When in Rhône.
The knockout stages are what cup competitions are all about. The intensity of each tie really steps up as only the best teams remain, with a win taking you that bit closer to the final. After a slightly shaky start United qualified for the last 32 of the Europa League with a final group game win in Odessa. Following what was for once rightly dubbed the ‘group of death’, with some long trips and and intense situations, United were treated to a match much closer to home; Saint-Etienne, France’s most successful football team.
Both mine and United’s last trip across the channel was to Marseille on the south coast back in 2011. A night of riot police, tear gas and a mesmerising 0-0 game. Saint-Etienne, close to Lyon in the east of France, were last opponents 40 years ago. I’m still reading accounts of the away leg in 1977 which made headlines after a night of violence in and around the ground. It ultimately led to United being forced to play the return leg almost 300 miles away from Old Trafford (in Plymouth) after initially being kicked out of the competition all together.
The Prep & Travel
Past encounters aside, the game was also of high scrutiny due to the ongoing state of emergency in France. This led to some initial fears that United would receive no ticket allocation at all, with other recent games in the country banning any away fans. Numbers as low as 600 were also suggested before it was confirmed that we’d have 1,300 plus the standard 200 exec tickets, priced at €45 (£40 given the still terrible exchange rate). Added to the security fun, we were issued wristbands with the match ticket to add another level of checks for fans trying to get into the away end. We were right to have doubts about how smoothly this would go on the day of the game…
Like all stages of the competition I watched the draw live. There are a lot more unknowns and range of teams to draw earlier on, but the knockout reduces it to less than 10. Still an air of excitement but too many to plan travel arrangements for each possibility. Once Saint-Etienne came out of the hat it was obvious that there’d be more than a few options of getting there, and so not booking the £100 direct flight from Manchester to Lyon immediately after the draw was less of an issue. This soon rocketed to over 400 quid. There was also a slight complication in fixture arrangement with Lyon and Saint-Etienne both due to play at home on the same evening, meaning our game got moved forward 24 hours; booking early might have meant that flights didn’t quite fit in with the new time of the game.
Other flight options existed for around 170 quid in the days after the draw, but with transfers miles out of the way via the likes of Lisbon and Munich. Thankfully the Eurostar was still an option, made better by the fact that I’ve a friend who works with them; the result, a £144 return train from London St Pancras to Lyon down to 99 quid (a 33% saving). With a Manchester to London return just £44 the bulk of the journey was sorted for £143 with a short trip from Lyon to Saint-Etienne to add (less than an hour on the train).
My first experience of the Eurostar meant a rare trip from London St Pancras, a pretty grand station not least thanks to the impressive ‘Lovers’ statue that greets you in the entrance. The Eurostar setup was fairly straightforward, and getting through security (with beer) was quick and easy. The old trains were a little cosy, certainly for 2 blokes over 6 foot, so the bar carriage provided a better alternative standing place – it did however manage to provide a decent wifi connection despite being hundreds of feet under the sea.
The route to Lyon required a change at Paris, from the Gare du Nord station to Gare de Lyon, an easy transfer which presented a time to top up on some local Kronenbourg for the next leg. The double decker trains on the continent are a bit more accommodating with a bit more of a view compared to under the channel, there were a fair few reds on this route too so it was a sound journey in all, even if close to 5 hours of travel. Returning via Lille for passport control should have been relatively easy too, but after a few days on the beer the departure and arrival times can get a little mixed up… None-the-less we made it back home eventually.
With trains to various cities dominating the trip we opted to stop close to the Part-Dieu station in Lyon. I’ve stopped in a mix of hostels and hotels on recent travels but as I was part of a bigger group on this one we got a decent AirBnB; it slept 8 and would have been cheaper if we’d squeezed a few more people in, but £38/night wasn’t a bad price for a good base, with a private roof terrace and plenty of room to sit and drink.
The City of Lyon
Lyon was huge. I’d really misjudged the size of the place and so moving between any locations quickly became a bit of an effort – or expense. Even though I thought our apartment near the station was fairly central, it was a good 2 mile walk to the Rhône river which split the city. It made wandering the city to see the few sights a little tricky, as well as meaning that the reds stopping here were drinking in bars all over. We walked a short way up the Rhône, stopping to drink in an old bar which shared it’s name and caught a distant view of the Basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière which sits on top of the hill west of the river. On another day (or trip) I wouldn’t have minded climbing up to see it in more detail but time wasn’t on our side.
The city itself was fairly busy, French culture meaning most workers take long 2 hour lunch breaks and fill the city’s cafes and restaurants. As the widely renowned capital of cuisine we couldn’t miss out. Whilst I enjoy a good croque-monsieur it doesn’t come close to the food we had at Michelin recommended restaurant Danton; a €22 two course lunch with my first taste of foie gras and veal. When in Rhône drink the Côtes du Rhône, as they say. The red we had with the meal was great, as was the €2.60 bottle from the supermarket – the 5 litre plastic keg seemed a step too far though.
Beer wasn’t as cheap, averaging about €5.50 a pint, though even the smaller bars we visited were open late to about 2.30/3am. It was pleasant to sit out, though grey on the day we arrived it was a blue sky on match day, and any session is always well accompanied with a cheese and meat board.
The journey between Lyon and Saint-Etienne is only around 35 miles (a €20 train ride) but as often can happen on these trips, plans go out of the window after sitting in a bar all day. It was decided that it’d be a better idea to get a minibus through the French countryside, which worked out the same price each. As this took us all the way to the ground (the Stade Geoffory-Guichard) we saw little of Saint-Etienne itself, just on the walk back to the station, but from the sound of things there’s very little outside of the main square in the city.
Security was on top everywhere we went in France; there’d been soldiers with guns patrolling the station and random bag checks, but the police outside the ground were once again needlessly heavy handed. Getting into the ground was incredibly slow due to excessive checks, whilst the fact that police were operating the gates rather than stewards led to a lot of aggravation, whacks from batons and ultimately a locked gate – all the time with no communication to the hundreds of us waiting outside post kick-off.
We’d just about made it into the away end in time to see the solitary goal which came 15 minutes in from Mkhitaryan. After a lively display at Old Trafford the Saint-Etienne fans were once again loud and colourful, with flags from ultra groups behind both goals. Our end tried to keep up with the noise but it was as entertaining watching their fans attempt to throw fireworks through the netting that separated us – and fail. There was a bit more taunting, a soft second yellow for Bailly with 25 minutes to go and then the robocop police started rolling in on mass. We took this as a sign to leave early, with the aggregate score 4-0 and the prospect of being held back for a long time and facing more batons. Back to Lyon on the train in time for more beers turned out to be a much better idea.
The journey home was eventful, a missed Eurostar connection due to timezone confusion and then delays in London thanks to storm Doris, but we did get home in the end. I fared better than my old man too, who’d travelled independently and managed to miss his flight to Lyon on the day of the game and consequently the match itself! Better planning needed all round for the next trip. Despite long travel legs either side of the game meaning a little less time for sightseeing, the return to France had brought everything we’d hoped for and expected; a comfortable win, some great food and drink, and the provocative local police.
Thanks to the hectic scheduling of the Europa league, the draw for the last 16 took place just 12 hours after we’d got home from France. This meant we were straight onto planning where our next trip might be; there were 3 Belgian teams, 2 German and 1 each from Holland, Denmark and Spain. Of course, it’s never so straightforward with United and the name out of the hat was FC Rostov, a Russian team based due-south of Moscow. With the game less than 2 weeks away, travel looking slightly tricky to a risky part of the world and a 90 quid visa to acquire, it looks like I’ll have to wait and see what the quarter final brings instead.
Total travel costs: £169
Miles travelled: 1,533
Accommodation: £38/night (shared apartment)
Match ticket: €45 (£40)
Average cost of pint: €5.50 (£4.65)
United allocation: 1,500
Result: AS Saint-Etienne 0: United 1 (0-4 on aggregate)
Match played 22/02/17