Tales From Miseryside

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 7 November 2010.

My sporting weekend began on Friday evening when San Francisco Bob, Lord Parky and I visited a local pub to see Ron Harris and Charlie Cooke, who were in the middle of a spate of appearances all over the United Kingdom. We had a great time. I have heard most of Ron’s stories from his playing days before, but it was refreshing to listen to Charlie’s tales from Scotland, England and America. I especially enjoyed Charlie’s reminiscences of playing amongst Docherty’s Diamonds. Tommy Doc was quite a character and I think there was a certain kinship between player and manager since they both came from hard-nosed working class areas in Scotland; Cooke, a Protestant, from Greenock on the banks of the Clyde and Docherty, a Catholic, from the bleakest of inner city areas of all, The Gorbals. We were whooping with laughter at the stories about Peter Osgood, Tommy Smith, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Charlton.

On the Saturday, Bob and I watched local Zamaretto League team Frome Town play Clevedon Town. My two friends from school days Steve and Francis were at the game too and it made a nice change. Steve was a big Bristol City fan as a youth and it is ironic that his eldest son Harry is now banging in the goals for one of Bristol Rovers’ academy teams. Frome came from 0-1 down to nab an unlikely 2-1 win with a goal in the very last minute. However, my elation was short-lived when Bob told me that Manchester United had also scored a last minute winner. Bloody Hell.

On the Sunday, it was Chelsea’s turn to play.

I collected Bob from his hotel in Frome Market Place and drove over to Westbury. From there, my friend Mark – with his daughter Kerry – took over the reins. By 10.30am, Lord Parky was aboard and we were on our way to Merseyside. I was feeling slightly jaded from a whirlwind pub crawl of my local town with Bob on the Saturday evening. Parky was his usual ebullient self, though, and we hadn’t reached Bath before he asked –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

So, at last, a game in the North West without me at the wheel. I sat back and relaxed as Mark made good time. I first met Mark on that fateful day in April 1984 when we beat Dirty Leeds 5-0 and won promotion to the top flight. We reminisced about that day plus a few others from around that time. Parky and Mark’s mate Les phoned and asked about tickets for the Birmingham away game. This elicited a funny story from Lord Parky. Many years ago, Les used to work as a butcher in the Trowbridge firm of “Bowyers.” On one Saturday morning, Les did a morning shift and didn’t have time to get changed from his white butcher’s overalls. He drove Parky and a few other Trowbridge ruffians up to Chelsea in his car and parked up close to the ground. As a master butcher, he always kept his set of expensive knives in the car boot. As he hurriedly parked his car, his all-white tunic attracted the attention of a passing policeman, who was further taken aback when he glimpsed Les’ set of sparkling knives in the car boot.

“What’s going on here? What are you doing?” the copper asked of Les as the butcher’s robes were being discarded.

“Sorry, what do you mean? I’m getting out of my work clothes” replied Les, sensing the chance of some laughter.

“Why, what do you do?” the policeman asked.

Les looked him in the eyes and replied “I kill pigs.”

We drove past Tewkesbury and the Malvern Hills were shrouded in low-lying clouds to the west. Parky opened up a can of “Fosters” and almost covered himself in beer spray. After a couple of corrective gulps, he wiped his mouth with his hand and enquired –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

I posed my favourite question about which football stadia can be seen within five minutes of each other in the Birmingham area and Kerry answered correctly. Incidentally, guess who Kerry is named after? Too easy, eh? Alan and Gary were on their way north on the Chelsea train and Burger and Julie were Liverpool-bound too. We shot past my former stomping ground of Stoke-On-Trent and Parky opened another lager.

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

Bob was taking it all in, with his excitement rising as each exit on the M6 was passed. This was to be Bob and Kerry’s first visit to the fields of Anfield Road, while Mark’s last visit was in 2002. I think Parky’s last visit was back in the ‘eighties. We flew over the Thirlwall Viaduct and then off at exit 23. Mark now had Liverpool in his sights and the chat got quicker and more intense.

We parked about a mile from Anfield and the weather was sunny, yet with quite a cold wind. As we crossed the road, a gaggle of Scousers were eyeing us up and asked the fabled question –

“Watch your car mate?”

To be truthful, Mark didn’t have a clue what they had said since it sounded more like “Washyercamate?”, that nasal Scouse accent to the fore. We ignored them and walked on by.

We walked through the Stanley Park cemetery, then out onto Utting Avenue. A chap dressed in an army uniform was playing “The Fields Of Athenry” on the bagpipes as we headed up the hill and another soldier had a bucket collecting for Remembrance Day. Our jackets were protecting us from the cold. We skipped past The Arkles as it looked too busy. Instead, we made our way to The Flat Iron. Pints were purchased and we made our way into the lounge bar just as “Going Underground” by The Jam started on the pub juke-box. How appropriate I thought. Going underground, going behind enemy lines, going undercover. We stayed there for about an hour, a little gaggle of Chelsea in one corner, surrounded by Scousers all around us. A lad called Andy joined us and it turned out that Andy has the fortune of sitting next to Parky in the Shed Lower. Small world, eh? We were then joined by Julie and Burger, then Cathy and Dog. I was still struggling with the remnants of my hangover, so regrettably didn’t join in further rounds. My mate Francis, a Liverpool fan, texted me to say that Essien wasn’t playing.

Oh dear.

Kelly was on way up from the city centre, along with his sister and wife. I met Kelly in Texas last summer and this was his first Chelsea game on English soil, albeit in that very strange part of England called Merseyside. Maybe there needs to be an asterisk there somewhere. At about 3.15pm, we decided to head off to circumnavigate the ground and take in the sights

As we headed towards the back of The Kop on Walton Breck Road, we passed five or six Scousers sitting on a low red brick wall. They were sporting tight dark jeans with old school Puma and Adidas trainers, like throwbacks to that golden era of Scallydom in the late ‘seventies. We soon found ourselves right underneath the red brick and grey roof supports of The Kop. Touts were looking for business, street traders were grafting away and there was the usual mix of sounds and smells of matchdays…those impenetrable thick Scouse accents, the shouts of fans, the smell of chips, the noise, the tribal routines and the anticipation.

The Bill Shankly statue was centre-stage. As Burger and Bob took a few photographs, I was reminded of a story which I heard Peter Osgood tell many years ago. He himself heard this story from the Liverpool hard man Tommy Smith and it centres on Bill Shankly, that tough and wily manager who first put Liverpool on the map. On a visit to Anfield in the mid-sixties, an un-named away team went 1-0 down in the first-half and endured a horrendous day, having to resort to desperate measures to keep Liverpool from scoring again and again. Wave after wave of Liverpool attacks were repelled, the woodwork was hit countless times and Liverpool should have been 5-0 up. Then, in virtually the last kick of the game, the away team miraculously broke up field and a ball was played into the waiting centre-forward. Liverpool had a ‘keeper called Tommy Lawrence at the time – he was bizarrely nicknamed The Flying Pig – and as the striker shot, the ball flew right through Lawrence’s legs and into the goal. The ref soon blew up and Lawrence was mortified. He was the last off the pitch, not wanting to face his team mates, nor – worse – the acid tongued Shankly. The changing room was silent and Lawrence took his seat. Not a word was said. Eventually, Shankly appeared and stood in the middle. No player dare look up. They should have killed the visitors off. After what seemed like ages, Lawrence looked up and spoke –

“Look boss, it’s my fault. I should have saved that shot. I should have kept my legs together.”

Without a moment’s hesitation, Shankly barked in that tough Glasgow burr “No son…it was your mother who should have kept her legs together.”

Some character, Shanks.

We then edged around towards the away stand and walked through the Shankly Gates, erected soon after the passing of Bill Shankly in 1981. The gates were forged in my home town of Frome, strangely enough. We momentarily stood by the Hillsborough Memorial and I noted quite a few Scousers touching the black granite with 96 names etched in gold. I bought a copy of “CFCUK” and there was an obituary by Beth for her beloved friend Simon Turner. We heard another rumour that Drogba was on the bench.

Oh dear.

A few “hello mates” to the usual suspects as I made my way to my seat, right behind the Annie Road goal. Such a familiar view these days – this would be my seventeenth visit to Anfield, probably more than a lot of Liverpool fans. Bob and Kelly were sat just five rows behind us. Unfortunately, the pre-match rumours were true. Not only no Frank Lampard, but no Michael Essien and no Didier Drogba. The midfield three looked particularly second rate. A big game for Nico upfront. In the match programme, I loved seeing five or six black and white photographs from a Chelsea vs. Liverpool game from March 1978. I saw the game with my parents in the East Lower and we beat the reigning European champions 3-1 after going a goal down. Fantastic memories. Our goals were scored by the stalwarts from the America Tour of 2009, those likely lads Steve Finnieston and Tommy Langley. Tommy rates his first goal from that game as his best ever Chelsea strike.

Gerry and The Pacemakers did their usual turn and thousands of red and white scarves were held aloft. It seems hard to believe these days, but back in the ‘seventies and early ‘eighties, “YNWA” was not restricted to the terraces of Anfield. Back in those days, a lot of clubs used to mimic The Koppites. The Shed often used to sing “YNWA” and blue and white scarves were held overhead. Strange, but true.

We kicked-off and kept possession for 63 seconds. I think this was our best spell of that first-half. Joking aside, we were bloody awful. Liverpool chased us down at every opportunity and we had no time on the ball. Of course, Torres pounced on about ten minutes to outwit a tangled John Terry and neatly finish with a clipped flick to the far post. Seeing the net bulge made me feel ill. The home support roared and Torres reeled away. A sickening feeling. I just stared at the celebrating home fans and it hurt. Soon after, an Ashley Cole cross found Salomon Kalou who forced a great save from Pepe Reina. However, apart from a couple of long shots, I can’t remember any other Chelsea chances in that arid first period. I thought Mikel was solid, but Zhirkov and Ramires were sadly deficient. They were neither defending well, nor breaking forward in support of the stranded Anelka. I hadn’t seen a more insipid Chelsea midfield for quite a while. The one high spot of the half was watching Alex go up a gear to effortlessly beat Torres in a beautiful sprint for a loose ball. He was like a middle-distance runner turning it on during the last 100 metres of a race. Then of course, a slip by Ashley and the ball was splayed wide to Torres. I immediately sensed danger. Ivanovic should have forced him outside, but gave him too much room. Torres advanced, dropped a shoulder and craftily curled the ball past a stranded Cech and into the goal. The net bulged again and the Scousers roared even loader. Oh God. It pains me to say that the two Torres goals were of exceptional quality.

Long faces at half time. I said to Gary “I can’t see us getting back into this, mate. In fact, I can see us conceding more.” I wanted a big team talk from Carlo at half-time. He’d have to change things. Bringing on Drogba was a no-brainer.

The second-half was, of course, much better. However, could we really have played any worse? We enjoyed a lot more of the ball. On 59 minutes, Ramires rose and headed over from a Cole cross and this stirred the away support. We had been standing all game and we never stopped cheering the lads on. As we got more and more into the game, the Scousers quietened down. This was a lot better and we urged the team forward. I was thoroughly enthralled in the game – though it never felt like we would get the goals back. However, I was kicking every ball, heading every cross, sliding in with every tackle.

The Scousers sang of “No History” and “Rent Boys.”

“At least it’s a job!” retorted Alan.

One thing annoyed me. Drogba was tackled but was not given a free-kick. With rising anger, I watched him slowly get up – with a Chelsea attack developing around him – and slowly walk twenty yards towards the penalty area, oblivious to the play to his left. At one stage, the ball was played to him and he was facing the wrong way. Groin strain or no groin strain, this sort of behaviour is not wanted at Chelsea Football Club. However, I suddenly realised that Liverpool had hardly touched the ball during the previous fifteen minutes.

“Come On Chelsea.”

A great show of strength from Drogba – at last! – and a ball was slammed into Malouda, but his shot was saved at point blank range by Reina. We groaned like never before. Despite good wing play from substitute Bosingwa and the lively Ashley Cole, we didn’t carve out many real chances. John Terry often raced forward to support the attack, but Liverpool defended resolutely. Carlo made some changes and Sturridge had a couple of half chances. I couldn’t believe that Ramires wasn’t substituted, though. The game passed him by completely. I was really pleased that hardly anybody amongst the 3,000 Chelsea loyalists left before the end of the game. We stayed with it. We all knew how important this game was. Anelka hit the bar from close in with five minutes to go and the ball spun back into the lucky Reina’s arms. We just knew it wasn’t to be our day.

Where was The Flying Pig when we needed him?

We marched back to the car and we were soon headed south. Within a few minutes of getting onto the M6, Parky inevitably asked –

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

We had the predictable post-mortem…why didn’t Didier start, why were Yuri and Ramires so poor, how did we give Liverpool so much space? I felt tired and, for once, I was able to get some sleep…a rare luxury for me on Chelsea match day journeys. By the time we had stopped at Stafford for some refreshments, the mood had lightened a little. I commented to Mark that we ought to put this into perspective. We were depressed after an awful first-half, but there are thousands of football fans who travel the congested roads of England and Wales in support of their teams and, for many, there is no end to the agony, no end to the run of defeats, no cash, no future, no light at the end of the tunnel. Only the friendships of fellow fans to get them through the murky gloom.

Back in the car, Parky opened up another can.

“Are we there yet, Mark?”

Mark made good time and Parky kept us all in good spirits with joke after joke. It was great to be laughing again. I’m not saying that the Liverpool debacle was swept under the carpet, but I was pleased that we were reacting to defeat with typical gallows humour. Proper Chelsea. We chatted non-stop for a while about all sorts…Tiswas, Sally James, The Liver Birds, favourite sandwiches, Lily the Pink, beans on toast, Donald McGill seaside postcards and yet more Parky jokes. Some good, some bad. After one particularly poor example, nobody laughed and there was a pregnant pause…

“Are we there yet, Mark?” I asked.

Parky was shoved out of the car at 10pm…”see you on Wednesday, mate.” Goodbyes to Mark and Kerry at Westbury and a goodbye to The Bobster in Frome. It had been a bad day at the office, but we have two winnable home games coming up.

Let’s regroup and go again.

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