Away days across the water worth the wait
What makes men trek hundreds of miles every weekend from August to May? Welcome to the world of the Northern Ireland Premiership supporter, says Everton fan Henry McDonald
Being soaked to the skin in a ramshackle north Dublin stadium for a friendly, your feet soaking wet from wading through pool after pool of fetid rain-water.
Feeling cut to pieces by a freezing gale blowing in from the Irish Sea on a dark midweek night in the middle of January; sleeping on three chairs stacked together inside the slightly nauseous atmosphere of a regional airport, the hum of strip lights above keeping you awake while you wait in vain for news of delayed flights home.
Such are the joys of following your Premiership football team from this side of the Irish Sea.
These are some of the trials dedicated supporters must endure when travelling across these islands and beyond to see their beloved clubs.
Add to that the fact that, outside the so-called 'Big Four' (Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea and now Manchester City), you are supporting a club that hasn't won a major trophy since 1995. But, believe me, it's all worth it in the end.
Take a trip up to the departure gates of Belfast International or George Best Belfast City airports any Saturday morning during the English football season if you don't believe me.
You will not only see the fans who support the fashionable and serially successful clubs. In one corner, you will come across little knots of Spurs fans sitting close to the departure gate for Stanstead; or a small pocket of local Newcastle United supporters waiting for their flight to Tyneside.
And, of course, the loyal band of brothers in blue and white heading for the banks of the Mersey or to other English cities on match day. I belong to that latter tribe and am already bracing myself for the elation, the let-downs - and the delays.
Because win, lose or draw, to emerge from the innards of the main stand at Everton's Goodison Park home and experience that thrill of seeing the pitch on which heroes past and present have played is such a fantastic feeling.
Yet even before you walk through the terraced streets of Goodison, past the chip vans and the cries of football agitators flogging their fanzines, you are already half-way through one of the best days of the year.
There is the thrill of arrival, especially in your adopted home city of Liverpool.
There is that meeting of old friends from all corners of Britain and Ireland that you haven't seen for months.
There is that first pint downed early at a time when, back home, you wouldn't dare dream of heading to the pub. There is the early lunch and the quick black cab ride from the city-centre to the area around the stadium where you might partake of a few scoops before heading to the ground, finding your seat, scanning the programme and secretly praying that all will be well with the world by 4.45pm and your team will leave the field in triumph.
The recession and pressures of work and family have meant that visits to Goodison Park have become less frequent over the last three years.
Last season, I made it to just two home games, although one of those was among the most memorable in the last decade - a 2-0 win over a certain team that plays in a place called Anfield. Costs for match tickets are rising in line with the absurdly inflated wages of Premiership footballers. The price for a home ticket in the main stand at Goodison for last Saturday's opening game against newly-promoted Queens Park Rangers was £41.
The choice of flight connections from Northern Ireland to Liverpool are now fewer than they were a few years ago. Ryanair's decision to pull out of Belfast City Airport has left Easyjet with a virtual monopoly in Northern Ireland.
Many fans - including yours truly - are now opting to fly out of Dublin Airport where there is more choice and Ryanair still operates a flight to Merseyside.
Alternatively, there is the overnight ferry between Belfast and Birkenhead. If you are prepared to stump up the extra for a cabin, you are at least on a floating hotel and don't have to worry about accommodation in Liverpool. Otherwise bring a sleeping bag and prepare to bed down for the night in one of the ship's bars.
The rising cost of air travel and the economic downturn have dwindled the numbers of Evertonians heading across the Irish Sea every Saturday and, no doubt, this trend will continue.
There are, however, a hard-core of fans from Northern Ireland (they come from as diverse places as Coagh in Co Tyrone, or the Ormeau Road in south Belfast) who have made military-style plans with flight schedules and saved up throughout the close season to attend most, if not all, games - both home and away - between now and next May.
They know who they are and they deserve praise and admiration for following their side, sometimes to the ends of the earth, such as eastern Ukraine a few years ago.
There is one added personal cost that you must brace yourself for as a follower of Everton - the lure of so-called bigger sides.
Uutil last year, I was lucky given that both my girls visited Goodison and returned from the hallowed ground as Everton supporters.
But, around Easter-time, my only son announced that he had been bought a red shirt and track-suit top with a badge that contains the Liver Bird and the legend You'll Never Walk Alone. He has become a Liverpool supporter.
Clearly, I have work to do.