Boxing day in Wigan is traditionally a fancy dress day. This explains why 200/300 of their travelling 1500 army came dressed as bananas yesterday, there were other more free thinking ones who came dressed as Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Lennie the Lion. The rest of the Wigan fans just sat there, so much so that I was beginning to wonder if they’d borrowed some cast offs from Madame Tussauds in Blackpool to pad out the pathetically low turnout of away fans on a bank holiday for a match that is sixteen miles from their hometown. Wigan, like Leeds, is a rugby league town that just happens to have a football team attached to it. Leeds have found their true and correct place in the second flight and hopefully will stay there ad infinitum, I have a feeling that Wigan are gonna be joining them there this summer, having stayed in the Premier League with admirable resilience, since 2005. Wigan are beginning to remind me of Wimbledon, who had an abnormally long stay in the top flight before being relegated, moving fifty odd miles away to Milton Keynes and completly losing their identity in the process. Like Wimbledon, Wigan’s support in regards to numbers is lamentable, when a club can’t sell out their ground for the visit of United, Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool, then to my eyes, they have no business being in the top division. I could sit here all night taking the piss out of Wigan, but it’s a bit like kicking a puppy. At least the fans who came to Old Trafford yesterday dressed as bananas did try and create an atmosphere. They were, in the second half suddenly celebrating an imaginary goal, I was begining to think that they’d been on Ken Kesey’s favourite medication, then they tried riling a pretty bored K Stand by singing City’s Mancini song, to the tune of Volare and about City’s recent 6-1 win at Old Trafford. United fans ignored them in a way an adult would ignore a child jumping up and down saying look at me. United fans, myself included here, were looking forward to going back to the pub to carry on with the festive drinking session that always occurs on Boxing Day and which had been rudely interrupted by, unusually for United, a 3PM kick off.
This was the first of only four seasons where there was to be two group stages in the European Cup. United had cruised through the second group stage without too much problem, beating Girondins de Bordeaux home and away and losing at Fiorentina just before Christmas, partially due to a rare Roy Keane mistake which gifted Gabriel Batistuta the first goal in a 2-0 win for the Viola. This season saw European football at saturation level. On the 21st of March 2000, I was high up in the almost vertical Estadio de Mestalla watching Valencia and United play out a 0-0 draw which was very convenient for both sides. I didn’t know it at the time but exactly two weeks later, I would be back in Spain watching United play 200 miles from where I was at the Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Back in Manchester on the Friday after the Valencia match about Midday, the news came through that United had drawn Real Madrid in the Quarter finals. Huge mobile phones were abuzz with all kinds of excited phone calls and text messages flying about with plans to go. I remember being sat by a computer on the Easyjet website ready to book flights from Speke to Barajas and it went swimmingly, return flights booked for four at a grand total of just under £350.00. Sitting there feeling very pleased with myself, we all went to the pub for an all dayer in good spirits. The first sign of worry came when we heard later on that day that the match at the Bernabéu was on a Tuesday night. We’d booked flights to go out on Wednesday morning and as everybody knows, once a flight with Easyjet is booked it’s cast in Moses tablets and impossible to change. We found flights going out of Gatwick on the Tuesday morning with Air Europa which cost us just over £100.00 apiece that did have the consolation of the fact that we could smoke on the flight (in those days, a very rare privilege, nowadays illegal).