Tales From A Romantic Evening With 2,300 Close Friends

Watford vs. Chelsea : 14 February 2009.

On the Friday night I went to the Bath Cider Festival. It was a good laugh, but I limited my intake to just three pints because it’s pretty lethal – and, of course, I didn’t particularly care to be hung over for the main event of the weekend, our game at Vicarage Road in the F.A. Cup fifth round.

The late kick-off allowed me to run a few errands in Frome. I bought a steak and stilton pasty and a Chelsea bun for my drive east and set off at about 12.30pm.

It felt pretty strange, I must say, to be heading towards London at such a late time. It didn’t feel right. I much prefer early starts on a match day. There’s just something about setting off as day breaks. I had planned to meet up with the usual crowd at a pub on Watford High Street. Alan was already on his way and offered these cryptic clues to his whereabouts between 12.45pm and 1.30pm.

Squeeze.

Che Sera Sera

David Elleray

Squeeze Part Two

As I drove past “Bunch Of Rocks” I replied to him. The drive was uneventful and pretty boring to be honest. Despite the hundreds of games in my locker, this was only my second ever visit to the delights of Watford. I don’t know, Watford never really appealed back in my youth. I used to cherry-pick other away games to be honest…I was never keen to travel down from Stoke to go to Watford. I suppose the finances came into play by the time I moved back home after my college years – I’d rather spend money on a trip to West Ham or Arsenal.

I listened to OMD and Depeche Mode on the drive up. As I headed north on the M25, I glanced across towards London and just happened to glance the Wembley Arch, some eight miles away. We were on the Wembley Trail and I wondered if this was a good sign.

I reached Watford after 115 miles on the road. I parked up, paid the £3 fee and headed towards the town centre. Watford is a pretty nondescript place, just inside the M25, not really far enough away from London’s inter-war sprawl to be regarded as a town in its own right. It’s a bit like the North London version of Croydon. The High Street is a pedestrianised strip of about 600 yards and hosts all the big players in the Super Pub category of licensed premises which have evolved in the past ten years. In close proximity, there is a Wetherspoons, an Oneils, a Walkabout, a Chicago Rock and a Yates Wine Lodge. Build ‘em big, get the punters in.

At 3pm, I joined up with Daryl, Ed, Rob, Bradley, Gary and Alan. They were sat infront of a large screen showing a rugby game from Rome, which we dutifully ignored. They had just eaten, but Gary had just arrived from a Saturday morning at work. He was a picture of concentration as he solemnly examined the bar menu for what seemed like ages. He went for the scampi. I slowly sipped on two pints of Kronenburg. I had a text message from Burger, who was drinking a few hundred yards away. All eyes were on the other TV screen, behind my shoulder, as the scores were coming in. Good to see Leeds losing, a draw at Swansea. We were joined by Andy, Jonesey and Jocka, three lads from Nuneaton, near Coventry. We made a few comments to each other about getting Cov away in the next round – they were winning 2-1 at Ewood. That would be nice…I suppose we should always want a home draw, but my mates are always desperate for a new ground to visit on such occasions.

There was the usual banter. I had a nice chat with Rob and then Alan about the trip to Turin in March. However, the arrival of Andy signalled the need for us to address the main talking point of the week. On Monday, a few of us had spent around three hours discussing the “Scolari problem” by email. We were all of mixed opinions. However, at 4.22pm on Monday, whatever we thought didn’t matter. The club had acted and another phase in the history of our club lurched into action. So, we spoke at length about this – and other linked subjects close to our hearts. We weren’t euphoric at Scolari’s demise. We were respectful. We just want the best for the club at the end of the day. We talked about how the inherent nature of our club has changed over the past ten years. We discussed its identity and how our relationship to it has changed. In some ways, we longed for the joyous football of the Gullit era, where our successes were pure fun and there wasn’t the possible taint of other fans sniping away with “you’ve bought your success” comments. We agreed we wanted our Chelsea back – the phenomenal away support, the closeness with the players, the noise, the sense of belonging – but we did note that should “our Chelsea” ( borne in adversity ) take precedence over the Chelsea of a fan of 12 years, who has known nothing but success? We acknowledged this dilemma.

It was a great discussion, heartfelt and interesting. I love my Chelsea mates – the inner circle – and when one of us makes a comment and it is met with nods of approval, it’s a great feeling.

It is this shared experience that makes supporting my club so rewarding.

As kick-off approached, coats were put on, collars were pulled up close to faces, beers sunk. We sauntered out of The Walkabout with the swagger that football fans who cut their teeth in the ‘eighties can only really understand. Ten lads in white trainers, wearing jeans and jackets, tottering through enemy territory on match day. You can’t beat it.

My lads walked on as I stayed to meet up with Burger, who was with Mark and Mick. I joked that there were about 15 OB outside the Wetherspoons – had they heard about Burger’s problems in Seville? The last two hundred yards of the approach to Vicarage Street is a junk food addicts’ dream. The roads are absolutely festooned with chippies, kebab shops, Indians, Chinese restaurants and burger bars. Cathy and Dog walked past. A tout tried to sell us a ticket – we contacted Lee, who was still ticketless.

Got inside the ground at about 5.10pm – it had only been a 15 minute walk from the pub. I was halfway back, to the left of the goal as I saw it. I noted that the TV cameras had switched sides and were now positioned in the middle of the three derelict stands, now unused under the Safety Of Sports Act.

Our away support was good, plenty of noise, plenty of variety. The two versions of The Bouncy got us going. I was sat by myself, but Burger was ten seats to my left, Andy six seats to my right. It’s lovely how we still honour former players through song. At Watford, we honoured Peter Osgood with a lovely rendition of “Born Is the King” and also songs in honour of Dennis Wise and Wayne Bridge. Long may it continue.

Of course, Michael Mancienne made his first team debut. I noted his squad number…number 42 and it made me smart. As a baseball fan, number 42 represents Jackie Robinson ( and – OK – Mariano Rivera until he retires ), the first black player in baseball. Let us all hope Mancienne goes on to an as rich and as storied career as Robinson.

It was a strange back-four to be honest. Mancienne began well. He seems confident going forward. We worked out a few openings in the first period but only Anelka really troubled the Watford ‘keeper. I noted that we were still operating a 4-3-3 and that Anelka and Drogba were taking it in turns to play the wide right role. At least they were passing to each other on a few occasions. We had most of the half, of course, but that succession of Watford free-kicks late on scared me. Lampard was full of honest endeavour. Contrast this with Ballack’s performance.

I was stood ( we all were, that’s more like it! ) next to two strangers, but we had a good old chat throughout the game. Good points well made by all three of us. It reconfirmed my faith in our support. We’re not all gobby youths or moaning minnies.

Off for a toilet break at half time…my God, 400 of us had the same idea…ridiculous. I saw that Lee had made it in. A few smokers were lighting up in the cramped gents…cough, cough.

More Chelsea pressure in the second-half, but no end result. The Ballack chance made me comment to the bloke to my right “It’s not going to be one of those games is it?” I turned around in pain, but was dismayed to see supporters right behind me laughing at Ballack’s miss.

I stared at them – what, one wonders, were they laughing at? I was stern, teeth gritted, agonising over every missed chance. It made me wonder for a few seconds, but I resumed my support of the team.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army – We Hate Tottenham.”

Of course, our World caved in with that one Watford move, which had followed a sustained amount of Chelsea pressure.

On 69, up the other end and we were licked. Well, I guess it was Valentine’s Day.

The groans inside the Chelsea end were soon replaced by songs of support, but deep down, I feared the worse. The ball which had lead to the goal seemed to be offside and yet, here we were, facing F.A. Cup defeat by a Championship struggler for the second year in a row. I looked across at Burger…he had been at the Barnsley game too. I wondered what he was thinking.

We serenaded Stoch and he came on. He looked keen.

Thank heavens for Anelka’s fine flick which lead to our equaliser. Within a few seconds, he had headed a second and we were transformed into a bubbling mass of humanity. Brilliant. Of course, soon after, a great block by Cech kept us ahead and then, as the game appeared to have run its course, Anelka’s fine turn and shot gave us a third. Fantastic.

“That’s a great goal” I said to the chap next to me.

So – Anelka…the perfect hat-trick, one with his left, a header and one with his right. For the record, the best ever hat-trick I have seen at Chelsea was Hasselbaink’s perfect three against Tottenham in 2005. That was phenomenal.

Stoch impressed me. Our support for him was very gratifying. All that young lad has to do is look to go past defenders and he will have 40,000 people singing his name every week. He is a real threat, a real winger. Malouda doesn’t compare. I think Stoch and Mancienne are going to be great players for us.

“Che Sera Sera, Whatever Will Be Will Be, We’re Going To Wembley, Che Sera Sera.”

I waited for Burger and Mick to leave. We walked back to the town centre, our steps quick and joyous, lots of laughter.

“See you in April, mate.”

On walking back to the car, in the deserted High Street, I heard three lads singing “We hate Chelsea.” It surprised me…Watford’s support had been quiet all afternoon. As they passed me, I heard them talk to each other…in a Scouse accent. That explained it.

Great – if we are able to upset fans of Liverpool when we aren’t even playing them, job done!

I texted Andy, Daryl and Alan – “Cov away next?”

I pulled out of Watford at 7.45pm. I stopped at Fleet Services for a well-earned KFC meal and was home by 10.10pm. The highlights on ITV began at 10.15pm and we were the first game on.

Perfect.

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