By Iwan Lehnert
It doesn’t happen that often, but real life can puncture football’s self-important bubble from time to time, and when it does, it has the power to make this sport seem utterly insignificant. Monday’s horrific attack is understandably still very fresh in the mind of everyone connected to Manchester, with examples of solidarity and unity across the city offering some comfort to a grieving city. They don’t provoke a gigantic sense of surprise, of course, because that’s just what the people of Manchester are like; they remain a accepting, caring community and will pull together in the face of tragedy as they have done before.
Maybe images from Tuesday’s vigil in Albert Square or the many examples of kindness and support on show across social media and the news will be seen by the United squad, and will provide support as they prepare for their Europa League final with Ajax in Stockholm. The Dutch side’s manager Peter Bosz remarked that the game has understandably lost some of its ‘glow’, and Jose Mourinho cancelled his pre-match press conference, presumably because it must’ve seemed pointless to have to answer questions on player fitness and tactics at a time like this.
And that’s the correct approach, because this is not a normal situation. Not even slightly. From United’s perspective, reports suggest that some members of the squad are shaken by what happened in the arena on Monday night, and who can blame them? Footballers are, after all, human beings. But whilst it’s encouraging to hear that the team wishes to play, and represent their city, this game feels different now. Perspective has made it feel far less important, that losing to Ajax won’t be the blow that so many of us had previously assumed it would be, because ultimately, this is just a football match.
This game that we love can be wonderfully paradoxical in these circumstances; of course, there are always bigger things happening on this planet than kicking a ball about on some grass, but football’s power to entertain, distract and the way it can offer people something to throw themselves into during difficult times is welcome. Maybe United’s players will feel that, and end up raising the Europa League trophy tonight. We’ll then down tools for the summer with Champions League football in the bag and look back on Mourinho’s first term in charge as a success, as something to build on.
But United might lose, too. And given the events of this take, given how emotionally charged tonight will feel and given what Manchester has gone through over the last 48 hours, that’s okay. Who on earth would want to slate this bunch of players for not winning tonight when you consider the situation that they’re being asked to perform in?
Tonight’s a step into the unknown, for many reasons. The vast majority of this United side won’t have played in circumstances that are anything like this before, and will likely never again. For the city, the fans, the club, its staff, everything still feels very raw and of course it does; it’s only been two days. An expected minute’s silence prior to kick-off will likely be particularly tough to deal with.
After that, who knows? It feels wrong to place hope or expectations on this Europa League final being able to provide us with a contest and demanding s superb winning performance from United just feels wrong, too. This game, easily more than any other in the club’s recent history, simply needs to be allowed to happen without judgement or without being viewed through the critical lens of this season. It’s a unique, intense situation, and should be treated as such.
I won’t lie; this has been challenging to write. It’s tough to strike the right tone in the face of such a tragic event, and I hope I’ve managed to do that, because ultimately, I’m just typing out words related to football, and football doesn’t feel all that important right now. My mind’s been thinking far more about the amazing city that Manchester is and the special people that live in it as opposed to formations or tactics Mourinho will employ tonight, and that seems to be pretty common from what I’ve seen.
These are far from ideal conditions to be playing a major final, but it feels somewhat apt that it’s one of Manchester’s diverse football clubs that will be representing the city tonight. Win or lose, you get the sense that this team, with its multitude of different nationalities, mix of cultures and styles will do its city proud later today. Of course, in being willing to play at all, they already have done.