By Jason McKeown
I bloomin’ love away games. That feeling of excitement when you wake up knowing you’re off for an adventure to another part of the country. The novelty of a journey somewhere unusual. That first spotting of the opposition ground – especially when it’s one you’ve never been to before.
There’s an extra layer of commitment involved with going to an away match. The planning of how you’re going to get there. Researching the pubs to visit. Where to park, or how far away the train station is. There’s an earlier set off time to factor in, and a later arrival home.
Supporting Bradford City over the years, the striking thing about away games is the sheer variety of it. I’ve watched City play at Old Trafford in the Premier League. I’ve seen them line up at Underhill, whilst the Bantams were second bottom of League Two. Over the last two decades, City have played at every member of the current 91 Premier League and EFL clubs, apart from Fulham and Forest Green.
This variety can so often make the optics and atmosphere of an away game very different. I love going to watch City at a big ground, with a large home crowd. The noise is just wonderful, and you really feel like the support you offer City players is even more important.
But I also enjoy visits to smaller grounds, where City fans make up a large portion of the overall attendance. There’s just something fun about a packed City away crowd making an absolute racket in someone else’s home.
My first ever away game was at Maine Road, the former home of Manchester City, for an FA Cup tie in January 1998. Back then, the FA Cup was still a big deal and more than 4,000 of us made the trip. I was instantly struck by the greater intensity that a noisy away crowd features. The extra commitment just to be there encourages more fans to join in with the chanting compared to home games. We lost 2-0 that day. But the thrill of the visit to somewhere new, and the brilliant atmosphere, left me desperate to go to more away games.
In my early years and as a teenager, the club’s official coach service was the way we travelled. Buy your coach ticket along with the match ticket, weeks in advance. Turn up at Midland Road mid-morning to find a fleet of coaches. Sitting for hours with your mates, having a laugh. Really fun times. A door to travelling the length and breadth of the country independently, which otherwise at that age would not have been possible.
When I got to my mid-20s and had a job and a car. I began to drive to away games. There’s something nice about being more in control of your day. Getting to the town or city you’re travelling to sooner than the coaches would arrive, so you can have a pint in a local. It also offered greater freedom to get to more away games. And between 2007 and 2013 me and my friend Steve began travelling all over the country to see City on a regular basis. I even started driving to some games on my own, when Steve didn’t fancy it. A lonely Tuesday night trip to Crewe, to see us lose 1-0, stands out as an evening of questioning life choices.
For a large part of the Phil Parkinson years, away games became more social. The Skipton Bantams supporters club was reformed, and I made lots of new friendships that quickly centred on away games. The car trips became more crowded. And we ran mini buses to several away games that were full of booze-soaked laughs. A day out to Chesterfield at the end of the 2012/13 season – when Ricky Ravenhill scored a great goal – stands out for the drunken carnage. Great days.
There’s so many brilliant aspects to an away day. I love entering a stadium I’ve never been to before, wandering through the concourse and getting that first view of the ground inside. You see football grounds on TV and note where away fans are housed, and it’s always a brilliant feeling to sample what it’s actually like to be there. Repeat visits are also great, especially if on your last encounter you uncovered a brilliant pub or crafty way to beat the traffic.
Away sections come in such a range of shapes and sizes. Most are behind a goal, but sometimes you’re in a corner or side stand. The view can be fantastic, or sometimes dreadful. The fancy plush facilities of a newer concourse – who can forget Darlington’s bakery section in their white elephant stadium built by George Reynolds? – to the ditch that York City passed off as the men’s toilets. The walk into Luton’s Kenilworth Stadium – through someone’s back garden – is also pretty memorable.
There are two main risks with away games. The first is of encountering trouble. It’s pretty rare these days, but we did once get followed by a gang of Huddersfield Town fans who began throwing stuff at us. At Lincoln City one boxing day, we were sat inside a pub when groups of City and Lincoln fans began fighting on the streets outside. We got threatened by some Chesterfield fans once.
You’re more likely to see bad behaviour from your own lot, in the away end. Some local away trips seem to attract undesirable types who appear to have little interest in the football, more kicking off with anyone who looks at them funny. Once at Accrington, I saw one of our finest spit on the Accrington goalkeeper. At Stockport one time, two lads attempted to turn the words of every City chant into something racist. Horrendous stuff.
The other, more prevalent risk is the pain of losing an away game. By its nature, in football you’re more likely to lose if you’re the away team. And whilst we’ve got plenty of experience of losing at Valley Parade, away defeats can often feel more painful when you’re there. Especially if you’ve got a long journey home. The very worst types are when you concede a last minute winner. Morecambe in October 2007 really hurt. Notts Forest in 2004 was another that sticks in the memory.
I’ve sat in an away end watching City get hammered countless times. One of my first away games was a famous 5-0 loss to Crewe in 1998 – the one where Jewell ordered the players to stay on the pitch at half time. The last away game I went to was January’s 3-0 loss to Oldham that did for Gary Bowyer.
The emotions of losing on the road are a lot more volatile. You usually rock up to an away game more up for it, due to the effort you’ve made to be there. And so there’s nothing worse than seeing your team fail to match that commitment. The anger levels can rise very quickly, and become really intense. It’s no coincidence the chant ‘you’re not fit to wear the shirt’ is more likely to be aired away from home.
The trade off to this is that scoring on the road typically has even greater meaning. Often when City go 1-0 up at Valley Parade, large parts of the crowd calmly stand up and applaud. Go 1-0 up away from home, and there’s always wild jumping up and down. That extra effort taken to be there is being rewarded. So you enjoy the goal even more.
And that’s just to go 1-0 up. Down the years, there’s been so many amazing away goals where you completely lose the plot celebrating. Wonder goals, late goals, hugely pivotal goals. There’s nothing like being in a City away crowd where everyone is losing their limbs as we pile on top of each other in joy. All leading to the glee of marching out of someone else’s ground at the final whistle, with three points bagged. The walk of triumph.
For me, the absolute best away victories need three ingredients. A big City away following, a close game – where it feels like the noise we make is a crucial element – and a late City winner right in front of the away end.
This combination doesn’t happen too often, so when it does it’s extra special. Three away wins that stand out to me, for having those key qualities, are the 2-1 victory at Lincoln on a Friday night in September 2007, the 3-1 triumph over Rochdale (just after Peter Taylor had become manager) in February 2010, and a 2-1 triumph over Oldham in January 2017. You just glided home those evenings.
I’m missing an obvious one here, I know – the Chelsea 4-2 in the FA Cup. As it was a game I missed, I can’t include it on my list. But I’m sure it’s right up there for the 6,000 City fans who did go. And that’s the other special element of away games – when they’re the scene of a really memorable Bradford City achievement. The ones where you don’t head straight out at full time, but stay back for prolonged celebrations with the players.
Stamford Bridge, Villa Park, Molineux, the Perelli Stadium – these are grounds that have deeper meaning for City fans. And when you get to return to them, it’s not just any old away game. The memories come flooding back. West Brom, Portsmouth and Wimbledon fans will have similar emotional ties with Valley Parade, after their memorable triumphs on our patch. Every football club in the land has little traces of its history and heritage inside other people’s stadiums.
These stadiums are naturally amongst our favourite to visit. Beyond that, we’ll all have other away grounds that are personally close to our hearts. I always love going to Spotland for example. Grimsby is fun, especially for that incredible chippy near Blundell Park. Anywhere that still has a terrace is a good trip. Notts Forest is special. The Stadium of Light is another favourite of mine. The atmosphere at Bramall Lane is something else. Deepdale is great too.
Now that I only get to two or three away games a season, I miss the adventures on the road. There’s a real communal feel to doing the hard miles on motorways and train tracks across the country. I love it when you go to a service station and you bump into fans of other football clubs who are also on their travels. They’re on the way to, or heading back from, an away game in a different part of the UK to you. But there’s an unspoken bond between us of going through the same experiences. A mutual respect. We’re all proper fans.
It’s especially fun on the way home, when you swap stories with fans of other clubs about how you each got on that day. Who had the worst referee, which manager has to go.
For me, these chance encounters on a Saturday evening are the backbone of football supporting in this country. What makes it all so wonderful. Whilst the rest of the country is tucked up at home watching Saturday night TV, or going out to town, the football action done for the day, there’s small armies of away fans who are still hours away from getting home, queuing up for a KFC on a bridge above the M6.
Where would football be without this level of dedication?