Tales From Fresh Fields

Milton Keynes Dons vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2016.

The two domestic cup competitions were serving me very well in season 2015/2016. First, there was my first visit to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium in the League Cup in September. Then, on the last day of January, there was my inaugural visit to Stadium MK, the home of the Milton Keynes Dons, in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. This was excellent news indeed; two new stadia within four months.

As soon as they appear, I’ll keep on ticking them off.

It had been an easy drive on an overcast Sunday; a leisurely trip through the shires of Southern England, avoiding the motorway network except for a fifteen minute spell on the M4 near Swindon.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

We drove past villages with names like Tingewick, Tubney, Kingston Bagpuize, Hinton Waldrist and Pusey.

We had decided to break the journey at Bicester. While I deposited the Chuckle Brothers – P Diddy, the birthday boy, and Puff Parky – at “The Acorn” pub for bevvies, I quickly raided the nearby shopping outlet for a lightning strike.

I had pulled over for a pullover, if you will.

I joined them for a drink, but we were soon on our way again.

We were parked up a few hundred yards away from the stadium on a grass verge by the side of the road. Although it looked just like any other road, flanked by industrial units and commercial premises, it was anything but. It was the site of the Watling Road, an old Roman road which originally shot as straight as an arrow from Canterbury through London – including Edgware Road – and up in to the Midlands before ending south of Chester. Back in August, while meeting pals at a pub before the Community Shield against Arsenal, we had walked a few hundred steps north on Edgware Road. And here we were, five months later, back on the Watling Road again. A little history, a little geography.

This was just up my street.

On more than one occasion in fact, the trip to Milton Keynes seemed a little like my schooldays revisited. Way back in 1979, I can remember learning about the new towns which were developed after the Second World War throughout Britain, in an effort to cope with population growth on one hand and a clearance of inner city slums on the other. Glasgow had East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Edinburgh had Livingston and Glenrothes. Liverpool had Skelmersdale, Warrington and Runcorn. Birmingham had Telford. Newcastle had Washington. London had Bracknell, Basildon, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield and a few more.

However, Milton Keynes, almost a cliché for blandness with its grid-pattern of streets and regimented land use, not to mention its famous concrete cows, is the most famous new town of them all. Apart from flying through the town on many train journeys from my college town of Stoke-on-Trent to Euston for football in the ‘eighties – the cows could be seen from the train – I had never visited Milton Keynes.

I would not visit it on this occasion either since the stadium actually sits in the town of Bletchley, merging in with its more famous neighbour to the north.

The town of Milton Keynes itself, the butt of many a joke, would have to wait.

It was approaching two o’clock, and the kick-off was over two hours away. A few good friends were drinking in a working mens club, but that was just too far away for us. We were not sure if there would be any pubs close by, but we decided to chance our luck and headed to the stadium.

From the outside the stadium is rather sleek. Although there is a large Hilton Hotel latched on to the main stand, the exterior walls are black and stylish. I was immediately impressed.

Outside the main entrance, excited locals were waiting for the Chelsea team coach to arrive. There was a tangible “buzz” about the place. We had sold around 6,700 tickets for this one, but I hadn’t been convinced that all of the home areas would sell out.

Outside the away end, we struck gold. Lined up, directly opposite the northern turnstiles, were a collection of restaurants.

“Prezzo.”

“Nando’s.”

“Pizza Express.”

“Frankie & Benny’s.”

“Bella Italia.”

“TGI Friday’s.”

This was too good to be true. We settled in “Thank Goodness It’s Sunday” and relaxed. The place was full of Chelsea, to be honest. Although hardly anyone was wearing colours, we just knew. We spotted a few faces. We chatted away to a chap who was with his four year old boy, one of the very few bedecked in Chelsea wear. The young lad was hugely excited and it was such a joy to see. Living locally, I asked if it was the boy’s first game. Far from it; it was his fifth game of the season. There had been tears at Wembley against Arsenal, to begin with, but this would be the lad’s third game of the month after Scunthorpe and Everton (more tears, followed by huge joy). It was bloody lovely to see the kid’s enthusiasm.

I spotted that the father’s mate was wearing a “Canada Goose” jacket, which I have started to notice being worn at football by those in the know this season.

“Aren’t you a bit warm with that on mate?”

“Just a bit mate.”

There had been a brief conversation with a MK Dons supporter outside. She had explained that she had grown up a Chelsea supporter, but could not afford tickets for our games these days. She was wearing a white MK Dons shirt, and was troubled that she did not really know who to cheer for. I found this rather odd. Even if you couldn’t afford tickets to many games, surely your club stays with you.

She seemed to sum up perfectly my dislike for our hosts.

Of course, I need not spend too much time chronicling the history of Milton Keynes Dons. Formed in 2004, on the back of the financial meltdown of former FA Cup winners Wimbledon, this is a football club which draws much disdain from the rank and file supporters of many teams throughout the football pyramid. That the town of Milton Keynes should suddenly be gifted a professional league team ahead of other more deserving towns and clubs, each with decades of history, really makes me angry. I won’t labour the point, but I was so happy and pleased when AFC Wimbledon, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, and cared for and succoured by fans, regained their place in the Football League in 2011.

Inside the stadium, I took my seat high in the upper tier in a corner underneath a large scoreboard. For once, I would be sitting alone. Other friends, the usual suspects, were scattered around the 6,700 away fans. I made myself at home. The black seats were padded, and roomy. I looked around. This was a very impressive stadium indeed. Originally there was just a lower tier, but as the years have passed the upper tier has been in-filled. Unlike so many new stadia – Southampton, Middlesbrough, Derby – this stadia had a variety of quirky features. The upper deck, quite steep in fact, gave the place an extra dimension. And rather than a single tier, wrapped around, there were distinct sections, set apart, with corporate boxes behind. This aspect reminded me a little of Red Bull Arena in New Jersey where our season began. I was especially drawn to the roof though. It seemed very light and airy, giving the whole stadium a European feel. I soon decided that I might not be a fan of the club, but I was a big fan of their stadium. Add in the row of bars outside the away end, Stadium MK was getting a huge “thumbs up” from me.

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As kick-off approached, the stands swelled to capacity. It was quickly evident that this was a full house. Hardly a seat was unused. Ironically, four next to me were empty. The Chelsea end looked fantastic. As this was “live” on BBC1, I was hoping that we would give the viewing millions a show both on and off the pitch. I had watched some of the televised Derby County versus Manchester United match on Friday evening and was pretty impressed with the United fans’ wall of noise throughout the game. Now it was our turn. I wanted skill on the pitch and noise off it.

A lot of Chelsea had come dressed for the occasion. There is no doubt that many make a special effort for away games.

Adidas, Aquascutum, Lacoste, Canada Goose, Moncler, MA Strum, CP.

Guus Hiddink had shuffled his cards slightly.

We were thrilled that Ruben was given a start.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Baba – Matic, Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek, Oscar, Hazard – Diego Costa.

We began the game on fire, and Diego Costa was the first player to test our faith. He was clean through, yet goalkeeper David Martin stuck up an arm to save at close range. We attacked at will and chance after chance came or way, only for awful finishing to let us down. Oscar was especially wasteful. However, the Chelsea supporters were in good voice and we hoped for a little more success in front of goal. Thankfully, Diego Costa pounced on a defensive error out wide and was able to feed Oscar, arriving on the far post. Although he slipped on impact, he was still able to guide the ball home.

Get in.

The home team had appeared to be silent witnesses to our comfortable start to the game, so it was a huge surprise when an optimistic shot from Darren Potter – who Cesc Fabregas really should have tackled – was deflected up and over Thibaut Courtois by the leg of Nemanja Matic.

Balls. That was not on the cards.

Fabregas then sent Eden Hazard clear, but his weak shot was parried by Martin on to the near post. We waited, still, for Eden’s first goal of the season. Baba, looking a little nervous, managed to squeeze a ball across the box, but Costa and Oscar seemed to get in each other’s way.

Not to worry, the Chelsea fans were making a racket.

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

Thankfully, just after the half-hour mark, Oscar was set free inside the box and struck a fine shot, first time, past Martin. The applause from the Chelsea fans, I thought, seemed quite subdued, but it only heralded more song.

“Bounce in a minute…”

A couple of shots were traded, but then Oscar went on a dribble before curling a lovely shot past Martin to give us a 3-1 lead.

A hat-trick for Oscar. Braziliant.

Just before the break, the entire Chelsea end burst in to song :

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon.

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon.”

Lovely stuff.

Our 1997 FA Cup semi-final opponents were remembered.

In the second-half, with victory surely on the cards, the flowing football from Chelsea began again. Hazard was fouled just inside the box, and a penalty was awarded. Eden placed the ball on the spot and calmly rolled it home.

Get in you beauty.

4-1 and game over.

There was a song for Fabregas, now seemingly back in the fold, after a strange time for him.

“Fabregas is magic…”

There was also songs for heroes sadly no longer with us.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star…”

Bertrand Traore replaced Diego Costa.

He was soon involved, latching on to a Hazard pass and ably sweeping the ball home.

5-1, with hopes of a few more.

I do not know too much about the young lad from Burkina Faso, but he looks confident with the ball. Baba, after a shaky start, improved as the game went on, and Loftus-Cheek (complete with his “Give It Up” song) oozed calmness on the ball. The home team were reduced to taking long shots at Courtois.

Willian and Pedro replaced Hazard and Oscar.

There was no way that the BBC commentators could accuse us of taking the FA Cup lightly.

No.

Not Chelsea.

In truth we took our foot off the gas a little during the closing minutes, by which time I seemed to be transfixed by Dean Lewington, down below me on the Dons’ left, his movement reminding me so much of his father, Ray, who played for us from 1975 to 1979.

On the walk back to the car, we heard that we had drawn Manchester City in the fifth round.

By the time we had begun our return trip to Wiltshire and Somerset, we were numbed by the odd announcement by club captain John Terry that this would be his last season in the famous royal blue. I was confused and bewildered by this news. Ironically, I had mentioned to the lads on the drive to Bletchley that JT was worth another year. Last season was one of his best ever, and he rarely plays poorly. His performance at Arsenal last week was exceptional.

It had taken the edge off a fine day out in Buckinghamshire.

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