Tales From The Hawthorns.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 May 2015.

The end of the season was nigh. It really did not seem so long ago that we still had ten league games left to play. And yet now there were just two games remaining. The Monday evening game at The Hawthorns seemed to conjure up mixed emotions. There was real sadness in the fact that this would be the last away game of the season. But happiness came with the realisation that we could bestow some love and appreciation on the team – the champions – once more. A trip to The Hawthorns is one of the easiest of the season for me. As I collected Parky from The Pheasant, I was relishing the chance to be among the tight little knot of three thousand loyalists in the away end later in the evening. There was a lovely buzz, growing with each passing hour, at the thought of a Chelsea game in the evening.

This would probably be the last time that The Pheasant gets a mention in these tales. Over the summer, my place of work changes from Chippenham to Melksham – same company, sparkling new premises – and we have already sorted out a new Parky pick-up point; a newly-built pub opposite my new place of work on the A350 called The Milk Churn. Parky had enjoyed a spirited send off at The Pheasant. He had already supped four pints while waiting for me to finish my shift.

There was an undoubted tingle of excitement, then, as we headed north to the trip to the stadium which sits on the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. I missed the match – another midweek fixture – at West Brom last season, but there were strong memories of the last three games that I had attended there. Four seasons ago, there was a 3-1 win under Carlo Ancelotti amid glorious self-mocking chants of “We’re Gonna Win Fuck All” from the smiling Chelsea contingent. Three seasons ago came a 1-0 defeat and chants of “Sacked In the Morning” from the home fans aimed at the fated Andre Villas-Boas (no wonder the home fans disliked him with a name like that). Two seasons ago, there came a 2-1 loss and the last league game for the much-loved Roberto di Matteo, who lost his job after the following game in Turin.

“The Chelsea manager’s graveyard” they called it, and with good reason.

Over the past three visits, we had endured two losses and a draw. The Hawthorns has clearly not been the happiest of hunting grounds at all. However, this season West Bromwich Albion have hardly set the world alight. I can’t think of another Premiership team that has endured such a nondescript season. There have been no relegation scares, only lower-mid table mediocrity. The both of us were confident of a Chelsea win.

“Two wins to finish off the season, ninety points surely” uttered Parky as he opened a bottle of cider as we headed through Gloucestershire.

Our pre-match at West Bromwich Albion is always the same; a few beers at the “Park Inn” hotel just off the M5. The hotel’s bar was over-run with Chelsea fans of a certain generation and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces. Parky and I found ourselves chatting to a little group of home fans as we downed some lager. One West Brom fan was the spokesman for the group. He mentioned the last time that he had ventured to Stamford Bridge – in the 1988-1989 season – when a last minute Graham Roberts penalty saved our skins. We bantered back and forth about that game – it was on New Year’s Eve – and he reminded me that Roberts later played for West Brom, though he was well past his prime. This link seemed to inspire the cheery Baggie.

“I’ve always felt, like, that – going back – West Brom were a bit like Chelsea. Flair players. Maybe not always winning much. But…”

I smiled, benignly, wondering where this was going. The standard comparison of my youth was more like Chelsea and Manchester City – ooh, the irony – but this was the first time that I had heard of this unlikely pairing. He continued on.

“And there’s a link with West Brom and Mourinho, you know.”

Now I was intrigued.

“Mourinho began as a driver didn’t he, for Bobby Robson, at Barcelona?”

I thought to myself “translator, not driver but keep going mate, I’m intrigued to see where this is going.”

“Well, Bobby Robson played here, at West Brom, in the ‘fifties. We played some pretty good stuff. I bet you that Robson mentioned his time at West Brom to Mourinho. The tactics, like.”

This was fantastic stuff. Expect a plaque to be erected at The Hawthorns over the summer stating that Chelsea’s success under Jose Mourinho was conceived and nurtured by Bobby Robson at West Brom in the ‘fifties.

The team line-up was shown on the bar TV.

“Diego Costa in, Loftus-Cheek playing, Remy in midfield, Izzy Brown on the bench.”

We left in good time for the 8pm kick-off, but the inevitable scrum at the turnstiles resulted in a delay. The rain had just started to fall. To my right was a large rainbow lightening the gloom. My enduring love of stadia – Simon Inglis calls it “stadiumitis” – flitted in to my mind.

“A rainbow over the site of the former Rainbow Stand, nice.”

As we waited in line, a familiar face at Chelsea was to be found singing songs to himself. A decidedly odd character at the best of times (I don’t think I have ever seen him sober), he was now putting to song every single thought that was entering his head.

“We are the Chelsea, we want to go in.”

“Let us in, let us in, let us in.”

“Getting wet, getting wet, getting wet.”

Oh boy.

To my left were two touristy-types, looking quite out of place, adorned with Chelsea track-suit tops, Chelsea coats and Chelsea scarves, obviously hot-foot from the megastore. Everywhere else, Chelsea colours were at the bare minimum, as per normal.

I edged towards Al and Gal, right behind the goal. I had just missed the guard of honour. Bollocks. There was just time for me to join in with both sets of fans clapping and singing along to “The Liquidator.”

“We are West Brom.”

“Chelsea.”

Chelsea in all yellow. It always reminds me of our 6-3 win at Goodison way back in August. Good noise from both sets of fans at the start. At West Brom, the noisiest section is right next to us in the shared Smethwick End. The three of us were just yards away from them. I was surprised at the amount of empty seats in the corners.

After a few early exchanges, the ball fell to Berahino outside the box. With no Chelsea player able to get close and charge down his shot, the ball tantalisingly curved away from Thibaut Courtois and inside the post. I was, annoyingly, right in line with the flight of the ball.

After less than ten minutes, we were a goal down, and the baying home fans just yards away were letting us have it.

Groan.

Out came their colourful array of songs, but then one which made me chuckle.

“WWYWYWS?”

I turned and looked at one in the eye, pointing “here.”

He waved away my gesticulations.

Thoughts wandered back to the 1985-1986 season with me in the Rainbow Stand; a 3-0 win in front of just 10,300, including 3,000 Chelsea.

“Where were you when you were shit, mate?”

As the game developed, we struggled to find any rhythm. Overhead, the skies grew dark and dirty.The home fans were buoyant. Their chants rang out. They suggested that we’d all be Albion fans by next week, which was at least original.

Then, a few moments of craziness, which the viewing millions in Belgravia, Brisbane, Bombay and Badgercrack, Nebraska probably saw – and understood – better than the three thousand in the Smethwick End. At the other end of the pitch, with Chelsea attacking down the right, the play was stopped. Initially, I thought the play was stopped for an offside. There appeared to be an “altercation” in the penalty area. For some reason, Diego Costa was booked, although Gal was convinced that he saw an elbow aimed at our number nine. While that melee was just about to be resolved, I looked up to see Cesc Fabregas drive the ball back towards the crowd of players in the box. I can only presume that he had heard a whistle and was returning the ball to the referee.

It was struck too well. It bounced back off a player. We thought nothing of it.

Red card.

The away end went ballistic.

To be honest, nobody was sure what had happened.

I still don’t.

Down to ten men, we seemed to play with an extra drive and with extra spirit. We troubled the home defence, but not the home goalkeeper. At the break, there was a general consensus that we’d claw a goal back.

Our hopes were smashed after just a minute of play when, down at the other end of course, we saw a defender – John Terry – attempt to rob Berahino of the ball from behind as the dangerous striker advanced on goal. I could only hope, from one hundred yards away, that it had been ball before leg. The referee had decided otherwise.

Berahino scored from the penalty.

The Baggies’ stadium was in full on “Boing Boing” mode now.

Their unique club anthem, with Black Country affectations, boomed out.

“The Lord’s moy shepherd, oil not want.

He makes me down to loy.

In pastures green, he leadeth me.

The quiet waters boy.”

The Chelsea team, clearly frustrated, were struggling to create chances, but we were running up against a packed defence. The otherwise poor Loic Remy twisted into a little space and shot low, but his firm drive came back off the base of Myhill’s post. On the hour, Courtois tipped over a Morrison effort, but from the resultant corner, the ball fell at the feet of Brunt, who smashed a drive past everyone and in to our net.

Three fucking nil.

Oh boy.

The home fans could hardly believe it and, frankly, neither could we.

However, with the home fans still bubbling away with chants and taunts, the evening changed.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, the Chelsea fans collectively decided to act. Yes, we were getting stuffed at West Brom, but we had enjoyed a magnificent season and we weren’t going to let one game stop our sense of fun. Harking back to an afternoon at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, out came a song from our recent catalogue.

“We’re Top Of The League.”

And it continued, like at Selhurst, and continued.

At some point, it morphed into “We’ve Won The League.”

At times, both versions were sung together.

After thousands of miles following the team all over England, Wales and Europe, this was the simple answer – an exhausted answer – to the people who mock us.

“We’ve Won The League.”

Diego Costa was replaced by Juan Cuardrado. Nathan Ake replaced Loftus-Cheek. Izzy Brown replaced Remy.

And still we sang.

I joined in at the start and tried my best to keep it going for as long as I could. After a few breaks, I re-joined the rendition…“think I’ll have a sore throat in the morning.”

We had a few chances, but the focus was now not on the players, the focus was on us.

And still we sang.

The home fans quietened. It is easy to say we left them dumbfounded by our noise, but they had sung well all evening. They were merely taking a break. I expect that they thought we might tire, but we kept it going. It was truly wonderful. I remember a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant at Anfield – captured on TV, with a quick glimpse of me – from a 3-0 loss in 1986 going on for about fifteen minutes, and drawing a comment from the BBC commentator Barry Davies and boos from The Kop, but this one at The Hawthorns in 2015 went on for thirty minutes.

The result was simply brushed aside. I am sure that plenty of sweaty new fans in Nerdistan were getting all anxious about a surprising loss – “damn, Berahino isn’t this good on FIFA15” – but the three thousand foot soldiers in the Smethwick End were having a party.

At the final whistle, the home fans roared. Well done to them. Three losses and a draw in our last four games there now. The Hawthorns is indeed turning in to a private nightmare for us all.

I quickly spotted the lone figure of Jose Mourinho making his way across the wet grass of the pitch, his brown suede shoes pacing out in a strong path. It reminded me of his “chin up” walk at Arsenal in 2007.

With his players staying a respectful distance behind him, our manager simply walked towards us, signalling “number one” with his index finger pointing to the sky. He stopped by the goal line, and clapped us. He hasn’t always been our biggest fan this season; I always wondered if his well-publicised complaints about our home support were aired to inspire us or were they the mark of a manager who just wanted to vent? I don’t know. At The Hawthorns he wanted to just say “thank you.” Perhaps if we had kept quiet, with no thirty-minute serenade, maybe we would not have seen this iconic walk from our manager. We will never know.

For maybe thirty seconds or more, he stood in front of us, and we lapped it up. The players clapped too. It was a beautiful Chelsea moment. He turned and met his players.

We said our goodbyes to each other – “see you Sunday” – and exited amid a party-like atmosphere. Never has a three-nil loss been so widely ignored amid scenes of complete and proper joy. We walked down the exit ramp, leading down from the stadium and out in to the night, with songs continuing.

Football, eh?

With the floodlights piercing the sombre Black Country night, a West Brom fan bundled past and admitted to his mate –

“If they had to win, they’d have fookin’ spanked uz.”

I smiled. He was probably spot on.

I slowly walked back to the car. These trudges back to the Park Inn after a defeat are becoming common place, but this one was thankfully a little easier.

On Sunday, Sunderland, and the party continues.

See you there.

IMG_9687

Tales From The Badlands.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2012.

I left work on Friday, thrilled by the prospect of five straight days of holiday and, within that time frame, there would be two Chelsea games which I would attend.

First up was an away trip up the M5 to West Bromwich Albion’s neat Hawthorns stadium, a mere 111 miles away.

I didn’t have to be up there early. This was another solo-trip – no Parky – and I wasn’t in any particular mood to do much before the game. This would be a simple “in and out “affair. In truth, the drive up through a busy Bristol and up onto the motorway, then through the overcast countryside of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, was rather dull. I listened to “Fighting Talk” on Five Live and then caught the opening section of that station’s football coverage. The drive took me two and a half hours, similar in length to a home game, and I was parked up at the Park Inn at 1.40pm. There was a long line at the bar and, to be honest, I had a headache and didn’t fancy a beer. A quick hello to a couple of acquaintances in the bar and I soon decided to head off to the stadium. The North London derby was on a TV screen, but I gave it scant regard.

There was a time, before the M5 motorway ploughed right through the heart of the Black Country, when The Hawthorns probably felt like a natural extension of the historic town centre of West Bromwich. Now, the six-lane motorway dissects the two locales. The town centre is a mile to the west of junction 1 of the M5. The ground is isolated, cut off and disowned by the town centre, a few hundred yards to the east, surrounded by industrial units, a bakery, a McDonalds and a single housing estate.

And yet, I’ve always liked trips to this stadium, set on a slight incline, with its angled floodlights being easily visible from the motorway as it bends and curves its way north. I suspect that this could be, in part, due to our fine record at this stadium. A fine record, that is, until last season when a lamentable performance spelled the end of Andre Villas-Boas’ short, and eventually unloved, term in charge of our team. This would be my eighth journey to The Hawthorns; the first six of these resulted in straight Chelsea wins. The seventh, was that 1-0 loss in March.

I took the usual mix of photographs outside the stadium, which is clad in dull grey and navy steel, yet maintains a clean and trim feel. I was last in the area on my drive to Villa Park for the Community Shield in August, when our young team was still finding its footing. I took a few photographs of those angled floodlight pylons. There were times in the distant past when my sorties around the highways and byways – OK, the roads and railways – of this land were immortalised by shouts of “there’s Huddersfield’s ground” or “there’s Cardiff’s.” This was code for the fact that the floodlight pylons, rather than the stadia themselves, could be spotted, from maybe several miles away. It was somehow reassuring to know that they were still there; totems, if you like, for the stadium, for the club, for the respective communities which those clubs represented. These days, the lighting at stadia is more likely to be tucked under the roof of stands. The visual impact of those high and towering spider-webbed structures is, therefore, sadly missing from our urban landscape. It was always an anomaly of Stamford Bridge that, until 1994, we had three floodlight pylons, remnants from the days when the vast bowl was served by six pylons. In 1972, the three on the east side were taken down, leaving just the three on the west side. Spotting them from way out on an approach into London always got the pulses racing.

A few girls were handing out fliers for a Status Quo album or gig. Talk about taking a step back in time. Bad music in the badlands of the Black Country.

I also took a few photographs of the Jeff Astle gates, which are typically understated. Astle was a much-loved striker from the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, who sadly passed away in 2002. He was probably the Albion’s most famous son and appeared in Sir Alf’s 1970 World Cup squad. I met up with Alan and Gary, who were on the lookout for match badges. We walked down to the away entrance, where we chatted to the four Bristolians who frequent The Goose and all stadia east, west, north and south. Tim, one of the four, attended a Stiff Little Fingers concert with me in Bath on Monday. I had bumped into him at the same concert a year ago and, typically, I bumped into another Chelsea acquaintance – we recognised each other from The Goose – again this past Monday. Chelsea world gets smaller every year.

Talk was of the team. It was certainly a surprising eleven; no doubt the upcoming game in Turin on Tuesday forced Di Matteo’s hand.

Inside the stadium, we had great seats; in the first row above the walkway. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the resident DJ played the magnificent “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and then followed it up with sings by Oasis and The Killers. I certainly enjoyed hearing those three classic songs. Well done to the DJ. It sure beat Status Quo.

The music changed to the classical sounds of “Carmina Burana” as the teams walked onto the pitch.

Stirring stuff.

“I need some Old Spice aftershave” I said to Gary.

We began well, controlling possession, and a fine move down the left resulted in a Ryan Bertrand effort from inside the box being hacked off the line. However, our early smiles were turned to despair when West Brom worked the ball wide and the resulting cross was headed home by Shane Long, with the floundering David Luiz absent. Maybe Luiz was still finding a place to park his car at the Park Inn, maybe he was outside the stadium buying some pork scratchings, or maybe he was in a line at the nearby McDonalds. Joking apart, it was shocking defending.

The locals celebrated by singing about one of their local rivals.

“Shit on the Villa, Shit on the Villa tonight.”

Victor Moses seemed to be involved on the left, more so than Sturridge on the right. A shot from Moses and another from Mikel hardly troubled Myhill in the home goal, though. Over on the touchline stood the former team mates, Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke.

Wembley 1997 and all that.

We still dominated possession but rarely threatened. Studge worked himself into the game, firing at the ‘keeper, but Torres was woefully absent from any worthwhile activity. At times it was as if we were playing without a centre-forward, perhaps like the famous Hungarian formation from the ‘fifties. Fernando Torres, however, is no Ferenc Puskas. A quick break involving that man Shane Long almost put us 2-0 down.

Thankfully, we eventually broke through the well-marshalled ranks of striped defenders. An Azpilicueta cross deep into the West Brom six yard box was met by a rising Eden Hazard. I wasn’t sure how the ball managed to cross the line, but the net rippled and the Chelsea fans at last roared. To be honest, the away support had been pretty quiet until that point, with the noisy neighbours to our left providing more noise and variety. For some reason there was a heavy police presence in our end, with all of them looking our way. Maybe they had never seen Champions of Europe before.

…”Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

I captured the celebrations of the Chelsea players away in the distance, but was then reprimanded by a weasel of a steward who warned me that further use of my camera would result in it being confiscated. The home fans then responded to our eventual noise.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
Pride of the Midlands.
We know what we are.”

As the sun cast long shadows on the spectators in the far stand, the Chelsea fans replied with an old chant from the late ‘seventies; quite rare these days.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

There were mumbles and grumbles at half-time. The only players performing well, in my mind, were Mikel and Azpilicueta, though Moses and Bertrand were adequate. As the second-half began, the air grew colder. We again began well, with a strong run down the right flank, but Sturridge turned to shoot only at Myhill. It was to be the first of many misses during the second half from our frustrating number 23. Just as we appeared to be improving – “this is much better, Gal” – our error-prone defending let us down once again. Long was not charged down by Luiz and his quick cross was turned in by Odemwingie, with Bertrand unable to get close. The home fans roared again.

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

The Lord’s Prayer – Psalm 23 – then had an airing and The Hawthorns was rocking.

The songs continued. Chelsea were silent.

“We’re Albion till we die. We’re Albion till we die. We’re blue and white, the Wolves are shite, we’re Albion till we die.”

On the hour, time for action. Oscar for Romeu. Mata for Torres.

Soon after, two delightful balls from Juan Mata were lofted into the path of Sturridge, now playing centrally, but there was just too much “on” them. In truth, Studge did well to even reach the first with a header. However, despite the promising play from Mata, Studge’s two “misses” drew howls of derision.

The Chelsea fans, at last, decided to get behind the team. In response, the home fans countered and for a few minutes the atmosphere was electric, just like a game from the days of yore. The chances still came for Daniel Sturridge. Mata played the ball through, and Sturridge only had the goalkeeper to beat, but the ball was on his “wrong” side. His right-footed shot was tame and was easily blocked by Myhill, who was now turning in quite a performance in the Albion goal.

The best chance of the game again fell to Strurridge four minutes from time. Oscar, who had been playing in quite a withdrawn role, played the ball in but Sturridge screwed the ball wide. The Chelsea supporters had already decided that “enough was enough” and began to drift away. Two late corners, however, stopped the flow and the walkway in front of us became congested. Out came my camera to capture the last pieces of action. A short corner was played in by Mata and I snapped. The ball flew across the box and the sight of the yellow shirt of Petr Cech, flying through the air, at the far post caused a moment of supreme surprise and great expectation. I had not seen our ‘keeper arrive. It would have been some goal.

His outstretched leg did not connect with the ball. The referee blew for time. The glum faces of the Chelsea followers filed away into the night and the home spectators celebrated with a wild roar. I patted Al on the back – “see you in Turin” – and soon departed. As I turned one final corner, I glanced back at the spectators in the main stand –

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

Fair play to them, the baggy buggers, let them enjoy the night.

Outside in the cold West Midlands night, the crescent of a waxing moon welcomed me as I hurriedly walked past the red brick of an old factory to my left. The Chelsea supporters around me were in a foul mood. Of course, I was far from happy either. I made my way past the onrushing home fans, battling the crowds, well aware that my solemn face did not match that of the locals. They were buzzing, to be fair. Steve Clarke has fashioned a hard-working team at West Brom. I wasn’t really sure if he would “cut it” as a stand-alone manager, but the dour Scot from Saltcoats has done a grand job. What of us? There were some below-average performances for sure. No need to mention names. Everyone knows who. However, I was later to learn that we had won twelve corners to West Brom’s zero. It certainly felt like we were always in with a chance of scoring. I think that a draw would have been a fair result.

Alas, not.

I got caught in some bad traffic as I tried to leave the area but, after ages, I found my way back onto the southbound M5. I just couldn’t be bothered with the radio. The United game would be referenced every five minutes and I couldn’t stomach that. Instead, Massive Attack accompanied me on the lonely trip home. I was typically melancholic as I drove on; dismayed by the result, but also with the standard of support from the away fans. At times, it was woeful. We were quiet at Swansea too.

Must do better.

As I reached home, I flicked on my laptop and could hardly believe the news that Norwich City had defeated Manchester United at Carrow Road. What a shocker. I suspect that the United legions were all over the internet moaning about their manager, the under-performing players, the formation, the whole nine yards. They have already lost three out of their twelve games so far this season.

Fergie out.

IMG_0930

 

Tales From The North Circular.

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 October 2012.

On Friday evening, with the arid desert of the two week long international break thankfully behind us, I felt like an excitable five year old on Christmas Eve. We all remember that feeling. On any other night of the year, as a child, it was typical to eke out as much time in the evening as possible before it was time to head up to bed. I can well remember the glee when my parents relented after persistent pleading to have “ten more minutes” outside (to play football in the street usually, with light fading), before being herded inside and then taken upstairs to bed. Christmas Eve was different; get to bed early, try to get to sleep quickly, it will soon be Christmas Day, with presents and jollity and fun.

At 6.30am, the alarm sounded and, unlike weekdays, there was no need for me to utilize the snooze button.

This was Tottenham Away.

Bearing in mind the rivalry between the two clubs, the magnificent denouement to last season, which of course resulted in us elbowing Spurs out of the Champions League, and the added frisson of Andre Villas-Boas as Spurs’ new manager, I regarded this as the most important away game of the domestic season.

Love it.

At 8.15am, I had packed my match day essentials – ticket, wallet, camera, coffee – and I was on my way. Within a minute of driving through the misty village, I had disturbed some pigeons as they sat idling in the middle of the road. Feathers flew, but I didn’t have time to check if there had been fatalities. I think they had a lucky escape. I wondered how we would fare with our feathered friends from Tottenham later in the day. Would the cockerels be quite so lucky?

The early morning was shrouded in mist as I headed east. As I drove along the quiet country roads to the north of Frome, a huge lock of birds suddenly appeared to my right. They swooped down and across my field of vision and the sight was rather impressive, if not slightly spooky. I let my imagination run away with me for a few seconds and I chuckled as I wondered if the pigeons had been in touch with the starlings after the incident five minutes earlier. As I drove on, I looked back and saw around twenty black birds sitting, ominously, on an electric wire, like a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds.”

Gulp.

I took a swig of coffee and told myself to pull myself together.

Pigeons, starlings, cockerels, Hitchcock.

What did it all mean?

Thankfully, the next hour or so was devoid of similar incidents. In fact, the drive through Somerset, into Wiltshire and on into Berkshire was simply fantastic. Back in my childhood, my father used to take this route on his drive up to London for our twice-a-season pilgrimage to Stamford Bridge. For games at White Hart lane, I usually drive into London and then take the tube up to Seven Sisters. For a change, I had decided to drive all the way in and chance my arm with a parking spot near the stadium. The first hour was spent driving along the idyllic roads of Wessex, through towns such as Devizes and Marlborough. While thoughts of previous games at White Hart Lane flitted in and out of my mind, all was good with the world.

Slender church spires piercing the monotone grey sky, prim thatched cottages hugging the road, trees peeking out over valleys of low-lying fog, delicate Turneresque smudges of light as the sun attempted to burn its way through the grey clouds, red brick farmhouses, the surreal lunar landscape of the chalk down lands, the first tints of autumn on beech trees and the dull purr of my tires on the road below.

As my little capsule of contentment headed east, I was happy with my lot.

And Chelsea’s game at Tottenham was only a few hours away.

Seriously, what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

Typically, my mind wandered back to my youth; my first ever two visits to White Hart Lane during the early weeks of the 1986-1987 and 1987-1988 seasons.

In September 1986, I had a thoroughly enjoyable day out in N17. After a far from impressive start to the season, we travelled to White Hart Lane and triumphed 3-1. The weather was dreadful, I got drenched on that long walk back to Seven Sisters, but I was euphoric. Only five months earlier, my first ever visit to Old Trafford had resulted in a Chelsea win. Two debut wins at my most despised opponents’ home stadia was just perfect. Although unmemorable in the main, 1986 at least provided me with those two excellent away days.

Less than a year later, we had got off to a flier with two wins from games against Sheffield Wednesday at home and Portsmouth away. The Chelsea hordes travelled in our thousands for this one. The attendance for the 1986 was just 28,000, but the 1987 one drew 37,000. I travelled up by train with Glenn and it felt like we were part of an invading army. We bought tickets (Glenn bought his from a tout) for seats in the upper tier of the Park Lane End and watched as our ranks were swelled with each passing minute. As I thought about the current limit of 3,000 away fans at all Premier League games, I became misty-eyed for those distant times. On that day in August 1987, I’d say that we probably had 10,000 fans at White Hart Lane. Those were the days my friend; for a moment, I was transported back in time. As kick-off approached and the terraced areas in front of our seats became swelled to capacity, there were calls by the Chelsea fans for the police and stewards to open up extra sections in the lower tier of The Shelf terrace, which ran along the side of the pitch and housed the Tottenham hardcore.

Eventually, an extra pen was given to the away fans. The Chelsea fans charged into the section, much to the chagrin of the Spurs fans above. It was all about territory in those days. It was all about how many you took to away games. It was all about numbers. These days, it’s difficult to gauge the size of various clubs’ travelling support because the limit is always 3,000. Back in those days, it was the size of our away “take” that was in many ways as important as the result on the pitch. In 1987, we travelled to White Hart Lane not because we were in the hunt for silverware. We just travelled to make a statement and to support the team.

Sadly, a last minute goal by Nico Claesen gave Spurs a 1-0 win, but the over-riding memory of that day twenty-five years ago was the fearsome size of our travelling support.

At 9.30am, I flicked on a Morrissey CD as I joined the M4. The next hour, save for some familiar tunes making me chuckle, the driving was rather monotonous. The fog thickened. It wasn’t so much fun.

Heading into London, the fog was still thick and the Wembley Arch to the north was not visible. Ah Wembley – memories of that 5-1 annihilation in April.

I exited the M4 and began a clockwise circumnavigation of inner London via the fabled North Circular. I don’t often travel on this road; the last time, in fact, was with Beth on our return from Leverkusen via Stansted airport last November. Before the advent of the M25 in around 1986, the North Circular – and the South Circular – was the main road used to traverse the great city of London. It acts as a ring road. It was and it still is notoriously busy.

As I drove through Ealing Common, with the road at its narrowest, I easily thought back on the years from 1975 to 1980 when my father would park on an adjacent side road and we would travel in by tube to see games at Stamford Bridge. My father was terrified of the London traffic and Ealing was as far as he could manage. Ah, how excited I was on those walks to Ealing Common tube station. My father’s last ever Chelsea game was against Everton on New Year’s Day 1991 and I’m pretty sure he parked at Ealing Common on that occasion, too. My mind became full of memories of match after match. They were layered one on top of another, just like the piles of bright autumn leaves on the Ealing Common walkways.

After Park Royal, from where we travelled in by tube for my very first game in 1974, the road broadened to three lanes. I had an eye on the clock and an eye on my speedometer. The traffic slowed to a halt on a few occasions. The road cut through inter-war housing estates, industrial areas and small parks. Signs for Wembley, Neasden, Finchley, Barnet and Wood Green. North London proper. It didn’t seem like Chelsea territory and, of course, it wasn’t. Sure we have pockets of support in this vast section of England’s capital, but this area of suburban sprawl belongs to the two North London teams. A large advertisement hoarding for an Arsenal shop at Brent Cross shopping centre emphasised the point.

I continued on. As I neared my destination, the traffic crawled along and my frustration was rising. How I’d hate to have to do this every two weeks. The only place to be every other Saturday certainly isn’t driving around the North Circular.

At last, I turned off at Edmonton and, via yet more slow moving traffic and a rather circuitous route, I eventually parked on Wilbury Way. It had taken me three and a half hours to cover the 125 miles.

Phew.

It was 11.45am.

I walked along Bridport Road and then Pretoria Road, past small industrial units, past the Haringey Irish Centre, where Cathy sometimes stops for a drink at Tottenham. I was soon outside White Hart Lane. Land was evidently being cleared for the construction of their new stadium which is planned to be built directly to the east of the current site. A computerised image of the new stadium appeared on a few hoardings. It looked impressive, but eerily similar to Arsenal’s new pad. This is no surprise; most new football stadia look as if they have been taken from the same blueprint these days.

Lower bowl, two tiers of executive seats, undulating top tier.

There is nothing special architecturally about White Hart Lane from the outside. It’s all rather dull to be honest. What makes it special are the memories of past matches and past players.

I shuffled past a heavy police presence in the south-west corner and entered the stadium. It was 12.15pm. While I waited for the kick-off, I spoke with a few acquaintances. It’s amazing how slow it takes for grounds to fill up these days. With fifteen minutes to go, the place was only half full. The team was the same as for Arsenal, apart from Cahill in for Terry. We heard that Gareth Bale wasn’t playing. Alan and Gary joined me just before the teams entered the pitch. There had been a few Chelsea songs in the pre-match build-up, but nothing from Tottenham.

As the match began, we soon serenaded the home fans of memories of Munich.

“We know what we are…Champions of Europe…we know what we are.”

Two lads arrived with a twelve foot long banner, obviously nicked from Munich, which we tied to the barrier right in front of us.

This was the Champions of Europe section.

Happy days.

Down on the pitch, Chelsea were in the ascendency and were pushing the ball around intelligently. The sun briefly broke through the grey sky and White Hart Lane looked a picture. It is a very neat stadium.

The songs continued.

“We won 5-1 – Wembley.”

“We won 6-1 – at The Lane.”

“We are the champions – the Champions of Europe, we are the champions – the Champions of Europe.”

“That song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song. You’ll never sing that song.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

“You got battered, you got battered, you got battered – in Seville.”

“Love the Old Bill – in Seville. Love the Old Bill – in Seville.”

We were certainly in good voice and our team were responding well. Our midfield maestros Oscar and Mata were soon probing away and we looked calm and relaxed, often finding room on both flanks. A corner to the far post was headed back across the box by Gallas. Gary Cahill had peeled away from his marker on the near post and met the dropping ball on the penalty spot with the sweetest of volleys. As a planned corner it could not have worked better if Gallas was still a Chelsea player. The ball thundered into the net. It was a volley which reminded me of the strike by Ivanovic in the Norwich game.

I captured Gary’s joyful run back towards us in the southern Park Lane end on camera. He was being chased by his gleeful team mates and their happiness was matched by ours.

Get in.

Our excellent play continued, but we didn’t carve out many chances. Tottenham tested Cech a little, but the defence held firm. Mata should have made it 2-0 as the interval approached but he shot over after he followed up his own shot after it was parried by Brad Friedel.

With memories of that night in Naples, Ashley Cole was able to scurry back and head a dipping cross off the line. Two fantastic blocks in quick succession – I think by Cahill and Ivanovic – told me all I needed to know about this new Chelsea team. Both players flung themselves at the ball with no respect for personal injury. It was magnificent to watch. Fantastic stuff.

At the break, talk was all about us playing well, but we were all rueing the lack of a second goal.

Well, the opening period of the second-half was a nightmare. Our concerns about that missing second goal came to fruition. Within ten minutes, defensive lapses had presented Tottenham with not only an equaliser through Gallas but a second goal via Defoe. The home crowd roared both strikes and the sight of all the gurning Spurs fans goading the Chelsea fans to my left and right was sickening.

White Hart Lane came to life. The uber-slow dirge “Oh when the Spurs…go marching in” echoed around the white tub of the old stadium. I hate it because it reminds me of that 2008 Carling Cup Final, but the Spurs fans certainly love it. It’s the one time they all get behind the team. The noise was deafening and we were momentarily quiet and subdued.

We were staring our first league defeat in the face. We hadn’t won at Tottenham in the league since 2005. Our unbeaten run of thirty-two league games against Spurs from 1990 to 2005 suddenly seemed like a distant memory. It was time for us to buck that trend. It was time for the players to respond. It was Roberto di Matteo’s first real challenge of the 2012-2013 league season. There was a niggling doubt that our three marauding midfielders would not be able to offer the two holding midfielders enough cover and assistance. Not just for this game, but throughout the whole campaign. I sat and wondered if our new playing style might be one-dimensional and too fragile. I looked at the Spurs midfielders – Sandro, Sigurrdsson, Huddlestone – and I looked at the slender Mata, Hazard and Oscar.

This was a big test alright.

To be truthful, Hazard had been the least impressive in the first-half. Suddenly, the overwhelming good vibes at the break had turned into feelings of worry and concern. There were cat calls amongst the away support. Fernando Torres, though neat in possession, seemed to be unwilling to run and test the Spurs defence. Too often, he stayed still, rather than exploit space.

Tottenham fired a few long range shots at Cech, but thankfully they tended to be straight towards him.

We need not have worried.

With Mikel and Ramires starting to re-exert themselves in the middle, the rhythm of the first-half soon returned. We enjoyed watching some wonderful flowing football. A loose clearance by Gallas – it was turning out to be his afternoon after all – fell at the feet of Juan Mata on the edge of the box. With ice cold blood in his veins, he took a steadying touch and calmly drilled the ball into the goal, with just inches to spare by the post.

YEEEEESSSSSS!

We were bouncing again. The Chelsea corner exploded with joy.

This was turning into some game. Remarkably, Defoe forced a supremely athletic save from Cech with a dipping shot. Then, a magnificent move resulted in more joy for the three thousand royal blue loyalists. Mikel played the ball to Hazard, who was now a lot more involved. His delightful first-time ball cut straight through the Spurs defence and into the path of the advancing Mata. It was the pass of the season.

Mata clipped the ball past Friedel and we were 3-2 up.

YYEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSS!

Oh boy.

What a game.

I found myself yelling awful abuse at the Spurs fans in the distance and I somehow felt cleansed for the experience.

Spurs had a couple of half-chances. Juan Mata could have scored another. He then played in Torres, but his studied strike towards the far post narrowly missed the target.

To our surprise, Daniel Sturridge took the place of the magnificent Oscar when we all expected Torres to be substituted. I commented that Jose Mourinho would have brought on at least one defender with us being 3-2 up. The days of narrow pragmatic wins were now a distant memory.

Attack or be damned.

With Spurs pushing for an equaliser – amid horrible memories of Robbie Keane’s late equaliser in the ridiculous 4-4 draw in 2008 – Walker was robbed by Mata on the far touchline in front of The Shelf. He painstakingly passed the ball across the six yard box for Studge to almost apologetically prod home from four yards. Behind him, Torres.

It was one of those days for Nando.

We roared again, though our screams of delight were mixed with howls of laughter too. We turned to the intense figure on the Tottenham bench for one last bout of piss-taking.

“Andre – what’s the score? Andre, Andre – what’s the score?”

Mr. Villas-Boas was not available for comment.

This was a stunning game of football. Not only did we play some wonderfully entertaining stuff, but the nature of our recovery was emblematic of the new found confidence running through this team. Although Mata deservedly garnered all of the attention, and Cech kept us in the game, I need to mention Mikel and Ramires, our two quite dissimilar bastions at the base of our midfield five. They were quite simply magnificent. Who could have possibly thought that our movement away from a physical style of football to a more entertaining variant would be so easy?

Transition season? What transition season.

On the walk back to the car, all was quiet among the Tottenham fans. There seemed to be an air of sad acceptance that Chelsea had prospered. I hate to say this, but I’m genuinely starting to feel sorry for them.

Wink.

IMG_0313

Tales From A Night Of Song.

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 6 March 2012.

From the league game at The Hawthorns on Saturday afternoon to the cup replay at St. Andrew’s on Tuesday evening – a distance of under six miles – it had been a dramatic time for Chelsea Football Club; three tumultuous days and millions of words of self-analysis by Chelsea fans all over The Blue Planet. Everybody has chipped in with opinions and I have tried to keep an even, objective approach to the latest shenanigans along the Fulham Road. It hasn’t been easy as I tried to weigh up all of the contrasting views. There was an over-riding feeling of gross ineptitude by the directors of our club.

If the club is of the opinion that their approach will be one of “slash and burn” / “hire and fire” – and there is certainly a little validity in the notion that teams and managers become stale after two years and so a change is beneficial – then I think I might be able to buy into this. However, every time the club makes a bold decision and hires a new manager – specifically Scolari, Ancelotti and Villas-Boas – the fans are told of the need for stability and long-termism.

Instead, sackings follow at Earth-shattering speed and the club stumbles from crisis to crisis, with no apparent plan, like a drunk searching for dregs in pint glasses at the end of an all-day bender.

It makes us look amateurish and inept.

It has reached the stage where I would honestly feel sorry – and actively discourage – any promising young manager from the UK or elsewhere to apply for a job at Chelsea Football Club.

What a sad indictment.

Abramovich, Buck, Tenenbaum and Gourlay should be ashamed of themselves.

The last few days have made me contemplate my relationship with our players, our fellow fans, the out-going manager, the in-coming manager, the directors and “the club” – as a distinct entity by itself – and it is clear that there is a monumental difference in my support of Chelsea Football Club and that of its directors. I’ll follow Chelsea whenever, wherever and forever.

But I can’t stomach most of the decisions that the club’s directors make.

I had arranged to leave work at 4pm and Parky had made his way over from his village via a series of buses. The connections worked well and he arrived way ahead of schedule at The Pheasant pub opposite at 2.30pm. This was grave news for me; several pints of lager would be quaffed and he would, I was sure, be even more chatty than normal. I girded my loins for a noisy trip to Birmingham.

“Four pints mate” he said as he sat in the front seat of my car.

Oh great.

“Here – have some mini pork pies, Porky. After Saturday’s lack of pork scratchings, you’ll enjoy these, mate.”

As Parky scoffed them, all was beautifully quiet. I had disturbing visions of myself force-feeding Parky – like one of those worrying types on an Alabama trailer park who wants his overweight girlfriend to become the world’s heaviest woman – in an attempt to silence him.

“Finished, mate? Here – have some more marshmallows, onion rings and doughnuts.”

We touched on the sacking of Andre Villas-Boas as we headed along the M4, but by the time we had joined the M5, Parky was off on a never-ending soliloquy involving a ridiculous array of topics including geese, churches, cheeses, bikers and pasties. It was quite a performance.

Birmingham’s rush hour traffic was less-taxing than London’s. I pulled into the car park of the Ibis Hotel on Bordesley Circus at 6.30pm. The car park was officially full – residents only were allowed in – and so I had to push a £5 note into the hand of the attendant. Jesus, who had travelled up by train and had taken a cab to the hotel, was waiting for us outside. Fair play to Jesus; he has only been in the UK about a month, but has seen numerous Chelsea games, plus games at Wembley, Charlton, Crystal Palace and Brentford. He clearly loves his football. I’m sure he’ll even roll up at Frome Town one day.

There was a smattering of friends and faces in the hotel bar. Despite tickets for this game only costing a very competitive twenty quid, the place wasn’t as busy as on previous visits. I chatted with a few mates. There was a quick synopsis of our current woes but there was no real crisp and clean consensus. Some were in favour of Mourinho returning, some weren’t. The team line-up came through on a few ‘phones and there was a general air of befuddlement. No qualms with the defenders which Roberto chose, but the midfield three of Mikel, Ramires and Meireles caused a few grimaces. With no Essien and Lampard, this could easily have been an AVB midfield. The recalled Kalou garnered a few caustic comments, as always. We were generally underwhelmed.

At 7.20pm, Jesus, Parky and I walked the 400 yards up the hill to the away entrance. I could hardly believe that a street stall was selling blue and white scarves celebrating a recent “Birmingham City 6 Millwall 0” win. Talk about small time. I’ve been to St. Andrew’s a few times and it’s one of my least favourite venues. It is one of the few stadia in the UK that I have not chosen to circumnavigate. This is most unlike me; I usually like to take a tour of stadia in search of quirky buildings, club shops, pubs or car parks. It helps me to fully appreciate the setting.

At Birmingham City, I have only ever headed into the tangled mess of stand supports at the old Railway End and quickly take my place in the large lower tier, which has a slightly curved rake. St. Andrews sits on a plateau of high land and, on the last few yards before the turnstiles and bag search, there is a reasonable view of the Birmingham city centre, which is dominated by the old British Telecom Tower, the Rotunda and the space-age Selfridges building.

My seat was high up and central. There were thousands of empty seats all over the stadium. Our away end seemed to pretty full; we had 3,000 tickets. Before I had a chance to take a breath, the away support were in song –

“You’re not welcome here. You’re not welcome here. Fcuk off Benitez – you’re not welcome here.”

This was met with my immediate approval; that, everyone, would be a bitter pill to swallow.

Fact.

Chelsea, in the all white with navy and yellow trim, resembled Tottenham and I disapproved. Birmingham City’s blue kit was washed out and insipid. Soon into the game, we sung an old favourite –

“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo.”

To be followed by a more recent chant –

“Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho.”

In all honesty, the first-half was poor and none of us enjoyed it. After a Mata shot was saved in the first minute, our play reverted to type with slow approach play and tons of sideway passes. It took us until 17 minutes for the next memorable shot, a blast from Ramires, to cause the home team any concerns. The two lads in front of me were the leaders in the “Ivanovic – Chelsea’s Number Two” chant which went on for a few minutes. A few sticks of celery were thrown in the air, with the necessary musical accompaniment. These distractions took our minds of the football, which was hardly enthralling. It was a typical performance of late.

And then came the most cringe worthy song of the season –

“Roman Abramovich – He sacks who he wants.”

I could hardly believe that hundreds of Chelsea fans were joining in this asinine chant. This was thoroughly embarrassing. There is no doubt that despite our thousands of fine fans, we have attracted some of the most brain dead fools in England.

Birmingham City had a couple of chances which threatened Petr Cech in the Railway End goal down below me, but in general, our defence was well marshaled with Luiz and Cahill performing well. The midfield was bumbling along…our attacks were sporadic. A break found Fernando Torres in the inside left position, but his weak left-footed shot went wide of the far post. The home fans howled their pleasure.

There were moans as the half-time whistle sounded. It was the same old Chelsea of late. I chatted to a few more at the break. The news that Arsenal had roared into a 3-0 lead against Milan hardly improved things.

Sigh.

With Chelsea now attacking us in the second period, we hoped for greater penetration and goals. It was hard to believe that our last win of any description was the narrow 1-0 win at QPR in the previous round.

We only had ten minutes to wait for our salvation. There was a crazy scramble just outside the six yard box. Players from both teams attacked the bouncing ball, with their feet and legs stabbing wildly in a drunken homage to “Riverdance.” Eventually the ball landed at the feet of Juan Mata and the ball was slashed home. We heaved a massive sigh as the players wheeled away to the corner flag.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50715413002658

The two lads in front were singing again –

“Super Juan Mata, he drinks Sangia…”

Before we knew it, a loose ball was walloped home by the lurking Raul Meireles and we were 2-0 up. It was a fine thump and I saw it all of the way from its inception to its net-billowing conclusion. I was stood right behind its rising trajectory. Meireles hardly celebrated, just choosing to walk away. The other players were all over him. Meireles began his time in a Chelsea shirt rather well, but has since lost his way. I hope his confidence returns and his form improves.

The two lads in front –

“Raul Meireles, Raul Meireles – He’s got 5hit hair, but we don’t care, Raul Meireles.”

Juan Mata had a couple of chances either side of the second goal. We were playing better. Mikel was becoming more dominant. Ivanovic was forever raiding the right flank. A great run by Torres on the right resulted in a defender clearly tripping him. We bellowed –

“Torres! Torres! Torres! Torres!”

Instead, Juan Mata took the ball, but shot weakly. Three-nil would have been perfect; we would have been safe. Instead, the Chelsea fans around me were still completely convinced that we would weather a late Birmingham storm. Torres was now seeing more of the ball and a great cross from his boot was whipped in. It fell to the substitute Daniel Sturridge, but he inadvertently stepped on the ball only six yards out. It was almost Nando-esque.

Marlon King appeared as a substitute for the home team and was the instant victim of some pointed abuse from the travelling Chelsea fans.

“She said no, Marlon, she said no.”

Thankfully, the lone chance which King was presented with was dispatched straight at Petr Cech.

The Chelsea choir serenaded Roberto di Matteo during the closing minutes – Eddie Newton, too – and it made me realize how many of that iconic 1997 Chelsea team went on to become managers and coaches. Step forward Dan Petrescu, Steve Clarke, Dennis Wise, Roberto di Matteo, Gus Poyet, Mark Hughes, Gianfranco Zola and Gianluca Vialli. We held on for a win and I was just relieved. I hadn’t particularly enjoyed the evening if I am honest. It had felt rather like a one game repeat of the entire 1988-1989 season; the game should have been finished in the first leg and we just needed to get the job done. In 1988, we shouldn’t have been relegated and the following season was purgatory, with only occasional moments of joy. I bumped into Burger and Julie on the way out. They had witnessed Parky’s crutches being launched into the air after the first goal. Let’s hope those same crutches are launched skywards after the Leicester City game in the next round, too.

Ah…Leicester…1997 again…Erland Johnsen, where are you know?

As an added bonus, we heard that Milan had held on to go through at Arsenal’s expense. As we filtered out of the away end and in to the cold night air, time for just one more song –

“One team in Europe – there’s only one team in Europe.”

The wayward bus has been righted after a few months in the wilderness. Let’s hope the journey continues against Stoke City and Napoli.

All aboard.

DSCN7284

Tales From The Rainbow Stand In 1986 And The Smethwick End In 2012.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2012.

I peered out of my window at 8am and it was overcast and grey. By the time I had reached Lord Porky’s village at 9am, the sun had appeared from behind the low-lying clouds. It was going to be a fine day. I had a quick chat with Porky’s partner Jill, who was babysitting her granddaughter Kayla, just turned two and a lifetime of Chelsea heartache ahead of her. Kayla has just started talking and I have no doubt that some of her first words will be Chelsea-related.

“Pass, Sturridge, pass!”

I mentioned to Jill that I have been suffering, for the first time in my life, with eczema for the past three months. Both hands are affected, though only slightly. She mentioned that eczema is a sign of stress and this surprised me; I haven’t felt under duress the past few months. I slapped some Nivea hand crème on and departed, stopping at McMelksham for a breakfast on the hoof. We drove north on the Fosse Way once more; slightly longer, compared to the going via the Almondsbury M4/M5 intersection, but a lot more scenic and rewarding. The away jaunt to The Hawthorns represents one of the shortest away trips for me at the moment. Swansea is the nearest at a mere 102 miles.

This would be my seventh trip to the home of West Bromwich Albion. We had won all previous six encounters and there have been some pretty good memories amongst those games. My first visit was in January 1986 when I was studying for my geography degree at North Staffordshire Poly in nearby Stoke-on Trent. In 1985-1986, we were flying. The much-loved John Neal had guided us to promotion and First Division respectability during the previous two seasons and we had launched a full-on attack on the league title over the Christmas 1985 period. A 2-0 win over Tottenham in front of a mammoth 37,000 was a formality. Newspaper articles proclaimed that we were genuine contenders and I, aged just twenty, was lapping it up. Here are a few notes from my diary entry of Saturday 18th. January 1986.

“Caught the 10.39am to Wolverhampton and then the 12.05pm to Smethwick Rolfe Street. The fare was just £1.95. Found the ground relatively easily. Popped into the ticket office and bought a ticket for £5. Waited outside until the Chelsea coach arrived at 2pm. Had a coffee and a pie. Sat down and took in the atmosphere, looking out for faces. Went to briefly chat to Al. Their end filled up slowly. A dull day, a little cold, rain at times. We had about 2,000 in the seats…between 4,000 and 5,000 in total anyway. I guess at a gate of around 10,000. Got off to a good start, playing well. After 20 minutes, Nevin headed-on for Speedie to race in from the right wing. He approached Grew in goal and pushed it past him at the far post. Brilliant. Good celebration. “We’re gonna win the League.” I guess we had a few more chances, Nevin had a few raids. Mickey Thomas was pretty lively for WBA, probing Colin Lee at full back with through balls. We gave Thomas a brilliant reception. After 55 minutes, a move found Dixon; he flicked it on for Murphy to stab the ball to the left of Grew. Yet more celebration. In the last ten minutes, Joe was alleged to have fouled Garth Crooks just below me. A penalty. “Eddie, Eddie, Eddie.” I think it was taken by Hunt. Eddie dived to his left and easily saved it on the floor. Brilliant. A Chelsea move found Dixon. He took on the defender, beat him, rounded Grew, was hauled down but the ball broke to Nevin, who tapped it in from 12 yards. “We’re gonna win the League.” Not a bad match really. Chelsea were in quite good voice. Better than WBA. “Come on you Baggies.” A little kid next to me kept shouting “You’re blind ref.” Once he shouted “You’re as blind…as…a blind ref!” Out straight away and a police escort all of the way to Smethwick Rolfe Street. Met up with Alan again. If we win games in hand…we will be TOP OF THE LEAGUE.”

Twenty-six years on, a few more things to add. We played in all red that day; one of the last times we were to do so, in fact. There was always a certain cachet to take over the seats at away games in the mid-‘eighties; this activity was especially favoured by London clubs, whose fans always seemed to have a little more money spare on match days. For a few, there was always a greater chance to meet and greet certain sections of the home fans in these areas too. I’m not condoning this by the way – just reporting it. Of course, having a few thousand in the seats, always made the mass singing of “One Man Went To Mow” that more enjoyable when we all stood on “10.” The home fans, cowering alongside, often watched on in silent bemusement. On exiting the steps down from the Rainbow Stand after the final whistle, the Chelsea choir began singing “We’re gonna win it all.” And I remember that this felt quite possible. We were in all four competitions (the League, the FA Cup, the Milk Cup, the Full Members’ Cup) and we were on fire. Sadly, this proud boast went up in flames as Liverpool beat us at home in the FA cup and Kerry Dixon, our superb young striker, pulled up with a torn calf-muscle after only ten minutes. Kerry was out for quite a while and, although he made England’s World Cup squad for Mexico in the summer, he would never be quite the same player. His absence from the team was certainly a major reason why our challenge for all of the honours soon fell away over the next two months of that memorable 1985-1986 season. On the Wednesday after that Liverpool defeat, we lost at home to QPR in the Milk Cup and a few defeats in the League meant that we were soon out of the running of the title, too. In fact, the high water mark of that great Chelsea team (1983 to 1986) was arguably that afternoon at The Hawthorns.

In the end, our 5-4 victory over Manchester City in the final of the inaugural, and much derided, Full Members’ Cup was our only silver wear from 1985-1986. But that, as they say, is another story.

At 12.30pm, I pulled into the car park of the Park Inn, located alongside the busy M5 motorway. The two of us spent an enjoyable pre-match in the hotel bar, which is always a pleasant pre-curser to the afternoon’s entertainment at West Brom. We chatted with Big John, who sits a few rows in front of me at Chelsea, and a few others. Long Tall Pete and Liz arrived. More beers, more chat. The Liverpool vs. Arsenal game was on TV and I hoped for a draw. Big John stayed in the same hotel as the Chelsea team in Naples and was able to observe the team at close quarters as they assembled after the tumultuous team meeting on the day of the game. The body language was atrocious apparently; no smiles, no laughter, no bonding. John said that the team had appeared to be beaten before they boarded the coach. We agreed that if the players – and any player…we named names – didn’t want to play for the club and the manager, they could “do one.”

And then we laughed at how the internet has turned post-game analysis into a deeply depressing experience of late. We both agreed that had the internet be around in the 1978-1978 season (and the 1982-1983 season too), several social network sites would be in meltdown with all of the negativity and bile being bounded around.

We smiled and agreed that, in some ways, we are past all of that. We both love Chelsea for all of the other stuff that goes with it…a broken record here, I know, but I don’t feel the need to apologise for it. Chelsea is so much more than the football. There, another of my favourite phrases. As soon as we all realise that, the better we will all be. I had commented to John that during the journey up from the West Country, Porky and I had spent around 15 seconds discussing the day’s game; “I suppose Drogba will get the nod over Torres. Wonder if Frank will get a start.”

Just as I stood up to get a round in, I bumped into TV presenter Adrian Chiles, who used to host “Match of the Day 2” and now presents an early morning show with Frank’s lady Christine Blakeley. He is, of course, a West Brom fan. I shook him by the hand and said –

“Good luck today. Of course, I don’t fcuking mean that.”

There were certain ribald comments made by Big John, Lord Porky and myself about me being – momentarily – one degree of separation from the luscious Ms. Bleakley. Let’s leave it there.

Jesus joined us for the last thirty minutes and we spoke about a few football-related topics. He explained a few things to me about the Mexican football scene and told me that he was present, in the Chelsea corner, at both the Bluewings and Galaxy games in LA in 2007. I said that I’d have to check my photos to see if I could spot him. At 2.30pm, we set off for the short walk to The Hawthorns. It was a typical Saturday scene with the onrushing fans heading off to the match, past the hot dog, burger and roast pork food stalls. At the corner, Jesus bought a small packet of pork scratchings for the three of us to share on the small walk down to the away entrance at the Smethwick End.

There was a longer than usual wait at the gates – enough time for Parky and I to be reunited with a gaggle of Chelsea from Trowbridge, who had travelled up by train. They had actually spent their pre-match, by chance, with Alan and Gary in Birmingham city centre pub. After a thorough search, I was in. I bumped into Fiona and Ronnie, who had been in The Vine; Fiona had sadly reported that a few members of “The Youth” had started throwing bottles around inside the pub, causing a window to be broken.

Only one word for that; pathetic.

The game had started by the time I eventually found myself alongside Alan (yes, the same Alan from 1986) and Gary, my away day companions. The team was as strong as I could have hoped for, with the two stalwarts Lampard and Essien alongside Ramires. I had a quick look around The Hawthorns. The old Rainbow Stand had been replaced around ten years ago by a single-tiered structure, with the corners enclosed by acres of dull grey steel. These areas cry out for a Chelsea style flag or emblem. The corners, though unsightly, at least keep the noise in. I noticed that a new row of executive boxes had been installed at the rear of this stand since the visit at the end of last season. Ah, last season; the day that we joyously celebrated the fact that we were “gonna win fcuk all.” How times change.

It was a relatively eventful first-half and half-chances came and went. The home team, with Fortune and Odemwingie at the heart of every attack, always appeared to be more cohesive, despite long periods of Chelsea possession. Chances were exchanged and Petr Cech was kept busy. Juan Mata and Michael Essien were having a lot of the ball, but the Chelsea support was getting very impatient with our lack of success in breaching the Baggies’ back line. The noisiest section of the home support shared the Birmingham End and they were in pretty good voice. There was the usual banter between us and them –

“Arse to a Russian. You’d sell your arse to a Russian. Arse to a Russian.”

“Speak fackin’ English. Why don’t you speak fackin’ English?”

“Speak fookin’ Russian. Why don’t you speak fookin’ Russian?”

It was odd to see the boys attacking us in the first-half. A fine strike from Michael Essien was headed for a top corner, but custodian Ben Foster tipped the effort over. With the half-time whistle approaching, a gorgeous ball from the otherwise quiet Didier Drogba found Daniel Sturridge. Studge had been his usual self; shooting at the earliest opportunity, much to the chagrin of us all. On this occasion, he lost his marker with a nice body sway, but annoyingly drilled his low shot wide of the left-hand post.

We howled.

The Chelsea support was spasmodic at best. However, one thing pleased me. With the sixth anniversary of the passing of Peter Osgood on Thursday, the away fans often sang the trademark song.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.
Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.
And Chelsea won – as we all knew they would.
And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.
Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood.
Born is the King of Stamford Bridge.”

After Ossie’s death in 2006, our first game was at The Hawthorns of course. Always in our thoughts, Ossie…

I was expecting a marked improvement in the second half, but it got worse. The sun disappeared and the clouds returned. The Chelsea support grew more and more frustrated with each minute of lazy play and half-hearted effort. After around ten minutes, a ball from Mata was played into acres of space for Studge to run onto. For once, our opponents were caught out playing a high-line. However, Sturridge misread the path of the ball and Foster met it first and cleared. More derision was aimed at the hapless Sturridge. I am quite befuddled by Sturridge. At times, his reluctance to pass to a colleague reaches ridiculous levels. No doubting his self-confidence, which is usually seen as a massive plus when assessing an attacker’s abilities, but his selfishness will weigh him down.

In a surprising show of togetherness, we sang “Amazing Grace.”

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

There were more verses of “The King of Stamford Bridge.” However, West Brom were now in the ascendency and Petr Cech became the busier of the two ‘keepers. The away support wailed for the introduction of Fernando Torres. Overall, Drogba had been woeful, showing hardly any of his willingness to chase down balls and use his strength. However, Drogba stayed on and Nando replaced Essien. God bless him, Torres’ first action was met with roars of approval as he chased back and won the ball with a great tackle from behind. It was an abrupt wake-up call for us all; this is what we had been missing all bloody game. A player with passion.

With ten minutes to go, West Brom took the lead after a ball was not cleared. My heart sunk. A draw at West Brom was bad enough, but a defeat? The Hawthorns came to life again. The whole stadium “Boing boinged.” It was quite a sight for my sore, sore eyes. I stood in numbed silence. Then came the West Brom club song –

“The Lords’s my shepherd I’ll not want.
He lays me down to die.
In pasture’s green he leadeth me.
The quiet waters by.”

And then, of course, came the song which rocked us to our core –

“Sacked in the morning.
You’re getting sacked in the morning.
Sacked in the morning.”

Of course, a fair few hundred Chelsea supporters joined in, too. I felt Alan bristling to say something. I just turned around and glowered. It was always my opinion that supporters are there for the team. It seems that certain sections of our support do not believe that this is correct. In the final flurry of activity at the Birmingham Road End, a great Ashley Cole cross was met by a Frank Lampard prod, but the ball flew past the far post and then Mata flashed wide too. Petr Cech went up field for one last corner, but the chance did not amount to anything.

At the final whistle, I stood in more numbed silence.

On a very bleak afternoon, only Torres, Cech, Lampard, Mata, Luiz and Drogba came over to clap the away fans, who – surprisingly, in my eyes – stood and clapped them for quite some time. That, at least, made me very very proud. However, that feeling soon subsided.

Alan said “see you on Tuesday” but I could not speak. I simply nodded.

As I waited outside the stand, several friends walked past. There were lots of long faces and I am sure I was exhibiting a particularly effective 1982-1983 style frown. However, Andy from Trowbridge approached and made me smile.

“Keep your chin up, Chris” as he mimicked Mourinho at Arsenal in 2007.

On the walk back to the car at the hotel, we had hoped to buy several bags of pork scratchings, but we couldn’t see any stands which were selling them. Lord Porky was distraught.

A 1-0 defeat and no pork scratchings.

FCUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUK.

Back in the hotel bar, a beer for Porky and a cappuccino for me. A quick word with Jonesy from Nuneaton. We both agreed that we had begun the season relatively well, but we were now seemingly getting worse with each game. I was still adamant that AVB should stay and get to the summer before clearing out the players who clearly do not fancy playing for him.

Jonesy : “You going Tuesday, Chris?”

Chris : “See you there.”

We both smiled. We had seen worse and we both knew it. The same old Chelsea, the same old Chelsea…

…and I have a feeling that my bloody eczema is going to get a lot worse over the next few weeks.

IMGP7426

Tales From Curva A.

Napoli vs. Chelsea : 21 February 2012.

There is no doubt that Italy is my favourite European destination; I have been a huge fan of its charms since my first visit in June 1975. Despite numerous trips – 5 family holidays, 6 Inter-Rail trips, 3 Juventus trips and 3 Chelsea trips – I was more than happy that Chelsea were drawn against SSC Napoli in the quarters of this season’s Champions League competition.

I have some history with Napoli.

Way back in the summer of 1981, on holiday on the Riviera di Ponente, I treated myself to a superb magazine which reviewed the 1980-1981 football season. The publication – a thorough review of all games, goals and goalscorers – contained hundreds of action photographs and I can remember being enthralled at the sight of exotic players and stadia alike. At the time, I was well aware of the top teams in Italy; Serie A was dominated by the northern teams Juventus, Torino, Milan and Inter, plus the two Rome powerhouses Roma and Lazio. I was aware of Fiorentina, Sampdoria and Genoa. But one team intrigued me. The photographs of Napoli, playing in front of vast crowds in their mammoth stadium struck a chord. The team had no “scudetto” to their name, yet regularly drew crowds of 50,000 and above. The Dutch master Ruud Krol was their most famous player in that team. Their stadium resembled the Maracana. I daydreamed of how intense the match day experience would be in the heat of that infamous Italian town.

When the club signed Diego Armando Maradona in 1984, I knew only too well that the locals would idolise the little Argentinian maestro, who was still smarting from two largely unremarkable seasons with Barcelona. In Maradona’s third season – 1986-1987 – Napoli won their first ever championship. I can well remember the fleeting glimpses of a troubled city celebrating a league win like nobody else. The TV footage showed a cauldron of fanaticism I had hardly witnessed before. I was suitably impressed.

While travelling around Italy in 1987 and 1988 by train on month long Inter-Rail passes, I saw a game in Milan and two in Turin. However, in November 1988, I flew out to Turin for my first ever trip to Europe for a football match and a football match alone.

Juventus vs. Napoli.

One of the vivid memories of this trip took place thousands of feet above Turin. I had just woken from a short nap. The plane was turning and circling around on its approach into the airport at Caselle. A piece of Italian classical music was playing on the plane’s radio. Down below, the lights of the city’s grid-pattern streets were shining. It was a moment that has lasted to this day. To say I was excited would be a massive understatement.

My good friend Tullio and I joined the ranks of the bianconeri on the distinti terrace in the old Stadio Communale. Although I was – and am still – a follower of Juve, there is no doubt that I was lured to Turin on this particular occasion to witness Maradona in the flesh. Juventus boasted Michael Laudrup, Luigi D’Agostini, Rui Barros and Alexander Zavarov, but the little Argentinian was the main attraction. One of the vagaries of Italian football is that teams do not go through their pre-match routines on the pitch. They perform their pre-game rituals and drills in the changing rooms, away from the madding crowd. This heightened the sense of drama for me. With five minutes to go before kick-off, the caterpillar-like tunnel was extended out in front of the baying Juventini in the Curva Filadelfia.

The two teams appeared.

And there he was. Diego Maradona. I was in awe.

At the time, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan team was changing the way that football was being played in Italy. The defensive stranglehold of catennaccio was slowly giving way to a more liberal form of football, but goals were still a premium in Italy. Games tended to end 0-0, 1-0 and 2-0.

Much to Tullio’s consternation and my shock, the result of the game on that day 24 years ago ended Juventus 3 Napoli 5. It was a stunning result. Napoli were 3-0 up at half-time and Tullio wanted to go home. Thankfully, I made him stay and Juve got it back to 2-3, before the game went away from them. Away to our right, in the Curva Maratona, thousands of Napoli fans held their light blue scarves aloft. Another one of those memories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EhE0voYR-uU

I visited Naples, albeit very briefly, either side of that game in Turin. In March 1988, I used it as a stopping-off point on the way down to Pompei . On a wet and cold afternoon, I virtually had all of Pompei to myself. It was one of those moments when I was able to let my imagination run riot, fantasising about life in a Roman town centuries ago. On my return into Naples, I remember having a very quick walk around the cramped Neopolitan streets, taking a grainy photograph of Mount Vesuvius and grabbing a slice of pizza. Then, in September 1990, there was even more of a fleeting glimpse of Naples as I changed trains on a journey from Reggio de Calabria north to Rome and beyond. On that occasion, I think I only ventured a few yards from the Naples train station.

It was time to return.

At 9am on the Monday, I headed over the Mendip Hills towards Bristol Airport. For the first time ever, I would be beginning a European trip from my most local airport. From there, I was flying to Rome, and then catching a train down to Naples on the day of the game. My friends Alan and Gary were already on their way to Rome from Heathrow. The Mendip Hills were mined for various minerals during the Roman occupation of these shores and the area is traversed with roads which owe their existence to the Romans. With Glastonbury Tor visible to the south, atop a hill in the tranquil Vale of Avalon, I drove along several long straight stretches of old Roman road.

What is it they say about all roads leading to Rome?

The flight from Bristol to Rome Fiumcino airport lasted around two-and-a-half hours and enabled me to relax and ponder the attractions that awaited me. I bumped into two Chelsea fans, Emma and Tony, who were as surprised as me to see other Chelsea fans on the flight. The EasyJet magazine taught me two things; kissing in public in the city of Naples used to result in the death penalty in the sixteenth century and the term “tifosi” comes from the typhoid-like fervour of the Italian football fans. I remember Northern Italian teams’ fans taunting the Napoli fans in the ‘eighties when an outbreak of cholera hit the city.

The simple chant of “Cholera! Cholera!” shamed the Neapolitans. No doubt they had a response, though.

I was last in the Italian capital for our game with Roma in late 2008. I quickly caught the city-bound train and soon found myself passing through the murky hinterland of the Rome suburbs. I was reminded of how much the locals seem to admire the early-eighties style graffiti which originated in New York. The weather was overcast. It was raining. The surprisingly bleak weather saddened me. I hoped that my brief spell in Italy would not be spent dashing in and out of the rain.

At 5pm, I knocked on the door of room 302 of the Yes Hotel on Via Magenta. This was the same hotel we used in 2008. Alan welcomed me to Italy with a bottle of Peroni. I was given the middle bed of three and I couldn’t resist a joke about myself waking in the middle of the night, imagining that I was Franz Klammer, the great downhill skier. Alan and Gary roared with laughter. The jokes continued all evening and we tried not to talk about the football. We caught a cab down to Piazza Barberini where we met up with Julie and Burger, the CL away trip virgins. We decamped into a quiet bar and caught our breath. Thankfully the rain had stopped. The evening was mild. The beers started to flow and the laughter, too. We spoke briefly about the on-going CPO debacle, but then Burger bought a round of amaretto. The football talk soon subsided. Julie spoke of how much she was enjoying her first ever visit to Italy. I managed to lock myself in the toilet.

We moved into Via Sestini and enjoyed a lovely meal. Another beer. We were roaring with laughter all of the way through it. Davie from Scotland, who I ironically first met in Rome in 2008, joined us and we ended the evening in an Irish pub off Via del Corso. More beers, a limoncelo, some strawberry vodkas. On Peter Osgood’s birthday, we toasted the great man. It is hard to believe that it is six years since that saddest of days.

I can well remember the visit to Rome I took with several Chelsea mates in late 1999 – the goalless draw with Lazio. On that occasion, none other than Ron Harris and Peter Osgood were amongst the 2,000 Chelsea fans in the Curva Sud that night. After the game, we were allowed on to Ron and Ossie’s coach back to the city centre. In the hotel lobby, we kept ourselves to ourselves, not wishing to pester either of them. That was a Rome memory to last an eternity, though.

It was 1.30am and time to get to bed. It had been a great night. We caught a cab back, past the imposing Vittorio Emanuele monument, and arranged to meet at the Termini station the next day.

“I’m off to get some beauty sleep” said Alan.”I’ll wake up in August.”

After a filling breakfast, we all met up on the platform of the main station a mere 500 yards away. Davie had spent until 5.30am in a nightclub, just as he had in 2008. On that occasion, he awoke outside on a roundabout.

Thankfully, he awoke in his own bed this time. The train to Naples left at 9.50am. Thankfully, clear skies greeted us. While Alan and Gary tried to get some shut-eye, Davie and I chatted about our love for Chelsea, but for football in general. Like me, Davie shares the opinion that we are here for the people and the camaraderie rather than the mind-numbing pursuit of silver wear and glory. We spoke of games past, of childhood heroes, of the Dundee United team of 1983, the Highbury game in 2004, of the 1982 World Cup. We spoke about the game in Naples.

Davie : “It could go one of two ways. Could be the best away trip ever. Could be an absolute nightmare.”

Chris : “It just feels right for us to be going in to this as the underdog. Chelsea as the underdog is our role in things.”

Although a self-confessed Chelsea nut, Davie has not visited The Bridge for two years. Like many of us, he is fed up of the current vibe at home games; full of silent dolts. Davie much prefers the rough and tumble of the away enclosure.

Outside, the Appenine Hills were flying past. I took plenty of photographs of many a hilltop village, perched upon light grey rock. Above, peaks were dusted in snow. The sky was blue.

Italy. Ti amo.

Gary, Alan, Davie and I hopped into a cab at Naples main train station to take us to our respective hotels. The first thing I noticed was that the cabbie’s Neapolitan accent was thicker and richer than that of the north of Italy. I guess, actually, that it was a dialect and not an accent. As I looked out at the densely packed streets, all of my memories of Naples came crashing back to me. The cabbie gave us a drive to remember; carving other drivers up, tooting his horn, talking on his phone and pointing his cab head first into ridiculously small spaces. As we neared our hotel on Via Melisurgo, he almost collided with a mother pushing a pram. He began shouting at her and I am convinced that the little bambino raised a finger.

Welcome to Naples.

We had a thoroughly enjoyable pre-match in Naples. We spent around three hours walking around the immediate area of our hotel, which was close to Castel Nuovo. Of course, Mount Vesuvius, across the bay, totally dominates any view of Naples. I took many photographs of its looming presence. One can only imagine the horror of the eruption which caused such devastation on Pompei and Herculaneum in AD79. We walked past the little bar which was full of Chelsea day-trippers on the official club trip. A few familiar faces. Most had taken heed of the club’s advice to eschew club colours. During the day, I only saw a handful of idiots who were brazenly wearing Chelsea shirts.

Our walking tour took us from the waterside, past the Castel Nuovo and up to the Royal Palace. The skies were still blue and the weather was lovely. As we walked up the slight incline of Via San Carlo, I became lost in my own little world. Let me explain.

My father was in the RAF during the closing years of the Second World War. His experiences were explained to me on many occasions and he was wise enough to capture a lot of his travels on film. Maybe I have inherited my love of travel photography from him. His first posting overseas, in 1944, was to Jerusalem, but he spent most of his active service in North Africa, in Tripoli and Algiers. He was a wireless operator in Wellington bombers, serving in coastal command. As the war ended, he spent time in Malta and then travelled up through Italy before returning home in 1946 or so. However, for six months, my dear father was billeted in the San Carlo Opera House in Naples. I would imagine that hotel rooms were very scarce and so the RAF commandeered the large theatre, stripped out the seats and filled the auditorium with bunk beds. What Dad’s role was during this time is not really known. I would imagine that he fulfilled an administrative role, perhaps helping to get the war-stricken natives back on the road to recovery. There are photographs in his album of trips, with his pals, to Taormina on Sicily and to Pompei.

At the top of the hill, the grand bulk of the San Carlo Opera House was visible to my left. Alan took a few photographs of me outside. During a quiet few moments, I walked into the booking hall of the theatre and peered inside at the cool marble steps leading up to the doors to the auditorium. For a few fleeting moments, I easily imagined Dad walking down those steps, in shirtsleeves and sunglasses, suntanned, heading out for a day’s sightseeing with a couple of his friends.

“Ah, this is the life, Half Pint” gleamed Hank.

“Yes, indeed it is. RAF West Kirby seems a long way away” replied Reg.

“Pompei here we come” bellowed Jock.

From RAF West Kirby on The Wirrall to the San Carlo Opera House in Naples took Dad four years during the Second World War. It had taken me a mere ten days.

In the Plaza del Plebiscito, we bumped into Mark and Nick, Charlie and Pete. There had been news of a Chelsea fan getting stabbed down at the main station. We were lucky; this was the posh end of the city and I didn’t feel at risk. While Alan and Gary chatted to the lads, I wandered around the gently sloping piazza, spotting a new vista of Vesuvius, taking it all in. I was sure that Dad would have walked on these cobbles, witnessed these views. I wanted to position myself right in the centre of the square in order to get a symmetric view of the Royal Palace. I spotted a manhole cover and realised that it cut the piazza in half. I stood on it and took a photo looking east and a photo looking west.

Perfect.

I then happened to glance down at the manhole and spotted that there was a year embossed upon it.

1993.

I lost my father on April 17th 1993 – into my thoughts he came again.

It was 2.45pm and we were in need of sustenance. Alan, Gary and I dipped into a lovely little pizzeria on Via Chiala. We ordered some ice cold Peroni – bliss! – and then a pizza apiece. I opted for the Diavolo (devil) pizza and it was only five euros. The buffalo mozzarella was so creamy, the tomato sauce was so fresh, the pizza base was so perfect. The single chilli which gave the pizza its name was red hot. It was the best pizza ever. The locals were smiling. They knew who we were. As we left we said –

“Grazie mille e forza Chelsea.”

They smiled again.

We walked back down the hill, the evening chill now hitting hard. I picked up my match ticket and my passport from my hotel room, then joined Alan and Gary opposite in a small bar, full of Chelsea fans. We chatted to a few familiar faces – Pauline, Mick, Digger, Shaun, Pete, Eva, Neil – and had a couple more beers. We pondered our chances.

The mood was not great. There was a feeling that we could be in for a hiding.

We walked over to the assembly point at 6.45pm. The day trippers had departed earlier – maybe around 5pm. Good job we hung back a little. We sat on the bus for 45 minutes. Eventually we set off. The stadium is not far from the city centre, but the route we took lasted about an hour. Around ten coaches set off. There was a heavy police escort, not surprisingly. The coach hugged the road by the port and then climbed up onto the elevated expressway which circumnavigated the city. Although we were not to know it until after, we were taken east, then north, then west, then south. The stadium was due west. The locals would not get a chance to ambush us. The city looked on as our coach drove high on elevated bridges, and then delved deep into long tunnels. Apartment blocks were everywhere. The dark shadowy mass of hills appeared and then disappeared. Vesuvius, unseen in the distance, but looming still. Trizia of the CSG and I chatted about Naples and its team. I spoke to her of Maradona in 1988. I made the point that as I saw Maradona playing for his club team, doing his 9 to 5 job, then this made that particular experience all the more real. We had heard about the leaked team sheet and I wondered if it was a Mourinho-esque ploy to confuse the locals. Shades of Jose against Barca in 2005 in fact. As we drove on, I kept describing the city as a sprawling mess. I’m sure there is no place like it in Europe. Sure it is crime-ridden, it is strewn with the detritus of modern life, its walls are covered in graffiti, the houses are cramped, the washing dries on overhead lines, the traffic is noisy, the place is dirty.

But what energy the place exudes.

I crave different experiences in my support of Chelsea these days; Naples fits the bill tenfold.

Eventually, we were underneath the shadows of the stadium. Out in into the drizzle of a Neapolitan night. We marked our territory by having a mass toilet break against a nearby wall. We were given a brief search by the police and we were inside the stadium. Despite its size – it once held 80,000 – the place was very shabby. I half expected lumps of concrete to fall during the game when the ultras began jumping. I could already hear them bellowing their songs.

Underneath the entrance to the away section, Alan and Gary had stopped for a word with Tom. Alongside him was the almost mythical figure of Icky, resplendent in green bomber jacket, baseball cap, jeans and boots. He had travelled from the Phillipines for this one. I took a classic photo of Tom, Gary and Alan against a backdrop of Italian police, riot shields to the fore.

The stadium now holds 60,000, but there were many empty seats in the small lower tier. The Napoli fans were making a din, though – waving their flags, bellowing songs, whistling when we had the temerity to show support of our team. Our section filled up slowly. Initially, I guessed at around 1,000 had braved the ferocity of the locals. In the end, I guess it was nearer 1,500. Despite a few youngsters and a few women, the bulk of our support was male and was aged 40 to 55. Solid old school. Faces from our hooligan past. Faces from the good old bad old days. Faces from away trips up and down the length of England. One family of Chelsea die-hards. Don’t step on us.

We began to spot hundreds of cigarette lighters flickering at both ends of the stadium; Curva A, which we shared to the south end of the stadium, and Curva B, to the north. The choreography and the anthem, the flares and the cheers of the Napoli ultras.

This is it.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50688829162658

I wanted to avoid an early goal – but I feared the worst.

Away in the north curve, I spotted a massive banner – striscione – which I struggled to decipher.

“Come Pioggia Scende Al Cuore Copisce Come Un Leone Ruggisce.”

Pioggia means rain. It was raining. Surely the fans who had written the banner don’t leave it until the very last minute to decide on a pertinent phrase for each game. However, knowing the organisational skill of the capos among the ultras, then nothing would surprise me.

Mata’s neat finish sent us all into a jumping, bounding, leaping frenzy. What a quite magnificent moment.

How we sang.

“We are the Chelsea and we are the best…”

Maybe Davie was right – this would be the best away game ever.

Befuddled AVB, at odds with the senior players, somehow managing to outthink the attacking prowess of the Napoli team?

Think again.

Two goals in the last ten minutes of the first-half caused us much pain. Lavezzi’s curler just eluded Petr Cech and Cavani appeared like a ghost at the far post to squeeze the ball in. The sight of Cavani running towards the moat which encircles the running track, tugging at his shirt, his face contorted with ecstasy will live with me, unfortunately, for years.

After each goal, a thunderous roar. Flares behind each goal.

If only Ramires had not thundered over at 1-1. If only Brana’s wonder run had resulted in a shot. If only Luiz’ header had gone in.

If only.

At the break, I was confused. I wasn’t sure if we should go for it and attack or aim for damage limitation. Before the game, I would have been very contented with a 2-1 reverse. But here, in the shadows of the San Paolo, I was worried that more goals would cascade into our goal.

Chances were spurned at both ends in the second-half, but lamentable defending gifted Lavezzi an easy second.

It was Napoli 3 Chelsea 1.

And still chances came. Thank heavens that Ashley Cole cleared from the goal line. At the other end, Drogba spurned a late chance. My God, 3-2 would give us a huge chance in the return leg. The substitutes Lampard and Essien offered little.

The whistle blew and the Napoli fans knew exactly what to do next. They hoisted their blue and white scarves and the club song echoed around the cavernous stadium. Parts of the anthem sounded too close to “You’ll Never Walk Alone” for comfort, so we all soon descended into the area below. We stood and chatted. A few moments of gallows humour, but glum faces. I chatted to five from Bristol; Tim’s wife had been swiped on her back with a belt buckle just a few yards from the stadium. Such attacks were thankfully rare. We had met up with Rob at half-time and he rode with us on the hour long coach ride back to the centre. We were dropped off at the port just before 1am, some two and a half hours or so after the game had ended.

The Chelsea fans fled from the coaches into the Neapolitan night. The bar opposite our hotel was closed and so we decided to get some sleep.

On the train trip back to Rome, we shared our compartment with a Neapolitan girl, returning to her university in Rome. She was a Napoli fan – you get the impression that all Neapolitans support Napoli –but had been at Stamford Bridge in April for the Chelsea vs. Tottenham game. She said that her boyfriend was a Chelsea follower. I am so pleased that she didn’t say that she favoured Tottenham.

That, my friends, would have been too much.

She helped me translate the striscione. It went something like –

“As rain falls … strikes at the heart … like a roaring lion.”

As the train headed north, an itinerant salesman was peddling Napoli souvenirs and he tried to get us to buy his wares. Not only was I upset about the previous evening’s game, I remembered 1988 too. On my European travels, I often get souvenirs of the clubs that I visit. In this case, I was happy to make an exception.

Naples was indeed a sprawling mess of a city.

At the moment, it feels that we are a sprawling mess of a football club.

Ah, just like the old days.

Come On You Blue Boys.

DSCN5627

Tales From Then And Now.

Everton vs. Chelsea : 11 February 2012.

It was 1942. The storms of war had been blowing throughout Europe for three years. On The Wirral, the three Royal Air Force recruits had been thrown together; young men from disparate parts of the British Isles, conscripted to fight the threat of the Nazis, unsure of their futures. The physical training camp at West Kirby would be their home for three months; they were both excited and scared in equal measure. Hank, the large-framed butcher from Welling, was the leader. He strode into the red bricked train station and asked for three return tickets to Liverpool Lime Street. Jock, from a small town in the Scottish lowlands, his hair glistening with Brylcream, a slight figure, cigarette in hand, checked the tattered poster on the wall which detailed train times. Lastly, Reg, a placid and quiet shop assistant from Somerset, returned from the newspaper stall with a crisp copy of the local paper.

There was not long to wait. After only five minutes, the three newly-acquainted friends were sat in the smoking carriage of the 10.25am local service to Lime Street. Hank, the gregarious joker, was rattling off a few one-liners and his two pals were soon rolling their eyes towards the cigarette-stained roof of the snug train compartment. The puns were awful, of course, but both Jock and Reg were happy that Hank was there, taking the lead, creating conversations and negating the burden of silence in that small confined space. The three youngsters, all aged nineteen, had only arrived on The Wirral the previous month. Within the first few weeks of training at the RAF camp, solid friendships were made and the ever-present worry of the uncertainty of what lay ahead was significantly eased.

For Reg, this train trip was vastly different from the previous one just a month earlier. On that occasion, he had set off from his home town on the Somerset and Wiltshire border, his parents waving him goodbye from the platform, and had travelled alone to the north of England. At Crewe station, he had to change trains. In the middle of a cold January night, he had waited for four long hours, pacing up and down the otherwise empty platform. At no time in his life before it, nor at any time after it, would he feel more alone.

But now, on his way to a new city with two friends – Hank’s jokes getting worse and worse – he felt a lot more relaxed and at ease. After four weeks of rigorous training, this represented his first day of leave and he was relishing the chance to spend time with his two new pals in the famous busy port city by the banks of the River Mersey. The plan had been to grab a bite to eat, flit around the shops and head down to the river and see the frantic activity of the ships around the dock area. Then, a couple of pints of bitter in a pub close to the station before catching the 8pm train back to camp.

“Give me the paper, Half Pint”, Hank said to Reg. “Wonder what language these Scousers use, up here. Blimey it’s in English, there’s a surprise.”

The two young girls sitting opposite were the ones rolling their eyes now. They had been sitting quietly, sharing a bag of sweets, trying not to stare too hard at the three young men in their immaculate RAF uniforms, each with accents far different than their own.

“I see Everton are playing a game at Goodison Park at two o’clock. Fancy it? Won’t be too expensive. It’s not Charlton, but it’ll do.”

Hank had made up the minds of both himself and the others before either Jock or Reg could answer.

The afternoon’s entertainment had been decided. The train did not take too long to sweep under the River Mersey and the three young friends soon found themselves at the ridiculously busy and congested train terminal. Outside, the Saturday morning air was damp. On the walk tothea tram stop, the grim realities of conflict grabbed at Reg’s senses. The German Luftwaffe had deposited many tons of bombs on the city during the previous two years and great tracts of the immediate city centre had been laid waste. The scene which greeted him shocked him to the core; suddenly, the war had become all the more vivid. There were hundreds of buildings – shops, workhouses, factories, offices – now reduced to piles of rubble. He found it odd how chimney stacks had remained. He thought it bizarre that the interiors of upstairs bedrooms – with wallpaper on show – were still able to be seen. He pondered the hundreds of lives which had been torn apart so brutally.

As the three of the young friends waited at the tram stop, they surveyed the desolation all around them. They were deeply shocked.

They stood in silence. Not a word was spoken, but much was said.

The crowded tram slowly wended its way through the city centre streets; past St. George’s Hall and the art gallery, past the shops full of Saturday bargain hunters, along Scotland Road and up the hill towards the football ground. The three friends were stood at the rear of the tram, hands in pockets, keeping warm. They were jostled from side to side with every slight change in direction. Busy local women nudged past them, their hands full of shopping, their hair in curlers, cigarettes lilting in the corners of mouths. Young boys, in tattered shorts and leather boots, ran alongside the tram, cheerily waving at the passengers. Dockers, with flat caps and white silk neckties, hopped on the bus at Kirkdale. With accents as thick as the fog which enveloped the grey city, these locals spoke quickly and it seemed that every word was spat, not spoken. The three young men looked on at the gnarled faces of these tough locals, with fading tattoos on their forearms, and soon realized that their home comforts seemed far away. Reg and Jock whispered to each other under their breath, not wishing to be heard. What they said to each other is not known.

As the tram suddenly veered to the left, Hank – the taller of the three – soon spotted the dark silhouette of the main stand of Goodison Park in the distance. At the next stop, the three friends stepped off the tram, trying to avoid the murky puddles of rain by the side of the cobbled streets. Out of nowhere, hundreds of men bustled past. It was obvious that they were headed for the game, too. Hank, Jock and Reg – without realizing it – increased their walking speed in order to avoid getting pushed aside. At the end of the street, lined with painted and polished doorsteps – the handiwork of proud Liverpudlian housewives – the gargantuan stand on Goodison Road stood waiting for them. Hank had been to see Charlton play at the Valley on a few occasions, but the vast bowl of that stadium was different. The Valley was a sprawling mess of a football ground. Here, at Goodison, the stand stood right on the pavement. It seemed neater and much more impressive. Neither Jock nor Reg were football fans. Jock was not a sportsman, but studied the horses. Reg’s prowess was in the swimming pool. But all three stood still, in awe, at the enormity of the structure which greeted them.

To the left, Jock spotted the frosted glass windows of a local hostelry. Without any words being exchanged, Jock quickly headed inside, his two friends left outside in his wake.

“A quick pint, Half Pint?” asked Hank to Reg. “It appears our Scottish friend is in need of liquid refreshment.”

They spotted Jock dart in the bar to the right of the main entrance of The Winslow Hotel and they quickly followed suit.

“Jock’s at the bar, Half Pint – this is a rare sight indeed. Let’s hope he doesn’t forget us.”

The cavernous bar was incredibly noisy and the three pals struggled to hear themselves be heard above the din of orders being taken, jokes being shared, vulgar belly laughs, shouts and groans. A young lad strode through the bar, bedecked in Everton favours – the blue and white standing out against the dismal colours of wartime England – and attempted to sell match programmes. He was not faring well. The locals were more intent on drinking. An elderly gent, with glasses and a pencil thin moustache, spoke engagingly to Reg about Dixie Dean, the great Everton centre-forward, who once scored 60 goals in a 42 game season.

As his knowledge of football wasn’t great, Reg wasn’t sure if this was the same Dixie Dean who had been ridiculed in the schoolboy poem of his youth –

“Dixie Dean from Aberdeen.
He tried to score a goal.
He missed his chance.
And pee’d his paints.
And now he’s on the dole.”

Talk of the imminent football match was minimal, though. It seemed that just being in an alien environment, so different from each of their home towns, was amusement enough. Hank looked at his watch and signaled to the others to finish their drinks. Outside, the rain had started to fall. The three friends quickly rushed across to the stand and did not notice that the narrow street, darkened under the shadow of the structure, was busy with an array of match day activity; grizzly old men selling programmes, young boys selling cheap paper rosettes, wise-cracking spivs selling roasted chestnuts and cigarettes and young girls selling newspapers.

The three friends stood together, three amongst thousands packed into the terraced area at the front of the main stand. Thankfully, the rain soon subsided. The game began; the blue of Everton and the red of the visitors. But the match almost seemed a minor attraction. The three friends gazed in wonder at the modern stands on all sides of the ground. Each one had an area for spectators to stand. Above, in the upper tiers, were wooden seats, though these were not particularly well occupied. In between the two tiers was the dark green of the balcony wall; the metal cross struts at the front of the wooden panels gave the stands a unique appearance. Reg turned around and looked up behind him at the towering upper tier of the main stand. This metalwork was continued around on the main stand too. Above, right at the top, a gable was perched on the very apex of the roof and Reg could hardly believe how high it was.

The football match was played out before them. The shouts of the players could often be heard above the quiet murmurings of the crowd. The boisterous behaviour in the pub before the game had been replaced with an almost muted reverence. In the corner, Jock spotted a church which abutted the lower terrace.

“Hope you’ve been a good boy, Reggie. You’re off to see the priest after the game.”

As the temperatures fell and the noise from the spectators grew quieter still, the three young men became mesmerized by the movement and physical strength of the footballers. Everton scored early and played the more-flowing football. The diminutive wingers hugged the touchlines and sent over cross after cross into the muddied goal mouths.

Further goals followed for the home side and the Everton fans were happy.

Towards the end of the game, the sun had set and the darkening winter evening was making life difficult for spectators and players alike. At the final whistle, there was a ripple of gentle applause from the Evertonians.

“Back to the pub for one more, boys?” asked Hank and the two pals concurred.

Inside the warm saloon bar of the pub opposite, the locals looked cheered. There was a buzz of appreciation that the local team had won. The daily worries of their mundane lives, further threatened by the menace of conflict, had been put to one side for ninety minutes. Football had been an escape for them, just like it had been for Hank, Jock and Reg.

After a few moments, the old pensioner with the glasses spotted Reg and chirped –

“Nice goal from Lawton.”

Reg thought to himself “yes it was – and unlike Dixie Dean, he didn’t have to change his shorts at half-time, either.”

It is 2012. The trip north from Somerset to Merseyside had started so perfectly as to be difficult for me to describe sufficiently. There had been an overnight frost and the trees and hedgerows were encased in hoarfrost. Snow remained on many of the fields. The skies overhead were of pure blue. I collected Parky at around 9am and we headed north on the Fosseway for a change. As we drove past Malmesbury, with its abbey high on the hill to my left, and then on to the old Roman town of Cirencester, I found it hard to believe how magnificent the Gloucestershire countryside looked.

It was a real treat. A joy to be alive. All this and Chelsea too. What lucky people we are.

As we descended the eastern edge of The Cotswolds at Birdlip and drove down into the Severn Vale, the snow soon disappeared. Our little winter wonderland had ended and we were now back on the M5; the road we seem to take every month on our travels up north to see the team play. It was an easy trip with little traffic. Maybe many had been scared off by the rumours of further snow. I strangely didn’t see any Chelsea colours on the 200 mile journey up the M5 and M6 to Meresyside, but I knew that we would be up at Goodison in force.

On this occasion, I avoided the usual route into the city and I headed east on the M56. I had a specially-planned detour to attend to. Deep in the heart of The Wirral, I broke off the northbound motorway and drove along the oddly named Saughall Massie Road.

My car quickly came to a stop and I pulled into a lay-by. There was a gate – closed – with what looked like a farm track beyond. But I knew better. From 1940 to 1957, that overgrown farm track once lead to RAF West Kirby; the very same camp that my father had attended during the very first month of his World War Two campaign. I had a moment to myself.

I looked around. I noted the hedgerows, the slight undulations of the countryside, the church steeple and the woodlands.

There is no doubt that my dear father, who I sadly lost in 1993, would have walked out of this very same track on that winter day, all those years ago, on his day trip to the city of Liverpool. My father had often spoken about his wartime visit to Goodison Park from his temporary home on The Wirral. It would be his only visit to a football stadium until he accompanied me to my first ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1974.

To the left, there is a stone memorial, neatly attended.

There is a large slab of local rock, with an airplane propeller attached.

There is a simple plaque –

“To commemorate all those who served,trained and worked at RAF West Kirby between 1940-1957.”

Parky took a few photographs of me alongside the memorial. It was a wonderful personal moment. Fantastic.

We hopped back in the car and – I guess – retraced the route that my father took on that day around sixty years previously. I drove through Birkenhead, then through the Wallasey Tunnel. I was soon in the heart of Liverpool, crossing over Scotland Road and heading up the hill. At 1.45pm, we were parked up outside not Goodison, but Anfield. Many Chelsea fans head for The Arkles, no more than two hundred yards from Anfield, when we play both Liverpool and Everton. This familiar pub was packed full of Chelsea and I spotted a few faces. All eyes were on the “Hate Derby” of Manchester United and Liverpool. A pint of Becks Vier each and we were good. We met up with that man Jesus once again, this time with two other Americans, all three of them on the same internship programme in London. Elaine was from Pittsburgh and Megan was from Cleveland. We welcomed them to the Chelsea family. I first met Jesus outside this very pub before that awful game – Carlo’s last – in May. We hoped for no repeat.

I was well aware that on the four and half mile journey, though, Parky and I had not mentioned the day’s game once.

Not once.

I also chatted with Paul, from Poole on the Dorset coast. He had an even longer drive than us; he had left Poole, the home of my father’s mother in fact, at 6.30am and had been in the pub since 11am. The pub was full of Chelsea, but there was a little band of young Liverpool fans; perched on small stools, faces gaunt, with old-fashioned haircuts, grey trackie bottoms – much loved by Scousers – and who were agonizingly watching the game on the TV. They howled with joy when Suarez made it 2-1.

It was 2.30pm and we needed to move. Jesus and the girls were outside on the pavement, trying to drink lager from the plastic glasses with one hand and eat chips from a small polystyrene tray with the other. I’m not sure if the three Americans were taking advantage of their perceived view of our relaxed drinking laws, but they had taken the beer glasses with them and were supping at the lager as we walked away from the pub. Fair play to them – I could see they were enjoying themselves. Jesus had even taught them the words to “Celery” in the boozer. The girls were giggly but Jesus just wanted to get to Goodison Park. However, we stopped for a moment or so at the Hillsborough memorial outside Anfield and I quickly tried my best to explain what had happened on that horrific Saturday in April twenty-three years ago. We walked on.

The winter air was chilling us all. At the bottom of Anfield Road, the main stand at Goodison was able to be seen just a few hundred yards away. The Archibald Leitch stand of the pre-war years – it was dubbed the Mauretania Stand as it was so huge – was partially demolished in around 1970 with the current stand taking its place on Goodison Road. We walked along Walton Lane; no time to waste now, the clock was ticking.

I got to my seat in the front row of the upper tier of the Bullens Road stand just as the “Z Cars” theme was ending and the players were in the centre-circle, waving to the four corners of the classic Goodison stadium. We stood the entire game and were in good voice at the start.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50659166577658

If the last game of the 2010-2011 season was bad enough…and it was, believe me…then this game was even worse. It was quite simply the laziest and inept performance by a Chelsea team that I can remember for some time. We were 1-0 down after just five minutes when a bouncing ball caused paralysis in our defence and the returning Steven Pienaar pounced to slam the ball past Cech.

Oh great.

Here we go again.

It was the same old sad story in the first-half; lots of Chelsea possession but no real threat. Two shots from Daniel Sturridge and Frank Lampard were the only real chances that I can remember. Our threat was so poor that Everton hardly had to put in a shift. I lost count of the number of times that ball was played back along the defenders. Our midfielders were not worthy of the name.

Upfront Sturridge hid but Mata flitted around and tried his best. Torres was Torres.

There were gaps in our three-thousand seats. The singing wasn’t great. It soon subsided. A few fans in the back rows of the upper tier began singing the turgid and tedious “Ten German Bombers.” What that particular song has to do with Chelsea, or how it can inspire our team, is lost on me. RAF or not, I don’t think my Dad would have approved, either.

It was more of the same after the break. High balls into Torres; great. Whose idea was that?

Our midfield were playing so deep and our only threat seemed to involving a succession of nicely-weighted balls from Juan Mata out to Ashley Cole. But then – a woeful cross and you know the rest. Luiz was, again, the only player who appeared to be playing with anything near the level of passion required.

I am sad to say that the highlight of the match was an amazing shimmy from Pienaar over on the far side in front of the dug outs.

And yet, the Evertonians were so quiet. I have always said that they are the quietest fans by some mile…and hardly have a large repertoire, either. Torres was getting the “ladyboy” treatment from them. Even worse were the Chelsea fans that howled like wolves at the manager as he replaced Essien with Malouda. In an Arsenalesque moment, some Chelsea supporters regaled him with –

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

OK – replacing a crowd favourite with a crowd pariah was never going to go down well, but this sort of behavior by our fans makes me sick. We should be above that. These ninety minutes where we have the opportunity to bond with our players should be full of positive noise only. We have the car trips home, the pubs, the offices and the internet chat rooms to dissect our team’s foibles and to berate them if necessary. But, for those ninety minutes, we should support The Boys In Blue From Division Two.

Everton scored a second after a tackle on Ashley Cole left gaping gaps in our left flank which Everton nimbly exploited. Stracqualursi rifled past Cech and it was game over. Quite a few Chelsea departed. Sigh. At last Everton sang a different song. It was a good day for the blue half of Merseyside.

“I’ve never felt more like singing the blues.
When Everton win and Liverpool lose.
Oh Everton – you’ve got me singing the blues.”

Our few attacking thrusts were easily dealt with by Distin and Heitinga. Tim Howard was virtually untroubled the entire game; only a block from the substitute Lukaku sticks in my mind.

This was a completely flat performance by manager, players and fans alike.

I, as with others, was numb at the end.

Andy from Nuneaton sidled over and succinctly said “he’s gotta go, mate.”

I sighed again.

I met up with Parky outside the old stand. There were no positives to take from the game. The post mortem had begun. We walked back through Stanley Park, past The Arkles and up to a fish and chip shop. A shared portion of chips warmed us up as I headed out of the tight terraced streets around Anfield. I was back on the M6 at 6pm and it was a reasonably good drive home in the circumstances. We stopped off at the Air Balloon pub at wintry Birdlip at around 8.30pm and enjoyed a quick pint, a roaring wood burning stove warming us up nicely. It was minus eight outside.

I eventually reached home at 10.30pm, almost fourteen hours since I had left in the morning.

Parky and I always – without fail – enjoy ourselves on these trips, but the agonizingly poor performance of the team detracted from this day out on Merseyside. Andre Villas-Boas, lauded by everyone at the start of his Chelsea managerial career, is quickly finding out how fickle football fans can be. I have no fool proof answers to our current problems. I’m not an expert. I just hope and pray we can override this period of substandard play. Rumours of player power, new managers being touted, injuries to key personnel and under-performing players are the over-riding negatives that continue to eat away at us. I can’t guarantee that Villas-Boas is the answer. I just honestly feel that we would be foolish to dispense of his services when he has clearly been tasked with the onerous job of clearing away the old guard, bring in his own team and yet win trophies at the same time.

Sounds like an impossible task to me.

Birmingham City at home next Saturday.

Let’s go.

* Dedicated to the memory of Hank Brooks and Jock Inglis – my father’s two closest friends during the Second World War – who may or may not have been present at Goodison on that day in the ‘forties and my father Reg Axon, who certainly was.

DSCN5484