Tales From The Match.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.

Gulp.

This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.

“Kerouac.”

I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.

“Kerouac.”

At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.

Pandemonium.

Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.

Phew.

The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…

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Tales From The Second-Half Show.

Chelsea vs. Portsmouth : 8 January 2012.

In the early rounds of the F.A. Cup, it is all about getting the chance to experience new stadia, or at least getting the chance to venture to towns and cities which have not been visited for years. This has been a relatively new scenario; not so long ago, all we wanted was a home draw against a lowly team in the hope of progressing. However, when Chelsea was entrenched in the old second division, the focus was on getting a big team, with all of the inherent anticipation that went with it. It’s funny how the focus has shifted over the years.

In 1982, all we wanted was Tottenham, Liverpool or Manchester United at home.

In 2002, all we wanted was Plymouth Argyle, Crewe Alexandra or Lincoln City at home.

In 2012, all we want is Bury, Exeter City or Hereford United away.

Over 700 teams from across England and Wales enter this competition each year. The diversity of clubs taking part is quite staggering. My local team Frome Town lost in a replay to Basingstoke Town from Hampshire back in the autumn. In fact, Frome’s most famous game in its 108 year history was an F.A. Cup tie with Leyton Orient in the early ‘fifties. Over 8,000 attended that game at Badgers Hill. Not bad for a town with a population of around 14,000 at that time. I won’t dwell too much on how the F.A. cup has seemingly lost most of its lustre over the last 25 years, but it is something that does sadden me. The competition does, at least, open up opportunities for the match-going supporters to get their road atlases out as teams from across the spectrum of league and non-league football are paired together. Maybe this is the lasting legacy of this storied competition; the F.A. Cup Final itself has diminished in importance, but the journey to the final has remained as exciting and as romantic as ever. For example, recent seasons have seen me travel to Barnsley, Coventry City and Preston North End on the F.A. Cup trail and all of my mates crave fresh fields. I don’t expect I will ever reach the vaunted 92 club – I think I’m currently up to about 60 league grounds – but I certainly hope to visit some new stadia over the next few seasons. I’ve never seen Chelsea at a non-league venue (our game at Scarborough in 2004 was our only such game in recent memory in fact) and so I was secretly hoping for an away game at a non-league venue. Salisbury , only 40 miles away in the heart of rural Wiltshire, fitted the bill perfectly.

If not Salisbury , an away game at Fleetwood, Crawley, Bristol , Cheltenham, Wrexham, Milton Keynes or Brighton would certainly suffice. Imagine my disapproval when we ended up with a seemingly boring home tie with old adversaries Pompey in our first game of the 2011-2012 competition.

Oh well – maybe more enticing draws will await our advancement as the cup progresses.

Just the two of us made the trip for the game; I collected Parky at 9am and we were in the café at 11.15am. We were joined by a few friends and Daryl commented that it was 34 years to the day since we defeated European Champions Liverpool 4-2 in the F.A. Cup. Why would Daryl remember this? It was only his second ever Chelsea game. He’s entitled to remember dates like that.

Breakfasts were wolfed down and I decided to head on down to Stamford Bridge once again.

As I passed the Fulham Broadway tube station, I stopped and had a word with the chap who runs the programme stall. By some bizarre quirk of fate, my old school mate Steve happens to be his postman in deepest Somerset and had often mentioned him in despatches. I introduced myself and we spoke for a few minutes about an event which is planned for Friday 13th. January. None other than Ron Harris is appearing at a fundraiser for Frome Town’s new stand appeal and this chap – another Steve – was thinking about attending. I glanced down at all of the various items of Chelsea memorabilia on display and I thought back to my football-crazed youth.

Although I was an avid programme collector in my schooldays – we all were – I limit my purchases to games that I attend these days. I buy every home programme (I must have over 500) but I have stopped buying programmes from most away games. I suppose I must have around 1,500 programmes in total. In those halcyon days of my youth, I used to collect all sorts of bizarre programmes. Amongst others, I have a programme from the 1976 US Bicentennial Tournament and the 1980 Russian Cup Final, plus most F.A. Cup Finals from 1970 to 1982. I have around five Chelsea home programmes from the ‘forties and several more from the ‘fifties. My friend Rick, a Pompey fan, bought me the Chelsea vs. Portsmouth game from the championship year of 1954-1955 as a fortieth birthday present. When I used to travel up with my parents from 1974 to 1980, I always used to disappear inside the old Chelsea Supporters Club premises at 547 Fulham Road (the site of which is now where Mark Worrall has his match day stall.) Amongst the usual array of Chelsea souvenirs (silk scarves, rosettes, pennants, bobble hats and gloves) were hundreds and hundreds of match programmes. I have many from the mid-‘sixties through to the present day, but I stopped buying back copies in around 1980. Maybe I should start up again. Daryl has two complete sets of home programmes from that 1954-1955 season, plus one set of away programmes. Gary , too, has thousands upon thousands of Chelsea programmes. My private collection is miniscule in comparison.

I noted that there was a home programme from the 1954-1955 season on sale for £25. It made me smart. Even my small collection must be worth around £3,000. I can’t imagine how expensive – or rare – programmes from before the First World War must be. My maternal grandfather attended a game at Stamford Bridge in the ‘twenties; I have a suspicion that it was one of the three F.A. Cup Finals held at The Bridge in 1920, 1921 and 1922. If only he had kept the programme.

I used to subscribe to the home programme in the early ‘eighties and I fell in love with the articles written by the late Scott Cheshire about our history. I look back on those days as the start of my fascination past Chelsea players, teams, games and folklore. Through him, I learnt about such players as Tommy Law, George Hilsdon, Hughie Gallagher, Alec Jackson, Vic Woodley and Len Goulden. His words were so evocative and helped me to fully appreciate the trials and tribulations which have so often befallen Chelsea Football Club. Rick Glanvill lovingly continues this fine tradition in the current match programmes.

I bought a copy of “CFCUK” and then a match programme. With Pompey fans mingling with tourists outside the West Stand, I headed up to the hotel foyer, where I had promised to meet up with Gill and Graeme. Young Jack – he of the wonderful match reports and of the “shouty voice” – was also in attendance and it was great to witness his enthusiasm for the club. Gill and I briefly discussed the US Tour and when the club will eventually announce tour dates; it can’t be long now. I briefly chatted to Ron Harris about the Frome Town “gig.”

The Peter Osgood statue stood proud in front of the West Stand.

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Kerry Dixon rushed past on his way to a corporate engagement.

I then retraced my steps all of the way along the North End Road and couldn’t believe how busy The Goose was. The Mancunian derby was on the TV and had everybody’s attention. United, of course, stormed into a 3-0 lead. It seemed to be a cracking match and I fully expected United to be hell-bent on getting some revenge for their 6-1 mauling in October. I expected further United goals in the second period.

What do I know?

I reached my seat in the Matthew Harding at 2.40pm, just in time to witness the players going through the last of their pre-match drills. Pompey had brought 3,000 (they were entitled to 6,000 if they wanted them) and were going through their usual, limited, song selection; the famous “Pompey Chimes.”

“Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play up.”

The manager had decided to play an experienced team and I approved. Juan Mata played wide right in Studge’s role, with the recalled Florent Malouda out left. Portsmouth almost scored after just 30 seconds when the flame-haired Dave Kitson (one of the few Portsmouth players that I recognised) raced past a faltering David Luiz but dragged a shot wide of Petr Cech’s far post. Despite a few nice touches from Fernando Torres, the first-half was a very drab affair indeed. Our Spanish centre-forward flashed a header towards the Shed End goal on 12 minutes, but the effort was saved. We passed and passed, but with little invention. A wild shot from Ramires on the half-hour and a strong run from Frank Lampard before the break were the scant highlights. Portsmouth had a rare shot between these two Chelsea chances, but this was skewed wide. Again, I could not believe how often Torres went wide, straying from the centre. I couldn’t believe how laboured our play was. I know that if I was a midfielder in that Chelsea midfield, I would be hitting Torres, or at least hitting the space beyond him, every single time. Too often, Torres stood separate from the action. The bloke needs to be more involved.

The Portsmouth fans were in fine voice and had the best chant of the half –

“We’ll take you on loan, we’ll take you on loan.
Fernando Torres – we’ll take you on loan.”

I think that was the highlight of the half.

Garry Stanley, one of the midfield stars from Daryl’s second game in 1978, was on the pitch at the break. I avoided the temptation to yell out “get yer boots on.” All was doom and gloom at the break; the first-half had certainly been a shocker.

The second-half was better, but it couldn’t have been much worse.

After only a few minutes, a lovely run by Florent Malouda (possibly the first half’s worst performer) deep into the Portsmouth box was followed by an intelligent ball back into the path of Juan Mata. Our little Spaniard slammed the ball in and we were on our way.

The next major incident occurred when David Luiz lost possession on the edge of the box. A shot reigned in, but Petr Cech parried. Ward was able to head back towards goal and we all expected the worse. Miraculously, John Terry scrambled back to clear off the line. I’ll be honest, both Alan and I thought that it was handball. For a few minutes, JT lay hurt having collided with the post. I knew that Parky was watching from the front row of the Shed End and I joked with Alan that His Lordship should have lent over the advertising hoardings and offered up a crutch to our captain.

The highlights of the rest of the game?

How about some mesmeric shimmies from David Luiz on the left wing down below me? It was gorgeous to watch, but what was our central defender doing ten yards from the corner flag? Best not answer that really.

Fernando Torres then headed back for the energetic Ramires to stoop and direct a diving header, but the effort was saved.

In the last ten minutes, we scored three times and gave the game a rather lop-sided scoreline. Mata crossed for Torres to head down and Ramires was able prod in from close range. Soon after, Torres set up the advancing Ramires who adroitly flicked the ball in with the outside of his boot. With only seconds remaining, Frank Lampard found a spare yard to turn and guide in at the near post.

4-0.

I was more than happy that all four goals had been scored at the Matthew Harding end and I was able to take photographs, of varying quality, of each of the four sets of celebrations.

Back at the car, Parky was soon to tell me that he had been seated adjacent to the away fans, right behind the Shed End goal, and had been engaged in friendly – and unfriendly – banter with Pompey throughout the game. I just pictured the scene. Soon after, heading out towards Shephards Bush, we listened to the draw for the fourth round –

Milton Keynes Dons or Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea.

There’s that away game we wanted. I hope it’s at Milton Keynes.

People might see QPR as “revenge” but I just see loads of aggravation, hundreds of police and tons of nonsense. I hope the “Dons” win the replay and I get to cross off another ground on the list.

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Tales From Stamford Bridge.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 15 October 2011.

A fortnight ago, we won at The Reebok and all was well with the world. The day after, Chelsea Football Club announced their proposal to buy the CPO shares and the subsequent ramifications of this has dominated my thoughts ever since, like some never-ending stream of consciousness.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I crawled out of bed on Tuesday 4th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was sat at my desk at work on Wednesday 5th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I drove into work on Thursday 6th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was watching England on a scratchy streaming site in the evening on Friday 7th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was doing some ironing on Saturday 8th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it while I was getting changed to play five-a-side on Sunday 9th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about when I was shopping in Bradford-On-Avon on Monday 10th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was in a meeting at work on Tuesday 11th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was filling up with petrol at Beckington on Wednesday 12th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was listening to a work colleague bore me with talk of cars on Thursday 13th. October.

Stamford Bridge – I thought about it when I was trying desperately to get to sleep on Friday 14th. October.

I know this – I was in no mood for a Chelsea game last weekend. I needed time to ruminate over the severity of the situation that we found ourselves in and I needed time to reflect on the way forward.

My preparations for the game with Everton were dominated with thoughts about the CPO vote and the future of football at The Bridge. As I collected Parky at 10am, I was pretty sure that other thoughts – our line-up, the threat of Everton, the other games, the drinking, the pre-match, the coming games with Genk and QPR – would be pushed to one side. All along, this didn’t seem like a normal Chelsea Saturday.

Above us, clear blue skies and this incredible October was continuing…the weather was magnificent. We dipped into Swindon en route to London in order for a little retail therapy, stopping at the Designer Outlet. This is an oft-visited site by me over recent years and it is housed in the former engineering sheds of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s famous Great Western Railway, sympathetically making use of an otherwise potentially redundant location.

Purchases were made at two stores, but as Parky and I circumnavigated the outlet, it soon dawned on me how certain labels have always been “in” for football and how many have always been “out.” Of the thirty-six stores listed under “fashion” in the Swindon shopping guide, we have the following breakdown –

Yep.

Aquascutum.
Henri Lloyd.
Hugo Boss.
Lacoste.
Polo Ralph Lauren.
Timberland.

Nah.

Bench.
Cotton Traders.
Gap.
Petroleum.
Tommy Hilfiger.

We stopped at Reading Services for a coffee and we reached Chesson Road in deepest Chelsealand bang on 1.30pm. A text from Rick in Ohio alerted me to the fact that the Liverpool vs. Manchester United game was a dour affair but, to be brutally frank, I had completely forgotten that it was on. If I was having trouble focussing on Chelsea vs. Everton, all other games were certainly off the radar.

The Goose was surprisingly quiet as we made our way out to the sun-drenched beer garden. However, it soon dawned on me that we were still four hours away from kick-off. The old place soon filled up and our little group, growing steadily, out in the far corner grew to around fifteen in total by 3pm. Rob had a few hundred round “SAY NO CPO” stickers and we saw a few others arrive with fliers throughout the afternoon. A few were wearing black “SAY NO CPO” T-shirts. There was a sense of rebellion in the air and I loved it. It has often troubled me that due to the many Chelsea fan groups and the inherently spatial diversity of our support, we might struggle to unite together under one umbrella should the need arise to muster troops for any particular grievance. I need not have worried. The meeting on Monday allayed that fear with representatives of the CSG, CFCUK, CFCNet and even the original CSC combing forces to fight the cause.

Of course, the debate about the future of Stamford Bridge dominated our pre-game conversations. A couple of protagonists knowingly played devil’s advocate to ruffle a few feathers and stir up some emotions (if anybody knows our little firm, they will know exactly who these two were likely to be), but I was generally calmed by the noises emanating from my mates’ mouths. There was a general consensus which aligned itself to the views stated by the SayNoCPO lobby.

At about 3pm, Tuna arrived on the scene clasping a pint of Guinness and The Youth’s boisterous son Seb quickly stuck a SayNoCPO sticker on his leather jacket. Over the past few years, Tuna has got to know most of the lads that I regularly drink with at Chelsea and there was the usual banter on his arrival. He then proceeded to regale us with a story about a bear which confronted him up while he was on a shooting trip up in the mountains of Georgia. Not the sort of story we usually hear in The Goose, to be honest.

I couldn’t help but notice that in our little corner of the beer garden – a group of around fifteen to twenty like-minded souls…let’s see…Andy, Woody, The Youth, Seb, Rob, Parky, Daryl, Neil, Chris, Matt, Gary, Alan, Mark, Simon, Milo, Ronnie, Fiona, Barbara, Tuna and myself…the only one wearing colours was young Seb. And he was making up for the rest of us by wearing a Chelsea home shirt over last season’s black and orange away shirt.

Maybe he was finding the cold, bless.

It was no good. I had to move on at around 4.15pm. I wanted to saunter down to the ground to judge what the mood of the nation was. I bade my farewells – “see you Wednesday” – and walked down the North End Road, the sun still blazing overhead. What a gorgeous day. There was not one single cloud in the sky.

I quickly chatted to Mark at the stall and picked-up the latest issue of CFCUK. It’s a fantastic edition, actually, with great contributions throughout. It has always been a slight moan of mine that the same issues get written in each edition, but on this occasion I did not object to the plethora of valued articles devoted to the NO campaign. Cliff from the CSG introduced me to Tim Rolls, who has played a major role in the supporters’ voice against the proposal and he was surrounded by well-wishers. I quickly mentioned that I would be the proxy voter for a substantial number of loyalists from across the pond and I thanked him for his time and efforts.

I had time on my hands and slowly ambled on up towards the stadium, past the infamous Loudhaler Man (who even has a Facebook page devoted to him, albeit from an irreverent and mocking perspective), asking for us to stop and think about a few religious ideas. He made a few topical references to “the pitch, the team ” and I hope somebody stuck a SayNoCPO sticker on his jacket.

I took a few photographs of the stadium as I circumnavigated it, hopefully capturing a few new angles. At the main gates, opposite the pub where the club was formed in 1905, I spoke to Trizia from the CSG as she handed out a few more fliers. She had heard that I was voting as a proxy for a few fans in America and – you know what? – I got a tingle knowing that I was doing my little bit to assist. It also made me realise how close-knit we are as a club. We may have upwards of 100 million fans worldwide, but there is a very tight little community amongst the regular match-goers at Chelsea. That is something to be lauded.

This was new for me, being outside the hotel with about 45 minutes to go before kick-off. I continued my walk around the stadium and I walked past around 15 Scousers. The thing was – none of them were wearing colours, but I just knew that they were Evertonians. Their predilection for tracksuit bottoms, plus their general appearance (gaunt faces and suedehead haircuts) easily gave the game away.

I walked down past the East Stand, past the players’ entrance and I remembered the time that my mate Glenn and I had to assemble there at 2.45pm, just ahead of Glenn getting presented with his CPO certificate on the pitch by Wisey against The Geordies in 1995.

Further on round, on the corner with the Matthew Harding Stand, I remembered “Drakes” which was the first real bar at Stamford Bridge for normal fans. It is now re-labelled “Champions Club” or something and presumably hosts corporate clients these days. “Drakes” was a lovely little bar and for the first season or two, it was restricted for CPO shareholders only. It then opened-up for season-ticket holders only. We met the 1970 team there in 1995 and I have photos of Glenn and I with Ossie, Chopper, Charlie, The Cat and a few more. Often, Alan, Glenn and I would often meet there for a reasonably-priced pre-match meal and a pint of Coors. Those days now seem long gone. As I walked past the new Chelsea Museum, the sun was reflecting off the stand supports and the sky was still brilliantly blue. I can’t overstate how wonderful the weather was. As I strode past the crowds waiting to enter the MHL, I again thought back to the mid-nineties, when Glenn and I were up at Chelsea dead early and spotted Ruud Gullit walking down from the car park to the changing room. I took a photo of Glenn, looking shell-shocked, next to Ruud, who had a pink Gazzetta Dello Sport tucked under his arm.

Memories, memories.

Up in the Matthew Harding Upper, Alan and I were joined by Simon, a chap that I have known since that iconic 1983-1984 season, when we would assemble early (often as early as 1.30pm) on our favourite spot on The Benches. Back row, half-way line and woe betide anyone who got there before us.

Fantastic stuff.

I didn’t see Simon at all from Hillsborough 1985 to Molyneux 2003 and I think he stopped going regularly for a while and travelled a fair bit. I know he is a keen snowboarder. For anyone who has seen it, Simon is the Chelsea fan featured in his brother Andy’s famous video from the momentous Champions League game at Highbury in 2004. It is Simon’s face which is seen at the end, holding his ticket, close to tears, revelling in that fantastic win after all those years of drought.

Simon is from the St. Albans area and, by some quirk of fate, Frome Town had been playing up at St. Albans during the afternoon. Unfortunately, my mate Steve texted me to say that Frome lost 2-1. Ex- Chelsea forward Paul Furlong still turns out for St. Albans, in fact, and came on as sub for the last twenty minutes. I am looking forward to seeing him play down in Frome in the New Year.

On the pitch, I was in early enough to see the last few minutes of the lads going through their routines, just as a seminal song from The Clash was being aired on the PA.

https://www.facebook.com/#!/video/vi…50412502597658

I noticed that the yellow “The Only Place To Be Every Other Saturday” banner, which usually flies to the left of me in the MH, had been centrally positioned in The Shed. I hope Roman saw it. I spotted Steve…or was it Daz?…no, it was Steve, to my left and helped him raise the blue flag above the heads of the supporters in the MHU. Over in The Shed Lower, a twenty foot square banner was passed over the heads of the fans and it simply said

“THIS IS OUR HOME.”

It continued on through the West Lower and I’m glad it made it that far. I would hate to have seen it confiscated after a few seconds by over-zealous stewards.

It was a full house. Our first game at home in three weeks.

To be honest, despite a few Everton half chances which skidded across the box in the first twenty minutes, we never looked troubled. However, it took us a full twenty minutes for us to register a shot on goal, a long-range effort from Bosingwa. On 31 minutes, Mata (who seems to have complete licence to drift in from the left whenever he feels the need) spotted Ashley in an advanced position and delicately lobbed the ball into his path. Ash only took one touch and dinked the ball towards the on-rushing Sturridge and 1-0 to Chelsea.

Simon, who usually sits right below me in the MHL was loving the view from the Upper Tier. Unbelievably, it was his first ever visit. He was shocked to see that we get a bigger choice of pies in the upper, plus internet access on our phones.

“Not only that, but they’ll be round with hors d’oeuvres at half-time, Si.”

However, Simon was disappointed by the lack of noise coming from our section and, to be honest, the place was pretty subdued. Just before half-time, with a free-kick out on our left, I commented to Simon that “now would be a pretty good time to score.”

Frank whipped the ball in, JT rose, 2-0 Chelsea.

Hugs and backslaps.

I watched JT slide towards the SW corner and his smiling team mates soon joined in.

At the break, Peter Bonetti – now seventy – was paraded by Neil Barnett and the MHL sang his name. Out in the toilets at half-time, I saw the sun set over West London, past the Empress State Building and beyond.

Simon and I spoke about the lack of atmosphere.

“Go back twenty-five years, mate…imagine if they had said about a kick-off on a Saturday at 5.30pm…in the pub since midday, plenty of booze, The Bridge – all close to the pitch – would be rocking…we’ll have some of that!”

Instead, it was like a morgue.

Alan chipped in…”don’t worry, we’ll soon be playing in front of sixty thousand who don’t sing.”

Soon into the second period, Leon Osman struck the base of Cech’s right post, but Everton were never in it for the rest of the game.

After a few more minutes, the night had fallen and the sky was black. It was still warm though and I, like many others, watched the entire game in our shirtsleeves. At last – on 55 minutes – the first “Carefree” which united both ends of the stadium. At times, however, only the three of us were singing.

Alan jibed…”we’re the three tenors – which one of you fat fcukers is gonna be Pavarotti?”

I captured the cross from Mata – our best player – which lead to our third goal on film and there was Ramires to prod the ball in from close range. It had been a fine move…Mata to Drogba to Mata to Ramires. Drogba had endured a quiet game, though, and a long shot from distance towards the end was his only effort of note.

The MHL now responded with a prolonged version of a nice old favourite, which I think I am safe to say is Chelsea’s and Chelsea’s alone…

“You are my Chelsea –
My only Chelsea.
You make me happy when skies are grey.
You’ll never notice how much we love you…
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.
LA LA LA LA LA – OOH! – LA LA LA LA LA – OOH!
OOH OH OH OH OH, OH OH OH OH
OOH OH OH OH OH, OOH OH OH OH OH
Until you’ve taken my Chelsea away.”

Good stuff.

How on earth did Everton score their goal? That was just shoddy defending and it annoyed us all that we can’t keep clean sheets, especially at home, this season.

Good to see Frank getting back towards his better form and only a miss-placed pass early on sticks in my mind. Mata was the boy, though – I love his movement and his eagerness to get involved, to say nothing of his touch and awareness.

Superb.

We flicked on “606” as we joined the slow-moving procession of match-going traffic out of Fulham, but a moaning Chelsea fan (“Drop Drogba – he hasn’t scored in two games”) made me fume.

Should we move to a new pad, I have a feeling that there will be a few more idiots like him, too.

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Tales From Lord Parky, Burger And Chel.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 8 May 2011.

As the days passed, the sense of anticipation rose throughout the week. By Saturday, I could hardly think of anything else. This comes as no surprise I am sure. I think everyone was thinking the same thoughts. Everyone nervous. Everyone excited.

Sunday arrived and I was ready.

I cleared the debris from the last Chelsea trip from my car and made sure that I had all the necessary match day essentials.

Ticket – check.
Camera – check.
Wallet – check.
Phone – check.
Bottles of Peroni for Parky and Burger – check.
Cans of Coke for me – check.
CDs – check.
Head full of memories from past matches at Old Trafford – check.
Hope eternal – check.

At about 9.45am, I set off from my village in Somerset, now overflowing with late spring greenery and vibrant colours. I collected His Lordship and we were on our way. It looked like it would be a day of sunny intervals and scattered showers, with the sky full of clouds. For a change, no music on the road north; we just chatted away about all sorts. After a McBreakfast at Melksham, we hit the M4, then the M5, then the M6.

Heading towards Birmingham, a car sped past with the number plate “KI55 UTD” and I commented

“Kiss United Goodbye more like, mate.”

At 12.45pm, we swung into Stafford and called in to collect Burger. There had been a flurry of activity earlier in the morning with a ticket up for grabs. However, the ticket in question was quickly snapped up by another Chelsea fan and so Julie was unable to come with us. A coffee apiece and we were on our way.

Burger quickly updated us with news from his hectic life – I hadn’t seen him since Everton away in the F.A. Cup – but talk soon swung around to talking about our great shared obsession; Chelsea Football Club. As we sped up the M6, my two passengers opened up some bottles of beer and I had provided a Midwest Blues Chicago 2006 koozie for Burger. Our paths didn’t actually cross during that crazy Chelsea weekend, but I first met Julie and Burger at Stamford Bridge the following December. We were in deep conversation about the Chelsea trip to Baltimore and Texas in 2009 and I completely missed the turning for Manchester. So, we had to fly over the Thelwall Viaduct and on to the M62 and approach Old Trafford from the north and not the south. This was the same way that I approached Old Trafford on my first ever visit over a quarter of a century ago, when a Somerset coach driver got a little lost on his way to the stadium.

In April 1986, I was a student at North Staffs Poly in Stoke and I had arranged for the Yeovil Branch to collect me, plus my college mate Steve and his twin brother Sean, outside the old Victoria Ground on the way through. Steve was a Derby County fan but was relishing the trip to Old Trafford. He had christened me “Chel” on a boozy night out earlier that season, though this wasn’t, believe it or not, due to my love of Chelsea.

It was, instead, a nod to the London nickname for people called Derek.

“Awright, Del?”

“Chris – we should call you Chel.”

For a few nights, Steve was “Stel” – but only “Chel” stuck.

I wonder why.

The coach reached Manchester in good time – I can remember spotting the towering United Road stand across the warehouses of Trafford Park – but the coach driver then seemed to get lost on his final approach to the stadium. We eventually parked up at the adjacent Old Trafford cricket ground, home of Lancashire, and we were given a police escort on the 15 minute walk to the home of Manchester United. I remember that I got inside with only a few minutes to go and soon lost contact with Steve and Sean. I was positioned right at the back of the small terrace area in front of the infamous K Stand. In 1985-1986, United had begun the season very strongly and had won all of their first nine or ten games – including a narrow 2:1 win at The Bridge in October – but had since slumped, allowing their old enemies Liverpool back in the mix. We had been in the top six all season, along with West Ham and Everton, but had recently slumped ourselves. We had recently lost 1:4 at home to West Ham and 0:6 at QPR. United, as far as I can remember, had enjoyed a recent resurgence, though, so the United faithful – all 45,000 of them – had assembled at Old Trafford to see their team defeat the declining Chelsea.

I remember straining to be able to see any of the ensuing action as the game unravelled before me. Life on the terraces back in the eighties was certainly wild and “carefree” but it wasn’t the greatest place to watch for me, not being the tallest. I’d often watch on my toes, steadying myself with my hands resting on the person in front of me, then end up getting jostled and moving feet and yards in the ensuing scrambles, with fellow fans literally moving as one organic unit. You would often get surges as shots went in and it was like being in a football mosh pit. After many games, I’d be physically exhausted. The tightest of away ends were Anfield and Old Trafford and the buzz was unbelievable.

Actually, despite the usually rubbish views, I miss it badly.

We weathered the storm in the first-half, but – attacking our end – Kerry Dixon broke through soon into the second-half. It was Kerry against Chris Turner, the United ‘keeper, and Kerry coolly slotted the ball past him. There were wild scenes amongst the 4,000 away fans, but the home fans were far from happy. I kept looking around and the seated United fans were only a few feet away. It felt like the whole ground was rocking to the sound of “United – clap, clap, clap – United – clap, clap, clap” as the home team attacked us. I seem to remember a few missiles – possibly darts – raining down on us and I remember thinking –

“F***ing hell – we’re like sitting ducks here.”

Doug Rougvie, good old Doug the Thug, thighs like tree-trunks, gave away a penalty – a penalty at the Stretford End? Surely not! – and Jesper Olsen equalised. With thoughts of getting out alive – who knows what was waiting for us in the dark hostile streets of Stretford – we then broke in the very last move of the game. Speedo squared for Kerry and the rest is history.

We went ballistic; jumping, screaming, pushing, hugging, falling, yelping, punching the air.

The referee soon blew up and the United hordes were silent: we were euphoric. It then dawned on me that we had compounded issues on the hooligan front and my walk back to the waiting coach would be even more precarious than had it stayed at 1:1. I soon met up with my mate Swan, from Radstock, and we safely returned to the coach…one of my most memorable walks back from a stadium ever. To say I was buzzing would be a massive understatement.

We even had a police escort – sirens wailing, lights flashing, policemen on motorbikes – all of the way back to the ring road and Steve and Sean hadn’t seen anything like it. Chelsea had a right old name back in those days and they were loving it.

“Bloody hell, Chel, does this happen at every away game?”

I suspect that I just gave him an old-fashioned look.

No words were spoken, but a lot was said.

I can’t remember what clobber I was wearing at Old Trafford in 1986 – it was the season that sportswear fully gave way to a new code which included fully-buttoned paisley shirts and leather jackets, worn with Burberry and Aquascutum scarves around the face, like urban guerrillas – but I am pretty sure I had a pair of Hard Core jeans, which were de regueur in the 1985-1987 period.

It was the era of scally perms too – check.

At 2.30pm – back to 2011 now – I parked up in the same suburban street as in the Champions League a month or so ago. I was parked about a mile from the stadium, but only about 500 yards from where the Yeovil coach had parked way back in 1986. I wondered if any of those Somerset lads would be at the game; I hadn’t seen Swan since around 1987. With the coffee and beers taking a toll, my two passengers quickly exited the car in need of relief. With nobody looking, they quickly took it in turns to disappear inside a hedge which bordered the garden of a small block of flats.
We were in Manchester. It was the least they could do.

The Battle Of The Polo Shirts –

Parky – Fred Perry.
Burger – Rene Lacoste.
Chris – Henri Lloyd.

Out onto the Chester Road, past the Gorse Hill pub and a few more United pubs. The red replica shirts were everywhere.

“Come come, nuclear bomb.”

The Bishop Blaize – always full of song, the United version of the So.

Burger – his first visit – and I took a few photos. Down Sir Matt Busby Way – it sounds grandiose, but it’s just a narrow terraced street with open ground and a car dealership on one side – with fanzine sellers shouting their wares.

“Red Issue – out today.”

“United We Stand – only two quid.”

“Get your Red News today.”

Further down, Dave Johnstone was there –

“The Chelsea fanzine, only a pound, hurry up.”

David Moyes, the Everton manager, hustled past and Parky yelled “Moyesy” as if they were long lost friends.

I wanted to take Burger down to the Munich memorial and we stood, in silence, for a few seconds. I turned towards Burger and Parky and said “I wonder how many United fans can name the players who died in Munich, you know?” I then reeled off a few names, my back to the memorial, just to prove a point…

“Duncan Edwards, Tommy Taylor, David Pegg, Billy Whelan…”

We then walked back up to the road and I stood amongst the United fans for a few moments. I know it’s a cliché, but the United tourists – the “Daytrippers” as the local lads call them, with derision – were out in force. I issued Burger and Parky with a little task for the next few minutes –

“Ruin as many photos as you can.”

With that, Parky spotted his chance and slowly ambled through a group of United fans from Asia just as their leader was about to take a photo.

Classic.

This group had even brought their own inflatable thundersticks. No wonder the lads in the Paul & Shark pullovers and Berghaus rainjackets from Crumpsall, Clayton and Ordsall mock some of their own fans. In the rush for global supremacy, the local populace feel as though the identity of their club is being changed irrevocably, with tourists paying high prices for match tickets at the expense of the local working classes.

Sound familiar?

“Oh Manchester, so much to answer for.”

It used to annoy me – back in the ‘eighties – that whenever Chelsea’s “potential” was spoken about, we were often cited as having the fan base and stadium location to become the “Manchester United of the South.” I just wished that our two clubs would never be compared in this way because, even then, United attracted the glory-hunters and idiots. You know the type – people who purport to follow United, but can’t name their opponents at the weekend. I squirm when I think that there are JCLs at Chelsea now who now resemble the United stereotype.

Shudder.

One more thing…outside the East stand (aka the old K stand), there are two statues. One, facing out, is a lovely bronze statue of Sir Matt. Facing him, twenty yards away, is another statue – of Best, Law and Charlton. It’s the “meeting place” at Old Trafford and, pretty much, the epi-centre of all things United. What a shame then, that there was a massive advertisement for Audi draped behind Sir Matt and four Audi cars, on display stands, right behind the Holy Trinity statue.

There is a famous saying – if United had a heart, they’d sell that too.

I know that United’s fans have complained about similar displays of crass commercialism in the past and I can sympathise with the United hard-core on this. There was, for example, a similar sponsor’s advertisement which adorned a banner on the East stand frontage which tried to commemorate the memory of the 50th anniversary of the Munich air crash in 2008.

“Ten” said Burger.

“Ten what?”

“Ruined photos.”

“Good work.”

We barged in to another Asian photo opportunity and I whispered “Come On Chelsea.”

“Eleven.”

We met up with a gaggle of Chelsea lads and then went inside. Parky and Burger were in the corner, I was in the little section of 500 in the South stand. There was a Scouser on the turnstile –

“Hope you win today, lad – and Torres scores.”

Inside, up the stairs and two bottles of “Singha” in the cramped and stifling bar. It was like a bloody sauna. I met up with a few friends – too many to name – and we watched on as Arsenal lost at Stoke City. Although the game was massive, I completely agreed with Alan’s take on things –

“I’m surprisingly not too bothered actually. Whatever will be will be. Just glad we’ve put ourselves back in contention, we’ve done ourselves proud.”

The team flashed upon the screen – I would have found room for Ramires (possibly instead of Mikel) and would have played Anelka instead of Kalou (who, as the world knows is an impact player, best suited to coming off the bench.) My confidence was being tested.

Alan, Gary and I had seats in the second from last row; right at the top of the stand (the same stand that was bombed by the Luftwaffe in WW2) and my mate Millsy was just behind us. He had a lovely experience against West Ham; he took his son to his first ever game and the two of them were picked out in the crowd by the TV cameras at the end of that most emotional match. What a lovely memento of Game #1.

At 4pm, we were roaring – to the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea
Chelsea – Chelsea – Chelsea.”

At 4.10pm, the game kicked-off.

At 4.11pm, Park had played the ball through to Hernandez and we were 1-0 down, the United fans in a frenzy.
For the rest of the game, we were second best. The midfield was woeful in the first period, with only Mikel showing the occasional bit of form. We were slow and lacked fizz. The second, from Vidic, made our task even more difficult.

Rooney came in for torrents of abuse and showed his class by giving us a “Winston Churchill” – he loves playing the victim, typical Scouser.

We expected a more enthusiastic show from the boys in the second period, but – although we did play better – the step up wasn’t great. To be fair, Ramires played well and gave us lots more options out wide. Frank’s close-range stab brought cheer, but nobody seemed that convinced we would fully recover, despite the chants of “we’re gonna win 3:2.” To be truthful, it was only through miraculous blocks – Alex was great – and woeful finishing that we didn’t concede more. I thought Rooney would score on many occasions, cutting in from the left, working the ball onto his right.

United’s support was quieter, though, during the last 20 minutes…we definitely had the fans worried, if not the team. Torres came on and screwed a shot wide. We knew it was not to be. The Chelsea fans around me began leaving and the United fans began roaring again in the final five minutes.

“Giggs – Giggs Will Tear You Apart Again.”

Groan.

I texted a curt “well done” to four United fans at the final whistle and I was soon out on the forecourt, battling the gentle slope and the crowing United fans alike. Burger had been delayed in his exit; he had said that two United fans – not from England – had somehow got tickets in the away seats and had unzipped their jackets at the end of the game to reveal red shirts. A punch in the face from an enraged Chelsea fan was the response.

Not big, not clever, but totally understandable.

Just after we reached the car, the heavens opened, thus providing a perfect Mancunian ending to the time spent in United Land. We gobbled down some Cornish pasties and slowly nudged our way onto the A56. Thankfully, the traffic moved relatively quickly and we were soon on our way south, hemmed in, no doubt, by 20,000 United fans.

We were philosophical – as you would expect – and the day had been enjoyable, despite the result. Burger had thought that the singing from his section was good, but I knew it was a lot better in 2010. With good reason. We stopped for a toilet break at Knutsford – the place absolutely teeming with AON shirts – and as Parky and Burger got out of the car, I asked them…

“Toilet, boys? Need a pee? You’ll need to find a bush or a hedge won’t you? Who are you, the Chelsea Hedgehunters?”

We dropped Burger off in Stafford at about 8.30pm – Julie had watched the game in their local and was sad, but happy to see us. It had been a tough old day. The chat and laughter, so therapeutic, continued on as we headed south, through Birmingham and beyond. As a mark of respect for the recently deceased Poly Styrene, His Lordship had brought along an X-Ray Spex CD and – despite an already sore throat – I belted out a few old favourites from 1977 and 1978.

Then, the last few miles, and a compilation of songs from the early 1980’s – our era, don’t you know? I love the song, but I just grimaced when it came on –

“When routine bites hard,
And ambitions are low,
And resentment rides high,
But emotions won’t grow,
And we’re changing our ways,
Taking different roads.
Then love, love will tear us apart again.
Love, love will tear us apart again.”

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Tales From The M4, M5, M54, A41, A49, A556, M56, M60, A56…

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 12 April 2011.

Another day of destiny. We have had a few over these past few years.

At 6.45am, I posted on Facebook :

Things I Like About Manchester : New Order, LS Lowry, The Buzzcocks, Morrissey, Stuart Hall, Johnny Marr, The Smiths. Things I Dislike About Manchester : “Unih’ed.”

While getting ready for work, I briefly overhead Sir Alex Ferguson on TV mumbling about “momentum.” I remembered that just after the Manchester City game, the momentum was with us. How soon things change. On the drive in to work, I ran through all of the options ahead of us, ranging from a heavy defeat, a narrow loss, a dull draw, a narrow win or maybe even a convincing win. By the time I got in to work at 8.30am, I was absolutely buzzing and let everyone know it. I couldn’t wait to get on my way.

I was busy again in the morning and so the time absolutely flew.

At 12.45pm, I left Chippenham and pointed my Renault Clio northwards. It was a fine, Spring afternoon and it was a pleasure to be part of our latest assault on The Cup With The Big Ears, as Ruud Gullit used to call it.

However, just south of Birmingham, things took a nosedive. I began seeing signs on the M5 saying “M6 J16-J17 CLOSED” and I then had a text from Bristol Tim, intimating that the road would be closed until 7pm. I stopped at Frankley Services just as a coach load of United fans were alighting. I quickly looked at options and worked out a plan. I wanted to avoid heading off the M6 at Stoke as I knew the roads north to Manchester would be rammed. Instead, I decided to head west on the M54 and then up through the rural byroads of Shropshire and Cheshire. I quickly contacted Tim, who was further south at Cheltenham, Andy in Nuneaton and Kent Blues Gill, who was still in Luton on the M1. It felt like being part of an invasion force – 3,700 strong – and I think that the Nuneaton boys, in two cars, and Gill, went up the M1 to Yorkshire and then across on the M62.

I headed west on the M54, just north of Birmingham’s urban sprawl, but my mood soon changed. I was soon caught in masses of traffic. My plan looked like backfiring. However, the delay was caused by road works rather than high volumes diverting off the M6 and so I was relieved to be soon heading up towards Whitchurch on the A41 at about 3pm. As I careered northwards, I was concerned about my route and possible further delays and so I didn’t think about the evening’s encounter with United. This was probably just as well.

My progress stalled for about 45 minutes due to yet more road works in a small village called Cotebrook, but I crossed over the M6 at 5pm – as Japan gave way to Depeche Mode on the CD player – and I was on the familiar approach, past Tatton Park and then Manchester Airport, into the United heartland of west Manchester. Tim from Bristol wasn’t too far behind me. My plan had worked and I hoped that Carlo’s would be just as effective. Yet again, I was amazed that there was not one single road-sign for Manchester United’s stadium anywhere. Memories of past trips to Old Trafford flew through my mind. This would be my fifteenth Manchester United vs. Chelsea game.

At 5.45pm, five hours after leaving Chippenham, I was parked-up. As superstitious as ever, I used the same spot as on our smash-and-grab raid at Old Trafford last season. The sun was still shining and the white roof supports of Old Trafford dominated the area, towering over the plain red-brick terraced streets of the immediate area to the south. I thought back to our 2006 F.A. Cup semi-final against Liverpool at Old Trafford. For that game, Chelsea were allocated the Stretford End and my mates and I soon devised a plan to mark our appearance in United’s home end. At that time, we were in our pomp under Jose Mourinho, on our way to that second successive league title. I came up with a slogan…

“The Premiership is our Joy Division. Welcome to the New Order. Chelsea F.C. Champions 2004-05, 2005-06…”

…and my mate Daryl printed up hundreds of stickers. On that approach to the Stretford End, we plastered these stickers everywhere – on lamp posts, street signs, bins – and we did the same once inside the stands. I would love to have seen the United fans’ faces as they reached their seats at the next home game.

It was our finest moment.

I saw Dutch Mick and three friends arrive by car and I nodded a “hello.” The area on the Chester Road as it crosses over with Sir Matt Busby Way was full of United fans. The Bishops Blaize and The Trafford pubs. The chip shops and the off-licenses. The souvenir stalls and the fanzine sellers. They certainly like their chips at Old Trafford. Curry sauce and chips. Pie and chips. Irish fans and chips. Lager and chips. Mancunians and chips. Asian fans and chips. Blokes in replica shirts and chips. Fish and chips. Peas and chips. Fanzines and chips. Policemen and chips. Touts and chips. Chips and chips.

I bought a copy of “United We Stand” for Judy’s boy James and bumped into a gaggle of Chelsea on the famous forecourt. One chap mentioned penalties and, I have to be honest, I hadn’t contemplated that option. I then had a few moments to myself. I took a few photos. The grafters were out and about and their Mancunian accents were causing me to chuckle –

“Your ‘alf and ‘alf scaaarves. Six quid each or two for a tennoh.”

I bought a hot dog and had a wander around. The skies over the stadium and the Salford Quays were stunningly clear, crisp and blue. I briefly thought about the hackneyed cliché of United fans being glory-hunters from everywhere but Manchester. And there they were – right in front of me, at the statue of Best, Law and Charlton. Foreign accents, foreign faces. It made me think of the two clubs, United and us, both chasing foreign patronage. I guess it is just the scale of Manchester United that differs. Chelsea, despite our proliferation of support since 2000, still feels like a small family – an eccentric family at that – compared to the behemoth that is Manchester United. I thought about all of the familiar faces in the Chelsea hard core and I wondered if United could match that sense of intimate camaraderie. I guess that United fans have their cliques and groups, but Chelsea seems a closer entity.

But I suspect I am biased.

As I made my way up the many flights of stairs to the upper tier of the East Stand, I found it ironic that James’ “Sit Down” was on the tannoy…it has been a constant battle for United fans to maintain the right to stand at home games during the gentrification of football in the post Sky TV era.

This was a different location for me at Old Trafford. Usually, we get that wedge in the corner of the lower tier. This time, we had 75% of the upper tier. I made my way to seat number 120 in row 28. My goodness, what a view. However, with the overhang of the roof, everything was enclosed. I could not see a single square inch of the outside world.

Everything was there in front of me. I was quite central. It was like watching on the world’s largest widescreen TV. Quite spectacular.

So – team news. Alex and Torres in. Drogba on the bench. Make or break.

We were singing away during the pre-match kick-in and Torres got special cheers each time he scored. The ground slowly filled and many arrived late from the carnage on the M6. I took the customary photos of the teams as they strode onto the lush Old Trafford pitch, which is raised up, perhaps like a stage. I’m sure the “Unih’ed” fans would say that.

We began well and our play certainly pleased all of the Chelsea fans in my immediate vicinity. Ramires had a strong run deep into the United box, but was blocked at the last minute. Fernando Torres headed meekly goal wards but then did well to knock a ball back for Anelka to strike towards van der Sar. Then, Frank was clear through, but his week shot was well gathered by the United ‘keeper. After a quarter of an hour, we had all the chances.

“Score, score, score – when you get one you’ll get more.
We’ll sing you (an) assembly, when we get to Wembley
So come on you Chelsea and score.”

After 26 minutes, a ball was whipped in by Wayne Rooney and was ably nodded in by Chicarito. However, the United cheers soon subsided when we all spotted the linesman’s flag was up for an offside.

Phew.

On 31 minutes, a ball was thumped out towards Nicolas Anelka on the right. The space opened up in front of him and it was simply a race between himself and Edwin van der Sar. With much dismay from the travelling hordes high up in the East Stand, the United custodian just got to the ball before Nico and the he cleared for a throw-in. This summed up Anelka’s half. He was playing behind Torres and was often involved, but was usually sluggish and slow. Torres hardly got a sniff. A lot of our play came through the left-hand side. Lampard was having as good a game as he has had since his return. Our efforts were not being rewarded with many chances, though. We were finding lots of space out wide on both flanks, but our crossing, from Ivanovic especially, was woeful.

What a terrible time to concede a goal. The ball was worked out by Rooney to Giggs, who played a one-two with O’Shea. A low ball to Chicarito and 1-0 to The Glory Hunters.

That goal ruined us. If we had kept it tight at the break, I fancied us to nick it. I toyed with the idea of Yossi coming off the bench to feed in Torres. Well, Carlo Ancelotti saw it otherwise and replaced Torres with Didier Drogba.

“Come on Didi, son, you owe us for Moscow.”

United didn’t have to attack us and so we were given a few shots on goal, from Malouda, Lampard and Drogba. Van der Sar was untroubled.

Salamon Kalou came on for Nicolas Anelka but hardly got involved, much to our dismay. Our support was still strong, though, and all of the Chelsea favourites from this season were being aired. On 67 minutes, a typical “floaty” Lampard corner was met by a leaping Alex at the back stick, but his strong header was down but also wide. At the other end, Nani forced a superb save from Petr Cech.

Then – calamity. A tackle on Nani from behind by Ramires and a red card. Down to ten men. This looked a lost cause. However, we never gave up, even though our end product wasn’t great. A nice run by Malouda and a shot from Drogba, but it was straight at van der Sar. We were all standing for the entire game, all 3,700 of us.

Standing with our arms folded.

What a goal by Drogba! A strong run by Essien, who was getting stronger as Lampard was tiring. He played a ball through for Drogba in the inside right channel…he turned adeptly and rifled past the United ‘keeper.

YEEEEEEESSSSSSS!

The away end erupted and we thought the unthinkable.

Within thirty seconds, we had let Giggs flick a ball out to an unmarked Park and we watched aghast as the ball was drilled into the goal, past Cech.

The United crowd roared and went berserk. I caught a United official leap off the bench and it sickened me to the core.

Oh hell.

We still kept pressing – a Malouda drive at you-know-who was the main chance – and the fans never gave up. We still kept singing, we still kept urging the boys on, but deep down we knew.

We had had our chips.

The United fans, quiet for a lot of the first-half, were now wild and loud, and it felt like the entire crowd were singing the Viva John Terry song. It must be doubly-sickening for our captain, a United fan as a kid, to hear himself mocked in such a brutal way.

How it affected John, I can’t possibly imagine, but his performance was one of the highlights of the night : as steady as ever.

Then that new song –

“We do what we want, we do what we want, we’re Man United -we do what we want.”

That is the song that will now haunt me, like the Ronaldo song in Moscow.

However, for the last few minutes, the Old Trafford night was echoing to the sound of the defiant Chelsea support as we rallied in defence of our beloved team –

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

“Amazing Grace” had never been sung louder or with more defiance. We are Chelsea, we’ll sing what we want.

I began my exit during the last few seconds of play and the whistle went as I had just made my way out of the seating area. Unlike 1970, Old Trafford would not be so kind to us for a midweek cup tie. I virtually ran all of the way back to where my car was parked – “get out of my way!”- and fended some incoming texts as I went. By 9.50pm, I had made it back to the car and by 10.30pm, I was on the M6. It had been a quick getaway.

As I began my trip home, all 190 miles of it, a Depeche Mode song came on the CD –

“Leave In Silence.”

I drove through the night, with the air-con whirring away, my thoughts flowing through my mind. Of course, the fate of Carlo dominated my mind and as the texts died out, I was left alone, driving on…a “Coke” and a “Red Bull” kept me going and I eventually reached home at 1.40am.

Before I made my way to bed, I uploaded the standard five photographs from the game onto Facebook and posted one last thought.

“Home : Tired and weary. Great support tonight. We will rise again.”

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Tales From The Wheatsheaf, The Greyhound And The Black Bear.

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 2 April 2011.

Damn these international breaks; our game with Manchester City seemed ages ago. We only had four games in March and I was very impatient for this Stoke City away game to eventually come around.

I left home at 7.45am and soon collected Parky and Kris.

The weather was mild, but overcast. Grey skies accompanied us on our drive up to North Staffordshire.

As we drove past Stafford, my thoughts centred on Burger and Julie. I was really dismayed that they were unable to obtain tickets for our game at the Britannia Stadium. Although other reasons were responsible for their massive decision to leave Canada and set up a new life in England, I know full well that Chelsea played a large part in the decision-making process. Their new home in Stafford is but twenty miles from Stoke, yet they had not been able to get match tickets. It is with deep irony that if they had still been living in Canada, tickets – via CIA – would have been a certainty.

Sigh.

I will not dwell too long on this most familiar of routes; this journey up the M5 and M6 would be my eighth already this season. Lots of familiar sights, tons of memories.

This would be my fourth visit to Stoke City’s new stadium. I fully remember the first of these; an F.A. Cup tie during the 2002-03 season. This was memorable as being the coldest game I have ever seen. Stoke’s stadium is atop a ridge of land at Sideway and is very exposed. There is no shelter at all. I can fully remember walking up to the stadium from the car park with my mate Alan, with arctic winds freezing us both to the bone. It was truly bitter. Never have I been happier to get inside a ground early.

As we pulled off the M6 at 11am, I sped down to Trent Vale and onto the A500, the white stands of the Britannia Stadium could easily be seen up on the right. It welcomed me once again to the city of Stoke-on-Trent, my home from September 1984 to July 1987. My old college town. My old stomping ground. This was one of those days when I wished that the pre-match could last for around ten hours as I had lots of ideas flowing through my brain about potential options. I wanted to pay due respect to my old haunts, yet I knew there wouldn’t be enough time to pack it all in.

We had already taken a quick detour off the M5 for a quick McBreakfast, so there was no need to try and find a café. I drove straight into the town of Stoke. Remember that the city of Stoke-on-Trent is really the amalgamation of six separate towns – Stoke itself, Hanley, Fenton, Longton, Burslem and Tunstall. Stoke-on-Trent only received its city status in 1925. So, the area of Stoke itself, the most southerly of the six, is a bit of an enigma. It houses the city’s major football team (Port Vale is further north in Burslem) and gives the city its name, but its commercial centre is very small. Frome has more shops than Stoke. The commercial centre of the city is actually in Hanley at the top of a gradual incline.

After heading through Stoke – I used to live right next to Stoke’s old home, the Victoria Ground – I headed over to the adjacent town of Newcastle-under-Lyme, a separate borough which abuts Stoke’s western edge. I had promised myself a quick dip into a famous menswear shop, now called “Pockets” (formerly “Review” back in the ‘eighties) to cast a glance at their wares. Back in 1986 and 1987, I bought two items from “Review” – a Best Company T-shirt and an EA sweatshirt. It was always a great shop. There was “Matinique” in Hanley too – I bought some Robe di Kappa gear there – and I once bumped into Adrian Heath, the former Stoke City midfielder who was playing for Everton at the time, in that second shop. In those days, the local Stoke lads used to look to the fashions which had evolved on the terraces of Anfield and Old Trafford rather than the more upmarket designer threads on show at Chelsea. I once bought a “Stolen From Ivor” sweatshirt from a shop in Hanley – I had seen Mancs wearing them at Euston in 1985 – and I was probably the only Chelsea fan with that particular brand on show at the time.

So, a Chelsea fan stranded in The Potteries – sartorially confused!

We only spent about fifteen minutes in “Pockets” and there was nothing there which tempted me to be honest. The usual suspects – EA, Boss, Ralph Lauren, CP, SI, Paul & Shark, Paul Smith – but no sale.

Not this time.

From Newcastle, we headed – in that most famous Stokie phrase of all – “Up ‘Anley, duck” to meet Cathy and Dog at a pub just to the south of the city centre. We stayed at The Wheatsheaf for about an hour and I was able to chat with Cathy about our individual plans for the summer tour of Asia. The Wheatsheaf was a rather down at heel pub and reminded me of the Flat Iron outside Anfield. There were a few Chelsea old school from days gone by and a few local lads. No hint of trouble, though. As the West Ham United vs. Manchester United game began in the other bar, we decided to move on. I had other plans.

I then drove south back towards Stoke and up to the very pleasant area of Penkhull. I parked outside The Greyhound pub and we spent a lovely time in the saloon bar. Back in my college days, we would often head up the hill to Penkhull and enjoy a few sherbets in The Greyhound. I remember one night in 1985 when we celebrated my mate Huw’s 21st birthday and a good time was had by all. Before that 2003 F.A. Cup game, Alan and I dropped into this pub during a hectic Sunday lunchtime and when I asked if we could be served, a barmaid curtly replied

“No. We’re busy.”

Maybe it was my Southern accent!

This time, it was lovely though. The saloon bar was a picture; wooden panelling, Rennie-McIntosh style tables and chairs and a row of daffodils in vases on the mantelshelf over the fire. I read a tablet on the wall, next to the dartboard, which said that the room that we were in dated from 1540. While Parky dabbled with a few tunes on the jukebox, I played pool with Kris and chatted to a couple of Stokies who were off to the game. We then heard that West Ham were two-up against United.

Well, this is lovely. What a great time.

On the jukebox, “Dreadlock Holiday” by 10cc gave way to “It’s My Life” by Talk Talk.

Outside, the sun was breaking through. Good times.

At about 2.15pm, we left The Greyhound and I drove down the hill towards Stoke and immediately spotted four red double-decker busses up on the horizon heading towards the Britannia Stadium. These, no doubt, would be ferrying Chelsea fans from the train station to the ground. It’s always a battle for the London lads coming up by train to avoid the police escort. Fans in the know come up early and splinter off, away from the train station. It’s no fun being treated like cattle. I then drove past the Commercial Inn – where we had the September 2009 pre-match – and over to the stadium (this drive is featured in the weblink below – Penkhull 0:07, The Commercial Inn 0:18, Stoke town centre 0:29, my old house on Selwyn Street 0:51, The Britannia 1:13)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tqxKHv-eyJ8

There were plenty of car-parking places outside the stadium, but many fans parked on the grass verges of the roads which approach the stadium. This was my choice too – ideal for a quick getaway. We then slowly walked the ten minutes up to the stadium, past a few hot dog and ice-cream vans and chaps selling Stoke / Wembley souvenirs. As we crossed a footbridge over one of the canals which were key to The Potteries’ industrial heyday, a barge passed by (featured in one of my five photographs from the day) and a Stokie was selling a copy of the fanzine “The Oatcake.”

By the time we had reached the away turnstiles, the weather had turned warmer, but we had received some grave news from Upton Park. Manchester United had turned things around and had recovered to beat West Ham 4:2. The lovely buzz of The Greyhound (United losing, their confidence low, Chelsea players listening in, spirits soaring, just right for this afternoon and then on to Wednesday…) seemed ages ago.

Into the stadium – the Chelsea bar area at Stoke is always notoriously loud and boisterous – and a few handshakes with Alan, Gary, Andy, Ajax and Woody. The mood was of sudden gloom.

“Hey, we’ll do well to win this today.”

It reminded me of the day last season when United won at City and we struggled at Tottenham. Inside the ground, a large home banner was wending its way from the north stand to the east stand –

“The 12th Man – Loud & Proud.”

Just before the kick-off, Whitey appeared holding a large plastic cup of coke.

“Smell it” he said to Alan.

“Whisky.”

The news was that Fernando Torres was on the bench. I had predicted that his first Chelsea goals would come against Manchester United on Wednesday. So, Drogba and Anelka upfront, with Malouda and Ramires wide in a midfield four. Let’s forget about United for ninety minutes, let’s just defeat Stoke.

At kick-off, the sun was out and the sky was a lovely blue-and-white mixture.

We were in great voice and it is doubly ironic that we were in the middle of the David Luis song when he lost concentration and allowed Walters to break from just inside his own half.

“Oh David Luiz, you light up my life” – Stop!

He advanced and darted towards our box. Michael Essien (not sure where Bosingwa was…) raced over to cover, but he jumped in, allowing Walters to double-back and send Essien packing. A firm strike avoided John Terry’s lunge and the ball crashed into the net past Petr Cech.

The 3,000 Chelsea were silent. The Stokies went ballistic.

We responded with – “You Never Won F All.”

I had a wry smile…and said “well, the only thing they have won was the 1972 League Cup Final when they beat us!”

Then Stoke responded –

“Ashley Cole – He Shoots Little Kids” (though, with their accents, it sounded like “keds.”)

We replied –

“Ashley Cole – He Shoots Who He wants.”

After this awful start, we dominated possession and carved out quite a few chances.

A diving header from Ashley Cole was touched around the post, Florent Malouda hit over, a Frank Lampard volley straight at the ‘keeper, a nice ball from Anelka to Drogba and a volley over. After Luiz’ aberration, John Terry similarly lost Kenwyne Jones, but just about recovered in time to nick the ball before Jones could take aim at our goal.

I commented to Alan that we were obsessed with laying the ball out to Cole, Malouda, Ramires and Bosingwa when the better option might have been to take a run deep at the heart of their defence and take a shot. Just as I had finished speaking, Anelka spotted a superb run by Drogba and lofted a sublime ball into the box. Drogba dived full length and the ball flew into the net.

Get in.

Now it was our turn to sing.

We had pleasing possession for the rest of the half and Ramires was playing well again, staying out wide and giving team mates options. He wasn’t drifting inside and was keeping our shape. Top marks. There was a continued tussle between JT and Jones, one of many sub-plots in the game. Just on half-time, ex-Chelsea defender Robert Huth had a prolonged run deep into our box, but Didier Drogba stayed with him the whole way and poked a toe out to rob the ball. That’s more like it Didier. He was rightly cheered.

As the teams left the pitch at the break, the Chelsea thousands warmly applauded the boys. At the break, down in the dark area below the seats, Andy from Trowbridge was up to his eyes in a Wrights Pie and the gents’ toilets were so full of cigarette smoke that I had to turn my fog-lights on.

In the second-half, Stoke continued to give us a good game and I would suggest they had the better goal-scoring chances. Nico shimmied and hit wide, but then Jermaine Pennant forced a fine block from Petr Cech. Then, chances coming thick and fast, Ramires slipped the ball to Drogba with a delightful ball, but the resulting shot scraped the far post.

As the hour approached, Gary glanced over to our left and spotted Fernando Torres and Salomon Kalou jogging up and down the touchline.

“There’s £51 million of talent warming up there.”

I had to laugh; “More like 49, Gal.”

Of course, Torres and Kalou came on for Anelka and Kalou, but – despite an early run and cross by Torres – our shape was disrupted and we struggled for 15 minutes. I didn’t think Ramires should have been subbed. The other three midfielders were hardly shining.

Then two good chances from Stoke. A bullet of a free-kick from Wilson was nimbly touched onto his bar by Cech and then that man Huth crashed a header against our bar from the ensuing corner.

Stoke were now back in it and the game opened-up further. Luis was not so perfect against this physical team; shades of Frank Leboeuf versus Wimbledon in 1996.

In the away end, I had heard several local Stoke accents mingled amongst the Chelsea support. For a connoisseur of accents like me, it’s an easy spot. I soon realised that the chap to my left was a Chelsea fan from Stoke, especially since he overly used the word “hellfire.” It’s a word that always crops up when my college mates and I drop a Stoke accent into our conversations.

It brought a smile to my face when he said “hellfire, Chelsea, we can beat Stoke!”

Kenwyne Jones headed over from a trademark Delap throw. Everyone around me was decidedly anxious. On 80 minutes, with Chelsea back in the game, Drogba swivelled and volleyed against the bar. Frank shot wide from a quickly-taken free-kick. Luis played the ball of the game to substitute Ivanovic, but Drogba shot meekly wide. I had memories of that late late goal from Florent Malouda which one us the game last season and was hoping for a similar ending. Frank had a late chance.

Six minutes of extra time.

“Come on!”

On 92 minutes, Stoke substitute Fuller then headed over from close range and we heaved a massive sigh of relief. A few frantic crosses and corners, a few half-chances.

No last minute winner. Not this time. Our last lingering hope of the championship was surely taken away from us at Stoke.

We soon got back to the waiting car and – quickest getaway ever – I was on the M6 within just two minutes.

Parky summed it up well – “It was a game we should have won, but could have lost.”

At about 6pm, I pulled into Frankley Services, just south of Birmingham. Who should pull up alongside me in a blue Mercedes, but Chelsea chairman Bruce Buck? As we walked towards the front of the building, I had a few words, but he looked decidedly pee’d-off. I sensed that he didn’t fancy a chat and so I quickly wished him a safe drive back to London.

To break the journey up a little, we spent an hour in a lovely old pub – The Black Bear – in Tewkesbury. The Arsenal vs. Blackburn game was on TV and we took a little solace in the 0:0 draw that was being played out before us. Arsenal were out of sorts and the stadium was deathly quiet. At the final whistle, it brought a smile to my face to hear the loud round of boos which greeted the Arsenal team as they traipsed off the pitch.

On a day like this, any victory, no matter how small, is warmly greeted.

We’ll need to regroup on Wednesday; United will be looking for revenge for our 2:1 victory last month. Of course, we ourselves have that little matter of Moscow to resolve.

Hellfire!

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Tales From Raintown.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 13 September 2008.

I picked up my good friend Glenn at 10am. I was a bit surprised he was wearing a lovely sky blue Napapirji sweatshirt – maybe he was hedging his bets for later in the day.

On the way to his house, I drove past the Frome Town ground…for over a century it was known as Badgers Hill. This season, a sign of the times if ever there was, it has been renamed after a local firm. Yes, Frome’s ground is now known as the Alder Smith Stadium. Corporate-naming rights hits the Screwfix League. Ridiculous. However, my mate Steve, who follows Frome home and away, tells the story that the stadium is now known by his cohorts as the “ASS” and it is now common practice for Steve to ask of his fellow fans “are you taking the wife up the ASS next week?”

Glenn has recently chosen a new career path – working for the same care company as Judy actually – and we talked about this for the first hour as we drove through a few towns on the way up to the motorway. It will probably mean he will miss more games, but there aren’t as many jobs around these days. He’s looking forward to the change anyway.

Glenn has been going to Chelsea with me since 1983. We looked back on those days. In my year of 200 fellow pupils at school, I was the only Chelsea fan. He knew of two more Chelsea fans but we were a bit of a rare breed in those days. We talked about other games involving Manchester City. I will often speak of the 1983-1984 season in these reports as that great season is a full quarter of a century away now and we talked of the home game against City in December of that year. We pummelled their goal, but lost 1-0 to a Jim Tolmie free-kick. What I remember more than anything from that game is looking down at the City bench from high up in The Shed and seeing comedian and die-hard City fan Eddie Large sat on the City bench! I can just imagine Bates telling him to get lost when he asked for a complimentary seat in the East Stand.

I lent Glenn last season’s “Blue Pride” DVD, plus the “Blue Revolution” one…should keep him occupied. I also lent him Phil Thornton’s “Casuals” – a thorough book which sums up the rise and spread of casualdom over the years. Looking back to that 1983 season, both Glenn and myself, living in Somerset, were blissfully unaware of what had been going on in Liverpool, Manchester and London over the previous six seasons. I think Glenn, on an away trip up to Carlisle, began talking to some Chelsea dressers on the special and had reported back to me about this “new trend” – actually, he probably spoke to me about this on the train on the way up to that City game in December 1983. I have the feeling we hunted around the “Mod” shops in Carnaby Street on that day and Glenn was wearing a “no-name” polo-neck shirt. He was a bit of a Mod back in those days, so his was an easy transition. By the time of the Pompey game just after Christmas 1983, I was like a kid in a toy shop, suddenly now able to spot all of the labels on display in The Benches. I was on the dole that season, so my time would come…my priorities were to see the games, not dress up too.

Anyway, I digress.

Stopped at a couple of service stations on the way up north, listening to Five Live on the radio…we were dismayed when Tevez put United ahead, but we then punched the air as Liverpool equalised. Into Manchester, through the notorious Moss Side district, a stone’s throw from City’s former home Maine Road…rows and rows of red brick terrace houses to the right and a newer, but still foreboding, estate to the left. I wondered how odd it must be for a club’s home to be transplanted to a different part of the city. How strange it must be to have to give up your favourite drinking establishments for some new ones three miles away. Let’s hope it doesn’t happen to us.

I thought back to a classic City vs. Chelsea game in March 1989…both teams in the Second division again, we took 10,000 up to City, we won 3-2 and it was mad. I remember United were playing Forest in the Cup at the same time…90,000 fans in the city on the same day…I arrived by train at Piccadilly and we were told to make our own way, by foot, to Maine Road. We were dead lucky not to have been run all over Moss Side. This game was at the height of the inflatables craze, initiated by those mad fans at City and their bananas…crazy days.

Parked up at Piccadilly…couldn’t believe the weather – hot and sunny. We popped into a restaurant for an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, accompanied by a couple of beers. The food was not only cheap, but bloody gorgeous. That set us up for the evening’s game. We popped into a nearby “Hurley’s”, a famous chain of Manchester menswear shops, to view their latest clothes on offer. Although not as marked as in the ‘eighties, there are still subtle differences between fans of the NW teams and the London teams. I’ve always said the London teams dress to look smart, but the originals from Manchester and Liverpool dress to be different. There was a whole room devoted to the wonderful Italian brand “Paul And Shark” and it was all good stuff. A couple of my mates, Daryl and Rob, have a few items, but “Paul And Shark” is still mostly favoured by the Mancs.

Found a local boozer, with some City lads spilling out onto the pavement…I popped in to get some San Miguels, only to spot Cathy, Dog and Mark sat right outside the door. We had a few laughs with the city lads at the expense of United, who we had discovered had lost 2-1. Oh joy of joys. Glenn, in his sky blue top, was getting asked by the City boys if he thought City would win and Glenn, not being too diplomatic, replied “no, I bloody hope not.” He was talking to a couple of chaps about the same age as us and they mentioned how great the 1983-1984 season was…four massive clubs ( us, them, Wednesday, Keegan’s Newcastle ) were locked in a battle-royale all season to get out of the division. Brilliant times, remembered with reverence and awe by all of us. They mentioned the game at Maine Road, Chelsea’s first-ever live game on TV, on a Friday night…we won 2-0 and the City fans said that they had never seen so many away fans at Maine Road.

We caught a cab to the stadium and I thought back to the game in April when Beth, Andy, Rey and Cynthia were with us. Spotted many City fans wearing towels on their heads – they were certainly getting into the spirit of things. Rather than buy a match programme, I decided to get a copy of the City fanzine “King Of The Kippax.” Back when fanzines came to the fore in the 1987 to 1989 period, I often bought other teams’ ‘zines…they were usually pretty funny and were more relevant to me than the bland programmes of the time. I wanted to get a City fans’ view on the Abu Dhabi takeover, especially since we had experienced a similar thing back in 2003.

The Kippax was the home of the city die-hards at Maine Road – along the side of the pitch, rather than the ends like The Shed, Kop, North Bank, and I noted that City’s most vociferous fans at Eastlands are along the side, too. By chance?

Soon into the stadium and I met up with Gary and Alan. I was gagging for a coke – while lining up at the kiosk, I wondered if they were selling milk-sheikhs.

This was a great Chelsea performance. Typical of Robinho to score, but the wall seemed to be ragged and too stretched out. Immediately after, Petr and JT were going at it hammer and tongs. The City fans erupted with Robinho’s strike, but thank heavens we weren’t put off. Thought we controlled the entire game and, after Riccy slammed the ball home, we could’ve been 3-1 up by the break. By the way, Glenn missed the equaliser – on the way back from the gents, he had been stopped and searched by the OB after a steward had claimed Glenn was on drugs! This is just crazy and typical of the stuff that us fans still have to go through after all these years.

We purred in the second period…thought Ashley and Bosingwa were great again, but my man of the match was Carvalho…a goal, plus several timely blocks. The man is wonderful. The only players not to perform, in my book, were the inept Malouda ( I was heard to shout “Go past someone – you’re a winger!” ) and Anelka, who seemed incapable of making the correct run at the right time…apart from the goal.

I took some nice snaps of the goal celebrations at our end and I will post some photos from the game on my Facebook page later in the week.

Joe Cole’s Dad was sat five rows in front and, as is always the case, once Little Joe was subbed, he left! But he’s always there when Joe plays, supporting his son. Top man!

City were in great voice for twenty minutes, but their support soon fell silent as our dominance continued. We were getting behind the team well – never easy at Eastlands, with our support cut in half, being in two tiers.

A few lads near us got the “Scolari – Scolari” chant going, but after a minute of that, God it hurts…that “hard C” really takes it out on your throat!

Met up with Glenn outside – he had been watching in the lower tier, quite near Lovejoy and Andy’s daughter Sophie. We had a nice chat with a City fan as we walked back to the car. We talked about the expectations that City fans now have. I was very pleased to hear him say to us “well, you lot are well liked up in these parts.” That was nice I thought – hands across the blue ocean.

We got back to the car in twenty minutes and I pulled out of Piccadilly at 8pm. Glenn soon fell asleep, until Brum, but I had New Order on the CD player to accompany me on the long drive south…I thought back on what had been a near perfect day out…and how I would chose which things to write about in this match report!

I dropped Glenn off at 11.45pm – the time had flown past. Home at midnight, a very happy Chelsea fan…a year ago, across Manchester at Old Trafford we were a club in disarray…in September 2008, at Eastlands, we showed we are once again a confident club, ready for any challenges that lie ahead.

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