Tales From The Ibis

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2010.

As I drove through the old mill town of Bradford-On-Avon on the way to collect Parky and Kris, I received a text from Danny in California. He is coming over to England for our two games next week, but asked if I could send him updates from our game at St. Andrews. It made me realise how “My Chelsea Supporting Life” has changed over the past few years. Not only do I have my long-standing friendships with mates throughout the UK, built up over the years, but I now have an “extended family” of Chelsea friends who live in various states in America. It’s lovely, you know. Not a match day goes by without texts from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, San Antonio, New York and Philadelphia. I guess it’s all about sharing that common experience. I presume that it is human nature for friendships to either remain strong through the years or eventually weaken and I suppose it’s the same story for my match day mates too. However, I get the feeling that my ten or so closest mates will continue watching Chelsea for many seasons yet. I do wonder though – since I am currently encompassing my American mates in this topic – how many US based fans will dwindle by the wayside over the years. I only recently commented to Parky that quite a few CIA regulars seem to have fallen off the edge of this Blue Earth recently. Chelsea is for life, remember, not just for Christmas.

We departed from Parky’s village at about 9.30am and we were on our way north once more. What a horrible, overcast morning. We encountered low lying grey clouds, drizzle and then rain…and then heavy rain as we drove past Bath and Bristol. It made the driving tiring…and I didn’t need that. Kris, like Parky, is into music and often DJs at weekends. This was to be his first away game and I could tell he was excited. I told the lads of a strange chat I had with my boss on the Friday. I’m not really sure what triggered the conversation, but my boss suddenly announced that one of his uncles once played for England. Despite being in the middle of a frantic few minutes, I had to put the demands of work to one side and ask him the player’s name.

“Lawton.”

“Not Tommy Lawton?” I replied with a look of astonishment on my face.

“Yes. Tommy Lawton.”

At this point, it’s worth saying that my boss Paul is not a football fan in the slightest and I am sure that he was not aware that his uncle once played for Chelsea immediately after the Second World War. So, I immediately filled him in…1947, bought him from Everton for a record fee, moved to Notts County, famous for his headers and that he was “one of the greats.”

Paul, my boss, seemed genuinely shocked that the miserable uncle that he often used to meet in his childhood, always wearing a blazer, was one of the greatest ever England centre-forwards. With a twinkle in my eye, I brazenly enquired –

“Where’s all his memorabilia, these days?”

With this story aired, Kris spoke of a football-related tale of his own. In addition to being a drum and bass DJ, Kris is a carpet fitter during the week. On the Thursday, he was working in nearby Corsham and it transpired that he was in the house of the one-time assistant manager at Derby County Stan Anderson, who worked alongside the legendary Dave Mackay in Derby’s championship season of 1974-1975. This triggered some memories. I told the story of a Chelsea vs. Derby County game that I saw with my parents in the March of that season. It was only my third-ever Chelsea game and we had seats right behind the away bench in the new East stand. It rainy day and it was a poor game. We lost 2-1, but the thing that my parents and I always remembered was the abuse that a Chelsea fan in her ‘sixties gave Anderson throughout the game. He was constantly up on his feet, remonstrating with the referee, the linesman and this caught her attention. She started telling him to sit down in no uncertain terms. At one stage, I am sure she walked to the front and threatened him with her brolly. It was hilarious. For the next few years, whenever we saw Mackay and Anderson on the TV, we always laughed and pictured that woman waving her umbrella at them. Out of interest, before that game, I very well remember an American university marching band from Missouri performing on the pitch. I can still see the bright yellow of their colourful tunics to this day. After their display, they sat in the rickety old North Stand, perched on stilts in the NE corner. The band even started playing at various stages during the game – a bang of drums and a crash of cymbals here, a cacophony of trumpets and bugles there. It was quite a surreal sight…and sound.

I wonder how many of those American kids from The Marching Mizzou remember their appearance at Stamford Bridge and I wonder if any are Chelsea fans today.

As the rain worsened around Gloucester, we spoke of the games coming up in the tough month of December and the rumours about the fitness of Alex and JT, the stories about Ray Wilkins, the probable line-up at St. Andrews, and the inevitable raft of reminiscences from the past. Parky rolled out a few tried-and-tested tales, familiar to me, not so for Kris. On this day of quirky stories involving footballers from the past and present, Kris reminded me that one of his friends went out with former Chelsea winger Scott Sinclair. Like me, Scott was born in Bath, and of course now plays with Swansea. Another link – Scott now plays alongside Nathan Dyer, a local lad from Trowbridge.

We stopped at Strensham and Lord Parky got the coffees in. I received texts to say that Burger was on his way and would be meeting up with Cathy, Dog and Mark in the city centre. By 11.30am, I had navigated the inner city ring round – past the Edgbaston county cricket ground – and was parked up at the Ibis Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the away end. We had made great time. We settled in for a lovely pre-match.

“Get the beers in.”

As I said hello to the first of the fellow Chelsea fans in – Nick, Robbie and Mark – the hotel staff were clearing away the breakfast cereals and croissants in preparation of the onslaught of Chelsea fans.

“Three pints of Grolsch please mate.”

We settled down in a corner and awaited the arrival of the troops from near and far. Ajax from Wrexham soon came over to spend an entertaining twenty minutes with us. He used to run the North Wales coaches down to The Bridge, but his real claim to fame in Chelsea circles is that he often used to travel to and from games back in the ‘eighties with players Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas. There was quite a Wrexham connection at the time – Johnny Neal and Eddie Niedzwiecki too – and the club used to allow special privileges to these two Chelsea greats…they used to live in Wrexham, their childhood home, and only come down to Harlington to train once a week, then again for games at the weekend. Mickey was one of the fittest players we have ever had – he didn’t need to train – and Joey was just Joey.

Imagine that happening these days.

Ajax – it turns out – is a big Rangers fan too and has attended twelve Old Firm games in his life. It turns out that the both of us attended one particular Rangers vs. Motherwell game in the 1986-1987 season. It’s a small world at Chelsea. Especially for me. I’m five foot six.

At about 1.15pm, the other members of The Bing arrived and joined the ever-growing throng. They had planned to have a few liveners in the centre, but their train had been delayed and so they got a cab direct to the hotel from New Street. After getting their beers, Alan, Gary, Daryl, Whitey, Simon and Milo came over to join us and we caught up with a few topics close to our heart…access to match tickets, travel plans for the next few games and the wash ability of Fred Perry, Lacoste and Henri Lloyd polo shirts. There were a few other familiar faces dotted around, too. The Nuneaton lot soon arrived too – Neil, Nigel, Jokka, Chopper and Jonesy – and it was good to see them. Our paths don’t often cross. It suddenly dawned on me that in that crowded hotel bar in Birmingham there were around 100 Chelsea fans, the die-hards, the loyalists…and most of us in our ‘forties. It’s our core demographic.

As Daryl commented – “Middle-aged, Caucasian, balding.”

“And that’s just the women.”

I’m on 800 or so games, yet I suspect most were on 1,000 easy. Alan and Gary must be on 1,500 I would imagine. So, around 100,000 Chelsea games in that crowded bar. And as I looked around again, taking it all in, I hardly spotted any Chelsea gear, save for an odd scarf here or a pin badge there. I smiled to myself. I approved. However, there is no doubt that if I lived in Austin TX or Athens GA – or Bangkok or Botswana – I would occasionally wear Chelsea gear on game days just to show willing. Indeed, there are rare shots of me fully-garbed up in Chelsea blue at the Pittsburgh, DC, New Jersey, Chicago, LA and Baltimore games. But I haven’t worn a Chelsea replica shirt at a game in England since about 1995. If anything, I am more presupposed to wearing quirky Chelsea T-shirts. It’s just too easy to simply buy a replica shirt and try to feel part of Chelsea Football Club, but there really is – truly, madly, deeply – more to it than that. I’d rather spend £45 on a match ticket than the latest Adidas monstrosity. Besides, neither me nor any of my mates would be seen dead wearing the same shirt. Wink.

You know the score.

We heard that Spurs came back from 2-0 down to get a highly unlikely win at Arsenal and we laughed. Not because Spurs had won – hell, no! – but because Arsenal had lost. I tried to picture Wenger’s squirming face.

Millsy arrived at about 2.30pm and I commented about a photo he had recently posted on Facebook. It was a photo of him playing against a Charlton player at The Valley. It turns out he used to play for Tonbridge in Kent and once played against the then Charlton Athletic midfielder Lee Bowyer. Tommy Lawton, Stan Anderson, Scott Sinclair, Mickey Thomas, Joey Jones and now Lee Bowyer. It was certainly a day for stories. Where would it end? I was feeling left out. I once met former Bristol Rovers player Mike Brimble on a West Bay caravan park in Dorset in about 1971. Does that count?

As we walked up to the ground, we heard the team and we approved…glad to hear Number 33 was playing and it was a big day for Malouda, who was dropping back into the midfield in an attempt to solidify the team alongside the unconvincing Ramires. Despite the overcast weather enveloping us all, I was confident we would do well. We had 4,400 tickets and surely we would be rocking. This was only my fifth visit to the humble and dowdy surroundings of Birmingham City’s down-at-heel home ground. I am yet to circumnavigate it – most unlike me. It’s the usual Ibis routine for me. So, after stopping to take a shot of Parky and Kris outside the away turnstiles, I walked through the unwelcoming approach to the away end. There were bare concrete walls and ugly steel roof supports to greet me. St. Andrews won’t win any awards.

The game. Do I have to?

To start with, we were wearing the lime green kit. What was I saying about Adidas monstrosities?

I’m struggling to think of a game amongst my other 800, where we have so dominated possession and yet have got nothing from it. Didier had three or four great chances in the first-half alone, yet the Birmingham City goal lived a charmed life. It goes to show how little attention I pay, at times, to some teams that I was under the impression that it was Scott Carson, not Ben Foster, in the Birmingham goal. I wish it was Carson, who was letting in three against Stoke a few miles to the west. Just like Joe Hart on Boxing Day last year, Foster was having a blinder.

A few sticks of celery were tossed around to my right. And then we sang a song from Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas era –

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song…”

Then, on seventeen minutes, a rare break – we didn’t close down the cross, the ball was whipped in to Jerome who softened a header into the path of Millsy’s mate Lee Bowyer. He was completely unmarked. He easily scored and we had to endure this most unliked of players ( Leeds and West Ham on his curriculum vitae ) celebrating in front of us.

Where was that woman’s umbrella from 1975?

The rapidity of the break and goal reminded me of United’s first at Wembley in the Community Shield. Of course, the home fans chirped up for the first time in the whole game and it was to be the loudest they would be all day. Their club song really is the most horrible of dirges. It’s dire.

At half-time, the immediate people around me occupied ourselves by listing our worse players ever…Dave Mitchell, Graham Wilkins, David Stride, John McNaught and Les Fridge all got votes, but I stood up for Keith Jones, while Gary defended John Coady. After Kalou’s non-show in the first-half, I wondered if he would get a vote. Someone said that the shot count was 14-1 in our favour in that first forty-five.

I greeted Les from Melksham and his two word retort was succinct and to the point –

“I’m bolloxed.”

We had even more of the ball in the second period, but the Chelsea support grew more and more irritable. There was, sadly, no great show of noise from the 4,400. There were no texts from Jamie, Bob or Steve in the US saying “we can hear you loud and clear.” We tried desperately to move the ball around to get a spare foot of space. But with the home showing no inclination to attack, the game was compressed in front of us…it was as hopeless as hell. Time after time the ball was played to Malouda and Anelka, then Ashley and the sub Bosingwa, but we couldn’t breach the defensive line. A penalty shout – Ramires, involved at last – and then Kalou chipped over. From South Philly, a text from Steve –

“Is it OK to start worrying?”

I replied – “I’ve been worrying since 1974.”

The Chelsea support, in a rare show of noisy solidarity, resurrected an old favourite from around the 1977-1978 season –

“Attack – Attack – Attack, Attack, Attack!!!”

There was deep frustration welling all around me. The shots reigned in, but block, block, block. An Ivanovic header – thump! – but it was dramatically clawed away by that man Foster. A Didier free-kick right at the ‘keeper, then a Kalou header flashed past the right post.

The final whistle. At least no boos…not that I could ascertain anyway…my mind was too clouded to hear, maybe. Our third league defeat in the last four games and this hurt. I briefly saw Drogba, minus his shirt, having an altercation with some fans down at the front. It seemed that the fans were unhappy with the Ivorian’s performance…how quickly people forget. He was suffering with malaria ten days ago. To Didier’s credit, he didn’t bite and clapped the fans as he turned and walked away. As we sloped out of the ground, I could not help involuntarily joining in a classic Chelsea gallows humour chant –

“We’re 5hit And We’re Top Of The League.”

Of course, we aren’t, but it helped my own coping mechanism. Back down at the Ibis, the troops had re-gathered and were enjoying a few post-game bevvies. I was expecting long faces and grumbles, but the mood was of stubborn resilience. We had tried our best. We had out-shot Birmingham something like 25-2. We would undoubtedly play worse and win this season. The ten of us had seen it all before…and the beers helped irradiate any maudlin feelings from the match. I supped on a strong coffee and Parky told of an altercation he had at half-time with a fellow Chelsea fan. Milo – 14 – took a couple of sips from one of Parky’s brandies. Whatever helps you through the night, eh?

We laughed and his Dad said “don’t tell your mother.”

We stayed at the hotel until about 6.15pm. To be honest, we had a laugh and it made me realise what a very special bunch of mates I have. We had spent almost seven enjoyable hours in Birmingham; almost five hours in the Ibis and two hours at the game. That’s a good beer / footy ratio. The evening traffic was moving slowly…eventually I got back on to the southbound M5 and Parky was asleep. We heard that United had won – what a surprise. Kris bought me a “wake me up and slap me in the face” coffee at Strensham and I eventually dropped them off at 8.45pm. Parky was well messy and almost fell out of the car. As he stumbled, several beer cans fell out of his bag. Out of nowhere, Ben Foster leapt to Parky’s feet and caught them all.

It was one of those days.

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