Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 13 April 2014.
Parky, Glenn, Bob, Chris.
So there we were; the four of us, basking in the early-afternoon sun at Bracelet Bay, just south of The Mumbles on the Gower Peninsular. We had just enjoyed a fine lunch at the Castellamare restaurant – where Parky and I enjoyed a similar pre-game meal before the January 2012 game – and were just about to head back into town to join the rest of the supporters for the Swansea City vs. Chelsea game. It had been a fine trip thus far. Due to the – relative – close proximity of the Liberty Stadium to my home (110 miles in case anyone is wondering) and the relatively “newness” of this venue, this always was going to be one of the most anticipated away days of 2013-2014. The four of us were having a blast, in fact. The story of how the trip came about is an interesting one.
Until about a week before the game, Parky wasn’t going to be attending this game. Although he is a Chelsea season ticket holder, he had missed out in the application process. This was a real shame. We had enjoyed our first league game in Wales for 28 years on that trip in 2012 and were keen to repeat it. I was hopeful that a ticket might somehow become available from a Chelsea mate, but I also had a back-up plan. I work in logistics and one of our suppliers is based in Swansea. About a month ago, after we learned of Parky’s cruel twist of fate, I enquired if they could possibly muster up one ticket from somewhere. After a couple of subtle hints, the dialogue dwindled. I wasn’t too hopeful. Then, out of the blue, I received the great news that not one but two tickets had been acquired. Not only that, they were gratis…free…complimentaries. This was a result of the highest order. I quickly ‘phoned His Parkyness to tell him; he was, as the old cliché goes, “over the moon Brian.” I quickly decided that Parky would have my ticket, alongside Alan and Gary in the away section, while I would make use of one of the complimentaries. Who would get the other one? It was an easy decision.
My good friend – in fact, my oldest Chelsea friend by a good few years – Glenn was free on Sunday 13 April and so he unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to travel with me to Swansea for the game. Glenn has been keeping an extra special eye on my ailing mother of late and so here was a lovely way to reward him for his time, not that a reward was being sought of course. It was just nice that he was free, that we could watch the game together. Originally, I had visions of us schmoozing in a corporate area, but I found out on the Wednesday that the two tickets were located within the home end. This wasn’t a problem. The tickets – two season tickets – were posted to me and arrived on the Friday. This was coming together rather well. I longed for the weekend. It was, quite possibly, going to be the best weekend of the year so far. On the Friday, I saw iconic punk poet John Cooper Clarke in my home town with a few old (non-Chelsea, gasp) friends and on Saturday I awaited the arrival in town of a Chelsea friend from afar.
I first met The Bobster in Palo Alto in 2007, ahead of our game against Club America on a perfect Californian summer day, and we have become very good mates during the intervening period. Bob has travelled over to England on around six or seven occasions since then – plus away games in Rome and Paris – and has even travelled down to my home town in Somerset to see my local team play. Bob had this trip booked, in that meticulous way of his, some months ago. There was always going to be a trip to Frome on the day before the jaunt to Swansea, and Parky was always going to be accompanying us, regardless of match ticket. Additionally, there was always going to be a boozy rendezvous around the pubs of Frome (aka “Dodge City”) too. What made it all the more enjoyable was the sudden news about the extra two tickets. Four of us were going to South Wales and it was going to be a cracker.
I followed up the night out on the Friday with a well-planned pub crawl around Dodge on the Saturday. I invited two local Chelsea stalwarts – PD and Brian – to join Glenn, Bob and I and the evening’s entertainment began at PD’s local “The Crown.” I had warned Bob that this pub would be as “old school” as they came. The linoleum on the floor and the – ahem – minimalistic décor proved my point. Bob’s enquiry if the pub served food was met by a quick rebuttal from me. We assembled just after 7pm, but were saddened to see Wigan squander a 1-0 lead and to end up losing their F.A. Cup semi-final against Arsenal. The drinks went down well. It was lovely to be out in my local town with four other Chelsea supporters. We felt untouchable. Glenn and I ended up at an “80’s Night”, where the drinking continued, and where – in one surreal moment – we found ourselves up on stage dancing to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was a good night. Thankfully, I awoke the next day hangover-free. Glenn didn’t fare quite so well.
I had collected The Bobster outside his hotel in Frome’s Market Place at 9.15am and I called for Glenn soon after. To be honest, I was just thankful that he was in the land of the living. However, on a day when our behaviour in among the home fans would probably be under intense scrutiny (“who are those two, by there?) – and heaven knows we had joked about us putting on Welsh accents, and growing moustaches, to blend in – I was taken aback by Glenn’s choice of puffa jacket.
It was royal blue.
“Nice neutral colours, Glenn.”
“Oh shit. I got dressed in a hurry. Look!”
He had a royal blue Quiksilver polo, too.
We swung over to collect His Lordship. A quick breakfast at McMelksham (“look at those two twats with their Arsenal shirts on”) and then up onto the M4. It was a splendid day. The weather was superb. As we rose on a hill to the north of Bristol, we could easily see the hills of Wales on the horizon. The view was exceptional.
I drove over the new (well, circa 1997) Severn Bridge and we were soon in Wales.
“You been to Wales before, Bob?”
“Nope. First time.”
Bob was soon chuckling at the dual road signs on show as I thundered past Newport, then Cardiff, then Bridgend, then Port Talbot. In a little more than two hours after leaving Parky’s Wiltshire village, I had parked-up outside the Swansea train station to allow Bob to deposit his overnight bag in the Grand Hotel opposite. A few Chelsea faces were already drinking in the hotel bar – I paid it a visit last season in fact, during the dying embers of Roberto di Matteo’s tumultuous reign. Parky didn’t accompany me on that trip. Both of the league games at the Liberty Stadium ended as 1-1 draws. As for the League Cup semi-final (which none of us attended), the less said the better. So, three visits to Swansea and three draws. On the trip, little was said about the up-coming match. I have sensed that there is a shifting of focus by Chelsea supporters from the domestic league towards European glory. Although I was hopeful of a Chelsea win later that evening, and with it a continued presence in the crazy and unpredictable title race, I was surely not alone in thinking that our league campaign might end with most Chelsea fans focussing on Madrid and Lisbon. This, to be honest, was unlike me. I have always counted league glory over European glory. And yet…and yet…Munich gave me the best night of my life and the best weekend of my life. How could I not want a second European Cup? These are heady days.
For an hour or so, the four of us chatted over lunch. Glenn’s hangover had subsided, but Bob gave us all headaches when he informed us that Manchester City had let in two early goals at Anfield. In that moment, had the power shifted towards the city of Liverpool?
As I drove slowly back into the city, we were given a sightseeing tour by Parky. He had been so smitten by The Mumbles on our visit in 2012 that he had soon returned back with his far-better half Jill for a few days. As I passed through The Mumbles, Parky spoke of that visit. It seemed that there were few pubs that Jill and Parky hadn’t frequented.
Then, mayhem. The news came through that David Silva had not only scored once but twice at Anfield. When the second one was announced on Five Live, we roared. My car may have shifted a few lanes. Suddenly, in Swansea, with the terraced houses clinging to the surrounding hillsides, and the sky so blue, we were back in it.
Then, just after the stadium came into view…utter dismay.
Liverpool 3 Manchester City 2.
I parked up and we sauntered down to the neat stadium, the sun warming the Welsh air. Outside, I said my goodbyes to The Bobster. He walked with Parky up to the northern end of the stadium, while Glenn and I headed to the other end. After a few paces, I spotted a Swansea face; one of the wannabee hooligans featured in that laughable documentary about an ill-fated trip to Notts County game a few years ago.
Johnny The Brains.
We had no problems entering the stand. In a quiet moment, I whispered to Glenn –
“The last time we were sat in the home end together was in Barcelona in 2005. Wonder if a bloke will prod you with his walking stick like at Camp Nou.”
“I don’t think he was too impressed when I said ‘VIVA MADRID’ was he?”
Inside, we had great seats. We were in only the fifth row in the lower tier, just yards from the goal. Around us, of course, were natives. We spoke in hushed tones. I have watched games in home areas before of course; Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth, Bristol City to name a few. I have never encountered any trouble. However, this game was a little different. I was using someone else’s season ticket; it was likely that we would soon be sussed. We vowed, therefore, to randomly cheer the odd Swansea move, but – obviously – stay silent should Chelsea score. I also didn’t want the kind benefactor to be reprimanded by the club for letting in away fans.
I already had a story : “We’re visiting our sons at Swansea University and had the chance of tickets.”
Glenn : “What subjects?”
Chris : “I don’t bloody know. Football?”
The Chelsea end slowly filled-up. I spotted Bob, Alan and Gary. This was going to be a weird sensation for me. For once, I would be the outsider looking in. There were a few flags. But quite a few empty seats.
The teams entered the pitch and the hitherto quiet home sections were roused.
Then, a whistle.
We remembered the ninety-six Liverpool fans, including one lad from Swansea, who tragically perished twenty-five years ago.
At 4.07pm, the game began and it was pretty surreal to be among strangers. We had made a point of clapping some of the Swansea players as their names were announced, but one lad behind us kept giving us some very old-fashioned looks. It was great to be so close to the action. Swansea began well. A lot of our early play came down our right, just where we sat, and I so wanted to give support to Mohamed Salah, Branislav Ivanovic or Demba Ba, so found it hard to sit motionless. A fine move found Brana but his excellent cut-back was tucked wide by Salah. Willian buzzed around and Matic looked in control. Another Salah effort, then a header from Bony. The home support was predictably loud –
“Gary Monk’s Barmy Army”
CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP.
But the Chelsea fans matched it well –
“He Hates Tot’num, He Hates Tot’num.”
The game, however, changed when Chico Flores was booked twice within a few minutes. Swansea were down to ten men. The home fans were incandescent with rage.
One chap behind said –
“I fcuking hate Chelsea.”
We seemed to have all of the possession then, but never looked like getting behind their back-line.
“If we can’t beat ten men…”
A few chances were exchanged, with Salah and Willian heavily involved. When Andre Schurrle was booked, the Swansea fans cheered and clapped. I joined in.
“Bloody hell Glenn, I’m confused.”
It had been a strange game. Our play was slow and I wondered what magic might issue forth from Jose Mourinho’s mouth at the interval. At the break, two changes – Oscar for Ramires and Eto’o for Schurrle. We were now on the offensive and Oscar was very involved. We stepped up the pressure, moving things nicely in the Swansea half. A Ba header was flicked wide. Then, with Eto’o just yards from goal and centrally placed, he shanked it wide. I silently sighed. Then, a shot from Ba. The chances were mounting up.
The home fans responded –
“And We Were Singing, Hymns And Arias, Land Of My Fathers, Ar Hyd Y Nos.”
And so did the team. Only a timely block from John Terry denied Routledge. The clock was ticking and I again wondered if we would ever score. Would our league title challenge end with a whimper in Wales?
A quick throw in by Dave found an unmarked Matic. This was poor defending by Swansea, but their ten men had chased us down for an hour. They were starting to tire. Matic wasted no time in toe-poking the ball up-field to Demba Ba. Our number 19 adeptly brought the ball down. He edged left and shot early. Vorm could only deflect the ball in. I remained silent and still. Two thousand Chelsea fans were doing the celebrating for me. It was a great, immediate, bellow of noise.
A few more Chelsea chances. Mourinho then put the bolt across our defence and brought on Mikel for Ba. A great reflex save by Petr Cech from Shelvey, just ten yards away from Glenn and I, kept us ahead. I wanted to yell out my support. Instead, I whispered to Glenn –
“That’s why he’s still our ‘keeper.”
By then, many of the home fans around us had already left.
The final whistle blew. Our foray behind enemy lines had been a huge success. However, it had been an odd game. We had enjoyed tons of possession, and had peppered the home goal with a multitude of shots, but it was all much laboured. But let’s be honest, at this stage of this very strange season, all we can attempt to do is win.
Job – most definitely – done.