Tales From The Roller Coaster

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2011.

There were reports of snow “up North” on Friday and on my brief foray around Frome on Saturday morning, I noted areas of black ice. I will be honest; I briefly wondered about the validity of the long trek up to Wigan for the evening kick-off. What if there was a calamitous fall of snow while the game was taking place. Would I then be stranded in deepest Lancashire?

Parky had been suffering badly with a stomach bug all week and had pulled out of the familiar journey to the former mill town of Wigan. It was going to be a solo trip north, just like a few years ago, before His Lordship chose to accompany me on the majority of my Chelsea adventures.

So, in the words of Joe Strummer; shall I stay or shall I go?

At just after 11am, I set off for Lancashire but I added a clause. I would return south as soon as I hit any serious weather. The long trip filled me with a little foreboding, but I quickly tuned the radio to Five Live and settled in for a few hours of football chat. Part of the Saturday programme was being recorded live from the iconic Salford Lads Club, in the shadows of Old Trafford, and I was reminded of the time that Gumby and I visited this famous building prior to our game at United in 2006. Its most famous role in popular culture was as a setting for a photograph used inside The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” album in 1986.

“The queen is dead boys and it’s so lonely on a limb.”

Without the detour to collect Parky, I headed through Peasedown, touched the southern edge of Bath and skimmed Bristol before hitting the motorway network. There were periods of rain showers but sunny intervals, too.

The constant football banter on the radio helped the time race by. The Malverns around Tewkesbury were dusted with snow. I stopped for a coffee at Strensham, surprisingly quiet for a change; I guessed that neither United nor Liverpool were at home. There was a delay signposted ahead and so I broke off the M6 and headed through Stoke for the third time this season. All of the adjacent fields were covered in a thin covering of snow here, too. I passed The Britannia Stadium and then, five minutes later, I spotted the more down-at-heel Vale Park, the home of Port Vale. I refuelled at Sandbach, and then listened to a few minutes from Newcastle, where a Welsh tenor sang a stirring version of “Bread of Heaven” before a moment’s applause for the memory of Gary Speed.

As I neared Wigan, I half-heartedly listened to the first half of the Blackburn Rovers vs. West Bromwich Albion match. The radio people were continually returning to the fact that three of the lesser lights in the North West’s footballing landscape were currently occupying the relegation spots. After victories at Bolton and Blackburn, I certainly hoped for a win at the DW stadium to wrap up a trio of wins in Lancashire this season. And yet…there was a bit of me that half-expected Wigan to beat us. Call it my Chelsea sixth-sense. After a euphoric win against the leaders, how “Chelsea” for us it would be to lose to a lowly team a few days later. Maybe I have just been a fan of this club for too long.

The slow traffic on the M6 had resulted in the 200 mile journey to Wigan taking four-and-a-half hours. The diet of football on the radio had eased me through the late morning and afternoon. Thoughts of the next round of the Champions League certainly helped too. In a whirlwind few hours on Friday, I had booked some time off work and sorted out a flight from my local airport at Bristol to Rome, where I am staying a night with Alan and Gary, before heading down to Naples for the game. If that doesn’t excite me, something is wrong. It is a great dichotomy that most of Chelsea’s fan base was praying for an easy draw on Friday, whereas the match-going loyalists were craving for a great trip. Never mind the opposition, let’s get a good country, a great city and a new team.

I missed out on the Milan game in 1999 and the Inter game in 2010 due to work commitments, so I was long overdue a visit to the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza with Chelsea, although I had visited the stadium for two Inter league games in 1987 and 1990. Napoli was a different matter. If I am being honest, Napoli was my number one choice heading into the draw. An iconic city in the mezzogiorno. The city of the camorra. The home to a passionate and misunderstood populace; all football mad and delirious for success. The team of Maradona and all that. I briefly visited Naples in 1988 and 1990 but only got the briefest of tastes. It was a city like no other in Europe; maddening traffic, street urchins, noise, motorcycles, poverty… a city clinging on to Europe.

I can’t wait to return.

I parked up in my usual place at 3.45pm and I quickly decided that pre-match drinks were out of the question. With a potentially long and tiring return journey to come, I wanted to stay as fresh as I could. There had been mixed weather on the trip up, but there were clear skies at Wigan. The sun was setting and the air was cold. I walked to the stadium and noted a few locals wearing Santa hats. The Pogues’ “Fairy tale of New York” was playing on the stadium PA. I spent a while taking photographs of the exterior of the stadium. My two loves of football and photography enable me to combine two passions and I take a shedload of photographs on any given match day.

That I am a lover of stadia helps too.

At a Chelsea away game, I’ll be the one taking photos of roof trusses, turnstiles, illuminated signs, balcony walls, goal nets, corner flags, floodlights and statues.

The DW is a pretty bland stadium, located next to a retail park to the south, with a disproportionately large car park to the north. It will win no prizes for stadia design, but acts as a suitable home to the town’s football and rugby league teams. This would be my seventh visit to the stadium with Chelsea – probably the only stadium where I have seen every single one of Chelsea’s games. My mate Steve had been texting me with news of my local team Frome Town throughout the day. The final score brought a smile to my cheeks on a cold day; the Robins had continued their fine away form with a 2-0 win at the sublimely named Swindon Supermarine. There is a definite disappointment that I will be otherwise engaged at The Bridge on Boxing Day when Frome Town host Dorset’s biggest non-league team Weymouth. A gate of between 750 and 1,000 is expected for that one. I would love to be there for that; Frome’s biggest home league game for decades.

Before the game, I met up with Gill and Graeme and took a few photos of the Chelsea team going through their pre-match drills. I looked hard for Fernando Torres but couldn’t spot him; I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t start. The stadium took ages to fill up and at 5pm, the place only held around 3,000 people. I looked over to the side stand, where 400 noisy home fans were based and saw a nice banner; quite self-deprecating –

“We Come From Wigan And We Live In Mud Huts.”

During the last few minutes of the pre-game ritual, an old Christmas cracker from 1973 boomed around the stadium.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

I scrambled back to my allotted seat in row M just as Alan and Gary arrived.

“Hiya boys. Cold enough for ya?”

I was reminded of how steep the rakes of seats are at Wigan. I’m not sure how many we took to the game – maybe 3,500 at only £25 a pop – but the majority stood throughout.

I was wrong; Torres was on the bench yet again and Didier was playing. Lampard was in for the injured Ramires; no complaints.

This was a poor Chelsea performance on a bitter Lancashire evening. As the game developed, the Chelsea support grew more and more frustrated with our lack of desire and running. The songs were quite fragmented. I was expecting a full bodied reprise of “One Step Beyond” to be roaring around the away stand but I guess that particular song is difficult to replicate during a match.

Chelsea had most of the ball in the first-half, but that is to be expected. However, a John Terry thunderbolt after 15 minutes was the first meaningful attempt on goal. We’re still all waiting for John’s first ever blooter from outside the box; all of his Chelsea goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the box as far as I can remember. One day it will come; I have a feeling he is saving it for a Cup Final.

Oriel Romeu’s low drive, which was turned around El Habsi’s post, and a stooping header from Drogba represented our only other notable chances. Wigan, however, seemed content to soak up the pressure and hit us on a few breaks. Several contentious refereeing decisions which went against Wigan raised the hackles of the home support. Ivanovic, especially, was lucky not to have been penalised for a handball. A few nervous Cech clearances brought howls of complaint from the Chelsea faithful. At times our play was staid and unimaginative. Sturridge had started enthusiastically, but faded as the game developed. At times our midfield were like statues. In the last move of the half, a Wigan break resulted in a ball whipped across the box, just a few yards away from us all, which evaded everyone. A simple Wigan lunge was all that was required.

At the break, Gary summed it all up –

“Come on, we’re fcuking 5hit.”

At the break I bumped into Burger and Julie; they are excitedly bound for Italy on their first ever Chelsea European adventure.

I think we were all surprised that Oriel Romeu was substituted at the break. On came Kalou and I never really managed to work out who was playing where. Sometimes the raw emotion which I feel at games hinders my ability to fully understand subtle changes to team shape and methodology. We attempted to sing our support, but – like the team – that was disappointing, too. Kalou was soon involved and his typically tricky, heart-in-the-mouth, “he’ll lose the ball in his next kick” run into the box found Drogba, who prodded the ball into the side-netting with the outside of his foot.

On the hour, a great cross from Ashley Cole found Daniel Sturridge out on the edge of the box, just to my left. With a lovely move, he brought the ball down and despatched the ball into the net with his right foot.

The Chelsea support heaved a sigh of relief, I took a few blurry photographs of Studge’s celebratory stance and Alan and I did our usual “THTCAUN & COMLD” post goal routine.

Phew.

Rather than grow on this, we retreated into our collective shell, allowing Wigan several long range shots. The defence were looking decidedly shaky too, with several errors causing gasps and gulps amongst the 3,500 away fans. Our support grew more and more tense. The Wigan fans in the corner, the brave 400 from the mud huts, kept singing though. The rest of the home crowd was so quiet, but at least that corner section kept going. Fair play to them.

I could hardly believe that Torres couldn’t get on the pitch. Malouda and Mikel came on, but added nothing. Torres, bless him, must be wondering what he has to do. Was AVB’s plan to save him for Thursday? Highly unlikely.

And then it happened. It all unravelled before us in agonising “we’ve seen it all before” slow motion. A break down the right; Ivanovic out of position, trying to cover, but failing. A cross come shot spilled by Cech and a Wigan player pounced.

1-1.

Expletive deleted.

AVB’s uncharacteristically cautious approach almost paid off, but as Ruud Gullit once said “football is all about small moments” and our game at Wigan boiled down to Petr Cech not being able to gather that shot on 86 minutes. A header over the bar from a Wigan attack saved us further embarrassment and it remained 1-1.

The final whistle blew and my only thought was to get back to the car. Standing all game, my legs took a while to jump to life. My knees especially hurt like hell. I got back to the car in just 15 minutes and I wish that our players had shown similar urgency.

This seemed like a loss.

Despite stopping off for the usual Chelsea away day combination of carbohydrates and caffeine at Keele Services, I managed to return home in just three and a half hours. I won’t say it flew by, but with music from Everything But The Girl, Depeche Mode, Sex Pistols and Echo and The Bunnymen, I was at least I able to try to avoid thinking too hard about those dropped points.

But it was difficult to ignore.

Everyone had underperformed, to be honest. I do not relish the role of critic – my job is to support – but the manager made some strange decisions and our players were lackadaisical. I remember saying a few weeks back that this season will be a roller-coaster and the events of Saturday 17th. December have clearly not changed my opinion.

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