This weekend marks a year since away supporters were allowed at football games. Soccer Saturday's Johnny Phillips chats to fans from Liverpool, Everton, Leeds, Wolves and Lincoln City about what they have missed from their away days...
Saturday 6 March 2021 17:31, UK
"It was like the Bayeux Tapestry. You see people doing all sorts. There's a fella with crutches up in the air, someone else upside down in the stairwell."
Matt Jones is describing the moment in time, captured on camera, when Everton turned a two-goal deficit into a 3-2 victory at Watford in February last year. The scenes in the away end at Vicarage Road will be familiar to anyone who travels to watch their team on the road.
"When I get home from an away day and I've seen Everton score in front of away fans I can't wait to see on television just what the fans are like behind the goal, as much as the goal itself," the host of The Blue Room podcast explains. "It's limbs. A mass of flailing arms and legs, crutches and things being thrown into the air, people trying to get down to the front."
This weekend marks a year since away supporters were last permitted inside football grounds.
"It's the whole experience of waking up in the morning, getting picked up by your mates, seeing everyone, the chants, the singing on the way down," adds co-host Sarah Halpin. "You do feel that real togetherness with the players on those away days, it's almost like a combined effort to get those points."
"It is football in its purest form," Jones continues. "In an age where it feels as though the players are further away from us all than ever, the closest you really feel to a footballer and your team is in those final few minutes where you've got a result on the road, and they all come over. And you're all in that moment, there's only 2,000 or 3,000 of you, wherever it is."
"There is a certain element of escapism," says The Anfield Wrap's Craig Hannan. "You see the match on a Saturday as that release from everyday life, from whatever has gone on in your life through the week. Away days are a bolted-on version of that; a much-improved version of that. It's getting away, going to different towns that you may not have been to.
"There's definitely an excitement to that, and even better if you're coming back with three points, but not necessarily mattering if you're coming back with three points because you know you're going to have a great time with your mates on a packed coach."
Fellow Liverpool supporter John Gibbons agrees. "It's funny, you'll be playing at four o'clock, at a match two hours away, and you'll be saying, 'Why is the bus leaving at eight in the morning?'. But then you meet at seven for breakfast even earlier, to drag the day out as long as you can. It is a matchday, that's what they call it, and away days are like that really."
"I don't know what it is but there's something about winning an away match that is just better," says Alan Long, Lincoln City's PA announcer and Supporter Liaison Officer. "I'm usually there three hours before kick-off to find out the lie of the land, find out where the pubs and the chippies are, where the ticket office is. These are all questions fans ask on a matchday, so there's a lot of work that goes into it but it's well worth it just for that moment when the referee blows the whistle and you've won an away game."
The tribal senses of supporting a football team are heightened in an away end, surrounded on all sides by local foes.
"It's bonkers. When you go to a ground with Leeds, you can see the hatred in their eyes, as you're turning up, which I absolutely love," says Matthew Beedle, founder of Right In The Gary Kellys podcast. "They just want rid of you from their territory. It's hard to explain what is like to be on an away day with Leeds, it's noisy from the first minute you get to grounds.
"You can hear Leeds fans from 100, 200 yards away when you get off the train or coach, whatever way you've come. It's been more high spirits over the last year or so. The tribal thing was more to do with when we probably weren't as good, but in the last year or so since Marcelo Bielsa has been in charge everyone has been in high spirits, we're not used to losing really."
"On away trips, because the coach takes you right to the stadium entrance it does feel like you're going into battle," Gibbons adds. "There's places I say I've been to and I haven't really, I've only been to the stadium. Then you go with your missus another time and think, 'Oh this is nice. It's lovely Birmingham isn't it, I've only been to Aston Villa!'."
"Aways are the breeding ground for creativity," says Jones. "If you're sat at Goodison Park and it's a bit quieter and you try to get a new song going about a new signing, people will stand up and look at you as if to say, 'Come on, I'm trying to watch the game'. But if you've travelled down to London on a train or coach and you're a little bit more refreshed, put it that way, then people are more likely to join in and give it a go."
The refuelling habits among some supporters play a particular role in an away day. Often to the detriment of watching the match.
"On the opening day of the season at Arsenal a few years ago, they went 1-0 up just before half-time" Gibbons explains. "So we went down early and got a beer to beat the queue, and Philippe Coutinho scored an equaliser. There's a big roar from our end. 'Great, let's get another beer in to celebrate'. This second beer comes, the second half kicks off and Liverpool score again. So we are saying, 'Well we've got stay here now haven't we?'.
"There's a telly on in the concourse but it's delayed, so you'd hear the cheer and then we watched the goal. Liverpool scored a third and a fourth, it ended up being 4-3 to Liverpool and we only saw one goal. We were on the concourse drinking warm lager about 10 metres from all this brilliant action, but it would have been unlucky to go back up."
Liverpool's travelling fans, like many others, had trips cut short just as their team was on the verge of achieving something special, ending a 30-year wait for the title. Leeds United won promotion to the Premier League after a 16-year absence.
"The last away game I got to was Hull, which was a fantastic day, we won 4-0," says Beedle. "It's sad that we never got to see the end of promotion for Leeds, but we've still got that memory between me, my mates and my Dad, who I go to the away games with. You had the feeling that day that you knew it was happening for us. It's good to look back on but also quite sad as we're just desperate to get back into grounds."
Liverpool and Leeds fans lost out on the closing stages of a long-awaited triumph, but perhaps no set of supporters had the rug pulled from under their wandering feet quite like Wolves fans did. On 27 February 2020, their fans were in Barcelona for a Europa League round-of-32 fixture against Espanyol.
Three days later they went to the London Stadium and saw Wolves come from 2-1 down to beat Spurs 3-2, leapfrogging Jose Mourinho's team to go sixth in the Premier League.
"It felt like the majority of Wolverhampton had travelled to Spain for a few days," Wolves fan Russ Cockburn recalls. "You couldn't walk into the square or turn into La Rambla without bumping into Terry from Woodsetton, the Bathams from Withymoor and the lads from Gornal.
"Down the years you're seeing these guys at Grimsby, Bolton, Coventry or Rotherham away. Now we're enjoying the sights and sounds of one of Europe's best cities whilst still finding time to serenade the locals with some Black Country favourites.
"Spurs, our last away game, was a bit of a test to be honest. We didn't land until midnight on the Sunday and had to be up for the train to London at 6.30am. I'll be honest, I couldn't deal with another hangover but I'm so glad my heart ruled my liver as it was to be our last away match for over a year. Gutting.
"I had a ticket and flight booked for Olympiakos away [in the Europa League last 16] and then it was all pulled from underneath us due to a global pandemic. Typical Wolves isn't it, to get to the quarter-finals of a major European competition and then a virus ruins it for you?"
Or as one Wolves supporter bemoaned, on Twitter, "Why couldn't there have been a global pandemic when Dean Saunders was in charge?"
With so much uncertainty over continental travel going forward, fans travelling en masse to European fixtures may not be possible for some considerable time. When Liverpool reached successive Champions League finals in 2018 and 2019, The Anfield Wrap took a coach to both matches. The 1,700-mile round trip to Kiev, in 2018, proved to be a test of physical and mental stamina.
"The air conditioning packed in at Dover on the way there," Gibbons admits. "It was very, very hot. It was a nice bus, to be fair, but it wasn't that nice by the time we got there. Everything just seemed to take longer, the borders were a nightmare. We still talk about it now, the swollen ankles and everything. But I wouldn't have had it any other way than on those buses because we had an amazing time. One result was better than the other but both trips we still talk about as brilliant."
As the country gradually comes out of lockdown, away fans will be hoping that their time-consuming and expensive rituals can be resumed. For all the uncertainty that lies ahead post-pandemic, the thought of entering the turnstiles in enemy territory once more is something to hold onto.
"For some people, it may affect them now whether they go to away games or not," says Long. "But I speak to a lot of Lincoln fans on social media on matchdays and they are all chomping at the bit. Our biggest away game in the league was when we beat MK Dons to virtually guarantee promotion a couple of years ago. We took 5,800 that day. We've all been sat at home watching the players on iFollow but nothing beats doing it in the flesh."
"I imagine there will people who went to a game before the pandemic and wouldn't think twice about jumping on the person next to them when Everton scored a goal," Jones adds. "Maybe that same person going back will think, 'I'm not quite sure about that, maybe I'll keep my distance a little bit more', and it will take some time for that to come back. But aspects of the away games that are social, doing the big travel together, coming back either made up or dead gutted, you'd like to think those will be recaptured pretty quickly."
"It's hard now, 12 months on, it's an awfully long time," Halpin agrees. "You almost forget what it was like going to a football match and being so close to so many people without having to think anything at all."
For Beedle, too young to remember Leeds' last spell in the Premier League, when away travel returns it will strengthen a family bond that he hopes will continue to be passed through the generations.
"Travelling the country watching Leeds with my Dad, especially when we were on a promotion season thinking, 'We can't lose here', that was quite special really and I don't think you can beat it. One of my other friends comes with his Dad as well. I just think it's something within your family, that just keeps passing down and that's one thing that makes the away stuff extra special."
Bonkers. Limbs. Escapism. Togetherness. The joy of away days, no matter what the result.