Tussle in Brussels.
The Europa League has provided a real mixed bag of trips for United this season, with the competition’s practice of squeezing in an extra knock-out round adding further complexities. It meant that the game in Rostov was one too many for me, coming just 13 days after the draw – which itself was 12 hours after we’d got home from Saint-Etienne! Thankfully United negotiated another tricky visit to Russia (the club even paying for fans visas) and made it through to quarter finals to face Anderlecht of Belgium, a team prominent in our history.
We last visited the country to play Bruges in 2015, whilst Anderlecht have popped up a number of times; the last being in the group stages of the 2000/01 Champions League, and the first a historic fixture back in 1956. On this occasion the Busby Babes won 2-0 in Brussels before a record 10-0 return leg at Old Trafford. A similar feat would go down well on our run to the final in Stockholm, but a game against the top team in the Belgian league would be no walk over.
Thanks to work commitments I missed the live draw; whilst comparison sites were still showing a direct flight for £57 a short while after this was actually a hundred quid higher by the time I managed to get online to check. There were routes via Amsterdam (a 2 hour train journey away from Brussels) for around £115 and the Eurostar was an option again but I opted to go direct, paying a little over the odds (£187 return) in the end. This was partly due to a lack of time to really plan a cheaper alternative but also fretting about prices shooting up further once other reds knew that they had match tickets confirmed.
I’ve not done too badly for travel costs this season, even if I know I could definitely have done this trip much cheaper, but other than being completely prepared for any of the names out of the hat and having your finger on the button ready to book, it can be a little laborious. Dealing with the instant inflation of prices due to demand and airlines playing the market is another general travel woe when following European football – one that I’ll continue to try and beat.
In my rush I later found out that Brussels has two airports, one just outside the city, the other (to which I was heading) almost 40 miles south in Charleroi. A further hour on a €14 bus wasn’t ideal but lesson learnt I suppose. This wasn’t going to be the cheapest trip of the season.
To counter the travel costs I opted for a hostel, the Jacques Brel, which was fairly central and close to the main train station. It wasn’t particularly close to the southern train station where the airport coach dropped me off, but arriving late meant I got a good walking tour of the city at night. Thankfully the hostel bar was open until 1am too, so I was able to unwind after a longer than expected journey with some €1.60 bottles of pilsner. With the classic continental breakfast included too it was a good base for the 2 nights I was there.
The City of Brussels
I’d only had a brief glimpse of Brussels in the past, passing through on the way to Bruges, and so I spent a bit of time checking out the sights. The arch in the Parc du Cinquantenaire was a bit of a walk out east of the city centre but a grand bit of architecture. It’s situated just past the home of our old friends the EU, with various embassies, the parliament building and an interesting, wooden window frame-clad structure all part of their block.
Back into the city there were a few more obvious sites. As well as artwork on walls down most side streets (featuring local hero Tintin) there was the striking cathedral of St Michael before the cobbled hills led to the Grand Place, the city’s main square. Whilst it had a very familiar European feel the square was still impressive, even more so lit up in the evening. It was an obvious area for reds to congregate and drink, but cheaper bars could be found a little further out. By chance, this course took me past the busy street corner which homes the Manneken Pis, really nothing more than just a tiny statue on a scrubby building. Like Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid it’s a little underwhelming, but statues are statues (exposed or not).
I’d managed to drink decent pints for about €4 a time on the edge of the city centre, but delving down easy-to-miss avenues to meet friends was just as fruitful. Drinks around the main square were dearer, particularly the city’s famous Delerium cafe. A lot of bars in Brussels sell Delerium beer, symbolised by their pink elephant, but the 3-storey bar is worth checking out. It boasts a world record for the most beer on offer (2004!) and, though slightly more expensive than other bars nearby, the selection can’t be questioned. There were reds dotted about all over the city but a fair few seemed to be holed up here when I stopped in.
With kick off not until 9.05pm local time we had plenty of time to soak up the beer and pre-match atmosphere, the soaking aided by the basic delicacy of a cone of chips. Brussels was unsurprisingly full of armed soldiers and a generally heavy security presence; United are usually well behaved wherever we go in Europe and there were no issues all day, aside from a few red smoke bombs. We’d been told that the police had a specially arranged train to the ground a few hours before kick off, but this transpired to be no more than them ushering us onto the main tram line. Given it was still pretty early we dodged this and went back to the pub for a few more beers.
The ground was about 15 minutes away, southwest of the city in the district of Anderlecht. Aside from a bit of a walk around the stadium to find our gate there were no issues and we actually avoided any fuss getting in by heading down a bit later than the masses. The Constant Vanden Stock Stadium holds 22,000 for European games and our 1,200 were over two tiers behind one goal. United had originally charged us £45 for the tickets but later added another 12 quid on top after being misinformed by the Belgians. Thankfully though, the £57 view (the most expensive ticket this season) was not obscured by a net, other than those separating us from the home fans.
Anderlecht had groups of Ultras behind each goal but really weren’t that impressive. The lads to the right of our end seemed to be trying in vain to get the crowd going with their megaphones, other than that they just had a few flags on show. Our end, some suffering more than others after a session on Belgian lager, didn’t get going too much either but we did manage to muster a celebration as Mikihytarian continued his euro away scoring run at the end of the first half. United definitely dropped off in the second, yet again failing to see the game out and generally wasting chances. With a string of recent draws it was almost inevitable that Anderlecht would equalise, their goal (and only shot on target) coming 5 minutes from full time.
Taking a score draw back to Old Trafford isn’t the worst scenario. We’ve got a good home record in Europe this season and so should be good enough to get through to the semi final, with some good potential ties still left. A top 4 finish is also still on the cards but will require United really improving in front of goal and not losing their heads.
For me though, this trip was about remembering to be prepared when sorting travel at short notice. It’s part of the parcel of knockout cup competitions but I definitely paid more than I might have, and naively failed to check on location of airports! I managed to do a round trip though, flying back from the closer main airport in Brussels with a quick changeover in Amsterdam (probably the shortest flight I’ve ever taken – not much more than 30 mins). With the 2nd leg looming next week I must get myself sorted for the draw, should we do the business.
Total travel costs: £201
Miles travelled: 794
Accommodation: £22/night (shared dorm)
Match ticket: €65 (£57)
Average cost of pint: €4 (£3.40)
United allocation: 1,200
Result: RSC Anderlecht 1: United 1
Match played 13/04/17