Tales From The Black And The Orange

Blackburn Rovers vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2010.

It’s hard to believe now, but for quite a while, Blackburn Rovers were a bogey side for Chelsea Football Club. I’m pretty sure that it took us 16 years to defeat them at home in the league, from a 4-1 win in the play-offs in 1988 to a 4-0 win in 2004. Away from home, they were equally difficult to beat. I wasn’t present at the memorable 4-3 game at Ewood in 1998 and so, in total, it took me a staggering 15 games before I physically saw us defeat Rovers. From August 1988 to February 2004 the run went on and on and it never looked like ending…the first six matches all resulted in Chelsea defeats. Yes, it was as bad as that. It’s interesting to note that I’m talking about two interlinked worlds here…our complete record through the years, but also the games that I have witnessed. From a personal perspective, the latter always seems more pertinent. I guess it’s all of the emotional and financial involvement that I put into attending Chelsea games. I guess that’s natural.

My mate Mark is a Blackburn Rovers fan and I accompanied him to Ewood Park on four occasions from 1995 to 2004. For the first three occasions, we watched from the main stand on Nuttall Street, and it was difficult for me not to get behind the team as I was surrounded by Blackburn fans. In 1995, Mark gravely miscalculated on the dates which he had promised his then girlfriend a weekend away and so his ticket became available and my Chelsea mate Alan joined me in the Nuttall Street stand. Unfortunately, we lost 3-0 and were atrocious. This proved to be the late David Rocastle’s last ever game for us. Of course, Rovers were rampant at that time and Graeme Le Saux was firing in crosses for Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton. Every time Rovers scored, Alan and myself remained glumly sat and we were easily sussed. I think there was a little playful banter from the cheering Rovers fans by the time the last goal was scored. I’ve never had any problems at Ewood, though. Because of my friendship with Mark, I don’t mind them.

I left home at 7.45am and, with a coffee to perk me up, soon got into the groove. In an attempt to save some money, I had prepared some food for the day ahead. My bag was laden with provisions which Scott of the Antarctic would have been proud. As I headed through Writhlington, I spotted fellow Chelsea fan Terry leaving a corner shop, clutching a few morning groceries. I slowed down and yelped “I’m off to Blackburn” and smiles were exchanged.

The Style Council were running through their greatest hits on my trusty CD player and Paul Weller was in good voice.

“We’re gonna shout to the top.”

As I ate up the miles, I thought of the plans for the next clutch of games and tended to focus on the up-coming game at Anfield. That’s always one of the highlights of our season these days. The M5 around Gloucester and Cheltenham was edged with vibrant yellows and warm reds – by the time of that Liverpool game, the Autumn colours should be at their photogenic best. The sky was clear and the weather looked great, but I couldn’t believe that there wouldn’t be rain in Lancashire at some stage.

There are towns throughout England which are synonymous with certain types of industry – I can think of shipbuilding in Sunderland, pottery in Stoke-On-Trent, steel in Sheffield, lace-making in Nottingham, glass manufacture in Rotherham, fishing in Grimsby, shoes in Northampton, beer in Burton and textiles in Manchester and Leeds. Blackburn is also one of those towns which owe its growth during the industrial revolution to textiles and I’m sure the town was dominated by cotton mills at the time of the formation of its football club in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Rovers were one of the original members of the Football League and, growing up, we occasionally played them in the old second division. However, it was steel magnate Jack Walker who put the town on the map in the early ‘nineties. He invested millions in his boyhood team and oversaw a mini-Abramovich revolution in central Lancashire. Until then, Blackburn was probably more memorable for a brief mention in a Beatles song.

“I heard the news today, oh boy. Four thousand holes in Blackburn, Lancashire.”

Well, on this particular “Day In The Life”, there would be nigh-on 4,000 Chelsea in Blackburn, Lancashire.

“On Boy” indeed.

At Frankley Services, just south of Birmingham, I spotted a young lad wearing a Blackburn shirt – the first of the day. I also had a quick chat with Chelsea fan from Abergavenny in South Wales. He’s a season-ticket holder too and attends games at The Bridge with his wife and this involves a 300 mile round trip every fortnight. Fair play to them.

I called in at Stafford to collect Julie and Burger at 10am and we were soon on our way up the M6. Like me, they are looking forward to the Anfield game and it will be a first-time visit for them. I very briefly ran through a list of attractions to see in Liverpool – stop sniggering at the back – and I’m sure they will enjoy themselves. Our talk again centred on our views of fandom and how Chelsea appear to be a special club, to our biased eyes at least.

Up and over one last hill and Blackburn was visible in the valley below.

At midday, I found a safe place to park my Peugeot 207 and we soon found our way to The Fernhurst, one of the first ‘away fans only’ pubs in England. The sun was out, but the temperature was surprisingly cold in the shadows. I think we only took about 2,500 up to Ewood on that miserable Sunday in March last season. However, we had heard that we had sold over 3,500 for this encounter. Chelsea had returned some tickets and so that there would be that very rare entity of away tickets being sold on the day of the game. In The Fernhurst car park, it certainly felt like a big turnout. A few flags were pinned up, including a new one involving the words to the Celery Song and a silhouette of a nubile young girl getting “tickled.” I spotted a Chelsea / Rangers flag and more than a few Scottish accents. Groups of familiar faces were huddled in small groups and there was a general hub-bub of conversation. Bizarrely, two mounted policemen arrived on the scene and positioned themselves in the far corner. The only crimes being committed involved the wanton crushing underfoot of tens of plastic pints on the car park floor.

Burger and me had a couple of Thwaites bitters for a change – a local brew – which went down well. At just after 2pm, we drifted off to the ground. I took Julie and Burgs around to the far corner to take a few photographs of the Jack Walker Memorial. Blackburn had lost their famous player Ronnie Clayton the previous day and there were a few bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue of Jack Walker. During the redevelopment of Ewood Park, a famous old turnstile entrance ( memorably used during a famous commercial in the ‘seventies ), was demolished. However, the brickwork involving the words “Rovers FC” was saved and this is incorporated into the memorial. There is a fountain amidst the red brick and it really works well.

Burger wanted to get his flag up so we entered the ground at about 2.15pm. They were in the upper tier, but my seat was right behind the goal in the lower tier… half Rovers, half Chelsea. I took a few photos of the players in their warm-up…first Petr Cech going through his drills with Hilario and the goalkeeping coach, then the rest of the squad joined in at 2.30pm. A few stretches, a few shots, but then some sprinting drills in front of the Riverside Stand to our right. I noted that as late as 2.40pm, only four thousand spectators were inside the stadium. This is so different to days gone by. Often The Shed was pretty full as early as an hour before kick-off and the ground would be reverberating to Chelsea songs. At Ewood in 2010, things were pretty quiet. Just before the game began, the inevitable rain, but – for once – it soon subsided. On this Halloween Eve, we wore the black and orange kit.

Ronnie Clayton was remembered.

RIP.

I was happy to see Ivanovic back on the right side of the defence. We began well and controlled the first ten minutes, knocking the ball around with ease. An early Drogba header was our only threat, though. Then, for the rest of the first period, Blackburn dominated and our support grew increasingly restless. Our defence was breached on a number of occasions in a ten minute spell, with Benjani the main threat. On one occasion, Petr Cech slipped just as a deft chip was dropping into the net. Thankfully, Petr recovered superbly well and palmed the ball over. In attack, we seemed to be too leaden-footed, too willing to take an extra touch, unwilling to play the ball quickly. Mikel was doing well to hold things together, but the rest of the team were underperforming.

Then, calamity. El Hadji Diouf was pulling the strings on Blackburn’s left and his perfect cross found the leaping Benjani at the far post. Despite JT’s best efforts, his leap was unchallenged and his powerful header flew into the net, just inside the post, right at me.

Groans.

We rarely threatened during the rest of that first period and the away support was pretty quiet.

After a Blackburn attack, Cech spotted the opportunity for a quick break. His sliced kick immaculately found Malouda on the left and I immediately wondered if that is what he had intended. Cech’s kicking is one of his weaker attributes. However, Malouda soon gathered the ball and sent over a long ball towards Didier. His headed knock down was perfect for the unrushing Anelka to prod the ball past Robinson.

Get in.

As I jumped around like a fool, I shouted – “I love that route one football.”

We had weathered the storm. We surely couldn’t play as poorly as in the second period, could we?No, of course we couldn’t.

With Chelsea attacking an increasingly involved away support of 4,000, our mood changed. We had a lot more of the ball, though if I am honest I can’t put my finger on what Ancelotti said at the break to warrant the improvement. I thought that the pairing of Ashley Cole and Yuri Zhirkov were the biggest improvement. The home support sensed Ashley’s threat as they quickly serenaded him with a ditty about his ex-wife.

It was Cole who had the best chance of the half when the ball zipped across the box towards him, but he sliced his effort wide of Robinson’s right post. Drogba was in a strange mood again though and I think he isn’t 100% fit. He seemed half-hearted. As the game drew on, we heard that Manchester City were losing 2-1 at Molyneux and so it would be very frustrating if we couldn’t capitalise. Shots from Zhirkov and spritely substitute Sturridge flew past the goal.

If I am honest, I was always confident our superior quality would tell. However, what a shock from that late Blackburn attack when the ball was deftly played into the lurking Jason Roberts. He shimmied past the last defender and we stood, as one, expecting the worst.

His shot flew past the post and thousands of home fans put their heads in their hands. The Chelsea section, however, roared.

Very soon after, a period of sustained Chelsea pressure ensued and the ball was worked out to the Russian. Zhirkov was faced with a couple of robust Blackburn henchmen in his way, but he nimbly created a yard of space and deftly dug out an inch-perfect cross towards Ivanovic on the far post. Time seemed to stand still as the ball hung in the air. The powerful Ivanovic was waiting. We all saw the gaps in the goal, each side of Robinson. We all jumped with Ivanovic and his crashing downward header filled us with joy as the ball hit the back of the net.

Delirium once again – another last minute winner – and the away end exploded. Several fans rushed past me down the aisle and I bounced around, hugging Mark and Gary, our faces aching with joy. In a croaking voice, a red-faced Alan spoke –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

And I replied –

“Come on my little diamonds.”

The ignominy of 1995 and that woeful 3-0 loss, plus all those others, were forgotten and we could celebrate amongst our own now. The Chelsea choir responded with our very unique song, born in 2005 but now resurrected –

“That’s Why We’re Champions.”

Phew – all was well with the world, but we all knew we had ridden our luck against a defiant home team. We soon reminded the Blackburn Rovers support of the day’s events –

“One Nil, And You F***ed It Up.”

I took a few photos of the celebrating Chelsea players as I edged my way out of the Darwen End. The joy and emotion in JT’s face is always uplifting and it was wonderful to see that our elation was matched by theirs.

We’re in it together, after all.

After a slow start amongst bumper-to-bumper match traffic, we soon found our way back to the southbound M6. Burger spent a while looking through my photo album from the memorable 1996-1997 season and he made the point about how many players from the team at Wembley have gone into management and coaching – namely Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto Di Matteo, Eddie Newton, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and the substitute Gianluca Vialli. That’s pretty impressive numbers. We were to eventually hear that both United and Arsenal would win, but title challengers Manchester City were now a massive eight points adrift. And it’s only October. I said “adios” to The Burgers at 7pm, knowing that we would inevitably meet up at Liverpool next Sunday. I then continued my homeward journey, listening to “606”, featuring incandescent Tottenham fans, as I went. I gorged myself on a smorgasbord of curry slices, tuna and sweet corn sandwiches, cinnamon whirls, a Red Bull, a McDonalds coffee and a bumper pack of Maynard’s wine gums. Passing through Bristol city centre, I spotted a few local girls ( with accents that could curdle milk ) in Halloween face paint and, for many, it was an improvement.

“Alright, my luvver?”

I reached home at 9.45pm and I soon watched the highlights on “MOTD.” I briefly spotted myself in the build up to our winner as the ball hung in the air ahead of Brana’s header. It’s hard to believe that we have played ten games in the league, yet have only conceded a miserly three goals. That’s pretty phenomenal, yet nobody in the media has noted this. I’m going to suggest that our great defensive record is largely due to the fantastic shield that Mikel gives our back four. Along with Ivanovic, I’d suggest he has been our most consistent performer this season.

I quickly worked out that ‘my’ overall record against those pesky Rovers is now a much more respectable 10-7-10. That’s more like it.

And so we march on.

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