Away games are the best. There is no question about that. The whole "Us vs Them" experience can not be replicated anywhere else - certainly not at home games. I have had some hairy experiences in the past with home fans being hostile or nearly missing kick-off, but I've been relatively lucky in that regard.
This week, me and my mate decided to carry on our run of attending every Capital One Cup game (all of them being away matches at Millwall and Arsenal in nearby London) by heading up to scenic Stoke City. Me and said pal had always vowed never to go back to Stoke's Britannia Stadium after witnessing their goalkeeper, and former Portsmouth stopper, Asmir Begovic score against us after 20 seconds last season. I'll tell you one thing: traveling up four hours to Stoke in the worst weather to see their goalkeeper score against you isn't the best experience going. Still, it's a story to tell.
I should've really stuck to my promise of not returning to Stoke, but what's the fun in that? So here's my story of mid-week travel to the Potteries.
First of all, a big thank you goes to Søren and many other Saints fans for all your help with this nightmarish day.
Ordinarily, I would get a coach up to a match that far north. Train tickets are ridiculously expensive here in England and it saves a lot of hassle to get one of the club or fan-organised buses to drive you up north.
However, my manager, for whatever reason, wouldn't allow me to book a half-day off which would have enabled me to catch the coach up to Stoke - its closest stop to me, its last, was at around 12:30, so I had no chance of getting that. Instead, I worked a 7:00 - 14:30 day to give me what I thought was ample time to travel up north.
My mate picked me up from work at 14:30 with a full tank of petrol and we were ready to go. Five minutes later, his gearbox died. Cue panic. His car has had that problem before and the garage he bought the car from had fixed it within minutes so we carefully drove to nearby Deepcut to see if they can sort his car out in time. No chance. My mate's car was under warranty last time he visited so they sorted him out right away - that warranty has since expired and we received a resounding "fuck off" to our request of having the car sorted there and then.
Our next idea was to call some car rental places to see what they can do. However, being under 25, those companies were more than reluctant to give a motor to a couple of 'irresponsible' 23 year olds. We then began to tentatively look at train travel up to Stoke. As far as I'm aware, the station isn't exactly close to the Britannia Stadium and at £80 a train ticket, I was getting a little desperate. At this moment, I posted a plea for help on a Southampton fan Facebook group:
Realistically, most people were already traveling up to Stoke so there was no chance of a lift.
I was about to step on the train £80 lighter before seeing Søren's last post. I called up Avis Car Rental and managed to haggle the quote down to about £50. After the staff faffed around, we finally left in our new Volkswagen Polo for Stoke at 16:45. With no traffic and a few speed laws broken, we would have been at Stoke in time for kick-off.
We rented a car on a whim for a Capital One Cup game. Christ.
Unfortunately for us, we live near London. So we hit the worst of London's M25 rush hour traffic. We traveled a grand total of 40 miles in two hours. We were still stuck in London traffic when the team news was being announced about an hour prior to kick-off. You know those moments when everything seems to be going against you and things have got so shit you find it hilarious? We were at that stage. It also turned out the Southampton Facebook group were following our progress:
We were at a point of no return now: both me and my mate knew we'd be lucky to see the second half to begin with, but at this point we just wanted to say we got to the ground to see anything of the game - win or lose.
We had also been informed that a few of the Saints fan coaches, which had left at 2pm, had also hit a load of traffic and were still 50 miles away from the stadium just 20 minutes before kick-off. On the radio, it had been announced the Tottenham vs Brighton game had been postponed by 30 minutes due to traffic congestion. That just rubbed salt into an already gaping wound. Why couldn't they postpone our game?
We made up the rest of the 140+ miles in less than two hours. We had to listen to the Manchester City vs Newcastle game with Saints updates thrown in. Saints went 2-0 up early in the first half and I'm not going to lie: I was really happy at hearing the news, but don't think for one second I wasn't praying for a bit of extra time/penalties (with us winning, of course) so I couldn't see a bit more of the game.
Stoke got a goal back shortly after half time to make it 2-1. We arrived at the Britannia Stadium on 80 minutes or so. Literally as soon as I opened the car door, Stoke got their equaliser - no exaggeration. I had feelings of both hope (for extra time) and dread (that we'll throw away the game in classic Southampton style).
Me and my mate decided to leg it down to the ground to try and catch the last 10 minutes or so. You have to remember that there are no guarantees you can get into the ground on 80 minutes - almost every club in England close their ticket turnstiles at half-time. I managed to talk the steward into letting us into the ground and as we went to walk in Graziano Pelle netted the Saints winner. It was now 3-2 to Southampton.
It was bizarre. As Southampton fans were singing "cheerio" to the departing Stoke fans, we were saying hello to the hardcore Saints traveling contingent of over 2,000 fans.
We watched with gritted teeth as Southampton clung on for victory and we made our way home. Saying that, we didn't get home until about 03:30am as my mate, who heroically drove all the way there and back, was shattered and we didn't fancy becoming roadkill.
Did my day consist of unbounded loyalty or ridiculous stupidity? I'll let you be the judge of that, but I couldn't care less.
I honestly feel like Southampton have some of the most underrated fans in the league. Considering where the club is based - it's nowhere near as centralised as London, Midlands or North-West clubs and there are no Premier League teams nearby - Saints fans will always travel to away games in their thousands.
For comparison, Stoke couldn't fill their away allocation of 1,600 tickets (complete with subsidised club travel) for the game down at St. Mary's on Saturday. Yet Southampton brought over 2,000 fans to a mid-week Capital One Cup game. If that's not a dedicated fan base, I don't know what is.
Again, I'd like to thank all of the Saints fans who helped us out that day and wish all those traveling up to Hull today the best of luck. Hopefully they get all three points for you. COYR!
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