Back in Bruges
A fairly convincing group stage saw United finish top, avoiding the difficulty of facing one of the seeded teams, Europa League group winners or stronger Champions League drop outs. Of 14 possible opponents there was a real mix of locations, with Germany the only country represented more than once with 3 teams. There were familiar foes in the form of Olympiacos, Shakhtar Donetsk and Cluj, as well as new potential trips to APOEL of Cyprus, Ludogorets of Bulgaria and Getafe of Spain.
In the mix were a lot of tricky and long distance ties, and so a relatively straightforward trip to Belgium to face Club Brugge was definitely welcome. It’s not that long since we last travelled to Bruges; a slightly different prospect four seasons ago, a Champions League qualifier rather than Europa League last-32 game, but that’s just testament to the decline we’ve seen in the post-Fergie era.
Travelling to Bruges
With plenty of options to travel to Bruges there was less of a reason to rush to book, especially a week before Christmas when the draw was made. Of course, moving quickly you could have snapped up a return flight to Brussels Charleroi for just £34 but this was soon closer to £150.
Whilst the city has an airport, Ostend–Bruges International, there are few passenger flights to here, with the majority of flights being freight or private business. It means Brussels, 55 miles to the east, is the best route. The New Years sales brought a few deals and a single flight to Charleroi (south of Brussels) was just £28, though typically this dropped to just £10 after we’d booked.
A slightly less conventional return leg from Amsterdam to Leeds brought the return flight costs to £107 with the in-betweens to be done by coach (Charleroi to Brussels – £12 in advance) and train. Travel by train in Europe is so much more reasonable with a £14 ticket on the day from Brussels to Bruges (1 hour) and a £35 ticket for the 3.5 hour journey up to Amsterdam. Much more affordable than a similar journey in England, where a 2 hour Manchester to London single can be around £90.
The return flight was to Leeds, from which a £4 coach back to Manchester was preferred to a £22 standard fare train ticket.
The City of Bruges
Travel costs aside, there’s plenty of ways to travel to Bruges, despite it being slightly isolated. Situated in the west of Belgium, the port of Zeebrugge feeds into the canals that snake through and surround the small, historic city.
Our hotel, Ibis Brugge Centrum, was as it suggests fairly central and a short walk from Oud Sint-Janshospitaal (Old St. John’s Hospital), our ticket collection point. Walking into the city from the south and the train station or south, the spires of three prominent landmarks come into view; the Church of Our Lady, Saint-Salvator Cathedral and the most recognisable Belfy tower.
Bruges is not a huge city, with the. majority of the sights within the wall and canal enclosed centre. The Belfry of Bruges is pretty iconic, not least from the 2008 film, and sits in the Market Square (Markt). Amongst the tourist-full horse and carts, the square is also home to the grand Provincial Court building as well as a monument to Jan Breydel; a Flemish hero after whom the football stadium is also named.
The Markt provides a great backdrop to eat and drink, with a restaurants serving moules and frites on each side, as well as one of few places to grab a late night snack, in a couple of semi-permanent burger vans. Drinking here is particularly cheap though at around €10 for any of a range of Belgian pints. A cheaper €5 pint could be found just off the square, so unsurprisingly United fans gathered here at aptly named bar, ‘The Place’.
After a fairly dry day and even blue skies at times, the rain came absolutely storming in a few hours before kick off. With the Jan Breydel stadium a 2.5 mile walk from the city we left plenty of time to try and make it, however in the downpour jumping on the local bus felt like a good option. Unlike the usual shuttle bus that European teams put on for visiting fans, or a city like Manchester where there’s ample public transport, Bruges offered virtually nothing, with the police disrupting our bus ride and ordering United fans to walk the last mile.
Things didn’t improve here, with a meander through the housing estate around the ground, and multiple routes blocked off by temporary barbed wire fences and unhelpful police officers. Having had to walk a further mile for no apparent reason we finally neared the ground to hear a roar as Club Brugge went 1-0 up after 15 minutes.
Finally in the ground we found a space in the largely uncovered section of the away end just in time to see our equaliser through Martial. A fairly jubilant United end despite the heavy rain and hail, but refuge in the concourse came soon after. The police continued their bizarre management of the game by locking the gates meaning no one could leave, not that the hour long walk back to the city was much more appealing than the conditions in the stadium. A good 10-minute cameo from Bruno wasn’t enough to get another goal, but a decent 1st leg result none-the-less.
We actually got straight out of the ground after the match, which is rare for a European away, and to meet friends to drive back to the city, sparing us another long walk. There was much furore to follow, with a statement from MUST to criticise the poor operation and policing, to which the Mayor of Bruges simply shrugged. A beautiful city but not the greatest experience, definitely not a place many United fans will be flooding back to.
Vengeance came sweetly with a resounding 5-0 win at Old Trafford a week later.
Total travel costs: £172
Miles travelled: 943
Accommodation: £62/night (twin room – £31pp)
Match ticket: £27 (€30)
Average cost of pint: £4.20
United allocation: 1,500
Result: Club Brugge 1 – United 1 (won 6 – 1 on aggregate)
Match played 20/02/20