Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 14 January 2012.
I had a few things to do in Frome on Saturday morning. This delayed my start, but I left to collect Parky at about 9.45am. The countryside was white with frost and the sky was magnificent; cloudless and perfect. I had heard a few shots from a local shooting party (pheasants, not deer or foxes) ringing out in the clear winter air as I left the village. As I headed out towards Great Elm, I had a niggling bout of anxiety; it would have been nice to go out with my camera on this particular morning and take a few atmospheric shots of the Somerset countryside. I could lose myself in the quietness of it all, enjoy the moment, breath in some frosty air, and get some exercise.
But no. Chelsea were at home and I was on my way to my 210th consecutive home match.
These weekends are set in stone by now.
It occurred to me recently that I am not distracted with many other hobbies. Of course, I love travel, music and films, but so do most people. Photography ticks a few boxes for me, but I’m otherwise free of diversions. Other sports, save baseball, have fallen by the wayside and although I have a passing interest in a few other sports, football – or more importantly Chelsea – is it for me. I blame Ossie and my parents. Ossie for making me fall in love with Chelsea Football Club. My parents for taking to my first ever Chelsea game almost 38 years ago; once I ascended the steps up into the old West Stand and saw the verdant Stamford Bridge pitch, I was hooked.
I collected Parky at 10.15am, refuelled with petrol and a McBreakfast at Melksham, and we were on our way. I had arranged to meet a couple of friends and continually updated them with later and later times of arrivals as I headed east. I dipped into Reading to collect my good friend Russell, who had just relocated there from South London. He gave us a quick tour of the house, a further coffee apiece and we were then headed towards The Smoke.
Russ is from Frome and used to come up with Glenn and me in the 1994 to 1997 period before he went to university in Birmingham. We caught up with each other as we drove along the M4 and I spoke particularly of the previous evening. On Friday, Parky and I attended another Ron Harris evening. This was for the fourth time in 14 months. We must know every anecdote word for word by now. This time, the venue was only five miles away and the evening was especially pertinent; it was a fundraiser in aid of the Frome Town new stand appeal. Only around 40 to 50 attended, but the evening was a huge success. It was held in a cosy bar at a local hotel and the intimacy made the evening. Over £1,000 was raised during the evening and the small room was soon rocking with laughter at Ron’s stories.
Good company, good beer, good food, plenty of laughter – a perfect way to spend three hours in deepest Somerset.
Amidst the tales of Tommy Docherty team talks, Peter Bonetti quips, battles with Emlyn Hughes and many stories, said in awe, of Peter Osgood and George Best, there were a couple of new anecdotes.
Ron Harris soon made it clear that he had been no fan of the former Chelsea manager Geoff Hurst. Early in the pre-season of 1979-1980, the playing squad were enjoying some banter in the changing rooms at the training ground. They were waiting for Hurst to come in and lead the training. A ‘phone call came through from Geoff Hurst and a young apprentice answered. Hurst asked the young lad to bring two cups of tea through to the manager’s office. Well, the banter was flying around and the apprentice completely forgot to take the two drinks through for Hurst and his assistant Bobby Gould. After about ten minutes, Hurst ‘phoned again and repeated his request.
“Sorry, gaffer, I forgot” apologised the trainee.
Hurst was annoyed and retorted “Do you know who I am?”
The trainee replied “Yeah, you’re Geoff Hurst, the Chelsea manager. Do you know who I am?”
“Well, in that case, get the fcuking teas yourself.”
One other comment made me smile. One chap asked Ron Harris what he thought of Arsenal’s playing style and of their chances during the season.
“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about Arsenal. Chelsea is my club.”
This was a telling comment since Ron grew up in Hackney as an Arsenal supporter and attended games at the old Highbury stadium with his father during his childhood.
As we headed down the M40, Russ and I spoke back to his very first game at Stamford Bridge. This had taken place a full twenty years after my first game in 1974. On a sunny afternoon, we watched from the temporary seats at the Shed End as we saw Chelsea beat Norwich 2-0 in the opening game of the 1994-1995 season. Russ’ first ever Chelsea game had been four years earlier in early 1990. And quite a game too – Bristol City 3 Chelsea 1 in the F.A. Cup; a game which was quite notorious at the time…a heavy defeat of a Division One team by a Division Three team. It was a bloody good job for me that I was in Vancouver at the time, not in Frome; I would have endured untold grief from my friends. In the League Cup in that same season, we had lost to Scarborough – and I was in Fort Lauderdale when that particular monstrosity occurred…again, thank heavens.
Ironically, I had only just seen highlights on YouTube a day or so earlier of the game at Ashton Gate.
We spoke a little about Gary Cahill and, in particular, the protracted negotiations which have taken forever to resolve. We had heard rumours he would be at the match. I asked Russell if he could remember the last bona fide northerner to play for Chelsea. Not only have our English players been rare of late, they have usually been from the south. Sure Daniel Sturridge is from Birmingham, but who was the last Chelsea player to come from the ‘proper’ north; Yorkshire, Lancashire and above?
Russ came up with a great answer. More of that later.
Surprisingly, the traffic was clear and I was parked-up at 1.30pm. It did feel strange to be arriving at a – absolutely rammed – Goose so much later than usual. Russ bought me a pint and I quickly spotted the usual gaggle of mates in the corner. My mate Paul, from my paternal grandmother’s home town of Poole in Dorset, had arranged to meet me and we had a chat out in the less-crowded beer garden. He has eyes on the upcoming US Tour and we chatted about that for more than a couple of minutes. We are just waiting for dates to be announced by Chelsea and we’ll then get moving.
My other pre-match guest arrived at about 2pm; I had first met Jesus from California at the last game of the 2010-2011 season, that dour performance at Goodison Park. He announced to me – via CIA – that he had been successful in applying for an internship in London and was in town for four months. What a lucky chap.
Is anyone jealous?
This reminds me of Farmer John (mgoblue06) who was over at Reading university in 2009 and was able to join in with our little band of brothers in our weekly pilgrimages to watch the boys in royal blue. I last saw said Farmer John at Baltimore in 2009 and I guess he has, sadly, fallen by the wayside.
Jesus – you have to pronounce it with a certain Latin lilt – was absolutely buzzing to be able to be in London and was hoping to get to as many Chelsea games as he can afford. He hoisted up his Chelsea shirt to reveal a large Chelsea tattoo on his shoulder blades and Parky and I were impressed with his fanaticism. We retuned inside and Jesus was able to meet a couple more of my mates, both who no doubt bamboozled him with London patois.
“Don’t fackin worry, mate, we’ll soon ‘ave you tawkin’ like a Londonah by April, shun.”
Jesus was keen to down another pint, but it was 2.30pm and we needed to make a move. I walked down past the multinational grocery shops of the North End Road. He reminded me of his previous Chelsea matches –
Home to Tottenham, away to Valencia, Blackburn Rovers in the F.A. Cup semi-final at Old Trafford and away at Everton.
This would be his fifth Chelsea game.
It will be great for me to report on his findings about English football culture over the next four months; who knows, by the end of that period, his Chelsea replica shirt might even be replaced by a Fred Perry, a Rene Lacoste or a Ralph Lauren.
I reached the Matthew Harding Upper just in time to catch Steve Mantle helping to unfurl the “Carefree Since 1905” flag.
OK, game time. Clear skies on a cold afternoon, about a thousand Mackems, very few empty seats, the pitch in good condition, Jesus down in the MHL, Russ next to Alan and me, a settled defence, Torres upfront for us and the idiot Bendtner upfront for Sunderland. Three points please my Blue Boys.
In the first few minutes, we had an early scare as a Sunderland attack ended up with a ball rattling across the six yard box. But then we had all of the ball and we were playing reasonably well for the first period of the game. Our goal came on just thirteen minutes. The ball found its way to Ramires on the right before he moved it on to Juan Mata who lofted a ball which arced over the heads in the Sunderland defence. Torres was waiting on the far post, but the ball seemed to be above and beyond him. In an amazing piece of artistry – for that is what it was – Nando jumped, fell back, and swung his right leg high above his waist. He connected with a magnificent volley which flew goal wards.
In a split second the ball ricocheted off the bar, but the crowd roared. In another split second, I tried to evaluate if the ball had indeed gone over the line…my initial celebrations were muted, but I then roared once I knew that a goal had been given. I didn’t know how the goal had been scored.
Did Torres’ effort bounce down and go in?
Did it go on to bounce off the far post and go in?
Did it go in off the ‘keeper?
Only when the name of Frank Lampard was flashed up on the scoreboard did I know what had happened. It was a total blur. But there, in a passage of play which had taken no more than one second to play itself out was an encapsulation of the enigma of Fernando Torres; the magnificence of his effort, but yet no goal to his name. Happiness and melancholy. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. What has this player got to do to score more goals in Chelsea blue? If I was to add all of the narrow misses, the strikes on woodwork and the last minute blocks that he has suffered over the past year, I am sure he would be on 15 Chelsea goals and not just 5.
Such is football. It can be a fickle friend.
As if to emphasise this point, a delightful dink from Ramires to Torres was met with a firm header on goal. With the ‘keeper elsewhere, the ball was headed clear of the line by a covering defender.
Make that 16 goals.
Despite the Chelsea lead, the biggest cheer of the first-half was when the Wolves goal at Tottenham was flashed on the screen above the Mackems.
The best Sunderland effort on goal in the first-half came from Bendtner, but his shot was dragged just wide of Petr Cech’s far post, with the ‘keeper beaten. The temperature was dropping by the minute and I jealously eyed the gloves being worn by both Russ and Alan. A Torres spin and shot flew past the Sunderland goal.
At half-time, Alan Hudson was introduced by Neil Barnett and he was applauded by the home faithful. How the passage of time affects some more than others; John Hollins is older than Hudson yet looks 15 years younger. I had a chat with Gary at the break. He now sits ten yards away and can often be heard barking out abuse at referees and players alike. He’s quite an attraction. He pointed out to me a chap who was sat just in front of him, blatantly wearing a red, white and black Sunderland scarf. Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve had friends of other teams sat next to me on a few occasions, but never have I seen an away scarf in the home areas at The Bridge before.
Back to the question about the last northerner; Russ suggested the flying full-back Terry Phelan, the wing back from Manchester, but although technically correct, Alan reminded us that he was officially an international for Ireland.
So – any advance on Terry Phelan?
The first-half had been one of mainly Chelsea pressure, but few chances. The midfield was solid, but creativity was in scant supply. As the game progressed, Russ and I repeated the Chelsea mantra of “we need a second” every few minutes, like a beating metronome. I commented that we were playing like an away team, with our attacks being limited to occasional breaks.
On 51 minutes, Torres was released and bared down on the Sunderland goal, but his strong shot was saved at the near post. Within two minutes of play, the referee Phil Dowd waved away three penalty shouts at both ends; first, a block on Torres, second a trip by Mignolet on Mata and third a shove by Ashley on Bendtner.
Sunderland, being cajoled by Martin O’Neil on the touchline, were fighting for every ball now and had a few good chances. McClean wasted a very good chance as he bobbled the ball wide following a cross by Larsson.
Next, fury as Fernando Torres was booked by Dowd for diving inside the penalty area. Torres looked crestfallen and pleaded with the referee for leniency, but it was not to be.
It was a huge surprise for me to see Michael Essien come off the bench in the last twenty minutes. How we have missed his physical presence and his bursting runs. To be honest, the Essien of yore may be long gone as his injuries are bound to take their toll. With our weaknesses at right back, I wonder if the manager has remembered that Essien played ahead of Ferreira in that position at the Luzhniki in 2008? The Bison thundered over from close in. The home fans groaned again.
Our last real chance came when the quiet Meireles calculatingly chipped from distance, but the Sunderland custodian back-peddled and tipped over. To be honest, both Romeu and Meireles had been quiet. Sunderland had a late charge and the nervousness of the crowd was mirrored by the team. Careless punts from Cech, crazy runs upfield from Luiz and misplaced passes by everyone heightened the sense of anxiety. At times our play in the final few minutes was laughable.
There were, however, more groans to come. In the final two minutes, Gardner shot wide from a central position after the impressive Sessignon drove past two defenders and then, the last move, Luiz was completely out-thought by Bendtner but the useless ex-Gooner bundled the ball over.
My goodness, it hadn’t been pretty. Chelsea had kept us on tenterhooks for eighty minutes. Sunderland had deserved a draw, no doubts.
All together now – phew.
One of the games of the season next Saturday; the long-awaited excursion to rural Norfolk and the game with Norwich City, a 470 mile round-trip, nine hours of driving and I for one can’t wait.
Mow that meadow.