From Lisbon to Huddersfield: Man United's global following relishing the journey
After a slump in European away form that saw Manchester United achieve only one victory in three years from 2013 to December 2016, the team are winning European away games again. The improvement is welcomed by fans, of course, and United midfielder Juan Mata told me after Wednesday's 1-0 Champions League win at Benfica that it was down to the team being "more ruthless in attack." The performance wasn't entirely convincing, but a win and a clean sheet away in Europe against a team with an exceptional history overrides other sentiments.
Fans' attendance at European away games is governed less by results than cost, geography and their stage of life. Almost 3,000 made the trip to Lisbon in Portugal for Wednesday's game, many overcoming problems with cancelled Ryanair flights, Monarch Airlines going bust, and further issues due to Hurricane Ophelia.
A number of supporters saw their Ryanair flights cancelled, only to book with Monarch. As the cost of other flights to Lisbon increased, a pessimistic "this is not meant to be" air prevailed and some stayed home. Yet the damp streets around the Bairro Alto and Restauradores Square were packed the night before the game and the afternoon of it. The imposing statue of King Jose I (no, not Mourinho) in the Praca do Comercio was decorated with a red, white and black United tricolour with the letters "UTR" -- Up the Reds.
Lisbon is a perfect city for a European away -- the weather is usually favourable and part of the reason why Eric Cantona and Madonna live there, though not together -- while prices are cheap, the people friendly and the city hugely attractive. There are few problems with rival fans, the stadiums of Benfica and Sporting are big and modern, leading to substantial ticket allocations. United have only lost one of 10 matches against Benfica, too.
The match often provides the opportunity for a get-together, although the faces change gradually over the years. A substantial number of travelling fans are men aged 18-30 who are freer to travel than if they have more serious responsibilities which could come with work or a family of their own. Retired Reds also make up a significant number. They have the time, and often the money, to travel around Europe at relative leisure.
Even with the budget airlines, few would have got much change out of £500 for the two- or three-day trip to Lisbon after travel, hotel, food and drinks -- and there were a lot of drinks being bought, much to the delight of bar owners who enjoyed a nice spike in business. That wasn't an issue for the owners of the Liverpool bar, complete with a Liver bird on the door, which lay empty. United fans saw enough of anything to do with Liverpool for a while in Saturday's turgid match at Anfield.
There are plenty of fans aged between 20-65 on European aways, including a smattering of females, while games in eastern Europe also see hundreds of locally based United fans in attendance. The majority of the fans in the away end in Moscow last month were Russian United fans. There are also United fans from around Europe who have become regular match goers. United may hail from Manchester, but the support, even the match going support, is truly international.
The fans are accepted into the tribe on the grounds of the football team they support. Decent behaviour is expected, so as not to bring problems with local authorities who are usually happy to watch from a distance. Although a driver of a refuse van whose vehicle stopped and was then surrounded and boarded by fans singing United songs didn't look too impressed on Wednesday
The fans began making their way to the Estadio da Luz two or three hours before the game, their singing amplified by the tunnels of the efficient Lisbon metro.
"Which team are they from?" asked an elderly lady to a man in a Benfica shirt. "Manchester," came the reply as the halls of the metro station filled up.
"Which country is that?" "England."
Such innocence in an age where football clubs claim the world is interested in them. And then the game, a 1-0 win to United.
"Good result," said Juan Mata when I spoke to him afterwards. "First 20 minutes were difficult, with Benfica starting very well, pushing and pressing. But after half an hour I think we controlled the game with possession and playing in their own half and played quite well. It was unfortunate for their young goalkeeper and I feel sorry for him but I'm sure he'll be ok."
Liverpool away was the first Premier League game in which the attack-minded Mata didn't feature this season and he started in six of the seven games before that, playing on the right.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I'm playing and tonight I tried to come inside and create with Miki [Henrikh Mkhitaryan], Nemanja [Matic] and me. I think we did that in some moments and that's why we controlled the tempo. I'm happy that we've won the first three games in the group after a good start. It's the same in the Premier League. Today Benfica needed to win. They didn't and they're probably out."
On Friday, Mata will add the first two English Premier League players to his Common Goal initiative.
On Saturday, he's set to play in United's next game at Huddersfield, a town only 40 minutes by road or rail from Manchester but one where United haven't played since 1972. Fans can't wait to visit a new ground, the impressive Kirklees stadium which was named Britain's building of the year in 1995 after it opened a year earlier.
"I've never been to Huddersfield," said the well -travelled Mata, "But I know it's not far from Manchester and I know that their football team normally plays a compact 4-4-1-1."
A win is expected, goals too, against a side who've only managed to score two in their four home games so far. United's goal average slipped this week against Liverpool and Benfica, rivals Manchester City did not. Whatever happens, the team can count on a noisy away following.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.