Tales From The Last Day Of 2011

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 31 December 2011.

A day of poor performances on and off the pitch and a day of quiet contemplation as one year drew to a close, with another one ready to start.

I was back in the hot seat once again. I love driving, to be honest, so it’s never a chore. I pride myself in not knowing anything about cars – I don’t get turned on by engine capacities, turbo systems or leather interiors – but I love driving as a means to travel and as an activity in itself. I love the buzz of driving, the allure of new cities, observing new architecture, and I relish the joy of seeing magnificent countryside as I hurtle past. Combining driving with football is an added perk for me.

You might have noticed.

Of course, if a new ground is involved, even better. I especially enjoyed driving up to Burnley two seasons ago on a bitterly cold day and heading into alien territory. It was one of my very special personal memories from that momentous closing period of The Double season. We have away games at Norwich City and Swansea on the horizon and I am already looking forward to those two; a shame they come within ten days of each other. What is the expression about eggs being kept in the same basket?

Parky had unfortunately missed out on tickets for the away game at Norwich when they went on sale this week, though. The club had stupidly decided not to use loyalty points to decide who gets the chance to apply for this prime ticket and Parky missed out during the mad scramble.

It is my view that the right to purchase tickets for the away games at the three newly promoted teams should always be on loyalty points; this invariably results in the “new ground” scenario. Look how crazy it was for Blackpool away last year; the hottest ticket for an away game for years. Likewise, QPR in October. Tickets went on sale for that game with no loyalty point system in place. Yet another example how out of touch the club is with regards to their rank and file support.

High profile away games really are a mad scramble. For the Norwich City game, Chelsea receives 2,389 tickets. The 550 folks in the away season ticket scheme (of which my friends Alan, Gary and Andy, along with myself, are members) are assured tickets. The remaining 1,839 get split 60-40 amongst season ticket holders (1,103) and members (736). So, around 25,000 season ticket holders got the chance to apply online for just 1,103 tickets with no loyalty weighting in place and is it any wonder that Parky missed out?

Parky and I had a new travelling companion for the game with Villa. Young Jake – he will be known as Young Jake in these chronicles as he is only 23 – is a friend of Parky’s son-in-law Kris and he goes to a few home games each year. We first met him in The Goose at the start of this season. He would be taking Glenn’s season ticket alongside me for this game so I had arranged to collect him in Trowbridge at 9am. A few minutes later, Parky was on board, too.

This would be my 48th Chelsea game within the calendar year of 2011. My highest ever total was 57 in 2009. I can’t see that ever getting beaten to be honest. I briefly looked back on the year. After the euphoria of 2010 (a stunning year for Chelsea, but also a deeply enjoyable one for myself on a personal level), is it any wonder that 2011 has not lived up to expectations? When one considers that the year of 2011 involved three losses at Old Trafford within seven months and three home defeats by Liverpool, it never was going to be a classic Chelsea year. My favourite personal moments of the past twelve months are easy; beating United 2-1 in the league, a great week of the Royal Wedding and victories over West Ham United (the Torres goal still makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention) and Tottenham Hotspur at either end of it, the amazing games in Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok, the noise and passion of the defeat of Manchester City a few weeks ago and – the highlight – meeting my old friend Mario for the Leverkusen away game in November.

Actually – think about it. What fan of Lincoln City, Leicester City or Leeds United would not want to experience what I did in 2011?

We drove in via the M25 and then the A40 again. Jake usually travels up to London by train and so this was a little treat for him. I usually get a little frisson of excitement as I ascend the elevated section of the M4 on my approach to Chelsea, but this other approach is not without merit. In addition to driver, I acted as a tour guide to Jake as I pointed a few sights on our quick journey into London. We passed the art deco magnificence of the Hoover Building and we then caught a quick glimpse of The Shard away on the horizon, amongst the skyscrapers of The City. The Shard will soon become the tallest building in Europe and is designed by Renzo Piano. This architect was first brought to my attention when he oversaw the transformation of the old Lingotto Fiat factory in Turin; the one with the test track on the roof as featured in “The Italian Job” and where my friend Tullio’s grandfather worked.

Past the floodlights of Loftus Road to our right and Jake got a proper buzz in being able to see a new stadium, only yards away, for the first time. As we drove past the Westfield Mall, I mentioned that the BBC Television Centre at White City was nearby. I spoke about the classic BBC sitcom “Steptoe & Son” being based in Shephard’s Bush and Parky piped up

“Oil Drum Lane.”

With that, we treated Jake to a gravelly rendition of the series’ theme tune.

We zipped through Earls Court and I explained how the area’s moniker of “Kangaroo Valley” got its name and then we sped past Brompton Cemetery; the final resting place of the club’s founder Gus Mears. I pointed out the roof supports to the Matthew Harding to Jake as we neared the end of our 136 mile pilgrimage. I thought back to my childhood; seeing the embankment of the old North Stand as the District Line train came out of the tunnel was always a tantalising moment for me on my childhood forays to Stamford Bridge.

I got the feeling that Jake was getting those same feelings.

At the Yadana Café we breakfasted like kings.

Bacon, egg, sausage, mushrooms, tomatoes, baked beans, fried bread, black pudding, toast and coffee.

The Full Monty.

Young Jake’s pre-match prediction was of a 3-1 Chelsea win and he repeated this forecast at regular intervals throughout the day.

Jake and Parky popped into The Goose and I flew down to The Bridge. I wanted to take a quick look at what was on sale in the shop. I just bought one item – the book “Chelsea Uncut” – and that was quite enough for me. I rarely spend my hard-earned on club merchandise, though I did see a few reasonable T-shirts on sale, including one which said something about the club being founded in The Rising Sun; nice, a bit different. The place was packed, though. It was too crowded to be enjoyable, though. I only stayed about ten minutes.

I popped up to the hotel foyer, had a quick word with Mick and bought a pint of lager. I noticed that none other than Kerry Dixon appeared with a few guests. Kerry was a big hero for me during his time at the club and I have been very lucky to spend a few hours in his company on two events in the West of England. These were undoubtedly two of the best nights ever. On the second occasion, a friend of a friend took us on to a country pub in his small Vauxhall Corsa. Being wedged in the back seat of a small car next to Kerry Dixon as the driver navigated the narrow country lanes around Farrington Gurney is one of my most surreal memories as a Chelsea fan.

I waited to catch his eye and offered my hand. He wished me a Happy New Year and we both uttered the phrase “always a pleasure” at the same time. Always embarrassing that, isn’t it? The same words. D’oh.

I sat myself down and had a flick through the book that I had just bought and I loved it. There can’t be many Chelsea photographs from our ancient history that I am yet to see, but the book contained several. I especially enjoyed the old black and white photographs from the early years. A favourite photograph is of a Chelsea goalkeeper – almost certainly Vic Woodley – pumping the heavy leather ball up field on a cold and misty afternoon, with the terraces out of view.

There’s a superb snap of Pat Nevin, the dribbler supreme, crouched and about to spin away from a Newcastle defender from “that” game in November 1983.

There is the iconic photo of the substituted Johnny B patiently waiting in the tunnel during the closing moments of the Leeds game later that season.

Photographs of Matt Damon, Raquel Welsh, Tiger Woods, Lana Turner, Kobe Bryant , the New York Giants and the Chicago White Sox.

Superb stuff.

At the bottom of the escalators, I spotted Gill and Graeme and waited for few minutes for the players to walk through.

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

I then battled the crowds of match day tourists on my scramble out of Stamford Bridge and back up to the pub. I made my way to the bar and glanced up at the TV screen to see that Blackburn Rovers were winning at Old Trafford.

Get in.

Just one more pint, but plenty of chat with the usual suspects. I welcomed the two Texans Wes and Jeff back to Chelsea; Wes now resides in Southfields, but Jeff was on a flying visit. He was last over two years ago and we spent a few moments dissecting the recent performances of the team. We agreed that – altogether now – this is a season of transition.

It really is.

Does anyone not believe this?

If we have to down before we go up, so be it.

I chatted to Andy about the away games at Swansea and Norwich. Andy had decided that he wouldn’t be travelling down on the Tuesday evening for the Swans game, so he sold his ticket to Parky. To complete Parky’s good fortune, Daryl sold him his ticket for the game at Norwich. Parky had a beaming smile after these two transactions.

Excellent.

Andy and I had the briefest of chats about Rangers – he is more a fan than I – and we ended up chatting about the Rangers legend Davie Cooper. I spoke about a goal I saw him score against Celtic in around 1979 in the pre-season Drybrough Cup. I promised to send him a YouTube link if I could find it. It is one of my favourite goals of all time.

The inevitable fight back by United was met with typical groans, but we then exploded when Rovers miraculously went ahead.

Young Jake and I walked down to the ground and we overheard that, indeed, United had been beaten. I quickly texted my Blackburn mate Mark.

“Keen Must Stay.”

We were inside with only a few moments to spare. I just caught Neil Barnett running through the Chelsea subs and caught Neil Barnett saying “Number 27 Sam Hutchinson.”

What a lovely moment for the lad; welcome back, Sam.

Villa had brought down around 800 fans from Birmingham and they didn’t waste too many moments in asking us if we had won a European Cup. Elsewhere, there were empty seats, but the crowd was larger than the Fulham game.

The game? Sigh.

Villa last won in the league at Stamford Bridge in May 2002 and I didn’t expect them to provide a massive threat to us. We enjoyed the early possession but shots from Daniel Sturridge (high) and Didier Drogba (wide) didn’t threaten the Villa goal. Villa had a few chances, mainly involving Agbonlahor on the break. The move which lead to the foul on Drogba was the best passage of play in the game to that point. Drogba seemed to have a verbal spat with Mata over who would take the penalty; there was only going to be one winner, there, with Didi just one goal away from Roy Bentley and Peter Osgood on 150 Chelsea goals.

It wasn’t a clean strike but he scored and I captured it in film.

It was fitting that Didier scored his 150th from the penalty spot at The Shed, in front a banner proclaiming “Born Is The King.”

Bobby Tambling – 202.
Kerry Dixon – 193.
Roy Bentley, Peter Osgood, Didier Drogba – 150.

However, five minutes later Villa equalised with a poorly-defended and scrappy goal from Stephen Ireland. In a poor first-half, our only other chances involved a half-chance from Mata and two free-kicks from Drogba, who clearly fancied himself as the star of the show. Ramires had been surprisingly quiet, but Luiz was steady at the back. Our play was so slow, though, and we didn’t take advantage of the occasions when the play opened up due to Villa’s frequent breaks. At the half-time whistle, there were audible boos.

Soon into the second-half, a lovely run from Juan Mata down below me was exhilarating to observe at such close quarter. I really do have a great seat at Chelsea and Jake was loving it too; his first ever time in the Matthew Harding. On this occasion, Drogba’s run was too soon and the ball rolled away behind him. A Villa free-kick came close, and we had been warned. A Chelsea move broke down and a rapid break from the visitors found the pacey Agbonlahor. We expected the worst, but his weak shot was easily saved by Peter Cech and the covering Luiz averted further danger.

Frank came on for Oriel Romeu and we hoped for the best. How odd it must be for Frank, now, to be limited to rare starting appearances. From that game in 2002, only John and Frank remain. How frustrating for him and for us to watch on as his prolific career undergoes a heart-breaking decline.

Daniel Sturridge was having a very poor game – shirking his defensive responsibilities and rarely threatening up field. He was replaced by Fernando Torres and virtually his first touch almost resulted in a goal. He moved the ball onto his right foot, shaped nicely, then unleashed a cracker which dipped wickedly and slammed against the bar. I know I am biased, but how damn unlucky has Torres been during his Chelsea career? He should be on 15 goals, not 5. If only that first chance in the first-half against Liverpool in February had gone in.

If. The biggest word in football.

The promising Albrightson bamboozled Ashley Cole but Cech saved. A lovely move involving Frank and Fernando set up Drogba, but a week shot ended up well wide and didn’t bother Guzan in the away goal. By now, the natives were restless and the support – hardly ever rising to more than a muffled groan – was now being even more derisive. Chances were as rare as an Arsenal trophy parade.

The newly arrived substitute Bosingwa – for Ferreira – gathered the ball from around thirty yards out and I uttered the line –

“Not from there, Bos.”

Well, what do I know? He sent in a wickedly dipping blast which the ‘keeper palmed over. This optimistic effort from distance proved to be our last real scoring chance. In a cataclysmic final ten minutes, we conceded not one but two goals, both from typical Villa breaks. Just after two penalty claims were waved away, Agbonlahor raced through a massive gap in our rear guard to slot cleanly past Cech.

We groaned and I noticed people leave their seats. More and more blue seats appeared and the mood was of dismay and annoyance with the team. Then, the final wound; a wayward Lampard pass and Ireland advanced on goal before squaring for substitute Bent to score. Thousands more now departed and I sat in stony silence. To be fair, the residual 4,000 in the bottom tier of the MHL were stirred with a defiant “COME ON CHELSEA.”

I’m proud of them for that.

At the final whistle, half the crowd had departed and a few hundred around me booed.

I’m not proud of them for that.

As Jake and I walked miserably down to street level, there was a horrible tone amongst the supporters, accusing various players of lack of effort. I hate to hear these words, but I had to agree that our fight was missing throughout the game. In football, you have to fight for the right to play. Once in possession, you have to move and support the man with the ball. There was little evidence of that too.

A solemn day in SW6.

I felt like saying “Good Riddance 2011.”

However, I suddenly remembered Jake’s 3-1 prediction and playfully took a swipe at him.

It was a pretty reasonable journey home – time wise – but it wasn’t the easiest of drives to make. The usual self-inspection after defeat is never easy is it? A double espresso at Reading put bounce in my step, though, and the music emanating from Parky’s 80’s CD cheered us. On the closing moments, we spoke with Jake about his love of the team and also of his past games and we were, at last, able to put things into perspective. His Dad was a Chelsea fan and took Jake to his first game in the autumn of 1998 for a game against ‘Boro. Sadly – and neither Parky nor I knew this – his father passed away three years ago and Jake said that, poignantly, he feels closer to his father at Stamford Bridge than anywhere else. Through a shared sense of belonging amongst friends, at the stadium where his father spent many an afternoon no doubt, Jake felt better placed to cope with what life could throw at him.

I returned home at about 8.30pm and hated the idea of seeing our game on “Match of the Day.” I watched, through fingers covering my eyes, as our team was taken apart by Alan Shearer and Mark Lawrensen. How typical for Lawrensen to incorrectly miss-read the muted celebrations after Drogba’s penalty as a sign that he was off, siting his solemn waving to the crowd as a “goodbye.” The truth, of course, was that he was showing considerable class in pointing to the penalty spot where The King Of Stamford Bridge lies…

Just before we hit 2012, I quickly scanned the internet for that Davie Cooper goal. While Scotland was celebrating the alcohol-fest that is Hogmanay, I watched open-mouthed as the great Rangers left-footer continuously juggled the ball against Celtic at Hampden Park in 1979. Cooper was a “tanner ball” player in the mold of our own Scottish dribblers Charlie Cooke and Pat Nevin and I just couldn’t resist playing and re-playing that amazing clip time after time.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=js4PK73nIRs

Superb stuff.

A trip to Molyneux awaits. Let’s hope that 2012 starts in decidedly better health than which 2011 ended.

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