United win away in Europe(!)
Across a season of European football I usually get to all but one of United’s games on the continent. Whilst I’d love to travel every time it really comes down to a cost and time-off-work decision between two of the three group games; this year I opted for the match against Zorya Luhansk ahead of a return to Istanbul for Fenerbahce.
Ukraine presented a more interesting scenario anyway. The match had been moved over 500 miles from Russian-bordering Luhansk in the east to Odessa on the south coast, this because of ongoing conflict in the area due to the civil war. My last trip to Ukraine was Donetsk in 2013, a cold 1-1 draw, with Shakhtar also facing similar domestic problems now and currently playing in Lyiv in the West (the Donbass Arena that we’d visited has since been bombed during the fighting there). With this added subplot it was sure to be an enthralling few days in the country, certainly a cheap one anyway, the £5 match ticket 2 quid less than the cheapest we’d paid in Bucharest a few years back.
Zorya, like most Soviet based clubs, have a distinct history, formed by workers of the October Revolution steam train factory – not quite Newton Heath’s Lancashire and Yorkshire railway founders. It follows the pattern of other forces’ affiliations to current teams with CSKA Moscow the original army team, Shakhtar Donetsk miners and Dynamo Kiev with links to the KGB and Soviet special police. I don’t quite know how strong or relevant these ties are now, I remember Donetsk displaying a huge flag of a miner during our game there, but it’s an interesting bit of trivia nonetheless.
Given the issues in the country at present, as well as the warning United had sent for the games against Feyenoord and Fenerbahce, it was no surprise that the match ticket came with another detailed bit of intel. We were warned about doing nearly everything; wearing United colours, travelling on public transport late at night, going to nightclubs or the park close to the ground. It was certainly the kind of place where these warning ought to be heeded, even if we’re well travelled and behaved on trips to Europe. The club did go one step further by actually cancelling the tickets of any Russian based United fans, perhaps understandably given the political rifts. However from the sounds of things this was done quite close to the date of trip and so I don’t quite know what it’s meant for any flight compensation claims.
Thankfully you don’t need a visa to enter the Ukraine from Britain if you’re going for less than 90 days, so that was one less thing to consider for a fairly intricate trip. At the time of the group draw in August the flights from Manchester to Odessa were priced around 300 quid, via either Kiev or Istanbul. More options also existed through Chisinau in Moldova, with train connections from there or Kiev; not that it was required, but a trip to Odessa from Luhansk would have meant a 550 mile, 16 hour bus trip… Not the easiest place to get to by any means, but it’s always refreshing to travel somewhere more challenging than most of Western Europe.
Eventually we opted for a Gatwick > Kiev > Odessa outward flight as the reasonable Turkish Airlines return flight from Manchester via Istanbul wasn’t really moving from between £350-400. The inbound flight took a little more work, a decent looking flight via Prague was booked before Czech Airlines cancelled the route a few days after our booking. After much searching (and a refund from the booking operator) we eventually landed a flight home from Odessa to Heathrow via Istanbul. All in for £261 wasn’t too bad given the flights were eventually booked just 2 weeks before we took off, though going to and from London meant another 60-odd quid on trains from Manchester.
The lesson here came in a few parts; firstly that sometimes there are no easy options to eastern Europe, notably with airlines cancelling less popular routes. Secondly, though booking early on for these trips can lead to decent savings, like Rotterdam, the prices fluctuate wildly on lesser routes and savings only come at the cost of adding extra stopovers.
A 3am flight from London was a new one for me, it was actually the first flight out of Gatwick in the morning and so was a welcome 3 hours of kip through to a freezing cold, snowy Kiev. The internal flight onto Odessa was a straightforward hour journey which got us into the city for around midday, this after sorting a taxi through some locals. The Ukrainian Hryvnia (UAH) was exchanging at around 33 to 1 GBP, making for fairly easily conversions during the trip. As with most European airports the taxi drivers were pretty bullish and weren’t haggling below 1400 UAH for the five mile trip to the city, given that’s over 40 quid it was certainly way too steep. A quick pint in the airport and a chat with some Ukrainian reds and we had a taxi for a fraction of the price, closer to 2 quid.
The central part of the city was fairly compact and so our hotel, the Continental II, was only a short 5-10 minute walk from the main spots. There plenty of more attractive options, including the lavish looking Hotel Bristol where the team were staying, but a 3 star hotel for £21 isn’t bad at all. Either way, given the early morning flights either side of the game the hotel was needed as more of a pit stop than a central base.
Within the various warnings from United it was stated that Deribasavsya street (or Deribasovskaya) would be a “safe zone” – essentially that it’d be well policed. As one of the main pedestrianised streets in the city and close to our hotel it was the go-to place for food and drink, regardless of the advice from the club.
The City of Odessa
Visiting Odessa in December is clearly not the most popular tourist choice, with temperatures dropping to minus 5 degrees the night before the match – almost leading to it being abandoned due to a frozen pitch. The city looked like a good summer destination, with plenty of (unused) outdoor restaurant and bar spaces as well as miles of beach. There was little point venturing down to this given the crisp conditions, though we saw it from afar from the top of the Potemkin Stairs; a huge staircase from sea level up to the higher city streets. Unfortunately we were there at the wrong time of year for this popular spot, with three quarters of the wide steps closed off for renovation, another down point for off-season travelling. The cold, however, did not scare off the tourist swag sellers and their pricey fake hats.
In terms of other sights, at one end of the central Deribasovskaya street was Cathedral square, featuring the relatively modern looking Orthodox ‘Transfiguration’ Cathedral, it’s grounds home to a ropey looking flea market. The other end housed the much grander Odessa Opera and Ballet Theatre; a lookalike of Manchester’s central library, close to the stairs and overlooking views of coast. The cold weather, though soothed by a walk around the city, was getting a bit much after taking in the few tourist spots and so the pub beckoned.
Whilst most reds occupied the resident Irish bar, there were plenty of cheaper options on and around the main high street. Our choice was an appealing looking cellar bar which was home to the cheapest pint of the trip 38 UAH (around £1.10). It was as much of a bargain to eat here too, with a decent portion of local soup, bread, sausage and chicken coming in at about 4 quid. A fair few reds joined us here and the other bars in the area, all adorned with the tricolour flags that travel with United everywhere.
The build up to the match was marred by news of a few United fans being attacked the night before, with one stabbed and forced to head back home. This taking place close to the reported “safe zone”. We’d been advised to take shuttle buses to the match and avoid the Shevchenko park which surrounded the ground, reportedly where fans has been attacked before previous games. However given the amount of security around and the fact that it wasn’t much more than a miles walk, we formed part of a sizeable group of stubborn United fans who decided to take the risk. The police and military security were roused into forming an escort for us which inevitably attracted local attention. Whilst incidents had been relatively scarce up to this point there were groups of lads (whether Zorya or Odessa fans, or general hooligans) trying to attack the walking escort the whole way. The odd one tried to break through the police whilst all sorts of missiles came our way; bottles, bricks, fireworks and some sort of flash bang grenades. All in all a bit precarious and the most extreme atmosphere I’ve experienced going to a game, but it seemed that other than a few cut heads or bloody noses we all made it into the ground in one piece.
The Chernomorets Stadium was unsurprisingly full given the match ticket was fiver. There was a real mix of general Ukrainian football fans, some with United or Odessa colours and then a smaller section of presumably Zorya Luhansk fans behind the opposite goal. Our end was around 900, a good effort considering everything involved to get us to this point. The flags from the pubs now decorating the barriers in front of us – at least until half time, when a small group of home fans rushed in and tore down a few; a minor scalp for them.
There wasn’t much else to report in terms of issues during the match, the odd flare in the home end aside and a terrible period of Mexican waves ignored by our end. The cheap pints and adrenaline from the walk kept us in good voice, if not also to keep warm as the freezing temperature returned. In terms of the game, United continued recent solid performances with a comfortable 2-0 win, a deserved first goal for Mkhitaryan and Zlatan with another. This was the one, finally an away victory in Europe after a pretty terrible run the past few seasons. The last victory came in Bruges last August, though as that game was a qualifier some pointed even further back, almost exactly 3 years in fact, to one of Moyes’ few fine hours and a 5-0 demolition of Leverkusen in November 2013.
We were away quickly after the game, for once with no lock in but a similar length wait on buses back to the centre. Straight onto the airport we managed a few much needed pints before a short flight to Istanbul, with some final drinks on the stopover whilst we waited for the last leg to Heathrow. Just one night in a proper bed, the rest spent on planes, added to the general rouse of the match and city all made it a memorable but weary trip. A welcome win was another boost in a currently tricky season, and takes us into the last 32 of the competition.
Thankfully we avoided an instant return to Ukraine (Turkey and Russia too), the next round presenting us with a much easier trip to Saint-Etienne in the east of France. One step closer to Stockholm…
Total travel costs: £332
Miles travelled: 3,914
Accommodation: £21/night (twin room – £10pp)
Match ticket: ₴125 (£5)
Average cost of pint: ₴50 (£1.50)
United allocation: 900
Result: FC Zorya Luhansk 0 – United 2
Match played 08/12/16