Tales From A Road Less Travelled

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 11 January 2014.

My seemingly never-ending trail around the highways and byways of England and Wales, after consecutive away days in Hampshire and Derbyshire, now had me heading up to Yorkshire for Chelsea’s lunchtime encounter with Hull City. I once described Hull as England’s forgotten city, but following Hull City’s promotion to the top flight in 2008, at least football fanciers are now aware of the city on the banks of the River Humber. This would be a long day, but one that I was relishing.

At 5am the alarm sounded and I was soon cobbling together my match day essentials. I noted that a few fans were already referencing an “Only Fools And Horses” episode on “Facebook.”

“To Hull and back.”

I soon collected Parky at 6.30am and we soon dipped in to McChippenham for our standard football breakfast.

Within minutes, we had crossed the M4 and were heading north on the straight-as-a-dye Fosse Way once again. This ancient Roman road, which stretches from Exeter to Lincoln, is especially picturesque in The Cotswolds, linking small knots of hamlets with larger market towns, each with dwellings built from the local golden stone. At around 7.30am, we saw the sun rise to the east. The road was quiet. The Cotswolds were as photogenic as ever, even in the height of winter. By 8.30am, there was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead.

“I love this time of the day, Parky. Dawn breaking, with a long trip ahead. Perfect.”

Our route eventually took us right through the heart of much-maligned Coventry. The inner-city ring road hurtled us past the two recent former homes of the city’s football team. I would imagine that most Coventry City fans are rueing the club’s decision to move out of Highfield Road, a perfectly fine stadium in the heart of the city, and then decamp to the now abandoned Ricoh Arena. Coventry’s football club now play at Northampton Town’s stadium and this is just a miserable state of affairs.

“This town is coming like a ghost town.”

Our F.A. Cup visit to the Ricoh in 2009 may turn out to be our solitary one.

Just after 9am, we collected Andy from his house in Nuneaton. I’ve been good mates with Andy for almost twenty years (Prague 1994). However, for almost ten years before that, his was a face that I often used to spot at various stadia. I recognised him at first from our travels back to the midlands from Euston station after Chelsea home games. For a spell, it seemed that I couldn’t help noticing him at home games – he used to stand in front of the Bovril Gate in The Shed – and most away games too. I even remember spotting him in Glasgow for a Rangers game in 1986 on a day when there was no Chelsea match.

“Bloody hell, I can’t get away from him.”

Twenty-eight years later, we were headed off to Hull City in the same car.  It’s weird how these things work themselves out.

We then stopped at a nearby village to collect Alan (aka “The Youth”) and his twelve year old son Seb (collectively known as “The Two Ronnies”). In the same way that my home town of Frome used to supply around six to eight fans for many Chelsea games, Andy’s home of Nuneaton used to supply even greater numbers. Whereas, Frome’s presence has dwindled to just a couple, many of the Nuneaton boys still go. On one memorable occasion in 1997, we arranged to play a Chelsea South (essentially Frome and London) versus a Chelsea Nuneaton six-a-side game at a sport centre off the King’s Road on the morning of a Chelsea vs. Manchester United match. The Nuneaton chaps were clear winners, winning 6-1 if memory serves. Good times. We’re long overdue a re-match.

For the second time in under a week, I was headed up the M42. Rather than turn off for Derby, I joined the M1. After all of my journeys up the west side of the midlands for games in Lancashire and Merseyside, this made a refreshing change. Due to the reluctance of both Sheffield teams and Leeds United to join Chelsea in top-flight football, this was certainly a road less travelled. A solitary game at Bramall Lane in the autumn of 2006 has been our only league match at these two cities for ages. It is likely that some new Chelsea fans are completely unaware of the existence of Sheffield Wednesday – unwilling to look beyond the Premier League – such has their status plummeted over the past fifteen years. Maybe some fans believe Sheffield Wednesday to be a type of cake, or a breed of cattle, or a type of rifle.

As I drove north, we spoke of previous visits to see Chelsea play at Hull City.

“Didn’t we play them twice in the F.A. Cup years and years ago?”

“Yeah, 1982…and then again, when the third round was played before Christmas, in 1999.”

“There was that 4-0 League Cup win.”

“Two midweek league games.”

This would only be my second visit to the K.C. stadium to see us play.

“That Frank Lampard chip.”

Surprisingly, I spotted no other Chelsea cars headed north. In addition to the smoke billowing out from the cooling towers of several power stations, there were many wind turbines on the hills to the distance. Here was evidence of the changing face of England in 2014. We swung around, passing Sheffield and then Doncaster, before heading due east on the M62. The sky was still a brilliant blue. Eventually, the Humber Bridge – once the World’s longest single span suspension bridge – came in to view. It’s quite striking, to be honest.

Then, the city of Hull.

A while ago, this grey city ranked “numero uno” in a list of “Crap Towns of Britain” but I can’t honestly comment, since my visits have been such short-lived affairs. If the football club remain in the top flight for more than one season, and if the kick-off slot is more conducive, I promise to take a walk around the recently rejuvenated dock area and try to eke out some worthwhile sights. In 1973, on a family visit to nearby Grimsby, we spent a day in Hull and I remember a visit to the William Wilberforce Museum, devoted to the man who is most credited for abolishing slavery within the British Empire.

Back in the early ‘eighties, one of my favourite bands were formed at Hull University, taking their name from a slogan used by a furniture shop.

“For all your bedroom needs, we sell everything but the girl.”

Hull, like Wigan, is a rugby league town. I’d imagine that Hull would be quite content to emulate Wigan Athletic; in the top flight for eight years with an F.A. Cup and European football thrown in for good measure. Our approach into the city was along Clive Sullivan way, named after one of Hull’s favourite rugby league players. Very soon, we spotted the white floodlight pylons of the K.C. Stadium and we were soon parked-up.

It was 11.45am.

The cold wind was a shock to the system, but we were soon inside, amongst familiar Chelsea faces within the concourse behind the northern goal. There was just time for a pint and a pie. A proud banner reminded us that the city had been awarded the title of the U.K. City of Culture for 2017.

I reached my seat a few moments before the teams walked out. I’d imagine we had around 2,500 tickets for this game, together in one tier behind the goal. It was clear that the “gobby” element of the home support were adjacent, to our left, just like at Wigan in fact.

Still clear blue skies.

As the game commenced, I quickly scanned the team and approved.

Luiz in midfield alongside Ramires? No complaints.

However, despite my liking of the Cole/Terry/Cahill/Azpilicueta defensive line, Ashley Cole was continually tested in the first period of the game by several Hull City bursts. We seemed to take a while to get out of the traps and the home team managed a few efforts on Petr Cech’s goal.

The banter on the terraces had started early. The home fans in the corner were firing some bullets our way.

“Here for the culture. You’re only here for the culture.”

“You’re soft. You’re southerners.”

“We support our local team.”

…bollocks, you were all Leeds fans ten years ago.

John Terry gave the ball away right in front of me, but thankfully Sagbo snatched at his shot and the ball flashed wide of the far post. Soon after, our first real chance was provided by an excellent piece of attacking play by Cole and Hazard. Our Belgian maestro crossed the ball to the waiting Oscar and the entire Chelsea end expected a goal. The Brazilian’s shot, though powerful, was right at Alan McGregor, who ably deflected the ball over. I turned away, mouthing “great save” and noticed a few others saying the same.

The home fans were again singing.

“Silverware, we don’t care. Hull City everywhere.”

In truth, there was little noise emanating from the Chelsea faithful as the first-half wore on. Maybe it was the early kick-off which affected our quietness. A late free-kick from David Luiz forced another fine save from the Hull ‘keeper, but there seemed to be a general malaise from team and supporters alike in the lunchtime sun. Both Alan and Gary, who had travelled up from London by train, were of the same opinion as me; we needed to up the tempo, create space, move for each other. Very often, Hull were able to smother our play.

“Bloody hell, we can go top today. That should be all the motivation the players need.”

“I’m sure Jose will sort it at the break.”

Soon after the restart, a ridiculously high and wide effort from Luiz almost reached the corner flag.

“Bloody hell.”

Thankfully, our pressure steadily increased. We were awarded another free-kick and again David Luiz took control. With Gary Cahill standing in the wall, he turned and broke away, allowing Luiz to aim for the space he had vacated. In truth, the dipping ball was easy for the ‘keeper to shield.

A gorgeous dribble from Hazard right into the Hull penalty area, but his shot was smacked wide. Just after, a fine interchange between Luiz and Cole set up Eden Hazard. What happened next was pure joy.

Hazard advanced at speed, sold the defender the most delightful dummy by feinting to shoot, then slammed the ball in at the base of the left post.

Get in!

The Chelsea end roared and Hazard ran to milk the applause, with a knowing smirk which shouted “yeah, I know, that was the bollocks, wasn’t it?”He was soon mobbed by his team mates. We were on our way.

At the birthplace of Everything But The Girl, Eden had registered a hit.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

The Chelsea choir soon greeted our goal with the most obvious chant of the season –

“We are top’o’the league. Say, we are top’o’the league.”

Is it me, or does anyone else think that this chant always seems to be carried out in a Geordie accent?

The noise from the Chelsea fans clearly upset the home fans, who responded with the dreary “City Till I Die” dirge.

Chelsea then responded –

“Hull City Tigers – You Know What You Are.”

Ouch. That must’ve hurt. However, I have a feeling that this particular ditty must have been sung at Hull on many other occasions this season because their response was quick, loud and most definitely to the point.

“I’d rather be a tiger than a cnut.”

A few Chelsea smiles greeted that one.

Chelsea again tested Hull with a few more efforts and Hull were fading fast. However, Mourinho replaced Oscar with Mikel and we expected a tightening of our play.

A 1-0 victory would do for me.

With the game heading towards its conclusion, Willian – who had enjoyed another all-action display – played the ball through to Fernando Torres. Torres had toiled hard all game, but had been fed just scraps. Here was a chance for him to excel, enjoying the exact type of ball with which he so often thrived at Anfield. He pushed the ball forward, drifted past his marker and once inside the box quickly dispatched the ball low with his left foot. McGregor was beaten and the net rippled.

No smirking from Nando. Just relief that his weaker left peg had not let him down.

2-0, game over.

I pulled out of Hull bang on 3pm and I then battled the falling sun as I headed due west. There was a small amount of reflection on the game. In truth, we were hardly troubled. The concern at half-time soon disappeared as the second-half developed and Chelsea’s superiority told. Another three points, top of the league, having a laugh.

It was a tiring drive home. I fought the yawns with copious supplies of caffeine. There were plenty of laughs as we headed south.

We bade our farewells to Alan and Seb :

“It’s goodnight from me.”

“And it’s goodnight from him.”

And then Andy :

“See you next Sunday, God bless.”

As so often happens, I inevitably contrived to get lost in the Bermuda Triangle just south of Coventry. Every damn time, this happens. If ever I go missing over the next few years, I suggest they send a search party out to search the roads around bloody Warwick, bloody Kenilworth and bloody Leamington bloody Spa.

As we headed south on the Fosse, Parky played a couple of CDs from the ‘eighties. We passed Moreton-in-Marsh to the sound of ABC, Stow on the Wold to the sound of The Beat and Cirencester to the sound of Bauhaus.

I eventually reached home at 9pm, fell asleep on the sofa, missed “Match of the Day” and awoke at 4am. I turned over and fell back to sleep.

Top of the league, I’m having a kip.

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One thought on “Tales From A Road Less Travelled

  1. Thought you were going for a curry? Ah well, fell asleep. I never sleep through The Bachelor. Thanks again for posting. Love reading through these.

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