Tales From Pastures Green

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 20 April 2011.

Just another Chelsea Saturday? I guess so.

Just another Saturday of pounding the roads, fun-filled conversations with mates, pre-match drinks, camaraderie with a cast of thousands, songs, junk food, goals, music on the car CD player, memories, triumph, pathos and self-deprecating humour.

Really: what else are you going to do on a Saturday?

The first decision of the day – what to wear? This can take ages, but I was in a hurry. I went dark. Navy blue Victorinox T-shirt, dark blue HL jeans and a pair of black Clarks Wallabees.

I had to zip into Frome first thing to get a few things done. The town is enjoying a little renaissance at the moment; bohemian shops, a thriving arts scene, regular bands at a few venues and a thriving café culture. I love it. My hair cut takes fewer and fewer minutes to finish these days; sigh. A little bit of shopping. Rush, rush, rush. With that all accomplished, I set off and collected Lord Parkins of Parkyshire just after 11am. For the record; a lovely white and muted olive green Fred Perry, jeans and a pair of Adidas.

Still after all these years, we’re football fashion obsessives. If anybody sees us giving in to the easy option of Samsung Wear, please give us both a slap.

The game at The Hawthorns was a special one for Lord Parky. On 15th. April 1961, he attended his first-ever Chelsea game. His father is an Arsenal fan and the Parkins family were living in North London at the time. Parky, as a six year old, was taken to Stamford Bridge and fell in love with the colour blue. Chelsea defeated Arsenal on that spring day some fifty years ago and a life of Chelsea support was borne.

50 Years – good on you, mate.

So, you all know the score by now…the road up to the West Midlands is so familiar. With no Pompey in the top flight, this 115 mile jaunt to West Brom is my nearest away game now. It’s an easy place to get to. I don’t mind West Brom. As I drove through Gloucestershire, we mulled over the sad fact that – unlike 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010 – this season was not going to be rewarded with either a league title or a cup final appearance. In fact, we just have seven games left this season. We went over plans for each of those – there will be a big American invasion for the West Ham game, but Parky and I fancy something different for the Spurs game; we are looking at a pub-crawl up the Kings Road in the heart of trendy, glitzy, Sloaney Chelsea, rather than the more working class, football orientated North End Road.

As I drove north, there were a few incoming text messages from fellow fans, from near and far. We aimed for The Park Inn, just off the M5, and we reached there at around 1pm. It dawned on us that it was a case of “Lord Parkins parkin’ at The Park Inn.”

Mike from the NY Blues phoned me to say he was “just at the Park Inn” and we waited his arrival. It soon dawned on me that he was “just parkin” – at a nearby boozer – and our paths never crossed the entire day. Burger had been in touch, on the lookout for tickets. There were a few familiar Chelsea faces in the hotel bar area, mixed in with a smattering of home fans. It dawned on me that the current West Brom shirt is a classic. Simple and effective. The designers at Adidas should take note. I had a brief word with Big John – “a lot of Chelsea fans are wailing like spoilt brats at the moment” – and we then retired to a low sofa and finished off some pints of Becks Vier, some savoury nuts and some salt and vinegar crisps. The sun was slowly breaking through and a gaggle of Chelsea were perched on a grassy bank just outside the hotel.

Our season was over, our team are rubbish? Try telling that to the three thousand who had loyally driven up to sample the delights of West Bromwich.

A Chelsea game? We’ll be there.

For the West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea game in March 2006– the first Chelsea game since the passing of Peter Osgood – there was a pre-planned meet at this hotel and there were hundreds of Chelsea there. At the game, we all held up photographs of the iconic Peter Osgood header versus Leeds United and there was a beautifully respected minute silence before the game for Peter Osgood and also a young West Brom fan that had recently been killed in a car accident. During the game, referee Mark Halsey sent off our flying Dutchman Arjen Robben. Back in the hotel bar after the game, we spotted Halsey walking through a room of Chelsea fans (he had obviously stayed there the night before) and we roundly booed him. Although he had a smile on his face, he flicked a “V” at us and said “F Off!”

Not the behaviour we expected to be honest. Alan and I always think Halsey has had it in for us since that day!

I seem to remember Ron Harris saying that Chelsea used to stay at this hotel back in the ‘seventies when playing at venues in that West Midlands area.

On the 15 minute walk to the stadium, we passed a cricket game in progress and then a little group of teenagers sharing a jumbo spliff. A few vans were selling hot dogs, burgers, steak sandwiches and bags of pork scratchings. At the stadium, we turned right past the main stand and we were soon in the Chelsea area.

This was my sixth visit to The Hawthorns with Chelsea. I had a lovely seat, a third of the way back, just behind the goal. The stadium has changed over the years, but has kept the same cosy feel. It’s odd that the club has decided to “do an Ibrox” and enclose the corners with unsightly grey steel, but I guess they have attempted to keep the noise in. A throstle – the club symbol – is perched in the north-east corner against all that steel. It was almost camouflaged.

The West Brom fans, sharing that south end…the Smethwick End…were in full voice and I was impressed with a couple of new songs in their repertoire, including a club song which was based on the famous “The Lord Is My Shepherd” hymn. I couldn’t decipher all the lyrics, but I heard

“The Lord’s my Shepherd, I’ll not want.
He makes me down to lie.
In pastures green; he leadeth me.
The quiet waters by.”

Maybe I have heard this before, but I certainly can’t remember it. After a few shouts of the surely surreal “Hodgson’s Barmy Army”, they asked us the age old question “WWYWYWS?” and I turned towards them and pointed “here.”

I then mentioned to Gal, stood alongside me, a game in January 1986 when a crowd of only 10,300 saw Chelsea (in all red) defeat West Bromwich Albion in a top flight game. I well remember us leaving the ground that day – we had seats in the old Rainbow Stand – singing “We’re Gonna Win It All!” and actually believing it…we were in contention in all of the three major trophies and the team was playing some super football, with Dixon, Speedie and Nevin at their zenith. A week later, Kerry was injured against Liverpool in an F.A. Cup tie that we lost and we were soon defeated by QPR in the League Cup too. I always class that game at The Hawthorns as the high water mark of that iconic 1983 to 1986 Chelsea team.

So, West Brom…where were you in January 1986?

The Chelsea team began rather sluggishly despite buoyant support from the travelling hordes. In my mind, we were back playing a 4-3-3 with Florent Malouda upfront with Drogba and Kalou. I really wasn’t sure, though. A Malouda effort whistled wide after just two minutes, but West Brom then enjoyed a period which caused us harm. Our midfield trio were giving up too much space and West Brom broke and Morrison prompted Mulumbu to hit over.

On 16 minutes, our worst fears were realised. A fine move from the home team and the ball was played in to their player of the moment Odemwingie. Our defence was caught rather flat-footed and Odemwingie sublimely chipped an advancing Cech. With that, the home fans to my left were bouncing like fools and the stadium was rocking.

“Oh God – here we go again.”

Not to worry. Our midfield got more involved and we were soon asking questions. On 21 minutes, a lovely ball from Ashley Cole was played inside the full-back and Florent Malouda crossed into the danger area. A scramble in the West Brom defence and the ball broke to Drogba who crashed the ball in.

Soon after, Drogba made a trademark run from deep, fending off Baggy challenges, and shot from distance. Carson could only parry the shot into the path of the much-maligned Kalou who expertly despatched the rebound into the far corner. It really was a fine finish. Gal, to my left, had been giving Kalou a predictably tough time and, amid bouncing, I just gave him a big old hug. With this, 3,000 home fans to my left sat down.

A Frank Lampard free-kick was whipped in with pace and swerve, but Carson reacted well and palmed the shot over. We were now rampant and our support was rocking. Just before half-time, Frank broke and calmly despatched the ball into the goal just inside the left-post. Straight after, the more buoyant support towards the rear of the stand began a lovely, self-deprecating chant and we all soon joined in:

“And now you’re gonna believe us, and now you’re gonna believe us, and now you’re gonna believe us, we’re gonna win F-All.”

Proper Chelsea.

We were buoyant at the break and fully expected more goals and even…whisper it…one from “you-know-who.” I briefly met a clearly jet-lagged Beth during the interval.

As the game restarted, the away fans baited the home club with a song in honour of the much-loved and respected hero of our 1997 and 2000 F.A. Cup triumphs –

“One Di Matteo, there’s only one Di Matteo – one Di Matteo!”

Two quick offsides soon into the second-half set the tone. A Drogba lob from way out was just over. I lost count of the number of times that we broke at will down that left flank. The interplay between Malouda and Cole was excellent and, again, I had to admire the unharnessed energy of The World’s Best Left-Back.

To be honest, the second-half was a blur. It was all Chelsea. Prompted by an excellent Mikel and Essien, plus a rejuvenated Lampard, we broke at will and had numerous chances to further our 3-1 lead. We were guilty of over-elaboration at times and I bellowed “come on – we’re not Arsenal.” A deflected Kalou shot, after a fine dribble and shimmy inside the box, was deflected up onto the bar.

Torres was warming up and we yelled for his introduction. Instead, Carlo reverted to type and the first substitution was very safe; Bosingwa for Ivanovic. Come on Carlo, get Torres on…give him a run. I still have faith in the manager but he does himself no favours at times. Two stooping Kalou headers went wide. Chance after chance. Tons of possession.

At The Hawthorns, there is a large bakery opposite the north stand (the company I work for once did the transport for them and I parked on their site at a game in 2003). Throughout the second half, they must have been baking a massive batch of hot-cross buns, because there was a sweet aroma of dough, orange peel and cinnamon which wafted around the stadium. It was quite lovely, in fact. It sure beat the usual aromas associated with football matches…’orse**** and ‘amburgers.

Yossi was introduced for Frank Lampard and we presumed that Torres wouldn’t be far behind. The Torres chants continued. It was plain for all to see that we are still with him.

At last, but with just eight minutes remaining, Carlo brought on Torres for the excellent Drogba.

What followed was car crash football, with the home fans mocking Torres’ price tag, and two or three moments of pure anguish.

On 88 minutes, a lovely ball in to Torres on the edge of the box. A sidestep past Carson and the Spaniard slotted the ball in.

Oh boy – at last – the draught is over – let’s celebrate!

No! A linesman’s flag and offside. I had lost count of the number of offsides during that second-half and this was the killer. What bad luck.

Torres then slipped – or was he fouled? – in the box and the West Brom fans howled.

Then, a free-kick and John Terry had a close chat with Torres. I kept my photo focussed on Torres as he spun away from his marker. Oh, how I wanted to capture his first Chelsea goal on film. The ball was played to the edge of the box. I snapped just as Torres kicked and missed – a football air shot – and the entire Chelsea support groaned.

The groan could be heard in Pakistan, Australia, Kenya and the USA.

At the other end, West Brom had a couple of late chances, but they had been totally overrun. A cross was met with a header which Cech easily saved. The last Chelsea attempt on goal was from an unlikely source. John Terry juggled the ball and unleashed a great volley which Carson did well to save. One of these days, JT will score a blinder.

I just can’t believe we didn’t score any goals in that rampant second-half.

The players came over to thank us for our support. JT took off his lime green shirt and, despite the protestations of an overzealous steward, gave it to a fan at the front. I slowly made my way out. As I waited for Parky to emerge, I chatted to a few mates. Parky, full of smiles, said that David Luiz had given his shirt to one of our disabled fans and the fan was overcome with joy.

On the walk back to the hotel, we devoured a bag of pork scratchings and apple sauce.

Such decadence.

We watched the first-half of the Mancunian semi-final in the hotel bar, but then headed south. We avoided the radio – if we listened, we would jinx it. Instead, we listened to The Style Council, Sex Pistols and Soft Cell. The cloudy skies over Worcestershire soon brightened up as I drove past Tewkesbury, Cheltenham and Gloucester. The Malvern Hills to my west were simply stunning.

I had packed a couple of bottles of Peroni as a mark of celebration for Parky’s 50th anniversary. As I drove, he drank. A familiar scenario.

The F.A. Cup semi-final result was not known to us until I got back to Parky’s village at about 8pm.

It was the end to a perfect Chelsea Saturday.

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