This is the text of a feature written by Roger Lytollis for the Carlisle News & Star. Thank you, Roger…
By the time you read this, it’s likely that the hundreds of Carlisle United fans travelling to their team’s first match of the season will have arrived in Devon.
For most of them the trek to Exeter – a 693-mile round trip from Carlisle – will have ended in late morning or early afternoon.
The traditional away match experience involves finding a pub for a meal and a drink then walking to the ground.
Watch the game, return to the car or train, and go home.
Carlisle’s season ends at Yeovil next May. Before then there will be many more hours on motorways and trains for 90 minutes of football which may not always seem worth the effort.
David Guest believes there is another way. His new book, Towns of Two Halves, urges football fans to make more of their away days.
Arrive earlier. Leave later. Consider making a weekend of it by visiting local attractions.
“Accidental tourism,” David calls it.
“The idea of the book is quite recent – the last couple of years,” he says. “The idea of treating away days as a tourist goes back to the early years of this century. It began to bother me that I was wasting a lot of my life watching Oldham Athletic in far-flung places.”
A similar concern may possibly have crossed the minds of Carlisle supporters.
David, a journalist for more than 35 years, has visited all 92 clubs in the Football League and Premier League. Most of his visits are recent enough to provide a useful guide to these towns for football fans.
A few are as far back as the 1960s. These chapters are more of a memoir, with up-to-date information about the towns’ attractions available on his book’s website.
David moved from Oldham when he was a child and now lives in Hertfordshire. He came to Carlisle in April 2014 to see Oldham take on United, and was pleasantly surprised by the Border City.
In fact he says Carlisle – along with Exeter – is the place he enjoyed most. He is particularly enthusiastic about Tullie House, the cathedral and Rickerby Park.
“I’d like to blow Carlisle’s trumpet a bit more,” he says. “The variety on offer. The historic buildings. The green spaces. I like places where there’s always something happening. I remember walking back down to the railway station on Sunday morning and seeing people abseiling off the Civic Centre.”
Other largely unsung places which David liked include Burton, Hull, Newport and Grimsby. The latter pair are in League Two along with Carlisle.
“Grimsby surprised me. It was more interesting than I had expected. The same with Newport. I visited some Roman remains there in case there was nothing else to write about. But in the end it was a long chapter.”
Morecambe is among the other towns in Carlisle’s division which David enjoyed. This season United play there on New Year’s Day: perhaps not the best time to stroll along its seafront.
David acknowledges that any away-match tourist’s schedule is likely to be dictated by the time of year the fixture is played.
“A lot of the book might come across as a bit highbrow with visits to museums etc. But it’s a largely winter-based season. You’re going to want to be indoors more often than not. I hope there’s enough variety.
“One of the points I’m trying to make in the book is that anywhere can be a tourist destination. That said, I suppose I’d have to admit that Exeter has a bit more to offer than, say, Nailsworth [home of Forest Green Rovers] or Oldham.
“To spend a full weekend in Oldham you’d be struggling. There are country parks, a good museum at Saddleworth. And Manchester’s on your doorstep.”
David advises anyone attending a match at Milton Keynes Dons to visit nearby Bletchley Park: once the home of World War Two code-breakers.
Some away days include experiences which cannot be planned. A trip to Ipswich in 1991 comes to David’s mind.
He visited the town with his now ex-wife under the guise of a walking holiday. Oh, and Oldham just happened to be playing there. They watched the match and, next day, did the walking part of their weekend. This took them into a field where their path was blocked by a drainage ditch which ‘looked jumpable’.
David writes: ‘I went first and cleared the hazard with feet to spare. L followed; but her approach lacked confidence. Her jump was more vertical than horizontal and she came down in middle of the ditch. I hauled her out to the accompaniment of some plain language. Her feet were soaked, as were her shorts to mid-thigh level, and frantic splashing left its mark elsewhere.’
Perhaps there are football fans whose tribal mentality means they see the homes of all opposing teams as the enemy: merely places for smash and grab raids with three points the booty.
For the sake of his book, and supporters’ wellbeing, David hopes they will set aside rivalries long enough to appreciate more than a pub and a football ground.
“Give yourself an extra few hours,” he says.
It may be harder for Carlisle fans to do this, considering how much time they already invest in following their team to distant towns.
Then again, maybe that means they should try to squeeze more than the match from those epic journeys.
David has been asked if there’s a market for a book treating football fans as tourists. He says: “There’s a trend in football towards gentrification which means the game is making itself more welcoming to families. Families need more to do than go to the pub. I’m hoping the book might be riding the beginning of a small wave.”
Then there’s the consolation, if your team loses, of having enjoyed a different kind of cultural experience.
Has football ever been the worst part of David’s away days?
“I still come away from a place feeling good if they’ve won,” he says. “And depressed if they’ve not.”
*Some of David Guest’s thoughts about Carlisle:
‘Carlisle shares its charms with you hesitantly, like a winsome spinster unsure of the effect she’s having. Perhaps the novelty of trying to attract visitors is too recent; Carlisle will have spent most of its history trying to fend them off.’
‘On the other side of the bridge that carries the A7 to Scotland there are more green spaces at Carlisle Cricket Club. A game was in progress and I stopped to have a drink and to enjoy the overlap in the seasons. On a warm, sunny evening, after the last football match of a successful campaign – relegation narrowly avoided once again – it was another fine advertisement for Carlisle.’
Carlisle United lost 3-1 at Exeter.