Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 18 February 2012.
I left work on Friday evening and heaved a sigh; not of sadness, but of relief. A week’s holiday was about to begin. Not only did I have the game with Birmingham City to look forward to, but also a jaunt to Italy for the Champions League tie at Napoli and then the league game against Bolton Wanderers. But first, on Friday evening, a bonus. I met up with my mate Francis (Liverpool) and his friends Tom (Cambridge United) and Rob (Bristol Rovers) to take part in a football-themed quiz night at Frome Town Football Club. Before the night had even begun, I had won £20 in a raffle and I thought the omens were good. It was a fun night, but we slipped to a disappointing third place on the night. My other mate Steve (a lapsed Bristol City fan from his schooldays) took the first prize, along with his team mates Mark and Dave. Steve’s encyclopaedic knowledge of eclipses mine and it was an ominous sign that the first round resulted in Locomotive Sputnik (Steve’s team) gathering 9 points and The Dodge City Cattle Rustlers (ours) amassing a shocking 2.
I had never met Rob before and I had a sheepish grin on my face when Francis introduced me as a Chelsea fan. There’s almost an automatic need for some sort of explanation these days when people hear that I support Chelsea; I feel the pressure to describe myself as a genuine fan and not some sort of hideous Johnny-Come-Lately type, an interloper from another club or a clueless – and chinless – wonder. The phrase “yeah, I’m a home and away season ticket holder” usually suffices. To be fair to Rob, he said that he once went out with a Chelsea fan and was a member during the 1995-1996 campaign. He used to watch from The Benches, or from the concrete slabs to give the area a more exact description.
I awoke on Saturday at 6am with a very slight hangover. I knew that one pint of cider would not mix well with the three of Golsch. A hangover after just four pints? Yes, I know; truly shocking. I’m just not used to it these days. A worrying sign with Rome and Naples ahead. I poured myself a coffee and thankfully felt the headache float away. I ran through some of the questions of the previous night and wondered how I didn’t know the answers.
“Which England player was the first to be sent off?”
“Which player was the first to use video evidence in an attempt to appeal against a booking?”
“Which team was the last to win the European Cup / Champions League fielding a team solely from that team’s country?”
“Which of the 92 league teams’ stadium has the smallest capacity?”
“Who were the last team that England beat in a knockout match in the finals of a World Cup?”
I collected Parky at around 8am. By 10.30am, we were sat in the crowded Yadana Café on Lillee Road. Incidentally, the 1873 F.A. Cup Final was held at the Lillie Bridge Grounds, just off Lillie Road, no more than fifty yards from the current West Brompton station. The F.A. Cup Final, of course, was held at Stamford Bridge in 1920, 1921 and 1922 too. All of this local football history adds so much to my appreciation of Stamford Bridge and its environs. The Yadana Cafe, which is owned by a Burmese family, acts as a kind of holding area for The Goose. Long Tall Pete, Liz and Cliff from the CSG, were in there. That man Jesus had just arrived and we joined him at his table. He too had been on the ale the night before and was desperate for some food. I had promised him a taste of black pudding. He asked for a Super Breakfast with chips. Parky and I ordered some fry-ups, too. Jesus is off on the one day club trip to Italy on Tuesday and he was brimming with excitement about it all. I told him of my previous, limited, experience of that crazy city and we both agreed that the atmosphere in the Sao Paolo stadium would be like nothing that we have experienced before. I missed out on the fabled excursions to Galatasaray and Fenerbahce, where the noise levels were ridiculous and the atmosphere intense. Naples would be my noisiest ever Chelsea game. For that reason alone, I’m thrilled to be part of it.
“Do you want to know what black pudding is, then, Hey-Zeus?”
“No. I guess it’s something bad. Tell me after.”
Parky and I watched as he tucked into the food. He devoured it all and enjoyed the black pudding.
“Nice, innit mate?”
“Yeah. Good. What is it, then?”
He had finished the meal, save for a few thickly cut chips. I looked at Parky and Parky looked at me. We savoured the moment and I paused for effect before answering.
Jesus did Mexico proud. In the space of just three seconds, his face mirrored the colours of the Mexican flag; it went from red, to white, to green. I thought he would never speak to me again. We sloped off to The Goose and met up with the boys and girls. It was a rather rushed pre-match. I was under the impression, as was Daryl and a few others, that the game was a 12.45pm start. I had to bolt down my drink when I heard it was a 12.30pm kick-off. I raced down to the ground, bought the twin staples of a copy of CFCUk and a match programme, and was in. I soon realised that our run of near full-houses was about to come to an end. As soon as I reach the upper tier, I always peer out through the entrance to the seats (Simon Inglis calls this a vomitory in his books on football stadia, but this always sounds too rude or posh, or maybe both) to the upper echelons of the East Stand, just to quickly gauge the attendance. On this occasion, hundreds of empty blue seats greeted me. Elsewhere in the stadium, empty seats were dotted around.
As I took my seat alongside Alan, I rued on the club’s many adamant statements about us having outgrown Stamford Bridge. The tickets for this game were £30 across the board, too. I was hoping that the cheap prices would work in our favour; an end of half-term holiday treat for London’s school children. There were more kids present than usual, to be fair, but not as many as I had hoped. Maybe they had all misbehaved during the week.
I briefly chatted to Steve Mantle, but he was annoyed. He oversees the handing out of the massive flag in the MHU at each home game, but had judged that not enough fans were present to make it worthwhile. The flag in the MHL had no such problems and was on its way towards us down below. However, the choreography was all wrong; it soon ended its one hundred yard journey before the teams had even left the tunnel. Such a lack of team work would be emblematic of Chelsea Football Club on this day of F.A. Cup football.
There was a typically muted air in the stadium. The temperature was mild and the clouds were low. Birmingham City only brought 1,500 fans – and only a couple of flags. I couldn’t be bothered to read what they said. I saw flashes of empty seats in the Shed Upper. I had a feeling that this would be a difficult game, atmosphere wise. The early kick-off meant less alcohol. Less alcohol meant less noise. It’s a simple equation. Maybe we should play all of our games at kicking-out time at around 11.30pm. The club could sell kebabs and curries. What a winner.
It was a poor first-half. We dominated early possession but the visitors Birmingham City took the lead. A corner was whipped in and after an initial header, it was a case of “after you Claude” as the Chelsea defenders showed a distinct unwillingness to attack the loose ball and hack it away to safety. I’d imagine that Jesus will make a move for a portion of black pudding with more vigour. The ball bounced around the six yard box, admiring the scenery, until appeared at the back stick and David Murphy thumped the ball in, waist high, past Cech.
The Brummies roared and we all slumped in our seats. The residents of England’s second city then began singing the world’s most boring and tedious football club anthem –
“As you go through life
It’s a long long road.
There’ll be joys and sorrows too.
As we journey on,
We will sing this song,
For the boys in royal blue,
We’re often partisan.
We will journey on.
Keep right on to the end of the road,
Keep right on to the end. “
Thank heavens that a foul on Ramires resulted in a penalty and this horrendous dirge was abruptly ended.
Juan Mata’s week shot was ably saved by Doyle. Ho hum. A determined run from Daniel Sturridge enabled him to play a ball in towards the waiting Fernando Torres. Needless to say, the chance passed. A David Luiz free-kick from thirty yards forced another great save from the Birmingham ‘keeper and then Torres nimbly teed up Sturridge who volleyed just over. Chances were rare, though. The midfield was too pedestrian. Sturridge was hogging the ball when a ball into Torres was more advantageous. A rare break by the visitors found Redmound clear, but his shot from the angle was week. Needless to say the atmosphere was funereal. The away fans were poking fun.
“Sacked in the morning. You’re getting sacked in the morning.”
With great displeasure, I heard an audible repeat of this same chant being uttered by several fellow supporters near myself. That there were boos – louder than the other chant – at the cessation of first-half play was, of course, unsurprising. There is one chap who sits around fifteen feet away…early fifties, white hair, glasses, replica shirt…who I have often noticed bellowing boos at the earliest opportunity. I glowered at him and hoped that he would see me. I popped down for the briefest of words with Big John in the front row.
“I’m not a violent person, but I’d quite willingly hit that pr1ck with a baseball bat if he continues to boo the team.”
Gary, who sits a few feet in front of this chap, came over and was of the same opinion.
“That bloke’s doing my head in Chris. I want to tell him to fcuk off.”
I could go in to a lengthy discussion about this chap, but I won’t waste my time. Suffice to say, this edition of The Axon Chronicles is not dedicated to him. And I’m buying a Louisville Slugger next week.
AVB rang the changes at the break with the returning Didier Drogba replacing the quiet Torres. I did mention to Gary that it was a cardinal sin that we had not played Torres in early during the entire first-half. My heart goes out to him, completely and utterly. An early chance in the second half fell to Mata, who neatly controlled inside the box but his shot flashed wide.
The manager brought on Kalou for Mikel and we hoped for more thrust. Thankfully, a goal soon came. The best move of the game, involving a good passage of play, found Ivanovic in an advanced position on the right flank. He quickly assessed the movement of players in the box and whipped in a beautiful cross with pace and dip. We all saw Sturridge rise. We all anticipated seeing the net bulge. We were not to be disappointed. It was a gorgeous header, angled down and away from the clawing hands of the ‘keeper.
I roared with joy. Phew. Come on!
We looked for the winner. A header from Kalou dropped over the bar. A Meireles effort too. A word about Meireles; the bloke began this season well, slotting in nicely. With our dip in form, his play has suffered too. The manager seems to see something in him, but he annoys the hell out of many. I hope he is just going through a tough patch…like many others. The stars were David Luiz and Ramires. I see a future for these two. Alan intelligently commented that we were all concerned about the apparent lack of strength of Ramires in his first few games for us, but how I wish others (Kalou, Lukaku come on down) were as strong as our little Brazilian number seven. He has the strength of an ox.
Gary Cahill was playing well. No problems there. His body movement reminds me so much of John Terry. He needs to work on his chest pass, though.
A Birmingham City free-kick ended up in Cech’s arms. Frank Lampard was the final roll of the dice and I fully expected Meireles to be hauled off. The boos rang out when Juan Mata’s number was hoisted. Meireles drilled a shot wide from distance. Thankfully, Birmingham’s Redmond weekly shot at Cech after he had evaded the attention of our defenders. A goal then – with four minutes to go – would have been difficult to recover from. The game petered out and we all drifted off, with thoughts of Napoli far out-weighing thoughts of the replay.
Outside the West Stand, amongst the groans of the regulars, and the vacant smiles of the tourists, umbrellas were raised as the rain came down. Oh lovely.
I got drenched as I quickly walked back to the car, past the fruit and veg stalls on the North End Road, past The Goose, the cafes, the shops, the shoppers. The rain continued as I returned home. It had been a mucky start to my week of Chelsea indulgence and I mulled over the lack lustre performance by both players and fans. To be brutal, the thought of our delicate team getting roasted by Napoli in a cauldron of noise on Tuesday overwhelmed me. I am not discouraged, however. When the draw was being made in December, I wanted a trip to Naples. Tuesday night will sort the men out from the boys. I honestly can’t wait. It will be a momentous occasion. And I can be pretty sure that there will not be any booing from the loyalists should our beloved boys fail to get a result.
Players. Supporters. Together.