Tales From The Golden Mile

Blackpool vs. Chelsea : 7 March 2011.

At last, one of the most eagerly awaited domestic away games was upon us. Chelsea last visited Bloomfield Road for a League Cup game in 1996, but our last league game in that famous resort town was in the mid-‘seventies. A return visit was long-overdue. Ever since The Tangerines gained promotion last May, this away fixture has really caught the imagination of the Chelsea faithful. Why is this? Well, the usual case of “new ground” tells only half the story. Blackpool has been a monster on the holiday map of the UK since cheap railway excursions brought thousands of people in to the town during the Victorian era. It remains England’s most famous resort, much favoured by Northerners and Scots – to say nothing of stag and hen parties. The town has a reputation as a bold and brash – and cheap and cheerful – resort with its famous Golden Mile, sandy beaches, Tower, Pleasure Beach, trams, concert halls, three piers and autumnal illuminations. If you throw in a few casinos and lap-dancing establishments, for some, Blackpool by the sea equates to our Las Vegas. Stop sniggering at the back.

Of course, we just knew that we wouldn’t get Blackpool away on a late summer or spring weekend, but it came as a kick in the teeth when our game at Bloomfield Road was rescheduled for a Monday night. However, there was no doubt that Chelsea would be in Blackpool in good numbers and some went up on the Friday, Saturday and Sunday. For some, it would have the feel of a European away game.

It was a frosty morning in deepest Somerset as I left my house at about 10.30am. I loaded my car with the usual match day necessities and turned the ignition on. After the slightest of pauses, a favourite song from my youth began and it brought a smile to my face…

“I would go out tonight, but I haven’t got a stitch to wear.”

As I drove the 15 miles to collect Parky, I was filled with a feeling of chilled-out pleasure, the whole day ahead of me, a trip in support of my team – and no worry of work on the Tuesday as I had booked the whole week off. Of course, our recent resurgence, plus a lovely Sunday which saw both Manchester United and Tottenham drop points, only added to the sense of anticipation.

Fantastic.

I collected a smiling Lord Parky at 11am and we were on our way north. Parky’s last visit to Blackpool was way back in 1988, that second summer of love when the dance halls of England were reverberating to acid house for the first time. As we ploughed north, I spoke of my previous visits to Blackpool.

In the immediate post WWII period, my mother became friendly with a Lancashire girl, Muriel,when she spent a week near Rye in Sussex. They were two of the many “land girls” who were gainfully employed by the government to bridge the gap in the agricultural workforce caused by the missing thousands still stationed abroad after the conflict. Muriel was from Burnley and, after marrying Joe, went on to run a bed and breakfast hotel in Blackpool on the bracing Lancashire coast. Mum and Muriel remained friends and so, on a couple of occasions in the late ‘sixties, my parents and I stayed with them at their B&B. This would have been a massive car trip for Dad, in pre motorway days, and I have vague memories of the journey north. The approach into Blackpool, with Dad asking if I can spot the tower, must have been as exciting as it gets for a three year old. There is grainy cine film of myself cavorting on Blackpool beach, wearing a bizarre swimming costume, and playing with my father, trousers rolled up in classic English paddling mode, as the tide gently lapped at the golden sands. There is also film of me riding a famous Blackpool donkey and on a ride at the famous Pleasure Beach. Of all my childhood memories, the time spent at Blackpool with my parents are some of my sweetest. At the age of three, I doubt if my fascination with football had begun, but I do remember very well the moment that Joe had pointed out the stands and floodlights of Bloomfield Road, at the end of a typical terraced street. I can therefore, without much fear of contradiction, say that the home of Blackpool F.C. was my first ever sighting of a football ground.

Blackpool stayed off the radar for more than three decades, with holiday destinations getting more and more exotic with each passing year. By the time that I next visited Blackpool, in 2001, there had been achange to my holiday destinations; more and more were becoming football, er Chelsea, based. Trips to Barcelona and Bratislava had replaced trips to Blackpool and Bournemouth. In fact, my last European beach holiday was to Corfu, way back in 1992. Since then, virtually all European holidays have been with Chelsea. Give me the buzz of a football city rather than a hot beach any day.

In the 2001 to 2003 period, Chelsea’s European trips almost dried up. Neither myself nor many of my mates travelled abroad in these “UEFA cup years,” and so to keep our team bonding intact, we instead supplemented our week-to-week meet-ups with three end-of-season trips to Blackpool (2001 – Manchester City away), Scarborough (2002 – Middlesbrough away) and Brighton(2003 – Liverpool at home).

Seven of us (Alan, Glenn, Russ, Daryl, Neil, The Youth and I) had a lovely time in Blackpool in 2001. It certainly helped that our mini-bus excursion to Maine Road resulted in an easy2-0 Chelsea win against a poor City team. This was our last ever game at City’s old home ground, but the memory was scarred by an angry pitch invasion from the City lads just before the final whistle. I took a few photos of these stereotypical Mancs, all Gallagher-esque posing and designer jackets, eyeballing us all in the away stand. For once, we didn’t retaliate. With a line of Manchester police to protect us, we just stood and stared them out. Our mini-bus was parked in the grim streets just outside the away end and we had a quick getaway. We would never return to that famous old stadium. This also proved to be the last ever Chelsea game for Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise. Back in Blackpool that evening, after a quick change from match-going jumpers, jackets, jeans and trainers to smarter attire, we had a legendary pub crawl deep into the night.

Almost ten years have since passed. Where does the time go? I suppose the smart-arse answer to that is “the time goes winning trophies.” Is it any wonder that the time has flown by? Three league titles, three F.A. Cups and two League Cups. Thank you very much and more of the same please.

Judy and I paid a quick visit to Blackpool, mainly to see the famous illuminations, after the Wigan game in the autumn of 2009. I was reminded of how brash the town was, but never expected to be soon returning with Chelsea. However, that’s it for me – just two visits to Blackpool in around 43 years.

For once, the trail north – M4, M5, M6 – seemed to be clear of heavy traffic and I made good time. The Smiths were followed by Everything But The Girl and then The Killers.

On the final approach to Blackpool, with blue skies overhead, we spotted the famous tower and then drove straight past Bloomfield Road before parking in the town centre. Most of the locals seemed to be wearing scabby tracky-bottoms – they must be getting their fashion advice from the nearby Scousers – and I had the feeling that the town had nosedived further since 2009. At a few minutes past 3pm, we had joined Alan, Daryl, Neil and Gary in The Walkabout. They had travelled up on Sunday morning. Daryl explained that the highlight of the previous day had been the sight of big Tommy Murphy, one of Lovejoy’s mates, taking to the floor during a Northern Soul segment at a local bar. The image is still burning in my mind; wish I had been there to see that! I had a good chat with Neil, who has experience of travel in Asia, ahead of my trip out to Malaysia and Thailand with Chelsea in July. We were then joined by Mike and Danny from New York amidst talk of Eric Cantona and the New York Cosmos, Danny’s scrape with Newcastle United hoolies in the early ‘eighties and the Coney Island like charms of Blackpool.

We dipped into another pub on the short walk down to the ground and bumped into a few more Chelsea mates. General consensus was of a heavy Chelsea victory – maybe by four goals to nil. Blackpool, to be honest, had the feel of a ghost town at this stage. We had hardly seen any home fans in and around the town centre and I guess their fans had been busy at work.

Just outside the away entrance, a jovial Blackpool steward regaled Parky and me with his memories of the last top-flight Blackpool vs. Chelsea game way back in the autumn of 1970. Blackpool had stormed into a 3-0 half-time lead, but – much to the amusement of his best mate, a Chelsea supporter – we came back to win it 4-3. Famously, Ron Harris includes this particular game in his recollections of past matches. The story went that the Chelsea players had hit the town the previous night and were heavily feeling the effects of their drunken binge during that woeful first-half. However, after four second-half goals, surely the boss Dave Sexton would have been happy. Well, Sexton was fuming at the final whistle and laid into all of the Chelsea players in no uncertain terms. After a few minutes of vitriolic abuse, Peter Osgood could take no more and chirped –

“Leave it out boss. If they hadn’t run out of lager, we would’ve scored eight.”

Bloomfield Road has been slowly redeveloped over the years and the large Kop to the north of the stadium was taken down quite a few years ago. It is now a trim, but pretty bland, single tiered stadium, albeit with a thin line of executive boxes under the roofs of the west and south stands. The east stand, hastily erected during the summer, is a temporary structure and this was where the 1,600 away fans were assembling. I took a few photos of Ashley Cole, Fernando Torres, John Terry, David Luiz – the new hero – and Frank Lampard as they finished their pre-match routines. I had a good seat in row K. The temporary seats were surprisingly padded but everyone stood. The beery Chelsea fans were in good voice and the tight away stand was rocking.

In the home end – the new-look Kop – the Blackpool fans held aloft a banner…

“Jesus satisfied 5,000 with 5 loaves and 2 fish. Ian Holloway has satisfied millions with 11 tangerines.”

Big Pete, one of the CSG stalwarts, was standing a few rows behind and his 6 foot 6 inch frame was augmented by a massive David Luiz wig. He looked a picture, though he probably blocked the view of the poor people in the rows behind. Alan, Gary and I were again sat near Mark, Nick, Robbie and Charlie – familiar fixtures at away games. It made me realise that all of the staunchest of Chelsea supporters were in Blackpool; we had all made the effort, paid the hotels, paid the train tickets, paid for the petrol, taken time off work, made the effort. May it long continue.

Drogba in for Anelka, Bosingwa in for Ivanovic, Zhirkov in for Malouda. Game on.

The new David Luiz song – “You brighten up my life, I’ll let you shag my wife, I want curly hair too” – was soon aired, but Blackpool began the stronger team. A bursting run from The Captain found Didier, but his attempt was smothered by Kingson. Andy Reid, the rounded Blackpool winger who reminds me so much of former Forest player John Robertson, was enjoying lots of space in the midfield and there was growing concern that our midfield was again sluggish. Blackpool, full of energy and team work, certainly dominated the first twenty minutes.

Despite the long wait and the sense of anticipation, clearly Blackpool’s charms had not impressed some of the Chelsea support. We reworked the standard Blackpool chant – “This is the best trip, I’ve ever been on” – with a more discouraging set of lyrics…

“We want to go home, we want to go home – Blackpool’s a 5hit hole, we want to go home.”

Print that on your T-shirts!

Then, a Frank Lampard corner away to my right and my camera focussed on the run by Luiz towards the near post. I almost missed the subsequent unhindered leap by John Terry, but saw the ball bounce down and into the Blackpool goal.

Phew. The applause was surprisingly reserved – not sure why.

The songs continued and we clawed our way back into the game. A rising drive from the left foot of Jose Bosingwa was ably palmed over by Kingson. However, Blackpool was still giving as good as they got. Stephen Crainey, the left-back, was augmenting Reid’s forays into our defence with several timely runs. Jason Puncheon waltzed past Luis and struck a low shot, which PetrCech fingered onto his near post. This was a near miss and further galvanized the home support. Just on half-time, however, the best move of the match which involved four of five players in a flowing passage resulted in a left-footed shot from Ramires which was turned around the post. Despite a slim lead, we knew we had rode our luck.

At the break, there was general disquiet amongst the Chelsea faithful.

Our twin strikers were not really working together and the midfield were not playing as a unit. This was another substandard show from Messrs’ Lampard and Essien. Ramires was again the star of our midfield four. Chances were exchanged as the match progressed, but it was not until Salomon Kalou entered the fray on the hour that we began to look livelier. Drogba, suffering with one or two knocks, had been hobbling around for a few minutes and we all expected Anelka to get the nod. Instead, Kalou breathed new urgency into the team. Firstly, he won the penalty with a strong run deep into the box.

Frank calmly despatched the penalty and we were two to the good.

This goal was celebrated with the releasing of a purple-blue flare towards the back of the Chelsea contingent. The smoke drifted across the pitch, but soon dissipated. This was followed up with a stand-shaking bouncy. Good times.

That man Kalou then delightfully played in Frank, and our number eight ably converted with the minimum of fuss. As he reeled away, I was reminded that both of our goal scorers, JT and Frank, were tied at 471 in total Chelsea games. These two stalwarts, our true Blue Brothers, have been at the very epi-centre of our successes since 2001 and we would be supporting a very different Chelsea Football Club without them. They embody our spirit and character. Although Frank has not been himself this season, he always chimes in with key goals and JT is JT. He was one of our best players yet again. Fernando Torres was pretty quiet all game and his best chance was a nonchalant flick with the outside of his right foot which did not threaten the Blackpool goal. His goals will come. Young Josh – “he’s only thirteen,” the away fans bellowed – entered the game and enjoyed some nice touches. With Malouda’s fresh legs exposing tiredness in Blackpool’s defence, we fully expected a couple more goals for The Champions, but it was Blackpool who enjoyed the last goal of the game, a low drive from Puncheon leaving Cech stranded. To be honest, we went to sleep in the last few minutes and the Blackpool support was encouraging their team on. A few chances flew past Cech’s goal, but we shakily survived.

The other lads were headed back into the town, but Parky and I soon found our way back to my waiting car. We rolled out of town at 10.30pm and Chelsea had three much needed points tucked inside our back pockets. It hadn’t been a great performance, but – oh boy, I’m sure everyone has worked out the mathematics – those three points gained on a blustery night on the Lancashire coast could be vitally important come May.

After a coffee stop on the outskirts of Stoke and with music from The Stranglers and then Echo And TheBunnymen keeping me going, I eventually reached home at just after 3am.

We reconvene in nine days’ time for the visit of Copenhagen to Stamford Bridge.

See you all there.

067

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s