Tales From The Phony War

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 8 August 2010.

My home for most of my life has been a small Somerset village, some 110 miles from HQ, and this has been the starting point for the vast majority of my Chelsea journeys. During the week I had worked out that I had travelled – roughly, and including air miles – 275,000 miles in support of Chelsea since my first game in 1974 and the amount knocked me for six. I disbelieved this figure and so I recalculated, but it remained the same. That equates to a vast amount of travelling time, petrol, oil, tyres, driving hours, Depeche Mode songs, post-game post-mortems, tins of Red Bull, lines at passport control, cups of coffee, motorway service station comfort breaks, train tickets and British Rail buffet stops.

My home village has the limestone Mendip Hills to the west, the Roman city of Bath and The Cotswolds of Gloucestershire to the north, the market town of Frome and the stark chalk uplands of Salisbury Plain to the east and the undulating Somerset farmland to the south, with the Dorset beaches beyond. It’s hardly a football hotbed.

Apart from inside my head.

The World was sleeping as I awoke and I soon gathered my thoughts for the first trip of the new campaign. The weather looked uncertain and mirrored my thoughts of the game ahead…this would be my fifth Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield game and all have been at Wembley. We were tied at 2-2 and this one would be the decider. We had struggled to find our form in the few games of the pre-season, but United seemed to be more advanced in their preparations. I liked the look of their new player Hernandez

At 7.45am, my car left the sleeping village behind and I set off for my Game One of Season 2010-2011. No pre-season games for me this summer.

Echo And The Bunnymen were on the car CD player as I headed through the old mill town of Bradford On Avon to collect Lord Parky, his step-daughter Claire and her boyfriend Kris.

“Stab a sorry heart
With your favourite finger
Paint the whole world blue
And stop your tears from stinging
Hear the cavemen singing
Good news they’re bringing.”

I travelled up the A4 as Claire and Kris flicked through the “hard copy” version of my online photographs, detailing the events of the previous season. I had noted that the album had begun with a simple photograph, taken outside The Duke Of York pub in August 2009, of a pint of Staropramen and the Chelsea vs. Manchester United Community Shield match ticket resting against it. The last photo in the album was a half-full glass of Staropramen, again taken outside the same pub, but after the F.A.Cup Final in May 2010. I’m heavy on metaphors these days, but it seemed to sum up last season perfectly…at times it was difficult to believe, but our glass really was half-full – rather than half-empty – all of the way through last season.

I was a soon parked and we caught the tube from West Brompton, with the steel supports of the Matthew Harding Stand roof in the distance. The smell of the tube always takes me back to my childhood, on those first few wondrous visits to Chelsea with my parents. This time, though, we headed away from The Bridge, north on the district line to Notting Hill Gate, then a change on the central to Marble Arch. By 11am we were tucking into the first fry-up of the new season and, by 11.30pm, we were back at a sun-kissed Duke Of York once again.

We spoke about our respective summers and, to be honest, my one has been strangely muted. The time has flown past and yet, looking back at the months of June and July, I don’t seem to have done anything special. Of course, this is always a period of my year when my credit card heaves a sigh of relief after some intensive spending in the name of Chelsea Football Club and I generally try to keep my expenditure to a minimum. There will be home and away games, hopefully in a few far flung locales, to pay for over the coming season.

The euphoria of the closing weeks of 2009-2010 is still vivid in my mind and it seems that last season still hasn’t drained out of my system yet. Maybe that’s a good thing, since I don’t ever want to forget the joy I felt at Wembley or on the parade the following day, two trophies to the good. They were truly magical times in my Chelsea life. I can still feel the buzz I felt walking out of Anfield, one win away from being champions, three months on. There was a sense, too, of not wanting this summer to end, since I couldn’t face the possible eroding of our title by a resurgent Manchester United or us getting knocked out of the FA Cup. I guess I wanted to prolong the spell of us being – big breath – Double Winners. The summer of 2010 has been the first time we could boast such an honour. These are heady times which should not be easily relinquished.

Can we not stay forever in a perpetual close-season with my beloved Chelsea at the very pinnacle of English football? A ground-hog summer.

So, there has certainly been a sense during the past month or so that I am not yet quite ready for the commencement of yet another season…that I haven’t yet reached the stage where I am feverishly awaiting Game One. This troubled me, but I came to the conclusion that this is natural…this would be, after all, my 38th season of watching Chelsea in the flesh, so to speak. I haven’t felt jaded exactly, but something was amiss.

A strange feeling.

With a double in our locker, where else can this club go? Would I only be satisfied, come May, with a treble, or at very least a Champions League trophy?

Questions, questions.

If I am honest, it made me remember my personal feelings during the summer of 1997, when – for the first time ever – I found myself supporting a Chelsea that had just won a major trophy for the first time in my supporting-life. It felt that my relationship with my club – the great under-achievers, the misery-makers, the perpetual losers – had changed and I scrabbled around, trying to evaluate who I was now in a relationship with…that unloved, ugly duckling was now a coveted princess and it feel odd.

Andy, Ronnie and Fiona were outside the boozer and all three had been in South Africa for a few games. However, we hardly spoke about the World Cup. We certainly didn’t waste much time chatting about England’s inadequacies. I found the tournament pretty boring. It was a joy to see the South African nation – or at least the footy fans in the townships – so overjoyed to have the World’s top teams on their doorsteps, even though the grounds seemed to be devoid of these very same fans. In my mind, this was a very odd World cup, in terms of the spectators inside the stadia. Fans of competing nations seemed not to be allocated designated areas, which negated the noise they were able to generate, which of course was further reduced by the constant drone of those hideous vuvuzelas. And it drove me crazy – my own personal football hell in fact – to see the TV cameramen honing in on every ludicrously attired “fan” ( not only facepaint, but stupid hats and even “comedy” glasses ). This reached a low point when I spotted two English fans, not long from the end of the Germany debacle, attired in replica kits and face paint, seeing each other on the stadium screen and suddenly bursting into smiles and laughter, waving at the camera, not a care in their simple worlds.

England were 4-1 down…my face was as long as a Tottenham league trophy drought…and these loons were smiling and giggling like pre-pubescent schoolgirls. Quite sickening.

Yet again I was reminded that football these days attracts a different breed…that some fans that I grew up with – passionate, devoted, loyal – have been flushed out of a lot of football stadia.

Midway through the tournament, I replayed a tape of a documentary of England’s crazy assault on the World Cup in the summer of 1990. It portrayed a mad few weeks involving 5,000 loyalists living in dodgy campsites on Sardinia surviving on Italian beer and English hope, getting treated like idiots, but smiling through regardless, the team of Peter Shilton, David Platt and Des Walker, images of Gazza’s tears, Sir Bobby Robson, Stuart Pearce and Chris Waddle, the terrace anthem of “Let’s All Have A Disco” and that iconic New Order song “World In Motion”, coolly crossing the football / music divide. I longed for those days…when football was followed by football fans alone, not people drawn in by a variety of other reasons. Hardly any corporates, no wannabee wags, no hangers-on.

In contrast, South Africa seemed plastic and alien to me. On too many occasions, I looked at the reactions on the faces of the spectators after goals were scored and I very rarely saw people “losing it” – that rabid shriek of joy which so often has been uttered by football fans through the years, followed by wild ungainly leaps, often into the arms of strangers, then hugs and kisses, then the panting afterglow. In 2010, I noted polite applause from people who looked like they had just gate-crashed a wedding only to find they had missed out on the buffet and were now fighting over cold leftovers.

The Staropramen was going down well. We were clustered in small groups on the pavement, re-acquainting ourselves after three months “off.” Rob had been on a diet and was looking good, Parky was jabbering away to anyone who would listen, the sun was beating down and I could feel my forehead heating up. Lots of laughs with old friends. The conversation was varied. Not only about football. Fred Perry polo shirts and old-school Adidas trainers were to the fore. I noticed that it was much quieter than May’s Cup Final though. A few of my mates – The Bada Bing Firm – were still on holiday. Gill’s friend Gerry, complete with his trusty guide-dog was sat in the group, too. Four United replikids showed up, but they didn’t stay long…there was no animosity but they were soon flushed out and they left us in peace.

Lacoste Watch

Walnuts – peach

We set off for Marylebone and caught the mainline train up to Wembley Stadium, the carriage rocking with song. As we ascended the steps at the station, I first spotted Dog and then Cathy a few feet ahead…last August, we had caught the same train too.

On the short walk from the station to the stadium, we sensed an altercation a few yards away – some glares, a few words, a stand-off, then a brutal attack leaving a United fan on the road, blood gushing from his forehead. We witnessed something similar on this exact same stretch of road against Villa in April, yet no police to be seen. I was just glad that no young children had witnessed it. To be truthful, the attack was swift and lots of people may not have noticed, but it was a reminder that the dark side of football is always there.

Yet again the soul-less interior of Wembley Stadium saddened me as we ascended the elevators. I’ve commented before about the complete lack of décor inside the walkways and forecourts where food is served and souvenirs sold. It’s all so bland – like the inside of an airport, not our national stadium. There is no clue as to where you are – no photos from previous games, no unique signs, nothing. I’ve just begun re-reading a book about the building of Baltimore’s Camden Yards and it acted as a counterpoint to Wembley. The Orioles’ ball park is quirky, homely, finely-detailed, well-planned and ultimately loved…I just find Wembley so disappointing aesthetically.

We reached our seats and Gianfranco Zola, plus United’s Bobby Charlton, were being presented to the two teams. We had tickets high up in row 23 of the upper deck, six of us in a row…myself, Parky, Rob, Tom, Gary and Alan.

I noted quite a few empty seats and not so many flags as in previous Wembley appearances. United sported a flag which was virtually the same as a Liverpool one from around 1993, aimed at Manchester when United won their first title in 26 years –

“Form Is Temporary, Class Is Forever.”

This time, I guess, it was United having a pop at us.

In the first few minutes, United booed our three English lions, so we reciprocated by cheering all of our boys with every touch. I soon spotted that Frank Lampard was playing with the waistband of his shorts flipped over – this time exposing a belt of red – in the same style as the Umbro shorts from 2003-2005 when he always appeared to play with a white belt.

The game began with thrusts from both sides and Rooney seemed to be buzzing around, his bald head getting more pronounced with each passing season. Scholes was playing deep, out of the reach of our midfielders, and he was having a lot of the ball. Then a cross and Ivanovic threw himself at the ball but Van Der Sar saved brilliantly. It seemed we had most of the possession, but chances were even. Gary was his usual passionate self, his tirades of abuse aimed at Scholes drawing many old-fashioned looks from his new neighbours, presumably unused to such venom.

The singing began reasonably OK, but soon subsided. At times, the atmosphere was deathly. Still lots of empty seats, including the Club Wembley section.

Then a Scholes pass, a Rooney cross and our defence was wide-open. Valencia slammed it in and the United end, bathed in sunshine, came to life.

Groans all around, but I felt a goal would come in the second period. I thought it had been an open game, with most of our purposeful attacks coming through Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda. Frank was playing deep and wasn’t too involved.

At half-time, no surprises to hear the programmes had sold out. Another great performance from the FA. Back in my seat for the rest of the break, I noted two hideous twenty foot mascots being paraded behind each goal, but these were met with admirable indifference by both sets of fans. I soon received a text message from Burger, now living on this side of the Atlantic, and I soon spotted his large flag.

The second half developed along similar lines, but with the crowd showing even less willingness to create any noise. Maybe it was the warm summer sun. Shots from Essien and Malouda whizzed past United’s goal, but our approach play seemed to be more laboured. Anelka was dropping deep, as his wont, but he really needed to be leading the line. I still felt a goal would come, though.

Then, another rapid United break and we found ourselves 2-0 down, that man Hernandez causing the United end to roar with approval. Lots of Chelsea left and that annoyed me.

The pass of the day – from Yuri? – carved open the United defence but Sturridge shot tamely. We dug in and played with more conviction. Yossi Benayoun came on – I noted Burger’s flag in the background from the TV feed on the giant screen – and he looked lively. We had a few half-chances and eventually a goal came once a Sturridge shot had been parried into the path of Kalou. Parky’s crutches flew into the air and I dived for cover.

“Come On Chels.”

I then fancied our chances to equalise, but the depressing figure of Berbatov The Undertaker sealed a 3-1 win for United with a deft flick over Hilario.

I didn’t think it was a 3-1 game, but perhaps I’m ever the optimist. There were certainly negative comments being aired on the return to the pub, but I tried my best to remain philosophical amongst the sour words. We didn’t appear 100% match fit, but let’s hope all is resolved by next weekend. We need Drogba firing on all cylinders, we need the strangely subdued Lampard in the thick of it, we need Essien fitter. I thought Ashley Cole was up and down the flank like his life depended on it and seemed to be highly energised. Ivanovic never disappoints, does he? It was a 6/10 performance from Chelsea overall.

And the only vuvuzela I heard was from the United end.

I think that the first month of the season often feels like a phoney war, with teams fighting to get players healthy, with new formations being tested, with the international break upsetting the rhythm of the early weeks and the weather being tough on everyone. I always say we need a month – by the middle of September – for players and fans alike to be back up to 100%. By then, we ought to have a clearer idea.

We won’t be far away.

We called in for a couple or drinks at the pub, then made our way back to West Brompton and home. The first Red Bull of the season was downed and we were on our way back west.

Irritatingly, Sky TV have recently chosen Eric Cantona to headline their new promotional campaign ( a logical choice given half of United’s fan base only stretch their “support” of their club to more than a Sky prescription ), and it was his face which seemed to be on every advertising poster on the drive out of London.

…now that’s just rubbing it in.

I got home at 9.30pm after another 220 miles on the clock…and my spirits were lifted when I read on Sky Sports News that Jose Mourinho had called off his lusty chase of Ashley Cole.

Next week the season starts for real.

Let’s go to work.

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