The rain came down in a humdrum town and Sir Matt Busby Way was a sea of umbrellas. Under one, former player Phillip Neville walked by a fanzine seller.
“Man United, 2-0,” he said confidently. “Today is all about [Marcus] Rashford.”
Given that, at the time, Manchester United had yet to name their team to face Chelsea and had not won a home league game for over two months, let alone one against top-of-the-table opponents against whom they had lost twice this season, it was a bold prediction by the former Old Trafford defender. But it proved to be the correct one.
Fans from all walks of life passed by the stadium’s deserted Megastore, closed on Easter Sunday because of trading restrictions. Among them were Neville and other former players like Lee Martin, scorer of the winning goal in the 1990 FA Cup final replay.
Martin was told of a supporter, whose father died early on Sunday morning. The fan has a particular love for United’s youth teams and Martin, who came through the club’s development system in the 1980s, offered there and then to send a message of condolence. He also posed for photos with other fans, who travelled from Asia and recognise him.
United is a broad church, with a curious, contrasting mix. On Sunday, for example, the red stilettos of an air stewardess in the livery of Aeroflot, the Russian airline whose adverts covered Old Trafford for the game, splashed through puddles alongside stewards with gruff Salford accents, who conducted body searches amid heightened security. Events on the pitch are only part of the bigger picture. And people come in their thousands, rain or shine, to fill Britain’s biggest club stadium to its 76,000 capacity for every single league game.
Another fan, Sean Jeffrey, a 22-year-old with learning disabilities who goes to games with his Dad, stopped to say hello. From nearby Hyde, he takes 198 photos per match — including many of the team buses — and files them all for future reference.
With a big smile, he headed towards the rear of the Stretford End to see his heroes, although he was disappointed Zlatan Ibrahimovic is not playing and that Juan Mata had to watch from the stands after his operation. Nevertheless, Sean was optimistic of a top-four finish, even though Liverpool beat West Brom 1-0 earlier in the day.
If United do end up in the Champions League places, it will likely be at Liverpool’s expense, not that 1980s Anfield legend Jan Molby wanted to be reminded of that as he walked toward Old Trafford. Only a fraction of fans recognised a man, who played for the last Liverpool team to win the league 27 years ago. That’s one more year than United’s 1967-93 drought, about which Liverpool fans constantly and loudly mocked their rivals’ fans.
Neither club will win the Premier League this season and United have frustrated their supporters with so many home draws. When Sunday’s lineup was announced, the rage from fans on social media contrasted with those around me in the ground, where there was surprising optimism. It’s hard to pinpoint why; maybe they just have more faith that the manager of Manchester United will choose the best team to win.
And the online, pre-match moans quickly stopped when the home side started on the front foot, with the fleet-heeled Rashford finding space behind Chelsea’s three-man defence. After just seven minutes, the 19-year-old sprinted beyond David Luiz to score United’s quickest home league goal of the season, thanks to an assist from the hands of Ander Herrera.
The roar that greeted the goal was later matched in response to a tackle from Paul Pogba on Diego Costa as United showed their intent and little evidence of the tiredness referenced by Jose Mourinho.
Late in the first half came another moment when, as United, that primal scream of “Go on!” pinged around a packed, soaked Old Trafford. For a minute, the sun came out and bathed the glistening pitch in a more verdant shade of green and everything in United’s world seemed truly great again.
Half-time brought the heartiest of applause; nothing orchestrated, just genuine appreciation for the efforts of all 11 players. It’s unlikely that every one will be at the club next season, but that didn’t matter.
In contrast to the norm in most games this season, United did not relent in the second period, they did not invite their opponents onto them and they did not look nervous of conceding yet another equaliser to result in yet another draw.
Ander Herrera’s lead-doubling goal was what fans had been calling for, with the indefatigable midfielder pressing home United’s advantage and getting reward for his best performance of the season. His 49th-minute shot ricocheted off Kurt Zouma and beyond Asmir Bergovic in front of the Stretford End. At the opposite end, fans in J Stand sang loud and proud a song they have invented for Herrera, who has heard and loves it.
Ole, ole, Ander Herrera,
Ole, ole, ole, Ola.
Drinks Estrella by the cask,
He’s not Spanish,
He is Basque.
Ole, ole, ole, Ola.
Sunday was the best day at Old Trafford all season and better than anything seen last term. Beating the best team in the land is always special, but this was more than that, and not only because it extended United’s unbeaten league run to 22 matches.
Winning against Chelsea showed that Mourinho can still get it right tactically against the best opposition, something he was convinced he had done in the FA Cup defeat at Chelsea last month before Herrera’s sending off spoiled his plan.
Despite being tasked with man-marking Eden Hazard, Herrera had a much better day on Sunday and, like all fans, will hope that United finish the season strongly, with another cup win in the Europa League, to confirm Champions League qualification.
Taking that route into European football’s premier club competition might be more realistic than a top-four league finish, but the sails on boat of the United badge are certainly full of wind again after the victory against Chelsea.
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