Football fans are known for the extreme lengths they go to follow their teams, but few will have made a journey like Chelsea supporters Jake Ralph and Kevin Cobb this week.
Jake, 27, and Kevin, 59, are die-hard fans and were desperate to go watch their team in the Europa League final in Baku, Azerbaijan. But the official options were far too expensive at nearly Sh128,000.
Instead, the father and son pair have decided to make their own way for the game on May 29 — with a route that covers a colossal 5,571 kilometres along the way.
Chelsea and Arsenal supporters have been left short of options to get themselves to the final, with thousands of tickets going unsold and even indirect flight options costing over £800.
The cheapest option currently available on SkyScanner.net lists an £838 flight, leaving on Tuesday and returning on Thursday – with a stop-off in Doha.
The Cobbs set off from London Stansted on Tuesday night, getting the last flight to Istanbul. On Wednesday, they spent the day sightseeing in the Turkish capital before travelling over to Ankara in a one-hour plane journey.
Then comes the most incredible period of the trip. They then boarded the Dogu Expressi in Ankara yesterday evening for Kars in eastern Turkey — a 24-hour train journey covering 1,310 kilometres.
They have booked sleeper cars, with tickets only costing £25 for the pair — half the amount Jake would pay for a day ticket to get to his job as an underwriter from his home in Hastings to Bromley every morning.
Bizarrely, the train journey has become something of a favourite for Turkish Instagram users — with local outlets describing it as the ‘most hipster’ domestic travel route. Not that Jake and Kevin will be thinking about that when they alight in Kars, as they will be immediately moving up to Tsiblisi in Georgia in taxis, before spending the weekend there with other Chelsea fans.
They will then travel overnight from the Georgian capital on a sleeper train before arriving in Baku on Monday morning, arriving two full days before the match.
When asked why they’d decided to travel this way, Jake said: “Flying in and out of Baku was extortionately expensive, especially as Arsenal fans got the jump on us and they didn’t have extra-time and penalties. But we wanted to make a bit of an adventure out of it, having visited Baku before using Thomas Cook and Chelsea. Last time out in Baku we only got about six hours so didn’t get to see a lot — we thought that was a once in a lifetime trip!
“Fortunately we were able to take the extra time off work but so many of the guys we know that have done 40-plus games this season just haven’t been able to make it. The most disappointing part for us is that the club trip with Thomas Cook this time was almost £1,000 (Sh128,000) without any ticket. And this is the same month as season ticket renewals which is also very expensive.
“Arsenal have obviously released a statement saying how disappointed they are with the venue choice whereas we’ve got nothing from Chelsea.”
When asked whether Chelsea had let them down slightly, Jake replied: ‘“Yep, 100 per cent. They make a fortune from these runs. Just a small percentage subsidy or an understanding about the cost of season tickets at the same time would’ve meant a huge amount.
‘So rather than pay £1,000 (Sh128,000) via Thomas Cook we decided to do it independently and have come up with our slightly mad trip.
“We’ve saved a lot by doing it this way — with hotels and everything up probably about £500 each. It’s a real shame more Chelsea and Arsenal fans won’t be able to make it.”
While the train now has a hipster reputation, there are still rough edges. When the journey pauses in Erzurum, it is possible to pick up a pre-ordered kebab from a local vendor. Not that Jake has any fears over the nature of the trip: “It’s a bit of an unknown for us! I don’t think there will be any dodgy parts to it — we’re just excited to travel in an unusual way to normal. It’s supposed to be a great experience. I don’t think there are any other fans taking the train route through Turkey. My girlfriend Holly definitely thinks we are bonkers. I’ll never find a game harder to get to than this one. That said, I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it.
“This is my 53rd game of the season and 677th game. My dad has probably done twice that amount. This is my 30th European away game.”
For both Jake and Kevin, it’s unlikely they’ll have more of a challenge getting to a game if they manage another 1,000 between them.