In different times the warm early evening streets of Manchester would have been bouncing to the noise of a European final, though here was something unmistakably different.
The terraces of Exchange Square, a usual congregating point, were empty: extraordinary, considering the long anticipation of this night in this city. The Manchester United anthems were confined to enclaves like the Sawyers pub - not much more than a stone’s throw from the temporary 12ft cast iron police barricades behind which the Manchester Arena bomb site was still being combed for evidence.
They didn’t hold back in the Sawyers. The Merseyside anthems were sung with feeling, just as they always are. But even in there the talk was about a so-called softening of the usual sentiments felt for United by Manchester City people in a week like this.
“I’ve heard they’re saying that City want us to win for what it would mean,” said one of those who’d been drinking in there Craig, as he emerged onto Deansgate. “There’s no evidence of it,” he said, qualifying himself. “I’ve not seen any proof…”
There was a little defensiveness about how much noise was emanating from the Sawyers when all around everything was so solemnly still. “Life has to go on and there’s a bit of people building it up and wanting everything to stop,” the same fan said.
This seemed to go against the prevailing sentiment. In the Ape and Apple pub on John Dalton Street, a group of supporters wearing red and black ‘Fuck the Terror’ t-shirts were as much an attraction as anything.
Local people had been walking up to shake their hands and ask for photographs for much of the day, though it transpired that they were Germans, who’d arrived in the city on Wednesday to celebrate their country’s Fathers’ Day, which is on Thursday. They’d gone out and had the T-shirts made.
The bombing had created an atmosphere the Germans had not expected on the night of a European football final. “I think everyone has the atroocity in their heads,” said one of their number, Bavarian Wolfgang Puruscker. “They carry on but it’s there. We compare Berlin and the Christmas market [when a truck was driven directly at people, leaving 12 dead]. It’s hard to put it totally from the head.”
The Germans and their T-shirts were a welcome statement of defiance – a less choreographed and more spontaneous one than the mountain of flowers on St Ann’s Square which was barely reachable behind the army of TV crews and spokespeople.
The pub bore out their observations on the Mancunians because it wasn’t a party in the Ape and Apple. ‘Rocket Man’ materialised on the duke box but nothing more. Someone failed to spot that the minute’s silence, which was being simultaneously observed here as in the Stockholm stadium, had actually started and was sharply reprimanded.
It was when Paul Pogba’s deflected 18th minute goal went in that the mood changed. A police car flew down the street just after that moment, siren blaring, and in the moment no one actually seemed to notice. You wouldn’t exactly say that the roof was raised but a release valve was opened. Fists thumped down on tables. Shouting became acceptable. One roar prompted another.
And then the Henrikh Mkhitaryan goal, on 48 minutes, brought the songs into the building. United fans’ nick nack paddy wack ditty concludes with a suggestion of where City fans might want to clear off to and if the neighbours had been showing sentiment for their rivals this week then all that was forgotten.
When Marcus Rashford attacked the Ajax right minutes later, the roars grew louder. The two-goal cushion spared these fans some of the anxious suspense they’ve known this season. By the game’s 70th minute, some of the original Manchester was back.
As they spilled out into the streets at the end , you recalled the night of May 26, 1999, when United’s late win over Bayern Munich left fans swimming in the Manchester Town Hall fountain, climbing any flagpole that came to hand and filling the night with cacophony of car horns.
This was nothing of such proportions but the jubilation provided a reminder of why the reviving powers of football are such a gift.
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