The journey home
We can’t expect to win away every time. Whenever we do win away, there’s a spring in our step as we exit the ground. Someone, with feeling, shouts, ‘Get in there!’ It turns out to be the coach driver, eager to shepherd his passengers on board and get home. There may be a long journey ahead of us, but the emotion could be described as somewhere between contentment and amazement, depending on who we played, and the importance of the occasion. To a degree the same could be said about an away draw, unless of course, we were 2-0 up then messed it up in the last ten minutes.
And the away defeat? For example, when we were 2-0 up and really messed it up in the last ten minutes. I sigh, maybe. That’s about it. I’m a man of peace, and have learned over the years how to take the rough with the smooth. It’s not so much anger that the away fans feel as they trudge back to the car park, where the one supporters coach, engine running, is preventing most of the car drivers from making a prompt exit. It’s not so much anger as disappointment, and bewilderment. “How did we manage to lose that one?” It’s getting dark and now it’s bitterly cold.
I settle into the car, bump up the heat, and punch on the radio for Sports Report. It’s exactly 5pm. Time for Hubert Bath’s “Out of the Blue”, or ‘Dum de dum de dum de dum, de dudderly dum de dum’ to most football fans, virtual and real alike. Time to catch up with the results of the teams that most people have heard of. The ‘proper’ teams. Those that monotonously and continually occupy the first six places of the Premier League. Sports Report and 606 are my company on the journey home, at least until I can no longer tolerate the ignorance, angst, and bias of those who phone in and tell the listening public what is wrong with their own team, and how to put it right. As their self-perceived wisdom drones on, I smile to myself, and think of all those who will read this and say to me, “Surely all this is enough to put you off ever going again?” Yeh, right. We might have lost, and I might have sighed a few times over the loss but, once more, I’ve really enjoyed it. The journey. The liberty. The expectation. The banter. The culture of the town and ground I’ve visited. Within hours I’ll be looking at the fixture list again, and working out when and where I can make my next trip. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll win the next one. It’s the hope…
My attention is jolted back to the radio. I’m sure I recognise the animated voice of the latest expert to phone in. He sounds remarkably like the former colleague I chatted with in the breakout room a couple of years ago. The chap who laughed like a drain when I told him I was a Kettering supporter. The caller says he’s a fanatical Liverpool supporter and he’s phoned in to complain that he missed some of today’s game. Apparently, he lost reception after he spilled some of his can of lager onto the remote.
The away day. The game can go one of three ways. We either get a great start and an early goal, which sadly does nothing to lessen the anxiety. Supporters of teams that go one goal up always see the precariousness of their position. It cannot last. Or we get a terrible start, and our star player is sent off in the second minute, as happened to us at Barwell a while back. Supporters of teams whose star player gets sent off in the second minute assume that they are in for an impossibly torrid 88 minutes. All hope is already lost. Or, thirdly, things settle down into a finely balanced (i.e. dull) midfield game of few chances and little goalmouth action. Supporters of teams that settle down into a dull (finely balanced) midfield stalemate are always acutely aware that it would only take one breakaway by the opposition, or a defensive error by our team, and all will be lost. In reality, Kettering have only lost one third of the away games I've seen over the years, and they have won considerably more than they've lost. However, we are required to be pessimists. Being a pessimist is a large part of the enjoyment.
With optimism in such short supply, why do you bother, my friend the Liverpool sofa-fan might ask? Why put yourselves through such torment? Well, as they say, it’s not the pain that kills you. It’s the hope. There is always that small chance that today will be the day when, despite all the odds, we’ll score the goal, we’ll win the game, we’ll upset the odds, we’ll win the league. We might even get through to the first round of the FA Cup. The last time that happened we drew Hartlepool away, a very long journey up north from my home in Ipswich. But worth it, you must surely agree with me. It doesn’t get much bigger than Hartlepool away.
While our friend the virtual Liverpool fan is in Asda’s, stocking up on cans for his convenient 17.15 televised kick-off, us real fans are anticipating the second half at The (rickety) Arthur ‘Plummy’ Plumb the Plumber Stadium. The rain has stopped, and although the low autumn sun had briefly popped out from behind the clouds, blinding our view of the last few minutes of the first half, all too soon it has dipped below the horizon. Rapidly it becomes distinctly chilly. Even a red and black Kettering scarf won’t keep the cold out for long.
As each minute goes by, and the score remains 0-0, I’m checking my watch more frequently. I might have got up super early this morning to get here but, right now, I just want it to end. “We’ll take a 0-0 draw,” I say to no-one in particular. My fellow away fans agree. Others have just gone quiet, intently watching every move, and willing us not to lose. We’re actually doing quite well, and a few even dare to imagine us sneaking a winner. The minutes tick away. Then suddenly we break away, the travelling Kettering fans urging our lone forward on. He stumbles, but recovers his balance enough to scuff in a miscued shot from 15-yards. Inexplicably their goalkeeper is unable to reach the ball, which dribbles into an empty net. The whistle goes and that’s it. We’ve won with the final kick of the match. On a good day we have, anyway.
Inside the Stadium
Inside a new away ground, I get my bearings. The toilet, the programme seller, and the snack bar. Usually in that order. During these transactions, I chat amiably with some of the locals, and exchange stories of how our clubs are doing, and what the outcome of today’s game could possibly be. Our players appear to have come in several cars, as do a smattering of our fans. The supporters’ coach from Kettering arrives, and the toilets and the bar get busy.
The large number - and the equally large appetite - of Kettering fans arriving at away grounds usually catches ‘she who prepares the burgers’ on the hop. It has been known for our fans to travel hundreds of miles to the game, only to miss most of the first half due to their determination to remain in the queue for the simple acquisition of a burger. So, it’s best to order your burger before the coach arrives.
I chat with some of the one hundred or so regular Kettering away fans. We know each other really well by now, but bizarrely, we still don’t know each other’s names. It’s a very specific, football-focused, type of relationship. “How was your journey?” they ask me. I’m a bit of a novelty, or freak maybe, as most Kettering fans live in or at least somewhere near the town. I live exactly 100 miles away, in Ipswich. Needham Market, Leiston and Lowestoft were happy exceptions in recent years, but rarely is my journey of fewer miles than that of my fellow fans.
Whilst picking inedible pieces of burger out of our teeth, we debate our chances with one another. Mind you, we can’t hear one another very well, because the aging public address system is addressing its aging public with raucous dance songs that are of a totally different genre from the songs we usually listen to. Very few of the mostly concession-paying customers will be frequenting Kettering’s nightclubs when they get home later this evening. We sigh with relief when the music eventually stops, but reach for the Paracetamol once more as the line-ups are enthusiastically announced by someone who has quite obviously had little or no training in the use of amplified equipment and, on the basis of his muffled incoherence, is presumably wearing a large woollen sock over his head, stuffed with crackling crisp packets.
As for the toilets. Well, there’s an art to queuing for non-league stadium toilets, particularly at half time. You can anticipate the referee’s whistle, and make a discrete dash for the dilapidation in advance of the rush. Or you can wait till just before the players come out again for the second half, by which time most of the crowd are relieved. Arrive anytime in between, and you are jostling for places at urinals that are usually impossibly too close to one another. Almost inevitably, in the background, the dance music will have given way to some classic rock. As we stand, elbow to elbow and staring stoically ahead, the sound of Chrissie Hynde's ‘I’ll stand by you’, or The Police's ‘Don’t stand so close to me’ become particularly pertinent. There’s usually a wash hand basin, and occasionally the cold tap will work. But never in the history of non-league football grounds has the hot tap produced anything but a dry squeak. Don’t expect any soap, or a lock on the door. In some non-league grounds, there is no door. Hand driers are probably another couple of decades away. But sometimes there is a mat on the floor. Handy for wiping your feet – on the way out.
Arriving at the Stadium
You can recognise the classic ground-hopper a mile off. He’s come by public transport, on his own, and has intrigue on his face and a limp and aging rucksack on his back. He arrives early and walks right around the ground, both outside and in. He takes a worryingly detailed look at every nook and cranny, makes copious notes in his notebook, and takes a photo of every corner flag. I often try to engage in conversation with them, and hear their story. And let’s be honest. I’m one of them. I don’t take pictures of corner flags, but I do list all the grounds I’ve been to on www.footballgroundmap.com. Take a look some time.
There are some quality new non-league grounds around the country these days, aren’t there. Especially in the National North. Everything’s neat. Everything works. There’s even hot water taps in the gents. But don’t you find some of these stadia a little bit bland? OK, I’m jealous, yes, but I do still have a fond regard for the quirky old ones. The ones many of us regularly visited in recent years. Hitchin Town and Leighton Town come to mind. Just in case you didn’t get to any of these more classic yet eccentric venues, the experience went something like this.
It was often the depth of the puddles in the car cark that was the first indicator of what was to come. Tiptoeing my way through the mud, I would aim for the somewhat lethargic activity that was evident at two of the three turnstiles. The third one had clearly rusted up through neglect, a decade or more ago.
At this level, some football grounds are actually called stadiums, and an increasing number have adopted the name of their sponsor. So desperate are the clubs for some income, you might find yourself in something like “The Arthur ‘Plummy’ Plumb the Plumber Stadium” (I made that one up), or (and this is a real one, although I’ll save the embarrassment of Basildon United Football Club by not telling you where it is) the Ho Ho Stadium. I’m not joking. Nor are they. It’s not named after two-thirds of Father Christmas, but after their sponsor, a local Chinese Restaurant. But usually the word ‘stadium’ seems too grand a description for a patch of grass with a decaying block of 100 seats rotting by its side, all surrounded by a wall that’s just too high for the average person to see over.
‘Concession please.’ At that level, it would set me back about £7. All I could see in the murk of the turnstile kiosk was an elderly hand, and several little piles of £1 coins stacked three high; change from the £10 note that I’d set aside from my pension that week. In exchange for my £10 note, the elderly hand would silently slide one of the piles of coins towards me, and an equally elderly foot would release the catch to let me through the turnstile. Invariably I would push either too hard or too early, and have to take a step back, onto the foot of the next customer, while the process was repeated. I know. Those who have never experienced non-league football will wonder what on earth I’m talking about. But for you, my friends, those of you who join me by putting ourselves through this ritual week after week, I can see your ironic smile right now.
I love a sunny Saturday morning, when there’s an away match to travel to. For the last few seasons, the journeys have been slightly more ‘regional’, but promotion has obviously meant travelling up north a lot more. Nice for our fans who live in the Northeast, and for the chap who comes down from Falkirk, but a little more demanding for those of us who live in Ipswich. Ipswich. It’s not the end of the earth, but you can see it from here. It shares the same postcode.
It could be just another league game or, even better, an FA Cup or Trophy game against a side a league higher than us, and in a town and at a stadium I haven’t been to before. After a busy working week, the feeling of freedom is, well, liberating. The sense of anticipation consists of a mixture of excitement and fear. When we’re expected to get a result, there’s the fear of failure. When we’re the underdog, there’s the excitement of the chance, that tiny chance, that we might just pull it out of the bag. I’m never sure by that expression exactly what we should be pulling out of the bag, but it’s exciting anyway. I’m a traveller by nature, and so the journey itself is hugely enjoyable.
Latimer Park is a mere 100 miles from my home. For me, the average away match this season involves a return journey of 416 miles. Boston is the nearest, and Blyth the furthest. I worked it all out and put it on a spreadsheet. It’s a boy thing. Well along some spectrum or another, but I worked it out anyway. Occasionally I do the trip by train, but usually I drive, accompanied by Saturday Live on Radio 4. It starts at 09.00 and goes on till 10.30. There’s some good chat on there. Broadens me. Keeps me amused, engaged, and awake. All is well with the world.
Unless it’s raining. So many things can cancel a game these days. An outbreak of Covid. The team coach breaking down, again. Floodlight failure. A snowflake. But it’s usually the rain. Whenever it rains, I brace myself for that dreaded picture of a pitch-side puddle being posted on twitter.
In reality, I haven’t done badly with travelling to games that never happened, although in recent years the cancelled games at Gosport Borough and Curzon Ashton were far enough. The way the spray kicks up on the motorway, drastically reducing the visibility, makes a cancellation seem inevitable. But actually, more often than not, as you slow down and arrive at your destination, you realise the rain is probably little more than a drizzle.
So, all is well with the world. Unless it’s raining. Or unless I’m late. I can’t bear the thought of turning up with five minutes to spare. The only time I arrive at an away ground at 2.55 is for an evening kick-off! It’s not only the fear of being late. Arriving early gives me enough time to park up and take a walk into town. I like to catch the flavour of the place. I’m intrigued by people, architecture, history, culture, accents, trees. More or less anything really. And so everywhere is interesting. One week it might be the ecclesiastical glories of cities like York, or Gloucester. And, with the greatest respect to small East Midland towns, other weeks it’s Barwell, or Coalville. But I’ve got here. Soon all my cronies will stumble off the supporters coach and the game will start.
“I’m Liverpool’s greatest supporter,” he says, confidently, albeit not very modestly. “Home or away, you’ll always find me watching them. Never miss a game. Come on you reds! You’ll never walk alone.”
“Really?” I reply. “I didn’t know you were a football fan. I’m a Kettering Town supporter myself. I manage to get to most of their away games. I just love the travel, the unique atmosphere and culture of each town they play in and each club they play, and the novelty of every different ground they play on.”
My colleague’s response is one that can only be described as well on the mocking side of derision. As his genuine, gut-based laughter eventually dies down, and he has wiped the tears from his eyes, he asks, “Who? Never heard of them. That’s not football. What proper team do you support?”
So goes the Monday morning football conversation around the breakout room at work. Not for the first time, I am required to justify how a follower of Kettering Town can actually be regarded as a genuine football fan. My colleagues patronise me with comments of thinly disguised disdain, as though they were Monty Don trying to express interest in a window box, or Tiger Woods attempting of having a serious conversation about crazy golf.
There’s just one problem. I really am a supporter of Kettering Town. I first watched them in 1981 - Altrincham at home in the Alliance League Cup Final (Second Leg) - when I moved to live and work in the area. And despite having moved to Ipswich 26 years ago, I’ve continued to watch the Poppies ever since. At last count, on one hundred and seventeen different grounds around the country.
And what’s more, he’s not really a supporter of Liverpool. As with many such confessions of undying loyalty, they are spoken by people who have never even been to Anfield, Old Trafford, or any live football match for that matter, in their lives. For them, the sum total of effort invested into being ‘Liverpool’s greatest fan’ involves settling down on the sofa and pressing a button on the remote.
And so, if time in the breakout room allows, I take the opportunity of offering some of my own mock ridicule. “You’re not a real football fan,” my banter begins. “What you are is a virtual football fan. A real fan sets off at 6.00 am on Saturday morning, anxious about the weather forecast and traffic reports. He keeps an eye on diversionary routes in case of delays, and knows exactly where the nearest alternative matches are, should bad weather or a floodlight failure cancel the intended game at the last minute and he needs to divert.”
I want to go on. I want to share with him the sense of liberty I feel by traveling across the country, the fascination of discovering new places, the uniqueness of each stadium, and the craic with opposing fans. I want him to experience the elation of the unexpected win, the torment of the last ten minutes, and the agony of the injury time loss. But he’s glazing over by now, and has lost interest.
I’ve watched live games of football in twenty very different countries around the world. Belarus to Belgium. Rwanda to Romania. Slovakia to Switzerland. Turkey to Tunisia. Macedonia to Mansfield. Not sure how Mansfield crept in there. But for all my thirty-four trips to Kyrgyzstan, I had never managed to see a game in this glorious, mountainous, Central Asian country. Until this week. Kyrgyzstan had been placed in a World Cup cum Asian Cup “Preliminary Joint Qualification Round 2” group (whatever that means) with Japan, Tajikistan, Mongolia and Myanmar. Qualifying is a long, arduous and protracted process. The World Cup finals don’t take place in Qatar until 2022, and they’ll have to wait yet another twelve months for the Asian Cup finals in China.
But this evening, Kyrgyzstan were playing the red-hot group favourites, Japan, at the Spartak Dolen Omurzakov Stadium, Bishkek, on the night before I was due to fly home. And the previous week my good friends, who know nothing about football and care even less, had kindly stood, patiently, albeit with some bewilderment, in a long queue to acquire two tickets, one for me and one for my British colleague. The length of the queue had taken them by surprise. “I didn’t know football was so popular in our country,” they told me later. Each ticket cost 500 Som (£5.55), which they kindly refused to let me pay for. “It’s our gift to you both”.
I had to be at the airport by 02.30 the following morning, and was therefore glad to learn that the game had been brought forward from 21.00, to a much more reasonable 17.15. With our guest house just a few blocks walk away, after the game I would still manage a couple of hours sleep and a shower before starting my 24-hour journey home.
The police, accompanied by a large number of armed military personnel, had closed several of the streets surrounding the stadium well before the game. Thursday evening rush hour in Bishkek rapidly became even more chaotic than usual. Walking became the obvious, and only, option, as 15,000 people descended on the open bowl that is by far the largest arena in The Kyrgyz Republic. Built in the Soviet era, with little attention paid to it since, it has faded, dusty red, blue and yellow plastic seats on either side, and a few more rows of blue seats well behind one goal. Although how people seated way behind that goal could see anything, I’m not sure.
The stadium is used for athletics, and for other festivals and sports. Once, years ago, I recall wandering into the same stadium and seeing a few minutes of exhibition American football here. But tonight, it was real football, and the atmosphere was great, albeit quite different from the atmosphere at matches I’ve been to in other parts of the world. I would call this crowd ‘naïve’. No hint of snobbery or condescension intended in this expression. Rather, I observed a very attractive innocence and excitement about them. Football crowds in other parts of the world can often be hugely men-dominated, cynical, tough, macho. But this was a party, a celebration, a novel event that somehow local people wanted to get caught up in, just for the fun of it.
Outside the ground were makeshift trestle tables filled with Kyrgyz sweets and pirozhki for sale. Enterprising guys were selling the bright red and yellow Kyrgyz national flags, glamourous girls were giving away large cardboard hands for people to wave, and a four meter tall inflatable plastic figure danced to loud music, in an attempt to attract people to an area where you could have your photo taken under a spotlight, while ticker tape fell all around you. And police. Hundreds of them, none of them looking like they really knew why they were there or what they should do.
Thankfully the weather this evening was dry and relatively mild, as there was no shelter for any of the 15,000 spectators. Inside the stadium, we found our way to our seat. Bishkek’s Koleso Obozreniya (Ferris wheel) peeped over the opposite stand, as if trying to sneak a free view of the game. The nearby Presidential White House stood out boldly to our right, its majesty and solid authority slightly diminished by the erratic flickering of its faulty roof-line floodlights. To the south, the glorious snow-covered Tien Shan mountain range offered a wonderful backdrop to this colourful scene.
I guess the crowd was mostly men, but many young women and plenty of children had also come to join the fun. There was no segregation of rival supporters, and sitting in front of us was a handful of Japanese fans. Some were speaking to the locals in Russian, and I guessed they were either students living in Bishkek, or maybe Japanese Embassy workers. One such girl had crayoned a big, almost round, red dot on a white piece of A4 paper, which she waved occasionally and with vague patriotic intent in the air, in between taking about ten photos per minute throughout the game. These Japanese chatted easily with the Kyrgyz men sitting next to them, who they clearly already knew. However, a few of the 'away' fans had travelled from afar for the game. A handful of them were on my plane to Dubai the next morning.
The game, which was refereed by Saudi Arabian officials, was preceded by the usual singing of both nations’ anthems. A large and energetic cheerleader, armed with two flags which he swung around wildly on a high pole, whipped up the crowd. “Kyr-gyz-stan! Kyr-gyz-stan!” Even the Japanese girls joined in with enthusiasm. I guess if you are supporting both teams, you can’t really lose.
The game was lively. The Kyrgyzstan players, many of them Russian ethnic and playing their club football in Belarus and Russia, were fast going forward, but chaotic and disorganised in defence. But every time a Kyrgyzstan player had the ball at his feet, the women and children squealed, and the men shouted their encouragement. Every time Japan had the ball, the crowd gently, almost obligingly and with good grace, booed. Jeering politely is quite an art.
The assembly was temporarily deflated when after about 40 minutes, the Kyrgyz goalkeeper clumsily felled a Japanese forward, and Japan scored from the penalty spot. However, this blow to their morale was short-lived, and the cheering and squealing began again in earnest well before half time.
My half time visit to the toilet is worth a mention. I spent the fifteen minutes break in a massive scrum of about 10,000 men who were trying to get through the one and only set of double doors that were the entrance to the stadium’s one and only toilet. Hundreds heaved and pushed from the outside, as though that would make the doors somehow wider. And once inside and the cliental having performed, the same double doors somehow had to suffice as the exit. It was all very good humoured, with jokes being cracked that made everyone laugh, including me, even though I didn’t understand them, and could hardly breathe in the crush. I completely lost my colleague in the chaos but, after about fourteen of the fifteen minutes' break, triumphantly re-emerged into the open with bladder empty and body more or less in one piece, and met up with him again as we approached our seats for the second half.
Again, when Japan scored a second goal, early in the second half, local shoulders dropped. But before long, every move was being cheered on once more. The party continued as darkness fell. The players were forgotten for a while as several times a Mexican wave swept around the ground. Then hundreds of people all over the ground collectively waved the lights from their cell phones, before a promising Kyrgyzstan attack refocused people onto the reason they were there. I sensed that even if Kyrgyzstan had pulled back just one consolation goal at the very end, the ground would have erupted. But they didn’t, and it finished 0-2 to a calmer and, if the truth be known, more accomplished Japan team. But a huge applause at the end signified that the locals were still very proud of their boys, and I’m not surprised. The lads done great, although I’m not completely sure how to say that in Kyrgyz.
Breaking all the FCO rules about foreigners not going out on the streets of Bishkek at night, and with a plethora of the evening’s colourful images whizzing round in our heads, we walked contentedly the few blocks back to our guest house. Rows of police, still presenting as a curious cross between idle, authoritative and bemused, thickly lined the first couple of hundred meters of our journey, but gradually the buzz of people and the bright impact of the floodlights faded behind us, tree lined streets were opened once more to traffic, and the city returned to its shady, quiet, albeit slightly creepy and threatening, night-time normal.
...watched Ipswich Town home and away until moving to Kettering in 1983, since when I have followed Kettering Town. If I'm not watching KTFC, I tend to seek out a game on a ground I have not previously visited.
...featured in the Kettering Town match-day programmes in the 2021-22 season.
Kettering; verb. The present continuous tense of the verb 'to ketter', as in "I know I am, I'm sure I am, I'm Kettering till I die". Or, as our fans sang once on a rain-soaked open terrace in Charlton, "I'm Kettering till I dry".
We are required to be pessimists. Being a pessimist is a large part of the enjoyment.