Tales From Celery World

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 16 July 2011.

Eight weeks.

Just eight weeks have passed since the last Chelsea game: that dour, depressing and unrewarding performance at Goodison Park which was immediately followed by the hurtful sacking of Carlo Ancelotti, just hours after the final whistle. It was a sad end to a frustrating season for us and the treatment of Carlo by the club certainly left a sour taste in my mouth for some time after.

Since then, I have been on a self-titled “Chelsea Detox.” I have been laying low, keeping still and quiet, calming myself, re-energising for the trials and tribulations for the highs and lows of the new season ahead. If it is at all possible, I’ve been trying not to think too much about football and Chelsea in particular.

This way of life so devours me during the season itself that I really do need this two month break from it all. Of course, the internet – the damn internet – does not help. Various sites have been full of various scurrilous and wayward rumours about certain players with whom Chelsea are allegedly linked. Over the summer, I realised that I have grown tired of all this. The last time I was genuinely elated about a Chelsea signing was in the Gullit, Vialli and Zola years. Since then, without sounding too blasé, I’ve seen them come and I’ve seen them go.

The managers too. Hoddle, Gullit, Vialli, Ranieri, Mourinho, Grant, Scolari, Hiddink, Ancelotti…and now the new guy Andre Villas-Boas. Seen ‘em come. Seen ‘em go.

Welcome to the club Andre. I wish you well.

I remember my good friend Rob (who, like me, is not so keen on the “Chels” epithet) commenting one day in The Goose :

“I don’t really care…this player, that player. I’m at the stage now where I’m not too bothered. It doesn’t make much difference to me. This is Chelsea – drinking with your mates, looking after each other, the away trips, the banter. The players come and go. This is what matters.”

This is a mantra I have been preaching too. As the years pass, the football almost becomes irrelevant. I have even said that my Chelsea goes from pre-match drinking session to the next, rather than game to game. The games in between the sessions give us something to talk about, but the drinking and socialising is the crux of all this. When the football wasn’t so great (let’s say 1991-1992 for example, though there have been others…), the pre-match meet-ups were what kept me coming back to Chelsea season after season.

…and you will hear variations of this ethos throughout my many various match reports during the coming year ahead. I guess you all had best get used to it. Wink.

The constant drone of 24/7 football overkill with salacious rumours and gossip seem to be the norm these days, but I remember times when the summer was a more restful time. When I was younger, my family and I used to get daily newspapers and there used to be a reduction in football news from the end of May through to the start of July. The sporting sections of papers would be full of Test Match cricket, Wimbledon and golf and, at times, football might only warrant a few scant paragraphs.

Those days seem a lifetime away to me now.

I remember the summer of 1983 in particular. I remember being in Frome on a Friday afternoon, the day before I was due to travel up by train for the league opener with Derby County at The Bridge. In those days, virtually the only football magazines that were on offer were the ones aimed at early teens…”Shoot” and “Match Weekly.” I had been getting “Shoot” since I was seven and I was now eighteen. And I was probably embarrassed to buy it, but it was always good for mail order products like football programmes and replica kits. Anyway, on this particular afternoon, I remember buying a “Match Weekly” and not only seeing our new Le Coq Sportif shirt for the first time, but also reading, with increasing disbelief, that we had recently purchased Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin, Joe McLaughlin, Nigel Spackman, Eddie Niedzwiecki, John Hollins and Alan Hudson. Not only was I excited and amazed, but I was also dumbfounded that these signings had passed me by. I can only surmise that we had stopped getting daily ‘papers that summer as we sometimes couldn’t afford them, if the truth be known. Living in the south-west, without access to the London TV and national press, I guess I was out of the loop. Also, Chelsea were a struggling Second Division Two team at the time. Maybe we just weren’t newsworthy enough for these signings to reach me in deepest Somerset.

So – imagine that. A Chelsea fanatic like myself not knowing we had bought “The Magnificent Seven” during the summer of 1983. It’s hard to fathom, isn’t it?

How the times have changed.

I set off for Fratton Park at 11.30am and Parky, my travelling companion for 75% of my Chelsea trips, was alongside me once again. I haven’t seen too much of him in that eight week period, so we spent quite a while updating each other on all of the gossip. A sizeable segment of the first hour was spent running through my travel plans for the Asia tour and how I wish Parky and a few more friends could accompany me. I’m such a lucky so-and-so to be off on my travels once again. Other topics were discussed and news of mutual friends exchanged. The tickets for the game at Portsmouth were just £15 and we wondered how many tickets were sold. I guess we expected a full Chelsea allocation of around 3,000 in an attendance of around 15,000. I went to a pre-season game at Fratton once before, in 2002, and sat in the rickety old Leitch stand above the half-way line. It was a great view to be fair. Everyone knows how much I love my stadia architecture and I have a definite soft-spot for raggedy-arsed Fratton. I get quite depressed when fellow Chelsea fans lambast it. I for one will miss it when it is redeveloped or bulldozed and Pompey play in a sterile bowl on the city boundaries.

The traffic was horrendous as we passed through the quaint Wiltshire city of Salisbury and this held us up. The weather forecast was for rain, rain and more rain. At least there is a roof on the away terrace at Fratton these days. Eventually, we left the cathedral city of Salisbury behind and ploughed on, eventually parking up outside the Good Companion pub at 2pm.

Inside, it didn’t take us long to meet up with our closest Chelsea companions; Alan, Gary, Daryl, Rob, Whitey and also Barb, Burger and Julie. How on Earth could it be eight weeks ago that I left Burger and Julie’s house in Stafford after that Everton match? When I said “goodbyes” to them that night, Carlo was still the manager…

Time moves fast in Chelsea World.

I bought His Lordship a pint and a Coke for myself. My alcohol intake over the summer has reduced to just a trickle and I am wondering how I’ll cope once I get on the beers in Kuala Lumpur and Bangok. Things could get a little messy. I had a good old chat with Rob and then Burger and Julie, who had decided to book the night in a city centre hotel. At 2.45pm, we left the now empty pub and walked the short distance to Fratton. This was a first-time visit for Burger and Julie and I acknowledged their gasps of astonishment at the down-at-heel entrance to the away stand.

Good old Fratton.

Ironically, my PFC-supporting mate Rick was visiting his parents in Frome and there is a fair chance that we may have passed each other on the A36.

Parky and myself had tickets in the very back row of section M. We reached our seats just as the teams entered the pitch. We have that “Drinking + Walking + Admission” equation worked out perfectly these days.

Ah, the first game back.

A quick scan around. Paolo the captain, looking more tanned than usual. Torres with his Liverpool-style haircut and Alice band.

Chelsea in blue, Pompey in a new black away kit.

I only had the pleasure of seeing our new away kit once during the entire time at Fratton. And, frankly, that was once too many.

It was on a 50-something year old bloke and it looked awful.

I saw a few Chelsea home shirts, but the crowd in that packed Milton End mainly wore that usual eclectic mix of English football threads. Parky and I, overlooking the rear walkway, noted a few nice tops.

“Nice colour Fred Perry there, mate.”

And it was – a subtle yellow with deep orange trim. Good work.

The game quickly began and I snapped away like mad. I wanted to capture a few images from the game and I could then relax. I looked at the players on show and tried to piece together the formation. I soon spotted the new manager over to my left, in white, alongside the much-loved Roberto Di Matteo. It didn’t take long for the boisterous Chelsea crowd to acknowledge our former mid-fielder;

“One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo.”

It dawned on me that this song was sung so quickly in order to fill the void of where a song for Andre Villas-Boas should be. Still haven’t mastered his name, still haven’t mustered a song…but we are working on it.

Then, a crazy period of football and support, intertwined.

A fan had evidently smuggled in some bags of celery, right down below us, and frantically pelted it everywhere…it was the biggest show of celery at an away game for years and it was a joy to behold. We pelted some stewards and someone managed to hit a female steward, who picked the celery up and threw it back. It was a great piece of comedy. Many pieces of the yellowy-green vegetable had made their way onto the pitch. With that, a young lad did a hearty Zigger Zagger and we all joined in. I had trouble concentrating on the game as the support in our section was boiling over. However, the ball was played out to Fernando Torres out on the Chelsea right. I spotted Studge making a run into the middle, but the ensuing cross was nimbly headed into his own net by a Portsmouth defender.

I’ll be honest – I think Parky was too busy filming the celery and missed it.

Amidst the laughter caused by the celery flying in every direction, now laughter at an own goal. It was a great moment.

We had most of the ball in the first-half and Paolo, especially, found himself wide on the right on a number of occasions. Sturridge looked confident and was full of sweeping runs. One lone Pompey fan, in a white baseball cap and a snide Stone Island jacket, was coming in for bundles of abuse from the Chelsea section nearest the Pompey North stand. An attempt to get his fellow fans to sing fell on deaf ears and we roared –

“On Your Own, On Your Own, On Your Own.”

The sun eventually broke out from behind the clouds and it was becoming a pleasant, though blustery, afternoon. The Chelsea songs continued throughout the first half, even when Pompey had a little spell of possession just after the half-hour mark.

“Don’t Worry…About A Thing…’Cus Ev’ry Little Thing’s…Gonna Be Alright.”

“One Man Went To Mow.”

Just before the break, the much-maligned Pompey fan left his seat and took yet more abuse from the away fans. As he danced up the terrace steps, heading off for a half-time drink but loving the attention, I shouted –

“Milk and two sugars, mate.”

At half-time, the management team decided to hold the half-time preparations on the pitch and out came my camera to record the shuttle runs, the tactical talks and the fans serenading the substitutes – especially JT, Frank, Drogba and Nico. Songs for each of them. It was a lovely period, actually. I wondered if we would see some of the players in a Chelsea shirt ever again in the UK…Anelka must be a favourite to move on, I would guess. Andre Villas-Boas is a slight figure and he quietly spoke to a few players in turn. Di Matteo, however, was in control of a folder which he flicked through with various players. Lots of chat, lots of gestures. The players looked attentive and primed.

With the re-start came wholesale changes from Villas-Boas, but more Chelsea songs to wind up the home fans –

“When John Went Up To Lift The FA Cup, You Went Home, You Went Home.”

The play on the pitch wasn’t fantastic, but what do people expect? We had a lot of the ball, but found it difficult to work openings. A delightful Josh turn here, a lovely Kalou dribble there, a run from Drogba, neat control from Anelka…but not much threat. To be honest, it was Hilario’s half. He scythed down a Pompey attacker, but then threw himself to his left to save the resultant penalty. We then endured two almost identical pieces of horrendous defending caused by Hilario’s poor communication with his defenders. How we never conceded goals on each of those occasions, I will never know. Only a piece of super-human defending from JT on the second instance kept our goal intact.

By this stage, we were urging every player to “Shoot!” but the shots were as rare as polish being used in the Arsenal trophy room. Still the wind ups came –

“On When The Saints Go Marching In…”

No more goals ensued and the final whistle was met with a half-hearted cheer from us in the packed Milton End. It hadn’t been a great game, but so what? Today was all about showing up in our thousands – which we did – meeting up with friends – which we did – out singing the home fans – which we did – throwing celery at everyone – which we did – and showing some love to our players – which we did. Anything else, surely, would have been a bonus.

We quickly galloped back to the car and I made great time heading north up the A36. The music kept us buoyant – Joe Jackson, Tom Robinson, The Skids, The Undertones, The Pretenders and The Members – and I dropped Parky off at just before 7pm. With a four week gap now, until the home opener, it will be a while before I see him again.

And here I am.

I’m on the edge of the biggest leap yet in support of my team and my club, with a flight to Kuala Lumpur just 14 hours away.

I think it’s time to reflect for a moment on what Chelsea Football Club has become.

The loveable old under-achievers of my youth, supported by rapscallions and hooligans, celebrities and eccentrics, working class lads from inner London and die-hards all over the UK, have evolved into a 21st Century footballing powerhouse of national and international prominence.

It gives me a moment in time for me to hold a mirror up and comment on what I see. To paraphrase my old geography lecturer at North Staffs Poly : Who is Chelsea? What is Chelsea? Where is Chelsea? Why is Chelsea? And what of it?

This trip out East might aid me in answering these questions.

Apart from the football – see my earlier comments – this trip is going to give me a great opportunity to appreciate how other nationalities perceive us and for me to try to get to grips with what being a member of the Chelsea Family means to the good people of Malaysia and Thailand. I’m particularly anxious to hopefully dispel some myths about our overseas support. There is a growing and tedious trend at Chelsea – or at least amongst the less enlightened members of some chat forums – to think that foreign fans have no right to support Chelsea. That they are all JCLs. That you have to go to 50 Chelsea games a season to be a true fan. Well, I already know from my travels in the USA that this view is way off the mark. So, as is the case with a lot of the games that I have witnessed in America, whereas others will be watching the action on the pitch, I might well be centering my gaze on the supporters and fans off it.

To say I am excited would be a ridiculous understatement.

Now, where did I put that celery?

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