Monday 18 December 2017

Closure of 'Legoland' sums up Manchester United's new reality

Tonight's opponents were only formed in 1999 - the year Red Devils were European kingpins

Manchester United players celebrate the 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich
Manchester United players celebrate the 1999 Champions League final victory over Bayern Munich

Tim Rich

For reasons best known to the organisers of the press conference, Louis van Gaal was introduced to the strains of Leonard Cohen's Bird on a Wire. "Like a bird on a wire, like a drunk in a midnight choir, I have tried in my way to be free."

In this wintery corner of Denmark, Manchester United look trapped. They are hemmed in by injuries, by the fixture list and by the fact that, if failure to qualify for the Champions League is a sackable offence - as it was for David Moyes - then Van Gaal's likeliest engine of survival is to slog through and win the Europa League.

The United manager confessed that if he had to choose a trophy, it would be the FA Cup.

"I have already won the Uefa Cup (with Ajax in 1992) and I want to win a title in England," he said. "I came to this country to make Manchester United champions or give them a title. That is personal but for the club it is much more important to win the Europa League because that will give us the Champions League."

He admitted it might be difficult to get past the last 32. Midtjylland knocked out Southampton earlier in the competition and they have scored 48pc of their goals from set-pieces, where United have been more vulnerable than any other Premier League team.

The year Midtjylland was formed - 1999 - is on display everywhere at this neat stadium in the Danish flatlands.


For the 800 or so United fans who arrived in this small, industrial town in the heart of Jutland, the year would resonate. It was the year they won the European Cup for the second time.

It was a journey that took them to the great arenas of European football - the Nou Camp (twice), Munich's Olympic Stadium, San Siro and the Delle Alpi.

The quality of the journeys has declined along with the performances. Van Gaal's first and, you presume, last attempt to steer United to a European Cup took in Eindhoven and Wolfsburg, two cities that exist to service the needs of Philips and Volkswagen.

The view from the Herning Arena, which will accommodate 9,500 tonight, is one of an endless flatness, big skies and plenty of lorries, which should at least mean the fare inside the stadium will be more attractive.

United did travel to Denmark during their nerveless march to the European Cup in 1999 to play Brondby. Ryan Giggs, Andy Cole, Dwight Yorke, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Roy Keane all found the net and United scored six.

Despite all the spending and all the reconstruction at Old Trafford, they no longer possess these types of footballers.

Brondby play in Copenhagen and as one local said: "Herning is nothing like Copenhagen, not even a little." He recommended the Fox and Hounds pub, owned by an Irishman who brought his bride from Ibiza to Jutland. There was, he added, virtually no crime, and to every United fan who had been pickpocketed on Barcelona's Ramblas or duped in front of the Duomo in Milan, that counts for something.

Many came by the cheapest route, a 6.30am flight to Brussels and then a little turboprop plane that took you over the delta of the Rhine. You landed at Billund, which is famous for one thing - Legoland.

It was closed for the winter which, given the youth of the squad Van Gaal took to Denmark, would have been something of a pity. Ten were under 23 and you wondered if Donald Love, Will Keane and Andreas Pereira, however promising, really justified Midtjylland charging their own fans ¤91 for the experience - let alone those who had made the journey from Manchester.

When I asked the Midtjylland head coach Jess Thorup, if the crowd would get ¤91 worth of entertainment, he smiled and said they would try their best.

If, as Wayne Rooney believes, United's best chance of Champions League qualification is to win the Europa League, it will cost and not just in ticket prices. As they sat in the bus that would take them to the plane at Brussels Airport, three United fans were calculating their chances of reaching Basel - served by EasyJet from Manchester - for the Europa League final. They were typical of the kind of supporters who follow their team around Europe, intelligent, middle-aged and with the kind of experience any business traveller would envy.

There would be four more European trips to organise, if United were to win the Europa League.

"I'll have to get a loan for £2,000 then," said one. The dedication of United's fans has never been in question, even here in this, their bleakest midwinter.

Midtjylland v Manchester United, Live, BT Sport 2, 6.00pm

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