Champions League draw reminds Man United fans what they're missing
Champions League draw day is normally one of great excitement in my tiny mind, because it's usually when I start booking trips to the forthcoming Manchester United European games and hope Barcelona's fixtures will fit around them.
These days, it's work as well as pleasure, but I'd rather watch United than any team; it's in the heart. I can be objective and write with my head about any team (including United), but, even when I watched Barcelona tear Real Madrid apart 5-0 in 2010, I felt no emotion, just a respect for exceptional football.
For the first time since 1990, though, when I was 16 and English clubs were banned from playing in European competition, United are not in the draw for European football. It hurts. Draw day each August brought so much activity and anticipation that it became a highlight of the football season.
English clubs being re-admitted into European games coincided with me being of an age where I could go to those games. My first European trip was to the Welsh town of Wrexham in 1990, which is an hour's coach journey from Manchester. We told one lad that he'd need a passport to cross the border, and he hid under the seats from the non-existent border guards.
United got past Wrexham and went on to reach the 1991 European Cup Winners' Cup final in Rotterdam, which meant a trip to the huge Dutch port. The regular European away games started the following season with a trip to Atletico Madrid and never stopped; I'd watched United play in 44 different countries at the last count.
In the early 1990s, we travelled by coach and train to European games. There were no budget airlines, and we thought planes were for rich people.
While we now book cheap flights in a few clicks; in the early '90s, we rushed to a travel agency in Manchester which specialised in cheap student air fares. Some fans remained "students" into their 40s. The travel agents worked out ways to get us close to the cities where United were due to play. That meant, for example, a flight to Rome before a game in Florence, or one to Zurich before a game in, er, Monaco, a six-hour drive away across the magnificent snow-capped Alps.
For the latter trip, one lad wore no more than a T-shirt, a decision he regretted. Back at the Zurich airport on the way home, we had four hours to kill. Being of juvenile mind, we acted like early day Inbetweeners. One friend was dared to embrace a stranger in arrivals hall and hugged a businessman tightly, saying that it was wonderful to see him.
The passenger's head was in a spin, before he stood back and, very politely, said: "But I don't think I know you". There followed a stand off where our friend tried to convince the man that he did.
Reaching the venue city was half the adventure for young, single fans with time on their hands. The game was the main reason for going, but it was only part of the trip.
When budget airlines really kicked in in 1996, we flew on one of the first routes to Nice en route to watching United play Juventus in Turin. A friend was so appalled with the livery and lack of free food and drink that he stood up and announced, mid-flight, that it was an airline for "peasants". He loudly opined that budget airlines would never take off. Easyjet's current market capitalisation is 5.4 billion pounds.
That was the trip where we first realised that mobile phones could work abroad. It was an amazing -- and very expensive -- discovery. It still staggers me how the mobile phone companies were allowed to get away with extortionate roaming charges for so long. After United won the Champions League in Barcelona in 1999, some fans received phone bills as expensive as their flights.
Many friends stopped going to all the European away games because the responsibility which came with marriage and kids got in the way. They'll pick and choose games now. Some got tired of the cost and the toll that alcohol was taking on their bodies during those three- and four-day trips.
Others, though, still go to every match, and you see the same faces everywhere. It's a strong community, and they often travel together. Friends will often be appalled that I can't join them in a bar all night because I have to work.
"Writing about football isn't work," one said last year, when I threatened to leave a bar in Osaka at 3 a.m. I'll never win that argument, but it's also amusing to see worse-for-wear friends when you're completely sober. One was absolutely convinced that Wolfsburg stadium was an indoor arena in 2009.
"That's the sky," I said.
"No, it's the roof," he replied. Trust me, it was the sky.
If there are tie-ups in other cities, it makes things even better for work. For example, Atletico Madrid were at home the day after Real Madrid vs. Manchester United in 2013, so I was able to cover both games.
Another thing I will try to do is tie up a relevant interview, such as Ander Herrera in Bilbao the day before United played Real Sociedad in nearby San Sebastian last year.
Or Nikola Jovanovic, who became the first player from outside the British Isles to play for United when he joined in 1980. I tracked him down and met him in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital, the night before United played against Croatia Zagreb in 1999. He'd not been interviewed by an English-speaking journalist since leaving Manchester two decades earlier. With hooligans picking off English fans, immediate post-war Zagreb wasn't a place for the faint of heart a day later.
Ahead of a game vs. Rangers in Glasgow in 2003, I met Ian Ure, the former United and Arsenal defender, who was a prison warden in the city. While we ate, he was recognised by two former inmates, one of whom was busking. Both called him "Sir".
These trips evoke a thousand (usually happy) memories and, as fans, we get to see the cities where the team plays, unlike the players. I spoke to Ryan Giggs recently and he said: "You know, I've never properly been to Barcelona."
He'd played there four times, but had only ever seen hotels, training grounds, air-conditioned coaches and stadiums.
So, I'll admit it, I'm gutted that Manchester United are not in the draw. For work reasons and because, like fans of any team, I love watching my team in the European Cup. I realise that we've been spoiled with success and countless trips, and that some fans would do anything to see their team play abroad, but you can't help how you feel.
We also have another problem.
We've produced the United We Stand fanzine for almost 25 years and need games to sell the fanzine at, usually two to three games per monthly issue. United have been so successful in the last two decades that it hasn't been a problem. At times we've had four and even, on the odd occasion, five home games per month.
Now, there's a paucity of matches -- the first four weeks of the season will see just one. United have played 12 games in September and October in each of the last five seasons. The shambles of Tuesday's 4-0 defeat in Milton Keynes, combined with no European games, means there will be just six in those two months this year.
We'll get by -- we always do -- and I'll be sent elsewhere to write about games in foreign lands and maybe a trip to Bulgaria, Russia or the Basque country awaits.
It won't, however, stop today's draw being a painful one.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.