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Will Jennings: Realising that perhaps I do like Leeds United…

And let’s be honest, as the lyrics of a popular chant dictate, nobody really does.

But ahead of tonight’s nerve-jangling play-off semi-final second-leg, I wanted to tell the tale of without doubt the most entertaining trip to a game of my Norwich City-supporting lifetime.

Picture the scene – with Norwich down in the Championship doldrums and a spot in the top six looking improbable, I organised a maiden visit to my girlfriend’s family home in Ripon on the weekend of the play-off semi-final first legs.

Even if Wagner’s players had miraculously managed to scrape in – as argued to much fury last week, it’s testament to the turnaround he has engineered that we have done so – the chances of the initial clash being on Saturday, or as early as midday on a Sunday, appeared slim.

Of course, I could have just given it a miss.

But given the magnitude of the occasion, the fact I’d already been up there for a Premier League darts, Ripon races and Saturday night curry triple header, I was determined to do everything in my power to make sure I made the game.

Trains were not an option – the earliest you could get to Norwich was 11:58am and with Ripon relatively rural, navigating my way to Leeds for that service would have involved an extortionately-priced taxi.

Next came an attempt to source a Norwich fan driving down from a similar area but despite the assistance of many – special shoutout to Cillian, Nick, Joe, Matt and the North-East Canaries – my efforts came to no avail.

That propelled me firmly into last chance saloon territory – and it was time to take the plunge.

Eastern Daily Press: City fans welcome players before the first leg on Sunday

With Ripon just north of Leeds, I knew there were obviously hundreds of Whites fans who would be driving down on Sunday morning.

So after a deep dive into social media and the probable presence of some form of fan group based in the North Yorkshire region, I managed to hit the jackpot.

Enter the fray the Harrogate and Ripon Whites, two separate fan groups who collectively, organise a private coach service to every Leeds away game.

There was no shortage of evidence, information and relevant logistical protagonists on social media.

So I messaged Dave Rowson, a Harrogate-based Leeds fan who has written books on his half a century of away day tales, gingerly explaining my circumstances and requesting some form of assistance.

Dave, on holiday away in Benidorm at the time, could not have been more understanding and promptly put me in touch with Paul (Stella) McManus, in charge of organising the bus services and who would be in touch with subsequent detail.

Both confirmed I was good to go, with away tickets at a premium, space on the vehicle plentiful and a hair-raisingly early departure time of 4:55am.

So far, so good.

But the final piece of the jigsaw was actually getting from Ripon to Harrogate for that ungodly hour, with taxis hard to come by and me naturally being reluctant to ask my girlfriend’s parents to get up in the middle of the night and drive me 10 miles down the road.

But Dave and Stella continued to go above and beyond, explaining that far fewer fans from the sleepy city were travelling for this game but putting me in touch with Kev, the lone Ripon ranger, who would be happy to give me a lift at 4:30am.

Despite offers to meet at his most convenient stop-off point, Kev kindly agreed to meet me at my girlfriend’s door – a development that didn’t go down fantastically in the Atherley household.

But as expected, along came Kev in the North Yorkshire darkness, we made our way to Harrogate and boarded the 30-strong bus as it embarked on its long journey to Norfolk.

What happened over the next seven hours was largely a lager – and rum: thanks to the aptly-named ‘Malibu Man’ – fuelled haze, meeting characters young and old, hearing stories from decades gone by and including a 7am, two-hour stop-off at a pub in Billinghay, where I grabbed the bragging rights in a darts tournament.

Along the way, and despite them all knowing I was firmly in the opposition camp, everybody on the bus could not have been more welcoming.

And while I can’t include everything that happened in this column – for several reasons – I can safely say it was the most eventful, unexpected and unorthodox journey to a City game I have ever experienced.

So thank you Dave, Stella, Kev, ‘Malibu Man’, Alex, Mark, ‘The Chairman’ – and everyone I met who made the morning so special.

Rest assured, I will be travelling up to Elland Road on Friday morning firmly hoping all of them end up on the losing side this evening.

But whatever happens, and contrary to what unsavoury recent incidents have suggested, this is a story that reveals the inherent goodwill of football fans and one I will continue to remember for many years to come.



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