Tales From Wigan In The Rain

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 19 August 2012.

Our pre-season was behind us. Chelsea obviously struggled over the six games, winning just the first one against Seattle Sounders. A draw against PSG was followed by defeats against the MLS All-Stars, Milan, Brighton and Manchester City. My pre-season involved the long, wondrous, descent from the heights of Munich-based euphoria to preparations for the US Tour and even for Tokyo in December. The US Tour brought new players, but my focus was on meeting friends and enjoying the craic. The football was a sideshow. However, I felt a rapid increase in my enthusiasm immediately before and then after the Community Shield match. My mind was all geared up for another assault on silverware, another campaign of tortuous journeys around England and Wales and the familiar way in which the club takes over my life from August to May each year. Of course, it has always been like this. Once August kicks off, every Chelsea game counts. From the wretched days of the Second Division in February 1983 to the Champions League Finals of May 2008 and May 2012, every game matters. There was a part of me, however, that toyed with the idea of discontinuing my match reports after Munich; how could any story beat that one? After four years of “Tales” – and well over half a million words – I began to wonder if I would be able to continue. From a personal level, it was the hardest part of my pre-season. Should I stop or should I press on regardless?

Well, here I am.

My Saturday was the perfect pre-cursor to my drive north on the Sunday. I juggled doing some chores throughout the day with three football incursions. When I’m at home, I never miss the BBC’s lunchtime preview show “Football Focus.” Typically, we were hardly mentioned, but my biggest complaint was the way in which the host and the two guests meekly dismissed the importance of the shocking decision by Cardiff City’s new Malaysian owners to change the team’s primary colours from blue to red. Imagine if Roman’s first move as Chelsea chairman was to kit us out in red? I would have been apoplectic.

Mark Lawrensen’s reaction was “if the team starts winning, it won’t be a problem.”

I am sure Cardiff’s hardcore don’t share this opinion.

I find it quite shocking for so-called “experts” to pontificate on subjects on which they appear clueless. The TV world is full of them. No – I’ll amend that statement. The world is full of them.

On Saturday afternoon, I paid my first visit of the season to watch my local team Frome Town play pre-season favourites AFC Totton, who hail from down near Southampton. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Frome’s team was full of new players and went 1-0 down not long into the game. However, two knock-ins from close range gave The Robins a 2-1 lead at the break. A superb goal mid-way through the second-half wrapped-up the points, despite a Frome player getting sent off. I went to nine games last season and virtually all were pretty dire. I just saw Frome win once. This game was better than all of them. It was a lovely afternoon, watching under a perfect sky with a few school mates. During the game, talk drifted around all sorts of subjects, as they always do at Frome Town. I mentioned that the Chelsea game on the Sunday at Wigan would be my 900th game. Talk turned to the next milestone; my 1,000th game. I have promised myself a nice celebration for that game, which will hopefully be at HQ. In fact, I wondered if I would be tempted to engineer a home game rather than a tiring trip up north.

“Chris – going to Everton on Saturday?”

“Uh – no.”

“Why’s that, mate?”

“Didn’t fancy it – see you the following Wednesday against Juventus.”

What a lovely array of results on the opening day of the Premiership season too; defeats for Tottenham and Liverpool, an embarrassing home defeat for QPR and no goals for Arsenal. My Saturday was completed when I watched the highlights from all of these games on “Match of the Day” in the evening. Watching “MOTD” on a Saturday night just seems the perfect way to end the day.

I should know. I’ve been doing it since 1972.

I awoke on the Sunday with my head full of plans for the day ahead. Unfortunately, Parky wasn’t accompanying me on my drive north. At 8.45am, I set off for Wigan. The weather was murky outside. I had prepared for the worst; it may be August, but rain was predicted in Lancashire.

Without Parky sitting alongside, my mind was left to wander. Rather than concentrating on new players and new formations, I set off on a train of thought which saw me loosely planning away trips for later in the autumn.

I quickly chose the music for the first hour’s travel; New Order’s 2001 album “Get Ready.”

Pretty apt.

Next up were Stiff Little Fingers and then The Style Council. The rain started to fall as I passed Stoke-on-Trent but the traffic was flowing well. The 200 miles from Somerset to Lancashire took me three-and-a-half hours. It was a pretty relaxing time. The music was helping me kick back and relax.

Don’t Worry About A Thing.

I looked down at the passenger seat and spotted that the ticket for the day’s game was just £20. The low price amazed me. It had cost me £10 to see Frome Town play the day before.

Just twenty quid to see Chelsea play? Get in.

Surprisingly, I hadn’t seen a single Chelsea car on my solitary drive north. As I slowly edged along the last few miles of my journey, I spotted a Sunday football match taking place to my left. Young mothers pushed prams and teenagers darted in and out of the rain against a back-drop of typical red-brick terraced houses. It did not seem feasible that the European Champions were due to play less than a mile away in an hour’s time. It seemed that the town of Wigan was turning its back on us.

I parked-up and soon spotted four friends from Yate, just outside Bristol, making their way to the DW Stadium. Tim was wearing the classic British summer combo of shorts with rain jacket. The weather was horrible; it was muggy and still raining. I had to wear a rain jacket and baseball cap to defeat the elements.

This was my ninth straight visit to Wigan’s neat, but rather bland stadium; eight in the league, one in the F.A. Cup. It seems that we either play them on our very first game of the season (2005 and 2012), our first away game (2008 and 2010) or in the depths of winter. This is probably just as well; by the time April and May come around, the pitch seems to be pretty ropey, since Wigan Warriors play rugby league on the pitch, too. With four previous trips to Wigan already described in these match reports – including a history of Northern Soul, rugby league and Wigan’s often-lampooned support – there was nowhere else to go. However, I have myself to blame; in all of these trips to Wigan, I have never ever ventured into the town centre since the easily-accessible stadium is on the western approach to the town.

One day I’ll make it.

Despite my 900th game, there were no celebratory alcoholic drinks for me. I made my way into the steep stand, set to house over 4,500 travelling supporters. It didn’t take long for Alan and Gary to arrive. Alan handed me my QPR ticket.

Wigan – £20.
QPR – £55.

Pah.

I quickly popped down to chat with Gill and Graeme in the front row. Gill and I agreed that, since Munich, nothing – really – matters any more.

“We’ve seen the best Gill. Whatever happens, happens. It doesn’t matter. It’s all good.”

And this has long been my approach; enjoy the moment, enjoy the journey, support the team, rally the troops, savour every last fcuking second of it.

As with every trip to Wigan, the match DJ was spinning some quality soul classics during the pre-match kick-in. The team was announced with Ryan Bertrand included on the left, with Eden Hazard moving over to the right to replace the missing Ramires.

Our 2012-2013 began with the massed ranks in the north stand reminding the world of Chelsea Football Club’s amazing achievement of the previous campaign.

“Campiones, campiones, ole, ole, ole.”

“We are the Champions, the Champions of Europe.”

My pre-season had put me in good stead; my voice was roaring with deep resonance. All that croakiness in New York had toughened me up.

As the singing continued, a delightful turn on a sixpence from Eden Hazard was followed by a fine through ball for Branislav Ivanovic to take in his stride. A touch to his right and then a low drive at the near post, similar to Ramires’ effort in the F.A. Cup Final.

1-0 to the European Champions and not even two minutes had passed.

I roared and turned towards an equally exuberant Alan. As one, we blurted out –

“They’ll have to come at us now. Come on my little diamonds.”

Within five more minutes, we were 2-0 up. Eden Hazard was manhandled, not once but twice, in the box and Frank Lampard struck from the resultant penalty. It wasn’t a brilliant kick; far too close to the diving Al Habsi, but Frank rarely misses.

Phew.

The Chelsea support roared the team on and the Wigan fans looked crestfallen.

In truth, we didn’t really threaten the Wigan goal on many more occasions in the first-half. Wigan themselves proved to be the more aggressive. They certainly had the better of the second quarter. Old Chelsea boy Franco di Santo – their player of the year last season – had numerous heading duels with Ivanovic, going close with one effort. On 37 minutes, Chelsea target Victor Moses cut inside and unleashed a flashing shot which zipped across the box, but Petr Cech managed to deflect it for a corner.

Nice to hear a song for the hero of Munich.

“Didier Drogba – tra la la la la.”

He now joins the ranks of previous players who have songs sung about them at games, along with Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood, Gianfranco Zola, Tommy Baldwin and – er – Robert Fleck.

The Chelsea choir then turned our attention to a possible new signing –

“We’ll see you next week. We’ll see you next week. Victor Moses – we’ll see you next week.”

Classic.

Wigan’s pressure continued and a failed block by David Luiz set up di Santo, but he seemed to take an extra touch as he bore in on goal. Petr Cech was able to narrow the angles, spread his body and block. It is, actually, a trademark move from Big Pete. He is still a fantastic ‘keeper.

There was consistent fouling from the home team during the first-half, but Luiz was the first to be booked. I thought Mikel did well in the first period; breaking up play, but then keeping possession, unlike at Villa Park the previous week. Wigan’s Shaun Maloney looked lively. In truth, he is just the sort of player that I am always drawn to.

Small, waif-like, a dribble here, a body swerve there.

Did someone mention Pat Nevin?

At half-time, I descended into the concourse below the seats and was hit by a wall of heat. It was like a sauna. Beers were being consumed, songs were being sung. The Munich honeymoon, halted previously, was back in full flow.

Soon into the second half, the song of the afternoon was aired for the first time. It hinted at the infamous song in Genk, but now flourished with new words and new meaning.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
European Champions.
We know what we are.”

Oh, how I loved that. We sang it clearly. We sang it magnificently, with perfect cadence and diction.

Good work, troops.

Two chances came and went. An Ashley Cole effort was ballooned high and wide. Then, Fernando Torres ran onto a lovely ball, but appeared to be tugged from behind just as he poked out a toe to send the ball goal wards beyond the on-rushing Al Habsi. We begged the ball to cross the line, but a towering Wigan defender recovered to kick the ball away. Torres lay distraught in the box for a few seconds, but we immediately rewarded him with instant acclaim.

“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”

The new boy Oscar replaced Eden Hazard; God, he looks young. Not long into the game, Torres ably set up our new Brazilian with a fine cushioned header into his path. Oscar struck the ball early, but the low drive was narrowly wide. For the rest of the game, he struggled, but we’ll give him time.

Ryan Bertrand – despite his Munich appearance, he hardly featured in many fans’ starting XIs over the pre-season – grew in confidence as the game progressed. He hardly put a foot wrong. His performance was one of the plus points from the game.

In truth, we faded fast in the last quarter and Wigan looked the better team again. Ivanovic, especially, seemed to be caught out of position on a few occasions. We had a few nice moves, but it would have been no surprise to me if Wigan had scored in the closing minutes. In the end, we hung on.

Poor Wigan. They really must hate us. Apart from their 3-1 win in September 2009, they always give us a hard game and yet usually end up with nothing. All of these away games – all nine of them since 2005 – are starting to blend into one.

I got soaked on the fifteen minute march back to the car. I was soon on the M6, listening to The Smiths, then The Killers, then Depeche Mode. At Stafford, the clouds cleared and the sun appeared. Over a section of a few miles, the M6 took me right into the heart of the English countryside, with bales of hay neatly stacked in one field, sheep grazing in another. It was an idyllic agrarian landscape. It was as if the motorway had played tricks on me and had escorted me back to the mid eighteenth century. The rest of the drive south was very enjoyable. The sun brought out the best of the late summer evening.

Back home in Somerset, it was still shining as I pulled into my drive at 7.45pm.

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