Tales From A Night Of Peroni, Pizza, Football And Fireworks

Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers : 12 December 2010.

All together now – “Phew.”

I spent a little time on the internet in the morning, trying to gauge the mood of The Chelsea Nation. Reactions to our loss at Arsenal varied from the pragmatic to the melodramatic. To be honest, I couldn’t stomach some of the more extreme reactions. My match day companion Alan seemed to hit the nail on the head when he commented on “Facebook” –

“Some of these so-called fans who are bleating at the moment wouldn’t have lasted five minutes in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.”

Unfortunately, my cold had taken a turn for the worse – it was certainly worse than on the visit to Arsenal on Monday evening. Maybe I had been exposed to a new bug in those cold North London streets – Gooneria, maybe. Not to worry – I’d be wrapped up warm. Glenn called by to pick me up at 2pm and we soon started chatting about the current state of affairs in SW6. This would be Glenn’s first game since the halcyon days of October and the 2-0 defeat of Arsenal. Glenn watched the Emirates game in a pub in Frome, seemingly full of Arsenal fans, and was able to add a different perspective to the one that I had from the away section. It seemed that the cameras seemed to dwell on the forlorn figure of our manager on many occasions. He confirmed that our team weren’t working for each other. We seemed to be a pale shadow of our former selves. In the 25 minutes it took us to collect Parky, I had put my cards on the table –

“If this is the season that we have to rebuild, so be it. But it’s never easy to rebuild and stay competitive on all fronts. It’s so difficult to supplement the first eleven – you simply can’t buy all the best players…you have to buy players who are happy to be on the fringe, happy to play that squad role. Think of people like Jarosik, Smertin, Geremi and Belletti. But Carlo Ancelotti isn’t a bad manager – he’s one of Europe’s best. This is just his second full season in England. Let’s give him time. We may not win the league this season, but let’s see what we can do. Fourth is better than fifth, third is better than fourth, second is better than third…I don’t think we’ll win it this season, but let’s see what we can do. Let’s support the team. The one thing we can’t evaluate is what Carlo needs to do to impress Roman. If it was up to me, I’d unreservedly put my faith in Ancelotti and give him time to mould his own team. We are, after all, an ageing team that has peaked. Despite the mammoth goals total in 2009-2010, we won the league by just one point in May. We need to rebuild. But, after the dark days of the latter part of the Scolari regime, I would not have put £1 on us winning the league in less than 18 months of his departure. It just shows the spirit of the senior pros in our squad who pushed on and won at Arsenal, Manchester United and Liverpool last season. We may not see the likes of that again for quite a while. Let’s just get behind the team tonight and sing our hearts out.”

This is my view on things – though I doubt very much if it mirrors that of Roman Abramovic.

Glenn was buzzing to be going up to Chelsea again after a break of two months, eager to see our mates in The Goose, eager to see the team. His next comment warmed me …

”I’ll never stop going – what’s the worst that can happen? We can lose.”

Big deal.

“Yeah mate – and we’ve seen a lot worse, eh?”

Parky was collected and The Three Wise Men were on our way. Some awful fog in Berkshire slowed the normally speedy Glenn, so we didn’t reach our usual parking spot until about 4.30pm. We hot-footed it to our favourite restaurant on Brompton Road where we had arranged to meet the four American visitors. Becky, Rick, Mary Anne and Paul had just arrived and Salvo was soon fussing over all of us like long-lost friends. If The Goose has acquired the unofficial status of “CIA pub”, then Salvo’s has become the CIA restaurant in London. The list of CIAers who have passed through the doors goes on and on…Teri, Starla, Beth, Danny, Burger, Julie, SF Bob, Detroit Bob, Jens, Danielle, Wes, Scott, Lalo, Farmer John Schaeffer, David from Houston, Hoss, plus Mike and Chopper and afew of the New York Blues.

Pizzas were ordered and three bottles of Peroni didn’t touch the sides. Despite the loss at Arsenal, the four visitors still loved the match day experience and – of course – were besides themselves with joy at the thought of their first ever game at Stamford Bridge. We moved on to The Goose and I pointed out all of the Chelsea watering-holes along the way.

The pub was packed of course and the Americans loved the fact that it was full of devoted Chelsea supporters. We got the beers in and spoke about all sorts of nonsense. Michigan Kev arrived at about 6pm and joined the fray. He made a bee-line for Parky and the banter commenced. With The Ashes regained, Rick asked if any of us were cricket fans. So I spoke a little about that – there are a few cricket fans in my group of mates…Gary is a Surrey season ticket holder, Daryl watches a few games every summer…I used to like cricket before baseball took over my affections. I even played for the school team during one summer. Rick also asked about rugby. No – a resolute no. None of us are rugby followers. In fact, I joked with Rick that our little conversation about “egg chasing” was probably the longest conversation I had ever had in The Goose about that particular sport.

We spoke about all sorts in The Goose pre-match. I spoke to Rick about that magnificent book “Soccer In A Football World” (which details the history of footy in the USA) and in particular the appearance of our player Alec Jackson in the Bethlehem Steel team back in the 1920s. Amongst other things, Klinger from “MASH” and his favourite team the Toledo Mud Hens also got a mention. To say nothing of my mates Andy and Jonesy singing “One Man Went To Mow” at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium in 1984…and the Tigers fans looking on, quite befuddled. Talking of people looking befuddled, the visitors from the US had the pleasure of meeting “permanently confused” Wycombe Stan, a man who has a “Facebook” page devoted to him. After our little chat, he pottered off, probably unaware of who I was or even who he was. It always amazes me how he finds his way to Chelsea every few weeks.

I personally could have stayed there, chatting and drinking, all night. But the kick-off was approaching though and we needed to move on.

“See you on Sunday boys – Happy New Year.”

On the walk past The Cock And Hen ( the site of my first ever pint at Chelsea, April 1984 ), I again reminded Mary Anne that Chelsea isn’t really a football club at all – it’s a social club and we meet up every weekend at a football ground. As we passed The Malt House, Paul suggested that we called in on the off chance of bumping in to a girl from Cleveland Ohio who was with a couple of the CFC Fancast gents. While my back was turned, Parky and Kev had decided to get a pint in, despite it being about 15 minutes from kick-off. Not to worry – everyone happy, everyone smiling. I said to Mary Anne that the little dip into The Malt House encapsulated what supporting Chelsea is all about – bumping into Chelsea fans for the first time, handshakes, smiles, laughter and Parky getting a sneaky beer in.

After all these distractions, I got into my seat just in time for the kick-off. Beth had texted me to say that a few of the CIA banners were on show in the East stand. A quick look around – around 750 away fans.

Anelka in. Ramires in. Bosingwa in.

I’m not sure if anyone else has ever noticed, but at Stamford Bridge, in the south-east corner, there is often a plume of smoke which appears from a mysterious location behind the East Stand. Maybe from where Ken Bates’ old office once was. Not for the first time, I joked with Alan that it looked like the elder members of the Vatican had decided on a new Pope – better look out Carlo, it might be that Roman has decided on a change of manager – whereas Alan thought that it meant that chain-smoker John Neal was in the car park.

I didn’t have my big lens so was unable to spot all of the CIA banners. However, I did spot these –Chelsea In America, North Texas, South East Blues, Boston Blues, Texas, OC Blues.

It wasn’t a great first-half was it? We had the usual pass-pass-pass possession, but it was the away team who had the best chance in the opening period. Former Pompey midfielder Matt Taylor was left exposed but he dragged his shot narrowly wide. There was certainly the usual mumbling and grumbling throughout the first-half. The crowd began reasonably well, but the noise soon quietened. Our chances were rare and unconvincing. The referee Mike Jones was annoying the hell out of all of us – on three occasions he decided to blow up for free-kicks in our favour when advantage should have been played. Nothing annoys me more than that really – I wish referees would let the game flow anyway – and I vented my frustration at the referee. These were anxious times. For the first time in ages at Chelsea, I stood the entire game. I wanted to feel involved – standing helps, don’t ask me why.

I couldn’t help but think that the pre-match was far outweighing the game – but how many hundreds of times has that been the case, anyway? The referee blew up for the break and boos could be heard.

At half-time, right at the start, the PA played a few verses from a Howard Jones song from 1984, imploring us to “throw off your mental chains.” How apt, I thought. It’s what we needed to do – miraculously regain our collective self-confidence. I was hoping Carlo was weaving some magic deep in the bowels of the East stand. During the break, I had time to glance through the programme and there were a few previously unpublished black and white photographs from the Bolton away game in 1983, where Clive Walker scored and…oh, I’m sure you all know by now. If you don’t, it’s time you did.

Half-Time Quiz –

1. What is Chelsea’s biggest home win over Bolton Wanderers in the Premier League era?

2. Which player scored his first-ever Premier League goal for Chelsea in the first of those meetings?

3. Which player netted the winner in last season’s meeting against Bolton at The Bridge?

4. Which Brazilian centre-back had a spell with the Trotters, having previously represented Chelsea?

I looked back on the first period. JT, for me, was our best player. Frank was only making short runs into space – he had no space, to be fair, but he seemed to be playing within himself. Malouda quiet, Drogba quiet.The usual stuff.

Soon after the re-start, a sublime ball (one of the best of the season if I am honest) from Frank cut right through the Bolton defence and found Didier who advanced in the inside-right position. We were all prepared for a goal – but the firm strike hit the far post and rebounded to safety. We kept getting caught offside, but at least we were showing a greater willingness to attack the Bolton rear-guard.

On the hour, we broke through again and we all thought, to a man, that Didier was offside. However, I looked across at the retreating linesman, below the OC Blues flag, and he memorably kept his flag down. In a moment of high drama, Didier crossed the ball into the box and the advancing – and unmarked – Malouda slid the ball in.

The Bridge erupted – it is quite some time since a goal against a team outside the top five or six was met with such loud and happy delirium. Alan and I calmed ourselves and – after quite a few games since the last time – we uttered the famous…

“They will have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

As the second-half continued, I have to say that Ramires, our little number seven, got more and more into the game…chasing people down, keeping the ball in tight areas like Makelele, getting stuck in. It was so pleasing to see – long may it continue. Carlo obviously rates him – that is good enough for me. Definitely his best game for us, by a mile. We carved open a few more chances, but Bolton were still in the game. On 76 minutes, Cech showed much agility to tip over a rasping drive from Holden – the arc of his rising body was a picture. From the resultant corner, we were lucky to stay 1-0 up as a header fell at the feet of a defender who hacked the ball away.

We had a few more chances – the ball was worked rather cleverly to Essien but he shot wide. Essien had not had the best of games, but one trademark hustling run sticks out.

Perhaps the highlight of the second period was, in my mind, the rousing roar that the crowd gave Ashley Cole after his sprint for a 50/50 ball…his desire, his pace, his perfectly timed tackle. Moments like that can galvanise an entire football club. Players and fans together.

Thankfully – and with great relief and pleasure – the much maligned referee blew up and The Bridge roared. I exchanged a few happy texts from Chelsea fans from near and far. I liked Beth’s comment about Ramires –

“He is a feisty little guy and I like that.”

I was so happy that the four Americans’ inaugural visit to Stamford Bridge had resulted in a much-needed win. Three points to The Champions – phew, indeed. Of course, the news that Arsenal had dropped points at Wigan added to our glee as we left the stadium and hustled down the Fulham Road. I caught up with Parky who had somehow managed to tangle his crutches up with his jacket sleeve – the beers were having an effect. Overhead, in the dark London night, the sky was lit up with a succession of fireworks, cracking and sparkling away.

It was a perfect moment.

Not for the first time, I wish I could have stayed on in London – to meet up with Becky, Mary Anne, Paul, Rick and Kevin to hear about their experiences in The Shed. I can just picture the glee on their faces as Malouda struck. The noise really was fantastic.

We got back to Glenn’s car and we all admitted that it felt like a large weight had been lifted from our shoulders. One win does not a season make, but let’s keep going. Let’s beat Villa on Sunday and let’s win at Wolves on Wednesday. Let’s get a run going.

Come on Chelsea – let’s go.

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