Tales From Nine Counties

Norwich City vs. Chelsea : 21 January 2012.

Way back in June, when the fixtures for 2011-2012 were announced, the date of the Norwich City away game was one of the fixtures that I was keen to see. Along with the match at Swansea City, these were the two most eagerly-awaited away trips of the upcoming season; I had only visited Norwich once before, I had never visited Swansea. These fresh away venues are the business. How ironic, then, that these two games would be scheduled to be played within ten days of each other. And it is doubly ironic that we get to play away games at all three of the promoted teams in this spell, with the F.A. Cup game at Loftus Road sandwiched between the two league games at Carrow Road and the Liberty Stadium.

I was up very early on Saturday morning and left my home in Somerset at 6.45am. I collected Parky from his village just over the Wiltshire border at just after 7am and we were on our way east for the second time in 24 hours. On the Friday, we had travelled up to Chelsea for the AGM of the CPO. I only decided to travel up, taking a day off work, at the last minute; I had decided that it was too important to miss. Parky needed no coercing to join me. The meeting was held in the Harris suite and was attended by around 150 Chelsea fans.

This was the first time that I had ever visited the corporate areas of the West Stand; it enabled me to see a couple of items of Chelsea history that had previously been hidden from me. I especially enjoyed seeing, up close, the original painting by Chris Chamberlain of the bustling street scene outside the main entrance in 1953. Located by the lifts to the left of the main reception area, it’s simply stunning. I could have spent ages examining it for details of a slice of our history. I well remember going on a Stamford Bridge tour in 1997 and getting a rush of blood as we walked past the magnificence of the famous Charles Cundall painting of the “82,905” game versus Arsenal in 1935.

Both are superb paintings.

On the drive to Chippenham, where we stopped to refuel and devour a McDonald’s breakfast, we spoke about the events of the CPO meeting. It was a heated debate, for sure, and I am not wholly convinced that the new board mirror what I feel about our spiritual home. However, at least the board agreed to withhold the issuing of new shares until the next EGM comes around. New director Gray Smith seems a thoroughly decent person and has been tasked by Steve Frankham to oversee a thorough review of current policies within the CPO. The main talking point from the floor was – obviously – the block buying of new shares and the implications if block buying could be allowed in the future.

I hope that the board will go ahead with the much-mooted requests for “one man one vote” in future.

There is more – much more – to be discussed on this most vital of matters over the next few weeks and months.

To be honest, I felt a little cheated that this mammoth journey (a 490 mile round trip for me) was taking place in the middle of winter. Is it me, or does it always seem that our more popular away games always seem to take place in the more inclement times of the football calendar? For Blackpool last season, see Norwich and Swansea this season.

At the very least, I was hoping for clear blue skies and fields lightly dusted with frost on the trip to Norfolk. Unfortunately, for the most part, the weather on the trip to Norwich was grey and miserable, with only occasional moments of winter sun lightening the sky.

The M4 motorway took me from Wiltshire and into Berkshire. The M25 took me around the northern Home Counties which nudge against the capital city; Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire and Essex. At about 9.30am, we turned off the M25 and headed north on the M11, up past Stansted airport, with thoughts of forays with Chelsea to Prague in 1994, Turin in 2009 and Leverkusen in 2011. The sun briefly made a cameo appearance, but then the clouds swarmed overhead once more. As we turned off the M11 and headed north-east, we listened to Terry Venables talking about his career in football on the Danny Baker Show on Five Live. A brief foray through Cambridgeshire was followed by a few miles in Suffolk.The A11 took us past Newmarket, one of the major venues for horse racing in the UK and home to the National Horseracing Museum. The main stand of the course was clearly visible to our east. We continued on, bypassing Mildenhall and Thetford, the traffic slowing as we hit some single-line roads. We were now in Norfolk. The landscape in East Anglia is rather uninteresting. It’s an agricultural area, with acres and acres of flat arable farmlands. We drove past fields full of sheep, then moorlands, then pig farms. The town names were solidly Anglo-Saxon – Attleborough, Wymondham, Wreningham – but the two US air force bases at Mildenhall and Lakenheath were close by.

As we neared the Norwich ring road at around 11am, a few landmarks looked semi-familiar from my only ever previous visit back in 2005. I have particularly fond memories of that trip as it signalled, for me anyway, the point in that tumultuous season when I felt that the championship – our first for 50 long years – was on the cards. I had travelled up with two mates from Frome – Glenn and Frank – and we had decided to stay overnight in a cheap and cheerful bed and breakfast. We met up with a few friends from London after a quick perambulation of the pleasant city centre. We had a few drinks in a city centre pub. On the walk down to the ground (it was a 5.15pm kick-off), we had heard that United had drawn 0-0 at Crystal Palace. On a bitterly cold Norfolk evening, we defeated Norwich 3-1 with goals from Joe Cole, Mateja Kezman and Ricardo Carvalho. We went eight points clear that night and, really, never looked back.

That night was a blast as we bar-hopped in and out of a few pubs and bars down by the River Wensum. One of our match day companions in The Sleepy Hollow – Rousey – joined in the fun and the sight of him on the dance floor is one of the surreal memories from that magical season.

Norwich 2005 was a top night – how would 2012 shape up?

Without knowing it, I drove right past Carrow Road as I followed signs for a city centre car park. Amongst the metal cladding of shopping malls and bowling alleys down by the river, the low main stand of Carrow Road easily blends in. We parked up at 11.30am, a full four and three-quarter hours after I had left my home village. We exited the multi-story and I soon realised that we were right in the middle of the pedestrianized walkway of The Riverwalk, the same entertainment complex where Frank, Glenn, Rousey and I had spent five hedonistic hours seven years ago. Since that visit, there had been substantial building work carried out along the river banks, with modern five and six story apartments looking over the fast-flowing river below. Norwich looked like a fine city and I lamented the fact that this would be just a fleeting visit.

We spotted a busy bar with a few Chelsea fans outside on the patio overlooking a pedestrian bridge over the river. We quickly decided to enter. Two girls just inside the pub were selling bottles of Carlsberg and we dived in…what a good idea; certainly saved time waiting at the bar. The pub was called “The Queen Of The Iceni” – named after Queen Boudica, who took charge of an uprising against the Roman Empire.

How appropriate, eh?

Parky and I spotted a few familiar faces as we settled by the doors looking out onto the patio. The home fans were of course in the majority, with the bright yellow of their home shirts prevalent. I looked on aghast, though, at the number of them who were wearing the short-sleeved shirts over normal shirts and sweatshirts. Now, this is never a good look, even in unsophisticated Norfolk. To be fair, there were a few casuals amongst the home support, though; not everyone had the dress sense of a sweaty computer nerd.

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Daryl, Alan and Gary soon appeared, clutching bottles of Carslberg and joined us for thirty minutes of chat. They had journeyed up by train from London. I updated them a little with news of the CPO. Worryingly, Daryl commented that on his two previous trips to Carrow Road, both games had ended goal-less. The Norwich fans in the boozer sang a song berating their great rivals Ipswich Town, but this then stirred the fifty Chelsea fans into life.

“Carefree, wherever you may be.
We are the famous CFC.
And we don’t give a fcuk, wherever you may be.
‘Cus we are the famous CFC.”

With that, we supped our beers and left. We were outside the away turnstiles within five minutes, shaking hands with a few mates, catching up for a few seconds, smiles and laughter.

Carrow Road is a neat and tidy stadium, with double-deck stands at both ends. The low stand opposite is one of the smallest in the top division. The east stand, the one housing 3,000 Chelsea fans, was completed just before that game back in 2005. It is a plain stand with around 7,000 seats in a single, deep tier. Despite a high roof, the wind was bringing in rain as we stood awaiting the arrival of the players. Grey skies overhead. The spire of Norwich Cathedral was visible above the roof opposite. In the north east corner, the rooms of the Holiday Inn overlooked the away fans. It was a strange sight indeed. The hotel is built right next to the stadium. Ring any bells?

Several yellow and green flags were waved enthusiastically as the music blared. Believe it or not, Norwich City chose the same piece of classical music which was used for the Old Spice commercials back in the ‘seventies (aka “O Fortuna” from Carmina Burana.)

AVB went with Lampard again in the midfield, with no place for Oriel Romeu. Studge was recalled. We began well and Raul Meireles was involved in a few interchanges. We dominated possession throughout the first-half in fact, but Norwich were the ones with more definite chances. Grant Holt, who looks more like a lorry driver than a footballer, shot wide and I wondered if he would be able to be suitably patrolled by JT. Fernando Torres showed great fortitude midway through the half as he held off challenges as he danced into the box, before shooting early. His neat curler with the outside of his right foot caught Ruddy off balance, but the ‘keeper did well to push the ball around the far post. From the corner, Sturridge blasted over. The Chelsea crowd, loud in the first ten minutes, were getting quieter as our passing became sterile. Both sets of fans exchanged those famous barbs from the 2005 game;

“We’ve got a super cook, you’ve got a Russian crook.”

“We’ve got Abramovich, you’ve got a drunken bitch.”

I presumed that Delia Smith, the former City chairwoman, was in the crowd. The other famous City fan, Stephen Fry, was attending; according to Alan, he had been spotted in an executive box. At last the sun came out for a few fleeting minutes and the spire on the cathedral stood out. Our football did not. Frank Lampard grabbed his calf and fell to the floor. While we were down to ten men, a shot from Johnson was deflected, only for Cech to adjust and save. Frank was replaced by Florent Malouda. In the last minute of the first-half, Juan Mata rode a tackle, cut in and settled to shoot, but blasted over wildly. It was one of those halves. We had most of the ball, but Norwich had the chances. Work that out. The one highlight was the performance of the much maligned David Luiz, who was cool, calm and collected; intelligent positioning and confident possession were the hallmarks of his play. One dribble out of defence was sublime. But, in general, our play was again slow and laboured. Save from a few Ramires toe pokes away from Norwich players, I can hardly remember a tackle in anger the entire forty-five minutes.

At the break, Georgie from Bristol appeared with a photo on her phone of her with Gianfranco Zola. I presumed that he was in town to take part in the TV coverage.

Soon into the second half, a high ball was brought down with consummate ease by Juan Mata right in front of us all in the away section. It was probably the single most impressive piece of skill the entire game and reminded me of a similarly beautiful piece if skill by that man Zola at Anfield over ten years ago.

Although all of us were stood, the noise became negligible. The rising levels of frustration resulted in anguished bellows from the away contingent.

Me : “Move for each other!”

Al : “Sharpen up!”

Gary : “Come on Chels!”

On the hour, the ball fell to Torres in a packed penalty area. We stood on tip-toe to see what he would do. Time was obviously of the essence and he decided to toe poke the ball goalwards. I just saw the ball squirm past the far post.

Norwich screamed “fcukin’ useless” to the tune of “Papa’s Got A Brand New Pigbag.”

We replied “fcukin’ inbreds” to the same tune.

Just after, a flowing move from Malouda to Sturridge to Mata ended up with a low shot at the near post being turned around for a corner by Ruddy. Sturridge was having a particularly poor game; he was hiding for the most part and that is simply not good enough. We had a few half chances, but were not convincing at all. We were all surprised when Lukaku was introduced in place of Torres, who was having a half-decent game. Michael Essien was our final substitute; the final twist of the card. He replaced the fading Meireles. The entire away support pondered how Sturridge was still on the field. A strong Lukaku run brought cheers, but the play continued to be lacklustre, without invention, without fight. A timid shot from Mata after a nimble turn idly passed the near post. A wild shot from Malouda on ninety minutes ended up a good twenty yards high of the goal and, by then, the away support had long given up. A few had started to leave. I can hardly remember a worthwhile attack on Cech’s goal in that second period, though. This was a game we could have easily won. At the final whistle, the home crowd roared as if they had won.

Indeed, it felt like we had lost.

This was as poor a performance as I can remember this season.

Juan Mata and Michael Essien turned towards us, walked a couple of steps and applauded us. They were already on our side of the pitch. My eyes were fixed on the rest, though. Only one made the effort to walk over to us. John Terry clapped us and did his trademark sweeping point to us all. Respect to him.

Contrast this to the QPR game. In that game, Chelsea had lost, but both the team and fans had given everything. All of the players had walked over to applaud us at Loftus Road. Them and us together – the way it should be. At Norwich, I guess the players knew, deep down, that they had massively underperformed. But that is – of course! – no bloody excuse for blanking the loyal three thousand who had travelled hundreds of miles to support their efforts. As we silently exited the bright yellow seats, fans muttered their disapproval of the manager.

I said to Long Tall Pete “I’m fully prepared to give him time, but he does himself no favours.”

Outside, Parky was waiting alongside Daryl.

“You and your bloody nil-nil draws, mate.”

Three out of three.

Parky, hobbling on his crutches, and I, hands stuffed in my pockets, made a bee-line for the car. However, my usually reliable logistical planning had backfired and my central parking location meant that it took us a full hour to hit the ring road. The long road home appeared never-ending. The rain lashed down and I gritted my teeth. However, I was so tired that I took a power nap of around 15 minutes at a filling station somewhere near Thetford.

Thankfully, a Red Bull – as always – revitalised me and we were on our way once more. Parky slapped on a Blondie CD and we fastened our seat belts for the return trip home. Bolton’s 3-1 win over the Scousers cheered us a little and our usual array of corny jokes and wisecracks kept us going. I will leave the introspection to others, but this game in deepest Norfolk annoyed me. The team just didn’t show any fight or passion. That, my friends, is inexcusable.

I eventually reached home at 9pm. It had been a long day.

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