Tales From Salop

Shrewsbury Town vs. Chelsea : 28.10.14

Well, this was something different. This was something out of the blue. We were on our way to deepest Shropshire for a Capital One cup tie with Shrewsbury Town and a lovely added bonus; a new ground.

Mow that meadow.

But first, a frustrating journey. PD and I had left Chippenham at around 3.45pm. After battling the horror show of slow-moving traffic on the M6 en route to Manchester and then getting embroiled in an equally frustrating return on the M5 on Sunday, we found ourselves stuck in yet another traffic jam on the M5 near Gloucester. The two-and-a-half hour journey would be eventually stretched to three-and-a-half hours. On the last section of the trip on the M54 past Telford and then further west on the A5, the heavens opened.

It was a wet and sombre evening in Shropshire.

After navigating the town’s by-pass, we were parked-up at 7.15pm.

The rain still fell.

Coats on, zips fastened, hoods up, caps on.

Thankfully, the stadium – The New Meadow – was less than a ten minute walk away.

The original plan was to have a little meander around the town and pop in to a local hostelry to sample some of the pre-match atmosphere. This was a first-time visit. No previous trips to the picturesque Gay Meadow back in the grim old days for me; I had, in fact, only ever visited Shrewsbury once before, when I travelled up by train from a stag weekend in South Wales for a game at Old Trafford in 1987. These would be fresh fields, but sadly no local sightseeing on this occasion. Like Burnley in August, this would be the briefest of “in and out” trips with Chelsea.

Unlike Gay Meadow, which famously lay against a gentle bend of the River Severn in the centre of the town, the football club’s new stadium is out on the edge of the town, like so many of the new builds of late. There are single tiered stands on all four sides; all-seated of course, these days. The travelling army of around 1,600 Chelsea fans were located at the northern end. I was inside with ten minutes to spare. On the walk to my allocated seat, I bumped into many friends and acquaintances. Over the course of the evening, there would be many more. I know “it’s what we do and all that”, but it honestly heartened me, if not surprised me, to see that an awkward mid-week game, involving all sorts of hardships, had enticed so many of the loyal Chelsea hard core.

I searched for an equivalent.

How about this; 3,000 music fans from all over England attending a concert in Manchester one day and then 1,600 of them attending another concert by the same band in Shrewsbury two days later.

Would that happen?

I think not.

This was dedication from the Chelsea family of the very highest order; top work.

The rain still fell as the teams entered the pitch. There was a nice mix of youth and experience in our team. I was amazed to see Didier Drogba, captain for the night, playing his third game in eight days. Elsewhere, there were starts for Kurt “Monty” Zouma, Andreas Christensen – the debutant – and Nathan Ake.

The stands were packed. The home crowd were full of expectancy. The shrill blast of the referee’s whistle signalled the start of Shrewsbury Town’s biggest home game since, well, maybe we played against them in 2002-2003. The two triangular temporary stands, commissioned especially for the game, added around 600 to the gate, but those poor souls were the only spectators out in the open. Elsewhere, there was colour. The team’s ultras had pinned all of their banners against the back walls of the three home stands and I noted the chequered “Floreat Salopia” banner in the south stand.

“…mmm…I must Google that when I get the chance, must be something to do with Salop, the alternative name for Shropshire.”

Despite the buzzing atmosphere, the first-half was a tepid affair. Of course, Chelsea dominated possession, but Shrewsbury threatened on occasion. Petr Cech made the first significant save of the match, getting down low to turn an effort around his left post. The wet pitch was causing the players to lose their footing and spray accompanied every ball played along the ground. Two wasteful shots from Schurrle caused us to groan. Nathan Ake looked confident, but then was booked for a silly challenge in the opponents half.

“Silly. No need to be making rash challenges that far up the pitch.”

There was excellent backing from the Chelsea supporters throughout the half. One hearty rendition of “Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army (We Hate Tottenham)” went on for a while. There were all the usual favourites; songs for Dennis Wise, Peter Osgood and – er – Steven Gerrard.

There was typical banter between us and them too.

Them : “Salop. Salop. Salop. Salop.”

Us : “Here For The First Time.”

Them : “Where Were You When You Were Shit?”

Us : “Where Were You On Saturday?”

Them : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Us : “One Game A Season – You Know What You Are.”

Chelsea plugged away, but the wide players Salah and Schurrle found it difficult to break free. The home team played some decent football, to feet, but this was a game which desperately needed a goal. A fine move involving Didier and Salah set up Schurrle, but his headed attempt on goal was hardly worthy of the name.

At the half-time break, there were grumbles about our play among the Chelsea loyalists.

Me? I was just happy to be able to get some pent-up frustrations – from work, ugh – out of my system and be at ease…totally adrift and separate from the real world on Planet Chelsea.

I like it there.

The second-half brought a noted improvement. A few Chelsea half-chances were followed by a nice passing move which resulted in Salah knocking the ball in to Didier’s path. From inside the box, he calmly finished.

We roared.

It was time for another Didier slide and his third goal in as many games. His team mates joined in the celebrations right in front of us. We could almost smell their aftershave.

Next, Schurrle hit a fearsome shot from distance which the Shrewsbury ‘keeper Leutwiler tipped over. The Chelsea chances kept coming as the home team tired. Then a shot from Knight-Percival was deflected narrowly wide when it looked to my eyes like it was about to nestle inside the goal. The home fans were encouraged by this, no doubt. A rasper from Drogba tested Leutwiler. This was more like it.

It was time for more terrace banter.

Them : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Us : “You Support A Load Of Shit.”

Now then, dear reader, as soon as I heard this “witty” repost from the Chelsea fans, I knew that we were in trouble. Not only is it rather pathetic to take the rise out of a team in the fourth tier of English football, but I knew that the Footballing Gods would soon be punishing us for this.

Lo and behold, just moments later…

From a corner, the ball was headed down and Mikel could only tee up the substitute Mangan, who lashed the ball in from close range. It is fair to say that I have seldom heard 8,500 fans make as much noise. The home players and home supporters rejoiced.

It sparked us to life once more, however, and another nice move involving Schurrle and Oscar set up Willian out on the left. He toyed with the defender and sent in a bouncing bomb into the penalty box. Under pressure from Didier, the centre-back steered the ball past the diving Leutwiler with the deftest of headers.

I was amazed when it nestled in the goal.

Get in.

Now we celebrated.

The game continued and we thankfully avoided any last minute goals, unlike at Old Trafford on Sunday. At the final whistle, there was a mixture of pleasure and relief. I met up with PD and we returned back to the car. Within fifteen minutes, I was driving away from the stadium, past hundreds of match-goers who were returning to their cars and homes. It felt odd to be out and away so soon. Back in the car, we quickly chatted about the game. We had both enjoyed it. There was a special mention for Didier Drogba; his attitude and his efforts during the game were exemplary. He chased loose balls, he cajoled team mates and his spirit was infectious. It seemed that the days of old when his sometimes surly and lazy attitude in games such as this seemed a distant memory. Top marks to him.

We eventually got back on to the M6 – “for the second time in two days, hello Birmingham!” – and after a stress-free return, reached Frome at around 1am. On Saturday, four of us will be driving up for the Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers derby. Let’s hope that Diego Costa is fit for that one. I will make a concerted effort to not – yet – consult my British Book Of Poultry, nor use my binoculars, nor my calculator, but there could be goals, goals, goals.

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