Tales From The Debutants

Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 20 April 2011.

We are in the middle of a busy period. It seems as if the season is in some sort of rush to get itself finished. With just six games of Chelsea’s 2010-2011 campaign remaining, I was well aware of the need to relish every second, every minute, and every kick of every last game of this season.

On the Tuesday, Manchester United dropped points at St. James’ Park. Maybe this crazy season wasn’t finished just yet. During another busy morning at work, I found just enough time to daydream of a Chelsea win over a struggling Birmingham City, allied with a favourable result between our North London “friends”. I told anyone who would listen –

“We could be second tonight.”

Thankfully, I had booked myself another half-day holiday and I left the delights of work at 12.30pm. Easter week is always notoriously busy and we always struggle to fit five days’ work into four. It was with guilty pleasure that I left the rest of my workmates to it. For this midweek game against Birmingham, it was the same scenario as against Manchester United a mere fortnight ago; pick up Parky, home to change, then up on the A303 and M3. A lot has happened in two weeks; too much, to be honest. Out of Europe, for sure, adrift in the league, maybe.

The sky was hazy, but the temperature warm as we headed east. By 4.15pm, I had parked up. I left Parky to head into the pub and I briskly walked down to The Bridge as I had people to meet. My goodness, it was muggy. It felt like the warmest day of the year. As I took a left outside The So Bar, I headed towards the West Stand and passed a chap in his late forties wearing both replica shirt and shorts. This isn’t a good look, mate. Take a look at yourself.

Inside the Megastore, I met Chelsea debutants Mike, Ashley and Brandon. Mike had contacted me a while back on the off-chance of getting tickets for the game. Luckily, tickets became available and “Bob’s your uncle,” as we say. This was Mike and Ashley’s first ever visit to the UK and they arrived via a quick tour of Europe, involving a few days in Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Seven hours after landing at Heathrow, they were at Stamford Bridge and clearly excited by the prospect of their first ever Chelsea home game. Brandon now lives In Madrid and was accompanying them on this trip. They were only town for a few days and had an itinerary all sorted.

Chelsea was obviously the centre-piece.

I briskly took the three Americans up to the hotel foyer to quickly meet – you all know where this is going, right? – Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. We posed for photos with these two affable Chelsea legends and it was all very friendly and relaxed. Peter spoke about his time in America in the mid-‘seventies, including a season spent in the heat of a Missouri summer with St. Louis Stars in the NASL. Brandon thought it odd that The Cat called football “soccer” but I think he was just being friendly, bridging the gap between our great two nations, separated by the same language, as the saying goes. Peter Bonetti once played against Pele in The States and knew him from their time at the 1970 World Cup.

Then, decision time. As this was the three Americans’ first ever visit to The Bridge, I didn’t want to force their hands. I was heading back to The Goose, but was well aware that the three guests may want to stay closer to the stadium and get wrapped up in the pre-match buzz there. I was happy with their decision to join me back at the pub. On the walk back down the Fulham Road and up the North End Road, I did my tourist-guide bit with tales of the old Shed, the Osgood statue, The So Bar, the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and the tube station. All Chelsea landmarks. Our bricks and mortar. Our history.

As I handed over the two season ticket cards to Ashley and Mike, I joked that they had left America single, but they were now newly arrived in England and passing themselves off as a married couple, Karen and Dave Lambert, from Frome in Somerset. How very murky. Their friends will be shocked. They would be sitting in the Shed Upper. Brandon would be alongside me in the MHU.

We made it back to The Goose at about 5.30pm and it was again nice to be able to relax a little before a midweek game. In addition to my little tour party, there was a sizeable gathering of the US clans taking place in the pub and beer garden. Beth was in mid-conversation with Cathy, a rare visitor to The Goose, and the New York Blues were represented by some Neat folk, plus Linda and Napoli Frank (who I had inadvertently bumped into in The Megastore, much to our amusement.)

The pints of lager and lime were going down well and Parky was flitting around like the socialite that he is. My boys – Alan, Gary, Rob, Andy, The Youth, Ed, Daryl, Russ – were in another corner. Busy, busy, busy. Conversations were flowing and it was great. I reconvened with Ashley, Mike and Brandon and we reignited some football-related conversations. We briefly touched on the strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes, of the franchise aspect of American sport teams and specifically the movement of a team from one city to another. The loathed MK Dons aside, this simply doesn’t happen in the UK. We specifically spoke about how Ashley and Mike’s home town of Seattle has reacted to the demise of the Sonics NBA team. They believe that the upsurge in support of the Seattle Sounders MLS team is linked to the flight of the Sonics a few years back. Ashley spoke of a friend who was a lifetime Sonics fan, whose dream was to work for the club in some way. He studied hard and eventually got an internship with the Sonics and loved it. He was heartbroken when the owner sold the club and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. He was offered a job at the new city and reluctantly took it. I commented that it must be like marrying your school sweetheart, raising a family, but then getting a divorce and having to work for her new husband.

I hope that the franchise system never comes into our sporting landscape in the UK.

We also briefly touched on football hooliganism, but that’s a story for another day.

I took a few photos of Linda and Frank with two lovely trophies which they were due to present to Didier Drogba before the game. I believe Beth’s crew have a similar presentation against West Ham United.

The First-Ever Transatlantic Lacoste Watch.

London.

Andy – racing green

Chris – pink

Philadelphia.

Steve – lime

Just before we all set off for the walk to the ground, Rich from the Philly Blues popped in. Even more American visitors are planned for Saturday, when we will be hoping to celebrate a St. George’s Day victory over West Ham. I walked down the North End Road, past the pubs and fast-food cafes, with Rob and he said that some West Ham are taking a River Thames boat down the river for the game on Saturday.

“Yeah, which bridges are they going under?”

We both had the same thought.

There is new signage on the West Stand wall now – the tagline is “All Blues” and there are photos of the new 2011-2012 Chelsea kit. In fact, the new kit featured on the cover of the programme too. I loathe this premature arrival of new kits before the current season is finished. I don’t doubt we will wear it against The Geordies on Sunday 15th. May. Pathetic.

Brandon was already chatting to Alan when I arrived in my seat with about five minutes to go before kick-off. I had my cursory look around. Like me, many fans were in short-sleeved shirts. The clouds were still hugging the stadium in a claustrophobic clasp. Still very muggy. Birmingham City had about 700 fans and just four flags. I pointed out all of the US flags to Brandon. Despite a gate of over 40,000, there were many empty seats dotted around. I suspect we were 3,000 down on capacity. I got my lens out and quickly spotted “The Lamberts” in the Shed Upper.

So, the same team as against West Brom, apart from Paolo in for Ivanovic. I hope Ramires quickly returns. Birmingham were in a white–white–blue reverse of our kit.

We only had to wait two minutes for a goal. Alan had just commented to me about it being a long time since Chelsea scored a first-half goal at home in the league, when Paolo Ferreira sent over a perfect cross for the leaping Didier Drogba to get the feintest of flicks (snap!) and Florent Malouda to sweep the ball home.

Get in.

Mike, Ashley and Brandon – Welcome To Chelsea!

I’ll be honest; I was enjoying chatting to Brandon during the first-half about all sorts of things and found myself drifting away from the game. We spoke mainly about football but various other topics found their way into our chat. It was fun talking to an avid fan with a different perspective to mine. I hoped that having a Madrid resident next to me might somehow jolt Torres into goal scoring action later in the game. The atmosphere, despite our early goal, was quite subdued and there seemed to be a strange air throughout the evening. It didn’t seem like a game at the business end of the season.

On 26 minutes, what a lovely goal from Salomon Kalou. It was most unlike him, wasn’t it? A forceful run and an even better early strike. I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball hit the back of the net before the ‘keeper Ben Foster was even able to move.

Not so Kalou-less.

On 35 minutes, Didier cut in from the left and hit a daisy-cutter which the Birmingham City ‘keeper did well to turn around the far post.

Birmingham had a few sporadic attacks, but Cech was mainly untroubled.

The main problem for me was that for the second time in about a month, an over officious steward warned me not to take any photographs. It was a case of “cat and mouse” with him for the rest of the game. A similar fate befell Cathy against Wigan.

Vince – a former season-ticket holder – was sat in front of the three of us and I explained to Brandon that he lives out in East London, deep in West Ham territory. Sadly, his young son is a West Ham fan. Vince’s son could become the secretary general of the United Nations, find a cure for cancer, become CEO of a company which outsold Microsoft, beat Stephen Hawking at chess, record a platinum selling album, win five gold medals at a future Olympics and bring the warring factions in the Middle East together in peace; Vince would still feel that he had failed as a father.

West Ham. I ask you.

At the break, Tommy Baldwin was walked around the pitch by Neil Barnett. I explained to Brandon that he was known as “The Sponge” by fans and players alike in his time at Chelsea. Just as I had finished talking, the automatic sprayers came to life and the two of them had to sprint away from the water. With typical quick-witted gusto, Alan remarked “go on, soak it up, Tommy.”

Soon into the second-half, from a Drogba corner, a David Luiz header went wide.

The highlight of the second period was the introduction of debutant Ryan Bertrand for Ashley Cole on 56 minutes. He fitted in well and, after just five minutes in a first team shirt, sent over a cross from down below me by the north-west corner post. His pinpoint cross was headed down and in by Florent Malouda.

3-0 and coasting. The Malouda and Kalou Show.

Malou and Kalouda.

A strange old night in SW6.

To be honest, after our ridiculous bad luck at St. Andrews in November, it was only right that there would be Chelsea goals in this game.

On 66 minutes, a double substitution; Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka came on for the two goalscorers.

On 74 minutes, we conceded a very silly penalty when David Luiz uncharacteristically chopped at a Brum attacker – going away from the goal – and the referee had no choice but to award the penalty. It was easily despatched.

3-1.

Not to worry – we conceded just as we heard that Tottenham had recovered from being 1-3 down at home to Arsenal to get it back to 3-3. This cheered us up!

Anelka, playing deep, lost possession on the halfway line and Larsonn had the whole half at his mercy. Thankfully, he was short on confidence and chose to shoot early and his tame effort skidded well wide.

The last action of the match took place after Birmingham were penalised for a back-pass inside their box and the free-kick was only eight yards out. The crowd bellowed for Torres, but Drogba – enjoying a fine game – blasted high over the bar.

3-1 to The Champions – job done!

Brandon and I watched as the team left the pitch, but noted that yet again JT was the last man off, stripped to the waist, beating his chest.

Outside, we met up with “The Lamberts” and they were very contented. Thankfully, they didn’t use the word “awesome”, but I was in no doubt of their happiness.

The four of us soon said our goodbyes – but I made sure that Mike does his match report once he has time.

We dropped into The Goose to catch a glimpse of the Real vs. Barca game from Valencia and to let the traffic subside. Another pint for Parky and a refreshing Coke for me.

We left London at 10.30pm and I was home by 12.45pm.

Yep – up to second place now and who knows? Despite the doom-mongering of a few weeks ago, we’re still in contention.

Current Form.

Chelsea : 5 – 1 – 0

Manchester United : 3 – 1 – 2

Arsenal : 1 – 5 – 0

Five games to play. Let’s go.

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