“This is the place in the north-west of England, it’s ace, it’s the best, and the songs that we sing from the stands, from our bands, set the whole planet shaking.”
On Tuesday night, local poet Tony Walsh summed up everything that is great about Manchester with a stirring five-minute address at a vigil in the heart of the city following the terror attack which rocked the UK less than 24 hours earlier.
On Wednesday, Manchester’s latest attempt to move on from Monday’s horrific events will take place before the eyes of the world as Manchester United take on Ajax in the Europa League final in Stockholm.
The black armbands worn by the United players and the moment of silence observed by the crowd before kick-off will give a small visual representation of the pain still being absorbed, but the sombre air around the city in the days leading up to the game has spoken to the depth of the emotional wounds.
As we come to terms with events in Manchester, Stockholm is itself just recovering from an attack. Big love, everyone. Posted by Kris Voakes on Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Stockholm is still reeling from its own moment of pain, with the touching Post-it note messages left at the site of April’s lorry attack in the city centre providing a reminder of the carnage wrought here. But right now it is nursing a delegation from Manchester which booked its tickets and made its plans expecting this would be a period of anticipation and celebration.
Instead, on Tuesday, when many United supporters were due to take over the city with their chants and their charm, there was an eerie feeling in their place. The areas which normally provide ideal meeting points for visiting football fans were largely filled with the usual hustle and bustle of a working day but no real evidence of the big match to come.
On the plane trip over there was a less vibrant feel than normal, with little of the laughing and joking usually associated with a European football adventure, and as the media assembled at the Friends Arena on Tuesday evening there were exchanges of concern and bewilderment at what had been left behind in Manchester rather than the football chat which would otherwise be prevalent.
The lack of a press conference from Jose Mourinho and key players was largely agreed to be the right course. As distraught families continued to appeal for news of loved ones back home, the desire to hear from the United manager had all-but dissipated. This was not business as usual, and nobody expected it to be so with the pain still so raw.
Posted by Kris Voakes on Tuesday, 23 May 2017
Come 20:45 local time on Wednesday it will be the job of Paul Pogba, Ander Herrera, Antonio Valencia et al to lift the spirits of at least one half of Manchester, even if just for a couple of hours. The magnitude of the game in the context of their season might have been forgotten to most in the aftermath of what happened at the Manchester Arena, but they still have an objective to achieve.
Champions League football is the prize should United see off Ajax, and the challenge will be a huge one. The emotional scars might run deep, but the players will know that once the first ball is kicked their focus must be nothing less than 100 per cent.
“I know, even during my short time here, that the people of Manchester will pull together as one,” said Mourinho in a club release on Tuesday. Sweden will play its part too.
Because for these first few painful days Stockholm is a colony of Manchester, and this is the place where United fans will be singing from the stands on behalf of their friends and families back home. This is the place where football pays its own tribute, and whether United’s season ends on a high or a low its context will not be quickly forgotten.