Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

Everton vs. Chelsea : 14 September 2013.

At last the universally despised international break was over and I had my sight set on a Chelsea away day. Over the last few seasons, I have eventually concluded that a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park is my favourite of them all. As increasing numbers of stadia that I grew up with fall by the wayside – The Dell, The Baseball Ground, Highfield Road, Maine Road, The Victoria Ground, Highbury, Ninian Park – or become modernised, and sanitised – Upton Park, Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St. Andrews – there is one old school stadium that defies logic and continues to shine. I have shared my love of Goodison Park on many occasions before, so without going over old ground – no pun intended – I will only say at this stage that Goodison Park, or as the Old Lady as Evertonians refer to it, was dominating my thoughts as the build-up to our first league game in almost three weeks drew nearer.

In addition to seeing the boys play – oh, how I have missed them – I would be wallowing in my own particular and personal slice of football history once again.

The 5.30pm kick-off allowed me plenty of time to plan my day. The intention was to park-up near the Pier Head, where ferries departed in decades past, and amble around the Albert Dock area. I’ve visited both the Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool on previous football expeditions to Merseyside; I was hoping for a relaxing pint in a pub or bar overlooking the revamped riverside, rather than the usual pint of fizzy lager in a plastic glass in “The Arkles” opposite Anfield, which is my usual routine for Everton.

At just after 10.30am, I was on my way; on the royal blue highway once more. This would be my thirteenth visit to the stadium at the bottom of the gentle slope of Stanley Park. I missed last season’s encounter. In 2011-2012, it was a terrible performance under Villas-Boas. The defeat on the last day of 2010-2011 was remembered for the brutal sacking of Ancelotti.

At 11am, I collected Lord Parky. It was a lovely moment – and long overdue. For all of last season, my away trips were solitary affairs. Apart from the pre-season friendly at Brighton and the Community Shield game at Villa Park, the last time Parky accompanied me to a standard away game was in April 2012 at Arsenal.

Back in the days when England’s capital city had no European Cup to its name.

This would only be my fourth trip the north-west during season 2013-2014. In recent years, the area was very well represented; Premier League regulars Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic were augmented by single-season stays from Burnley and Blackpool. It seemed that I was heading north on the M6 every month in those days. Now, only the big hitters from Manchester and Liverpool remain. In fact, during this season, there is perhaps the largest spread of cities for decades within the top flight; Swansea and Cardiff to the West, Liverpool and Everton to the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland to the North East, Hull and Norwich to the East and Southampton to the South. We only need Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United to join us and all extremities within the football landscape will be covered.

I backtracked through Bradford-on-Avon, skirted Bath and then headed north. It was brilliant to be back on the road alongside His Lordship once again. However, once on the M4, we were held up for a good thirty minutes as the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After stopping for a coffee at Strensham, and with signs on the M5 warning of even more delays on the M6, I soon realised that our trip down to the banks of The Mersey before the match were probably needing to be curtailed. This was a shame, but there is always next year…and the year after.

Throughout the previous week, one song kept bouncing around my head. It had acted like a constant reminder of where I would be on Saturday, a football metronome, ticking away, keeping me focussed. Let me explain. After a New York Yankees game last summer, I got chatting to three Evertonians in my favourite bar on River Avenue in The Bronx. It was my last night in NYC, my beloved Yankees had walloped the Red Sox and I was in no mood to retire to bed. The beers were flowing and the chat soon turned from baseball in the US to footy in England. The father had been living in Manhattan for twenty years and his two sons were over to visit him. The youngest lad was typically wearing a Lacoste polo. After a while, it was decided to continue the drinking session in a bar down on East 23rd Street, way down in Manhattan. We hopped into a cab – there were five of us in total, including a bemused local, struggling to understand our quick-fire conversations in unfamiliar accents – and the chat turned to football songs. I made the point – as politely as I could – that Everton were not known for their wide and varied songbook. I remember serenading them with “The Shed Looked Up” and they responded; I was expecting “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For.”

Instead, the father belted out a song which was completely new to me, and the two sons joined in with gusto.

“Oh we hate Bill Shankly and we hate St.John.

But most of all we hate big Ron.

And we’ll hang those Kopites, one by one, on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.

To hell with Liverpool and Rangers too.

And we’ll throw them all in the Mersey.

And we’ll fight, fight, fight, with all our might for the boys in the royal blue jersey.”

This was rounded off, nicely, with a rousing –

“Kopites are gobshites, Kopites are gobshites!”

I approved. As the drinking continued, we spoke continually about our two favoured teams, buoyed by beer and a mutual dislike of Liverpool. The big moment in the lives of the two sons was the 1995 F.A.Cup win versus the equally despised Manchester United. I sensed a tone of jealousy in their voices when they heard me talk of our recent successes, but I kept telling them – probably to the point of exhaustion – that there really was “no need to be jealous of others. Your team is your team. Relish every goal, every win.” It was a lovely night. One more thing; the father kept referring to me as “Chris, la” which I found to be particularly endearing and authentic. They were good people.

After turning off Queens Drive and up Utting Avenue, with the bright stands of Anfield at the top of the hill, I deposited £8 in the hands of a local at the official car park in Stanley Park. It was 3.45pm. The journey north had taken me over five hours. We avoided “Arkles” and headed towards Goodison. Lord Parky soon disappeared inside for a few beers and to his seat in the lower tier of the Bullens Road.

With my trusty camera at the ready, I had other ideas.

I took a leisurely hour to slowly circumnavigate the four stands of Goodison Park. I was in my element. The sun was out, the sky perfect. The clamour of a match day gave the late afternoon a buzz all of its own.

Goodison Park. So, why do I love it?

Firstly, the location; surrounded by terraced houses, a proper football locale. Secondly, the history; Everton have played here, since uplifting from Anfield, from 1892. Thirdly, the gargantuan main stand; when I first spotted it in 1986, I could hardly believe its scale, towering over the other three edifices. Next, Archibald Leitch; the venerable stadium architect was responsible for the design and construction of three of the original four stands, two of which – the Gwladys Street and the Bullens Road – remain to this day. The signature Leitch cross-trusses at Goodison, which are still on show on the balcony wall of the Bullens Road, are only present at two other stadia. The others are at Fratton Park and Ibrox. Yep, you’ve guessed – two of my other favourite grounds. Next, my imagination; my late father’s first ever football match took place here at Goodison Park, during the grey years of World War Two while he was stationed on The Wirrall. Lastly, another first game; I took football-mad James, then an eleven year old boy, to his first ever football game at Goodison in 1998.

So, yes, Goodison Park ticks a lot of boxes.

My tour began behind the new Park Lane stand; constructed in 1994, it is a banal and insipid single-tiered structure which adds nothing to the overall feel to the stadium.  I noted that the statue of Dixie Dean had been moved from its original location; maybe it has been moved inside the stadium. Dean was an Everton legend who once amassed a Babe Ruth-like haul of 60 goals in season 1927-1928, and who died, at Goodison, during the 1980 derby. A “fan zone” was in operation behind the Park Lane stand; I avoided it like the plague. I noted a six-piece samba band, dressed in Brazilian yellow and green, parading outside on Goodison Avenue, which was met by blank stares from the locals. It was as incongruous a sight as you will see. I shook my head, tut-tutted and moved on.

On Goodison Avenue, my senses were going into overdrive. Unlike at Anfield, Everton have made a conscious effort to spruce up the walls of the stadium’s once grim exterior. Long banners depicting current players adorn the main stand, which now looks bright and welcoming. The “Everton timeline” wraps itself around 75% of the current stadium, beginning above the away entrance on the Bullens Road in 1878 and ending on the southern side of the main stand in 2013. It depicts key events, photos of record buys, famous games and Everton trivia. As I found myself walking clockwise around the stadium, I found myself going back in time.

Quite apt.

Opposite the main stand, towering high, were a couple of basic cafes. One sight saddened me though; The Winslow Hotel, which my father may well have entered around 1942, was boarded-up and empty. The sign depicting Dixie Dean had faded. How sad. I once drank at this pub in 1994, when I parked outside the stands of Goodison before walking up the hill for a Chelsea game at Anfield. There is always something rather spooky about being outside a stadium with no match taking place; the ghosts of thousands of supporters, the silence, the stillness.

I once watched a game from the upper tier of the main stand; season 1992-1993, front row, brilliant view, awful retro collars with red laces, Robert Fleck scored, we won 1-0, shortest match review ever.

As I took a selection of photographs of the bustling street scene below the vertiginous structure, I noted Romelu Lukaku being driven slowly towards the main reception. At first, the locals were unaware of who the young man in the passenger seat was. Eventually it dawned on them. With the car halted, the window lowered and the Everton loanee kindly signed a few photographs for a few youngsters. I took a few photographs of his smiling face and then seized my moment. I leaned in and shook his hand.

“Have a great season here. Then come back to us next season. God bless you.”

Romelu smiled.

I hated to see look of pure desolation on his face after his nervy penalty miss in Prague. I also hated to see some puerile comments on the internet by some Chelsea fans immediately after. Oh boy.

The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium. It has since been hidden by extra cladding on the Gwladys Street stand and the addition of a large TV screen. Like the cottage at Fulham, it adds to the sense of place that makes Goodison so unique. Still the photographs continued; a turnstile, the angle of two stands joining, a streetside café, Tommy Lawton on the timeline.

There is a rather patronising TV advertisement for Barclay’s at the moment; thanking us match-going fans for our continued presence at games. It strongly features a smiling pensioner, possibly photographed at Goodison, certainly wearing Everton blue; his knowing eyes telling a thousand stories, his slight smile indicating past glories and hope for the future. As I walked behind the Bullens Road – getting close to the formidable Chelsea presence outside the away gates now – I spotted his female equivalent. A lady in her ‘eighties – tight perm, blue and white scarf – was being driven in to her personal parking space in a small car park. The sight of this spritely Evertonian made me smile. For those who bemoan the negative aspects of football – the richly-paid players, the out of touch directors, the price of tickets, the occasional presence of racism and loutish behaviour, the commercialisation, the deadening of atmosphere – here was a reminder of what the game means to a lot of people. She must have thousands of great memories from her time supporting her team.

I wonder if she remembers Tommy Lawton, his hair Brylcreamed, leaping high at the far post, or that dashing young man in his RAF uniform at Goodison Park during the Second World War…

I chatted to a few friends outside the away turnstiles. We had heard that Samuel Eto’o was to start. There was confused talk of how Lukaku had been loaned out – again – when most of us supporters would have preferred to see him in Chelsea blue throughout this season. I guess we will never know the full story of the club’s decision to keep Torres and Ba, though I presume that the former’s wage demands have played a part in possible thoughts of moving him on.

At least Juan Mata was starting.

I looked up and spotted Burger, the erstwhile Toronto native now transplanted into the heart of England. He quickly introduced me to his father – his first visit to these shores, his first football match, his first Chelsea match. I repeated my father’s story about Everton and he smiled. Burger Junior and Burger Senior had been drinking, with Cathy and others, since 10am and I was impressed. I wished them well and hurriedly took my place alongside Alan, Gary and 1,500 others in the Bullens Road upper tier. There were a similar number down below us.

The Farm’s “All Together Now” was on the PA as I scanned the scene around me. Goodison’s capacity is 40,000 now and I spotted a few empty seats, namely those behind the roof supports in the Gwladys Street. Another Goodison favourite – “Z Cars” – was played as the teams entered. Chelsea were in black once more.

Cech – Brana, JT, Luiz, Ash – Mikel, Rambo – Mata, Schurrle, Hazard – Eto’o.

The game began brightly enough. Ramires was full of energy and we dominated the early few minutes. All eyes were on our new striker though; as he moved around the pitch, my mind played tricks on me. I imagined Eto’o to be taller. He seemed willing, but his first few efforts were poor. One header over with Tim Howard untested and another which ballooned into the top tier. At least he was getting in to position. Gary, standing alongside me and already “venting,” made me chuckle with his pronunciation of our new striker’s surname.

Only a Londoner could attempt to pronounce Eto’o without sounding the letter T.

“Cam on E’o’o.”

Oh boy.

The best chance of the first-half came when Howard fluffed a clearance and Andrea Schurrle pounced. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Eto’o and the 3,000 Chelsea away fans inhaled a breath of expectation. Out of nowhere, a leg from an Everton player – Gareth Barry – blocked the shot. We were in disbelief.

On the subs bench, Fernando Torres was heard to utter “even I could have missed that.”

Our support was OK. The home fans, though, resorted to type and hardly spoke, let alone sang. Everton rarely threatened; Naismith shot wide, but chances were rare down below us. At the other end, Mikel and Schurrle shot over. Our chances were being squandered and the away support grew frustrated. During the closing minutes of the first-half, Everton turned the screw. During one attack, two Everton players were completely unmarked at the far post and we were lucky to escape unpunished. Right on half-time, sloppy defending allowed a cross to be headed back across the goal by Jelavic to allow Naismith to leap unhindered and nod home from a yard out.

At half-time, I chatted briefly to Tim from Dublin.

“We should have been three up.”

Straight after the whistle, Andrea Schurrle was played in and inexplicably missed from an angle. It took me a few, puzzling seconds to realise that he hadn’t scored. Eto’o lunged at a cross and failed to make contact. At least he was getting into the right positions. Right?

Jose Mourinho then surprised us all and made a double substitution, taking off Mata and Schurrle. On came Oscar and Frank Lampard. In truth, neither player produced in the remainder of the match. A Ramires toe-poke went wide. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t score even if the game continued until November. In reality, such was our mood, we expected Everton to increase their lead on their rare forays into our half. Luiz was lucky to stay on after a tangle on the half-way line. We were riding our luck. Then, the last throw of the dice; Ashley Cole off, Torres on, three at the back, but with Mikel playing very deep alongside Lamps. Where other players were faltering, Mikel was having a great game…reading attacks, breaking-up play, turning, playing it simple. Top marks.

Two last chances summed our day up. Firstly, an attempted flick from Eto’o from close in, but he missed the ball completely. Secondly, a poor shot from Torres’ weak left foot which looked as ugly as it gets and meekly spun off for a goal-kick. Thankfully, Leighton Baines clipped the junction of post and bar at the other end from a free-kick on ninety minutes. Although it was a far from adequate performance – too many personal errors – we barely deserved to lose.

At the final whistle, we shuffled out as the Evertonians – at last – made some noise. I glanced at Tim, but his face was disconsolate. No words were needed. I glowered back.

On the walk back to the car, Parky and I caught up with Chopper, Jokka, Neil and Jonesy. There were a few mumbles and grumbles and this was to be expected. However, it was a difficult game to summarise. Everton weren’t that great. They did enough. If our players had played 10% better – maybe just 5% better – we would have won 3-0. Our play suffered with just too many silly errors at key times. I spoke with Jokka and offered some home-spun philosophy.

“Maybe another set of supporters would have been quite content with that sort of performance – we created a few chances, we weren’t dire – but us Chelsea fans have higher expectations. High expectations make for bad losers.”

On Wednesday, we have the chance to make amends when our European campaign kicks off.

Let’s go.

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3 thoughts on “Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

  1. “The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium.”

    TV cameras seem to love that corner too. You still get a pretty good view of the church and surrounding buildings. It is definitely the nicest feature of Goodison Park, at least from “in front of TV perspective”.

    Another fantastic report. Have you posted your pics from this trip yet?

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