Tales From A Chelsea Saturday

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 28 August 2010.

During the week, my alarm on my mobile phone sounds at 6.30am and I invariably “snooze” until 7am.

On matchdays, it’s a different story.

At 6.30am, my alarm woke me and, with a Chelsea game beckoning, I was up straight away. I had to pop into Frome to do some early morning shopping, but at 8.30am I was outside Glenn’s house in Frome, collecting him for the day’s main event. I’m always happier with games taking place at 3pm on Saturdays as it just seems right…after the two early evening kick-offs, the natural order had been restored. During my childhood and into my teens and beyond, there was a natural rhythm to the week…work for five days, football at 3pm on Saturday, then “Match Of The Day” on BBC1 to close things at 10pm on Saturday night.

Nice and easy – no early morning starts, no televised football, all games starting and ending at the same time. Just right.

It has dawned on me over the past year that, in some ways, my support of Chelsea has defined me. Once I had seen my first Chelsea game in 1974, all I have ever really wanted to do ( if I am blunt and honest ) is to attend as many Chelsea games as I can afford and justify. This has provided me with a lifetime of absorbing memories from games and cities in far-flung places plus of course many enduring friendships, some long-standing and some very recent, with some springing up from the most unlikely of places. I really do shudder to think what I’d do with myself should Chelsea be taken away from me.

And – of course – it’s not just the football. Supporting Chelsea is akin to being part of the biggest, greatest, funniest social club in the world. Once people get their heads round that, they have solved why I find Chelsea so alluring. Often conversations amongst my mates are dominated by anecdotes of what happened to friends on a visit to Bristol Rovers in 1980, Seville in 1998 or Tottenham last season…sure the football gets a mention, but our chat isn’t dominated by labourious discussions of formations and form. We’d rather talk about friendships and fandom.

It has always been so noticeable that we only tend to have discussions on the performances of the team after sub-standard displays…and then – oh boy – we go to town. I always remember the mother of all post-mortems after we were gubbed 4-1 at Sunderland in 1999 which began on the car ride south, continued on at a curry house in Nuneaton and was concluded on a plane to Rome on the Monday.

I picked up Lord Parky at 9am and we were on our way. This was Glenn’s first game since West Ham in March, so it was great to be travelling up together again. I’ve known Glenn since around 1977 – the two of us were the only Chelsea fans at our school, so we instantly bonded on that level – and he has been my regular travel partner for hundreds of home and away games since we began travelling to games in 1983.

Glenn – like me, not the most technically savvy of people – has just bought an I-Phone and he was jabbering away in the back seat about its many various applications and suchlike, like the proverbial child with a new toy. Parky and myself were rolling our eyes in the front seats. As we approached Membury Services, deep in the Wiltshire countryside, Glenn asked me to pull in so he could use the toilets.

“Hasn’t your phone got an app for that, mate?” I quipped.

Parky opened up a can of lager as we rattled past the Madejski Stadium at Reading and the chattering continued. The sky was full of white fluffy clouds and it looked like we were in for some fine weather. As I headed past Heathrow, I had a warm glow. Next Saturday, I am off to America for the week and Heathrow will be the starting point. I’m taking my mother too – we had relatives who lived in Philadelphia in the 1850’s and she has always wanted to visit the city. So, while her health is still good, we’re going. No time like the present. Unfortunately, we only arrive back on the morning of the West Ham game, so I’ll be missing that one…the first Chelsea weekend game I will have missed since Sunderland away in 2008. So be it.

I was parked-up at Chesson Road, opposite the hotel where we kipped after May’s Cup Final, at 11am and we quickly demolished a Yadana Cafe Super Breakfast.

£4.90 of England’s finest.

Parky heard The Goose calling and disappeared, while Glenn and myself shot down to HQ. I had promised 612Steve – who lives in Philly – that I’d get him a programme to take across with me and I was hoping to get Ron Harris to sign it. Luckilly, our timings were perfect as we bumped into Chopper just as he was due to join the corporate guests in a nearby lounge. Ron used to live in Warminster, just over the Wiltshire border from Frome, for about 15 years and we used to routinely pop into his pub after most home games back in the ‘nineties. Glenn and myself have had some truly unforgettable evenings at “The Hunters Moon” over the years – meeting Peter Osgood, Tommy Langley, Kerry Dixon for example – and on a lot of occasions, Ron would get a Karaoke DJ in for the evening. On one memorable night in around 1996, Glenn and myself duetted on “Da Do Ron Ron” with Chopper’s wife Lee on backing vocals.

What a laugh.

We had a quick chat with Ron – he always finds time for a few words – and Steve’s match programme was duly signed. On the walk back the North End Road, Glenn updated me on his daughter Amelia’s progress and she starts school in September. It was lovely to hear that she is looking forward to the new experience. It turns out that Amelia’s headmistress used to frequent Ron’s old pub when we used to go over there and so she told Glenn –

“Let’s do a deal – I’ll make sure Amelia settles in and does well, while you don’t mention what I used to get up to at The Hunter’s Moon.”

Laughs from the both of us.

By the time we reached the pub – and we met up with our mates in Casual Corner – the place was packed and conversations were taking place everywhere I looked. Daryl’s mother was over for the game from Guernsey in The Channel Islands and Simon and Milo were at their first game of the new season. The Blackburn vs. Arsenal game was on Sky, but very few were paying it much attention.

There was talk of Alan, Gary and Rob’s trip to Slovakia – a game which I can’t attend due to lack of cover at work – but there was a lot less chat than usual following a CL Draw. I might do Marseille away, but that decision can wait. The general consensus was that it was a good draw for the team, but not so for the fans.

Crocodile Watch

Chris – navy
Parky – black
Trowbridge Andy – neon
Daryl – azure

With kick-off approaching, Glenn and myself set off for The Bridge, past the myriad of shops on the North End Road, the crowds coverging at Fulham Broadway and the souvenir stalls on Fulham Road.

There is a familiar figure on match days at Stamford Bridge. Often wearing a bowler hat, dressed in a black suit, he can always be seen with his charity bucket, collecting away. To be honest, he always strikes me as quite a forlorn figure, like something from another age, a Dickensian street figure maybe. He doesn’t seem to be “all there” – a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic as we say over here. As I walked by, I noted that he was being reprimanded by two young policeman and he seemed to be quite distressed. Meanwhile, less than 15 feet away, ticket touts were plying their trade unhindered. It made me angry.

Into the stadium and the place looked a picture. I soon noted that not many away fans had travelled down from Staffordshire, now home to our very own Burger. Stoke only had around 400 away fans…very poor. One change in the Chelsea starting XI and Paolo was in for Ivanovic. It would be the same team that had played against West Brom.

We began well. After five minutes, a quite beautiful flowing move, involving virtually all of our outfield players found an advancing Ashley Cole, but he scuffed his shot wide. Soon after, Malouda was sent sprawling in that same inside-left channel and the referee pointed to the spot. This surprised all of my immediate neighbours as it looked like the Stoke defender had played the ball. However, Frank shot tamely and Sorensen easilly saved. A few of us muttered something along the lines of “justice being done.” Then the texts came through about it being a “nailed on penalty” and we wanted it retaken.

Stoke had a few half-chances, but were limited to the predictable Delap bomb and crosses from deep. Truly one-dimensional football. But we were in control, playing some nice stuff. Drogba sent in a powerful free-kick from way out – maybe near Battersea – which Sorensen did well to palm away. Then, after 31 minutes, the ball broke for The Captain and he played a lovely ball, with just the right amount of fade, into the path of Malouda who scored with a neat finish. I watched as JT ran over to join in the celebrations in the far corner, down below Andy and Daryl.

A minute later, Ashley was played in down below me again but his volley struck the bar. There was something quite amazing the way he contorted his whole body to get the right shape for his volley. Stunning stuff. I commented to Alan that we had actually played better football in the first-half of this game than in either of the other two league games. Only on a few occasions did we hear the normally noisey Stoke fans sing anything…they tried to get “Delilah” going, but it was a poor show.

At the break, our man Ron Harris was paraded around the pitch by Neil Barnett and he was warmly applauded, by The Shed especially –

“One Chopper Harris – There’s Only One Chopper Harris.”

When we first got to know Ron back in around 1995, he had not been back to The Bridge since he left the club for Brentford in 1980. These days, he is very much part of the matchday experience at Chelsea and that is the way it should be.

I had a quick flick through the programme and the highlight again was a piece by Rick Glanvill. There was a double-page photo from the Chelsea vs. Stoke City game in May 1989; Kerry Dixon scoring at the North Stand end, with the austere Benches ( actually concrete slabs by then, following the riot in 1985 ) behind. Quite a difference to the luxury of The Bridge these days. I remember watching that game high up in the East Upper and being mesmerized by Stoke winger Peter Beagrie. His dribbling style was very unique and had a lasting affect on me. In fact, to this day, whenever I go on a mazy dribble in five-a-side, I often come to an abrupt stop, with the ball close by, throwing the defender off balance, and “Peter Beagrie” always comes into my mind.

In the second-half, Stoke played even more deeply. I lost count of the number of times we played the ball from left to right, then back again. Essien and Mikel were seeing a lot of the ball, pushing it around, looking for an opening. It’s great to see Mikel rarely losing possession these days and “Ess” is getting better with each game. We were carving up openings down the left, but were struggling to get behind the Stoke left-back on the other flank. But it’s so difficult to create against a team so intent on destruction. They were playing with ten men behind the ball and even their lone striker Kenwyne Jones had a knock and was looking disinterested. Frank was having a quiet game I thought. And with the play compressed into Stoke’s final third, Drogba was unable to burst forth into space in his usual style.

The support wasn’t exactly restless, but there were periods of quiet throughout the game. I didn’t hear the two side stands sing throughout the match. Such is life. Such is our home support, the die-hards diluted by thousands of meek souls, unwilling to get involved.

Then – out of nowhere, a threat. Anelka played a loose ball to Mikel who easilly lost possession, allowing Whelan to strike a thunderous shot against the bar.

A lovely Anelka cross from the left found Drogba but he headed meekly at the ‘keeper. Frank was subbed and there were no complaints.

Anelka was played in with a long ball from Drogba and we could hardly believe it when he was tripped by the advancing goalie. Drogba slammed the resultant penalty in and we could relax.

The last part of the game was notable for the great news that Wigan were winning in North London, a typical miss from Kalou and new-signing Ramires’ debut.

Welcome to Chelsea, mate.

This had been a solid team performance against a stubborn Stoke City team. Our league goal-scoring run now stands at 32-0. No complaints at all.

With Glenn catching some shut-eye in the back seat, Lord Parky and myself headed west and listened to a CD from last week’s sojourn to Wigan, a Soft Cell compilation…nineteen songs from my youth. Lord Parky had been “fishing” for me to stop off at a pub on the way home for “one last pint” and I eventually relented. At about 7pm, I exited the M4 at Chippenham, with Glenn now awake and the three of us singing along to an anthemic dance version of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” Within ten minutes, we were in the picturesque village of Lacock, where my mate Stu and his wife Shelley run “The Red Lion” in the main street. Lacock is a village of only two hundred residents, but it has five pubs. I like that ratio, I must say. The reason for this is that Lacock is very photogenic and is on the tourist trail between Bath and Stonehenge. Our man Andy Wray visited here in 2008. It was used as a location of many of the “outside” shots in the first Harry Potter film.

The Red Lion was hosting it’s very own cider festival over the Bank Holiday weekend and we joined the crowd of over two-hundred in the busy beer garden. Pints were ordered and we settled down for an hour or so of fun. Shelley had booked a Wurzels tribute band, The Mangled Wurzels and they began with the classic “Combine Harvester.”

“Oh boy – if our street-wise London mates could see us now” I thought.

Parky was in his element, illiciting cheeky comments from a few local ladies ( his crutches are always a talking point ) and Glenn was being Glenn, singing along to “I Am A Cider Drinker.”

It was an unplanned, but memorable end to the day.

I had seen The Mangled Wurzles perform at a cider festival in Bath a year or so back and I remembered loving their version of a Rolling Stones song –

“Hey ( Hey ), You ( You ) – Get Off Of My Land.”

As the music continued and the evening sun eventually subsided, the cider was going down well and everyone was loving it. Simple pleasures.

Is everyone from the West Country a smock-wearing, scrumpy-drinking simple-minded yokel?

No…just some of us.

Top of the league and having a laugh at ourselves.

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