According to the AA Route planner, it’s 543 miles from Wigan to Gelsenkirchen, plus another 30 odd miles on top of that to cater for the English Channel. It doesn’t sound too far really now does it?
Of course not, but there’s always a catch when it comes to following Chelsea over land and sea … and the catch usually involves making the occasional detour. Blues terrace legend, Long Way Round Pete didn’t earn his nickname without good reason, but even he would have smiled had he been on the charter train that departed Wigan North Western Railway station a little after 6pm on Saturday 3rd November.
‘We’ve got no Mario’s’, we’d sang on glimpsing sight of pony-tailed ex Blue Mario Melchiot. In good heart, buoyed by Chelsea’s 2-0 victory over a desperately poor Latics side destined to become manager-less in the week that followed, I’d eased my self into my seat and discussed the matters at hand with my travelling companion for the day Kelvin ‘celery’ Barker. Avram Grant? How quickly he’d adapted to his new role as manager. No longer the ambitious outsider, his acuity and vigilance coupled with the ebb and flow of Chelsea’s more expansive style of play had taken most Blues fans, to say nothing of the Mourinho-savvy media, completely by surprise.
7pm. The train juddered to a halt. I looked out of the window … Chester! A change of driver apparently. But then why should we be surprised, this is Chelsea after all … a club synonymous with the expression ‘glorious unpredictability’. By 9pm we’d meandered back to Crewe and were heading south through the Midlands and the quaint looking Bescot Stadium Railway Station serving little old Walsall FC, then past a neon-lit Villa Park. Kelvin’s eyes tearfully misted over as we recalled Chelsea’s 7-0 drubbing of the Saddlers back in February 1989 at their old Fellows Park ground. Judas Durie found the net five times that day as the Blues consolidated their Second Division title seeking credentials.
10pm … Leamington Spa … our train driver then headed west. God bless British Rail and their weekend engineering works! 10.30pm … Didcot. Poor Kelvin was asleep by now, leaving me to ponder why I hadn’t had the common sense to blag a lift back to the Smoke in a car with Dave ‘hurry up it’s only a pound’ Johnstone of cfcuk fanzine fame when it had been offered. I could have been safely back in my padded cell by the time the train finally clickety-clacked into Paddington Station at ungodly-hour-o-clock. Still never mind, what a top day out! Credit where credit’s due …
Firstly, David Whelan, the magnanimous owner of Wigan Athletic for making the match tickets a very reasonable £20. Secondly, Chelsea FC for subsidising the cost of the football special. £10 … what a bargain that turned out to be given the length of the rail journey! Thirdly, the 4500 travelling Blues fans who put on a sparkling show of support for the players and the club. There was a faint twist of irony lying in wait for me at the end of the day. By the time I’d got the tube down to Wimbledon from Paddington, the train service to Cheam had long since ended. The 5 mile black taxicab ride home cost me £25!
I slept well that night and awoke on Sunday morning fresh as a proverbial daisy. Chelsea were in the middle of a run of six matches in less than three weeks. Analogous to a gluttonous six course meal, the trip to Wigan had been the final Hors d’ouvres whetting my appetite for what promised to be a memorable Gate 17 sortie to Gelsenkirchen to watch the Blues in Champions League action against Schalke 04. Memorable as it turned out, not for the quality of Chelsea’s football in the fortuitous 0-0 draw played out in the atmospheric Veltins Arena, but for the shenanigans that went on at the designated rendezvous point … Amsterdam.
I love it when a plan comes together, and so did Young Dave, the soon to be married Ossie (no relation), Ugly John, Sir Larry, Big Chris, Lemon, Cam, Bloodhound, Chopper, Troddy, Wellsy, Baby Gap Brian, Lantern Jawed Salisbury Rog, All Right Pav together with Joseph and his amazing Technicolor dream-coat. Gate 17 on tour, there is no finer spectacle. Could there possibly be a better place to base ourselves for the 120 mile trip to Gelsenkirchen than Amsterdam? I doubt it. A wonderful red lit universe of depravity and amorality, where Martin ‘for sure one day I’ll be back at Spurs’ Jol is revered as a folk hero and the smoking of otherwise illegal herbal substances is encouraged, night-time Amsterdam has much to offer the itinerant Chelsea supporter in search of a few thrills.
Aside from the obvious, the most entertaining memory I have of Gate 17’s sojourn in the Dam relates to our seeing for the first time the eponymously titled pop video featuring Bearforce 1 … Holland’s answer to the Village People. You will recall, and have no doubt drunkenly participated at some point in, the semaphore style hand signals of their disco hit YMCA … Bearforce 1 take this to a whole new level. I may well have been as high as a kite when I first saw Bearforce 1 on TV, but I’m as sober as a Crown Court judge right now having just seen Everton plunder a draw at the Bridge and I can tell you that a visit to You Tube to check out their cringe-worthy endeavours will have you splitting your sides with laughter no matter how dour Tim Cahill may have made your mood.
Altogether now … clench your fists and cross your arms in front of you, salute then point … ‘Bearforce 1’. The driver of our coach deposited us in car park 7 at the Veltins Arena, Gelsenkirchen some 3 hours after we had left Amsterdam cooing and gibbering like demonic cherubs. ‘We’re the boys in Blue … Division Two … We won’t be here for long’ … that’s more like it!
I wrote recently about the sterile atmosphere at Bolton Wanderers comparatively new Reebok Stadium. Near neighbours Wigan Athletic’s JJB Stadium isn’t much better, you need the right combination of vocal support and architecture to make a new ground work. Just ask ‘the’ Arsenal librarians at the Emirates if you require any further clarification on this point. Schalke 04’s Veltins Arena bucks the trend. This was my second visit, the first being the time when Chelsea played a relocated Champions League fixture against Turkish outfit Besiktas back in December 2003.
From the outside, the stadium resembles an alien spaceship. Symmetrical glass panels which diffuse an eerie yellow light are held in position by polished steel girders which are in turn set into sculpted concrete blocks. The sci-fi façade is completed by a blue neon strip light which circles the roof of the structure creating a halo effect made all the more spectacular by the white light haze cascading down from its epicentre. The arena was opened in 2001 and is a masterpiece of modern engineering. A multi-purpose venue, its southern stand is movable and the grass pitch which is laid in a concrete trough can be slid from inside outwards and back again as desired. The retractable roof, which this evening was closed, keeps the inclement elements of the weather at bay when required and vacuum seals the atmosphere generated by the fans inside … and what an atmosphere!
German fans are able to kindle an impressive outpouring of fervour for the teams they follow. The away games in recent years with VFB Stuttgart, Bayern Munich, Werder Bremen and now Schalke 04 have been made memorable by the coordinated maximum-decibel-range chanting of the home support.
‘Schalke’, emanating from one end of the ground, ‘04’ from the other. ‘We are, we are, we are the Chelsea boys …’ from the section that Blues fans are penned into. This is what it’s all about … real atmosphere. You can feel the energy coursing around the stadium, an unseen force melding all its occupants together in a show of vocal support for their respective teams. ‘Come on Chelsea!’
As for the game itself, it’s been well reported elsewhere. After seven successive wins it was perhaps too much to expect that Avram Grant’s charges would make it eight. The drop in level of performance was far less disconcerting than the injury to Petr Cech which saw him substituted at half time. ‘Carlo … Carlo’. Facing a stern second half examination of his goalkeeping abilities Carlo Cudicini didn’t let the side down making several good saves … the cross bar and the post did the rest, making sure my heart remained in my mouth for most of the last 45 minutes of the game. At the final whistle the Germans were left ruing a hatful of missed opportunities, whilst Blues fans heaved a huge collective sigh of relief. You need a little luck sometimes, and let’s face it, Lady Luck has been a little fickle with her favours to Chelsea recently so it was nice to have her back on our side at the Veltins Arena.
After applauding the electricity yellow clad Chelsea players from the pitch, Gate 17 along with a certain mythically cadaverous fanzine-toting stowaway regrouped at car park 7 and boarded the coach for the journey back to Amsterdam and several reflective post-match beers. We talked about the Blues next match, Everton at home … but not for long. My mind was already drifting to the next European adventure. Norway and BK Rosenborg. The whimsically named Troll Children of Trondheim, rapidly turning out to be the surprise package of Champions League Group B, will provide interesting opposition for the Blues in what is expected to be a snow-laden Lerkendal Stadium. Personally, I can’t wait!
Mark Worrall is the author of cult terrace classic ‘Over Land and Sea’ and ‘Blue Murder … Chelsea till I die’. His new book ‘One Man Went to Mow’ will be published in December. Signed copies are available to buy with free postage inside the UK and savings of up to 30% at www.overlandandsea.net.