Tales From Juan Mata’s Debut

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 27 August 2011.

As I left work on Friday, I heaved a deep sigh of relief. Another week over, but with a three day Bank Holiday Weekend coming up.

The patterns of work and play are so entrenched aren’t they? We toil for five days and then the weekends are “our time.” Back when I was growing up, though, there was always a big difference between Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays were always pleasurable. Throughout my childhood, Saturdays were days of sheer joy and were always based around football. Watching the football previews on “Grandstand” and “World of Sport” on Saturday lunchtimes, playing football in the local recreation ground, watching the village team, playing for my school, then nervously awaiting for the football results to come through on the “vidiprinter” on “Grandstand” at my grandparents’ cottage at 4.40pm. My Dad would come home from work at 5.30pm and his first words to me were always based on the Chelsea result.

He used to work in a menswear shop in Frome and, although he was never a massive football fan, he would always listen to the second half commentary on Radio Two. These were the days of those wonderful commentators Peter Jones and Bryon Butler. Dad would burst through the front door and say –

“I see Chelsea did well then.”

“Left it late, didn’t they?”

“Lucky today, weren’t they?”

There would then be a long wait throughout Saturday evening – through editions of “Doctor Who”, “It’s A Knockout”, “Kojak” – until the tedious “Nine O’Clock News” gave way to the undoubted highlight of any weekend “Match of the Day.” In the ‘seventies, we only had extended highlights of two league games each Saturday night. Chelsea would be featured around 6 or 7 times each season, or only a 3 or 4 when we played in the second tier. Of course, this is radically different to these days.

Saturdays tended to more enjoyable than Sundays. Sundays were always more staid. Church in the morning, a family meal at lunchtime, tedious visits to relatives in the afternoon, another church service in the evening, then the ultra-boring Sunday evening with Dad listening to classical music on the radio, with the fear of school on the Monday. The only respite was the London-based “Big Match” programme, with Brian Moore, at 2pm and Chelsea were always featured more often on this show.

I can still hear Brian Moore’s voice as he began the programme with the welcome smile of a trusted and amiable schoolteacher. Whenever Chelsea were involved, there always seemed to be an extra twinkle in his eye.

After my lukewarm feelings to the home opener last week against West Brom, I was back to my normal levels of enthusiasm for the game with Norwich City. I drove over to collect Parky and we wasted no time getting ourselves up to London. Maybe the years of listening to Dad’s classical music has eventually rubbed off as we listened to a Proms CD which contained a few classical standards, including Elgar’s “Pomp & Circumstance” and Blake’s “Jerusalem.”

As I drove between Swindon and Reading we belted out a few lyrics –

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold.
Bring me my arrows of desire.
Bring me my spear : Oh clouds unfold.
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

We were parked up on Chesson Road just after 11am and it was a warm and sunny morning in Chelsealand. We made our way to the café and I had my first Full English brekkie of the season. The owners are from Myanmar, adjacent to Thailand, and I had a little chat about my trip in the summer. San Francisco Bob was over for the game and he joined us for a coffee before we decamped to the familiar confines of The Goose.

Thankfully Reg and Lorraine were back this week and helped restore some calm to the manic activity behind the bar.

Lagers were guzzled as more and more mates arrived. The main topic of conversation was the Champions League group phase fixtures which had been announced on Thursday. My plans were cemented on Friday afternoon when I booked a flight to Cologne. This will enable me to watch our game against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday 23rd. November. An extra bonus is that I am staying with my Italian friend Mario, who I first met on an Italian beach in the summer of 1975. He now lives in Bergisch Gladbach, just 10 miles away from Leverkusen. After meeting up with my other Italian mate Tullio for the Juve game in Turin in 2009, this gives me a chance to complete another on my lifetime wish list, to watch a Chelsea game with Mario.

A few other mates – the usual suspects, Rob, Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil – are also going to Leverkusen. I do like travelling to Germany for football, having previously seen us in Stuttgart, Bremen and Gelsenkirchen.

The First Transatlantic Lacoste Watch Of The Season.

Bob – bon bon.
JR – pink.

I was in a light pink Henri Lloyd, so pink was definitely the order of the day. Additionally, San Francisco Bob had brought over a strawberry Lacoste for Rob from an outlet in Gilroy, California. I can’t remember the exact cost-saving, but it was pretty formidable. Lacoste polos can cost up to £75 a pop in the UK. We were joined again by Texas Wes, who was able to pick up Glenn’s seat ticket next to myself in The Sleepy Hollow. He was wearing a black polo, in case anyone is wondering. We learned that we were paired with Fulham in the League Cup and everyone was totally unenthused. There are dull cup draws and there are dull cup draws. This one redefines the term. Yawn.

Despite my best plans to get to my seat in time for the kick-off, I was beset with delays when one of the five turnstiles into the Matthew Harding Upper Tier decided not to work. I eventually reached my seat at about 3.03pm.

The news was that AVB had decided to go with Malouda, Drogba and Torres upfront.

Although we had another sudden rain shower while we were in the pub, the sun was shining as the game went through its first opening minutes. Norwich City had brought down a healthy 3,000 and they were soon getting behind their team. I’ve been aware of a new song this season and after a little research, it seems that Celtic –amongst others – have introduced Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” into the terrace lexicon. And Norwich were singing this too.

I think we, as Chelsea fans, have missed a trick here. DM’s Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans and this should be our song.

Still, we won’t nick it. Or at least, I hope we won’t.

When the ball was played square to Jose Bosingwa after just five minutes, more than a few fellow fans around me yelled “shoooot!” Jose teed the ball up and then let fire with his right foot. From my seated position in the MHU, I was right behind the trajectory of Bosingwa’s exocet strike. I almost expected the ball to veer off at the last minute, but the ball remained true and it didn’t drift or curve at all. It was a pure strike. What a goal.

It was noticeable that during the first-half virtually all of the away fans were stood, while I noted that the Shed Lower were standing up too. I easily spotted Bob in the second row of that section, his bright shirt easily visible amongst a sea of blue.

After a nice start, Norwich got back into the game and often threatened Hilario’s goal, but our Portuguese ‘keeper was solid and fended off any attacks. At the other end, our chances were rare and the Drogba / Torres partnership wasn’t firing on all cylinders. The noise levels in the home sections were predictably low and the Norwich fans were making all the noise. Yellow shirts were out in force in the SE corner of The Bridge, but I noted one central block which housed hardly any yellow-clad fans. I presumed that this was the Norwich City executive / complimentary tickets section. It stuck out like a thumb.

Of course, we have rarely met Norwich over the years and, with the August sun shining, I soon remembered a previous visit some 17 summers ago. On the opening game of the 1994-1995 season, we met Norwich City and easily dispatched them 2-0. This game was notable more for the changes to the stadium which had taken throughout that summer. The Shed had been razed to the ground and a temporary stand had taken its place. A few of us had bought tickets in that temporary stand and it was quite amazing to be – at last! – so close to the action at a Chelsea home game. It was a wonderful feeling. It gave us all a little glimpse of how magnificent the new stadium’s acoustics would be if it was ever to be completed. At the other end, the North Stand was slowly rising and all of us daydreamed of how noisy a tight and compact new Stamford Bridge would be. That temporary South Stand was a riot of noise and venom on that day in 1994 and it saddens me to report how those ideals of Chelsea fervent fanaticism have simply faded away over the subsequent 17 years. On that day, around 1,500 Norwich City fans were in the East Lower. And I suspect we hardly heard them the entire day.

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John Terry came close with a header from a corner which was cleared off the line right on the half-time whistle. But chances were rare. One Drogba free-kick hit a seat in the Shed Upper which was around thirty yards from the goal.

Quite an achievement.

Things were far from convincing. Although Hilario didn’t appear too troubled, Norwich City hadn’t arrived simply to defend. The mood was of uncertainty at the break. At least Alan was entertaining Wes with a variety of his tried and tested accents, from good ole Southern homeboy to Sarf London wide boy.

Out on the pitch, our reserves did a lap of honour with their 2010-2011 championship trophy.

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Into the second half and a chance from John Terry – another header which was blocked. With my camera centered on the entertaining antics of our new manager – crouching one minute, standing and gesticulating the next – I missed the deep cross and the subsequent balls-up between Hilario and Ivanovic. I looked as Holt – always a handful – hooked the ball back towards the Shed End goal. Our captain’s despairing lunge was too late. They had equalised and the away end bubbled away like a boiling saucepan of custard.

There – that’s the Deliah Smith reference accounted for.

On 63 minutes, a delightful cross from the quiet Torres was played into Didier Drogba, who headed the ball over just before he was clattered by the Norwich ‘keeper. We screamed for a penalty, but then grew more and more concerned as our number eleven lay completely still. After ages, he was stretchered off, to be replaced by Anelka and we wondered how severe his injuries would be. At the same time, new boy Juan Mata replaced Florent Malouda. He buzzed around and looked as keen as mustard (oh dear, another Norwich reference, sorry.)

However, Norwich still caused a threat and only a last-ditch tackle from a magnificent John Terry robbed them of a great goal-scoring chance. Norwich always looked a threat, but JT was heavily involved in thwarting their attacks. Mata had a lovely little feint and jink to go past his marker before sending over an inch-perfect cross right onto Torres’ forehead. However, more frustration for the boy from Fuenlabrada and his effort did not trouble Ruddy. Soon after, we had a lovely break from deep. Juan Mata flicked the ball to Nicolas Anelka and he played in a surging Ramires. The whole of the stadium held their breath as our little Brazilian sprinted towards the box. A poke past Ruddy, but down he went.

“Penalty!”

Well, we couldn’t believe how long the referee waited before he pointed to the spot. Deep yelps of joy from us all.

Phew. Ruddy was then sent-off and we waited and waited for Frank to eventually place the ball on the spot as the replacement custodian took his place in goal.

Thwack. Straight down Broadway.

2-1 to Chelsea and Frank points to the heavens.

Immediately after the goal, we warmed to the appearance of Romelu Lukaku who replaced El Nino. He looked impressive during the rest of the game. It is too much of a cliché to compare the lad to Didier Drogba, but he certainly looks strong and mobile. If the manager keeps everyone (he only has a few days to change things), what an array of attacking talent we have, eh? His first chance was a header – always stretching – which went wide. He also had a bustling run and a shot which was partially saved, but the ball bobbled too far for Lampard to strike. After the Didier injury, we were awarded a massive 11 minutes extra time. Then an incredible miss from Branislav Ivanovic. How his towering leap and downward header never even hit the target was a mystery for all of us.

In the last moment of a strange game, Chelsea pressure in the far corner resulted in a poor pass which was ably intercepted by new boy Mata. He quickly controlled the ball, took a touch, and dispatched it under the diving body of the hapless ‘keeper.

Oh yes. He enjoyed that. We all enjoyed that. I caught his joyous leap on film and, as he was swamped by his delirious team mates, a fan in the East Lower unfurled the red and yellow of a Spanish flag. It was a perfect moment in fact. As we made our way out, we all agreed it had been a far from perfect performance from us and Frank was again very quiet. We could hardly believe it when somebody confirmed that we were now top. What a joke! Top of the league? Surely somebody somewhere is having a laugh.

Bob, Parky and me met at the Ossie statue and then made our way to The Finborough for drinks and on to Salvo’s for pizza. On the walk past the Fox & Pheasant, I bought a new Chelsea T-shirt (“Keep Calm & Support Chelsea”) and then Dave Johnstone thrust three copies of “CFCUK” into our hands.

The pizza at Salvo’s again went down well and it was a lovely end to a typical Chelsea Saturday. While Parky and I headed back towards Wiltshire and Somerset, Bob retraced his steps and joined in the post-game fun with a few friends on the Kings Road and then with a couple of terrace legends in The Elm, that hard-nosed boozer opposite his hotel on the North End Road. Song of the night on the drive home was “Up The Junction” by Squeeze and we sang along to that one, too. I got home at 10.15pm and there it was, waiting for me like an old friend…

“Match of the Day.”

We were the first game featured – a sure sign that the game was entertaining – but I soon lost interest after our match.

Apparently some other team leap-frogged us at the top of the table.

Pah.

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