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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 24 June 2018

Andy Mitten's football diary, Part 1: Old Trafford game kickstarts a promising tour

Our European football correspondent will be at eight games over the next eight days. This is the first installment of his trip diary.

Manchester United's home game against Newcastle United on Saturday was marked by the comeback of Paul Pogba from injury. Serena Taylor / Getty Images
Manchester United's home game against Newcastle United on Saturday was marked by the comeback of Paul Pogba from injury. Serena Taylor / Getty Images

A couple of thoughts struck me as I left Valencia on Thursday following an interview with Andreas Pereira, the 21-year-old winger thriving in Spain while on loan from Manchester United.

The first was the huge increase in the number of Spain flags around the cities as a result of the push from some Catalans for independence, a move that is receiving almost no support outside Catalonia. Valencians are unhappy that some Catalans consider Valencia as part of the Catalan region and suggest that Valencia might want to leave Spain.

The second thought was that Pereira was the first footballer I had interviewed where I was older than the player’s father, who is 43.

And the third was how Spaniards put their heavy coats on when the temperature dips below 18 degrees, a level considered summer in the United Kingdom.

I headed north from Valencia using Spain’s excellent rail system, spent a night with my family in Barcelona and had to turn down a request from my youngest daughter (3) to travel with me for the next nine days, where I would watch nine games of football and visit five countries. I will do a daily diary of the trip.

Manchester was the first stop, where I interviewed former Manchester United players Ryan Giggs and Nicky Butt on stage at England’s National Football museum. It was their way of saying thanks to United’s vast, 42,000 strong, Scandinavian supporters’ club and they gave their time for free, signing autographs and posing for selfies for an hour beforehand.

Both were in a good mood, honest and engaging.

Butt is the head of United’s academy and continues to stress how important it is that a club like United develops young players. Giggs is loving life outside the United bubble after a 26-year career at Old Trafford. He has got eight or 10 different interests on the go: from Salford City to acting as a consultant for the Vietnam football association to his media work.

He enjoys taking his son to Old Trafford to see a game without any pressure. I have never seen him so relaxed. He iss interested in being a manager, but after pulling on a United jersey 1,042 times (a record 962 times for the first team), he is more than entitled to develop other interests.

Butt remains at football’s coalface and suggested that I travelled to watch the reserve Manchester derby the following morning in Leigh, a working-class town around 25-30 kilometres west of Manchester where rugby league is popular.

United gave free entrance to all fans and a lot of children were in attendance to see a 1-1 draw against a Manchester City team considered superior after years of better funded recruitment. United’s players at Under 23 level are not a vintage class – though striker James Wilson will hope to recover the form which saw him rise to prominence and first team football under Louis van Gaal.

United’s U18s are much better. Phil Foden, City’s 17-year-old midfielder and a star of England’s recent U17 World Cup win, was the youngest player on the pitch and also the one from whom the most is expected. He really impressed in a first team pre-season derby in Houston.

In the slightly cooler climes of Leigh, it was a mediocre game and nobody really stood. What was most apparent was that the gap from reserve to first-team football remains vast, though the players benefit from exceptional facilities and support.

In the first half, City’s Demeaco Duhaney and United’s Demetri Mitchell went down after a clash. Assistance was instant, with two physios and a three stretcher team for each player. There were two other paramedics on hand.

It is 20 years since Coventry City’s David Busst suffered a horrendous career ending injury at Old Trafford. Assistance to him was late and came from St John’s Ambulance volunteers who weren’t overly athletic and took a while to reach the stricken player. Clubs now have their own medical teams.

The young City team are managed by Simon Davies. Along with Ryan Wilson (nee Giggs) and Adie Mike, Davies was the best player in my junior football league in Salford 30 years ago. Mike briefly made City’s first team, Giggs and Davies United’s first team.

Old Trafford was next. Manchester’s skyline punctuated by cranes in another construction boom, while Old Trafford is surrounded by road works which are altering the flows of fan traffic on one side of the stadium and playing havoc with attempts to sell copies of our United We Stand fanzine.

I met Michael Martin, editor of the Newcastle fanzine True Faith and while he was not optimistic about seeing his team get a result in Manchester, he spoke of the Geordie adoration for manager Rafa Benitez, if not owner Mike Ashley, who they expect to depart soon.

United beat United 4-1 in a very entertaining game, with the return performance of Paul Pogba the highlight. Jose Mourinho was more relaxed after the game than he had been for a while.

If the seven other games that I have going to see over the next seven days in Watford, Brighton, Dortmund, Basel Cologne, London and Manchester are half as entertaining, it should be an interesting week.

I am travelling by train, writing as I go and I have sorted most of my tickets and accommodation, though I am waiting on confirmation that I can watch Dortmund’s game against Tottenham Hotspur from their Yellow Wall. I will also eventually have to take the plunge and book a hotel room in Basel, eye-watering Van Gogh prices and all.

I have just left Manchester Piccadilly, passing two men from Galway, Ireland, sleeping rough in the cold on the station approach, for Watford. Piccadilly is Manchester’s main station where my great Uncle Charlie returned to after a one-year spell in Colombia in 1950.

A star player of his day, he had left Manchester United to move to South America, increasing his wages from £11 (Dh53.3) a week to £100. The British media called him the "Bogota Bandit" and he returned to Manchester an outcast, with his manager Matt Busby stating than he was not going to accept him back on a point of principle.

Players were serfs then with few rights and while Charlie would go on to play for Fulham and manage Newcastle United, there was only one non-family member waiting to greet him at Piccadilly in 1951, the "Welsh Wizard" Billy Meredith, the heroic United and City player who fought for players’ rights. He played for United until he was 47 and City until 50.

Not even Giggs could manage that.

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Also from Mitten

Paul Pogba return already a shot in the arm for Manchester United

Jose Mourinho's Manchester United side a far cry from class of '66

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