For years, it has been seen as a badge of honour amongst sports fans, especially football fans in Scotland, with away attendances seen as a source of pride or embarrassment.

Football fans travel the length and breadth of Scotland to watch their team, but few sporting sides in the country can claim to travel as far and as often as supporters of the Glasgow Clan.

Competing in the Elite League (EIHL) since 2010, Glasgow’s ice hockey team faces sides not only from Scotland in the Dundee Stars and the Fife Flyers but others around the UK such as the Belfast Giants, Guildford Flames and the Manchester Storm. Usually, each side plays two games over the weekend (home and away) often against the same team resulting in significant travel, not only for the players but the fans that opt to follow them. 

The Glasgow Clan fans, known as the Purple Army, have attracted much attention in recent years due to their loyal fanbase and large travelling numbers. Their supporters made headlines across the world last year after showing solidarity with LGBT people with a message that ice hockey is a sport that welcomes everyone. Their ‘Hockey is For Everyone’ display at the National Playoffs in Nottingham attracted global attention and received much praise from media and fans across the world. 

READ MORE: First-time fan writes about experience of hockey at Glasgow Clan

While ice hockey may not be the biggest sport in the UK, it does have a passionate and loyal fanbase, and certainly, the Glasgow Clan are no different. Their Official Supporters Club (OSC) attracts hundreds of members each season who pride themselves on their ability to follow their club wherever they go. And it was this dedication and reputation that led to me arriving just before 8 am outside of Braehead to embark on an away day with the Purple Army. 

The round trip to Belfast would see these fans on the road for around 20 hours, and I sought to find out what motivates Clan fans to spend hours travelling to watch their side play ice hockey and why such a niche sport has picked up such a loyal fanbase.

I arrived for the bus departing Braehead with films downloaded on my phone and comforts that would let me pass the journey sprawled out across the bus, however, I was astounded to find three coaches awaiting over 150 members of the Clan fanbase who had opted to travel. It immediately became clear why the OSC was the envy of many teams in the league and why such a model was being looked at by other clubs. I soon found myself in the awkward position of having to ask an OSC organiser what bus I was on, having initially assumed there would only be one.  

Following a rather uneventful bus journey, which saw most trying to get some sleep down to Cairnryan, we boarded the ferry for the crossing with pockets of supporters spreading themselves out across the bar and restaurant areas of the vessel. However, I was also surprised to see head coach Zach Fitzgerald and the Clan players descend from their coach and sit next to the fans. All were more than happy to talk and mix with supporters. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was part of the appeal of following the Clan, with the players and supporters having such a transparent and civil relationship. Having recently attended the Scotland v Russia match, I couldn’t imagine a situation that would allow me to take the same coach as Andy Robertson to Hampden, yet here, I sat inches from the heroes of the Purple Army as if it was just a normal morning. 

Certainly, it was this family-friendly appeal that hooked so many fans into travelling when I got chatting to members of the OSC. Eddie Squires, 49, said that the “family atmosphere and supporting his local team” was one of the main draws for his love of hockey. He said that “hockey was one big family” and that through following the Clan home and away he had made friends across the country, even swapping hockey pucks with another fan in Coventry he kept in contact with.  

Glasgow Times: An away day with the Glasgow Clan, Picturel Stephen Mcilkenny An away day with the Glasgow Clan, Picturel Stephen Mcilkenny

Eddie was joined at his table with friends John Logan, 39 and Rab Kennedy, 65 who had also taken to following the Clan. John had only recently started his Clan journey having previously lived in Canada and followed the sport, whereas Rab had been watching the Clan for a number of years. 

However, it was the two other guests at the table that surprised me the most in US tourists Sean Kevin, 53 and son Mike Kevin, 24. Both were returning to Belfast having spent the last four days in Scotland and following the arrival of 150 people in Clan shirts, had asked the trio about their side. This sparked a conversation about hockey with Sean and Mike committing to come to the game in Belfast. Sean, originally from Wisconsin said that the passion from the fans was instantly obvious and that the supporters had been open in welcoming them along as soon as they told of their interest in hockey. He said: “Everyone we talk to with the Clan, they’re passionate. Being sports fans from the US, you can tell when someone is passionate about their team, and that came out right away. 

“They looked at us and said, ‘you’re American you should come to the game’. Instantly, as soon as they found someone who would have any interest, come on lets’ go together, let's cheer for the Clan’”

Glasgow Times: The home of the Belfast Giants. Picture; Stephen Mcilkenny The home of the Belfast Giants. Picture; Stephen Mcilkenny

Susie Brown, 27, who has been following the Clan for six seasons after watching ice hockey after taking her brother, was once again making the long journey to Belfast to watch her team. When asked what motivated her to go to such lengths to see her side, she said: “It’s the fan atmosphere more than anything, particularly in seasons like this where we have played Belfast a couple of times and have been absolutely tanked. 

“It’s the interaction with other fans, it’s the friends you make through hockey that makes it worth it. 

“Obviously the on-ice product is great, there’s nothing better than going to an away game and beating them, but we tend to take a rather noisy fanbase, and when we beat them on their own ice, it’s great.”

READ MORE: Glasgow Clan's Zack Fitzgerald: Refereeing can be inconsistent 

And the noise and atmosphere of the fans have not gone unnoticed by the players, coaches and those running the club. Chief Operating Officer of the Glasgow Clan, Gareth Chalmers said: “Historically our Christmas road game in Belfast has always been one of the best supported away games for the club and OSC. It was fantastic to see so many Clan fans once again make the trip to Belfast and especially the 3 coaches via the OSC.

“Travelling support is absolutely essential for the guys on the ice, it can make a huge difference on the ice hearing you have a large backing in a difficult building. 

“Also, away fans are absolutely pivotal to every club in the league, it ultimately adds to a game atmosphere and experience which everyone is striving to improve all the time.

 “I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the OSC for all their hard work organising fantastic travel and the Purple Army for continuing to follow us up and down the UK.” 

It became clear that as well as a number of season ticket holders attending the match in Belfast, there were also those who had opted to come for their first-ever away game, with 7-year-old Robbie Young among those. I managed to catch up with another ‘first’-time away fan’ at the 11,000 seater Belfast Odyssey SSE Arena, Steven Magee, 50, who was attending the game in Belfast after 5 years of home support. Having initially watched the Ayr Scottish Eagles in the 1990s, he said that following the Clan was now a family event with the friendly atmosphere at games one of the major reasons he felt so many returned. He also highlighted the lack of animosity between supporters helping create an atmosphere that was open to all. He said: “My wife is a Rangers supporter, and I am a Celtic supporter, so we can’t go to football together, this is a family event and we can go out on a Saturday night and have a beer as well.” 

Glasgow Times: The SSE Arena. Picture; Stephen Mcilkenny The SSE Arena. Picture; Stephen Mcilkenny

Despite a significant away crowd, the Clan fell to a 5-1 defeat on the ice in Belfast with the three coaches leaving Northern Ireland with very little to cheer about. Almost 20 hours since leaving Braehead, we returned at 4am. As the fans shuffled off, some with travel pillows and blankets in hand fresh from their sleep, I asked a fan if he would have done it again knowing the outcome and the time on the road, to which he replied: “Yes, you’ve always got to support your team, don’t you?”

Hockey is continuing to grow in popularity in the UK, with the success of the UK national side, some TV coverage and the expansion of the EIHL helping to put the sport in the limelight. With such a friendly atmosphere amongst fans, a relatively affordable price in comparison to other sports, and a growing quality on the ice, it is easy to see why.

The growth and the swell in fanbases show that ice hockey in the UK is on the right track, and while they say that hockey is for everyone, my trip proves that it takes a particular dedication to follow the Glasgow Clan.