Tales From Jack City

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 3 November 2012.

A day of international travel and unintelligible road signs, of wild scenery and heavy industry, bright sunlight and then darkening skies, rainstorms, hail stones, police cars, wailing sirens, lightning and fireworks.

But, sadly, no three points for Chelsea Football Club.

During the week, I had been toying with ideas of what to do before the game. If the weather held up, I had plans to venture further west; past Swansea and on to see the beaches of the Gower peninsula. Maybe take a few photographs. I contemplated a pub lunch overlooking the sea. On these football away days, I’m always keen to try something different for a change. Last season, on the last day of January, during the death throes of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign l, Parky and I had a grand day out in Swansea. We spent an enjoyable couple of hours on The Mumbles, the bay side area just to the south of the city, before heading up to the Liberty Stadium for the game.

Initial thoughts on the Saturday were that we were in for a day of wind and rain. Sadly, it would seem that the beaches would have to wait until next season.

At 9.15am, with the weather swaying from brooding clouds one minute and bright sunshine the next, I left my home in East Somerset.

I sent a single text out to my mate Alan.

“Kerouac >>>>> Jacks.”

He replied –

“Ivor the engine.”

And so a day of Welsh accents and Welsh stereotypes, Welsh phrases and Welsh jokes began.

Depeche Mode accompanied me on my first twenty miles, but The Jam took over as I headed through Bristol. To be fair, the weather was surprisingly good. As I drove up on to the M4, the visibility was magnificent. At the crest of an incline, the twin bridges over the River Severn and the black hills of Wales were clearly visible to the west.

All was good with the world. It looked like the weather was holding out and I’d soon be in Swansea to see the European Champions.

Tidy.

Once over the river, a sign welcomed me to Wales.

“Croeso i Cymru.”

I paid the £6 bridge toll. Paul Weller was singing about bombs in Wardour Street and then tube stations at midnight. The Chelsea army was invading Wales and it felt good. I skirted the town of Newport / Casnewydd as I played a Massive Attack CD. I was happy to hear two of my favourite female singers, Elizabeth Fraser and Tracy Thorn, featured. Heading past the capital city of Cardiff / Caerdydd, the weather was still holding firm.

However, it was too late to change my plans. Instead of spending some time to the west of Swansea, I was going to spend a little time at an outlet mall to the east. At 11am, I veered off the M4 at Bridgend and did some snappy shopping. In the “Berghaus” store, I typically spotted a fellow Chelsea supporter, who sits a few yards from me in the MHU, who had similarly been tempted with some retail therapy. With two shirts plundered, I continued west.

Heading over another crest of a hill, a startling vista opened up in front of me. Away in the distance were the smoking chimneys and the ugly buildings of the Margam steel works to the immediate south of Port Talbot. Beyond, there was the broad sweep of Swansea Bay. I even spotted the lighthouse at Bracelet Bay, away in the distance, where Parky and I had enjoyed some fish and chips and a couple of pints of Grolsch in a seaside café last season.

However, there were now clouds above and the mood suddenly became gloomier.

On the long straight of the motorway which bordered the steel works, I spotted that the other carriageway was devoid of traffic. There was a police car strategically placed on a bridge. The busy road had recently been closed to vehicles. I wondered what lay ahead. As traffic slowed, I saw another police car parked on the bridge, with two police officers scrambling down the embankment.

On the paving slabs, some way from the motorway, was the body of a man. As further police cars hurtled towards the scene, sirens wailing, I wondered if I had seen a dead body for the only the second time.

“Welcome to Wales” indeed.

I hit some traffic as I approached Swansea / Abertawe city centre. I turned right at the “Swansea Jack” pub and was soon parked up.

It was 12.15am. Alan, Gary, Daryl and Rob were already enjoying a few beers in the Grand Hotel opposite the main train station. I battled against Saturday shoppers and a cold wind to join them. I had forgotten how hilly Swansea was. Terraced streets appeared to be layered one on top of the other. I had only been inside the small bar for a couple of minutes when Van Persie shot United ahead at Old Trafford against Arsenal. The game was being shown on the TV, but not many people were watching intently. Van Persie always seems to be able to hit the corners of the goals when he becomes within range. In a flight of fancy, I wondered how he would fare at the tip of our team, instead of the hit and miss Fernando Torres. Daryl reckoned with only a hint of exaggeration that he would end up with fifty goals in our team this season.

Rob was outside talking with Cathy and one of Roman’s bodyguards. A few familiar Chelsea fans drifted in and out of the bar. A few police officers entered the pub and the singing increased. One song was to dominate the day –

“We all hate Leeds and Leeds and Leeds and Leeds.”

On that matter, we were united.

We had heard on the grapevine that a few hoodlums had travelled down by train but had alighted at Neath, no doubt expecting a little altercation with the Swansea firm. I rolled my eyes to the sky. With the bar getting busier and busier, I excused myself and re-traced my steps to the car park. I needed to drive up to the stadium and locate the “free” parking space that I used in January.

As I walked down towards the white steel of the Liberty Stadium, underneath a couple of railway bridges, the first rain spots of the day fell. Nearing the stadium, a sudden burst of hailstones caused fans to rush for cover. Once inside the crowded area below the stands, I was reminded of the humorous signage which dominated the small enclosed area. This made a refreshing change. I especially liked one which simply stated “Mumbles” – with an arrow pointing outside– and “Singing” – with an arrow pointing into the stadium. And there was one which said, similarly “Beautiful Beaches. Beautiful Game.”

More of that please.

Around 200 Chelsea fans were silently staring at the closing minutes of the game from Old Trafford, like the members of some obscure sect, their faces blank, the children of the damned. Watching Manchester United and Arsenal will do that to you.

Inside the neat stadium, my eyes seemed to be drawn to the sky even though the teams were gong through their pre-match routines on the pitch. One moment, the rectangle above was a dull grey, the next it was a mixture of blue and white. At times during the afternoon, the stadium was lit up with a strange and surreal autumnal glow.

The Chelsea team was announced and the main talking points were the shuffling along of Ivanovic into the centre of the defence and the addition of Moses in place of Mata.

It wasn’t much of a game.

In fact, it was a half-hearted affair all round.

For the first time that I can remember for quite some time, I sat for the vast majority of an away game.

Swansea City are a fine team and, despite a few poor performances, the work that ex-Chelsea employee Brendan Rodgers started is being continued by Michael Laudrup.

Yes. Michael Laudrup.

I was looking forward to seeing the former Juventus player in person once again. I last saw him playing for Juventus in 1988-1989. They used to call him “Michaelino” in the city of Turin. And there he was, over to my right, sitting on the Swansea bench, just beyond the suave figure of Robbie Di Matteo who was patrolling the technical area.

From Turin to Swansea.

It is the exact opposite journey which ex-Juventus legend John Charles made all those years ago.

Swansea had the best of the opening twenty minutes and certainly fancied their chances down our left, where Ashley Cole was coming under attack from the raiding Swansea players and the supporters in that noisy corner section alike. Eventually, we got into the game, but struggled to do much with the ball. Our passing should have been aided by the slick Welsh turf, but our play was rather laboured.

The home supporters, especially the couple of thousand to my left, were roaring the home team on. On the occasions where they sung the quasi-Welsh national anthem “Land of my Fathers”, the stadium rocked to its foundations. I have a feeling that the upward slope of the roof greatly aided the acoustics. I’ll be honest. It was a bloody noise. Well done Swansea.

The Leeds United chant echoed around the away end. In fact, at times, with Swansea in their trim all-white kit, it felt like we could easily have been playing Leeds.

Hernandez and Michu caused us a few problems but Petr Cech’s goal wasn’t really threatened. A Torres header, weak and at the reserve ‘keeper Tremmel, was our most notable effort of a poor opening period. As the first-half continued, the Chelsea fans became quieter and quieter.

At the break, we all knew we hadn’t been playing well.

Ramires replaced the rather one-dimensional Romeu at the break and our little Brazilian certainly energised the midfield. We watched eagerly as Torres twisted one way and then the other and then picked out Victor Moses, quiet until then, with a fine chip. Unfortunately, our new signing headed over. Swansea then came into the game again and our defence was tested.

After a decision went against them, the Swansea supporters sang a ditty which I honestly haven’t heard, let alone during a game, for years and years.

“How’s your father?
How’s your father?
How’s your father, referee?
You haven’t got one.
You never had one.
You’re a bastard, referee.”

That made me chuckle.

On the hour, a free-kick from Hazard was turned around the post for a corner. Oscar, wearing a pair of royal blue gloves to the consternation of Gary, clipped in a ball which found the head of Gary Cahill. The ball flew goal wards, but Victor Moses was able to glance it in at the far post after reacting very quickly.

YES!

I caught the immediate aftermath of the goal on camera. I was right behind the goal, merely twenty yards away.

The turn and sprint towards us, the slide, the scorer beaming at us in the away enclosure, the sliding Gary Cahill, Cahill jumping on his back, the arrival of the ecstatic Torres and Ivanovic, then Ramires and Mikel, then the other players all joining in.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

Photographs from the frontline.

Swansea countered again, aided by the nimble and gifted substitute Nathan Dyer. The manager replaced Moses with Daniel Sturridge, who hugged the right touchline for the remainder of the game. In the closing twenty minutes, the rain turned heavy and then the sky filled with hailstones.

It was quite an apocalyptic scene. The ice filled the air and turned it white. Chelsea were now under attack. Ryan Bertrand replaced Oscar. Alas, with just three minutes remaining, a fine move down the Swansea right resulted in Hernandez having the calmness of mind to slot the ball past an unsighted Cech.

The Swansea hordes boomed and “Land of my Fathers” shook the place to its foundations.

Oh boy.

We didn’t deserve anything more than a draw. After the two tumultuous games against Manchester United, we never really set the right tempo against Swansea. Too many players underperformed. There was a collective responsibility in the team’s deficiencies. Even us fans seemed subdued.

We were all, clearly, under the weather.

I bade my farewells to Alan and Gary – “see you Wednesday” – and prepared myself for the wintry scene outside. On the ten minute walk back to my car, through the car park, over the roundabout and up the hill, the hail continued to fall. Footstep after footstep was met with the crunch of ice underfoot. In all of my years of supporting Chelsea in person, all nine hundred and twelve games, I don’t think I’d every encountered such a wretched walk back to a waiting car. I truly pitied the poor souls who faced a thirty minute walk back to the train station.

Despite being stuck in traffic for a while, I eventually pulled away and soon found myself heading east. The hail had turned to torrential rain. Oh fun, fun, fun. As I drove past Port Talbot, the array of lights at the steel works cut into the night. The plumes of smoke still billowed heavenwards. Then, the explosion of light as several lightning flashes lit up the entire sky. This was turning out to be some day in deepest, darkest South Wales. To add to the drama, fireworks – ahead of Monday’s Firework night – lit up the sky too. I found the driving to be rather tiring, but I wanted to get home. No coffee stops, no respite.

I got the cheapest of thrills as my headlights lit up a road sign.

“Welcome to England.”

I was in no mood to listen to the football on the radio. Music accompanied me on the two and a quarter hour journey back to Somerset. It was only as I was nearing my end destination that I flicked on “Five Live.” There was a small amount of consolation in the fact that Spurs had lost at home to Wigan and that Manchester City had only drew at West Ham. United’s win meant that we had slipped down to second place, but we are still conveniently placed.

On Wednesday, we have a must-win game against Shakhtar Donetsk in the Champions League. On Sunday, we meet Liverpool at Stamford Bridge in the Premier League.

These are the days, my friend.

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