Tales From High Above And Down Below

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 18 January 2020.

We reached Bristol Airport at 7pm on the Friday and we soon spotted three familiar Chelsea fans nestled together, pints on the go, awaiting the 8.50pm flight to Newcastle. One of them (from Weston – I think they are all from Weston) used to sit right behind me in The Sleepy Hollow for the best part of ten years, but I never got around to asking his name. We got to know the other two on a flight back from Newcastle in 2015, but again never got around to finding out their names. We joined The Weston Three for a last pint before take-off. All six of us were relishing the trip north. Newcastle is the granddaddy of all away trips. If Goodison is my favourite away stadium, Newcastle is everyone’s favourite away town.

Talk soon turned to previous trips and to mutual friends, and the usual smorgasbord of football banter. Not for the last time on this three-day trip to Tyneside would we be chatting about how we just can’t stop this addiction to travel, to watching live football – the drinking, OK the drinking – and the camaraderie. I mentioned that to many younger fans, football is watched on TV and tablet, in pub or at home, and the nearest involvement some get to active participation is by betting on accumulators.

Not for us. We love being balls-deep in live football. But compared to some, we are novices. Some fans seemingly take it to ridiculous extremes.

One of the Weston Three mentioned that he got to know a rabid Coventry City supporter, sadly now living in a hospice with not long to go, whose trips around England and Europe in search of live football took obsession to a new level. Very often this chap would find himself driving through the night in order to link up games, to meet kick-offs, to get grounds ticked-off the list. In order for this to take place as smoothly as possible, he had three cars parked at strategic places around England to help facilitate quick movement between airports and train stations.

“Bloody hell. I thought I had it bad.”

Parky, PD and I could hardly believe it.

It made my simple collection of the two of them in Frome at just after 6pm that evening pale by comparison.

The easyJet flight left on time, and we landed at Newcastle twenty-five minutes early at 9.30pm. We soon jumped into a sherbet dab, we were soon headed south, soon headed to the wonderful city on the Tyne.

It was superb to be heading over the Tyne Bridge once more.

We were back. At 10.15pm we were booked in.

“It’s bloody magic to be sat here in a lovely hotel in Newcastle on a Friday night, after a good week at work, with good mates, with a cracking weekend to look forward to. Cheers boys.”

To be honest, it felt extra special. I loved the fact that for once my driving only totalled an hour, up over the Mendips, so easy. And now it was time to relax. We could relax further when our pal Foxy, newly-arrived from Dundee, eventually joined us. It was the first time that we had seen him since Budapest in 2018. Since then his hair colour has changed from Russ Abbot ginger to Eminem blonde. It is always a joy to see him no matter where we are. He was down for the corresponding fixture last season too.

The “Becks Vier” was flowing nicely. But we wanted to keep it relatively “light” as we knew we had a heavy day of drinking ahead of us. Again talk was dominated by football fandom rather than plain football itself. Foxy is well-travelled, and he has a little jaunt over to – as he put it – see his “great Uncle Bulgaria” in a few weeks.

He has a Levski vs. CSKA derby lined-up, one of the hottest games in European football. He is going with a lad we both know at Chelsea, who we would later discover was staying in the very same hotel on the southern banks of the River Tyne. It was in fact, just a hundred yards from the apartment where we stayed for the last league game of 2017/18.

Talk of football games, of football cities, of football people, mutual friends, of excessive alcohol intakes.

A year or so back, Foxy and I were talking about going over to East Belfast to see a Glentoran game. Foxy has been a few times, and has even sponsored a game at their Oval ground.

“It’s braw, eh? Nae more than eighty pound. Food. And ye can get blootered. But it’s rough, eh? Efter the gemme, eh hed tae walk through a crime scene tae get tae the chippy.”

He had me howling.

Good old Foxy.

We were up at about 9am on the Saturday and after a leisurely breakfast, we walked over the Millennium Bridge from Gateshead on the south side to Newcastle on the north side. The idea was to hit a few pubs – maybe some new ones – before getting a cab up to St. James’ Park. My camera went into overdrive.

As with our last two visits we settled at “The Slug & Lettuce.”

Newcastle is set on two levels. The Bigg Market and the football stadium at the top of the hill, The Quayside way down below. It works as a city on more than these two levels, though. It has history in abundance, a real working class vibe cuts through it, cracking architecture, the night life is legendary, the locals almost too friendly.

I have said it before…”if I wasn’t a Chelsea fan.”

At bang on 11am, we got the first round in. We settled in a corner at the front of the spacious pub overlooking the river and the famous Tyne Bridge, and then waited for troops to arrive.

We spotted a couple who were sat in the row in front on the plane up. She was a Newcastle supporter, it was her birthday – her uncle was Ollie Burton, a name I can remember from my 1972/73 bubble gum cards, a Newcastle United and Wales player – and we had a giggle.

The day was off to a fine start.

We were then hit with an overwhelming bout of inertia. Different sets of pals from all over the Chelsea Kingdom – and beyond – came to spend time with us and we just decided to stay in the one boozer.

“So much for the pub crawl.”

Eck and his son from Glasgow, Julie from Stafford, Fiona from Bedfordshire, Mark and his family from Westbury, Luke and Aroha from Ruislip, Andy from Trowbridge, his Newcastle mate Russ – featured last season – from Swalwell, Gillian, Kev and Rich from Edinburgh, Kim and Andy from Kent, Sean from New York, Andy from California, Neil from Belfast, bloody hell it was never-ending.

In the middle of all this was an Everton supporter. Chris lives locally, but is a native of North Wales. He travelled up to a Sunderland vs. Everton game many years ago, met a local girl on the way to the game, fell in love and has remained ever since. I had not met him before. But he is the brother of my great Chelsea pal Tommie, who still lives in Porthmadog. Both Chris and Tommie have travelled to watch football in Buenos Aires in the past two years. And Chris has been giving me valuable insights – and his still usable Buenos Aires travel card from 2018 – over the past two months. It was a pleasure to see him, and to listen to his tales from Argentina.

“My first game was Chacarita Juniors. Everyone warned me not to go. Well rough. But I went. Didn’t regret it. Came out of the train station. And there’s a line of police with sub machine guns. And remember there are no away fans. I just kept my head down and avoided eye contact. I asked a local “stadio?” and he said “solo?” pulling a face as if to say “are you mad?” but it was OK. I got a ticket, I got in.”

Midway through the sesh, I realised I needed to slow down a little. Almost six hours of necking lager could easily leave me too light headed to be of use to anyone.

But damn those “Peronis” were hitting the spot.

The pub was quiet at 11am, by 4.30pm it was full.

Geordie lasses.

Say no more, like.

We caught two cabs up to St. James’ Park. A quick walk past the Alan Shearer statue, underneath the huge Milburn Stand, around to the lift. Up we went. I was clicking away as I walked, eager to capture the small pieces which help to build the whole picture.

The weather was cold but not unbearable. We were three thousand strong, as ever. With Rangers playing on the Friday night, there would no doubt be a few “Weegies” – as Foxy termed them – in our ranks.

This was my twelfth visit to St. James’ Park. A low number compared to many. But until the cheap flights turned my eye a few years back, this was often a game too far for me. It’s a dramatic stadium all right. The roof above seems to be floating in space. Everywhere is cool grey, maybe like the Earl Grey statue at the top of that fine Victorian street in the town centre.

The team lined up as below :

Arrizabalaga

James – Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Jorginho

Kante – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

It kind of picked itself I guess.

“Local Hero” is so evocative, so Newcastle, it always brings a smile. I like the way it has entwined itself into the St. James’ Park match day experience.

The game began.

As always, we attacked The Gallowgate in the first-half. Early on we were dominating and this is how it stayed. But this was all too familiar. Tons of possession, but with very few real chances of note. At times the frustration of Jorginho and Kante, looking for runners, was mirrored by the frustrations among the standing three-thousand behind the Leazes End goal. We were dominating play, but there seemed – already – no way through the massed ranks of Newcastle defenders.

The noise wasn’t great. I’ve never known the Geordies to be so quiet.

Unlike in the past two visits, at least all – or damned near – of the seats were occupied. The protests have seemed to have waned as Steve Bruce has cajoled his team into eking out results in a very pragmatic way.

Then, out of nowhere, Newcastle enjoyed a little spell of possession, and I wondered if our defenders might be caught out, such was their lack of prior engagement.

A punch from Kepa foiled one attack, the crossbar was the saviour soon after.

“Fucksakes Chelsea.”

A high shot from Tammy drew moans from our support. We all want him to succeed, but he just needs to work on the physical side of his game. He needs to toughen up. To ask questions of his markers.

Maybe he just hasn’t got it in his locker.

After a great pass by Reece James, a chance for Kante came to nothing, a weak shot at Dubravka.

And that was that.

My half-time notes on my mobile ‘phone were rather brief.

Reece James had showed willing, N’Golo Kante was full of running, but elsewhere it seemed that we were lacking drive and desire. And St. James’ Park was as quiet as fuck.

Some in our midst had sloped off for a cheeky half-time pint and would not return.

The second-half began, and Willian seemed to dominate the focus of my camera – always a photogenic target with his stops, starts, twists and shots – if not the game itself. As often, his dribbles and runs came to nothing. A few tentative shots whistled past defenders’ legs but also past posts. We were again dominating play, but hardly grinding them down to submission. They were hardly on the ropes.

It was, bluntly, a bloody rotten game of football.

And it was so quiet.

On seventy-minutes, Ross Barkley replaced the very poor Mason Mount. He kept the ball well, and for a few minutes it looked like that he might be able to unlock the door to the defence. I was really disappointed with the wing-play, or lack of it, from Callum Hudson-Odoi.

I lost count of the times I bellowed “get past yer man.”

A chance, of sorts, came Tammy’s way down below us but his off-balance stab ended up as a comical aside.

Reece James hobbled off, Emerson replaced him.

The ball was pumped into the box from out wide and Azpilicueta rose well to cushion a header into Tammy, but his lunge at the ball resulted in a brave save from Dubravka.

I would have liked to have seen Michy alongside Tammy, just to change things a little, but instead there was a straight swap.

By now, everything was grim.

One last chance maybe? A quick break, the ball fell to Emerson. A clear run, a clear sight of goal, but the powerful effort was always going wide.

Bollocks.

The home team had a rare effort on goal as the ninety minutes approached, but Joelinton miscued. It was, I am sure, their only chance of note in the entire second-half.

A 0-0 draw looked the obvious conclusion, the result of a dire ninety-minutes.

“No punch upfront, Gal. No zip. No runners. Nothing.”

Four added minutes were signalled.

I subconsciously began thinking about my first post-game pint.

Callum at last broke through a crowded box to the left of the goal as I watched, but crashed it over.

On ninety-four fucking minutes, fucking Newcastle won their fucking very first fucking corner of the entire fucking match.

Willian headed it out. It came in again.

Slow…motion…the cross…a leap…no Chelsea challenge…the ball was in…

Ninety-four minutes.

Newcastle United 1 Chelsea 0.

Fucking hell.

I was numb, as numb as I have felt for ages at football. How had we lost that? How was that bloody possible? They had defended well, but had created very little all game. It was as cruel a finish to a match that I can ever remember.

Ninety-four minutes.

Good grief.

I stood silent for what seemed too long. I could not comprehend it. I was wallowing in the misery of it all.

[inside my head : “at least it means I still care, I haven’t reached the dreaded next stage just yet.”]

Sigh.

A big sigh.

Others drifted away. I was shell-shocked, bamboozled, Loony-Tooned.

Fackinell.

I soon met up with Parky, with PD, with Foxy. By the time we had eventually descended the fourteen flights of stairs that took us to street level, it seemed that we were some of the last to leave the stadium. We found ourselves walking behind the old East Stand – I am that old that I can remember it as the most modern of the stands at St. James’ Park – and we eyed-up a burger van. While PD and Parky got their orders in, I took advantage of the lack of fellow spectators and took a few mood shots of the iconic concrete supports, which I have been meaning to photograph for a while. For all of Newcastle’s fine Victorian buildings, it is also infamous for its fair share of brutalist ‘sixties and ‘seventies architecture. Think “Get Carter” and the car parks and high-rises still visible today. The concreted pillar supports – like the unique concrete crush barriers of the old Gallowgate terrace – tie in with that era.

Back in the day, as the kids say, the little rat run from “The Strawberry” up to the away end, past those pillars, used to be termed “Suicide Alley.”

I can see why.

We made our way slowly down into the town, down into The Bigg Market.

The hamburger was superb by the way; £4 and the best of the season thus far.

The drinking continued, and after a few pints in three more gorgeous pubs in the heart of the infamous Bigg Market – “Filthy’s”, “The Beehive” and “Pumphrey’s” – we were back on track.

I even managed, God knows how, to get the number of a local girl, a local heroine maybe, but there was – just like with Chelsea Football Club at this moment in time – no instant gratification.

Some things don’t happen overnight.

The work in progress continues.

On Tuesday, Arsenal await.

I will see some of you there.

BLUE SKIES HIGH ABOVE THE QUAYSIDE

UP IN THE GODS AT ST. JAMES’ PARK

WAY DOWN BELOW

UNDERNEATH THE EAST STAND

Tales From A Walk In The Park

Coventry City vs. Chelsea : 3 March 2009.

Coventry.

What can you say about it? Apart from featuring in the opening line of “Football Factory” ( the book, not the film…), what is there to say?

A rather nondescript Midlands town, tagged onto the eastern side of Birmingham, badly bombed during the war, formerly the home to a sizeable automotive industry and formerly the home to a top flight footy team. I only visited Highfield Road about four times with Chelsea…City now play in a purpose-built stadium a few miles north of their former home.

I was pretty happy they defeated Blackburn in the last round as this meant a less-strenuous trip than another awayday in the North-West…it also meant a new ground for me.

I collected Lord Parky from Parky Towers at 8.45am and was soon heading up the old Roman Road of the Fosseway. I last drove along here en route to Hull in November and it’s a great road. Through some familiar towns, the chat never stopping – we spoke about alsorts, but never mentioned the game once.

Chelsea had 5,200 tickets for this game and they went like gold dust. Daryl, Ed, Alan and Gary were driving up from London. The time flew past and we were parked up in an “official park and walk” car-park at just after 11am. What with Parky on crutches and myself limping from my football injury, we looked a right couple of crocks. We decided to head straight into the stadium and get a couple of beers.I made the mistake of paying over-the-odds for a Wimpy burger with cheese…the picture above the counter gave the impression of a mouth-watering treat. The reality was far from it. There was a square inch of lettuce on the burger. Still, more fool me for buying it in the first place.

Into the bowl of the stadium and first impressions were favourable…a nice, clean stadium, spoiled only by the horrible beige paint used in and around the “corporate deck” of the main stand. Why not sky blue? The much maligned Jimmy Hill – player, chairman and TV presenter – put Coventry City on the map in the ‘sixties and made a great deal of the Sky Blue theme running through the club. Why the paintwork did not match the team’s colours seemed strange.

The atmosphere was OK, with 90% of the home support coming from “The Kids In The Corner Bit” to my right. They made a fair din to be fair, but our support more than matched them. Only in the second-half, with their spirits waning did “TKITCB” relent and turn their attentions to making aeroplanes out of the hundreds of sky-blue cards given out at the start of the game.

I had a good seat, right behind the goal.

What a lovely finish from Drogba to give us a 1-0 lead…a trademark goal from him. From there, we didn’t really look back and I never felt troubled. Coventry had a nice shape, but never really bothered us.

The addition of Quaresma added a bit more sparkle to our play and he capped a nice contribution with the pin-point cross which allowed Alex to thunder home.

Braziliant.

On the drive home, I tried my hardest to get the Quaresma name into a Que Sera Sera chant, but failed miserably – something to work on I guess.

Parky and myself listened to the opening exchanges of the Fulham vs. United game on our drive south…no surprises how that ended-up.

Home at just after 6pm, a nice early finish – and Chelsea into the FA Cup Semi-Finals.

I commented to Parky that when we reached the semis for the first time in my memory in 1994, it warranted a pitch invasion and wild hysteria…this was on the day that “The Blue Flag” first appeared at HQ. In 2009, on the final whistle at the Ricoh, I applauded briefly but hardly even smiled. That’s a shame – I should cherish these moments, but it just goes to show how far we have come as a club.

Juventus next!

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