Tales From The Match

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.

Gulp.

This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.

“Kerouac.”

I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.

“Kerouac.”

At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.

Pandemonium.

Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.

Phew.

The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…

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