Today, the draw was made to decide who will face who in the group-stages of Europe’s elite football competition – the UEFA Champions League sponsored by Heineken®. Even for those who aren’t lucky enough to follow one of the previous seasons top-four sides (wait, sorry, the previous seasons top-three, and Chelsea), on the day of the draw, a huge sense of anticipation builds between football fans across the world.
When the Premier League and Football League fixtures are announced in June, every fan of every club frantically checks their own sides list, their eyes drawn to the most important of dates. Who they play on opening weekend, who they play on the final weekend, who they play on Boxing Day, who they play on New Years and of course, the dates of all the derbies and matches against the top sides. But ultimately, a Blackpool fan doesn’t really care how these dates effect Derby and likewise, vice-versa. Similarly, when the draw is made for the FA Cup third round, you might take note of the odd David & Goliath pairing, but ultimately, once your own team has been pulled from the hat, you tend to switch off.
Europe is different somehow.
Not only do people want to see who the British contingent are drawn against (I’m forced to say British because Celtic actually made it through this year), but the Madrid’s and Milan’s of this world attract just as much interest. Everyone fancies themselves as a bit of a European-Football connoisseur and so when rank outsiders BATE Borisov were drawn from pot four earlier, somebody, somewhere, will have nonchalantly told their mates about how they’ve won the Belarusian Premier League six times on the spin. God bless Wikipedia.
Unfortunately, it’s been a while now since I’ve been one of them. (Someone who gets genuinely excited about the draw, that is. I’m still the kind of twat who will tell you some completely useless information regarding an obscure foreign football team.)
Five years ago (wow, time seriously flies), I was as giddy as the next football fan as the draw for the group-stages began in Monaco. Manchester United were drawn as the top seeds in Group F and so began the season where all my dreams came true (apologies for the horrendous clichés but I’m in a rush). To this day, I remember every opponent, every score-line and (at a push) every scorer from every round of Manchester United’s European adventure that year. In the groups, we were drawn with Roma, Sporting and Dynamo Kiev. Roma had become something of a fierce rival following the violence which took place between the two sets of fans in the previous seasons Quarter-Final away-leg. Whilst the return-leg of that tie served to exact some revenge (United annihilated the Italians 7-1 at Old Trafford), the chance to stick it to them once more was a welcome outcome. Sporting provided more of a sentimental challenge, as Cristiano Ronaldo would return to his old stomping ground for the first time since swapping Lisbon for Manchester in 2003. Naturally, he scored in both games against the Portuguese, choosing not to celebrate in front of the home fans after scoring the only goal against them in the away game, before scoring a 90th minute winner at Old Trafford two months later. Dynamo Kiev proved to be the whipping boys of the group, but their European pedigree made them worthy opponents.
Every English football fan remembers the final that year – the first all English European Cup final. I vividly recall being crouched down, head in hands by the entrance to the pub, as John Terry stepped up to score what I knew would be the penalty that would haunt me for the rest of my days. The rest as they say, is history. When Edwin van der Sar saved Nicolas Anelka’s spot-kick to win the game, I can think of nothing else in my life which has ever elevated me to such ridiculous heights of euphoria. The adrenaline was at such a level, that I genuinely didn’t know what had happened. “Who scored the winning penalty?!” I remember screaming in a friend’s ear. “Giggs! I think?!” came the reply.
Since then, we have reached two more European Cup finals but for me, the magic had gone. How can you top such a night? How can anything ever beat a moment like that? A moment of genuine, unquestionable hysteria. I’d challenge any Manchester United fan to tell me that they felt the same buzz before the match in the following season when United lined up in Rome, or two years later when they marched out at Wembley. The feeling I got from Paul Scholes’ winner in the Semi-Final against Barcelona that year wasn’t even topped by Wayne Rooney equalising against the same opposition in the final itself three years later. Indeed, just reaching the final that year was more than I could have ever imagined. Unfortunately, the 1999 final is all but lost on me. I have no recollection of where I was and how I reacted at the time so 2008 was, on a personal level, the moment where I finally reached the promised land. We lost both finals and so naturally, you’re not going to remember them fondly. But I know deep down that had we won even one of them, it just wouldn’t have felt the same. I gained more pleasure from depriving Arsenal a final berth in 2009 than I did knowing we had reached the final itself and beating German outsiders Shalke in the 2011 semi left me feeling rather underwhelmed. It didn’t feel like a real achievement. We were expected to win the games and we did. I felt as though I was forcing myself to celebrate. If you see your team win an important game but realise you are in control of your emotions, you know something isn’t quite right. You can have too much of a good thing.
Losing the finals didn’t hurt. Well, it did, but it didn’t take long for me to get over them. With the 2008 win fresh in the mind, it was easy to fall back on. In 2011 all was forgotten within the hour, as the tram which took fans back from Old Trafford to the centre of Manchester after the game literally rocked with songs celebrating the clubs record-breaking 19th league title. In hindsight, what hurt most, was the joy that the ABU (Anyone But United)-brigade got from seeing us humbled by our Spanish counterparts twice in three years. But even then, it wasn’t enough to tarnish the memories of the victory over Chelsea. Last season however, was slightly different. We didn’t even make it out of the group stages, finishing third and thus being relegated to the Europa League, where we were further humiliated after being knocked out by eventual finalists Athletic Bilbao. Our performances were terrible. We deserved everything we got and in a way, I was glad that it had happened. Not only had the side become complacent, so had the fans. Despite my own reservations, Manchester United had become a club which simply expected to reach the European Cup final. A cloud of arrogance hung over Old Trafford. Last year proved to be the wake-up call everyone involved needed.
Since that night in Moscow, the draw for the Champions League group stages just hasn’t got me going. European football has become depressingly predictable. When Liverpool’s Steven Gerrard lifted the European Cup in Istanbul in 2005, it marked the beginning of what the media like to call, ‘the English domination’ of the Champions League. Since then, there has been only one final which hasn’t contained an English side. But it isn’t the English stranglehold which depresses most, it is the fact that we now actually expect Barcelona to win it and for some bizarre reason, people seem to get a thrill out of it. The current generation are obsessed with them, literally. If someone scores to round of a wonderful team move where 729,304 passes are completed before the ball hits the back of the net, it is an absolute certainty that comparisons will be made with Barcelona. Swansea City decide to keep the ball on the deck and they suddenly become branded ‘Swansealona’. Just fuck off, please. Maybe I’ve finally come to terms with my bitterness at losing two European Cup finals to the Catalan giants. Perhaps it’s about time I embraced the bitterness and used it as the fuel to reignite my love affair with European football. The thought of seeing those that laughed so loud last year silenced, is also a huge incentive and the players will no doubt be aware of this as they suffered not only on the European front but domestically too.
And so for the first time in a long time, I awaited the draw today with bated breath (I shan’t bother typing out the groups that the British sides have found themselves in as I’m sure most people reading this will already know). Ultimately, it left a lot to be desired and quite honestly I’d swap our own group for Manchester City’s so-called ‘Group of Death’ in a heartbeat. I really am a footballing masochist. ‘Neutrals’ will no doubt point towards United’s so-called ‘easy’ group and complain about how City, for the second time in as many years, have been drawn against some of Europe’s most prestigious names. I suppose we must have somehow bribed UEFA? But if you aspire to win the competition, you will have to play (and beat) the best at some point or another and if Manchester City truly have the ambition to become one of Europe’s truly great sides, they’re not going to do that by beating CFR Cluj, they’re going to do that by beating Real Madrid.
It’s a setback, no doubt – I was hoping for a much tougher group, but for now at least, I guess I’m slightly more ‘up’ for the coming campaign. I won’t lie though, it’s deflating knowing that we won’t be playing one of Europe’s best sides until (probably) at least the Quarter-Finals (assuming we get that far of course). I just hope that the players take it more seriously this time and the memory of last seasons disastrous campaign ensures that we don’t become fodder for the jibes of other teams once more.