Tales From Section 131

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 18 April 2009.

When I was in my teens, very often I would hear that a few lads from Frome, invariably Liverpool and Manchester United fans, were going to FA Cup Semi-Finals at various grounds. I looked on from afar and my mind was not so much tinged with jealousy, but full of a certainty that such events were not for the likes of us. We were mired in the second division, our time would never come.

Well, our time has come – and how!

From 1970 to 1994, maybe my first phase of Chelsea support, we took part in no FA Cup semi-finals at all. Since 1994, we have had eight semi-finals, with successes in six out of those eight. I vividly remember the first of these, against Kerry’s Luton Town 1994…Simon, Neil, Daryl, Tony and myself met at a pub near St Johns Wood and we all agreed that the game was massive. It was looking likely that United would win the league again that year and would also play us in the Final. So – all we had to do was beat Luton and ( smelling salts please nurse ) Chelsea would be entered into the ECWC…and we would have European football for the first time in our supporting lives. I can’t think of a more important game in all the years of supporting the club, apart from the game at Bolton in 1983. With European football in 1994, came exposure on a larger scale…Gullit, Hughes signed in 1995, then Vialli and co in 1996. Our history was being re-written.

The Frome Fun Boy Four set off from Somerset at 9am and there was plenty of banter flying around. It was going to be sunny day, if not a little windy. Glenn drove up, but Dave – happy to get by on cokes – was scheduled for the return home.

A very strange thing happened as we neared the turning for the M25. I lost my father back in 1993, April 17th…and so with the anniversary of his passing on Friday, my mind has been full of memories, to say the least. My Dad, Reg, was a bit of a sportsman in his youth, but only really got into football through my love of Chelsea. He saw his first ever game during World War Two at Everton. His first ever game with me was in 1974, against Newcastle United…his last Chelsea game was with me, versus Everton in 1990.

At around 10.45am, a car sped past us with this registration plate –

RE06 AXN

It certainly made me smart. I smiled and Dad came back into my thoughts again.

After a cracking breakfast, we sauntered over to West Brompton tube, bumping into Mike, Steve and Chopper ( the three remaining members of the NYC contingent ) right outside Earls Court Two…perhaps the site of a new stadium, should we ever, sadly, leave the Bridge. We changed trains at Notting Hill Gate and bustled into a packed compartment. Who should be there but Parky, with his step-daughter Clare, who I used to work with. Parky, his back-turned, had recognised Glenn’s Cockney/Somerset crossover accent and bumped into him…imagine the look of surprise on Glenn’s face when he turned around, intending to give somebody an earful! A small world.

We bounced into The Tyburn, a Wetherspoons pub at Marble Arch. Alan, Gary and Rob were tucking into a breakfast and we were soon joined by Neil, who flies in from Guernsey for our games, plus Walnuts from Brighton. A nice bit of banter and three pints of Carling. We then walked a few hundred yards to the Duke Of York for the drinking to continue…the Father/ Son combinations of Daryl / Ed and Simon / Milo were already there. We sat – or rather hovered – outside in the Spring sunshine. Alas the Staropramen was off, so I made do with four pints of Becks Vier. Lots of chat and laughter, too much to remember.

Fifteen of us all told, only one girl, only two replica shirts…too bloody Old School for own good.

We had plans to catch a 4.09pm train from Marylebone, but we were lured into one last pub, The Lark, for one last pint. By this stage, we were all buzzing. I had heard from Beth, but was pretty much resided to the fact that we wouldn’t bump into each other. Unlike the Carling Cup final against Spurs, there was no police presence at the station and it surprised me. I somehow lost the others, so travelled the five miles up to Wembley on my own, trying my best to ignore the beer-induced hiccups which were annoying the hell out of me. Alan and Glenn phoned me – they were on the same train, but seemed like we had all been split up.

We pulled into Wembley at about 4.45pm I guess…up and over the “White Horse Bridge” with the Stadium, its arch glistening in the sun, ahead. I managed to annoy a seller of Chelsea / Arsenal “friendship” scarves and we ended our little chat by calling each other “mugs.” I think my ire was misdirected – it should have been for the numpties who buy such things.

I joined the massive queue for toilets – at Wembley, some things will never change – and then joined the rest of the lads in row 21 of section 131…inline with the penalty box. It would prove to be a great seat come the 84th minute.

From the left – Neil, Ed, Daryl, Gary, Rob, myself, Alan, Simon and Milo.

Walnuts, Glenn, Dave and PD were up in the Gods.

Parky was in Parky World.

We were back in the same lower section as where we watched the 2007 FA Cup Final…we were back row that time, though. I didn’t care for being so low down. I think I prefer to be higher up. Before we knew it, the teams were on the pitch. I would much rather have preferred for the dressing rooms to be behind the East goal at the new stadium, to mirror the old place…to enable that wonderful, iconic, long march of the teams onto the playing surface.

The Hillsborough “applause” was reasonably well supported. Was it really twenty years ago? Those images remain vivid.

There were blue skies overhead with no clouds at all. The sun was hitting the Arsenal fans at the other end full in the faces, but there were strong shadows being formed by the massive stands too. The contrasts between light and dark were very strong. The first worrying sign, picked up by Rob and myself, was that the entire lower tier of Arsenal fans were standing, just like Spurs in the Carling Cup Final. This, to us, was bad news – they were clearly “up” for it. Rob and myself pleaded to get everyone of us on our feet. We really did not want to be out-shouted, out-supported and out-muscled in this game too…memories of that Carling Cup Final remained vivid for us. We did not want a repeat.

For most of the first-half, vast sections of our support sat. It infuriated Rob, especially. We had a little chat about it. Those incredible years of our away support in the ‘eighties had left a painful legacy – nothing these days can compare to it and we get so frustrated harking back to those days. It hurts us to see sections of our support simply not getting involved. I could write a book on it.

While I was out taking a second “comfort break,” Arsenal scored. I don’t miss many goals…those eight pints were taking their toll. To be honest, we had started rather slowly and Arsenal were playing the better stuff. We then got into it and started to dominate possession. A great ball from Frank and before we knew it, Malouda had swept the ball in at the near post.

Manic celebrations ensued, but Rob started to stumble – he had been pushed from behind – and fell on top of me. I lost my balance and for a moment we looked a right picture…Rob’s a big lad, but thankfully Alan hauled him off me. At moments like this, Hillsborough or not, seats just get in the way. So – a goal apiece, game on. As the team got more confident, the crowd rallied and at the start of the second period, more and more were standing. Along the side sections, I noticed more Chelsea than Arsenal were standing. These were good signs.

We created a few half-chances – a shot from Frank, a header from JT. Chances were at a premium really. I still found my viewpoint frustrating – concentrate Chris, concentrate!

On 84 minutes, a ball from Frank into space and it’s all a blur. Drogba, all strength and power, beat off a challenge in that inimitable way of his and rounded the advancing ‘keeper. He was no more than thirty yards away from me.

We gasped and Drogba shot early, not wishing another, potentially wasteful, touch.

In it went.

Yeeeeeeeeeeeees!

Up came my camera as he raced over to the left-hand corner flag. More photographs for the album. Mayhem amongst our little group and hugs with strangers.

The game ended and out came the camera again – shots of Frank, clearly loving it, just yards away. A few snaps of my mates – smiles as big as the Wembley arch. Before we knew it, the Arsenal replica shirts had given way to empty red seats and we were left to enjoy ourselves in our own little party with no fear of voyeurism.

“Blue Day” and then – everyone singing – “Blue Is The Colour.”

I was standing on my seat, arms outstretched, smiling, singing…looking heavenwards.

…”cus Chelsea – Chelsea is our name.”

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