Tales From Sir Matt Busby Way

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 3 April 2010.

For some reason, I awoke at about 3.45am and, for about two hours, I couldn’t get back to sleep…the game at Old Trafford was on my mind, along with memories of other past trips to that particular part of Lancashire. I was buzzing as England slept. At 6.15am, the alarm sounded. At last I was ready. This had the feel of a massive day. I was both nervous and superbly excited.

At 7.15am, I opened my car door, clutching a coffee, just as my neighbour Liz appeared, just about to take her two dogs out for their morning walk. She gave me an old-fashioned look as if to say –

“There’s that idiot off following Chelsea again.”

My village is festooned with daffodils at this time of the year and the hedgerows were full of yellow and green. I would be seeing a lot of those two colours during the day. I texted Alan the first of many…

7.20am – “Jack Kerouac.”

This was swifly followed by

7.22am – “Jenson Button.”

The F1 World Champion grew up a mere mile from my house in Upper Vobster. I was on my way north and I exchanged texts with Alan over the next few hours –

Chris – 7.46am – “Acker Bilk.”

Alan – 7.48am – “Cobblers.”

Chris – 7.59am – “Fred Wedlock.”

Alan – 8.12am – “Webb Ellis.”

Chris – 8.44am – “The Gold Cup.”

As I passed Worcester, I sent a text to my oldest friend ( 1977 and counting ) Pete, a United fan…

“Good luck today. The best team will win.”

At 9.45am, with the sun attempting to break through the grey clouds, I spotted the first United cars, with yellow and gold bar scarves draped by the rear windows. I had been listening to New Order, but soon changed to Everything But The Girl. It felt wrong for the sons of Manchester to be in my car on such a pivotal day. I had been thinking about Manchester – the city – in the build up to the game. I wondered about the demographics of that city’s two clubs. The city is ringed by several league clubs from outlying towns, and I guess their support is locally-based. The cliched-view is that no United fan comes from Manchester and of course this is ridiculous. I remember talking to a City fan – from south Manchester – and he commented that it was 50/50 where he grew up. I think that the historic United heartland of Salford, Urmston, Kersal and Stretford still holds true, whereas the City support is rooted in that south-central area of Hulme and Moss Side. However, due to the working class fan being priced out of the game these days, football has become a suburbanites plaything. How many hardcore Chelsea fans still live in Balham, Battersea, Wandsworth and Lambeth? Not many. In days of yore, the grimy street urchins of working-class Manchester would support their very local clubs, but these days United’s support now comes from every town in the British Isles. Still, I did wonder about that “map” of red and blue support within the Manchester connurbation and how it would look in 2010. Who “owns” Crumpsall and Harpurhey in the north, who “owns” Gorton and Hyde in the east? For me, these excursions into other cities on away days are like urban history trips…my mind races with past stories of club histories, past players, past battles, local personalities, local flavour. I love these trips with all my heart and always try to get under the skin of each host city. As I have mentioned before, my ancestors come from SW Manchester – an Axon stronghold – and this has played on my mind for some time. It’s just a good job Ossie and Webbie scored in that 1970 game at Old Trafford – yes, I realise the irony – or who knows who I would be supporting today.

Back in my youth, United were always seen as a bit of a sad old club, followed by neanderthal glory-hunters…the fact that they had not won the league for ages was richly celebrated. Their one season in the old second division was seen as perfect poetry for their legions of fans. Their lone star, George Best, was a laughing stock, missing matches, getting suspended. He was lampooned by us at school in those years from 1972-1974.

“Georgie Best, Superstar – He Wears Frilly Knickers And He Wears A Bra.”

And here’s the thing…back in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I always got the impression that kids who weren’t really into football, but went along with it to fit in, always supported Manchester United and Liverpool. More irony – that those two bitter rivals should have such a shared gene pool amongst their support.

Infact, I remember finding my class photo from 1978 a while back and it acted as a fine snapshot in time for me. My class contained maybe 15 boys and 15 girls. We would have been 13. I clearly remembered who supported who…no clubs were supported by any of the girls ( how times change! ) but the list of boys’ support was as follows –

Liverpool – Peter, Richard.
Tottenham Hotspur – Andy, David.
Manchester United – Jerry.
Chelsea – yours truly.
Leeds United – Tim.
Bristol Rovers – Dave.

The fanatics were Rover’s Dave and myself. But only a quarter of that class were footy fans…I bet the figure is higher these days.

Anyway, I put all of these myriad thoughts to one side as I turned off the M6 and began the oh-so familiar approach into Manchester. I was soon on the orbital and always find it odd that “The World’s Biggest Football Club” is never signposted. Methinks that there are some City fans in high places in the city council offices!

“Let the idiots from Surrey and Devon get lost.”

There were lots of youths in high-visiblity jackets shepharding cars into industrial estate parking lots – £5! £6! £7! – but I parked up on Gorse Avenue outside a house, no charge. Easy. This was at 11am. I walked out onto the Chester Road, the main approch, and the white steel roof supports of Old Trafford were clearly visible. The street vendors – or grafters – were out in force, selling the yellow and gold scarves.

“Get your protest scaaaaarves – only a five’uh” in that Mancunian vernacular.

A £3.50 “cheeseburg’uh” and I was on my way. The cross-roads by Sir Matt Busby Way is always a hive of red and white activity on match days…a massive queue to get into The Bishop’s Blaize pub, full of song, chippy after chippy, souvenir stalls, a riot of colour. I had to get in line to withdraw some cash and as I waited for what seemed like ages, I took it all in. Three young lads from Northern Ireland, their accents even more impenetrable than the locals, were stood behind me in the queue and I could sense they were worried, running through United’s attacking options, minus Rooney. Our team appeared stronger in comparison. Lots of United fans appeared tense. Fans were decked in protest scarves. Some had Megastore bags. An uneasy alliance.

On the final approach, I bought two fanzines…”CFCUK” from Dave Johnstone, but “United We Stand” too…for my mate Pete. But I do occasionally like to read other fans’ perspectives on this great game of ours. To be fair, “UWS” is a great read, albeit red-tinted, and it even allowed a Chelsea fan’s perspective on the current state of play. There were the predictable noises about the Glazer conundrum, the green and gold protest ( now getting passe, according to some ), the return of Beckham, but also some views from the hardcore about “Day Trippers”, corporate hospitality goons, the over-pricing of tickets and the loathing of Liverpool. Sound familiar?

I took a few shots of the stadium – the United Trinity, the statue of Sir Matt, the understated Munich memorial. I chatted briefly with a few mates on the forecourt, then lined-up to get in. However, an over eager steward stopped me from taking my camera in…he was just being vindictive I am sure…but thankfully, I sweet-talked my way into leaving the whole bag behind the desk at the main reception. The gentleman was very kind and I thanked him ( it meant I didn’t have to traipse back to the car and miss the kick-off ), but I daren’t tell him I was Chelsea! I would go for Plan B and would take a few photos with my phone. Sorted.

I was in the side stand again, but unlike the pre-match vibes at our game at OT last season, the mood was up-beat. It made a refreshing change I must say. In that crowded bar, so many familiar faces. I had a bottle of Bud – United most love America.

Alan, Gary and myself had great seats, four rows from the rear, level with the six yard box. The sun was shining, the nerves were tingling. I spotted Steve Azar, face aglow, in the corner section, right in the middle. There were 2,500 Chelsea in the corner, 500 along the side. We stood the entire game.

We had agreed that a strong, determined start was paramount and the boys didn’t let us down. From the kick-off, we worked the ball into Deco who shot from distance. And it didn’t stop there. We dominated that gorgeous first-half in a way that few of us could imagine. United couldn’t get near us. We were moving the ball so well, keeping United at bay. The defense was hardly troubled, but we kept asking questions of United. Mikel was at his best ; a defensive rock infront of Alex and JT. Frank and Deco moved the ball intelligently, Malouda was always happy to drive into the heart of the red back line. Anelka held up the ball well. We were loving it. The United support was reeling.

After a quarter of the game gone, Malouda, our French prince, skipped deep into the heart of the United defence…he whipped in a cross and we saw a blur of players at the near post. The ball ended-up in the goal, we knew not how, we did not care.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

The Chelsea support roared like never before this season. Up and down we bounced. We could not believe our eyes. A text from a mate…Joe’s goal…must’ve been the deftest of touches. For the next five minutes, our support roared and roared and I noted many sticks of celery being tossed into the air.

Our very own take on the yellow and green on show at Old Trafford.

For the rest of the half, we probed away, but with only a few shots from distance. However, United were as poor as I have seen in thirteen visits to their stadium. Neville, that loathed, ridiculously-moustachioed individual, was having a howler and Scholes’ cross-field passes often went out of play. Ji-Sung Park was coming in for some stick from Alan, Gary and myself.

“I hear that Park has bought a new labrador.”

“Oh yeah – what flavour?”

“He’s kicking chunks out of us.”

“Not a pal of mine.”

“They’ll never winalot with him in the team.”

Such lovely moments of humour really make watching football with Al and Gal so wonderful. We were hooting.

Of course, at half-time, we fully expected Ferguson to be giving his underperforming players the famous “Hair Dryer Treatment” and we knew that United couldn’t possibly perform as poorly in the second.

And so it proved. United had a lot more of the ball and I became trapped in a world of nervous doubt, hating every United attack, begging for us to close them down, but screaming support nonetheless. Paolo broke through soon into the second period, but was stage-struck and tamely shot wide. Damn. The time appeared to stand still. I looked at my watch constantly. Scholes, deployed so deep, was having so much of the ball and was having better joy with his “quarterback-style” long balls to the wings. United were getting back into it and eventually the home support was rocking. We stood firm – encouraging the boys, urging them on. Two stalwarts next to me, old school veterans, were annoying the hell out of me. They were so negative.

“Of course, United are stronger you fools, we couldn’t keep that dominance going forever, stop moaning!” – I thought. One of the “moaning two” couldn’t watch. He stood next to me, head bowed, muttering about wanting to be “in a darkened room.”

Drogba came on for Anelka and we approved. Nico had led the line superbly, but was tiring. Drogba had a couple of breaks, a couple of duels with Vidic. Dean was annoying us with his decisions. Send Scholes off, you muppet!

And then it happened.

A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…”go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football?

That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row infront. Gary ended up two rows infront. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!” The concensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care. A text confirmed it…it came from Del, a Liverpool fan, eager to see us halt United’s progress to Number 19 and four in a row.

Then, almost immediately, a United break and a close-range goal from Macheda.

And so it started all over again…the clock-watching, the nerves…a few sporadic United attacks. Thankfully, they were misfiring. But – oh – what a tense time. I was hating it, but loving it too.

“Back to the darkened room” I whispered to the fan next to me.

Everyone was talking about “Fergie time” and some expected five minutes or more – even seven – to be played. Thankfully, my call of “four” turned out to be right. With the Chelsea support roaring, we repelled every ball into the box…a Cech grasp, a JT head, a block, a penalty claim – EFF OFF! – but we stayed the distance.

At around 2.38pm, the final whistle.

I momentarilly slumped – YES! – payback for Moscow.

I then clambered high on my seat, hugged a few strangers, kissed a few strangers, then joined in –

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Right in line was our mate Simon, 1984 vintage, and he spotted the three of us.

His smile said it all.

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Down below, the players celebrated and we continued singing. It had been a momentous match in deepest Manchester. I felt shattered. I bounced down the stairs, to be met with ashen-faced United fans staring at us…I gathered my wits, then gathered my bag from the reception.

Out on Sir Matt Busby Way, the natives were silent, save for a couple of United lads gobbing off, then squaring up to a couple of Chelsea “scarfers.” I didn’t want to be the one Chelsea fan looking on if it kicked-off, so I quickly side-stepped a few United lads and walked amidst the Chelsea. I kept looking around to make sure the trouble had subsided, keeping my wits about me. I doubt if I would ever get involved – more of a peacemaker, me – but we had to stick together. Anyway, a lesson there. I never wear colours and that is why.

I hot-footed it back to the car with texts flying in from Glenn, Parky, a euphoric Del and then from further afield…Bob in ST, Andy in LA, Beth in TX. The locals were moaning about the referee too. Love it!

I was hot and flustered. I wanted to get away. I threw my Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat, gulped down a Red Bull and set off. On the CD player, Tracey Thorn –

“Wherever you go I will follow you.”

At just before 3pm, I entered the Chester Road and Old Trafford was – like Manchester United – in my rear view mirror. It was a beautiful drive home…blissed out…music on the CD…who cares about the rest of the football results…

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Nearing the M6, I was overtaken by a fat replica-kit wearing United fan, in a Mercedes, guzzling a Coke…he was a big old target…a United stereotype, no doubt loathed by the United hardcore…I put on “Blue Is The Colour” and wound down the windows, as I sidled up alongside.

The texts continued, the Chelsea CD continued.

“Son Of My Father.”

“Allouette.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

…as if to top a wonderful day out, I then learnt that both Spurs and Leeds had lost. The rain couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was loving every damn minute of it.

Nearing home, passing through Midsomer Norton, a text from Pete –

“Fair play mate. Sounded like you deserved to win. Hope you enjoyed it.”

Did I ever!

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Tales From Beneath The Pennines

Burnley vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2010.

This was a classic trip north to support my team. So many things to shoe-horn into this match report.

This has been a strange week for me at work as I begin with a new company on Monday and there are the usual worries and concerns. But, I tried to put all non-Chelsea thoughts to one side. With football the focus, nothing else matters.

The kick-off at Turf Moor was 5.30pm, thus allowing me a little lie-in, for once. This would be my first ever visit to Burnley and made it two new grounds in eight days, after last Saturday’s foray to Preston. To say I was looking forward to my solo mission to Lancashire would be a big understatement.

But first, a quick shopping expedition to Bath. I set off at 9.30am. My goodness, the weather was spectacular. A heavy frost and bright sunlight greeted me. No clouds. I spent about 45 minutes in Bath and I made a bee-line for “John Anthony.” I have been visiting this well-known menswear shop for about 15 years as it has always sold a great selection of “football clobber.” There was a post-Xmas sale on and I picked up a couple of half-price bargains…a muted blue Lacoste rain jacket and a deep red Victorinox baseball cap. I had a bit of banter with the Arsenal-supporting sales assistant. He was surprised to hear I was going to Burnley. It’s always fascinating, for me, to note how the clothes at football change and develop over the years. It’s a shame we no longer have the regional differences in terrace fashion that we had in the ‘eighties – it’s a homogenised look these days. For a while, the usual brands such as Lacoste, CP, Paul & Shark, Henri Lloyd, Armani, Boss and Hackett have held sway, with only the occasional new brand, such as Victorinox, coming to the fore. I wondered what the Burnley lot would be wearing. I was wearing a warm Schott jacket, which I bought at “John Anthony” many years back. I well remember the look on my mate Glenn’s face when I showed up at his house to take him to football and he came to the door wearing the exact same coat. Oh boy – we were known as the Schott Brothers. I have to say, he “won” the bragging rights on that as he bought his first, but I got it cheaper. Happy days. For my mates and me, who have been brought up in terrace culture since we were in our youth, we feel happy eschewing replica kits and the associated garb. We know who we are. If we’re in that away end, we are Chelsea. Maybe a little in badge here or there. That’s enough for us.

JT was being discussed on the radio and so I turned it off. As I headed north, with the Malvern Hills dusted with snow to my west, I listened to Everything But the Girl, that under-appreciated band from my ‘twenties.

“Wherever You Go I Will Follow You.”

Alan and Gary were coming up on the official Chelsea coach. As I hit the outskirts of Manchester, I was listening to “The World Of Morrissey” and I was bouncing. I don’t listen to him much these days, but when I do, it always pleases me. I was chuckling along to the lyrics of “You’re The One For Me, Fatty.” Who else writes such fruity lyrics?

I was now in my element. In my search for new footballing experiences, I had planned to travel around Manchester on the eastern ring-road, simply because I hadn’t ever driven it before. With the two Manchester clubs located in the inner-city area, Manchester is ringed by five “satellite” teams, from Bolton in the NW, via Bury, Rochdale and Oldham, to Stockport in the SE. This greater Manchester area, so important in the industrial revolution and the formation of the professional game, has played a simply massive role in Chelsea Football Club’s history. Our first ever game at Stockport in 1905, the Khaki Cup Final at Old Trafford in 1915, our first FA Cup win at Old Trafford in 1970, Clive Walker’s goal at Bolton in 1983, the tragedy of Matthew Harding at Bolton in 1996 and our first championship in 50 years at Bolton in 2005.

At Bury, I noted wind turbines on the snow-capped moors overlooking the town. Lots of red-brick mill buildings. Smoke stacks. Still no clouds – a perfect day. As I turned off the M60 – Manchester’s M25 – onto the M66, there were signposts for classic Northern towns such as Ramsbottom, Rawtenstall and Clitheroe. With those names came images of a by-gone era, of boyhood comics telling the stories of football-mad boys playing in the streets with tennis balls and of long-forgotten teams such as Glossop and Worksop. On the approach to my destination, I noted rows of small houses perched on the hillsides the colour of which, sombre grey, that I had never seen before. As I drove over the brow of a hill, Accrington was down below me to my left, an absolutely classic Northern town, rows upon rows of terraced houses, with chimneys puffing grey smoke. Then, ahead, a magnificent view of the moors above Burnley, devoid of trees, naked, ancient brown. It was – to be blunt – just what I had expected.

I remember watching Burnley many times on TV in my childhood. They were a good little team, managed by former player Jimmy Adamson…the names trip off my tongue. Frank Casper, Dave Thomas, Peter Noble, Bryan Flynn, Martin Dobson…and my favourite, the Welsh winger Leighton James. They won the league in 1960 and had a fantastic scouting network, especially in the North-East. Burnley is the smallest town – only 75,000 – to have sustained a top flight team for any length of time. I remember being entranced by the classic Turf Moor ground on TV – a terrace to the right with houses and moors behind, but a modern stand – with seats! – behind the goal to the left. You didn’t always get seats behind the goals in those days.

On the last roundabout before I entered Burnley, to my left, yet more slate grey houses. How bleak. I was getting a proper buzz about this. A real sense of place. There are certainly footballing cities further north in England, but I was strongly sensing that there are few that evoke such a strong sense of “northern-ness.” I had looked at Burnley on many maps and thought of it as “the end of the line for Lancashire” – beyond, only the Pennines and that foreign land, Yorkshire.

My mother, just after the war, had befriended a mill-worker from Burnley and had stayed with her one week. What my mother thought of it, in austere post-war Britain, one can only imagine.

I reached Burnley at 3.45pm and paid £5 for “secure match day parking” in the town centre. I popped my head inside one local pub, noted a few local “boys” and decided against it. I back-tracked and walked the half mile to the stadium, the chill wind biting at me from every direction. Police vans were parked on the approach to Turf Moor. There were about ten policemen outside “The Princess Royale” pub, another grey building. There were a few pubs on this main road, but I didn’t fancy it. Too risky. I noted several billboards promoting the club under the slogan “Together – We Are Burnley.” Outside the main stand, a montage of former Burnley players and I was s0 pleased to see a large photo of former Chelsea winger Ian Britton, arms outstretched, in ecstasy, having just scored one of the most decisive goals in their history. In May 1987, Burnley were facing relegation to non-league football in the first-ever year of automatic relegation. On the day, Burnley beat Orient 2-1 and Ian Britton scored the second. The look on his face, always cheeky, is a picture.

For the best part of an hour, I waited for mates to arrive. The weather was getting worse. Everyone was wearing hats and caps. I was wearing my trusted Yankee one. There were the inevitable gaggle of reporters and cameramen questioning us about JT. I was asked by a BBC bod to comment, but declined. We’ll close ranks and see what happens. Chelsea will stand by him, no issue. We have had bigger worries than his infidelity – bankruptcy, tragedy, hooliganism – but I still feel let down. I had to laugh at one Burnley fan who was being interviewed. He ended his piece to camera with a prolonged howl which I could only liken to a rebel yell, that Southern speciality, now evident Up North.

Nick and his son Robbie arrived. Nick’s sister now lives in Accrington and is a Burnley season-ticket holder. She was there with her husband .They wanted to arrange a family photo, but Robbie was having none of it! No inter-club friendliness in that family. The Nuneaton boys arrived – Andy, Jonesy, The Youth, his son Seb and Lovejoy. Andy was wearing a fantastic mid-brown Berghaus jacket which gets better every time I see it. I noted quite a few Chelsea arriving with Aquascutum scarves wrapped around their necks. These were so popular in the 1985-1989 period. Classics to this day. More faces arrived. A quick word with Cathy. A few people mentioned our last visit – a painful 0-3 defeat in the last few weeks of the 1982-83 season. After that, I was absolutely convinced that we would be relegated to the Third Division. Convinced! Dark days.

Alan and Gary eventually arrived at about 5pm. Seems all the Chelsea coaches had been parked in a holding area out of town after rumours of trouble involving Chelsea and the Burnley mob, the wonderfully blunt “Suicide Squad.” I met Ajax again and sold him a spare for Arsenal.

Inside, we had superb seats, in the second row, to the right of the far post. Gill from Kent was ten seats away. Since redevelopment, the TV cameras swapped sides, like at The Bridge. Turf Moor holds 22,000 and this represents one-third of the town’s population. Putting club loyalty to one side, that’s an amazing achievement. However, my mate Mark, from eight miles up the road in Darwen, is a Blackburn fan and loathes Burnley. He calls them The Bastards, or The Dingles, after a family of low life ne’er do-wells in the UK soap opera “Emmerdale.”

Burnley, ably supported by a noisy home support, gave us a tough game. This was one we had to win, though. Burnley made life hard for us and I kept thinking of the old adage “there are no easy games in The Premiership.” We scored after good work from Malouda and a simple tap-in from Anelka right in front of us. Eagles seemed to be a threat on their left, but it was a first-half which simmered without producing many chances. We seemed to be unable to stretch the home defence. Cech didn’t really have to make a save. I was snapping away like a fool and half-expected a steward to ask me to put my camera away. Thankfully this never happened. I took a lovely shot of Malouda, our best player in the first-half, whipping a ball in. I noted a full moon appear in the gap between north and east stands, just above the scoreboard. It seemed to add to the drama…

Ian Britton made the half-time draw and he waved over to us, with that endearing cheeky smile of his. We responded with a chant from the ‘seventies –

“Ian – Ian Britton – Ian Britton on the wing.”

I also had a – sadly – great view of the mess which lead to their equaliser. Not Alex’ finest moment. All of a sudden, we became more urgent and the second-half was all ours really. Branislav Ivanovic had a great game and caused more of a threat than the poor Joe Cole. Lamps and Ballack seemed to be labouring. JT was having a stormer, though, and was ignoring the boos from the home support. We peppered Jensen in their goal and a Joe Cole was disallowed for offside. Our support found it hard to battle the vociferous locals. Alan, Gary and myself kept singing. We stood the entire game. After a typically robust piece of defensive play by our captain, I commented to Gary

“JT will score the winner tonight.”

As the game continued, I was still confident we’d get a goal. With five minutes left, Frank swung in a corner, JT leaped and the ball bounced in.

We went ballistic. I grabbed Gary – looking back, quite violently! – and we bounced up and down with me yelling “I told you! I told you! I told you!” After the build-up to the day, it just had to be. Some things are just meant to be.

The away end was now bouncing. My mate Glenn texted me to say he saw us on TV. The players made a quick getaway – clearly under orders. JT kissed the badge and a stern Frank gave us a thumbs up. We sang a few songs beneath the stand. We were all happy. I said to a few friends “that is a defining game in our season.” It reminded me of that tough night just up the road at Ewood in early 2005. Five years on, the same feeling. This will be our year. This was not a great Chelsea performance. Hell, at times, it wasn’t even good. But we look the likeliest team to win the league. So, let’s enjoy it.

I left Burnley at 8pm and wondered if I would ever be back. I retraced my steps, stopping off for a filling Chinese buffet in Ashton-Under-Lyme, the place full of Mancs of both hues no doubt. There was heavy snow near Stafford and I feared the worst. However, it didn’t follow me south. Japan were now on the CD player. More memories of those tough Chelsea winters of my youth. Then a tiring detour through Wolverhampton, with Molyneux sleeping in the distance, followed by a couple of Red Bull pit stops, resulted in me not getting home until 2.15am.

Another long day, but a magical day of childhood memories, of new experiences, of music, of terrace culture, of laughter, of friendship and of football.

Hull and Arsenal next. Let the Chelsea roll continue.

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Tales From The City Of Manchester

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 5 December 2009.

With the late kick-off for our game at Eastlands, let me say a massive thank you to the TV companies and the FA who once again make life that little bit more difficult to the fans who actually attend games.

Good work.

Looking ahead, I see that for the third consecutive year, we are at Everton on a midweek night later on this season. It’s a disgrace and makes me sick.

For a few moments on Friday evening, my head was full of the World Cup draw. Rarely has my mobile phone been busier thanks to all the Stateside messages I received within an hour of England and USA being drawn together. However, thoughts of the World Cup rapidly evaporated when I awoke on Saturday morning.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea. The battle of the money men. Game on.

I had been suffering with a slight cold on Thursday and Friday and so wasn’t relishing the 200 mile drive up to Raintown.

I left home at 11am and listened to “Fighting Talk” on Five Live. I would be travelling alone, cocooned in my car with thoughts of the day ahead, battling the traffic, the wet weather and the cold. It was a typical winter day – low lying cloud and virtually no sun. With the Pompey vs. Burnley match on the radio, I decided to listen to Kings Of Leon instead. Not even I am that much of a footy fan.

I sent the usual cryptic clues to Alan as to my whereabouts as I zipped past the oh-so familiar M6 service stations –

“Cripps” – Stafford

“Howard” – Keele

“City Limits” – Knutsford

It was a pretty uneventful trip north. The Cocteau Twins replaced the Kings Of Lyon as I spun around the M60, the Manchester orbital. With the massive Stockport train viaduct ahead of me and then three massive red-brick mill buildings ( now rejuvenated as shopping malls / offices ) it suddenly dawned on me that I was “up north,” in the country’s former industrial heartland.

Stockport – of course, the location of Chelsea Football Club’s first ever competitive game, some 104 years ago.

At around 1.30pm, I found myself in the district of Clayton, where Manchester United’s first ground was located. I could see the supports to the City Of Manchester Stadium roof and so hunted for a place to park. I decided against street parking as I saw a few shady looking youths loitering. I paid a fiver for secure parking in a car wash, opposite a pub. I was reminded of the memorable welcome a few of us received from a female City fan way back in 1989. We had walked down to Maine Road from Piccadilly on a wet Saturday morning and as we crossed the road by the main stand, a Ford Capri stopped. The passenger window was wound down and the girl shouted out

“You’re gonna die, you cockney cunts.”

How charming.

As I approached the stadium, Beth called to say that she had just arrived too. She had travelled up by car with Gill and Graeme.

The weather turned murkier and the drizzle increased.

This was my fifth visit to the new City stadium. On a similarly rainy evening in 2004, a Nicolas Anelka consigned us to our only league defeat that season…I wondered about the omens.

Just before I bumped into Alan, Gary, Whitey, Beth, Gill and Graeme, I noted a long wall adjacent to one of the car parks. Emblazoned on it was a long piece of graffiti, signifying “speed”( all zig-zags and stripes ) with none other than an image of Shaun Wright-Phillips at the front. It looked pretty tasty. However, I soon realised that it was ultra-realistic.

He didn’t have the ball at his feet.

There was probably an image of a ball on another wall somewhere, or on the other side of the road. Maybe next to a chip shop in Droylesden or somewhere. Anywhere but at SWP’s feet.

I had time for two pints inside the stadium and a bit of a chat with a few mates.

As I took my seat in the upper tier, we noted that the stadium lights did not appear to be on full power. All was revealed. Just before the teams came on, all stadium lights were turned off, leaving just a “blue moon” image on the two scoreboards at each end of the stadium. With that, the City fans began bellowing their club song.

It was pretty good actually – the best example of a stadium helping to orchestrate an atmosphere I have seen outside of SW6.

Like The Bridge, the balcony walls were covered with City flags and slogans. The best one – and the biggest – simply stated

“We’re Not Really Here.”

I’m not sure of the origins of this City chant, but I guess it could be City’s particularly tongue-in-cheek reaction to being the second-class citizens of Manchester. I like City’s self-deprecating sense of humour. They remind me of us. In fact, just before kick-off, I spoke to Gary about City being the only other team I could stomach winning the title, mainly in lieu of all the hard times they endure as a result of United being across the city.

Soon into the game, we regaled the City left-back with a nice song about a game at Highbury in 2004. It didn’t take Gary long, once he had spotted a certain H Webb as the referee, to state

“We’ll get nothing here.”

However, it is worth saying that Gary says this at every one of our domestic away games, as if every Premiership ref has a personal vendetta against us. I had to chuckle.

We began well and appeared to be continuing on from the Arsenal game. We had a couple of chances even before we went ahead via Adebayor’s own goal.

Oh how we laughed.

However, for the rest of the first-half, City played really well and smothered us. Our midfield was poor by comparison to theirs. However, it was especially grating to hear that their equaliser had come via a handball. There were many grumbles at half-time, but I had confidence in Carlo sorting them out during the interval.

We played better in the second-half, but the Tevez free-kick made it hard for us to get on top of City. That lead gave them an extra yard. However, our midfield was truly abysmal…in fact, only Anelka seemed to play well. It was a disjointed affair. No passion.

Despite the fact that we stood for most of the game, our vocal support was poor, too.

Drogba was put through, one on one, and I was convinced he would score. I turned around in dismay and kicked the seat when he stroked the ball wide.

We piled on some late pressure and we prayed that a goal would come. Then, a ball for Drogba and he was scythed down. I pointed a finger at Gary – “He’s given it!” – and was full of emotion. I turned around to share my jubilation with my fellow fans.

And there she was.

Stood behind me, away shirt on, was a girl in her early ‘twenties. She had no expression. No smile. No laughter. No jubilation. I felt like shaking her. Why wasn’t she going mental like Alan, Gary and yours truly? Her obvious ambivalence to the emotion of the moment truly saddened me to the core.

Why do these people bother?

The away end held its collective breath and hoped Frank would score.

I snapped just as he was about to strike.

The scuffed shot. The save. A miserable 3,000 strong groan. The City fans erupted.

Despite five extra minutes, we looked unlikely to do it. As the final whistle blew, I quickly exited and I was soon out in the rainy evening. A few City fan were goading us and Dave Johnstone walked over to remonstrate with the Manchester police. I sped on back to the car.

The City lot were full of it – no complaints, they deserved it.

A gaggle of them sang “We’re not really here”

“We’re not really here, we’re not really here
Like the friends of the Invisible Man
We’re not really here.”

And I wished they weren’t.

I was lucky to get away relatively early. I edged out of the car park and was away, the rain coming down thicker now…the car windows steamed up and all around me car lights came on. The terraced houses seemed to go on forever. The City fans were bouncing. It would be a good night in Manchester’s blue half.

It was a four drive home…my post-match depression was short-lived. My good mate Alan had downloaded ex Cocteau Twins singer Elizabeth Fraser’s first single in 13 years and I listened to this on a loop for a good hour. It cheered me up no end. It also included her liaison with the late Jeff Buckley on “All Flowers In Time Bend Towards The Sun.”

Soon after, as I headed south past Tewkesbury and Cheltenham, I put my favourite Cocteau Twins album “Treasure” on and Fraser’s magnificent voice, shimmering one minute, crashing with emotion the next, soothed me.

“Treasure” came out in November 1984…and every time I hear the first few words, I am immediately taken back to that time. It takes me back to a cold December night, myself listening to “Treasure” on my Walkman, walking up the Fulham Road, full of Christmas shoppers, just after I had seen the Chelsea vs. Liverpool game on December 1st 1984…we had just beaten the European Champions 3-1 in front of over 40,000…Peter Osgood had been spotted in the West Stand seats just a few yards away, King Kerry scored after a few minutes and the Scousers were outplayed by an exuberant Chelsea team, newly-arrived in the top flight.

With such memories as that to draw on, the drive home was easy.

I soon reached Bristol – now home to Elisabeth Fraser, Massive Attack, Tricky, Portishead et al – and the music and memories of games past continued until I reached home at midnight. Let’s not dwell too much on a poor day at the office for Chelsea. Who needs bad memories? All flowers in time bend towards the sun.

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