BY PAUL BREEN
Up and down the country every weekend, from Torquay up to Hartlepool, and from Blackpool across to Lincoln, football supporters travel to away games. Many like me take the time to explore the area they’re going to, and see some of its best sights. Others get off the train, find the nearest pub, and go to the stadium. Some sing that the place they are visiting is a shit hole and they want to go home.
We get this song at my local club Charlton all the time from fans that have never seen beyond the walk to the football ground from the train station or the main road where the coaches are parked.
Their experience of Charlton becomes a barely-travelled tale of cheap lager, fast food, and streets that seem to be left permanently scruffy because of their closeness to the Valley, our famous ground.
I’m sure it’s the same with many of the clubs and towns in this country. Many football supporters pass through places without looking below the surface. Often it’s for good reason.
In times past there was a risk associated with going to away games and wearing the colours of a visiting team. These days there’s far less of a risk, unless maybe it’s a local derby such as West Ham and Millwall, or Leeds against Huddersfield.
The farther you get from home actually, the easier it is to walk around a town in opposing colours, and even mix with home supporters in shops, pubs, and coffee shops.
I’ve had some great away days up and down the country from Gillingham in Kent right up to Middlesbrough. Indeed, I describe some of them in my book that was published in 2014, entitled ‘The Charlton Men’, telling the story of two football supporters in the 2011/12 season just after the London riots.
This season I have been to Reading, Nottingham, and Middlesbrough, and would have been to more if it weren’t for work and studies that took up so much of my time.
In each of the three places I had a different experience and events on the pitch were certainly better at Reading’s Madejski Stadium than at Middlesbrough’s Riverside, but it’s embarrassing then when you sit in a stadium and your own supporters sing songs that run down the place they’re passing through.
It always makes me wonder what this has to do with football because in this day and age it’s certainly not aimed at the players on the pitch. It’s no longer the days of Brian Clough and local lads playing for their team, though there are still some.
I doubt very much whether Kike in his Middlesbrough shirt cares if those shouting for him are dirty northerners or soft southerners, as the supporters seem to enjoy chanting at each other.
I guess, though, everybody’s different. Each supporter goes to see football matches for a different reason. I enjoy a drink at the game sometimes but don’t need to be blind drunk to love the football, and don’t give a damn what the opposition fans do, or where they are from. I like the away experience for what it is for me, and I imagine that’s the shared sentiment of the silent majority.
It’s the experience of going somewhere new and getting a sense of that place and its history, and doing something more with the afternoon than passing through enemy terrain.
So why do I care what others do, what they chant or shout, or swear about? Well it’s because the more they act this way, the more they make it hard for the rest of us to have a peaceful, inquisitive and anonymous day out in these places.
More than once, after a day spent in a new place, I’ve been left walking back to the train station hoping I don’t meet somebody who takes opposition chants too seriously. Some of the things that are said not only border on the offensive. They shove the offensive right down the locals’ throats, accompanied by a generous lashing of swear words to go with the afternoon meal.
I’ve written about this too in my book, and strangely it got a far better response than I ever expected. I thought it would draw criticism from some quarters where people would say it’s only sticks and stones, and that things were worse in days gone by.
Maybe it was worse long ago but football’s a changed and changing game and not always for the better either.
One area where it hasn’t really caught up with the present age is in the way it handles the match day experience for away supporters and sometimes even for home supporters too.
There must be a market out there surely for treating football supporters as potential tourists. I guess that’s something for others to explore, but when they do I’ll be keen to see what happens.
Maybe Middlesbrough, where this idea first came into my mind, could lead the way on this – sell itself to visiting supporters who like me, at the start, might have a false impression of the town.
Give them a sense of the history, the museums, the places to see, and the pubs to visit, especially the bits connected to football history such as the Brian Clough statue or the ruins of Ayresome Park. Maybe it’s been tried before, and maybe it wouldn’t work, but like I said, not everybody wants to get pissed in a pub by the train station, and even those who do want to find a decent atmosphere. You generally don’t get such an atmosphere in places that are just a series of kennels designed to close in away supporters getting tanked up before barking out abuse at the opposition.
Again that’s all some might people might want from their Saturday but there are a lot who don’t – a less vocal majority who tick off places and grounds like a sporting version of the trainspotters I watched with amusement on my way up through Yorkshire last time (having assumed they’d all have died out in this digital age now that everything’s on computer).
Anyway, I hope to be passing through a lot more stations over the next couple of seasons, and might even make it to Hartlepool next year if they’re playing one of my local London teams. I could even go there dressed as a smurf, as they did when last in Charlton!
There’s a lot to see in this country as I’ve learned since coming here from Ireland, and away days are a great way of doing that – killing two birds with one stone.
PAUL BREEN – Author of The Charlton Men – available at http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Charlton-Men-Paul-Breen/dp/178308166X
FOLLOW PAUL ON TWITTER @CharltonMen