After fifteen minutes of Manchester United’s first home game of the new season, against Southampton on Friday night, a rainbow appeared over the South Stand. It had been a stereotypically wet, grey day in the city but, a few hours before kick-off, the sun had begun to shine and the evening had become unexpectedly balmy.
United have been heavily criticised in some quarters for spending such a huge pot of gold over the summer but, as we watched the likes of Paul Pogba and Zlatan Ibrahimović on the pitch below, and with the memory of the mundane Louis van Gaal era still fresh in our minds, it was impossible not to feel like this was some kind of fairytale.
These are extremely early days but this team has had a sudden sprinkling of stardust and the atmosphere before kick-off, both inside Old Trafford and on the surrounding streets as fans approached the stadium, reflected this.
A night-game this early in the new season felt strangely apt for Ibrahimović’s home debut and Pogba’s long-awaited and unexpected return from his sojourn in Italy. The green turf of their new stage was that bit more vibrant, as it always is when illuminated by the Old Trafford floodlights.
The last time the club brought recognised global superstars to the Theatre of Dreams things quickly unraveled into a living nightmare for Ángel Di María and Radamel Falcao, so it was with a mixture of relief and great pleasure that we watched Pogba and Ibrahimović perform with such self-assured aplomb on this occasion. Neither were immune from the odd mistake – reminding us that they are, after all, only human – but their overall displays were hugely encouraging and their presence electrified the atmosphere.
At one point in the second half, Pogba committed an act of expertly audacious daylight robbery, dispossessing a befuddled opponent with a kind of dance-tackle, sweeping the ball away from two disbelieving Southampton players, who were left looking aghast and confused as the Frenchman pirouetted serenely on his way to launch a United attack.
They must have felt as if they’d had their shorts pulled down and that is the effect great players can have. Such rare ability and arrogant flare spreads fear through opposition ranks, causing them to play it safe and retreat. That fear becomes tangible to those of us watching on and, early in the second half, after Pogba blasted a long-range shot wide, the travelling supporters began a chorus of “what a waste of money” – but their hearts were not in it and we all knew it.
Likewise, such players instil confidence in their own, inspiring teammates to try daring new things and take greater risks, and seeing players like Pogba and Ibrahimović in the red of United meant that that old, familiar buzz of excitement and expectation returned to rarify the air. Here were players who can make things happen and unlock doors, while a manager of undisputed repute prowled menacingly on the touchline, unafraid to shuffle his pack should the need arise.
It was a far cry from last season, when we relied on youngsters like Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to provide the thrills we became so used to under Sir Alex Ferguson, and Van Gaal would sit passively on his padded seat scribbling notes in his binder. United suddenly look vibrant again and, though it will take time for players to shake off completely the torpor of last term, they are already playing with greater freedom, their movement already more fluid. The introduction of mavericks like Pogba and Ibrahimović can only speed up that process.
During breaks in play, Pogba could be seen strutting across the turf, his head held high, shoulders back, chest out, performing a kind of cockerel-like movement of the head as he walked, thrusting it back and forth with each confident step. He looked like a man perfectly at ease in his new, old surroundings and, if he is indeed feeling the weight of his hefty price-tag, you wouldn’t know.
On the ball he is bafflingly graceful for such a gangly figure, moving swiftly and effortlessly across the pitch in great strides that eat up the turf. Though a very different type of player, there are some striking similarities with a great United midfielder of the past – less snarly than Roy Keane, Pogba plays with a similar intensity and passes with the same crispness of his Irish predecessor, bending games to his will like a great conductor orchestrating a soaring symphony.
The season is only two games old and nothing is won by this stage. Still, after many of us had our love of the game tested to near breaking point at times last season, there are plenty of reasons to be falling back in love with it already. Though the majority of us learned long ago not to believe in fairytales, or that pots of gold exist at the end of rainbows, the early signs here gave us reason to believe that silverware could await at the end of this season.