Tales From The Top Of The Tree

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 22 December 2014.

Thanks to the power brokers at the FA and Sky TV, our game at Stoke City was changed to a Monday 8pm evening kick-off. Not to worry; the city of Stoke-On-Trent is a relatively easy place to get to-and-from, especially since I now finish work at 3.30pm. I set off from Chippenham alone.

I texted Steve, visiting from California and en route to Staffordshire on the official club coach with his wife Sonia, with a message to say that I was “on the road.”

“Duck Kerouac.”

This was a solo-mission for me, for once. Last season, there was a similar Monday night away game tucked in just before the yuletide festivities. However, our dull 0-0 draw at Arsenal is remembered more by me for the atrocious weather conditions which were waiting for me during the last hour of my drive home. This was the occasion when my car became stranded in rising floodwater on a local road, only ten miles from home, and when I had to cadge a lift with a policeman and then walk home for the last three miles, sodden to the skin. Happy days.

In 2014, I hoped for no repeat.

I also hoped that there would be no repeat of our fixture at Stoke City’s Britannia Stadium last season, when they inflicted a painful 3-2 defeat. That away game in The Potteries represented a low-water mark for this particular website since the match report drew a season-long low number of views, by quite a large margin.

What’s the old saying?

“If you only support Chelsea when we win, don’t support us when we lose.”

At the time, I wondered if I ought to change my website tag line.

“Read when we’re winning. You only read when we’re winning.”

I ate up the miles on the familiar road north, stopping at the new Gloucester services where I was financially abused in order to eat a pasty and a sandwich.

“£7 please.”

“Merry Christmas.”

With a backdrop of music from The Buzzcocks, I thought a little about the game. With Manchester City now level with us at the very top of the table, the pressure was now on us to perform. This would be a tough physical, battle, no doubt. It had the potential to be a season-defining moment. Would we buckle under pressure or would we reconfirm our championship potential?

The time soon passed.

I turned off the A500 and was soon parked at my usual place, on the grass verge on the exit road. Around twenty cars were similarly parked.

It was 6.30pm.

Although I love revisiting my old college town, there would be no time, alas, to visit old haunts before the game kicked-off. My college years began in the autumn of 1984 and I found it hard to reconcile the fact that it all seemed relatively recent; for several moments during the evening my mind wandered back to fleeting thoughts of my student digs during that first year, my college mates – some of which I still see – and, of course, memories of Chelsea, and also Stoke City, games.

In that first term, from September to December, I travelled down to Stamford Bridge on four Saturdays, plus an away game at Sheffield Wednesday, but I also saw Stoke City play Watford at their old Victoria Ground. As students, we had a reduction in admission – maybe £2.50 and not £3 – and I remember standing in the side paddock below the main stand seats as Watford won 3-1. The gate was around 10,000. Stoke were truly awful in that season and finished rock bottom of Division One. It is a mystery to everyone that their three victories were against Manchester United, Arsenal and Sheffield Wednesday. The Victoria Ground featured three stands with seats and standing terraces in front, but with the standing-only Boothen End to the south. At the time, it was a neat stadium, but nothing special in my mind. Of course, with the advantage of hindsight – and maybe rose coloured spectacles – the old stadium’s charms seem more appealing. Each stand different, each with its own individual charms, and – of course – what I would pay to be able to lean on a crush barrier on a vast terrace such as The Boothen once again. It is pertinent to note that the noisy atmosphere associated with The Britannia these days is a very recent phenomenon. Stoke were never too noisy in my time.

Maybe the three seasons that I attended games there – a relegation season, plus two grey seasons in the Second Division – are not a suitable sample size.

On the walk from my car to the stadium, which is located in a part of the city called Sideway – pronounced “Siddaway, duck” – I walked past the Trent And Mersey Canal. An entrepreneuring fellow was selling oatcakes – the local delicacy, but I never was a fan – from his canal boat. The smoke rising from inside reminded me of the smoke associated with the selling of hot chestnuts and hot dogs on the Fulham Road in previous years. Does anyone else remember those little tin hot dog stands at Chelsea on match days, and the grubby hands of the chaps who sold them?

Shudder.

The main stand at The Brittania is surprisingly high. From the outside, it looks impressive. Unlike the single-tiered bowl at Southampton, Stoke City decided to go for a different approach in the design of their new stadium. The main stand is double-decked, but stands alone, not linked to the other structures. The away end, at the south end, stands alone too. The home end is linked to the other side stand. Maybe the intricacies and architectural anomalies of the old Victoria were purposefully repeated here.

The home end, also called The Boothen End, allows a little continuity for the residents. For those paying attention, the Boothen End was at the southern end of the old stadium, but is at the northern end of the new one. Is this a mistake? Not really, since the area of Boothen, roughly speaking, sits between the sites of the two stadia.

I made another pilgrimage to the grassed area behind the Boothen End to admire the magnificent series of statues which celebrate the city’s most famous son, Sir Stanley Matthews. Against the backdrop of the night sky, I managed to take a few dramatic photographs.

On my approach to the away turnstiles, I chatted briefly to a steward and I spoke about that awful 1984-1985 season.

“Keith Bertschin, George Berry, Steve Bould…”

Inside the away end – it is actually split 60/40 with home fans – I soon spotted Steve and Sonia. While the goalkeepers went through their pre-game routines, which involved fans taking a few selfies with Petr Cech, we chatted about our journeys to Stoke and our plans for the rest of the Christmas matches. A friend outside the away end had mentioned that the Stoke defenders would probably be niggling Diego Costa, especially, from the kick-off and he would need to be strong in mind and body not to get embroiled in any silliness.

I was positioned halfway back right behind the goal. Being an away season-ticket holder has its privileges. Alas Alan was unable to get time off work for this one – “thanks Sky” – but Gal was alongside me. A few Christmas songs were played on the PA and I was filled with a modicum of pride to see the sign on the home end :

“The Boothen End – Sponsored By Staffordshire University.”

…of course, back in my day, it was the more down-at-heel “North Staffs Poly.”

Although it had been a blustery walk to the ground, inside it was relatively OK.

I still remember the bitterness of our cup game up there in 2003; the coldest that I have ever been at a Chelsea game. I’m still thawing out from that one.

Jose Mourinho again played Matic alongside Mikel, which pushed Fabregas alongside Hazard and Willian. This would always be a physical battle. We were ready for the Stoke onslaught. Steve had asked me about the Stoke atmosphere, but the noise levels weren’t great before the game. The Chelsea fans, however, were in buoyant form.

In parts of Manchester, others were looking on.

Chelsea – with blue socks, I’m still not a fan – had a perfect start. Hazard seemed to be in acres of space on the left – maybe an optical illusion caused by the fact that the main stand sits way back from the action – advanced and played the ball in to Brana. His shot was deflected for a corner. Cesc sent over a fabulous corner and, through the lens of my camera, I saw at least three Chelsea players converge to meet the ball. After a slight delay, the three thousand away fans soon realised that the net had rippled and we were one up.

Get in.

It took ages for anyone around me to realise that JT had headed home.

Alan, South London : “THTCAUN.”

Chris, South Stoke : “COMLD, duck.”

Steve, South Philly : “I haven’t even sat down.”

Chris, South Stoke : “It’s OK. Neither have I.”

We completely dominated the game for the next ten minutes and the home team hardly touched the ball. We bossed it and our play was crisp and purposeful.  However, the rough tackles were starting to mount up. It took a full twenty minutes for Stoke City to muster much in their attacking third; when they did, the home stands finally delivered some formidable noise. Until that point, Chelsea had been in control off the pitch too. This was my first-ever midweek Chelsea game at Stoke – when was the last one? – and I was loving it. A good game, a noisy away section, good times.

An awful challenge on Eden Hazard by Phil Bardsley, down on the left touchline, made the entire away end howl. OK, I was one hundred yards away, but this was an ugly, brutal assault on our supremely gifted magician. I was praying for a red card to be handed out but was dismayed to see a yellow. Mark Hughes – I loved him as a Chelsea player, but those days are long gone – was full of rage, throwing his arms around in a theatrical display of histrionics. It was akin to the movements shown by matadors or variety performers cracking whips. Maybe Hughes thought he would be getting points for it.

What a fool.

Hughes and Mourinho came together momentarily, and Hughes’ tantrums continued. For the rest of the game, Jose silently stalked his technical area, his presence probably annoying Hughes further. I lost count of the times that Hughes threw his arms down amid a verbal onslaught to the poor fourth official.

Courtois reacted brilliantly to push Nzonzi’s deflected low drive away for a corner. The corner, like others, was superbly claimed by our young goalkeeper. Although Petr Cech is a superb goalkeeper, his control of his six yard box – for a tall man – hasn’t always been great. A goal which was scored last season on the same ground is a case in point. In contrast, Courtois seems peerless. With the ball lofted high in to our box, I am always confident that Thibaut will claim it.

This was a fine game, but there were niggles.

The referee needed to talk to several players at a Stoke corner as players scrambled for an advantage. After a few half-hearted Stoke threats were repelled – a Cahill block comes to mind – we regained the advantage.

After good work from Matic, an oblique pass into space from Fabregas was gorgeous, but Diego Costa shot wide. Our lone striker enjoyed a fine half, running well with the ball, keeping the ball tight, but also his movement off the ball was also exemplary. There were fine performances all over, though Willian, despite his energy, was delaying his final pass which caused the away fans to grow restless. He seemed to spend his time scuttling sideways – in Sideway – rather than penetrating the defence with a pass. However, it was a minor complaint.

At the other end, more comfortable leaps from Thibaut kept Stoke at bay.

Ex Chelsea season-ticket holder Peter Crouch was having a tough ride from our supporters –

“Does the circus know you’re here?”

At the break, the mood was optimistic.

“We need a second, though, Gal. One goal isn’t enough. We need those three points. Massive game tonight.”

We again dominated as the second period began. Willian shot at goal, then continued to do so at regular intervals throughout the half. Eden Hazard was quite magical all night long and it is an absolute pleasure to be able to watch him perform week in, week out. His art is his own, and Sir Stanley Matthews would have enjoyed our Belgian’s performance in his home town.

The pitch was Eden’s.

One dribble down the left went on for an age. It was just beautiful. With his rather chunky thighs, and his low centre of gravity, he is such an obdurate individual once he has the ball at his mercy. I am reminded of Bryon Butler’s description of Diego Maradona in the 1986 game against England.

“Turns like a little eel…and comes away from trouble…little squat man.”

That second goal was elusive, though. For all our possession, there was nothing. Substitute Charlie Adam shot narrowly wide, though I was convinced that it would be the equaliser.

Nerves.

Plenty of them.

“We’re starting to tire, Gal.”

On seventy-eight minutes, the ball was played by a raiding Eden Hazard towards Cesc Fabregas. His first touch wasn’t perfect and the ball was flicked up, but he was able to stretch for a second one, which resulted in the ball almost apologetically trickling over the line, with Begovic flat-footed.

60% of the south stand erupted.

GET IN.

Inside I was boiling, but I remained cool.

I snapped Fabregas’ joyous slide towards the baying away support on film.

Cesctasy.

We could, finally, relax.

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Andre Schurrle, a late substitute for Willian, shot low but Begovic saved.  Diego Drogba replaced the excellent Diego Costa. Sadly, Eden Hazard was injured after another errant Stoke tackle. The substitute Kurt Zouma was momentarily deployed within our midfield ranks as the five minutes of extra-time ran out.

“Kurt Zouma – he plays where he wants.”

On the walk down the hill to my car, I was interested to hear the comments of the home supporters.

Asmir Begovic was mentioned scathingly, though the most interesting point of view was about one of our players.

“Matic is an absolutely brelliant play’yeh.”

“He es, ent he? He wens the ball, then pushes on.”

Ah that Stoke accent.

I reached my car and threw my pullover and jacket in the back seat. I flicked the CD on and – no word of a lie – the Buzzcocks sang :

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.”

Perfect.

I had my usual “see if I can get back on to the M6 in two minutes” race along the A500.

I did.

With our position at the top of the tree secured for Christmas, I could relax and quickly review my albeit brief time spent in The Potteries. It had reminded me so much of an infamous away win at Ewood Park against a thuggish Blackburn Rovers team during our 2004-2005 championship-winning campaign. We rose against the physicality of another Mark Hughes team that evening and many said that it was a watershed moment in our season. Ten years on, I had similar thoughts.

It had ben a brelliant naght, duck.

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