Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 14 August 2010.
What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday, I was trying my best to muster up enough enthusiasm for the Community Shield, but – having seen Chelsea in the flesh – my pulse was racing all week. I couldn’t wait another day, in fact.
There aren’t many nicer feelings than leaving work on a Friday evening with a Chelsea game to attend on the Saturday. I’d been pretty dormant all summer but I was “chomping at the bit” to get up to HQ once more, meet my mates and see the boys put on a show.
A 5.30pm kick-off for the league opener against the Boing Boing Baggies meant that I had time to run a few errands in the morning. There was dismal rain and misty, grey skies as I zipped around and about my village and the local town of Frome. The grey weather seemed strange…opening days, even in England, usually take place against a backdrop of clear skies and hot weather. This was more like cricketing weather to be honest, an ironic comment I made to the village shopkeeper, who looked at me with a vacant stare.
Just before I left home to collect Dave at 11am, I noted a few “opening day scorchers” being shown on Sky Sports News and I loved seeing the “Zola flick, Poyet scissorkick” goal from 1999 against Sunderland once again. Of all the goals I have witnessed, this still remains my favourite.
Big Dave works on the roads in one of Frome’s many tarmac gangs and he had just worked a double-shift, finishing at 6.30am He looked tired. The slow journey over to pick up Lord Parky was completed by 11.30am and we were on our way.
West Bromwich Albion, eh? This meant the return of ex-Chelsea players Roberto di Matteo and Eddie Newton, stalwarts in that 1997 F.A.Cup Final team and I was sure we’d give them a good reception. But I was struggling to name many of their players after their single season in the second tier. They are the archetypal yo-yo team of late…or maybe, this should be the “yow yow” team, as in the Black Country greeting
“Am yow alright?”
I drive past The Hawthorns on every single trip I make following Chelsea in the north-west as the stadium is just off the M5 in the heart of the West Midlands. I don’t mind them as it happens…they’re a good honest club. However, unlike Villa, West Brom doesn’t really have support from outside that West Midlands base. In all my life, I can only remember meeting two West Brom fans, one a college friend, one a former boss. There are no Baggies’ fans in Frome, anyway, that’s for sure.
The drive up to London via the M4 was easy, despite some unsettled weather…drizzle one moment, the sun attempting to break through the next. It felt odd getting up to London at 1.30pm – a time that we would normally be settled in The Goose.
Dave shot off for a breakfast and Parky headed into the boozer, but I had an appointment to keep at The Bridge. As I keep statistics of all the Chelsea games I have witnessed, I was well aware that the game against West Brom would put me on 795 games…a holy grail as far as I am concerned, as it matches the momentous total reached by Ron Harris in his playing career. I was hoping to meet up with him in the hotel foyer and get my photo taken.
I raced past the busy fruit and veg stalls on the North End Road, my pace quickening with each step. As I rounded the corner by The Kings Arms ( aka The Slug ) public house, I noted that there were “home fans only” notices on show…a change from last season, when it was the dedicated away pub. I wondered if there would be an option for away fans at Chelsea this season. I noted that the old Fulham Broadway tube station, with that wonderful red brick façade, is now a greengrocers…the “TGI Friday’s” is no more. A shame – I never did pay it a visit.
I quickly ascended the elevator to the first floor of the Copthorne Hotel and there was the familiar smiling face of Ron Harris, holding court in the seated area to the left of reception. I shook hands with Ron and also with Mick the Autograph King, who I bump into a few times each season. It was lovely to see them both. I spent an enjoyable 45 minutes in Ron’s company and Mick was kind enough to take a few photos on my momentous day. I had bought a photo-mount that morning in Frome so that Chopper could sign something for me. It worked a treat. I bought myself a pint of Singha ( our new beer sponsor ) and relaxed, enjoying the laughter, stories and comments about the new season. Kent Blues Gill and Graeme popped over for a few words. We were all excited about the new season – of course! – but I said to Graeme that I wondered if our double success of May would ever be bettered in our Chelsea lives.
I noticed a lovely black-and-white photograph, taken in the mid-sixties, on the wall by the bar. It showed five Chelsea players jogging around the old Stamford Bridge dog-track on a cold winter morning, the pitch and shed terraces covered in fresh snow. Ron Harris, Terry Venables and Eddie Macreadie, plus two other players, were sporting those rather odd striped training shorts which are often seen in photos from that era. It’s a super photo, but it came to life when I saw two of the players holding snowballs, grins on their faces. I wondered if the photographer was the intended recipient.
On the way out of the ground, I noted that the “photo-wall” by the West Stand is no more. I bought a programme and a copy of “CFCUK” and had a brief word with Mark and Dave on the stall. I kept checking my watch and tried to equate what time it would be on a “normal 3pm Saturday.” The home programme this season again contains 76 pages, but is published by a different company than of late. It’s much the same, though – same contents, with a piece by historian Rick Glanvill the highlight. The cover of the programme is an improvement though – nice and clean, less clutter. A photo of JT, stretching for the ball was on the cover, with a blue background. Pretty effective I thought. In the fanzine, I noticed that somebody had penned a brief preview of our first three games under the name Vinci Per No ( sp.) and I immediately realised I should have copyrighted my CIA user id.
I made it into The Goose and it was magical to be back after 14 weeks away. The place was sweaty and noisy, but I edged my way towards our corner, past the bar in the back room. I looked for familiar faces and was not disappointed. Almost the first face I saw was that of Burger, along with Julie and Josh, now residents in the UK, but soon off to relocate in the midlands. Parky had been keeping them occupied with his unique brand of banter, reminiscing in particular about the post-game meal after West Ham in March.
Burger, Julie and Josh are going to be residing in Stafford shortly and this works out perfectly for me as I head past Stafford on my way to many away games. In fact, it reminded me of around ten years ago, when my mate Alan would often get a train to Stafford and I’d pick him up en route to such northern outposts as Bolton, Blackburn and Leeds. It also reminded me of one of the main reasons why I chose nearby Stoke-On-Trent for my college town in 1984…close proximity to many away grounds. I’m just a bit worried that Burger will be calling me “duck” within a month or two.
What else? There were conversations going on all around me and I stopped still for a few seconds, listening to the buzz of voices, interspersed with laughter, the occasional shout, the occasional lull. The Wigan vs. Blackpool game was causing us great yelps of enjoyment and I felt certain that Blackpool’s Golden Mile would be the place to be in the whole of the UK come 10pm. I chatted to Daryl and Neil – we spoke briefly about our plans to commemorate our fiftieth birthdays with a trip to NYC for a Yankees vs. Mets series in 2015. Daryl and myself, the two Yankee fans, have been promising ourselves a trip for years and we finally toasted our plans. I enjoyed more talk of America with Dutch Mick out in the beer garden – we are both enthusiasts of the American Civil War and I needed his advice on visiting Gettysburg. I am off to Philadelphia ( and New York ) in September, but the highlight could well be the visit I have planned to that most momentous of civil war sites.
Parky was chatting to Andy and Les from Trowbridge, friends from way back.
Burger – navy
Andy – brown
Wes from Texas – still with us on his sabbatical – showed up with a college mate from Siberia, both very excited to be witnessing an opening game of the season.
I spent quite a few moments chatting to Andy from Nuneaton. I’ve been mates with Andy since we met out in Prague on the Viktoria Zizkov trip in 1994, though I knew of him by sight from many train trips home to Stoke in the mid-eighties. In reference to Burger’s move to Stafford, Andy spoke about an eventful game involving Stafford Rangers and Nuneaton Borough back in around 1980…not sure about the result, but it seems the Nuneaton boys had the upper hand in a pub before the game. I had to laugh, though, when Andy commented “they looked the part though – they all had wedges.” It seems that the Nuneaton lads were still dressed in bomber jackets and sported skinheads and I could tell Andy was a bit envious.
It was soon time to leave the boozer. Sigh.
Blackpool had won 4-0 and would surely finish the day as league leaders. We made our familiar way to The Bridge, but the heavens opened at 5.10pm and for a few minutes those with jackets ( including myself ) were lording it over those without. As I ascended the stairs to the MHU, the lovely chant of “Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions” was heard…one of our staples from the 2005-2007 period. Lovely stuff. Then as I walked in to the seats, with the pitch looking perfect below me, “Blue Is The Colour” was playing on the tannoy. Even better. I shook hands with the familiar faces…Zac, Joe, Tom, Russ, Frank. Great to see everyone again.
I had a quick look around and was dismayed to see hundreds of empty seats in The Shed. I hoped and prayed that they would soon fill up. I spotted an impressive white flag draped over the wall by the southern end of the West Stand.
“Pimlico Blues – We’ll Never Be Mastered.”
Wes was sandwiched between Alan and myself as we awaited the appearance of the teams. I had no problem with Carlo’s starting eleven, but I would have preferred to have seen Ivanovic at right-back ahead of Paolo Ferreira. Zac, however, was far from pleased. Zac always tends to have more grumbles that even the most pessimistic Chelsea fan should be entitled to. In fact, I am convinced that if Ancelotti had personally phoned Zac on the Friday and left the team selection to Zac, he would still moan about the players chosen.
We began well and after only five minutes, with a free-kick just outside the “D”, I sensed a goal. I steadied my camera and snapped as Drogba struck. After a goalmouth melee, Florent Malouda slid the ball in and we were on our way once again. I looked towards Alan and he put his arm around Wes, bent towards him and executed a part-Boomhauer, part-Rhett Butler style “See that, dang, good old, yep – they’ll have to come at us now, you hear.”
I whooped “Come on ma little diamonds”, sounding just a bit like Scarlet O’Hara, but thankfully only Wes and Alan heard me.
I think Wes appreciated it.
However, as is so often the case, a second goal was not immediately forthcoming. In fact, West Brom got into the game and their number 14 was giving Paolo a tough time, attacking him at will. There were the oh-so typical moans and grumbles as we struggled to penetrate. I commented to Wes that it seemed our best chances were through free-kicks only. A Lampard free-kick was saved by Carson, but Malouda headed over. Damn. Just before half-time, Drogba stepped up and as I snapped his shot with my camera, I saw the ball head straight for the defensive wall and I uttered an obscenity. Imagine my surprise when I saw the ball tuck itself into the goal.
“How did that happen?”
Never mind, the all important second goal was scored…a bit like Wigan in May, and we could relax a little. However, the stands were pretty quiet, despite the volumes of lager being imbibed all afternoon. A familiar lament from me, eh?
A real treat at the break – legend Ruud Gullit was introduced to all of the Chelsea faithful and he received a tumultuous reception.
Inspired by his appearance, the PA played The Specials’ “Message To You Rudi.” I looked down to see Burger lip-synching and dancing away like a teenager.
A perfect moment.
Welcome to England, mate.
Soon into the second half, the intermittent rain subsided and we were treated to blue skies and more Chelsea goals. A Drogba stab from close range after a JT header made it 3-0. Then, soon after, the best move the match. Initiated by Mikel, we witnessed a great move down the Chelsea left… Anelka passed sublimely to Ashley Cole who fed Frank to tuck in.
Oh you beauty. It was a lovely move.
“Are we Arsenal in disguise?” I ironically sung to Alan.
We then realised “one more and we’ll go top.”
The ball was worked to Ashley Cole down below me – snap! – and he evaded a rash challenge – snap! – before shifting the ball to Drogba, who moved on to his favourite side before shooting – snap! – and the ball nestled in the goal. Again, I could hardly believe it. This was like Wigan ( or Stoke, or Villa, or Sunderland – take your pick ) all over again.
“Top Of The League – Having A Laugh.”
The last goal – the sixth – from Malouda was just one to savour and politely applaud…this is getting crazy. Soon after, we were awarded a couple of long-distance free-kicks and, each time, we serenaded Alex’ name for him to be chosen…his face was a picture as he grinned from ear to ear.
There were more smiles as we sung “Boring Boring Chelsea.”
By this time, the MHL were getting all the various stands to sing, even the visitors –
“West Brom – Give Us A Song.”
And Roberto di Matteo’s name was sung with gusto as the game came to its conclusion.
So, let’s get the calculator out…our last three home games have ended 7-0, 8-0 and 6-0. That’s 21-0.
I think we’d best stick on that.
It took an age to leave London, but once on the trusty M4, both Big Dave and Lord Parky were asleep. I had a slight headache, but was listening to some quiet and evocative music by Japan as I flew past Slough and Reading. I tried to put the game’s events into perspective, but it was too close, too soon. It didn’t in truth, seem like we had been away.
As I headed on into the night, past Swindon, the sky looked dramatic and wild…an orange sunset here, a brilliant white crescent moon there, dark storm clouds to the north, vivid blue above. It was quite a backdrop.
It had been some day at HQ.
Wigan – my away ticket safe in my wallet – next!
Mow That Meadow.