Tales From Lime Street

Everton vs. Chelsea : 17 March 2019.

Saturday Night And Sunday Morning.

We were slightly delayed touching down at Heathrow on Saturday evening after our four-day jamboree in Kiev. There had been high winds, and much rain, in England while our stay in Ukraine had been relatively mild with clear skies and startling sun. We had been truly blessed. But our Air France plane needed to enter the stacking system over South-East England as the winds caused delays in landing. As we circled above London, I commented to my two travelling companions L-Parky and P-Diddy that we had gone through the whole of Saturday without knowing a single football result. We eventually hit terra firma at about 7.30pm. Into the car an hour later, we then began the homeward journey. PD soon fired up his moby to check on the scores. I had forgotten that the FA Cup had shared the billing with the Premier League. Manchester City had squeaked past Swansea City in the cup. There were no games that had affected our position in the league.

Thankfully, the rain soon stopped on the drive home. I dropped Parky off at about 10.30pm, PD at 10.45pm, and I was home at 11pm.

At 11.25pm, I wrote the inevitable “just got in” post on Facebook.

“Kiev. The final reckoning; four days, five goals, a “few” drinks, almost nine hundred photos, one chicken Kiev and thousands of memories. The photos won’t get shared until Monday evening as we are off to Everton tomorrow. Thanks to those who walked alongside me. You know who you are.

Kiev. You were bloody fantastic.”

At 7.25am the next morning, there was another post on Facebook.

“Up early for another couple of days away following The Great Unpredictables.

Let’s Go To Everton.”

On The Road.

I had woken at 6.45am. It felt like I had only slept for an hour. I soon realised that Wolves had beaten Manchester United the previous evening. The news had completely passed me by until then. I guzzled down a black coffee before setting off for Liverpool. There was no Parky with us on this away day. After collecting PD at 7.45am, I made my way over to Warminster to collect Young Jake who was Parky’s late substitute. It would be another new ground for him. I fuelled up at Yarnbrook – petrol for the car, a double-espresso for me – and headed through Trowbridge, Bradford-on-Avon and skirted past Bath. It was a familiar route north. Thankfully it was a mainly dry drive. There was a McBreakfast at Strensham with another coffee. At Stafford, I was feeling exceptionally drowsy and so bought two Red Bulls. The hangover from Kiev was real, but the caffeine kept me going, six hits all told.

It all paid off. I gathered a second wind and was fine for the rest of the day.

I made the oh-so familiar approach into Liverpool, and was soon parked up at The Liner Hotel which would be the base for our stay. Yes, dear reader, I had long ago decided that driving five hundred miles in one day after the exertions of Kiev would be foolhardy. I was parked-up at about 1pm.

Despite this being St. Patrick’s Day – celebrated in this city more than most in England – I had been lucky enough to get a great a price for this hotel, which soon impressed us with its stylings and ambiance. Checking in time was 2pm so we headed over to a boozer that I had researched a few weeks back.

A Pub On The Corner.

“Ma Egertons” was a comfy and cosy little pub, with just a snug and a saloon, and it boasted a reasonable selection of ales, cheap prices and the locals were friendly. A high percentage of Scousers that I have met in real life have been fine, just fine. This might not be a popular opinion among our support but I cannot lie. There were a few Evertonians sitting close by and they did not bother us. The pub faces the rear doors of the Liverpool Empire and its walls were covered in photographs of those that had walked the boards over the years. My distaste of large and impersonal super pubs has been aired before. This one was just up my street or Lord Nelson Street to be precise. Three pints of lager went down very well. We were joined by Alan and Seb, father and son, from Atherstone in the Midlands who had travelled up by train. There was some talk about our current ailments – club, ownership, team, spirit, hunger, manager – and it all got too depressing for my liking. I just wanted to enjoy the moment.

My pre-match thoughts were simply this.

“Goodison Park has often been a tough venue for us, but Everton are shite.”

I am expecting a letter from Sky to appear on my doormat any minute for me to join their team of football pundits. Such bitingly perceptive analysis surely needs a wider audience.

We checked into the hotel and caught a cab up to Goodison. Despite the cabbie wearing a royal blue sweatshirt, he was a “red”. The cab fare was less than a tenner. Bargain.

The Old Lady.

Now then, anyone who has been reading these journals of my life on the road with Chelsea since 2008 will know how much I love – adore even – Goodison Park. If we had more time, and with this being Jake’s first visit, I would undoubtedly have completed my usual clockwise patrol around the four stands. But the desire was to “get in” so I followed suit. We met up with Deano, newly arrived back in Blighty after a couple of months in India. He was with Mick, also from Yorkshire, who has popped into these reports a few times of late.

With the plans to move into a new stadium – at Bramley Moore Dock – in around 2023, there will not be many more visits to this architectural delight at the northern end of Stanley Park.

Maybe four more.

So here are a few photographs to augment this match report. On a previous visit to Goodison, there was a lone image of Alan Ball displayed from the balcony of the Gwladys Street balcony. On this day, pre-match, images of Dixie Dean, Alex Young, Joe Royle, Bob Latchford, Graeme Sharpe and Duncan Ferguson – “the number nines” – were displayed above some twinkling mosaics.

Of course, I would have preferred an image of Tommy Lawton too.

In the cramped concourse, a rare treat for me; a bottle of lager. I chatted to the Bristol lot, our memories still fresh from our break in Ukraine.

Another Life.

Just as I started school in the spring of 1970, Everton won the League Championship on 1 April and Chelsea won the FA Cup on 29 April. My memory, as I have detailed many times before, is of the name “Chelsea” being bandied about in the schoolyard and I was consciously or subconsciously – who knows? – attracted to the name.

It so easily could have been Everton.

I could so easily be an Everton fan.

After all, Goodison Park was the only stadium that my father had ever visited until I came along. It would have felt right, in some ways, for Dad to encourage an Evertonian future for me.

At such a young age, I had no real control of my life choices.

I wasn’t even five.

But then along came Peter Osgood and I was Chelsea for life.

But in April 1970, my life witnessed another “Sliding Doors” moment for sure.

Those Final Moments.

While we have “Park Life” and “The Liquidator” before games at Chelsea – and “Blue Is The Colour” (and “One Step Beyond” if the moment requires it) after games – at Everton we are treated to a couple of Toffee-coloured tunes.

“And it’s a Grand Old Team to play for.”

“Z-Cars.”

I always think the first one is sung by Lily Savage. It does sound rather camp.

The second one is class, pure class.

It always gets me excited for the game ahead. Those drums and pipes, the extended introduction, the sense of anticipation, the glimpse of the players emerging from the ridiculously tight tunnel.

The Team.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Luiz – Alonso

Jorginho

Kante – Barkley

Pedro – Higuain – Hazard

We had jettisoned the blue socks of Kiev to go all yellow.

Everton these days play in white socks just as they did in 1970.

Yellow Fever.

Yet again, I found myself behind the goal-line at Goodison, but with a clear unimpeded view of the pitch from the second row of the Upper Bullens Road. There were no fans allowed in the first row. Alongside me was Tombsie, one of those who I see everywhere yet don’t really know at all, and he was with his son. He was clearly another fan of Goodison Park.

“Proper stadium.”

We bossed the first-half, no doubt. Our early movement was fine. Ross Barkley – booed, obviously – was neat, and Jorginho was excellent. As ever, the energy of Kante was wonderful to witness. We were all over them. There were a couple of early chances for Eden Hazard, twisting and turning – and if I am honest, probably hogging the ball too much for Maurizio Sarri’s liking – and finding pockets of space everywhere.

Eden Hazard was soon peppering the Everton goal at the Gwladys Street. A shot low after a snake-like wriggle inside the box at the near post forced a late save from Jordan Pickford. Another low drive from a feint further out rattled the other post with the ‘keeper well beaten.

It was, simply, all us.

A magnificent lofted ball from Jorginho found the fine run of the lurking Higuain but the Argentinian was not supported by any team mate and the chance went begging.

After this very bright start, the game settled to a gentler pace. But Everton seemed to be totally lacking confidence, concentration, class and cohesion.

At last a chance for Everton, but Calvert-Lewin drove the ball well over.

There was a head-scratching moment at the other end when Barkley nimbly danced past some defenders with some footwork that Fred Astaire would have liked, but his attempted cross or shot was sliced into thin air.

“What the hell happened there?”

Shots from both Jorginho and then Barkley were fired straight down Pickford’s throat.

Our strikes on goal were mounting up, but – we know our football – so were the concerns among the away contingent that we could well pay for our wasting of these good chances.

Another shot for Everton but Gomes fired one straight at Kepa.

The Chelsea chances were drying up now, and Pedro should have fared better after freeing up some space wasted a good chance, striking the ball wide from a central position. From a Sigurdsson free-kick, an Evertonian header not cleared the bar but the roof if the Park Lane Stand.

Pedro then had two chances. A prod wide, and then – after creating some space with one of his trademark spins and dribbles – a shot which he narrowly dragged past the right-hand post.

The whistle blew for half-time. It had been all Chelsea. We had been all over Everton like a rash.

They had been hit with an attack of yellow fever.

Yellow Bellies.

Within the first two minutes of the re-start, the mood of the game completely changed. Calvert Lewin drilled a long ball into the six-yard box from out wide and there seemed to be a lot of ball-watching. Soon after, Kepa reacted well at the near post to deflect an effort over.

With just four minutes of the second-half played, our afternoon on Merseyside collapsed. From a corner in that lovely part of Goodison that marks the coming together of the two remaining Archibald Leitch stands, Calvert-Lewin met the incoming ball firmly. Kepa did well to block it, but Richarlison – until then, a spectator – turned the ball in. He reeled away and I felt sick.

Everton 1 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

At last the Evertonians made some noise, so quiet until then.

The home team, though not creating a great deal, found themselves in our half more now. I had this quirky and whimsical notion that with them attacking a lot more, the game would open up more and we might, just might, be able to exploit some open spaces. But our chances were rare. A rushed slash from Alonso which only hit the side netting summed up our efforts.

We were, visibly, going to pieces.

There were no leaders cajoling others and nobody keen to take ownership of the ball. It reminded me of a similarly painful showing – a 0-2 defeat – at the same ground seven years earlier under the tutelage of Vilas-Boas.

The mood in the away section was now turning venomous.

PD alongside me was hurling abuse every thirty seconds.

I stayed quiet.

I was just hurting.

Just after the hour, there were piss-taking roars as Ross Barkley was replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Then Olivier Giroud replaced the increasingly immobile Higuain.

Just after, a rash tackle took place inside the Chelsea penalty area. It was up the other end and my sightlines were not great. But it looked a nailed-on penalty. Alonso was the guilty culprit and PD almost exploded with rage.

We waited.

Sigurdsson struck low, Kepa saved, but the rebound was tucked home by the Icelandic midfielder.

Everton 2 Chelsea 0.

BOLLOCKS.

Callum Hudson-Odoi replaced the now ineffective Jorginho.

We had a little flurry of attacking activity with our Callum coming inside nicely and flashing a shot at Pickford but the England ‘keeper tipped it over.

It had been – severe cliché warning – a classic game of two halves.

And we had been hung, drawn and quartered by our lack of guile, togetherness and steel. Our confidence had seeped out of every pore as each minute passed by. And there was a shocking lack of courage and passion.

We had been yellow-bellied incompetents.

Sigh. I have done a lot of sighing this season.

My comment as we slowly made our way out of the wooden top tier summed it all up.

“Sarri’s team talk at half-time must have been fucking diamond.”

We walked down Walton Lane and caught a cab – another “red” – on the junction of the road that bends towards Anfield. We headed down into the city centre, tails well and truly between our legs.

And I knew that there would be a meltdown taking place everywhere. I was just too tired for all of that. New fans, old fans, arguments, talk of disarray, bitter comments, questions of loyalty, a civil war in the camp.

Sigh.

A sub par season? Yep. Compared to the past ten or fifteen years. But my love of this club keeps me going.

I am no football snowflake.

Lime Street.

I found myself outside Lime Street station for the very first time – incredibly – since a game at Anfield in December 1987. On every single visit to Merseyside with Chelsea since that game – all forty-two of them – I have enjoyed pre-matches either up at the pubs near the two stadia, around Albert Dock, or at a couple of locations nearer the river.

Please believe me when I say that Lime Street after games at both ends of Stanley Park in the ‘eighties was as an intimidating place for away fans as any location in England. In those days, we would be kept waiting inside the grounds – allowing home supporters to regroup in the city centre – and we would be walked down to Lime Street en masse. There were even, possibly apocryphal, tales of scallies in flats with air rifles taking pot shots at Mancunians.

Around the station, it would often be a free-for-all.

I remarked to Jake that on my very first visit to Goodison Park, in March 1986, I was chased by some scallies from Lime Street to the National Express Coach Station just around the corner. I was with two college mates – Pete and Mac – and we managed to jump onto a coach headed for Stoke and Stafford just before the lads caught us.

It was a very narrow escape.

The memories of Lime Street returned. It felt so odd to be walking around an area for the first time in over thirty-two years. The large and imposing St. George’s Hall – images of Bill Shankly and his hubris back in 1974 and then the Hillsborough campaigners in more recent times – was floodlit in green for St. Patrick’s Day.

Memories of the area returned.

The infamous graffiti on a bridge on the slow approach to Lime Street : “Cockneys Die.”

Catching a bus up to Anfield in May 1985 and attempting to put on a Scouse accent so not to be spotted as an away fan.

On a visit to Goodison Park later in 1986, I remember seeing that the Cocteau Twins were in concert at the nearby Royal Court Theatre. I was sure that night that Pat Nevin would have stayed up in Liverpool to attend. I remember travelling back to Stoke, totally gutted that I had not realised that my favourite band were in town.

So many memories.

Jake and PD piled in to a local chippy. We tried our best to dodge the locals who were flitting between boozers. Shenanigans – one of the most over-worked words in the US these days, but quite appropriate on a St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool – were in full force. Being three Chelsea fans among a sea of red, blue and green Liverpudlians and Evertonians on St. Patrick’s Day in Liverpool city centre is a potentially high risk activity.

PD retired for the night.

Kiev and Liverpool had taken its toll.

Into “Ma Egerton’s” for one last pint, and – for me – my first ever bowl of Scouse.

Unlike the football, it warmed me.

It was an early night for me too. Over the road to the hotel, and a relaxing evening watching the Real Betis vs. Barcelona game, a rare treat for me. I very rarely watch football on TV.

We now have a break from Chelsea for a long fortnight and I think I need it.

After Ukraine and England, Wales next.

See you in Cardiff.

Tales From Two Halves

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2018.

It has taken me a while to realise it, but I have an aversion to large and impersonal pubs. From now on, I am going out of my way to avoid them. The prices of the ales, ciders and lagers might be cheaper at a “Wetherspoons”, “Walkabout” or a “Yates”, but everything else about them leaves me cold. Many are on the site of former large shops and banks. Many of these “super pubs” are blandness personified; rectangular voids with no charm and no fun. And I realise that we have frequented a few of them in recent seasons; “The Moon Under Water” in Watford, “The Shakespeare’s Head” for Arsenal, “The Admiral of The Humber” in Hull, “The Thomas Frost” at Everton. The list goes on. I’m not a fan. So it was with a bounce in my step that I ascended the steps at Piccadilly Circus tube station at around 5.30pm. I had completed my homework and had hand-picked a traditional London pub for our pre-match drinks for the League Cup semi-final against Arsenal. Three weeks ago, we had alighted at the same stop and chosen “The Duke’s Head” on Denman Street. This time, we walked a minute further up Sherwood Street and turned into “The Crown.” It immediately took my fancy; busy, dark, a little cramped, but full of atmosphere and with attentive bar staff. We shuffled through the main bar and found a spare corner, and relaxed on some old leather seats under some dark wooden wall panels. The four of us – Young Jake, Oscar Parksorious, P-Diddy and I – settled in for an hour and-a-half of drinks and giggles. I’d be doing no driving this night; there would be the chance for a few pints of “Peroni.” We had already run through our opinions and thoughts about the upcoming game.

“I suppose Arsenal will be favourite. They’re at home after all.”

“Hope we play 3/4/3.”

“At least Sanchez has left. Always does well against us it seems.”

“Just hope there’s no extra time and penalties.”

Indeed. With a little foresight and planning, I had taken care of that most unloved of outcomes. Fearing the worst, and remembering well from the extended Norwich City replay the preceding week, I had taken some precautions. If the game at The Emirates would go to extra-time and then penalties, the game would likely finish at 10.45pm. We would not be back to the car until around midnight. A two-hour trip back to Melksham. A further thirty minutes to my house. I’d not get to bed until 2.30am. And I’d need to be up at 5am for work.

Screw that.

I had booked myself into the hotel opposite work for the night and looked forward, whatever the result, to an extra hour in bed. With the football only costing a tenner, I figured I could easily justify it. At times my life of late has involved only sleep, work and football. This would certainly be no exception.

This would be Young Jake’s first trip to The Emirates. I’ve only missed one; the time we took nine-thousand up there for the League Cup game in 2013. On this occasion, we were taking 5,500, and all four of us had been given tickets in Section 25, which would normally be a home area. I wondered if the facilities in the concourse would offer an improvement to the pokey confines of the away sector. The drinks were going down well. The pre-match banter was a fine antidote to further stresses at work. I shared some insider knowledge about the pub.

“Mozart played here when he was nine. In this very pub.”

For once, there was silence from The Chuckle Brothers.

“Anyway. Moving on.”

At seven o’clock we caught the tube north. It was, of course, a familiar ride now. We had travelled the same journey three weeks earlier. It annoyed me that there was an announcement that “this train will not be stopping at Holloway Road, next stop is The Arsenal.”

The Arsenal. I could hear Alan moaning at the mere mention of it.

“The Arsenal. Like it’s some sort of bloody institution.”

On the walk up through the rabbit warren at Arsenal tube, there were a few chants from both sets of fans. I spotted a Chelsea supporter with a blue “Patagonia” rain jacket. I was reminded of the catchy “Brightonia” banner at “The Amex” that I spotted last weekend, using the same font and logo.

There were a few – hardly loud – chants of playing football “the Arsenal way” but I was far from convinced. For all of their crisp-passing under the early Wenger years, the spectre of decades of dull and boring football has not drifted from my consciousness.

“Arsenal. Bloody hell. The only time they have been entertaining was when Eric Morecambe sneezed or coughed.”

The lights of The Emirates soon came into view. No doubt it will soon be named after some other corporate-brand; not even “The Reebok” is “The Reebok” anymore. Why Arsenal could not have at least used “Arsenal Stadium” in lights on the façade – some sort of permanent statement – is beyond me. Beneath “Emirates Stadium” were large graphics of Arsenal players from across the ages inter-locking arms. I suppose this was conceived as a nice idea, but I just saw a load of arses.

We were inside with about ten minutes to spare. So much for more space behind section 25; there was a huge line for the gents. It would have to wait until half-time. There was a dimming of the lights and a half-arsed light show. I looked around at all the empty seats in the upper tier.

Pauline and Mick were stood behind me.

“Bloody hell, a tenner and they still can’t fill it.”

I was to eat my words as it all filled-up after a while.

But I certainly realised that new spacious stadia thrill me as much as “super pubs.” Give me “The Crown” and Highbury – what a stadium – ahead of “Spoons” and “The Emirates” any day, any season, any year.

The team was missing Courtois and Morata, and the manager went with a 3/4/3 variant; no Michy Batshuayi, but Eden Hazard to play in a central but surely drifting role.

Caballero

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Rudiger

Moses – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

The Three Amigos

The players entered the pitch. Behind the teams at the opposite end, an Arsenal flag bearing the rebranded gun emblem – now pointing to the right after decades of pointing to the left, bloody hell I need to get out more – moved slowly above the heads of the Arsenal hardcore. A flag featuring Charlie George was spotted. What a lanky dullard he was. He was no Peter Osgood for sure. In fact, he was the antithesis of Peter Osgood; North London dull and North London gormless. Proper Arsenal. In later life, he managed to cut off a finger while mowing his lawn. Don’t ask.

There are banners everywhere on the balconies at The Emirates, all signalling various degrees of self-love.

The game began and we began well despite a shot from Tiemoue Bakayoko which was well off target. Just after, a trademark lofted ball from Dave and a finely placed header from the diminutive Pedro beat David Ospina, but I had spotted an offside flag. We were well on top, and Arsenal had hardly offered an attack. On seven minutes, Kante played the ball to Pedro who in turn touched in to the path of Eden Hazard. His easy finish summed up our domination.

There were wild celebrations in Sections 20, 21, 22, 23, 24 and 25.

GET IN.

We were one up and playing well.

Sadly, our lead soon disappeared in the mild North London air. A corner dropped right onto the head of Nacho Monreal, but his header then unluckily struck Marcos Alonso, and from there the footballing Gods were not on our side. The ball ricocheted onto Toni Rudiger’s forehead and in. I looked around at the gurning Goons in the corporate tier above me and I felt sick.

But we still dominated, retaining the ball well and moving it crisply. Willian dragged the ball wide of the far post. A special word for Bakayoko who I thought performed very well throughout a dominant first-half. He put his foot in, he retained the ball, he moved it on, he pushed forward when space opened-up. Well done to him.

On the half-hour, Willian had a knock and sadly had to be substituted. Nobody had been warming up of course, but Ross Barkley was chosen to enter the fray for his Chelsea debut. I watched as he entered the field of play. I mused that there haven’t been many signings from Everton over the years. Only Duncan McKenzie and the great Tommy Lawton came to mind. I hoped that Barkley would not suffer the same fate as Lawton – much lauded and a stratospheric transfer at the time –  who was transferred to Notts County after just three seasons. His first few moments did not bode well. Xhaka went close with an angled free-kick after a Barkley foul on Koscielny. Worse was to come.

I rolled my eyes at the awful chant that the away supporters had up their collective sleeves :

“Viva Ross Barkley, viva Ross Barkley. He left the Scouse ‘cus they robbed his house, viva Ross Barkley.”

Well done. Well bloody done. I’m sure as a Scouser he would appreciate that one.

It’s like us singing something for Antonio Conte which takes the piss out of Italians.

He’s one of us now, lads. He’s one of us. Support him.

While I’m at it…

“We’ve won it all.”

Bloody hate that one too.

Elsewhere, we were edging it, with Rudiger and Christensen strong and dominant. However, the pondering Victor Moses was frustrating the absolute hell out of all of us. There were extra, and heavy, touches every time he received the ball. At the break, everyone around me was relatively happy. Arsenal had grown stronger as the half had developed but I think we had shown enough for us to be confident of progression. I wanted Eden to be involved more. But I was happy.

At half-time, the queue at the gents was still ridiculous. The khazi was smaller than in the away end. So much for a high quality and spacious stadium.

I suggested to Big John that “we’re the only team in London with a European Cup” ought to be replaced by “we’re the only team in London with some spacious fucking bogs.”

Well, the second-half.

Must I?

What a let-down.

Eden had a couple of bursting runs through the middle – on one occasion, slipping when it appeared that he had been tripped – but Arsenal were soon moving the ball around and causing problems. We seemed listless and without much direction. After twenty tiring minutes of playing second fiddle, the ball was worked through the Arsenal inside right channel. I looked up at the large scoreboard to my left just to check who was the Arsenal number twenty-nine when the very player – Xhaka – tucked home. I only saw the celebration, I only heard the roar.

BOLLOCKS.

On the TV replay, it appeared that we were undone by another bloody deflection, off the back leg of the hapless Rudiger.

Oh boy.

The second-half of woe continued. We were all stood of course, but there were only pockets of song. I expected more from 5,500 of our beered-up loyalists. I was well aware throughout the second period as I was watching, hands in pockets, bellowing out encouragement, joining in with song when I could, that I was watching the game with the combined weight of the clichéd opinions and criticisms of all of social media in all its glorious forms hanging heavy in my mind and on my shoulders. And all of the negative stuff seemed to dominate my thoughts. In days of yore, we just got behind the team and shared our thoughts with a few close friends. If there was a little negativity, it was tempered by a little humour and some gallows humour. These days I now have the sour-faced, overly-grave, doom-laden – and deadly bloody serious and truly bloody tedious – opinions of Loudmouth from Sidmouth, Knobhead from Knoxville, Tosser from Osset, Jackass from Jacksonville and Cocksocket from Nantucket ringing in my ears.

All that bloody negativity. Football was never meant to be like that. Not for a club that has enjoyed so much success in the past fifteen or twenty years.

I could not help but feel that there are just too many Chelsea fans in the world today and not enough Chelsea supporters.

I see nothing wrong with objective criticism. Why would I? But so much of it now just hints at spoiled and new – but not entirely – fans throwing toys out of prams at the merest hint of a sub-par performance.

It does my fackin’ head in.

Sigh.

But on the night, we had to face facts. Despite the constant prompting along the touchline from the always involved manager, Arsenal bossed us and they bossed the game. There was one memorable burst of energy down the right from Ross Barkley. Caballero saved with his leg in a typically unorthodox way from Iwobi. There was added spirit from substitute Zappacosta, in place of the poor Moses, and a few flashed crosses, but elsewhere we were lacking. Michy Batshuayi had replaced Pedro, but he did not get much service. And he still has the annoying tendency to turn into trouble.

What were we told at school?

“Play the way you are facing.”

Unless your name is Eden Hazard of course.

Michy isn’t. He needs to play to his strengths.

There was a rushed free-kick from Marcos Alonso and the ball is still circling above Heathrow waiting for clearance to land. We howled our agony. The Arsenal fans, so quiet in the close 2-2 draw on the third day of 2018, were making an uncharacteristic din.

We kept singing until the end, but it was not to be.

We met up outside and slouched out. We began our slow walk down the Holloway Road where I had once attended an open day at North London Poly in 1983. Studying at a college just a mile from Highbury? What was I bloody thinking? We walked on. The best cheeseburger of the season thus far lifted some of the gloom, and – thank heavens – we made good time on our return to Barons Court. PD headed west and I drifted off to sleep and even Parky’s incessant prattling could not stop me.

By 1.30am, I had fallen into a deep sleep in my hotel room, with the Chelsea subsection of the internet no doubt going into meltdown once again.

On Sunday, we gather together for another stab at Wembley.

See you there.

IMG_4190

Tales From Then And Now

Everton vs. Chelsea : 11 February 2012.

It was 1942. The storms of war had been blowing throughout Europe for three years. On The Wirral, the three Royal Air Force recruits had been thrown together; young men from disparate parts of the British Isles, conscripted to fight the threat of the Nazis, unsure of their futures. The physical training camp at West Kirby would be their home for three months; they were both excited and scared in equal measure. Hank, the large-framed butcher from Welling, was the leader. He strode into the red bricked train station and asked for three return tickets to Liverpool Lime Street. Jock, from a small town in the Scottish lowlands, his hair glistening with Brylcream, a slight figure, cigarette in hand, checked the tattered poster on the wall which detailed train times. Lastly, Reg, a placid and quiet shop assistant from Somerset, returned from the newspaper stall with a crisp copy of the local paper.

There was not long to wait. After only five minutes, the three newly-acquainted friends were sat in the smoking carriage of the 10.25am local service to Lime Street. Hank, the gregarious joker, was rattling off a few one-liners and his two pals were soon rolling their eyes towards the cigarette-stained roof of the snug train compartment. The puns were awful, of course, but both Jock and Reg were happy that Hank was there, taking the lead, creating conversations and negating the burden of silence in that small confined space. The three youngsters, all aged nineteen, had only arrived on The Wirral the previous month. Within the first few weeks of training at the RAF camp, solid friendships were made and the ever-present worry of the uncertainty of what lay ahead was significantly eased.

For Reg, this train trip was vastly different from the previous one just a month earlier. On that occasion, he had set off from his home town on the Somerset and Wiltshire border, his parents waving him goodbye from the platform, and had travelled alone to the north of England. At Crewe station, he had to change trains. In the middle of a cold January night, he had waited for four long hours, pacing up and down the otherwise empty platform. At no time in his life before it, nor at any time after it, would he feel more alone.

But now, on his way to a new city with two friends – Hank’s jokes getting worse and worse – he felt a lot more relaxed and at ease. After four weeks of rigorous training, this represented his first day of leave and he was relishing the chance to spend time with his two new pals in the famous busy port city by the banks of the River Mersey. The plan had been to grab a bite to eat, flit around the shops and head down to the river and see the frantic activity of the ships around the dock area. Then, a couple of pints of bitter in a pub close to the station before catching the 8pm train back to camp.

“Give me the paper, Half Pint”, Hank said to Reg. “Wonder what language these Scousers use, up here. Blimey it’s in English, there’s a surprise.”

The two young girls sitting opposite were the ones rolling their eyes now. They had been sitting quietly, sharing a bag of sweets, trying not to stare too hard at the three young men in their immaculate RAF uniforms, each with accents far different than their own.

“I see Everton are playing a game at Goodison Park at two o’clock. Fancy it? Won’t be too expensive. It’s not Charlton, but it’ll do.”

Hank had made up the minds of both himself and the others before either Jock or Reg could answer.

The afternoon’s entertainment had been decided. The train did not take too long to sweep under the River Mersey and the three young friends soon found themselves at the ridiculously busy and congested train terminal. Outside, the Saturday morning air was damp. On the walk tothea tram stop, the grim realities of conflict grabbed at Reg’s senses. The German Luftwaffe had deposited many tons of bombs on the city during the previous two years and great tracts of the immediate city centre had been laid waste. The scene which greeted him shocked him to the core; suddenly, the war had become all the more vivid. There were hundreds of buildings – shops, workhouses, factories, offices – now reduced to piles of rubble. He found it odd how chimney stacks had remained. He thought it bizarre that the interiors of upstairs bedrooms – with wallpaper on show – were still able to be seen. He pondered the hundreds of lives which had been torn apart so brutally.

As the three of the young friends waited at the tram stop, they surveyed the desolation all around them. They were deeply shocked.

They stood in silence. Not a word was spoken, but much was said.

The crowded tram slowly wended its way through the city centre streets; past St. George’s Hall and the art gallery, past the shops full of Saturday bargain hunters, along Scotland Road and up the hill towards the football ground. The three friends were stood at the rear of the tram, hands in pockets, keeping warm. They were jostled from side to side with every slight change in direction. Busy local women nudged past them, their hands full of shopping, their hair in curlers, cigarettes lilting in the corners of mouths. Young boys, in tattered shorts and leather boots, ran alongside the tram, cheerily waving at the passengers. Dockers, with flat caps and white silk neckties, hopped on the bus at Kirkdale. With accents as thick as the fog which enveloped the grey city, these locals spoke quickly and it seemed that every word was spat, not spoken. The three young men looked on at the gnarled faces of these tough locals, with fading tattoos on their forearms, and soon realized that their home comforts seemed far away. Reg and Jock whispered to each other under their breath, not wishing to be heard. What they said to each other is not known.

As the tram suddenly veered to the left, Hank – the taller of the three – soon spotted the dark silhouette of the main stand of Goodison Park in the distance. At the next stop, the three friends stepped off the tram, trying to avoid the murky puddles of rain by the side of the cobbled streets. Out of nowhere, hundreds of men bustled past. It was obvious that they were headed for the game, too. Hank, Jock and Reg – without realizing it – increased their walking speed in order to avoid getting pushed aside. At the end of the street, lined with painted and polished doorsteps – the handiwork of proud Liverpudlian housewives – the gargantuan stand on Goodison Road stood waiting for them. Hank had been to see Charlton play at the Valley on a few occasions, but the vast bowl of that stadium was different. The Valley was a sprawling mess of a football ground. Here, at Goodison, the stand stood right on the pavement. It seemed neater and much more impressive. Neither Jock nor Reg were football fans. Jock was not a sportsman, but studied the horses. Reg’s prowess was in the swimming pool. But all three stood still, in awe, at the enormity of the structure which greeted them.

To the left, Jock spotted the frosted glass windows of a local hostelry. Without any words being exchanged, Jock quickly headed inside, his two friends left outside in his wake.

“A quick pint, Half Pint?” asked Hank to Reg. “It appears our Scottish friend is in need of liquid refreshment.”

They spotted Jock dart in the bar to the right of the main entrance of The Winslow Hotel and they quickly followed suit.

“Jock’s at the bar, Half Pint – this is a rare sight indeed. Let’s hope he doesn’t forget us.”

The cavernous bar was incredibly noisy and the three pals struggled to hear themselves be heard above the din of orders being taken, jokes being shared, vulgar belly laughs, shouts and groans. A young lad strode through the bar, bedecked in Everton favours – the blue and white standing out against the dismal colours of wartime England – and attempted to sell match programmes. He was not faring well. The locals were more intent on drinking. An elderly gent, with glasses and a pencil thin moustache, spoke engagingly to Reg about Dixie Dean, the great Everton centre-forward, who once scored 60 goals in a 42 game season.

As his knowledge of football wasn’t great, Reg wasn’t sure if this was the same Dixie Dean who had been ridiculed in the schoolboy poem of his youth –

“Dixie Dean from Aberdeen.
He tried to score a goal.
He missed his chance.
And pee’d his paints.
And now he’s on the dole.”

Talk of the imminent football match was minimal, though. It seemed that just being in an alien environment, so different from each of their home towns, was amusement enough. Hank looked at his watch and signaled to the others to finish their drinks. Outside, the rain had started to fall. The three friends quickly rushed across to the stand and did not notice that the narrow street, darkened under the shadow of the structure, was busy with an array of match day activity; grizzly old men selling programmes, young boys selling cheap paper rosettes, wise-cracking spivs selling roasted chestnuts and cigarettes and young girls selling newspapers.

The three friends stood together, three amongst thousands packed into the terraced area at the front of the main stand. Thankfully, the rain soon subsided. The game began; the blue of Everton and the red of the visitors. But the match almost seemed a minor attraction. The three friends gazed in wonder at the modern stands on all sides of the ground. Each one had an area for spectators to stand. Above, in the upper tiers, were wooden seats, though these were not particularly well occupied. In between the two tiers was the dark green of the balcony wall; the metal cross struts at the front of the wooden panels gave the stands a unique appearance. Reg turned around and looked up behind him at the towering upper tier of the main stand. This metalwork was continued around on the main stand too. Above, right at the top, a gable was perched on the very apex of the roof and Reg could hardly believe how high it was.

The football match was played out before them. The shouts of the players could often be heard above the quiet murmurings of the crowd. The boisterous behaviour in the pub before the game had been replaced with an almost muted reverence. In the corner, Jock spotted a church which abutted the lower terrace.

“Hope you’ve been a good boy, Reggie. You’re off to see the priest after the game.”

As the temperatures fell and the noise from the spectators grew quieter still, the three young men became mesmerized by the movement and physical strength of the footballers. Everton scored early and played the more-flowing football. The diminutive wingers hugged the touchlines and sent over cross after cross into the muddied goal mouths.

Further goals followed for the home side and the Everton fans were happy.

Towards the end of the game, the sun had set and the darkening winter evening was making life difficult for spectators and players alike. At the final whistle, there was a ripple of gentle applause from the Evertonians.

“Back to the pub for one more, boys?” asked Hank and the two pals concurred.

Inside the warm saloon bar of the pub opposite, the locals looked cheered. There was a buzz of appreciation that the local team had won. The daily worries of their mundane lives, further threatened by the menace of conflict, had been put to one side for ninety minutes. Football had been an escape for them, just like it had been for Hank, Jock and Reg.

After a few moments, the old pensioner with the glasses spotted Reg and chirped –

“Nice goal from Lawton.”

Reg thought to himself “yes it was – and unlike Dixie Dean, he didn’t have to change his shorts at half-time, either.”

It is 2012. The trip north from Somerset to Merseyside had started so perfectly as to be difficult for me to describe sufficiently. There had been an overnight frost and the trees and hedgerows were encased in hoarfrost. Snow remained on many of the fields. The skies overhead were of pure blue. I collected Parky at around 9am and we headed north on the Fosseway for a change. As we drove past Malmesbury, with its abbey high on the hill to my left, and then on to the old Roman town of Cirencester, I found it hard to believe how magnificent the Gloucestershire countryside looked.

It was a real treat. A joy to be alive. All this and Chelsea too. What lucky people we are.

As we descended the eastern edge of The Cotswolds at Birdlip and drove down into the Severn Vale, the snow soon disappeared. Our little winter wonderland had ended and we were now back on the M5; the road we seem to take every month on our travels up north to see the team play. It was an easy trip with little traffic. Maybe many had been scared off by the rumours of further snow. I strangely didn’t see any Chelsea colours on the 200 mile journey up the M5 and M6 to Meresyside, but I knew that we would be up at Goodison in force.

On this occasion, I avoided the usual route into the city and I headed east on the M56. I had a specially-planned detour to attend to. Deep in the heart of The Wirral, I broke off the northbound motorway and drove along the oddly named Saughall Massie Road.

My car quickly came to a stop and I pulled into a lay-by. There was a gate – closed – with what looked like a farm track beyond. But I knew better. From 1940 to 1957, that overgrown farm track once lead to RAF West Kirby; the very same camp that my father had attended during the very first month of his World War Two campaign. I had a moment to myself.

I looked around. I noted the hedgerows, the slight undulations of the countryside, the church steeple and the woodlands.

There is no doubt that my dear father, who I sadly lost in 1993, would have walked out of this very same track on that winter day, all those years ago, on his day trip to the city of Liverpool. My father had often spoken about his wartime visit to Goodison Park from his temporary home on The Wirral. It would be his only visit to a football stadium until he accompanied me to my first ever game at Stamford Bridge in 1974.

To the left, there is a stone memorial, neatly attended.

There is a large slab of local rock, with an airplane propeller attached.

There is a simple plaque –

“To commemorate all those who served,trained and worked at RAF West Kirby between 1940-1957.”

Parky took a few photographs of me alongside the memorial. It was a wonderful personal moment. Fantastic.

We hopped back in the car and – I guess – retraced the route that my father took on that day around sixty years previously. I drove through Birkenhead, then through the Wallasey Tunnel. I was soon in the heart of Liverpool, crossing over Scotland Road and heading up the hill. At 1.45pm, we were parked up outside not Goodison, but Anfield. Many Chelsea fans head for The Arkles, no more than two hundred yards from Anfield, when we play both Liverpool and Everton. This familiar pub was packed full of Chelsea and I spotted a few faces. All eyes were on the “Hate Derby” of Manchester United and Liverpool. A pint of Becks Vier each and we were good. We met up with that man Jesus once again, this time with two other Americans, all three of them on the same internship programme in London. Elaine was from Pittsburgh and Megan was from Cleveland. We welcomed them to the Chelsea family. I first met Jesus outside this very pub before that awful game – Carlo’s last – in May. We hoped for no repeat.

I was well aware that on the four and half mile journey, though, Parky and I had not mentioned the day’s game once.

Not once.

I also chatted with Paul, from Poole on the Dorset coast. He had an even longer drive than us; he had left Poole, the home of my father’s mother in fact, at 6.30am and had been in the pub since 11am. The pub was full of Chelsea, but there was a little band of young Liverpool fans; perched on small stools, faces gaunt, with old-fashioned haircuts, grey trackie bottoms – much loved by Scousers – and who were agonizingly watching the game on the TV. They howled with joy when Suarez made it 2-1.

It was 2.30pm and we needed to move. Jesus and the girls were outside on the pavement, trying to drink lager from the plastic glasses with one hand and eat chips from a small polystyrene tray with the other. I’m not sure if the three Americans were taking advantage of their perceived view of our relaxed drinking laws, but they had taken the beer glasses with them and were supping at the lager as we walked away from the pub. Fair play to them – I could see they were enjoying themselves. Jesus had even taught them the words to “Celery” in the boozer. The girls were giggly but Jesus just wanted to get to Goodison Park. However, we stopped for a moment or so at the Hillsborough memorial outside Anfield and I quickly tried my best to explain what had happened on that horrific Saturday in April twenty-three years ago. We walked on.

The winter air was chilling us all. At the bottom of Anfield Road, the main stand at Goodison was able to be seen just a few hundred yards away. The Archibald Leitch stand of the pre-war years – it was dubbed the Mauretania Stand as it was so huge – was partially demolished in around 1970 with the current stand taking its place on Goodison Road. We walked along Walton Lane; no time to waste now, the clock was ticking.

I got to my seat in the front row of the upper tier of the Bullens Road stand just as the “Z Cars” theme was ending and the players were in the centre-circle, waving to the four corners of the classic Goodison stadium. We stood the entire game and were in good voice at the start.

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If the last game of the 2010-2011 season was bad enough…and it was, believe me…then this game was even worse. It was quite simply the laziest and inept performance by a Chelsea team that I can remember for some time. We were 1-0 down after just five minutes when a bouncing ball caused paralysis in our defence and the returning Steven Pienaar pounced to slam the ball past Cech.

Oh great.

Here we go again.

It was the same old sad story in the first-half; lots of Chelsea possession but no real threat. Two shots from Daniel Sturridge and Frank Lampard were the only real chances that I can remember. Our threat was so poor that Everton hardly had to put in a shift. I lost count of the number of times that ball was played back along the defenders. Our midfielders were not worthy of the name.

Upfront Sturridge hid but Mata flitted around and tried his best. Torres was Torres.

There were gaps in our three-thousand seats. The singing wasn’t great. It soon subsided. A few fans in the back rows of the upper tier began singing the turgid and tedious “Ten German Bombers.” What that particular song has to do with Chelsea, or how it can inspire our team, is lost on me. RAF or not, I don’t think my Dad would have approved, either.

It was more of the same after the break. High balls into Torres; great. Whose idea was that?

Our midfield were playing so deep and our only threat seemed to involving a succession of nicely-weighted balls from Juan Mata out to Ashley Cole. But then – a woeful cross and you know the rest. Luiz was, again, the only player who appeared to be playing with anything near the level of passion required.

I am sad to say that the highlight of the match was an amazing shimmy from Pienaar over on the far side in front of the dug outs.

And yet, the Evertonians were so quiet. I have always said that they are the quietest fans by some mile…and hardly have a large repertoire, either. Torres was getting the “ladyboy” treatment from them. Even worse were the Chelsea fans that howled like wolves at the manager as he replaced Essien with Malouda. In an Arsenalesque moment, some Chelsea supporters regaled him with –

“You don’t know what you’re doing.”

OK – replacing a crowd favourite with a crowd pariah was never going to go down well, but this sort of behavior by our fans makes me sick. We should be above that. These ninety minutes where we have the opportunity to bond with our players should be full of positive noise only. We have the car trips home, the pubs, the offices and the internet chat rooms to dissect our team’s foibles and to berate them if necessary. But, for those ninety minutes, we should support The Boys In Blue From Division Two.

Everton scored a second after a tackle on Ashley Cole left gaping gaps in our left flank which Everton nimbly exploited. Stracqualursi rifled past Cech and it was game over. Quite a few Chelsea departed. Sigh. At last Everton sang a different song. It was a good day for the blue half of Merseyside.

“I’ve never felt more like singing the blues.
When Everton win and Liverpool lose.
Oh Everton – you’ve got me singing the blues.”

Our few attacking thrusts were easily dealt with by Distin and Heitinga. Tim Howard was virtually untroubled the entire game; only a block from the substitute Lukaku sticks in my mind.

This was a completely flat performance by manager, players and fans alike.

I, as with others, was numb at the end.

Andy from Nuneaton sidled over and succinctly said “he’s gotta go, mate.”

I sighed again.

I met up with Parky outside the old stand. There were no positives to take from the game. The post mortem had begun. We walked back through Stanley Park, past The Arkles and up to a fish and chip shop. A shared portion of chips warmed us up as I headed out of the tight terraced streets around Anfield. I was back on the M6 at 6pm and it was a reasonably good drive home in the circumstances. We stopped off at the Air Balloon pub at wintry Birdlip at around 8.30pm and enjoyed a quick pint, a roaring wood burning stove warming us up nicely. It was minus eight outside.

I eventually reached home at 10.30pm, almost fourteen hours since I had left in the morning.

Parky and I always – without fail – enjoy ourselves on these trips, but the agonizingly poor performance of the team detracted from this day out on Merseyside. Andre Villas-Boas, lauded by everyone at the start of his Chelsea managerial career, is quickly finding out how fickle football fans can be. I have no fool proof answers to our current problems. I’m not an expert. I just hope and pray we can override this period of substandard play. Rumours of player power, new managers being touted, injuries to key personnel and under-performing players are the over-riding negatives that continue to eat away at us. I can’t guarantee that Villas-Boas is the answer. I just honestly feel that we would be foolish to dispense of his services when he has clearly been tasked with the onerous job of clearing away the old guard, bring in his own team and yet win trophies at the same time.

Sounds like an impossible task to me.

Birmingham City at home next Saturday.

Let’s go.

* Dedicated to the memory of Hank Brooks and Jock Inglis – my father’s two closest friends during the Second World War – who may or may not have been present at Goodison on that day in the ‘forties and my father Reg Axon, who certainly was.

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Tales From The Ibis

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2010.

As I drove through the old mill town of Bradford-On-Avon on the way to collect Parky and Kris, I received a text from Danny in California. He is coming over to England for our two games next week, but asked if I could send him updates from our game at St. Andrews. It made me realise how “My Chelsea Supporting Life” has changed over the past few years. Not only do I have my long-standing friendships with mates throughout the UK, built up over the years, but I now have an “extended family” of Chelsea friends who live in various states in America. It’s lovely, you know. Not a match day goes by without texts from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, San Antonio, New York and Philadelphia. I guess it’s all about sharing that common experience. I presume that it is human nature for friendships to either remain strong through the years or eventually weaken and I suppose it’s the same story for my match day mates too. However, I get the feeling that my ten or so closest mates will continue watching Chelsea for many seasons yet. I do wonder though – since I am currently encompassing my American mates in this topic – how many US based fans will dwindle by the wayside over the years. I only recently commented to Parky that quite a few CIA regulars seem to have fallen off the edge of this Blue Earth recently. Chelsea is for life, remember, not just for Christmas.

We departed from Parky’s village at about 9.30am and we were on our way north once more. What a horrible, overcast morning. We encountered low lying grey clouds, drizzle and then rain…and then heavy rain as we drove past Bath and Bristol. It made the driving tiring…and I didn’t need that. Kris, like Parky, is into music and often DJs at weekends. This was to be his first away game and I could tell he was excited. I told the lads of a strange chat I had with my boss on the Friday. I’m not really sure what triggered the conversation, but my boss suddenly announced that one of his uncles once played for England. Despite being in the middle of a frantic few minutes, I had to put the demands of work to one side and ask him the player’s name.

“Lawton.”

“Not Tommy Lawton?” I replied with a look of astonishment on my face.

“Yes. Tommy Lawton.”

At this point, it’s worth saying that my boss Paul is not a football fan in the slightest and I am sure that he was not aware that his uncle once played for Chelsea immediately after the Second World War. So, I immediately filled him in…1947, bought him from Everton for a record fee, moved to Notts County, famous for his headers and that he was “one of the greats.”

Paul, my boss, seemed genuinely shocked that the miserable uncle that he often used to meet in his childhood, always wearing a blazer, was one of the greatest ever England centre-forwards. With a twinkle in my eye, I brazenly enquired –

“Where’s all his memorabilia, these days?”

With this story aired, Kris spoke of a football-related tale of his own. In addition to being a drum and bass DJ, Kris is a carpet fitter during the week. On the Thursday, he was working in nearby Corsham and it transpired that he was in the house of the one-time assistant manager at Derby County Stan Anderson, who worked alongside the legendary Dave Mackay in Derby’s championship season of 1974-1975. This triggered some memories. I told the story of a Chelsea vs. Derby County game that I saw with my parents in the March of that season. It was only my third-ever Chelsea game and we had seats right behind the away bench in the new East stand. It rainy day and it was a poor game. We lost 2-1, but the thing that my parents and I always remembered was the abuse that a Chelsea fan in her ‘sixties gave Anderson throughout the game. He was constantly up on his feet, remonstrating with the referee, the linesman and this caught her attention. She started telling him to sit down in no uncertain terms. At one stage, I am sure she walked to the front and threatened him with her brolly. It was hilarious. For the next few years, whenever we saw Mackay and Anderson on the TV, we always laughed and pictured that woman waving her umbrella at them. Out of interest, before that game, I very well remember an American university marching band from Missouri performing on the pitch. I can still see the bright yellow of their colourful tunics to this day. After their display, they sat in the rickety old North Stand, perched on stilts in the NE corner. The band even started playing at various stages during the game – a bang of drums and a crash of cymbals here, a cacophony of trumpets and bugles there. It was quite a surreal sight…and sound.

I wonder how many of those American kids from The Marching Mizzou remember their appearance at Stamford Bridge and I wonder if any are Chelsea fans today.

As the rain worsened around Gloucester, we spoke of the games coming up in the tough month of December and the rumours about the fitness of Alex and JT, the stories about Ray Wilkins, the probable line-up at St. Andrews, and the inevitable raft of reminiscences from the past. Parky rolled out a few tried-and-tested tales, familiar to me, not so for Kris. On this day of quirky stories involving footballers from the past and present, Kris reminded me that one of his friends went out with former Chelsea winger Scott Sinclair. Like me, Scott was born in Bath, and of course now plays with Swansea. Another link – Scott now plays alongside Nathan Dyer, a local lad from Trowbridge.

We stopped at Strensham and Lord Parky got the coffees in. I received texts to say that Burger was on his way and would be meeting up with Cathy, Dog and Mark in the city centre. By 11.30am, I had navigated the inner city ring round – past the Edgbaston county cricket ground – and was parked up at the Ibis Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the away end. We had made great time. We settled in for a lovely pre-match.

“Get the beers in.”

As I said hello to the first of the fellow Chelsea fans in – Nick, Robbie and Mark – the hotel staff were clearing away the breakfast cereals and croissants in preparation of the onslaught of Chelsea fans.

“Three pints of Grolsch please mate.”

We settled down in a corner and awaited the arrival of the troops from near and far. Ajax from Wrexham soon came over to spend an entertaining twenty minutes with us. He used to run the North Wales coaches down to The Bridge, but his real claim to fame in Chelsea circles is that he often used to travel to and from games back in the ‘eighties with players Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas. There was quite a Wrexham connection at the time – Johnny Neal and Eddie Niedzwiecki too – and the club used to allow special privileges to these two Chelsea greats…they used to live in Wrexham, their childhood home, and only come down to Harlington to train once a week, then again for games at the weekend. Mickey was one of the fittest players we have ever had – he didn’t need to train – and Joey was just Joey.

Imagine that happening these days.

Ajax – it turns out – is a big Rangers fan too and has attended twelve Old Firm games in his life. It turns out that the both of us attended one particular Rangers vs. Motherwell game in the 1986-1987 season. It’s a small world at Chelsea. Especially for me. I’m five foot six.

At about 1.15pm, the other members of The Bing arrived and joined the ever-growing throng. They had planned to have a few liveners in the centre, but their train had been delayed and so they got a cab direct to the hotel from New Street. After getting their beers, Alan, Gary, Daryl, Whitey, Simon and Milo came over to join us and we caught up with a few topics close to our heart…access to match tickets, travel plans for the next few games and the wash ability of Fred Perry, Lacoste and Henri Lloyd polo shirts. There were a few other familiar faces dotted around, too. The Nuneaton lot soon arrived too – Neil, Nigel, Jokka, Chopper and Jonesy – and it was good to see them. Our paths don’t often cross. It suddenly dawned on me that in that crowded hotel bar in Birmingham there were around 100 Chelsea fans, the die-hards, the loyalists…and most of us in our ‘forties. It’s our core demographic.

As Daryl commented – “Middle-aged, Caucasian, balding.”

“And that’s just the women.”

I’m on 800 or so games, yet I suspect most were on 1,000 easy. Alan and Gary must be on 1,500 I would imagine. So, around 100,000 Chelsea games in that crowded bar. And as I looked around again, taking it all in, I hardly spotted any Chelsea gear, save for an odd scarf here or a pin badge there. I smiled to myself. I approved. However, there is no doubt that if I lived in Austin TX or Athens GA – or Bangkok or Botswana – I would occasionally wear Chelsea gear on game days just to show willing. Indeed, there are rare shots of me fully-garbed up in Chelsea blue at the Pittsburgh, DC, New Jersey, Chicago, LA and Baltimore games. But I haven’t worn a Chelsea replica shirt at a game in England since about 1995. If anything, I am more presupposed to wearing quirky Chelsea T-shirts. It’s just too easy to simply buy a replica shirt and try to feel part of Chelsea Football Club, but there really is – truly, madly, deeply – more to it than that. I’d rather spend £45 on a match ticket than the latest Adidas monstrosity. Besides, neither me nor any of my mates would be seen dead wearing the same shirt. Wink.

You know the score.

We heard that Spurs came back from 2-0 down to get a highly unlikely win at Arsenal and we laughed. Not because Spurs had won – hell, no! – but because Arsenal had lost. I tried to picture Wenger’s squirming face.

Millsy arrived at about 2.30pm and I commented about a photo he had recently posted on Facebook. It was a photo of him playing against a Charlton player at The Valley. It turns out he used to play for Tonbridge in Kent and once played against the then Charlton Athletic midfielder Lee Bowyer. Tommy Lawton, Stan Anderson, Scott Sinclair, Mickey Thomas, Joey Jones and now Lee Bowyer. It was certainly a day for stories. Where would it end? I was feeling left out. I once met former Bristol Rovers player Mike Brimble on a West Bay caravan park in Dorset in about 1971. Does that count?

As we walked up to the ground, we heard the team and we approved…glad to hear Number 33 was playing and it was a big day for Malouda, who was dropping back into the midfield in an attempt to solidify the team alongside the unconvincing Ramires. Despite the overcast weather enveloping us all, I was confident we would do well. We had 4,400 tickets and surely we would be rocking. This was only my fifth visit to the humble and dowdy surroundings of Birmingham City’s down-at-heel home ground. I am yet to circumnavigate it – most unlike me. It’s the usual Ibis routine for me. So, after stopping to take a shot of Parky and Kris outside the away turnstiles, I walked through the unwelcoming approach to the away end. There were bare concrete walls and ugly steel roof supports to greet me. St. Andrews won’t win any awards.

The game. Do I have to?

To start with, we were wearing the lime green kit. What was I saying about Adidas monstrosities?

I’m struggling to think of a game amongst my other 800, where we have so dominated possession and yet have got nothing from it. Didier had three or four great chances in the first-half alone, yet the Birmingham City goal lived a charmed life. It goes to show how little attention I pay, at times, to some teams that I was under the impression that it was Scott Carson, not Ben Foster, in the Birmingham goal. I wish it was Carson, who was letting in three against Stoke a few miles to the west. Just like Joe Hart on Boxing Day last year, Foster was having a blinder.

A few sticks of celery were tossed around to my right. And then we sang a song from Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas era –

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song…”

Then, on seventeen minutes, a rare break – we didn’t close down the cross, the ball was whipped in to Jerome who softened a header into the path of Millsy’s mate Lee Bowyer. He was completely unmarked. He easily scored and we had to endure this most unliked of players ( Leeds and West Ham on his curriculum vitae ) celebrating in front of us.

Where was that woman’s umbrella from 1975?

The rapidity of the break and goal reminded me of United’s first at Wembley in the Community Shield. Of course, the home fans chirped up for the first time in the whole game and it was to be the loudest they would be all day. Their club song really is the most horrible of dirges. It’s dire.

At half-time, the immediate people around me occupied ourselves by listing our worse players ever…Dave Mitchell, Graham Wilkins, David Stride, John McNaught and Les Fridge all got votes, but I stood up for Keith Jones, while Gary defended John Coady. After Kalou’s non-show in the first-half, I wondered if he would get a vote. Someone said that the shot count was 14-1 in our favour in that first forty-five.

I greeted Les from Melksham and his two word retort was succinct and to the point –

“I’m bolloxed.”

We had even more of the ball in the second period, but the Chelsea support grew more and more irritable. There was, sadly, no great show of noise from the 4,400. There were no texts from Jamie, Bob or Steve in the US saying “we can hear you loud and clear.” We tried desperately to move the ball around to get a spare foot of space. But with the home showing no inclination to attack, the game was compressed in front of us…it was as hopeless as hell. Time after time the ball was played to Malouda and Anelka, then Ashley and the sub Bosingwa, but we couldn’t breach the defensive line. A penalty shout – Ramires, involved at last – and then Kalou chipped over. From South Philly, a text from Steve –

“Is it OK to start worrying?”

I replied – “I’ve been worrying since 1974.”

The Chelsea support, in a rare show of noisy solidarity, resurrected an old favourite from around the 1977-1978 season –

“Attack – Attack – Attack, Attack, Attack!!!”

There was deep frustration welling all around me. The shots reigned in, but block, block, block. An Ivanovic header – thump! – but it was dramatically clawed away by that man Foster. A Didier free-kick right at the ‘keeper, then a Kalou header flashed past the right post.

The final whistle. At least no boos…not that I could ascertain anyway…my mind was too clouded to hear, maybe. Our third league defeat in the last four games and this hurt. I briefly saw Drogba, minus his shirt, having an altercation with some fans down at the front. It seemed that the fans were unhappy with the Ivorian’s performance…how quickly people forget. He was suffering with malaria ten days ago. To Didier’s credit, he didn’t bite and clapped the fans as he turned and walked away. As we sloped out of the ground, I could not help involuntarily joining in a classic Chelsea gallows humour chant –

“We’re 5hit And We’re Top Of The League.”

Of course, we aren’t, but it helped my own coping mechanism. Back down at the Ibis, the troops had re-gathered and were enjoying a few post-game bevvies. I was expecting long faces and grumbles, but the mood was of stubborn resilience. We had tried our best. We had out-shot Birmingham something like 25-2. We would undoubtedly play worse and win this season. The ten of us had seen it all before…and the beers helped irradiate any maudlin feelings from the match. I supped on a strong coffee and Parky told of an altercation he had at half-time with a fellow Chelsea fan. Milo – 14 – took a couple of sips from one of Parky’s brandies. Whatever helps you through the night, eh?

We laughed and his Dad said “don’t tell your mother.”

We stayed at the hotel until about 6.15pm. To be honest, we had a laugh and it made me realise what a very special bunch of mates I have. We had spent almost seven enjoyable hours in Birmingham; almost five hours in the Ibis and two hours at the game. That’s a good beer / footy ratio. The evening traffic was moving slowly…eventually I got back on to the southbound M5 and Parky was asleep. We heard that United had won – what a surprise. Kris bought me a “wake me up and slap me in the face” coffee at Strensham and I eventually dropped them off at 8.45pm. Parky was well messy and almost fell out of the car. As he stumbled, several beer cans fell out of his bag. Out of nowhere, Ben Foster leapt to Parky’s feet and caught them all.

It was one of those days.

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