By Russell Kempson
It is 10.40am. Workmen crawl like ants around the Life Centre, the yet-to-be-completed £46.5 million state-of-the-art leisure and sports complex next to Home Park. A solitary coach is parked nearby, ready for the 11am departure to Macclesfield Town for Plymouth Argyle's npower League 2 fixture on a Tuesday night.
A cheeky "White Van Man" holds up an Exeter City scarf, gently goading the Plymouth supporters. It is all taken in good spirit. Peter Hall, Argyle's octogenarian life vice-president, has a last puff on his pipe and moans about some ID number that he needs to log on to a local football website. It has bewildered him.
This is the "Green Army", the die-hard Plymouth supporters, ready to go. To Moss Rose, home of Macclesfield Town, a 536-mile round trip meaning time off work and little sleep before clocking on again on Wednesday morning; and to experience yet another graphic illustration of their utter devotion to the Argyle cause ...
10.58am: The coach pulls out of Home Park. Graham is at the wheel and will share the onerous task with Brad, his co-driver. Keith Mitchell, Argyle travel organiser since the early 70s, kindly hands me a goodie bag that contains a ham sandwich, two cheese-and-onion baps, a pasty and a packet of crisps. "I don't like the motorway service station food," he says. "I don't rate it and it's too expensive, anyway."
The fixture, originally scheduled for a Saturday little over two weeks previously, had been cancelled due to a frozen pitch but 42 fans - men and women, young and old, all Green through and through - had booked up for the long haul to Cheshire. "I didn't think we'd get that many," Keith says. "We needed 39 to cover the cost of the coach today so we just got there." It costs £26 for members of the supporters' club, £29 for non-members. "We try to keep the prices down," he adds.
As we edge out of Plymouth on to the A38 bound for Exeter, Mitchell, 69, reminisces about his life on the road with The Football League's southernmost club. It involves travelling perhaps 14,000 miles, maybe more, this season alone; and, over the years, many a journey frustratingly wasted by late postponements - a torrential downpour at Wimbledon, dense fog at Derby County, storm damage at Wigan Athletic.
"I remember going to Middlesbrough for a League Cup match," Keith says. "We left at 9am to get there but there was a problem on the motorway and we got badly held up. We arrived at Boro with just over five minutes of the game left and, when they opened the gates to let us in, we found out we were leading 1-0. Did we celebrate! But Boro then scored twice and we lost 2-1. It was a nightmare. And we didn't get back to Plymouth until 7am.
"One year on a Saturday, on my birthday, we went to Newcastle. We left at 5am. But we got to the outskirts of Newcastle and the police pulled us over to tell us the game had just been called off. We were allowed to have an half--hour break and then had to return. I think we got back about 10 o'clock at night. That just happens sometimes. What can you do?"
But the good times, the days of the Green invasions north, have more than made up for it. As in 1984, when 30,000 Plymouth fans descended on Villa Park for the 1-0 FA Cup semi-final defeat by Watford. "We took 50 coaches and had 12 special trains," Keith recalls. As in 1996, for the third-division Play-Off final at the old Wembley Stadium, when an Argyle Army of 38,000 witnessed the 1-0 victory over Darlington. And as in 2009, when 9,000 headed for the Emirates Stadium for the 3-1 FA Cup third-round loss against Arsenal. "I think that's still a record for visiting fans at the Emirates," Keith says.
11.38: The coach is quiet, just a murmur of chatter. We pass Exeter National Hunt racecourse, at the top of Haldon Hill, on the right, then Sandy Park, the home of Exeter Chiefs rugby union club, on the left. Its huge fences are ugly but at least should prevent stray oval balls from causing a pile-up on the nearby M5. Word has filtered through that the team coach had taken more than seven hours to reach Macclesfield the previous day. Mitchell groans. Driver Graham takes evasive action to avoid not a stray oval ball but a lorry that suddenly pulls out in front of us.
12.16: First stop, at Taunton, to collect a Yeovil-based supporter. He hops up the steps from a safe pavement to join the Devonian brethren, plus the Cornish contingent from Newquay, Penzance and Looe. No more stopping at the side of the M5 slip road for the pick-up, though, after a past incident. An Argyle fan - an off-duty policeman - sitting on the bus, incredibly, made a complaint later that the law had been broken. "I got hauled in by the club about that," Keith sighs. "We never did find out who the guy who complained was."
12.55pm: Over the Avonmouth Bridge at Bristol. Still many rivers to cross before we reach the Moss Rose.
1.02: In the rear-view mirror, I spot driver Graham yawning. Already? But my fears are allayed when, after a 40-minute break at Strensham Services, near Worcester, co-pilot Brad steps into the hot seat for the rest of the first leg. Keith reveals two sachets of mustard in his pocket. "I always take them up North for the pies," he explains. "They always have sauce but never any mustard."
3.10: Pass The Hawthorns, home of West Bromwich Albion, on the right. Keith nods off. Not long after, we hit the flashing "Congestion. Stay in lane" signals. Here we go, the seven-hour trip from hell that the players had had to endure. But it's plain sailing - on to the M6, breeze past the "Manchester 67mls" sign, bypass Stoke-on-Trent, leave the M6 for the A534 to Congleton and take the A536 to Macclesfield. Almost there.
4.29: Arrive at Moss Rose, a tidy ground surrounded by rows of neat semi-detached houses. "We've never got anywhere this early before," Mitchell reflects ruefully. "Usually, it's about two hours before kick-off. But if we'd left at 12.30, we could have got stuck in traffic. You just don't know."
4.51: The "Banana Bus" - so named because its original of 20 years ago was a striking yellow in colour - pulls up behind the coach and more Cornwall-based Argyle devotees disembark. Paul Sweet, a 42-year-old bookkeeper-accountant from Lostwithiel, jumped aboard the BB at St Blazey at 11.15am. "Yes, a good trip up," he reports. "We stopped once, at Taunton for refuelling and a bite to eat, and that was it.
"It's not always the same 15 people on the minibus. We've got 13 up today with us, and we're taking 15 home, but we've got a pool of around 50 and a hard-core of eight who go to every away game. I've been supporting Argyle since I was 14 and we've all got this great club of ours at heart - especially through all the financial problems of the past year, which were horrendous. But we're still here today.
"Jason, our driver, gets a bit of stick about some of the music he puts on but he's a lovely bloke. We've been pretty lucky, we've never broken down, but we have run out of diesel before. So someone always keeps an eye on the petrol gauge now, just in case. We've never got lost and, anyway, we've got a SatNav now. Mind you, we were on our way to Arsenal once and the driver, as we approached London, said 'Which way to Twickenham?' For some reason, he thought we were up for the rugby!"
5.40: Moss Rose has yet to open but the Macclesfield officials are a genial and accommodating lot and welcome the Green Army and Banana Bus troops in to The Joe Henshaw Suite, an airy glass-fronted bar and eaterie that overlooks the pitch. Keith Mitchell is aggrieved that "Keith's Bar" is shut for a private function but David Richards, a 56-year-old retired partner on a farm from Portreath, near Redruth, sups a much-needed pint of Worthington and chats about his love of all things Argyle. He left home at 9am for the 90-minute drive to Home Park and will get home at 4.30am on Wednesday.
"I might sleep a bit on the coach but I don't really need it," Richards, who wears an eccentric-looking Peruvian knitted hat, says. "I like football, I like Liverpool as well, and I know it's a long trek for most of the away matches but I love all the socialising and I've met loads of friends through football."
David then tucks into a plate of food, a bargain £9.00 from the carvery but the size of which would have made "Desperate Dan" wince - a mountain of beef, pork, gammon and turkey, roast and boiled potatoes, carrots, cauliflower cheese, stuffing and Yorkshire pudding. Another pint of Worthington assists the eating but even Big Dave, narrowly, has to admit defeat.
"I'd have given you 20-1 you wouldn't finish that," Keith says, gutted that he hadn't offered the bet earlier. He then sees Aidy Boothroyd - the manager of Northampton Town, Argyle's relegation rivals - and offers a handshake. "Nice to meet you, Aidy," he says," but "Sorry, you're going down and we're staying up!'" Boothroyd accepts the banter with good grace and, later, Keith confides: "I just couldn't resist that."
7.46: The match kicks-off ... and passes in a bit of a blur. The Plymouth following has swelled to about 450 - almost 25 per cent of the crowd - in the strictly visitors-only section of seats and on the terraces at one end. At times, their vocal support is incessant; again, another tribute to their devotion to duty.
"On the ground," Keith begs as Argyle, too often, take the aerial route. But if the action is not the best, the meat-and-potato pies are sumptuous. I devour a second one. Conor Hourihane also has the appetite - for goals - and drives Argyle in front in the 71st minute. Cue mayhem at the visitors' end. "We are staying up, we are staying up," they chant deliriously. But in the sixth minute of stoppage time, Macclesfield equalise through George Donnelly. Fate can be cruel sometimes. Donnelly is a former Plymouth striker.
Keith scurries off, to be alone in a moment of private grief, and his fellow fans, utterly deflated, file out of the ground and straight on to the coach. "It's sickening," Keith, his thoughts barely unscrambled, ponders. "It feels like we've lost, like we've got hammered." At least Hereford United, other rivals for the drop, had contrived to lose 5-4, from a winning position, against Gillingham at the Priestfield Stadium this evening.
And therein lies the dilemma for the long-distance Argyle addicts. "If the worst came to the worst and we did go down," Mitchell, a retired former company cashier, says, "most of the clubs in the Blue Square Premier are right up north. It would mean even more travelling than in The Football League and I just wonder how many people would want to go. They'd probably be selective, like going to Forest Green Rovers, but Barrow and Gateshead? I'm not so sure. It might really be a struggle to get people interested."
9.49: Farewell Moss Rose. Driver Graham takes the strain for the first stint of the 268-mile return slog and weaves his way through the country roads to the M6, where we are greeted by a car ablaze on the opposite hard shoulder. A stark reminder of the dangers that lurk for the awayday fanatic.
11.44: Most of the West Country crew are asleep, lulled into the Land of Nod by the dejection of the draw-snatched-from-the-jaws-of-victory and/or by the gentle hum of the coach engine. But having carefully cruised past lorry after lorry, slowed down to negotiate a succession of late-night roadworks - at least it was large sections of the northbound M5, not the southbound carriageway, that were closed - we renew acquaintance with Strensham Services.
"We regularly do this and we're the No.1 team," driver Brad, who will take over for the final push to Devon, says. "We do keep each other awake. Well, actually, I keep Graham awake!" The smokers on the bus take a desperately needed intake of nicotine and McDonald's feeds the rest of the hungry pack.
I talk with Gill Black, who works in the IT business in Plymouth but who combines her passion for photography and Argyle by taking a series of snappy snaps of the Pilgrims' progress. "I suppose it was a hobby that has become an obsession," Gill, 55, says. "I wasn't going to take any photos when we went to Accrington Stanley recently but I just couldn't stop myself! I haven't missed a game at home or away for 18 months now. I get a real buzz out of it, the atmosphere, everything, especially away. And I could see that equaliser tonight happening. But there's always the next game, that's what you live for."
Gill normally produces a set of 50 photos from each matchday. She took 280 today, has already edited them down to 160 and, when we reach base camp, will spend another two hours reducing that further to the minimum. Then she will go into work - "fairly early", on her flexitime rota, as usual. "Last season, we had probably one of the worst," she says. "We had Hartlepool away on the Saturday, back home and then Carlisle away on the Tuesday. That was a real killer. But I love it."
12.18am: Keith organises a cash collection donation for Graham and Brad. Their efforts at staying on the road, keeping the coach on the straight and narrow, are much appreciated. They chat quietly - is it Graham, perhaps, now keeping Brad awake? - and the Avonmouth Bridge is crossed again. The Yeovil-based fan is dropped off at Taunton, with a wave goodbye on the slip road [this time, I hope that the Mr Plod mole is not present and watching!], a badger marginally avoids death by bus when temporarily trapped in the headlights and the "Plymouth 58mls" sign, at 2.01am, is a joy to behold.
2.39: Still, not good enough. I seriously contemplate asking to get off at Rattery, the rodent-named village on the edge of Dartmoor but still sounding a better alternative than this never-ending spine-bending, knee-crumbling purgatory? Keith is snoring, the fog is descending ... I silently cry: "I'm A Humble Journalist, Get Me Out Of Here".
3.09: Home Park, heaven. The Life Centre worker ants have long retreated to their nests. All is dark, silent. I cadge a taxi lift with Peter Hall, the gentlemanly wispy haired octogenarian, back to my hovel of a B&B next to Plymouth station. He generously declines my offer to pay a share of the fare.
The Green Army, every one of you: I salute you.
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