Tales From The Villa And The Vine

Aston Villa vs. Chelsea : 16 October 2022.

It was a relatively late start for me. The 8am alarm sounded and I then collected the Gruesome Twosome by 9.30am. All three of us had chosen black tops – Fred Perry, Ben Sherman, Robe di Kappa – and as we stopped in Melksham for the first McBreakfast for absolutely ages we looked like the senior members of some “ultra” battalion.

Kinda.

Milan was still dominating my thoughts when I woke and over the first hour or so of the journey up to Birmingham. This is often the case, eh? The thrill of a European trip is difficult to forget easily. I soon told PD “I will be honest; I am trying my best but I am finding it hard to get up for this game. It’s a bloody good job I am not playing.”

I stopped for a coffee at Frankley Services on the M5 and I was soon turning off at West Bromwich.

To my right, the angled floodlights at The Hawthorns were easily spotted – “one of only three grounds where Chelsea have won the league, lads” – and the sighting of the stadium from half-a-mile away brought back immediate memories of Milan. On the elevated A4, approaching the end of our journey last Tuesday morning, I was keeping my eye out for the San Siro roof which I knew was a few miles to my right, to the south. Lo and behold, despite the grey and hazy view, I found it relatively easy to catch the ridiculously huge roof beams appearing in a void between some rooftops.

My heart jumped in Milan. But my heart jumped in West Bromwich too as I quickly remembered one of the finest nights of recent memory.

I dropped the lads off about a five-minute walk from the away turnstiles at Villa Park but then turned around and drove three-quarters of a mile north to my usual parking spot for Villa at Perry Barr. On the mile-long walk south, I noted that the horrible walkway – an underpass and a footbridge over the busy A34 – was no more, thus cutting a few valuable minutes off my approach to Villa Park. “The Crown & Cushion”, where we enjoyed a very boozy pre-match before the 2002 FA Cup semi-final, had been razed to the ground a few years back.

There were no real pre-game plans on this occasion. There aren’t too many pubs to the north of Villa Park and beers aren’t served in the away end.

This always was going to be a quick smash and grab raid against Aston Villa.

There is red brick everywhere on the way to the stadium. The terraced houses on Willmore Road where I parked for maybe the tenth time in a row, Perry Barr Methodist Church, the houses on Aston Lane, the Aston pub, the old tramway building and then of course the surrounds of Villa Park itself. Alas, the old Trinity Road stand with ornate gables was demolished in around 2000, but its design features are mirrored in the huge Holte End at the southern side of Villa Park. These days the only terrace in town is the steps which lead up from Witton Lane to the base of the Holte End. These steps are speckled with deep claret railings. Squint and it almost feels like an old-style football terrace.

I needed to wait a while to pass over a spare ticket.

I made it in at 2.02pm.

Phew.

The sun was beating down. My God it was hot. My choice of a black wool pullover seemed rather ridiculous. I sidled in alongside Gal, John and Parksorius.

The team? I tried to work it all out. With Reece James out, we wondered who Graham Potter would play at right wing-back if he decided to choose that system. We wondered about Ruben Loftus-Cheek. As I peered out into the bright sun, I attempted to piece it all together.

Kepa

Chalobah – Silva – Cucarella

Sterling – Loftus-Cheek – Kovacic – Chilwell

Havertz – Mount

Aubameyang

I think.

Before I had time to ponder it all, Tyrone Mings headed a cross from Ben Chilwell up rather than away, and Mason Mount, lurking centrally, was able to pounce. He adroitly touched the ball past Emilio Martinez. Luckily enough, my camera captured it all.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 1.

A dream start, eh?

I looked around at Villa Park. It is a really fine stadium. It has been modernised but it still feels like an old ground because the four stands are reasonably different. The oldest current stand at the north end of the ground may not last too long though. There are plans to bulldoze it and build afresh with an even larger two-tiered structure in its place. An acquaintance, who lives nearby, had evidentially been invited in for a hospitality gig in the North Stand. He sent over a ‘photo of former Villa players Tony Morley and Kenny Swain who were in one of the lounges and were now hosting some guests. These two players had taken part in Villa’s European Cup triumph against Bayern Munich in 1982.

Ah that year again.

On Saturday 16 October 1982 – forty-years ago to the very day – Chelsea lost 0-3 at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers. The gate was a paltry 6,062. It was that bad that Alan Mayes made his first appearance of the season.

There is no punchline.

I was really happy with our start. In addition to the early goal, we were moving the ball well and the whole approach to attacking seemed to hark back to a more free-spirited time. We were looking to attack in a variety of ways.

Long and short. Over the top. Sideways into space.

And despite my ambivalence on the way up, I was absolutely enjoying this game. I was on it and hopefully not likely to fall off.

But then, imperceptibly, the home team grew into the game and for the rest of the first-half we were second best. There were defensive errors – Cucarella was the main culprit but even Silva on occasion – as Villa ran at our retreating backline.

A cross from the Villa left resulted in a melee at the back post. A header crashed against the top of the bar.

Kepa had already been involved before we were treated to three magnificent saves during the same move as Villa peppered our goal. The second one, especially – down low – was magnificent. The third save, in the end, did not matter as an offside flag was raised.

Regardless, our ‘keeper was cheered loudly by the Chelsea contingent.

“He’s magic, you know.”

An errant pass from the poor Aubameyang let in Danny Ings. Kepa was equal to a strong shot, pushing it away for a corner.

The best was yet to come. On the half-hour, Ings headed at goal from close in and I absolutely expected a goal, the equaliser. From right underneath the cross-bar, the Spanish ‘keeper managed to claw it out. I always cite a Carlo Cudicini save at Tottenham as the best save that I have ever seen by a Chelsea ‘keeper but this might well have beaten it.

I was in absolute awe.

“He’s better than fuckin’ Thibaut.”

We had spotted that Loftus-Cheek was now asked to deploy the right wing-back berth with Sterling further forward. Mount withdrew deeper. Both players then initiated a fine move, our first for a while. Loftus-Cheek strode out of defence and passed to Mount. The ball was moved on. A strong run from the previously quiet Kai Havertz was followed by a pass to Raheem Sterling.

“Curl the fucker.”

Curl it he did, but the ball smacked the bar.

Ugh.

At the break, we all knew that we had rodden our luck.

“Getting roasted here Gal. On and off the pitch.”

Potter reacted with some substitutions.

Kalidou Koulibaly for the battle-weary Cucarella.

Dave for the weak Havertz.

The team was re-jigged.

We were soon treated to a John Terry-style chest pass from the current “shirt 26 wearer” Koulibaly. I am sure that I wasn’t the only one who noticed JT’s trademark resurfacing.

The Chelsea crowd were giving the Villa manager some Ba-llistic pain with a certain song from 2014 being repeated again and again. This was followed up with a chant that was also aired in Milan last week.

“Just like London, your city is blue.”

Now, I can concede that Internazionale might well have a claim to “own” the Italian city. But I wasn’t having Birmingham City being the top dogs in our Second City.

I turned to Gal : “Maybe they are including West Brom too, a joint bid.”

Chances were shared at each end.

Further changes ensued.

Conor Gallagher for a quiet Aubameyang.

Jorginho for Kovacic,

“Kovacic has run about today but he hasn’t done too much, Gal.”

On sixty-six minutes, a run into space by Mount resulted in a foul by Mings the merciless.

“I fancy this, Gal.”

Mount sized it all up. His dipping free-kick was perfection personified.

Goal.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Aston Villa 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Steven Gerrard was again getting it in the neck.

“You’re getting sacked in the morning…”

On the right wing, down below us, Gallagher mirrored the current government with a quick U-turn to free himself of his marker. A fine searching cross found the head of Sterling but his downward header bounced past the near post.

In the last minute, one last sub.

Armando Broja for Sterling.

I fancied us to score another to rub salt in the wound, but it stayed at two.

Phew.

I’ll say it again.

Phew.

“That’s five wins in a row now, John.”

“Four clean sheets too.”

“Unbeaten in six.”

“Off to a great start, Potter, eh?”

Mason Mount, with his first two goals of the season, took the eye, but Kepa – surely – was our star man. Without him, we could have been 3-1 down at the break. Conor Gallagher injected some energy and movement when he came on. Thiago Silva was excellent. Kalidou Koulibaly looked like the footballer that we thought we had purchased rather than a mistake waiting to happen. I liked Ruben Loftus-Cheek too; steady, though I am not sure that when he runs with the ball he is deceptively fast or deceptively slow. The negatives were Cucarella, Havertz and Aubameyang.

On the walk back to the car, PD mentioned the now missing underpass by the A34 as being the location of an almighty ambush by some Villa lads after the mad 2-2 draw on the last day of the season in 1990/91.

As is so often the case, we called in at “The Vine” at West Bromwich for an early-evening curry. PD enjoyed his Lamb Madras. Parky and I had the same dish, Manchurian Chicken. All very tasty, all immediately served within five minutes of ordering. I was just surprised that Michelle, Dane and Frances didn’t show up.

Please come back into the top flight West Brom so we have another excuse to stop off.

It was a decent drive home.

I was back inside at about 8pm.

Next up, our sixth game of nine in October is on Wednesday at Brentford.

I will see some of the lucky ones there.

Outside

Inside

Tales From Hi Ho Wolverhampton

Wolverhampton Wanderers vs. Chelsea : 19 December 2021.

Six days before Christmas, we weren’t worrying about expensive gifts; we just wanted our football fix. After Everton on Thursday, many wondered if that was it for a while. I certainly half-expected our match at Molineux to be postponed due to the increase of omicron cases throughout the UK. But despite other games being called off on the Saturday, our Sunday afternoon game against Wolves remained most definitely “on” and so PD, Parky and I set off in good time in order to attend.

Deep down, I was still preparing myself for the news that the game could be called-off while we were heading north towards the Black Country. We kept our ‘phones on during the trip and secretly dreaded any incoming text alerts or ‘phone-calls. To my surprise, there was nothing.

We had left at 9am and we were parked-up at a very convenient parking spot no more than a ten-minute walk from the stadium at around 12.30pm. Molineux lies in a dip just to the north of the compact city centre at Wolverhampton. Although the pitch has been shunted a few yards to the east during its rebuilding a few decades ago, Molineux has played host to Wolves’ games since 1889.

The old stadium was so recognisable in past days. And in my mind, honestly, whenever I think of Wolves my mind quickly flicks up images of that old gold multi-tiered roof of the stand opposite the stand that housed the TV cameras in the ‘seventies. The voice of the ITV football commentator Huw Johns – he covered the teams in the midlands – also appears fleetingly before an image of the huge South Bank behind the right hand goal completes the picture. If I hear Wolves, I rarely think of the new stadium. Molineux was Wolves and Wolves was Molineux. It was quite simple. And during my childhood, this was the same for all of the clubs.

Stamford Bridge was Chelsea and Chelsea was Stamford Bridge.

Highbury was Arsenal and Arsenal was Highbury.

Anfield was Liverpool and Liverpool was Anfield.

I am not so sure this works quite so well these days. To my mind, stadia have become similar and there are simply not so many idiosyncratic and distinct stands in modern football. It’s our collective loss and is such a shame.

The old Molineux, before that old treasure of a stand was dismantled in around 1979, was completed by a cranked main stand opposite and, in the circumstances, a rather mundane roofed terrace behind the left-hand goal. In the ‘seventies – the golden age for many – there wasn’t a more interesting nor recognisable stadium in the Football League than Molineux.

Stamford Bridge maybe. But I suspect I am biased.

The three of us made our way to the stadium, emerging from the infamous subway and out into an area housing many food stalls, badge sellers, a tented beer area, and then a statue of Sir Jack Hayward was spotted in front of the turnstiles to the home end, the old South Bank, which now bears his name. The once huge terrace was embedded onto the natural slope of the hill with the pitch way below. Under the statue, a chubby Wolves fan in a blue fleece was sat stuffing his face full of chips.

As we began walking down the slope to the away turnstiles, I was asked by a fellow with a lanyard and a clipboard to show him my COVID pass. Out came my ‘phone. Check. There would be another check – another lanyard and clipboard, a sign of the times – right outside the away entrance at the bottom of the hill. While I waited for a couple of acquaintances to arrive to sort out tickets, I realised how cold it all was. A mist, maybe even a fog, was giving the pre-match something of an old fashioned feel. It felt great, just right. I half expected Billy Wright or Ron Flowers to walk past in monochrome. The fog had accompanied us up on the drive throughout the morning and it showed no signs of shifting as kick-off time approached.

I chatted to a few Chelsea friends in the concourse in the Steve Bull stand. Talk was of COVID and of how Chelsea had asked for a postponement of the game that very morning. I am not sure if I was being selfish or not, but I was just glad that the game was still on.

As I took my place in the second row, not far from the halfway line, it became clear that many had decided not to travel. I am not exaggerating when I say that in the immediate five or six rows behind me, around twenty-five seats remained unused the entire day. The risk of infection, no doubt, had caused this.

News broke not of our team, but of our bench with just four outfield players and two goalkeepers. The same joke about Kepa playing upfront took place in a grand total of one hundred and fifty thousand different locations throughout the world. I just hoped that despite the push to get the game postponed, the right preparations had not been skipped.

At least Emperor Kante was back with Mateo Kovacic on that bench.

Mendy

Azpilicueta – Silva – Rudiger

James – Kanye – Chalobah – Alonso

Ziyech – Pulisic – Mount

Pre-match, with me wishing I had worn another layer aside from a long-sleeved polo shirt and a jacket, everyone in the front rows were wonderfully warmed by the leaping flames that flashed in front of us in the away areas.

“Have you brought some marshmallows, Gal?”

Elsewhere, the fog loomed. The silhouette of a few trees beyond the south-west corner, now devoid of the temporary seats that Wolves used in that area for a while, looked like something from an oil painting of a rural scene rather than from inside a city.

Chelsea fans, stretched out the entire length of the lower tier, were trying hard to make ourselves heard. We were beaten when the home fans, mainly in the Sir Jack Hayward Stand to our right, augmented the team’s pre-game song being played on the PA.

“Hi Ho Wolverhampton.”

The game began with the Chelsea going right to left and with Marcos Alonso hugging the touchline in front of us all.

You all watched it. The first-half was shite, eh?

It began promisingly enough with a few early raids. But then Wolves muscled in on things and I photographed Daniel Podence before he shot from distance at Mendy in front of the now two-tiered Stan Cullis Stand to our right, the second stand to have stood there since the ‘seventies.

Gary, Parky and I were making the most of a so-so start to the game, and were all giggling like fools when we spotted lookalikes in the crowd of Francis Rossi, Mick Hucknall, the bloke out of Boney M and Shirley Crabtree.

You had to be there.

On a quarter of an hour, we wished we weren’t. Wolves went one-up after a ball was flashed across our box and Podence tucked it home.

Snot.

Then, after what seemed an age, and with no VAR signalled, we spotted the lino on our side hoist his flag. The Wolves fans were quietened. Of course I had no idea why the goal was disallowed; we presumed offside, but it could have been for a foul. These days, who knows?

The mist was staying. This really felt like something from the past.

It’s always so difficult at Wolves to get a sing-along started with everyone so distant from each other. We tried our best.

“He came from PSG. To win the Champions League.”

On half-an hour, although Thiago Silva should have met the ball before it bounced, I marvelled at his rapid recovery and how he not only won the ball but how he played it coolly out to a team mate. For a few minutes previously, I thought our great Brazilian had looked a little cold – long sleeved undershirt, gloves – and moved a little cagily but he soon moved up the gears when needed.

There was a smirk when I had mumbled to myself : “should have worn some Long Johns, Silva.”

Thankfully nobody heard me.

The great performance of the half belonged to N’Golo Kante, back to his best; rampaging, striding, probing, passing, eating up space with joyful glee, the engine room. It was a joy to see him again. What a player.

To paraphrase the pre-match anthem :

“You’re everywhere baby.”

Apart from a few corners – oh, I remember a Pulisic chance that wasn’t – there was absolutely no real threat on the Wolves goal throughout the half. There was earnest endeavour but nothing in the final third. Did we force a save? I think not.

At the break, I moaned to an acquaintance “we might have bodies up front, but we have no presence.”

And no presence at Christmas ain’t fun.

In the concourse, the youth were blasting out a reworking of a Jona Lewie Christmas hymn from 1980; rhyming Tuchel with bugle, I can’t see it catching on.

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

Thomas Tuchel replaced Chalobah with Saul and we held our breath.

I whispered to Gal : ”Our Saul.”

He hasn’t set the world alight, has he?

Whereas Wolves showed a little desire to attack in the first-half, in the second forty-five minutes it seemed to be all one-way traffic. Yet here’s the thing; not once was I convinced that we would grab a goal. We kept trying to find gaps and spaces in the Wolves half but something was missing. We missed a Fabregas to unlock the defence for sure. But I can’t fault our desire to win tackles and keep the momentum going. Maybe the fog wasn’t helping; cross-field balls to spare wide men were in short supply. Though, to be fair, once balls were played to the flanks, what sort of cross should we play in? Clearly we had no aerial threat. Precision low balls to feet needed to be that; in such a crowded box, there was no margin for error.

On the hour, the return of Mateo Kovacic, on for Ziyech.

There was now more solidity in the midfield. Saul was finding his feet. Our domination continued. But chances were oh-so rare. Shots were blocked, as were intended crosses. With ten minutes to go, the chance of the game and with hindsight perhaps the only chance of the game; Alonso played in Pulisic but his finish was just too close to the Wolves keeper Kilman and a limb defeated us.

Bollocks.

In the ninetieth minute, with the Wolves substitute Adama Traore about to pounce on a punt up field, I watched mesmerised as that man Silva, from a standing start, almost flat-footed, leapt magnificently to head clear.

His performance throughout the game was truly worth the admission money alone. He never panicked, he glided throughout the entire match. What a player.

With a depleted squad and team, a 0-0 draw was half-decent wasn’t it?

I think so.

On the way home, we called in at “The Vine” – along with a few other Chelsea fans – at West Bromwich for a welcome curry. A lamb dhansak and peshwari naan warmed me up. The Baggies might be out of the top flight, but “The Vine” isn’t. It’s well recommended.

I eventually reached home at about 8.30pm, the game quickly disappearing from view in my mirrors.

But, the winter draws on.

Brentford await.

Wear something warm.

See you there.