It's been 96 days since my last game and I am missing it like mad. However, it seems as if it will be ages before we get to another game, thanks to our own government's handling of a no-good virus. I thought I'd deal with this cabin fever by putting a few tips about groundhopping that I've picked up over the years. If you disagree or have any other tips to offer, get in touch. I want as many people as possible to enjoy this wonderful hobby and although we can't participate at the moment, most of my time is spent thinking about where I'd like to visit when we are allowed to.
START AS SOON AS POSSIBLE
I wish I'd started hopping earlier. For one, I missed out on so many grounds that have long gone, also, it would have been cheaper with discounts on things, especially travel, with railcards and the like. These cards tend to discriminate against solo adults, which defies belief considering getting single-occupant cars off the road would have by far the most positive impact on the environment compared to groups of people in cars. Also, if you start young enough and you can rope your parents in, then basically, it's free. I managed a reasonable amount on this basis, but all of them came without me even being pro-active or asking.
When I started hopping, I first concentrated on the 92, then expanded to down to step four and then down to step 6, my main inspiration being the 2013 Northern Counties East (er) hop where I visited some lovely places. Since then, I've done some below step 6 with a stand or cover and found them to be very decent and offering free entry. My latest 'requirement' is for there to be at least a rail around the pitch, though I'd not rule any ground out if the circumstances were right. Basically, for me, it's a balancing act between having a decent amount to choose from and not being swamped with too many choices (basically every single football pitch in the country)
Having a car is by far the easiest method of hopping, though not everyone has access to one, or can drive. Plus, they are very expensive to own and service on top of pricey petrol. Having other hoppers come with you can be a real help in keeping costs down and also you get some good company. I'm truly grateful to my two main hoppers, Anwar and Chris for coming with me and as neither of them can drive, I'd like to think that the feeling is reciprocated. Driving also limits pub visits, as I rarely drink midweek, I prefer to drive to midweek games when transport finishes early and use public transport (or my legs in the case of Wycombe home games) at the weekends.
Sadly, trains can be extremely expensive and seemingly the preserve of high-earners in most cases. There are some good value options to be had and Transport For London & West Midlands Railway are some of the better value operators out there. For the former, the walk-up prices mean you can have unlimited travel in London and a large surrounding area for little over £12 and if you use contactless cards, it's often a lot less than that. Sadly, I've very few grounds left to do in London, as the flexibility is great, especially in wet weather when games fall victim to the weather and a late replan is needed. Plus there is something for everyone in London, be it food places, pubs or other attractions, so you can make a real day out of it. Another good value way to obtain train tickets is to buy in advance. I can get a return to Birmingham for as little as £12 from High Wycombe, which is tremendous value and with Birmingham having both a large range of choice and being a good transport hub to other parts of the country, it is a good starting point for a game.
Otherwise, try Megabus or National Express where you can pick up returns to major cities such as Manchester and Newcastle for well under £20 if you pick the right times. The latter has better comfort and customer service but tends to have less cheap buses, especially overnight. Local bus services vary in cost. I've paid £6 in Derby for a five-mile round trip with only an hourly bus service too, but have found good value in the West Midlands and West Yorkshire with unlimited travel over a large area for around £4. Around my local area, I think it's a set £4.70 for a return bus, whether it be to High Wycombe, five miles down the road, or another 30 to Reading. Walking and cycling (if you have a bike) are free and provide a nice amount of exercise, though the former is only viable for local trips.
MAKE A DAY OF IT
I think that groundhopping should be about the whole day out and not just the time at the ground. The best way is to get yourself on a Groundhop UK day - they will typically provide the opportunity to 'tick off' three or four grounds in one day in a set area. They even lay on transport for those unable to drive and those who want to give the car a rest. Generally, these events run over weekends, but there's nothing to stop you from doing just a day if you can't make the whole event. They are generally good value for money and a nice opportunity to spend time with like-minded people. Generally, you can expect at least four events per season, sadly some leagues resist the opportunity to make money for their clubs and no one else does such tours.
Aside from that, there's very little opportunity to do more than one game in a day, especially at the weekend. There should be more morning games, such as the Midland U21 League which kicks off at 10.30. Aside from games moved for TV, or the occasional game in Wales, doubles are rare. There's other stuff to do of course and I always like to find something nice to eat when out and about, plus a decent pub at weekends. Basically, whatever your other hobbies are, try and fit them in before and after your game.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
To find fixtures in the first place, the lazy man's way is to download the Futbology App. This covers steps 1-6 (not cup games though) and if you fill in your details of grounds visited, then they can filter them out and sort by distance. The Football Traveller Magazine covers all the cups, plus leagues below and is handy to go through with a highlighter and pick options out.
Once you have chosen your game, double-check the address and route on Google Maps. It's also advisable to plan in a few backups, especially in wet weather. It's also good to keep an eye on social media accounts. Some clubs don't update them very often, or the volunteer that runs the account may be busy. For that reason, I will set up a Twitter list with the home team, away team and leagues of all my fixtures to reduce the chance of a wasted journey. Finally, follow and interact with fellow groundhoppers on Twitter and forums and you'll find plenty of stuff that you'd otherwise miss.
FOR THE 92, CONSIDER CUP GAMES
Tickets, especially for the bigger clubs, can be tricky to get, virtually impossible for the likes of Liverpool, Spurs and Manchester United. Added to that, they are sold at high prices, especially when through a third party. The FA Cup, League Cup and Europa League are undervalued, meaning less interest and cheaper tickets. Also consider going in the away end, useful tip if the visitors have a small support or have to travel a long way for a midweek game. As an additional tip, Twitter competitions can provide free tickets, as can the SkyBet Rewards app. The fact that you didn't actually go to the game is not an issue, just download a Fake GPS app from the Google Play Store. I used mine to check into the Futbology App early, but it has many purposes.
TAKE PLENTY OF PHOTOS
Back when I started watching football there was no such thing as digital cameras and everything had to be taken on film. Looking at some old Argos catalogues, it wasn't as an expensive business as I remembered (around 30p a print in today's money) but it was still a lot of money for me when I only got just over a quid a week pocket money. I've had a digital camera since 2003, though memory was expensive at the start - I remember paying £30 for a 32MB (not GB) back in 2004. Nowadays, any modern phone will have a half decent camera on it and the pictures are great to look back on. I tend to get snaps of random stuff such as the tea bar list- useful for other hoppers to see and be interesting to look at the prices in years to come.
Most important of all, enjoy yourself. If you go into something with doubts, you'll never enjoy it. You never know when the next cracking game is going to come up, even if the ground isn't up to much. Also, to tie in with the tip above, make a day of it, visit a nice pub, treat yourself to a nice meal and explore the town, then even if the game is rotten you'll have done something good.
If you are thinking of blogging, or already blog, then I'd suggest taking a look at other blogs to see what they do. Though mine will never be the best blog on the internet, a couple of other bloggers have used what appears to be the same template as me and I'm glad to have helped. I started blogging in 2011, started seriously hopping in 2012, but it wasn't until 2016 that I finally hit upon the format that I am fairly happy with. It had meant that I've done a fair few revisits to get older blogs up to standard and during the coronavirus pandemic, revisiting and rewriting old blogs to improve them. The main reason for starting a blog was that I'd forgotten so many little details of my trips over the years and wanted something to look back on. Also, like with social media, it seemed a good way to find and interact with like-minded people. Having people read my blog is nice, but it's not the endgame. I tag all clubs in my tweet publicizing my blog, but the vast majority don't even respond or retweet, which a shame as another aim of this blog is to inspire people to visit their club.
A few days before the game, I'll set my mind on a first choice, detailing food and drink options around the area and if needed, pubs and public transport details. Although this should really be included in the hopping section above. I'll also research the club's history and any local area information to try and get a feel for the place and put the club's current status into perspective. Good sites, at least for clubs down to step 6 of Non-League are the FCHD (Football Club History Database) and Wikipedia. Old Non-League Directories are available on eBay for a few quid and these often fill in any gaps or provide information on clubs that have slipped down the rankings. Generally, the 1990s was when the directory was at it's strongest as it had time to gather more information and was not like the modern-day stripped back version that has become less relevant with the emergence of online resources. If all else fails, then a Google search can often help, some league websites are more useful than others, with the Essex Olympian League providing good information that is unavailable elsewhere.
I'll also start my blog, writing about the build-up to the game and the reason why I chose that game. The bulk of the blog is done on the day though and by far the most useful app for this is Simplenote. This allows editing on your phone, tablet and computer - in fact, anything with an internet browser. For keeping notes on the game, I'll generally use a notepad and pen, or if I forget, Google Keep voice notes. If I'm on public transport, I like to get the most of this done before I get home, therefore remaining productive on my journey and not forgetting anything. I prefer to edit my pictures when I get home, though it's doable on my Chromebook, it's far more comfortable to do on a PC with bigger screen and better editing tools.