A tiring but unforgettable day out

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13
Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13
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THE ALARM was set for 5am.

Such was the excitement or fear of missing the coach I woke up at 4.30am.

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13'United fans, Andy and Cheryl Jefferson.

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13'United fans, Andy and Cheryl Jefferson.

I raced to the Pilot Field in the dark of the early morning. Strangely not a soul to be seen.

That is until I reached half way up Elphinstone Road.

It was like an airport departure lounge with hundreds of people jostling for position.

I parked up and marched up to the coaches.

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13

Coach A was first in the queue. As I was later to find out, not always the best to get on the first bus that comes!

I found my Coach D and even at 5.45am was one of the last to board.

Around 50 fans were sat down, ready and waiting to go.

My pals had saved me a place on the back seat.

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13

Middlesbrough V Hastings United at the Riverside Stadium, 5/1/13

They shouted me up the coach and I felt kind of privileged.

We set off at 6.15am to cries of “here we go, here we go, here we go” and headed out into the morning darkness.

The excitement soon quietened down when the comical bus driver started up the engine.

An icy cold blast of air came straight down onto our heads.

I told the driver it was January, a bit early for air con.

But he said there was nothing he could do and carried on cracking corny gags to the delight of his captive audience.

The fans quickly drifted off to sleep at the start of a very long day.

But the silence was shattered just 40 minutes into the run when.

Burning could be smelt and then just up ahead I could see Coach A suddenly pull up on the hard shoulder of the A21 just before the M25 junction near Sevenoaks.

I could see smoke coming from the coach. At first I thought it was our coach but realised it must have been Coach A.

Our driver just drove straight past. I felt sorry for those on board especially when I found out they had to march along the hard shoulder in the dark and wait an hour -and -a -half for a replacement coach.

Just over an hour later we made our first stop at Birchanger Service Station at Stansted on the M11.

As we trundled off in the welcome daylight, the coaches we could hear someone shouting in their best East End marketsellers voice: “Get your flags,scarves and hats here.”

For a fiver they were quite a bargain and lots of fans snapped them up.

It was a bizarre sight seeing a sea of claret and blue streaming into the services, kind of taking it over for 40 minutes.

The closer we got to Boro, the more the atmosphere built up.

Back on the coach for 9.15am and it was back on the M11 towards the A1.

Half the fans on board had bought national newspapers and were all transfixed as each previewed The Battle of Hastings Two, The Sun’s re-enactment at Battle Abbey being my favourite.

Just before midday we reached Wetherby Services and again an army of claret and blue descended on the services.

This time they were met by a number of excited Sunderland fans who were heading south to Bolton - many of them hoping that “you thrash Boro!”

Back on the coach for the final leg.

After six hours on board fans were eager to get their first glimpse of the Riverside.

We arrived around 1pm expecting a police escort into the ground - but there were no officers to be found.

The coach pulled up right outside the away fans entrance.

The ground looked pretty impressive, right on the banks of the Tees, with the river forming a kind of natural moat.

Fans made straight for the turnstiles eager to grab their seat and get into full voice and let Middlesbrough know they had arrived.

After 90 minutes of chanting and three weeks of waiting the big moment arrived. Sean Ray marched his men onto the pitch to a cacophony of deafening noise as United fans poured out their pent-up emotion.

The game kicked off at 3.02 according to the Boro electronic scoreboard.

And that was the cue to another two hours of non-stop singing, chanting and laughter.

I was expecting to sit down but was stood right in the thick of the chanting zone. Sitting down was not an option.

“You’re ground’s too big for you” was rather appropriate as only 11,000 Boro fans had turned up.

Stadium bosses put a section of Boro’s faithfull in the right hand corner of the away end.

Despite a few drums and screaming teenagers, it was no match for the might of the Pilot Field army.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up as a unified cry of “United” rang out from left to right.

I have been to many football matches including three trips to Wembley, and this was among the best support I’ve ever witnessed.

When Liam O’Brien saved the penalty and Bradley Goldberg scored the whole crowd went equally ballistic.

Beer, crisps and hot-dogs went up in the air - no holds barred.

Even when the final whistle came, the crowd played on.

It was nice to see Sean Ray and his side applauded not only by our fans but the Boro players and spectators who stayed behind to clap them off the pitch.

After catching our breath we headed back onto the coach.

And our hot flushes were soon tempered down by the icy-cold air conditioning supplied free of charge again.

So we said our goodbyes and set off for the return journey south at 5.15pm.

Apart from being diverted onto the M1 at Sheffield and eating Northampton Services out of house and home, the trip back was thankfully uneventful.

We arrived back at the Pilot Field at midnight, bleary-eyed but full of pride.

It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many of us. Let’s hope some of those who made the long trip can take the time and effort to pop into the Pilot Field this season and prove they were not just glory hunters.