OPINION: Liverpool knows, and Manchester is experiencing, the healing power of sport

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney lifts the trophy as his team-mates celebrate winning the UEFA Europ

Manchester United's Wayne Rooney lifts the trophy as his team-mates celebrate winning the UEFA Europa League Final at the Friends Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. (Picture: Nick Potts/PA) - Credit: PA

Sport is by its nature confrontational, as people compete with each other for victory.

In some sports, notably football, it is tribal. At times, when bitter opponents clash, the rivalry becomes so intense that it boils over into ugly violence on and off the pitch.

It can be divisive and corrosive, with enjoyment swallowed up and spat out by almost-feral fans.

But at the heart of sport, there is a great paradox - the same activities that divide us also unite us: the scales balance in equal measure with negative and positive energy.

In the aftermath of the Manchester terror attack, a tricky decision had to be made about whether to go ahead with the Manchester United v Ajax Europa League final in Stockholm less than 48 hours after the bombing.


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Some said 'football is irrelevant' or 'the result does not matter'. Had their voices been heeded and the game called off, there could have been no criticism.

But I'm delighted that the match went ahead - and that the Red Devils won 2-0.

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For sport has a remarkable power to lift us, unite us, heal us and to send a message of defiance to those who long to make our lives less colourful, less enjoyable. They are people whose twisted worldview does not accommodate freedom or fun.

There are plenty of other examples.

One day after London was awarded the 2012 Olympics, bombers wreaked havoc in the city on what is forever remembered as 7/7. But five years later, the capital staged arguably the best-ever Games, fostering an extraordinary sense of togetherness and healthy patriotism among the population.

In those weeks, the message to terrorists was clear - you will not crush our spirit.

The principle does not apply just to terror. Sport plays a part in healing so many hurts.

The scars borne by the families of those who died in the 1989 Hillsborough Disaster will surely never heal entirely, but it is striking to observe how soon and how often the focus of Liverpool matches helped them - and the thousands of other supporters who had a share in their pain.

The togetherness, the focus, the sense of belonging and the mutual love combined, while the chance to become immersed in a match helped redirect thoughts.

On an individual level, I cannot forget the pain endured by Norwich City goalkeeper Bryan Gunn and his family when they lost little Francesca to leukaemia at the age of two in 1992.

Gunn showed remarkable courage to return to playing relatively quickly and the bond between him and the supporters deepened. I don't pretend to know Gunn's deepest thoughts, but I'm guessing the physical act of playing football and the emotional connection with the Yellow Army helped him to cope.

It seems almost trivial to find an example of my own, but I can speak up for the healing power of sport.

When I was in Hellesdon Hospital in 2015, a colleague came to pick me up on a few Sunday mornings to watch Newsman Celtic play. I was a squad member and when I turned up on the first occasion - at a time when I was immensely vulnerable and more than a little frightened - I was embraced by some of the players and ended up as linesman.

Running the line became a regular Sunday morning activity as I eased myself back into playing for the team.

Today, I can testify that the friendship, fellowship and football were among the most significant factors in helping me to recover from my mental breakdown.

Back to Manchester, I'll make a final point - the result did matter.

Witness the joy of the Manchester Utd fans as their team lifted the trophy. They were able to show delighted defiance to the terrorists, draw closer together and set out on the road to recovery from trauma.

That's the positive power of sport.

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