Time heals but a second resounding defeat to Barcelona in the Champions League final is a pain that will not subside easily; the heavy hearts hardly aided by a collective hangover.
Thousands gathered, both at Wembley and in bars, clubs and hotels across Manchester and the country. Indeed, thousands of Reds descended on London, whether they held match tickets or not. The need to be part of the experience was overwhelming. The anti-climax as realisation set in that United could not, would not, defeat the Catalan giants was just simply cataclysmic.
Yet optimism grew as kick-off approached, aided by the Reds-only atmosphere and the liberal consumption of alcohol. Certainly,the Rant crew joined a packed bar in subduing any pre-match nerves with JD Wetherspoon’s finest. Sadly, the guest ale ‘Flight of Fancy’ was a more prescient name than expected. In hindsight, Sir Alex Ferguson’s troops had always lived on hope more than expectation against Barça’s collection of world stars.
The 500-strong crowd in this corner of North West London seemed, anecdotally at least, to have collectively travelled south, driven perhaps by the need to be closer to Wembley and Ferguson’s embattled team. Around 25,000 United supporters held tickets to the game; perhaps as many again travelled to the capital simply to be part of the experience.
Yet, even in the unlikeliest of settings – a cookie-cutter chain bar set in a shopping centre – this group of Reds generated an atmosphere rarely experienced at Old Trafford these days. How the Scot’s men could have done with this passionate support just one stop north on the Underground.
The singing began more than two hours ahead of kick-off, with few United legends left off an impressive roster of chants: Bryan Robson, Gary Pallister, Roy Keane, Andy Cole and the rest, in addition to the current crop of heroes. The men’s bathroom rocked to the sound of “Tallest Floodlights,” while an elongated version of Eric the King will surely have been heard in the nearby leafy Hampstead streets.
Ferguson’s men seemed to respond to the overwhelming support in absentia, hurtling into challenges, pressing high and forcing Barcelona into more errors during the first 15 minutes than rarely afforded during 90 minutes of most Los Cules fixtures. Although United’s bright start didn’t last the team’s ticketless fans pressed on in applying the rousing soundtrack.
While Pedro Rodríguez’ opening goal quietened the din it was only momentary; Wayne Rooney’s equaliser simply brought the house down. There is something about supporting United that encourages even the burliest of complete strangers to embrace in sheer joy.
The Wetherspoon’s screening was organised by Manchester United Supporters Trust (MUST), with 15 other venues across Manchester and London also showing the match. Around 15,000 fans gathered at the events. Reports agree that the atmosphere from the Ramada Hotel in the heart of Piccadilly, to Ministry of Sound nightclub in central London to the Point, Lancashire County Cricket Club’s fabulous new facility, was consistently up-beat until defeat was all but confirmed.
Frustration set in of course and anger supporters’ anger turned to Barcelona players’ prevalence for hitting the turf early and often. Perhaps the dawning realisation that fans’ heroes were being thoroughly outclassed nipped any potential for trouble in the bud. Indeed, supporters’ weary resignation to defeat set in as David Villa curled in Barca’s superb third.
Then talk quickly turned to the summer and much-anticipated rebuilding. While some fans called for an immediate clearout – the knee-jerk element growing louder during United’s second-half drubbing – the truth is more nuanced of course.
United’s current evolution could be accelerated by investment in top-class talent; whether the expected arrival David De Gea, Ashley Young and Raphael Varane falls into that category is certainly questionable. Sadly, overwhelming supporter demand for a midfielder to match Barça’s quality is yet to be heard by United’s top management.
Yet in winning the Premier League by nine points and reaching the Champions League final Ferguson’s side has surely over achieved this season. This was seemingly widely recognised by pub-going fans on Saturday night, who came in hope rather than certainty.
Many of this group have been driven from Old Trafford by the Glazer family’s excessive pricing. Therein lies something unique about United. The passion has not died, even though ticket prices and debt-fuelled ownership have excluded many from matches. UEFA’s disgraceful decision to offer just 25,000 tickets to each club competing in last night’s final – at £80 to £300 a piece – is yet another symptom in the race to monetisation of the ‘people’s game’.
Events such as those organised by MUST may become more commonplace. The group’s Chubb Club is already a Manchester institution, now expanded to exiled Reds in London. For now, United’s weary supporters have the summer to contemplate what might have been but look back on a thoroughly enjoyable collective event.