Tales From Row Five

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 29 November 2009.

I had to wait twenty-five years for my first win at Arsenal, and now I get two in six months.

This was a great day out – of course! A fine example of myself stating the bleeding obvious.

I needed this to be an enjoyable day. Work is a bit stressful at the moment and I wanted to put all of those worries behind me, if only for twelve hours. I’m not a big fan of Sunday 4pm games, but it felt like my whole weekend was building to this one encounter. I was restless throughout Saturday. I watched the results roll in. The tension was building. At last, Sunday morning arrived.

Amidst terrible rain showers and angry dark skies, I drove up to London with Parky. We had arranged to meet up with the boys at a pub called The Shakespeare’s Head at Holborn tube. Daryl was already there as we strolled in at 12.45pm. Mark and Jon were at the bar. We wondered if Gumby would show up.

We have been using this as our pre-Arsenal watering hole for quite a few years now. I thought back to the first of these – a mammoth FA Cup Quarter Final in March 2003 – which ended 2-2. We had a great turnout that day – Chelsea in general, some 6,000 strong, but also my mates too…around ten of us attended. Daryl reminded me that when Frank Lampard bundled in a last minute equaliser, causing some of the most manic goal celebrations I can ever remember, Frank commented after that he couldn’t believe the potent smell of so many alcoholic fumes coming from The Clock End.

I can vouch for that – we were steaming.

As I say, I had been looking forward to this game all week. Yep, another example of TBO. As a few more mates arrived, we got into the groove. Beers were ordered and the pre-match chat began in earnest. Simon’s son Milo had sprained his ankle playing rugby ( he had no sympathy from us ) and, like Parky, was on crutches. They looked a right couple. I made the point to Daryl that this was a bigger game for Arsenal than it was for us. I would be happy to come away with a draw, but The Goons really had to win. Tuna arrived – his mother quite a bit better now – and he was so happy to be given the ticket which we had managed to muster for him. He tucked into a steak and kidney pudding and was quite the picture of blissful contentment. Last to arrive was Alex from the New York Blues, who had been in town for a few days following a quick trip to Madrid to see Real on Wednesday. He is quite a character and the place was full of resounding laughter from us all. It was a perfect pre-match.

At about 3.15pm, we set off for the game with the weather holding firm. We looked a rag-tag bunch of shapes and sizes and I had to laugh at the two of the boys on crutches…Milo picked up his crutch and cheekily poked Parky in the ‘arris. Youngsters these days!

The first train heading north at Holborn tube was jam-packed and only half of us made it onboard. We were pressed up against each other and it’s a good job we are friends. Although we were outnumbered by charmless Goons, we made our presence felt, including a boisterous Bouncy. It was with some relief when we soon arrived at Arsenal tube, but there was a very slow trudge up to street level. Outside, the rain was pelting down and I got drenched.

I reached my seat at about 3.45pm – I was impressed with my time-keeping for once. There were loads of familiar faces nearby. Unfortunately, Alan, Gary and myself were located in row five, which is pretty low down. It wasn’t a great view at all. It reminded me of my view for the 0-1 loss at the same stadium in 2007. There was heavy rain on that day, too. I hoped there would be no repeat.

Compared to our balconies at The Bridge, bedecked with many flags and banners, I could only spot two at Arsenal. Pathetic.

They really are a boring club.

Just before kick-off, we found out we had drawn Watford in the FA Cup…happy with a home draw, but I was yearning for a new away ground. Forest Green Rovers anyone? That would have been nice.

As the game began, I found it very difficult to concentrate. The main problem was my vantage point, where the game seemed to be played on one plane. I tried to fathom out the formation – Mikel holding, Joe in the hole. I took a few early snaps in case the light deteriorated badly. And I tried my damnedest to locate Beth and Danny. It took me a while, but I eventually found them. The home support made a lot of noise in the first ten minutes, but this soon faded.

Arsenal had the majority of the ball in the first period and we were off the pace. The fans around me kept shouting for our midfield to close our opponents down and to deny them space. But, really – did they ever really bother Petr Cech in our goal? Maybe a few half-chances. I noted how small and elf-like Arshavin ( or “Tom Cruise” as Gary called him ) really is. He seemed to have a lot of the ball, attacking our solid right back Ivanovic. We were rarely troubled. Gary singled out Sagna for more name-calling.

“Oi – abacus head…go play with your beads.”

However, we hardly threatened them either. Joe Cole was especially quiet. With the half-time whistle approaching, we struck.

Ashley Cole, who had been getting the usual rough ride from sections of the home support, whipped in two great crosses and the game inexplicably changed in our favour. I had noted two great crosses from Burnley’s Chris Eagles at West Ham on TV on Saturday night. Right in the danger zone. Brilliant balls in towards the six-yard box. Superb.

Well, these two from Ash were a bit different, but the results were the same.

The first cross found an outstretched leg of Didier and the ball flew up and in off the bar. We screamed – almost disbelieving our good fortune. After things had settled down a little, I gestured towards a gleaming Danny.

The second cross had the same result and this time we went ballistic…hugs with strangers, screams, full-on celebrations. It meant that the Goons would go in at the break heartbroken.

It was beautiful.

Of course, the away end was a-buzz with rumours that our second goal had been deflected in off William Gallas, but that would have just been too much!

I bumped into a joyous Danny at the break out by the concession stands, with the Chelsea support buoyed by the two late goals, baying behind us.

In the second-half, we enjoyed a lot more of the ball and I thought that the spine of the team – JT, Mikel, Drogba and Anelka – were superb. The defence was brutally dominant. As Drogba lined up to take a free-kick, I commented to Gary that it was from the same position that Sheva blazed over in that 2007 match.

Drogba approached the ball – I snapped my camera – and the ball flew in.

Yet more fantastic emotions overwhelmed me, but I managed to stay calm enough to snap a few shots of the resultant melee at the corner flag, a mere ten yards away. The players were screaming their delight and so were we.

I looked up at Danny – I spotted Alex nearby – and the smiles on their faces were beautiful. It was just one of those great moments.

By now, of course, the home support was drifting away and we were serenading them all with a few choice songs. Gallas was the main target of our disdain –

“Stayed with a big club – you should’ve stayed with a big club.”

“Five years – and you’ve won “nothing.” “ Ahem.

“Empty seats, empty seats, empty seats.”

We even sang of winning the league…

“We shall not be moved – we shall not, we shall not be moved.”

Of course, all of this was eerily similar to our game at Arsenal in May. Much laughter – much joy. This must have really hurt them, though – I think they really thought they could win this one.

I met up with Beth, Danny and Parky outside. There was a slow meander back to the tube, but there was a bounce in our step…it seemed that we were untouchable. How United must have hated the result too.

Five points clear – having a laugh.

We finished off back at Earls Court and the four of us had a quiet “de-brief” around the table of our favourite Italian restaurant. Danny had enjoyed his week with us in Chelsea Town immensely and I can’t wait for his reports. The games against Wolves and Arsenal were his sixth and seventh Chelsea games…and I rather scornfully pointed out that all seven have resulted in Chelsea wins. By the time of my sixth and seventh games, way back in 1975, we were playing the likes of Bristol Rovers in Division Two.

Not that I’m jealous, of course…wink.


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