Tales From Brum

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 14 October 2010.

With no Chelsea game for a fortnight, I should have been ultra-excited about the game at Villa Park. However, for some reason, I seemed to be quite subdued about the whole day ahead. To be honest, Birmingham has never been my favourite city and an away game at Villa has long ceased to excite me too much. As the week drew on, it became evident that more and more Chelsea first-teamers would not make the trip up the M40 due to injury and this weighed on my mind too. Aston Villa are a Jekyl and Hyde team at the moment and there was a chance that they would prove tougher opponents than we might have hoped.

I collected Parky at midday and we were soon on our way as we headed north through the early Autumn countryside of Gloucestershire. The leaves are slowly turning and in a few weeks the colours will be at their peak. An away game at Villa is pretty easy – a quick trip up the M5 and we’re there. We chatted about the plans for the next clutch of Chelsea games, but focussed on plans for the Xmas game at Arsenal. With an 8pm kick-off and all of us on holiday, it could be a messy one…we talked about going up by train, enabling me to have a few cheeky beers. The Killers gave way to The Stranglers on the CD player around Worcester as the blue skies started to cloud over. We were soon at Birmingham. Ahead of us, we spotted the truncated arch of a rainbow and I noted that its lowest section was hovering over the floodlights of The Hawthorns away to my right. West Brom were of course soon to kick-off at Old Trafford and my mind, always keen to seek out sporting metaphors, was going into overdrive.

“Let’s hope The Baggies find a pot of gold today, Parky.”

I drove right past The Hawthorns and additionally remembered that the East Stand at the old stadium used to be called The Rainbow Stand until its demolition in around 2000. The traffic started to clog up a little as we curved south and east through Perry Bar. Time was moving on and I wanted to get parked-up. Alan, Daryl, Gary and Rob ( on a rare excursion out of London ) were drinking in the town centre and I knew Burger and Julie were drinking in the centre too.

We were parked-up at about 3.15pm…time for a few brews in the nearby “Crown & Cushion.” Of course, it was almost a year ago to the day that we last visited Villa Park. That turned out to be a tough game and a tough result on that occasion. This would be my twelfth game at Villa Park.

Over the past week, I have spent quite a few hours tabulating all of the Chelsea games I have had the pleasure to see in person. I have always had a hand-written record , but I eventually got around to putting all the games onto a spread sheet. I haven’t attempted team line-ups yet and the thought of detailing all those players’ names makes me go a little giddy. Maybe I need to out-source that particularly time-consuming task. Visits to Villa Park are near the top of the list of my most-visited away venues –

Liverpool-16
Manchester United-13
Arsenal-12
Aston Villa-12
Portsmouth-10
Tottenham Hotspur-10
Blackburn Rovers-9
Everton-9
Manchester City-9

Villa Park, like so many English stadia, has undergone many changes over the past twenty years. The North Stand was once the newest structure when it was built over the site of more predictable terracing in around 1979, but it is now the oldest stand. There is even talk of re-building the North Stand yet again. Villa Park always used to host F.A. Cup semi-finals and was the quite absurd venue for our semi-final against neighbours Fulham in 2002. The game was originally scheduled for Highbury but Fulham moaned about the 21,000 / 17,000 split of tickets. So, despite the two grounds being just one mile apart, the Football Association forced us to play at 6pm on a Sunday night in Birmingham. The gate at Villa Park was over 4,000 below capacity and it was the Fulham section that was not full. I would estimate that only 16,000 Fulham fans bothered to travel. You could not make it up if you tried. And Fulham have the audacity to sing “WWYWYWS?” to us at every game. Quite unbelievable. They weren’t even there when they were good.

I bought a book last year called “Images Of Football” which contains hundreds of fascinating black and white photographs from the pages of the Daily Mail through the years. One crowd scene is from a Villa vs. Birmingham City derby game at Villa Park in 1930. It is a mesmerizing photograph and I have spent some time just looking at all of the various characters staring out at me. The photographer simply positioned himself a few yards away from the fence at the base of the terrace and took a shot of around 500 spectators. There are no women. There are only 9 young boys, clustered in a group at the front. At least two are blowing raspberries at the camera. At least ten have severe dental problems. Virtually all are wearing caps or hats. One chap is waving a beer bottle and many are smoking. I can only just imagine the comments, jokes and laughter uttered by those 500 strong natives of Birmingham which would have been overheard during that afternoon all those years ago.

“All those people, all those lives, where are they now?” as a native of Manchester once said.

We sank a few pints of Red Stripe on draught in the pub and I sat back as Parky told some tales from The Fighting Years including some familiar stories of scuffles with Cardiff and Southampton fans. People might feel queasy hearing such gruesome tales these days, but often these stories stem from the need for self-preservation rather than an over-riding thirst for violence in itself. I guess you had to be there to understand it all. Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to remain largely unscathed during the era where hooliganism was rife. Sky Sports News was on a few TVs and we heard a loud shout at about 4.15pm. We were soon to learn that West Brom had equalised at Old Trafford, after being 0-2 down. That pot of gold was shining brightly. At the final whistle at Old Trafford, Parky and me had a chuckle then left for the ground. There was slight drizzle as we marched past the terraced houses towards Villa Park. This stretch of road always takes me back to 1996, when we lost 1-2 to United another F.A. Cup semi-final…the walk back to the car was amongst gloating United fans and this easily gets into one of my top ten most miserable Chelsea experiences.

Outside the Doug Ellis Stand, Dave Johnstone was hawking the most recent copy of “CFCUK.”

“Only a pound – hurry up.”

A few familiar faces were in the line for the turnstiles ahead of me and, as Dave spotted them, he gave them a kiss.

“Dave – can I pay £3 for a fanzine as long as you don’t kiss me?”

Alan and Gary were already in their seats in the upper tier as I joined them with a few minutes to go. Gael Kakuta was in, upfront with Anelka and Malouda. Within the first five minutes, we had survived two attacks on our goal. Stuart Downing burst forward down the right wing and we groaned as he easily found Stephen Ireland who was completely unmarked. Thankfully his shot zipped past the far post. Soon after, we lost possession far too easily and John Carew forced an excellent finger-tip save from Petr Cech, way down low to his left. We hadn’t begun the game too well.

Amidst the grumbles in the away support, we found enough spirit to reignite a chant from the Wembley semi-final –

“Seven-One, My Lord, Seven-One,
Seven-One, My Lord, Seven-One,
Seven-One, My Lord, Seven-One,
Oh Lord – Seven-One.”

Our support seemed to be up for it and the “John Terry Has Won The Double” chant got many an airing throughout the game. Gary was next to me and his venom was mainly directed at Ashley Young and John Carew. It’s usually Kalou, so Carew came natural to him.

I was only three seats from the segregated space between us and the home fans. For the first 15 minutes, a line of West Midland police constables were stood next to us, blocking our view and seemingly taking great pleasure in it. Obviously, we moaned and moaned –

“Sit daaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan.”

To our great pleasure, their sergeant arrived and amidst laughter from us, eventually got them to meekly sit, their helmets peeking over the wooden barrier. It was one of the sights of the season.

“One-nil to the Chelsea.”

It was a poor first half to be honest. We hardly troubled the Villa goal. Kakuta was quiet and we seemed to be rather lack-lustre in the attacking third. Mikel was solid, but few were shining. With the autumn sun quickly disappearing behind the Trinity Road stand opposite, it was rather a sombre mood at half-time.

Thankfully, it was a different story in the second period as Chelsea attacked the North Stand down below us. Kakuta was replaced by Zhirkov at the break and the Russian got stuck in, causing the Villa right flank some problems. To accommodate him, Malouda flipped over to the right wing and I was able to get a closer look of his new braids. In the first-half, this had initially resembled a sleeker version of an eighties-style mullet, but I was now able to see it in all its magnificent glory. In fact, Malouda was one of our best performers, retaining the ball well, despite an often poor first touch. However, Essien’s passes were tending to go astray. Despite more and more of the ball – Villa rarely attacked – our chances were minimal. I commented to Gary – “this is a nil-nil mate.” We again missed Frank bursting forth from his midfield position. Hurry back, mate.

At the end of one Chelsea attack, the ball was headed away for a corner by a Villa defender and I caught this particular moment on film. To our annoyance, the referee gave a goal-kick. I had a quick look at the photo I had just snapped, zoomed-in and noted that I had captured the exact moment that the ball had hit the Villa player’s forehead. With this – and this happened so quickly, nobody may have spotted it – I leant back and threw my camera at the match referee Lee Mason. He quickly picked the camera up, looked at the image, but still pointed for a goal-kick.

Once a referee, always a referee, eh? Who says technology will erase human error?

On 75 minutes, we had a double substitution. After what seems like an eternity, we welcomed Jose Bosingwa back to the team. Jose took over from the steady Paolo Ferreira at right back and we wondered if he would soon be flying up the wing like a man possessed. Josh McEachren replaced the tiring Ramires.

Soon after, Malouda whipped in a great corner and Ivanovic rose to thunder a brilliant header against the upright. This was the first chance of a frantic final ten minutes. At the other end, in front of a surprisingly docile Holte End, Ashley Young’s free kick was edged onto the far post by Clark with Cech beaten. In the final minute, a lovely Cole cross found the on-rushing Anelka eight yards out. However, his down-and-up header bounced onto the bar and the 3,000 Chelsea loyalists held their heads in their hands.

Then – a nightmare. McEachren had shown some deft touches, but easily lost the ball in his own half to Reo-Coker. This looked a certain goal to me and I almost turned away, not wishing to witness such a horrific denouement. Unbelievably, the Villa midfielder advanced but scuffed his shot wide of Cech’s near post.

I could hardly believe it.

So, a 0-0 draw and “as you were” at the top. It wasn’t a great Chelsea show, but I wasn’t too dismayed. We hadn’t, after all, drawn 2-2 at home to West Bromwich Albion. As I descended the stairs, I spotted the BBC commentator Jonathan Pearce and so I had a quick word. He’s a Bristol City fan and so I enquired if his team had won at Cardiff. They had been 2-0 up, but had imploded to a 3-2 defeat. Bristol City are mired at the bottom of The Championship and, as I received my only punch in 36 years of Chelsea games at Ashton Gate back in 1984, I am not shedding any tears at their demise.

As we approached the car, one lone Villa fan was shouting out to a gaggle of Chelsea fans, inviting them to partake in an old-school altercation.

“Come on Chelsea. Let’s go. Let’s have a little row.”

Thankfully, Parky kept his mouth shut and we walked on as things petered out.

Back in the car, we had an impromptu picnic involving Chelsea Buns, Cheddars and Mars Bars and I was soon edging back past The Hawthorns and then south on the M5. I reached home at about 10pm. We were the second-from-last game to be shown on “Match Of The Day” and I could understand why.

I’m not going to Moscow on Tuesday – few are – and so the next game to be entered on the spread sheet will be our encounter with Wolves next Saturday. Hopefully we’ll get a few more first- teamers back into the team and there will be some more goals entered in the “goals for” column.

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