Tales From The Darwen End

Blackburn Rovers vs. Chelsea : 21 March 2010.

A bleak weekend.

First of all, Arsenal winning and then Eidur scoring for Tottenham. This was not good news at all. Blackburn – irrespective of the United vs. Liverpool result – was now a “must-win.” We were still licking our wounds from the Inter game, which seemed to be ages ago. Oh well, nobody said being a Chelsea fan was ever easy.

I awoke early on Sunday morning and, faced with doing an hour’s extra housework or getting to Blackburn earlier than I had planned, I opted for the former. What an indictment on the Lancastrian town.

I was aware that Steve Azar had continued his whirlwind tour of UK football grounds by going to QPR vs. Swansea on Saturday. This got me thinking about the relatively small amount of non-Chelsea games I have witnessed in my 44 years. I worked out I had been to around 25 non-Chelsea games in England…add to this around 10 non-Chelsea games in Scotland…and a pretty miserly total of only 5 England games. To put this in perspective, I am up to about 780 Chelsea games lifetime…clearly, Chelsea comes first. I looked back on the smattering of non-CFC games I have seen and I concluded that the majority were either local ( Yeovil Town Swindon Town, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers – and Stoke City and Port Vale from my student days ) or with mates, supporting their various teams.

Mates, eh? Why else would I go to Brighton vs. Scunthorpe or York City vs. Swindon?

One of these non-CFC games was back in 1997 when I accompanied my work colleague ( and good friend ) Mark up to the Blackburn Rovers vs. Villa game as guests of one of our then company’s suppliers. It was a good day, but a poor game and it felt totally un-natural to be watching from behind a window. This hospitality package was repeated later in that same year when we were invited back to see the Rovers vs. Chelsea game. However, Chelsea lost in another poor game. These remain my only forays into the world of Prawn Sandwiches and I don’t see myself ever wanting to go back.

I left my Somerset village at 9.15am. There are now bunches of wild daffodils alongside the snowdrops in the hedgerows around my home. The sun was out – clear skies overhead, too. I shall be using the weather as an un-subtle metaphor throughout this match report. You have been warned. As I drove through the streets of Bristol, I noted the usual smattering of morning joggers and cyclists…cycling clubs in the UK are out in force on Sunday mornings. This day was no exception. For some reason, the visibility was incredible and I clearly saw Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in the distance, not far from City’s Ashton gate, the venue of three of those non-CFC games. I headed past the former home of Bristol Rovers, Eastville, now the site of an Ikea. Four Chelsea visits from 1975 to 1981 and three painful defeats. Ouch – those memories.

With the visibility remaining very clear, I even glimpsed the River Severn as I drove up the M5. The Forest Of Dean – that strange land of trees, coalmines and cottage industries – was in the distance. On the CD player, The Killers gave way to Coldplay as I headed past Gloucester. I was playing “guess my location” with Steve, who was on the second Chelsea coach.

Chris – WG Grace

Steve – Cobblers

Chris – Sauce

Steve – Gordon Durie

Chris – The Three Degrees

A Robin Guthrie CD at Bromsgrove then gave way to Japan Greatest Hits at Stoke-On–Trent. I wasn’t thinking much about the game ahead, more about getting some food inside me. I stopped at Sandbach, just off the M6 – not far from Matthew Harding’s fatal crash in 1996 – for an overpriced roastie. Before I knew it, I was zipping over the Thirlwall Viaduct, with Runcorn to the west and Manchester to the east. I tried to peak the towering steel frames of Old Trafford’s stands some twelve miles away, but with no luck. A moment was spent thinking about the gargantuan encounter between the two red sides of Liverpool and Manchester due to start very soon. I hoped for an upset, but knew it would be a tough one.

It was clouding over on my approach to Blackburn, but the southern edge of the Lake District was clearly visible. The hills provided a brooding presence. I was parked up at Darwen Vale School by 1.30pm – £4 – and found it ironic that this was my mate Mark’s former school. His mother still lives nearby and was a season ticket holder at Ewood for a while.

It had been a long drive – a pretty boring one, too – and after 214 miles I was able to relax. Steve texted me to say that Liverpool had gone ahead, but United had soon equalised. Drat. I made a bee-line for The Fernhurst, one of the first away fan only pubs in England. I bought myself a pint of Carling – in a plastic glass, horrible – and said “hi” to a few familiar faces. Most of the 300 Chelsea were inside watching the United game, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I waited outside for Steve, Alan and Gary to arrive at around 2.15pm. A quick word with Cathy – on crutches – and Dog. I chatted with Steve outside in the pub car park and I have to admit I wasn’t on good form. The hangover from the Inter debacle was hanging over me and the general mood amongst my fellow fans was sombre. Meanwhile, the skies was getting darker. We had a quick chat with Mark Coden who had travelled up on a whim – I hadn’t seen him for quite some time. We had heard that United were 2-1 up. Oh dear…

Alan took a nice photo of Gary, Steve and myself outside the away stand and we climbed the stairs to the upper tier, arriving just in time to see Torres fluff his lines with a few minutes to go. That miss-hit could prove to be oh-so costly. I was still hungry and so bought a meat and potato pie…I think it must be a ploy by Rovers to damage the vocal chords of away fans as the pie’s contents were as hot as volcanic lava.

We were high up, behind the goal…the first time in the upper deck for me. I remember watching Zola’s first ever game for us at Ewood in November 1996, sat with Mark in the home stand along the side. The little magician’s presence had enticed 5,000 Chelsea fans to travel up for that game and it was a joy to see so many away fans in that Darwen Stand. Our support was nearer 3,000 this time…the upper deck was 90% full, with a few hardy souls down below, as per usual.

We began well – despite the dreaded unlucky kit – and applied good early pressure. Anelka did well to provide Didier with a good chance, but Didi swept it past the right post. However, soon after, a similar combination – Anelka to Drogba – resulted in us taking the lead. I grabbed Alan as we bounced around like fools. The noise was great in that first twenty minutes and we looked like scoring again. We were moving the ball well, getting behind them. Nice movement.

Malouda had a lovely shimmy as he lost his two defenders, but shot weakly with his right foot.

We noted Paolo Ferreira wearing lavender and pink boots.

Shocking.

At half-time, I told everyone and anyone “we need a second.” We had enjoyed a lot of the ball, but 1-0 to Chelsea was not the certainty it once was. I spotted Lovejoy and showed him the photo of him being “anointed” by Mourinho from Tuesday. Alan, Gary and myself suggested options for possible captons…

Gary – “Is that hair real?”

Alan – “The shampoo used for that hair is not from the bottle…it is a special one.”

Despite this laughter at the break, the game provided less and less for us to be happy with. Zhirkov cleared off the line soon into the second period. Our play went to pieces for a while and we struggled to get in the game. There was frustration amongst the 3,000. Quite a few of our fans had northern accents and Blackburn always tends to be a focal point of our quite considerable Northern support. I noted a York blues flag nearby. The groans continued. Ivanovic limped off and this was grave news. I’d say he has been our most consistent player this season – every game is a 7/10 performance – and we had to re-schedule our defence. We seemed rattled – the midfield were getting outfought, never a good sign.

A deep cross from the Rovers right, Paolo caught out beneath the ball and Douf headed down and in.

Oh God.

Eventually, our support – which was declining with each misplaced pass – was roused and we got behind the team. That was good to hear. But it was so frustrating. A Drogba volley – blocked. Corner after corner. The tension grew. Deco came on, despite Joe Cole warming up, but was only involved sporadically. There were injuries, clashes of heads, a typical Blackburn encounter. Men against men. The pitch appeared to be soaked…it is always wet at Ewood. I have one photo of Yuri dancing down the left, the whole pitch lit up with puddles.

We had some half-chances, a penalty appeal, a blocked shot, frantic stuff.

Despite a big final push, it was not to be. I quickly descended the stairs. Let’s get home.

A text from Steve –

“Gutted.”

There was drizzle in the air as I quickly sped back to the car. The Rovers fans were loud and enjoying their next game, against local foes Burnley.

“Bring on the Dingles.”

I had to walk up a hill – I didn’t notice it being so steep earlier – and my calves were aching. A quick “hi” to Gill and Graeme, who looked cold and bedraggled. I sometimes like to think that there is something wildly romantic and endearing about following my team around the highways and byways of England. Not on this occasion. My return trip was just painful. I set off from Blackburn at 6.15pm and had a weary trip south, driving through a never-ending procession of “50mph” speed limit signs as I drove the 214 miles home.

I got home at 10.30pm, totally knackered and having just missed “Match Of The Day Two.” After our poor performance, perhaps it was just as well.

Ho hum.

At least Ballack had his best game for ages.

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