Maybe you're sick of giving money to a chairman you hate, but still want to go to games. Maybe you're one of the committed few who will willingly get up at 5am to travel the length of the country to see your team get hammered 6-1 and then not get home until gone midnight on a regular basis. Maybe you've noticed that the away fans at your ground always seem to be singing louder, jumping about more, and just generally having more fun. The reasons for it are plentiful, but there comes a time in almost every football fan's life that they decide 'I want to go to an away game.'
Step One: Choosing your match
The first thing any prospective travelling football fan needs to do is work out where it is that they will be travelling to. When doing this, a number of things need to be taken into account.
The Opposition - This is especially important for those not used to going to away games. Common sense dictates that for your first game, you shouldn't stray too far from home; the closer the opposition ground is the better. Common sense is, in this case, wrong. The closest away ground to you will quite probably be home to your fiercest local rivals1, and this means a potential increase in the 'hooligan element' and a guaranteed increase in police presence, both of which will be discussed below. This means you need to pick a match where you will preferably be travelling outside your home county, but not so far that you'll need to take two lots of sandwiches.
The Price - When buying tickets to a football match, prices are commonly split into 'categories', meaning the better, more famous, or more local the opposition the pricier the ticket. This means it will cost you more to see Manchester United visit your home ground than it would to see Rochdale. When travelling as an away fan this happens in a slightly different manner. Chances are it will cost you more to be a Manchester United fan than a Rochdale fan, regardless of your opinion of the relative merits of the home team.
The Date - As a rule of thumb, it's much easier to attend a match played on a Saturday than in midweek. This is because trains don't run very frequently after 10pm, and most midweek matches will see you arriving back at the station later than that. Saturdays may mean you have to stand as the train you catch is full of people carrying shopping and small children, but this is generally better than an hour stop-over at a cold, dark train station where you won't be able to get a cup of coffee.
Television - Matches on television serve two purposes. Firstly they change kick-off times meaning you have to leave earlier or get home later because 3pm has magically become 12 noon or 5:45pm. Secondly, they mean that you could save yourself the trouble of travelling all that way to stand in the cold and watch your team lose by watching it in a comfy armchair.
Step Two: Purchasing your ticket
There are two ways to get hold of a ticket for a football match. These can widely be considered to be the 'right' way and the 'wrong' way. The first way is to go about it the same way you go about getting tickets to a home game. Phone or visit your team's ticket office, usually located on the same bit of land as the stadium whose team it services, or use your club's official website. The second way is to buy from a ticket tout. This course of action is widely considered to be the 'wrong' way as it will leave you substantially out of pocket as your ticket will not cost you anything like the figure printed on it and will probably leave you surrounded by home fans, home fans who will treat you appearing uninvited in their section of the ground insulting their team in much the same ways as they would treat you appearing uninvited in their front room insulting their family photographs. Expect stern disapproval as a matter of course. If you find yourself in this unenviable position you will at least get to indulge any spy fantasies you have. Try not to be noticed by anyone by covering up any club shirts or badges you have and don't leap around if your team score. Whatever you do, don't stand on your seat, whirl your scarf around your head and sing your club's anthem. That would just be stupid.
Step Three: Preparation
Travelling to an away game requires a certain amount of preparation. At the very least you will need three things:
A match ticket - If you travel without one then you will quite probably have to visit a ticket tout. As we have just discussed, visiting a ticket tout is not a very good idea. If you can't cross this off your pre-match checklist then you may as well go back to bed.
Transportation - Unless you get an official coach, which can take the fun out of travelling to an away game as it's comparable to a school bus, there are generally two ways of getting to an away game; by car or public transport. A car allows you to avoid many of the risks of travelling to away matches, lets you park near the ground, and means you can escape quickly after the game. Public transport, on the other hand, offers only two advantages. Firstly, you'll most likely find yourself travelling with a number of like-minded individuals allowing you to debate the issues of the day such as 'who should play at left back?' and the ever popular 'why do we get up at 5am to go all this way?' Secondly, it allows you to drink beer. Unsurprisingly, public transport has always been a more popular option for Saturday afternoon games. Something to take into account when choosing your mode of transport is where the stadium you are travelling to is located in relation to train stations and city centres. Older grounds tend to be within walking distance of central train stations but can have truly woeful parking facilities, whereas newer stadia such as Bolton's Reebok Stadium are located out of town surrounded by vast car parks and motorways. Before you commit to any course of action, it's best to check.
Money - Money allows you to pay for secure parking if you drive, will purchase you a ride in a taxi or a bus to get you from the train station to the ground if you don't drive, and will ensure a steady flow of refreshing beverages and tasty snacks. Don't be tempted to take too much money though. Not only is there a chance you can leave your wallet on the other side of the country, your hard-earned cash may end up in the hands of a vendor of tacky souvenirs outside the stadium.
Once you have secured these three items, you may want to think about ancillary provisions: a bottle opener2 will let you access any drinks you take with you without ruining your teeth; a pack of cards or a personal stereo to help long journeys pass more quickly; and a mobile phone to allow you to let your non-travelling friends know how much fun you're having. If you choose to drive, a map or directions to your destination and a thermos flask of something to keep you awake may well be needed.
Once you're fully prepared, it's time to set off.
Step Four: Know the risks
Everything in life carries an element of risk, and going to a football match is no exception. As such, you should be prepared for any potential pitfalls that you may stumble across on your journey. The two main potential risks facing a travelling football fan are opposition fans and the police force.
Opposition Fans - Fans can be split into two groups. Group A contains the vast majority of fans you are ever likely to bump into and are decent, law-abiding human beings just like you who like to while away those lazy afternoons watching sporting events with like-minded people. It cannot be overstated that the overwhelming majority of football supporters will kindly direct you to the nearest public house, offer a heartily biased prediction for that day's match and act like normal, civilised human beings. Group B, however, should be avoided at all costs as this tiny percentage of the population are sociopaths. Known to the media as 'hooligans' and 'scum' and referred to by the rest of the footballing community by a variety of unrepeatable and unprintable names, these evolutionary throwbacks derive entertainment from hitting people. A quick search on the Internet will enable you to find out who the local hooligan 'firm' are3 and how to spot them. A handy rule of thumb is that if they're wearing a replica shirt, they will belong to group A, whereas if they're dressed as a cross between a paramilitary thug and a model for Stone Island or Burberry they may well belong to group B.
The Police - The only problem with the police force is that they sometimes assume that all football fans fall neatly into the 'violent sociopath' category, especially ones that travel to a different part of the country on a match day. This is due to the dark periods of the 1970s and 1980s when large numbers of football fans would run amok, fighting, doing huge amounts of damage, and occasionally killing each other. This no longer happens in English football, in part due to the hardline stance the police take with football fans. This involves stopping and searching fans at train stations, closing down pubs around the stadium4 and occasionally herding fans around the city in 'police escorts'. This stance can, however, be a source of great irritation to the travelling supporter as the following anecdote illustrates:
I remember travelling to Bramall Lane to see Leeds United playing Sheffield United in a league match. Before the game we were directed from the train station to a nearby pub, which was quite pleasant although we weren't allowed to leave. 15 minutes before kick-off we were all instructed to leave the pub, and flanked by 40 or so police officers and a handful of police horses and vans we were marched to the stadium. After the game we were taken back to the pub for 15 minutes or so and then marched back to the station. However, rather than being allowed to go straight to the platform we were all herded into a large storage room. We waited in there with nowhere to sit and no toilet facilities for half an hour until we were moved onto a train back to Leeds. It wouldn't have been quite as bad had I wanted to go to Leeds as opposed to Manchester, where I was living at the time.
As such it may be preferable to try and avoid police wherever possible simply to retain your freedom of movement and be able to get the train home that you want.
Assuming you have a ticket, haven't managed to find any hooligans or antagonise the police force you should be able to find the stadium. Sometimes you will have to negotiate a baffling series of directions intended to keep you away from home fans, other times you will be allowed to freely mingle. In either case you should head to the turnstile your ticket corresponds to and enter the ground. You should now be free to watch the match in a loud, unruly and generally excitable fashion. Then after the final whistle goes, it's time to go home.
Step Five: Going home
Well maybe it's not time to go straight away, as some grounds will request that travelling fans remain inside the stadium for up to half an hour to allow home fans to disperse. Other grounds don't just request this; a line of stewards and police will be deployed by the exits to make sure you stay inside. After you are allowed out, all that remains is to head home. This is perhaps the most simple task of the day for those who drive to games, so long as they can remember where they're parked. For those using public transport, the risks present before a match are still a concern, as is finding your way back to the train station because taxis are scarce outside stadia and buses attract huge queues. If the station is within walking distance there will often be signposts directing you towards them, whereas if it isn't, you will probably have to join one of those queues.
If you do get to the train station without a hitch, you still may not be home and dry. If, for whatever reason, you live in a different city to the team you support then predictably you may not want to get the same train as the majority of your team's fans. Unfortunately, the police may have instructions to put every away fan onto a particular train, so to avoid an unplanned trip to your home ground you may want to take proof of your address to the game with you.
Once you are home, you'll probably want to put your feet up, have a cup of tea and watch the football highlights from other matches but rest assured within a few days your mind will wander and you'll be planning your next away match adventure. There are 92 clubs in the English football league5 in any given year, and each of them has a stadium so there are plenty of potential trips in your future!