2016/17 Europa League Final.
So we made it. It was a tense final 10 minutes in the semi final 2nd leg against Celta Vigo with all kinds of drama, but a (familiar) 1-1 draw saw us through to the final in Stockholm. For months now our season has become more and more centred around progression in the Europa League as means to qualify for the Champions League. The final would be our 15th game in this year’s tournament with just AFC Ajax standing in the way of a return to the heights of European football.
We last faced Ajax in the same competition back in 2012 beating them over 2 legs in the knockout stages, and whilst United have visited Sweden for occasional pre-season friendlies over the years, the last competitive match was in Gothenburg way back in 1994. Another European final appearance completes the set, but it’s the silverware we’re after and the perks that come with it.
The Match Ticket
As with all finals the ticketing arrangements caused much uproar. Solna’s Friends Arena has a capacity of 50,000 yet both United and Ajax were allocated just 9,500 tickets each – 38% of the total. By way of comparison, last season Liverpool received more than 10,000 tickets for their final against Sevilla (at the 35,000 capacity St Jakob Park, Basel) – over 58% of the total. Much of this is down to UEFA’s obligation to satisfy corporate sponsors as well as the needlessly large 17,000 allocation to the ballot for ‘neutral’ fans; most of these tickets ultimately end up in the hands of fans of either team (or touts) but would be better suited being part of the official allocations in the first place.
In terms of pricing, given this is the second tier of European football it was never going to be as expensive as previous finals, even with two top teams competing. They ranged from €45 (£39) to €150 (£128); in 2011 we paid £150 for the Champions League final at Wembley, that being the second cheapest bracket. United did well to deal with the small allocation and ensured that nearly everyone got sorted with a ticket. As usual the requirements meant having done all home cup games (12) and then priority given based on European away game credits. Having missed just 3 of the 13 this season and last I was in the top few hundred and guaranteed a ticket.
I’d been monitoring flights to Stockholm since Christmas, a mix of hope, expectation and curiosity. A direct flight from Manchester would have set you back just under £100 five months ago, with prices rapidly increasing as United progressed to the final and eventually reaching over 800. Had I gambled at an earlier point then good options existed for £150-200. A gamble is just that though; many reds I know went ahead and booked before our place in the final was confirmed but with flights exceeding £200 it was a tough call.
We’d scouted out routes via Berlin whilst friends were travelling via the likes of Copenhagen and Oslo. Once we knew the match ticket was secured we lined up a slightly more protracted journey via Brussels and Gothenburg for £328; 3 flights on the way out and a £65 train replacing the Stockholm to Gothenburg leg on the return. It could have been done slightly cheaper but the return leg kept it to a 3 day/2 night trip rather than staying out for an extra day, there was also an added convenience of decent flight times and minimal waiting between flight legs. The club and other travel companies had flights on for a day trip, all priced around £500, a cost perhaps justifiable for a major final but still considerably more expensive than going for a few days.
Our Tuesday morning flight was overshadowed by the devastating news of the attack in Manchester. It created a sombre and respectful mood for the whole trip but it was difficult to leave everything behind to travel out, especially with the constant updates from friends back home. The tributes both in Stockholm and Manchester really helped to bring everyone together and generated a real sense of pride in remembering the 22 people that died.
The City of Stockholm
Travel aside our other faux pas was not looking at accommodation sooner. With nothing left in the city centre we had little option but to stop at the First Hotel at Arlanda Airport, about 25 miles from Stockholm. There were plenty of other fans of both teams stopping here too and it was easy enough to go back and forth, a 30 minute train for around £3 to the central station.
Logistics aside, Stockholm itself was a great setting for the final. On every street it was the red and white colours of both clubs, with clear blue skies all day and a friendly atmosphere. There was an official Uefa
sponsor fanzone in the central Kungsträdgården park where we caught a glimpse of the big trophy but quickly moved on for better sights.
Stockholm is built up of 14 islands with over 50 connecting bridges. We spent most of our time on two of these; Gamla Stan the old town, and the larger Södermalm to the south. It was mostly United fans that filled the pubs and bars in this area, and despite being a popular central areas the pints averaged 67 kr (£6), cheaper than other parts of the city. There wasn’t much in the way of sights, the walls of the old town and winding side streets were imposing, as were the panoramic views from the top of Södermalm. Boat tours and a trip to the Abba museum were options, but shunned for more time in the sun and to dine on fish and meatballs.
United fans had been advised to drink in the Rörstrandsgatan area of the city, north of the central station. In reality the two sets of fans needed no real separation and we actually stayed in the old town for most of the day. The Friends Arena in Solna was just 10 minutes from the city by train, fairly striking for a new stadium and next door to a shopping centre with a few handy bars. We’d arrived expecting to see a statue of local hero Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but having walked around the whole ground to find it we found out it’s actually still to be built. Maybe one for another trip. We did however bump into a slightly bemused Louis Van Gaal being shepherded through the crowds, his loyalties likely lying with Ajax.
Once in the ground, both ends were again full of colour, United’s with the usual decking of tricolour flags, Ajax’s with an impressive tifo display before kick off and flares in the second half. The added emotion of the night came from the minutes silence to remember the victims of the attack in Manchester; there’s nothing more galvanizing than the collective roar from the crowd in the moment after.
We’d been warned about Ajax’s young, attacking team, but whilst they kept a lot of possession they didn’t seem to create much in terms of chances. United took the lead with a deflected goal from Pogba, hopefully a feat that will take some of the pressure off him in his second season, and Mkhitaryan scored early in the second half right in front of our end, giving us a comfortable scoreline to sing and see the game out with.
Another trophy for Mourinho and the ideal way to sign off the season. Finishing 6th in the league was disappointing and we’d expect to really challenge next year, but getting back into the Champions League was vital. The celebrations from the players on the pitch really reflected this and there were cheers for each of them as they individually lifted the cup in front of us. It was great to win it for Manchester too, an uplifting response to the events during the week.
Thoughts now lie with where we’ll heading in Europe next season. Potential trips back to the like of Munich, Barcelona and Madrid and probably a few less obscure destinations than we’ve experienced with the Europa League. There’s a tour to America this summer, not one that I’ll be following this year, but a few games closer to home to with Dublin hosting a friendly in August. The first big trip however will be to Skopje, Macedonia for the European Super Cup; hopefully one full of summer sun and cheap pints, just how it should be.
Total travel costs: £399
Miles travelled: 2,432
Accommodation: £42/night (shared room)
Match ticket: €70 (£60)
Average cost of pint: 67 kr (£6)
United allocation: 9,500
Result: AFC Ajax 0: United 2
Match played 24/05/17