“We’re sleepwalking into financial Armageddon."

Stuart Murphy stresses he doesn't want to sound dramatic, but his grave choice of words is all the more telling considering they are entirely unprompted during our conversation. As chief-executive of the Scottish Football Supporters Association, it's his job to worry about the fans who are "always bottom of the food chain". And, right now, he's never been more alarmed.

The away day is a sacred tradition for so many who pour their hearts, time and cash into this weird and wonderful game of ours. There's a level of devotion that simply cannot be quantified in ordinary people making eight hour round trips on a bus, often in the dead of winter, and in midweek, just to spend 90 minutes watching a team who foist upon them mostly frustration and despair. But ask anyone who makes this pilgrimage, and they'll probably tell you they wouldn't have it any other way. It's a 52-seater ritual where friendships are forged, parent-child bonds are strengthened and memories that last a lifetime are made.

It's also one under serious threat.

Research conducted by the SFSA late last month found, among a wide range of fears, 79 per cent of fans are increasingly concerned by the spiralling cost of travelling to away games, and over half are considering going to less matches. The reasons for this have become starkly apparent for most of us in recent months. Inflation clearing 11 per cent, the price of fuel continually spiking, putting the same items in your shopping basket week on week but still seeing that number on the till creeping up and up, thinking twice about putting the heat on - all with seemingly no end in sight.

Football fans have shown time and again they'll go above and beyond to follow the club they love, but for how long can that loyalty be relied upon when it becomes a choice between going to the game and putting food on the table? The average price of an away ticket in the Scottish Premiership this season is around £25, with the most expensive being £34. Factor in petrol, bus fees, food and a world of potentially unexpected expenses, and the outlay quickly mounts. Compare this to the BBC's Price of Football survey in 2019/20, which found it possible to get a pie, cup of tea, programme and a ticket for only £24.26 at one club.

“In its entirety, Scottish football needs to sit down," Murphy said. "The last people consulted when decisions are made are fans. That’s because clubs have financial difficulties in their own right, they have responsibilities to shareholders etc, and I get that. There needs to be a crisis summit, or a working group set up to look at some of the pressures. There’s not a one size fits all solution."

Murphy's urgency is fuelled by the fact he knows this is not a problem which may or may not come creeping down the line at some unspecified point in the future. It's happening right now.

“There are definitely people struggling, without a shadow of a doubt," said Donald Coghill, who runs the Ross-shire Celtic Supporters' Club, where pretty much every game is an away day. "It’s not just they can’t afford the extra money to go to a football match, they’re struggling because they are taking on extra hours at work in order to save for Christmas. Therefore, they can’t come out on a Saturday or Sunday.

"That’s put our numbers down which makes things more difficult. We’re not getting as many people on a bus as we did prior to the cost of living crisis. The most infuriating thing is, we have guys and girls who bought season tickets, then the whole thing kicked off and they’re sitting with a season ticket but don’t have the money to go to Celtic Park or away games. That is a bummer."

A drop in numbers brings an obvious knock-on effect for the supporters' clubs themselves - less punters, less money coming in to run buses. David Clark convenes travel for the Greenock Morton Supporters' Club, once vibrant and thriving with members of all ages, but there's a palpable weariness in his voice when asked about it.

“It really is a struggle now," Clark said. "We’re picking and choosing which games we run a bus to. It’s not like before, where we would go to every away game no matter whether there was one person on the bus or 50. Those days are well gone. I’ve got to pick and choose because money is so tight. It’s hard to even book a bus now. The cost of fuel has gone up, so bus companies are putting their prices up.

"We’re down to 11 or 12 hardcore who go to every away game, whereas we used to have about 25 guaranteed, and that was before visitors (non-members). Now, you’re relying on visitors to help run your bus. Long trips to Inverness or wherever, there’s no chance. It was £600 to hire a bus to Cove recently, which is a big risk (if we can’t fill it).”

It's abundantly clear solutions are needed. Agreeing and implementing them, though? Much harder to do. A standardised cap on away ticket prices has gathered momentum, particularly with the Twenty's Plenty campaign started by Celtic fans group Bhoys, and recently backed by contemporaries at St Johnstone. The SFSA survey found 94 per cent of fans favour such a move, and Murphy plans to take this up with SPFL chief-executive Neil Doncaster as a matter of urgency. All these issues are interlinked, however, and there will likely be clubs who feel they cannot afford to cut prices because they themselves are struggling. But Murphy is adamant that doing nothing is no longer an option.

“Remember, Neil only represents the clubs," he said. "There’s probably no one size fits all solution, but you might get some that think ‘that might work if we can encourage more fans by not precluding people because of the prohibitive nature of the prices'. Admittedly, it’s a gamble for clubs. For me, it's a suck it and see job - if it doesn't work, move on. It's a risk not to take the risk, we could lose a generation of peple here, who might never come back again. I was on the board at Dundee during the second administration, I know what the pressures are. To make a gamble like that, depending on your club's circumstances, could be quite devastating."

Admittedly, this is all rather grim reading. But it's heartening - and not at all surprising - to discover that when help is not forthcoming from elsewhere, fans can still rely on each other.

“We’ve got a lot of guys up here who work offshore who are fairly well off," Coghill said. "But we do have people who it is affecting so I’m trying to even things out. People that earn a good salary and can afford to go will pay full whack, or maybe a little bit more, so that can help some of the other boys and girls who can’t afford to come down.

"There’s a little of socialism in there. The haves can help out the have nots, we’re all friends. Fans always look out for each other, no matter what club it is. I’m sure Rangers are the same, as are Aberdeen. At the end of the day, all of us support the club, we’re all mates and we’re there to help each other out. That’s what we have to do, not just with football but in every part of life, spread the cost around so the people who have not, can actually have.”