Travelling As An England Football FanBy
Later this year, Poland and Ukrane will host the 2012 European Football Championships. It is argueably the second biggest football tournament after the World Cup. My first England game was back in 1987 at the old Wembley Stadium. I stood behind the goal in a crowd of 100,000 as England drew 1-1 with Brazil. Gary Lineker gave England the lead before Mirandinha equalised. That goal prompted Newcastle United to sign him and he became the first Brazilian to play in England.
Over the following years, I went to various games but never to away matches. That changed after the World Cup in 2002 when I booked a week in KwaZulu Natal as England travelled to South Africa to play a friendly international in Durban. At the time, I didn’t really know anyway else travelling to watch the game so I just went by myself. I booked a few days diving up in Sodwana Bay in the north of the province before heading back to Durban for a couple of nights to watch the match. The lads I met were fantastic and I had a great time. I managed to get a lift to and from the old ABSA stadium on a coach and inside the stadium, a group of us were giving some beer by some South African fans. It was a great trip and I even saw Emile Heskey AND Gareth Southgate score.
From then, I decided I was going to go whereever possible and the following year, I went to my first tournament in Portugal. By now, I was meeting friends I’d made either to travel with or catching up once we arrived.
I travelled with a friend and we stayed in the beautiful city of Porto, travelling to Coimbra and Lisbon (three times) for the 4 England games. It was a superb time to be there with loads of happy people, sunshine, football and plenty of great memories. Since then, I’ve met some great people, many of whom are now very good friends. I’ve travelled to a long list of countries and places, many of which I would never have considered going to.
Naturally with so many trips, there are plenty of stories too. One of the few trips I missed was the away match in Baku, Azerbaijan. I really wanted to go but circumstances conspired against me. Everyone I speak to who went had a great time. Naturally, when husbands and boyfriends go away for a few days, they usually spend their last bit of local currency at the departure airport on some perfume for the wife or girlfriend. However, that was a bit too obvious for one England fan. Instead of a bottle of scent, he decided to take back an Azeri steam iron complete without English instructions.
My favourite away trip was the 2 match tour to the United States in 2005 which saw England play USA at Soldier Field in Chicago followed a few days later against Columbia at the Giants stadium in New York. It was my first visit to Chicago and I loved it.
The game was played on the Saturday so we took the opportunity for a bit of sightseeing on the Sunday ahead of our early morning flight to Newark. A friend and I took a Gangster tour to see the old haunts of Capone and Dillinger. The tour was excellent and dropped us off outside a bar at about 3pm. Conscious of our early start, we just went in for a quick drink. We got back to the hotel around 1am ready for our 5am pickup. Somehow, we got up and made it down to the car who whisked us off to the airport. After a while, the driver announced we were getting close to O’Hare. Unfortunately, we were flying from Midway which resulted in a sharp U-turn and some liberal interpretations of the speed limits. We just made our flight and I’d never been more grateful to get into a hotel room early when we finally got to Jersey City.
The next day was an early start at the local pub for a full English breakfast and an early-ish departure to the Giants Stadium for my first tailgating experience. The pub very kindly provided us with a keg of beer which was easily consumed before the game.
A few years ago, England supporters had a terrible (and well deserved) reputation but today, it is very different. Despite travelling in huge numbers, there are hardly any arrests. This is mainly due to the tight controls on getting tickets for away matches. Unless you are a member of the official supporters club, you don’t have a chance. Even then, matches do get over-subscribed but a loyalty scheme ensures the regulars get tickets while also allowing new comers access to some tickets.
Depending on the destination, the biggest challenge is booking travel and accommodation. There is one fan I know who refuses to fly. Luckily, he is retired and goes to many of the games by train. The furthest away trip he took was to Almaty for the World Cup 2010 qualifying in Kazakhstan along the old Silk route. It took something like 5 days to get there and another 5 to get back. I haven’t travelled to an away game entirely by train yet but it was be a wonderfully relaxing option compared to tackling airports.
A couple of years ago, I drove to Paris for a game. I left a couple of days ahead of the match to take in the Battlefields around Ypres and the Somme. They were well worth visiting and I’m sure I’ll go back again someday. My SatNav was invalueable in finding all the little villages and memorials. In 2006 ahead of England’s first game in the World Cup, I was told the story of one fan who really should have bought a SatNav or at least learned how to read a map. This lad from Hull had bought a cheap camper van…and I do mean cheap. The headlights didn’t even work but this was in the middle of summer so it shouldn’t have been a problem. Our intrepid fan made his way to Frankfurt in his little van, parked up and found a bar. He casually said to the barman
“Its pretty quiet in town considering England are playing here tomorrow”
The barman was puzzled as this little town on the German / Polish border wasn’t a World Cup venue. It soon became clear, our friend from Hull had gone to the wrong Frankfurt. Now he had to get right across Germany in his old campervan, without any headlights. Thankfully, he made it and he had learned his lesson. The most important thing was that England also beat Paraguay 1-0.
However, the majority of fans do fly and many prefer to travel independently rather than use the more expensive day trips. Airlines don’t tend to add extra capacity so the seats that are available are generally sold quickly. The prices appear to go up quickly and some accuse the airlines of hiking prices. I don’t believe this is the case, its simply a matter of the cheaper seats being sold a lot more quickly than normal.
Groups of fans who travel together will plan their travel ahead of the seats being released. Sometimes, delaying by even a few minutes can result in fares in some cases doubling or more. Its not all expensive though. I know some fans who travelled to Geneva to watch England play Argentina in a friendly a few years ago who paid just £32. They caught a flight on the morning of the game with the return late in the evening. There was no need for a hotel on this trip.
This summer, England and Ireland will take part in the Euro 2012 Finals. Ireland will play their matches in Poland while England fans will have to travel further to Ukraine with games in Donetsk and Kiev. Travelling to Donetsk is especially tricky due to the distance from Kiev and relative lack of accommodation in the city. This summer, I’ll travel to the games for the first time on day trips. Its not a tournament I’m particularly excited about and in 2013, England will return to Ukraine to play a 2014 World Cup qualifier. I’ve already been to Kiev once with England so in 2013, I’ll aim to see the sights I missed last time round.