Tales From The Top Of The Hill

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 7 December 2013.

The alarm sounding at 6.30am and no need to use the “snooze button.”

The anticipation of one of my favourite away games of the season.

The simple pleasure of planning it all; the tickets, the timings, the travel plans, the pre-match, the buzz.

The fear of the day being memorable for arctic temperatures at the top of that ridge of land in Stoke-on-Trent.

The selection of the right mix of warm winter clothes.

The realisation that the away end at The Brittania Stadium will resemble “Chris Bonington Meets Milan Fashion Week.”

The Timberland boots, the CP pullover, the Victorinox coat.

The grey sky overhead and the surprisingly mild weather.

The smiles from Parky at 8.30am.

The familiar road north.

The memory of an away game at Stoke City during the promotion campaign of 1988-1989 when I managed to stave off tiredness following a night-shift and Chelsea midfielder Peter Nicholas was sent off after just five minutes but we still went on to win 3-0.

The memory of being in The Black Bull at Chelsea  much later that same season and “Stoke Away” being cited as one of the best away games of that season.

The sight of Liverpool fans at Frankley Services.

The cloudy sky giving way to clear skies just as we passed through Birmingham and, with it, the likelihood of the temperature dropping.

The Brittania Stadium being spotted away on the hill to our right.

The town centre of Stoke.

The familiarity of my old college town.

The shops.

The pubs.

The accents.

The “Wrights Pies” shop.

The “King’s Arms”, now re-opened since the last time that I called by.

The pleasure of visiting my old local from that memorable first year at college in 1984-1985, which nicely coincided with Chelsea’s first season in the top flight since 1979.

The memory of catching early-morning trains down to The Smoke every few weeks and the rush of adrenaline as the train pulled out of Stoke-on-Trent station.

The excitement of away days to Liverpool, Manchester, Leicester, Glasgow, Sheffield, Birmingham, Coventry and all points north, south, east and west.

The first pint of the day in the “King’s Arms” and a toast to Parky, myself and each and every one of the travelling Chelsea army.

The gaggle of locals, obvious match-goers, and the knowing looks exchanged between Parky and myself.

The memory of match days in Stoke when their lads used to gather outside “Charlie Browns” before heading off for scuffles and fights.

The drive up the hill and a second pint in “The White Lion” amidst memories of a night out with some fellow Chelsea student friends on the eve of the Stoke City vs. Chelsea game in May 1985.

The memory of walking back down the hill, after last orders, and singing, shouting, bellowing, Chelsea songs out into the quiet Stoke night almost thirty years ago.

The sight of Ruud Gullit on TV talking passionately and respectfully about Nelson Mandela.

The first few minutes of the game from Old Trafford on TV.

The short drive to our anointed parking place on the slip road of the A500.

The fastening of coats, the wrapping of scarves, the slow trudge up the hill.

The footbridge over the Trent and Mersey Canal.

The “Oatcake” fanzine.

The sleek modern stands of the Brittania, glinting in the winter sun.

The away turnstiles.

The bag search.

The line for beer.

The wait inside for familiar faces.

The traditional “Stoke Away” habit of throwing beer up in the air amidst songs.

The sad realisation that I might be getting too old for all this.

The tedious “Ten German Bombers.”

The news, via text, that The Geordies were winning at Old Trafford.

The obvious and uncontrollable surge of schadenfreude.

The lack of faces that I know; just who are these people?.

The walk up the steps to the rear of the stand to join up with Alan and Gary.

The confirmation that Manchester United had lost at home again.

The dark clouds to my left.

The camera clicking into action.

The boisterous singing of the Chelsea choir overshadowing the home support.

The gaps in the home seats.

The full three thousand in the Chelsea section.

The recognition that a sore throat would probably hamper my singing throughout the afternoon.

The memory of last season’s game; Jonathan Walters.

The entrance of the teams to my left.

The red and white chequered flags of the local youngsters.

The colour, the noise, the spectacle.

The whistle.

The two teams lined-up in the centre of the pitch.

The minute of applause for Nelson Mandela.

The sight of Cesar Azpilicueta – standing alone – having a moment of quiet prayer.

The team.

The formation.

The defence.

The midfield three.

The recall of Andre Schurrle and Jon Obi Mikel.

The singing.

The packed away stand, everyone standing, everyone involved.

The shouts of encouragement.

The buzz of seeing Eden Hazard after his tantalising display in Sunderland on Wednesday.

The elation of seeing Andrea Schurrle twist one way and then another, teasing his marker into submission, before despatching a perfectly-placed bullet past Begovic in the Stoke goal.

The yelp of pleasure.

The noise from the away end; bollocks to my sore-throat, I’m joining in.

The ease with which Hazard receives the ball and touches it, caressing it, bringing the ball to life.

The piss-taking from the away end; “You’re Going Down With United.”

The movement from our attackers.

The industry of Schurrle.

The aerial battle between Crouch and Walters and Terry and Cahill.

The chances for Ramires, Mata and – almost – Torres.

The ease with which Chelsea dominated the first-half.

The thoughts of another easy win.

The late Stoke rally in the first-half.

The cross.

The Cech error.

The melee.

The scrambled finish from Peter Crouch.

The roar from the home fans.

The triumphant leap from Crouch.

The sense of disbelief in the away end at the break.

The porous nature of our defence at set-plays.

The sight of two middle-aged women – in other words, ten years older than me…at least, honest – in full blue Santa uniforms and those silly player face masks.

The rolling of my eyes.

The comment from Gary: “Did you get their numbers?”

The sight of Walters rampaging down our left and him getting some sort of retribution for his own personal hell last season.

The pass to Stephen Ireland.

The curling shot past Cech.

The phrase “warm knife through butter.”

The roar of the home crowd once more.

The moans in the away end.

The sad sight of Dave getting roasted at left-back.

The lack of cover in front of him.

The continued singing from the away fans.

The click of the camera as Andrea Schurrle despatched a lovely strike into the Stoke goal to level it at 2-2.

The joyous celebration of the goal by player and fans alike.

The image of a rollercoaster.

The industry of Torres and the lay-off for Schurrle and a dipping shot which crashed against Begovic’ bar with the ‘keeper well beaten and begging for mercy.

The substitute Demba Ba for Torres.

The miss of the match so far from Ireland, leaning back, the shot high.

The sight of Mark Hughes – Sparky – moaning at every Chelsea challenge.

The irony.

The home support roaring “Delilah.”

The “Willian Song.”

The black sky.

The double substitution of Eto’o and Lampard.

The passing of time.

The gnawing realisation that the longer it stayed level, the less time we would be able to react to a third Stoke goal.

The awareness that some things are best left unsaid.

The desperation, at times, in our play.

The poor ball retention of Ba.

The continual encouragement for our players.

The nerves torn.

The news that Liverpool had won 4-1.

The free-kick opportunity, with only a few minutes remaining, but the annoyance of it being “too central.”

The week shot by Frank directly at Begovic.

The sense of foreboding as Stoke broke down our left once again.

The sickening sight of Assaidi’s strike bending and zipping past Petr Cech.

The noise once more.

The silence in the away end.

The false hope of five extra minutes.

The final whistle.

The silent walk outside.

The locals happy.

The first Chelsea defeat at Stoke since 1974-1975.

The slow shuffle back across the footbridge over the Manchester to London railway line.

The crescent moon high to my left.

The smoke billowing out of the council incinerator to my right.

The familiarity of a Stoke evening.

The incoming texts.

The drive home.

The sore throat.

The inevitable moans – thankfully largely unseen and unheard – by Chelsea supporters everywhere.

The shrug of the shoulders.

The game against Steaua on Wednesday.

The story continues.

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