Fourth-tier Coventry City’s surprise FA Cup win against Premier League club Stoke City was celebrated by Manchester United players. Not because they’re closet Sky Blues fans — a win by Stoke would have been just as welcomed — but because the decisive result meant Jose Mourinho’s squad could go warm-weather training in Dubai this week. (Had Coventry and Stoke drawn, the replay would have moved United’s Premier League game vs. Stoke from next Monday forward to Saturday.)
Sunshine and a little free time is welcome after 11 games in 35 days; this is the first midweek that United don’t have a game since early November. Moreover, the destination is familiar: Several players spend their holidays in Dubai, while other ex-Old Trafford men are there for work — Patrice Evra is training daily where United will practice — or pleasure.
One of the things the players like about Mourinho is that they feel he trusts them. In Los Angeles during preseason, the manager let them do as they pleased in their free time, which they appreciated after the constant meetings of Louis van Gaal’s time in charge.
United have been to the Middle East before at this time of year, for training and games. It’s a decade since the team played a lucrative January friendly in Saudi Arabia, a match that was criticised as it came in the middle of an important season.
No British journalists went to the Saudi capital Riyadh and United didn’t announce any ticket news because they didn’t expect any fans to travel, not least because they wouldn’t be able to get visas. As soon as the testimonial friendly against Al-Hilal was announced, though, a group of supporters set about trying to attend.
It was a problematic process and an uncompromising message from Britain’s Foreign Office warned of the threat of terrorism. That wasn’t enough to put 17 fans off, though, with the group adopting the mantra of: “If the reds should play in Rome or Mandalay, we’ll be there.”
The cost wasn’t cheap at around £1,200 and much networking followed. “Work” visas were arranged through United fan-friendly contacts around the world. Flabbergasted staff at Old Trafford, who assumed that there would be no travelling fans, agreed to source match tickets but couldn’t come up with them in time.
The 51-strong official United party, which included the players, had no such problems and left London a few hours after a victory at Reading. The 17 fans followed, most on a near-empty overnight flight from Heathrow to Bahrain, the oil-rich, gulf-island state located just off the coast of Saudi Arabia.
Alcohol is sold in Bahrain, but nightlife in the capital Manama was limited to a few ex-pat bars frequented by oil engineers and American servicemen from nearby military bases, though it did have a cafe called “Old Trafford.”
We took a flight to Riyadh the next morning, worried that we wouldn’t get into the country. Upon arrival, we had to state our religion on the immigration form. One fan wrote: Manchester United.
“Manchester United. Al-Hilal. Tonight,” said an official, while smiling.
This wasn’t the grim face of officialdom we’d expected and, an hour later, we were at the team hotel, a startling high-rise tower topped with a giant disco ball that overlooked a city of yellow-and-white housing laid out in neat grids. The tower had been designed by Manchester-born architect Sir Norman Foster.
Security was tight, with two soldiers behind machine guns perched atop desert yellow army trucks by the hotel entrance. Every car entering was searched for bombs.
Inside, the players’ private room had been kitted out with two computer consoles and a pool table. A flipchart detailed the match day timetable: Stretches, phone calls, meal, coach to stadium and, finally at 8 p.m., kickoff.
Young Saudi boys wearing United shirts moved around reception, viewing every western face as a potential first teamer. They didn’t recognise coach Mike Phelan, but his United tracksuit meant that he was accosted for autographs nonetheless, which he happily signed.
United chief executive David Gill appeared and arranged for the travelling fans to be given complimentary match tickets, a gesture which was appreciated. They were to be picked up from the main reception at the 70,000-capacity King Fahd stadium, which looked like a vast Bedouin tent with a white fabric roof. On the way to the stadium, ticket touts worked the moving traffic while vendors sold Al-Hilal merchandise.
The odd United shirt could be picked out among a sold-out crowd, but the locals supported the home side, Saudi’s most successful club since its foundation in 1957, and sang loudly: “Al-Hilal! Al-Hilal!” Thousands held up blue-and-white cards with “9” on them, the number of Saudi football legend Sami Al Jaber, in whose honour the game was being played. Meanwhile, rows of prayer mats filled any spare floor space in the stadium concourses.
The game was full of goals and Daniel Welbeck, 17, made his first appearance in a United shirt. He was given the task of converting a penalty in the last minute to secure a 3-3 draw, only to squander it.
We left the stadium hoping to get back into the centre of Riyadh via taxi, one that would hopefully not be involved in a traffic accident; we’d seen three on the road in from the airport alone. A medical student saw that we were United fans and offered a lift in his 4×4 car with two friends. They were exceptionally friendly as they questioned us in textbook English.
“Tell me, sir. What is the current condition of Gary Neville’s injury? How long can Paul Scholes play for Manchester? Who, in your opinion, will win the EPL (English Premier League)?” Then they invited us for dinner as their guests.
United were well paid for the trip and criticism of travelling so far to play a friendly soon subsided and had vanished by the time the team won the Premier League three months later. And the Champions League soon after that.
The club will hope this week’s trip to Dubai brings about similar good fortune.
Andy Mitten is a freelance writer and the founder and editor of United We Stand. Follow him on Twitter: @AndyMitten.