Tales From The Away End

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 24 August 2008.

I was up at 5.30am and I set off at 6.15am…an early start for me as I had a bonus detour into Merseyside for the Klimt exhibition at Tate Liverpool to squeeze in before Wigan.

It was a dreary, rainy start to the trip north, but as I steered my way through the old North Somerset coalfield towns of Radstock and Midsomer Norton, I saw something which cheered me and put a smile on my face…I spotted a poster for an evening concert starring “Suzi Quatro and The Wurzels” ( all of the expats will know how much that made me laugh! )

I know the route up to those NW towns for football like the back of my hand. Was it really 16 weeks ago I was headed for Anfield and the “Riise” game?

I thought about previous trips to Wigan…I saw a dear friend Rod Hockley attend his last ever Chelsea away match at the “Crespo” opening game in 2005 ( he eventually succumbed to cancer the next February )…I attended the December 2006 game with Jenni ( BlueBelle ) and this was her first-ever CFC game…then the two games last season, cheap tickets and vocal support. I have to say, despite the four wins, Wigan have given us a rough ride in these games, no doubts. They must hate the sight of us.

I mused on the geographical spread of teams in the Premiership this season…including Stoke, the north west provides eight of the twenty teams, a pretty high figure, but one which mirrors the original centre of professional football in England.

What is there to say about Wigan? I have only ever visited the town because of the above four games…with the JJB positioned towards the west of the town centre, I have only ever seen the approach into the town, the Queens Arms and the ground itself. There will be no town history from me this time either! However, Wigan has always been a strong rugby league town ( as opposed to rugby union, a slightly different game ) and I think the town has done well to support two big league teams. The population of Wigan isn’t great. Rugby Union is predominantly a middle-class game in the UK, though it has a working class base in Cornwall, the Welsh valleys and the Scottish borders. Rugby League however ( always a professional game ) has its geographical base in Lancashire, West Yorkshire and Hull. I wondered exactly how and why towns like Widnes, Warrington, St. Helens and Wigan are mainly RL towns, sandwiched between the footballing giants of Liverpool and Manchester. Yep, I had lots to ponder on the 200 mile drive north.

I stopped for a coffee on the M6 and then veered off along the M62, headed for the Albert Dock area of Liverpool. I reached Liverpool at 10am. I have often thought that I really ought to do more “touristy sight-seeing” on my travels around the UK following Chelsea. I go to London every two weeks and the routine is simple – “breakfast, pub, football, home.” A bit of a shame really. So, I have made a bit of a promise to expand my horizons a bit this season. I visited The Lowry art gallery on Salford Quays ahead of last year’s grim game at Old Trafford and it enriched my day.

The weather had improved as I drove into the city. The very mention of the name Liverpool seems to stir the very basest of emotions amongst the Chelsea support these days. I have to be honest, I like cities with a definite “sense of place” and Liverpool certainly has that. It has a rich ( and poor ) social history, a tough reputation and I think that at least separates it from blander cities such as Birmingham and Coventry. The demise of this once massive port is well known, but at long last the city seems to be getting back on its feet, with large-scale rejuvenation of the riverside. However, change has been slow…on the main road in to the city ( which seems to be revelling in its “City Of Culture” status in 2008 ), hundreds of barricaded house fronts welcome the visitor…however, these have been brightly decorated by urban artist Banksy to camouflage the grim scene. Bit of a metaphor for the city perhaps – making the best of an ugly townscape, however superficial.

So, I spent an enjoyable hour or so on the banks of The Mersey at The Tate. The Gustav Klimt exhibition was only £8 and I loved it. It did make me laugh that I would soon be away from the hushed surroundings of the gallery and be shouting abuse at a football stadium later that day…a day of contrasts!

I noted the symbol of “Liverpool 08” around the city – repeated pieces of public art, little statues of what I can only describe as “banana sheep,” decorated in various styles. I like public art, especially those with a sense of humour.

I left Liverpool at 11.45am and wended my way out of the centre via the famous Scotland Road ( or Scottie Road as it is known by the Scousers ). I have read that the housing estates of this main road were the initial starting point of the scally / casual revolution in 1977…limited to the Scousers, then the Mancs, it would eventually sweep through the terraces of Britain and beyond by 1982. So, a bit of social history for you all there.

I drove past towering main stand of Goodison Park and then Aintree ( site of the Grand National horse race ), then out past the new town of Skelmersdale and out onto the M58.

I was caught in traffic on the approach to the JJB, but parked-up at about 12.45pm. I popped into the Queens Arms to say hi to the Nuneaton lot – Andy, the two Neils, their kids, Woody and Chelsea legend Lovejoy…a brisk ten minute walk to the JJB ensued.

Another 18,000 crowd up there…the away end holds 5,000 and – judging by the empty seats I later saw on TV – I reckon we had around 3,000 up there…probably our worst support of the five games, but not by much. I thought our noise levels weren’t bad.

I was sat next to my two “away buddies” Alan and Gary high up in the middle. It was a pretty hot day and I made the point that it always surprises me that we wear all black on such occasions. Now, I know the all yellow kit isn’t officially launched until Thursday, but surely Chelsea could have used that one…what does anyone else think? If it helps the players keep 5% cooler, surely that is worth it. Or are we more concerned about selling the more “sexy” black shirts to the fans? What should our priorities be?

A dream start for us. Alan called it – the Deco strike – and I photographed it. Bingo.

Then we went to pieces and I have to say, apart from two long range efforts in the second-half, we hardly threatened.

Wigan were busy and I think very unlucky not to draw. I couldn’t help but think back to last Sunday…”maybe Portsmouth really were that bad!” Thought the midfield were poor…Joe was as ineffectual as I can remember…Ballack and Frank looked tired. The two plusses for me were the two full backs. Lovely saves from Cech too.

How come Heskey always looks a World beater against us? Pleased to see Wigan captain Mario Melchiot, ex-Chelsea, given a good round of applause as he was substituted.

I bought a copy of CFCUK from Dave Johnstone as I walked back to the car…it’s always a good read. Highlights in the current edition include Cathy’s tales from the Far East, a chap’s account of his trip to Moscow in a van and updates on various initiatives that several fan groups are involved in to improve the atmosphere at games. Good signs.

I was intrigued to read that Avram Grant met four Chelsea fans, including Mark Worral, at The Blues Bar in the summer and he came across as a really nice, decent guy.

Let’s wish him well.

I reached home at 8pm, 420 miles in the saddle, my car a complete tip, but three points in the bag.

Job done.

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