For most of us, watching football was very much a social activity before it became a solitary pursuit once lockdown was imposed in March last year. After Roma were despatched in the semis, the realisation hit that with pubs opening up again, it might present the opportunity to watch the final together with a few match-going pals – a nice little reunion of sorts. It was only when proposing this to one of my group that he mentioned United might be getting a limited allocation for the game and flying to Poland could be a possibility – the thought hadn’t even occurred to me previously.
Over the next few days, the logistics of any proposed trip became clear. Since Poland was on the Amber list, PCR tests would be required before and after travelling as well as a 10 day quarantine period upon return. Obviously this was going to be a massive ball-ache, but the illogical part of my brain was now fully intent on going. It was a European final after all, and these things have to be done if the opportunity exists. Funds were in place and I had plenty of annual leave to take from work, so let’s have it.
The only real concern was whether I’d be successful in the ballot with minimal credits, since United were only due to receive 2000 tickets. Unsurprisingly, the prohibitive cost of tests and quarantine had put many regular travellers off so I ended up getting lucky. A couple of mates were assured tickets due to having a million credits and we were good to go. All that remained was to book flights, decipher exactly what paperwork was required to get out and back into the country and to stock the fridge for quarantining once I was back.
Match day arrived and it was a brutally early 3am start at an otherwise deserted Manchester Airport. The flight over was uneventful and after minimal queues checking COVID documentation on arrival, it was a half hour bus ride into the centre of Gdańsk. What a lovely place the Old Town was too. After 5 minutes wandering round you couldn’t help be impressed with the architecture and how picturesque it was. However, being English we weren’t there for sightseeing and culture. Our plan was to find an Irish bar so we could spend the day getting shitfaced on industrial strength lager whilst screaming obscenities at any passing locals.
Of course it wasn’t… although having been up for hours already we were in desperate need of refreshments at this point. It didn’t take long to find a decent bar and it was a surprise to discover that despite the COVID restrictions in place they were happily serving punters indoors. The beers were inexpensive and there was plenty of choice available for the connoisseurs in our little group. The main problem was going to be seeing the game at all as it was still 10 hours ‘til kick off and most of the ales were in 6-7% range. It promised to be a long and potentially messy day.
At this point we bumped into a couple of my brother’s pals who’d arrived the day before. I enquired about the reported trouble from the previous night and they confirmed it was nothing to write home about. A few local hoolies had attacked a bar late on when most reds had already departed, they were swiftly despatched and that was that. For the rest of the morning we took a leisurely stroll round the Old Town, stopping off for more refreshments whenever we saw a bar that looked good. There were plenty to choose from and most were doing steady business as you’d expect.
Whereas most of the United contingent were holed up in the pub, the streets were a sea of yellow as Villarreal fans were everywhere. It was hard not to feel chuffed for them as they all appeared ecstatic at the fact they’d made it to the final. They didn’t really bring groups of lads, there were entire families there all decked out in bright yellow. Mum, Dad and Grandad with kids in tow… all smiling and snapping photos at every opportunity. It was all very wholesome. We’re so blasé about the successes we’ve witnessed over the years, it was nice to see a set of fans experiencing this for the first time.
As the afternoon progressed we’d pretty much seen all of the Old Town as it’s only a small place. It was time for a change of scenery so we jumped in an Uber and asked to go to the coast. We ended up just south of Sopot and only a couple of miles from the ground. We spent the next 2-3 hours sat in deckchairs at a beachside bar, still enjoying cut-price booze against the panoramic backdrop of the eerily-still Baltic Sea. A few other reds had done the same thing and it was a nice vibe there, quite a contrast to the typical pre-match build-up one encounters on a Euro away.
As kick off drew nearer and after a solid 7 hours on the ale, food appeared to be the sensible option. There were half a dozen restaurants to choose from in the vicinity and we settled on a pizza gaff that looked alright. 3 pizzas, starters, more beers, coffee and a dessert came in at a more than reasonable €50, so we felt obliged to leave a more than generous tip. We then had a final round of G&T’s back at the beach before it was time to start thinking about making our way to the ground.
After convincing Danny that hiring a scooter wasn’t the best idea considering he’d been drinking since 10am, we set off walking. 20 minutes later the Polsat Plus Arena loomed into view – think Allianz Arena from the outside except in an unpleasant shade of yellow. From the direction we were approaching there was literally no one else around. The game was kicking off in half an hour yet you would have had no idea anything was happening other than the fact there was a helicopter buzzing around in the distance.
After getting masked up and negotiating the electronic ticket checks, we were in. The ground was absolutely quality inside, a proper 21st century stadium that again highlighted how tired OT looks in comparison now. The atmosphere pre-game was good too considering the reduced capacity. It was weird having so many empty seats but there was plenty of noise from the reds in attendance – you couldn’t really hear Villarreal at the other end of the ground.
I’m not going to talk about the match because I’m sure that’ll be covered in detail elsewhere. But as midnight approached everyone trooped out feeling a bit dejected given how everything turned out. It wasn’t the first time the actual match turned out to be the low-point of a European trip and I’m sure it won’t be the last. We headed back to the buses and started the long journey home. I ended up back in the house at 5.30am, a mere 27 hours after starting out. Belting day out, shit result. Was it worth all the hassle? Yeah, of course it was.
Copyright Red News – August 2021