Thrills, Shrills & Bellyaches

Women’s FA Cup Final 05/05/18

Chelsea 3 Arsenal 1

‘Do you have a pacemaker or anything like that?’ Nine words administering the last rites to any lingering delusion on my part that on a good day I can still pass myself off as residing at the sprightlier end of middle age. The policewoman asking the question as I get zapped with one of their security scanners isn’t being rude, although the ‘anything like that’ rider is intriguing. How many electrical devices keeping my ravaged old body ticking over does it look like I might have? In truth my maker’s mark identifies me nowadays as of an age in synch with pacemaker patronage. Contributory guiding lines include a receding hairline, topping off a face now more wrinkled than an elephant’s anus with a belly that has now travelled so far south it is in danger of being added independently to the electoral roll at Lizard Point. The accompanying police officer senses my anguish. ‘Of course he hasn’t got a pacemaker’ he says, directing this observation at his colleague but clearly for my benefit. God bless you bud but it’s too little too late. Nobody else being searched appears to be getting asked the same question as this latter day Rip Van Winkle makes his way up the stairs from the London Designer Outlet shopping centre towards Wembley Stadium, the previous spring in his step on this lovely sunny day sizeably reduced.

There was a certain irony in my shuffling ever closer to the tartan slippers, battenburg cake & Cash In The Attic repeats stage of life being outed by such an official source at this particular match. I actually like battenburg cake so one out of three is a start. Queuing for the train back to central London after any Wembley game is also good practice for all that standing around in the post office waiting to buy stamps that traditionally seemed the lot of so many in their dotage. That’s rehearsal rather than irony though. All these reference points for old age are probably outdated now. Do they still do line dancing I wonder? I’m not doing line dancing. The irony was that I was on the way to a football match which proved to have an atmosphere evoking super strong memories of my first ever visit to the old Wembley Stadium, as an eleven year old boy in the spring of 1973, to see a schoolboy international  between England & The Netherlands. Forty five years may have gone by but seeing the lush turf on entering the playing arena, having glimpsed the much missed Twin Towers for the first time, is a treasured & abiding memory, as was the noise. A crowd predominant with prepubescent young boys like me created a high pitched noise I have never heard replicated since. Until now. This is a record crowd for a women’s match, a handsome 45,000, & there are a large number of young people again, though on this occasion the girls far outweigh the boys. The noise is similar though, & commentator Jonathan Pearce offends the sensibilities of many onlookers by describing it as shrill. Pearce appears to rub large numbers of followers of the women’s game up the wrong way, his commentary style now reputedly stuffed full of condescending if not outright sexist remarks. He generally adopts a far more measured tone at the BBC than in earlier days but it is not for me to comment generally on the criticism of his calling of women’s matches. He has to be defended on this occasion though. The noise is indeed shrill, shrill is the only word that comes to mind when I’m in the stadium too, because excitable young voices, regardless of gender, will create that sort of sound when employed by their thousands in unison. As it was in 1973 so it was today. I tend to ignore match commentataries these days, at worst the mute button is employed. Pearce has always been an acquired taste dating back to the 1990’s when his excitable Capital Gold & Channel 5 commentaries frequently bordered on the hysterical & inspired horrified reactions from traditionalists brought up on the clipped tones of Kenneth Wolsenthome. Who can forget classics like ‘Easy peasy lemon squeezy – Vialli!’ & the Ronnie Barker Open All Hours inspired ‘ It’s G-G-G-G-G-G-G Granville & it’s open all hours in the Bratislava defence.’ Overcooked wasn’t in it but sometimes I  enjoyed the gusto with which the younger Pearce operated. It’s football not a state funeral, & the disdain with which Pearce was treated by some other commentators, especially that odious, sanctimonious, monk haired sack of hot air Alan Green, who laughably sees himself as the sage voice of sanity within the mad world of football. Wolsentholme died in 2002, doubtless pompously denouncing his successors to the end. I know someone who had the misfortune to be paired with him at a golf event once, somewhat less than a barrel of laughs by all accounts. He did manage to cash in on his legendary 1966 World Cup fame by reproducing THAT line for the godawful BBC1 sports ‘comedy’ programme They Think It’s All Over. He also popped up on Eurotrash in 1998 commentating on a game of blow football between the great Martin Peters & the extraordinary & tragic Lola Ferrari, famous for her 22 times enlarged 71 inch breasts, each of which were recorded in the Guinness Book Of Records as weighing 6.2 lb & containing three litres of saline. Even the young Pearce might have baulked at that gig. Ken was clearly inclined to be less snooty when the prospect of a Channel 4 cheque was waved before him. The reaction from his detractors if Pearce appeared on something like that now can only be imagined but they need to get over themselves re: the shrill line, a mere statement of fact rather than a shot across the bows of political correctness on this occasion.

Needless to say the schoolboy match all those years ago was all about future promise. Those that played have reached their sixties recently. One of them, Tommy Langley, made his Chelsea debut little more than 18 months later as a sixteen year old. Alan Curbishley also played, his early West Ham appearances a couple of years later hinted at a glittering international career that never happened, but he still played well over 400 professional matches in a career also taking in Aston Villa, Birmingham City, Charlton & Brighton. His once blooming managerial career finally stalled at West Ham after a long & fruitful stint in charge at The Valley, including eight years in the Premier League, Charlton’s longest run in the top flight since the 1940’s & ’50’s when they had been one of the top clubs in the country. The real star against The Netherlands had been left winger Shaun Penny, who scored two of the goals. Penny was educated at Milfield, the most elite sporting school in the land, courtesy of his club Bristol City. In 1979 he finally made the short journey from Ashton Gate to Eastville to join  bitter rivals Bristol Rovers. He never made a first team appearance for City & his rich promise remained largely unfulfilled as he drifted out of league football after sixty games & thirteen goals for Rovers. One of those thirteen barely counted as it was scored against Chelsea, whose early ’80’s defensive line up was frequently as obliging to opposition strike forces as Cynthia Payne’s house was to luncheon voucher waving, spanking enthusiasts in the same era. In all honesty the 6-0 defeat at Rotherham in 1981 suggested that if anything it was harder to score in a brothel.

The Women’s FA Cup Final is more a joint homage to distinguished & notable careers drawing to a close alongside others currently in mature full bloom. Katie Chapman & Eni Aluko represent the former, Fran Kirby & Ramona Bachmann the latter. Chapman announced her retirement five days after the match, the last curtain call on a fabulous, pioneering twenty year career garnering a tenth FA Cup winners medal. Yes, tenth, many won with the day’s opponents, Arsenal. Eat that Ashley Cole! Aluko’s cameo appearance at the end of the game is prior to her eventual departure for Juventus, announced a few weeks later. She played a pivotal role in Chelsea’s first FA Cup win in 2015 but had been a more peripheral figure this season, though the double clenched fist & sinking to the Wembley turf celebration at the final whistle suggested this win was still massively important for her. I have covered her fight to have racial harrassement claims against the England coaching staff taken seriously before. Now vindicated despite gross dereliction of duty within the FA, & media ridicule from halfwits like David James & Matthew Syed, she leaves the English arena held high with a winner’s medal & a huge smile on her face. Eni spurned the Wayne Bridge approach to handshake avoidance with a foe & accepted the one proffered by FA chairman Greg Clarke during the pre-match preliminiaries. It was Clarke who did his best to sweep the matter under the carpet. For reasons I can’t quite fathom he always reminds me of Mr Gilbert in The Inbetweeners, & displayed about as much sensitivity & empathy with the Aluko complaint as Gilbert does when dealing with his pupils. At least Gilbert’s funny though. Additionally he doesn’t really exist. Clarke looks about as much fun as an evening spent listening to Tom Yorke records in the company of Gareth Southgate & Arsene Wenger.

The final was fun though, save for one fly in the ointment, a nine stone fly at that. It is not the usual gathering of rival clans at Wembley, lacking the bile that decades of emnity grounded in fear, triumph, contempt & bitter disappointment have nurtured between these two teams in the men’s game. The atmosphere as we await kick off in the late afternoon sunshine is relaxed & the prospect of supporting a Chelsea team without the usual dread of defeat tugging at my sleeve is rather pleasant, not because victory is certain but because the endless post mortems in media & workplace are not going to occur with anything like the intensity should Arsenal triumph. Were it not for modern terrorism threats there  would have been no need for the pacemaker episode. It isn’t going to kick off here. The beergut & wanker sign brigade are missing today, testosterone levels reduced to the level of long ago childhood days out, & I think back 45 years & more to a pantomine on ice at nearby Wembley Arena where Charlie Cairoli’s clown troupe provided the half time entertainment. Better than the  meat draw they once had at Watford halfway through an FA Cup tie. There is plenty of crowd excitement, enthusiasm & eagerness but little or no venom, none of the standard opposition baiting, call & respond chanting. I’d miss it normally but today a change is as good as a rest. At the recent FA Youth Cup Final at Stamford Bridge, also against Arsenal, Gooner fans had been notably keen to try to replicate the vocal battle lines usually drawn up at a first team match & it all felt rather silly. My ears only encounter one lone, feeble attempt to do the same today. Unfortunately its source is the well lubricated throat of the person sat next to me. Falling prey to the nutter on the bus syndrome once again, the vacant seats to my left are taken up not long before kick off by a rather scrawny man & his daughter. She is about ten years old, takes her seat two places from me & turns out to be a credit to him. He is somewhere in his thirties, takes up residence, inevitably, immediately next to me & turns out to be an an absolute spanner.

During the warm up I watch & enjoy the Chelsea strikers, Kirby & Aluko included, practicing their shooting at substitute goalkeepr Carly Telfer, who gets a thorough workout as the precision is sensational. I can only recall one effort hitting the side netting. Otherwise Telfer either saves or the net bulges. The approach is rigorous, professional & thorough, & in stark contrast to what I see sat behind the goal  in the Shed Lower at Stamford Bridge four days later, when relegation threatened Huddersfield Town appear to take huge pleasure in raining in wild, ferocious & inaccurate shots during pre-match practice, the aim of which seems largely to avoid the protective netting & maim myself or one of my neighbours in the stand. Cheers lads. Congratulations on the niggling, time wasting strewn draw that helped delay the inevitable for one season at least. Who knows, using the warm up to practice shooting in a professional manner rather than like excitable ten year olds on the local rec may help you live the dream even longer.

People can say what they like about women’s football but the approach to the game by both sides is utterly professional throughout. The first half is goalless. Ramona Bachmann comes close to making the most of a lovely dragback in the Arsenal box which leaves her marker queuing to get back into the stadium. Sadly the shot goes wide. The redoubtable Millie Bright horribly misjudges  a headed clearance to let Arsenal in for a rare but ultimately fruitless foray into the Chelsea penalty box. As this is my first live women’s match I inevitably find myself comparing players to male counterparts. Millie Bright is both taller & generally more physically imposing than anyone else on the pitch & consequently stands out on the landscape among the other twenty one players as much as anyone I have seen since our huge bearded centre half Micky Droy in the 1970’s. I thought he had stepped straight off the pages of Gulliver’s Travels the first time I saw him in the flesh. Millie may not be six foot four & fifteen plus stone, or have a beard, but her striking mass of blonde hair  tops off the beacon effect. Micky’s form would regularly swing from the formidable to the fallible, but some poorly executed long balls aside the opposition don’t get much change from Millie after failing to profit from her early error. At the other end Fran Kirby allies immense skill to a busy, bustling approach that must make her a headache for any opponent. A small, sturdy figure on the pitch, the wonderful close control, speed of thought & intelligent movement are reminiscent of former Newcastle & Liverpool striker Peter Beardsley. Fortunately the resemblance ends there. Fran seems as delightful off the pitch as she is on it whereas Beardsley is a horrible little man, who once spent the first half of a 1996 FA Cup tie rotating the task of brutalizing Dennis Wise with a handful of other Geordie team mates, an interesting reversal of reputations. Wise got his own back a decade later by bizarrely taking up a chief executive position at St James Park & making a total hash of it, hastening the departure of iconic manager Kevin Keegan in the process. Keegan had also been in charge when the sustained & clearly premeditated assaults on Wise had taken place. Tut tut Saint Kevin. Dish best served cold eh Den? In midfield, Bermondsey born Katie Chapman is brilliantly adopting the Roy Keane/Patrick Vieira enforcer role, starting & breaking up play as required, her use of the ball immaculate. A month shy of 36, Chapman is one of the true greats of the women’s game, in the last throes of a magnificent journey that has taken in five London clubs, starting at Millwall, & a spell in America playing for the Chicago Red Stars. She made her international debut at seventeen, playing 94 games  between 2000 & 2016 including five matches in the 2015 World Cup campaign. England eventully finished third in a tournament that has proved pivotal in ensuring the recent, rapid growth of the women’s game here. Both combative & talented, Chapman has clearly made a huge contribution to this growth & a true woman amongst girls at one particular moment later in this match when she incurs the wrath of two Arsenal players in one incident. Words are exchanged but there is also a lingering look from Chapman that ensures discretion is the better part of Gooner valour. I saw it on the highlights later & Pearce suggested in commentary that there was only ever going to be one winner from a spat like that, one piece of commentary that nobody could argue with. You can take the woman out of Millwall….

Another pioneer is less prominent on the touchline than usual, namely Chelsea coach Emma Hayes, set to give birth any day now. She also had coaching stints with Arsenal & over the pond with Chicago Red Stars before taking the Chelsea job in 2012. Katie Chapman has three children which explains why she fell short of 100 England caps, a dispute over childcare with then England manager Hope Powell at one point leading to her central contract being cancelled & a disputed, premature international retirement that she claims never to have announced. Pregnancy is not an obstacle facing many in the men’s game, although many will recall Martin ‘Mad Dog’ Allen once incurring the wrath of his QPR manager Trevor Francis by refusing to play one Saturday so he could attend the birth of his child. This was the early 1990’s & Allen was fined, leaving for West Ham not long after. Francis was a rather young manager to be playing the dinosaur but the ensuing media furore helped pave the way for a subsequently more enlightened future approach from most clubs to similar situations.

Emma’s imminent new addition to the family ranks sees her remaining in her seat for much of the afternoon. This is more than I can say for some. The bloke next to me is up & down more often than Boris Johnson’s trousers, presumably allying a natural restlessness to the combined weight of the lagers he has already crammed down his neck. It’s a reliable procession of toilet, food, toilet, more drink, toilet all afternoon. From the off he gets royally on my tits, my horrible man tits, almost literally at one point when he starts waving a flag maniacally to his right, blocking my view as he does so & digging his bony elbow into my left rib cage at the same time. Luckily there is plenty of fleshy protection from this scrawny assault, although it is sad to announce that while the rest of me has bloated my own arms remain scarily puny too. At least his are in proportion to the rest of him. His daughter holds her flag upright & aloft, waving it proudly & merrily way above her head, inconveniencing nobody. Can she really be the fruit of his loins? Wonders never cease. My anti-hero for the afternoon has already misjudged the mood by singing a few Chelsea terrace anthems from the past that somehow just don’t sit right in this crowd. At one point a small boy a couple of rows directly ahead of us, turns round & eyes him quizzically, clearly bemused at the relative aggression he is displaying. A middle aged woman sat next to the boy, who is no more than 8 years old, if that, notices this, & turns to explain that he is supporting Arsenal. Opposition fans in the wrong end has long been a bitter bone of contention at football grounds, for myself as much as anyone, but clearly the vibe is different here. As has long been the culture at cricket or rugby there is no issue to be found here in a supporter of a rival club, especially an 8 year old boy, sharing the same quarters of the stadium. Or so you might think. The Carlsberg kid has an alternative viewpoint. ‘Well he shouldn’t be sat here then should he?’ he tells the woman with sullen, petty inaccuracy prior to disappearing to the toilet once again, nobhead status now firmly intact. In the period between then & going to buy a feast of chicken nuggets & chips just before half time, which he consistently wafts invitingly in front of my hungry, fat old face, he actually watches some football. From their conversation it becomes clear that he & his daughter are regulars at Chelsea Ladies’ games at Kingsmeadow. It is also clear that she adores him despite my already near hour long inner monologue of irritation at his mere presence by this point. She is clearly a sweet girl & therefore a credit to him, her very existence signifying he has achieved something I never will. I feel slightly ashamed at my mean spiritedness but being a miserable old sod I soon get over it. Less than halfway through his banquet he goes off again to buy a half time beer. ‘You’ve already had five dad’ she reminds him. We are clearly in a gender revised reboot of the Edina & Saffy relationship in Absolutely Fabulous here. Undeterred he goes off to procure more ale leaving his unfinished banquet behind, on the floor, tantalisingly close to my feet. I don’t know what would be preferable, to eat his chips or piss on them. Both prospects appeal but clearly it has to be one or the other. Attempting both would be ill advised.

My nemesis fails to return for the start of the second half & his daughter goes to look for him. As a consequence they miss the first goal of the game, as all that pre-match shooting practice pays handsome second half dividend. Neat interplay between Bachmann, Ji & Kirby sees the ball returned to Bachmann on the right hand side of the box & a sweet, rising, right foot strike gives Arsenal keeper Van Veenendaal no chance, though she does get a touch to the ball as it fizzes into the top of the net. Father & daughter return as everyone else around us celebrates, & he loses any previous credits immediately by berating her for leaving her seat, apparently oblivious to the  fact that he had left her all alone for too long in the first place, if not for the first time. They have been denied the chance to see the team they support every week open the scoring. I’m gutted for her but merely wish I had indulged my latest spiteful desire to stomp on his chicken nuggets with my left shoe & add further to his self induced, beer chasing woes. Swiss international Bachmann adds a second, aided this time by a cruel deflection. Arsenal briefly threaten a comeback after pulling a goal back, but their hopes are snuffed out for good when Fran Kirby curls in a left foot shot  shortly after. Chelsea bring on substitutes of the calibre of Aluko & the energetic Erin Cuthbert which emphasises their strength in depth on a day when they had displayed superior all round quality to their opponents, who managed only two shots on target all game. At 2-1 Drew Spence is substituted & my noisy neighbour leaps up & for some reason starts barracking her in an agitated & animated manner. ‘Booooo! Booooo! Get her off! She’s useless! Lazy! Lazy! She’s lazy!’ His daughter is busy clapping Spence off while damning her idiot father with a priceless riposte at the same time. ‘She’s still a Chelsea player dad.’ Touche. Real fans don’t boo their own. Message received, over & out. I don’t know what to do first, cheer or call social services. Eni Aluko’s arrival on the pitch is greeted with dismay. ‘Past it! Past it! She’s past it! Get off Aluko, you fat arsed donkey! She’s a fat arsed donkey! Useless! She’s finished!’ There are several points to make here. Spence & Aluko were the two players subjected to racial harrassement by the Engand coaching staff & a little support from their own team’s fans seems a small ask, not least when a cup final is in the process of being won. I may mock my own body shape, & occasionally those who ridicule footballers via the media while in poor physical shape themselves. I have even mocked another man’s bony elbows here. I also doubt I would have blanched too much back in the day at someone calling out former Chelsea striker Tony Cascarino as a fat arsed donkey. Body shaming abuse of a role model & successful professional athlete like Eni Aluko in front of an impressionable ten year old daughter though? Not big, not clever. Fortunately the Spence incident suggests she has already begun to successfully navigate the delicate middle ground enabling her to love her father while being aware he is somewhat of a cock. Her mother must be an angel by the way.

The game is won with no further hitches. Emma Hayes does not give birth in the dugout, but ten days later, & Eni Aluko manages a graceful smile as she is forced to shake hands once again with Clarke when collecting her medal. I nearly miss this as one spectator jumps around in front of me, taking doubtless poor quality photos on his mobile as the trophy is presented. Not a crime in fairness, though he then makes a breathless phone call bragging to the poor unfortunate at the other end that he is at the game, like nobody has ever known a person to be present at a televised live football match before. It really is all about him. Our very own Mike Dean for a day. His daughter just smiles, continuing to enjoy the moment appropriately by waving her flag in celebration, & patiently waits for him to grow up. You suspect it will be rather a long wait. At least he has helped produced a stellar Chelsea Ladies’ fan, hopefully for life.

Chelsea Ladies win the league too & it was a pleasure to see these eventual double winners in action. The football was good, the sun shone, & even the tortuous queue for the train journey back to London from Wembley Stadium is less hassle than usual. The normal wait is about as inviting a prospect as escorting Anne Widdecombe to a barn dance. Blimey, how about that for a nightmare vision of old age.

I may need that pacemaker after all.

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