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.

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Tales From A Lucky One

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 7 April 2012.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge just before 9am and we were soon on our way to collect Lord Parky. As I have said, my mind is full of the Spurs and Barcelona cup ties at the moment and I soon commented to Jake that I expected that the rest of the crowd at Stamford Bridge would be thinking along similar lines. I reluctantly added that I expected that there would be a resultant poor atmosphere. Parky was still suffering with his cold and the drive up to London was a little quieter than usual. I was pleased to be able to give Glenn’s semi-final ticket to Jake and he was very thankful. Jake is a new acquaintance and is full of youthful enthusiasm for Chelsea. Parky and I were asked for our opinions on all sorts of Chelsea-related subjects as we headed towards London. Jake wondered how many miles all of these pilgrimages to Stamford Bridge equate to. Although I wasn’t able to answer him there and then, the game against Wigan Athletic would be my 579th Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. That adds up to over 127,000 miles of travel.

This would be my 47th. Chelsea game of the season and Parky was keen to add that he is not far behind; Wigan would be his 40th. The 1-1 draw up at the DW stadium before Christmas was one of only two leagues game in which he was not alongside me, riding shotgun and talking nonsense.

The weather was nondescript, but the traffic quiet. I slapped on the Depeche Mode “Sounds Of The Universe” CD and the familiar tones of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore provided a nice backdrop as I drove on. Approaching the Hogarth roundabout, I was expecting traffic arriving for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race which would soon be taking place on the nearby River Thames. I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to drive on through unhindered. I was parked up at 11.15am.

The three of us walked straight down to the ground and soon met up with Gill and Graeme on the walk underneath the old Shed wall. I commended Gill on her refreshingly upbeat report on the Benfica game. We spent about two hours in the hotel bar and the time absolutely flew past. We shook hands with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti and waited for a few more friends to arrive. Mick the Autograph King was already there, to be soon joined by Beth and her friend Terri (!) – her first game at Chelsea – from Texas, then Jesus, then my good mate Alan. This was Alan’s first ever visit to the hotel bar on a match day as far as I could remember; he was with a friend called Richard and Richard’s young son Jake. This was a big day in Jake’s life – his first ever Chelsea game. He was bedecked in the white away shirt and had a lovely beaming smile. Alan had arranged for a photo of Jake to appear in the match programme and he soon had his photo taken with Chopper. Mike from NYC soon arrived and we chatted very briefly about Tour 2012 “logistics.” I spotted Kerry Dixon over by the bar and we all sauntered over to meet him and get photographs taken with the great man. By this stage, Trowbridge Jake had thanked me five times for getting him up to this area; he was clearly thrilled to be about to meet three of our greatest ever players. Jesus, too, loved it, though he admitted to me that he needed to sharpen up his Chelsea history. Jesus was relieved to be able to buy Graeme’s Arsenal ticket; Jesus had been busy at work when the tickets went on sale and hadn’t been too happy with himself.

All of us were trying to avoid Jesus / Easter jokes, but a few slipped through. I think we got away with it.

Jesus and the two Jakes descended to watch the Chelsea players walk through from their team briefing room to the Centenary Room. I stayed upstairs with Parky, but caught a few of the players from above –

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

It was 1.30pm now and we needed to move on. As we waited for Parky to join us, I noted two Chelsea fans wearing replica shirts over undershirts and I had a little conversation with Trowbridge Jake and Jesus about cockney rhyming slang.

“If my mate Rob was here, he’d say those two blokes had no Plymouth.”

“No Plymouth?”

“Yeah – Plymouth Argyle…style. No style.”

Jake’s late father was a Londoner and so knew exactly what I meant, but Jesus was left wondering, I think, what on Earth I was talking about. We dropped in for a very quick stop at the CFCUK stall, then plotted up at The Maltsers as none of us could be bothered to walk up to The Goose. Time was against us. One last pint, then further acknowledgement of what a lovely pre-match it had been. During the previous few hours, we had made plans for the meet ups for Fulham and Spurs. It was still surprisingly cold on the quick walk back to The Bridge.

Wigan wore the exact opposite of our home kit. Around 200 had made the journey down from Lancashire. I have no real catalogue of previous Chelsea vs. Wigan games to draw on, but there is, of course, one game which sticks out; the title decider on the final day of the 2009-2010 season.

Chelsea 8 Wigan Athletic 0.

One of the most joyful days in our history and our biggest ever league win. Magnificent. No more words are needed.

A quick scan of the line-up revealed many changes. Gary Cahill in for JT, Ryan Bertrand starting at left-back, with Essien, Meireles and Malouda in the midfield, Sturridge and Drogba recalled in attack.

After a nondescript start, the first real moment of interest took place on 19 minutes when the ball broke to Gary Cahill some 30 yards out. It seemed that thousands shouted “shoooooot” and our new defender soon took heed. A fine rising shot was ably palmed over by Al Habsi, one of the most under-rated ‘keepers in the division. In a matter of seconds, first Raul Meireles won a tackle and then Daniel Sturridge passed the ball to a team mate.

“Miracles never cease” exclaimed Alan.

“Well, it is Easter” I replied.

Wigan had two long range shots which didn’t really trouble Petr Cech. Soon after, a delightful turn from Didier Drogba had us all salivating, but his finish ended up just wide. Chances were rare and the atmosphere was eerily quiet.

In fact, I will go further. The atmosphere in that insipid first-half period was the worst I can remember in those 579 games.

Three late chances fell to Chelsea but we couldn’t capitalise. Juan Mata wriggled free to receive a ball from Drogba but shot at the ‘keeper. The rebound reached Drogba, but Didier’s header lacked both power and placement. It came straight at him though; he did well to connect in the first place. Then, a header from Drogba and a shot from Studge did not trouble Al Habsi.

It was hardly inspiring stuff and The Bridge remained morgue-like.

Alan quipped “we don’t need cheerleaders, we need a medium.”

The second-half began and the noise level increased a little. Alan and I always try our best, but it gets totally dispiriting after a while. One of these days, I may just give up completely and watch like the thousands of others.

Please take a gun to my head if this happens.

On 54 minutes, Mata worked the ball to Didier but his shot was saved from close in. Fernando Torres, a real crowd favourite now, came on for Malouda, despite Sturridge not really enjoying a great game. Just after, our first goal relieved some of the building tension inside The Bridge. A free-kick was cleared but an intelligent chip by Meireles was met by an on-rushing Ivanovic who poked home from close range. His first reaction was to glance at the linesman, but no flag was raised. He ran down to the corner flag below us and his team mates soon joined him. Texts from Philadelphia and Guernsey told us that we had got away with that goal. Phew.

A minute later, our talismanic Serbian saved the day when a rapid Wigan break resulted in a shot from former Chelsea starlet Di Santo being cleared off the line by Brana.

It was annoying to see an advancing Fernando Torres twice slip in almost the same place when clear of a defender. At no time did the crowd get on his back though; if anything the “Torres Torres” shouts grew louder. Didier Drogba set up Daniel Sturridge in the inside-left position, but his shot was slashed wide when the youngster really ought to have taken an extra touch.

What then happened really sickened me; Sturridge was booed.

His own fans in both tiers of the Matthew Harding booed him.

This hardly surprised me; it was noticeable that there were vast periods of the game when the Chelsea fans around me chose to sit on their hands and barely talk to each other, let alone actively cheer the team on. They were sat there like dummies. Then, as soon as an errant pass or miss-timed tackle took place, these same people were audible and noisy. It did my nut in.

Rather than move our support up a few notches, The Bridge reverted to type. With eight minutes remaining, Diame enjoyed an unhindered dribble at the heart of the defence and unleashed a fine shot which left Cech static.

1-1.

Moses came close for the visitors, the industrious Torres set up Kalou but the shot was wide.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, the crowd were buoyed. Could we go again?

Mata found Drogba down below me. Despite a packed penalty area, he lofted the ball delightfully to an unmarked Torres. Thankfully, he stayed on his feet this time and volleyed at goal. It was a beautiful thing; the timing was perfect as Torres kept his eye on the ball dropping before him, then hitting through the ball, keeping it down, following through perfectly.

To our disgust, the ball hit the base of the far post.

To our joy, the ball bounced up into the path of Juan Mata and the ball flopped over the line. Al Habsi’s desperate swipe was in vain.

2-1.

Torres could have added a goal at the death, but 3-1 would have flattered us further.

This was clearly a pretty poor performance against a surprisingly spirited Wigan team. We’re limping from game to game at the moment, but the last three games have produced three wins, engineered in a similar style; ahead, level, ahead. At least that shows spirit and desire.

Fulham on Monday evening, on the banks of the River Thames, will not be a walk in the park.

See you all there; we’re meeting at The Duke’s Head in Putney.

Mine’s a Peroni.

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Tales From The Roller Coaster

Wigan Athletic vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2011.

There were reports of snow “up North” on Friday and on my brief foray around Frome on Saturday morning, I noted areas of black ice. I will be honest; I briefly wondered about the validity of the long trek up to Wigan for the evening kick-off. What if there was a calamitous fall of snow while the game was taking place. Would I then be stranded in deepest Lancashire?

Parky had been suffering badly with a stomach bug all week and had pulled out of the familiar journey to the former mill town of Wigan. It was going to be a solo trip north, just like a few years ago, before His Lordship chose to accompany me on the majority of my Chelsea adventures.

So, in the words of Joe Strummer; shall I stay or shall I go?

At just after 11am, I set off for Lancashire but I added a clause. I would return south as soon as I hit any serious weather. The long trip filled me with a little foreboding, but I quickly tuned the radio to Five Live and settled in for a few hours of football chat. Part of the Saturday programme was being recorded live from the iconic Salford Lads Club, in the shadows of Old Trafford, and I was reminded of the time that Gumby and I visited this famous building prior to our game at United in 2006. Its most famous role in popular culture was as a setting for a photograph used inside The Smiths’ “The Queen Is Dead” album in 1986.

“The queen is dead boys and it’s so lonely on a limb.”

Without the detour to collect Parky, I headed through Peasedown, touched the southern edge of Bath and skimmed Bristol before hitting the motorway network. There were periods of rain showers but sunny intervals, too.

The constant football banter on the radio helped the time race by. The Malverns around Tewkesbury were dusted with snow. I stopped for a coffee at Strensham, surprisingly quiet for a change; I guessed that neither United nor Liverpool were at home. There was a delay signposted ahead and so I broke off the M6 and headed through Stoke for the third time this season. All of the adjacent fields were covered in a thin covering of snow here, too. I passed The Britannia Stadium and then, five minutes later, I spotted the more down-at-heel Vale Park, the home of Port Vale. I refuelled at Sandbach, and then listened to a few minutes from Newcastle, where a Welsh tenor sang a stirring version of “Bread of Heaven” before a moment’s applause for the memory of Gary Speed.

As I neared Wigan, I half-heartedly listened to the first half of the Blackburn Rovers vs. West Bromwich Albion match. The radio people were continually returning to the fact that three of the lesser lights in the North West’s footballing landscape were currently occupying the relegation spots. After victories at Bolton and Blackburn, I certainly hoped for a win at the DW stadium to wrap up a trio of wins in Lancashire this season. And yet…there was a bit of me that half-expected Wigan to beat us. Call it my Chelsea sixth-sense. After a euphoric win against the leaders, how “Chelsea” for us it would be to lose to a lowly team a few days later. Maybe I have just been a fan of this club for too long.

The slow traffic on the M6 had resulted in the 200 mile journey to Wigan taking four-and-a-half hours. The diet of football on the radio had eased me through the late morning and afternoon. Thoughts of the next round of the Champions League certainly helped too. In a whirlwind few hours on Friday, I had booked some time off work and sorted out a flight from my local airport at Bristol to Rome, where I am staying a night with Alan and Gary, before heading down to Naples for the game. If that doesn’t excite me, something is wrong. It is a great dichotomy that most of Chelsea’s fan base was praying for an easy draw on Friday, whereas the match-going loyalists were craving for a great trip. Never mind the opposition, let’s get a good country, a great city and a new team.

I missed out on the Milan game in 1999 and the Inter game in 2010 due to work commitments, so I was long overdue a visit to the Stadio Guiseppe Meazza with Chelsea, although I had visited the stadium for two Inter league games in 1987 and 1990. Napoli was a different matter. If I am being honest, Napoli was my number one choice heading into the draw. An iconic city in the mezzogiorno. The city of the camorra. The home to a passionate and misunderstood populace; all football mad and delirious for success. The team of Maradona and all that. I briefly visited Naples in 1988 and 1990 but only got the briefest of tastes. It was a city like no other in Europe; maddening traffic, street urchins, noise, motorcycles, poverty… a city clinging on to Europe.

I can’t wait to return.

I parked up in my usual place at 3.45pm and I quickly decided that pre-match drinks were out of the question. With a potentially long and tiring return journey to come, I wanted to stay as fresh as I could. There had been mixed weather on the trip up, but there were clear skies at Wigan. The sun was setting and the air was cold. I walked to the stadium and noted a few locals wearing Santa hats. The Pogues’ “Fairy tale of New York” was playing on the stadium PA. I spent a while taking photographs of the exterior of the stadium. My two loves of football and photography enable me to combine two passions and I take a shedload of photographs on any given match day.

That I am a lover of stadia helps too.

At a Chelsea away game, I’ll be the one taking photos of roof trusses, turnstiles, illuminated signs, balcony walls, goal nets, corner flags, floodlights and statues.

The DW is a pretty bland stadium, located next to a retail park to the south, with a disproportionately large car park to the north. It will win no prizes for stadia design, but acts as a suitable home to the town’s football and rugby league teams. This would be my seventh visit to the stadium with Chelsea – probably the only stadium where I have seen every single one of Chelsea’s games. My mate Steve had been texting me with news of my local team Frome Town throughout the day. The final score brought a smile to my cheeks on a cold day; the Robins had continued their fine away form with a 2-0 win at the sublimely named Swindon Supermarine. There is a definite disappointment that I will be otherwise engaged at The Bridge on Boxing Day when Frome Town host Dorset’s biggest non-league team Weymouth. A gate of between 750 and 1,000 is expected for that one. I would love to be there for that; Frome’s biggest home league game for decades.

Before the game, I met up with Gill and Graeme and took a few photos of the Chelsea team going through their pre-match drills. I looked hard for Fernando Torres but couldn’t spot him; I couldn’t believe that he wouldn’t start. The stadium took ages to fill up and at 5pm, the place only held around 3,000 people. I looked over to the side stand, where 400 noisy home fans were based and saw a nice banner; quite self-deprecating –

“We Come From Wigan And We Live In Mud Huts.”

During the last few minutes of the pre-game ritual, an old Christmas cracker from 1973 boomed around the stadium.

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I scrambled back to my allotted seat in row M just as Alan and Gary arrived.

“Hiya boys. Cold enough for ya?”

I was reminded of how steep the rakes of seats are at Wigan. I’m not sure how many we took to the game – maybe 3,500 at only £25 a pop – but the majority stood throughout.

I was wrong; Torres was on the bench yet again and Didier was playing. Lampard was in for the injured Ramires; no complaints.

This was a poor Chelsea performance on a bitter Lancashire evening. As the game developed, the Chelsea support grew more and more frustrated with our lack of desire and running. The songs were quite fragmented. I was expecting a full bodied reprise of “One Step Beyond” to be roaring around the away stand but I guess that particular song is difficult to replicate during a match.

Chelsea had most of the ball in the first-half, but that is to be expected. However, a John Terry thunderbolt after 15 minutes was the first meaningful attempt on goal. We’re still all waiting for John’s first ever blooter from outside the box; all of his Chelsea goals have been close range headers and prods from inside the box as far as I can remember. One day it will come; I have a feeling he is saving it for a Cup Final.

Oriel Romeu’s low drive, which was turned around El Habsi’s post, and a stooping header from Drogba represented our only other notable chances. Wigan, however, seemed content to soak up the pressure and hit us on a few breaks. Several contentious refereeing decisions which went against Wigan raised the hackles of the home support. Ivanovic, especially, was lucky not to have been penalised for a handball. A few nervous Cech clearances brought howls of complaint from the Chelsea faithful. At times our play was staid and unimaginative. Sturridge had started enthusiastically, but faded as the game developed. At times our midfield were like statues. In the last move of the half, a Wigan break resulted in a ball whipped across the box, just a few yards away from us all, which evaded everyone. A simple Wigan lunge was all that was required.

At the break, Gary summed it all up –

“Come on, we’re fcuking 5hit.”

At the break I bumped into Burger and Julie; they are excitedly bound for Italy on their first ever Chelsea European adventure.

I think we were all surprised that Oriel Romeu was substituted at the break. On came Kalou and I never really managed to work out who was playing where. Sometimes the raw emotion which I feel at games hinders my ability to fully understand subtle changes to team shape and methodology. We attempted to sing our support, but – like the team – that was disappointing, too. Kalou was soon involved and his typically tricky, heart-in-the-mouth, “he’ll lose the ball in his next kick” run into the box found Drogba, who prodded the ball into the side-netting with the outside of his foot.

On the hour, a great cross from Ashley Cole found Daniel Sturridge out on the edge of the box, just to my left. With a lovely move, he brought the ball down and despatched the ball into the net with his right foot.

The Chelsea support heaved a sigh of relief, I took a few blurry photographs of Studge’s celebratory stance and Alan and I did our usual “THTCAUN & COMLD” post goal routine.

Phew.

Rather than grow on this, we retreated into our collective shell, allowing Wigan several long range shots. The defence were looking decidedly shaky too, with several errors causing gasps and gulps amongst the 3,500 away fans. Our support grew more and more tense. The Wigan fans in the corner, the brave 400 from the mud huts, kept singing though. The rest of the home crowd was so quiet, but at least that corner section kept going. Fair play to them.

I could hardly believe that Torres couldn’t get on the pitch. Malouda and Mikel came on, but added nothing. Torres, bless him, must be wondering what he has to do. Was AVB’s plan to save him for Thursday? Highly unlikely.

And then it happened. It all unravelled before us in agonising “we’ve seen it all before” slow motion. A break down the right; Ivanovic out of position, trying to cover, but failing. A cross come shot spilled by Cech and a Wigan player pounced.

1-1.

Expletive deleted.

AVB’s uncharacteristically cautious approach almost paid off, but as Ruud Gullit once said “football is all about small moments” and our game at Wigan boiled down to Petr Cech not being able to gather that shot on 86 minutes. A header over the bar from a Wigan attack saved us further embarrassment and it remained 1-1.

The final whistle blew and my only thought was to get back to the car. Standing all game, my legs took a while to jump to life. My knees especially hurt like hell. I got back to the car in just 15 minutes and I wish that our players had shown similar urgency.

This seemed like a loss.

Despite stopping off for the usual Chelsea away day combination of carbohydrates and caffeine at Keele Services, I managed to return home in just three and a half hours. I won’t say it flew by, but with music from Everything But The Girl, Depeche Mode, Sex Pistols and Echo and The Bunnymen, I was at least I able to try to avoid thinking too hard about those dropped points.

But it was difficult to ignore.

Everyone had underperformed, to be honest. I do not relish the role of critic – my job is to support – but the manager made some strange decisions and our players were lackadaisical. I remember saying a few weeks back that this season will be a roller-coaster and the events of Saturday 17th. December have clearly not changed my opinion.

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Tales From A Love Affair Rekindled

Chelsea vs. Valencia : 6 December 2011.

This is Chelsea’s ninth consecutive season in which we have competed in the Champions League. On all other eight occasions, we have qualified for the knockout phase. Our first season was in 1999-2000, but we then dipped-out for three seasons before qualifying again in 2003, just in time for Roman Abramovich to join the party. Way back in our inaugural season, which began with that pulsating 0-0 draw with Milan at Stamford Bridge in September 1999, the format was different with two group phases. In that campaign, we advanced from both group stages to eventually lose to Barcelona in the quarter finals. Every autumn for the past nine years, our football fixture list has been speckled with foreign names and it has been a wonderful period. Of course, we have been the nearly men of European football in these seasons, with heroic failures, unjust refereeing decisions and plain bad luck holding us back from the ultimate prize in club football. However, in our tenth Champions League season, we had a proud record to uphold; we had never failed to get out of the first round of matches.

Parky and I were in no doubt that we would prevail against Valencia. Failure was simply not an option.

Within a few minutes of joining the traffic on the eastbound carriageway of the M4, the weather became atrocious. There was rain and there was mist. There were low lying clouds and there was spray from the cars in front. At one point, the horizon was not able to be perceived. I was simply driving into a mass of grey.

I was relishing this match at Chelsea. Work was behind me and I could relax. But this weather was a pain.

We spoke briefly of the game.

“Surely Lampard and Torres will start, mate.”

But then we spoke of other things and the time passed quickly. We joined the mass of cars making the final slow approach into London. At Chiswick, the Porsche garage was having an open evening and we spotted a band of musicians setting up some instruments to provide entertainment for the moneyed customers. Leggy blondes were teetering on high heels, offering champagne.

It made me realise how affluent parts of London have become.

Parky and I made a few jokes and pressed on.

After three hours of battling the inclement weather and the heavy traffic, we joined the regulars in the decidedly working-class Goose pub, right on the crossroads of the North End Road and Lillee Road. The place seemed quiet. We soon got the drinks in – a pint of lager apiece. Time was against us, though. Only time for the one, rapidly quaffed in 15 minutes, amidst chat with a few mates about the night’s upcoming game.

“No Lampard and Torres, mate.”

At 7.15pm, I set off for The Bridge.

At 7.43pm, I was in, just as the Champions League anthem was echoing around the packed Stamford Bridge stadium. I couldn’t evaluate how The Goose was so quiet, yet the ground was full. I guessed that there were fewer regulars and less locals at the game – but more tourists. No doubt that tourists are more likely to spend a pre-match in the immediate high end bars around the stadium and are unlikely to venture up to the hardened end of the North End Road, amongst the Polish food stores, the Ethiopian cafes, the discount shops, the second-hand furniture stores and the launderettes.

Our pre-match habits are long engrained and we don’t often venture too far from The Goose. We know which side our bread is buttered. But I’ve often thought that it would be good to experience a few more boozers in and around HQ. To be honest, we would, if it wasn’t so expensive.

Alan reminded me that the Valencia players were wearing plain white shirts, with no commercial adornments. We made up for it with an extra line of text – “Right To Play” – beneath our rather large numbers on the backs of our home jerseys. I can’t say that I find this aesthetically pleasing to be honest.

The game began amidst vibrant support from the home stands.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

“Chelsea” – clap, clap, clap.

And what an opening few minutes. Daniel Sturridge, again deployed in the wide right berth, played in a ball to Didier Drogba. He laid off the ball to Raul Meireles, in the Lampard role arriving on time on the edge of the box. He unleashed a powerful drive which was well saved by the Valencia ‘keeper Diego Alves. Right after, Juan Mata did well to recover a ball from Studge down inside the Shed penalty area. He played the ball back to the waiting Didier Drogba who had time to take an extra touch and coolly placed the ball into the goal.

After just three minutes, we were 1-0 up and boy it felt good.

Just after, it was Valencia’s turn. Jordi Alba’s run beat our offside trap and his angled drive thudded against Petr Cech’s near upright.

We had been warned. This was a lively game, with lots of running and intelligent passing. David Albelda tested Cech with a long drive, but our ‘keeper managed to claw it away at full stretch.

We had been warned again.

Midway through this pulsating half, Drogba at his finest. A ball was played up to him inside his own half and he leapt well, bringing the ball under his control before spinning away from his markers, bludgeoning through the opponent’s defence and laying a divine ball into the path of Ramires. Our lithe Brazilian advanced, shrugged off a challenge and swept the ball into the net with the ‘keeper stranded.

We had a lovely purple patch towards the end of the first period, with Mata at the heart of our best moves. Sturridge, wide on the right, was often involved but his final ball often lacked purpose. But I felt for him; he’s not a winger. We continue to be a mix-match of personalities in positions which are often unfamiliar. We are in search of a new methodology and we’ll get there eventually.

With the crowd buoyed by the two goals, the atmosphere was louder than usual – at times – this season. We were playing well and in a moment of clarity in this season of change, I settled on the opinion that if we were changing our personnel, let us have some fun and some goals along the way. In the seasons when Chelsea habitually won nothing, the least we desired was entertainment. We can’t say we haven’t been entertained this season, can we? High-scoring games, tons of goals and a thousand talking points.

A right royal blue roller-coaster of a season lies ahead.

Yes, the first-half belonged to Chelsea and I saw some nice positives in our attacking play, but a few nervous errors from Ivanovic at the back. Luiz was thankfully on the fringes. I’m still not sure about him. Sturridge and Meireles had additional chances, but Valencia managed a share of the ball.Thankfully, we kept their forward thrusts to a minimum. The away fans seemed to be pretty subdued.

John Dempsey was on the pitch at half-time and he got a warm reception from the Stamford Bridge crowd. The Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra” gave way to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” and I was transported to ‘eighties America, all naff denim and big hair.

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After the break, Valencia kept plugging away but the most clearcut chances fell our way. A Drogba free-kick whistled past a post. A lovely ball from the maturing Oriel Romeu released the speedy Sturridge, but his shot was saved. On the hour, I suddenly realised that Valencia were enjoying their most dominant spell of the game.

The Chelsea supporters were hushed and nervous. Both Alan and I joined in with every slight sniff of a supportive chant, but we were in the minority. Feghouli slammed a ball at the Chelsea goal on 62 minutes, but Petr Cech threw himself at the ball and made a superb save.

Mikel replaced the effervescent Ramires and this decision was met with a few boos and catcalls.

The old standard was sung heartily for a few moments –

“Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea, Come On Chelsea.”

Next, it was the turn of a rampaging Drogba, released by Sturridge, to bear down on goal with nobody chasing him. Maybe he had too much time, but he took an extra touch and his shot went wide. He lay prostrate on the ground for a few seconds, exhausted with his physical exertions. As he got to his feet, the Matthew Harding serenaded the Ivorian and it was clear that there was a rediscovered love for this most complex of characters.

This was his night. The Drogba of old.

Twisting into space, battling and fighting, then sprinting away from attentive foes.

Fearsome stuff.

Then, some interplay betwixt the two sets of fans, with the home fans answering the cries of the visitors.

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

“Valencia!”

“Chelsea!”

Soon after, Mata played in Drogba and the night’s hero calmly drew the ‘keeper before rolling the ball into the waiting net.

The place erupted and I watched as Drogba raced over to my corner of the pitch. He gestured “thanks” to Juan Mata, posed in a typically iconic stance and then was engulfed by his relieved team mates. It was a lovely moment.

We could sigh a massive breath. We had ridden the storm and we were through. Over in Belgium, we had heard that Genk were helping us with a goal against Ballack’s Leverkusen, but then the news came through of an equaliser.

It did not matter.

Malouda and Torres were late substitutions, but their contributions were of no importance. Another great save from Petr Cech – low down, on the line, from a header – simply reinforced the feeling that this was our night.

This was a great game. I really enjoyed it. Valencia were no mugs. It reminded me of recent seasons in Europe when our will to win always seemed to carry us through. I was very impressed with Romeu, Meireles and Ramires in the midfield. Mata again was involved everywhere. In one memorable moment, both wingers were overlapping each other on the right flank. Never has a left winger been given so much licence to roam wherever he likes. Sturridge drifted out of the game, but he shows great promise. The defence was solid, John Terry the star. Petr Cech had one of his best games for ages.

But the main man – the terror of the Valencia defence – was the number eleven.

Welcome back Didier.

We have missed you.

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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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