Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 14 August 2011.
It had been a strange week. The riots which began in Tottenham and then swept through various locations in the nation’s capital, and beyond, threatened to put the 2011-2012 season on hold. Thankfully, the decision to “Carry On And Keep Playing Footy” came through on Thursday.
Good. Let’s try and get back to normal. There’s nothing like a trip to football to help put the grim realities of life to one side.
But it got me thinking…riots, summertime, football. It got me focussing on 1981, the last time that similar riots ripped through our green and pleasant land.
For some reason, I have been thinking quite a lot about 1981 during the last few weeks…perhaps it was just due to the simple 30th. anniversary of my sixteenth summer but I can’t really put a finger on why this should be. I’ve noticed, though, that I have been wistfully remembering extracts from my youth more and more often of late and the clichéd fears of a “mid-life crisis” are never too far from my thoughts. During that summer, inner city riots sprang up throughout England and it was certainly a summer of discontent, even though the Royal Wedding diverted our attention at the end of July. From a footballing perspective, 1981 was a pretty nondescript year for Chelsea Football Club. We were mired in the old Second Division and were going nowhere. However, the first game of the 1981-1982 was a pretty momentous event for me, though. For the very first time, I traveled up to London without my parents for a Chelsea game. I caught a Crown Tours coach up to the capital along with my two mates Kev and Fran. They were off sightseeing, but I was headed for Stamford Bridge. Before the game, I remember being in the old Chelsea Supporters Club shop at 547 Fulham Road (opposite the current tube station entrance) and listening in as an infamous Chelsea skinhead called Lester spoke to a few friends about his involvement in the Toxteth riots in Liverpool that summer.
I took a gulp and thought to myself “blimey, welcome to Chelsea.”
I stood on The Shed for the first ever time for that game with Bolton Wanderers some thirty years ago. Chelsea won 2-0 and we wore that shimmering Le Coq Sportif kit for the first time in a league game. It represented my support for Chelsea going up a notch, moving away from trips with my parents, being more independent, moving on. I would watch Chelsea three more times in that 1981-1982 season. The football wasn’t great, but I enjoyed every second of every minute of the Chelsea experience in that momentous year. And by the end of it, I was wearing that Le Coq Sportif shirt on my first ever date with my first ever girlfriend.
I set off at 9am and as I drove over to collect Parky, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I would be watching Chelsea again within a few hours. I was happy to be back on the treadmill once again, but I was also well aware that my enthusiasm of previous years was just not there. I guess this can be put down to the passing of time. I also knew that, come September, with the league season well underway, there would be a moment when I would think “OK. This Is The Moment. I’m Ready.” To be honest, for someone who prides themselves on being pretty clued-up on all things Chelsea, I have felt more and more adrift of all of the rumours and hoopla which has surrounded the club over the summer. There seems to be an infinite array of papers, magazines, websites, chat rooms, phone-ins and the like these days. It’s simply too much. Information overload. I can’t keep up. I have an image of myself as a cartoon character desperately attempting to hang on to the side of a ship, but gallantly failing, nails clawing against the steel, that horrible high-pitched screech. I felt myself plunge into the deep, unable to keep up with a Modric transfer rumour or the latest tweet from cyberspace.
As I slowly approached Parky’s house, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid a black cat.
I wondered if some good luck was on the cards.
With Parky collected, we drove north on the familiar route up to my former college city of Stoke-On-Trent.
This would only be Chelsea’s eleventh away game in those thirty opening games since that 1981-1982 season. It certainly felt strange to be heading to an away fixture. An opening day usually meant a sweltering time in The Goose and a sun-drenched afternoon at The Bridge. And usually a win. Our last opening day defeat was way back in 1998 when we lost at Coventry. Marcel Desailly still has nightmares from that day. Our last away game opener was in 2005 when Crespo scored that winner in the last minute…and we never looked back on our march to our back-to-back championship. Happy memories. Was it really six years ago? Where does the time go?
An away game at Stoke would not be easy. However, our last league defeat in The Potteries was way back in the mid-‘seventies, in the days when prawn cocktail, gammon and chips and arctic rolls were considered the height of culinary sophistication in suburban England.
We were parked-up outside the Britannia Stadium at 12.15pm and we were soon walking up the hill towards the shiny new stands. There were immediate thoughts of our visit only a few months earlier, when we had sadly heard that United had come back from 2-0 to win 4-2 at Blackburn on that same walk to the Stoke stadium.
With every season, the memories overlap and intertwine.
Handshakes with Alan and Gary who were waiting for us to arrive.
We were soon inside the stadium, through the turnstiles – click, click, click – and into the melee of a Chelsea pre-match at Stoke City. We gulped down a lager and stood in a corner, catching up with each other, talk of the summer, of Kuala Lumpur, of Bangkok, of Glasgow. A few friends called by. It didn’t take long for it to start.
“One Man Went To Mow”.
The bar area underneath the terraces started to reverberate to the sound of 300 Chelsea fans singing and clapping, clapping and singing. And it didn’t take long for the beer to start to be thrown. Luckily, we were well clear, but the spray was visible to our right. It’s a bit of a tradition at Stoke – the pre-match Chelsea beer party. A few other songs were aired…”Carefree” and “The Bouncy.” And then, the asinine “Chelsea – Hooligans, Chelsea – Hooligans” chant. Alan and I rolled our eyes and grumbled. Of all the Chelsea match day chants, this surely has to be the most pathetic.
We made our way into the seats at about 1.20pm and I soon realised that I hadn’t yet heard the team announced. We had nice seats, a third of the way up, just above the disabled section, behind a wall. I was able to lean on it throughout the match.
Big shock – we were soon to learn that Fernando Torres had got the nod ahead of Didier Drogba. This surprised us all. A few hellos to some friends. Behind me was a chap from Scunthorpe who I last saw in Kuala Lumpur.
The wait was over. The teams entered the pitch.
In the opening ten minutes, the crowd was lively with the usual exchanges of witty – and other – banter. The home fans really made a bee line for John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. The usual songs deriding our three England Lions. The exact reasoning behind Stoke fans targeting our three English internationals could be the subject of a dissertation all by itself. In addition to stealing the famous Southampton song “Oh When The Reds (Saints) Go Marching In”, the local Stokies also nicked the Manchester United ode to Ryan Giggs –
“Stoke. Stoke Will Tear You Apart, Again.”
The riots were the subject of an (almost) humorous ditty from the home fans, aimed at the travelling three thousand –
“Town full of looters. You’re just a town full of looters.”
It was a frustrating time for us all in that opening period. Stoke did what Stoke do. Balls were launched into the Chelsea penalty time and time again, with Delap’s throw-ins causing us problems. Jones and Walters, scorer of the goal against us last spring, looked in fine form. However, Petr Cech was able to fling himself around with reckless abandon to ensure our goal remained intact. Alex was magnificent in the first half, heading away threat after threat. Torres looked busy and interested, with a shot flying wide early on and an excellent wriggle and shot just before the break. It seemed that all our eyes were on him; we still plead with him to be a success at our club. Ramires, too, had a superb run at the Stoke defence from deep, but his cross-shot drifted well away from the goal. We all thought that John Terry had handled under pressure, but thankfully Mark Halsey waved the penalty claims away. Stoke were always a threat in the first period. Chelsea were much the same as the previous campaign. It seems churlish to expect a massive change in style with the same personnel as last season, but our play was still laboured and slow. I texted a few mates –
“Same old, same old.”
Mikel was holding things together well, though, and he produced the pass of the day with a beautifully weighted cross field pass to the left wing. More of the same please.
The atmosphere was pretty subdued really. These 1.30pm kick-offs are horrible in that respect with not enough time to oil the vocal chords.
At half-time, a chance to reflect. Kalou was poor and Lampard quiet. The Chelsea crowd were not getting on anyone’s back, but there was no over-riding feeling of us turning the corner. Andre Villas-Boas, now wearing the club suit and looking more the manager than when he simply wore an Adidas tracksuit, was animated on the touchline and I admired his passion. The Chelsea choir were still working on that first AVB chant. I am sure it will come eventually. Alan, Gary and I had a quick chat with Mark at half-time and there was talk of gigs in October to see Stiff Little Fingers and Sham 69 within the space of a few days.
Ah, chasing my youth again.
We began the second period far more brightly and a lovely shimmy and run from Ramires set the scene for the next forty-five minutes. I got out of my seat for the first time to applaud a lovely move which involved Bosingwa winning a tackle, playing a ball to Torres and then on to Florent Malouda. The counter attack used to be our killer move, but this one soon broke down in the final third. As the half progressed, we all got more and more animated with every Chelsea attack…and every poor refereeing decision. The trip on Lampard brought torrents of heated abuse raining down on Mark Halsey and even the Stoke fans turned on him after a few decisions went our way. The dislike of the referee acted as a catalyst for a noisy period in the stands.
Begovic flicked a dipping effort from Mikel over the bar and the atmosphere grew more intense. While Delap was receiving treatment, the Stoke and Chelsea fans enacted a battle royal of club songs.
Delilah versus Carefree and the place was rocking.
I was chatting on and off to a bloke to my right, who was watching with his young daughter. We spoke, in pained tones, about Lampard’s quiet performance and I grimaced when I said “to be honest, his legs have gone and I think his demise could be quite sudden, if he can’t change his game.” Frank often just plays the simple ball these days and his bursts from deep are getting more and more infrequent.
Nicolas Anelka came on as a substitute for Malouda and his trademark dribbles and turns were causing the Stoke defence to cover new angles. A delightful chip was magnificently flicked on to the bar by Begovic and we groaned three thousand groans. Torres was still looking busy and keen and his perfect cross fell to Kalou, but his week header was easy for the Stoke ‘keeper. If only Drogba had been there. Soon after – but too late! – Drogba replaced the lacklustre Kalou and the away end erupted with pleasure. For a while, our attack consisted of Drogba, Anelka and Torres and I bet Jose Mourinho was thinking –
“Villas-Boas…what are you doing?”
However, apart from two identical free-kicks from Didier, our threat diminished. Benayoun replaced Torres with five minutes to go and then struggled to get in the game. A couple of Stoke half-chances came to nothing and the final whistle was met with polite applause. There were differing views around me as I made my way to the exits. It was always going to be a tough game. The players looked frustrated and as I took a few photographs of the boys, I noted that the manager headed straight towards the tunnel, his head full of thoughts and ideas. We didn’t sing his name – still working out that song – and he didn’t clap us. So be it…so be it.
His time – and our time – will come.
As we blended in with the home fans on the slow traipse back to the car, a Stokie addressed a lone Chelsea fan and his comment made me chuckle –
“Cheer up, duck. I think you’ll stay up.”
It took me less than three minutes to race from my parking place on the grass verge to the M6. Stoke is now officially the easiest place to park for a game. On the drive south, we avoided listening to the United game (we drove within a mile of their game at The Hawthorns) and listened to some music from our youth once more.
The song of the trip home was Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” and it was a typical return trip home from a game, full of junk food, beer for Parky, coffees for me, memories of past Chelsea games and plans for the next one. We listened to “606” for a while, but having to listen to Joey Barton talk to Robbie Savage seemed to be particularly brutal. We soon switched it off and went back to the music. I was soon back at Parky’s village. It had been a fine day out in The Potteries, but we were both rueful of the fact that it was simply a case of “drive-game-home.” We were glad that not every away game would be the same. We both enjoy sampling the delights of all the away cities we visit and Stoke 2011 didn’t have the depth of memories as previous visits. I didn’t even get to buy a “Wrights Pie” FFS!
“See you on Saturday, mate.”
It was only after I had dropped Parky off that I put the radio on and discovered that United had won.
Oh well. They will be the team to beat again this season.
I watched the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” and was invigorated when I saw the praise being heaped on Fernando Torres. Let’s hope that he continues to improve and that we get off to a good start in our home opener against The Baggies.
6-0 last season, wasn’t it?
Let’s do it again.