Tales From The Caffeine Express

Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 2 October 2011.

This was a long and tiring excursion into deepest Lancashire, but yet another hugely enjoyable day following the boys in royal blue. With victories for both Manchester clubs on a sun-drenched Saturday, it was imperative that we stayed in touch with then by winning at The Reebok. Historically, Bolton Wanderers are a tough old team, but our record at Bolton’s stadium is almost perfect, with a series of highly convincing victories and not a single defeat. As I left my slumbering Somerset village at 7.45am, I was confident of a positive outcome.

I sipped at a coffee as I drove through the Somerset lanes and then headed through the winding and narrow streets of the Wiltshire town of Bradford-On-Avon. My mates Alan and Gary were already heading north on one of the official Chelsea coaches from London. I wondered how many we would take up to Bolton. It’s always a concern that our club isn’t embarrassed by a smaller than expected away following. As the coffee hit the spot, I became more and more tuned-in to the delights of the day ahead. However, my early progress was temporarily halted by some Sunday cyclists and a Land Rover pulling a horse box. I eventually collected Parky at 8.15am and then retraced my tracks, heading west and then north up past Bath and onto the M4. We were expecting another blisteringly hot day and the early morning sun was burning up the mist in the valley where Bath was nestled. Above, several hot air balloons were clearly visible in the pristine blue sky.

What a great feeling. A day of football and a day of Chelsea. Can’t beat it.

As these Chelsea trips north come and go, as these sorties up the M5 and the M6 follow on relentlessly after each other, I was well aware of how desperate I am for fresh fields and fresh destinations in order for new routes and experiences to befall me. Thank heavens for the much-anticipated jaunts to Swansea and Norwich this season. If these away day match reports start to feel eerily familiar, it only goes to illustrate the relentless nature of following football 24/7. However, I’ll never tire of an away game at Bolton. It will always be a special place in my heart. Need I mention April 30th. 2005?

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I refuelled at Strensham services and we then had a grotty Burger King coffee at Stafford services. As I travel around the motorway network, I have developed a nerdish knowledge of service stations and it’s not something I am proud of.

“There are always long lines at the Costa Coffee at Strensham, no breakfast menu at Burger King at Frankley, there’s an M&S at Keele. No KFC until Knutsford”

In order to save ourselves some money, Parky and I have started taking our own food for these away trips around England; with ticket prices higher than ever, it’s one way we can attempt to save some money in order to keep going to football. Over the course of a whole season, it will hopefully save us some money for a few more tickets.

As we headed north, the sky grew greyer and clouds became thicker. This was pretty surprising as the weather down south on Saturday had been magnificent. By the time we were headed over the River Mersey and the Manchester Ship Canal at Thelwell, the weather had deteriorated further. I know I have mentioned this many times before, but the view atop this bridge is one of my favourite football vistas. To the west, the Runcorn Bridge and the city of Liverpool and its twin clubs, to the east, the skyscrapers of central Manchester and United and City, with the moors beyond. And due north, Winter Hill and The Reebok (though out of sight) nestling below it. However, not on this day; the overcast weather meant that Winter Hill was not visible. I was making great time and before I knew it, I was heading east on the M62 and Bolton was just 16 miles away.

We veered off the Manchester orbital and then headed north on the M61. It is always a surprise for me how far out – and isolated – The Reebok Stadium is from Bolton city centre. It is located off the motorway at Horwich, adjacent a large shopping and entertainment complex. The rain was spitting as I headed east, with the floodlight pylons and roof supports of the stadium visible in the autumn sky ahead.

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The sight of this most unique stadium always brings a smile to my soul.

Four hours – to the dot – since setting off in the waking Somerset morning, I was parked up in the drizzle of a Lancashire stadium car park.

It’s grim up north.

Alan and Gary had just arrived and we joined them by the entrance to the main reception area, in preparation of the arrival of the Chelsea coach. Within five minutes, I had taken a few up-close-and-personal photographs of Petr Cech, Frank Lampard, Raul Meireles and Nicolas Anelka, though only two photos proved to be worthy of keeping. I managed to get a nice one of Frank, just after he had signed a few programmes and had had his photo taken with an eager fan. Amongst the throng of Chelsea fans, I noted a few northern voices. Parky was keen to head inside for a beer, but I fancied a mooch around the adjacent retail park. I didn’t fancy any beers as I had a long trip home. I needed to keep my head fresh. Parky’s ticket was for the lower tier, so I swapped my ticket for his; this enabled His Lordship to partake in a few pre-match bevvies with Alan and Gary in the Upper Tier bars.

As I slowly walked around the outside of the stadium, I spotted several slogans declaring “Bolton Central – Everything Wanderers” and this is typical of recent branding exercises at clubs these days. At Everton, there are signs declaring itself “The Peoples’ Club” and there are of course “Our City” signs everywhere at Eastlands.

I made a bee-line for the “Hurleys” shop, just a hundred yards or so away. I bought a pair of Henri Lloyd jeans there on my last visit and I spent a good few minutes examining the gear on show. The first “Hurleys” began in Manchester ages ago and there are a few dotted around the north-west. It’s a well-known mecca for football gear and I wasn’t disappointed; I flicked through a few rails of Lacoste, Fred Perry, Boss, Paul & Shark and Henri Lloyd. There were also a few items of Pretty Green, the label which Oasis front man Liam Gallagher has developed recently. Lots of shirts with button-down collars, lots of check patterned shirts, lots of polos, lots of heavy pullovers. I seriously considered getting a royal blue Paul & Shark polo – but the price tag was a hefty ₤75 and I had to seriously consider it. I headed opposite and had coffee number three of the day at a local “Starbucks.” After fifteen minutes, I had dismissed the idea and was annoyed with myself for even considering such a crazy notion.

What I want – of course – is a Bolton away game to coincide with the January sales. Can we play them away in the FA Cup in 2012 please?

Time was moving on now and I retraced my steps back around to the away entrance. I had a chat with a few familiar faces and was soon inside. Parky’s ticket was perfect; centrally located behind the goal and next to an aisle. I took a few photographs of the team doing their pre-match drills and noted plenty of smiles and laughter. A few shots on Petr Cech then followed. I had to laugh when David Luiz took a couple of shots but looked away right at the last minute. Typically Brazilan, eh? I think I saw Ronaldinho do this during an actual match once – and score. Heaven knows what would happen if I had ever attempted that.

By this time, the team had been announced and I was abuzz with news that Frank Lampard had been picked. I focussed on him with my camera and he did look energised.

Amidst a flurry of texts just before the kick-off at 1.30pm, I sent a simple message to a few friends which simply said –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

I had an inkling that this would be a game where Frank would shine; such is his record at The Reebok.

It seemed that the entire Chelsea contingent had similar thoughts as we serenaded our beloved number eight with a hearty rendition of “Super Frank” at the kick-off. Bolton had a quick attempt on our goal, but a lovely ball from an advancing David Luiz inside the left back found a rampaging Jose Bosingwa. I was right behind the path of that ball; it was a joy to watch. A cross from Bosingwa was turned behind for a corner and, from the centre, none other than Daniel Sturridge headed down and in to the Bolton goal.

And this was after just a couple of minutes.

The Chelsea end roared.

Alan, up above me in the upper tier texted me –

“THTCAUN.”

And I quickly replied –

“COMLD.”

We were in great voice at the start of the game (indeed, for quite a while before, too) and this opening goal gave us more reason to bellow our support of the team.

In the early part of the game, David Luiz had tons of space in which to roam and play balls through to various team mates. Daniel Sturridge, buzzing from his first goal back at Bolton after his loan spell, was playing with great spirit on the right and his great ball found Frank on seventeen minutes. Frank easily despatched the ball into the Bolton goal and how we celebrated.

I repeated the text I had sent at 1.26pm –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

On 25 minutes, Studge found himself wide on the right once again. I was wondering if the Bolton left-back had gone shopping in the retail park, such was his continued absence on the pitch. Maybe he was sat in “Starbucks”, mulling over a purchase. Studge whipped in a quick shot which beat the flailing dive of the cerise-shirted Bogdan and the net rippled.

3-0 to Chelsea. Phew.

I had struck up a conversation with the chap behind me about how I hoped that Bolton would stay up this season. Again, the memories of 2005 are the main reason for this. I always remember going back to The Reebok in April 2005-2006 – around the same time of the year as in 2004-2005 – and driving along the M61, just as I had done an hour or so previously. I always remember looking over to my right and spotting the bright white supports of the stadium roof in the distance and getting quite – ahem – emotional. There – on April 30th 2005, Chelsea Football Club had been crowned Champions of England for the first time in fifty years. And little old me – a Chelsea fan from the age of five, a Chelsea fan through the ragged ‘seventies and the false dawns of the ‘eighties, the renaissance of the late ‘nineties and beyond, a follower through thick and thin, good times and bad, from Stamford Bridge to Wembley – had been part of it.

It’s making me quite emotional now, six years on.

That day in 2006, we again triumphed 2-0…JT scored with a header in the first-half and then…of course…Frank Lampard drilled one in during the second period in front of us all. He ran towards us and – deliberately – found himself on the exact same piece of turf as the two celebrations the previous season. He beamed at us and pointed down at the pitch…

“Here!”

It’s one of my favourite memories from that second championship season…and I have both the shot and celebrations captured on a couple of photos.

So – in a way, memories of 2004-2005 and 2005-2006.

For these reasons, I hope we play at The Reebok every season from now to eternity.

Back to 2011. Bolton were in disarray and fell further behind when Sideshow advanced for what seemed like miles. His shot from way out was fumbled by the hapless Bogdan and who else but Frank Lampard pounced.

The text was repeated once more –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

At half-time, I had a look around the fellow citizens of the East Lower. I have to admit I didn’t recognise anybody. All of my acquaintances were obviously upstairs, where the 500 members of the away scheme were based. I spotted a row of around twenty identically track-suited Africans, all wearing red bobble hats. I was reminded that I had spotted these fellows way up in the East Upper last weekend against Norwich (I presumed it was the same chaps). My guess was that they were linked to an African club and maybe Chelsea were their hosts for a week or two. I’d like to have known what they thought of Lancashire.

Behind me, I spotted the Rangers captain David Weir, sat quietly with his young son amongst the Chelsea supporters. It took me a while to convince myself it was him…but then had this confirmed for me when I saw a Chelsea fan go up and ask for a photograph. I did the same – but I really didn’t want to take up too much of his time and certainly didn’t want to overly draw attention to the fact that he had been spotted. I presumed that his boy was a Chelsea fan and had gone through normal channels via the club for tickets. I know that he still lives locally – in Warrington – after his spell with Everton.

I quickly texted a few mates in the ground and elsewhere who favour the ‘Gers. It was quite surreal to be honest. It was nice that he was with us and hadn’t asked Bolton for executive seats in a box. Fair play to him. I saw him on the ‘phone a few times; maybe hearing from a mate that Celtic were losing at Tynecastle.

I missed the Bolton goal – I had arrived back from the loos at the break and was just settling myself.

I wondered how the second-half would play out. Just after the Boyata goal, the home supporters got behind the team for the first time in the game. To be fair, they made a fair racket, but it soon subsided. The Reebok is a funny stadium as the end opposite us never seems to make too much noise. Just a few Herberts to our right along the side. We ridiculed them with –

“Sit Down If You’re Going Down.”

To be honest, we were all hoping for a few more goals, but were only rewarded with one more. On the hour, a lovely move involving Frank and Didier resulted in a simple strike from Lampard which evaded the despairing lunge of the ‘keeper. Here we go again –

“Frank Loves The Reebok.”

For the rest of the game, it resembled a bit of a training session, and Meireles and Mata continued to impress. They couldn’t seem to tame Mata the entire game. At times, it was difficult for me to work out the formation as the fluidity of the players meant that Luiz would often go on mazy dribbles, Mata would come inside, Lampard would burst forward, Bosingwa and Cole too. OK – Bolton were poor, but we played some nice stuff. We could have scored a few more, but shots from Mata flew over, Drogba was blocked and Sturridge drifted wide.

Bizarrely, an Ivanovic clearance off the line and a Cech save which was palmed onto the post saved us from conceding a couple of goals.

It was nice to see Nicolas Anelka get a lovely and sustained round of applause from the home fans when he came on as a substitute, though I suspect that the Trotters were thinking –

“Bloody hell, two goals from Sturridge and now Anelka comes on.”

The Chelsea fans around me were stood the entire game – of course – and we enjoyed a particularly loud and boisterous “One Man Went To Mow.” As the fans joined in with each verse, it dawned on me that this famous Chelsea chant has subtlety altered over the years. Originally, everyone would slow down at eight and make the last three versus even more defiant. These days, the tempo stays the same.

It had been a fine afternoon in a special stadium. We will get sterner tests this season for sure, but let’s enjoy the good times, let’s enjoy the goals.

With the rain still falling, I headed back to the car and Parky soon joined me. Unfortunately, we didn’t move for ages and it was a full hour before we left the car park at 4.30pm. We then hit some awful weather and some slow-moving traffic on the road south…it was very frustrating and I could hardly believe that the weather being reported on the radio at White Hart Lane was of gorgeous sunshine.

On the M6 just south of Manchester, the rain was now bucketing down and I was finding it tough-going. I pulled into Knutsford services for a revitalising Costa Coffee and then ploughed on through the wind and the rain.

Parky put on his Big Country CD at Stafford and this kept our spirits up, along with the requisite supply of awful jokes and silly quips. At Walsall, we spotted an ice-cream van blocking an exit slip road.

Parky – “Best get hold of the police. Best dial 99.”

Chris – “The police are looking for a bloke who has covered himself in nuts and chocolate sauce. They reckon he has topped himself.”

And so it continued.

At Stensham, the last coffee of the day; a McDonalds cappuccino apiece. As I headed south through Gloucestershire, 612steve was sending me score updates from the American League Divisional Series, but there was no Chelsea / Yankee win double on the cards. I had hoped to have reached home to see the game against Detroit on my laptop, but the delays and inclement weather had destroyed that idea.

As we skirted Bath, the roads bizarrely dry, we were listening to some New Order and these classics kept us going for the last few miles.

“I feel so extraordinary; something’s got a hold on me.”

I eventually dropped Parky off at 9.15pm and I eventually got home at 9.45pm, some fourteen hours after I had embarked on the trip north.

Bolton 1 Sturridge 2 Lampard 3 Chelsea 5.

Job done.

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Tales From The Goalfest

Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 31 October 2009.

This was just a very very enjoyable day out…just perfect really.

With a three-day trip to Madrid coming up, I had to pop into work in Chippenham from 8am to 9.15am to do a few reports ahead of my holiday. I was soon on my way.

I would normally take the M4 west and up the M5, but chose to head up to the M5 via Malmesbury and Cirencester. In the end, this didn’t really save me any time, but at least I was rewarded with a stupendous view of the Severn vale as I descended the western edge of The Cotswolds. The autumn colours dominate our rural landscape at this time of year.

I was listening to the Danny Baker show on Five Live ( the usual mix of humour and football ) and it was a good accompaniment to my long drive north. Richard Hammond from TV’s “Top Gear” was Baker’s main guest and he admitted that he had never been a fan of sports, nor football especially. He knows he can’t “fake it” and I appreciated his honesty. When footy became fashionable again circa 1996, you could easilly spot the celebrities who were “faking it.” Nouveaux Celebrity Fans? Nothing worse.

With The Cotswolds to my east and The Malverns to my west, I continued my familiar path north. I had a coffee break just south of Brum and had a quick chat with a United fan from Kent, en route to Old Trafford. He admitted that United aren’t playing well at the moment. I noted that the division’s top two teams were playing only about 15 miles apart. At 11am, “Fighting Talk” began on the radio and this kept me amused as I headed north of Brum…past Stafford, past Stoke, then up and onto the M62 before it joined the M60, the Manchester ring-road. As I sped on, the signs overhead were for Rochdale, Preston, Oldham, Bury, Leeds, Manchester and Bolton. What a hot-bed of football…shame they’re all rubbish.

After a few miles on the M61, The Reebok was signposted and memories flooded back of that early evening game on Saturday 29th April 2005 ( no, I didn’t have to look it up ) when we became League Champions for the first time in fifty years. One of the best days of my life – probably the best if I am truthful. I have mentioned before that The Reebok is such a really bizarre location for such a monumental date in our club’s history. It is located a good eight miles away from the centre of Bolton in the area of Horwich and nestles below a massive Pennine summit called Winter Hill. There are a few miles of countryside, villages and ribbon development between the outskirts of Bolton and The Reebok. A more incongruous site for a Chelsea triumph you are unlikely to find. It is the first – and if I am honest, only US-style “out of town” stadium in the UK.

As I approached the stadium, I had this vision of a scene in the latter years of my life.

It’s 2055 – a nursing home in Somerset. This conversation is taking place.

Nurse One – “Mr. Axon in room 70 keeps asking us to take him to The Reebok.”

Nurse Two – “Do you mean that stadium in Bolton? The one where they used to play soccer? Don’t the NFL’s Bolton Pigskins play there?”

Nurse One – “That’s the one. Seems Chelsea – remember them? – once won the league there, years ago.”

Nurse Two – “And?”

Nurse One – “He wants to go back there, for old times sake.”

Nurse Two – “Bless him. I’ll take him.”

A voice from Room 70 – “And buy me some celery too, my love!”

I paid the £6 parking fee and had a wander around, snapping a few shots of the stadium and noting a few Chelsea fans waiting for the team coach to arrive. Alan and Gary were a few miles behind me on one of the two official Chelsea coaches. Alan had to leave his house in South London at 6am and would not be home until midnight.

There is a massive retail park adjacent to The Reebok – another US-style innovation – and I was aware that there was a branch of the famous Manchester clothes shop Hurley’s nearby. I was after something by Paul & Shark ( difficult to buy down south ) but bought a pair of Henri Lloyd jeans instead.

I spotted a Bolton fan wearing a Bolton / Atletico Madrid “friendship scarf” and wondered if he was trying to wind us up.

I entered the stadium at 2pm and quickly found Alan and Gary talking to Ajax, who is a mainstay of the North Wales Chelsea lot. I also stumbled into Andy, Ash, Mark M and Mark N from my local area who had travelled up by train. Then Gary spotted his mate Clive. Clive and his partner are from South London, but were enjoying a romantic break in Bath.

Yes, Bath – the town twelve miles away from my home. We had to laugh.

“Fancy going to Bath for a few days love? Only problem is, we’re playing in Bolton on Saturday, but don’t worry, I’ll treat you.”

I wondered that if for the away game in Portsmouth in March, would Clive be planning a weekend away in Blackpool?

I took my seat in the upper deck. For the game in 2005, we were thankfully placed in the lower tier, right where the goals were scored, right where the celebrations took place. The photos I took on that day are – I am not afraid to admit – some of my best ever.

I met Bristol Tim and paid for a spare ticket for Madrid ( for Dominic, one of the NYBs – more of that trip to follow later! ). I scanned the team and I was surprised Ancelotti chose Riccy ahead of Alex…we braced ourselves for the aerial bombardment. I noted three Portugeezers in the team for the first time in a while. I noted a guy in front of me taking swigs from a “fake” mobile phone and that made me chuckle.

We enjoyed excellent early pressure, but Bolton caused us a couple of problems. Riccy seemed to be ball-watching, allowing Davies a chance. Elmander came close, too. We had a goal disallowed, but were enjoying good possession, with Anelka involved…he rarely loses the ball. Drogba too was getting stuck in, holding the ball well. They are not a classic partnership, but they have found roles for each other and I am happy with the way they are playing. One passage of play summed up Frank’s importance to us…one moment he had a shot, but within a few seconds the ball broke and Frank was back making a tackle on the half-way line. Just before the break, Deco found Ballack who played a perfect ball to Drogba. Bolton’s well-marshalled defence had gone to sleep and Drogba was in on goal. I thought he had taken one touch too many, but he was then fouled from behind. His theatrical head jerk made me wonder about the validity of his fall, but the referee had made up his mind.

I captured Frank’s penalty on film. Get in. How silly of me not to bet on “Frank First Goalscorer” before the game…I had thought about it….he was 11/2.

A quick chat with Cathy at half-time, who was very uncomplimentary about my pullover! As the second-half began, I spotted Lab Rat and Mark sat a few rows in front of me. The Chelsea support was pretty good for most of the match. The 3,000 were in good voice as Bolton began the stronger in the second period. We urged the team on. Essien hooked away a clear Bolton chance and we looked a bit off-the-pace.

We had a few good chances. Then Frank hit the bar with a thunderous shot. But still Bolton threatened.

Not to worry – a fine flowing move down our left was finished off with aplomb by Deco. Oh, how we loved that. I turned around and screamed “what a goal” to anyone that would listen.

A beauty.

Time for some celebratory songs and time for us to relax a little. Alan spotted Gary Megson prowling his technical area and commented –

“Get that Halloween mask off, Megson. I’d give you a lollipop if you showed up on my doorstep.”

I had a text from Pete in San Francisco saying that Gill’s “CIA” flag had been spotted on US TV and there was a comment about the club’s growing global dominance.

As Bolton chased shadows, we spread the ball majestically and were rewarded with two more goals, thus repeating the 4-0 mauling on Wednesday. I took a lovely snap of Didier blowing us a kiss after his goal…the perfect end to a perfect game. It was that good a game ( Bolton powerful, Chelsea artistic ) that even if it had stated at 1-0, it would have been the best game of the season.

But 4-0 was blue heaven.

Seventeen goals in the last four games.

Top of the league.

Having a laugh.

There was a terrible delay in exiting the car-park ( motionless for 45 minutes ) and I would like to think that this wasn’t because we had beaten the home team 4-0 again.

“Open the gates, kidder – the cockneys can leave now!”

As I drove south, around the Manchester ring-road, the floodlit roof of Old Trafford visible some three miles away, I realised how much I loved visiting The Reebok. I’ve never seen us lose there. Frank always scores there. We won the league there.

I listened to an underwhelming United win on the radio as I drove the 200 miles south. A United fan phoned in to “606” to say that it was a poor league this year ( I agree ) but United were only playing at 60% of their capacity…but this was not a warning to others, but a comment that United were simply unlikely to suddenly improve. Music to my ears. Let’s stuff United on Sunday.

I couldn’t wait to get home to watch “Match Of The Day” – especially since we heard that Liverpool were experiencing a horror show on the banks of The Thames.

I reached home at 10pm and watched the day’s games with elements of glee and pleasure.

It had been a great day.

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Tales From The North-West

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 26 September 2009.

I think I might find it a struggle to reflect on this one.

This was to be yet another trip up to the old professional heartland of the game ( the cotton towns of the north-west provided a good majority of the founder members of the Football League ), another drive up to Lancashire and my sixth journey to Wigan in slightly over four years.

Apart from the very first of these games, which was Wigan’s first ever game in the top flight, the attendances have been well under capacity. However, the population of Wigan is only around 80,000 and has a richer history as one of the major rugby league towns. I personally think that Wigan do well to muster 15,000 home fans for most games at their trim new stadium. Of course, a lot of their success has come as a result of the investment from Dave Whelan, their former footballer-turned chairman. In all of these games, I think Wigan hasn’t had the rub of the green. We have come away with six wins out of six and two games stick out. Firstly, that game on a balmy Sunday in August 2005…Chelsea as newly-crowned champions, Wigan as top-league debutantes. They made it tough for us, but that Crespo winner in the last minute gave us the points. Then, the second visit in December 2006 and another late winner, that time via the boot of Arjen Robben.

So, with our past history at Wigan and given our start to the season, I predicted another three points.

Judy ( yes, we are back together again…for those keeping score – our third attempt! ) was accompanying me for this weekend in the north-west. We set off at 9.45am and Judy slept on the drive north…I daren’t put the radio or music on in case it woke her. I was left alone with my thoughts. Only two weeks earlier, I had driven up this same route to the game at Stoke and memories of other trips up the M5 and M6 washed over me…

We booked into our hotel at just after 1pm and it was a hotel that I knew well. For a lot of our games in the north-west, my mates head for The Kilton Inn on the outskirts of Manchester. We first visited it on that fateful day in October 2004 when we suffered our only defeat of 2004-2005 at the hands of Manchester City – and Nikolas Anelka. Then – most memorably – Frank, Glenn and myself stopped off for a meal there before Bolton away in April 2005.

What a day in our history.

For that reason alone, I like returning. They do great food, too – as Jenni ( BlueBelle) will testify!

Judy didn’t fancy the game and rested at the hotel. This concerned me – since 1998, Judy has accompanied me to seven Chelsea games and her record is a perfect seven. I set off for Wigan wondering if we would miss my “lucky charm.”

As I turned off the M6, I spotted the very top of the stand supports of Bolton’s Reebok Stadium away in the distance.

2005 came back into my consciousness again – lovely.

There was a fair bit of traffic on the main approach into the town, but I was parked up soon after 2pm. I spotted a gaggle of young kids, each wearing Wigan shirts – one with his shirt festooned with players’ signatures – and it made me happy. Nice to know that not everyone young kid in the north-west supports United or Liverpool. There is hope. I had arranged to meet Elliott from the New York Blues, along with a few more mates, in the Queens Arms, but nobody was around. I decided to head on to the stadium where I knew my two away stalwarts, Alan and Gary, were already located. As I left the boozer, I bumped into Terry, a fan I first met in Norway ten years ago. We always have a nice natter and he used to run the West Midlands supporters club. I hadn’t seen him for a while. Well, he soon told me that he had a heart-attack soon after the Barcelona game in May. He missed the Cup Final and this game – a gentle start at friendly Wigan – was his first game since his heart attack. Phew. It made me think. He is a non-smoker and a non-drinker and keeps relatively fit. What pressures do we put on ourselves in this mad devotion to Chelsea?

I wished him all the best as he shot off to sort out some tickets.

With the weather overcast – sun down south! – I scrambled up the steps to where Alan and Gary were finishing off their pints. Soon into the stadium and I took up my position half-way back and with the near goal slightly to my left.

“A Town Called Malice” by The Jam was played on the loud and booming PA and I looked around to see a lot of fans in their forties singing along.

“Stop dreaming of the quiet life – it’s the one you’ll never know.”

We stood the entire game. We spotted the strangely sober – and sombre – Lovejoy a few rows behind.

Despite a promising start and a couple of free-kicks, our form soon dipped. Wigan went ahead when a corner was swung in for Titus Bramble. I saw that Mikel had left his position on the near post and muttered an obscenity. Bramble headed down and into the goal, the trajectory right towards me. We went to pieces. I said to Gary that we have gone behind on loads of occasions this season, but on this occasion, we couldn’t regroup and retaliate. As the first-half progressed, we seemed to get worse and Alan noted a few players bickering amongst themselves. We don’t usually do that and it was worrying to see. JT made a last-ditch challenge to prevent a goal and then Cech blocked from close range. Wigan had more attempts on goal than us and we were looking ragged. Our midfield were not combative and it was so unlike us. Mikel had a woeful first-half, but nobody shone.

There were no surprises when Juliano – who scored a belter at Wigan a couple of years back – replaced Mikel at the break.

How we laughed when Kirkland let Drogba’s flick go through him.

We were level – phew.

This joy was short-lived, though and Cech was harshly sent-off in our opinion. Was Rodallega not going away from goal and was there not a covering defender? Hilario took his place but couldn’t stop the penalty.

Groan.

We now had a hapless task ahead of us.

Despite winning 2-1, the home support remained pretty quiet. The only section which made any noise was a block of two-hundred, mainly youngsters, aided a bloody incessant drummer, away to my left. I turned to Alan and said that I had only just heard the last few days that since 2005, Wigan had not beaten any of the “top four.”

Ominous.

Judy – where are you girl?

We made some changes and the hapless Kalou came on, but struggled to fit in. Anelka seemed to be playing too deep. But it’s wrong to single anybody out – the whole team played below par. Our support was quiet too. JT played upfront for a good deal of the last twenty minutes, with Essien covering at the rear, but we hardly threatened. One shot from Kalou sailed over my head in Row 25.

Five minutes of added-time and we sensed a chance…keep going, boys!

Then – a Wigan break on our right and – Oh God – a third.

The news from Anfield, White Hart Lane and the Brittania Stadium heightened the gloom and I quickly exited the stadium. As I rushed to get back to my car, one sight made me see red.

I walked past two young Chelsea fans, giggling away, mobile phones in hand, chatting and smiling at each other. I had my “we lost – do not disturb” face on and their ambivalence to our plight made me sick.

Sigh.

I grumbled to myself about “the youth of today” and wondered how long my state of mild depression would last.

I was soon back at the hotel, some fifteen miles south, and Judy was shocked that we had lost. I shrugged it off – how mature of me! I had seen Chelsea lose hundreds of times. One more won’t make much difference.

After a meal, I drove up to Blackpool, that crazy working-class holiday resort on the Lancashire coast. We wandered around the seafront which was teeming with ugly northerners – hen parties with middle-aged women in schoolgirls uniforms, men in fancy dress, The Incredible Hulk and Scooby Doo, hot-dogs, candy floss, sticks of rock, bag-pipes, Freddie Starr on the pier, trams, the illuminations, the fresh autumn air.

Crazy town.

It took my mind off our loss, but only just. It had been a bad day at the office for Chelsea Football Club, but let us see how everyone reacts over the next two games.

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