The weird and wonderful world of away days

Saturday 11 December 2021 07:00

I rarely need my passport these days, thanks to the influence of COVID-19 and my 17-month-old son.

But when I opened it up earlier this week – for ID purposes – a reminder of pre-pandemic life fell out. My boarding pass for the second leg of a flight to Nur-Sultan. Or, as football fans know it, Astana.
The past, they say, is a foreign country. In this case, the country in question was Kazakhstan: the final place I travelled to before the pandemic really hit the United Kingdom.
Norwich away, United's next Premier League game, always brings long, far-flung trips like that to mind. Sure, East Anglia is hardly the ends of the earth – it just feels like it.

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By car? You have to leave the motorway near Rugby, and the last 100-plus miles must be completed on soul-sapping A roads.

By train? If you're lucky enough to get a direct journey, it's still nearly five hours. More often than not, you have to travel as far south as London and pick up another train back north towards Norwich.
But who cares, when the pot of gold lying in wait at the end is watching your beloved football team? After all, most of the best trips of my life have come through watching United. 
Like the time I got the train all the way back from Barcelona, via the Pyrenees, Toulouse, Paris and London.
Or the 10-hour train ride from Bar, in Montenegro, to Belgrade, in Serbia, to watch us play Partizan.
It sounded nice, in theory. Surely a 10-hour train would offer a generous buffet car and a well-stocked bar? No chance, pal – fancy an existential crisis instead? Or a look at loads of Eastern Orthodox churches? How about a Serbian border guard chuckling at the nationality on your passport: 'Brexit!'
There was plenty of fun in between, but you get my point: these are the kinds of bizarre, incidental occurrences that come with following United all over.

You end up meeting all types of people, seeing all types of things, having all manner of weird and wonderful conversations. Sometimes it's life-affirming; sometimes it's mundane. But always, you come home feeling richer for the experience.
United fans at Partizan Stadium in 2019 – the site of the Busby Babes' last ever game.
Would I ever have gone to Kazakhstan or somewhere like Gdansk, if not for United? The answer is probably no. But I'd argue that you'll learn a lot more about the world heading to these kinds of places rather than following the herds to Dubai and Disney World.
And these expeditions aren't just good for the individual. They are where the soul of United's hardcore support is really forged. Where collective identity really fuses and sparks.
Going to matches at Old Trafford is, of course, fantastic. But it's on long journeys miles from M16 that fans find common ground with each other and hatch ideas. Where there's endless hours to create new songs and get to know what makes people tick; to hear stories about Montpellier '91 or the Red Army days. 
This is where tradition is really passed down, and younger supporters learn that being a fan is not just about discussing formations and frustrating transfer sagas – it's about being part of a lineage that stretches back way before you were born and will continue long after you're gone.
Scott McTominay scored United's 200th Premier League goal when we last visited Carrow Road in the top flight.
Hopefully the days of easy travel will soon return, and PCR tests and passenger locator forms will become distant, nostalgic memories.
Because anyone who experienced, say, the Nou Camp in '99 – alongside the approximated 50,000 Reds that made the trip over to Spain – will tell you it was up there with the greatest few days of their life.
And the further you go, generally speaking, the more rewarding and interesting it gets.
But until those times return, we'll take what we can get. And though Norwich might not be Kazakhstan, the 500-mile round trip to East Anglia makes for a mighty good tribute act.