It was approaching the middle of a typical, sixties black and white, social-realist sort of a Saturday afternoon, when the sound of a key scrabbling for the lock, brought the dapper figure of Mike into the neat, compact hallway of the small terraced house. Dressed in flannel shirt, cable stitched, knitted, sleeveless jumper and corduroy trousers, his tartan slippers squeaked uneasily on the worn, linoleum floor as he watched the door open.
Framed by the light of a low autumnal sun were the eyes on which his every move and thought depended. Right hand on hip, pinning open her crumpled raincoat, the third finger of the left hooking a pair of broken down sling backs, she attempted posed lascivious curves and exposed décolletage, but in the end settled for slumping unsteadily against the door frame. With her blurred lipstick and smeared mascara topped by a tightly lacquered bee hive, that now resembled a spoon-crushed shredded wheat, she exuded the sour scent of stale tobacco and cheap vermouth, which didn’t quite mask the residual odour of aggressive, male musk.
Deep within Mike, the tight, acid recognition of betrayal burned another small hole. Once again he could choose to face the awful truth.
As she pushed past him to the stairs, all he could muster was a feeble, stumbled pleading.
“You’ve been with one of ’em haven’t ye? But ye promised.”
“Shut up Mike, don’t dribble on. I’m tired.”
“But ye said ye’d be back by eleven?”
“Look I was just out with the girls. An ‘en bash. I told ye. I stayed at Rita’s ’cause it was late. So stop goin’ on.”
“What am I supposed to think?”
“Oh think for yeself. Anyhow, I’m gonna ‘ave a bath.”
Thwarted, he retreated to the sitting room to read his newspaper. The steam from the bathroom brought the scent of perfumed bath salts easing down the stairs to cloud his senses and he fought the image of her sponging away the broiled sweat of some hard-muscled pit man or semi-professional rugby league player.
But he fought off the truth. He chose instead a senseless devotion, veined by the constant fear of betrayal.
So somewhere after two o’clock, with a sad inevitability, he listened to those lying eyes and waved a second yellow at Fernando Torres.
But there was a deeper, more personal betrayal for me to contemplate as Torres trudged away despondent.
When a young boy, I often had reason to walk down through South Tottenham, past Wards Corner (now better known as Seven Sisters Underground Station) and on to High Cross, perhaps to visit the Library or go training at the local swimming baths adjacent to the Town Hall.
It was not as featureless a route as it is these days and the highlight for me was a small racing bike shop called “Pat Hanlon’s”. It was on a parade of shops, now long demolished for a housing estate, that ran north from below South Tottenham railway bridge. Not only were there beautiful hand built frames and the paraphernalia of the “King of Sports”, but the windows featured large black and white photographs of gritty racing action. It triggered my imagination and I often dreamed of joining those giants of the road if a career with Chelsea didn’t work out. Professional road racing seemed far away and exotic; continental, when Clacton was as far as the horizon stretched. And the beating heart of the sport was Belgium.
I imagined those images were all taken on the narrow, twisting, cobbled, windblown roads of Flanders. Pat Hanlon, a native Welsh speaker, very much a woman in a man’s world, was a legendary wheel builder. An art as much as a science, unbeknown to me, the cream of Europe’s peloton would apparently make trips to that shop in order to secure the very best. Punishing, cobbled monuments like Paris-Roubaix could be won or lost by a collapsing wheel. Sprints and climbs were about feel and response as much as raw power. The likes of Jacques Anquetil, Tommy Simpson or Rick Van Loy on the High Road? The thought I might have unknowingly walked past their ilk, leaves me shivering whenever I think about it.
And so it began. A distant love affair with Belgium. A low, temperate bubbling. It was the names. Merckx, Plankaert, Godefroot, De Wilde, Dhaenens, De Wolf, DeVolder, De Vlaeminck, Van Impe, Van Springel, Maertens, Museeuw, Schepers, Steegmans, Vanderaerden. They rolled off the tongue. Steely, tough, shaped and hardened by the privations of Flandrian wind and rain.
A quiet following of Belgian football naturally followed. Again it was those names, those sounds. The pure pleasure of pronouciation. Vercauteran, Cuelemans, Van Himst, Van der Elst, Claesen, Demol, Gerets, Scifo, Degryse. Angular and tough, supple and rolling by turn. Never reaching the heights of a Brazil, Argentina, West Germany or Italy, they were nonetheless, skillful, tough and difficult to beat. Perhaps underrated by insular British media, I was always on the lookout for a chance to watch them. So while it’s the sad eyes of Schillaci or the tears of Gascoigne that mark Italia 90 for many, I still see the pained faces, the despair, as Platt ends Belgian hopes.
Now with Hazard, De Bruyne and Lukaku at Chelsea, fate has melded the threads of my affections to stronger rope. Yes there are fewer of those gnarly, awkward Flemish names, but you take what life will give you. Those mottled grey and white posters in a long ago bike shop have transmuted to vibrant, athletic figures in Chelsea colours joining with those Belgian heroes of bygone years, as many sinners as there were saints, now sat safely in the pantheon of my quiet affection.
Until Jan Vertonghen.
Yes, until Jan Vertonghen decided to spend Saturday’s game in some sort of extended conniption due to the pressure Torres exerted on him throughout the game.
Not that I seek to excuse Fernando’s strange effort to remove what he patently thought was some sort of face mask being worn by the Belgian. Or perhaps a fusing synapse flashed a vestigial memory of an ancient Iberian warrior caste, who tore their enemies faces from their skulls and paraded around with the flayed remnants stretched across their own, like some primordial foreshadowing of that Nicolas Cage and John Travolta action thriller farrago. But I don’t think Sky Super Saturday or whatever they call it, is really ready for that. So if you are going to raise your hand, just twat the other fella and be done with it or don’t bother and walk away.
Did Vertonghen rotate too far under the ball and in coming down hard, was winded or caught some part of Torres with his head while hitting the ground? Maybe that’s why he stayed on the floor? I do hope so. But like Mike Dean and his enduring and hopeless love for his eyes, I sense a betrayal. A betrayal I almost cannot face. A betrayal of boyhood dreams and memories. So Vertonghen played for the card? I walk the corridor of uncertainty, haunted.
But at least we hung on to get a point.
That doesn’t help the feeling that with two Spurs centre-backs on yellow and Chelsea in the driving seat it could have been three. Then again, a poor first half could have seen the mountain too high to climb. And so the saga of trying to find the right midfield combination goes on. Should Torres avoid the extended ban that the press will now surely be slavering for, his rise in form might just suggest that the issue up front can be resolved, particularly if Eto’o can get to the pace of the game and offer a solid option. Mata staked his claim for a return to the side, but I’m not convinced that Lampard and Ramires can defensively offer enough. JM seemed to win the tactical battle with his changes but I’m left wondering what he was expecting from his initial selection and who will be this week’s carrier of the can? Mikel possibly? Though he didn’t seem to do too much wrong.
With Van Ginkel gone for six months and De Bruyne seemingly out of favour, we could be looking at pretty much the same team as last year playing out much of the season. The more years of transition we have, the more it stays the same.
A last thought. Apparently, Hazard’s sock was clearly badly torn around the ankle from some of the treatment being dished out to him. Now along with the rest of the team, Hazard hasn’t really got into top gear this year and part of that may be the amount of coverage he is attracting from opposition defences. I’m sure he’s skilled enough to overcome this once the team plays with the right tempo and balance. But are Dean & Co. going to watch a player kicked out of the game on a regular basis? Because that is the tactics they are encouraging by a failure to act decisively.
The Observer, David Hytner: “Where to start in this helter-skelter derby? Tottenham were impressive in the first half; they led deservedly and they might have been further in front at the interval. André Villas-Boas had suggested that this game could provide the barometer as to how his team would fare in this season’s Premier League. It had looked ready to point to something encouraging. Playing like this, Tottenham had to be considered as title contenders. But Chelsea roared back. Inspired by Fernando Torres, they drew level through the pantomime villain John Terry and they were set fair for victory. This team already has the mentality of champions and here was further evidence. There was drive, conviction and the sprinkling of magic, with José Mourinho particularly pleased with Juan Mata.”
The Sunday Telegraph, Jason Burt: “This was an encounter of the highest technical quality and an even higher tetchy quality. Scratch below the surface – as Fernando Torres attempted to by grabbing Jan Vertonghen’s face – of a hurly-burly London derby and here are two genuine Premier League contenders. For Chelsea the second-half was their best 45 minutes of the season, which is ominous for the rest of the division, while for Spurs there is a growing belief that a top four finish is attainable and with it Champions League qualification. And maybe more. It was the game of two halves, quite literally as the cliché goes. Spurs dominated the first, Chelsea claimed the second. The game-changer? Well it had to be – and it was – Juan Mata who came on at half-time and as he had done at White Hart Lane 12 months ago ran the show.”
The Independent on Sunday, Steve Tongue: “Jose Mourinho insisted that Chelsea would have won had Fernando Torres not been wrongly sent off, although there were only nine minutes plus added time left when he was dismissed for receiving a second card encouraged by Jan Vertonghen’s play-acting. Visiting supporters pleased enough with the point against a team they never used to lose to were left to debate whether their manager had proved himself a genius of man-management or a fallible judge in his handling of Torres and Juan Mata, the latter having been omitted once again before coming on at half-time to effect a transformation.”
The Official Chelsea FC Website: “A spirited second-half display by the visitors earned a draw in the Saturday lunchtime London derby, John Terry levelling after an early Spurs strike. There was added satisfaction that the point was gained despite the disadvantage of 10 men for the closing stages after Fernando Torres, who was causing the home side plenty of problems, was sent off following a second yellow card. Tottenham took the lead after 18 minutes and looked capable of increasing their advantage but Chelsea rallied well and could have added to Terry’s 64th-minute set-piece goal in the second period but for good saves from Tottenham keeper Hugo Lloris.”