And then came the Coronavirus Pandemic!
A country in lockdown – no more spectator sport, no more football.
When the situation eased in Germany, I tried getting my footie fix by watching the Bundesliga on TV but found it unbearable. I think it was the lack of crowd noise and probably because I don’t have any affiliation with a German side.
When the Premier League came back with added crowd noise I did find that better, and of course I had a greater interest through being a Chelsea supporter and the knowledge and familiarity that brings in terms of the Premier League. Given the blanket coverage by Sky, BBC etc. I also got the opportunity to see all of The Blues league games and the conclusion of their FA Cup involvement.
It proved to be an exciting end to the Premier League season especially with the tense run-in to see whether Chelsea would make a top four finish, which they finally did with help of the woeful form of Leicester City. The Blues also made it to the FA Cup final beating Manchester United in the Semi-Final at an empty Wembley Stadium. Obviously, I was sad about the final result against Arsenal, but also disappointed with the level of refereeing. Mateo Kovacic should never have had a second yellow for that challenge, and I would have loved to have seen a replay of Gunners ‘keeper Emiliano Martínez “handball” incident in the second-half but can’t find a replay of it anywhere!!
However, it all looks good for next season with Timo Werner and Hakim Ziyech already in the bag, and fingers crossed for Kai Havertz – we look stronger going forward. The club did well in blooding some youngsters through the season and it will be good to see this continue. I think Mason Mount will be a regular, Reece James has to unseat Dave at right back, but we have great cover there. Other youngsters I hope get more game time next season would be Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, and Fikayo Tomori. But we need to shore up the defence, we need a left back – shame we sold Tariq Lamptey to Brighton last season but need a defensive option with experience. We also need a commanding centre half, Christensen, Zouma and Rudiger, are too similar, and I feel we need another JT (John Terry). I think Fikayo can be this player but is too young and inexperienced so needs to be brought through without affecting his confidence.
But what of last season and my Incredible Journey? What an adventure and a strange ending to boot. First of all the statistics, let’s get the boring bit out of the way:
- 28 matches attended, 22 new ones to add to my list of grounds (current and previous members of the Football League and FA Cup winners)
- I mingled amongst 137,781 fans, the biggest being at Turf Moor for Chelsea’s victory over Burnley (20,975) and the smallest being 2 – myself and one of the players girlfriends, at the Clapham Rovers vs Ladzio cup game, the next smallest being 54 at Shelley. An overall average attendance of 4,921.
- 12 wins, 6 away wins and 10 draws. 55 goals (33 first half, 22 second half. 31 home goals and 24 away goals).
- On the road I travelled 2,476 miles, slightly skewed by a trip to Edinburgh to see Hearts vs Stenhousemuir (as part of holiday) and a trip to London, but I did manage to squeeze three games into that trip. The Clapham game being Sunday football was free and I was treated to a few games from Paul, Frank and Nick – cheers lads, but in total I spent £415.50 for my tickets, I would say extremely good value’
Let’s start with the least favourite game. Lincoln City away at Blackpool. An awful journey, sheeting rain all the way there and all the way back, delays on the M62 for the usual unknown reason other than the volume of traffic. I arrived twenty minutes after kick-off, missed all the goals and Lincoln lost. There’s always going to be one of these games a season and to be fair I kept drier at this game than others I had attended – it’s grim up north!
The London weekend was definitely one of the highlights, not just the trip down to see my friends and family but the football aspect too. Two games on the Saturday – Brentford and AFC Wimbledon, and an absolute cracking time talking football and music with my mate Paul. We also got to see the developing new Brentford ground and on the Sunday I went to see the new stadium at Plough Lane. I followed this up watching Clapham Rovers in my old stomping ground in the Wimbledon/Southfields area. I had a great chat with their captain and manager Chris Kew, talking their plans for the coming years which (fingers crossed) might include a game against Charterhouse Old Boys, who of course are Old Carthusians FC winners of the FA Cup in 1880/81 – Rovers having already played against another Victorian FA Cup winning team, Wanderers FC in a charity game. On that Sunday I managed to get some cheeky photos of the team with me as their added guest. They invited me to the pub after the game, unfortunately I had other plans (a family meal) but wondered if perhaps they went to one of my old drinking haunts, The Pig and Whistle. I shall definitely be watching them again next time I am in London.
Favourite grounds visited. I have enjoyed every ground I have visited during my journey for a multitude of reasons but primarily from a historical perspective. There are two grounds I have seen evolve over a number of years, Chelsea’s home, Stamford Bridge from the late 1960s and Lincoln City’s Sincil Bank stadium, from the early 1970s. It has influenced my preference for authentic and historic grounds, so unsurprisingly my favourite grounds on this journey have an element of history attached to them. The trip to London saw me visit Griffin Park, unique due to having a pub on each of the four corners of the ground and has been the home of Brentford since 1904. It was a privilege to attend what turned out to be the penultimate home game in front of their fans. The visit to Moss Rose – who knows what future lies for Macclesfield Town – was also a highlight, attending a ground which has been their home since 1891. Probably my two favourites were Turf Moor where Burnley, founder members of the Football League, have played since 1883 and the Anchor Ground where AFC Darwen now ply their trade and where the original Darwen FC played from 1899, where the clubhouse draws upon their historic beginnings.
As we have seen through lockdown and the coverage of football on TV, the game is nothing without fans in the ground. Most games have gone to form as opposed to offering the smaller home side the advantage of having a crowd baying them on. Throughout this journey, the fans have been brilliant right from the small 50+ attendances at both the Shelley games I attended to my visit to Turf Moor. The Bolton Wanderers (another founder member but sadly no longer at Burnden Park – I think I shall add visits to former ground sites for future seasons) vs Coventry game had a fabulous atmosphere, I really felt part of the crowd and was jumping up and cheering Bolton on. The primary reason for my support of The Trotters on the day was due to Bolton’s dire financial situation and their decision to play a team with an average age of 19 who absolutely ran their socks off and received a standing ovation from both sets of fans at the end. The Stalybridge Celtic vs FC United of Manchester game at Bower Fold, where they have played since 1906, was a Charity Day and so which boosted the attendance. In addition, it was a local derby and ‘Staly’ were also at home to a side who had spent some time as tenants at the ground and have a good away following, so all contributing on the day to a crowd three times the average home gate. I would also say that this was probably the best game I watched over the journey bar one.
Of course it has to be Chelsea, but not just for Chelsea sake. Firstly, the company – one of my best friends who had stuck by me and helped me in my hour of greatest need and my gorgeous daughter. It was also a birthday treat from Frank and Michelle just before my birthday. Secondly, the history of the ground and the home team. Additionally, the seats were perfect, with a view just above pitch level and close to the action – it’s a very compact ground. It was to be the only Premier League game of the season I attended, although I think I have come to prefer lower league football, given that it is usually a much closer game and better matched quality wise than the higher leagues which are usually determined by money. However, at Turf Moor, the quality of the players on show, the athleticism and speed of the players was evident. It was a joy to marvel at the technical ability of the players and to have the opportunity to see a number of Chelsea’s new stars, and of course Pulisic stood out with his perfect hat trick. A game of six goals – Chelsea 4 – 0 up and cruising until their leaky 2019/20 defence managed to ship two late goals – an exciting game throughout. And lastly but not least, probably the best match programme of the journey.
So what of the season ahead? Well unsurprisingly, it all depends when they start letting fans into the grounds. I would attempt 51 games in 2020/21 but I can’t imagine at that stage that the season will start with fans, and I fear there is likely to be a second peak of the coronavirus or perhaps a mutation which will probably see us in lockdown again. Fingers crossed it does not hit over the winter during the periods of high influenza across the nation.
However, if/once fans are allowed to return, I think I will concentrate on adding to my collection of Football League games as well as local midweek games in the local leagues. I have plans to visit friends and family in London again, so clubs such as Leyton Orient, Millwall, and grounds like the Emirates Stadium, Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London Stadium, new Plough Lane and Brentford Community Stadium, all are on the list and of course if Clapham Rovers are at home Sunday league football, I would make a return trip. I also plan to visit friends in Devon so possible destinations include Torquay United, Exeter City and Plymouth Argyle and if I plan properly I might be able to catch a game on the way down and back on both trips. I also have a cousin who lives near the Bescott Stadium (home of Walsall), so I can get the opportunity to visit some Midlands clubs too. I also have two good friends in the village where I live – one a Manchester United fan and the other a Leeds United fan and we are planning a trip to the Highlands to take in a game at Loch Ness and Fort William, no doubt we will be able to find a Warrior games around the same time.
For now though, we will just see what happens.
I’ll leave you with the list of games that comprised my Incredible Journey: