Tales From The 33,820

Chelsea vs. Bayer Lerkusen : 13 September 2011.

At 4pm in deepest Chippenham, I collected Parky from The Pheasant pub and pointed my car in an easterly direction. To be honest, I’m relatively confident that my Vauxhall Corsa could find its own way up to Stamford Bridge these days. The journey was blue-tinted inside the car, what with numerous Chelsea references, to say nothing of the occasional swear word, and it was blue-tinted outside too, with the sky gorgeously clear of clouds.

The quickest drive yet – just two hours from The Pheasant to The Goose. We were soon inside, buying lagers and catching up with a few mates. The first thing I noticed, though, was how quiet the pub appeared to be. On the drive up in the car, the two of us had spent a little time chatting about the planned boycott of the Genk home game. It certainly came as a big surprise for the Champions League home games to have increased in price from £30 last season to £40. It seems that, despite the regular meetings of the Chelsea Fans’ Forum, the club had decided to increase these tickets by a whopping 33%. However, by the time I had heard about the tentative boycott of the Genk game in November, I had already purchased my ticket.

I can certainly understand the feelings of the Chelsea supporters who believe that the club has taken liberties with its pricing structure for this season. Nobody likes paying top whack for football, that’s for sure. I certainly toyed with the notion of not attending the game on October 19th. as a protest. I can understand the fans who shout “enough is enough – for the greater good of the club, let’s make a stand.” And yet…and yet…we’re Chelsea supporters. I work hard during the week for my weekly fix of Chelsea. It seems inherently wrong to boycott the club I love. In the back of my mind was the horrible memory of that game in September 2007 when we drew just 24,973 for that CL game with Rosenborg. It was an infamous match for more than one reason; with it being Jose Mourinho’s last ever game in charge of the team. I well remember the sadness I felt at the lamentable crowd on that night. In fact, I can just imagine that figure of 24,973 being quoted by either party in the presumably heated conversation which may or may not have taken place within the grounds of Stamford Bridge the day after.

Roman to Jose: “Only 24,973 were here last night. Play more attractive football!”

Jose to Roman: “This is a big club? No. Just 24,973 were here yesterday.”

In addition to games won and trophies garnered, surely the size and clout of a football club is measured by its pull at the turnstiles, too. Despite our proud boast of being the fifth best-supported club in England (behind Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), this is an area in which we often let ourselves down. We do have a history of having quite fickle fans. I also remember the match against Coventry City on a Wednesday in 1994, just ten days before our first F.A. Cup Final in 24 years and we drew just 8,923.

Yes – 8,923.

Of course, the pro-boycott fans point to the Rosenborg game as a watershed moment for Chelsea’s recent pricing policy. It shocked the club into action with all subsequent CL group phase games being reduced in price and, as a result, all CL group phase games since September 2007 have been 39,000 or more. So, all of these thoughts rattled around inside my mind as support for the “Genk Boycott” gathered momentum on Facebook during the week. I saw points being made by supporters in both camps. I pondered my options. To be honest, if I am truthful, I was more likely to miss the Fulham game in the League Cup and that would not have been for reasons of protest, but simply of not being able to muster up enough enthusiasm to attend. But no – I bought a ticket for that, too. I also have the small matter of my home streak to think of, currently stretching back to late 2004 and edging towards 200 games. Additionally, I love the buzz of European nights at Chelsea. God knows I waited long enough – 1974 to 1994 – for my first one.

Boycott? Thanks, but no thanks.

In the end, there wasn’t much talk of the Genk game in the boozer, but of other topics; music, summer holidays, the game at Old Trafford, European aways in Germany and Spain, the new boys Mata and Meireles, the usual banter, the usual schtick. Alan announced that both Lampard and Terry were not starting and that Torres was up front.

Parky and I set off down the North End Road at around 7.10pm and – yes, I was right – there just wasn’t the volume of spectators as for a normal league game. I bought the latest copy of “CFCUK” and had the briefest of words with Mark, who mentioned that he had just been reading about Cathy’s recounting of the Asia tour in the new edition.

I noted Champions League banners covering the “Adidas Wall” opposite the Peter Osgood statue. CL banners were also draped all over the West Stand, too. I really wanted to take a few photos, but wanted to head inside too. Next time maybe. For once, I reached the queue at the turnstiles in good time; no nervous rush up the steps to get to my seat just in time for the kick-off on this occasion.

At the top of the steps, I walked through into the small concourse and I barged past a couple of dopey stewards. I glimpsed at the East Stand and my heart sank. It was 7.30pm and the East stand was a third full.

“Oh fcuk.”

I texted a few fellow fans to share this bleak news. Alan had said in The Goose that he doubted if we would get 35,000. With the return of Michael Ballack and with it being the CL home opener I was hoping for a few thousand more. This wasn’t good. Thankfully, the stadium did fill up a bit more in the final 15 minutes. The West Stand – notoriously quiet these days – seemed to be packed. There were around 1,200 noisy Leverkusen encamped in the SE corner, but heavily segregated from 2,000 Chelsea in The Shed. There were many empty seats in both tiers of the MH. But the biggest culprit was the East, with both the top corners of the Upper Tier devoid of fans. I tried to calculate the gate. It looked like 6,000 empty spaces.

And there was I thinking that the boycott was planned for the Genk game.

Michael Ballack was quickly presented with a gift on the touchline before the entrance of the two teams. We sang his name. Both teams were kitted out in the same hideous Adidas lime green and black training tops, and they strode across the pitch as the CL flag rippled behind them. Then, the lovely Champions League anthem.

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It was with no surprise that the away fans provided all of the noise and colour throughout the evening’s game. This is what happens at so many of the games at The Bridge these days. If anyone is getting fed up to the back teeth of reading this in every single one of these match reports, then please imagine how I feel having to write it. Their shouts of “Bayer, Bayer, Bayer” echoed around the stands. Their name, by the way, comes from the Bayer chemical company – who also are linked to Bayer Urdingen – and the team moniker is not related to Bayern (meaning Bavaria) Munich.

It was certainly a bright start from both teams with an overhead looper from Fernando Torres just missing the target after just one minute. Two disallowed goals – one at each end – in the first three minutes. Phew. Torres was then through on goal – just the goalkeeper to beat – but a tame finish and the Stamford Bridge groaned. Despite this promising start, the home supporters fell silent and the away fans dominated proceedings. On many occasions, they all linked arms and jumped rhythmically…not a Man City “Poznan” or a Celtic “Huddle” but their own version of The Bouncy. Alan and myself noted that Bayer were chasing every ball and making life difficult for us. Daniel Sturridge, forever cutting in onto his left foot, was looking very confident and a few long distance blasts troubled the German ‘keeper. The away fans yelled “Leverkusen! Leverkusen! Leverkusen!”

It might well have been “Lederhosen.”

They seemed to be chanting in English at the docile members of the East Lower, but there was not a response. Not a flicker.

In 1994 – pick a game…Zizkov, Austria Memphis, Bruges…the denizens of the East Stand would have been up on their feet, singing, pointing, gesturing, shouting, being hostile, being Chelsea.

Not in 2011.

At the break, legend Frank Lebouef walked around the pitch with Neil Barnett and it was lovely to see him again. I spoke with Zac about the team (“doing OK, Meireles looks good, Mata too, Torres still impotent in front of goal, Malouda poor”), but also the turnout. The empty spaces were dominating my thoughts and I think others too. There was a hush all over the stadium – it was at times surreal.

“You’d think, since the club seems to be obsessed with getting the daytrippers in so they can spend money in the megastore, that they would keep the prices low…keep it at £30…get a sell-out…increase the footfall in the shop, more merchandise sold, more programmes, more hot dogs.”

It’s September 2011 and I actually said the word footfall inside Stamford Bridge. God, the shame.

Maybe we should be renamed Chelsea Footfall Club. That might please Ron Gourlay.

“Never mind contracts, how many customers were in the megastore at 6pm?”

As the second-half began I said to Alan that Raul Meireles reminded me of Jody Morris…something in his shape, his gait, his hair colour. Alan agreed in fact. We tended to dominate possession, but Leverkusen were – cliché coming up – organised and functional. There didn’t seem to be much flair in their team, but they certainly chased every ball. A lovely pinpoint cross from the left foot of Malouda down below me found Torres, but his equally lovely header – a gorgeous flick – went straight to the ‘keeper. Drat. Then, another cross was headed goal wards by Studge but the ‘keeper smothered it as he fell, but the ball still touched the post.

It was looking like a 0-0.

Nico and Lampard entered the fray and our possession increased. Michael Ballack was substituted by Leverkusen and he was given a nice reception by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Ballack played four seasons for Chelsea, but divided a lot of the match-going support. We certainly took ages to warm to him, and I am convinced we never saw him at his best. He was a good servant, though. It was good to see his tanned face, his strut and his slightly bowed legs back at HQ. It had been Ballack, in fact, who spurned Leverkusen’s best chance of the game but he shot squarely at Petr Cech from only ten yards.

Then – a lovely move and a great lay-off by Fernando Torres back towards David Luiz. With a lovely sweeping shot, he dispatched the ball into the far corner of the Bayer goal.

Get in. A whoop of joy and a scramble to get my camera up to record the celebrations…”damn, he’s running towards the other corner”…click, click, click. Lots of screams from the players and Luiz pointed at Torres as if to say “you da man.” In fact, that probably is what he said.

Alan: “Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Chris: “ Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Anelka was king of the dribbles in the last quarter and he found Juan Mata who blasted at the goal, only for the German ‘keeper to tip over.

Alex came on for David Luiz. It was a typical Luiz game – awfully timed tackles, brilliant shimmies, majestic dribbles, classy headers, dramatic goals. On eighty minutes, we got the ball in the net again, but Anelka’s neat header was called back for offside. In the last move of the game, Torres was set free in the inside left channel, but chose to release the ball to Mata rather than shoot himself. Mata simply pummelled the ball in and the crowd roared. I caught his leap into Torres’ arms on film and there was a lot of love between the players in the immediate aftermath.

The disappointing attendance and – worse – the near funereal atmosphere clouded my immediate judgement of the game I think. It seemed that we made hard work of it, but I think that was only because we scored relatively late in the game. It wasn’t a bad show. Sturridge looked lively and I like the all-round play of Meireles. I just wish we could break quicker, but of course this is always so difficult at Chelsea when teams never really stretch themselves. However, we have a massive challenge coming up in a few days. Talking to a few close friends throughout the evening, I think we will be sorely tested on Sunday up in Manchester. United are on-song and I am dreading us conceding an early goal. In fact, in my mind, the spectre of Sunday hung over the night like a black cloud. I slowly made my way out and stopped to take a few atmospheric photos outside the West Stand with the crowds drifting off into the London night, past the pubs and bars, the restaurants, the cafes.

Parky and I called in for a curry at the packed Lily Tandoori – owned by a chirpy Fulham fan…”see you next Wednesday!” – and didn’t leave there until 11.30pm. Roadworks on the elevated section of the M4 then resulted in a detour through Brentford and Osterley and I felt increasingly tired. I knocked back two Red Bulls on the drive home and shovelled Parky out of the car at about 1.45am. I reached home at 2.15am…now typically wide awake, damn you Red Bulls. Just time to upload 16 of the 92 photographs I had taken at the game onto my Facebook album. And that took bloody ages, damn you Facebook.

I eventually crawled upstairs to bed at 3.30am, knowing I would need to be up again at 7am.

Midweek football – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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