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.
Every Euro away trip has it’s own unique story, usually one small incident that defines the trip or makes it memorable. Whether it’s the formation of a new chant in a bar, a run in with over zealous police or a lost pair of trainers, we’ve seen a mix of them all. Unfortunately the trip over to Bruges will be ‘that trip’ where my dad, my regular travel partner, went head first down a flight of stairs, smashing his head, breaking his collarbone and some ribs, puncturing a lung and rupturing his spleen. Not quite what we make these trips abroad for, certainly not what I’d like to be writing about, but as of this being published he’s out of hospital in Belgium (after a 2 week extended stay) and recovering well at home.
90% of the questions I’m asked about following United are surrounding the costs involved; whilst an important consideration, it’s not the prospect of spending thousands of pounds each season to travel around the country, and beyond, that drives me to do so. Many football fans follow their team on the road every week, wherever that may take them, but not all get the opportunity to make trips to Europe to see them in the biggest competitions. Fortunately though, my team have been playing in Europe since 1956, and (Moyes permitting) have done so every season since I began attending games in the mid-nineties.