Swindon Town vs. Chelsea : 24 September 2013.
Chelsea’s Capital One Cup game at Swindon Town’s County Ground was always going to be a special one for me. It would be our first competitive match at Swindon for almost twenty years but, more importantly, it also represented the nearest that I would get to a “home” game – of sorts – during this season and, probably, for many a season to come. From my place of work in Chippenham, right on the A4 – on the path of the old Roman road which linked Bristol and London – to the County Ground in Swindon is a journey of just over twenty miles. After countless midweek jaunts up the M4 to London, this was almost too good to be true.
The county of Wiltshire is not known for its footballing heritage. For many years, though, it was 1-0 up over my home shire of Somerset. Swindon Town’s presence in the Football League ensured that the rural county of stone circles and chalk horses stayed ahead in the local football bragging rights. Only since the emergence of Yeovil Town in the past decade has Somerset equalised; both counties now have a Football League team. Maybe my home county wins though; it has a county cricket team, while Wiltshire doesn’t. I have lived my entire life in Somerset – save for my college years and the three years of wanderlust which followed – but I have always worked over the border in Wiltshire; my twenty-three years of employment has taken place in the small towns of Westbury, Trowbridge and Chippenham. During my childhood in Frome the local teams, supported by a few school friends, were always the City and Rovers of Bristol; Swindon Town was definitely off the radar. Since working in Wiltshire though, I’ve encountered more followers of Swindon. It must be a county thing.
As soon as the draw was made, it was obvious that this match would entice many of my local Chelsea friends to attend. A hefty “gathering of the clans” from my surrounding home area was guaranteed. However, the game at Swindon turned out to be an extra-special “local” game for one friend in particular, even although her home is on another continent.
The plans for the game at Swindon came together over a few days. I nabbed my ticket at the earliest opportunity. After a few days of waiting, Parky thankfully acquired his ticket too. We made tentative plans to meet up with Mark from Westbury at the Red Lion pub in the midst of the historic stone circles of Avebury on the way to the game. There was quite a local “buzz” about the game. A few Swindon fans from work had tickets; it would be their biggest home game for years. Then, out of leftfield – or at least outside the penalty box – came a bolt from the royal blue. My friend Karen, from Connecticut, contacted me and explained that she would be in Swindon, of all places, on a work visit on the day of the Chelsea game. Talk about serendipity. Although I promised to try to attain a ticket for her, I wasn’t sure any remained. At the very least, we could meet up for a pint. I had first met Karen, surreally, on a yellow school bus, which was used to ferry bevvied-up Chelsea fans from a pub in central Philadelphia to nearby Chester for the MLS All-Star in the summer of 2012. We had chatted about Chelsea in between swigging warm beer and singing a few old favourites. I had briefly bumped into Karen at Yankee Stadium last May, too.
Miraculously, the very next morning more tickets went on sale.
I was able to get hold of one.
Karen was a lucky girl.
Ticket requests from a few friends continued, but I had given up hope of getting hold of any extras. However – quite fortuitously – at the Fulham game on the Saturday, two more tickets became available; one for Les from Melksham, one for Glenn from Frome. Things were falling into place. This was going to be a great night of football.
Then, the good luck continued. Bristol Tim informed me that he had heard that the Chelsea team were staying at the very same hotel, just off the M4, that – yes, you’ve guessed it – Karen was staying in.
I quickly texted Karen the news and I am supremely confident that her reaction was –
I was actually surprised that the team would be staying in a hotel, just 80 miles from London, on the night before a League Cup game. It made me stop and think how professional this game of football now is. Rather than travel down on the afternoon, Chelsea had obviously thought that it was important to get a base in Swindon to fully prepare for the match. I had visions of team meetings, reminders of tactical plans, videos of the opponents and exercises in the hotel gym, but also of monotonous hours spent in anonymous hotel rooms, games on lap-tops, idle banter and possible boredom.
On the day of the game, I thankfully managed to wriggle away from work at a good time. I collected Glenn and Parky and, with chatter between the three of us making the twenty minutes seem like twenty seconds, soon found myself pulling into the Swindon Hilton (yeah, that just sounds funny doesn’t it?) bang on time at 5.45pm. Lo and behold, I soon spotted that the sleek black Chelsea coach was parked right outside the entrance. I screeched into the car park and we hopped out, with my trusty camera in hand. Gary Staker and Eva Carneiro were standing next to the coach, but it was soon evident that the players were yet to emerge. I soon spotted Karen, full of smiles, and we both agreed that this was “perfect timing.” Within just a few seconds, the blue track suited players appeared. I took a few photos. There was a small group of well-wishers nearby, but most players walked straight on to the coach. Kudos to Juan Mata and David Luiz, plus one or two more, for stopping by to sign autographs.
Jose Mourinho was close by and so I gathered my nerve and approached him. As I held out my hand, I wished him “good luck for tonight” but for a horrible moment I was sure that he would blank me. He looked as miserable as sin – I felt like saying “come on mate, Swindon can’t be that bad” – but thankfully he shook my hand, albeit rather dismissively. Glenn wished him well, too. Karen, I think, was near to fainting. As we walked back to the car, I wondered why Parky was nowhere to be seen.
The answer? In my haste to rush off to see Karen and the players, I had unfortunately locked him inside the car.
Not so perfect.
Karen was bubbling as I drove into the town centre. During the afternoon, she had found herself alongside Doctor Eva on the running machines in the gym; they had exchanged words and, once Eva found out that Karen was a CFC supporter, had offered her a ticket.
Within a few minutes, we were parked up in a side street, just minutes from the County Ground. The evening was gorgeous; blue skies, warm, no hint of clouds, no hint of rain, the business. As we walked through the rather down-at- heel streets, which reminded me of the area around Fratton Park, Glenn and I spoke about our last visit to Swindon Town. In the summer of 1996, we played at Swindon in a testimonial on a sunny Sunday afternoon. I believe that it marked Frank Leboeuf and Roberto di Matteo’s Chelsea debuts. We won 2-0 in front of a healthy gate of 13,881. The game was unremarkable and dull. It was notable for one reason only; for a year or so, Glenn’s German girlfriend at the time had fancied seeing Chelsea play. Glenn’s rather antiquated view of “football being no place for a woman” was jettisoned for one game, but Anke hated the experience of live footy. In truth, it was a poor game, with virtually no atmosphere to speak of. The look on all three of our faces must have been a picture. Glenn and I vowed never to go to another meaningless pre-season friendly ever again. As we reminisced about that day some seventeen years ago, we joked –
“Anke left you to it from then on, Glenn.”
“Too right, Blue.”
We decided to have a couple of drinks at the adjacent cricket ground, which adjoins the football ground to the north. The rather antiquated, but still ornate, white pavilion housed a small bar and we soon ordered a round of lager and cider. Within seconds, the queue at the bar was formidable; again, we had arrived just at the right time. Outside, there was chat with a few friends as we made our way out into the gorgeous evening as the sun slowly faded to our right. Karen was enjoying the cider as I explained a few things about football in England and how it differs in so many ways from the US sport scene; there’s a book there, or maybe an encyclopaedia, waiting to be written. We chatted with Big John, who sits just a few seats away from us at HQ, about all things Chelsea. Karen was amazed at our collective weight of support for the club and team. Karen asked John if he went to all the games.
“No” replied John, almost apologetically, “most seasons I miss a couple.”
Karen yelped “a couple?!?!”” as if it was beyond belief that someone could be so devoted.
I smiled. Karen was in good company.
This would be Karen’s fifth Chelsea game. Her first one was Juan Mata’s debut at home to Norwich in 2011. After numerous visits to Swindon with work, Karen was still pinching herself that Chelsea were in town and she had a ticket.
The night fell and we made our way to the ground. I told Karen to be sure that the next time a rogue Manchester United supporter back in the US confronted her about being a glory hunter, Karen should be sure to respond with the two key words “Swindon away.” Glenn and Parky made their way to the open Stratton Bank – where I stood with a Newcastle United mate in 1993 as Andy Cole made his Geordie debut – while Karen and I lined up for the seats in the main stand. We bumped into a few lads from Trowbridge and I think Karen was slightly surprised how many people I knew.
“Going away with Chelsea is like going away with a mad extended family, though – everyone knows each other.”
The ground hadn’t changed one iota since 1996. To my left, the Stratton Bank, proper old school, open to the elements. To my right, the small covered Town End. Opposite, the single tiered Don Rogers Stand, which had replaced the idiosyncratic Shrivenham Road Stand in the early ‘nineties. The Shrivenham Road Stand consisted of a small terrace underneath a single tier of seats which had originally been part of the parade ground where the Aldershot Miliary Tattoo took place. It was so antiquated and flimsy that it seemed that a gust of wind would tear it asunder. That it survived so long is a miracle.
It took me back to 1988. On a cold midweek evening in January of that year, we played Swindon Town in the Simod Cup. My father had battled hard against the evening traffic and then found parking almost impossible. He dropped me off and I rushed to the away section, right underneath the upper tier of the old stand. I arrived about five minutes late and, by then, Chelsea were already 2-0 down. My parents were hoping to get tickets for the main stand. Our turn out was about 1,200; not bad for a midweek game in a ludicrously unimportant match. My mate Leggo had informed me – as was the way in those days – that a mob of Swindon had charged some Chelsea chaps back at the train station. At the time, Swindon were a Second Division team. We eventually lost 4-0. I remember gallows humour throughout, but also chants of “Hollins Must Go” too.
At the end of the game, with dogs barking outside and the police trying to ensure that the locals had been dispersed, we were kept inside for around ten minutes. I looked down to my left and there, to my disbelief, were my parents. I had to rub my eyes. My parents – my Dad in his work suit and a sheepskin coat I am sure – in amongst the hoodlums of the Chelsea away pen.
I sauntered down to see them. I was in shock.
Evidently, all seat tickets had been sold – the gate was 12,317 – but my parents were allowed entry into the home turnstiles at half-time for a half-price £2, and were then escorted around the pitch by stewards and taken to the away pen.
Even now, that makes me laugh.
As the teams entered the pitch, the TV cameras picked out Mourinho on the bench. His image was shown on the large screen to my left. He was looking pensive and still quite miserable.
In addition to around 2,000 fans on the Stratton Bank, Chelsea had around 1,400 in the corner section of the main stand; I was stood right next to the docile home fans, right next to a line of police, though there would be no trouble tonight surely? My mate Simon – from 1984 – came down to sit next to me and I soon retold the story of my parents being led around the pitch in 1988. If only I had my camera with me then.
It was a full house; over 14,000. I hoped that the Chelsea fans would put on a special show for Karen but, in the main, we went through the motions. Only on sporadic occasions did the 3,400 roar as one. Soon into the game, the home fans confirmed who their biggest rivals were :
“Oxford United – We Fucking Hate You.”
It was lovely to see Michael Essien back; he did well throughout. Elsewhere, there were mixed performances. I thought that Willian had a very quiet first-half and did not try anything adventurous. The van Ginkel injury – not far from where I was stood – looked serious and it was with sadness that he was replaced so soon. Ramires entered the fray and his energy gave us a little more vibrancy. A David Luiz free-kick whizzed through the air and the Swindon ‘keeper Foderingham did well to save.
The away fans sang about Dennis Wise and the San Siro and I soon realised that our former captain – and for a short period, Swindon manager – was in the Sky TV studio in the far corner, just where I had stood in 1988. He waved at the Chelsea fans and they roared again. There were pockets of away fans singing, but nothing worth noting.
When my local team Frome Town played the wonderfully named Swindon Supermarine a few seasons ago, the Frome Ultras – yes, really – taunted the away support with the surprisingly witty chant of –
“Inbreds and Roundabouts.”
Swindon is inundated with roundabouts. I’ll get back to you all on the inbreeding.
Fernando Torres was clean through after a Juan Mata touch, but the Swindon goalie flung up an arm and batted his effort away. Right after, Ramires set up Mata whose effort was parried only for Torres to touch in at an acute angle. He celebrated quietly in front of the home fans who had just recently taunted him. Quickly, a second goal, with a sublime ball from Torres allowing Ramires to deftly chip over the ‘keeper. Swindon, with the diminutive Pritchard at the heart of their attacks, offered a few efforts on goal, but Mark Schwarzer was largely untroubled.
John Terry replaced Rami at the break. Our captain was actually applauded by the home fans as he entered the pitch; this made a refreshing change. I guess that the locals were just happy to see a famous player on their home turf. A Swindon goal was disallowed for offside. De Bruyne, clean through, was unable to finish. Swindon perhaps should have scored after a great cross caught us flat-footed at the back. Torres looked as though he was keen to impress and showed neat footwork on a number of occasions, but his finishing was lacking. Next, a wasted Willian chance. Demba Ba, who replaced De Bruyne, then curled a shot narrowly wide. Lastly, another strong Torres run ended up with over-elaboration and frustration when Willian stabbed at the ball instead of allowing Nando to finish.
On another night, we could have scored five.
The four of us reconvened back at the cricket pavilion. Karen had met a few more Chelsea fans during the night and it was clear that she was integrating herself well into the Chelsea Family. We all agreed that it had been a so-so game of football, but everything else had been perfect. There was time for one last drink back at the Swindon Hilton (admit it, it still sounds odd) and time for reflections on the past few hours. Oh, and time for some typically crap jokes from Lord Parky.
“All part of the Chelsea experience, Karen.”
Until next time.