Tales From A Sunny Saturday In SW6

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 April 2011.

With our Champions League game against Manchester United on Tuesday looming large, the game against Wigan Athletic seemed suddenly way less important, maybe like an irritant in the way of the bigger picture.

But, every game counts.

This would be a simple Chelsea Saturday for me. No special plans, no frantic pre-match with visitors, just an old-fashioned day at football. With a 3pm kick-off to boot.

I set off from my home at 9am. Parky was on board at 9.30am. This was always going to be a lovely, sunny day, but the morning began with a slight haze. On the drive up the M4, we passed the Swindon Town team coach. They were on their way to Brentford. For the first hour or so, Parky and I were chatting away; a constant stream of interlinked football stories, which helped the time pass.

Millwall 1984 : “I had my crutches just after the bike crash and I was only about eight stone at the time, so Les picked me up on his shoulders and ran with me through the streets to get away from the Millwall.”

Stockholm 1998 : “And there were about 300 Chelsea in the middle of this main road, doing One Man Went To Mow and we all just sat down. The locals loved it, mate. They were cheering us. And there were these office girls looking and they took their tops off to give us a flash.”

As we passed the towns of Slough and Windsor, Parky delved into his little bag of tricks and pulled out a CD for our final approach into London.

New Order’s “Waiting For the Sirens’ Call.”

New Order is the perfect band for an exhilarating drive. The weather outside was magnificent. Blue skies with a few wispy clouds way up high.

A right turn at the lights onto the North End Road and we were soon parked up. Then, a quick breakfast. By midday, just three hours after I had left my house, we were in The Goose.

Lacoste Watch.

Parky – lemon
Chris – lavender
Andy – lime

We were, of course, stationed in the beer garden for the duration of this pre-match. For a change, the team got a mention. Andy and myself spoke a little of the recent failings, allied with pragmatic comments about the fans’ role in the support of the team. Familiar ground, nothing new. Thoughts tended to centre on the game at Old Trafford on Tuesday. I am taking another half-day, so will probably be up there at about 4.30pm. My plan is to hit the Salford Quays and maybe pay another visit to the Lowry art gallery before the tribal warfare begins in earnest. The lads were discussing the logistics of the game; Daryl and Rob were driving up to Nuneaton, then two cars taking eight up from there. Andy spoke about some of the old photographs from past years that I have recently been uploading on to Facebook. The memories were stirred. After one particularly boozy end-of-season pub crawl in 2000, he spoke of The Youth, who was so inebriated that he left the game against Derby at half-time, thinking that the game had ended. Oh boy – that’s some achievement. At that same game, Bryan – from Frome – was similarly affected and slept the entire game. We soon presented Bryan with a T-Shirt which proudly stated –

“No Sleep Till Kick-Off.”

Wes – remember him? – joined us at about 2pm. He has now fully settled in our nation’s capital – living in Putney and teaching at a school in Ealing. I did give him a load of playful banter, though, about his non-attendance at Chelsea this season. This would only be his fourth game. He is soon off on a mini-Euro tour, taking in the lovely cities of Prague, Munich, Vienna and Salzburg – and he spent a few moments asking for my views on each of those great places. Looking back, my tips centred on beer and football (and past Chelsea trips to Vienna), but there you go.

Wes was sitting next to Alan and myself in The Sleepy Hollow for this game. We arrived at our seats just as the teams were lining-up. The first thing I spotted was the huge quadrant of empty seats in the south-east corner. Yet again, Wigan had failed to bring the numbers down to Stamford Bridge. There were around 100 in a small section in the upper tier and around 200 in the lower tier. I did not a few empty seats dotted around where I was sat, too. I think a few Chelsea fans had decided to give this game a swerve. I hope these very same fans won’t be demanding a ticket for Wembley should we get to the Champions League Final.

There was a photograph of Fernando Torres on the cover of the match day programme. Torres was on the bench for this game against Wigan. John Terry and Michael Essien were rested; Ivanovic was moved to the middle of the defence, with Paolo slotting in at right-back. Mikel came in for Essien.

After just 35 seconds, Didier had a strong run and laid the ball into the path of Frank Lampard. His shot was scuffed and was heading well-wide of the far post. Ironically, it ended up in the path of the onrushing Ramires, but I think it caught him by surprise. He didn’t really connect with the wayward shot and the ball continued on its path out of play. In retrospect, that early move set the tone for the entire game.

8 minutes – a Drogba pass through to Florent Malouda, quite central, but a heavy first touch and the shot was very well saved by Ali Al Habsi.

14 minutes – a Drogba free-kick, blazed ridiculously high.

16 minutes – a Florent Malouda shot wide from an angle.

Wigan then enjoyed a prolonged spell of possession, with the ball being moved around at will. This caused understandable frustration amongst the home support. To be honest, this game was being played out in such a quiet atmosphere that it felt like the last game of the season, just like that game in 2000. I looked around to make sure nobody was napping. Mid-way through the first-half and there had been no rousing song from the terraces.

33 minutes – a great show of strength from Drogba, down in that far corner in front of the 300 away fans, but a cross to the far post was not met by a Chelsea forward.

38 minutes – a Petr Cech hoof – we don’t always go for a direct approach – was flicked on by Didier to Malouda, but again saved.

43 minutes – a delightful turn and spin from Drogba, but a left-footed shot over the bar.

Ex-Chelsea player, captain and manager John Hollins was on the pitch at half-time and he looks really well. He is at number three in our list of attendance makers.

Ron Harris 795
Peter Bonetti 729
John Hollins 592
Frank Lampard 500
John Terry 495

At the break, Yossi Benayoun took over from Jon Obi Mikel and his reintroduction into Chelsea blue was met with loud applause. How ironic that this should is now the case. Joe Cole has floundered at Liverpool and now, many Chelsea supporters are looking at Yossi to help unleash the potential goals from his erstwhile Anfield team mate Torres. So, Carlo had changed it. I had to do something, too. I’m not overly superstitious at games, but I pulled out my trusty New York Yankees cap and wore it for the rest of the game. I spoke to Wes about a little superstition that I had back in the ‘seventies. My parents and I always used to sit in the East Lower from 1974 to 1980 and I always used to take Wrigley’s gum to games. If we were losing – and if I was chewing gum – I would spit it out. If we were losing – and if I wasn’t chewing – I would start chewing. My success rate is not known, only the memories of this little ritual.

53 minutes – a nice, neat move found Frank Lampard who spun on himself and hit a firm shot which flew past the far post.

On 59 minutes, the Stamford Bridge crowd reacted positively with the introduction of that man Torres for Nicolas Anelka. The majority of us haven’t given up on The Boy From Fuenlabrada. At last, there was some noise.

61 minutes – another Didier Drogba free-kick, deflected by a member of the defensive wall. The ball looped up, but fell suddenly. The Wigan ‘keeper did very well to tip the ball over.

64 minutes – a tricky dribble from Fernando Torres, but a weak shot at the ‘keeper.

65 minutes – a Drogba corner, right into the centre of the six-yard box. A mad scramble. There were lots of Chelsea bodies in the mix and I was optimistic that somebody – maybe even Torres – might connect. In the end, the ball came out to Florent Malouda. He struck it home.

I watched as he ran, arms outstretched, towards to East Lower. It was a great scene, reminiscent of JT against Aston Villa in December. We don’t often celebrate over there. The players soon joined up with him and you could see their jubilation. Great stuff.

On 73 minutes, it was lovely to see Alex back on the pitch. He replaced Paolo – who had been steady – and Ivanovic moved over to right-back. It wasn’t long before we were demanding that Alex should “shoooooot!”

82 minutes – a chance for the Wigan substitute Franco Di Santo (last seen scoring for us in Arlington) who had a header from quite a way out, but Petr Cech did ever so well to turn it around the post.

88 minutes – a Chelsea break. This is what we used to do so well. Yossi played in Torres with a little reverse ball behind him. Torres was through…one on one…the whole ground was mesmerized…he poked at the ball, but Al Habsi easily saved.

To be fair, we rallied behind Torres all game and I think I saw a small smirk of appreciation at one stage.

90 minutes – another chance for Franco Di Santo, but his whipped shot was again saved by Petr Cech. Phew.

The final whistle went and there wasn’t much celebration…more a case of “thank God that is over.” What were my main feelings from the game? Ramires continues to impress. His constant snapping away at loose balls, his running, his strong tackling and his enthusiasm were the one major plus. With effort like that, I can forgive him a few wayward passes. Frank Lampard continues to struggle, though. His place in the team at the moment is purely down to reputation. I am genuinely concerned for him. He is off the pace and sluggish. Drogba was hot and cold – nothing new there.

The other results – wins for Manchester United and Tottenham especially – were confirmed, but the day was massively overshadowed by Tuesday’s summit meeting in Salford.

I made a great early exit from Chelsea and we even had time for a lovely pint in a country pub, The Pelican, on the A4 between Hungerford and Marlborough. A gorgeous evening drive home, through the quaint Wiltshire downs, past thatched cottages, small market towns and with some more classic music on the CD.

“This is the life, Parky.”

Even when the football is bad, it’s bloody brilliant.

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