Tales From The School End

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2011.

After a rather nondescript and unexciting season in 2010-2011, it certainly seems that the current campaign is trying desperately hard to make up for it. With less than ten games in, the season seems to have had more exciting games, sub-plots and talking points than last year already. This was another crazy day of football. It left us breathless. It also left us pointless, but not without a fight.

It is one of the strange anomalies of my Chelsea supporting life that I had only ever visited Loftus Road on one other previous occasion. Admittedly, we hadn’t played them in the league since the 1995-1996 season, but even so. However I then thought back about my priorities in the days when my income was at a lesser level than of late. Back in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, I only used to go to between four and five away games each season. In those days, the temptation of an away day to Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury or White Hart Lane was always more alluring than a trip up to the pokey confines of Loftus Road. Looking back, away games at QPR always seemed to be on Boxing Day, Easter Monday or midweek days too; more reasons which made travel from Somerset more difficult.

Yep, my only other visit to Loftus Road was on a Wednesday in the spring of 1995. I remember travelling up to London on a half-day holiday to collect away tickets for the Real Zaragoza game, but I then drove up to Shephard’s Bush for our game against QPR in the evening. As was the way in those days, Daryl and I were one of the hundreds of Chelsea fans who had tickets in the home stands. We had great seats, right in the middle of the single tiered Ellerslie Road stand, but the game was poor. We played in the atrocious – and infamous – tangerine and graphite away kit and a lone Kevin Gallen goal gave the home team a deserved win.

Sixteen years later, I was long overdue a second visit.

On a bright autumnal Sunday morning, I collected His Lordship at just before 11am. This was a pretty late start, really, but we were in no rush. We had another lovely drive up to London, stopping for yet another Costa Coffee at Reading. The high spot of the morning’s drive involved us chatting about us in thirty years time, still going to Chelsea, Parky 85 years old and myself ten years younger.

We had a few moments visualising the scene of myself, arriving at his care home, smoking a pipe – Popeye style – and shouting out at him –

“Come on you old fool, get a move on.”

And then Parky propelling himself out in a wheelchair. Both of us wearing slippers. Both of us in cardigans. Both of us as deaf as a post.

“Who are we playing?”

“Arsenal today…Spurs on Thursday.”

“Thirsty, you say? So am I. Let’s stop off for a pint.”

Getting to The Goose, Lorraine the landlady in a blue rinse, Reg the landlord still waiting for Liverpool to win the league after 50 years.

“A pint of Carling? Seventy-five quid please.”

I was crying with laughter and did well to keep the car steady.

Well, let’s hope we are all able to go to Chelsea in 2041, wherever we may be.

Yes, wherever we may be. With our game against Queens Park Rangers taking place a few miles north of The Bridge, it gave me yet more time to ponder on the CPO shenanigans of late and the likelihood of us playing at Stamford Bridge, or elsewhere in the next few decades. As I have mentioned before, this is the first time that the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham had its three teams in the top flight of English football; quite an achievement. I pondered on the landscape of football in the capital and, more pertinently, the landscape of football in West London. Although Chelsea has traditionally drawn its support from large swathes of South London and parts of West London, we are, of course, located just north of the River Thames. We are a London club, for sure, but also a club of the Home Counties, those counties which nudge against the city of London itself. But, with football, location and identity are intrinsically linked. Territory is important. Location is important. Of the options being mentioned in the infamous Chelsea / CPO proposal, the sites at Earls Court and Imperial Wharf are close to home and within walking distance of The Bridge. Battersea is obviously south of the river, but just across from the borough of Kensington & Chelsea – at a push, this would get my approval if we had to move. But, throughout these recent discussions, the Wicked Witch in all this was the site at Old Oak Common, just over three miles to the north of Stamford Bridge. And, very importantly, even further north than QPR’s stadium at Loftus Road.

Not only that, the immediate location seems to be surrounded by rail yards, dead-end streets and industrial estates. A veritable Millwall North. For Chelsea to end up playing in this awful location, miles from our traditional home, fills me with absolute dread.

And yet, for overseas fans, this must seem strange.

What’s three miles? It’s only a sport stadium. It’s still in London. What’s the big deal?

Well – it’s everything. It’s absolutely everything.

With the reappearance of Wimbledon playing in Kingston-On-Thames this season, there are fully twelve league clubs in London and our proximity to each other is so important. If you think about just the five teams in the South and West – Chelsea, Fulham, QPR, Brentford and Wimbledon – these clubs are all clustered within a radius of three or four miles. For us to be shunted north a few miles would undoubtedly alter the dynamic of our club.

With all of this heavy in my mind, I drove into the heart of Rangers territory. Up the North Circular, past Gunnersbury Park, just like my dear father used to do from 1974 to 1983. Dad hated driving in London and he always used to park at Ealing Common, away from the heavy traffic, and we would then get the tube in. I passed through Acton and we noted quite a few Kiwis with All Blacks shirts, fresh from celebrating their triumph against the French. I eventually parked up barely half a mile from Rangers Stadium.

It was a warm Sunday lunchtime and Parky and I soon found us ensconced in an old-fashioned boozer called The Orchard Tavern, just off the Uxbridge Road. Despite there being signs on the door which said “Home Supporters Only” we encountered no problems. We settled down to watch the Mancunian derby, amongst a gaggle of United fans, a few wearing replica kits. There were a few Rangers lads at the bar, and save a few hard stares from a lad with an Aquascutum scarf, there were no problems. After tons of possession in the first quarter, United imploded and the score was 3-1 when we left at about 3pm.

Fifteen minutes later, we had walked up Bloomfontein Avenue and were chatting to Alan and Bristol Tim. Tim had been drinking in one of their main pubs. There had been no trouble. We heard crazy talk that United had won 6-1, but quickly dismissed this as a silly rumour.

Then, Alan took a call from Gary and began smiling…6-1 it was.

Oh boy.

I spotted Cathy and Dog a few yards away and so I went down for a quick chat. They were amazed to hear that City had trounced United and we had a little conversation about City. To be honest, I know they are now major rivals with us, but I’ve always had a major soft spot for them. Their support has always held firm. If any team deserves a little success, under the shadows of United for so long, it’s them.

Who should be with them but Tuna – and also Joe and Michelle from Chicago, last seen in Turin. Two Americans, wearing the colours of the Chicago Bears, were also there. After a little explanation, it all clicked – they were over for the NFL game at Wembley, but sadly had to leave Loftus Road before half-time to get up to Wembley for the game.

Well – I know what I’d do. See all of the Chelsea game, then get up for the last two hours of the NFL game. Easy.

Maybe it has been a different story up in London, but there hasn’t been too much hoo-ha about the Bears vs. Bucanneers game this past week. I have no problem with America’s sports teams playing friendlies in the UK, but I loathe the idea of regular season games taking place here. You can be damned sure that the fools at the FA look at this and will revisit the odious idea of the 39th Game again in the next few years.

For the first time ever, I approached the away end at Loftus Road – the School End – and its tiny structure looked ridiculous. The whole ground, although neat and compact, seems to resemble a Subutteo stadium. Once inside, there is no room to breath. Gary, Alan and I were in the upper tier – £55, the most I have ever paid for a normal league game – while Parky was down below.

Loftus Road only holds 18,500 and it only ever used to hold around 23,000 back in the ‘eighties. Back in those days, Chelsea would swamp the home areas and virtually take over the entire stadium.

That man from 1995, Kevin Gallen, was down below, reminiscing with the very excitable public-address announcer about previous games with us. I’m surprised that the infamous 6-0 shellacking from 1986 wasn’t mentioned to be honest. For the immediate period before the entrance of the teams, the PA was pumping very loud music at us and I longed for the days when fans made their own entertainment before games began, the atrmosphere bubbling, the noise rising each minute. These days, the noise is enforced upon us from above.

“London Calling” (our song, damn it – Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan) gave way to “Pigbag” and the teams eventually entered the pitch.

But I couldn’t help but notice lots of empty seats in the main stand to my left. This was their biggest game for 15 years and they couldn’t even sell 16,000 seats.

Pathetic.

Oh boy, I was concerned that Mr. PA Guy was going to explode, such was his excitement of his beloved Rs playing Chelsea. He could hardly contain himself.

“Come on you SUPER-HOOPS.”

Bless.

Above us, the sky was pristine blue and the patch of sun on the pitch contrasted strongly to the areas of shadow to my right. The two spindly floodlight pylons at the other end – The Loft – gave the stadium even more of an appearance of a model kit. It took a while for the home fans to get behind their team and I thought our support, split over two tiers, sometimes struggled too.

My mate Alan commented –

“It seems like a game from the second division. From the ‘eighties.”

I’m not going to dwell too much on the game. I thought that, apart from Sturridge and Mata, we got out of the blocks slowly and Rangers’ midfielders seemed to be first to all of the loose balls.

I have to be honest, I thought that David Luiz’ challenge which lead to the early penalty was a stupid piece of football. It was rash and clumsy. You have to give the referee no excuse to award a foul once you get your body inside the penalty area.

And again, I’ll be honest; I did see the Bosingwa tug which lead to his sending off, though I wasn’t convinced that John Terry could not have covered.

And Drogba’s sending off was just an awful tackle.

By this stage, the Rangers support was in ecstasy and I suspected that PA Man had simultaneously combusted somewhere.

We were down to nine men and we were struggling to maintain any foothold in the game.

Oh hell.

But – what a second-half performance.

It was with growing pride that I looked on from row F of the upper tier as the Chelsea players down below me rose to the challenge of being not one, but two players down. Villas-Boas made the changes and the final nine did themselves proud. I was convinced that we would get a goal.

A Lampard header.

An Anelka header.

Anelka played through but he decided not to shoot, the ball instead coming out for Luiz to attempt an overhead kick which Lamps touched over.

A John Terry shot over.

And then the awful refereeing decisions – the grab on Luiz, not helped by his accentuated fall, and the fouls on lamps and JT.

A few breaks at the other end and Petr Cech kept us in it.

Tons of Chelsea possession – they did us proud.

Five minutes of extra time…COME ON!

But no – QPR held on, the irritating gits.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea fans roared our thanks for the team’s proud performance and John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and David Luiz walked down to the away end to thank the travelling two thousand for our support. I watched John Terry point at all of us, pat his chest (his trademark) and then dismiss the muppets in the other three stands with a derisory flick of his palms. The Chelsea fans roared. Us and them together.

https://www.facebook.com/#!/photo.ph…type=2&theater

Outside, there were around five police vans parked alongside South Africa Road as we descended the steps, still disbelieving that we hadn’t scored. I met up with Tuna, Joe and Michelle and I wished them well on their travels back to the US. The police moved us along and I then walked around to meet up with Parky. The home fans were buzzing, but we had seen it all before. It had seemed like a day from another era all of the way through and here we all were once again, the victims of those jumped-up Herberts from Shephards Bush once more.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Still, as always, Parky and I had enjoyed being part of it. Even in defeat, we’d rather be part of the rich Chelsea matchday experience than being sat at home on our sofas.

Or being a United fan – that definitely helped us cope on the drive home.

What a crazy game.

What a crazy day.

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