Come and enter the hidden cabaret behind the closed doors of Manchester United’s 5-0 thrashing of Lask in Thursday’s Europa League last-16 first leg. The show commenced at 6.55pm local time at the Linzer Stadion and was a veritable offering of vaudeville.
The bill featured two garden-hopping United supporters who broke-and-entered near Sergio Romero’s goal during the first half. It featured representatives of a United YouTube fan channel singing proudly about Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s men from the media seats as the written press composed live pieces. It had the vocal Bruno Fernandes urging Daniel James (and others) to up their game against the Austrian Bundesliga leaders. And there was a show-stopping vignette from Solskjær after final whistle.
It offered up a prevailing theme, too, a unifying leitmotif that tied the various acts together: the very real possibility that this was to be United’s on-field swan-song before the season was paused due to fears regarding the spread of coronavirus.
All of this was reminiscent of Warren Buffet’s famous diktat. “Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s swimming naked,” the billionaire philanthropist said once. Or in this case: when the Linzer was empty apart from a smattering of Lask enthusiasts you saw things you might not normally see.
On 12 October 2018 England played Croatia in a behind-closed-doors “ghost game” at the Stadion Rujevica and those present remarked how clearly the players could be heard, with Jordan Henderson to the fore for Gareth Southgate’s side.
In Austria’s third city United’s sergeant major was Fernandes. His “encouragement” of James and others was vociferous when they failed to operate at his elevated pace or match the second-sight passes that cast him as an in-match seer.
In support was Romero who, despite being David De Gea’s understudy, had no qualms about barking at his defence even as the two trespassing fans negotiated backyards to gain entrance to the Linzer. When they were accosted by security and hurled out, one attempted an encore and on re-trespassing was arrested by the local constabulary and had to stump up a €30 fine. It was all quite surreal.
Also making themselves heard during United’s canter of a victory were Scott McTominay and Harry Maguire. The former is a 23-year-old whose discourse during the build-up was as articulate as his midfield scheming was dominant against the side who operate on a budget equivalent to a League Two club.
Yet whisper this: Maguire might have been more strident considering he is the captain and so team totem and nominated alpha-male. Because despite being a yeoman-type with a no-nonsense style straight from centre-back central casting he proved no martinet with his troops. Instead it was Fernandes, the shoo-in to wear the armband when Maguire cannot, who was United’s Brian Blessed: his voice constantly booming around the pitch of the deserted arena.
This near-canter from first whistle to last could also explain Solskjær’s dormouse-quiet on the bench, with his coaching brains-trust of Mike Phelan, Michael Carrick and Kieran McKenna following suit. After all, why holler and scream when Odion Ighalo performs a Harlem Globetrotter, three-touch juggle before hammering in a volley on 33 minutes? Or Daniel James breaks a six-month scoring cessation during the second half for a fourth of the campaign?
The two present from the YouTube channel were loudest of all and it was intriguing to learn that United’s desire to connect with fans this way moved the club to grant a media pass to a spectacle for which only 500 were allowed entry.
Afterwards one asked Solskjær a cute poser about the unsettled Paul Pogba still being at United next season – “yes” was the answer – but the highlight came when a journalist put another question about whether “Paul” would be fit soon.
Solskjær – as bright as his 11-match unbeaten side are currently performing – looked at the hack, who is also called Paul, and said: “You mean yourself?” This was followed by a twinkle of the eye, laughter from the media corps, and a follow-up comment from the manager. “I thought you were talking about yourself in the third person,” he joked.
It was an apt way to bring down the curtain.