Tales From The Mancunian Way

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 10 February 2019.

Sunday Four O’Clock.

This was another away game that would test me. How I miss matches on Saturday at three o’clock. Our game at Manchester City would begin at 4pm, which meant that my footballing exploits over the weekend would not really finish until 11pm, or 11.30pm or maybe even later. This annoyed me more than ever on the Friday and Saturday as I tried to muster up some enthusiasm for the long journey north. City away was a tough trip at the best of times, but four o’clock on a Sunday was the worst of times and it just didn’t seem fair on any of us. Those travelling on the Chelsea coaches would not even be back at Stamford Bridge until almost midnight. The day began with me setting off from home at 9.15am and I collected PD, Lord Parky and Sir Les and we were on the road after a quick breakfast in Melksham at 10.30am. The drive north took me a few minutes’ shy of four hours. I was met with speed restrictions on the M5 and M6, and an odd assortment of weather – blinding sun, rain, sleet, hailstones – against an ever-changing backdrop of various cloud formations, a dull grey bathwater glaze one minute, vibrant and brooding and billowing the next.

Manchester Remembered.

It had been a week in which the city of Manchester had flitted into my mind on a few occasions. On the Wednesday, Manchester United had paid their respects to the Flowers of Manchester, remembering those that had perished on the ice of a Munich runway or in a Munich hospital all those years ago. On the Thursday, the actor Albert Finney had passed away. He was a native of Salford and the star of those cutting-edge “kitchen sink” dramas of the ‘early-sixties, in which the Northern cities in which they were filmed were as much a star as the actors themselves. Manchester was often used as the backdrop in some sort of homage to the scenes depicted by LS Lowry, another son of Salford. I remembered seeing Albert Finney on the pitch at Old Trafford before a United vs. Chelsea game a few seasons ago. And I certainly remembered him in the 1967 film “Charlie Bubbles” in which a small segment is filmed at Old Trafford – outside on what is now Sir Matt Busby Way and on the famous forecourt, inside from the interior of a box above the United Road seats – at a Manchester United vs. Chelsea game from November 1966 (a 1-3 defeat).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZfFTeiV_ti4

And then, sadly, we all heard the horrible news that former Chelsea and Manchester United winger Mickey Thomas was battling stomach cancer. Mickey was a mid-season addition to our iconic promotion winning team of 1983/84 and he energised the side from the off with his tenacious spirit and drive, to say nothing of his fine skill which caught us all by surprise. He instantly became one of my most beloved Chelsea heroes, and even now might feature in a “favourite players XI.”

A Drive Down Memory Lane.

The route took me right into the heart of Manchester. It took me through Didsbury, past Fallowfield, past some rented rooms in Whalley Range, and right through Moss Side to Hulme. It took me within a few hundred yards of where Manchester City played football from 1923 to 2003. I only ever visited Maine Road on three occasions. In my mind, it seems more. But three it is; a First Division game on a Saturday morning in 1985, a Saturday afternoon game in Division Two in 1989 and a Sunday afternoon game in the Premier league in 2001. My memories of Maine Road are strong, though. I watched the action from three different sides on those three visits (Anfield remains the only away stadium where I have watched from all four sides) and it was a large and atmospheric old place. I bet the City fans of 2019 miss it terribly. My last visit on the last weekend of the 2000/2001 season – marking the last appearances of Frank Leboeuf and Dennis Wise in our colours – seems like only yesterday. A few of us stayed the Saturday night in Blackpool and a mini-bus took us down to Manchester, depositing us among the red-brick terraced houses outside the ground and collecting us after. But the main memory from that day – we won 2-1 if it matters – was of the City lads who encroached onto the pitch at the final whistle (or just before it, if memory serves the referee “blew up” early) and stared us down. We were glad to hop into the waiting mini-bus and make our retreat after that game. By then, Maine Road had lost its large, deep Kippax side terrace and its equally cavernous Platt Lane seats. It was on odd and lop-sided stadium by 2001.

One Final Visit.

On a Saturday in 2004, I paid one final visit to Maine Road. City had played their last game there in the April, and I was on my way to our first-ever visit to the City of Manchester Stadium – remember when it was called that? – at Eastlands – remember when it was called that? – but I wanted to call by and photograph it for my own personal satisfaction. The stands were intact at that stage, though cordoned off for safety’s sake, and I took a few snaps. Memorably, “MUFC” was daubed on an adjacent end of terrace house. Also, very poignantly, there was some graffiti in memory of the former Manchester City player Marc Vivien Foe, who had scored Manchester City’s last-ever goal at Maine Road on 21 April, but who had died on a football pitch just over three months later. The City fans, leaving many fond memories at Maine Road, must surely have wondered if this was an ominous warning of the fates that might befall them further east.

They need not have worried.

On that same day, less than half a mile away, I visited one of only two streets in the whole of the UK that feature my surname. There is an Axon Square in Moss Side in Manchester and there is an Axon Crescent in Weston Coyney in Stoke-on-Trent. My surname is geographically strong in both areas (a Percy Axon was the chairman of Stoke City in the ‘seventies) but my surname is centered on Manchester. It is a bloody good job that my forefathers moved to Kent and then Dorset; I wouldn’t care too much to be a City fan.

[I thought about inserting a comment here suggesting that if my father’s grandfather had stayed in Kent or Dorset, I wouldn’t care too much to be a United fan. But then realised that I am a Chelsea fan in Somerset, so had best not be too damning].

On that very first visit to Eastlands, we won a dour game 1-0 and I was warmed to see the Kippax remembered with a banner draped over a balcony wall to my right. However, I have never seen it since.

The Mancunian Way.

With a Style Council CD playing us in, I crept onto the Mancunian Way which wraps itself around the southern edge of the city centre, and found myself driving along an instantly recognisable section of road. Despite only three visits to Maine Road, this would be my fourteenth visit to City’s new stadium. Manchester is a cracking city on a number of counts and my blood pumps and heart bumps on every visit. I deposited the lads right outside the stadium – LP and PD scuttled inside for some beers while Les chanced his arm in a nearby City pub – while I shot off to park up. Rain threatened but did not amount to much. I peered in to see the closing segments of the City Ladies vs. Chelsea Ladies game at the nearby academy stadium. The chill wind bit me. I sorted some spare tickets for a mate and decided to take a slow walk around the stadium. I had to laugh when I saw a lad with a United bag being searched outside the main stand. The steward had not spotted it. I warned her.

“He’s having a laugh, isn’t he, the boy? Ha.”

“Oh, thanks – I didn’t spot that.”

She hid it inside another bag.

Overhead the skies suggested a certain downpour. They were dark, and ominous. But the sun shone through too. It made for some dramatic shapes in and around the towering stadium. A band were playing in the post-modern “fan zone” to the north by the City shop. There were police on horseback. There were half and half scarves. There were a couple of buskers. Hot food stands. On the Ashton New Road stood an old school Fish and Chip shop blinking in the winter sun.

The Lower Tier.

I had run out of things to photograph – with my phone, proper cameras were banned, along with food and drink, file once more under “I hate modern football” – and so reluctantly made my way in with just under an hour to go. There was a security pat down and I was in. I had swapped tickets with PD and made my way into the lower tier for only the second time. The last time was on a very wet day in 2004 when a Nicolas Anelka penalty inflicted on us our only defeat of that season. I was worried about that precedent, but I was worried about a lot more tangible things too; City’s attacking strength, our defensive frailties, their impressive passing patterns, our buggering about with no incision, their Sergio Aguero, their Kevin de Bruyne, their David Silva, their Raheem Sterling.

As I entered the stadium I felt myself thinking “do I have to?”

I made my way to my place, about ten rows back, but close – ugh – to the home fans. The bottom of that tier has very shallow terracing. There was a fleeting memory of the sight lines from 2004. I tried not to dwell on it. We were treated to “Transmission “and “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division. At least the music was bang on.

Out in the small concourse and the terraces, I chatted to a few friends.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

“Fuck, yeah.”

One fellow fan said “as long as we give it a go” and I grimaced. I knew that we didn’t “give it a go” last season and Antonio Conte took some heat for it. But City were still a very fine team and we – without stating the bloody obvious – aren’t, not yet, not for a while.

I was wary so wary of trying to play them at their game. I picked a number out of thin air.

“I’d rather lose 1-0 than 6-0” (meaning that – and remembering last season –  if we gave them spaces to exploit, exploit they bloody well would).

Yes, we had – somehow, I know not how, I wasn’t there – managed to raise our game and beat City 2-0 at home before Christmas, but boy have we struggled during most games since. The recent 5-0 walloping of Huddersfield Town did not get my pulses racing. I was glad Gonzalo Higuain was in our ranks, but he was new, adapting, possibly not at his fighting weight nor his fighting strength.

I was still worried as the minutes ticked by. Up in the middle tier, I just saw the heads of Alan, Gary, PD and Parky if I stood on tip toe.

We exchanged waves.

Or was it more “not waving but drowning?”

We would soon find out.

The stadium filled up. A few empty seats dotted around, include some in our section. Flags were waved by the City fans to my left. There was a moment of applause for the memory of Emiliano Sala.

RIP.

I had almost forgotten to check our team.

Here it was.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Kante – Jorginho – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

Four.

The game began. Chelsea, in three tiers, tried to get songs together but it proved so difficult. We threatened at the very start but I knew we couldn’t keep that up for ninety minutes. I was half-pleased at our bright opening but also half-scared to death.

After just three minutes, with Marcos Alonso away with the fairies, Bernardo Silva crossed from our left and the ball found its way to Raheem Sterling. He knew what to expect. I prepared myself for a goal.

Wallop. One-nil. Oh bollocks.

Ross Barkley turned and chastised Alonso, the missing man.

The City fans to my left – 99% male, and local – erupted and gave us loads of verbal. They pushed and shoved towards us. I bloody hated them but admired their passion in equal measure. I bloody hate you football. Soon after, Sergio Aguero fluffed an easy chance from just a couple of yards. It was our turn to smile, but we were not smiling for long. A shot from Hazard was easily saved by Ederson. It fired City up even more. They broke and moved the ball to that man Aguero who curled a magnificent shot past Kepa from outside the box. The PA announced that Aguero had tied two others as City’s all-time highest goal scorer in league football.

We were 2-0 down after just thirteen minutes.

I felt like shouting “blow up now, ref.”

After nineteen minutes, Barkley – for reasons known only to him – headed a high ball back to Kepa. Aguero waited in line and popped it home. He became City’s number one striker.

City 3 Chelsea 0.

We were at sixes and sevens, eights and nines. How worse could this get? On twenty-five minutes, we found out. Gundogan shot low from outside the box with Kepa just unable to reach it.

City 4 Chelsea 0.

We still tried to attack and, ironically, had looked reasonably good at times. There had been a shot from Barkley, one from Pedro, and a well-struck volley from Higuain was dramatically punched over by Ederson.

But, of course, every time that City broke they looked like scoring

There was shock and anger in the away section. Two young lads, northerners, were very vocal but their dexterity did not extend further than “this is shit” and they did not reappear in the second-half. At the half-time whistle, I quickly realised that in the last ninety minutes of football away from the Bridge we had conceded eight goals.

Altogether now; “fackinell.”

At half-time, I met up – briefly – with my friend who had shared her thoughts with me before the game.

She smiled : “it’s all your fault.”

I met up with a few more friends. Blank expressions. Shock.

Gallows humour tried to get us through the half-time break but this was so hard. We had been ripped to bloody shreds. Our midfield was not closing people down; their runners were afforded so much space. It was so sad to see a good man like Dave being given the run around by Sterling. I had lost count of the times that Aguero was able to cause havoc in yards of space. That was inexcusable. I had not honestly realised how formidable Aguero is. Up close he is made for football, he has legs like tree-trunks. Take away his dodgy barnet and he is a perfect striker.

As for us, there were no leaders anywhere.

Oh God.

Six.

Into the second-half, and I noticed more empty seats around me, but most had stayed. I was pleased about that. I prayed for some sort of damage limitation. We had learned that Tottenham, bloody Tottenham, had won 3-1 at home to Leicester City in the early game, and I just wanted the game over. Aguero headed against the bar, but then on fifty-six minutes Dave fouled his nemesis Sterling and Aguero made it 5-0 from the spot.

City 5 Chelsea 0.

My spirits fell as my mind did some calculations.

In the very last away game, we had suffered our worst defeat in the league since 1996. Twenty-three long years. We had taken, now, just eleven days to better it.

Oh bloody hell.

I had never seen us lose 5-0 before. I had been lucky. I was not at our most infamous defeat of all, the 6-0 at Rotherham United in 1981. Nor the 7-0 at Nottingham Forest in 1991. Nor the 7-2 at Middlesbrough in 1979. Nor the 7-1 at Wolves in 1975. I missed the 6-0 at QPR in 1986 and the 6-2 at home to Forest in 1986. But here I was staring at a 5-0 defeat. My mind had gone to be honest. I just wanted the final whistle to blow. I wanted to go out.

A lone shot from Hazard hit the side-netting. By now, Kovacic had replaced Barkley, Loftus-Cheek had replaced Pedro, Emerson had replaced Alonso.

Emerson shot meekly from a futile free-kick at Ederson.

I sighed.

With ten minutes to go, a sublime ball from substitute David Silva split open our defence and the resulting cross was slotted home by Sterling.

City 6 Chelsea 0.

The City fans, at least showing a little self-deprecation, roared :

“Six nil to the Empty Seats.”

I grimaced.

And then – this really is their Joy Division, right?  – reprised a song from last season’s game :

“City – tearing Cockneys apart, again.”

Silence from us. Ugh.

The City fans then sang at those remaining in our area : “you’re fucking shit.”

Horribly, some of our fans joined in. I wasn’t having that. I turned around, wondering who I was going to be talking to, and saw three youngsters, smiling and laughing like simpletons.

“Behave yourselves.”

For the best part of the next five minutes, I heard them mocking me, but I did not bite, nor look around. Let’em have their fun. Fans of other clubs would be doing the same over the next few days. I needed to toughen myself up.

And then at 6-0 we were at our loudest of the entire day.

“Oh Chelsea we love you.”

Good stuff. Proper Chelsea.

At the final whistle, I made a quick retreat to the top of the lower tier but looked around to see Eden head over and give his shirt to a young fan. A few players walked over. Those still in the lower tier clapped them.

I waited outside for Les, PD and Parky. I shook hands with a few others.

Gallows humour got me through :

“They’re having a minute’s silence in Liverpool right now.”

I spoke to a few friends who drifted out into the cold Manchester evening :

“To think Conte was lambasted for losing 1-0 up here last season. They are an elite team, one of the best, that was just suicidal.”

We walked back to the car. My phone had ran out of charge in the last few minutes of the game and it was just as well. I drove along the Ashton New Road to the M60. It was a quick and clean getaway, the highlight of the day. While others in the Chelsea Nation vented on social media, I just drove south. As we saw signs for Wythenshaw, Les told us that his mother was from there, a much tighter link to Manchester than mine. We stopped at Sandbach for food, at Strensham for fuel. It was a long old drive home.

6-0.

Fackinell.

Last season, after the City game I found myself attempting to get inside Antonio Conte’s head – not to be an apologist for him, but to try to work out his game plan – and I wrote this :

“There was the inevitable post-mortem in the car as I headed away from Manchester. Many words were exchanged. I still liked Antonio Conte. He had not suddenly become a horrible manager overnight. Three Juventus titles after a few seasons of draught. Then a World Cup with Italy had everyone using the phrase “a tactical masterclass” – to the point of cliché – as we described him and relished him joining us. A league title with Chelsea followed. I have a feeling, as I have said before, that this feels like a first season; transition, change, conflicts. He has not managed the pressure particularly well, but the hatred aimed at him from some sections of our support openly shocked me. As I drove home, Glenn kept me updated with some highlights from the wonderful world of social media. From the comments of some, it honestly felt like we had lost 7-0 rather than 1-0. And from the way some people were allegedly talking, some fans would rather that we lost by such a score rather than a 1-0 defeat using the tactics employed.

Be careful what we wish for.

I am not so sure a possible 4-0 or 5-0 shellacking against – possibly – the second best team in the game right now would have been the best preparation for the next few games, one of which is against the best team in the world. I again thought about the manager’s thought processes; he knows his players, their mentalities. Again, his view was to keep it tight.

I drove on.

Glenn read out quotes from the manager :

”We wanted to close space, stop them playing between the lines, limit them.”

It was as I expected. A critique of the manager can’t ignore his background, his Italian history. His decisions were a reflex response to danger to defend first. It obviously upset some people.”

Our last four games this season?

Chelsea 3 Sheffield Wednesday 0

Bournemouth 4 Chelsea 0

Chelsea 5 Huddersfield Town 0

Manchester City 6 Chelsea 0

A penny for Antonio Conte’s thoughts?

As for Maurizio Sarri.

To put it bluntly, I’m not convinced. Are you?

I dropped off Les at 11pm, Parky just after and PD at 11.30pm. I was home just before midnight. Parky’s main task on waking on the Monday morning was to sort out PD’s away ticket for Fulham. We will still go to as many games as we can. It seemed like the end of the world, but I have seen Chelsea relegated in 1975, 1979 and 1988. Everything is relative.

Numbers.

The Manchester City game was match number 1,235 for me.

Of those, I have seen us concede five or more goals on just seven occasions.

I have seen us score five or more goals on fifty-eight occasions.

That does not make the 6-0 loss at Manchester City any less shocking but it certainly helps me cope.

Much respect to those travelling out to Malmo in Sweden this week. My next game is the FA Cup tie at home to the second-best team in Manchester on Monday.

See you there.

For those wishing to donate to a fighting fund for Mickey Thomas, please note : https://www.gofundme.com/help-mickey-t-fight-cancer

Thanks!

 

Tales From Bar 68

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 18 September 2011.

What a game. What a crazy game.

With my head still spinning with continued talk of boycotts and the rumbling aftermath of the morgue-like atmosphere at the game on Tuesday, I faced a long journey up to Manchester. I left my home village at around 9.30am. With the nascent development of Andre Villas-Boas’ team still in its opening sequence, I couldn’t help but think that the game with the old adversaries was just a few weeks too soon. There is no doubt that this would be a stern test for the team and supporters alike. There had been a sense of foreboding in the earlier part of the week, but my attitude had changed a little on Friday and Saturday. What was the reason for this upturn in my optimism? The manager himself. He has impressed me in almost all the things he has said and done since being at the helm of our club. He seems placid, yet passionate. He is calm, yet calculating. He seems to fit the bill, alright. We have to trust him.

Of course, part of my excitement about this match was centered upon which team he would select. Thousands of words have been uttered and written since Tuesday on this very subject.

We waited with baited breath.

Unfortunately, the weather which greeted me as I drove the short distance to collect Lord Parky was overcast and gray. I also had developed a slight headache – not through pondering Villas-Boas’ game plan I hasten to add – but I knew that this would be remedied after we stopped to collect a McBreakfast and a McCoffee at McMelksham on the long drive north.

We endured a variety of weather as I pounded the familiar tract north. Talk was of the next batch of games, the plans, the travel arrangements, the tickets, the itineraries.

This would be my sixteenth trip up to Old Trafford with Chelsea and, although we had a superb record from the ‘sixties through to the ‘eighties, our recent record hasn’t been too great. Of the fifteen previous visits, I had witnessed just four Chelsea victories. But – in all honesty – four of the greatest domestic away games ever. A Kerry Dixon brace and a double Tony Godden penalty save in two different games in 1986. A gorgeous 3-1 win after we won the championship in 2005 and Old Trafford as quiet as it has ever been. And then the goals from Joe and Didier giving us a seismic triumph on the way to our championship in 2010. Away victories simply do not get any better than these four.

We hit some slow-moving traffic between Stafford and Stoke and so I veered off through my former college town. We raced past the Britannia Stadium – only five weeks since our opening-day visit – and I was soon back on the M6 and the motorway was relatively clear.

I had hoped to have been parked-up by 2pm, but the delay around Stafford meant that I was running thirty minutes late. This was my third visit to Old Trafford in only six months and the approach on the Chester Road is very familiar now. I drove past the McDonalds where Gumby and I had a pre-match bite in 2006 and then past a few familiar landmarks including a sadly disused art deco-fronted cinema which welcomed me on the slow drive towards Old Trafford. I make a point of mentioning this as the sculptured frontage is a bright sky blue. A statement from its former owner, a proud Manchester City fan, perhaps?

“This may be United territory, but this is our city.”

I’m not so sure about this clichéd view to be honest. Although I always hear accents from all four corners of the UK and Ireland – not to mention many foreign accents – in and around Old Trafford on match days, I’m always surprised how many local “Manchest-oh” accents I hear, too. I’m not sure if anyone else has noticed it, but there seems to be more and more local Manchester banners on show at United games. It’s as if their fans have made a conscious effort to re-dress the balance of this perceived notion that there are more Blues than Reds in the city. A few years back, you would see banners which said “Exeter Reds”, “Devon Reds”, “Dublin Reds” and “Malta Reds” at away games. Today, it seems that you are now more likely to see “Urmston Reds”, “Salford Reds”, Sale Reds and “Clayton Reds.” It’s as if they are reclaiming Mancunia as their own. There always used to be a certain amount of “niggle” amongst local United fans and their fans from elsewhere in the UK. This is certainly true of Liverpool, too. There is a notion that out-of-town United fans are the glory hunters, forever besmirching the name of Manchester United. It was United who invented the derogatory nickname “daytrippers” which described the out-of-towners arriving en masse at Old Trafford, buying United paraphernalia and not really “getting” what United is about.

To be honest, Chelsea have always embraced supporters from all over the UK and I’m proud of this. In my youth, when I was alone in The Shed, Londoners would always welcome my presence at Chelsea.

“Where you from, mate? Somerset? Wow.”

However, the shifting sands of support in the UK at the moment has resulted in a greater resentment of “tourists” and probably no more so than in London. I lose count of the number of times I hear the terms “JCLs” and “tourists” being banded during discussions about the atmosphere at The Bridge getting worse and worse with each season. This is a lop-sided view though. Not all tourists or new fans lack passion. The problem that Chelsea has is that a large proportion of tourists who go to The Bridge just happen to be in London and are not really Chelsea fans. They attend our games because The Bridge is convenient. I’m not convinced that United have this exact problem. I have the distinct feeling that United’s fans – and there are 330 million of them Worldwide – are enticed to Manchester solely to watch United. This might not be correct, but this is my view.

In some respects, the loyal fans of United and Chelsea – plus all of the big clubs in the Premier League – are experiencing these self-same notions of being disenfranchised, being priced out, being taken advantage of. It’s just the scale and timings which differ. Fully expect Manchester City’s long-suffering legions to be complaining about their club’s new fans next.

Locals were attempting to usher me in to a variety of match day parking lots – ₤5 a car – but I ignored them and parked outside the same house as I did for the fated league game in May. The only change to the immediate locale was the appearance of two new floodlight masts at the nearby Old Trafford cricket stadium.

Parky and I donned our jackets and made the twenty minute walk to the stadium. It dawned on me during the week that I have never ever had a beer in a pub outside Old Trafford. The over-riding reason for this is the paucity of options and – hence – the fact that all the pubs are for home fans only. There was the usual singing emanating from The Bishop Blaize and the usual mobs of red-clad United fans by the chip shops. As I turned and walked down Sir Matt Busby Way, I spotted more grafters selling their wares; the infamous half-and-half scarves.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?f…50375800387658

At just past 3pm, I joined Alan and Gary inside the stadium, at the Chelsea only bar – Bar 68, named after Wembley 1968, the European Cup Final and all that – in the South Stand. A bottle of Singha for ₤3.10. On the TV screen above the bar, Tottenham were thrashing Liverpool, but we were ambivalent. Gary had been to the Surrey versus Somerset cricket final at Lords on Saturday and it was no surprise that his county beat mine.

The Chelsea team was flashed up on the screen and I approved. It was the team that I would have chosen. It elicited a few moments of discussion with Alan about the manager’s game plan.

“To be honest, it could work in our favour to be under pressure if Torres sits on the last defender and we break at pace and hit him early. Important that the wide men up front, Mata and Sturridge, drop back and cover United’s wide players. We need Bosingwa’s pace. Ashley will be OK.”

“All sorted. I hope the manager is listening.”

Before the game, Mickey Thomas – all suited and booted – was interviewed on the pitch and he made a few comments about the game. A former Chelsea legend, it still grates to hear him refer to United as “we.” He spoke of United’s fine start to the season and he used a phrase that I have used recently –

“United have hit the ground running.”

At least Mickey said that he thought we would represent United’s biggest threat, not those mischievous fellows across the city.

Old Trafford seemed to take ages to fill up. Long gone are the days of the ’eighties when most of a 40,000 crowd would be inside with half-an-hour to go, chanting and trading insults with each other. The build-up to the kick-off used to be great in those days, the noise levels increasing minute by minute. My seat was along the side, slightly beyond the goal line. I like how the pitch is raised on a bed – like a stage – at Old Trafford, with a steep decline down to the terraces. In the immediate ten minutes before the game’s commencement, we were in great voice and United weren’t singing at all.

We had the first chance of the game as the effervescent Ramires troubled the shaky de Gea but the United ‘keeper thwarted the effort with his feet. Soon after, Anderson lost possession to Fernando Torres, who quickly advanced but fluffed his shot wide. Sturridge was looking lively down below me. I had spoken to Alan about the absolute need not to concede an early goal – certainly not a repeat of the opening goal within the first minute back in May. Well, those plans went up in flames.

We weren’t sure about the foul which resulted in the Nani free-kick and the powerful leap from Chris Smalling. But the former Fulham player appeared to have an unhindered leap. The United support roared for the first time.

After twenty minutes, a lovely flowing move found Torres but he again shot wide.

Soon after, a gorgeous through ball by Mata allowed Torres to beat the offside trap as he raced past the United back line. He was through on goal but decided not to shoot. My immediate thoughts were of Tuesday night when his unselfish play aided others. He squared the ball to Sturridge and we held our breath. In the end, the firm strike was well saved.

We had a little conference amongst ourselves and I said that if Studge had scored, we would all have been saying what a great ball it was from Torres. To be honest, it was a great ball and Studge should have scored.

All three thousand Chelsea were standing and bellowing our support. The United legions, basking in the September sun, appeared to be very docile in comparison.

Sturridge picked out Torres again, but his overhead kick whistled wide.

Then a rasping drive from Sturridge, from an angle, well saved by de Gea.

We were playing well and the two wide men were tracking back and adding numbers to our midfield. We seemed to be well on top when our world caved in. We allowed Nani time and space to shot and his perfect shot rattled into Cech’s top corner. The United fans momentarily roared, but there was not a reverberating depth of noise which was present, for example, at the Champions League game last season. However, we did not let up. We chased every ball and pressed with determination. Nice movement upfront. We were still in it.

The third goal was a joke. The ball just fell for Wayne Rooney – otherwise quiet – and he swept the ball into the net.

How on earth were we 3-0 down? It seemed that everything was falling into United’s path. What a farce.

The United fans were enquiring “are you Arsenal in disguise?” and we stood silent. We had no answer.

The half-time interval, looking back, was a bit of a blur. We stood around, quite shell-shocked, but there were plentiful smiles and laughter amongst the away fans. We knew that we had played well, with Mata looking very lively in that roving role. Everything seemed to come through him. However, I did quietly say to Alan –

“I hope no more goals are scored in this game” and he grimaced as if to say “I’m with you.”

There was a very bold move at the break when Villas-Boas replaced the under-performing Frank Lampard with Nicolas Anelka. I can’t honestly say that I was aware of the slight change to the formation as my viewpoint was not great; our attacking was taking place in the other half after all.

As the second period began, we were singing “we’re gonna win 4-3” and everyone was smiling.

Losing, but smiling. What a strange game.

Within a minute, Anelka had played in Torres and his delicate flick past the onrushing de Gea found its way into the net. I was stood right in front of CFCUK’s Dave Johnstone and I just turned around, grabbed his arm and screamed. It was a lovely finish, right in front of a silent Stretford End.

Nani’s thunderbolt then rattled the bar with Cech well beaten. In the onrushing scramble – it was all a blur – Bosingwa fouled Nani and Phil Dowd pointed to the spot.

Oh hell. So much for the Chelsea recovery.

I focussed on Petr Cech with my camera and hoped for a wonderful save being captured on film. In the corner of my eye, I saw Rooney approach and then slip outrageously on the damp turf.

Oh, how we howled with laughter. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea fan who thought of Moscow.

Still the chances came. A wonderful dribble from Torres was well saved by de Gea, but Torres blazed the rebound over.

United hit the post.

Then, the moment of the match. Torres gracefully shimmied into the box and used his pace to push the ball past a floundering de Gea. With an open goal gaping, Torres flashed the ball wide with his left foot and we stood in horror. Hero one minute, villain the next. I felt for him. The United fans were wailing and the poor chap looked distraught. What next in the chequered Chelsea career of Fernando Torres?

In a passage of play eerily similar to the profligacy of Torres in the first-half, Rooney broke free but chose to pass to Berbatov rather than shoot himself. Doctor Death’s strong shot was cleared away by a scrambling Ashley Cole.

The minutes passed by and we kept singing. I know it is a cliché to bemoan United’s home support, but they really were quiet. I could tell that they were nervy and, with a little more luck, we could so easily have secured all three points.

From pre-match worry to post game buoyancy. What a transformation. To celebrate the team’s new-found confidence and swagger, we rounded off a great show of vocal support by a deafening “we’re gonna win the league” and I hoped and prayed that the viewers at home realised that it was the bubbling away support shouting those words.

I waited for Parky outside and we couldn’t contain our glee. This was a mighty strange feeling, though; a game we had lost, but we were not bothered at all. Of all the Chelsea games I have witnessed, never have I been as content with our performance following a defeat.

We must be mellowing with age, eh?

We were held in traffic for ages and it wasn’t until 7.45pm (almost two hours after the game had finished) that we reached the southbound carriageway of the M6 – and with it, that great big sludge of United traffic heading back to the southern counties of England, and possibly beyond.

We had enjoyed ourselves. Our throats were hurting from all of the singing, but we weren’t complaining. As I drove south, time for some music. Parky and I are going to see the old punk band Sham 69 on the evening of the Chelsea vs. Arsenal game in late October and so Parky brought along their 1978 album “That’s Life.” Sham’s first album “Tell Us The Truth” was edgier but this second album contains a few gems. In fact, it is probably punk’s first concept album, in that the album tells the story of a day in the life of a London teenager through songs interspersed with dialogue.

Despite the sore throats, we were singing along as we headed south.

It wasn’t a normal day in the life of the main character. He got sacked from his job, won a fortune on the dogs, got drunk with a mate, pulled a girl at a disco, got into a fight and crashed a stolen car.

It soon dawned on me that the game we had just witnessed at Old Trafford had been equally manic.

We stopped off for a coffee at Stafford services and I eventually dropped His Lordship off at just before 11pm. I reached home shortly after, but I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep for ages. My head was still buzzing and I needed my body to steadily tire before I closed my eyes.

Did I have nightmares about Fernando Torres’ miss?

No, but I suspect he might have done.

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Tales From The Sleepy Hollow

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 21 September 2008.

Before we forget – 85 Home League Games Unbeaten.

We rode our luck a bit, but so pleased we didn’t lose to United.

We all left Frome at 8.45am and were soon zipping east up the A303 and M3 into London. A beautiful Autumnal morning.

The others were off into the caff for a fry-up, but I made a bee-line for Fulham Broadway as I had heard that both Mickey Thomas and Paul Canoville were doing book-signings at both the “Borders” bookshop and the CFCUK stall opposite the tube station. I popped into McDonalds, where Alan, Daryl, Neil and Ed were polishing off a McBreakfast…they had just come from the stall themselves where they had a natter with Mickey.

I reached FB at about 10.45am.

Mickey Thomas was signed from Stoke City in January 1984 and he, ironically, took Paul Canoville’s place on the left wing in that fabled promotion team. He added that extra dimension, a ball-winning left-sided winger whose all-action style and infectious personality sparked extra life into an already rampaging club on its progress to Division One that season. He had previously played for Manchester United, of all teams, and so I was slightly dubious of his play…his move from Stoke involved him moving down a division, so maybe I thought he had passed his peak.

I couldn’t have been more wrong – I saw his home debut against Wednesday and was immediately smitten. He scored the first two goals in our 3-2 win ( a massive 35,000 gate when the average top flight gate was only around 25,000 ) and he ran his heart out. Instant affection from us in The Benches. He developed an instant rapport with the thousands of pastel-wearing Chelsea lads that day and it was a match made in heaven…or actually Wrexham, where fellow team mates Joey Jones, Eddie Niedzwiecki and manager John Neal had first encountered this wayward genius.

I bought Mickey’s new book “Knockups, Hiccups, Lockups”, had my photograph taken with him and mentioned that I had last seen him in the away end at Blackburn in 2006, when I mentioned that he was in my all-time Chelsea XI. On that day, he seemed genuinely pleased with my comment and he thanked me again for that. I know he does some match day work for Century FM in Manchester and so I said that, despite doing work for United, I wanted him to know that he is loved at Chelsea.

Top man.

And, yes, another echo of that 1983-84 season…Twenty-Five Years ago. Where does the time go?

Paul Canoville had not yet shown up ( Daryl joked that he was probably still phoning all of his children to see how they were! ) so I sped back to The Goose where I joined the boys in the beer garden for three cold pints. I gave a truncated match report from the U18s 4-1 defeat at Bristol City on the Saturday morning. It wasn’t great.

Spent a nice and relaxed two hours in the pub, looking ahead to the next few games, trying to plan who would pick up match tickets for who, planning on meeting Simon and Milo in Stoke next week.

Daryl, Neil and myself – the baseball trio – had a quiet few moments of reflection on Yankee Stadium’s last ever game in the small hours…I’d tape the game, but also see how far I could get watching live.

Myself and the Frome boys were saying that we would be happy with a draw – that unbeaten run means so much. But Simon and Daryl were having none of it – their view was to take the game to United…they thought that at times the unbeaten run had cramped our adventurous spirit at times. An interesting opinion. We also talked of Zola at West Ham. I mentioned that I read about a bloke in CFCUK say recently that he was happy when the little man scored against England at Wembley in 1997. I had to agree…I was sat next to Daryl at that game and we both did a little “yep” as he scored past Walker ( ? ) in the England goal. I would imagine the same thing happening should Tevez score against England, if the “Argentina” choruses are anything to go by at Old Trafford.

We walked to the stadium and at long last I got in with time to spare.

Rob had tipped me off that several key supporters ( and Roman ) had paid for a new bigger “Pride Of London” flag and this was being passed over the heads of the MHL as I took my seat. It’s not as big as the 1994 one, but way bigger than the 2007 incarnation. Rob tells me Roman has stumped up for a new away flag too. That’s good to hear.

The game? United bossed the first thirty minutes. They took a deserved lead, but thankfully seemed quite content to let us back into the game. To be fair, I thought we struggled for long periods. I lost patience with Malouda, who seemed unable to get in the right position…too often he would stray inside, drop deep, generally show little positional sense. Mirroring his approach play at Eastlands, Anelka, too, often came too deep.

A shame we lost Lord Percy, but Alex was my man of the match. JT – I have to say – has had a few ropey games and was again at sixes and sevens at times.

But we kept going – I was getting behind the team, urging them one…a few nice moments when the crowd got it together, but it wasn’t that loud.

Thought the free-kick which led to our goal was over-hit, so I was in a state of shock when Kalou got his noggin on it.

1-1…deep relief.

A very tense game. Why do we do this to ourselves, eh?

As I say – just happy we didn’t lose…85 games, let’s push on to 100.
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