Tales From Heroes And Villains

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 2 January 2011.

It was time for the Three Wise Men to be on the road again. I collected Glenn from Frome at 8am and Parky soon after. With the rest of the South of England recovering from the excesses of New Year’s Eve, never has the M4 motorway been so devoid of traffic. The 110 miles were completed in double-quick time and, at just after 10am, the three of us were tucking into a Full English at the Yadana Café on Lillie Road. Of course, during the previous day, all of our natural rivals had ground out wins (even the lowly but despised West Ham United had won…) and now the focus was on us. On a rare occasion of annoyance with football, I had deliberately avoided the football highlights on “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night – instead I watched a whole night devoted to the much-loved comedy duo Morecambe and Wise on BBC2.

Eric Morecombe is playing the piano.

Andre Previn, the musical conductor – “But you’re not playing the right notes.”

Eric Morecombe – “…I’m playing all the right notes…pause…but not necessarily…pause…in the right order.”

As we wolfed down our eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and black pudding, we re-emphasised the need for us to defeat an Aston Villa team which had been on a dire run of form under Gerard Houllier. With Bolton defeated, we were faced with a run of games against teams – Villa, Wolves and Blackburn Rovers – which could and should give us maximum points.

I had recently purchased a new book on Chelsea Football Club, “When Football Was Football – Chelsea – A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club,” and I had brought this up on the car ride for Glenn and Parky to take a look at. This book is stacked full of previously unseen photographs from the Daily Mirror and I certainly enjoyed pouring over classic photos of past-players such as Hughie Gallacher, Roy Bentley, Peter Bonetti and Charlie Cooke. If there is one player from our distant past who I would love to know more about, it is the fiery, pint-sized Scottish centre-forward Gallacher. His demeanour in photos suggests a massive personality. The tough Scottish up-bringing, his time on Tyneside, the big money move to London, the goals, the temper, the fall from grace and the eventual suicide. That has to be a story worth telling.

A few photographic highlights from “When Football Was Football” –

1922 – a panoramic view of the wide bowl of Stamford Bridge during the F.A. Cup Final between Huddersfield and Preston.

1924 – the King being introduced to the players of the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants before a baseball game at The Bridge.

1931 – a classic shot of the trio Andy Wilson, Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Crawford in suits, bowler hats and thick overcoats in the London fog on the old forecourt.

1945 – an outside photograph of the swarming crowds locked outside the stadium at the Moscow Dynamo game, with hundreds standing on The Shed roof.

1953 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal – a shot from the dog track – with hundreds sitting on the grass between the old East stand and the pitch…and around fifty on the East stand roof.

1961 – a bemused Jimmy Greaves – in the blue shirts, white shorts, white socks – in the centre circle on the occasion of his last ever game for us, the steep west terrace behind.

1964 – a brilliant colour shot of Ron Harris, aged just twenty, arms crossed, proud.

1965 – a lovely photo of Barry Bridges, Joe Fascione, John Hollins, Bert Murray and Marvin Hinton, sipping coffee in a London café…the old Stamford Bridge Café opposite the town hall if I am not mistaken.

1966 – the look of pain on the faces of George Graham, John Hollins, Terry Venables and Ron Harris as they learn of getting Liverpool in the F.A. Cup.

1967 – the Chelsea wives crying after defeat by Tottenham in the Cup Final.

1980 – fans entering the Shed turnstiles – £2.00 – and an old red / green / white bar scarf being born by a youth in the foreground.

1981 – angry fans on the pitch in protest after the last game – a loss to Notts County – and a broken Shed End cross-bar. We were a right bunch of b******* when we lost.

1984 – Kerry Dixon triumphant, Leeds defeated, promotion gained and shirtless fans celebrating wildly in Gate 13.

It made me realise how I missed the old Stamford Bridge, but these photos vividly enabled me to remember the sense of belonging I used to experience every time my parents brought me up to London in my childhood. I hope that the sense of belonging will never die.

As we finished our breakfasts, I toasted our friendships and reminded Glenn that we travelled up to our first ever game together in November 1983 – a game against the Geordies and we had a cup of coffee in that same café on the Fulham Road as the players in 1965.

The pre-match was a little rushed…down to meet Becky, Rick, Mary Anne and Paul – and also San Francisco Pete, plus Gill and Graeme – at the hotel. I took some photos of them all with Gill’s “Kent Blues” and “CIA” flags. Outside the megastore, I heard one of the most ridiculous comments ever at a Chelsea game…a couple, hand in hand, brushed past me and the bloke said, in a pretentious mid-Atlantic accent “Wow – this is a girl’s paradise…there are guys everywhere.”

I thought like saying “hell – you should have been here in the ‘eighties, mate.”

Then back up to The Goose, where I soon bumped into Burger, Jon and Lee, then Cathy and Dog alongside The Usual Suspects – Parky and Glenn talking to Alan, Daryl, Rob, Andy, Chops…another year, another game, another beer, another pre-match. There was talk in the pub of the Old Firm game taking place in Glasgow – on the fortieth anniversary of the Ibrox disaster. Our mate Ajax would be in attendance.

Reg and Lorraine were manning the bar and had put on a special offer for us hardened Chelsea enthusiasts –

Fosters – £1.49 a pint.

“Here’s one-fifty, Lorraine, keep the change…”

On the walk down to the ground, Daryl commented – “blimey, I’ve had five pints and I’ve got change from a tenner.” In contrast, down at the Chelsea hotel bar, three pints had cost me £12.30.

I reached my seat at 1.15pm and soon noted an abundance of free flags being waved with gusto by the inhabitants of the Shed, East Lower and Matthew Harding Lower. This is the first time I have known free flags for a league game, though it seemed that not everybody got one. I took a few photographs of the new American flags. There were gaps in the Villa section – they only had around one thousand. They soon started their song about winning a European Cup, but it’s a shame they couldn’t sell all their tickets for a game against the League Champions. We soon reminded them about “Wembley 2000.”

The game began and Agbonlahor fired in the first clear chance when he was poorly marked and was able to swivel and shoot. Cech wasn’t troubled but it was a sign that Villa would not lie down. Soon after, an Ashley Young cross / shot was dropping straight into Petr Cech’s goal and our great ‘keeper did well to re-adjust and palm the ball over. Play was even in the first quarter. But we had not really troubled the Villa goal up until then.

After 23 minutes, the ball was lobbed into the Villa box and Malouda stood his ground and then went sprawling. To be honest, I thought that it was a soft penalty, but I wasn’t complaining. I steadied myself and then clicked my camera as Frank slammed the ball centrally into Brad Friedel’s goal.

Great stuff – let’s build on this, let’s go.

Villa were rather loose with their tackles, to say the least, and the yellow cards were stacking up. Yet an errant swipe at John Terry in our own box went unpunished. We thought that the referee seemed out of his depth.

Frank Lampard was taking a few pot shots from distance, but he was not troubling the Villa goal. It has long been my opinion, from when I first saw Frank play for us in Chelsea blue in 2001, that he doesn’t always strike balls that well, especially from distance. He often scuffs his shots, he often gets little power. Alan and I had a little discussion about this and he was in agreement. It’s pretty bizarre when you think about it, considering the amount of goals he scores for us. However, compare him to, say, his nemesis Steven Gerrard – how often does Gerrard strike the ball so sweetly, with his laces, getting his entire body behind the ball? Frank’s sideway scuffs pale in comparison. It might be seem as sacrilege by some, but this is my view. Frank is better with the gentle prod inside the box rather than optimistic punts from way out. I honestly think that one of the reasons why Frank scores so often is due to the vast amount of shots he takes over the course of a whole season.

On 37 minutes, Richard Dunn clipped a ball over Cech’s bar after nobody attacked the ball to clear. Soon after, Paolo Ferreira unfortunately took an extra touch in clearing the ball when a simple swipe would have sufficed. The ball was deflected into the box and Michael Essien was adjudged to have taken the legs of a Villa attacker. It all happened so quickly, nobody knew what was going on. No Villa players appealed, the Villa fans didn’t even celebrate.

Ashley Young repeated Frank’s methodology and hit the ball centrally into Petr’s goal. They all celebrated in our corner, the gits.

I met up with San Francisco Pete at half-time and we had our usual moan – it’s a bit of a lucky superstition now…the five minute moan to each other and then, more often than not, an improved performance in the second forty-five. Didier needed to get in the game, Malouda too. Let’s see what the second half would hold.

Oh boy – after just two minutes we went a goal down. We didn’t stop the cross and a great hanging ball had “goal” written all over it. Hesky jumped against Bruma, but we stood no chance. Villa were 2-1 up.

Hell.

Individually, the three midfielders did some good stuff in the second period…going forward. However, too often that defensive block – that shield in front of the defence – was missing. A nice move involving Didier and Malouda set up Frank, but Friedel saved. Soon after, another defence splitting ball from Frank found Malouda, but the goalie got down to block. We certainly had a spell of domination around the hour mark, but our chances were wasted. Malouda – one of our front three remember – was memorably behind Ashley Cole on a few occasions. He is a player that doesn’t seem confident right now. Carlo rang the changes and we hoped…

Kalou had a couple of mesmerizing runs at the defence before falling over his feet in a heap while appealing for penalties. I think he may well have trademarked that move. Can somebody phone the patents office please?

On 84 minutes, Chelsea pressure resulted in a mad scramble and I was on my toes…I’m not sure how he did it, but Drogba steadied himself and struck low. The ball may well have entered the goal via two Aston Villa defenders.

We roared. We jumped. We screamed.

Well, apart from a row of around eight middle-aged supporters down below me and away to my right…oh dear, here I am moaning again, but why do these people bother? There were just sitting there, stony-faced, hardly moving, let alone applauding. I guess they think that Chelsea owes them something. The rest of the crowd, though – invigorated and noisy – was roaring the team on.

And then it happened – a whipped in cross from Ess, a blocked Drogba header and the ball bounced out to John Terry. John steadied himself and drilled the ball into the waiting goal.

Up we jumped – oh God the noise – and I simply screamed “COME ON – COME ON – COME ON.” My camera was in my hand ( I had clicked on the Essien cross ) and I shot away as JT wheeled away towards the East Lower. We don’t often celebrate there. It was reminiscent of Wayne Bridge’s run towards the Portsmouth fans at Christmas 2004. I steadied my hand and took five or six shots of the players catching up with JT, jumping on him, screaming away, fists pumping. I was aware that the whole team was heading towards the Chelsea bench and took one last photograph of the captain embracing Carlo Ancelotti. The photos are of a scene of wild euphoria amongst fans and players alike – wild times. I could only imagine how Becky, Rick, Mary Anne and Paul were reacting. I envisaged them jumping high and falling out of the Shed Upper onto the fans below.

And there they were – the team celebrating with the manager.

Beautiful.

My spirits were so high, I was even hoping for a ridiculous fourth. Even without this goal, I thought that JT was again our best player. His form has been excellent of late. Then, the cruel twist and the horror of the Villa equaliser – the ball dropping to an unmarked player at The Shed End at the end of a game seems to be such a familiar sight these days.

3-3.

We even had a last minute chance which rocketed past the North Stand goal…Stamford Bridge would have gone into orbit had that one gone in.

It was not to be.

We all met up at the hotel after the game in order for the four American guests to meet, at last, Ron Harris. At the top of the escalators, we stood as Ron gave his own little appraisal of our current woes. The problem I have in discussing the inherent frailties of Chelsea Football Club is that I still maintain that joyful glee that I first experienced on my first visit to The Bridge in 1974. All of the players are still heroes to me and I am still so proud to be able to come to games and witness the team in action. I don’t like hearing negativity. I abhor it to be honest. So, I listened with gritted teeth as Ron spoke about “something’s not right, the youngsters are not up to it, it looks like there is a split in the camp, the punters won’t put up with this for much longer.” The notion of everyone not pulling in the same direction at Chelsea is still something that I have difficulty coming to terms with.

The “split in the camp” angle has been mooted in the UK press for a while – though I don’t always read the papers – but the unity showed by the team after The Captain’s goal would suggest that there is nothing wrong with the team spirit. I know I’m always the optimist, but there are signs we are pulling together…but we are still lacking in confidence. I’m hoping that Ramires continues his improvement and we look a much better team with Frank back in the midfield.

We then joined up with the rest of the boys for a post-game pint in the Lillie Langtry. I was expecting a heated post-mortem, like after our loss at home to Manchester City in February, but the moment had passed. Instead, we shared some laughs and we planned some arrangements for Wolves away on Wednesday and for Ipswich next Sunday. I’m hopeful that a few of the other teams at the top can take some points of each other, that some will go on a rough run of form and that we can slowly rise again.

Damn that optimism.

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