Tales From The 41,548*

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 26 December 2011.

For the first time this season, I was having a day off. That is to say, the driving duties were not mine. At last I could relax and let somebody else worry about the traffic and the timings. Glenn called for me at 8am and we were soon on our way. Parky was collected at 8.30am, resplendent in a new Duck & Cover top, thankfully now recovering from his recent ailments.

The three amigos on the way to football once more.

Another season, another Boxing Day game, another game at The Bridge. Admittedly, we don’t have a game every December 26th (our last Boxing Day game was in 2009 at Birmingham City), but Chelsea invariably get home fixtures on this date.

As I live over 100 miles from SW6, it took until 1992 for me to see Chelsea in a Boxing day game; until then the friction of distance, plus lack of finances, prevailed against me. On that particular day, I drove up to Chelsea for the very first time and parked near the Lots Road gasometers and watched Chelsea scramble a 1-1 draw against Southampton. I remember I took an old-school camcorder up with me for that game and – quite illegally – recorded around ten minutes of match action from the East Upper. I also took a few shots of the old tube station, the souvenir shops on the Fulham Road, the forecourt, The Shed. I’m glad I did; within a few years, the old Stamford Bridge would be no more. That 15 minute film from Stamford Bridge – shrouded in midwinter mist, atmospheric, bleak – is a cherished part of my Chelsea archives. I remember how every time Chelsea (Dennis Wise, Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair et al) managed to cross the halfway line, there were encouraging cheers and claps from the Chelsea support in the East Stand. I watched this video film a few years ago and it was quite endearing to be honest; refreshing to see – and hear – Chelsea fans supporting the team’s pursuit of goals and glory. These days, the notion of Chelsea fans cheering each time we get past the centre-circle seems absurd.

1992 was my first ever CFC Boxing Day game, but my first ever trip to Stamford Bridge during the festive season was ten years earlier, during that bleakest of seasons, the 1982-1983 campaign. During that winter, Chelsea were stumbling along in the old second division and gates were hitting new lows. Despite drawing 25,000 for the visit of Leeds United in October, gates had dropped to as low as 7,000 in late 1982. Our neighbours Fulham, paradoxically, were flying high under the management of former player Malcolm MacDonald and with players such as Ray Houghton, Sean O’Driscoll, Gordon Davies and Dean Coney. I travelled up with my parents for the Chelsea vs. Fulham derby on December 28th 1982 and wondered how big the gate would be. If memory serves, the cancellation of a set of fixtures the previous week had resulted in massive crowds on the Boxing Day that year; everyone wanted their fix of football. Well, the Chelsea crowd did not disappoint on that afternoon in December 1982. I watched from The Shed and my parents watched from way up high in the East. The game was a scoreless draw, but the abiding memory is of the huge 29,000 attendance. Our average during that 1982-1983 season was just 12,672 (our lowest ever, from 1905 onwards), so getting a gate of 29,000 reconfirmed what I knew; we were a sleeping giant, we did have the fan base…with a little success, the crowds would return. I remember little of the day, apart from waiting at the bottom of The Shed after the game had ended. Thousands upon thousands of fans strode past as I waited for my parents to join me. I was overawed by the numbers and the wait seemed to take forever. I can see my father now, in his hat and overcoat, trying to keep warm in the cold December air. My mother alongside, with her face cheered for seeing me.

Lovely memories.

So much for Chelsea versus Fulham in 1982. What about Chelsea versus Fulham in 2011?

McBreakfasts were purchased at Melksham and were consumed “on the hoof.” Glenn made great time and we were rolling along nicely. We bumped into a few Cardiff City fans at Reading Services, en route to Watford, and then continued on our pilgrimage east. With the tube strike undoubtedly causing more fans to travel in by car, plus the closure of the A4 at Hammersmith, we had planned a different route in. We drove north on the M25, then came in to London on the A40, past the iconic Hoover Building near Hanger Lane. I quickly spotted Park Royal tube station and it brought back warm memories of my first ever trip to Chelsea in 1974; we had parked nearby, and then caught the tube in from that very station. My father was always fearful of the traffic in central London, bless him.

Past the floodlights of Loftus Road, then the new and architecturally brutal Westfield Mall – right in the heart of QPR land – and then past more familiar sights; Earls Court, Salvo’s restaurant, West Brompton Cemetry…Chelsealand.

We were parked-up at 10.40am and it had been a breeze. The weather was surprisingly mild.

A knot of customers were already waiting for The Goose to open up. As more punters joined the throng, I walked over to meet Nathan (a CIAer from the Bay Area of California) and his parents. He had previously visited HQ for the 3-0 thrashing of Birmingham City in the Double season, but his parents – Laurie and Paul – were first-time Bridge visitors. They had just raided the megastore. There is a sale on at present and I have my sights set on a couple of books which I’ll probably purchase before the Villa game.

Into The Goose and I could enjoy a few beers. I took my jacket off and got the beers in. A few pints of Peroni – currently my favourite by far – went down well. Paul, Laurie and Nathan settled down for a lovely pre-match and we covered tons of sport-related topics in the 90 minutes which was afforded us. Parky and Paul exchanged awful jokes, Laurie proclaimed her hatred of the Yankees and I gave her a hug. Paul and I chatted about the Brooklyn Dodgers while Nathan and I spoke about the upcoming Chelsea tour to the US in the summer. It was a fine time.

The Goose was terribly quiet, though. There was probably only 50% of the usual numbers present. I wondered if The Bridge would be well short of capacity on this particular Boxing Day.

Our American guests, fortified by the beer and the laughter of a Chelsea pre-match, set off for The Bridge. I had thoroughly enjoyed their company – sports mad, the lot of them – and I had said “we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.” Parky and I soon followed. I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the streets approaching the stadium were. It felt very odd.

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There wasn’t even much of a line at the turnstiles.

I reached my seat, buzzing from the alcohol intake, as the flags were ending their travels along the two tiers of the Matthew Harding Stand. In front of me were two empty seats. The Bridge appeared full, but after a glance around all four stands, it was clear that hundreds – no thousands – of seats were unoccupied. It wasn’t clear in my mind how Arsenal could call off their game on this day of tube-strike induced chaos, while Chelsea did not. Of course, it all became clear. Chelsea had sold all of the 41,500 tickets; why should they care if thousands couldn’t travel in and attend the actual game.

1-0 to Arsenal.

For the first time since September, Glenn, Alan and I were at The Bridge together.

It felt right.

I won’t dwell too much on the game. I thought that we had enough chances to win, but that much cherished commodity luck was not with us on this particular occasion. That is, of course, not hiding the fact that we did not play well. The first-half was particularly poor, with hardly any urgency in our attacking play.

The first real chance of the day fell to Clint Dempsey and his Barnes Wallace of a shot caused Cech to scramble to his right and turn past the post. Fulham had three thousand fans, but one flag; a Japanese flag. They don’t do flags, Fulham, do they? It goes without saying, the away fans made more noise consistently throughout the game than the Chelsea fans.

Mata played in Fernando Torres and the maligned Spaniard did well to bounce the ball off his chest to enable a swivel of the hips and a shot on target. Unfortunately, as is the way with Nando, the ball was struck straight at Stockdale in the Shed goal. Our approach play was laboured and The Bridge fell silent.Two wayward efforts from Torres left Tom with his head in his hands. A cross from wide rattled straight across Petr Cech’s area and we were lucky Fulham were only playing with one up.

A corner on 38 minutes typified our poor play; Mata sent in a corner towards the penalty spot, but it was headed clear by one of three defenders, with not a Chelsea player within five yards of the ball. I had signalled to San Francisco Pete, way up at the back of the MHU, to join me for a pint at the break. While lining up in line, we watched as Studge laced a shot wide.

It was good to see Pete again and we had the usual moan, huddled under the upper tier in the area by the refreshment stand. Chelsea has chosen to decorate this area with a set of large photographs of past Chelsea players and I approve of this. It adds character to an otherwise functional part of the stadium. While we supped away at our pints of Singha, photographs of Dickie Spence, Dennis Wise, Peter Bonetti, Ruud Gullit and others looked on. It is just the sort of detail which is so sadly lacking at the bland Wembley Stadium, which depresses me more each time I visit.

Unfortunately, Pete and I missed two important things due to our half-time chat. We missed the appearance of former striker Jimmy Greaves, who was on the pitch at the break. I wonder if he is aware that, rather ironically, there is a bar in the Matthew Harding called “Jimmy’s”, named after him. As a sad victim of alcoholism and now a teetotaller, I’m sure he would find the funny side of that.

We also missed the goal. We were chatting about some nonsense, just finishing our pints, when we heard a roar.

“Oh well.”

We smiled and toasted Chelsea.

I soon had an incoming call from Alan in the stadium, but twenty yards from me.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I don’t miss many goals at Chelsea matches – I’ve probably only missed five or six Chelsea goals in over 800 games.

I re-joined the boys at my seat in the MH wraparound and hoped for further goals. It was pretty lacklustre stuff to be honest. We seemed to have all of the possession. And then a defensive blunder and Dempsey struck from close in. It was a weak goal to let in and we all groaned.

AVB replaced the insignificant Frank Lampard with Florent Malouda and our form improved slightly. Fulham were happy to defend and we regained the upper hand. Alan came out with a Christmas cracker of his own –

“Come on Chelsea. This is as one-sided as Heather Mills.”

As the time passed, our chances piled up. The best move thus far involving Malouda and Terry found Sturridge who forced a fingertip save from Stockwell. From the corner, our bad luck continued as an opportunist back heel from Malouda, two yards out, was blocked.

Didier was given a chance to play, replacing Sturridge with twenty minutes to go. Torres was shunted wide and became marginalised. Alan and I had said that we wanted to see Torres on the shoulder of the last man while he was in Chelsea Blue, centrally, ready to pounce. We didn’t care to see him chasing back and turning up in all sorts of deep lying positions. We wanted to see him played to his strength. I’d like to know if AVB tells him to chase balls back in his own half. I’m not a great tactician, but I’d prefer to see Nando as goal poacher and goal poacher only during his time in SW6.

The two highlights for me were two majestically crafted lobs from David Luiz, both with just the correct amount of fade and spin to allow the ball to die as it hit the turf, allowing team mates to gather with the minimum of effort.

Truly great passes. Almost scooped up with Luiz’ right foot. Perfect.

A Drogba shot from the second one of these was hit straight at Stockwell. A curling effort from Meireles agonisingly missed the far post. Malouda set up Meireles with a header which flew over. The last chance, a Drogba effort from a free-kick, did not bother the Fulham ‘keeper.

It was one of those days.

There was a short bout of booing at the final whistle. On exiting the stadium, the Chelsea supporters around me were full of complaints about Andre Villas-Boas, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Winston Bogarde, Slavisa Jokanovic, Keith Dublin, Graham Wilkins, Peter Houseman, Keith Weller and Fatty Foulke. I found it a shame that these same fans couldn’t find time to cheer the boys on during the game.

There you go – the usual moan from me about the lack of noise from our home support.

Merry Christmas.

We returned back to Glenn’s van and were soon on our way. There was the briefest of post-mortems as Glenn wended his way back through the streets of West London, out past Ealing and Acton, past the urban sprawl of the inter-war years, out of London and back towards home.

My mate Steve texted me with updates from the Frome Town vs. Weymouth game as the afternoon became evening. Two missed Weymouth penalties, a Frome sending off, no goals, but a disappointing crowd of 533 in arguably Frome’s biggest ever home league game. Maybe there had been an unexpected tube strike on the Buckland Dinham and Trudoxhill underground lines.

From the Chelsea FC website –

Best Moment of the Match.

“The announcement that 41,548 resourceful fans had managed to fill Stamford Bridge despite travel problems on the tubes, trains and west London roads.”

The five thousand empty seats tell a different story.

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