It is 11.25am, I am sitting on the Coleraine FC team bus and Leon Knight is at the wheel.
The previous night I’ll swear I witnessed Teddy Sheringham score a cracker at The Showgrounds only for his team to be beaten by an opposition managed by Jackie Fullerton and Liam Beckett and starring boxer Eamonn Loughran and motorbike ace William Dunlop. I even seem to recall the Bannsiders fans cheering - yes, genuinely cheering - David Jeffrey.
I am beginning to think someone put something questionable in my tea this morning.
But no, as Oran Kearney and his all-new super stripes make their way onto the coach, I pinch myself and realise my imagination is not running wild. Leon and the mobile phone which seems to be surgically attached to his thumbs relocate to the back of the bus with the rest of the squad and in their place, thankfully, appears the proper driver.
The coach pulls out onto the Ballycastle Road and here we go, here we go, here we go, off to Stangmore Park for the first game of the new season against Dungannon Swifts.
Oh yes. This is not just football. This is CFC football. The privilege of travelling on the team bus and getting a real behind-the-scenes taste of a Bannsiders away match day is not to be sniffed at. Until now no-one but the management team, squad and directors have been granted such access. Thanks to the club’s new bus sponsorship scheme however, the opportunity is open to supporters who literally want to go the extra miles with their club.
As General Manager Dessie Brown explained: “It’s not just about the bus journey – we want to give the sponsors an experience. When we get to the ground they will be taken to the directors’ lounge. They can have a drink and some lunch before the game, receive club ties, a drink after the game as we wait for the squad to get changed and a - hopefully victorious - journey back home.”
The 90-minute drive to Dungannon is filled with the gentle hum of team chatter, club discussion amongst the directors, a motivating address by chairman Colin McKendry and the general banter you would imagine on a coach harbouring that first-game-of-the-season anticipation.
On arrival at Stangmore, myself, the directors and today’s sponsor, Mr. Jack Crawford, head out of the rain into the warmth and comfort of the directors’ lounge to catch our first glimpse of ‘King Kearney’s’ men on the immaculate pitch. The mobile is still Velcro-ed to Leon’s digits. I hope we have remembered to book the pre-match surgeon.
Drinks and a sneak peek of the team ticked off, a small group of us head to a nearby establishment for lunch, some tactical discussion and more banter. Even as a girl - just in case you haven’t noticed - I feel comfortably part of the backroom team. At this point, with the camaraderie firmly established, and the match and new season just minutes away, we six are the Blue and White Army.
With the price of sponsoring each bus standing at £200, the idea is that either one person can pay the full amount and generously bring a guest with them, or two supporters can agree to split the cost between them. Every club will be feeling the pinch this season and if helping yours out means a great day away as well, everyone’s a winner.
It isn’t possible to choose specific matches, games rather being allocated through a draw, but when you consider the alternative cost of travelling, entrance to the game, lunch and drinks, not to mention the whole additional ambience of the day, it’s an experience any true fan would relish, either out of their own pocket or as a birthday or Christmas gift.
Back at the ground, in the name of atmosphere I watch the game from the stand rather than the (sensible) option of the viewing lounge. I mean it’s just not football if you don’t get drenched, is it? I will admit to giving in to the offer of hot tea and sandwiches therein at half-time though.
At the referee’s final whistle, we have a scoreless draw. Those three points will not be accompanying us on the return bus journey but we can at least make room for a wee one. It’s up to future sponsors to bring back more extra ‘passengers’. Just make sure you save me a front seat for Irish Cup Final day…!
* For further information about sponsoring a bus visit www.colerainefc.com. Enquiries can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org