THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

For those thinking of going to watch your team at away matches Mike Lambert has compiled this handy guide

I was a teenage Cardiff City fan. There, I’ve said it. Not as astounding as admitting I was involved in the JFK plot or that I voted Tory in ’79 (I didn’t, honest) but enough to earn condescending looks from the rugby fraternity surrounding me. It’s becoming harder, year by year, to remember why I spent so much cash on following the Bluebirds, especially now when City are in their 12th season outside the First (old Second) Division, and away support consists of a few dozen die-hards, outnumbered by police and stewards by a factor of five.

For anyone who now prefers to spend alternate Saturdays mowing the lawn, this is a short guide to the changes you can expect should you ever decide to revisit your past by going to an away game.

Following a logical order, we take you through the planning, getting there, being there and getting home stages, with little reminders of how it used to be, along with stark truths about how it is now.


1. PLANNING THE TRIP

HOW IT WAS – It was hardly ever ‘planned’ as such, was it? I mean, the fixtures came out, you and your mates said, “Right, we’ll go to all these except Carlisle,” and that was it. The only planning involved was to check the match programme the week before to see if British Rail (remember them?) had a ‘Special’ going and what time it left. If not, you jumped on the eight o’clock train from Bridgend and said, “Take us to Bolton/Preston/Burnley,” or whatever. You always got there, it never cost too much and if you were desperate, you turned up at Ninian Park and jumped on any of dozens of passing coaches that would take you. Telephone bookings? Ha!

HOW IT IS – ‘Specials’ no longer exist. In fact, British Rail no longer exists, and you need a degree in theoretical mathematics to work out a route with one of these so-called ‘timetables’ which come in more volumes than Winston Churchill’s memoirs. Even if you could work out a route (anything other than Paddington requires evening classes at the local tech) you need to start planning in August in order to make the necessary loan applications to your building society to raise enough capital for a return to Rochdale. So it’s coaches then. Oh, yeah? You need to book about a season in advance, paying virtually the whole fare, along with membership, deck of cards, some knitting needles and a never-ending supply of coke (the black liquid kind) to see you through four hours of jams between West Bromwich and Stafford. One coach will go to the match, it’ll be 20 years old, the video won’t work, the heaters are allergic to winter weather and the radio is the only one in Britain that can’t pick up Radio Five Live. Fun, eh?

 

 2. GETTING THERE

HOW IT WAS – You and three hundred like-minded instant ‘mates’ spent the time planning your ‘taking’ of the opposition end (which usually meant chanting insults from the other end of the ground, even in those non-segregated days) and how many would form today’s ‘crew’. Singing was compulsory and failure to keep up could result in not being regarded as ‘one of the boys’, a fate worse than supporting Swansea. Your train pulled into the local station with three hours to spare and you were met by nothing more threatening than bemused looks. You instantly found the nearest pub (invariably called the Railway Tavern or suchlike) and waited for three other train-loads to arrive. Then you would all march to the ground, singing inane songs and frightening the locals. Occasionally, some of the crazier elements of your crowd would start little fights with small children but would be beaten off by handbag-wielding mothers.

On arrival at the ground, the local police would offer a peremptory search for any obvious weapons such as Uzis or AK-47s and you would enter the ground to loud shouts of “We’ve taken the Villa/Wolves/Sunderland”, or whatever, despite the fact that the nearest home supporters were at the other end of the ground and were far too busy trying to think up insulting songs about Welshmen and sheep.

HOW IT IS – You haven’t gone by train because (a) you haven’t won the Lottery this week and (b) most of the grounds Cardiff visit these days haven’t had a rail service since the First World War. You spend the time listening in bewilderment to a group of very sad people talking about how this was a vital match and we can turn round the season if only . . . Your coach, having struggled to make the 300-mile trip at 48-miles-an-hour, is then stopped at the motorway junction closest to your destination, while police call to tell their base that the enemy has arrived.

When the transit van and three cars that make up the balance of today’s ‘Barmy Army’ eventually arrive, the little convoy is escorted into town by wildly-weaving police outriders, with lights flashing, traffic stopped at every roundabout and amazed shoppers looking to see if the United Nations is holding a conference on world peace in Rotherham without telling anyone.

At the ground, you are met by most of the police forces of Yorkshire and Lancashire combined, the women and children on the coach are strip-searched for thermonuclear devices, and eventually you are marched into the smallest area of the ground, 300 yards from the game and with no cover, just as the worst thunderstorm in 20 years breaks above you. A couple of die-hards sing ‘Blue Army’ about as loudly as the Salvation Army platoon, and the two-dozen disinterested home fans yawn and go back to reading the Yorkshire Post.

 

3. BEING THERE

HOW IT WAS
– By kick-off, two thousand City fans would be creating as much noise as a Panzer division while the massed ranks of the Holte End/Leazes End/Shed would drown out every damned thing you sang. The terraces would be pretty full, there would be swaying and shoving, you’d be having a pretty good time. The crazies amongst your crowd would try to ‘take’ the local boys’ enclosure and be beaten back by stinging insults and the occasional swear word. An away goal (rare even then) would be greeted by as much hysteria as accompanied our 1971 win against Real Madrid and a defeat would seem crushing – until next week.

HOW IT IS – By kick-off, the 53 City fans would be soaked, pissed off and ready for home. The home fans look no happier. The total crowd of 2,300, plus 500 police and stewards, create as much noise as Sainsbury’s on a quiet Tuesday. Occasional clapping from the enthusiastic few is just enough to keep the policemen awake. The only insults heard are directed not at other fans, but at the latest donkey wearing the number nine shirt. Away goals never happen. The defeat is accepted as part of the day out – “Well, it wasn’t as bad as Preston/Gillingham/Wigan” – and at the final whistle the ground clears faster than Harrods in a bomb scare. Shoulders are shrugged, feet trudge through the mud to the ‘coach park’ (usually situated in the middle of a lake) and the faithful settle down to a long journey home without even the company of David Mellor. (Quite inviting, that bit.)

 

4. JOURNEY HOME

HOW IT WAS – After revisiting the Railway Tavern you would eventually take a train somewhere and, by Sunday, it would usually reach South Wales. The travellers would be quite happy – time having been passed with fictional tales of how many opposing fans tried to get you, how loud the singing was and how many times Toshack hit the bar. Hours would be spent just estimating the size of the crowd – 20, 30, 40,000.

HOW IT IS – After being corralled into the lake and pushed onto the waiting coach, you take off on another high-speed tour of the back streets of the town, to avoid ‘ambushes’ by the home side’s unruly element. Quite unnecessary, of course, since it’s now 5:30 and they have gone home for their tea and an early night, as all 11-year-olds should. Once on the M1/M5/M4 a half-full coach contemplate the emptiness of their lives and the stark realization that it’s Scarborough next. Crowd estimates are a thing of the past, since most of us would have counted the crowd during the endless second half. Home by 11:30, just after the pubs close, and nothing to fill the empty hours until next week other than thoughts of impending middle-age and the dread thought that someone might fix the radio by the next trip. Scarborough AND Mellor? Give me the lawn mower any time.

From WSC 116 October 1996. What was happening this month

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