Tales From A Special Place

Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea :6 December 2008.

My twenty-first game of the season. This is how it panned out.

Set off from home at 8.45am, the fields and hedges dusted with frost. But a clear, blue sky and that was how it stayed. I drove the ten miles to pick up Andy from Trowbridge, just over the county border in Wiltshire. There are a number of medium-sized towns near me, but I would say Trowbridge has proportionately more Chelsea fans than Frome, Westbury, Warminster, Radstock and the like. Andy ( 48 ) is good mates with Parky ( 52 – the grand daddy of the Trowbridge mob ) who I have travelled up to HQ with this season.

I first met Andy in a Frome pub in the summer of 1984 and although we always say “hi”, this was the first time I really have had to spend an extended amount of time with him.

As we darted through Bradford-On-Avon, past Bath and up onto the M4, we began chatting about our own individual Chelsea histories. The time absolutely flew past, as I am sure you can all imagine. His first game was in October 1971. We swapped stories as we ate up the miles. He still goes to most home league games. His best effort was way back in 1981-1982 when he went to 41 out of 42 league games during a mediocre second division season, notable only for an extended FA Cup run. He used to travel to all of the games my train ( we all did ) in those days – the era of cheaper prices, young persons railcards and Persil vouchers. We both agreed that as a teenager, a train trip from the South West up to Sheffield or Middlesbrough was a major event in those days. He spoke of a few hairy moments from those days – an incident when he found himself, quite innocently, in the midst of Chelsea’s main mob ( Icky et al ) in Middlesbrough, legging it into a pub, then emerging two hours later, buoyed by alcohol, into a waiting crowd of locals…a salvation army band playing, Saturday shoppers fleeing from the fighting.

Then the predictable stories of trains getting bricked by Geordies at Newcastle. I experienced this myself back in 1984 – that story will follow later this season.

As the talk slowed, I put the new Killers album on the CD player.

Before we knew it, we had sped past Stoke and were only 45 minutes from Bolton. We stopped at Sandbach for a Wimpy burger and fries. Wimpy is our very own UK fast food chain and I mention it’s name for all of the Ex-pats…still pretty dodgy and not as good as McDonalds or Burger King. In-n-Out Burger it ain’t!

This was the sixth trip up the M6 for me this season alone. Those motorway service stations fall off my tongue like a mantra…Michael Wood, Strensham, Frankley, Hilton Park, Stafford, Sandbach, Knutsford, Lymm. I was in contact with both Alan and Beth, on separate Chelsea coaches and as we hit the Manchester orbital, I knew we couldn’t be too far behind them.

Indeed, as we exited the slip road for The Reebok, I spotted the Chelsea coaches a few hundred yards ahead. I had made good time – I covered the 211 miles in three and a half hours.

So – Bolton. I still get goose bumps when I think of the name. I was there in April 2005 and every time I go back ( this was my fifth visit to The Reebok ), I think back to that momentous day when I saw Chelsea become league champions. The stadium is quite a way out of town, a good 6 miles, and nestles under Winter Hill, adjacent to a shopping mall. Quite a bizarre location, really, for such a momentous day in our history. At the time, we all acknowledged the significance of winning the league at Bolton. Think back to 1983 and Clive Walker’s goal which fought off relegation to the Third Division ( arguably the most important goal in 103 years ) and therefore provided the lift-off for 1983-1984 and the successes which followed. I remember Alan ( who went to the game ) telling the story of famous Chelsea fan Breda attending the game with four-leaved clovers, rabbits feet, lucky heather and a crucifix. Breda used to look after the disabled section at Chelsea with John Bumstead’s Mum – anyway, all of the various lucky charms worked a treat. I mused on the fact that all of these fans have played such an integral role in our story. In comparison, of all the books I have read on baseball, the only famous fan I can name is the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Hilda Chester and her cow bell. Over here, in the UK, every club has its legion of fans…some more famous than the players! It is this interaction between club, player and fan that you must all find so intriguing.

On a more sombre note, let us also remember our league cup game at Bolton in 1996 and the helicopter crash which robbed the club of Matthew Harding.

Bolton plays a significant role in our history. More so than any other city in my opinion.

I parked up at the stadium and walked towards The Beehive pub, where we were joined by Alan, Gary and Beth. We stayed there about an hour. A couple of pints. Thank heavens Beth is over here – I think her recent spending spree in London has boosted our ailing economy. A quick chat with the Nuneaton boys.

I had a quick word with Ron Harris outside the entrance to the away seats…he was up to do an evening at a local club. He often goes to away games. Made my way up to our seat in the top tier…we had amazing seats…as central as it was possible to be, the very back row. Alan, Gary and me stood the entire game. The self-appointed “John Terry’s Barmy Army” were in front of us. It was still sunny – and not too cold either.

I snapped away as the teams came onto the pitch. I noted many St.Georges cross flags at the other end, but also a Stars and Stripes…a large flag was hoisted over the Bolton fans – “We are the one and only Wanderers.” Dave Johnstone’s Chelsea away flag passed close by too. The war of the flags! One massive Bolton flag intimated – via symbols – that they love gravy. This comes from the “Soccer AM” show in which “Northern boys love gravy.”

Quality!

OK – game on. Let’s see if we could get our eleventh successive away victory. Beth ( along with Andy, Rey and Cynthia ) was present for the first one, way back at Manchester City in April. By a twist of fate, the top three clubs were all playing within 40 miles of each other…Liverpool up the road at Blackburn and Manchester United at Old Trafford. Our formation seemed to be 4-1-3-2…with Mikel deep and Kalou upfront with Anelka.

Before we had a chance to settle, Davies ( always a blooming handful ) had headed over an easy chance. Thankfully, a lovely cross from Bosingwa found Anelka and we were 1-0 up. Then a lovely Deco goal soon after. We were coasting. Not great noise from our support from us to be honest…we had 2,800 up there, but it wasn’t brilliant. The Bolton mascot was getting on my nerves, but also amusing me at the same time – he rolled over on the floor, imitating Bosingwa’s reaction to a foul, then I saw him flicking Vs at other Chelsea players. He was strutting around, not happy at all. Pretty funny.

Bolton came back into the game after the break, but despite a few half chances, they never convinced me that they would score. Cech, despite some woeful kicking, played well with some timely saves. After last week’s poor show, Deco impressed me immensely, controlling the midfield, pushing the ball around intelligently. Did anyone spot McCann and Ballack getting very close while play was stopped, eye to eye, giving verbals to each other? Soon after, Ballack was smacked and had to wear a bandage.

I thought he resembled Sesame Street’s Bert.

The final whistle and we quickly reached the car, only to be sat motionless for twenty minutes until a few cars in front left. We heard that Liverpool had won, then listened to the United game on Five Live. As I passed through Birmingham, Vidic poked home a late winner and I smacked the car door in frustration.

Never mind. Our eleventh away league win on the trot. Happy with that.

On the way home, my NYC correspondent texted me to say that Roman was at “Nevada Smiths” in NYC.

I dropped Andy off at Trowbridge and then drove through a deserted Frome – the credit crunch was hitting, all of the pubs seemed deserted. I stopped off for a Chinese takeaway. It was freezing outside.

Home at 9.15pm. The big game against Cluj awaits.

Bring it on.

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