Villarreal CF vs United, May 2021

2020/21 Europa League Final, Gdańsk

What a strange old season. 8th March 2020 was the last time I properly stepped foot inside Old Trafford, well over 14 months ago; the last European trip, to Bruges, was a few weeks prior to that. Whilst I’ve dipped into non-league football at West Didsbury and Chorlton, I’ve had to make do with watching United on tele for more than a full season, almost to the point that it’s lost meaning.

In that time we’ve managed a respectful 2nd place finish in the league, reached the semi finals of the League Cup, quarter finals of the FA Cup and, after unceremoniously falling out of the Champions League group stage, managed to go all the way in the Europa League to reach final in Gdańsk, Poland.

The global Covid-19 situation has put normal life on hold for much of the past year and more, but with a vaccine rollout underway things are starting to look brights, even with some restrictions still in place. International travel has been near impossible until recently, and so well before United’s semi final victory over Roma, reds have been planning just how they’d find a way to our eighth European final.

Travelling to Gdańsk

I didn’t want to miss the opportunity of visiting a new country, even if current travel and quarantine rules made it a bit of a logistical nightmare. Flights to Poland had been available for months, and a direct return to Gdańsk was available for £78 just a few weeks before demand for the final spiked. It wasn’t quite as simple as flying in and out of Poland though, like we might have done pre-Covid. Local and UK travel restrictions meant providing proof of a negative test before departure and within 72 hours of a return flight, whilst a 10 day isolation period on arrival and return were mandatory.

It certainly didn’t present the most straightforward trip and so when encouraging details of a club organised flight were released I opted for my first European day trip. Usually I’d want to enjoy a few days and nights in the city to really take it in, however the advantage of no quarantine on arrival in Poland was a huge draw as well as the reasonable and subsidised £189 price. This wasn’t the only cost however, the pre-flight PCR test set us back £99 each with a further £115 incurred for two tests on return as part of the 10 day quarantine rules.

I’m in a lucky enough position where working from home during a quarantine is viable, and as much as the Covid tests pushed the cost up to almost £400, it’s a price worth paying for a cup final and certainly after no trips for well over a year. So a 6.30am flight from Manchester airport on the day of the game, one of four club flights taking the majority of our 2,000 fans over to Poland. Slightly surreal to be in the air again after so long with limited travel, but a great feeling to be back on the road following the reds again. Overpriced 5am airport pints in celebration!

The City of Gdańsk

Gdańsk is Poland’s sixth largest city by population, a port located on the north coast of the Baltic sea. Originally due to be the host of the 2020 final, which was pushed back after a delayed final stages were instead held in Cologne last August, we were thrilled that we had another chance to visit. Our first port of call was the Stadion Miejski w Gdańsku itself, the final destination of the day but a quick coach drop off and sneak peak of the glimmering 42,000 capacity ground.

Just over 4 miles east and we were in the main district of the city, notably Śródmieście – the “old city”. Here we were greeted to the picturesque scenes looking up the Motława river, flanked by pastel-coloured townhouses reminiscent of Copengahen‘s Nyhavn. A black pirate ship (Czarna Perła & Galeon Lew) and oversized replica Europa League trophy completed the tourist shot and was the gateway to the main high streets, Ulica Długa and Długi Targ.

Here were two of the cities most famous sights, the Main Town Hall with it’s dominating, gothic clock tower and Neptune’s Fountain. This is the central tourist hotspot with bars and restaurants spanning both sides of the the “long lane” full of United & Villarreal, who were impressively each decked out head to toe in yellow. The reds were more concentrated around the Długi Targ side, with pints of Tyskie and local lager around £2, or as cheap as £1.70 (9 Poland złoty) as well as obligatory vodka shots.

Our day trip meant there wasn’t a huge amount of time to explore further out of the city centre; trips over to European Solidarity Centre, Wisłoujście Fortress and Shipyards will have to wait for a future visit, though we did get glimpses of the Basilica and Artus Court. A day sat in the sun, eating at river level and soaking up the cup final atmosphere made a for a much enjoyable first trip outside the UK in 15 months.

The Match

For once a relatively easy trip to the ground, with a short shuttle bus trip back out from the city centre and reds in fine voice and full of confidence. Free public transport for fans attending the match also meant no additional travel costs on the day. Built for Euro 2o12, co-hosted by Poland and Ukraine, the Gdańsk stadium has a distinct modern style and a golden panelled finish, befitting of a final. United and Villarreal each had 2,000 of the 9,500 total tickets, with Covid restrictions limiting capacity to under 25% and diluting the atmosphere somewhat.

There’s only so much a non-alocholic beer can do but as that was all that was on offer it was worth a go for a couple of quid; as things transpired it might have even helped the next few hours. A fairly strong and expected line up, missing just the injured Maguire, United went into the match as huge favourites, with Villarreal playing in only their third ever final after two previous Intertoto Cup wins.

Villarreal took the lead after half an hour with as easy goal from a set piece, echoes of mistakes throughout the season but also highlighting Maguire’s absence after being ever present for virtually the whole season. The “yellow submarine” fans made their voices heard in the dispersed crowd, whilst United’s end never really got going. There was a bit of an effort to get songs going but even with the enthusiasm of being back in the ground after so long away the game had a bit of an inevitability about it.

A goal after an hour from the reliable Cavani got us back into the game, but despite this being the 61st game of United’s season it took until 10 minutes into extra-time to replace tired legs with fresh subs. A grand total of 3 shots on target in 120 minutes, Villarreal scoring with their only one, meant penalties and even more pessimism from the United end. Unai Emery’s 4th Europa League win came after a full roster of penalties, all 22 players including goalkeepers stepping up and converting, all but the 22nd which unfortunately for us happened to be David De Gea.

Summary

A real anti-climax for the first game back, and whilst it was fair to feel confident after a second place finish and strong run to the final, the form in the final few weeks showed how jaded the squad was. Even worse we’d gambled on flights to Belfast in August for the Super Cup final; a game that was potentially going to be a Manchester derby, now Villarreal vs Chelsea!

Whilst it was great to get away and actually travel again, seeing a new city and country and everything that comes with a trio to Europe, it was a short one on the club organised day trip. Unlikely something I’ll do again in a hurry, as the convenience of flying in and out in 24 hours was lost due to the long delays home, sat in Gdańsk airport as the flights to Valencia all took off whilst Manchester’s were grounded. Added to that, the paperwork and £200+ in Covid tests were only acceptable due to the nature of the game. We saw and heard of a few United fans who had difficulties travelling or were even told they couldn’t fly due to not having the right forms, a real nightmare when all you want to do is just get home.

Hopefully things will ease by the time we travel for the Champions League again in September. It’s still a bit of an uncertainty given continuations situations across Europe, despite what seems like a successful vaccine roll out in the UK. There’s certainly demons to exorcise after the past few seasons of being also-rans, so let’s hope we’re able to be there to get behind United.

Total travel costs: £189
Miles travelled: 1,716
Accommodation: n/a
Match ticket: £56 (€65) + €15 for souvenir ticket
Average cost of pint: £2.05
United allocation: 2,000

Result: Villarreal 1 – United 1 (lost 11-10 on penalties)

Match played 26/05/21

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