholes] by his side, both dressed in grey suit and tie. What happened next was another stroke of choreographic genius. It must have been May who plotted it. The players in red, plus Schmeichel in green, formed a guard of honour, but with their arms around each other, at the end of which they placed the European Cup. Keane, who looked only marginally less bashful than Scholes, walked through, accepting the solidarity of fellow titans turned into ordinary mortals for the night.

The chief football writer of Barcelona's La Vanguardia newspaper wrote in the next morning's newspaper that the United supporters had crowned themselves as the best in the world. A remarkable thing to say for a number of reasons, not least that the writer is a Barca fan.

While one wonders whether the Vanguardia man might reappraise that judgement were he to pay a visit say, to St James' Park, on one point there can be no dispute. The desire of the United players is at one with the desire of the fans. This is not always as common as one might think. Spanish writers, grown weary of the prima donna-packed teams that rule their league, have been unanimous in their admiration for that rare mix of humility and ferocious pride that defines the United spirit. In that uncannily intimate communion between players and fans, long after the cameras had gone, you had a glimpse of the divine energy that made possible what will go down in football history as the Miracle of Barcelona.