Belfast Telegraph

Standing United: Players and fans pay tribute to Manchester

Adrian Rutherford reports on an emotional night in Stockholm

This was a night when Manchester - and beyond - truly was united.

For a moment before an emotionally-charged Europa League final, players and fans from both teams stood as one, casting aside sporting tribalism to poignantly remember the dead of Monday's terror outrage.

The pre-match scenes here at the aptly-named Friends Arena were a powerful show of defiance and dissent in the face of sheer evil.

After, when the trophy had been lifted by Manchester United's victorious team, albeit with a touch of hesitation, it felt like a measure of healing, however small, and however difficult the days that lie ahead may still be.

Last night's final came less than 48 hours after a suicide bomber unleashed a blast of terror in a crowded concert hall in the city.

At first, the simple reaction was to say the game no longer mattered. It was an understandable sentiment.

But then it became more and more obvious that the opposite was true. Rather than give in to terror, the game became a beacon of solidarity and defiance, an opportunity to show steely determination in the face of evil.

United's victory, as emotional as it was, reinforced that feeling.

For the many who had travelled from Manchester's heart of darkness, it was a strange experience.

The traditional pre-game get-togethers and singalongs weren't quite as boisterous. The festivities were muted. Nobody quite knew how to react. Who would?

Inside the stadium, as kick-off approached, the mood lifted, driven by the sea of noisy, flag-bearing Manchester United fans.

Uefa had ordered a minute's silence, politely telling the Swedish DJs due to perform at the final ceremony they were no longer required.

The stillness soon broke into applause - well-intentioned, if somewhat clumsy. It culminated with a loud shout of "Manchester, Manchester" from the United end. The black armbands worn by United's players were a sad reminder of the tragic backdrop hanging over this game.

Ahead of kick-off, fans had arrived with banners carrying messages of sorrow and solidarity.

One read: 'Manchester - a City United #prayformanchester', a reference to the city's two clubs, drawn together in this time of great heartache.

Banks of armed police watched carefully, amid heavy steel barricades around the stadium. If it was difficult for fans to gauge the mood then it was more so for players, carrying a city's trauma on to a football pitch.

Afterwards, they celebrated, fans and players alike, a cathartic release from the anguish of the past 48 hours, a small step on what will undoubtedly be painful days ahead for the people of Manchester.

But, as last night showed, they are not alone.

Belfast Telegraph


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