Tales From Mothering Sunday

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 15 March 2015.

On the eve of Chelsea’s clash with Southampton, I visited the local music venue in my home town. Big Country – or at least the latest incarnation, with Bruce Watson and Mark Brezezicki as the two original members being augmented by three others – played a tight and evocative set at Frome’s “Cheese & Grain” and I thoroughly enjoyed it. The swirling guitars brought back memories of a time in the mid-‘eighties when they were one of my favourite bands. There was one very specific memory. It is football-related. Does that surprise anyone?

On St. Valentine’s Day in 1986, Chelsea played a Friday night friendly against Rangers at Ibrox Stadium. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent and with time on my hands. I only found out about the game late on but I quickly managed to get a message to a mate who was studying at Strathclyde University. I asked him if I could crash at his flat and I bought a train ticket. I was on my way to Glasgow to follow Chelsea and it would be the most exotic trip of my Chelsea story at that time. Excited? You bet. The one thing that sticks in my mind features the train trip through the Southern Uplands, north of Gretna, south of Carstairs, when a fellow passenger had an old-school stereo system and played the Big Country’s debut album “The Crossing.” It seemed a bit of a cliché at the time, but it was the perfect addition to our trip north through snow-dusted hills. Magical memories.

“I’m not expecting to grow flowers in the desert, but I can live and breathe and see the sun in wintertime.”

The night also brought a few bittersweet memories too. The guitars, often sounding at times like bagpipes, and the lyrics, paying homage to Scotland’s dramatic countryside and gritty urban landscape, brought back vivid memories of my trips to Scotland with my mother over the past twenty years. How Mum enjoyed those trips north. Our list of towns visited list like a Proclaimers song; Edinburgh, Glasgow, Perth, Stirling, Brechin, Inverness, The Kyle Of Localsh, Portree, Inverness, Arbroath, Dundee. At times my eyes were moist.

After my mother’s passing, it has been a difficult time, but I have slowly improved. With the weekend – including Mother’s Day – following hard on the heels of the funeral on the Thursday, I felt that an important staging post would soon be reached. As far as the grieving process was concerned, I likened it to a Winston Churcill quote. The weekend would not mark the end, nor even the beginning of the end, but it would mark the end of the beginning. Since many close friends read these match reports, and since I feel it appropriate to do so, I include herein the eulogy that I wrote for my dear mother and which the vicar shared with those attending the service on Thursday 12 March.

IMG_1136 My dear mother Esmé lived a most wonderful life.

Mum was born on the third of January 1930 in one of the small cottages opposite The Talbot Inn, not more than one hundred yards from this beautiful church and lived virtually her entire life in her beloved Mells. Mum was an only child, born to two devoted parents; Ted Draper, a gardener, and his wife Blanche, a cook and housewife. Mum attended the local village school and there is no doubt that she had an idyllic childhood in this rural haven, making friends and enjoying the comforts of her family. The church was never far away, physically and spiritually. Life was simple, but rich with love. Her father would sometimes have the use of the parish vicar’s motor car and there were trips to visit local family but also occasional trips to the seaside. What a treat for young Esmé.

After excelling in the “eleven plus” at Mells School, my mother attended Frome Grammar School, cycling in from her village for the first few years. Although her studies were under the dark cloud of war, my mother had a carefree time. Mum studied hard and again excelled in all subjects. Rather reluctantly, I feel, Mum played as a goalkeeper in the girl’s school hockey team alongside her three great friends Barbara, Mary and Marda. During the war, there were occasional dances at the village hall. Mum passed all of her exams and began a teacher training course at a college in Bath. However, Mum soon decided that this was not for her and so began working as a dispensing chemist at a shop in Frome’s Cheap Street.

Just after the war, Mum travelled to Hanover in Germany with several other teenagers; it was one of the first ever exchanges after the hostilities. My mother had a wonderful time in Germany, making great friends with Liesel, the young German girl whose house Mum stayed in. While working at Roberts Chemists, my mother’s wavy hair and sparkling blue eyes attracted the attention of Reg Axon, a shy shopkeeper working a few doors away at John Dance. My father summoned some courage to ask my mother out and the rest, as they say, is history.

My parents married on April 25th 1957 in this very building. They honeymooned in London and set up home in New Street. They were, I am sure, blissfully happy. My parents were incredibly well suited. Both were kind and gentle, both loved home life. My mother moved on to work in a women’s clothes shop, again in Cheap Street. Of course, my parents longed for children. After eight years of waiting, I was born on 6th July 1965. However, my birth was tinged with sadness since my twin brother was stillborn. It is something which weighed heavily on my mother’s mind for many years. Both my mother and I contracted salmonella – I was born prematurely – and it was a miracle that I lived. For the first few weeks, Mum stayed in a nursing home, while I remained in an incubator at hospital; the distance between us must have been unbearable for dear Mum.

I know it sounds like a cliché, but my parents really were the best parents in the world.

They were always so industrious and busy. Both enjoyed gardening, but my mother’s great talent was as a home-maker and especially as a cook. Visiting friends and relatives often gasped at the enormity of the “spread” which Mum conjured up, with the dining room table creaking under the weight of sandwiches, sausage rolls, cakes, trifles and desserts. I always remember a Canadian relative talking in awe of the “suppers” which Mum provided. Nobody ever went hungry in the Axon household.

As I followed Mum’s path, with attendance at schools in Mells and then Frome, my mother continued to work tirelessly, maintaining her parents’ house in addition to her own. Mum was also a great servant to the village too, assisting in church affairs, village fetes and various committees. My mother also kept a close eye on those in the village who required an extra little care and attention. This was probably Mum’s greatest attribute; the selfless willingness to put others first.

Sadly, my mother often suffered with asthma and was admitted to hospital on several occasions.

In 1974, my parents announced that they were to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea for the very first time. For that simple act, I owe them so much. Our summer holidays were great highlights; there were five trips to Italy and Austria. Diano Marina in Italy was our favourite destination and in 1975 I ended-up playing football on the beach with a young Italian boy called Mario. Thanks to my mother, who swapped addresses with Mario’s mother, we became pen friends. We are still friends to this day.

My school days were not always happy and at times of upset and distress, my mother was always there to comfort me and to take away my pain. Through my teenage years, Mum suffered a little with depression and if I am truthful, our relationship became a little fraught. When I left Mells to go to college in Stoke-on-Trent in 1984, I am sure my mother missed me tremendously. Mum’s frequent letters to me throughout my three years in Staffordshire were testament to this. My parents continued to enjoy their holidays; there was a grand tour of Italy, and also a skiing trip to Austria. Yes, my mother has skied. How wonderful is that?

However, at the end of the ‘eighties, my mother lost both parents within ten months. Mum had cared for her parents, virtually until the end. The losses of her mother in April 1988 and her father in February 1989 were huge. Depression returned once again and my mother was in a fragile state of mind. I toured North America for ten months at around this time; looking back, I am sure Mum missed me enormously. On my return in 1990, things gradually improved and in 1991 my parents departed on a three month “round the world” trip, taking in Hong Kong, Singapore, Brisbane, Fiji, Hawaii, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and Vancouver. Sadly, my mother contracted shingles just before the start and the trip was cut short. The planned visits to Toronto, New York and Philadelphia never materialised. But more of that later.

In April 1993, my dear father passed away at the age of sixty-nine. The sense of loss was huge, but I was immediately impressed with my mother’s strength and resilience. We became significantly closer. For the next few years, Mum’s depression came and went at regular intervals. We visited Scotland every autumn for six years and how Mum enjoyed these trips. When depression lifted, Mum would resume her high levels of industry in the home and village, enjoyed coach trips with other villagers and continued to attend the church. After a while, shopping trips to Frome faded, and despite occasional car trips with me, Mum rarely ventured from Mells. Our cat Gemma was a lovely companion. Mum especially enjoyed watching Formula One on TV. I even caught her watching some Italian football occasionally.

There were trips to Calais, Cornwall and North Wales. In truth, my mother first started to suffer with dementia in around 2005. Its advance was slow, but steady. Throughout it all, my mother remained happy and contented. As I moved between jobs, my mother was keen to hear of my progress and Mum took great delight in hearing of my travels. Her cheerfulness was an inspiration. There were visits to local pubs for Sunday lunch and one or two trips to Chelsea. Friends and relatives called in to see Mum. Life had changed, but things were still fine.

In around 2009, Mum began visiting a local dementia centre and then carers called in to keep an eye on her while I was at work. Mum visited both Critchill Court and Emma Shepherd Day Care Centre over the past few years; as recently as fourteen months ago, Mum was heading in to Frome on four days each week.

In September 2010, I took my dear mother to the United States for an unforgettable week. We were based in Philadelphia – where our relatives resided in the nineteenth century for a few years – but we also visited New York. Mum was a real trooper, up every morning by eight o’clock, and we had a fantastic and joyous time. One moment will live with me forever. We had visited Yankee Stadium in The Bronx one Tuesday evening and I was driving back to Philly. I was high over the Hudson River, on the George Washington Bridge, with my mother in the back seat, quietly taking it all in. I glanced over to my left and I saw the bright lights of Manhattan. My heart leaped. I felt like the luckiest man on the face of the earth.

Only eighteen months ago, we drove to Scotland, staying in Dundee. After attending around thirty Chelsea games, my mother’s last football match was in Brechin. From The Bronx to Brechin, Mum was a lovely companion.

Sadly, Mum was hospitalised with arthritis just over a year ago. My mother would never walk again. For the past year, Mum’s life has consisted of being cared for at home, watching TV, singing along to some CDs – Mum had a lovely voice – and sharing some smiles and laughs with me. Mum never complained.

The carers loved visiting Mum. Mum was always so appreciative. Everyone loved her.

Last summer, I was able to take my mother out in her wheelchair around Mells and to sit out on the lawn to sip a cup of tea in the fresh air. I so wanted to do the same this summer. Last month, Mum was again hospitalised with pneumonia. As you all know, I was full of hope that Mum would make a full recovery on her return home. It was not to be.

My dear mother passed away at home on February 26th with me by her side. Mum was a sweet, gentle and kind woman, a devoted daughter to her beloved parents and a loving wife to her husband Reg and a compassionate and respected presence in her home village. Mum was the owner of the most amazing smile; wide and welcoming one moment, mischievous and cheeky the next.

She really was the best mother that I could have ever asked for.

Mum was an angel. It was an honour to be her son.

IMG_7606 I left my home village on Mothering Sunday 2015 just before 8am and soon collected PD and LP. The pre-match was rather rushed, but hugely enjoyable. I met Roma and Shawn outside the West Stand, opposite the Peter Osgood statue, and it was obvious that a visit to the megastore had taken place; Shawn was wearing a fantastic Chelsea tracksuit. There was a Delta Airlines football competition underneath the old Shed wall; Shawn had participated here, too. Roma had certainly made the most of her Chelsea match day. The two of them had been at Stamford Bridge since 9am.

We then headed off to see Mark at the stall and I bought his latest book for Roma, highlighting the little section on Frank Lampard which I had penned. Roma adores Frank and is as confused as any of us after his move to City.

We then headed off to The Goose and enjoyed a chat with a few mates. I had fortuitously bumped into a mate, Brian – from Belfast, now Los Angeles – and it was great to see him again. In the beer garden, it was cold and crisp. Familiar faces everywhere. I then arranged to meet Tom, the Vodfather, down at Fulham Broadway to collect two tickets for Shawn and Roma. At just before 1pm, all was sorted.

We headed inside the turnstiles to the MHU and I shared a story with Roma as we ascended the flight of stairs to the upper tier. Back in 2005, my mother and my good friend Glenn’s gran, attended the Chelsea vs. Birmingham City game; it was one of the great Chelsea memories. We met Peter Osgood in the megastore and then had lunch in the Butcher’s Hook. On reaching the top of the stairs in the MHU, the two ladies – my mother 75 and Rose 79 – disappeared off in to the ladies. A split second later, Glenn and I heard both of them let out a massive laugh.

“Oh blimey, what have they said…or done?”

It transpired that on entering, they thought they had seen a man in the ladies. They had looked at each other and couldn’t resist a spontaneous giggle. Every time I walk past this spot in the MHU concourse, I think back to Mum’s laughter.

Sigh.

I took a few photos of an excited Roma and Shawn before they took their places high up behind the goal. They were fantastic seats. Alan arrived with Tom, who has been very poorly of late. He is in his ‘seventies now. It was great to see him again. The match programme, marking our 110th anniversary, was in the style of the original “Chelsea Chronicle” and it looked fantastic. The flags were passed overhead. The teams appeared. One change from Wednesday’s anti-climax; Willian in for Ramires. There was a return for Ryan Bertrand, a hero from that night in Bavaria.

We began well. After only ten minutes, Eden Hazard worked the ball to Branislav Ivanovic out on the right. Very often this season our right-back is often the outlet for our attacking plans, yet often his final ball is disappointing. On this occasion, he lofted an inch perfect ball in, which picked out the lone leap of Diego Costa who easily scored past Forster. It was a fine goal.

Southampton, a fine team under Koeman who gave us a tough game on the south coast earlier in the season, did not let our goal stop them from moving the ball well. The impressive Sadio Mane tested Courtois, and then soon after a joint lunge on Mane by Matic and Ivanovic resulted in referee Mike Dean awarded a penalty. The consensus in our little group was that it was indeed a penalty. Tadic despatched it and although Courtois got a touch, the ball still hit the back of the net. 1-1.

For the rest of the first-half, with the atmosphere at times being ridiculously quiet, Southampton moved the ball around with aplomb, and were the more incisive. We, by contrast, looked tired and lacking in confidence. Our right flank was constantly exploited; the Willian and Ivanovic partnership looked disinterested. Oscar and Fabregas made little impact. It was as poor as I have seen for a while.

The away fans, again, aired the rather amusing and self-deprecating – “The Johnstone Paint Trophy, You’ll Never Win That.”

Sadly, around five thousand Chelsea fans didn’t get the joke and responded – “Champions Of Europe, You’ll Never Win That.”

Oh boy.

An overly theatrical response by Ivanovic to a tap tackle did not result in a penalty. It was the only Chelsea “moment” worth commentating on. At the other end, Courtois pulled off a few more saves. Southampton deserved to be 3-1 up at the break. Oh dear.

Yet again, we needed an inspiring team talk from the tongue of our manager at the break. Right from the first few seconds of the second-half, it was wonderful to hear the home support rising to the occasion with thunderous noise. It was a magnificent reaction. Well done everyone. However, a rasping free-kick from Alderweireld forced a full-stretch save from that man Courtois. First class.

Mourinho made a change; Ramires for Matic.

It felt like a goal must come. A Willian effort was deflected on to the post by Diego Costa. A shot from Oscar was blocked, and then a header from Oscar was parried by Forster. Surely, our goal would come.

Big John was up to his balcony-bashing best. “THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP – THUMP THUMP THUMP THUMP – CHELSEA.”

Another Oscar effort was saved. Remy for Oscar, Cuadrado for Willian.

Cuadrado failed to impress and dragged a shot wide. Then Azpilicueta went close. In the last minute, we could hardly believe what we witnessed; the Southampton goal was under attack and how. Remy had a shot blocked off the line, and the rebound was sent goal wards by JT but his effort was blocked, but the ball rebounded out to our captain who then stabbed the ball over. As the ball flew past the goal frame, the groan could be heard for miles and miles.

The much-hoped for eight point gap was now “only” six. I felt sure that many new Chelsea fans were about to pepper the internet with a plethora of negativity.

Another sigh.

After the game, at the Copthorne Hotel, Roma and Shawn met some Chelsea royalty; Ron Harris, Paul Canoville, Bobby Tambling and Roy Bentley. There were photographs of course, but also a couple of lovely conversations. Roma especially enjoyed hearing about Bobby Tambling’s close relationship with Frank Lampard, her personal favourite, which developed as Frank drew nearer and nearer to 202 Chelsea goals.

Roma’s smile was wide.

It was a beautiful end to Mother’s Day.

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