Tales From Eastlands

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 25 September 2010.

Another early kick-off, another early start. I left my home village at 7.15am and I was soon texting Alan that I was on the road.

“Jenson Button.”

The Formula One World Champion spent his childhood just a mile or so away from my home – as I never tire of telling the world. The two villages of Mells and Vobster have always been separate but the now redundant Vobster church used to be within the Mells parish, plus the Mells village football club is officially entitled Mells And Vobster United. My grandfather Ted played for the team back in the roaring twenties, while I played a handful of games for the reserve team in the early ‘eighties, before my love of watching soon over took my love of playing.

As I headed past Writhlington School, I was reminded of the tough battles that my school teams used to have against that school when I was a right-winger for Oakfield School, then Frome College. I remember a tough-tackling left back, who resembled Malcolm MacDonald the Newcastle striker, who I always seemed to be up against.

I then drove through the old mining town of Radstock – a little piece of Northern England transplanted into north Somerset, complete with terraced houses and slag heaps of coal waste – as the low morning sun lit up the houses. The rain which had been forecasted was nowhere to be seen and it was a beautiful start to the morning.

With the ground of Welton Rovers to my right, I remembered the game I watched there the night after Barca beat us in the CL semi last year – Frome Town came from a goal down to defeat local rivals Paulton Rovers in the Somerset Senior Cup Final…a game watched by over 1,000.

I then passed through Farrington Gurney and I thought back to a brilliant night I had enjoyed back in 2006, just after our back-to-back title, when I met up with Ron Harris and Kerry Dixon at a charity event at the local golf club.

At Pensford – home of ‘sixties musician Acker Bilk – I drove past a pub called “The Travellers Rest” and it brought back beautiful memories of Chelsea’s 2005 League Championship, when three very contented Chelsea fans called in for a celebratory pint on the drive back from Bolton.

It then suddenly dawned on me that I had been driving for just fifteen minutes, but yet my mind had been swamped by football memories from my past and it seemed to sum it all up. Wherever I go in Britain, there are football memories nearby , just waiting to be exposed. I had a little laugh to myself and thought “enough!” – I still had four hours of driving to do before I would reach Manchester…I’d best start thinking about “other stuff.”

I soon reached Bristol – and that’s another story.

Via a chain of events too complicated to retell here, I managed to get tickets for both Burger and Julie, now residing in Stafford and so the plan was to collect them en route to Manchester. Parky, meanwhile, had some great news during the week – he wasn’t originally able to afford to go to the game, but a gang of Chelsea from Trowbridge had hired a stretch limo for the day and one chap – Shep – was unable to attend. So – in lieu of the many pints that Parky had bought Shep in their youth, Parky was called in as a last minute replacement and it was all free-of-charge…happy days indeed. I wondered how they were all getting on in their white Hummer…I kept a look out for them as I headed north.

I stopped at Strensham to refuel the car and a Subway breakfast roll, the Malvern hills to my west, the Cotswolds to my east and the sky completely devoid of clouds. I passed a Bath City coach on its way to Fleetwood Town.

At 9.45am, I had navigated the tight narrow streets of Stafford town centre and was parked up outside Burger’s house, as surreal an experience that I have had in the past few years following Chelsea. Who would have thought that when we all met up in New York last summer and caught the train down to watch the boys play in Baltimore, that just over a year later, they would be living in Staffordshire and I would be taking them to a game at City? A cup of coffee was waiting for me and I was given a brief tour and history of the house…it’s lovely and Julie is especially thrilled with her little English cottage. Burger is equally chuffed with the Bear & Pheasant pub, just five doors down, where he is already one of the locals.

Proper Burger. Proper Chelsea.

It didn’t take long to reach to reach Manchester – the time soon passed as I spoke about my history as a student in Staffordshire and Burger spoke of his life as a student in Toronto. We exchanged stories on the drive through the flat Cheshire Plain.

The time was shooting by, but I wanted to give them both a quick taste of Manchester before we parked-up. I drove in past Old Trafford and momentarily parked outside the forecourt so Burger and Julie could see the Munich Clock, the Sir Matt Busby and Holy Trinity statues. I quickly spoke about the match-day experience at Old Trafford – the pubs, the rituals, the colour – but was soon on my way again…a quick glimpse of the Imperial War Museum North on the banks of an old wharf at Salford Quays, then into the city centre. As we slowly drove past impressive red brick buildings, Julie commented that she was reminded of the financial district of downtown Toronto.

At 11.30am, we were parked-up at Piccadilly and we fastened our jackets for the swift walk to the stadium, out past some Victorian canals and new apartment blocks.

Before we knew it, we had met Lovejoy and Burger had collected his ticket…he would be sitting ( or rather standing ) in the lower tier, while Julie’s ticket was, bizarrely, the row in front of my ticket. Alan and Gary were talking to birthday boy Andy, but Julie and myself soon shot into the stadium to tie Burger’s flag to the balcony wall, dead centre…job done.

This was a milestone for me in my Chelsea life – Game Number 800 – and I got Alan to take a photo of me for posterity. Looking back through the years, it’s clearly apparent that my attendance at Chelsea is a result of my salary increases…if I had my way, I would have reached 800 years ago.

Game 1 16.3.74 Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0
Game 100 21.3.87 Chelsea 1 West Ham United 0
Game 200 4.2.95 Coventry City 2 Chelsea 2
Game 300 5.3.98 Real Betis 1 Chelsea 2
Game 400 31.3.01 Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 1
Game 500 9.9.04 Chelsea 3 Real Zaragoza 0
Game 600 5.12.06 Chelsea 2 Levski Sofia 0
Game 700 29.10.08 Hull City 0 Chelsea 3
Game 800 25.9.10 Manchester City vs. Chelsea

The way I am accelerating away, I’ll soon be seeing games before they are played.

The stadium, an oasis of sky blue, slowly filled up and I again noted that City have a lot of permanent banners on show at Eastlands.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

Just before kick-off, who else but Parky, plus a few other familiar faces from West Wiltshire appeared and sat a few seats away. I’m just glad they made it intact. Parky was predictably wobbly…and reeking of alcohol, bless him.

During the opening passage of play, City had more possession and were constantly exploiting our right flank, where Branislav Ivanovic was constantly finding himself marking two attackers. On a couple of occasions the midfield man ( Mikel then Essien ) did not shift over and close down the man with the ball, leaving Ivanovic covering both once the ball had been played to the wide man Milner. I clearly saw Ivanovic shout at Mikel the word “speak!” when this happened the first time. I’ve often said that we aren’t a great team of talkers, JT excepted.

We then enjoyed more of the ball, but there was a distinct lack of movement upfront. On 27 minutes, Drogba took a short corner and I shouted “what is the point?”, only for the resultant cross to be headed across goal by Nico for Ivanovic to head against the bar. Chuckles from Alan and myself…” I’ll keep making the wrong call, if it leads to more chances, Al.”

This seemed to be the quintessential Italian game, with Signori Ancelotti and Mancini in charge, the former Milanese managers transplanted to these shores, but reverting to type. We had more and more of the ball, but less and less chances…the Chelsea support was getting frustrated. The support wasn’t great either, but it’s difficult at City as the away support is split in two. To be fair, the home fans weren’t too vociferous either. The warm sunshine which had greeted our arrival in town had disappeared in the cold shadows of the stadium and everyone inside looked freezing…jackets buttoned tightly, caps on.

The first song on the PA at half time was the Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Either that, or James Milner, I thought.

We began the second period brightly with Anelka soon forcing a save from Joe Hart. The Chelsea support was roused and we got stuck in. However, we easily lost possession and the ball was worked by City to Carlos Tevez. With both JT and Ashley Cole backing off, I screamed

“One of you go to him!”

I’m sure the same sentiments were shared by Burger in the Lower Tier, Andy in Orange County, Bob and Pete in San Francisco, Gumby in Texas, Rick in Ohio and Steve in South Philly.

An excellent strike by Tevez and were were 1-0 down.

This was always going to be a tough game – City will be in the mix at the end of May – and I would have been content with a draw going in to the game. Now, our powers of recovery were to be tested. Could we do it? We still had a lot of the ball, but we were limited to long shots from Essien, plus a couple of free headers from Alex and Ess. Sturridge took lots of abuse from the home fans and didn’t provide much final product when he was brought on for the surprisingly quiet Drogba.

I thought John Terry was our most consistent player on the day and his “never say die” spirit was encapsulated in the last minute when he won a tackle by stooping to head the ball on the ground, with City boots swinging around him.

City had defended well and their team had showed more fight, spirit and passion. It was a strange Chelsea performance and our squad looks a little on the thin side with no Frank, Yossi or Kalou. The sight of the massive bulk of Yaya Toure against the slight Ramires will be my abiding memory of the day.

Throughout the game, fellow spectators in our row were constantly getting up to go out to use the toilets…up, down, up, down, “excuse me, ‘scuse me”…”weak bladder mate?” Up, down, up, down. It was annoying the hell out of Gary, who chirped

“F – ing hell, there’s more movement in this row than there is in our f –i ng team today.”

Howls of laughter.

That good old gallows humour always helps.

Julie and myself were almost out when I suddenly remembered “Burger’s Flag” and we had to fight the descending Chelsea fans all of the way back up the stairs. There was Burger, with a “face on”, standing in the lower seats. I’m not sure if he was unhappy with the team or for me for forgetting his flag.

Wink.

We slowly edged through the terraced back streets of the City heartland of South Manchester – Longsight, Burbage and Didsbury – and were buoyed by the goals being scored at the Emirates and Anfield, but the mood in the car wasn’t great. We had a brief post-mortem. However, Burger and myself shared a few inevitable laughs and by the time I had reached Stafford at about 5pm, with Arsenal’s demise taking the sting off our defeat, things were back to normal…we were planning our next trip together, and even thinking of potential away games in the F.A.Cup…

“Number 54 – Stafford Rangers…will play…Number 11 – Chelsea.”

It was lovely to spend some time with Julie and Burger – great to see their infectious enthusiasm for my country and their plans for the future. I was almost jealous of them – they are able to look at England with fresh eyes and a thousand days of new towns, new villages, new experiences ( to say nothing of Chelsea gamnes ) lie ahead for them both.

After 390 miles, I reached home at about 8pm and watched the highlights of the game on the English institution that is “Match Of the Day.”

It was – of course – a bad day at the office, but we’ll bounce back.

We do a lot of bouncing at Chelsea.

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