With the season fast approaching we thought we’d lock Ethan Thoburn in a room and not let him out until he wrote up a review of all the grounds we’ll be visiting next season. Here’s part two of three…
Doncaster Rovers: Keepmoat Stadium
Sunday 29th December
During the Christmas period, Sunderland travel to Yorkshire to play a strong Donny team that finished sixth confirming the final play-off place last season where they gave Charlton a run for their money, coming from behind to take it to penalties at The Valley. With frontman John Marquis by far the biggest danger, he’ll be one to watch although he has been linked with a move to Wearside over the summer. However, last season’s success under Grant McCann may not be repeated this season with the Rovers top job currently lying vacant following the Northern Irishman’s departure to Championship Hull City. Sunderland did the double over them last term with Chris Maguire notching the only goal in the game in a midweek clash away from home whilst the Good Friday meeting at the SoL was decided by two first half finishes from Lewis Morgan and Charlie Wyke. The Keepmoat itself is a tidy little ground, a smaller version of ours some might say, housing around 15,000 fans and last season’s allocation to the travelling faithful was 4,000 which went to general sale but was snapped up sharpish after the announcement. A good show of support for a Tuesday night clash over 100 miles down the A1. Near the ground there’s a pub which serves canny food and has a large outdoor seating area, bear in mind it will be December, as well as a trading estate with a McDonald’s and KFC but if that’s too busy there is a supporters’ bar built into the stand which is away fan friendly and I believe serves food also. The train station is a fair walk of around 25 minutes but is right next to a bus interchange where plenty head up towards the Keepmoat, all that failing a taxi will set you back about a tenner. Certainly, an away I would recommend.
Fleetwood Town: Highbury Stadium
Wednesday 1st January
A trip to Fleetwood is for most a trip to Blackpool with the tram heading from Blackpool’s infamous shores right past Fleetwood Town’s small home of Highbury Stadium. For what looks a fairly new ground, it actually opened way back in 1939, but has seen some major redevelopments in recent times. Parking close to the stadium is a challenge to say the least never mind navigating the small side streets, train travel is best to Blackpool North station and then catching a taxi along to the ground due to no New Year’s Day tram service, this will certainly cost you at least £20 but there will be buses running the same routes as the trams. Allocations usually hit about the 1000 mark with the ground only holding a little over 5000, away tickets are largely in the form of standing on a terrace behind the goal, but a small amount of seating is on offer in the main stand. Unless you take a trip along the sea front to Blackpool there isn’t a great deal to do around the ground apart from a decent in house bar on the far side of the ground which welcomes away fans, serves food and also has a small outside overspill area, the only other food outlet is a chip shop right where the coach drop off is which does amazing curry sauce! Of course, the manager of the Cod Army needs no introduction, none other than the pantomime villain of Joey Barton is in charge and will fire the Lancashire lads up no matter what their position and no matter what their form. Last season we embarrassingly lost away to Fleetwood in the rearranged midweek fixture late on with a late strike from centre half Ashley Eastham in injury time after Paddy Madden equalised Lee Cattermole’s first half goal. Not only that, we failed to beat Barton’s men on home soil too, going behind to Madden’s early goal only for Josh Maja to salvage a point just before the break. Fleetwood will certainly be a popular away trip next season, but tickets will be a scarce resource and only those with plenty BCPs can hope of snapping one up due to the minimal allocation but again it certainly could be one of the better away days.
Gillingham: Priestfield Stadium
Saturday 7th December
One of the longer trips this coming campaign is the trek down to Kent to the Priestfield Stadium where last season we recorded one of our biggest wins on a warm Wednesday night in August. Goals from Chris Maguire, George Honeyman and Max Power in the space of a quarter of an hour just about killed the game off after Tom Eaves’ early opener for the Gills, Maja netted second half in a six-yard box scramble to finish the day off. Steve Evans’ men posed a threat last season with a big, physical side and more specifically their target man Tom Eaves; who won everything no matter who marked him last season. At home we hit them for four again in February with Lee Cattermole, Tom Flanagan, Will Grigg bagging his first and Aiden McGeady from the spot all getting on the score sheet although they didn’t make it an easy game for us. Away fans are housed in what looks to be a temporary stand made of scaffolding opposite the Rainham End behind the goal, about 2500 can get in the uncovered stand which is all seated. Usual away allocations are only about 1500 but last season we look upwards of the 2k mark which was an incredible showing for a midweek game. Trains to Gillingham are frequent from both St. Pancras International in London, London Victoria and Charing Cross, with the railway station being a short 15-minute walk to Priestfield. As for parking and coaches, they are both situated across the train tracks and in an industrial estate which is less than a five-minute walk to the ground. The designated away pub is the Fleur de Lis which is just short of a 10 minute walk uphill and past a few chippies and kebab shops, it’s not a huge pub but there’s plenty of standing room on the street and around the side of the pub. Certainly a game for those happy travelling long distances and those seasoned away supporters, tickets shouldn’t be a problem to get your hands on due to the time of year and the amount of travelling involved but a one that I’d recommend you get to with it being up there as one of the best away games last season.
Ipswich Town: Portman Road
Saturday 10th August
Our first away trip of the season and it could be one of the toughest with Paul Lambert’s side being relegated from the Championship after finishing bottom, but will be certainly looking to bounce straight back. Again, another long journey to East Anglia at around 280 miles from the North East to Portman Road, the Tractor Boys thrashed us 5-2 the last time we embarked on this away day back in 2017 on a Tuesday evening. The return leg wasn’t much to write home about either with Coleman’s men shown up 2-0 thanks to Joe Garner and an Adam Matthews own goal. Away fans are positioned in the upper tier Cobbold Stand with allotments of around 2000 tickets, an allocation which will possibly go on general sale but will more than likely sell out soon with it being our first away match of the campaign. One of the bigger grounds in this division, Portman Road is a stone’s throw away from Ipswich station which is served by frequent trains from Peterborough and as for travel by ALS bus it’ll be an early start! There are two decent bars around the ground, the official away fans pub is the Riverside Hotel which is en-route from the station and is just across the road from the ground and backs onto the River Orwell, if that fails then there’s The Punch & Judy a short distance from that which welcomes travelling supporters. Despite their woeful form last season, they ended on somewhat of a high beating Marcelo Bielsa’s promotion tipped Leeds United at home on the final day and most of that team has so far remained in Suffolk including highly rated keeper Bartosz Bailkowski and Wales international Emyr Huws.
Lincoln City: Sincil Bank
Saturday 5th October
Following their impressive three seasons since 2016 they’ve achieved promotion from the Conference and League 2 as well as that memorable FA Cup run in 2017 when they defeated Ipswich Town and Brighton as well as Premier League Burnley. This has all been since former non-league midfielder Danny Cowley took over the reins at Sincil Bank and his spirited side stormed to the League 2 title last season despite being put behind Bury and MK Dons by the bookmakers. Sunderland and Lincoln have only ever met on eight meaningful occasions with the last being over 20 years ago in the FA Cup in 1999 when Reidy’s lads won 1-0 in Lincolnshire and for the last time we met in the league you’d have to look all the way back to January 1961 when we won 2-1. The Imps will of course be hoping to repeat Luton Town’s fete of achieving successive promotions to the Championship and will have the momentum of last season’s victorious team but will surely confront an uphill struggle to adapt to League 1. A new ground for me, away allocations are suggested to be around the 1000 mark and the ground itself holds 10,000 so extra tickets may well become available but I have a feeling this may be another one for regular away travellers due to the small allocation. I’ve been told there’s plenty pubs around the ground on High Street and also a fan zone outside which is open to visiting supporters. Rail travel requires changes at either Retford or more commonly Newark Northgate and then an East Midlands train to Lincoln which is a 15-minute walk to the ground. By road, it’ll not be a game where we’ll be leaving before the crack of dawn to travel the little under 150 miles to get to the match.
MK Dons: Stadium MK
Saturday 18th January
Another newly promoted side from League 2 and another side that was relegated from the third tier a season before last and bounced straight back. MK Dons are possibly one of the most hated teams in British football and will always be known for taking over the original Wimbledon FC and moving over them 50 miles up the road to Milton Keynes to form essentially a franchise team of MK Dons. Playing at Stadium MK, Paul Tisdale’s men were tipped to win the league last season but fell short to Lincoln City however still managed to grab the final automatic promotion place behind Bury on goal difference and three points ahead of Mansfield Town. With players such as Kieran Agard, new boy Jordan Bowery and former Premier League centre half Russel Martin the Dons are certainly prepared for the forthcoming season and a trip down to Buckinghamshire will be a tough test especially after a busy Christmas schedule. The last time we visited the ground was way back in 2012 in the League Cup when we came away 2-0 victor thanks to Craig Gardner and James McClean despite Cattermole’s early dismissal; the only other occasion we’ve faced the Dons was at home in 2013 with a 4-2 win which kickstarted an unforgettable League Cup run to Wembley, Jozy Altidore, Connor Wickham and Adam Johnson were on hand to flip a 2-0 deficit and fire Paolo Di Canio’s men to the third round. Following dwindling attendances and general poor numbers in recent years, away allocations usually yield 3000 tickets initially, but more can be allocated if required so there shouldn’t be a problem snapping them up for this January clash, a good one for those starting out and trying to build points up. Away supporters are put in the upper tier of the North East corner, but the North Stand upper is usually allocated as well as the lower if needed. Unfortunately drinking establishments aren’t in an abundance with the best bet being TGI Friday’s, Pizza Express or Frankie & Benny’s on the nearby industrial estate, if not the Bletchley Working Men’s Club is open for away fans pre match only and is just opposite the train station, but that’s a good 45 minute walk from the stadium. Milton Keynes Central train station is about four miles from the ground so a taxi is advised and will set you back a tenner or so, Bletchley train station is served by trains from London Euston and Birmingham New Street but taxis outside are supposedly not very frequent.
Oxford United: Kassam Stadium
Saturday 15th February
Last season’s visit to Oxfordshire was spoiled by a last-minute defensive horror show which cost us two points when former loanee Jerome Sinclair ran through and squared it to Marcus Browne just minutes from time. Jimmy Dunne had put us in the lead, but we tried to defend a one goal advantage and ultimately failed. The ground only has three stands with the away supporters allocated half of the stand facing the Main Stand, this is usually about 2000 seats and last season tickets were just short of going on general sale. To be perfectly honest if you really wanted to then you could’ve stayed on the ALS bus and seen over the tiny fence behind the goal or took the initiative of some Oxford fans who simply climbed one of the trees to cop a view of the game. Around the ground there isn’t exactly a lot with a bowling ally which served food and alcohol the most popular site for away fans but there’s also a retail park with a Maccies on it. The closest pub that does allow away fans in is a ten-minute walk away in Littlemore called the George Inn which also serves up food, if that’s not your fancy a British Legion Club is in a similar area which lets in visiting supporters. Oxford railway station is some distance from the Kassam so walking it isn’t really a sensible option with the matchday special bus 3A being the more suited mode of transport although the journey time can be rather lengthy, but taxis are available. As for parking, there’s a retail park with plenty space and the bowling ally also lets you park there albeit only for three hours or so. Last season the ALS bus had the welcome stop off at Charlie Methven’s local where travellers could enjoy a beer or two with the director in a very exclusive country inn. Not one of the better away games in the season and it’s a fair old journey but one that I’ll undoubtedly get to.
Peterborough United: London Road (ABAX Stadium)
Saturday 31st August
Last season 4000 made the trip down to London Road on Easter Monday to see last minute madness on the pitch when Max Power’s cracker in the dying minutes was cancelled out by a stoppage time equaliser from Matt Godden. A 2-2 draw for the lads was the outcome when the then high flying Posh travelled North, goals from Josh Maja and Jerome Sinclair were both cancelled out by Joe Ward and then former Mag Ivan Toney. Bryan Oviedo was sent for for a high foot on Sunderland fan Marcus Maddison and it ultimately cost Jack Ross’ men the full share of the spoils. Peterborough is a decent away day to say the least and is only four hours down the road by ALS coach as well having plenty of pubs with beer gardens for the nice weather we’ll hopefully have by late August. Away fans are seated in the Main Stand towards the corner flag but the extended allocation we received last season saw us have behind the goal as well. With the expectation of around 4000 allocation again this year, tickets shouldn’t be any dramas for those looking to build up their BCPs and like I say is one of the better away fixtures to travel to. Close to the ABAX is the River Nene where there’s a cheerful Dutch barge moored which has plenty on tap and is away fan friendly, if that doesn’t float your boat then there’s plenty other pubs kicking about with the Palmerston Arms and the Yard of Ale about a 15 minute walk from the ground. There are also plenty of pubs on the banks of the Nene which are open to travelling supporters such as The Peacock and the neighbouring establishments in that area, all only a short walk to London Road. Car parking and bus drop offs is just across the road from the stadium and is available to all at a small charge whilst the train station is about a 20 minute walk to the ground and is served by mainline LNER services from Newcastle and Durham, there’s also plenty of pubs between the station and ground. Early in the season Peterborough always seem to get off to a decent start and are always a threat and this season Darren Ferguson’s boys won’t be any different and will certainly be in the promotion race.