Tales From An Evening At Chelsea

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 6 April 2011.

Late on Tuesday evening, my Italian friend Mario sent me a greeting on Facebook, saying that he would be watching “the derby” on TV on Wednesday. This confused me a little, but he elaborated further –

“The Derby of England.”

Ah – that made sense now. In Italy, they always call any Juventus vs. Internazionale game “il derby d’Italia” in light of the nation-wide fan base of those two giants. Mario now lives in Germany and, during our little online chat we briefly talked about meeting up should Chelsea get past Manchester United. Mario lives in Bergisch-Gladbach, no more than 60 miles away from Gelsenkirchen – the home of Schalke 04 – and the thought of meeting him for the first time in 23 years thrilled me. When we first met, way back in 1975 (he is actually my oldest friend, anywhere), who would have thought that Mario, the Juventus fan, would be watching my team in European competition on TV – and not vice versa.

We’ve come a long way, baby.

I had booked a half-day holiday, but this just meant that I had to squeeze in 8 hours work into 4 on Wednesday morning. I was very busy and didn’t think too much about the game. My closest work colleague, Mike, is a United fan and it was on his computer that we saw the Champions League pairing of our two teams a few weeks ago. We quickly shook each other’s hands and wished each other the “best of British.”

I picked up Lord Parky and then raced home. A change of clothes later and we were on our way, heading east on the A303 and M3 for a change. The weather was truly glorious. We stopped for soft drinks in a little village on Salisbury Plain just before we shot past Stonehenge. We made great time. As we drove through Bagshot Heath, with the yellow gorse bushes so vibrant, we put some Depeche Mode on the CD player and all was well with the world. I learnt to drive relatively late – in 1991, when I was 26 – and I always seemed to be playing Depeche Mode tapes in my car on those first long journeys to Stamford Bridge in the 1991 to 1993 period. In those days, my pilgrimages to The Bridge were solitary affairs. My mate Glenn didn’t go to Chelsea too often in those days – he had other distractions – and so I would tend to drive up from Frome alone. Hearing those Depeche Mode songs brought back memories of bombing around the M25 on my way to Chelsea, to be entertained by players such as Andy Townsend, Vinnie Jones and Bobby Stuart. I used to bump into Alan occasionally, but more often than not, would go to Chelsea alone. I met Daryl in 1992, though, and used to meet up with him in the 1992-1993 season. When things were going badly – under Ian Porterfield, they often did – at least we had the Yankees to talk about.

So, twenty years ago, my trips to The Bridge were somewhat lonely affairs. This was a big contrast to today, of course. Over the past twenty seasons, I have accumulated Chelsea fans at an ever-increasing rate and I’m in a great position to have so many mates from near and far. I seem to be collecting acquaintances of a Chelsea persuasion as quickly as we have garnered trophies since 1997. I wonder if the two are linked.

It certainly seems to be a small world with Chelsea right now, with the internet bringing us ever closer. As we approached London – magnificent blue skies overhead, the best day of the year by far – I spoke to Parky about the newest Chelsea friend I had met on Facebook. It turned out that this bloke used to live no more than 100 feet away from me, in the next street, when I was at college in Stoke. How about that? Small world alright! On the M4, we passed an executive coach from Manchester and we both peered in as we drove by. United. No colours. But United.

We were parked-up at 4.30pm and – for a change – we decided to try a new restaurant, rather than walk the half a mile to Salvo’s. We dipped into “Ole Mexico” on the North End Road and had a couple of cold beers and a selection of spicy food. We were the only ones in there, but the décor was great and the food excellent. Then, a few minutes later, we were back in The Goose and Mark and Kerry from Westbury were at the bar.

“What are you drinking, lads?”

Outside in the beer garden, there were groups of friends chatting away and enjoying the late afternoon sun. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Blue Heaven. It was a day for jackets to be discarded and for more summery attire.

It’s Been A Long Time – Crocodile Watch Is Back.

Jokka – sky blue
Chris – buttermilk

We worked out that the towns of Frome, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham were represented by twelve Chelsea fans. Happy with that. It was a marked difference to my solo trips in 1991 where I might bump into a couple of local lads in The Black Bull if I was lucky. Plenty of chat with Alan, Gary, Daryl, Neil, Rob, Simon, Ed, Milo and then Tim from Bristol. Les from Melksham was after a lift to Old Trafford next Tuesday.

“No worries, son.”

Neil was off to Thailand on the Thursday and was taking out a complete Chelsea kit for a school team in a village way up in the north-east of the country. Spreading the word, spreading the gospel. We heard the team news; Drogba and Torres upfront, with Zhirkov in place of the struggling Malouda. No complaints really, though we knew that the loss of David Luiz would be huge. To be fair, we didn’t talk too much about the game. The weather was still lovely; great vibes.

I set off for the ground a bit before the rest as I wanted to take a few photographs of the match day experience outside the stadium for a change. I bought a programme and took some shots of the Champions League banners hanging down either side of Ossie.

Peter Osgood – The King Of Stamford Bridge.

In the match programme, there were a few pages detailing the famous 21-0 aggregate win against the tinkers, tailors and candle-stick makers of Jeunese Hautcharage in 1971. Ossie scored eight goals over those two games.

I was in the ground at 7.30pm and it always feels strange to see the top five rows of the MHU empty for home CL games. The United fans were in a typically boisterous mood. As always, I scanned the balcony for new United flags and I wasn’t disappointed.

“Forza United”

“MUFC – Poland – On Tour”

“One Love – MUFC”

“Sent To Me From Heaven”

“United & City – Joined By Geography – Separated By Success”

“Once More Than England – MUFC – World Champions Twice”

“Viva John Terry”

Alas, the flag which said “Half Our Asian Fans Used To Like Liverpool In The 80’s” was missing. The banner berating England is typical of the United match-going hard-core. Ever since the Beckham fiasco in 1998, United have grown apart from the national team, even to the point of singing “Argentina” when Gabriel Heintze was in their team. You never get a MUFC flag at England games.

I’m not bothered by this. Personally speaking, I’m more club than country myself.

Anyway, the Mancs were making a racket. The “Viva John Terry” chant was getting a solid airing – that big white flag was draped from the balcony all night – and when Neil Barnett read out the teams, John Terry’s name got a massive cheer from the United fans.

We countered with songs of Doubles and England Captains.

School ground high-jinks played out on a larger stage, with a global TV audience listening in.

Mario was right – “The Derby of England.”

As the teams entered the pitch, I again went mad with the camera. That’s just a photogenic moment, the teams walking past the CL flag. John Terry led the team out, but Frank Lampard looked particularly animated, gazing at the MHU as the two massive flags passed each other, pumping his fists at the supporters.

It would be Frank’s 500th game for Chelsea Football Club.

A magnificent achievement for – possibly – our most valuable player ever.

I always remember where I was when I heard that Frank had been signed by Chelsea. I was on holiday in NYC, June 2001, and I had phoned Glenn, from deep in the bowels of Penn Station. I remember being pleased, but shocked at the price. Ten years on, money well spent.

At kick-off, there was a lovely pinkie / violet hue to the sky. We began well and took the game to United in the first ten minutes. Fernando Torres had two early chances, a lunge at a cross and then a neat run and shot at Van der Sar. On 18 minutes, Ramires played a gorgeous ball into Drogba in the inside-right position. He unleashed a screamer which the United ‘keeper touched over.

Then, United had a great spell, with Rooney causing havoc. He is some player when he is on form. On 23 minutes, a long ball over the top and Jose Bosingwa was caught napping. Ryan Giggs – who was playing for United twenty years ago – neatly spun past the Chelsea right-back. I clearly saw Rooney unmarked – I was in direct line with the ball which Giggs played – and the resultant shot crept in off the far post. It was a great spot by Giggs, but where was our marking? It was a surreal moment – it seemed to happen in a vacuum, no Chelsea participation, the deathly hush from us as it bounced over the line. Sickening. Even more sickening was the roll on the pitch and then the celebratory salute which Rooney provided for the MHL.

Rooney had taken loads of abuse from the whistle and he must have loved it.

The United fans raised their volumes and we didn’t retaliate. As the game grew older, the Chelsea support lessened and lessened. United’s midfield – not great on paper – closed us down and it felt like we were second to every ball.

I commented to Alan – “we’ve got nobody grabbing the game by the balls.” Our midfield, Ramires apart, was woeful. Lampard was missing. Essien was poor, too, and only had one surging run down the left to show for his efforts. Zhirkov too – poor. Upfront, Drogba and Anelka were struggling to hit it off. Our laboured approach was too slow for Torres.

Then, just before the break, Drogba struck a cross cum shot into the box from the left. It was aimed at Torres, but the ball continued on untouched until it struck the far post at knee height, with Van der Sar beaten. The ball rebounded out to Frank, who smashed the ball goal wards. I was up celebrating – had to be a goal! – but the United ‘keeper miraculously kept it out. I had immediate memories of Luis Garcia at Anfield in 2005. Was it over?

It wasn’t. The Bridge collapsed with frustration.

Moans and grumbles at the break – we’re good at that.

Neil Barnett briefly brought Gianfranco Zola out onto the pitch at the break and it is very likely that 5,000 Chelsea fans shouted “get yer boots on, Franco!” Ed came down to talk to me at half-time and we agreed that we couldn’t be as bad in the second-half.

Soon into the second period, Didier did ever so well to keep fighting for a ball on the far touch line and zipped over a great cross, but Ramires headed over. After another poor Lampard corner – yes, I know, I’ve said it a thousand times – the ball was played back in and Drogba attempted an overhead kick which flew narrowly over. All of our other shots – usually from distance – ended up being aimed straight at Van der Sar.

Sure, we had a lot of the ball, but we never looked convincing. Apart from an offside goal and a few rare breaks, United were content to defend, which was quite unlike them. Torres was trying his best, but with poor service. Balls were pumped up to Drogba, but there tended not to be much interplay between our front two. Even in this one game, Drogba was splitting our support…some were applauding him, some were not so keen. At the back, at least JT was playing like a man possessed once again. He is having his best season for a while. He’d get my vote for Player of the Year.

On 70 minutes, Carlo changed things, with Anelka and Malouda on for Drogba and the very disappointing Zhirkov. Soon after, I captured that great Torres header on film. He arched his back and strained to reach the ball, looping it up and over Van der Sar on purpose. But what a save from their ‘keeper. Oh boy. More frustration.

On 81 minutes, typical Chelsea. Four players – Essien, Malouda, Cole and Lampard – stood by a free-kick. In a scene which reminded me of the bizarre plays in American football, three of them ran over the ball on dummy runs and Frank Lampard struck the ball – guess! – straight at Van der Sar.

Brilliant. Let’s do that again.

That was all captured on film too.

Mikel on for Bosingwa. Essien – just like in Moscow 2008 – moved to right-back.

Our shooting was rubbish. In fact, I lost count of the number of shots which meekly ended up bobbling along the ground, straight at the Manchester United goalie. On 86 minutes, Nani – the substitute – had a break and we all thought “oh no, two-nil, that’s it”, but he took one touch too many and Petr Cech was able to smother the ball. Looking back, Cech didn’t have to make many saves.

Then, it all went crazy in the last ten minutes. Nicolas Anelka headed over from close range and then followed it up with a weak shot at the near post. On 90 minutes, the game’s defining moment; the ever busy Ramires burst through the middle and ran with the ball alongside Evra. I was just anticipating a shot, when he fell to the floor. It happened so quickly of course, but – trying desperately hard not to be biased here – it looked a certain penalty. I glanced at the onrushing referee.

No.

The Bridge, remembering the Barcelona debacle of 2009, howled in anger but I just stood motionless, speechless, mortified. Words would fail me. I stood silent. Immediate texts from unbiased Chelsea fans confirmed that it was a penalty.

The final moment of irony – Torres booked for a dive in the box, just yards away from me.

Stamford Bridge – the place where Champions League penalty appeals die.

As I left my seat – “see you Saturday” – my mood was strangely not of doom and gloom. I quickly thought about the other games – Tottenham… out of it… Inter… out of it… Shaktor… out of it. We had not played well, but we had only lost 1:0. We must go to Old Trafford next Tuesday and give it our all. We’re still in this. It’s only half-time.

Walking out onto the Fulham Road, though, the mood amongst my fellow fans annoyed me. There was constant bitching – no doubt continuing on all over the internet still – but for 95% of the game, 34,000 Chelsea fans had been heavily out sung by 3,000 United fans. Where was our support? Where was it? It made me seethe.

I tried to be positive, though – at Old Trafford, there will be 3,700 die-hard away fans out-singing the home fans. You mark my words.

As I met up with Parky along the North End Road, I mused that this had been a game of inches. In the first-half, that Rooney shot went in off the far post, while that deft Drogba effort came back off the post.

Inches.

It got me thinking, you know…posts and Chelsea vs. Manchester United Champions League games – it makes you wonder doesn’t it?

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