MEMORIES FLOODED BACK

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This month I got to see Chelsea play at Wembley, 13 years after my last visit. It wasn’t as enjoyable.

The last time I watched the Blues there was in May 2000 for the FA Cup Final win against Aston Villa. In truth it wasn’t a memorable match and I’m struggling to recall anything about it. That is what the history books are for, to remind us about another glorious trophy-lifting day that was added to our burgeoning collection. Back then winning anything was a major celebratory occasion, while reaching the knockout stages of the European Cup was reason enough for a day off work.

I certainly don’t yearn for those pre-Roman days, the years of wandering in the football wilderness, but this trip to the site of the former Twin Towers did have me wallowing in nostalgia for other non-sporting reasons, because I flew the Atlantic to see a dying relative.

I spent a lot of time with my grandmother when I was growing up, going to her house every day for lunch and then again after school, waiting there until my mum finished work. She had been in a nursing home for more than a decade and never recovered from a chest infection picked up in the winter. As March progressed her health deteriorated, and after considering it for the better part of a month I booked a flight home, both to see her one last time and also to help my mum and aunt with the funeral arrangements.

I hadn’t been back to Britain in two-and-a-half years, and after weeks of dithering and a 20-hour journey home I made it to her bedside just minutes before the heavy morphine injection knocked her unconscious, and less than 19 hours before she died. So the journey was worth it – the equivalent of a last-gasp 97th-minute equalizer you might say.

Anyway, I took the opportunity to nip across from Belfast to London for the semifinal, 19 years after I had first seen Chelsea play at Wembley, against the other team from Manchester (well, Salford) in the 1994 FA Cup Final. Another unhappy day by the way.

So in light of the circumstances you may appreciate why I wasn’t too downhearted by the result. The match was a wee bonus – a “lagniappe” as we say in New Orleans. Something a little bit extra, something that I wasn’t expecting. Normally when you live on the other side of the world, and only get to the UK infrequently, you plan trips around weddings, holidays, birthdays, Chelsea games… and cram as much as possible into your two weeks. This time it wasn’t like that. I went home for a specific reason and the Blues game was secondary. In the best cliched tradition of the non-league part-timers who get mauled by a Premiership outfit, I was just happy to be there. I probably would have been more disappointed if I had been watching it on TV in the pub in New Orleans. The fact that we didn’t turn up for the first half, and didn’t get going until we were 2-0 down, also meant that I couldn’t complain about the result.

The night before I flew to London for the match, I met an old friend who mentioned it was his wedding anniversary. Once he said that the memories flooded back – he was hitched the day before the FA Cup semifinal against Wimbledon in April 1997. He got married in the middle of nowhere deep in the wilds of Northern Ireland on the Saturday, and I well remember dragging myself out of bed at the crack of dawn the next day to drive to Belfast to catch the first flight to London to make it to Highbury for the noon kickoff. After a heavy night celebrating some of my friends had not even made it out of bed in time to watch the contest, never mind rising early enough to fly to a different country to actually be there.

But my favourite memory of that day is my aunt calling me after the game to congratulate me on Chelsea reaching the final. She told me, “Even your granny was doing a little jig around the room.”

So despite the sadness of my journey home, and the disappointment of my trip to Wembley, when I think about that dance by my granny – delighted because her only grandson would be so happy with our victory – it will always make me smile. And with another trophy still to play for, maybe I’ll get to jig a wee bit in her honour before this season ends.

Stephen Rea is the author of the book Finn McCool’s Football Club, a tale of supporting Chelsea from the United States, the formation of a pub football team in New Orleans and the devastating effect of Hurricane Katrina on that city. Visit his site here: www.stephen-rea.com or friend him at www.facebook.com/stevorea

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