Tales From Winter On Wearside

Sunderland vs. Chelsea : 14 December 2016.

This was the longest trip of the season. I had set off from deepest darkest Somerset at 6am, with PD and LP keeping me company for the long – 320 miles – drive north. After around seven hours battling the traffic, we finally arrived. We checked into our hotel, no more than a mile from the Stadium of Light. The stadium in fact was clearly visible from my room on the fifth floor. There were clear skies overhead. Winter on Wearside didn’t appear to be as bleak as I had originally thought. Our good friend Kevin, from Edinburgh, soon arrived and joined us for a pint at the hotel bar. The plan was to travel by train to Newcastle – a far more interesting and photogenic city a few miles to the north – but we soon decided to cut our losses and stay in Sunderland. On the walk in to the centre, we spotted a few half-decent pubs. We popped in to the first one – “Vesta Tilley’s” – and were suitably impressed that four pints cost just over a tenner.

Over the road, we popped into “The Dun Cow” and I immediately fell in love with it. It was a fantastic find. Outside, it was an architectural gem, with intricrate stone carvings above its bay windows, ornate roof gables and even a clock tower. Inside, it was a classic old-fashioned pub, with mirrors, stained-glass, wooden panels, shiny beer pumps, a plethora of ales, and a very warm atmosphere.

The four of us spotted a free table in the “snug” at the rear of the pub.

A “Birra Moretti” never tasted better.

I quickly toasted Everton Football Club, who had miraculously defeated Arsenal 2-1 the previous night. This simply meant one thing; if we won our game against Sunderland later that evening, we would be six points clear at the very top of the most competitive league in the world. And it would mean that we would stretch our consecutive win streak to a mighty ten games.

We chatted about the season so far, and a host of other topics. Two lads from Stockport – Mike and Liam, both Chelsea – were sat close by, and soon into the introductions it transpired that Liam had sat right next to Kevin in the home seats at Porto last September. What a bloody small world. Quite ridiculous.

My good friend Orlin – from first Sofia and then San Francisco – arrived with his two pals Ivan and Plamen, and it was a pleasure to see them. Orlin, evidently keen to experience as many new football experiences in England as he can, had dropped in to Elland Road on the previous night for Leeds United’s game with Norwich City. He had enjoyed it. The rawness of it all. The fervour of the home support. The noise. The passion. I reminded him of Leeds’ last league game against us, at Stamford Bridge in May 2004, when I remember the South Yorkshire legions claiming – with certainly a hint of truth – “if it wasn’t for the Russian you’d be us.” Peter Ridsdale and Ken Bates had gambled on spending big and gambling on immediate success, but there was no sugar daddy to step in at Leeds.

Orlin, though still disliking Leeds United, came away from their game with a little respect, and I think it shocked him.

Fellow season ticket holder Ian, with a few mates, and then Pete arrived. This was clearly becoming a base camp for many.

Kev’s two pals from Edinburgh John and Gary then joined us and the beers flowed at a more rapid pace. All three are Hearts fans first, and I had an enjoyable chat with them about my visits to Tynecastle in 1982 and 1997, Scottish football in general, and our differing opinions of Pat Nevin. This was obviously turning out to be a fantastically enjoyable pre-match. The four hours raced past.

“Bloody hell, it’s seven o’clock.”

We buttoned our jackets and bounced outside into the night, and over the oxidised green iron Wearmouth Bridge, looking rather beguiling in the evening light, with the rail bridge – ancient and green too – just a few yards to its left. There is something quite wonderful about supporters walking towards a football stadium, lights shining in the distance, our pace quickening as we get close to the ground. I never ever made it to the old Roker Park and it is a shame. It was a mile from the site of the current stadium, towards the North Sea, planted among the terraced streets of Roker. The Stadium of Light stands alone, high on the exposed banks of the Wear as it wriggles its ugly way into the sea.

I quickly gobbled down a cheeseburger with onions. Past the Bob Stokoe statue – Leeds again, ha – and I made my way up the many steps to the away deck.

We were inside the stadium with about ten minutes to spare. It meant that we had missed out on those special moments involving Sunderland supporter Bradley Lowery, the brave five-year-old lad who has been given a few more months to live, and who has captured the hearts of many. As the teams entered the pitch down below, the hearty Chelsea following of almost three thousand roared our support.

The news that Eden Hazard had not travelled to Sunderland had been the breaking story of the morning. We had wondered if Willian would come in for him; it was no surprise to see him in the starting line-up. A bigger surprise, no doubt, was the inclusion of Cesc Fabregas at the expense of Nemanja Matic. Elsewhere there were familiar faces.

Courtois.

Azpilicueta, Luiz, Cahill.

Alonso, Kante, Fabregas, Moses.

Pedro, Costa, Willian.

Our seats were virtually in the same position as our visit in May. On that day – when we had meekly lost 3-2 – we were concerned that we had probably witnessed John Terry’s last-ever game for us. Who would have thought that he would get an extra season, yet we would not be unduly worried that his absence from our team over the past two months would cause little concern? It is a mark of his professionalism that he has quietly supported the team from the side-line, knowing that a winning team is paramount. Nine wins in a row without John Terry? Who would have ever thought it?

Sunderland’s team included three former Chelsea players; Patrick Van Aaanholt, Papy Djilobodji and Fabio Borini. I had bright hopes for two of those, but never the other. On the side-lines were our man Antonio Conte and their man David Moyes. The football world had bright hopes for Moyes at one stage. How his star has fallen since leaving Goodison Park.

The stadium was pretty full, but there were sections of empty seats in the upper tier to our right, beyond the packed Chelsea section.

The game was in its first few nascent stages when both sets of fans acknowledged brave Bradley. A number five shirt – Lowery – was displayed on the TV screen – and we all clapped, the noise ringing around the stadium. Very soon we joined in with a song.

“One Bradley Lowery. There’s only one Bradley Lowery. One Bradley Lowery.”

Lovely stuff.

Lovely apart from one boorish fan behind me who decided to sing “one Matthew Harding” instead. I turned around, shook my head and glowered at him. I won’t mention him by name, but he’s a prominent face – and famously ugly – at all Chelsea games, and he has always struck me as a tedious fucker. And that moment just proved it.

Chelsea enjoyed much of the early possession, but Adnan Januzaj had the first effort on goal. I was proud of the way we got behind the team. It was clear that not only our little group of Chelsea followers had enjoyed the hospitality and cheap prices of the boozers of the North-East. We were keeping the ball well, moving it quickly, and we tried our best to carve out a chance. Sunderland had the occasional effort, but Courtois was in commanding form. A chance fell to Diego, bit his volley was well off target. In a packed box, Pedro was found, and he drew a fine save from Sunderland’s Jason Pickford. A David Luiz free-kick tested the Sunderland ‘keeper. We were turning the screw. With five minutes of the half remaining, a fine move through the middle resulted in a lovely one-two between Cesc and Willian. I was able to watch the path of the ball as Fabregas calmly stroked the ball past the home ‘keeper and in to the goal.

How we roared.

And how we celebrated, with the players down below us enjoying it equally as much as us.

GET IN.

Whisper it, but our tenth win in a row was on the cards.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, like.”

Chris : “Come on wo’little diamonds.”

The away end soon sung praise to the scorer.

“He’s got a magic hat.”

Diego headed weakly over and then Willian went close with a free-kick from just outside the box.

There were positive vibes at the break. The drinkers in our support topped up their alcohol levels and the noise continued as the game continued.

In virtually the first move of the second-half, the ever-troublesome Jermaine Defoe attacked us at the heart of our defence and played in Januzaj. His low shot was flicked away by Courtois’ outstretched left leg. It was a fine save.

For virtually the rest of the game, it was all Chelsea. Willian set up Moses who blasted wide. Willian’s shot was deflected on to the bar. It seemed that a second goal was only a heartbeat away. A fine run and shot from Costa. Moses flashing wide, then Willian, both after losing markers with a shimmy this way and that. It was all Chelsea.

“We’re top of the league, we’re top of the league, we’re top of the league.”

Alonso at Pickford. Willian at Pickford. For some reason the second goal just would not come. A single thought flashed through my mind –

“Bloody hell, how disappointing it will be if we conceded a goal and we only drew.”

Nemanja Matic replaced Pedro, and the domination continued.

A run from deep from Costa and their ‘keeper scrambled to save at his feet before he could pull the trigger. A delightful dink from Costa to Fabregas but his volley was well wide.

Chalobah for Willian. Ivanovic for Moses.

Sunderland then caused us to rue all of our missed chances when they pumped a few high balls into our area. After one clearance was knocked out to Van Aanholt on the edge of the box, we watched – agonising stuff – as the ball seemed to be flying into the goal. Thibaut leaped to his right, flung his arm up, and clawed it away.

It was a stunning save.

The away end erupted as if a goal had been scored.

“Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut! Thibaut!”

Phew. It should have been 3-0, maybe 4-0. It could have been 1-1.

We had done it.

Ten league wins in a row.

I quickly posted an image of Bo Derek on “Facebook” and I felt sure more than a handful of fellow fans would “get it.” Down the stairwell, the noise bounced off the walls.

“Antonio, Antonio, Ten In A Row.”

Outside, we strode back in to town, and it seemed that the majority of home support had buggered off early, leaving our path clear. We met up with Daryl and Simon, who along with Alan and Gary had travelled up on the discounted club train. There was a long and tiring journey for them to look forward to. I, for one, after a long drive, eight pints and a tense game of football, was supremely happy that I had a bed just ten minutes away.

A kebab and chips on the walk back to the hotel was followed by a gin and tonic in the hotel bar.

It had been a long day and now it was time for slumberland in Sunderland.

Our third game in seven days takes place at Selhurst Park on Saturday.

Let’s make it eleven.

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