IT WAS supposed to be the high point of the season for me. I am not a Manchester United fan, I am an admirer of Ajax Amsterdam, going back to the 1970s. An unshamed Europhile, a disciple of Total Football. But the events of Wednesday May 24 2017 changed all that, hopefully temporarily.
I was delighted to get a ticket for the UEFA Europa League final for a number of reasons. Firstly, it showed that winners in UEFA ticket lotteries for big occasions do exist. Secondly, Stockholm is a delightful city and thirdly, Manchester United v Ajax represented the clash of two historic giants of the European game.
I always had this romantic vision of Ajax, dating back to my first encounter with them in 1971. I was aware that crowd trouble was something that often accompanied Amsterdam’s only senior club, my last visit to the Arena saw 70s-style crowd hooliganism at half-time. With any club that enjoys mass support, you naturally get problems, so it is not entirely unexpected. If you are savvy enough, you know how to keep away from the people likely to create incidents – I went to enough Chelsea away games in the mid-1970s to learn that. But I never expected what happened to me before the game at the Friends Arena.
The day started more optimistically. All flights to Stockholm were packed with expectant fans of both United and Ajax. I opted for a Scandinavian Airlines flight rather than a budget carrier to make the journey a little more comfortable. The United fans around me were well-heeled veterans of many European sorties. Talk of St. Etienne 1977, Barcelona 1983, Bayern 1999, 1968 and of course, Munich 1958 could be heard as the United faithful prepared themselves for the latest chapter. No other English club has such a long history in Europe. “Mourinho needs to win this…Mourinho will leave…Mourinho will sign him…Rooney’s going…Rooney’s staying” – and so it went on.
Given what had happened in Manchester just two days earlier, the needless slaughter of young people at the Manchester Arena, the police were out in force. As our flight emptied into the terminal, a long procession of red-shirted, bleary-eyed supporters was being chaperoned through passport control and onto buses away from the airport. When I arrived in the city centre on the Arlanda Express, I witnessed my first glimpse of trouble – a small group of Ajax fans chasing a couple of United lads. My accommodation seemed to be in the direction of where the Ajax fans were heading and indeed, the official fan zone for Ajax was actually in my street. Spirits were high, beer was flowing, songs were being sung. There were thousands of them, most wearing the iconic shirt of Ajax and many bearing names of club legends – F. de Boer, Cruyff, Litmanen, Kluivert to name but a few. I spoke to a policeman and asked if all was ok – there was an element of the tinder box about it all. “So far,” he replied with a smirk. “But many do not have tickets for the game.”
In the vicinity, Ajax fans seem to have taken over the local hotel. A large bouncer was vetting people going inside, but he expressed his concern that something might spark off. “We might have a problem,” he said, “Manchester United fans are in the next building.” The soundtrack across the city was a mixture of singing against a background of police sirens.
There was no sign of United supporters, clearly they were camped out in another part of the city. The media suggested that the atmosphere might be subdued following the terrorist attack, but I soon bumped into them when I arrived at the Central Station to travel up to Solna, the location of the Friends Arena. There was talk on the seven-minute journey of United fans being ambushed on Tuesday night in the city, but mostly, the Manchester contingent wanted to sing about their hatred of Liverpool, Manchester City and Chelsea. There were other songs about their own heroes:
“When they die and they lay me to rest, I want to go on the piss with Georgie Best” – to the tune of Spirit in the Sky.
The Friends Arena was a five-minute walk from Solna station, lining the detour to prevent fans walking through the Mall of Scandinavia (shades of Stratford and West Ham), fans were pleading for spare tickets, touts were asking if anyone wanted tickets. So much for UEFA’s usual tight control on these things. “We’ve got hundreds of fans who’ve come with no ticket,” said one Manchester tout to me. “Good for business, but we’re going to have loads of Ajax fans roaming around without a ticket when the game kicks off. A lot of United fans have stayed at home, but it seems Ajax fans were encouraged to travel to lend their support in bars and other areas to watch the game.”
Certainly, later in the evening, the bars around where my apartment was based were packed with Ajax fans watching the game.
And now we come to the defining moment of my trip to Stockholm.
With security understandably high at the event, there was a set of barriers at the foot of the steps leading up to the stadium concourse. All ticket holders had to show their ticket for checking before being allowed to climb the stairs. I prepared for my turn, queuing with other fans. My ticket was grasped firmly in my right hand. Then, as I was about to step forward, two arms held my shoulders, and as I adjusted my feet, my ticket was whipped out of my hand. I paniced, turned and a short, dark Ajax fan stood grinning at me, with a small boy next to him. Meanwhile, an accomplice ran through the crowd. “You’ve just stolen my ticket,” I shouted. “He’s just stolen my ticket.” The Ajax fan said, “You dropped it,” to which I replied. “I didn’t fucking drop it, I had it torn from my hand…it has my name on it, shall we get a policeman?”. He walked off to join a gang of Ajax fans who stood and watched as I spoke to stewards and the police. The little bastard was smiling all the time and then, when I returned with my policeman, he was nowhere, doubtless already reaping the benefits of selling my ticket.
Swedish police were helpful, but were powerless to influence anything. Manchester United stewards, who had been brought in to help crowd control, also tried to help even going as far as trying to see if anyone had a spare ticket for the game, but my hopes were slipping away. The policeman managed to persuade the gate staff to allow me in to explain my situation to the UEFA Ticket Information desk, but even though I had my letter from UEFA with my order details, I was told they could do nothing. Beneath it all, I sensed they thought I had actually sold my ticket. “Look, I said, I am nearly 60 years old, I am a freelance writer here to report on the game, I do not need to make a few hundred euros profit on a bloody ticket after spending 600 pounds to get here. You have my order number, surely you can do something?”. The reply was short and blunt: “Sorry, sir, we cannot help you.” I could see their point, I could have been a chancer, but they displayed all the inflexibility of process-driven bureaucrats. I was beaten.
I hovered around the area where my ticket had been stolen in a vain attempt to identify the criminal and in a last, forlorn hope that somebody might come up with a spare ticket. Finally, I cut my losses and headed back to the Central Station. “I hope you thrash them,” I said to the United steward who had been so friendly. “Cheers, mate. It’s tough on you, but go watch it in a bar and have a beer.”
Back in the centre, I consoled myself with a Danish open sandwich and some fizzy water. As I sat checking my phone, a young woman came up to me and handed me a piece of paper. “I wanted you to have this,” she said. For a moment, I thought it was a match ticket, but it was a Bible reading. “Jesus loves you,” she said, looking into my eyes. “What?,” I responded, rather anxiously as the whole evening had shaken me. “Sorry, I am not interested in religion.”
But she didn’t give up, she came back with her friend, a Russian from Siberia. “We just thought you looked sad.”
“You are perceptive, I’ve just been robbed at the Friends Arena.”
“That is terrible.”
“Indeed it is, I am sorry I was bit dismissive, but I am still taking it in.”
“Jesus really DOES love you,” said the Russian girl and off they went.
It was all a bit surreal.
I walked back to my apartment and my host sat and watched the game with me. He was not really a football man, but he liked Zlatan Imbrahimovic and hence, Manchester United. The bars in the streets below were full of ticketless Ajax fans. I knew how they felt.
My host suggested I return to the Friends Arena to kill the ghost of the night before. It was a good idea. I finally managed to gain very quick access to the stadium, which was closing down the UEFA event. It looked a nice football venue. One day I will be back to watch AIK, I think.
Oh yes, it was Manchester United 2 Ajax Amsterdam 0. “We won it for Manchester,” said one fan at Arlanda on the journey home. “We won it for the bloody city”.
It was a reminder of the events in Manchester earlier in the week and put my own misfortune into some sort of perspective. I had lost my ticket, not my life.