Tales From The Lower Tier Of The Bullens Road

Everton vs. Chelsea : 25 January 2011.

This was always going to be a long and tiring day. I woke at 5.45am.After making myself a wake-me-up coffee, I quickly turned the TV on to see that Fernando Torres had requested a transfer request from Liverpool. As I scrambled together my match-day essentials, I contemplated the whole Torres transfer story. It has many angles, many dimensions. Whether we get him or not – and I hope we do…he is one of the world’s best strikers after all – the reassuring thing is that Roman still has some spare roubles in his kitty after the Russian World Cup bid / bribe. Generally speaking, I’m more in favour of spending our resources on nurturing our own talent and promoting from within. But every now and then, it is important to refresh our squad with top talent and make a statement. Signing Torres would undoubtedly convince others to follow him to the Fulham Road. Torres would be, as the Americans say, a marquee player. Our strike force is aging and we need to refresh it. And I have a feeling that, for once, Chelsea may have got the timings just right. With our main bidding rivals Manchester City having already spent £23M on an inferior player, we may have a free run on Torres. I liken the January transfer window to one of those bizarre cycling races where all riders go incredibly slowly for 95% of the race – “me? I’m not going…what about you?” – but then sprint like mad in the last two laps. Manchester City, with typical gusto, seem to have spent their wad way too quickly. Signing Torres would be huge. How ironic that I would be walking within feet of Anfield later in the day. I half-expected to see a Chelsea shirt – 9 Torres – pinned to the Shankly Gates.

I set off at 6.45am and soon collected His Lordship. Grey and overcast skies greeted us as we pounded the tarmac of the M4 and M5. Parky was in “full on chat mode” and I let him talk – and talk. After a McBreakfast in Birmingham “on the hoof”, we called in to collect Burger in Stafford at 9.30am.

As I was back in Staffordshire, I was reminded of my college days. On every train trip down to Chelsea in the mid-‘eighties, I would pass through Stafford. Towards the southern edge of the town, I always looked out for “The Everton Estate.” This was a council-estate of around two hundred houses with its own walled garage area. Every spare foot of wall was sprayed with graffiti proclaiming a love of Everton Football Club. It really was quite a sight. In the post-war years, many Liverpudlians were given new lives in a variety of outlying satellite towns as a result of the heavy Luftwaffe bombings that befell the city in the 1939-1945 period. Many city-centre homes were decimated, but this gave the city authorities the chance to also clear surrounding slum areas in one fell swoop. Typically, Scousers moved to the immediate overflow towns of Skelmersdale, Runcorn, Widnes, Warrington and Kirby, just outside the city boundaries. However, it seems that Stafford had its fair share of Scousers too. And it seems it had a reputation of being quite an Everton stronghold. A similar scenario has existed in other UK cities too – the overspill towns of Dagenham and Basildon are West Ham strongholds, Harlow and Bishops Stortford are Tottenham enclaves, while the notorious “schemes” of Easterhouse and Drumchapel are hotbeds of Celtic and Rangers support respectively.

My first visit to Everton had been almost twenty-five years ago. I had travelled up by coach from Stoke-On-Trent with two fellow Chelsea fanatics – Pete and Mac – who I have strangely not seen since those college days. We played Everton – the reigning League Champions – on a Sunday in March 1986. It was live on TV. In those days, the antiquated Park End stand housed the away support on two tiers. There were a couple of thousand seats high up in the upper tier, but the lower tier afforded a far less satisfactory view. The trick was always to get in early and hoist yourself up onto the ledge at the back. On this particular day, the three of us weren’t so lucky and so we had to scramble around on the very shallow terraces of the lower tier. It was a proper mosh pit and I am always amazed how many fans were squeezed into that narrow area. For the games when Liverpool or United visited Goodison, it was just a bobbing sea of heads, with the lucky two hundred standing at the back. The couple of photos I have from that day show a forest of heads, with occasional glimpses of match action. Chelsea, in all-red, scored first through the much maligned Jerry Murphy, but Everton equalised late on. I just remember being happy to be in another new ground, at last able to see for myself the famous church overlooking the north-west corner, the gargantuan main stand, the lovely double-deck stands on all four sides. To this day, Goodison remains one of my favourites.

On the return bus ride back to the city centre, the irritable natives bricked the bus, but an even more unpleasant fate was to befall us. After games at either Anfield or Goodison, there was usually a delay to get back to Lime Street and this allowed the locals to regroup and plan their cowardly attacks on away fans. On this particular occasion, we were “sussed” as we loitered for a few seconds on the train station forecourt. One Scouser kicked me in the back of the leg and on turning round –“oh God, here we go” – I was faced by a pack of locals. The three of us were chased by five or six scrawny Scousers from the Lime Street train station around the corner to the National Express coach depot. We scrambled aboard just as the Scousers caught up with us. It had been a narrow escape. Back in those days, with the spectre of Heysel everywhere you went, Liverpool was a tough old place on match days. The myth of the wise-cracking, football daft Scouser, peddled by the media, tells only half the story. The city housed some of the most violent football psychos of the time. On the main approach by train into Lime Street, for many years, a piece of daunting graffiti said it all –

“Cockneys Die.”

Liverpool away in the ‘eighties was no place for the feint hearted.

Ironically, the game at Goodison Park in March 1986 represented one of the last away days for the original Chelsea firm before “Operation Own Goal” kicked in around two weeks later. I seem to remember up-close and personal photos of the main Chelsea faces being shown on the news – and police surveillance photographs from that game at Goodison in particular.

They were crazy times really. It was the fear of getting hit which made every away game a battle of nerves. I was lucky to come through relatively unscathed – a lone punch to my face was my total involvement in football hooliganism and I am glad we have moved on.

Tuna, over from Atlanta for two games, was travelling north with Andy and the Nuneaton lot. As we drove past Stoke, we heard that they were just a mile or so ahead of us. I first met The Fishy Boy in Pittsburgh in 2004 and a Tuna story from a few years back is long overdue. For the two games in LA in 2007, I decided to save some beer money and take the cheap option on accommodation. I stayed at the Santa Monica youth hostel – inexpensive and central to the main action. After a night on the beer with the usual suspects, I managed to talk Tuna into kipping in my youth hostel dorm rather than schlep all of the way down to a mate of his in Marina Del Ray.

“It’ll be OK, Tunes – there was a spare bunk this morning…no worries, son.”

At around 3am, we stumbled into my room, but – horror – all of the spare bunk beds were now occupied.

“Here’s my blanket, Tunes – just sleep on the floor here, by the bathroom, nobody will know.”

“Alright son – cheers mate.”

Within seconds, we were both asleep, the beer taking its toll. Sorted. However, when I awoke momentarily at a very early stage the next morning, there was no sign of The Fishy Boy. Strange, I thought – but, still suffering from the beer intake, I dozed back to sleep. As I got up for good, my brain was a bit clearer and I began wondering what on earth had happened to Tuna. When I met up with him the next day, I had to enquire why he had left in the middle of the night. I just couldn’t work it out. Tuna replied that after an hour or so, the massive – and I’m talking massive – chap who had been sleeping in the bunk below me had got up and had wanted to use the bathroom. In the darkness, he stumbled into a sleeping Tuna. In a confused state, Tuna slowly awoke, rubbed his eyes, and had been confronted with a totally naked mass of blubber, hovering over him and pointedly asking

“What the HELL are you doing?”

At this stage in the re-enactment, I was sniggering like a schoolboy…and Tuna was shaking with laughter. Tuna had quickly gathered his clothes and scarpered, catching a cab outside the hostel and returning to his mate’s place further south.

“I had to go mate!”

On the final approach in to Liverpool, the grey skies miraculously vanished and the sun shone intensely. We had been playing some Prince Buster and other ska songs, especially for Burger as we had been driving north. “The Liquidator” started up and we joined in with the requisite clapping.

We strode into The Arkles at just after 11am and the place was already full of Chelsea. Parky got the beers in and I had a scout around. There they were – the Nuneaton lot, with Tuna too. A hug for The Fishy Boy – great to see him again. There was another good show from Nuneaton – eight all told. Whitey, wearing a lovely CP jacket, joined us for a few minutes. Parky told some jokes. I updated Tuna with news of a few of the lads from Frome. I noted more and more of those quilted Barbour jackets. Definitely the flavour of the month on the terraces at the moment. Andy and Parky were in nice Berghaus jackets, though – lightweight but warm. Just the job for a cold day at football. The skies were blue as we sauntered out of the boozer and made our way across Stanley Park and down towards Goodison. The white roof of the huge main stand was catching the sun. It was an impressive sight indeed. I texted my mate Francis, a Liverpool fan, and he asked if we would be taking Torres back with us.

The immediate area outside the away turnstiles of the Bullens Road was bathed in bright sunshine. Burger shot off inside to try to find a suitable location for his flag, while Parky and myself waited and spoke to a few faces. Parky then dived inside, no doubt hoping to have one last beer before the start. I took a few photos of the stadium, trying to catch a few quirky angles. I noted a new feature since my last visit in 2008 – a photographic “time line” of old photos and facts wrapping itself around the ground. A nice touch. Everton are the senior team in Liverpool of course – and played up the hill at Anfield in their first few years. For many years, Everton were the dominant force in the city too, with Goodison the grander stadium. Bill Shankly put a stop to all that.

However, while Chelsea won the F.A.Cup in April 1970 – the moment that undoubtedly caused me to pick Chelsea as my team – Everton won the league championship around the same time. How easy would it have been for me to choose The Blues of Liverpool and not London? I guess we will never know. Best not dwell too much on that.

Through the turnstiles and into the cramped under croft – yet more Barbour jackets, fans drinking Chang beer from plastic bottles, singing The Bouncy, the walls awash with blue and white signs. And then out into the sunny stadium. I found my seat in row 12, right next to Mo and her mate from Wrexham – just a short hop for them.

Then, the theme from “Z Cars” and the players emerged. Lots and lots of empty seats, though. The toffee girl was waiting with the two mascots on the centre circle. Handshakes with the captains.

We quickly serenaded the team with our version of “Hey Jude” (we were in Liverpool after all, eh?) and we then asked for Carlo – and Torres! – to “give us a wave.” We then followed this with a really impressive medley of songs for the majority of our players. Songs for Essien, Malouda, Frank, JT, Ivanovic, Drogba and Anelka. And Fernando Torres – with much laughter – to the tune, of course, of “When Johnny Comes Marching Home.”

“La la la la, la la la la, la la la la – la la la la, la la la la, la la la la…la la la la, la la la la, la la la la – la la la la – Fernando Forres, Chelsea’s Number Nine.”

The Everton fans weren’t laughing out loud, but I bet they were smiling inside. Despite the early kick-off, I had the impression that a fair few Chelsea had been on the ale all morning. There was a nice buzz in the away section and the songs were coming thick and fast. The seats – on wooden floorboards – are tightly packed at Everton and I wondered if this helped.

Then the holy trinity of away songs – morphing as the song gathered momentum…

“You’re so quiet / it’s a 5hit-hole / you’re all w@nkers, Goodison.”

Although, I whispered to Mo – “I love this stadium. Proper old school.”

“Me too”, she agreed.

Michael Essien blasted high and John Terry headed over, but the songs echoed around the Bullens Road. Then, a Jack Rodwell shot was superbly saved in front of us by Petr. The game struggled to come alight. My eyes kept wandering over to various details of the massive two-tiered stand opposite. It provided an impressive backdrop as the game carried on below. I couldn’t but help notice the acres of empty seats, though. The F.A. Cup clearly doesn’t stir the emotions as it once did. The best chance of our half came after a lovely break from Ramires who played in Anelka, but his shot was blasted straight at Tim Howard.

Another song caused yet more mirth from us –

“No noise from the unemployed.”

And, for heaven’s sake, Everton really were deathly quiet. I timed them – they did not utter a single song of encouragement until 34 minutes had passed. Everton have always been quiet, but this broke all records. A Malouda rasper from 30 yards whistled past the post. Then – a period of surreal songs from the away 3,000. An appeal for “handball” by the denizens of the new version of the Park End – a boring single tier structure, so typical of the bland new stands of recent years – was met with much laughter from us. Burger was to tell me that a similar thing happened at Bolton. For the next ten minutes, the game was forgotten as we came up with song after song which replaced the word “Chelsea” with “handball.” We were roaring.

“You are my handball, my only handball; you make me happy when skies are grey…”

“Handball here, handball there, handball every f-ing where…”

“Handball, handball, handball, handball – tra la la la la…”(with associated bouncing.)

“And it’s super handball – super handball fc…”

“La la la la, la la la la, la la la la – la la la la, la la la la, la la la la…la la la la, la la la la, la la la la – la la la la – Handball, Handball – Chelsea’s Number Nine.”

Brilliant stuff. The first-half petered out and I found it hard to remain focussed. All the singing had given me a headache.

During the half-time period, I took yet more photos of one of my favourite stadia. It did dawn on me, though, that in nine previous visits to Goodison, I had yet to see us lose. That could be a lot to do with my liking of Everton’s home stadium. ESPN’s commentary team appeared in the near corner, seated at an impromptu desk, along with the F.A. Cup itself. The summariser Ray Stubbs was sat alongside Kevin Keegan and Robbie Savage. We, of course, reminded Savage what he was – we were in one of those moods.

Everton came out before us after the break and Phil Neville was serenaded too. He gestured – “who, me?” with a smile. Fair play to him. He isn’t reviled as much as his odious brother. Everton started the far stronger in the second period. I noted that, in the shadows, the pitch was still quite frosty. We were labouring in the bright sun. We had no tempo and Anelka was very ponderous. Lamps was quiet. Our midfield played better at The Reebok. JT gave the ball away and Cech did so well to block. From a Baines corner, our nemesis Louis Saha leapt unchallenged and headed in at the Gwladys Street End.

Oh God.

The Everton fans were roused, with the self-deprecating “We only sing when we’re winning.”

We took a while, but eventually our spirits stirred. The appearance of Kalou as substitute brought about the usual selection of moans – from Mo and her mate, amongst others. Carlo does indeed to reach for Salomon as option number one these days. But still, all of us say he plays better when he comes off the bench. After a great save, a lovely sweeping move using a bursting Essien and Anelka, out wide, resulted in the ball being played into Kalou in the inside-right channel. He steadied himself – I snapped – and threw the defender off balance, then calmly clipped the ball into the goal. A perfect finish indeed.

Get in. We screamed and I turned to my left.

“Kalou! Kalou!” and Mo smiled.

Everton then seemed to have umpteen corners, but virtually all ended up in the safe hands of our great goalkeeper. Petr had a virtually blameless game and he is now back to his best. Then, the ball broke to our little dynamo Ramires and he struck a low drive at the base of the near post with Howard well beaten. A quiet Lampard was substituted. Then, the last action of the entire game – Ivanovic lost the ball, only for Beckford to slam a volley right at Petr Cech, who parried the venomous shot over.

I would have settled for a draw before the game and it was a fair result. The game came to life a little after the break, but it was far from a classic. Few players shone, apart from the magnificent Cech and the resurgent Essien. Oh well. We live to fight again.

It took a while to leave the car park on Stanley Park, but while we were waiting, Tuna was spotted and he had time to come over for a brief “goodbye.” His brief synopsis?

“What a dire game. I would have had more fun if I had gone ferreting.”

We listened to Five Live as we drove through Cheshire and Staffordshire. The Torquay vs. Crawley Town game was first up. On a day when the main story involving Chelsea was away from the actual game, Crawley even had an attacker called Torres. We dropped off Burger in Stafford at 5pm – he has a busy work schedule ahead, so we’re not so sure when he will be able to meet up for another game. We then listened to the Southampton vs. United game.

“Come on Saints!”

The drive south was very tiring indeed and I had to stop for a Red Bull and then again for a double espresso. At Strensham, we chatted for a while to two Bristol Rovers fans, on the way back from a pitiful 6-1 drubbing at previously bottom of the table Walsall. Oh boy. We briefly mentioned a game that three out of the four of us had seen almost 31 years ago – and the Bristol Rovers fan certainly had a glint in his eye when he spoke of that famous 3-0 Rovers win over Chelsea at Eastville back in the old second division. I let him have that little moment of glory – he needed cheering up.

I eventually reached home at 8pm, quite shattered. It had indeed been a long day. I am avoiding another long trip north on Tuesday, so my next game will be on Sunday against Liverpool. We will wait and see if a certain Spanish player fills that number nine void in our line up. It could be quite a game.

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