Tales From A Lesson In Double Dutch.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 28 December 2015.

Regardless of the current troubled predicaments of both teams, “United away” is always one of the very best Chelsea trips each season. Some would say it is the best of all. There is just something about visiting Old Trafford that never fails to stir the senses.

North against South.

Manchester against London.

Red against Blue.

As the day got underway, I was relishing the chance to be one of three thousand tightly-packed away fans in that sweeping corner, trying our best to be heard against the four-thousand United followers in the lower tier of “K-Stand” – I’m showing my age here – if not many more in all of the other home areas. It would surely promise to be a visceral treat for those of us who enjoy the noise and passion of a top-notch away fixture as much as the football played before us.

Old Trafford.

“The Theatre Of Dreams” as the advertising executives at Manchester United have called it.

Of course, there have been Chelsea defeats, but it was historically a venue which always used to be a pretty successful hunting ground for Chelsea Football Club in my youth.  Until 1970, it was the scene of our most famous match, our most famous win. And for many years we were undefeated in league games at Old Trafford and it annoys me to this day that I was present to see us relinquish that record on the last day of August in 1987.

From season 1965/1966 to season 1985/1986, we visited the home of Manchester United on thirteen occasions in the league and never lost once.

My first visit was in the spring of 1986, when two goals in front of us in the tightly-packed paddock sent us wild. The atmosphere that night was as visceral as I had ever experienced in my eighty Chelsea games to that point. A late Kerry Dixon winner sent us into ecstasy long before it was a staple drug of delight in Madchester. The natives were not happy that night. I can remember running the gauntlet back to our coach which was parked at the now long-gone Warwick Road train station. Fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago. You always remember your first time, right?

This would be my twenty-first visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea. In the previous twenty, my own personal record is five wins, six losses and nine defeats.

In my mind, it seems a better hunting ground than that. Maybe it is the strong memory of the emotion connected with those five wins (1986, 1986, 2005, 2010, 2013) which have altered my perception.

Regardless, as I collected Glenn and Parky at around 9am, I just knew that a classic day out was waiting for me.

Before we headed north on the busy motorway network, though, we diverted in to Bath for an archetypal post-Christmas spend-up. After a bite to eat, the three of us raided a few shops in the city’s crowded centre for some classic football clobber.

Two pairs of Adidas trainers, a Lyle and Scott Harrington jacket, a Paul & Shark hooded top and a pair of New Balance trainers were purchased between the three of us. I’ve noticed how New Balance are being worn more and more at football these days; a hark back to around 1985/1986 when they shared the limelight with the usual suspects. In one of the shops that we visited, there was a little banter with the two shop assistants.

Shop Assistant One : “Chelsea are not doing too well this season, eh?”

Chris : “Nah. Not too brilliant at the moment.”

Shop Assistant Two : “It could be worse. Could be United.”

Glenn : “We’re off to the game later this evening.”

Shop Assistant Two : “Oh right.”

Chris : “Who do you follow then?”

Shop Assistant Two : “United.”

This little exchange took me back somewhat. Although Chelsea are going through a ridiculously poor run of form, the United fan thought that his club were in a worse predicament.

But then I realised the mind set of many United supporters, who expect – nay, deserve – success.

I would like to think that Chelsea fans like Parky, Glenn and myself are a little more grounded, a little more pragmatic.

Shop Assistant One : “Predictions for tonight?”

Chris : “0-0 I reckon. I’d be happy with that.”

Regardless, purchases all bagged-up, we were on our way to the delights of Mancunia with an added spring in our step.

Sadly, the trip north – M4, M5, M6 and beyond – was yet another in the ever-growing list of horrific away journeys. A trip that should have taken three hours took over five. There were traffic delays every few miles. I had to divert through Stoke to avoid further problems on the M6. In the car, Parky had compiled a Northern Soul tape which was keeping us entertained. This was the stand out track.

“Moonlight, Music and You” by Laura Greene.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OE2H92jGoS0

Heaven.

However, I was getting frustrated with my slow progress.

News came through that Guus Hiddink was to employ a “false nine” in the game which was now getting close. With Diego Costa out through suspension, we presumed that Loic Remy was injured. Getting Radamel Falcao back on the pitch to score a winner at Old Trafford was beyond the stuff of fantasy.

In a similar scenario to that used by Mourinho at Tottenham, Eden Hazard was to be deployed in the furthest forward position. To be fair, the draw at Spurs was one of our most palatable performances of the season. For an old-stager such as me though, there is something decidedly odd about a “false nine.” It seems to rank up there with Peter Kay’s exclamations and protestations of “Cheesecake?” and “Garlic Bread?”

“False Nine?”

“Football with no striker?”

“False? Nine?”

It sounds like something that a transvestite might wear.

As I turned off the M60 and joined the Chester Road on that long familiar approach to Old Trafford, I reluctantly ‘phoned an old college mate, Rick, who had been waiting for me to arrive so that we could have a chit-chat before heading in to the game. Rick is a Manchester United season-ticket holder and lives in nearby Northwich. We had been looking forward to meeting up. Sadly, I advised that he should head on in.

“May the best team win and all that bollocks.”

Although we had left the city of Bath a few minutes before midday, we did not reach our allotted parking place – “a tennoh, please mate”- until around 5.15pm.

We quickly walked across Gorse Hill Park. Out on the Chester Road again, all was eerily quiet. Time was moving on and virtually everyone else was seated, or standing, inside the vastness of Old Trafford. It was a mild night as we walked as quickly as possible.

It seemed that the three of us were alone in the city of Manchester.

The red bricks. The Victorian streets. The car lights. The emptying pubs. The road signs for the neighbouring suburbs. The vast steel supports of the stadium roof. The colour red.

Manchester.

A couple of years ago, I went to see the great punk poet John Cooper Clarke, a native of the neighbouring city of Salford, in my home town of Frome, with a few good friends. Supporting him that evening was the poet Mike Garry, who went down equally well. One of Mike Garry’s most evocative poems is a tribute to the late TV presenter, journalist, and Factory record label owner Tony Wilson. DJ Andy Weatherall recently put this poem – “St. Anthony : an ode to Anthony H. Wilson” – to a dance beat and it has been in my head ever since. As a tribute to a much-revered impresario, the poem hits the spot. Hearing Garry’s emotional words, in a heavy and lazy Mancunian accent, put to music is perfect. Of course, it acts as an ode to Manchester itself. I love it. These football travels, these trips of faith and devotion, take me to some wonderful sporting cities. Surely Manchester is one of those.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LUE9PPiZ7W0

[A tip from this honest hardworking blogger; play this in the background as you read below. Don’t be passive. Engage.]

St. Anthony is the patron saint of things lost, of people missed. Everything about the poem seems very poignant for me and my 2015.

As I walked towards Old Trafford, one more time, Garry’s words resonated.

“Talk to me of Albion, of Anderton and of art.

Of The Arndale.

Alan Turin.

Acid House.

Alexandra Park.”

Past the Bishop Blaize pub, for once devoid of sound. United song master Pete Boyle had left for the game.

“Of Bez, the Buzzcocks, the bouncing bombs.

And the beautiful Busby Babes.”

Past the take-aways and the offies, and in to a very empty Sir Matt Busby Way. The grafters and the fanzine sellers were no more. How odd to be outside a football stadium after kick-off.

“Of Curtis.

Cancer, Christies, Catholicism.

Crack and Curt Cobain.”

We met up with Kev, from Edinburgh, who was waiting on my ticket. We quickly disappeared into the away section underneath the Munich clock. There were other Chelsea fans arriving late. We were evidently not the only ones. For the first time in ages, the away season ticket holders were in the curve, not down below to the left in the South Stand.

We had missed seven minutes. A quick “hello” to Alan and Gary. Apparently, it had been an eventful opening period. I heard how Juan Mata had struck the woodwork, but also how John Terry had gone close with a header. I took a few photographs. I tried to settle in. Everyone standing, everyone shouting. There seemed to be no seat unused as I looked across to the Stretford End, now partly corporate, its heart ripped out years ago, and then the towering North Stand. I looked across to where Rick would be watching, somewhere near the rear of the lower tier as it curved around. A quick run through the teams. I was pleased to see the steadying choice of Mikel alongside Matic, who – from memory – does well at Old Trafford. For the home team, I quickly spotted Bastian Schweinsteiger amid thoughts of that night, that penalty and that foreign city, whose name brings awful memories to this part of Manchester. How odd that one word can elicit such vastly differing emotions.

It was the first viewing of a few of these United players for me. To be frank, it just didn’t seem like a Manchester United team. With the two teams now being overseen by two Dutch managers, I pondered on what was before me. Guus Hiddink was playing without a striker and Louis van Gaal was playing Ashley Young at left-back. I had a feeling that my understanding of all of the traditional footballing rules were being tested.

To be honest, it looked double Dutch to me.

Pure football gibberish.

“Dance, Design, Durutti, Devotto.

Development of a dirty Northern city.

De La Salle.

Dignity.

And how in the end you hated all the pity.”

What then happened over the next ten minutes or so was horrible. We were simply over-run and out-paced and out-played. From Alan’s seemingly reassuring words about a rather reasonable start, it seemed that all of that pent-up angst and anger about their inability to play expansive and thrilling football in “the United way” was being unleashed, and for my eyes especially. Ivanovic, so often the culprit in this car-crash of a football season – but seemingly improved of late – was back to his infuriating form of August and September, allowing Anthony Martial a ridiculous amount of space, then seemed unwilling to challenge. Martial struck a low shot against Courtois’ near post and we watched as it spun across the six-yard box. Thankfully there were no United attackers in the vicinity. The home team continued to dominate, and Rooney shot from distance. Chelsea’s attacking presence was sadly lacking. Our breaks soon petered out. I wondered how on Earth John Terry had forced a save from De Gea while I was still outside in the Manchester night.

Tackles were thundering in from both sets of players.

The Chelsea crowd were in reasonable voice. Yet again I will make the point of how away fans are more prone to creating an atmosphere than the home fans. Old Trafford is no different. The game continued. I just wanted us to get to the break unscathed, so that Hiddink could fine-tune our performance.

At half-time, there were long faces in the Chelsea section. In reality, this was as poor a performance as we had seen all season. Maybe the first-half at Leicester was the worst, but this was not much better.

I wondered what we had lost. I wondered if a prayer to St. Anthony was needed.

“Saint Anthony – Saint Anthony,

Please come around.

Something is lost that can’t be found.

Oh talk to me.

Oh talk to me.

Of Gretton, God, Granada.

Hooky and Hannett.

And how the fighting just got harder.

Hamlet, Ibsen, The IRA.

Jesus Mary and Keith Joseph.

Joy Division.

Judaism.

The importance of the moment.”

I remembered back to my last visit to Manchester, the game with City in August. I reminisced how Parky and I had waited in the foyer of the Lowry Hotel and had observed the Chelsea players walk through to their awaiting coach. At the time they looked focussed. With hindsight, they looked joyless, without a spark. I remember, too, how Mourinho walked to the coach independently, away from the team. Now the separation seems important.

“Something is lost that can’t be found.”

Our team seems to have lost a spark, a sense of vitality, the desire.

It hurts.

“Liam.

London.

Lust for Life.

Louis Louis.

Linnaeus Banks.

Manchester.

Music.

Marijuana.

Majesty.

And Karl Marx.”

Thankfully, Chelsea began with a lot more zest as the second-half began. Eden Hazard set up a chance for Pedro, who forced a fine save from De Gea. The follow-up shot from Azpilicueta was also blocked by De Gea. How we had not taken the lead still escapes me. The away support stepped it up a notch. At the other end, a sublime block by John Terry stopped Wayne Rooney advancing. Throughout the evening, Terry’s control of Rooney was a Chelsea highlight. On the hour, a sublime block from close range by Courtois kept the score goal-less; a cross from the artful Martial on the right had gifted Herrera a wonderful chance to score. With the Stretford End already celebrating, the ball ricocheted off Thibaut. Stupendous stuff indeed.

We were definitely improving as the game wore on. I noted a greater desire amongst our players. With United flooding our half, they left themselves exposed when Pedro played in a bursting Nemanja Matic.

This was our moment.

I brought my camera up to eye-level. With any luck I would capture a game-winner, just as I had memorably captured a Juan Mata strike grazing Phil Jones’ thigh on the way past De Gea in 2013.

I brought the camera up to my eyes. I was aware that Dave was alongside.

Snap.

The ball was struck high and wide.

“Fuck it.”

Another shot from Matic went wide.

Willian was replaced by Ramires with twenty minutes remaining. He had looked tired. Clearly not at his best, he had been consistently fouled all evening. His departure was no surprise. I noted how quiet the United crowd had become. I had expected more disdain, more barracking of van Gaal.

I commented to Gary how poor Wayne Rooney had been, fluffing his lines on two occasions in the second-half and prone to over-hitting some passes. I wondered about Mourinho’s pursuit of him in 2013. I thought that Terry and Zouma had performed well. Further forward, there had been more positive signs as the game progressed. Eden Hazard had proved to be less effective than at Tottenham but I thought that he had tried his best in a very difficult role. At times, he was too distant from a supporting cast. But this always going to be a tough assignment without a Diego Costa or a Loic Remy. Pedro had run his socks off all game. You had to look hard, but there were pluses.

“Tony talk to me of Sex Pistols, the substance, the streets, the sounds.

The sniffed and snorted, stolen, swigged multi million pounds.

And talk to me of the greatest ever Man United team.

Greg

Burns

Jones

Edwards

Robson and Roy Keane

Was it Best

Law

Charlton

Stiles and Eric Cantona?

Unknown Pleasures of the doubles and the trebles

Incantation from the stars.”

At the end of the game, there was a general feeling of relief from Parky, Alan, Gary and myself – stood in a line – and from Glenn, stood several rows in front.

A goal-less draw is what I had predicted and a goal-less draw is what we had witnessed.

We walked back to the car. It was not even 7.30pm. It seemed later. We were caught up in more slow-moving traffic as we joined the red surge around the M60 and then south, homeward bound.

We were now on twenty points.

“Halfway to paradise.”

To complete a full day of friendship and football, we stopped off for a curry in Walsall, not so far away from our League Cup away day a few months ago. The game had been discussed on the motorway. It was now time to relax and enjoy a madras, a jalfrezi, a pathia.

I eventually reached home at around one o’clock. Of course I had enjoyed the day. Others, watching further away, were apparently not so happy. What have we lost? Maybe they need to have a word with Saint Anthony too.

“Guus talk to me.

John talk to me.

Jose talk to me.

Roman talk to me.”

On the third day of January, we reassemble at Selhurst Park. See you there.

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>>Tales : A Lesson In Double Dutch.

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Tales From Blue Monday.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2014.

As our unbeaten run over Christmas continued into 2014, the away game at Manchester City loomed heavily in the distance. Despite the unexpected, and unsettling, presence of Arsenal at the top of the table, this encounter between the two English heavyweights always had the feel of a title decider. The league positions alone – them second, us third, both teams just behind Arsenal – justified that claim.

It would be a massive test. It would be the toughest game of the season thus far.

In the closing words of my previous match report, in which I documented out failings against a resolute West Ham United, I closed with the words –

“Manchester City next.

Lovely.”

Just in case anyone was in doubt, the last of these words was laden with sarcasm.

In my mind, this would be a very onerous task.

Since our fine 3-1 victory in 2008-2009, an away game at Manchester City…the City of Manchester Stadium, Eastlands, The Etihad, call it what you will…has been as barren as it gets.

2009-2010: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1

2010-2011: Manchester City 1 Chelsea 0

2011-2012: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 1

2012-2013: Manchester City 2 Chelsea 0

A few of these games have morphed into one. I found it difficult to remember too much about last season’s game. At least Carlos bloody Tevez wouldn’t be playing this time.

Yes, we defeated City 2-1 at Stamford Bridge back in October in a fine contest. At the time, City were a Jekyll & Hyde team; swashbuckling at home, fragile away. Our win confirmed the dual-personality of early-season City. Since then, their away form has tightened-up and they have continued to rack up cricket scores – or maybe rugby scores – at home. Eleven league games at their fortress and eleven wins.

This, make no mistake, would be Jose Mourinho’s biggest test of the season.

Even though the pay masters at Sky had deemed this game necessitated a change from a standard Saturday to a Monday night, a full three thousand Chelsea loyalists would be in attendance for this one. To make things easier, I had booked two days holiday for this away game; I simply didn’t fancy showing up at work on the Tuesday after just four hours’ sleep. In the circumstances, this allowed me plenty of time to pay a visit to my mother at hospital in Bath during Monday lunchtime. Again, Parky met me at the hospital. Mum seemed a little weaker compared to previous visits; I left the hospital in a rather subdued frame of mind.

For the first hour or so, there was rather less frenetic chat than is the norm.

“Tell you what, Parky. Why don’t you slap on some music? What have you got for me in your ruc-sac, mate?”

“Electronic ‘eighties. How about that?”

“Perfect.”

As we headed north on the M5 through Gloucestershire – the skies grey, the winter landscape dull, the River Avon flooded, the Malverns looming like Manchester City – Parky fumbled around in his bag, picked the requisite CD and popped it in.

The first tune?

“Blue Monday.”

How apt.

“That’ll do mate, Blue Monday on Blue Monday.”

The familiar beats from over thirty summers resonated as I drove north.

“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”

I stopped for McCoffee at Strensham and at Sandbach. Both service areas were quiet; only one City fan at the former, no Chelsea at either. How different to a Saturday when both would’ve been crawling with football fans of every hue. I was deep in conversation with His Lordship and missed the usual turning for Manchester, so was forced into the city from the west rather than the south. I didn’t mind; although I was caught up in a little rush-hour traffic, at least I was afforded the lovely view of the red brick and the green signage of the iconic Salford Lads Club as I trundled slowly past.

I drove right through the heart of the city – Deansgate, more impressive red brick – and then parked up relatively close to Victoria Station. There were gleaming modern offices everywhere. The grim Manchester of the ‘eighties were suddenly forgotten. I always get quite a kick driving through the city centre, although other areas of the city have not fared so well.  We had nigh on three hours to kill before kick-off. Underneath the railway arches, we spotted a pub called The Rovers Return. This was the real Manchester though; not a TV set. A hundred yards or so further on, I spotted The Lowry Hotel. I had driven past it, by chance, once before. This time, we were going in. I have always wanted to visit it; especially on match days. Let me explain.

Almost ten years ago, I sent out some letters to John Terry, Frank Lampard, Carlo Cudicini and Eidur Gudjohnson – my four favourite players at the time – and asked if there was any way they could find time to meet up with some friends from North Carolina during our visit to Pittsburgh for the Chelsea vs. Roma match in August 2004. One of my friends had just recovered from a cancer scare and I was hoping that the players might be able to meet her and her two daughters at the Chelsea hotel for a few minutes. As it happened, there was no official correspondence back from any of the players, but we met most of the team at The Hilton in any case. It was a wonderful twenty minutes.

Later, in September, I received an envelope stamped “The Lowry Hotel, Manchester” and opened it up to find that John Terry had sent me some signed 8” by 10” colour photographs of him. Evidently, he had been on England duty and The Lowry Hotel was used by the F.A. when England played home games at Old Trafford. What a lovely surprise for me and my friends. Since then, I have often wanted to see if Chelsea used the same hotel when in Manchester. This was falling in to place nicely…

“Maybe we’ll see the team get on the coach, Parky.”

Up in the hotel bar, we kicked back and relaxed. A couple of Peronis were quaffed. I had a bite to eat. There was a little banter with a gaggle of match-going Chelsea and City fans. Below, the cut of the River Irwell provided a contrast to the modern lines of the hotel. It was very pleasant.

At 6.30pm, we left the cosy confines of the bar. I joked with Parky “if we win tonight, I’m coming back next time.” There had been no sighting of Chelsea during the hour we spent at the hotel; some other time maybe.

I battled the Manchester evening traffic and pointed my car towards Eastlands. The neon blue of the stadium made navigation easy. By 7.20pm, I was parked-up at my usual – “superstitious”? – £5 parking spot.

“Parky, I have to ask myself…if we’ve lost the last four times, why am I still parking here?”

All around us were City fans. Again, I pondered on how easy, or difficult, the move from south Manchester had been for these fans since 2003? Maine Road seemed to define City; maybe The Etihad defines them further? The new academy stadium over the road was coming on apace from last season’s visit. City are certainly making this once forgotten part of the city their own.

Outside the away turnstiles, there were familiar faces. There seemed to be a larger than usual police presence, though. There was a little more security. It felt odd.

Soon inside, I bumped into Alan and soon made our way in to the seating bowl of The Etihad. As I ascended the steps, a familiar song was playing.

“How does it feel? To treat me like you do? When you’ve laid your hands upon me and told me who you are?”

The superstitious fool that I am quickly decided that this was too good to be true.

“Blue Monday.”

Alan and I laughed.

Deep inside, I thought to myself…

“…mmm…it had better not be a Blue Moon Day.”

The Etihad is impressive as ever. There are plans afoot to add height to the end stands; a third tier to bring the capacity up to around 61,000 or so.

There was hardly any time to think. The stadium filled-up quickly. The teams entered the pitch. Chelsea in blue/blue/blue. I used to hate seeing us without white socks – superstition again – but ever since we won the league at Bolton wearing all blue, I have been less bothered. The home crowd sang “Blue Moon” and we retaliated with a ditty about the European Cup.

A quick scan of the team; no Oscar, a surprise, but I was pleased to see Matic playing. The surprise was seeing Ramires out wide. There was no time for much further contemplation. The whistle blew and we were away.

It was a familiar story during the first fifteen minutes. We seemed to be a little late out of the blocks and City were soon cutting into the heart of our defence. Without the injured Aguero, I was hoping that City would be disadvantaged. They still had Dzeko and Negredo, plus Silva and Navas of course. Chelsea scrambled to get in to position but the first few half-chances from the home team came to nothing. Chelsea began breaking away, though, and I was immediately impressed with Willian and Ramires as they charged down loose passes and broke.

The City fans down alongside us aimed a hostile chant at our manager.

“Jose Mourinho – Your Football Is Shite.”

Our reply was quick and to the point.

“Jose Mourinho – He’s Won More Than You.”

That shut them up.

I was unhappy with the amount of room that Yaya Toure – yes, him – was being given in the early part of the game. Nemanja Matic was finding his feet and I hoped that the game wouldn’t pass him by. I was reminded of an early outing for Ramires in 2010 when he was left chasing shadows at City against Toure. David Luiz was his usual enthusiastic self. I just hoped there would be no early bookings which might temper our aggression.

There was a little disquiet in our ranks…”come on Chelsea, get stuck in”…but I was happy with each passing milestone.

5 minutes.

10 minutes.

15 minutes.

20 minutes.

We were improving.

A shot from Silva went wide. We countered with a couple of efforts of our own. A Luiz free-kick is still in the air, travelling towards Oldham. Then, a rapid break down the Chelsea left but a tame shot from Ramires, with only Hart to beat, was followed up by a very ambitious bicycle kick from Willian on the rebound. The Chelsea fans were enthused and the City fans seemed worried.

30 minutes.

This was turning out to be a fine game of football. We were showing City little respect, were closing them down at will, and were breaking intelligently. This was great stuff. A move down our right allowed Hazard to play the ball in for Ramires. His initial shot was blocked by Hart, but the ball fell nicely for Branislav Ivanovic outside the box. He had no time to think. He struck the ball hard and low, returning it back past Hart and into the far corner.

The Chelsea supporters screamed heavenly.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Despite being jostled, I tried hard to get the run and slide of Ivanovic on film.

Click, click, click, click, click.

Three seconds later I was screaming delight again.

A look towards Alan and another Oasis moment.

“They’ll have to come sat us now / come on my little diamonds.”

To be truthful, I could hardly believe it. We had weathered the storm, but were now ahead. With each passing minute, we grew in confidence. Dennis Wise was spotted in the TV studio, his smile wide as he punched the air to the delight of the Chelsea fans in front.

“Oh Dennis Wise – Scoredafackingreatgoal…”

A chance for Hazard, a chance for Dzeko. It began to dawn on me that Demechelis wasn’t a very good player. He wasn’t a very good player at all in fact. Meanwhile, Eden Hazard was on fire. He fed Samuel Eto’o, who unleashed a thunderbolt from an angle which crashed against the bar. Elsewhere, the midfielders were still stifling the City’s attacking thrust. At the break, we were getting into our groove. I hoped and prayed that the interval wouldn’t halt our rising confidence and strength. To be honest, Petr Cech had been largely untroubled.

With Chelsea attacking the away support in the south stand in the second-half, we were able to witness the wonderful skills of Eden Hazard as he bamboozled one City defender after another. It was a joy to watch. Elsewhere, Matic was growing as the game passed. To emphasise this, he collected the ball forty yards out, went on a little run and hit a cracking drive. The ball ripped through the air, but with Hart beaten, the ball crashed against the outside of the post. What a shot though.

City created a few chances, but their finishing was quite woeful. I was truly amazed at the lack of participation and noise coming from the home supporters. All of a sudden, Manchester City looked normal and, whisper it, a little unsure of themselves. Still we carved out chances. A Willian corner was headed back towards goal by the excellent Gary Cahill, but – AGAIN! – the post saved City.

At the other end, an onslaught seemed on the cards. However, the defence was magnificent throughout. All four defenders showed poise strength, determination and did not grow tired as the game grew old. In lost count of the number of Cahill blocks, Terry headers, Ivanovic tackles and Azpilicueta covering sprints.

A David Silva free-kick appeared to be goal bound but Petr Cech flung himself to his left to save. To reemphasise our domination of clear goal-scoring chances, it was his first real save of the night.

70 minutes.

The nerves were starting to build.

Mourinho replaced Eto’o with Oscar. Hazard moved further forward. A half-chance for Ramires after a delightful through ball, but Hart sprinted out to gather.

The stats were displayed on the large TV screens and I was amazed that City were shown to have had 65% possession. It just seemed that we had been in control. I guess, our threats were mainly on the break. For all of City’s ball, our defence was rarely troubled. In the second-half, Matic became a man. He was simply superb. I think we have unearthed a giant.

Then, disgust. Oscar was fed the ball and he broke into the Manchester City half. Barely over the halfway line, Nastasic pulled him down. In my mind, Nastasic was the last man and he had to be shown the red card. When Mike Dean, instead, showed him a yellow, three thousand Chelsea voices turned the air royally blue.

85 minutes.

My nerves were being torn.

Two further City chances. Another fine save – such strong wrists – from Cech foiled Jovetic, and then Nastasic shot wildly in one of the last kicks of the game.

90 minutes.

…thinking…”come on ref…blow up…three minutes extra time…surely there can’t be long to go now…come on, mate…blow that bloody whistle…let’s watch him…let’s watch for that sweep of the arm…come on, blow up…please…YEEEEEES!”

I punched the air and my smile was wide.

…thinking…”that win is for you Mum.”

There were Chelsea fans wildly celebrating all around the away section. I watched as the players came – only halfway, sadly – to our end, but they were full of happiness too. Their joy was my joy. It was a sight to behold.

…thinking…”still only bloody third, though…how the hell can the best two teams in England serve up that treat and Arsenal still be bloody top…that’s bollocks…wait…we still have to play them at home…that’ll sort them out.”

I soon met up with Parky outside. Foxy took a photo of us outside the away end. The City fans, as they had been all night, were quiet.

I pulled out of Manchester at 10.30pm. Down onto the orbital M60, past the magnificent old mill building and the bridges at Stockport, then out past the airport onto the M6 and the road south. I called in at a thoroughly deserted Frankley Services at midnight and dunked my head into a bucket of cappuccino.

The music played on.

I dropped Parky off at 2am. I was home by 2.30am.

So, my fears were unfounded. Chelsea had negated City’s threat with a very polished performance, managed perfectly by Jose Mourinho. We had closed them down, defended as a unit, and attacked as a unit. Every single one of the Chelsea players had been simply superb.

Heroes one and all.

A Blue Monday for the record books.

“How does it feel?”

If felt bloody great.

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Tales From Fergie Town.

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 5 May 2013.

Manchester is possibly my favourite musical city. I make no apologies for this. The Smiths and New Order are right up there in the upper echelons of any list of my most revered bands. Add in The Buzzcocks, a dash of Joy Division, plus a smattering of bands from the Madchester era – James, Happy Mondays, Inspiral Carpets – and it’s a quite formidable selection. For some unfathomable reason, I was never in to the Stone Roses – I should be – or the more eclectic The Fall. Magazine was a good punk band, though. So, ahead of my trip to Manchester for our massive game with the newly-crowned Champions, I was well aware of the whole trip turning into a personal voyage into my musical history.

John Cooper Clarke, a native of Salford – that strange city within a city – rode the punk rollercoaster back in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties. He was the poet of punk, sporting big black-rimmed glasses and mountainous back-combed hair. I was aware of his stuff, but – like Mark E. Smith and The Fall – found it too difficult for my ears. I then saw him recite one of his most famous poems in the film “Control” and was taken aback at its style and resonance. For me, it summed up the greyness of Manchester in those days of unemployment, recession and urban blight.

“The bloody cops are bloody keen.
To bloody keep it bloody clean.
The bloody chief’s a bloody swine.
Who bloody draws a bloody line.
At bloody fun and bloody games.
The bloody kids he bloody blames.
Are nowhere to be bloody found.
Anywhere in chicken town.

The bloody scene is bloody sad.
The bloody news is bloody bad.
The bloody weed is bloody turf.
The bloody speed is bloody surf.
The bloody folks are bloody daft.
Don’t make me bloody laugh.
It bloody hurts to look around.
Everywhere in chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.

The bloody view is bloody vile.
For bloody miles and bloody miles.
The bloody babies bloody cry.
The bloody flowers bloody die.
The bloody food is bloody muck.
The bloody drains are bloody fcuked.
The colour scheme is bloody brown.
Everywhere in chicken town.

The bloody pubs are bloody dull.
The bloody clubs are bloody full.
Of bloody girls and bloody guys.
With bloody murder in their eyes.
A bloody bloke is bloody stabbed.
Waiting for a bloody cab.
You bloody stay at bloody home.
The bloody neighbours bloody moan,
Keep the bloody racket down.
This is bloody chicken town.

The bloody pies are bloody old.
The bloody chips are bloody cold.
The bloody beer is bloody flat.
The bloody flats have bloody rats.
The bloody clocks are bloody wrong.
The bloody days are bloody long.
It bloody gets you bloody down.
Evidently chicken town.
The bloody train is bloody late.
You bloody wait you bloody wait.
You’re bloody lost and bloody found.
Stuck in fcuking chicken town.”

Stirring stuff, eh?

“Evidently Chicken Town” was also used in a closing scene of an episode of The Sopranos.

I just love it.

United away is one of the games of the season. A trip to either Merseyside or Manchester always stirs the memories, evoking past trips, past matches, past battles. It is also a chance for me to observe how the other-half – the Northern half – live. There’s definitely a northern culture. And this has permeated to the football world over the years. I like to think that I might occasionally spot a couple of well-turned out old-school Perries from Crumpsall and Urmston, sporting Berghaus rain jackets, Paul & Shark pullovers and Adidas Trimm Trabs. What I usually end up with is a bus load of United divs from Cornwall, Belfast and Dublin wearing replica shirts, friendship scarves and gormless Megastore expressions. I remember reading a United fanzine a few years ago in which one of the regular contributors lamented the passing of legions of well-turned out United supporters; he always used to stand on the forecourt and size up the away fans to see if any new “look” was on the horizon. A new label here, a new pair of trainers there. These days, seeing a new “North Face” jacket is the best we can hope for.

So, United Away. I wanted to make sure I was suitably attired. A Lacoste polo – as old school as it gets – was chosen along with some Levis and a new pair of white and midnight blue canvas Nikes, which I had been saving for an important occasion. Should we win – I was obviously thinking ahead – they might make the trip to The Netherlands. I threw a navy Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat of my car, remembering that the weather forecast was of typical grey clouds in Mancunia, and set off at 10am.

The kick-off was at 4pm and I wanted to be parked-up at my usual place by 2pm. I guzzled a can of Starbuck’s double espresso and pointed my car north, way north. The Depeche Mode CD from Thursday night was still in situ and this took me into Bristol. A Morrissey album accompanied me further north, past the green fields of Gloucestershire and then Worcestershire. I stopped at Strensham and, among the AON clad hordes of “Uni’ed” fans from the West Country, I walked past a chap wearing a classic green “The Queen Is Dead” T-shirt. I had a little smile to myself.

I had only just recently updated my “Facebook” cover with a photograph of myself outside the iconic Salford Lads Club, which I visited before a game at Old Trafford a few years back.

“The Queen Is Dead Boys And It’s So Lonely On A Limb.”

The Buzzcocks accompanied me as I headed north past Stoke-on-Trent. The vibe was good; I was losing myself in the moment, not thinking too much about the game – that would take care of itself – but just kicking back and loving the buzz of travel in itself.

“It’s what I do.”

At Sandbach, it was time for a McDonalds coffee. In the service station, I chatted to The Bristol Four. Talk was of travel to Amsterdam but also of the day’s game. I wasn’t sure of our chances. I felt, for some reason, that the amount of games that we have played this season could haunt us and United could “dick” us. Kev called it right though; it all depended on United’s mind-set really. If they weren’t focused and fired up, we could steal a win. No doubts.

“OK, safe travels, see you in there.”

For a change, I drove in to Manchester via Altrincham and Sale on the A56, rather than navigate the motorway past Manchester Airport. Altrincham were once one of the biggest non-league teams in the country, but the automatic promotion process treated them unkindly. In the time of their pomp, non-league teams needed to be voted in to the Football League. By the time of promotion from the conference to the league eventually came in 1987, Altrincham’s time had passed. Cult Northern comedian Frank Sidebottom – he of the papier mache head – was the Robins’ most famous fan. Sale was the home town of a college acquaintance – Rick – who was both a United fan and Smiths aficionado. His claim to fame was sleeping through the infamous battle between United and West Ham fans on the English cross-channel ferry – the Koningen Beatrix – way back in 1986.

The A56 sped me through the leafy suburbs of Sale and I was soon in familiar territory. The floodlights of the Lancashire cricket ground were spotted and I had a glorious flashback. I saw Morrissey in 2004 here, my favourite gig of all time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xXwIOvICyVs

Outside the chip shops at the intersection of the Chester Road and Sir Matt Busby Way, The Bristol Four were tucking into chips, peas and gravy. I quickly zipped around to the base of the North Stand – renamed the Sir Alex Ferguson Stand – and took a couple of photos. The statue is rather tucked away, far from the Munich clock, the Munich memorial, the Sir Matt Busby statue and the United Trinity statue. Make no mistakes, though, this is still Fergie Town. The Mancunian lead grey skies were reflected behind him in the panels of the stand.

It was 3.15pm and time to head inside. I met up with a few of the boys – The Bristol Four, Alan, Gary and Alan – and had a couple of bottles of Singha. With four league games left, two wins would effectively be enough to secure a top four finish. If we finished level on points with Tottenham, our far superior goal difference would see us through.

In such circumstances, Spurs fans would be quite baleful I am sure.

Inside Old Trafford, we took our seats in row 24, in the side section where the 500 or so away season-ticket holders were allocated. There were familiar faces everywhere. Sadly, I soon spotted a section of around four-hundred seats in the away section which had not been sold. I have never known us not to sell our three thousand seats at Old Trafford ever before. It made me angry.

“The fcuking seats are fcuking red.
The fcuking fans are home instead.
The fcuking seats are full of air.
The fcuking seats are fcuking spare.”

As sad a sight as this was, I spoke to Alan about a recently publicised article by Manchester police in which it stated that hundreds, if not thousands, of seats at Old Trafford are empty for games this season. The new habit of clubs announcing tickets sold, and not simply those attending, has meant that games are generally several thousand below capacity. This happens at The Bridge too. Soon into the game, I spotted hundreds of empty seats dotted around all areas of Old Trafford.

I scanned the teams. Robin van Persie was playing but no Chicarito, Wellbeck or Rooney to support him. There was no Rio Ferdinand. We were without John Terry, but Ba was in, playing ahead of Moses, Mata and Oscar. Lampard was paired with Ramires. Along the backline, we looked strong. I hoped for a strong performance from Luiz alongside Brana. It was fantastic to have Ash back.

This was our fifth game against United this season; hell, it was only eight weeks since our amazing second-half comeback at the same stadium in the F.A. Cup. It seemed like five minutes ago.

We began the game well. Within the first fifteen or so minutes, we had amassed four worthwhile attempts on the United goal. The best effort was a delicate effort from Oscar, in the inside-right channel, which Lindegaard touched onto his near post. United seemed to be very lethargic. Cech was only called into action sporadically. Mata cut inside and passed back to Moses, but his shot was high and wasteful.

The Chelsea choir, split into two sections, were in very fine voice. Mixed in with songs about Munich and Amsterdam were ditties about Robin van Persie and several Coronation Street actors who have recently come under scrutiny for the most horrible of reasons.

“Ken Barlow – He’s One Of Your Own.”

A Ba shot fizzed past the far post and Cech was called in to action to swat away a number of crosses from wide positions. This, however, was not the United of old. They seemed to be a shadow of themselves. It was a full thirty minutes into the game that I honestly heard a loud chant from the Stretford End. The best chance of the entire half, though, went United’s way. An inch-perfect pass from the artisan Giggs found the forward run of van Persie. His delicate touch, with what appeared to be the side of his left boot, steered the ball oh-so close, but just evaded the goal.

We heaved a massive sigh of relief.

A late effort from Oscar gave us hope for the second-half.

Downstairs at the break, we agreed that we would be happy with a point, just to keep the momentum going, just to keep the pressure on Arsenal and Tottenham, who had both managed two narrow 1-0 wins on the Saturday.

We again began brightly and, every time that the ball was played up to our attackers, I lifted my trusty camera to my eyes. I was therefore able to see, through my zoom lens, the tug on David Luiz’ shirt by Ryan Giggs. Alas, no foul – penalty or otherwise – was called. The game was a strange one. We enjoyed most of the ball and United’s players seemed wasteful; poor control here, a miss-placed pass there.

Phil Jones broke through our defence, sprinting forward like a gazelle, but his final ball was neither a shot nor a cross to the waiting van Persie. How often have we seen the prolific Dutchman slam those in? The ball dropped past the far post and out of play.

Tombsie was in loud and rumbustious form in the row in front of Alan, Gary and myself.

“Fourteen days to go. Fourteen days of Rafa. Fourteen days of that fat cnut. Fourteen days of Rafa.”

Buttner and Rooney entered the fray, but Benitez, typically, did not fancy changing our personnel. As the game drifted on with chances at a premium, some of our players seemed to tire. We needed fresh legs. Eventually, Benitez made a change, replacing Moses with Fernando Torres, who drew a few boos from the denizens in the United section of the East Stand. Lampard played in a superb ball towards Juan Mata, but he was just unable to get his head to the ball. Instead, it hit Jones and went off for a corner. Three corners in succession then ensued, but we never troubled the United ‘keeper.

A frustrating free-kick from David Luiz was sent wide and we thought that might be our last chance. Tombsie, plus a few others, surprisingly left.

With the game fizzling out, Ramires broke away from the halfway line. I caught his run on film. I also caught his delicate back-heel into the path of Oscar, who had arrived just behind him. We had the extra man. Oscar played in Juan Mata out wide. As our little Spanish magician struck, I clicked my camera. It is very likely that I still had my camera up to my eye when I saw the ball almost apologetically stumble in to the goal off the far post.

The Chelsea section roared.

YEEEEEEES!

I glanced at Alan, who was screaming, his cheeks red, his face ecstatic. I spotted Juan Mata sprint down to the corner flag. It was his moment to tease, torment and tantalise. I clicked away…I was surprisingly cool. After taking around ten photos, my time had come. I clambered onto the seat in front and screamed.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

That was it. It was time for some bombastic, triumphant chanting.

“Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. I Pray.
Amsterdam. Amsterdam. We Are Coming.
We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Our battle song of 2013.

The Chelsea fans around me were full of smiles and joy and I stood on the seat in front for the next few minutes. I was only vaguely aware of the late red card for Raphael as I was still full of song. I felt my throat getting sore, but this was no time to relent.

“Champions Of Europe. We Know What We Are.”

Despite a few last-ditch United chances, we held on. This was my eighteenth visit to Old Trafford with Chelsea and only the fifth victory. It wasn’t comparable to the pivotal win in 2009-2010, but it was a close second.

I raced back to the waiting car with the United fans moaning away all around me. I listened to “606” on the drive through Sale and Altrincham and Dave Johnstone’s voice was the sole Chelsea voice to be heard. Many United fans were phoning in. A couple of Spurs fans too.

They weren’t happy.

How dare “United” lose a match!

To be honest, I could hardly believe my ears at the ruthlessness of some Manchester United fans. They were irate with Ferguson for playing a second-rate team (I hadn’t noticed) and one chap was so fed up with Fergie’s dictatorial nature that he wasn’t renewing his season ticket next year.

Oh boy.

I drove on. Thankfully, the traffic was remarkably light for a Manchester United home game. I passed a coach with a “Surrey Reds” flag flying in the back seat. I again chuckled to myself.

“Enjoy your trip home, boys. Enjoy your United bedspreads, United fridge magnets, United alarm clocks and United pencil cases.”

I eventually reached home at 10pm, just in time to see the highlights of the game on “MOTD2.”

It had turned out to be quite a day following in the footsteps of the team. After our spirited draw at Old Trafford on Sunday 10 March 2013 and our win at Old Trafford on Sunday 5 May 2013, I was more than happy for every day to be like Sundays like these.

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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…

IMG_8514

Tales From The Road To Nowhere.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 24 February 2012.

There is little virtue to be gained in wrapping this up in fanciful words; this was not enjoyable.

From the moment that I stepped out of my house on a cold Sunday morning at 8am until I returned twelve hours later, there is little that I will remember with much satisfaction or pleasure from this excursion to Manchester. Let’s be honest, though; did we really expect anything different? Even though Manchester City had been playing at a standard well below their Championship form of the previous season, they still represented one of our toughest assignments of the campaign. Additionally, our recent run hadn’t inspired me. Allied to the fact that our three most recent trips to City’s home stadium had resulted in three losses, this was always going to be a tough match.

The English Champions vs. the European Champions.

On another day, in another year, maybe we would have all been a bit more excited. In truth, with Manchester United walking away with the title this year, I suspected that the City fans – with their team out of the Champions League too – were as under the weather as us.

Outside, there was greyness. The sky was overcast. The temperatures were cold.

Manchester – here I come.

I texted Alan, on his way north in one of the official Chelsea coaches, to tell him that I was on the road.

8.05am – “Jack Duckworth.”

He replied that he was having the first of the “pit stops” of the day.

8.09am – “Murray Walker.”

The music on my solo trip north consisted of Cocteau Twins, Stiff Little Fingers and Elvis Costello. I usually tend to enjoy my own company on these long trips north – with my mind wandering about upcoming games and plans for the future – but on this occasion the grim aura surrounding Chelsea Football Club made this a fitful trip up the M5 and M6. A McBreakfast at Strensham was a nice distraction, but the road was relentless. I notified Alan of my progress with a couple of ‘seventies references –

10.19am – “Len Cantello.”

10.47am – “Mike Pejic.”

And then a message from Alan which stumped me.

“Talking Heads.”

Maybe he was referencing “Road to nowhere” but, although this might well sum up our league campaign, I wasn’t sure that Manchester was exactly “nowhere.” Surely it was “somewhere.” I mulled over what he could have meant.

Eventually, I had a more lucid response.

11.12am – “And Pace.”

On the M56, I spotted the sign for Hale. I was 17 minutes behind him. I repeated his message back to him.

11.29am – “And Pace.”

I wound my way anti-clockwise around the Manchester orbital and underneath the massive red-brick arches of the railway bridge at Stockport, the town where Chelsea played its first ever league game in 1905. Then, I edged along the slow approach to the City stadium along Droylesden Road which then became Ashton New Road. I passed through Clayton, which was once home to Manchester United from 1893 to 1910 after they vacated their first home in Newton Heath, a mile or so to the north. City’s first stadium in Ardwick was located a mile to the south of their current home. A football version of musical chairs happened in Manchester in the formative years of both clubs, with both United and City heading west from their original stadia. Until 2002, Old Trafford and Maine Road were only three miles apart. Old Trafford and the Etihad Stadium, at either side of the busy Manchester city centre, are five miles apart. On the pitch, they are as close as they have been since 1978-1979.

There had been a change to the immediate surroundings of City’s new pad since my last visit. Trams were now installed and running into the City stadium along Ashton New Road. There were echoes of a distant era. With red brick houses lining the streets, I almost expected the stick-like figures of a Lowry painting to make an appearance. I parked up and braced myself as the cold wind attacked from all four directions.

Just like only a mother being able to love her errant child, only a native Mancunian could muster any love for the city on a day such as this.

On the short walk to the stadium, with my hands stuffed into my coat pockets, I saw evidence of City’s new-found ambition. The new Manchester City academy is being constructed a few hundred yards away from the Etihad. Once completed, I think that their current training facility at Carrington – only half a mile from United’s – will return home to Eastlands. Sheik Mansoor is clearly investing for the future. City will be a main player for the considerable future. The shambling joke of the Manchester City of the Peter Swales and Taksin Shinawatra eras are now quite distant memories.

I bumped into a few mates outside the stadium. The mood was typically glum. Everyone that I spoke to was of the same opinion.

“I’ll take a draw now.”

Rather than head inside, I took a walk around the stadium for the first-ever time. There are six San Siro style spiral staircases which allow supporters to reach the upper tiers and the sweeping roof is supported by towering pylons. It’s a relatively stylish stadium from the outside. As is the case these days, every square inch of its façade is now adorned with pictures of previous players and games. There are two “timelines.” One starts from the north stand and tells the story in pictures of the 2012 League Championship from the “Why Always Me?” game at Old Trafford in October to the Sergio Aguerro moment at the Etihad in May. The other starts at the south end and tells the story of the club through pictures and historic facts. However, there are club slogans on the spirals too. The overall effect, in my mind, is of a stadium decorated like a Christmas tree, with simply “too much” going on.

I walked past some food stalls and souvenir stands until I came across the “fan zone.” A couple of supporters were being grilled on a few City questions in order to win prizes.

“What does the motto ‘Superbia in Proelio’ mean?”

I suggested “pie and chips” as I walked past.

On the way in to the stadium, I had a quick word with the young turnstile assistant as I scanned my ticket.

“Congratulations on the championship last season.”

The young lad looked a bit sheepish and pulled a face.

“I’m United, mate.”

I smiled.

“Oh, what can I say mate? Happy days.”

While I slowly slurped at a pint of Heineken, Frank Sinclair brushed past. New York and Philadelphia seemed a long time ago. He recently took control of Conference North side Colwyn Bay. It was good to see him among the three thousand away fans. I chatted to a few friends, almost dreading the moment when it was time to go inside the seating bowl. I spoke to a new acquaintance Tim (literally a friend of a friend of a friend) about the Europa League and how our minds’ are attempting to cope with it all. We have, as I have said so often before, become a rather spoilt set of supporters over these past few years. Way back in 1992, we would have sold our first born in order to see the team in Europe. These days, I get the impression that anything other than the Champions League leaves us confused and underwhelmed. Just before kick-off, it was time to go inside. Again, the away season ticket holders were in the upper tier. There were, however, a few empty seats away to my left. The view from the seats is excellent at Manchester City. The upper deck floats high above the lower deck, where Tuna from Atlanta was watching from the very front row.

Above, the low clouds meant that the winter sun hardly broke through. Everyone was wrapped up in warm jackets and coats. Woollen hats were everywhere. It was bitter.

The performance by the Chelsea team hardly warmed us up.

It was clear from the earliest exchanges that this was going to be a tough game. However, during that barren first-half our luck held. Despite Manchester City’s better movement and a variety of chances, our defence managed to repel their shots on goal. Frankly, I was amazed at how quiet the home crowd were. The City support, like us, was clearly under the weather and feeling the pain of, once again, being second-class citizens in the city of Manchester. The atmosphere was ridiculously flat. There were hardly any positives to come from our play in the first forty-five minutes. That said, despite City’s ascendency, this wasn’t a classic display by the champions.

Gary commented “it’s a sad thing if these are the second and third best teams this season.” And I had to agree with that. It hasn’t been a classic campaign and both City and ourselves have underperformed. Although Eden Hazard showed the desire amount of application and skill, elsewhere our football simply did not flow. Ramires, out wide, wasn’t enjoying his best game and David Luiz, back in the centre of the defence, was drawing groans and moans from the away support as he lost possession and gave the City attack too much space. Gary Cahill was playing well, making timely challenges and blocks, but the truth was that the majority of City’s shots were either off target or aimed directly at Petr Cech. At the break, we could easily have been 2-0 down. Demba Ba, recalled for the woeful Torres, was hardly involved in the first-half. He looked a forlorn and solitary figure as he toiled away upfront.

I had visions of him pleading to his team mates, in a personal homage to The Smiths –

“Find me. Find me and nothing more.”

We enjoyed our best period of the entire game during the first five minutes of the second period. A pass from deep from Ivanovic, who had been given a torrid time by City’s movement in the first half, found Demba Ba in a central position. He touched the ball past Joe Hart – a virtual spectator thus far – and the England ‘keeper clattered into him. With no hesitation, the referee pointed to the penalty spot. I raced down to the balcony overlooking the lower tier and settled myself in order to photograph Frank Lampard’s 200th. Chelsea goal.

Frank struck the ball. I snapped. Hart quickly moved to his right and palmed the ball away. The Chelsea section groaned as Juan Mata was unable to follow up.

With increasing frustration from the Chelsea fans – in terms of positive support for the team, the quietest for ages – City took a stranglehold on the game. Yaya Toure, he with the arse the size of Botswana, neatly forced his way past Mikel and curled a perfect shot past Cech. Mikel had been one of our better players, but had sold himself too easily. At last, the City fans made some noise.

Our one chance of note involved Ivanovic playing in Ramires, one on one with Hart, but he decided against striking early and the three chasing City defenders were able to cover. Benitez, to everyone’s annoyance replaced Hazard, when our vote would have been Ramires. Lampard, not enjoying his best games, was also substituted. Victor Moses and Oscar looked out of their depth when they entered the game. Torres replaced Mikel – another of our better players – and we momentarily played with two upfront. Benitez, already receiving the ire of Chelsea supporters everywhere by leaving John Terry on the bench, caused yet more consternation. I would like to class myself as one of Chelsea’s more level-headed supporters and even I can’t stand Benitez. I feel sick just looking at him on the touchline.

Our day was ruined when City scored a second with Carlos Tevez drilling the ball past Cech after a good pull back. I was right behind the shot and said “goal” as soon as it left his boot. How I never left the stadium then, I will never know. I waited for five more minutes. As the PA announcer told us of “four minutes of extra time”, I was off.

The four hour drive home was hard work. As I approached Keele Services, I was suddenly overcome with crazy tiredness. My eyes were heavy and I called in for some refreshments. On the radio, I heard that Swansea City had demolished Bradford City in the League Cup Final. Listening to the erudite and courteous Laudrup speak about the game, my mind flickered into life with thoughts of him being our next manager.

And then I thought; “no, why would he bother with all of this nonsense?”

On the CD, the Buzzcocks were singing.

“Everybody’s Happy Nowadays.”

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oNCTD185opo

I wouldn’t be so sure about that.

IMG_8339

Tales From The New Order.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 21 March 2012.

It’s quite amazing how two football clubs from the same city, with stadia only miles apart, can engender completely different feelings from fans of other clubs. On the one hand, Manchester United, the club of the non-attending glory hunter, the club of crass commercialisation boasting the largest support base in the world with fans from everywhere and beyond. If United didn’t exist, you’d have to invent them. And on the other hand, Manchester City, the under-achieving club with a much more localised support base and an almost fatalistic desire to fail again and again, but now lurching from a history of laughable failure to a possible future of gleaming success. The only common bond is geography and a mutual hatred of each other.

Amongst other things, City call United fans “Munichs” because of the fact that City were the biggest of the two clubs until the tragedy of 1958 turned a nation’s gaze towards the scarlets of Old Trafford. United fans call City fans “Bitters” because of the alleged – and in City’s eyes unproven – perception that City fans are bitter and twisted with jealousy about United’s successes.

So, there is a gorgeous sub-plot to the title race this season and, despite the fact that City are “doing a Chelsea” and assembling a talented squad at break-neck speed, there is no doubt about which of the two Manchester behemoths I want to see suceed.

Once a blue…

Into this local rivalry comes Chelsea Football Club, eager to continue the fine run of form under the temporary tutelage of Robbie di Matteo. Four wins out of four, bubbly and buoyant. A month ago, I was dreading the visit to Eastlands and the home game with Tottenham. Not anymore. I had booked a half day holiday for Wednesday 21st March and I left work at 1pm. It had been a messy morning and I was glad to be on my way. I headed south for ten miles to collect The Laird of Porknockie and we were on our way. Porky’s partner Jill had provided the food and drink; as I turned north at Bradford-on-Avon and up past Bath, I knocked back the first Red Bull of the trip.

Parky was full of chat and the weather was bloody gorgeous. Despite heavy traffic, I ate up the miles. On the packed M6 motorway, we spotted two instances of bad driving which were only spotted late by other road-users. Luckily, drastic swerving averted any danger, but it brought home to me how dangerous our roads can be. At Stafford services, we thankfully had a little respite and merriment from the afternoon’s travails.

We pulled in for a McDonalds coffee just as three coach loads of Arsenal fans arrived, en route to Everton.

And there they were in all of their nerdy and sweaty glory; 150 of North London’s finest, the majority of whom were bedecked in the shiny nylon of the latest Nike replica shirt and assorted accessories. As we entered the main hall, we could hardly believe our eyes. An Arsenal fan of around 50 years of age was wearing the meshed-together shirt, shorts and socks of the Arsenal home and away kits, spliced down the middle, with one red trainer and one yellow trainer for good measure; a Harlequin in contrasting colours. I lamented to Parky that I wished that I had my camera. However, take my word for it, he looked a complete plum. It seemed that Stafford Services was momentarily taken over by a train spotter’s convention. Parky and I were bursting into a fit of giggles and laughter. In my eyes, this was proof again that there seems to be a different dress code for us and Arsenal on away trips. Chelsea have always tended to dress up for away games – or dress down, depending on the viewpoint – with very few away day regulars boasting anything from the Chelsea Megastore catalogue. Chelsea only really wear replica shirts en masse at Wembley and only then, really, in moderation. We’ve always tended to go the casual route; toned down now of course, but you’re still more likely to see a Lacoste polo and a Barbour jacket in the Chelsea away pen than you are with Arsenal.

As we supped at our coffees and pulled back onto the M6, we left the Arsenal scarfers to themselves, playing “I Spy” and pressing their noses against the window, looking at the “big trucks.”

The traffic was heavy between Stafford and the Manchester exit. I headed along the familiar approach roads south of the city and then ploughed straight through to the centre. I zipped past Didsbury and Whalley Range and soon found ourselves in Moss Side, the infamous former heartland of City’s support. The old ground at Maine Road was just a few hundred yards to the east. I remember stumbling upon a superb photograph of the old Moss Side, looking north to the city centre, before the slum clearances of the post war years. Hundreds and hundreds of terraced houses leading up to Hulme and the city centre.

All those people all those lives, where are they now?

The traffic stalled as I slowly headed through the grid-patterned streets around Piccadilly. Jesus had arrived on a train from The Smoke and we had planned to meet him for a beer. As I turned into a side street, the fading sun struck against the red brick of an old Victorian building, making the whole block come to life. The sky blue overhead and the glowing red of the brick. It was a gorgeous sight. I’ve always thought that the historic centre of Rain Town is an architectural delight.

I parked up at about 5.45pm, almost five hours since I left rural Wiltshire. We soon found Jesus (insert punch line here) on the corner of Newton Street and we dipped into a local boozer for a few quick beers. Parky was unleashed on fresh meat and poor Jesus had to stand there and withstand a barrage of “witty” Parky jokes. We were soon suffering from Porkinson’s Disease; death by a thousand quips. I spoke to a couple of local City lads. Their hearts were torn over the Tevez situation. We shared a few laughs and I wished them well for the rest of the season.

Oh boy, the two pints of San Miguel went down well.

It was approaching 7pm and I had to tear Parky and Jesus away from their pints. As I drove the two miles to Eastlands, New Order were playing on the CD player in the car and we quickly gave Jesus a crash course in all things Manchester; New Order, the 2000 Commonwealth Games, City and United. The England / New Order song from Italia ’90 was playing and everything was good with the world. Parky explained to Jesus about John Barnes’ rapping as I steered my car past the canals and warehouses of Ancoats, with the sky blue lights of the Etihad on the near horizon.

“You’ve got to hold and give.
But do it at the right time.
You can be slow or fast.
But you must get to the line.

They’ll always hit you and hurt you.
Defend and attack.
There’s only one way to beat them.
Get round the back.

Catch me if you can.
‘Cause I’m the England man.
And what you’re looking at.
Is the master plan.

We ain’t no hooligans.
This ain’t a football song.
Three lions on my chest.
I know we can’t go wrong.

We’re playing for England.
We’re playing the song.
We’re singing for England.
Arrivederci it’s one on one.”

Jesus was lapping up the local colour and we were all buzzing. I joked with Parky that the Arsenal fans had arrived at Goodison Park and were being advised by the coach driver to find a partner to hold hands with on the walk to the stadium.

“No Kevin. Leave your Mars bar on the coach. You know you’ll be sick if you take it with you to the game. You know how excited you get.”

We paid £5 at a local car wash for secure parking and then headed off to the stadium by foot. Several CIAers will remember the piece if public art called “The B Of The Bang” from a visit in Spring 2008, but they will be dismayed to know that the striking sculpture is no more; it was found to be unsafe and had to be dismantled. In its place are a bizarre selection of multi-coloured shapes, but I did not have the time to ask what they referenced.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/B_of_the_Bang

A few photos outside. Parky was in the lower tier, Jesus and I were up top. Both in the city centre, in the pub and outside the stadium, I did not hear a single City fan with a foreign voice. In fact, the only voices I heard were broadly Mancunian. I was inside with a few minutes to spare.

Oh.

I was very dismayed to see many empty seats all of the way around me. Damn. That won’t look good on the TV. Alan mentioned that around 500 were unsold. I’d imagine that the pushing back of the game from the Monday to the Wednesday deterred many Chelsea fans from travelling, but it still gnawed at me that this was a disappointing show. Elsewhere, the stadium was almost full to capacity. It didn’t take long for the citizens of Rain Town to spot the empty seats –

“Sell all your tickets, you couldn’t sell all your tickets.”

Sure, we had gaps in our 3,000 allocation.

But Manchester City have never brought more than 1,500 down to Chelsea in the past 15 years.

It was time to think about the game. It had hardly been mentioned all day. I was more than happy that Fernando Torres was starting. No JT, but happy with David and Gary. Let’s go.

To be honest, City were all over us in the first twenty minutes and I soon realised that the match was starting to resemble the match at our place on Monday 12th December. We simply couldn’t live with City’s strenghth, pace and movement. Yaya Toure was everywhere. He is some sight when he has the ball at his feet.

The North American Sporting Reference : –

I soon spotted a Chelsea fan in the front row of the lower tier wearing a New York Yankees shirt with “Mantle 7” on the rear. He appeared to be carrying on the fine traditions of The Mick by gesturing to the nearby City fans with both hands. A fine piece of switch hitting mate; well done.

The bantering was up and running –

“Channel Five And You Fcuked It Up.”

“You’re Just The Third Team In London.”

“You’re Not Fit For Channel Five.”

“Champions League – You’re Having A Laugh” (bizarrely sung by both sets of fans at the same time, but with valid reasons for doing so, too…)

“One Team In Europe.”

Tuna came and joined Alan, Gary and myself in row H. I didn’t recognise too many familiar faces, though. Despite City’s dominance, the home fans were relatively quiet. All around the balconies were the City banners.

“City Are Back. City Are Back. Hello. Hello.”

“There Is A Light That Never Goes Out. Joe Mercer And Malcolm Allison.”

“We’re Not Really Here.”

“Making History. The Mancunian Way.”

“And On The Sixth Day God Created Manchester City.”

Gary was at his vehement best, uttering fury and swear words in equal measure. He warranted a PG certificate of his own. I was laughing one minute, blushing the next.

Nasri hit the bar. A terrible pass from Lampard set Mario Balotelli on his way and we all expected a goal.

Miraculously, the Italian enigma tamely shot at goal and Petr Cech ably palmed it around the post for a corner. It was all City in the first half an hour but we had weathered the storm. This was my seventh visit to City’s new pad and I knew it would be a tough game. The first six games had resulted in three Chelsea wins, but three City wins, too. We were looking to avoid a third straight defeat. I remember only too well the missed Frank Lampard penalty in 2009-2010 and the Carlos Tevez strike in 2010-2011. We had offered little upfront though, despite the determined play of Torres. If only the others were as industrious. Despite Bosingwa taking over from an injured Ivanovic, the defenders were solid. I just wished for more invention from the offensive six.

And yet…and yet…let’s not fool ourselves, City and United are the best two teams we have come up against this season. We were in Manchester on a Wednesday night. Let’s take the 0-0 draw now.

And half-time, I met up with Jesus. He was chatting with two lads he had met in Naples. One of them, a chap from Scunthorpe, I had met in Kuala Lumpur in July. Nearby was a Facebook acquaintance, Oscar, from Sweden, who I spoke to for the first time. He is at university in London for three months and loving every minute of it.

Mexico, Kuala Lumpur, Naples, Stockholm. Manchester.

There we are; the Chelsea Family in a nutshell.

Jesus joined our row in the second-half. I love the way he has adopted a Mockney accent during his chanting in support of the boys :

“COME ON CHOWLSEA.”

I remember Peter Cech tipping a ball onto the bar and I wondered if it would only be a matter of time before we conceded. Well, to our amazement and delight, none other than Gary Cahill scored after a corner wasn’t cleared. I was right behind his strike and how beautiful it looked; that deflection left Joe Hart completely stranded and helpless.

I whooped with delight and watched as he reeled away to completely the wrong corner of the ground once again. He needs to buy a Sat Nav that boy. He was giving it large to the City fans and I wondered if he had scores to settle or something. Try as I might I just couldn’t quite get my camera focussed for his celebrations; I was being jostled and tugged, then fell over the steps. Never mind.

Alan, with hands behind him, a la Liam Gallagher ; “They’ll have to come at us nooooooooow.”

Chris, ditto ; “Cum on my little diamondsssssssss.”

Torres was substituted by Didier Drogba. The repugnant Tevez came in to a muted reception. Our attacking thrusts tended to die out. I won’t dwell on the two goals which killed us. The Essien handball was so frustrating; hands raised will always result in a penalty. Aguero calmly dispatched it. At last the home fans came to life. With five minutes remaining, we were hanging on. A reverse pass from you-know-who inside the box found Nasri and the ball was tucked inside the far post.

The place really erupted now and I couldn’t stop myself looking over to the flailing limbs and ecstatic faces of the City fans to my right in the lower tier. To be honest, it was quite a sight. That split second of pure adrenalin when the body spasms into ecstasy. The biggest compliment I can pay those City fans is that the whole lower tier looked like an away end. They were going mental.

At the final whistle, the night’s misery was compounded when we heard the City PA play “One Step Beyond” and I just thought that was below the belt. Maybe it was ironic payback for December. I’d like to know of City play that after every home game or if they were saving it for us. City have now won every single one of their fifteen home games this season. That’s quite a record. Since our win at Old Trafford in 2010, we have now lost five games in a row in Manchester.

As if a late defeat wasn’t enough, we then heard that Spurs had equalised at home to Stoke in the very last minute. Very long faces.

“See you Saturday.”

Outside, the locals were full of song as Parky and I walked back to the car. More Manc faces, more Manc voices. The only foreign voices I had heard all night were those of Jesus and Oscar.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50748226772658

There are new tram lines being built in many of the streets around Eastlands at the moment and there was some slow-moving traffic as a result of this. We slowly headed east past an unending array of fish and chip shops, pubs and pizza parlours. We stopped for an Unhappy Meal at the Droylesden McDonalds and eventually joined the rest of the Chelsea traffic heading south. Parky was soon asleep, but I was listening to more songs from New Order as the M6 traffic grinded to a halt. The motorway was closed at Stoke and we were delayed further. It was turning into a nightmare trip. The only good news was that Liverpool had lost at Loftus Road. Big deal, eh?

Eventually, after another McCoffee stop at Strensham, I dropped Parky off at 3am and I was home by 3.30am, some five and a half hours after getting into my car in Manchester.

It had been a long night.

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Tales From Eastlands.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 25 September 2010.

Another early kick-off, another early start. I left my home village at 7.15am and I was soon texting Alan that I was on the road.

“Jenson Button.”

The Formula One World Champion spent his childhood just a mile or so away from my home – as I never tire of telling the world. The two villages of Mells and Vobster have always been separate but the now redundant Vobster church used to be within the Mells parish, plus the Mells village football club is officially entitled Mells And Vobster United. My grandfather Ted played for the team back in the roaring twenties, while I played a handful of games for the reserve team in the early ‘eighties, before my love of watching soon over took my love of playing.

As I headed past Writhlington School, I was reminded of the tough battles that my school teams used to have against that school when I was a right-winger for Oakfield School, then Frome College. I remember a tough-tackling left back, who resembled Malcolm MacDonald the Newcastle striker, who I always seemed to be up against.

I then drove through the old mining town of Radstock – a little piece of Northern England transplanted into north Somerset, complete with terraced houses and slag heaps of coal waste – as the low morning sun lit up the houses. The rain which had been forecasted was nowhere to be seen and it was a beautiful start to the morning.

With the ground of Welton Rovers to my right, I remembered the game I watched there the night after Barca beat us in the CL semi last year – Frome Town came from a goal down to defeat local rivals Paulton Rovers in the Somerset Senior Cup Final…a game watched by over 1,000.

I then passed through Farrington Gurney and I thought back to a brilliant night I had enjoyed back in 2006, just after our back-to-back title, when I met up with Ron Harris and Kerry Dixon at a charity event at the local golf club.

At Pensford – home of ‘sixties musician Acker Bilk – I drove past a pub called “The Travellers Rest” and it brought back beautiful memories of Chelsea’s 2005 League Championship, when three very contented Chelsea fans called in for a celebratory pint on the drive back from Bolton.

It then suddenly dawned on me that I had been driving for just fifteen minutes, but yet my mind had been swamped by football memories from my past and it seemed to sum it all up. Wherever I go in Britain, there are football memories nearby , just waiting to be exposed. I had a little laugh to myself and thought “enough!” – I still had four hours of driving to do before I would reach Manchester…I’d best start thinking about “other stuff.”

I soon reached Bristol – and that’s another story.

Via a chain of events too complicated to retell here, I managed to get tickets for both Burger and Julie, now residing in Stafford and so the plan was to collect them en route to Manchester. Parky, meanwhile, had some great news during the week – he wasn’t originally able to afford to go to the game, but a gang of Chelsea from Trowbridge had hired a stretch limo for the day and one chap – Shep – was unable to attend. So – in lieu of the many pints that Parky had bought Shep in their youth, Parky was called in as a last minute replacement and it was all free-of-charge…happy days indeed. I wondered how they were all getting on in their white Hummer…I kept a look out for them as I headed north.

I stopped at Strensham to refuel the car and a Subway breakfast roll, the Malvern hills to my west, the Cotswolds to my east and the sky completely devoid of clouds. I passed a Bath City coach on its way to Fleetwood Town.

At 9.45am, I had navigated the tight narrow streets of Stafford town centre and was parked up outside Burger’s house, as surreal an experience that I have had in the past few years following Chelsea. Who would have thought that when we all met up in New York last summer and caught the train down to watch the boys play in Baltimore, that just over a year later, they would be living in Staffordshire and I would be taking them to a game at City? A cup of coffee was waiting for me and I was given a brief tour and history of the house…it’s lovely and Julie is especially thrilled with her little English cottage. Burger is equally chuffed with the Bear & Pheasant pub, just five doors down, where he is already one of the locals.

Proper Burger. Proper Chelsea.

It didn’t take long to reach to reach Manchester – the time soon passed as I spoke about my history as a student in Staffordshire and Burger spoke of his life as a student in Toronto. We exchanged stories on the drive through the flat Cheshire Plain.

The time was shooting by, but I wanted to give them both a quick taste of Manchester before we parked-up. I drove in past Old Trafford and momentarily parked outside the forecourt so Burger and Julie could see the Munich Clock, the Sir Matt Busby and Holy Trinity statues. I quickly spoke about the match-day experience at Old Trafford – the pubs, the rituals, the colour – but was soon on my way again…a quick glimpse of the Imperial War Museum North on the banks of an old wharf at Salford Quays, then into the city centre. As we slowly drove past impressive red brick buildings, Julie commented that she was reminded of the financial district of downtown Toronto.

At 11.30am, we were parked-up at Piccadilly and we fastened our jackets for the swift walk to the stadium, out past some Victorian canals and new apartment blocks.

Before we knew it, we had met Lovejoy and Burger had collected his ticket…he would be sitting ( or rather standing ) in the lower tier, while Julie’s ticket was, bizarrely, the row in front of my ticket. Alan and Gary were talking to birthday boy Andy, but Julie and myself soon shot into the stadium to tie Burger’s flag to the balcony wall, dead centre…job done.

This was a milestone for me in my Chelsea life – Game Number 800 – and I got Alan to take a photo of me for posterity. Looking back through the years, it’s clearly apparent that my attendance at Chelsea is a result of my salary increases…if I had my way, I would have reached 800 years ago.

Game 1 16.3.74 Chelsea 1 Newcastle United 0
Game 100 21.3.87 Chelsea 1 West Ham United 0
Game 200 4.2.95 Coventry City 2 Chelsea 2
Game 300 5.3.98 Real Betis 1 Chelsea 2
Game 400 31.3.01 Chelsea 2 Middlesbrough 1
Game 500 9.9.04 Chelsea 3 Real Zaragoza 0
Game 600 5.12.06 Chelsea 2 Levski Sofia 0
Game 700 29.10.08 Hull City 0 Chelsea 3
Game 800 25.9.10 Manchester City vs. Chelsea

The way I am accelerating away, I’ll soon be seeing games before they are played.

The stadium, an oasis of sky blue, slowly filled up and I again noted that City have a lot of permanent banners on show at Eastlands.

“We’re Not Really Here.”

Just before kick-off, who else but Parky, plus a few other familiar faces from West Wiltshire appeared and sat a few seats away. I’m just glad they made it intact. Parky was predictably wobbly…and reeking of alcohol, bless him.

During the opening passage of play, City had more possession and were constantly exploiting our right flank, where Branislav Ivanovic was constantly finding himself marking two attackers. On a couple of occasions the midfield man ( Mikel then Essien ) did not shift over and close down the man with the ball, leaving Ivanovic covering both once the ball had been played to the wide man Milner. I clearly saw Ivanovic shout at Mikel the word “speak!” when this happened the first time. I’ve often said that we aren’t a great team of talkers, JT excepted.

We then enjoyed more of the ball, but there was a distinct lack of movement upfront. On 27 minutes, Drogba took a short corner and I shouted “what is the point?”, only for the resultant cross to be headed across goal by Nico for Ivanovic to head against the bar. Chuckles from Alan and myself…” I’ll keep making the wrong call, if it leads to more chances, Al.”

This seemed to be the quintessential Italian game, with Signori Ancelotti and Mancini in charge, the former Milanese managers transplanted to these shores, but reverting to type. We had more and more of the ball, but less and less chances…the Chelsea support was getting frustrated. The support wasn’t great either, but it’s difficult at City as the away support is split in two. To be fair, the home fans weren’t too vociferous either. The warm sunshine which had greeted our arrival in town had disappeared in the cold shadows of the stadium and everyone inside looked freezing…jackets buttoned tightly, caps on.

The first song on the PA at half time was the Joy Division classic “Love Will Tear Us Apart.”

Either that, or James Milner, I thought.

We began the second period brightly with Anelka soon forcing a save from Joe Hart. The Chelsea support was roused and we got stuck in. However, we easily lost possession and the ball was worked by City to Carlos Tevez. With both JT and Ashley Cole backing off, I screamed

“One of you go to him!”

I’m sure the same sentiments were shared by Burger in the Lower Tier, Andy in Orange County, Bob and Pete in San Francisco, Gumby in Texas, Rick in Ohio and Steve in South Philly.

An excellent strike by Tevez and were were 1-0 down.

This was always going to be a tough game – City will be in the mix at the end of May – and I would have been content with a draw going in to the game. Now, our powers of recovery were to be tested. Could we do it? We still had a lot of the ball, but we were limited to long shots from Essien, plus a couple of free headers from Alex and Ess. Sturridge took lots of abuse from the home fans and didn’t provide much final product when he was brought on for the surprisingly quiet Drogba.

I thought John Terry was our most consistent player on the day and his “never say die” spirit was encapsulated in the last minute when he won a tackle by stooping to head the ball on the ground, with City boots swinging around him.

City had defended well and their team had showed more fight, spirit and passion. It was a strange Chelsea performance and our squad looks a little on the thin side with no Frank, Yossi or Kalou. The sight of the massive bulk of Yaya Toure against the slight Ramires will be my abiding memory of the day.

Throughout the game, fellow spectators in our row were constantly getting up to go out to use the toilets…up, down, up, down, “excuse me, ‘scuse me”…”weak bladder mate?” Up, down, up, down. It was annoying the hell out of Gary, who chirped

“F – ing hell, there’s more movement in this row than there is in our f –i ng team today.”

Howls of laughter.

That good old gallows humour always helps.

Julie and myself were almost out when I suddenly remembered “Burger’s Flag” and we had to fight the descending Chelsea fans all of the way back up the stairs. There was Burger, with a “face on”, standing in the lower seats. I’m not sure if he was unhappy with the team or for me for forgetting his flag.

Wink.

We slowly edged through the terraced back streets of the City heartland of South Manchester – Longsight, Burbage and Didsbury – and were buoyed by the goals being scored at the Emirates and Anfield, but the mood in the car wasn’t great. We had a brief post-mortem. However, Burger and myself shared a few inevitable laughs and by the time I had reached Stafford at about 5pm, with Arsenal’s demise taking the sting off our defeat, things were back to normal…we were planning our next trip together, and even thinking of potential away games in the F.A.Cup…

“Number 54 – Stafford Rangers…will play…Number 11 – Chelsea.”

It was lovely to spend some time with Julie and Burger – great to see their infectious enthusiasm for my country and their plans for the future. I was almost jealous of them – they are able to look at England with fresh eyes and a thousand days of new towns, new villages, new experiences ( to say nothing of Chelsea gamnes ) lie ahead for them both.

After 390 miles, I reached home at about 8pm and watched the highlights of the game on the English institution that is “Match Of the Day.”

It was – of course – a bad day at the office, but we’ll bounce back.

We do a lot of bouncing at Chelsea.

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