Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 13 May 2018.
On the evening of Sunday 13 May, at various moments and locations – exiting St. James’ Park, at a pub in the city centre, in a cab back to the airport, on the plane back to Bristol – one phrase kept reoccurring, time and time again, spoken by ourselves and many others :
“Fantastic weekend, apart from the football.”
And it’s a bloody good job that these match reports, ten years old now, are never ever just about the football.
We went in to the match with Newcastle United with an outside chance – a 10 per cent shot at the very most – of playing Champions League football next season, but only if Liverpool lost and we won, but we came out of it as demoralised as I can remember for some time. It was truly abject .
But, it never is just about Chelsea Football Club.
And rather than obsess about a very poor performance, I’m using this last league report of the season as an homage to a great weekend away with great mates in a fine city, and as a tribute to the lads – and lasses – who share my weekends, and weekdays, with the love of our lives.
For once the league computer had dealt us a tidy hand. With our last league game of the season announced as an away game against Newcastle United, a date that we knew would not change, I just sat and waited for EasyJet to announce its summer 2018 flight schedule. Way back in late September, I pounced.
Saturday 12 May : Bristol – 8.35am, Newcastle 9.20am.
Sunday 13 May : Newcastle 9.45pm, Bristol 10.30pm.
Tickets were just £55.
The four Chuckle Brothers would be on our way to Geordieland.
I was up at 4am, and quickly packed ahead of collecting PD and Glenn at 5.30am and then Parky at 6am. I guided my car in and around Bristol in the early morning hush, and was parked-up bang on time at 7am. At the bar were fifteen Chelsea faces from Trowbridge, Melksham and Swindon. A few others from further afield – Wincanton, Teignmouth – were spotted too. In total, around twenty-five Chelsea were en route north. It was no surprise that so many were there. Who can resist a trip to The Toon? As we waited to board, Paul from Swindon spotted a fellow-passenger who had won the FA Cup in two consecutive years as a manager? Who was it? Have a guess.
The flight to Newcastle only took forty-five minutes, and we were full of laughter. I was feeling merry and I had only had a coffee at the airport.
We took the metro in to town, through some familiar stops, and then walked down the steps past The Bridge Hotel pub to the Quayside.
It was fantastic to be back.
As I have so often said, Newcastle United plays an important part in my Chelsea story. My first game was at Stamford Bridge against them in 1974, and my first away trip of note – aside away games against the two Bristol teams from 1975 to 1981 – was the equally famous and infamous trip to St. James’ Park in 1984. This would be my tenth visit to Newcastle with Chelsea; many have visited more times than me, but for many years the twin constraints of money and distance were against me.
My first memory of Newcastle, the town – or toon – was as a child of around seven years of age watching “Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads” starring James Bolam and Rodney Bewes. Strangely enough, I have found myself watching a fair few repeats of late, and it brings back some rich memories of my childhood, the opening sequence especially, featuring old terraced streets and hideous new tower blocks as metaphors for contrast and change. Even then, I was critically aware of cities around the UK, the local accent, the local flavour, the sense of place, their history.
I can remember watching the very first episode in 1973 – it was a reprise of “The Likely Lads” from the ‘sixties – when the two pals meet again by chance in a darkened train carriage. They had both left Newcastle to join the army, but Bewes had wriggled out of it, leaving Bolam jettisoned and alone. Once Bolam realised who he was sharing a compartment, there was a strong reaction :
And this was met with stern words from my parents, and I often watched further episodes secretly since some TV shows were deemed too “colourful” for one so young.
Now, I find it odd that James Bolam was the only real Geordie featured; everyone else exhibited a generic “northern accent” although Bewes and Brigit Forsyth made good stabs at the Geordie lilt.
The series theme tune still haunts :
“Whatever happened to you? Whatever happened to me? What became of the people we used to be?”
The most famous episode involves the two of them trying to avoid the result of an England game so they can watch the highlights later in the evening. Two years later in 1975, Bolam starred in “When The Boat Comes In” – a grim post World War One tale of social unrest, unions, class, and poverty set on Tyneside – and again the sense of place dominated my thoughts.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Gritty. Working class. Northern. Football mad.
A proper Loony Toon.
Saturday was just fantastic. We darted in and out of several bars from lunchtime to night time.
“The Pitcher And Piano.”
“The Slug And Lettuce.”
“The Crown Posada”
“Colonel Porter’s Emporium.”
The Somerset and Wiltshire contingent were reunited again at the “Pitcher And Piano”, which sits right on the Quayside, next to the Millennium footbridge, and opposite the Baltic Art Gallery, with our apartment just beyond. Our good friend Kev and then our equally good friend Deano joined us, and a superb afternoon evening of beers, laughter, and chit-chat ensued, with us bumping into the Kent lot yet again. The day was panning out just as we had hoped. We bumped into Donna, Rachel and Rob – only on “nodding terms” for me until now – and they followed us from bar to bar.
Chelsea here, Chelsea there.
There were a few attractions along the way.
“Where have those two girls from Middlesbrough gone?”
The drinking continued.
“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”
We kept to The Quayside. It is such an evocative location, the deep gorge running through the heart of the city, and with bridges every hundred yards or so. It is one of my favourite places in all of the United Kingdom. We were last there together for the last away game of 2015/2016 when we played down the coast at Sunderland.
“And a bottle of Peroni for me, please.”
In “The Akenside Traders” there were stag parties singing, hen parties dancing, girls with shot trays weaving in and out of us all, tons of boisterous laughter, and the place was packed.
It was only 6pm.
“Bloody hell, what is it going to be like at midnight?”
In “Colonel Porter’s Emporium” a DJ played some fantastic music.
“Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan.
There was some Chelsea chat among the beers – “where has it all gone wrong?” – but that didn’t stop us all having a blast.
“Don’t think I’ve seen so many Lacoste polo shirts.”
Glenn entertained us all with an impromptu dance routine in which he utilised some props; namely the contents of a nearby umbrella stand.
One minute, Gene Kelly.
One minute, Mary Poppins.
You had to be there.
No – really – you had to be there.
In “The Crown Posada” we chatted to some local Newcastle United lads and they were warm and friendly. This was my favourite bar of the lot; a long and narrow Victorian boozer but with a high ceiling. There were stained-glass windows and evocative black and white prints of the city covering the walls. It oozed character. It was fantastic.
Beer. Football. Mates. Laughs.
It had been a bloody perfect night out in The Toon.
On the Sunday, we checked out of our apartment, but not before realising that the away tier of St. James’ Park could be spotted, just past the Earl Grey Monument, at the top of the town. Everything is so immediate in Newcastle. There was just time for a photo of Deano, PD, Glenn and Parky on the apartment balcony, where a pigeon was quietly nesting.
Parky : “That thing was bloody pissed-off this morning, mind.”
PD : “Why?”
Parky : “I had its eggs for breakfast.”
We strolled down to another pub – “The Quayside” – and this was another fine building; no doubt an old warehouse in days of yore, it probably remained derelict for decades, but was now restored, with more high ceilings, exposed beams, red bricks, and endless coffee refills. Alan, Gary, Daryl, Ed and Rich joined up with us, and we relaxed in the sun. It was another fine time.
Deano is originally from Yorkshire and he chatted to a friend from Huddersfield, who looked awfully familiar.
“Aren’t you?” we both said…
I had met Mick at Manchester airport en route to Istanbul with Chelsea in 2014. There were a gaggle of Yorkshire Chelsea fans outside in the sun. We seem to have a fair few from Yorkshire. It is always odd, to me, to hear Chelsea fans with Yorkshire accents. Deano, on Saturday afternoon, had stayed in our apartment for a while to watch the Castleford vs. St. Helens rugby league game.
“Castleford are the reason that I support Chelsea, Chris…in 1970, my father told me that I couldn’t support Leeds.”
The 1970 FA Cup Final has a lot to answer for. I have heard of Chelsea fans from Yorkshire supporting us in 1970 because of football reasons – “anyone but Leeds” – but this was the first time that the hatred of Leeds’ rugby league team being used as a catalyst for support.
(The FA Cup answer was Keith Burkinshaw, Tottenham manager in 1981 and 1982)
We caught a cab up to the stadium, past those solid, grey buildings of Grey Street. There were memories of Glenn and I being walked along these same streets in 1984, when the welcome was decidedly colder than in 2018.
We were deposited outside The Gallowgate, and we walked past the familiar sights of St. James’ Park. Immediately outside are many new apartment buildings. The town is certainly thriving now. Everywhere we looked were the famous black and white jerseys. We took a lift up to the top of the world, or rather, the away section at St. James’ Park.
One steward made me giggle.
“Aye, everyone says, like, they have a great time here, and we are friendly, but if youse want it, ye can find it.”
It was the Geordie version of the Wealdstone Raider.
“If you want it. I’ll give it yer.”
So, the last league game of 2017/2018.
It would be my thirty-sixth league game out of thirty-eight. I sadly missed games at Huddersfield Town and Burnley due to work. It would be my fifty-fifth Chelsea game of the season.
St. James Park looked as huge as ever. It was a stunning day, and I could see for miles.
Some wind turbines away in the distance. Some yellow cranes at Tynemouth. And closer to home, the green of the Tyne Bridge, the Earl Grey monument, the Baltic Art Gallery, and a pigeon nesting on the balcony of 182 Baltic Quays,
The team contained one or two surprises.
Cesar Azpilicueta – Andreas Christensen – Gary Cahill
Victor Moses – N’Golo Kante – Ross Barkley – Tiemoue Bakayoko – Emerson Palmieri
Olivier Giroud – Eden Hazard
There was no “Blitzkrieg Bop” this season, but before the teams entered the pitch, we were treated to the classic “Blaydon Races”, a song that my father taught me ahead of my first game in 1974, or was it for the Liverpool vs. Newcastle United FA Cup Final a couple of months later?
“Ah – me lads. Ya should have seen us gannin’.
Passing the folks along the road, just as they were stannin’.
All the lads and lasses there. All the smilin’ faces.
Gannen’ alang the Scotswood Road.
To see the Blaydon Races.”
Then, “Local Hero” by Dire Straits. I have to be honest, it took me twenty minutes to realise that we were wearing the new kit. What a monstrosity it is. I like the idea of basing it on the iconic 1983/84 kit, but the shirt is just awful.
If it wasn’t for Thibaut Courtois, we would have been three-nil down at half-time, at least. We were shocking. The home team swarmed around our players every time that we had the ball, and we looked tired and listless. The manager – I am always worried when he wears a tracksuit and not a suit – began by encouraging the players, but soon gave up once the first goal went in. Shelvey and Diame – robbing Kante in the build-up – forced superb saves from Courtois in the first fifteen minutes.
On twenty-three minutes, Courtois did ever so well to claw out a Murphy lob from a Ritchie cross, but Gayle tapped in.
The home support boomed and we sat in shocked silence.
The pattern continued.
I remember one instance of Eden Hazard breaking in the inside-left channel with no less than five Newcastle United players running after him. The home team were full of energy and passion. And this was a team who, I am lead to believe, had been in holiday mode since their safety was assured a while back. The first-half continued on and I do not remember a single attempt on the Newcastle goal. Ross Barkley showed a neatness at times, but then quickly faded.
Our support started off in good voice, but one chant annoyed the fuck out of me.
If fans really “don’t care about Rafa”, I would fucking suggest that they don’t continue to sing songs about him five years since he left Chelsea.
Move on, boys and girls, lads and lasses.
Shelvey – their playmaker – went close again, and further chances flew past our goal frame.
At half-time, there were obvious moans everywhere I looked. I have never seen Alan look so quiet and disconsolate.
We seemed to improve slightly after the break, but Emerson annoyed me with his unwillingness to burst past his defender and get into some space behind. We are so high at St. James’ Park, so maybe we see space where there isn’t any, but we hardly attacked out wide all afternoon, or at least in a way that got the defenders back-peddling and worried. A Barkley cross from our right was whipped in, and the otherwise subdued Giroud did well to manufacture a deft touch. The Newcastle ‘keeper Dubravka – who? – tipped it over. We sensed that we were back in the game. I remembered our far from impressive record at Newcastle United over the past few years, but there was a great comeback to draw 2-2 on my last visit in 2015.
We were heartbroken when a poor Bakayoko clearance only reached as far as Shelvey. His long-range drive was touched home by Perez.
Some Chelsea left.
“Thanks for your support.”
Just after, a rare Chelsea attack, and the ball was worked in to Barkley who seemed destined to score and put us back in to the game. He seemed to hesitate slightly and the shot was blocked.
And just after that, a Shelvey free-kick was volleyed back by Lejeuene – who? – and Perez touched home again.
Newcastle United 3 Chelsea 0.
More Chelsea “supporters” left.
We only attacked sporadically, and despite using three substitutes, we never ever looked like scoring. A shot from Pedro is still rising over the Town Moor. Our performance left us all confused and jaded. It was as dire a performance as I could ever remember. Courtois was the only one who had played OK. And there is an FA Cup Final next.
Our lack of desire and intensity beggared belief.
In the last few minutes, my pal Jason from Dallas appeared behind me, and shared our pain. He then joined us as we slowly marched around the stadium. We drifted past the listed buildings of Leazes Terrace; these were able to be spotted in the ‘fifties when that side of the stadium was an open terrace. It is the reason why the stadium has such a lop-sided appearance as that stand is unable to be raised any higher. We joked with a couple of locals, but they weren’t happy as Rafa Benitez might well be off before the next season begins. Football fans are never happy, eh?
We ended up down on The Quayside once again. There was time for a bite to eat, and a few last drinks, and a last look at the arse-end of many a stag and hen party.
This was Jason’s fourth Chelsea game in England and he had flown in from Gothenburg in Sweden on the day of the game. We last saw him at an away game at Anfield in 2016. It was great to see him once more, and we chatted feverishly about the worrying tendency of the North American colonisation of Europe via regular season NBA, NFL, NHL and now MLB games.
I abhor these.
They are a version of the hated “Game39” and I will boycott them all, even if it means avoiding the New York Yankees in London next summer.
We caught a cab up to the airport, and caught the 9.40pm flight back to Bristol.
The 2017/2018 season was over, and we had finished fifth.
It seemed about right.
Our next game – the grand finale – is at Wembley when we meet Manchester United in the FA Cup Final.
…just writing those words, just writing those words.
I hope to see many of you there.