Tales From A Dark Night

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2011.

…and so it goes on.

Parky and I left Chippenham at 4.30pm. It had been a grimy, grey day and as I drove north to Wolverhampton, there was patchy fog on the M4. There will be no colourful descriptions of roadside sights for this away game. This was always going to be a fretful trip up to the Black Country, with the inevitable rush hour traffic going to cause me anxiety. Night fell and it was me against the traffic. Wolverhampton is about 100 miles from my place of work and I had hoped to park up in the town centre by 6.45pm and then pop into The Walkabout for a quick livener before the match. The inevitable delay to our progress was caused by road works on the B4123 after I exited the M5. I tried to remain calm over the last six miles. I can’t remember the last away game where I got the timings all wrong and so missed the kick-off. Thankfully, the traffic thinned out a bit and I could relax a little.

We found a town centre car park by the bus station and then quickly wrapped up warm for the brisk ten minute walk to Molyneux. After the delays, I met up with Alan (who had to get a reprint of our tickets from the Wolves box office as the originals never arrived) at bang on 7.30pm outside the away entrance.

There was the usual hustle and bustle in and around the Steve Bull Stand, and I nodded a few “hello mate” to a few acquaintances as I took my seat right on the half way line in the lower tier.

I like Molyneux. This was only my third visit and we had previously won the other two games 5-0 and 2-0. Three in a row please! The stadium nestles at the bottom of a hill and is in the heart of the town. Wolves almost went to the wall around 1985 as a result of their relegation to the old fourth division and debts caused by the messy redevelopment of their stadium. For many seasons, the Steve Bull Stand – built in 1979 and very similar to the Spurs West Stand of the same year – stood way back from the pitch, with the rest of the crumbling stadium unable to be rebuilt and moved to meet up with the new stand’s footprint. The three new stands were eventually completed in around 1993 and it’s a neat and compact stadium, with the iconic old gold used on stand supports and seats. It feels right. Alan and Gary had been talking to a Wolves fan as they waited for me to arrive and he told them that there were plans to build again, with the end goal being a 50,000 stadium. I guessed that relegation might halt such grandiose plans.

The away fans are housed along the complete length of the Steve Bull Stand which means that it’s difficult to keep the songs and chants together and sustained. I would say that away fans at The Bridge used to make less noise when they were housed in the East Lower, along the length of the pitch, rather than in their current Shed location.

There were empty seats in the upper corners of the main stand opposite, but Molyneux was otherwise full. The PA played “Hi-Ho Silver Lining” with The Kop amending it to be –

“Hi-Ho Wolverhampton.”

A large Wolves shirt was passed over the heads of The Kop supporters and the teams entered the pitch. I’m always pleased to see us wearing white socks at away games – not through superstition, because we won the League at Bolton in 2005 in blue socks – but because it just looks better. I looked at our team – Kalou restored upfront, Ivanovic back in the middle – and started taking a few early photos of the match action with my zoom lens. It felt good to be close to the field and along the side for once. I usually find myself watching from behind a goal. I liked this different perspective. The Chelsea support stood the entire game and I approved. To be honest, I can’t remember the last occasion we all sat at an away game. But I immediately noticed that it was difficult to get the chanting together despite our best efforts. Keeping the same song, at the same tempo, over 120 yards is bloody difficult!

After just four minutes, a wicked shot from thirty yards appeared to move and swerve on its way towards the Chelsea goal in front of The Kop. Petr Cech sprang to action and did well to turn the ball around the post. From the resultant corner, the ball appeared to go directly into the Chelsea goal at the near post. There was no way of telling through that crowded mass of bodies that the hated Steven Hunt’s corner had gone in off Jose Bosingwa.

I had predicted a Chelsea win at Wolves and yet, here we were, losing after just four bloody minutes. We tried to get behind the team, but the Chelsea fans around me soon started getting very frustrated with our general play. Wolves were chasing every loose ball, closing us down, scampering around like terriers and carving out occasional chances. We seemed to take forever to create our first real chance, when Didier did well to cross from the left, but the goalkeeper stuck out a limb to miraculously clear. This came after thirty long minutes.

We seemed to be creating a few chances down our right wing. Ramires was pushing on when he could and his close control and crisp passing is starting to please me. Of all people, Kalou was involved and was linking up well with a few team mates… Chelsea team mates – mark it up! Ivanovic was booked for a silly challenge. Ashley Cole easily lost possession and we were lucky that the resulting break did not harm us. Our midfield was not closing Wolves down. Where was the effort? Essien was looking lethargic.

Then, down to my left, Hunt and JT had a tangle and, after a little grappling, JT raised his hands and shoved Hunt. We were cheering, The Kop was jeering. Mark Halsey, one of my most disliked refs, was in my sightline and I didn’t think that he saw the push. I think I was proved correct as JT escaped with not even a caution. At the other end, a delicate one-two, but we fired over from close range. We were getting into the game more towards the end of that first period, but the mood was of increasing frustration and bewilderment at our poor performance. To annoy me further, I had been warned by a nearby steward to stop taking photos.

During the interval, I met up with San Francisco Pete in the crowded walkway below us (he was wearing a Cubs cap, while I had spotted a Chelsea chap wearing a rather nice White Sox ski hat a few yards away). Then the familiar faces of Burger and Julie appeared and we had a little catch-up. Of course, they now live a few miles up the road in Stafford and – get this – the train journey from Stafford to Wolverhampton was just 12 minutes. If the trains went well, I worked out that they could be back in their house within 45 minutes. That sure beats the 3,000 miles from their former home in Ontario to Stamford Bridge! Then, Cathy appeared – like me, she had been stopped from taking photos, so was instead going around the forecourt at half-time taking some mug shots of a few Chelsea stalwarts. Cathy pointed her Nikon at Julie, Burger and I and we forced some smiles…

Into the second-half and the moans and grumbles continued. After ten minutes of lacklustre play, Frank Lampard back-heeled adeptly for Salomon Kalou to hone in on goal. He composed himself, but then drilled the ball past the far post. I am sure that you heard the groans from the away section in Wyoming, New Mexico, Vermont and Alabama. After a reasonable first-half, Kalou’s performance was now heading south at a grand rate of knots. And it pains me to say that instead of offering encouragement to him, the vast majority of fans either remained silent or berated him. Everyone has their own view on all of this, but I tried to remain as positive as I possibly could during the whole game. I tried to join in the drifting songs, tried to shout encouragement – especially when players like Cole, JT and Essien came over to take throw-ins a few yards away. I know they couldn’t hear me, but I wanted them to feel my support for them, I wanted to make them feel wanted and loved.

“Come On You Blue Boys” is my favourite phrase and has been for ever.

But elsewhere around me, every misplaced pass – of which Essien and Lampard were guilty for more than their fair share – was met with howls of derision. I know it’s difficult and I am sure that I howled occasionally, but I try my damnedest not to be audibly negative if I can help it. Loudly cheer a good pass, try and remain silent if a pass goes astray. I couldn’t help but look around and into peer the executive boxes behind. It made me smile to see that the Wolves fans inside appeared to be stony-faced like us…it seems that fans of winning teams can’t really sit back and enjoy games they are winning until the final whistle. It has always amused me that regardless of the score, usually football fans are a bunch of intense and solemn buggers. And we do this for fun, to relax.

Bloody hell.

Carlo – standing alone in the technical area – then swapped Kalou with Anelka, but things didn’t really improve. Kakuta and Studge also entered the fray. Ramires was starting to tire and was one of the players taken off. We had more of the ball but found it impossible to break down their defence. Wolves’ attacks were sporadic and they occasionally threatened. A Hunt free-kick rattled the bar.

A quick break found the out-of-form Florent Malouda and he was strong enough to get into a position inside the box which was almost identical to the Kalou chance. Eerily, the result was the same – a low shot skidded past the far post. This time, we heard the groans from Wyoming, New Mexico, Vermont and Alabama. Drogba appeared to be trying devilishly hard one minute, not trying the next. He’s such a difficult person to judge, but I really do wonder if the malaria has truly left him. Lampard was buzzing around, but again his legs looked tired. Why does he choose the Joe Montana cross-field ball so often? Drogba won a loose ball and played in Anelka, but the goalie got to the ball before Nico. Then, Drogba at his best – a strong turn and strike, but the shot grazed the near post. Kakuta works some space on a few occasions, but our crosses were woeful. Oh boy.

The chances petered out. Four minutes of extra time, but Halsey blew up. I turned around and at last the corporates in the executive boxes could pump the air and smile. Wolves had done well – their midfield was all over us. With a little more luck in front of goal, we could have fared better but I am certainly not looking for excuses.

We were poor.

The saddest sight for me was the look of utter frustration on the face of our captain as he misplaced a ball through to Kakuta. As he turned away and berated himself, I felt utter sympathy for him because it showed that he cares. I don’t expect every one of our players to race around like idiots but I do expect more passion from the boys. I saw passion from Terry and Cole especially but some players looked as if the match was not within their control.

Yes, I think that’s it. It seemed as if their efforts would not matter. This is simply not good enough.

But I love these players. All of these lads have given us unforgettable memories over these past few years – Ivanovic and his headers at Anfield, Frank’s dramatic penalty against Liverpool in the CL semi, Drogba’s goal at Old Trafford, JT’s header at Burnley, Malouda’s rejuvenation, Drogba’s domination of the entire Arsenal defence, Ashley’s work rate, Anelka’s savvy, Essien’s drive.

They are our Team of Champions and we may never see their like again. I just wish things were different. But I can’t forget the past. I’ll never forget the joy they have given me.

I met up with Parky and we quickly sped back to the waiting car, the winter air now chilling us to the bone. Of course, it had turned out to be some night in The Premiership with Liverpool getting gubbed yet again, Newcastle beating West Ham 5-0, Spurs losing, Villa losing…crazy times. Parky said that he had heard rumours that Sunderland had gone ahead of us (it’s funny the rumours you hear on that immediate five minute walk away from the ground with fans jabbering away like idiots, some of it wildly off the mark…”I see Arsenal lost 8-0, a giraffe scored for Everton, a referee died at Preston, there were ten players sent off at Stenhousemuir”).

The mood in the car was sombre. We listened to BBC Radio Five Live, with the football reporters chipping in with gossip and sound bites from around the grounds. The focus was on the four under-fire managers – Hodgson, Ancelotti, Grant and Houllier. Then, there was the usual post-game ‘phone in and a couple of callers got me shouting abuse at the radio.

Caller One – a Liverpool fan, full of rhetoric about the tradition, the history, you know the score. He slammed Hodgson, and made a few points but then said that he had a ticket for the F.A. Cup game at Old Trafford on Sunday, but “I’ve had enough – I’m not going.” What an absolute jerk – professing his love for his club one minute, creating a stance, but then making a mockery of that by not going to the biggest game his club will play this season and announcing this on national radio, thus giving ammunition to all other clubs’ fans…I imagined thousands of United fans rubbing their hands with glee.

Caller Two – a Chelsea fan, moaning of course, though he had not been to the game. He spoke of our problems, but then talked about a game a few weeks ago and talked about “a Portuguese defender, whose name escapes me at the moment.”

I turned the radio off and yelled at him. I think I shocked Parky with my venom and cascade of expletives. While we are supported by tools like this – a fan that is happy to moan on the radio about our club, but is unable to recall Paolo Ferreira’s name – I worry for our collective soul.

There was no music on the drive home. Just too depressed. We needed the silence.

Parky was dropped off at 12.30am and I got home at 1am.

I checked the tables and – phew – we remained fifth and Sunderland sixth. It is an amazing season this year. The bottom ten teams of the top division are separated by just five points. It seems that the old adage of there being “no easy game in this division” is now very true. At the other end, it looks like United’s title to lose – their history-making nineteenth title looks academic. I think that our league title aspirations were extinguished against Wolves. Looking ahead, on any normal F.A. Cup Round Three game, we would normally blood a few youngsters, but against The Tractor Boys on Sunday, I am not so sure if Carlo Ancelotti will take that risk.

In these current circumstances, a win – any win – will be met like a long lost friend. Let’s hope we don’t have to go hunting on Facebook for it.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”


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