Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 10 March 2012.
With two games in Birmingham behind us, the rambling story of our season returned to London. We have three games in nine days at Stamford Bridge. Three match tickets and an outlay of £136.50. Does anyone think I am complaining? No, of course not. I’m just happy to have a three-pronged attack for silverware as we head into the month of March.
In some ways, the game against Napoli and their rampaging Three Tenors of Lavezzi, Cavani and Hamsik was on my mind more than the run-of-the-mill League game against the brutal threat of the Stoke City kickers and scufflers. Of course, our 2011-2012 season began with that difficult game at the Britannia Stadium on Sunday August 14th. In some ways, it seems only a matter of weeks ago.
As Saturday March 10th 2012 unravelled before me, I acknowledged the truth in the the old adage about the football being an increasingly small part of the whole day out at Chelsea these days. I have my friend Bryan to thank for that. Bryan is 53 and a lorry driver from my home town of Frome in Somerset. He used to travel up with us for a few years a while back; I have a feeling that his first game with us was the 6-2 slaughter of Sunderland in 1997. He used to go to Chelsea in his younger years of course, but grew out of the habit. Anyway, from 1997 to 2002 or so, Frome was well represented at Stamford Bridge. There was Frank and Michelle, Glenn, Bryan and myself travelling up in one car and Dave, Karen and PD in another. Eight of us; a good show. In some respects, this was a bit of a golden age for us Frome followers. Not only were we rewarded with our first successes on the pitch since 1971, but most home games were usually followed up by us calling in at Ron Harris’ pub in nearby Warminster on the way home. They were superb times.
Bryan stopped going regularly to Chelsea in around 2002 but has been back a few times since. Apart from a silly dalliance with Bristol City in his skinhead youth, much frowned-upon by Glenn and me, he has remained true to Chelsea, as his tattoos will testify.
In November, I bumped into his partner Linda in town, but she had some shocking news. Bryan had returned from a job in Spain and had been very ill for a few weeks. He had a stomach ulcer, but further tests identified that he had contracted Legionnaire’s Disease. I called around to his house that morning and, without being melodramatic, Bryan explained to me that it was touch-and-go at one stage if he’d pull through. Thankfully, his spell in hospital enabled him to recover and he was back at work before Christmas.
Bryan hadn’t been to Chelsea for a couple of years and so I was really looking forward to getting him back in The Goose amongst old friends. When I called for him at 8.30am, he was already out on the grass verge, awaiting my arrival. He looked so keen that I imagined that he had been doing press-ups on the lawn in an attempt to dissipate an overflowing and enthusiastic supply of energy which had been welling up. Linda waved us off and we were on our way. I soon collected Parky at 9am and we were London-bound.
Bryan had met Lynda in the Falkland Islands. Parky had served in the Falklands Conflict of 1982. As we zipped past Swindon, the chat centred on those islands in the South Atlantic. Bryan and Parky certainly had lots to talk about. With the thirtieth anniversary of the Falklands approaching, we spoke about the past…Port Stanley, Goose Green, HMS Sheffield, the General Belgrano…memories of 1982. We spoke about the present; the noises coming out of Argentina at the moment. We spoke about the recent deaths of the six British soldiers killed in Kandahar Province in Afghanistan. I am currently getting the house redecorated (the Chelsea room, specifically) and I was horrified to hear on Thursday that the son of my decorator Steve was in the tank behind the one which was hit. Thankfully, and mercifully, he escaped the immediate attack, though how that young man is coping the aftermath of losing some of his comrades can only be imagined.
I told Bryan and Parky that the club had quickly agreed to a minute’s silence before the day’s game as a mark of remembrance for those six brave soldiers who had been stationed in nearby Warminster but who had lost their lives on a foreign field, thousands of miles away from their homeland.
It makes our silly and superficial worries about our football club pale into insignificance…
At 11.15am, the three of us were tucking into a Saturday Fry-Up and at 11.45am, we were in The Goose amongst friends. The weather was pretty mild and the beer garden was being used in earnest for the first time since the late autumn. While Bryan chatted to Daryl, Rob and Alan, I had a good old natter with Neil and The Youth.
Unsurprisingly, our conversation centred on the recent sacking of Andre Villas-Boas, but also the recent rumblings from the club and the Hammersmith & Fulham Council about the possible development of Stamford Bridge.
Neil is from Guernsey and I don’t get the chance to see him too much. We were in agreement about Villas-Boas. He said that after he heard the news of the sacking on Sunday, he was as low as he has been for ages. He commented that he had never felt more out of touch with the club. I knew what he meant. Many words were exchanged between the two of us. I said to Neil –
‘If you had said to me before the first game of the season that the team would be heading into March still in the Champions League, still in the FA Cup, in fourth or fifth place in the league, I would have said “OK, no worries, that’s alright, what’s the problem?”…I certainly would not have expected us to have sacked the manager.’
Of my eight to ten match going mates, my closest mates, the inner sanctum, I think most are of the same opinion.
Chopper from New York suddenly appeared and he was full of smiles, loving the London life and relishing the Napoli game on Wednesday. Jesus flitted past; happy to have seen us win in Birmingham during the week. While I was getting a round in, who should I see but Dave and Karen, from Frome. Dave has been on a diet and has lost a massive five stones; fair play to him. Of course, this just meant that he was the instant target of tons of Micky-taking and light-hearted abuse.
Photographs of all of us. Tons of smiles. This is the life.
Alan passed over my away tickets for Manchester City, Fulham and Aston Villa; another £142. Phew. On the TV, the Bolton vs. QPR game was garnering scant attention. My views on goal-line technology are softening with every mistake made by an official, but my fear, as always, has been that this will be the thin end of the wedge. Before we know it, there will be video replays being used for off-sides and then fouls and handballs. Referees will be undermined further and the lunatics will have taken over the asylum.
At Chelsea, however, this happened years ago.
I set off for The Bridge with Bryan a little bit earlier than usual. I wanted to pin my 16 year old banner denoting “Win For Us” on the back wall of the MHU and I hoped that Roberto di Matteo would see it. I can well remember that I first took “Vinci ”to a game – to welcome Vialli and di Matteo to our club – on the home opener of the 1996-1997 season and I draped it over the MH balcony, no more than twenty feet away from my current seat. On that occasion, versus Middlesbrough, of course it was di Matteo who scored a late winner and initiated one of the most iconic Chelsea celebrations. I was elated to hear that there was a brief mention of “Vinci” in the following day’s “London Evening Standard.”
We taped the banner up – it’s a little tattered these days, having travelled with me from America to Malaysia – and drew the usual stupefied looks from the nearby Chelsea fans. I always have to explain what it means.
Over in the far corner, the Stoke contingent looked pretty pathetic, duck. Alan joked that it looked like only their notorious “Naughty Forty” – plus a few others – had bothered to travel.
The teams appeared and then gathered on the centre circle. Neil Barnett mentioned that this was our 107th birthday and was our Founder’s Day. He also drew attention to the scarlet-tunics of the seven Chelsea Pensioners who had been given prime seats in the Directors Box in the West stand. Neil then said a few sullen words detailing the six soldiers who had given the ultimate sacrifice during the past few days. Rather than reverential silence, though, there was applause. I’m not so sure I agree with this. I see no problems in applause when one is acknowledging, and celebrating, the life of someone who has lived to the allotted “three score years and ten” – or hopefully more. But I do not feel that applause should be used when we mark the loss of lives so young. We don’t applaud on Remembrance Sunday in November do we? Applauding a life is a relatively new phenomenon in the UK – the Italians have been doing it for years – and the first time that I can remember it being used at a Chelsea game was at Fratton Park in 2005 when the crowd began in silence, but soon started applauding the life of George Best, that famous former Chelsea native, who had recently lost his battle with alcoholism.
Another full house. The sun was out. No need for my jacket; a polo shirt was enough. In the end, Stoke had around 350. There was an additional “Remembrance” banner on display in The Shed; Peter Osgood had momentarily been displaced a few yards. The atmosphere was typically tepid.
The game. Do I have to?
I wondered if Ramires would be stationed out wide in a forward three with Drogba and Kalou, ahead of the midfield of Mikel, Meireles and Lampard. We attacked the MH during the first-half and it felt odd. We don’t often do this, do we?
Early chances came to us. Branislav Ivanovic headed over from a corner and then Gary Cahill had a strong run, followed by a belter which was saved. Bryan, the truck driver, unveiled his iPhone and this was met with some typically derogatory comments from Alan. I wondered if it had any aps which helped Bryan locate the nearest HP Sauce bottle when he was in a greasy spoon café.
Stoke rarely troubled us to be honest. A slip by Terry allowed Walters in, but his effort was blocked by the covering Cahill. Their limited game plan was affected when Ricardo Fuller was given his marching orders for a stupid stamp on the prostrate Ivanovic. To be honest, my eyes were elsewhere and didn’t see the offence. Just after the half hour, there was typical rough and tumble at a corner and John Terry appeared to be manhandled as he tried to gain a square inch of space. Despite these close attentions, JT’s down and up header rattled the bar. A few Chelsea half-chances came and went. The manager decided, after a while, to withdraw Meireles and bring on Mata. It was clear that Stoke would do their dogged best to hang on for a draw. Just before the break, that man Ivanovic struck a thunderous angled drive which rocked the bar. Lampard hit a daisy-cutter which Begovic easily gathered.
We had heard that Bobby Tambling would be on the pitch at half-time. Neil introduced us to a young lad from Cork, who was attending his first game at Stamford Bridge.
“He’s OK though ‘cus he has his uncle with him.”
Bobby Tambling, with his wife Val alongside, was introduced to lovely applause and was able to say a few, halting, words to thank us for all the best wishes he has received during his recent period of ill health. I was able to capture this on film.
On more than one occasion he referred to his “blue family.” It was a touching moment.
There was a lazy start to the second-half really. David Luiz came on to take over in the right-back berth from Ivanovic. It took a full 15 minutes for us to threaten Begovic’ goal when JT took the ball from deep and let fly with a shot which whipped past the post. We still await JT’s first blooter from outside the box. Maybe he is saving it for a special occasion.
The Stoke fans were quiet and we were no better.
On 65 minutes, Frank was hauled down when apparently through on goal, but Didier’s fine free-kick was palmed away for a corner. Soon after, a moment of pure class.
The ball was played in from Cole into a central position. Mata delicately played the ball through to the unmarked Drogba, who side-stepped the goalkeeper and slotted home. I immediately thought that this was just the sort of ball that Torres has been begging for the past year. The crowd roared and the players danced down to the South-West corner.
I knew what was coming.
Alan : “Thay’ll have to come at us know, duck.”
Chris : “Come on ma little diamonds.”
A lob from Wilkinson evaded Cech and had us all worried, but thankfully was wide of the target. A mistake by JT then allowed Jerome in on goal, but his shot was wide after a strong run. Daniel Sturridge, the last substitute, had a chance after a jink inside. Mata struck the woodwork from a free-kick. One last chance for Sturridge, but again wide.
It was hardly a game to remember.
At the final whistle, Neil Barnett commented that Didier became the leading African scorer in English football. I watched as Didier advanced towards the Chelsea supporters and gave his shirt to a lucky fan in the MHL.
I made good time on the drive home. We listened in as Tottenham lost at Everton. It was the usual end to a Chelsea Saturday with a time-honoured viewing of “Match of the Day”, the national institution. All I can add about the programme is that Liverpool’s 1-0 loss at Sunderland was featured a few games after ours. This was a morsel of comfort for me; in years gone by, any Liverpool loss would be seen as major news. These days, such defeats warrant hardly a flicker of interest by the media.
We reconvene on Wednesday for the visit of the crazy Neapolitans.
It could be an absolute cracker.
Andiamo a lavorare.