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The best away days (and weekends) in the Football League

Football tourism has exploded in recent years across the globe as more and more people decide to combine football with their holidays.

Last year 4% of visitors to the UK watched a football game while in the country, and Brits are regularly hopping on planes for footballing weekends on the continent. Barcelona, Amsterdam and Munich are all very popular due to the good beer, delicious cuisine, fabulous sights and of course, the entertaining football.

But many English football tourists don’t leave their homeland, choosing instead to take weekend breaks in England. There are plenty of fascinating and intriguing cities which are perfect for a relaxing weekend away, but which also offer a fantastic matchday.

If you want a bit more out of your matchday than just a long journey and 90 minutes of football, here are a few suggestions of great matchdays in the Football League. These places offer football with extras; sights, culture and nightlife.

So, where are the best matchdays in the Football League for away fans?

 

Carlisle United

Situated to the north of the Lake District and just ten miles from the Scottish border, Carlisle is probably the Football League’s most remote outpost.

Carlisle is a beautiful little city, surrounded by picturesque countryside. Brunton Park is on the outskirts of Carlisle, but there are a few good pubs around the ground. You can also walk fifteen minutes along Warwick Road into the city centre where there is an abundance of pubs and plenty to see.

The city centre has attractions such as Carlisle Castle, the Cathedral and the Citadel, but just walking around the quaint streets of this medieval city is a pleasant experience. Carlisle’s Tudor revival architecture is very impressive, and you’ll find many small shops and cafés if pubs aren’t your scene.

And if you want a bit more peace and quiet, Cumbria has some of the most beautiful scenery in England. Head off for a hike or even a scenic drive around its spectacular hills and lakes.

Carlisle fans are notoriously friendly, and are usually very talkative. Carlisle’s the perfect away day for the start or the end of the football season, when the sun’s shining.

 

York City

York’s return to the Football League was greeted joyfully by League 2 fans who knew what a great matchday it can be. Bootham Crescent, York City’s home ground, is less than a 15 minute walk from York’s main sights and the bustling city centre.

York is one of England’s oldest cities, and also one of the most beautiful. It has several historic sights worth visiting such as York Minster, York Castle and the city walls. With nearly 2,000 years of history, it’s not surprising York has a plethora of museums, the best of which is probably the Jorvik Viking Centre.

The city may seem too cultured for football supporters, but don’t worry, there are plenty of places to drink. There are a few pubs near the ground, all of which accept away fans, and the nightlife in the city centre is highly recommended.

York City fans are generally very pleasant, therefore visiting supporters never feel threatened, and can converse easily with the locals.

 

Cardiff City

Cardiff has been transformed in recent years into a modern European capital city, with plenty to see and do, other than watch the football.

The Cardiff City Stadium is located in the Canton area of Cardiff, which admittedly isn’t a great advert for the Welsh capital. Other than the newly erected shopping centre near the stadium, there’s very little for away fans to do, as none of the nearby pubs allow travelling supporters. This is due to Cardiff fans’ reputation for violence and antagonism, and though the club has taken great strides in recent years to eliminate hooliganism from the club, Cardiff fans remain generally less welcoming than most Football League fans.

The best way to see Cardiff on an away day is to arrive in the city centre and travel to the game by train after a bit of sightseeing.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Milennium stadium tours are very entertaining, while Cardiff on a rugby day is an experience.

Cardiff city centre is packed with good pubs, great shopping and some brilliant sights. The Millennium Stadium tour is a great use of a spare hour, and Cardiff Castle is an extremely impressive structure.

Since Welsh devolution in 1999, a fortune has been spent making Cardiff attractive to tourists. Cardiff Bay used to be an industrial wasteland, however the new Senedd (Welsh for parliament), the Millennium Centre and the array of new bars and restaurants, have made it a glamorous honey pot.

If you’re lucky enough to have an away game in Cardiff on the same day as rugby international, a night out with the boozy egg-chasers is recommended.

 

Plymouth Argyle

The Football League’s most Southerly and Westerly club, Plymouth Argyle, offers a brilliant away weekend, which caters to football fans of all tastes.

Plymouth is a naval city, and as such has a wide variety of drinking establishments. The Barbican is the perfect place to spend a hot afternoon, with plenty of pubs offering great food and drink, while North Hills is ideal for student nights out.

Near the stadium, the Britannia is the most popular place for away fans to congregate.

Home Park is a strange ground, with three modern stands and a single, classic stand running along the touchline. The Green Army are very proud of their club, and fans enjoy discussing football with visitors.

If you want to chill out (or nurse a hangover) on a Sunday, the Hoe is a fine place to sit and relax. But if the weather permits, why not head to a local beach? The coastline around Plymouth is dotted with quiet, picturesque, sandy beaches where you can lay down for a bit or sample the surf.

And if you don’t fancy watching Plymouth play, you could always jump on the ferry and head off to watch lower league football in Spain. There are ferries travelling from Plymouth to Santander, where Racing are struggling in the Segunda after last year’s relegation from La Liga.

 

Notts County and Nottingham Forest

Only 300 yards separate the Football League’s two closest grounds, and the city of Nottingham provides a great football weekend.

Though Meadow Lane and the City Ground are around a 25 minute walk from the city centre, there’s plenty to excite fans in the area around the two stadia. There are pubs and food outlets around the grounds, and the Nottingham clubs are the only ones in Britain with a nearby Hooters, where fans can enjoy good food and drink, surrounded by skimpily-dressed waitresses.

The grounds themselves have been modernised over the years, and fans of both sides are generally friendly.

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

The Oldest Inn in England, in Nottingham

Nottingham’s city centre isn’t the prettiest, but it has an instantly recognisable statue of Robin Hood, paying tribute to the area’s most famous figure. There’s also now a statue to the city’s most celebrated adopted inhabitant, the late great Brian Clough, who led Forest to two European Cups.

The Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem, established in 1189, is believed to be the “Oldest Inn in England,” and though this fact is disputed by some, what can’t be debated is that it’s a great historical sight, which also serves a good pint.

And if you want something a little rowdier than a medieval pub, Nottingham’s renowned nightlife should do the trick. With hundreds of bars and clubs, Nottingham has developed a reputation as one of the best nights out in the UK, so if your team has lost, there are plenty of places where you can forget about it.

 

Shrewsbury Town

Many fans would argue the away trip to Shrewsbury has lost a bit of its shine since the club relocated from the quaint, Gay Meadow, near the town centre to the modern Greenhous Meadow stadium on the outskirts of Shrewsbury.

But Shrewsbury still has plenty to offer visiting supporters. The town centre has impressively retained its charm, and the Tudor and Georgian architecture give the place real character.

The castle towers over the rest of the town, and looks mightily impressive. There’s also the church of St Chad, which is the second largest domed church in the UK. Shrewsbury has a reputation for good shopping, with many people attracted to the town at Christmas time when the streets feel particularly atmospheric.

There are a few pubs around the new stadium, although fans also have the option of drinking in the town centre before catching a bus to the ground.  Shrewsbury town centre has plenty of great pubs and restaurants, and is capable of being a good night out.

 

Blackpool

The Football League has many seaside resorts which are worth visiting like Bournemouth, Brighton and Southend. But Blackpool is Britain’s number one seaside resort for a reason.

Bloomfield Road itself is a short walk from the promenade and the beach, and the seaside is practically unavoidable for away fans, whether they’re there for a weekend, a day or simply a few hours.

Only a 20 minute walk from the ground is the famous Pleasure Beach, with its fantastic selection of rides and amusements. It’s a brilliant attraction for kids and big kids alike.

There’s also Blackpool Tower and the pier, which are both must-sees, and for younger supporters a donkey ride along the beach is essential.

The ground itself has been modernised, but the away stand still looks rickety and hastily built compared to the rest of Bloomfield Road. Home fans tend to be very welcoming and pleasant.

There are plenty of pubs around the ground which cater to all tastes, and there’s no need to travel far to look for somewhere to eat or drink. If you’re there for the weekend, Blackpool is full of pubs, bars and clubs, which guarantee an eventful night out.

Although Blackpool is normally associated with the summer, it can be enjoyed in any conditions when there’s football on. Blackpool may seem tacky to some, but most see it for what it is: an old-school resort town, which promises a good time.

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MK Dons vs AFC Wimbledon: Evil vs Good?

 The biggest match in Europe this weekend won’t take place in Old Trafford, the Camp Nou or San Siro; it will take place in Stadium MK where the Milton Keynes Dons face AFC Wimbledon for the first time in history.

You read correctly, on a weekend when fixtures include Real Madrid vs Atlético Madrid, Bayern Munich vs Borussia Dortmund and Ajax vs PSV, the most important encounter is an FA Cup 2nd Round match between the MK Dons of League 1 and AFC Wimbledon of League 2.

But before you close this tab, thinking I’m some kind of nut case, let me explain myself, and more importantly let me explain the significance of Sunday’s game.

The History

Wimbledon FC fans protest against their club being moved to Milton Keynes

Rewind to the year 2000, when Wimbledon FC were struggling financially following relegation from the Premier League. They were ready to start their 10th season ground-sharing with Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park, 6.5 miles from their traditional home at Plough Lane, which they left in 1991 due to the club’s inability to fund its renovation.

At this time Milton Keynes didn’t have a professional football club, despite having a population of nearly 200,000 people. Businessman Pete Winkleman wanted to change this and began the Milton Keynes Stadium Consortium, with the intention of building a state of the art arena to persuade a Football League club to move to the city.

The only person enticed by the suggestion was Wimbledon’s new chairman, Charles Koppel, who saw it as a great way of relieving the club’s financial woes. Unsurprisingly Wimbledon’s fans were outraged by the suggestion and passionately protested against the move.

At first the FA and the Football League both opposed the plan, calling it “franchising” and predicting a disastrous outcome should the move go ahead. However, after a lobbying campaign by Wimbledon’s board, an independent commission gave the plan the green light and in 2003 Wimbledon FC moved 60 miles to Milton Keynes.

The club continued to use the name Wimbledon FC for a year until it was changed to the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004. The MK Dons were English football’s first ever franchise.

Rising from the ashes

Out of the ashes of Wimbledon FC a determined group of fans got together and formed AFC Wimbledon, with the long-term intention of achieving promotion back into the Football League. A lightning-fast climb up the amateur leagues culminated in promotion to League 2 in 2011.

The success of AFC Wimbledon has gained the club huge plaudits and they’re particular a favourite of underdog-loving neutrals.

Anger towards the MK Dons had inevitably eased over the years as AFC Wimbledon attempted to rebuild, but when the two clubs were drawn against each other for the 2nd Round of this year’s FA Cup old memories came flooding back.

Most AFC Wimbledon fans didn’t want this fixture and still don’t feel enough time has passed since their club was stolen from them. Many AFC Wimbledon fans are still extremely bitter, not only about the move, but also about the Milton Keynes club’s conduct since 2003.

Between 2003 and 2007 MK Dons Chairman Pete Winkleman had tried to pass off Wimbledon FC’s history as MK Dons’s history. This has not been forgotten by AFC Wimbledon’s fans despite Winkleman returning Wimbledon FC’s trophies and memorabilia to AFC Wimbledon in 2007.

AFC Wimbledon fans are angry the Milton Keynes club is still calling itself “The Dons.” The old Wimbledon FC were nicknamed the Dons, as are the current AFC Wimbledon and fans claim the MK Dons have no right to use it.

Many AFC Wimbledon fans are refusing to travel to Milton Keynes on Sunday because according to them the issue’s still far too sensitive and painful.

What about the pantomime villain?

The MK Dons are nearly a decade old and they’ve changed a great deal since the original controversy over their creation.

The club has worked very hard to forge an identity and a history of its own. They have already won a League 2 title and a Johnstone’s Paint Trophy in their short history and their support base is growing year by year.

The club is trying its best to shake off the nickname “Franchise FC” and by now the vast majority of football fans have accepted the MK Dons are here to stay.

But despite the MK Dons’s superb attempts to establish its own identity, Sunday’s game against AFC Wimbledon is expected to trigger the same negative coverage the club received when it was first formed.

 Franchising: still the ultimate evil

The coverage will be damning because despite the football world’s acceptance of the MK Dons, fans are still wholeheartedly opposed to franchising.

For most fans franchising remains the ultimate evil: a putrid concoction of commercialism and arrogance borne out of pure greed.

Franchising is the American invention that goes against everything we as football fans believe in. It devalues supporters and shows complete disregard for their needs and emotions. It underestimates and takes for granted loyalty, the most important trait of any football supporter.

When Wimbledon fans were robbed of their club it provoked universal revulsion among football fans across the World because we all empathised with them. We all imagined how we’d feel if the clubs we support were taken away from us.

For most football fans life without our club is almost unthinkable but this was the reality for Wimbledon fans in 2003.

 Good vs Evil?

It’s awfully tempting to look at Sunday’s game as a clash between footballing good and footballing evil; honest, loyal, traditional fans taking on a plastic, commercially-driven franchise. We once again find ourselves sympathising with Wimbledon fans and hating the MK Dons.

But one of the main reasons Sunday’s game is so important is because it’s a chance to normalise the situation and give both sides a greater degree of closure.

Both sets of fans knew this day had to come sometime and although Sunday’s sure to be an emotional, awkward and heated day, it will hopefully relieve a lot of tension.

The first meeting of the MK Dons and AFC Wimbledon will draw a heap of attention but once the full-time whistle is blown all football fans can begin to move on. After Sunday’s game all future encounters between these sides will seem far more normal.

Many fans on both sides won’t look forward to Sunday but everyone knows the game’s an essential step in the development of both clubs. From Sunday onwards we can stop viewing the MK Dons as the franchise which stole Wimbledon FC, and begin to see them as a club in their own right. Likewise we’ll be able to see AFC Wimbledon as more than just an antidote to the MK Dons.

On the field I can only see one result.

The MK Dons are hitting form at a good time in the season and they’re playing a sophisticated style of football which I expect will lead them to promotion. AFC Wimbledon on the other hand are entrenched in a relegation battle and struggling for confidence.

But in many ways what happens on the field on Sunday is irrelevant. The important thing is that AFC Wimbledon fans get a degree of closure from the match and the MK Dons use the landmark event to move on and leave the past behind.