Tales From The M4, M5, M54, A41, A49, A556, M56, M60, A56…

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 12 April 2011.

Another day of destiny. We have had a few over these past few years.

At 6.45am, I posted on Facebook :

Things I Like About Manchester : New Order, LS Lowry, The Buzzcocks, Morrissey, Stuart Hall, Johnny Marr, The Smiths. Things I Dislike About Manchester : “Unih’ed.”

While getting ready for work, I briefly overhead Sir Alex Ferguson on TV mumbling about “momentum.” I remembered that just after the Manchester City game, the momentum was with us. How soon things change. On the drive in to work, I ran through all of the options ahead of us, ranging from a heavy defeat, a narrow loss, a dull draw, a narrow win or maybe even a convincing win. By the time I got in to work at 8.30am, I was absolutely buzzing and let everyone know it. I couldn’t wait to get on my way.

I was busy again in the morning and so the time absolutely flew.

At 12.45pm, I left Chippenham and pointed my Renault Clio northwards. It was a fine, Spring afternoon and it was a pleasure to be part of our latest assault on The Cup With The Big Ears, as Ruud Gullit used to call it.

However, just south of Birmingham, things took a nosedive. I began seeing signs on the M5 saying “M6 J16-J17 CLOSED” and I then had a text from Bristol Tim, intimating that the road would be closed until 7pm. I stopped at Frankley Services just as a coach load of United fans were alighting. I quickly looked at options and worked out a plan. I wanted to avoid heading off the M6 at Stoke as I knew the roads north to Manchester would be rammed. Instead, I decided to head west on the M54 and then up through the rural byroads of Shropshire and Cheshire. I quickly contacted Tim, who was further south at Cheltenham, Andy in Nuneaton and Kent Blues Gill, who was still in Luton on the M1. It felt like being part of an invasion force – 3,700 strong – and I think that the Nuneaton boys, in two cars, and Gill, went up the M1 to Yorkshire and then across on the M62.

I headed west on the M54, just north of Birmingham’s urban sprawl, but my mood soon changed. I was soon caught in masses of traffic. My plan looked like backfiring. However, the delay was caused by road works rather than high volumes diverting off the M6 and so I was relieved to be soon heading up towards Whitchurch on the A41 at about 3pm. As I careered northwards, I was concerned about my route and possible further delays and so I didn’t think about the evening’s encounter with United. This was probably just as well.

My progress stalled for about 45 minutes due to yet more road works in a small village called Cotebrook, but I crossed over the M6 at 5pm – as Japan gave way to Depeche Mode on the CD player – and I was on the familiar approach, past Tatton Park and then Manchester Airport, into the United heartland of west Manchester. Tim from Bristol wasn’t too far behind me. My plan had worked and I hoped that Carlo’s would be just as effective. Yet again, I was amazed that there was not one single road-sign for Manchester United’s stadium anywhere. Memories of past trips to Old Trafford flew through my mind. This would be my fifteenth Manchester United vs. Chelsea game.

At 5.45pm, five hours after leaving Chippenham, I was parked-up. As superstitious as ever, I used the same spot as on our smash-and-grab raid at Old Trafford last season. The sun was still shining and the white roof supports of Old Trafford dominated the area, towering over the plain red-brick terraced streets of the immediate area to the south. I thought back to our 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Old Trafford. For that game, Chelsea were allocated the Stretford End and my mates and I soon devised a plan to mark our appearance in United’s home end. At that time, we were in our pomp under Jose Mourinho, on our way to that second successive league title. I came up with a slogan…

“The Premiership is our Joy Division. Welcome to the New Order. Chelsea F.C. Champions 2004-05, 2005-06…”

…and my mate Daryl printed up hundreds of stickers. On that approach to the Stretford End, we plastered these stickers everywhere – on lamp posts, street signs, bins – and we did the same once inside the stands. I would love to have seen the United fans’ faces as they reached their seats at the next home game.

It was our finest moment.

I saw Dutch Mick and three friends arrive by car and I nodded a “hello.” The area on the Chester Road as it crosses over with Sir Matt Busby Way was full of United fans. The Bishops Blaize and The Trafford pubs. The chip shops and the off-licenses. The souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers. They certainly like their chips at Old Trafford. Curry sauce and chips. Pie and chips. Irish fans and chips. Lager and chips. Mancunians and chips. Asian fans and chips. Blokes in replica shirts and chips. Fish and chips. Peas and chips. Fanzines and chips. Policemen and chips. Touts and chips. Chips and chips.

I bought a copy of “United We Stand” for Judy’s boy James and bumped into a gaggle of Chelsea on the famous forecourt. One chap mentioned penalties and, I have to be honest, I hadn’t contemplated that option. I then had a few moments to myself. I took a few photos. The grafters were out and about and their Mancunian accents were causing me to chuckle –

“Your ‘alf and ‘alf scaaarves. Six quid each or two for a tennoh.”

I bought a hot dog and had a wander around. The skies over the stadium and the Salford Quays were stunningly clear, crisp and blue. I briefly thought about the hackneyed cliché of United fans being glory-hunters from everywhere but Manchester. And there they were – right in front of me, at the statue of Best, Law and Charlton. Foreign accents, foreign faces. It made me think of the two clubs, United and us, both chasing foreign patronage. I guess it is just the scale of Manchester United that differs. Chelsea, despite our proliferation of support since 2000, still feels like a small family – an eccentric family at that – compared to the behemoth that is Manchester United. I thought about all of the familiar faces in the Chelsea hard core and I wondered if United could match that sense of intimate camaraderie. I guess that United fans have their cliques and groups, but Chelsea seems a closer entity.

But I suspect I am biased.

As I made my way up the many flights of stairs to the upper tier of the East Stand, I found it ironic that James’ “Sit Down” was on the tannoy…it has been a constant battle for United fans to maintain the right to stand at home games during the gentrification of football in the post Sky TV era.

This was a different location for me at Old Trafford. Usually, we get that wedge in the corner of the lower tier. This time, we had 75% of the upper tier. I made my way to seat number 120 in row 28. My goodness, what a view. However, with the overhang of the roof, everything was enclosed. I could not see a single square inch of the outside world.

Everything was there in front of me. I was quite central. It was like watching on the world’s largest widescreen TV. Quite spectacular.

So – team news. Alex and Torres in. Drogba on the bench. Make or break.

We were singing away during the pre-match kick-in and Torres got special cheers each time he scored. The ground slowly filled and many arrived late from the carnage on the M6. I took the customary photos of the teams as they strode onto the lush Old Trafford pitch, which is raised up, perhaps like a stage. I’m sure the “Unih’ed” fans would say that.

We began well and our play certainly pleased all of the Chelsea fans in my immediate vicinity. Ramires had a strong run deep into the United box, but was blocked at the last minute. Fernando Torres headed meekly goal wards but then did well to knock a ball back for Anelka to strike towards van der Sar. Then, Frank was clear through, but his week shot was well gathered by the United ‘keeper. After a quarter of an hour, we had all the chances.

“Score, score, score – when you get one you’ll get more.
We’ll sing you (an) assembly, when we get to Wembley
So come on you Chelsea and score.”

After 26 minutes, a ball was whipped in by Wayne Rooney and was ably nodded in by Chicarito. However, the United cheers soon subsided when we all spotted the linesman’s flag was up for an offside.

Phew.

On 31 minutes, a ball was thumped out towards Nicolas Anelka on the right. The space opened up in front of him and it was simply a race between himself and Edwin van der Sar. With much dismay from the travelling hordes high up in the East Stand, the United custodian just got to the ball before Nico and the he cleared for a throw-in. This summed up Anelka’s half. He was playing behind Torres and was often involved, but was usually sluggish and slow. Torres hardly got a sniff. A lot of our play came through the left-hand side. Lampard was having as good a game as he has had since his return. Our efforts were not being rewarded with many chances, though. We were finding lots of space out wide on both flanks, but our crossing, from Ivanovic especially, was woeful.

What a terrible time to concede a goal. The ball was worked out by Rooney to Giggs, who played a one-two with O’Shea. A low ball to Chicarito and 1-0 to The Glory Hunters.

That goal ruined us. If we had kept it tight at the break, I fancied us to nick it. I toyed with the idea of Yossi coming off the bench to feed in Torres. Well, Carlo Ancelotti saw it otherwise and replaced Torres with Didier Drogba.

“Come on Didi, son, you owe us for Moscow.”

United didn’t have to attack us and so we were given a few shots on goal, from Malouda, Lampard and Drogba. Van der Sar was untroubled.

Salamon Kalou came on for Nicolas Anelka but hardly got involved, much to our dismay. Our support was still strong, though, and all of the Chelsea favourites from this season were being aired. On 67 minutes, a typical “floaty” Lampard corner was met by a leaping Alex at the back stick, but his strong header was down but also wide. At the other end, Nani forced a superb save from Petr Cech.

Then – calamity. A tackle on Nani from behind by Ramires and a red card. Down to ten men. This looked a lost cause. However, we never gave up, even though our end product wasn’t great. A nice run by Malouda and a shot from Drogba, but it was straight at van der Sar. We were all standing for the entire game, all 3,700 of us.

Standing with our arms folded.

What a goal by Drogba! A strong run by Essien, who was getting stronger as Lampard was tiring. He played a ball through for Drogba in the inside right channel…he turned adeptly and rifled past the United ‘keeper.

YEEEEEEESSSSSSS!

The away end erupted and we thought the unthinkable.

Within thirty seconds, we had let Giggs flick a ball out to an unmarked Park and we watched aghast as the ball was drilled into the goal, past Cech.

The United crowd roared and went berserk. I caught a United official leap off the bench and it sickened me to the core.

Oh hell.

We still kept pressing – a Malouda drive at you-know-who was the main chance – and the fans never gave up. We still kept singing, we still kept urging the boys on, but deep down we knew.

We had had our chips.

The United fans, quiet for a lot of the first-half, were now wild and loud, and it felt like the entire crowd were singing the Viva John Terry song. It must be doubly-sickening for our captain, a United fan as a kid, to hear himself mocked in such a brutal way.

How it affected John, I can’t possibly imagine, but his performance was one of the highlights of the night : as steady as ever.

Then that new song –

“We do what we want, we do what we want, we’re Man United -we do what we want.”

That is the song that will now haunt me, like the Ronaldo song in Moscow.

However, for the last few minutes, the Old Trafford night was echoing to the sound of the defiant Chelsea support as we rallied in defence of our beloved team –

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

“Amazing Grace” had never been sung louder or with more defiance. We are Chelsea, we’ll sing what we want.

I began my exit during the last few seconds of play and the whistle went as I had just made my way out of the seating area. Unlike 1970, Old Trafford would not be so kind to us for a midweek cup tie. I virtually ran all of the way back to where my car was parked – “get out of my way!”- and fended some incoming texts as I went. By 9.50pm, I had made it back to the car and by 10.30pm, I was on the M6. It had been a quick getaway.

As I began my trip home, all 190 miles of it, a Depeche Mode song came on the CD –

“Leave In Silence.”

I drove through the night, with the air-con whirring away, my thoughts flowing through my mind. Of course, the fate of Carlo dominated my mind and as the texts died out, I was left alone, driving on…a “Coke” and a “Red Bull” kept me going and I eventually reached home at 1.40am.

Before I made my way to bed, I uploaded the standard five photographs from the game onto Facebook and posted one last thought.

“Home : Tired and weary. Great support tonight. We will rise again.”

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