As a teenager at school in the late 1980s, one of the most exciting days at school in Manchester was getting a copy of the Manchester Evening News on the day the fixtures for the following season were released. Someone would sneak out of school during dinner time and buy a paper so we could pore over them.
In 1989, we quickly deciphered that Manchester United would be top of the league after seven games by the time they played Manchester City away in the derby. With games against Arsenal, Crystal Palace, Derby County, Norwich City Everton, Millwall and Portsmouth at the start of the season, the schedule wasn’t too challenging.
United were spending big and would bring Neil Webb, Gary Pallister, Danny Wallace and Paul Ince. When champions Arsenal were hammered 4-1 at Old Trafford on the opening day of the season, our confidence seemed confirmed.
Then things started to go wrong. United had a dreadful start, one which would get even worse after the derby on Sep. 23. United lost 5-1 and finished 13th that season. In the years that followed — a good 10 years — City fans simply referred to it as “The 5-1”. They wouldn’t beat United for another 13 years.
This season’s fixtures will be subject to many changes once the television companies choose which games they’ll televise. Changes tend to irk match-going fans. Fans are used to games not being played at the traditional time at 3pm on a Saturday but it depends on the nature of the change. Monday night away games are not popular, nor are early kick-offs, though at least away tickets are now capped at a reasonable £30 per match. It cost over £50 to watch the team at Chelsea, Arsenal and Fulham before the ruling came in thanks to campaigning from fan groups and the Football Supporters Federation.
Trends can be picked out. United’s first seven games are against West Ham, Swansea City, Leicester City, Stoke City, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace before a game at Liverpool on Oct. 14. That’s as good a start as any Premier League team could hope for, in contrast with the start given to new manager David Moyes in 2013-14. His side played Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City in the first five games and he genuinely felt that the fixtures had been loaded against champions United to make the league more interesting. Louis van Gaal could hardly complain a year later when Swansea, Sunderland, Burnley, QPR and Leicester were the first five league opponents.
United fans will look to see when their team play arch rivals City and Liverpool, plus the other big sides. Then there are the novelty games.
Huddersfield Town away offers a chance for many fans to see a smart new stadium less than one hour from Manchester. Brighton & Hove Albion offers similar, though the distance is considerably further as it sits on England’s South Coast, with a beach and a pier. Better to play there in May on a Bank Holiday weekend, as United will, for the last away game of the season which will finish early ahead of the 2018 World Cup finals. The penultimate away game is at Bournemouth, another seaside town with a beach. Better to go on a weekend as summer approaches than midweek when the traffic could be horrendous. United have midweek away matches at Watford and Spurs at Wembley. It took a lot of United fans seven hours to get from Manchester to Selhurst Park for a midweek away game in December, longer than it took some to get to Odessa for a Europa League match, though Watford and Wembley is on the Manchester side of London.
Some fans actually prefer the longer away trips for it’s a longer journey with their mates, having a laugh. Watching your team is so much more than about the game itself. With the Champions League and a European Super Cup against Real Madrid in Macedonia in August, there are many opportunities for fans to travel over land and sea. United will receive around 5,000 tickets for that game, priced between €15-50.
Most of the millions of United fans won’t watch any game in person and issues like tickets and travel are of little concern, while some may count themselves fortunate to see a game or two.
A Boxing Day away game can sit awkwardly with family life, so a home match against Burnley would be welcomed. Other fans might be in Manchester over certain periods like Christmas and will hope to see games there. Or they’ll look at the games in relation to where United’s cup fixtures might fit around them.
The Champions League group stage games will be followed by matches at home to Everton, home to Crystal Palace, away to Huddersfield, away to Chelsea, home to Brighton and home to Manchester City. It could be worse.
There’s a better spread than last season, where United faced tough away games at Burnley, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Southampton in the final month of league fixtures, a task so unforgiving that United had decided to focus on winning the Europa League by that point, a gamble which paid off for it secured a trophy and Champions League qualification.
United fans start the season and the opening match against a West Ham side in optimistic mood. The three games against West Ham were a microcosm of last season for Manchester United — a home draw and an away win in the league, then a superb performance in the EFL Cup. Given United’s early opponents are largely teams expected to finish mid-table, it’ll be a good indicator to see if they have improved.
A big improvement is both needed and expected, but we could have said exactly the same thing in each of the last three seasons and each proved to be a disappointment.
The belief is genuine that United can get better this season and that will grow with further summer signings, but fans thrice bitten will be a bit shyer about saying United will end up champions.
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