There were proper celebrations in the stands as Facundo Pellistri scored a last-gasp equaliser from Harry Maguire’s knockdown, but the mood in Dublin building up to Manchester United’s third visit to the Aviva Stadium was excitement tinged with anger.
Among the thousands wearing red shirts around the city, there was a strong sense of happiness that their team had come to visit for the first time in six years but annoyance at the way the game was marketed.
This friendly against Athletic Bilbao was announced on June 13 and sold out in minutes despite high prices, with fans anticipating a stellar squad in the final tune-up before the start of the Premier League season.
Then, three weeks later, United added the Lens fixture at Old Trafford 24 hours earlier and worries set in that the Dublin tickets might not be worth as much as initially expected.
When Erik ten Hag named his line-up for the visit of Lens, it was obvious the team across the Irish Sea on Sunday would be less glamorous. As kick-off approached in Dublin, supporters voiced their opinions on social media and in the streets around the stadium.
“It left a pretty bad taste in our mouths,” says David Walsh, who paid €75 (£65; $83) for his ticket. “We’re regular travellers from Ireland to Old Trafford and felt this was a great opportunity to bring my nephew and little cousin to their first game and see their favourite players.
“When tickets went on sale, it was the only game the week before the Premier League starts, so it was reasonable to expect a very strong team, as United have brought over previously.
“It was a huge kick in the teeth when the Saturday game was announced and then none of the main team travelled over.
“Six of us went to the game, costing €450. It genuinely would have been cheaper for us to have travelled to Old Trafford on Saturday, even after paying for flights.
“Not that Dublin should get preferential treatment, but there’s a huge Irish contingent that travel over every week to Manchester and contribute massively to the club and to Manchester as a whole. I’m just very disappointed.”
Ben MacEntee paid €85 apiece for “great seats”, but wants to know why the club sold tickets at “premium prices” knowing they would be sending over “reserves and youth players”. He says: “I’m disappointed at the lack of respect shown to the fanbase over here. Such a weak side, us Irish won’t forget this too quickly.”
The attendance of 50,238 shows the passion with which Irish fans follow United, even in the knowledge the team would not feature the main stars of the side.
It was a Ten Hag request to have two games in the final weekend so that his whole squad could get minutes. United would also argue Jadon Sancho counts as a big name, with experience throughout the team.
The club also point out there were 4,000 kids’ tickets kept to €20, with another 4,000 set aside for families where €120 got four adult or child seats.
But, for much of the game, it was hard not to feel for those who had parted with their money to watch United.
Athletic took the lead when Maguire got caught in two minds under pressure and gave the ball to Inigo Lekue, who passed to Mikel Vesga. It was a simple pass to put Nico Williams through and the finish followed.
Maguire had looked unsteady prior to that and, from there, perhaps fuelled by the ticket prices, fans booed his next two touches loudly. There was a response when he won possession for the third time, with cheers greeting him, and he would go on to have a redemptive arc in the second half.
Maguire had a useful run down the left, played a hooked cross into a dangerous area and dropped his shoulder to go past his marker in midfield. His header to tee up Pellistri with the last attack of the game was well-placed.
But this was the second time in a week that Maguire had been overlooked for the captaincy. From wearing the armband for two and a half years and lifting the Carabao Cup with Bruno Fernandes in February, he now seems to be well down the pecking order.
A case can be made that McTominay, 26 and an academy graduate, is worth a trial as a captain in a friendly, but Heaton’s cause is not as strong. Heaton is a popular member of the squad and was in the leadership group last season, but he is 37 and only played twice in the last campaign. For Maguire to go unselected in these two games appears to be a message from Ten Hag.
Sancho was the most eye-catching player. He continued as a false nine and had a really productive 60 minutes. There were nice dribbles and well-timed passes. He should have scored when put through by Pellistri.
There was even evidence of tracking back as the deepest player when Athletic cleared a late United corner.
Hannibal Mejbri produced a spark off the bench as a half-time substitute for Donny van de Beek. He pounced on a loose ball by Aitor Paredes and was hauled down as the last man, with the inevitable red card following for the Athletic defender.
Christian Eriksen fired the free kick over, but there was a final flourish from United’s second string to give fans a reason to cheer.
(Top photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile via Getty Images)