United We Stand: Andy Mitten’s Greatest Away Days
My first ‘proper’ European away trip following United* was to Atletico Madrid in 1991. One British tabloid told us to expect to be met at the airport by hooligans called ‘The Sexy Hamburgers’. I was 17 and worried, but it was all just fanciful fabrication and the hosts were fine.
Holders United lost 3-0 in a Cup Winners’ Cup tie, in what was their only ever game in the Vicente Calderon. Games against Atleti’s more glamorous neighbours from Madrid’s north side have been numerous and among the most memorable in United’s history. Just don’t mention Nani’s sending off last season.
*Wrexham in 1990 and the Rotterdam final in 1991 were exceptions.
In the late 1990s, the advent of budget airlines made it cheaper to watch United on the Continent and all but made the spectre of travel by road, rail and ferry redundant, despite its previous popularity (at least to mainstream destinations).
Fans used budget airlines, flew to somewhere near their destination and then took a train or hired a car.
No budget airlines flew anywhere near Porto in 1997, but that didn’t stop over 7,000 fans travelling there for a huge quarter final game against an FC Porto side, fancied to win the Champions League. Charter flights were utilised and trips booked months in advance. Appetites were already whetted by the first leg, in which United surprised all by winning 4-0. That meant less pressure around the second leg and a relaxing jolly near the port lodges. There, locals watched with fascination and trepidation as fans drank in the Portuguese sunshine, singing songs and hanging their flags from buildings and cranes. The game ended 0-0 and United were through to the semi-final for the first time since 1968.
Manchester United were frequent opponents of Istanbul’s three major teams in the Champions League era, though their first visit to Galatasaray in 1993 ended controversially, with United players and police clashing as they left the pitch and 164 innocent travelling fans missing the game and being deported.
Subsequent trips have been better, with the atmosphere created by Turkish fans remaining the highlight. Whether they were Besiktas, Galatasaray or Fenerbahce supporters, the noise and colour of a big game in Turkey’s biggest city is always a thrill.
Turkey’s stadiums have since been rebuilt and are now among the best in the world. Fortunately, they’ve lost little of their fire.
In an inauspicious start to the treble season, United played a Champions League qualifier against Polish champions LKS Lodz. Their previous visit to Poland in ’91 had seen the team triumph in a Cup Winners’ Cup semi-final against Legia Warsaw, while few had even heard of LKS.
Much has changed since, but in 1998 the main road between the Capital and Poland’s third largest city (80 kilometres away) was potholed and single file. Once the stadium was open, a crowd of just 8,700 (including 600 United fans) saw a disappointing 0-0 draw.
And whatever happened to LKS Lodz you may wonder? They went bankrupt in 2013 and started afresh in Poland’s fifth division.
Never has a city come to a halt before a game like Bilbao before United’s game there in 2012.
Red and white striped flags bedecked handsome apartments before the sell-out Europa League game and the people were confident after a first leg victory at Old Trafford. A local newspaper even led with the game on its front pages….plus pages 2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9 and 25 and the whole paper the following day when the Basques won.
Victory saw over 50,000 residents filling the central streets for a giant party, while the visiting United fans were applauded back to their transport. Eliminated, yes, but what a place to go out.
A 1991 pre-season spent driving around Scandinavia in hire cars.
We were in Stavanger, southern Norway, and our next stop was somewhere called Molde. We knew it would be a drive. We didn’t know it would take 24 hours and include three car ferries, an icy mountain pass and spectacular vistas of fjords and forests. A crowd of little over 3,000 showed for a game which had the feel of a village fete.
Five years later, United fans became familiar with Molde when the club signed Ole Gunnar Solksjaer from there. We thought he looked like a sixth former; his new team mates thought he looked like a competition winner – and he did seal the treble against Bayern Munich three years later. By that time, little Molde had played football in the Champions League and Ole Gunnar returned there in 2012 to lift the title as manager. Bet he didn’t drive.
If you were one of the 2,000 United fans who had a ticket for the 2002 Champions League semi-final in the German city, you were lucky. If you were one of the 1,500 who didn’t and travelled in vain, then you weren’t.
That was the wisdom before the match, but then who had really the better deal? The ones who saw their team miss out on a final against Real Madrid in Glasgow or the ticketless many who retired to the bars of Cologne or Dusseldorf? At least Bayer of Leverkusen had kindly invented paracetamol for all those who left Germany with a headache, for whatever reason.
Redemption, of sorts, was finally achieved with a 5-0 win for United over Bayer Leverkusen in November 2013.
United’s only ever game in the French capital wasn’t even against a Parisian team, but instead against LOSC – the side from Lille who moved their Champions League matches to the Stade de France in 2005, as their own home only held 15,000.
Lille won 1-0 in front of 65,000 and many regard it as United’s worst European performance of recent times. The 5,000 travelling fans weren’t happy; Roy Keane was leaving the club after criticising his team mates and United were leaving the Champions League at the group stage with an inglorious record of P6 W1 D3 L2.
Three years later, United were European champions again.
Juventus were Europe’s pre-eminent team in the late 90s, their hegemony challenged – then surpassed – by United in an epic April 1999 Champions League semi-final. Like Manchester, Turin was oft dismissed as an industrial city not worthy of a tourist’s time, yet the Baroque centre of Turin found favour with the 4,000 away fans, some of whom had driven over the snow-capped Alps to reach the home of Fiat.
Busy Reds filled bars by the train station and visited the site of the 1949 Superga air disaster (at the old Communale stadium, now used by Torino), before filling Dell Alpi’s away end to witness the club’s greatest ever modern era performance.
Not the easiest, nor the cheapest destination to reach for the 2008 Champions League final between United and Chelsea. Acquiring Visas was problematic, until the usual requirements were suspended in lieu of a match ticket.
The vast majority of the 65,000 fans travelling from England went on chartered aircraft and the departures board at Manchester Airport was dominated by the word ‘Moscow’ all morning. A hardy minority travelled overland, passing through up to 10 countries and taking a week to make the journey.
To the United fans that still celebrate John Terry’s missed penalty in song; it was worth it.
Rome’s Olimpico stadium is blessed by a superb location at the foot of Monte Mario by the Tiber River. Surrounded by fragrant Cyprus trees, granite statues of former Olympians, boulevards and rich mosaics, it was the perfect setting for the 2009 Champions League final.
United had never played a competitive game in Rome until 2007. Two years later and fans were making a fourth visit. It was a much-relished match as 30,000 headed towards Italy by train, plane and automobile. Some friends flew to Germany, stopped overnight and were flying into Rome on match day…except they missed their morning flight. They hired a car and made it as far as northern Italy, but they missed seeing United easily outclassed by Barcelona. Suddenly, Rome wasn’t so special after all.
Around 50,000 Reds travelled to Catalonia for the 1999 Champions League final against Bayern Munich for what was probably the greatest moment in United’s history.
Camp Nou was mesmerizing at sunset, filled with fans baked red as lobsters and giddy after a day in the sun following their mass exodus to the site. The mediocre gameplay seemed such a shame; a momentous season about to end on a sour note. Then substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided to take history into their hands or, in the case of the Norwegian, his extended toe. With their two late goals, the giant scoreboards read Bayern Munich-1 Manchester United-2. The treble was won.
AND LASTLY, BECAUSE WE COULDN’T RESIST…