Tales From Dixie Land

Chelsea vs. Everton : 7 December 2019.

Not long in to the long drive north for our game at Everton, I admitted to PD and Parky about my thoughts :

“Of course, we can’t really be sure how this one is going to go.”

Despite Chelsea sitting in a pretty decent fourth place, and with Everton having just sacked their manager Marco Silva, Goodison Park has been a tough place for us over the last decade. Additionally, we have been limping along of late and have struggled to find consistency. Everton, under caretaker manager Duncan Ferguson, would be fired up. It was, in my mind anyway, a difficult result to predict.

The journey from rural Somerset to urban Merseyside was completed in a very good time; a little under four-and-a-half hours. At just after 10.30am, I was at the large car-park in Stanley Park, a quarter of a mile from the towering main stand at Anfield, where the league title looks increasingly like residing in May. We walked through the park, and I found it difficult to believe that we were last in this particular part of the world almost two years ago, just before Christmas, when we ended-up walking back to my car in the same car-park after a dismal 0-0 draw. Last season – last March, St. Patrick’s Day, a 0-2 loss – we had travelled to and from our hotel near Lime Street via cabs.

It would be my twentieth visit to Goodison Park, and as many know, this particular stadium at the northern end of Stanley Park is easily my favourite away venue in domestic football. While PD – Bullens Road, Lower – and LP – Bullens Road, Upper – made the short walk to the away turnstiles, I had a little time to kill before kick-off, so had a customary wander. For certain, I was in no need of alcohol since I wanted to remain fresh for the return journey later that day. I had been awake well before the 5am alarm. The day, for me anyway, was all about staying alert for the demands of the road.

I soon found myself at the Dixie Dean statue. It is a formidable structure and depicts the legendary Evertonian as a strong and determined individual, his eyes focussed and with a fist clenched. His record of 349 league goals in just 399 league games for Everton is one of the greatest records in English football. Growing up as a boy, my father – who was not a football fan at all, really – would often talk of Dixie Dean. He was the superstar of the inter-war years. I always liked the fact that his haul of 60 league goals in 1927/28 was matched by Babe Ruth’s haul of 60 home runs in 1927 for the New York Yankees. Both were the superstars of their eras. And I thought that both records would never ever be beaten. The Ruth record has been surpassed, but Dixie Dean’s sixty will surely stand forever. I took a few photographs of the area, which is backed by plaques commemorating the seven Everton players who were killed in the two World Wars. There were bouquets of flowers at the base of the statue, and it was the focus for many of the match-going fans.

I disappeared off, past the Everton club shop, and headed over to Walton Road where I hoped to meet up with a Chelsea mate of mine and his Everton-supporting brother, but they were delayed en route. Instead, I made my way back to Goodison, passing the Everton Community School, which has enjoyed much success in the local area in recent years. I spotted a long-haired lad knocking a ball against an end of terrace brick wall, the outline of a goal white-washed against it. These sort of scenes are rare in England these days. Ball games are usually not allowed. It was a pleasing sight. I almost wanted to join in. It brought back memories of me endlessly kicking a tennis ball against the large expanse of wall opposite my house in my home village, honing my timing, my technique – and my silent commentary.

“Hollins, outside to Cooke. To Osgood. Goal!”

As always, I circumnavigated Goodison Park, and was very pleased to spot a new addition since my last visit. On a wide pavement outside the famous church of St. Luke The Evangelist stood statues of Howard Kendall, Colin Harvey and Alan Ball, Everton’s “Holy Trinity.” It is sensational. I love that it might resemble three fans heading along Goodison Road from a distance, but once close, it becomes apparent that the figures are footballers.

I took some photographs. It was again the focus of much attention from Evertonians.

I remembered how, on my second visit to Goodison Park in the winter of 1986/87, I had walked not more than ten yards away, along the pavement, alone, and had immediately regretted my choice of jacket. A little group of scallies had scuttled past me and one hissed :

“That jacket is so fuckin’ red.”

I thought I was in for some grief, but nothing came of it. Just a little later, some younger lads started talking to me – much to my annoyance, I thought they were spotters – but I managed to avoid any trouble. I remember they spoke about getting in at Everton under the turnstiles, or by often using some free tickets that someone at the club gave them. They were at first an irritating gaggle of kids – they must have been around fourteen or fifteen – but as I chatted to them, they were just keen to talk to me about football, despite me being on guard.

“What’s your firm called?” I remember one kid asking me.

I pleaded ignorance. I didn’t fancy getting slapped by his elder brother, possibly lurking around a corner.

Later that season, a month or so later, I bumped into the very same group of four or five kids at Anfield for the away game against Liverpool. One of them recognised me.

“Alright, mate?”

I smiled but kept my head down.

Merseyside in 1986 was a tough gig.

The welcome from Evertonians in 2019 was a lot cheerier.

A chap in his ‘sixties moved so I could take a photograph of Alan Ball. I thanked him and said “great statue, that.”

He replied :

“We could do with them today.”

We both smiled.

I had timed my ritualistic pre-amble to perfection and was inside the historic Bullens Road stand with about a quarter of an hour to spare. I could not resist some photographs of the blue and white interior. Once up in the Upper Tier, the wooden floorboards hint at its antiquity. It is a magical place, a great perch from which the full glory of Goodison Park is visible down below.

Those Chelsea supporters who boorishly talk about Goodison Park being a “shit hole” can never, ever, be true friends of mine.

Opposite, the main stand, a double-decked behemoth, acted as a quick reminder of my childhood when its towering presence used to enthral me as I watched the Everton players on TV. In those days – “oh bollocks, here he goes again” – I used to love the idiosyncratic nature of many football grounds. Each one imbued its own personality on the clubs. In fact, the two were one of the same.

Everton was Goodison.

United was Old Trafford.

Arsenal was Highbury.

I thought back on the variety of stands opposite the TV gantries.

The multi-span roof at Molineux.

The trim art deco stylings of the East Stand on Avenell Road at Highbury.

The low pitched roof of the Kemlyn Road Stand, with its line of floodlights above, at Anfield.

The low, small stand at Filbert Street.

The huge and brooding Kippax terrace – a rarity in itself – along the side of the pitch at Manchester City.

The structured modernity at Old Trafford; terrace at front, seats in the middle, executive boxes at the rear.

The tightness of the small structure at The Dell.

It is such a shame that these individualistic beauties have, by and large, been replaced by tiers of seating in lookalike rebuilds. Thankfully, Goodison Park remains (but not for too much longer) and its two Archibald Leitch stands became the early focus of my attention as the game progressed.

Kick-off time approached. Time for one of the highlights of modern day Chelsea away days.

“Z Cars.”

I love it. I fucking love it.

I beamed a very wide smile.

Chelsea were unchanged from the Aston Villa game on the previous Wednesday.

Arrizabalaga

James – Christensen – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Kante

Kovacic – Mount

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

Chelsea in black, black, bright orange.

There were more than a few empty seats in the Upper Tier. Everyone was stood.

The game began.

In the very first few minutes, a couple of loose passes from Dave had a few supporters mumbling and grumbling. But Mason Mount looked busy and involved, running into pockets of space. As a ball was worked out to our right and a pull-back followed, I imagined an Ivanovic or a Costa thumping the ball in for an early lead. It was a promising start. But then, a full scale calamity. We gave up possession way too easily and Everton were all over us like a rash. They moved the ball quickly and purposefully, and we were – cliché warning – chasing shadows. The ball reached their right wing, under the towering double-decker, and Djibril Sidibe punched a fine cross into our box and it was met by the free leap of Richarlison. Our centre-backs were absent without leave.

Only five minutes had been played.

“Oh for fuck sake.”

Chelsea tended to dominate possession, but with little danger to Jordan Pickford in the Everton goal. Everton seemed a little more dangerous on the rare occasions they had the chance to hurt us. There was more space in our defensive third than theirs. A cross from Walcott just evaded Richarlison and there was a save from Kepa from an Everton shot on goal. But we had moments when we looked half-decent. In the middle of the first-half – if not mirroring the purple patch against Villa, perhaps a lavender or violet patch – we started to build a little momentum. Willian managed a few forceful dribbles out of our half, and there was some reasonable linking together of passes. One textbook breakaway down our right came to nothing, and on more than one occasion it felt that we were too frightened to pull the trigger on goal.

Pulisic was on the periphery. I heard a million voices in the US shout the exact same thing :

“Shoot the ball!”

The highlights of the first-half involved our two best players.

N’Golo Kante stretching, but able to cushion a ball into the path of a team mate with just the correct amount of weight. Just perfection.

Mateo Kovacic fighting like a demon for the ball as he kept possession during an extended dribble, even after running into defenders, showing great spirit and determination. It was like something from another era.

As the second-half began, I admitted to Gary “it’s strange not seeing Hazard down below us at this ground, twisting and turning.”

After just two minutes of the half, further catastrophe. I had commented to Gary that it was good to hear the Evertonians applaud Kurt Zouma’s defensive clearance in the first few seconds of the half. He was well-liked at Goodison last season. And yet it was his far-from-convincing hoof into the air which caused panic in the heart of our defence. Christensen and Zouma took it in turns to fall over themselves as the ball fortuitously fell at the feet of Dominic Calvert-Lewin (more a bespectacled member of the clergy than a footballer) and we watched, horrified, as he thumped the ball in from close range.

It felt like we had shot ourselves in the foot yet again. Two goals in the first five minutes of each half.

Bollocks.

No way back from this?

It certainly felt that way.

And yet just a short period of time followed – three minutes – and we were miraculously back in it. A raiding Kante touched the ball to Azpilicueta. His intended pass to Willian was cleared, but it reached Kovacic some twenty-five yards out. His low shot was supremely well-placed. It nestled in the bottom corner with Pickford well beaten.

Game on.

There had been a VAR check for both second-half goals, but both stood.

“ZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ.”

We continued to dominate the game, and I think it would be safe to say that most of us expected an equaliser at some stage. But we just lacked the final touch. And the noise in our section wasn’t great to be honest. Theo Walcott’s pace had the beating of Kante on one occasion, but then our little prince fared better in a second duel.

But Alan wasn’t impressed.

“Walcott’s had more dribbles than Stephen Hawking.”

There were efforts from Kovacic, from Mount, a drive from outside the box from Christensen. As the game continued, our exasperation increased. Another shot from Mount, a flash from Azpilicueta that was finger tipped over by Pickford.

On seventy minutes, Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced Willian.

On eighty-two minutes, Michy Batshuayi replaced Reece James.

Frank played with two up top.

Sadly, the game was decided with eighty-four minutes on the clock. Kepa tried to find Zouma but his long pass was poor. Theo Walcott collected it, and found Calvert-Lewin. I immediately growled. This looked dangerous. A back-heel from him found Tom Davies, a substitute, and as he stumbled Calvert-Lewin pounced to stab home the loose ball.

Everton 3 Chelsea 1.

Fackinell.

Despite a day of rainbow flags, rainbow armbands and rainbow laces, the Park End then sang about rent boys.

Original, eh?

The game ended.

The home crowd roared “Duncan, Duncan Ferguson” and I thought back to the “dogs of war” team of his era when players like Barry Horne, Dave Watson and Paul Rideout showed no mercy in every game they played. It was a similar performance from the home team on this occasion.

There was the shaking of heads and the pursing of lips in the Bullens Road. It was another strange one. A game of defensive lapses, and a game of goal-shy forwards. Pulisic was lightweight and had a shocker. The defensive four were individually poor and collectively worse. Kante and Kovacic shone like beacons. The game passed Tammy by. And our support wasn’t great.

I spoke to a couple of mates.

“Didn’t seem like a 3-1 game.”

And it didn’t. We weren’t too far away from a draw, but a loss was sadly predictable. We have now lost three of the last four league games. And we play Lille at home in the Champions League on Tuesday, a game that might well affect our self-confidence over the next three months.

We walked back to the car, a little downbeat, but a little pragmatic too.

“Frank is still testing his ideas, testing his thoughts on the best formations, the best mix of players. It’s still a work in progress.”

The escape route out of Stanley Park, down Utting Avenue, past the Liverpool pennants on the lamp posts, and onto Queens Drive was the quickest ever. Maybe the Evertonians were still ensconced in Goodison celebrating their surprising win.

I made good time on the way home, yet I missed a turning from the M6 and down onto the M5. I found myself driving past Villa Park – on the day that their former boss Ron Saunders passed away – but still had time to head over to “The Vine” at West Bromwich which is one of the most famous football pubs in the UK.

Chicken jalfrezi, mushroom rice, peshwari naan.

It took my mind of the football. Just.

I reached home at about 8.30pm, but found myself falling asleep during the “MOTD” coverage of our game. It was probably just as well.

Later, I looked at the record of my twenty visits to Goodison Park. It made for sobering viewing.

The first ten games : 1986 to 2011.

Won 5

Drew 5

Lost 0

The last ten games : 2011 to 2019

Won 2

Drew 1

Lost 7

It has become, ridiculously, a huge bogey ground for us.

Right.

Tuesday.

Lille.

See you there.

Tales From The Banks Of The Royal Blue Mersey

Everton vs. Chelsea : 14 September 2013.

At last the universally despised international break was over and I had my sight set on a Chelsea away day. Over the last few seasons, I have eventually concluded that a trip to Everton’s Goodison Park is my favourite of them all. As increasing numbers of stadia that I grew up with fall by the wayside – The Dell, The Baseball Ground, Highfield Road, Maine Road, The Victoria Ground, Highbury, Ninian Park – or become modernised, and sanitised – Upton Park, Villa Park, White Hart Lane, St. Andrews – there is one old school stadium that defies logic and continues to shine. I have shared my love of Goodison Park on many occasions before, so without going over old ground – no pun intended – I will only say at this stage that Goodison Park, or as the Old Lady as Evertonians refer to it, was dominating my thoughts as the build-up to our first league game in almost three weeks drew nearer.

In addition to seeing the boys play – oh, how I have missed them – I would be wallowing in my own particular and personal slice of football history once again.

The 5.30pm kick-off allowed me plenty of time to plan my day. The intention was to park-up near the Pier Head, where ferries departed in decades past, and amble around the Albert Dock area. I’ve visited both the Maritime Museum and Tate Liverpool on previous football expeditions to Merseyside; I was hoping for a relaxing pint in a pub or bar overlooking the revamped riverside, rather than the usual pint of fizzy lager in a plastic glass in “The Arkles” opposite Anfield, which is my usual routine for Everton.

At just after 10.30am, I was on my way; on the royal blue highway once more. This would be my thirteenth visit to the stadium at the bottom of the gentle slope of Stanley Park. I missed last season’s encounter. In 2011-2012, it was a terrible performance under Villas-Boas. The defeat on the last day of 2010-2011 was remembered for the brutal sacking of Ancelotti.

At 11am, I collected Lord Parky. It was a lovely moment – and long overdue. For all of last season, my away trips were solitary affairs. Apart from the pre-season friendly at Brighton and the Community Shield game at Villa Park, the last time Parky accompanied me to a standard away game was in April 2012 at Arsenal.

Back in the days when England’s capital city had no European Cup to its name.

This would only be my fourth trip the north-west during season 2013-2014. In recent years, the area was very well represented; Premier League regulars Blackburn Rovers, Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic were augmented by single-season stays from Burnley and Blackpool. It seemed that I was heading north on the M6 every month in those days. Now, only the big hitters from Manchester and Liverpool remain. In fact, during this season, there is perhaps the largest spread of cities for decades within the top flight; Swansea and Cardiff to the West, Liverpool and Everton to the North West, Newcastle and Sunderland to the North East, Hull and Norwich to the East and Southampton to the South. We only need Plymouth Argyle and Carlisle United to join us and all extremities within the football landscape will be covered.

I backtracked through Bradford-on-Avon, skirted Bath and then headed north. It was brilliant to be back on the road alongside His Lordship once again. However, once on the M4, we were held up for a good thirty minutes as the traffic was reduced to a crawl. After stopping for a coffee at Strensham, and with signs on the M5 warning of even more delays on the M6, I soon realised that our trip down to the banks of The Mersey before the match were probably needing to be curtailed. This was a shame, but there is always next year…and the year after.

Throughout the previous week, one song kept bouncing around my head. It had acted like a constant reminder of where I would be on Saturday, a football metronome, ticking away, keeping me focussed. Let me explain. After a New York Yankees game last summer, I got chatting to three Evertonians in my favourite bar on River Avenue in The Bronx. It was my last night in NYC, my beloved Yankees had walloped the Red Sox and I was in no mood to retire to bed. The beers were flowing and the chat soon turned from baseball in the US to footy in England. The father had been living in Manhattan for twenty years and his two sons were over to visit him. The youngest lad was typically wearing a Lacoste polo. After a while, it was decided to continue the drinking session in a bar down on East 23rd Street, way down in Manhattan. We hopped into a cab – there were five of us in total, including a bemused local, struggling to understand our quick-fire conversations in unfamiliar accents – and the chat turned to football songs. I made the point – as politely as I could – that Everton were not known for their wide and varied songbook. I remember serenading them with “The Shed Looked Up” and they responded; I was expecting “It’s A Grand Old Team To Play For.”

Instead, the father belted out a song which was completely new to me, and the two sons joined in with gusto.

“Oh we hate Bill Shankly and we hate St.John.

But most of all we hate big Ron.

And we’ll hang those Kopites, one by one, on the banks of the royal blue Mersey.

To hell with Liverpool and Rangers too.

And we’ll throw them all in the Mersey.

And we’ll fight, fight, fight, with all our might for the boys in the royal blue jersey.”

This was rounded off, nicely, with a rousing –

“Kopites are gobshites, Kopites are gobshites!”

I approved. As the drinking continued, we spoke continually about our two favoured teams, buoyed by beer and a mutual dislike of Liverpool. The big moment in the lives of the two sons was the 1995 F.A.Cup win versus the equally despised Manchester United. I sensed a tone of jealousy in their voices when they heard me talk of our recent successes, but I kept telling them – probably to the point of exhaustion – that there really was “no need to be jealous of others. Your team is your team. Relish every goal, every win.” It was a lovely night. One more thing; the father kept referring to me as “Chris, la” which I found to be particularly endearing and authentic. They were good people.

After turning off Queens Drive and up Utting Avenue, with the bright stands of Anfield at the top of the hill, I deposited £8 in the hands of a local at the official car park in Stanley Park. It was 3.45pm. The journey north had taken me over five hours. We avoided “Arkles” and headed towards Goodison. Lord Parky soon disappeared inside for a few beers and to his seat in the lower tier of the Bullens Road.

With my trusty camera at the ready, I had other ideas.

I took a leisurely hour to slowly circumnavigate the four stands of Goodison Park. I was in my element. The sun was out, the sky perfect. The clamour of a match day gave the late afternoon a buzz all of its own.

Goodison Park. So, why do I love it?

Firstly, the location; surrounded by terraced houses, a proper football locale. Secondly, the history; Everton have played here, since uplifting from Anfield, from 1892. Thirdly, the gargantuan main stand; when I first spotted it in 1986, I could hardly believe its scale, towering over the other three edifices. Next, Archibald Leitch; the venerable stadium architect was responsible for the design and construction of three of the original four stands, two of which – the Gwladys Street and the Bullens Road – remain to this day. The signature Leitch cross-trusses at Goodison, which are still on show on the balcony wall of the Bullens Road, are only present at two other stadia. The others are at Fratton Park and Ibrox. Yep, you’ve guessed – two of my other favourite grounds. Next, my imagination; my late father’s first ever football match took place here at Goodison Park, during the grey years of World War Two while he was stationed on The Wirrall. Lastly, another first game; I took football-mad James, then an eleven year old boy, to his first ever football game at Goodison in 1998.

So, yes, Goodison Park ticks a lot of boxes.

My tour began behind the new Park Lane stand; constructed in 1994, it is a banal and insipid single-tiered structure which adds nothing to the overall feel to the stadium.  I noted that the statue of Dixie Dean had been moved from its original location; maybe it has been moved inside the stadium. Dean was an Everton legend who once amassed a Babe Ruth-like haul of 60 goals in season 1927-1928, and who died, at Goodison, during the 1980 derby. A “fan zone” was in operation behind the Park Lane stand; I avoided it like the plague. I noted a six-piece samba band, dressed in Brazilian yellow and green, parading outside on Goodison Avenue, which was met by blank stares from the locals. It was as incongruous a sight as you will see. I shook my head, tut-tutted and moved on.

On Goodison Avenue, my senses were going into overdrive. Unlike at Anfield, Everton have made a conscious effort to spruce up the walls of the stadium’s once grim exterior. Long banners depicting current players adorn the main stand, which now looks bright and welcoming. The “Everton timeline” wraps itself around 75% of the current stadium, beginning above the away entrance on the Bullens Road in 1878 and ending on the southern side of the main stand in 2013. It depicts key events, photos of record buys, famous games and Everton trivia. As I found myself walking clockwise around the stadium, I found myself going back in time.

Quite apt.

Opposite the main stand, towering high, were a couple of basic cafes. One sight saddened me though; The Winslow Hotel, which my father may well have entered around 1942, was boarded-up and empty. The sign depicting Dixie Dean had faded. How sad. I once drank at this pub in 1994, when I parked outside the stands of Goodison before walking up the hill for a Chelsea game at Anfield. There is always something rather spooky about being outside a stadium with no match taking place; the ghosts of thousands of supporters, the silence, the stillness.

I once watched a game from the upper tier of the main stand; season 1992-1993, front row, brilliant view, awful retro collars with red laces, Robert Fleck scored, we won 1-0, shortest match review ever.

As I took a selection of photographs of the bustling street scene below the vertiginous structure, I noted Romelu Lukaku being driven slowly towards the main reception. At first, the locals were unaware of who the young man in the passenger seat was. Eventually it dawned on them. With the car halted, the window lowered and the Everton loanee kindly signed a few photographs for a few youngsters. I took a few photographs of his smiling face and then seized my moment. I leaned in and shook his hand.

“Have a great season here. Then come back to us next season. God bless you.”

Romelu smiled.

I hated to see look of pure desolation on his face after his nervy penalty miss in Prague. I also hated to see some puerile comments on the internet by some Chelsea fans immediately after. Oh boy.

The red-brick St. Luke’s church sits right on the junction of Goodison Avenue and Gwladys Street. Back in the ‘eighties, it was still possible to see the whole of this modest place of worship from inside the stadium. It has since been hidden by extra cladding on the Gwladys Street stand and the addition of a large TV screen. Like the cottage at Fulham, it adds to the sense of place that makes Goodison so unique. Still the photographs continued; a turnstile, the angle of two stands joining, a streetside café, Tommy Lawton on the timeline.

There is a rather patronising TV advertisement for Barclay’s at the moment; thanking us match-going fans for our continued presence at games. It strongly features a smiling pensioner, possibly photographed at Goodison, certainly wearing Everton blue; his knowing eyes telling a thousand stories, his slight smile indicating past glories and hope for the future. As I walked behind the Bullens Road – getting close to the formidable Chelsea presence outside the away gates now – I spotted his female equivalent. A lady in her ‘eighties – tight perm, blue and white scarf – was being driven in to her personal parking space in a small car park. The sight of this spritely Evertonian made me smile. For those who bemoan the negative aspects of football – the richly-paid players, the out of touch directors, the price of tickets, the occasional presence of racism and loutish behaviour, the commercialisation, the deadening of atmosphere – here was a reminder of what the game means to a lot of people. She must have thousands of great memories from her time supporting her team.

I wonder if she remembers Tommy Lawton, his hair Brylcreamed, leaping high at the far post, or that dashing young man in his RAF uniform at Goodison Park during the Second World War…

I chatted to a few friends outside the away turnstiles. We had heard that Samuel Eto’o was to start. There was confused talk of how Lukaku had been loaned out – again – when most of us supporters would have preferred to see him in Chelsea blue throughout this season. I guess we will never know the full story of the club’s decision to keep Torres and Ba, though I presume that the former’s wage demands have played a part in possible thoughts of moving him on.

At least Juan Mata was starting.

I looked up and spotted Burger, the erstwhile Toronto native now transplanted into the heart of England. He quickly introduced me to his father – his first visit to these shores, his first football match, his first Chelsea match. I repeated my father’s story about Everton and he smiled. Burger Junior and Burger Senior had been drinking, with Cathy and others, since 10am and I was impressed. I wished them well and hurriedly took my place alongside Alan, Gary and 1,500 others in the Bullens Road upper tier. There were a similar number down below us.

The Farm’s “All Together Now” was on the PA as I scanned the scene around me. Goodison’s capacity is 40,000 now and I spotted a few empty seats, namely those behind the roof supports in the Gwladys Street. Another Goodison favourite – “Z Cars” – was played as the teams entered. Chelsea were in black once more.

Cech – Brana, JT, Luiz, Ash – Mikel, Rambo – Mata, Schurrle, Hazard – Eto’o.

The game began brightly enough. Ramires was full of energy and we dominated the early few minutes. All eyes were on our new striker though; as he moved around the pitch, my mind played tricks on me. I imagined Eto’o to be taller. He seemed willing, but his first few efforts were poor. One header over with Tim Howard untested and another which ballooned into the top tier. At least he was getting in to position. Gary, standing alongside me and already “venting,” made me chuckle with his pronunciation of our new striker’s surname.

Only a Londoner could attempt to pronounce Eto’o without sounding the letter T.

“Cam on E’o’o.”

Oh boy.

The best chance of the first-half came when Howard fluffed a clearance and Andrea Schurrle pounced. He played the ball into the path of the advancing Eto’o and the 3,000 Chelsea away fans inhaled a breath of expectation. Out of nowhere, a leg from an Everton player – Gareth Barry – blocked the shot. We were in disbelief.

On the subs bench, Fernando Torres was heard to utter “even I could have missed that.”

Our support was OK. The home fans, though, resorted to type and hardly spoke, let alone sang. Everton rarely threatened; Naismith shot wide, but chances were rare down below us. At the other end, Mikel and Schurrle shot over. Our chances were being squandered and the away support grew frustrated. During the closing minutes of the first-half, Everton turned the screw. During one attack, two Everton players were completely unmarked at the far post and we were lucky to escape unpunished. Right on half-time, sloppy defending allowed a cross to be headed back across the goal by Jelavic to allow Naismith to leap unhindered and nod home from a yard out.

At half-time, I chatted briefly to Tim from Dublin.

“We should have been three up.”

Straight after the whistle, Andrea Schurrle was played in and inexplicably missed from an angle. It took me a few, puzzling seconds to realise that he hadn’t scored. Eto’o lunged at a cross and failed to make contact. At least he was getting into the right positions. Right?

Jose Mourinho then surprised us all and made a double substitution, taking off Mata and Schurrle. On came Oscar and Frank Lampard. In truth, neither player produced in the remainder of the match. A Ramires toe-poke went wide. The general consensus was that we wouldn’t score even if the game continued until November. In reality, such was our mood, we expected Everton to increase their lead on their rare forays into our half. Luiz was lucky to stay on after a tangle on the half-way line. We were riding our luck. Then, the last throw of the dice; Ashley Cole off, Torres on, three at the back, but with Mikel playing very deep alongside Lamps. Where other players were faltering, Mikel was having a great game…reading attacks, breaking-up play, turning, playing it simple. Top marks.

Two last chances summed our day up. Firstly, an attempted flick from Eto’o from close in, but he missed the ball completely. Secondly, a poor shot from Torres’ weak left foot which looked as ugly as it gets and meekly spun off for a goal-kick. Thankfully, Leighton Baines clipped the junction of post and bar at the other end from a free-kick on ninety minutes. Although it was a far from adequate performance – too many personal errors – we barely deserved to lose.

At the final whistle, we shuffled out as the Evertonians – at last – made some noise. I glanced at Tim, but his face was disconsolate. No words were needed. I glowered back.

On the walk back to the car, Parky and I caught up with Chopper, Jokka, Neil and Jonesy. There were a few mumbles and grumbles and this was to be expected. However, it was a difficult game to summarise. Everton weren’t that great. They did enough. If our players had played 10% better – maybe just 5% better – we would have won 3-0. Our play suffered with just too many silly errors at key times. I spoke with Jokka and offered some home-spun philosophy.

“Maybe another set of supporters would have been quite content with that sort of performance – we created a few chances, we weren’t dire – but us Chelsea fans have higher expectations. High expectations make for bad losers.”

On Wednesday, we have the chance to make amends when our European campaign kicks off.

Let’s go.

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Tales From Then And Now

Everton vs. Chelsea : 11 February 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nice goal from Lawton.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a simple plaque –

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

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

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

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

Not once.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh great.

Here we go again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I sighed again.

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

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

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

Sounds like an impossible task to me.

Birmingham City at home next Saturday.

Let’s go.

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

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