Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 20 February 2010.
What a shocking game of football. It reminded me of the dark old days when you came away from a game with only a few lasting memories.
I collected Parky and, via a short stop in Bath to collect my mended camera, we were on our way to the midlands. We stopped at Strensham services and noted a Chelsea supporters’ coach from Devon. We thought about it and decided that a trip to Wolverhampton may be their nearest away game this season. They seemed chirpy and rosey faced, replica kits to the fore. I think there must be a formula flying around somewhere which dictates that the probability of football fans attending games is inversely proportional to them wearing team shirts. I remember a work colleague, an Everton fan, telling me that he “can’t afford to get up to Goodison, so he always buys all the replica shirts.” There’s some sort of twisted logic there, somewhere.
The Malvern Hills looked a picture, dusted with snow once again. We pulled off the M5 and headed up towards Wolverhampton, on the northern edge of The Black Country, that former industrial heartland of England. Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Dark were on the CD player as we slowly edged through Dudley, Tipton and Cosely…I thought about calling this piece Tales From Orchestral Manoeuvres In The Black Country.
At 12.45pm, we were parked up in the town centre and were on the look out for a quiet, welcoming pub. The first one we entered was full of locals – football lads – and I didn’t fancy it. I’m always wary of being in the wrong place at the wrong time at away games. It’s always best to play the probability game. Instead, we spotted The Walkabout and entered…there were bouncers on the door and we noted two policemen inside. This would be a safe haven. We stayed there until just after 2pm. A quick look around and we soon noted lots of familiar Chelsea faces, though few I knew to speak to. Parky spotted an old mate – Gary – and we stood with him while we watched the Everton vs. Manchester United game. There was no cheering when Berbatov scored, but plenty when the Toffees equalised. It didn’t take long for the first “Carefree” to echo around the large boozer. There were about 150 Chelsea in there, a reasonable cross-section of our away support, if not our home support in general. Hardly any women, one child, two replica kits, plenty of geezers in our forties and fifties. A few faces. More than a few Stone Island pullovers. A bit of chat with Gary and Parky. We toasted the recent arrival of Parky’s grandaughter – Kayla Ellen, a Chelsea fan for the future – and talked about the usual stuff which attaches itself to a Chelsea Away Day. We commented about “how many Chelsea fans around the world would like to be in our shoes.”
Outside, we were forced to our right by two policemen, thus keeping us away from the centre. We played “dot to dot” with clusters of policemen, tracing our route to Molyneux at the bottom of the hill.
Like Newcastle, the stadium in Wolverhampton is right at the heart of the city and I like it. The long natural incline leading down from the town centre once formed the basis of the huge Kop until the ground was slowly – very slowly – remodelled in the ‘eighties. When I think of the Wolves of my childhood, not only do I think of players such as Jim McCalliog, David Wagstaffe and Derek Dougan, but I also I think of the idiosynchratic Molyneux stadium. There was the immense Kop to the right and the unique multi-spanned roof opposite. All of these individualistic stadia are long gone these days and it’s a shame. I can also hear the gentle burr of the ‘seventies ATV commentator Huw Johns telling of some action on the pitch. He had such an evocative voice and often commentated on Wolves games. Before my time, Wolves were the team of the ‘fifties – winning three league titles – and they captured the imagination of the nation with their unique set of friendlies against teams such as Honved. In their distinctive old gold shirts, they were some team, lead by England captain Billy Wright. If the Munich air crash had not happened in 1958, catapulting Manchester United into the nation’s hearts, maybe Wolves would be a major player these days. I think that their black and old gold is a simply classic combination, though the current shade is a bit too close to Hull’s amber for my liking.
Everyone of a certain age remembers our promotion-clinching game at Wolves in 1977 – I was only eleven, so didn’t go – but I remember the euphoria it engendered. My only previous visit to Wolverhampton was in odd circumstances in 2003. My mother had been poorly and in hospital. I therefore missed four consecutive home games ( thus missing the Abramovic hysteria at HQ ) and my first game “back” was the 5-0 demolition job we gave Wolves. It was fantastic to be back “on the treadmill” at that game – special memories.
As soon as I entered the away area, Steve ( folsom blue ) yelled out to me. It was just fantastic to see him – we have been emailing each other for a month or so and I could tell he was so pleased to be back in the UK, with work, for two months. He said he hadn’t slept the previous night. I could believe it. He had travelled up with Al and Gal on one of the official CFC coaches. Gary got a beer for me and we had a nice pre-match chin-wag in the dark, crowded area beneath the seats of the Steve Bull Stand. The songs started – the uncensored ones – and I joked that Steve could relax and join in, knowing his family were 6,000 miles away. I said there might be a few “unchained melodies” from Steve over the next two months. The rumourmill was in full force, with news that Everton had scored a second…then a third. Oh, how we laughed. That set things up lovely for our game.
From my seat in the lower tier, Molyneux looked a picture. The four stands were trimmed with gold and the stadium looked trim. Strangely, there is a wedge of “temporary” seats in one corner – though these were present in 2003, too. I was sat in almost the same seat as in 2003, too. In the programme, some 100 pages of it, there were stats about the two teams. It claimed that we had gone 225 league games without consecutive defeats. I found that very hard to believe. I noted that the three Wolves Life Presidents were very diverse – Steve Bull, footballer, Rachel Heyhoe-Flint, female cricketer and Robert Plant, rock star!
The first-half was dire, wasn’t it? Not only did the team seem to have other things on its mind – an engagement with Jose coming up – the fans seemed a bit subdued. Wolves give the lower tier of the side stand to away fans and this doesn’t help…our support was thinned-out along the pitch. The Wolves midfield were giving our three no space. We lacked desire and spirit.
“Come on – move for each other! “bellowed Alan.
The winter sun made viewing difficult, so I doubled up with a pair of sunglasses and a baseball cap. Wolves had a few half-chances. We went ahead with the only really good move of the first-half. Zhirkov played a lovely one-two with Herr Ballack and then zipped in a killer ball for Drogba to pounce. We celebrated – but knew we had got off lightly. We simply hadn’t performed, none more so than Florent Malouda.
Into the second-half and Ballack upset the home fans in the stand which housed the more vocal elements of the home crowd. They rewarded him – quite oddly – with a full rendition of “Ten German Bombers” and this small-town xenophobia quite surprised me. Towards the end of its conclusion, Petr Cech saved superbly at point blank after a defensive lapse. Soon after, JT kicked and missed – groans from us all – and Big Pete saved our blushes once more.
This was clearly a poor game. I felt for Steve, but at least he has more games on his sabbatical.
With the support getting quieter by the minute, a punt forward by Cech and Drogba easily outfought the last man.
“Oh – that’s embarrassing” I whispered.
He made a yard and stroked the ball in. Two-nil. Phew. Drogba lapped up the praise down in that far corner and I realized how lucky we had been.
At the final whistle, JT handed over his jersey and boots to two different Chelsea fans. A nice touch. I hugged Alan and there was emotion in my voices as I wished him a great time in Milano. I won’t be going – work commitments, I’m afraid. Outside, a quick word with Steve – “5hit game, mate” – and wished him a good time in Italy too. Alan will take good care of Steve. He will be an associate member of The Bing during his stay with us.
We got a police escort – of sorts – up to the town centre. The streets on which we were walking were devoid of Wolves fans. It felt like being back in the ‘eighties. About six lads from Trowbridge caught up with us and there was a comment from Andy that “this is the last chance for this current team to win anything – we need to change it.” I knew what he meant. It had been a strange day in Wolverhampton, for sure. We pulled out of the centre at 5.30pm and listened to the latest sad episode of Pompey’s demise on the drive south.
Some Depeche Mode, some fruit pastilles, Parky sleeping – the usual return trip home.
Our record is 19-4-4 and this is pretty good, you know. The swagger of the Mourinho championships is missing, but I’m not complaining. We have eleven league games left. I have a feeling the last three away games – Manchester United, Tottenham, Liverpool – will make or break us. The potential to win the league at any of these locations is making me salivate, but the risk of failure ( imagine if we were to lose it at any of these hideous locations ) haunts me too.
By the way, our win at Wolves was our 141st league game without back-to-back league defeats.