Despite what they say about a cold, wet and windy one in Stoke, there is no place I’d rather be heading to today. As the Boro prepare to take on The Potters in a top-half clash, it’s got me yearning for an away day.
In a world where sporting glory is almost entirely reserved for the elite, an away day is the highlight for football fans across the globe and the nature of what makes them so great has become a business for some.
There’s hundreds of YouTube channels, social media accounts, fashion brands, songs and films dedicated to promoting the “away day experience”, tapping into the excitement, relatable feelings and sense of oneupmanship of following your team across the country.
There’s nothing else, at club level, that brings people together in unison like a photo of 400 Fleetwood Town fans making the journey to Plymouth Argyle on a Tuesday night in November. Respect, lads. *clapping emojis*
Journeying around the country gives people the chance to escape the usual weekend at home, to experience and explore new places or visit old haunts to relive cherished memories. As the line goes in The Jam classic Down in the Tubestation at Midnight, “have an away day, a cheap holiday, do it today”.
It’s those feelings and everything that comes with an away day that makes the prospect of spending a Saturday in Stoke so appealing.
It all starts with the militant planning and preparation that goes into transporting a group of football fans from one part of the country to another, either finding the cheapest train ticket deals weeks in advance, making sure the bus has a pisser on this time or persuading one of the lads to drive. Every single away day driver is a hero. Give ’em a Pride of Britain award.
It’s things going pear shaped with the last minute drop out that needs to be filled with someone’s mate of a mate to cover costs. It’s not being able to get to sleep the night before with all of the excitement and just as you’re settling down, ding ding ding, your alarm is blaring and it’s time to get out of bed.
It might be a struggle to wake up for work during the week but being up before the crack of dawn to head to Bristol or Cardiff? You’re like a kid on Christmas Day.
It’s the suspicious look from the taxi driver as you bundle into the back of the car, still bleary eyed and with toothpaste marking your lip, with a crate of lager. No, I’m not going to work, no Boro aren’t at home and yeah, it is a bit mad going all that way for a game of football. It’s not even 7 o’clock yet.
It’s meeting up with all of your mates in a freezing cold train station, the icy wind whipping away as a frosty reminder that you really should’ve wore a coat, or in the dystopian settings of Wetherspoons at opening time for a quick brekky.
The animated chatter as people catch up and discuss the probable lineup for today, be that the team or the pubs that will be getting visited on arrival, is only broken by the frantic buzzing and beeping of phones. Of course, someone is running late. There’s always one and they’ve usually forgot to nip in the offy last night as well.
We’ll have to make sure to stop at Wetherby on the way. It is the greatest service station that the world has ever seen after all.
Whatever the mode of transport, an angelic choir sings as the first cans of the trip are cracked open, accompanied by the tuts of other rail passengers or the cheers of acknowledgement from travelling companions. The tunes are on, the motorway rave is underway and there’s already an argument about who is today’s DJ. Some clever arse pipes up “are we there yet” and it seems that now is the time everybody decides to check if they have tickets for the game.
Court is in session as tales are weaved of away days past. You’ve heard them all before but you’ll never tire of them. There’s a bottle of “shots” going round. Nobody knows exactly what it is but everyone is having a swig anyway.
The initial buzz is starting to catch up as the lack of sleep hits, people get a bit tetchy and human nature takes over. The toilet is blocked or there’s nowhere to pull over. Could do with something else to eat, to be honest. The fields of England roll by as the music is exchanged for chants as you pull ever closer to your destination. Boro are here and everyone needs to know.
You muddle around trying to find “the pub”, the one everyone else is going to. Maybe we should have a quick pit stop at this one here, it looks alright. Only one of you knows how to navigate the tube in London or Google Maps, so the hopes of the day rests squarely on their shoulders. Eventually, after a painstaking Benny Hill tribute acts, you’ve found it. The enigma of a Boro filled bar in a foreign town, everyone whinging about the price of the pints, familiar faces wherever you turn. Heaven.
By the time you get served, the call goes up, we’re off. It’s time to head to the ground.
Joining the crowd in the away end, this is it. This is what everyone has come for. Everywhere we go, everyone will know, we’re Middlesbrough. The Red Army pulses and sways to all of the old classics, the volume cranked up to 11. The 90 minutes ticks away. punctuated by chants, howls and groans as the atmosphere soars and dips in time to the on-field antics.
Everyone’s turned into an architect “tinpot this” “nah, it’s class this proper ground” and the quality of the scran on offer is meticulously critiqued.
Out of nowhere, someone has scored. What follows is either wild celebrations akin to the Vikings conquering the coasts of England or the death roar of a home team going ahead. Despite being in a crowd of thousands, nowhere are you more alone and vulnerable than in the moments following a home team’s goal at an away match. Defiance takes over and things resume.
Full time follows in the same suit depending on the outcome. Celebrating or consoling. You applaud the lads, they did their best. Hanging on for the mass of bodies to exit the ground, you have a laugh at the young’uns in the main stand posturing and giving the wanker signs. That might have been you once.
Win, lose or draw, it’s time for the journey home or a night out in the city centre . Even the most devastating defeat is soon remedied with a warm can or and victory is toasted with a fresh crate of bottles.
The music is back on, plans are being made for when you’re home and the traditions come out. Maybe it’s swapping the terrace songs for karaoke. Maybe it’s taking advantage of the resident away day sleeper, with the photos bound to do the rounds on Whatsapp or maybe it’s dissecting the game with the old bloke who always comes on your bus.
As the day draws to a close and friends part, either to get a takeaway and some much needed rest or to continue the night, you promise that it won’t be too long before the next one. It’s always too long.
That’s what makes an away day special. No matter how different things are, they’re exactly the same. It could be Barnsley, Blackburn or Brentford. It could be a last minute road trip to Yorkshire, a long awaited train or away bus to the Midlands or even a full weekend away on the South Coast.
You might see an away trip as a chance to tick off a new ground, to clear your head after a tough week grafting or it’s the easier journey than getting back up North to the motherland. No matter the reason or how you’ve got there, an awayday brings everyone together. To follow your team and dream.
Let’s hope it’s not too long before we’re back on the road again.