The Reebok Stadium, home to Bolton Wanderers for the past decade or so, is a soulless place, a feckless testament of what can happen when a famous old football club which once had a true sense of spirit and working-class identity is uprooted from its traditional home and transplanted to an anonymous retail park in a nearby town.
Chelsea away days to the Trotters old home Burden Park were the stirring stuff of legend. Grimey football specials, horse-sh*t and hamburgers, leaden skies unloading rain by the bucket-load that would invariably prompt a mass exodus from the uncovered Railway End across the pitch to the Great Lever End much to the chagrin of the local constabulary … and best of all that transcendent Clive Walker volley in May 1983 which saved the Blues from certain relegation to the old Division Three as they won their penultimate match of what had been a perilous season, 1-0.
For Burden Park read Asda now. They don’t make football grounds like that anymore; and so to the synthesised sterile Reebok with its futuristic tubular steel arches, anomalous baize-like pitch and US-style playing of James Brown after the new-fangled Trotters find the net, which fortunately would not be on the agenda today. Wanderers icon, Nat Lofthouse, the Lion of Vienna, now a sprightly Octogenarian must choke on his meat and potato pie and chips as he surveys the scene in front of him on his regular visits to watch the club whose colours he famously graced back in the day.
Some new stadiums work. The Emirates par bitter, twisted, green prickly-suited envious example, but the Reebok doesn’t. The one saving grace of this abominable space-age place is the part it plays in the history of Chelsea Football Club. On Saturday April 30th 2005 I was privileged to be in the company of several thousand Blues fans in a crowd of 27,653 who witnessed Frank Lampard rattle in a couple of goals which granted Chelsea a 2-0 victory and saw Jose Mourinho’s men crowned Premiership Champions, the league title headed to SW6 for the first time in fifty years. What a glorious day that was.
Two and half years on, and the long sobering walk down to the ground from the Bromilow Arms, the pre-match watering-hole in which I’d sunk a few jars and sang a few songs with the good old boys, provided time-a-plenty to cogitate on the meaning of life as far as being a part of Avram Grant’s all new Blue and White army was concerned. ‘He stuck a Veron in his pocket, he nicked Glan Johnson from West Ham, cos if you want the best uns and you don’t ask questions then Roman he’s your man. But where the money comes from it’s a mystery, is it from the drugs or the oil industry? So come on Chelsea chuck your celery … cos we are the famous CFC … tra la la la la la la’. Why get depressed? We all sang along to that fabulous remixed version of the Only Fools and Horses theme concocted during the Stamford Bridge dawn of the Roman empire. Those were the days my friend, we thought they’d never end. Ahh the glorious unpredictability of it all! Have a chat with anyone who made the trip to Valencia for confirmation and affirmation about that last point.
Cech, Geremi, Terry, Ricardo Carvalho, Gallas, Tiago, Makelele, Lampard, Jarosik, Gudjohnsen and Drogba; aided and abetted by substitute appearances
from Huth, Cole and Smertin saw Chelsea home that hallowed day against Big Sam’s Bolton, whose replacement ‘he’s short, he’s round … he bounces on the ground’, Sammy Lee found himself in an evermore parlous position with his charges rooted at the foot of the table going into what I imagined was being viewed as a ‘must win’ game within the boardrooms of both club’s irrespective of what happened on the European stage in midweek.
Right leg, left leg … your body follows … it’s called walking. As the Reebok loomed into view I thought about John Terry. Yeah! JT … the guvnor … Captain Marvel, with his broken toe and his broken face. Joe Cole, the young Chelsea lion reborn, had epitomised the moral fibre of the man prior to the defiant show of team spirit in Valencia. “JT is very important to us, our captain and leader on and off the pitch, and it shows his character to come out just two days after being operated on. When you’ve gone a while without winning, you want to win and this game is important – and with one point so far in the Champions League it’s a game we must not lose. We want to be very positive and go home with three points. ” … and so we did!
I rummaged in my back pocket for my ticket. Was it really Avram Grant’s Blue and White army or John Terry’s? My shekels were on JT. Joey Cole may well be a Chels boy through and through but John Terry is in a different class, opaque plastic Halloween protective mask and all.
‘We are Blue, we are white, we are f*cking dynamite … tra la la la la lala la.’ Have you ever followed Chelsea away Johnny Come-Lately? I sniggered at the thought. Chelsea were in their lowest Premier League position for nearly six years and failure to score against Bolton would represent the club’s most barren spell in the top flight for almost 19 years. The last time they fired blanks in five successive league games, the Blues were relegated. ‘We’ve got our Chelsea back!’ Yeah you know that … biting sarcasm … this is our club, we’re still here … thick or thin. If I was Mr Abramovich I’d cut to the chase. Avram Grant? Hiddink? Ten Cate? Gianfranco Zola? Barry Fry? Do us all a favour Roman … JT the youngest player coach in the history of the Premiership … no the world … and why not? Nothing would surprise me when it comes to Chelsea Football Club … never has and I guess it never will.
That Chelsea beat Bolton after the heroics in the Mestalla was no surprise. Our travelling support got right behind the Blues and put the efforts of the Wanderers fans dotted amongst the many empty seats to shame. Impartial observers might almost have been excused any question they may have asked regarding all the fuss over the departure of Jose Mourinho. Well almost! The influential triumvirate of Carvalho, Terry and Lampard were back at their best. Kalou cleverly undid the Wanderers defence for the only goal of the game, and Chelsea resolutely ground out a positive result. With Essien, Mikel and Drogba soon to return the old ‘we’ve got our Chelsea back’ chant may well take on a more familiar meeting.
“Clean sheet, three points, that’s what’s important,” Avram Grant said after the match, contradicting ever so slightly the acreage of newsprint that has been devoted to the whys and the wherefores of Chelsea’s style of play under Jose Mourinho which allegedly wasn’t buccaneer enough for Mr Abramovich. If Chelsea are to become the swashbuckling pirates of the Premiership there is much work still to be done, but one thing’s for certain, the Stamford Bridge galleon has been steadied and the Blues last two results have all but wiped the conceited smirks off the faces of rival supporters who were praying for a post-Mourinho capitulation. As the good ship sails into calmer waters, healthy debate continues about whether or not this is down to Avram Grant, Steve Clarke, JT and the senior players at the club, Mr Abramovich himself … or indeed God … one things for certain though, I’m just happy that Chelsea are back!
Win or lose … Up the Blues!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classic Over Land and Sea. His new book, Blue Murder, Chelsea till I die, is out now. Signed copies of both books are available to buy with free postage within the UK at www.overlandandsea.net