“We shall overcome,” was bellowed out on Saturday afternoon in Manchester’s Old Nag’s Head, a pub that is such a United stronghold it vowed to close during Manchester City’s title celebration on Monday, with the landlord not wanting to take City fans’ money.
On Saturday, 24 hours before Manchester United’s final Premier League game of the season at home to Watford, an annual Stretford Enders’ reunion saw a gathering of fans, who stood on the famous terrace and many of whom no longer go to games. Outside, hundreds held a giant 20 x 20 metre flag of red, white and black flag, owned by Keith Norris from Northern Ireland, and sang “Every single one of us, loves Alex Ferguson.”
The night before, there had been a dinner for supporters hosted by Tom Clare, a Mancunian who has long lived in the United States. And on Saturday evening, almost 1,000 United fans from Malta to Norway, gathered at Lancashire Cricket Club’s Old Trafford to hear former players Pat Crerand, John Aston, Alex Stepney and David Sadler reminisce about winning the 1968 European Cup final against Benfica.
Last week, United released a new third kit inspired by that great night at Wembley 50 years ago. I can remember the excitement of new ones coming out when I was younger and smiled as my 11-year-old brother came back from Old Trafford with his, purchased on the day of release.
He caressed it lovingly, raising concern that there was a small bubble in the printing on the back, which featured “Lingard” and “14.” Little brother has been though his Januzaj, Rashford, Pogba and Martial stages and, as he did with those shirts, he’ll wear this one non-stop; he’s obsessed with United. He’s lucky, too: I didn’t get a proper United shirt until I was 14.
On Sunday, my six-year-old nephew went to Southampton with his dad to watch Manchester City and, standing at the front of the away section at the end of the game, Leroy Sane gave him his shirt, making his day. He’s a lucky boy, being taken to Southampton to watch the champions at such a young age, though I wish he was a Red.
My sister could not understand why they wanted to go so far to watch a game of football when their team had already won the league and was worried that my nephew had school the next day. While dad and the eldest were in Southampton, I tried to bribe their youngest with chocolate to support United over City. The four-year-old replied: “But I don’t like red”.
“Why not?” I asked.
“Dad told me that red is dirty,” he said.
I don’t stand a chance; he’s already got his first season ticket for City next season. Meanwhile, my sister should know better than to wonder why her husband and son have gone to see their team. She lives in Manchester, where football is a huge deal in everyday life.
It always has been and always will be. It dominates conversation, almost to a predictable level. Whatever happens, there will be United fans mocking City’s trophy parade through the city, comparing them to the vast numbers who turned out to see past United celebrations.
The critics will be on the lookout for gaps in the crowd, ready to taunt. And City fans will come back by saying that they’re the champions, they have 100 points, have broken a million records and used to have floodlights taller than the Eiffel Tower.
It’s a diversion from real life, but none of it can disguise the flatness around United in recent weeks, with last week’s goalless draw at West Ham and Sunday’s 1-0 win over Watford played in a style more akin to a preseason friendly.
Though the games have mercifully been played in good weather following a wretched spell of matchday conditions, the sun set long ago on United’s league ambitions. Jose Mourinho’s team had the club’s best finish since 2013 and the final total of 81 points was more than the 1998-99 treble winners managed, but the main events again didn’t involve United.
Had they made some sort of challenge to City then optimism would have been higher. Instead, dreary football and disappointing results compounded a meaningless end to the season. City winning the league at a canter and Liverpool looking forward to a European Cup final have added to the misery. Fans worry about United’s prospects.
The 19-point gap to City is a huge one to bridge within a season, but will that stop any of those mentioned supporting their club? Little chance. Support goes well beyond recent results, nor any manager or player. It’s in their blood and is what made United the best-supported team in England in 24 of the 26 seasons they failed to win the league between 1967-93.
Back then, the highlights were FA Cup wins and this campaign will end at Wembley on Saturday with the final of this season’s competition. Excitement is building, with trips planned by car or coach, train or plane as the Red Army mobilises for the final time before the summer.
Sometimes, even if the football doesn’t go to plan, there’s always that “we shall overcome” attitude to fall back upon.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.