Tales From The Home Of The Chelsea Pensioners

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 14 November 2010.

Oh boy.

I collected Parky at about 9.45am and our route took us up on to the M4. We entered the motorway at junction 17 and the next exit was for Swindon West and Wotton Bassett, a town that has become famous over the past two years or so. RAF Lyneham is nearby and this old airfield is the one which is always used for the repatriation of the mortally wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. Every time that a body is brought back, the town of Wotton Bassett comes to a reverential standstill as the cortege moves slowly through the quiet Wiltshire town.

On this Remembrance Sunday, we looked forward to being able to pay our own quiet respects to the fallen at Stamford Bridge later in the day.

Parky was suffering with a heavy cold and I hoped that I wouldn’t succumb to any bugs that might be flying around. As we passed Reading, I put the radio on so we could listen to the bells of Big Ben which signalled the start of the two minute silence at The Cenotaph.

After a quick breakfast, I popped down to the stadium. I picked up a few copies of the new yearbook, just out, for myself and a few absent friends. I quickly got one of the yearbooks – a spare one – signed by Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti and decided to offer it up as a prize in a competition.

Quiz Question – Please provide an “alternative title” for this report. Please PM me the answer.

“Tales From…”

It was a miserable, rainy day in deepest SW6 and I rushed back to The Goose where the clans were gathering from near and far. With Manchester United dropping yet more away points at Villa Park, our game against Steve Bruce’s Sunderland represented a great chance for us to move further ahead of Alex Ferguson’s team. The signs were good. Our last six home league games against the Black Cats all ended in Chelsea wins, with a goal tally of 23-2. Sunderland is one of those clubs in England who, for whatever reason, do not seem to have national appeal, unlike their hated neighbours Newcastle United. I can think of the same scenario with Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds United, two more clubs of similar size, but with vastly differing supporter profiles. For some reason, there has always been a certain cachet about supporting some teams…and Sunderland, like Sheffield Wednesday, doesn’t have it. If you meet a Sunderland fan, it’s likely they come from Wear side. There aren’t legions of Mackems in Dorset, Norfolk, Kent or Worcestershire. Chelsea on the other hand…

The most famous, or infamous to be truthful, Chelsea vs. Sunderland game in my living memory is the Milk Cup semi-final second leg in March 1985. This was the biggest game of that famous season, our first one back in the top flight since 1979. As luck would have it, this was the year that I went to college in Stoke-On-Trent. It was perfect timing for me I have to say. In 1982-1983, I was at school and attended four games. In 1983-1984, I was on the dole and re-taking A Levels but still attended eleven games. In 1984-1985, with a student grant burning a hole in my wallet, plus money saved from a summer job, I went to twenty-two Chelsea games. I was particularly proud of attending 15 out of 21 home league games, most by train from Stoke. It was a breakthrough season really and I loved being able to afford to watch Chelsea every couple of weeks. However, due to a variety of factors, I only watched weekend games and therefore missed all of the early games in the Milk Cup ( League Cup ) run which gathered momentum throughout that season. The highlight of this run ( no – it wasn’t the Pat Nevin penalty miss against Manchester City ), were the three games against Sheffield Wednesday in the quarters. We eventually defeated them and Sunderland were our opponents in the semi-finals. We lost the away leg at Roker Park 2-0 but were confident of turning things round at The Bridge. There had been a particularly bitter winter to endure and the game was postponed once, and then eventually rescheduled for Monday 4th. March 1985.

I’m not sure if I should have attended any lectures that afternoon, but I caught the lunchtime train south, looking forward to not only my first ever Chelsea League Cup game, but also – tantalisingly – my first ever midweek game at Stamford Bridge. It’s hard to believe these days, but this game wasn’t all ticket and so I headed straight down to Stamford Bridge. I can easily remember the sense of anticipation outside the old Bovril Gate, now the little alley which runs up to the megastore, as Chelsea fans queued in the late afternoon light. It seemed doubly odd to be at Stamford Bridge at such a weird time…4.30pm on a Monday afternoon. I seem to remember that the members were told to line up at the Bovril Gate, while the general public massed at the old Shed turnstiles. I was in the old stadium as early as 5.30pm and soon took my place on The Benches. The kick-off was at 7.30.pm. You had to be in early to get a good spot. There is no doubt that I watched the game with Alan, my match day companion to this day. We always sat on the back row of The Benches right on the halfway line.

I remember the north stand being occupied by about 6,000 Sunderland fans and maybe about 3,000 Chelsea fans, kept separate via fenced pens. Three pens for Sunderland, one for Chelsea. Undoubtedly, the Chelsea fans in that section would have been “up for it.” Back in the ‘seventies, I always had the impression that The Shed used to be occupied by mouthy kids, whereas the inhabitants of the infamous Chelsea North Stand were older, wiser, wilder and not to be messed with. They were the ones who regularly attacked the away followers after all. In fact, by 1985, the general consensus was that our top boys used to congregate in the East Lower seats ( the notorious Gate 13 ) and the northern reaches of the West Stand seats…again, to be close to the away fans.

The game began and we scored after only six minutes with my hero Pat Nevin setting up fellow Scot David Speedie to volley home. Cue wild celebrations all over the packed stands and terraces. There was a massive 38,440 in the old place that night and the noise cascaded around me as we begged for a second. However, Sunderland scored via a breakaway goal via former Chelsea winger Clive Walker and our world collapsed. We were now 3-1 down on aggregate. Then, a calamitous defensive error allowed Walker to score again. This is when the trouble began. Seats were thrown from the East Lower and the wooden benches from our side were broken up and thrown onto the running track in front of us. A pitch invasion was attempted. This is the era of us being “a right bunch of b – stards when we lose” was very true. Inside, I was in turmoil. I hated seeing us lose our biggest game for ages, but also hated seeing the loons causing mayhem everywhere I looked. The police tried to quell the situation and they were – along with hundreds of press photographers – swarming all over the place. At one stage, I’m sure there was a police horse on the pitch as play continued. Most amazingly of all, when Sunderland scored a third goal, there was a policeman inside our six yard box ( playing the scorer onside if I remember correctly! ) and the scenes on the pitch were truly catastrophic for the name of Chelsea Football Club. Worse was to come when a Chelsea fan, John Leftly, raced on to the pitch from the West Stand and confronted Clive Walker. A punch may even have been thrown. Our reputation was in tatters. Pat Nevin lobbed a second at The Shed End, but nobody cared at that stage. I made my way to the exit, sad and disconsolate. In the final moment, Speedie was sent-off. It was one of those nights. I walked back to South Kensington tube, mainly to avoid West Ham’s ICF, who were playing Wimbledon, since I knew the Chelsea hoolies would be looking to ambush them at Fulham Broadway. I eventually got back to Stoke at about 2am. The Battle Of Stamford Bridge was behind me and our next major semi-final would be some nine years away. There was a paper headline the next day which said “Hell hath no fury like Chelsea in defeat.” For the next couple of games in fact, the FA ordered that the benches be shut and, by the time I attended a game against Tottenham in April, the wooden benches had disappeared forever. We would, from then until 1997, be sitting on solid cold concrete.

Back to 2010 and I found Parky and the others in our usual corner of the pub. There was the usual myriad of conversations flying around. Mike from NYC was over once again and he hot-footed it from the Fans Forum meeting. I chatted to a few people, but wasn’t paying too much attention to the Everton vs. Arsenal game on the TV. My mate Andy had gone to the Rangers vs. Aberdeen game the previous day and was happy to report that the noise levels at Ibrox were constantly high throughout the game. He commented that his faith in football was restored – at Ibrox it had remained a working class game, followed by passionate fans. I wondered, by comparison, how the Chelsea vs. Sunderland game would pan out. Kelly, fresh from his whirlwind tour of London, Liverpool, York and Paris, arrived at about 2.45pm and joined me for a few conversations about a few choice topics. He was with his wife and sister again and they had been out for a meal with Neil Barnett the previous night. I think he said it was a Lesbian restaurant, but it might have been a Lebanese one. I mentioned to Kelly our formidable record against Sunderland – you know, 23 goals for, just 2 against – and then added

“Well, that just means we’ll lose 2-0.”

Down at the ground, we heard that JT wasn’t playing and I noted the centre-back pairing of Ivanovic and Ferreira and was worried. I also wasn’t sure about the same midfield as at Anfield. I looked over at the away quadrant and guessed at only about 400 fans at the very most. Two Chelsea pensioners and two guardsmen in bearskins accompanied the teams onto the pitch. The two minute silence brought a lump to the throat. There were three white remembrance banners this year.

We will remember them.

For the first half an hour, we dominated the possession and seemed to be in control. However, ex-Chelsea winger Bolo Zenden seemed to be up for it. A lovely chipped ball was played by Mikel into the path of Anelka, but Sunderland ‘keeper Craig Gordon palmed the ball away before flattening Anelka. No penalty. A shimmering run by Zhirkov deep into the Sunderland box was not matched by a great finish. He unfortunately blasted wide. Didier had a couple of central runs at the defence, only to be fouled twice. Nothing came of the ensuing free-kicks. At this stage, the atmosphere was dead. It was as bad as I can remember it, especially for a crowd of over 40,000. Yet again, Ramires was unable to get into the game and it concerned us all.

In the last fifteen minutes of the first-half, we went to pieces. Ivanovic was so lucky not to be red-carded for pulling back Welbeck. It was the United-loanee who forced a great sprawling save from Cech on 35 minutes and this was the first effort on goal in a crazy period. Welbeck was clean through soon after, but Cech thwarted him again. Our defence suddenly seemed to be very porous and it was all Sunderland. After a double save from Cech, the ball wasn’t cleared. Onuoha dribbled straight at the heart of our once impregnable defence and appeared to miskick his finish. We groaned as it crawled over the line.

Blimey – where did all that come from? If it wasn’t for Petr Cech, we would’ve been 3-0 down. No question. However, despite our weakened team, I was confident that the manager would make the requisite team changes at the break. One goal and we’d get back into it. No worries. Just before the restart, Neil Barnet was finishing off his half-time work with a comment which went something along the lines of –

“And a mention to Kelly Babin from America, who I got very drunk with last night.”

He didn’t mention any lesbians, though.

We began with a little more spirit in the first few moments of the second-half with Malouda looking the one to take it to the visitors. However, Sunderland broke away and cut through our square defence on 52 minutes and we were two down. The scorer was Gyan, one of the few stars of that hideously boring World Cup in South Africa. Oh hell. Bizarrely, Ancelotti kept faith with Ramires, but subbed Malouda with Kalou. Far be it for me to second-guess a manager who has twice won the Champions League, but – Carlo, come on, mate!

At last, the docile Chelsea support got into the game with a throaty and lusty “Carefree” and I hoped, in that romantic nature of mine, that we could roar the team on to a memorable fight back. To be honest, we created few chances, despite the youngsters Mc Eachren and Kakuta entering the fray. If anything, Sunderland could have increased their lead.

Hundreds of spectators were leaving even before the catastrophe of Sunderland’s third. Poor old Ashley did well to summon enough strength to get back to cover his left flank, but then unbelievingly played the ball right into the path of Welbeck.

I have to be honest; Sunderland could have won 5-0. It was our worst home league defeat since a 0-3 reverse against Manchester United in 2002.

I absolutely hated to see all of those empty blue seats in the last five minutes. That ain’t Chelsea.

Oh well – unlike 1985, at least there wasn’t a full blown pitch invasion.

As I walked away from Stamford Bridge, a few thoughts entered my mind. Why are those two Chelsea fans behind me smiling and laughing? When will the texts start? How the hell did we let in three in one home game? Is the mitigating circumstance of being without JT, Lamps, Ess and Alex a valid excuse for this lacklustre show? Will I get rid of my spare ticket for Birmingham next week? Will Kelly be returning soon? Is the CIA website in meltdown? Where is that Lesbian restaurant?

Kelly texted me – “3 games, 1 goal, thousands of pounds – loved every moment.”

Back at the car, the texts were coming through. There was one from Del, a Liverpool fan, who commented that, all of a sudden, we weren’t so Butch. As we drove out of the darkened West London streets, Parky and I got a few things off our chest about our poor performance, but were soon looking forward to the game at St. Andrews next Saturday, where there will be 4,000 noisy Chelsea fans encamped behind the goal. It is likely that there will be another weakened Chelsea team on the pitch and we will be facing tough and workmanlike opposition.

There will be no hiding place. We’ll need to be together. Let’s go.

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