Zlatan Ibrahimovic's swagger gives Manchester United fresh optimism
Not since Manchester United destroyed champions Arsenal 4-1 on a glorious opening day of the 1989-90 season has the first match of the campaign brought such a feel-good factor to supporters.
After a close season of fantasy summer signings, including a world record £89.3 million move for Juventus' Paul Pogba, Sunday's 3-1 win at Bournemouth produced relief and a sense the reality could be just as good.
New manager Jose Mourinho had three different scorers in Juan Mata, Wayne Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic. There were three league debutants, too, in Ibrahimovic, Eric Bailly and Henrikh Mkhitaryan. And although three points were expected, United have been tripped on the opening day before when victories were anticipated, a 3-1 loss at Aston Villa in 1995 probably the most infamous.
For most of Sir Alex Ferguson's reign, wins were expected and draws were considered two points dropped. A 1-0 defeat at David Moyes' Everton in 2012 was the start to Ferguson's last season. A year later, Moyes was United manager and won his opening game 4-1 at Swansea. Even then, with Ferguson retired, United fans thought the trophies would keep coming. They didn't, and fans have had to readjust their mindset and lower expectations.
Moyes' replacement, Louis van Gaal, lost his opening game at home 2-1 to Swansea two years ago, before a tight 1-0 win against Tottenham a year later thanks to Kyle Walker's own goal. Four months into last season, United were defeated 2-1 at Bournemouth in a dismal, desperate December, when Van Gaal's train came off the tracks. Expectations have since surged following the summer splurge.
On a bright August day under Van Gaal's replacement, Mourinho, the United world was a happier place. The team only scored three times away on three occasions last season in wins at Southampton and Everton, plus a 3-3 draw at Newcastle. They didn't score more than three goals away once in the league. Fans are hoping it becomes more common again rather than the exception.
While Ibrahimovic retains a permanent sense of self-assured confidence, Mourinho looked pensive prematch and admitted as much. Ed Woodward was entitled to feel nervous, too, for United's executive vice chairman needs the team to come right this season after three misfiring years. Close to the end of the game, with their team leading 3-1, Mourinho turned and clenched a celebratory fist towards Woodard in the tiny directors' box. Talk and expectation are one thing, putting it into practice another.
Sunday wasn't perfect. A 1,300 away ticket allocation pales against the usual 3,000 at most grounds, but then the tiny, tree-lined venue in the residential Boscombe district only seats 11,400.
The away fans chanted about having one stand bigger than their ground. In truth, all four of Old Trafford's stands are bigger, but the lucky few who travelled five hours from Manchester enjoyed the day.
They saw an image of club legend George Best when he played at Bournemouth, they benefitted from away ticket prices now capped at £30 by the Premier League, and from a beautiful summer's day when fans walked along the promenade by the English Channel.
The fans sang a song heralding Ibrahimovic that was clunky and full of curses, but it has quickly caught on. United fans need new heroes, and the Swede has scored twice in two weeks, just as he netted on his debuts in Spain, Italy, France and the Champions League. He doesn't look mobile, doesn't look like he'll chase a ball down the way Juan Mata did for United's first goal after a defensive error, but Ibrahimovic scores goals. Big goals. He wins football matches -- something United haven't done enough of in the last three years.
Mourinho is doing things his way. If fans had theirs, they'd sell Marouane Fellaini and many would drop Wayne Rooney. But it's Mourinho who picks the team, who sees the players every day in training. He's seen a pace, power and purpose in Antonio Valencia which convinces him that he's fit to play right-back and which saw the Ecuadorian play his 250th game for the club. He's seen a presence in Bailly and awarded him more minutes than any other player in all his United games so far.
Bailly has been a contender for United's best player in the two games and was awarded man of the match against Leicester in the Community Shield and against Bournemouth. Alongside him, Daley Blind blocks, intercepts and retains possession. Blind is no Usain Bolt for pace and his place in the side will be uncertain once Chris Smalling returns from injury, but his football intelligence is respected enormously by his teammates.
In front of another decent defensive performance, Fellaini played well, moving the ball quickly forward and making it a little bit harder for fans searching for a scapegoat to find one. But it's only one game, and one United didn't play particularly well in the first half. Mata, another with an uncertain future, also put in a pleasing performance.
After that 4-1 win against Arsenal in August 1989, I walked from the Stretford End thinking that United were about to become the pre-eminent force in English football again. A yellow van parked outside owned by the Manchester Evening News printed the Pink newspaper to demand, with fresh football results on the back page. Copies were selling quickly on the Old Trafford forecourt and United were top of the league, even if it was after only one game. They're top now, too.
In '89, the hopes were misplaced and after three months United weren't even in the top 10. Their season would fall apart, leave the club's greatest ever manager on the brink of dismissal and end in the disappointment of a 13th place league finish.
A similar slip is implausible this term. The squad has too many talented players. As well as those on the pitch on Sunday, the bench featured Sergio Romero, Michael Carrick, Memphis Depay, Marcus Rashford, Mkhitaryan, Marcos Rojo and Morgan Schneiderlin. That's a depth which was often lacking in the injury-hit months last term.
United's starting XI contained only two British players and none who'd come from United's ranks. There were five Brits on the opening day in 2015 and six a decade ago -- another sign of football's globalisation.
One player who was at United as a youngster was Pogba. He was suspended for Bournemouth and on Sunday night he was settling back into life in Manchester, having dinner with Everton's Romelu Lukaku.
Pogba is available to play against Southampton on Friday night for the first home game of the season. For the first time in their history, United can unveil the world's most expensive footballer.
As with the defeat at Bournemouth away last term, United lost at home to Southampton in the league.
Friday offers another chance to push the memories of last season even further back, and for the team to look toward a brighter future.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.