After last year’s efforts the 2016/17 European season felt like it had a lot more to offer, even if was to be spent solely in the Europa League. Despite remaining the only competition United had never won, the early prognosis was that it was the least important trophy up for grabs in Mourinho’s first season, with the league an obvious priority and other cup wins simply a bonus.
Following the early dismissal from the manager and average European performances pre-Christmas we found ourselves in a worsening league position, with a dependency on winning the competition as a means to qualify again for the Champions League. Fast forward another few months and we’d scraped our way through to another European final, the Europa League eventually becoming the last of a prestigious set of silverware in United’s trophy cabinet. We’d won the fucking lot.
The 2016/17 European Season In Review
Before that historic night in Stockholm there was the small feat of dealing with a group stage and knockout rounds (featuring an extra stage, because U€FA). This saw United zigzag across the continent for 9 months taking in some great and some more forgettable destinations; a quick summary of my trips follows:
Trips Missed: 2 (Istanbul [Fenerbahce], Rostov)
Miles Travelled: 11,978 (return)
Furthest Trip: Odessa – 3,914 miles
Shortest Trip: Rotterdam – 704 miles
Cheapest Match Ticket: Odessa – £5
Most Expensive Match Ticket: Stockholm – £60
Cheapest Pint: Odessa – £1.50
Most Expensive Pint: Stockholm – £6
Average Travel Cost: £227
Each season we can usually expect to have one visit to the more remote areas of Eastern Europe; this year we got three in Ukraine, Turkey and Russia. With two coming before Christmas and the third so quickly after the previous knock out round it meant I had to miss a couple, but there’ll be future trips to Istanbul no doubt, Rostov perhaps not. Either way, the 3,900 mile trip to Odessa and back provided some notable highlights in a season of almost 12,000 miles travelling around Europe.
16 individual flights, 15 train legs, a handful of coaches, minibuses and taxis. It took until the final for me to tick off a new country, Sweden my 17th with United; there were returns to the Netherlands, France, Belgium and Spain, as well as a less envisioned trip back to Ukraine. Odessa encapsulated the highs and lows of this season; a coastal summer resort that was understandably quiet in the winter, -5 degrees and the few local sights shut for repair. Not the easiest place to reach either, with the only flights via Kiev and Istanbul, but worth the spoils with pints for £1.50 or less. We were greeted to a pretty on top atmosphere too, with all sorts of paraphernalia showering us as we were ambushed walking to the ground.
Rotterdam was perhaps the dullest destination, another port with little to see or do unless you’re into maritime history. Fortunately though it was just a short distance from the more excitable Amsterdam, one of a number of train journeys I took this season. Travelling by train is hard to beat, it’s obviously somewhat slower than flying but means a lot less waiting around as with airports. Scenic views, with the Eurostar through Paris down the east of France, or across the north of Spain through to Galicia; what’s better is being able to take your own beer on board and avoid the expense of inflight refreshments. It’s apparently against the law to do this in Sweden for whatever reason, but not the hardest thing to get away with.
On the point of drinking, it was no surprise that Swedish pints were the dearest of the season, especially having experienced similar in Copenhagen last year. A price worth paying though given the occasion and offset a little by the cheaper equivalents in Ukraine. The highlight for the year was of course the range on offer in Brussels, with the famous Delirium beer and cafe, whilst Lyon provided Michelin star levels of food and wine.
All of this experience does comes at a cost, travel upwards of £200 on average for this year’s six trips – last season’s five trips were done cheaper (£187) thanks to one of those being just across to Liverpool. A few bargains were had, flights to Amsterdam and Madrid booked moments after the draw for £60-70 each and a third off the price of the Eurostar thanks to a family and friends discount. For other trips, like Ukraine, the cost was unavoidable given the lack of options getting there, whilst hesitating on Brussels flights ended up costing me a lot more than expected. Stockholm was a different situation, with flights increasing and options reducing from January onwards; our resistance to gamble on booking earlier on ultimately cost us more, but one to consider for future finals. I was able to cut costs in some areas by downgrading on accommodation, with hostels booked for half of the trips and a group AirBnB in France.
The lesson learnt for next season is to be prepped and quick in order to keep travel cheap and convenient.
In the end though, we did it. Winning that final piece of silverware and ultimately regaining our place in Europe’s top football competition. The Europa League, however, really is a unique competition. Back in August there was a chance of a visit to Kazakhstan or Azerbaijan in the group stages, and though we were still dealt trips to France and Spain it was for the smaller cities of Saint-Etienne and Vigo as opposed to the more popular Paris and Barcelona. They could well come next season in the Champions League; 54 countries will be represented through the qualifying rounds and we can guarantee yet another trip to convivial Ukraine by making it all the way to the final in Kiev next May. But, before all that begins it’s the European Super Cup in Skopje, Macedonia.