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A brief history of Manchester United's failure to win the Europa League

Manchester United's European adventure begins again on Thursday, as they begin their pursuit of the only big trophy that they've never won. How have they managed that? Well, glad you asked ...

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Here is a list of all the major (okay, major-ish) trophies that Manchester United have, at some point or other, won:

The English league title; the English second division title; the European Cup/Champions League; the FA Cup; the League Cup; the Charity/Community Shield; the UEFA Cup Winners' Cup; the UEFA Super Cup; the Intercontinental Cup; the FIFA World Club Cup.

And here is a list of all the major trophies that Manchester have not, at some point or other, won:

The Europa League.

Or the UEFA Cup, if you're feeling traditional. Or the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, as it (sort of) was before that. While this probably more a consequence of circumstances than any grand curse, it's the biggest hole in Manchester United's trophy cabinet and will need to be dealt with at some point. So as United prepare to take on Midtjylland this coming Thursday, we take a look back at the club's previous doomed attempts to bring home the weird melty alien vase thing.

The Inter-Cities Fairs Cup

Although the idea of football as an extension of soft political and financial power feels very modern — hello Qatar! hello Abu Dhabi! — in truth, this sort of thing has been going on for a while. Europe's biggest club competition may owe its existence to the noble desire to find out which team was the bestest of the best, but the second-string stramash was born from the not entirely Corinthian wish to promote international trade fairs.

The lineage is slightly murky: FIFA recognise the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup as a major competition, but UEFA don't acknowledge it as the direct descendant of the UEFA Cup. But we've included it here for three reasons. One, because while initial qualification was by invitation, and was only open to cities holding trade fairs, eventually it became the competition for teams that weren't good enough to make it into the proper one. Two, because when UEFA took it over they replaced it with the UEFA Cup. And three, United came quite close to winning the thing.

In 1964-65, Manchester United fans were having quite the time of it. The season began as the first in which the Trinity of Best, Law and Charlton were all established as first-team regulars, and ended in United's first title since 1956-57; in that sense, it marks the completion of Matt Busby's rebuilding work after the Munich disaster. United had returned to European football the previous season, though their Cup Winners' Cup campaign had ended ignominiously in Lisbon; United, having beaten Sporting 4-1 in first leg of the quarterfinal, collapsed 5-0 away, a performance that Busby told his players amounted to "an insult to the people of Manchester".

The Fairs Cup campaign was relatively smooth in the early stages: in the first round, after a 1-1 draw away from home, Swedish champions Djurgardens were crushed 6-1 at Old Trafford, then Borussia Dortmund were swatted aside 10-1 over two legs. In the third round, United had a slightly tougher time of it against Everton, but goals from John Connelly and David Herd saw them through 3-2.

These days, we're used to European football unrolling on a regular schedule: Champions League on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, Europa League on Thursday, for more or less the same weeks through the season. But back then, things were more chaotic: United played the second leg of the third round on 9 February, but didn't play the first leg of the quarterfinal for another three months, fully two weeks after they'd won the title. Meanwhile, Roma and Ferencváros didn't even start their third round until March.

The upshot of all this is that while the rest of the country had their feet up, United were essentially competing in a post-season mini-tournament. On 12 May they beat RC Strasbourg 5-0 away, then drew 0-0 back at Old Trafford a week later to reach the semifinals. Then, having taken a week off to allow the other half of the draw to shake out, they took on Ferencváros. United won the first leg (31 May) 3-2, but could and should have scored more, and paid for it come the second leg (6 June). The Hungarians won 1-0, squaring the tie, and given that this was before away goals and penalty shootouts, the two teams did the only thing they knew how to do, They waited until 16 June, then played another game of football!

United lost 2-1, and the trade fairs of the northwest wept bitter tears. Probably.

The UEFA Cup

When people wax nostalgic about the UEFA Cup, conversation will always turn, sooner or later, to the exotic and enchanting plurality of teams that used to pop up the competition. Strange coagulations of consonants from behind the Iron Curtain; sundrenched resort towns from the Mediterranean; icebound Nordic outposts. And so it came to pass that United's first adventure into the UEFA Cup proper threw them up against little-known Dutch outfit "Ajax", and then tiny Italian provincial side "Juventus".

To be fair, Ajax weren't quite at their early-70s strength. Johan Cruyff and Rinus Michels were both in Barcelona, and of the 1973 European Cup winning team, only Ruud Krol and Barry Hulshoff remained. United lost 1-0 in Amsterdam, but overturned the result back at Old Trafford thanks to goals from Sammy McIlroy and Gordon Hill. Juventus proved too strong, however: United took a 1-0 win to Turin, lost 3-0, and the Italians went on to win the competition. They were a good team, too: Dino Zoff, Claudio Gentile, Gaetano Scirea. No shame there.

United's next adventure in the competition, however, 1980-81, was exactly the kind of UEFA Cup tie that tradition insists upon. Dave Sexton's United were drawn against Widzew Łódź of Poland, and we refer you to the Times' first leg match report for a brief description of the opposition. Because it's wonderful.

It was easy to see why the Poles made such tough and undaunted allies of ours in the war and why Edward Gierek and the Warsaw Government decided recently not to confront the Baltic shipyard workers.

Just magnificent introductory work. That game, at Old Trafford, finished 1-1, thanks to Łódź's "firm and uncompromising intent" and "occasionally desperate, often rough but always fearless defending". This approach worked even better in Poland, and after the second leg ended 0-0, away goals — which had unfortunately been invented by this point — came into play and United were out. Still, it wasn't all bad. According to the Times, before the first game "the crowd buzzed with the news that United have bid £1m for Nottingham Forest's Garry Birtles." All Sexton's problems were about to end ...

... oh, no. Birtles didn't score all season, United were rubbish and boring, and Sexton got fired. Ah well. Forwards, under Ron Atkinson, to entertainment!

In 1983-84, United reached the semifinals of the Cup-Winners' Cup, a run that included that game against Barcelona, a rollicking 3-0 win that many who were there cite as the greatest atmosphere Old Trafford has ever known. By contrast, the 1984-85 UEFA Cup campaign wasn't quite as impressive. The opposition weren't quite as thrilling, the biggest result came away from home, and the exit was ultimately something of a damp squib.

Still, let's not get ahead of ourselves. In another nod to classic UEFA Cup behaviour, United saw off Rába Vasas ETO Győr in the first round — they're Hungarian, they change their name a lot, and they're currently known as Győri ETO — before needing more than three hours to scrape past PSV Eindhoven 1-0 over the two legs. According to the Times, "Eindhoven disrupted United's intermittent flow by any means that came to hand or boot", though looking back, they probably should have kept such tactics outside the penalty area. Gordon Strachan scored the spot kick three minutes into extra time.

As if in response to the lack of goals, the universe decided that the third round would be a good time for a Manchester United Defensive Injury Crisis. As the first leg against Dundee United — European Cup semifinalists the previous season — approached, Mike Duxbury and Graeme Hogg were both ruled out, Kevin Moran and Arthur Albiston were touch and go, and the young Paul McGrath had yet to make a first-team appearance following an operation in the summer. In the end, Albiston and Duxbury made the game, alongside John Gidman and Gordon McQueen, who was in his last season at the club. United dominated the first half, but Dundee's goalkeeper, 36-year-old Hamish McAlpine, was having a performance to match his name in goal, Strachan missed one of his two penalties, and the makeshift defence couldn't hold at the other end. 2-2, and all to do at Tannadice.

Luckily for United, they fell on the right side of a five-goal split. And lucky is the word: "There may have been games strewn with more defensive blunders on Hackney Marshes," sighed the Times, "but surely not on a European stage ... As a display, it bordered on the amateurish." Mark Hughes scored the first, set up neatly by a defender; United's marking dissolved for the equaliser, but the lead was restored after 40 minutes when Dundee's Gary McGinnis nutted fiercely into his own net. Into the second half, and up stepped McQueen: first he threw the game away, cartwheeling a header across his own box to Paul Hegarty, and then he saved it, deflecting Arnold Muhren's shot past McAlpine. "If you've got a weak heart, you shouldn't watch us," chuckled Atkinson.

After all that, it would be fairly disappointing to lose in the next round to an unheralded Hungarian team on penalties, wouldn't it? Oh dear. Though to be fair, Videoton did go on to the final, though they were unable to get past Real Madrid. Frank Stapleton and Albiston missed United's kicks, if you were wondering.

Alex Ferguson had taken charge by the time United returned to the competition, though you'd understand if at this stage of his United career he was more concerned with domestic matter. United's last two UEFA Cup campaigns both ended in the first round in vaguely farcical fashion. Another penalty shootout did for them in 1992-93: Steve Bruce, Brian McClair and Gary Pallister failing to net after two 0-0 draws with Torpedo Moscow. Then, three seasons later, a goal from Peter Schmeichel couldn't get United past Rotor Volgograd, who progressed on away goals after a 2-2 draw at Old Trafford.

The Europa League

This season's Champions League debacle wasn't great, though it's an open question as to whether it was worse than 2011-12. Drawn into what looked like a friendly group, United won just twice, home and away against Oțelul Galați. Three draws and a loss against Benfica and Basel put United in third place and sent them crashing — it's always crashing, isn't it? Always so violent. It's never apologising, or slouching, or gently drifting — into the Europa League.

In a spooky coincidence, United's first opponents in the rebranded competition were Ajax, just as they had been way back at the beginning of this article. And in another spooky coincidence, United went through fairly comfortably. Goals from Ashley Young and Javier Hernandez gave United a 2-0 win in Amsterdam, and meant that the 2-1 loss back in Manchester didn't really matter. Except, presumably, for a young Daley Blind, who made his first appearance at Old Trafford that night.

Had United entertained any ideas about this competition being straightforward, however, they were about to be put firmly straght. Athletic Bilbao, guided by idiosyncratic tactical maven Marcelo Bielsa and featuring future United heartthrob Ander Herrera, turned up to Old Trafford and smashed their hosts all over the place in frankly disrespectful fashion. They were fearless and ferocious, and after United nicked an early lead, they roared back to stick three past a busy David de Gea. Wayne Rooney's late penalty offered a sliver of hope, but that was snatched away after 23 minutes of the second leg, when Fernando Llorente slapped home a beautiful volley.

Athletic made their way to the final in style, though they ran out of steam and were comfortably beaten by Atletico Madrid. United, meanwhile, went on to finish an unspectacular and entirely-unworthy-of-comment second in the league. No, don't bother double-checking that. Let us never speak of this season again.