Tales From The North-West

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2009.

I think I might find it a struggle to reflect on this one.

This was to be yet another trip up to the old professional heartland of the game ( the cotton towns of the north-west provided a good majority of the founder members of the Football League ), another drive up to Lancashire and my sixth journey to Wigan in slightly over four years.

Apart from the very first of these games, which was Wigan’s first ever game in the top flight, the attendances have been well under capacity. However, the population of Wigan is only around 80,000 and has a richer history as one of the major rugby league towns. I personally think that Wigan do well to muster 15,000 home fans for most games at their trim new stadium. Of course, a lot of their success has come as a result of the investment from Dave Whelan, their former footballer-turned chairman. In all of these games, I think Wigan hasn’t had the rub of the green. We have come away with six wins out of six and two games stick out. Firstly, that game on a balmy Sunday in August 2005…Chelsea as newly-crowned champions, Wigan as top-league debutantes. They made it tough for us, but that Crespo winner in the last minute gave us the points. Then, the second visit in December 2006 and another late winner, that time via the boot of Arjen Robben.

So, with our past history at Wigan and given our start to the season, I predicted another three points.

Judy ( yes, we are back together again…for those keeping score – our third attempt! ) was accompanying me for this weekend in the north-west. We set off at 9.45am and Judy slept on the drive north…I daren’t put the radio or music on in case it woke her. I was left alone with my thoughts. Only two weeks earlier, I had driven up this same route to the game at Stoke and memories of other trips up the M5 and M6 washed over me…

We booked into our hotel at just after 1pm and it was a hotel that I knew well. For a lot of our games in the north-west, my mates head for The Kilton Inn on the outskirts of Manchester. We first visited it on that fateful day in October 2004 when we suffered our only defeat of 2004-2005 at the hands of Manchester City – and Nikolas Anelka. Then – most memorably – Frank, Glenn and myself stopped off for a meal there before Bolton away in April 2005.

What a day in our history.

For that reason alone, I like returning. They do great food, too – as Jenni ( BlueBelle) will testify!

Judy didn’t fancy the game and rested at the hotel. This concerned me – since 1998, Judy has accompanied me to seven Chelsea games and her record is a perfect seven. I set off for Wigan wondering if we would miss my “lucky charm.”

As I turned off the M6, I spotted the very top of the stand supports of Bolton’s Reebok Stadium away in the distance.

2005 came back into my consciousness again – lovely.

There was a fair bit of traffic on the main approach into the town, but I was parked up soon after 2pm. I spotted a gaggle of young kids, each wearing Wigan shirts – one with his shirt festooned with players’ signatures – and it made me happy. Nice to know that not everyone young kid in the north-west supports United or Liverpool. There is hope. I had arranged to meet Elliott from the New York Blues, along with a few more mates, in the Queens Arms, but nobody was around. I decided to head on to the stadium where I knew my two away stalwarts, Alan and Gary, were already located. As I left the boozer, I bumped into Terry, a fan I first met in Norway ten years ago. We always have a nice natter and he used to run the West Midlands supporters club. I hadn’t seen him for a while. Well, he soon told me that he had a heart-attack soon after the Barcelona game in May. He missed the Cup Final and this game – a gentle start at friendly Wigan – was his first game since his heart attack. Phew. It made me think. He is a non-smoker and a non-drinker and keeps relatively fit. What pressures do we put on ourselves in this mad devotion to Chelsea?

I wished him all the best as he shot off to sort out some tickets.

With the weather overcast – sun down south! – I scrambled up the steps to where Alan and Gary were finishing off their pints. Soon into the stadium and I took up my position half-way back and with the near goal slightly to my left.

“A Town Called Malice” by The Jam was played on the loud and booming PA and I looked around to see a lot of fans in their forties singing along.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life – it’s the one you’ll never know.”

We stood the entire game. We spotted the strangely sober – and sombre – Lovejoy a few rows behind.

Despite a promising start and a couple of free-kicks, our form soon dipped. Wigan went ahead when a corner was swung in for Titus Bramble. I saw that Mikel had left his position on the near post and muttered an obscenity. Bramble headed down and into the goal, the trajectory right towards me. We went to pieces. I said to Gary that we have gone behind on loads of occasions this season, but on this occasion, we couldn’t regroup and retaliate. As the first-half progressed, we seemed to get worse and Alan noted a few players bickering amongst themselves. We don’t usually do that and it was worrying to see. JT made a last-ditch challenge to prevent a goal and then Cech blocked from close range. Wigan had more attempts on goal than us and we were looking ragged. Our midfield were not combative and it was so unlike us. Mikel had a woeful first-half, but nobody shone.

There were no surprises when Juliano – who scored a belter at Wigan a couple of years back – replaced Mikel at the break.

How we laughed when Kirkland let Drogba’s flick go through him.

We were level – phew.

This joy was short-lived, though and Cech was harshly sent-off in our opinion. Was Rodallega not going away from goal and was there not a covering defender? Hilario took his place but couldn’t stop the penalty.

Groan.

We now had a hapless task ahead of us.

Despite winning 2-1, the home support remained pretty quiet. The only section which made any noise was a block of two-hundred, mainly youngsters, aided a bloody incessant drummer, away to my left. I turned to Alan and said that I had only just heard the last few days that since 2005, Wigan had not beaten any of the “top four.”

Ominous.

Judy – where are you girl?

We made some changes and the hapless Kalou came on, but struggled to fit in. Anelka seemed to be playing too deep. But it’s wrong to single anybody out – the whole team played below par. Our support was quiet too. JT played upfront for a good deal of the last twenty minutes, with Essien covering at the rear, but we hardly threatened. One shot from Kalou sailed over my head in Row 25.

Five minutes of added-time and we sensed a chance…keep going, boys!

Then – a Wigan break on our right and – Oh God – a third.

The news from Anfield, White Hart Lane and the Brittania Stadium heightened the gloom and I quickly exited the stadium. As I rushed to get back to my car, one sight made me see red.

I walked past two young Chelsea fans, giggling away, mobile phones in hand, chatting and smiling at each other. I had my “we lost – do not disturb” face on and their ambivalence to our plight made me sick.

Sigh.

I grumbled to myself about “the youth of today” and wondered how long my state of mild depression would last.

I was soon back at the hotel, some fifteen miles south, and Judy was shocked that we had lost. I shrugged it off – how mature of me! I had seen Chelsea lose hundreds of times. One more won’t make much difference.

After a meal, I drove up to Blackpool, that crazy working-class holiday resort on the Lancashire coast. We wandered around the seafront which was teeming with ugly northerners – hen parties with middle-aged women in schoolgirls uniforms, men in fancy dress, The Incredible Hulk and Scooby Doo, hot-dogs, candy floss, sticks of rock, bag-pipes, Freddie Starr on the pier, trams, the illuminations, the fresh autumn air.

Crazy town.

It took my mind off our loss, but only just. It had been a bad day at the office for Chelsea Football Club, but let us see how everyone reacts over the next two games.

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