With the 2015/16 season ending in a disappointing 5th placed finish alongside an overdue cup final win, it meant United were once again bound for the Europa League. Winning the competition would guarantee entry to next years Champions League, a feat we couldn’t manage after being knocked out last season by Liverpool, though of course we’d hope for at least a top 4 finish this year. This season has started well (defeat to City aside) with Mourinho and exciting new signings largely looking good, whilst the first taste of European football takes us to Feyenoord in Rotterdam.
With this summers European Championships in France, a trip to China and an early start to the season with the Community Shield at Wembley, it’s felt like football hasn’t really stopped this year. For some teams in Europe it basically didn’t. Whilst the draw for the 2016/17 UEFA Europa League group stage took place on Friday, the tournament actually started 2 months ago for those in the 1st qualifying round at the end of June. Should any of those teams manage to make it all the way to the final, due to be hosted at Sweden’s Friends Arena in Solna, Stockholm, they’ll have been playing in the Europa League for 11 months. It’s no wonder the competition is considered so gruelling by many.
Following 4 nights in Shanghai and a first taste of Chinese culture, the next stop in my trip was Beijing for United’s game vs City on 25th July. This was due to take place in the impressive Birds Nest stadium, China’s national stadium built for the 2008 summer Olympics. First though, I had to make the 700+ mile journey between the two cities.
After maybe 3 months of planning from first conceiving the thought of travelling to China, my trip to see United’s preseason tour in Shanghai and Beijing finally came into being. In that time I’d managed to just about sketch out my 2 weeks in the country, learn some (very) basic Mandarin and also change jobs. A whirlwind few months which worked out well, just enough time to sort all of my travel and tickets without anxiously over-planning my first trip to Asia.
2015/16 was a season of unpredictability in Europe, ultimately disappointment with an early exit from the Champions League and then from the Europa League last 16. When I summarised my season of travels in March I was optimistic about United’s chances of securing a top 4 finish and with 3 games of the season left there is still a glimmer of a chance of making it. Either way, we’ve almost certainly got a place in the Europa League with 5th/6th in the league virtually guaranteed and an FA Cup final still to compete in. It’s not the level we’d quite like to see United compete at but it still provides an opportunity to travel to some of the smaller footballing nations of Europe.
It was with a bit of a whimper that the 2015/16 European season ended against Liverpool, a 1-1 draw at Old Trafford not enough to turn around the defeat at Anfield. After being knocked down into the Europa League I’d come round to idea of a potential final in Basel, Switzerland, but it was not to be. Even more frustrating was that our conquerors were drawn to play Borussia Dortmund, a place I’ve longed to visit with United, with their impressive Westfalenstadion.
From time to time, cup competitions can throw up a prize draw. After a slightly more convincing home leg against FC Midtjylland, United made it through to the last 16 of the Europa League. This made 15 potential opponents in the draw, being made less than 24 hours after the game on Thursday night with the tie to be played mid-March, the first leg just two weeks later. This aspect of knockout football is what brings much of the adrenaline to following United in Europe. Just two weeks to book flights, accommodation and plan a trip to the continent.
After the misery of being knocked out of the Champions League group stages for the second time in 4 seasons, there were few positives to be taken from another humbling appearance in the Europa League, certainly not in the immediate aftermath of the defeat in Wolfsburg. This competition does, however, offer up new opposition and destinations; 2012 brought an attractive tie in Amsterdam which saw thousands of United fans make the trip (or excuse for a visit to the Dam) as well as a further game in Bilbao. Nonetheless, the footballing Gods decided that instead of a repeat of one of those more glamorous ties, United would be faced with a trip to one of the smallest teams in the competition, FC Midtjylland of Herning, Denmark.
Within the mix of trips to places of cultural interest, European football also throws up some more industrial locations, none more so than Wolfsburg. A city in the north of Germany with a population of around 125,000 – just over half the size of Warrington – Wolfsburg is most famous for being the location of the Volkswagen HQ and factory, with the football team originally established for the VW workers; if that wasn’t enough culture it’s also twinned with the town of Luton. United’s only previous trip to Wolfsburg was in 2009, a dead rubber game famous for a Michael Owen hattrick. Unfortunately, due to a number of mediocre performances in the previous 5 group games only a win in Germany would guarantee progress to the knock out rounds.
After events in Bruges meant I had to skip United’s first 2015 group game in Eindhoven I was determined to attend the next match, even if that meant negotiating the complexities involved in visiting Russia. The trip to Moscow would be the longest distance I’ve travelled to see United play; whilst the direct route over the Baltic sea is 1,602 miles, making it shorter than previous flights to Donetsk (1,768 m), Istanbul (1,698 m) and Athens (1,640 m), my flight was via Munich which brought the total to 1,911 miles. Before any of this could happen however, I had to attempt to get across the border of the world’s largest nation.