Tales From A Litmus Test

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 16 August 2015.

It was around 8.30am. Parky and I were briefly summarising our start to the season, and our hopes for our game at Manchester later in the day. I was being truthful when I told him that I wasn’t looking forward to the day as I ought to be. There was no specific reason, but I suspect that the fear of defeat was breathing heavily down my neck. Was there anything else, more sinister perhaps, to be the reason for my melancholy about another trip north? I honestly wasn’t sure. I know that I have often spoken about the thoughts that I have regarding my level of support for Chelsea Football Club and the – whisper it – inevitably that it might start to wane. As I entered the M4 on the slip road a few miles to the north of Chippenham, I admitted to Parky “that moment will come.”

Like King Canute and the incoming tide, once that moment strikes, there will be little I will be able to do to stop it. As I headed north, with the weather turning sunny one moment and cloudy the next, I wondered if the day, and the key encounter with one of our biggest title challengers, might prove to be some sort of litmus test for my support over the coming season.

I was ready to be tested.

Of course the football season of 2015/2016 was only in its infancy, but there were already thoughts about the madness of modern football, with all of its associated nonsense. At Chelsea, of course, in addition to the dropping of – shock horror – home points against Swansea City, we had to endure the fall out of the “Eva-Gate” revelations during the rest of that first week. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head at the antics of those connected with football. Sometimes I wish it really was “only a game.” As the week unfolded, with respective factions taking pot shots across the bows, I watched from behind my sofa, through my fingers held up to my face, just as many children of my generation apparently did when “Doctor Who” was shown on TV. Oh to be a psychiatrist with Jose Mourinho as a patient, trying to understand his complex personality. Is everything that he does stage managed to perfection? Is everything part of some grand Machiavellian plan? Does he have an “edge” on everyone? Is this desire to lay blame elsewhere a natural or manufactured trait?

In an email to some pals on the Friday, I jested that I would ensure that I was given a parking ticket in Manchester on the Sunday, so that it would give Mourinho something to get the media talking about rather than the inadequacies of his players during a possible defeat against City.

Yes, it had been a crazy first week of the season alright. There had been some daft knee-jerk reactions from parts of the media – lauding Claudio Ranieri after two wins, castigating Dick Advocat after just two losses, even niggling away at Louis Van Gaal after just three shots on goal – but the media’s obsession with Eva Carneiro just about tipped me over the edge. Thankfully, acting as a lovely balance against the madness of modern football and its obsession with the cult of personality, I watched my local non-league team Frome Town eke out a creditable 1-1 draw with a very impressive Merthyr Town side on a lovely Wednesday evening. It stirred my spirits and I almost enjoyed it as much as the Chelsea game against another Welsh side, Swansea City, a few days before.

As an aside, it irritated me that Carneiro was erroneously portrayed as a club physio on at least one BBC news report. The corporation should know better.

Additionally, I have never been able to fathom the hold that Carneiro has on some of our support. Have these people never seen a woman before?

Back to the football.

The trip north – oh so familiar over the past ten years – was going well, but I was still not getting that match day tingle. We drove past The Hawthorns, scene of our last domestic away game in May, and a three-nil defeat which meant little. Up on to the M6 and the traffic was fine. We spotted a Manchester City car, boasting a sticker for the Weymouth Blues. The skies cleared and I ate up the miles. It was a familiar drive in to the city of Manchester and one which has almost become automatic for me; the Manchester Orbital, past Old Trafford, past Salford Quays, past the Salford Lads Club, right in to the city centre.

I parked up at midday, four hours after collecting Parky.

Out in to the bright Mancunian sun, surrounded by the familiar red brick, I suddenly got the kick that I was hoping for.

Chelsea away in a northern city, four hours to kick-off, boom.

The buzz was back.

Fantastic.

Parky and myself spent an hour or so enjoying a couple of bottles of beer apiece in the bar of The Lowry Hotel, right in the heart of the city, overlooking a narrow “cut” of The River Erwell as it winds its way out to Salford and beyond. We had visited this hotel before our famous win at City in the 2013/2014 season – one of the best away days of recent memory – and I suppose it was the superstitious part of me that made me want to revisit. Just as we were about to leave, I spotted the black and gold of an Ellison coach pull up outside the main entrance. This was a sure sign that Chelsea, as I had hoped, had been staying in the hotel. We loitered around for a while, despite the overzealous questioning of a few hotel staff, and were able to wish the players well as they quietly walked through the lobby in their white Adidas tracksuits and on to the waiting coach.

Chris : “Good luck, Eden.”

Parky : “Score two for me today, Eden.”

There was no response, no eye-contact, from him, nor the others. They looked, as you probably might expect on such an important day, focussed and serious. From another direction, came the suited Mourinho, again deadly serious. He looked straight ahead as I wished him well. A gaggle of fans, no more than ten, were waiting outside and only John Terry and Diego Costa had stopped to sign and pose for photographs.

Back at the city centre car park – no word of a lie – a young attendant was sheepishly waiting by my car and handed me a £25 parking ticket.

“I blame Mourinho and his bloody team talk Parky.”

Bollocks.

“Is that a bad omen, Parky? Shall we bugger off home now?”

We were caught in a little traffic, but were parked up in our usual place – a £5 spot at a car wash on the Ashton New Road – only ten minutes from the stadium.

Since the last visit of almost twelve months ago, another Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City’s stadium had been enlarged by a further seven thousand seats, with a high third tier now sitting on top of the south stand. The San Siro style exit ramps still exist at the sides, but the new stand has an encased look, with dull grey cladding at the bottom and windows above. It hardly adds to the aesthetic appeal of The Etihad. Down below, many familiar Chelsea faces were milling around. I met up with Alan and Gary. Alan handed me my match ticket, plus the one for West Brom the following Sunday. It was just after three o’clock. There were handshakes and a few grimaces.

“Take a draw today, son.”

More than one acquaintance admitted that Mourinho had been “a bit of a tit” regarding his outburst against Carneiro and Fearn.

There was ample time for a meet and greet with a few more friends in the bar area of the concourse of the middle tier. Inside the stadium, I was immediately met with the sight of five huge banners, held aloft by helium balloons, yet tethered by some folks at pitch level, announcing the new tier on the south stand. There was quite a festive feel. The new structure would bring the capacity up to around 55,000.

Two things to note.

City have been quite crafty in allowing away supporters into the new top tier too. The support, three thousand strong (at £58 a ticket, no less), was now split in to three tiers, thus making it rather difficult for all of us to synchronise the singing. I always thought that slicing our away section in to two at City resulted in a sub-standard noise level. With three thin sections, piled high upon each other, it would be even more difficult to get our support together.

As I have said before, I have always linked City and Chelsea historically; loyal, yet undervalued support, a sprinkling of trophies over many years, now powerhouses in the new order, with foreign investment bringing new levels of success and expectation. I will watch with great interest to see if City manage to fill those extra 7,000 seats on a weekly basis, what with our new stadium plans taking shape at the moment. It’s a litmus test for City, and maybe one for us too.

The team was announced.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Ramires – Diego Costa.

The loud PA stoked up the home support, with various players featuring on the TV screens – “I play for you” – interspersed with the faces of fans – “I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

I remember commenting on something similar last season.

As the teams entered the pitch, the banners moved infield, and streamers cascaded down on to the pitch from the excited Citizens in the new tier above. With so many sky blue and white streamers filling the air, it reminded me of Argentina 1978.

Alan, Gary and I were in the middle of the middle tier, but right next to the home support.

“Lovely.”

The Chelsea support stood the entire game, which is nothing new.

From the whistle – Diego Costa to Willian – I was in to it.

Reports of my demise had been exaggerated.

Sadly, we lost possession straight away and a sublime ball from David Silva reached the run of Sergio Aguero. We held our breath, but Asmir Begovic saved well.

At the other end, Diego Costa fell in the box but I was unsighted. Down in front of us, City were coming at us at will, but Begovic saved magnificently on two separate occasions from the tormentor in chief Aguero. Our possession always looked like it would soon be coming to an end. A rare Matic header was our only effort which caused Hart to save. City were in the ascendency. Another Aguero chance went begging and as I looked across at the baying City fans, one chap was signalling “it could be 4-0.”

I silently agreed.

Just after the half-hour, the ball found Aguero yet again and he edged himself past Gary Cahill to fire City in front, the ball agonisingly coming off the inside of the far post.

We threatened momentarily, but City had dominated the first period. Our play was laboured and slow. Hazard was quiet. Fabregas, save for a couple of rare tackles, woeful. There were few positives.

Then, in the closing minutes, pure comedy.

An injured Gary Cahill needed attention in the goal mouth down below.

“Oh no.”

On came two unknown Chelsea assistants, scurrying like mad, and attended to our defender. The home sections of the stadium erupted in mirth.

“Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Only the hardest of Chelsea souls could not find that just a little amusing. I caught Alan having a little smirk to himself. In the lower tier to my right, the City fans were singing “Eva, Eva, Eva.”

After us singing Frank Lampard’s name last season and City singing Eva Carneiro’s name this season, this was getting pretty surreal.

What next?

Chelsea singing the praises of Eddie Large?

Next to receive attention was Diego Costa, clumped by a City defender, but away in the other half. Again, I was unsighted. As he walked off, head bandaged, he seemed to be overly agitated and Ivanovic – I think – had to steer him away from a City player.

At the break, there was the grim realisation that it could have been 4-0 to City. There were long faces everywhere I looked. After dismissing City as a main threat for our title before the season, I was having to re-evaluate, but yet a little voice inside my head kept saying “this is only the second game, don’t judge just yet.”

At the start of the second period, it was announced that Kurt Zouma was coming on as a substitute. My immediate thought was that Mourinho was looking to strengthen the midfield and maybe take off Ramires, put Zouma alongside Matic, and move Fabregas forward.

No. I got that wrong.

Kurt Zouma replaced John Terry.

What?

I had to think back to see if JT had received a knock. That was Gary Cahill injured before the break, surely. I just couldn’t compute that John Terry had been substituted.

Thankfully, much to our surprise, we enjoyed an upturn during the first part of the second-half. The increase in aggression and passion quickly inspired the away contingent to rally. We did our best to support the boys.

A break found Fabregas down below us in the inside-left channel and his lofted pass found Ramires, who controlled the ball and stabbed the ball past Hart. There was an instant roar of approval, but then the gnawing realisation that a linesman had flagged for offside. The City fans alongside us became animated and agitated. They mocked us for our false joy. I just looked across at them and mocked them similarly.

“Alright, calm down for fuck sake.”

Our play had improved since the first-half. Our chances on goal were rare, but we had definitely stepped up a gear.

Mourinho then replaced Ramires, one of the biggest improvements in my mind, with the much-maligned Juan Cuadrado. I am sure that there was a communal shake of the head among the Chelsea supporters inside the stadium and out. Our winger was much-heralded when he signed for us in February for around £24M. Since then, he has disappointed in nearly all of his subsequent games. There is a little part of me who thinks that Mourinho sees him as the 2015 version of Tal Ben Haim, a player so suspiciously “un-Chelsea like” in quality as to warrant the view that Mourinho only bought him, and kept picking him, as a mark of bitterness towards the lack of funds afforded him by the board.

Or is that me being too cynical?

With twenty minutes remaining, and the game delicately poised, a fine move – our best of the match – involving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa almost brought dividends. Diego lost his marker and played in Hazard, who made space well with a typical body shake, but Hart saved well.

We groaned a million “fackinells.”

Radamel Falcao, booed by City for his past season in Salford, entered the fray, replacing Willian, who had begun to tire. There were calls, tongue in cheek, for Falcao to replace Cuadrado. I was always told that it is not advisable to make substitutions before defending a corner. Falcao’s first three seconds of match action resulted in Kompany rising high above Ivanovic.

Bollocks.

2-0.

No way back now.

Insult was added to injury in the last five minutes when Fernandinho fired home from an angle. The home fans exploded in untold glee.

3-0.

Ugh.

In the dying embers, Diego Costa hit the post.

The City fans were in their element.

“Champions of England, you’re having a laugh.”

At the final whistle, a couple of the lads in front of me reached over to shake hands with the City supporters with whom they had been enjoying some good old-fashioned banter throughout the game. It was good to see. Despite a gut-wrenching defeat, I was deeply proud that not many Chelsea fans left before the end of the game.

I met up with Parky outside.

“That’s our second successive 3-0 away league defeat, Parky.”

Parky was with Kev, from Edinburgh, who last featured in these tales on our trip to wonderful Lisbon last autumn. I had managed to get a ticket for Kev before the game, and despite the loss, was full of thanks. Parky, maybe getting a little carried away, was looking forward to relegation and games against Bristol City and Cardiff City.

“Steady on, Parky, it’s not that bad mate.”

Our walk back to the car was alongside joyous sky-blue clothed locals. It was a strange feeling, to be honest. Despite the shifting sands of club rivalries, I still find it hard to genuinely hate City.

I ask you. If Chelsea fall short this season, would you rather that Arsenal, United, Liverpool or Tottenham won it?

Nah.

I wondered what Frank Lampard, in New York, thought about it all.

As with many trips to Manchester, music was in my thoughts throughout the trip. I had opened up the day on Facebook with a few lines from New Order :

“I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me.
I get this feeling I’m in motion.
A sudden sense of liberty.”

After a painful defeat, with home more than five hours away, I quickly decided upon a new update.

On this particular Sunday, it was now time to quote another Manchester son :

“Trudging back over pebbles and sand.”

On the drive south, with parts of the Chelsea supporter base no doubt going in to meltdown, Parky and myself were soon relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and looking forward to the next few games. As we sped past The Hawthorns, we made plans for our pre-match next Sunday. As Parky drank his ciders, I sang along – badly – to some music from the grim old ‘eighties.

I ate up the miles.

I was my usual philosophical self. It had been a tough game, but I was just so proud to be part of it. Hats off to those who continue to travel, to support, to keep the faith. I was so relieved that I had enjoyed the match day experience. I need not have been worried. Maybe the players had failed their test, but at least I had passed my own personal litmus test. I was happy for that at least.

After setting off for Manchester at 7.30am, I reached home at 11pm. It had been a long, tiring day.

Thankfully, I just missed our game on “Match Of The Day 2.”

Next Sunday, a Chelsea goal at West Bromwich Albion will be roared like a goal from our ne’er do well past. The noise will be deafening and the earth will shake.

See you there.

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