Tales From A Sobering Week

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 15 September 2012.

At last. At long last another Chelsea game. A whole three weeks had passed since I attended our fine win over Newcastle United. Thankfully, I didn’t venture to the south of France for the Super Cup game. Yes, three whole weeks. Twenty-one days. It felt like an extra close-season. And I hated every minute of it.

It was a sunny morning in deepest Somerset as I slotted my coffee mug into the drink holder alongside my car seat. I flicked the ignition on; I was back on the treadmill. Japan’s “Quiet Life” reverberated through the speakers and I was on my way.

I texted the briefest of messages to Alan in London.

“Jack Qprouac.”

I was on the road once more.

With no detour north to collect Lord Porkinson on this occasion, I was soon driving through Frome, past Warminster and then up and over Salisbury Plain. It was soon clear that it was going to be a cracking day. The sun was up, the sky was blue, it’s beautiful and so are you. On the long straight before I dipped into the miniscule village of Chitterne, the view ahead made me smile. Hay bales were stacked in the fields to my left and right. It was a perfect scene of rural England. It was a perfect day for football.

And then it came back into my mind once again.

Hillsborough.

I’m sure that there were many fans that set off for Sheffield on that sunny day in 1989 that had a similar outlook; a sunny day and a perfect day for football.

My mind had been full of thoughts about Hillsborough since the news of the enquiry into the disaster came through on Wednesday. Without much prompting, my original thoughts on those events came rocketing back. And I recoiled at the memories.

The recollections from that day in April 1989 are still surprisingly clear. On the previous Saturday, I had travelled by train to see our enjoyable 3-2 win at West Brom. As I was saving hard for my first-ever trip to North America throughout the 1988-1989 season, I had decided to save some money and not travel to Filbert Street for our game with Leicester City. I remember that it was the day that we could have been promoted and many Chelsea travelled to the game.

Instead, I was at home. I remember I was sat at the table, pen in hand, attempting to put further meat on the bones of my skeletal planning of my US trip. I had a few brochures strewn over the table and the radio was on. The commentary game on BBC Radio Two was from Hillsborough and there had already been mention of a little crowd disturbance. This surprised me; there was no “previous” between the two teams as far as I was aware. If anything, there was a general easing off from the, dare I say it, hooligan hay days of the early ‘eighties. We had the second summer of love in the UK in 1988 and there was a tendency for hooligans to start a slow drift away from decaying football terraces and into nightclubs, warehouses and fields as a drug called ecstasy took hold.

After just six minutes, the game was stopped and I was bemused.

“Why?”

I couldn’t work out why there was any trouble in Sheffield.

As news of the events unravelled, I soon realised that the BBC would have TV cameras at the game. I turned the radio off. I turned the TV on. Within a few moments of watching the scenes of confusion at the Leppings Lane end of the stadium, the news came through that several Liverpool supporters had died.

I was in shock. I can solemnly say that the news chilled me to the core.

The travel brochures were brushed aside as I watched with a mixture of sadness, horror and disbelief as the afternoon turned into a scene of devastation.

The rest of the day is a blur. Chelsea lost 2-0 at Leicester and it didn’t matter. Pat Nevin scored for Everton in the other semi-final and it didn’t matter.

To be honest, not much mattered that evening.

Football wore a black armband the following few weeks; the events cast a deep shadow over us all.

Our next game was on the following Saturday and the fates contrived for a massive game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Leeds United. Not only a game against our old rivals from West Yorkshire, but the game which could see us promoted. I met up with three college mates – Ian, Bob and Trev. Ian was a Rotherham fan, but Bob and Ian were Leeds. We had a few pre-match pints in The Black Bull alongside my Chelsea mates Alan and Paul. We spoke in earnest about Hillsborough. By then, the death toll was a massive ninety-five (*it became 96 in 1993 when Tony Bland’s life support machine was turned off. Bland was the only victim with whom I had a link. He worked for the same company that I did between 1991 and 1998 ). The over-riding feeling throughout the talk was that “it could have been us.” I had watched Chelsea from the Leppings Lane enclosure in 1985. We had all experienced moments on terraces where the crush had been slightly scary. From what I remember, there was a muted atmosphere in and around the stadium. The attendance was only 30,000; under normal circumstances, I would have expected more. There was a well observed minute’s silence before the game. A John Bumstead goal gave us a 1-0 win, but it was a weird day. There wasn’t the euphoria of the 5-0 win over Leeds which got us promoted in 1984. This was a far different feeling.

After the game, Bob, Trev, Ian and I had a few pints at Earls Court and then in central London. We ended up in one of my favourite boozers – “The Round Table” near Covent Garden. Talk was still dominated by Hillsborough. I remember I said to Bob “in a way, we’re all responsible” and he wanted me to explain myself.

Every violent song, every violent gesture helped stir the atmosphere at games and the language of hate was never far away in those days. And although I had never been in involved in football violence, I – like many – enjoyed the banter and badinage that went with football hooliganism in that era. It was part of the scene, part of the culture, part of football.

There had even been moments when I had shouted “go on Chelsea” as it kicked off at a game. We had all been ambivalent to it. But Hillsborough was an eye-opener for me and a few of us. It made me question myself and the part I had played, however miniscule, in the erecting of those fences at Hillsborough which had, ultimately, caused the death of ninety-six football fans.

And it really could have been me. If Hillsborough hadn’t happened in 1989, it may have happened at Highbury in 1990, Old Trafford in 1991 or Stamford Bridge in 1992. I can well remember a game at Chelsea in 1988. We played Charlton Athletic in a real relegation dogfight. My parents arrived late and, intending to get seat tickets, were forced to sit on a part of the crumbling Shed terrace which had been sectioned off as unsafe under the Safety of Sports Grounds Act. Thankfully, only around three hundred were sat on this terrace, but the point is that Chelsea Football Club broke all the rules about crowd safety that day. They were lucky nobody was hurt. They were also lucky that nobody was hurt when the same thing happened against Middlesbrough a few weeks later. My photos from that day show the central part of The Shed heavily over-populated to the point of danger.

Ring any bells?

Big John, who sits near me at HQ, posted on Facebook on Thursday about Hillsborough. He mentioned that in that game against Leeds United in 1989, the spectators raised £15,000 for the Hillsborough disaster fund. In today’s climate, today’s money, today’s 41,000 full house, that equates to around £75,000.

I think this evidence illustrates that most football fans’ view back in 1989 was of sadness and solidarity with the Liverpool fans.

Even Chelsea.

Since then, there is no doubt that perceptions have changed, presumably triggered by our on-going unhealthy spat with Liverpool Football Club. Blame Luis Garcia, blame “that” song about history. However, my own view – though not widely expressed – has always been that the emergency services were to blame for the deaths of the ninety six in 1989. I certainly never believed those scurrilous lies which were peddled by The Sun newspaper, but which became “fact” as the years passed, about fans stealing from the dead and urinating on the police.

And I abhorred my fellow fans’ chant about “killing your own fans.”

I never joined in. It always felt so wrong.

For the reasons mentioned, I’m not a fan of the “Chelsea – hooligans” chant either.

There is, however, one black mark against Liverpool Football Club. It was always seen as the “done thing” amongst their support (and more so than any other team’s fan base) to try to “jib in” – or find a way to get in without paying, sometimes by the most ingenious ways – and this is one part of the Hillsborough tragedy that they have been shamefully quiet about.

Not even I could have expected such an exoneration of the Liverpool fans, not even I could have expected the scale of the cover-up by the emergency services and the government alike. I found it quite incomprehensible that Hillsborough, seen at the time to be one of the best stadia in the country, did not have a valid safety certificate at the time of the game on 15 April 1989. For this, the Football Association and Sheffield Wednesday should be held accountable.

I learned this week that each of the pens at the Leppings Lane end was fitted with small gates at the front, which were locked. When the crush started to occur, a simple unlocking of those gates would have eased the pressure on those fans at the front and the disaster could have been averted. I’d suggest that the keys to those gates were not within easy reach of anyone at Hillsborough. I’d even suggest that nobody even knew where those keys were kept.

One final image.

While the Liverpool supporters ferried the injured and the dead away from the pitch, using advertising hoardings as impromptu stretchers, a line of policemen – with Alsatian dogs – stood across the entire width of the pitch. They were there to stop the Liverpool and Forest fans – in their eyes – from fighting each other.

It all beggars belief.

The past week has been a sobering time.

It has provided me with a very sombre reminder of how we, as football fans, were regarded back in the late ‘eighties.

And it was too important topic for me not to mention.

It was the old familiar route in to London. I rarely travel in via the “southern route” these days; straight in on the M3 which then took me hurtling past Twickenham’s towering stands and all of the way through to Chiswick, then Hammersmith, then Fulham. I turned the radio on at midday in order to catch a sniff of the football chatter on “Five Live.” It was all about “the handshake.”

I quickly uttered a “FFS” to myself and turned it off. After the events of Hillsborough this past week, it seemed ludicrous that a handshake was getting so much attention.

Although we were playing at Loftus Road, I first had an appointment at Stamford Bridge. I quickly trotted down to the little shop outside the main forecourt and collected a couple of photographs of myself – smiling like a fool – with the twin trophies from last May. I aim to frame one of them along with a couple of photographs from Munich and the ten match tickets that are evidence of my attendance throughout last season’s maniacal assault on the Champions League trophy. I also purchased the double-disc DVD of the same Champions League campaign. As I stepped out into the surprisingly warm September sun, the players’ coach slowly drive past. I tried to peer in, but the windows were tinted. I just stood there, smiling, again like a fool.

When it comes to Chelsea, there will always be part of me that is an awestruck eight year old at my first ever game.

I returned to my car and it only took me fifteen minutes to reach my familiar parking spot off Askew Road. It even surprised me how quick I was able to traverse the borough; from Stamford Bridge to Loftus Road in a heartbeat. If there had been no traffic, I expect I could have driven it in around eight minutes flat.

I spotted a few QPR fans in their hooped shirts, but there was no over-riding feeling that there was a “big match” in the vicinity. Loftus Road now barely holds 18,000. Our biggest ever game at this compact stadium took place during the march to the 1970 F.A. Cup Final when around 30,000 attended. No doubt the streets would have been swarming with fans on that particular day.

In 2012, there was a hush around the immediate environs. We had read on the internet that the Rangers fans were aiming to recreate “hell” for our visit.

“Mmm – let’s see how that pans out.”

I dipped into a cosy café for a bite to eat. There were a few home supporters there too. I didn’t let on I was Chelsea; why would I? There were no negative comments about us, nor no reason to believe that they regarded us as the beasts with horns that sections of their support would have us believe. Talk was of QPR players, past and present, their recent form and general football chat.

I was soon outside the entrance to the away end. I spotted the habitually morose Zac (“I’m still worried about the manager, Chris”) and then the cheerier Long Tall Pete and Liz. I didn’t fancy bringing my “proper” camera to this game; with the heightened frisson between our clubs, I didn’t want an overly keen steward to stop me entering the ground with my long lens. Instead, I opted for my small “pub camera.” I took a few shots of the cramped approach into the stands, all corrugated iron and narrow passageways, and then had a quick chat with the contingent from Bristol who I often speak about.

We all agreed that the gap between games was unwanted. It felt – it really did – like the first game of the season again.

The School End at Loftus Road – or Rangers Stadium as they like to call it – houses the away support in two tiers. The upper tier is only thirteen rows deep. The lower tier possibly smaller. The seats are cramped. The Loft at the other end is larger, but only slightly. It took a while for the place to fill up. To my left, there were a few empty seats in both tiers of the main stand. I spotted the idiot with the sombrero; we all remembered him from last season. To my right, the dark shadows of the single tier stand, home to some of the QPR’s more boisterous support.

Above, signage stated “QPR, Loftus Road, 1882.”

This is a clear lie.

Sure, Rangers were formed as long ago as 1882. They have played at a large variety of locations in west London, but only at Loftus Road since 1917. The deep corrugated fascia on the stand roofs appeared to have been given a lick of paint over the summer; a darker blue, a royal blue.

“Mmm.”

To be fair, Loftus is a neat stadium, but oh-so small.

Alan and Gary arrived with five minutes to spare. We stood the entire game. I only slouched into my seat at half-time when I gave my feet a rest.

The teams were announced and then we awaited the arrival of the teams on the pitch. With a blink of an eye, the teams had lined up and the pre-game ceremonies took place. I squinted to see what Anton Ferdinand decided to do, but – to be truthful – nobody could tell. The Chelsea players were warmly applauded by the loyal 2,500 in the School End. Three songs dominated the day.

“We are the champions – the champions of Europe.”

“John Terry – Ashley Cole – John Terry – Ashley Cole.”

“We don’t hate – ‘cus you’re shit.”

After the coin toss, the teams changed ends and so we were treated to Anton Ferdinand sprinting deep into his half, all by himself, to within a few yards of the Chelsea fans in the corner. He turned to acknowledge the home fans but – of course – his intentions were clear; to wind up the away fans, to maybe illicit some abusive reactions, to maybe get a Chelsea fan arrested. According to Alan, he did exactly the same in the home game last season.

A lad next to me had to be reassured that, yes, the QPR goalkeeper was indeed Julio Cesar, the same Julio Cesar who had stood between the posts for Internazionale of Milan. There are strange things happening on Planet Football these days and no transfer is weirder than that. From 80,000 screaming Milanese to 18,000 dreaming West Londoners. It mirrors the absurd move, some thirty years ago, of Allan Simonsen from Barcelona of the Primera Liga to Charlton Athletic of the second division.

In truth, it was a poor game.

I thought that Fernando Torres began brightly and seemed to be full of confidence. Little things; the confident touch as the ball was played to him, the step-over, the impudent flick, the consummate ease with which he spun a ball out to the wing with the outside of his foot. This was promising stuff.

An early passage of play found Eden Hazard bearing down on the goal down below me. The shot was at the ‘keeper and the save drew groans from us. Then, Torres did well to turn inside the box under pressure, but his shot was weak.

And then the referee played his part. I thought that a high foot on Ashley Cole, inside the box, warranted a penalty, but the play wasn’t even halted. Andre Marriner then annoyed us all when he called a foul back when we were breaking through with the ball. Then a free-kick and John Terry ended up on the floor. Then a delicate run by Eden Hazard deep into the box and a tangle with Shaun Wright-Phillips. I didn’t get a clear view, but the appeal by my fellow School Enders was loud and sincere.

The sun was casting clear shadows on the green rectangle below. Above the tall spindles of the floodlight pylons at the Loft End, jet flumes were creating patterns in the sky. Down below, the huff and puff of a typical London derby was producing few clear chances, few passages of entertaining play.

At the break, I said that the game “had 0-0 written all over it.”

Long Tall Pete, a few rows in front, agreed.

After the initial flurry of songs in support of both teams, the atmosphere was pretty lame. An illustration of how low Chelsea really regards QPR is that no mention was made of our 6-1 win against them last Spring.

As the second-half progressed, we seemed to go into our shell. For the first twenty-five minutes, it was the home team who were edging it. They had a few half-chances. At last, the home fans were in the game: they urged on their beloved hoops with the slightly pornographic “Come on you Rs.”

It was all frustrating stuff from us. Fernando Torres, all alone at the pinnacle of our 2-3-1, was hardly given any service. When he did have the ball at his feet, his tendency was to dribble through the defence single-handedly. He was clearly getting frustrated. On more than one occasion, Marriner did not see fit to give a free-kick in his favour. Elsewhere, our method of play was oh-so familiar…pass, pass, pass.

I am one of Mikel’s supporters, but his tendency for a back-pass was winding me up. His most annoying trait is not looking up to see his options available before receiving the ball. His mind is often made up. And it’s usually to pass back to JT or Luiz. I’m sure that if Mikel is ever asked to take part in a penalty shoot-out, he will pass the ball back.

QPR carved a few chances. Jose Bosingwa – given only the briefest round of applause by the away fans at the start – was testing our defence, but the other Chelsea old-boy SWP was not so great. After a couple of shots missed the target, we duly serenaded him –

“Shaun Wright-Phillips – we’ve seen that before.”

However, our own players were hardly shining. JT – typically – was solid, but most other players were struggling. Frank looked tired. Ramires was drawing a few negative comments too. For most of the second period, things were dire.

Two late chances gave us ample opportunity to scramble a win, but wayward shots from Hazard and then Lampard blazed over the bar.

It was one of those days. It was clearly one of those games. There was palpable dismay as we sloped out of the ground. The home fans were chirpy, the Chelsea fans were less so. I suppose that the pragmatic view is that we didn’t lose, we didn’t concede, we are still top of the table. Obviously, Juventus on Wednesday will be far more of a test.

I’m sure I speak for many when I say that I can’t wait to hear that Champions League anthem once again.

DSCN8215

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s