Probably a misleading title if I’m being honest. It was the season before last that I last experienced an “Away day”, travelling to Guiseley with Ferriby to watch the play-off semi final. A 2-0 defeat that night put paid to any hopes we had of promotion that season, but I digress. I’m writing this having cleared out some stuff in the garage, and come across some old Hull City Away programmes in there. Ironically, the first programme was from Rochdale Away in 1981, my first ever adventure to another football ground other than Boothferry Park. I say ironically because I’d had a Twitter conversation with someone only last week, who was in the process of writing a memoirs about matches going back to the same time, and this game was mentioned. It’s funny how I can remember small details from 1981 like they were yesterday, and yet if you ask me who Chelsea played last weekend I’d probably struggle. I don’t for a minute think it’s the onset of Altzheimers, more my lack of interest in top flight football these days. I’m at an age now where I can almost hear myself saying “It was better in my day”. The obvious answer is, it wasn’t. Not the grounds for certain. Many were run-down and would today be classed as unsafe. Not the pitches either, many of which today resemble carpet’s, but back then would be mud baths by December. And if I’m being honest, probably not the football played either, although that is subjective, and not to say I didn’t see some fantastic players in the flesh, certainly in my late Teens and early 20’s.
So what exactly was “It” that was better ? Perhaps it was just the whole experience. Again it’s an age thing. At that time, going to football with mates on a weekend was what you did. As you got older, the distances got further, and the numbers travelling with you increased. That first trip to Rochdale, just me, my mate and his dad driving. It chucked it down all day ( well it is in Lancashire ). The ground was tiny, the floodlights low, and my abiding memory is of the City fans invading the pitch after both goals, slipping and sliding everywhere on the wet grass, persued by police dog handlers, in an almost Benny Hill-like comedy chase. As I got older the travelling continued, 52 seater buses to some places, a minibus to others. But friendships were made, as too memories that would last a lifetime, and still make me smile today. Going to Stoke to see us lose 5-0 at the old Victoria Ground, and not managing a shot on goal til the 88th minute. Thrown out at Middlesbrough after Charlie Palmer’s equaliser was ruled out. Skinheads in Sunderland. Mauled at Maine Road by a Manchester City side containing David White, a winger who tore us apart. Burnden Park in Bolton, The Old Show Ground in Scunthorpe, Feethams in Darlington, long since gone. A Boxing Day game at Villa, late 80’s / early 90’s ( I’m terrible with years ) an early missed penalty from Pat Heard proved costly as Villa stuck 5 past us. The incessant chant of ” Villa, Villa, Villa” was deafening. What a ground, no wonder they held cup semi finals there. Blundell Park in Grimsby, always good to get one over on them. Derby, Birmingham, Barnsley, all seen better days, but great days out. The uncovered terrace at Oldham, the only place I’ve ever been where they had the full four season’s weather in 90 minutes. Nearly froze to death, but a 2-2 draw from 2-0 down is enough to warm any soul. Countless visits to Bradford, a side that seemed to always be in our division. A days pre-match drinking in a pub near the ground came to an abrupt end, as nearly did our lives, as 6 of us were “removed” from the pub by 20 members of their “firm”, a laugh then, but I look back 20 years later and think – What the hell were we thinking ! – and that in a nutshell is probably what “It” was all about. A combination of being young and carefree, of being part of an army that invaded a foreign town, had a laugh, saw your team win ( sometimes ) then did it all again a fortnight later.
I know it still happens today, countless thousands of men and women travel the length and breadth of the country every weekend to watch their side. They do it at a greater cost than we ever encountered, so hats off to them for that. It’s just now they go to sparkling, modern stadium’s, and sit in polished seats that they’ve paid a small fortune to sit in and be entertained by what happens during the 90 minutes. I’ve witnessed it, before I walked away from the professional game and Premier League hype, and to me it’s almost a sanitised version of what I went to 20 to 30 years ago. Some will say it’s for the better, and they may well have a point, the hooligan element isn’t as prominent inside grounds as it used to be. But with that has gone some of the passion, fervour, atmosphere, whatever word you want to use, that has turned cauldrons into mortuary’s. As I’ve said before, perhaps I’m looking through rose tinted glasses. There’s no denying the grounds are safer for a reason – Hillsborough and Valley Parade were avoidable disasters – and I’m not under estimating their impact, but today’s fans and the next generation will never experience what we had, and what we did. It’s called progress apparently. But I for one wouldn’t swap what football was, nor will I ever forget the sights and sounds I experienced on the way.