Manchester United’s Europa League triumph has brought “a little happiness at a difficult time”, said former England captain David Beckham.
The Red Devils beat Ajax in Wednesday’s final in Stockholm, two days after the Manchester Arena bombing which killed 22 people and injured 64.
“Tonight was more important than sport,” ex-United player Beckham said.
The 42-year-old added it was “a big night for United but an even bigger night for the city and our country”.
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Greater Manchester Police said the final would be a “poignant” occasion following Monday’s attacks after an Ariana Grande pop concert, adding it was “right” for the game to go ahead despite also discussing postponing it.
United fans and officials said before the final that the match was secondary to the “pain and suffering” in Manchester since the attack.
On an emotional night in Sweden, United won their second major trophy of the season as they earned a 2-0 win against the Dutch side, securing Champions League football.
“At a time when we are grieving for the families that have lost loved ones, we have a sport that has brought a little happiness at a difficult time,” said Beckham, who played 394 games for United between 1992 and 2003.
“We pray for peace,” he added.
‘Trophy parade would lift the whole city’
United should organise a victory parade when they return to Manchester to help raise spirits in the city following the bombing, says former Red Devils defender Phil Neville.
The 40-year-old was part of the Red Devils squad which celebrated winning the Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup treble in 1999 with an open-top bus journey.
“When we won the Champions League we paraded the trophy in the city centre, ending in the Arena and celebrated there. It was unbelievable,” the ex-England defender told BBC Radio 5 live.
“After what happened on Monday, United should parade the trophy around Manchester and finish at the Arena.
“I think it would be special.
“You should fill the streets of Manchester – Deansgate, St Peter’s Square, St Ann’s Square – and get the trophy back.
“Football can do brilliant things so don’t go off on holiday, get back to Manchester, get the trophy out and share the success with the city.”
‘Manchester – A City United’
As the final whistle blew in Stockholm, Manchester United supporters embraced and celebrated their success before breaking out into a heartfelt chorus of “Manchester, Manchester, Manchester”.
BBC Sport’s Simon Stone described the atmosphere inside the Friends Arena during the final: “It had not begun to really feel like a high-stakes football match until the Ajax fans in the stadium joined in with the club songs as they were played out over the tannoy.
“One of the traditions of a Uefa final is a familiar voice on the microphone, urging the respective bunch of supporters to increase the volume ahead of the combatants’ arrival.
“On Wednesday, it felt the heart wasn’t in it. Not until the two teams lined up on the halfway line for a minute’s silence that eventually turned into applause.
“‘We’ll never die’, sang the United fans, a song about the club’s own tragedy in Munich, extended on behalf of its city in the wake of Monday’s attack.
“The ‘Manchester – A City United’ banner made its way up the lower tier behind the goal to manager Jose Mourinho’s right.
“Danny, a 20-year-old from Moston in north Manchester, took three flights to get to Sweden, one of which was diverted to Copenhagen rather than Oslo.
“Others were let down by a charter flight they thought would bring them to Sweden being cancelled because organisers failed to attract enough bookings. Their reaction? Get in the car and drive… 1,400 miles to be precise.
“But on game-day, these fans didn’t quite know what to do. With all their heart they wanted Manchester United to win. It seeps out of every pore.
“They also knew, for 90 minutes, some of the pain for some of those suffering, would not be quite so acute, before it came back and enveloped them again. In the scheme of things, the game doesn’t matter.”
There was a tear in my eye – Neville
United supporters were given about 9,500 tickets for the final, and those inside the Friends Arena broke out into spontaneous and defiant applause during what was supposed to be a minute’s silence before kick-off.
Neville, who played 389 times for the Red Devils between 1995 and 2005, said they had “done the city proud”.
“The Manchester United fans were absolutely immense,” he told BBC Radio 5 live.
“I am not an emotional person but after that noise from the fans following the minute’s silence, there was definitely a tear in my eye.
“It was a wonderful evening. The atmosphere in the stadium was fantastic, we were still emotionally drained at the final whistle and our thoughts are still with people who lost their lives.
“That’s who our hearts and prayers are with.”
Neville also picked out United midfielder Paul Pogba, who scored the opening goal with a deflected shot, for special praise.
“The moment of the match for me was just after the minute’s silence when Pogba ran over to a banner that said ‘the love we have for the people who lost their lives’,” he said.
“He acknowledged that banner and went around to every area where there were Manchester United fans.
“He clapped them, he sent them his love and went out there and produced a performance.”
‘The very best of Mancunian spirit’
There wasn’t quite the 120,000 estimated Ajax fans who flooded Amsterdam’s Museum Square, but Manchester was awash with defiant United supporters amid a more sombre atmosphere.
Some gathered at the Printworks, just a few hundred yards from Manchester Arena, the scene of Monday’s attack, while others joined friends and fellow fans at pubs and clubs across the city.
At the Old Nag’s Head in the city centre, Red Devils fan Harry Charlton said the Europa League final gave the city and the country a chance to be “united”.
“I can see Thursday’s headlines already,” said the 33-year-old bricklayer. “It will just say ‘United’.
“It’s about unity. Manchester United has always been the most hated team in the world, because of its success, but I think everyone wants us to win this time.
“These attacks have hurt everybody. Everybody in the country.”
The Manchester United Supporters’ Trust screened the match in front of about 2,000 fans and also held a collection for the victims of Monday’s attack, which spokesman Sean Bones said had left the city “numb”.
“We want the team to represent Manchester United and represent Manchester,” he added. “To give 100 per cent, and to show the very, very best of what Mancunian spirit is all about.
“In many ways football, all of sudden, became very insignificant,” said former Manchester United and Manchester City goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel.
“In many ways I can’t get excited about this game. I think it’s very difficult to think about football.”
But the Dane added it also provided an opportunity for United “to show the world that in adversity we will show fighting spirit and there’s no way we are going to give in to cowards who bring acts like that into the world”.
‘Manchester United. Tonight more than ever’