Following from Afar: My Year Supporting Town from Abroad
The 2017/18 campaign was remarkable for Town fans in many ways. Each of us will have our own collection of memories that grew exponentially from the precise moment Christopher Schindler’s penalty hit the net at Wembley. Switching off our tellies, unplugging the radio or, as was the case for almost 40,000 of us, setting off back home on a long trek up the M1, every one of us put pen to paper for the first chapter of our own Premier League experience. And while I wouldn’t say my own journey unfolded in the manner I had anticipated—as in truth, I had never anticipated we’d ever see top-flight football in Huddersfield—it was certainly my most colourful as a supporter.
I was twenty years old when we gained promotion and, centrally to this story, sat midway through a four-year Modern European Languages degree at the University of Liverpool. In this country, the vast majority of foreign language programmes on offer in higher education include a bit of an easter egg: an extra year spent working or studying in a new country. For most, this opportunity comes in the third year and by the time Messrs Lowe, Hefele, Wells, Mooy and Schindler were readying themselves for the Wembley shootout, my study abroad applications had long been signed and sent.
To my great excitement, I had found out in February of 2017 that the autumn would bring about a six-month loan deal with Aix-Marseille Université, in France’s south east. This half-year spell of turning up late for lectures in Provence, rather than on Merseyside, would then be followed up by a stint in Seville; both cities had been my first choice for each semester and naturally, I was elated.
But the Championship season wore on, and as my eagerness to get started on the year abroad grew stronger with each passing day, so did a nagging feeling in my gut—one that would catch me unawares after every hard-fought victory. If we did manage the unthinkable and reach the Prem, I wouldn’t be around for much of it.
And true, spare the violins—you might say it’s hardly a tragedy, carting yourself off to the Mediterranean to eat patatas bravas and chug red wine for a year, and you’d be right—I was about to experience the clichéd ‘year of a lifetime’ and I could hardly wait for it. But, just as it did to countless others, the Wagner Revolution and outright turnaround of the club’s fortunes had grabbed me by the collar and hauled me along, singing and dancing. Extricating myself from Town’s most exciting era in living memory was always going to tug on the heartstrings —two ‘years of a lifetime’, turning up at exactly the same time like the 370 to Westgate.
Back in the academic world, term dates were published and eventually my departure was set for early September, meaning I might at least be able to cram a couple of games in before I left. As it happened, a poorly timed holiday ruled me out of contention for our first two home games against Newcastle and Southampton (I booked holidays over not one, but both of the Leeds games the season prior, so I didn’t have the best track record). My luck was in, however, when it came to the ballot for the Palace away day and I was down at Selhurst to witness Steve Mounié firing us to new heights. It would turn out to be the only live game I would catch before I set off to Marseille, but it certainly wasn’t a bad one to leave on.
The fourth time we took to the field in the Premier League, at West Ham’s London spaceship, I was set up in Bouc-Bel-Air, my new village bestowed with the delights of a Lidl, a boulangerie, a bus stop and not a right lot else. And while the first few weeks of my year away were spent socialising, stumbling over French verbs and trying to figure out how the hell I was supposed to open a bank account at BNP Paribas, it wouldn’t be too long before I felt the itch. Huddersfield Town were playing Premier League football and I, several hundred miles away and struggling to be understood by bus drivers, bank clerks and university secretaries on a daily basis, was very much missing it.
So, I came up with a plan of action; the aim was to make sure I got the most out of my year on the continent, all the while seeing enough of Town’s first—and maybe only—Premier League jaunt to feel a part of it. On an Excel spreadsheet, I devised a route through the year as best I could, catching the best of the Erasmus experience while tying in trips back to the UK for whatever tenuous reason I could muster, to make it to the John Smith’s Stadium.
This frequent flying tested my creativity to its absolute limits; I’m proud to say my organisational skills improved to the power of ten that year. Ryanair gave foreign exchange students a healthy 20 percent discount and in an endeavour to keep travel costs to a minimum, I journeyed back from a sackful of southern French runways. A major airport was near but its flights were often eye-wateringly expensive, so out went Marseille and in came sunny Carcassonne, a three-hour train ride to the west with its imposing city walls, and Nimes, the birthplace of denim and home to a stunning Roman amphitheatre (plus a departures lounge the size of a corner shop).
It sounds like madness and it probably was, but in retrospect, I am so glad I did it that way; I would go, camera in hand, on a solo trek around obscure yet beautiful corners of France that I may otherwise never have visited, squeezing every last centime out of my French railcard.
It worked a treat on the return leg, too. At the other end, I would land in Liverpool on a Wednesday at the end of term, spending two days celebrating with my uni mates who had just wrapped up their first round of finals, before rolling up to my work’s Christmas do on the Friday night. Edinburgh, for a day’s sightseeing before a Manchester night out for a friend’s birthday, by way of Newcastle, to see my girlfriend at the time. A trip home to see the family, too, this time via a flight to Manchester.
But the best part of it was, of course, being involved in that magnificent season. The first time I saw top-flight football down Leeds Road was the 0-4 drubbing against Tottenham, our first heavy defeat and a masterclass from Harry Kane that summed up the gulf in class between the over-achievers and the big-hitters, but I couldn’t have cared less. After fourteen years of watching Town, seeing us line up against the elite under the same roof that had formerly overseen dreary defeats to Darlington and Doncaster was a privilege beyond measure and I will happily admit to welling up a little when singing Smile Awhile.
I was home for the win over United, too—there was no way I was missing that, and just as well. The carnage that followed Laurent Depoitre’s finish in front of the South Stand and Zanka’s game-saving block from Chris Smalling capped off an unforgettable rainy afternoon. It remains one of my proudest as a fan.
That is not to say I didn’t sacrifice a few big fixtures; I always knew that my attendance would still be a rarity. Luckily though, there was still plenty of opportunity to follow what was happening. Unlike in the UK, a high proportion of French students simply attend their local university and return home on a weekend, rendering bustling bars relatively quiet in college towns on a Saturday night. Most of the great people I met in France were football fans themselves, too, two of my closest study abroad friends following Spurs and Leicester. Therefore, of a laidback Saturday, from their tiny, rented flat in Aix-en-Provence, we would often meet up to watch the English action, perhaps catching Match of the Day together over a stream around midnight with a bottle of wine and a packet of biscuits. The best of times.
Increasingly, however, I’d find myself elsewhere on a weekend and wouldn’t be able to watch the match. The first instance came in October, for our game at Anfield. Virtually unmissable, I had planned to watch as usual before heading to the airport—the standard Marseille this time —to pick up my ex, out for a visit on her half-term break. But, due to a mix-up on the flights, she had had to change route a couple of days before and was now set to land not in the early evening, but at 4:50pm, right in the middle of half time. The bus ride to collect her would take around forty minutes and I was suddenly in a pickle. Back in September, I had arrived in France with a decent, fairly modern Samsung phone, but my trusty S7 had succumbed to water damage during a freak rainstorm that ambushed me and some mates that very first weekend abroad, as we tried to navigate our way to Nice v Monaco.
The sensible solution to the problem, in retrospect, would have been to buy a new phone. But as a penny-counting student with a football fixation to finance, I decided on a practical alternative. With around four months left to run until I could apply for an early upgrade on my contract, opted to buy a cheap alternative from a local department store called Fnac – a greater test of my French skills than any oral exam I had taken back home. The result was horrific.
I came away with a lump of black plastic that was so limited in its abilities as a mobile phone that the shop assistant actually laughed and shook his head when I picked it up off the shelf, but for 49 euros, how bad could it be?
Well, pretty bad. This basic contraption ran on 2G internet, had a touchscreen that froze when hit more than once a second and was so short on memory that I had to sacrifice one Facebook, Twitter or WhatsApp on a rolling basis.
Normal practice for any long-distance sports fan would have been to follow the game by means of an online stream, but had I dared to load up anything video-based on my new gadget, there would have been a genuine chance of it exploding in a puff of red, white and blue smoke.
Plus, with mobile internet signal scarce at best on the rural Provencal motorway, any sort of text-based commentary or even the trusty #htafc hashtag was out of reach. But I was yet to miss a Premier League match that season and was not about to start then, and so, in a last-ditch effort to catch the game live, I used one of the only features my new phone could exercise properly and called a mate back in Huddersfield.
“Can you stick the radio on BBC Leeds and leave the phone next to it?”
And down the airwaves, I let Paul Ogden’s velvety tones take me through the first half, right the way to the arrivals lounge.
As the months passed, those whom I befriended across the channel, and later in Spain, gradually understood more of my obsession with Huddersfield Town and the great lengths I would go to in order to follow their progress from afar. It became a part of my identity, a personality trait, and I truly believe it enhanced my experience of that historic Premier League season to the maximum.
There came many more curious tales of watching the Terriers, too; the madness had even begun as early as pre-season, when, travelling around Southeast Asia, I tuned in to watch the Girona friendly from a $1-a-night hostel dormitory in Battambang, Cambodia, before streaming the Udinese game from my hotel in Geylang—in an area known to the locals as Singapore’s red light district, though I only found this out when it was too late (it had seemed strangely cheap). The wi-fi not strong enough in my room, I sat on the corridor watching the action on a tablet as Tom Ince gave us the lead to some questionable background sound effects from next door but one.
Then at the opposite end of the campaign came my weekend trip to Valencia from Seville, which I spent in the company of two friends from uni—a City fan and a Baggie. Two or three league games were left to play and all of our teams were in action, with West Brom—teetering on the brink of relegation to the Championship and needing no less than seven favourable results to save them—were facing Tottenham on the Saturday, while Town would face the formidable champions elect at the Etihad on Sunday afternoon. With so many teams scrapping against the drop, any scoreline that benefited West Brom also happened to be of benefit to Town, making for an electric weekend’s viewing.
The first fixture was the Saturday lunchtime affair between Stoke and Crystal Palace, in which anything but a Palace victory would relegate the Baggies—and of course prove extremely dangerous for the Terriers, too. We listened, headphones in, in the shadow of Valencia’s splendid Oceanogràfic museum, as a late Patrick van Aanholt penalty secured all three points for the London side.
Then, transferring to the beach for a few hours in the sun, we kept a nervous eye on struggling Swansea’s trip to Bournemouth—where a home win was, again, crucial for my friend and for Town—while propping a phone against a sandcastle for the viewing of West Brom against Spurs. The Cherries beat the Swans on the south coast, but with time ticking away, the Baggies were still goalless at the Hawthorns. We paced anxiously up and down the sand as added time dragged on, only to leap into the air as one when Jake Livermore bundled in a late, late corner, much to the bemusement of the other sunbathers.
We were walking through a shopping centre later that evening when Southampton let slip a gargantuan three points at Everton in the 96th minute, my West Brom mate having pulled his earphone out in resignation a few moments earlier—four perfect results from four and an epic shared day as football fans.
The Terriers’ moment of reckoning, however, would come the following day and having mis-read the schedule, I had frustratingly booked our return flight to Seville for 4pm—in other words, about fifteen minutes before full-time. Most Town fans will vividly recall that most memorable of unremarkable goalless draws; I spent it with a City fan in a Valencia departures lounge, watching on my finally upgraded phone.
The boarding call came early in the second half and the Eastlands scoreboard ticked on as the queue for the plane became shorter and shorter by the minute. Desperate to stay within reach of the airport wi-fi, we had hung back to the very last moment, but agonisingly had to hand over our passes and passports with twenty minutes still on the clock. Mercifully, I had saved some of my mobile data allowance for such situations, but not much, and even if my internet did hold out, how much time would I have before the dreaded airplane mode had to be activated?
I sat in my Ryanair seat sneaking a view at the screen as all around me packed away luggage. The stewardess told me to remove my headphones for the safety demonstration and I was twice reminded to put my phone away as take-off approached, but the game was still 0-0 and I could not face the prospect of an hour’s wait until landing to hear the final score.
The plane was already taxiing down the runway when Laurent Depoitre broke through for a last gasp counterattack and 950 miles away, my heart was in my mouth. To my utmost relief, the final whistle came soon after with moments to spare and as we took off four the south east, I lay back in my chair safe in the knowledge that survival was now a genuine possibility.
Tearing up on the same City fan’s shoulder in my Seville bedroom a few days later as Depoitre, Hogg, Lossl, Schindler and Mooy celebrated the finest of draws at Stamford Bridge, brought about a touching end to the most remarkable season for a Town fan in ninety years. Looking back on it all, I feel honoured and privileged to have had the opportunities I did that year, not least because they gave me a unique view of that campaign and a lifetime of memories. To close this article, though, I have to round off on my most arduous journey to a game, which came on a mid-January weekend. Having finished my last exam in France on the Friday afternoon, I went straight out into town for celebratory drinks. A few hours and several glasses of cheap wine later, I said my goodbyes to the other exchange students and headed back to my rented room to pick up my pre-packed suitcase.
There are a number of routes I could have taken on the way back to England, on a variety of days; I had three weeks until the start of term in Seville, so there was little rush. But Town were hosting West Ham the following afternoon in a thoroughly winnable game and, bitten by the Premier League bug, I was not going to miss it. My flights—the only ones that would get me back in time for the game—consisted of a 6:30 AM take-off from Marseille, a transfer in Brussels and a midday touchdown in Manchester. The airport shuttle was more reliable than your average French bus service and therefore it should have been a relatively straightforward journey home, to a degree. There was, however, one final hitch.
The bus to Marseille-Provence International ran every half-an-hour, but to my dismay, it only started its day at 5am. The 40-minute trip would mean I arrived with, at best, 50 minutes to check my luggage, clear security, find the gate and board. I didn’t fancy my chances, and could see only one solution…
And that is how I, on my last evening in France, found myself on the 11:30pm shuttle service to Marseille Airport, where I would spend my final night sleeping on the hard Terminal 1 floor, with my suitcase as a pillow, my coat doubling as a duvet and that feeling of pre-match trepidation bubbling away inside me.
I almost missed my connection in Belgium, arrived in St George’s Square at 2pm and yes, we got battered 1-4.