When Manchester United last played in Bern — a 1958 friendly after the English FA refused to let Sir Matt Busby’s side play in the European Cup — almost no travelling supporters made the trip.
Almost, but not zero: Eve Dewhurst, the wife of Keith, a journalist who covered the match for the Manchester Evening Chronicle, flew alone to Switzerland having had her enthusiasm for football sparked by watching the World Cup a few months earlier.
When assistant manager Jimmy Murphy told Busby she had made the journey on her own, the manager insisted she stay at the team hotel and had a seat on the team bus as it travelled along the shores of Lake Thun, past a medieval castle to Young Boys’ Wankdorf Stadium.
Sixty years later, some 2000 United fans will be in the Swiss capital for Wednesday night’s sold-out Champions League Group H game, a ticket for which will cost £41 ($54). While Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit, its football clubs have not shown the greed of their Spanish counterparts over ticket prices.
For December’s trip to Valencia, travelling fans have been charged £77 ($101), despite requests from the club to lower prices. In response, Valencia supporters must pay the same amount when they visit Old Trafford next month; to ease the financial burden, United will give £22 from each ticket to those who go to Spain.
There are no direct flights to beautiful Bern from the UK and there is no official travel organised by the club either, but that is half the adventure for fans. The match only lasts 90 minutes and is just a part of what is usually a two- or three-day trip with friends.
Given that you rarely get change from £500 for the round trip, as well as the availability of tickets and the frequency with which United play in Europe, away support is usually limited to 2000-3000, though it rises significantly for a big game with a larger allocation in an easy-to-reach city: United took 10,500 to Milan in 2005.
By contrast, more remote destinations see numbers, often because of expense or visa issues. The following for a Europa League game in Rostov two years ago, for example, was the lowest in the club’s modern history — just 81 fans ventured from the UK — although they were bolstered by a relatively new phenomenon: United fans from the host country.
When the Reds play in Russia, hundreds of Russian supporters will attend. For a preseason friendly in Munich last month, there were scores of United fans from across Europe — some of whom had season tickets for Old Trafford — including large groups from Slovenia.
The rise of budget airlines in the 1990s helped fans who wanted to get about independently but often the best adventures came via alternative modes of transport. In 1993, for example, I travelled by car, boat and train to Budapest for a game vs. Honved.
On that trip, a mate who did not have the correct rail ticket and spent 15 hours hiding under a seat on a train from Ostend in Belgium to Vienna in Austria. Meanwhile, other friends went to Hungary by coach from Manchester, something they would not do now they are older and wiser. All for a game of football!
United’s European support has also become polarised. Many regulars are older and retired, with time on their hands and spare money to travel abroad. You also get younger lads, perhaps free from the work of family responsibilities that might come in their 30s.
They are usually well behaved, but at times, a few let the side down. I cringed in Lisbon last year when a couple of youthful supporters jumped up and down on the roof of a rubbish truck, but they seemed to think it was fair game and fun.
Europe is full of stunning, walkable cities and there are gems off the beaten track that United fans have loved, from the beaches of Vigo to the bars of Cluj or the all-night party of Bilbao. Then there are big-city, big-club games in Madrid, Milan or Munich that make the hair stand up on your neck. I hope visiting fans find Manchester just as interesting.
There is no continent like Europe for accessible transport systems; fans have so many options for Bern that it will become a talking point: “How did you get here, then?” will be an often-asked question. And if anyone has been tripped up along the way, with luggage gone missing or a passport lost, ridiculed will be dished out as opposed to sympathy.
Such enjoyment and experiences keep fans going back for more. Like telling a fan that you need a passport to visit Wales from England, en route to Wrexham in 1990, and watching him hide from an imaginary immigration office. Or informing another, who wanted to know how to ask for “two beers” in Spanish, of the expression “two rabbits” instead and watching it all go wrong when he went to the bar.