Tales From The West Lower

21 September 2011 : Chelsea vs. Fulham.

This was a strange old evening in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. For the first time ever, all three of the borough’s three professional teams are in the top flight of English football. This is quite an achievement. In fact, I wonder if there have ever been three clubs so closely situated in any European top flight league football before. However, league games would have to wait. This was a Carling Cup game against our neighbours from the banks of the River Thames.

It was the usual pre-match routine, involving a quick blast up the M4 from Chippenham to London. Another two hour trip. I was parked-up at 5.40pm and we were soon in The Goose, chatting at the bar with a few mates. For the first thirty minutes, perhaps inspired by the recent Millwall vs. West Ham United derby, talk was of various encounters with Millwall, that notorious beast of a club from the shadowy lands of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Although none of my close Chelsea mates have ever got involved in the darker side of football sub-culture, the rumours of various battles and “meets” of various hooligan groups always manage to keep us talking for ages. My only memory of a Chelsea versus Millwall game was from February 1977 and a 1-1 draw at The Bridge which was over-shadowed by grim battles in The Shed and the North Stand.

Our meetings with Millwall are very rare – and I was in North America when both sides met in the league for the last time, way back in 1989-1990. I was chatting to a lad called Duncan – never met him before – and he recalled a funny story from the November 1989 game against them at The Bridge. He was in the benches and giving the Millwall hordes plenty of abuse. The game happened to coincide with his eighteenth birthday and imagine his horror when, above the 5,000 Millwall, a message from his parents flashed up on the scoreboard.

“To Duncan XXXXXX – Happy Birthday From Mum & Dad.”

One of those cringe-making moments for the poor lad. He hoped that none of his Millwall acquaintances happened to glance back and spot this most personal of messages.

Anyway, enough of the Millwall and West Ham rivalry, this was all about Chelsea and Fulham. As far as inter-London rivalries go, this simply doesn’t compare. It’s the oldest story in the book that Fulham hate us, but we couldn’t care less about them. Our main rivals in London are Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham; Fulham are not really on the radar. I am pretty sure most Chelsea fans dislike QPR more than Fulham. The fact that we are totally ambivalent to Fulham just infuriates them further.

I wasn’t sure if we would reach a healthy gate for this game. I had heard on the football grapevine that Fulham had only sold between 3,000 and 4,000 of the 6,000 Shed seats allocated them. After the 33,000 against Leverkusen, I thought we’d do well to beat that figure. The Goose seemed pretty busy, though. And the tickets were ₤25 rather than ₤40, so the cheaper price would hopefully entice a few more.

A few more friends joined us but one mate was missing. Alan was away with his girlfriend Sue in Venice for a few days. It felt strange with him not being there. He hasn’t missed a home game for ages. It got me thinking about how things change over the years and how our match-day mates come and go. Thirty years ago, I used to travel to Chelsea alone. Twenty years ago I would bump into Alan and Gary – occasionally Glenn and Daryl. Ten years ago the numbers were massive; around twelve of us meeting up for most home games. Recently, things have changed as finances have got tighter and as peoples’ priorities shift. These days, we are down to about nine regulars at all home games; Alan, Gary, Rob, Daryl, Parky, Simon, Andy, Milo and myself. I guess the comings-and-goings of my match-day colleagues at Chelsea mirrors the change I have witnessed on CIA recently…plenty of new blood, but also – mysteriously – we seem to have lost quite a few stalwarts who never seem to post at all these days. I guess this is natural wastage in football form. We’ll lose some, we’ll win some. For a change, I had swapped tickets with Parky and would be watching in the unfamiliar surrounds of the West Lower. Alan, Glenn and I have had season tickets since 1997 and I presumed that this would be the first time since then – over 400 games – that none of us have occupied seats 369 to 371 in row D of the MHU. The team news came through on Gary’s ‘phone…a mixture of youth and experience and quite a bench.

I set off early for the game and was buoyed by the numbers of spectators heading east down the North End Road. As I approached the Broadway, barbeque smoke wafted around from an open air grill outside the Gourmet Burger café – a new venture, aiming to capture some trade off the passers by.

The first Fulham shirt I saw was of a young lad heading up the Fulham Road just as I turned left to buy a programme outside the West stand. It’s always a battle of wits to avoid an annoying bag search at the turnstiles. On this occasion, I avoided eye-contact and skipped past two stewards, leaving my camera and zoom lens unbothered. I had only ever seen two other games from the West Lower (Coventry City in 2000 and Dirty Leeds in 2004) and it felt odd to be in a part of the stadium with which I was unfamiliar. Underneath the seats of the lower tier, the concourse was dark but quite spacious. I headed straight for the entrance into the stand itself, up the steps and out into the evening light.

https://www.facebook.com/chris.axon1…50380808487658

For the second time in a week, my immediate thoughts were “another poor gate.” At 7.30pm, there were only a thousand away fans centrally nestled in The Shed and there were thousands of empty seats in all home areas.

“Oh great.”

My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.

The first-half allowed me to take a good look at the wide players on our right with Daniel Sturridge heavily involved. A couple of Kalou chances went begging. A Fulham break involving their number nine Orlando Sa was ably foiled by Petr Cech, who was a rather surprise choice in the sticks. The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured. We got the ball in the Fulham goal on 38 minutes, but it was flagged for offside. From my angle, I’m not so sure if the goal bound shot required that extra touch, nor if it was that stab which had been penalised. Unfortunately, Studge was injured just before the break, with Frank Lampard the strange substitution. I was watching from a low angle and I found it difficult to ascertain if the 4-3-3 formation had changed to accommodate Lampard. However, he settled down in a deep-lying position for the rest of the game, fitting into the midfield berth which was occupied by Josh soon into the second-half.

At the break, I had a wander around the spacious area at the front of the West Stand. I was not aware of this, but I noted that Elvis and “Ledge” (friends of a few CIAers) take turns in flying the large blue Chelsea flag on the half-way line. Neil Barnett walked Ron Harris around the pitch at half-time. He had already riled the away fans by welcoming them to The Bridge as “our friends from Fulham” at the start of the game. As the two of them walked down towards The Shed, Neil Barnett tormented them further –

“and he’s laid out more Fulham forwards than there are Fulham fans here this evening.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. I suppose he thinks he’s doing a good job, but at times I find Neil Barnett’s comments to be just embarrassing. I know of no other announcer who so winds up opposing fans. Away from his role as agent provocateur on match days, Neil is a nice enough bloke, but I really do wonder how he gets away with some of his comments.

Just my thoughts.

In the match programme, there was a touching obituary for Kevin Barney, the chap who I mentioned in one of my other reports this season.

Ross Turnbull appeared in place of Cech at the break and was soon earning his bacon. A Fulham break, a clumsy tackle from Alex and our boy from Brazil got his marching orders. With no assistance from TV replays, I couldn’t tell if it warranted a penalty. Not to worry, Ross Turnbull threw himself to his right and parried the shot high and away.

However, we were now down to ten men and it was going to be a tough one.

John Terry entered the fray and I was able to take a good look at him, from close range, from a new angle. I noticed how he chased and harried, stretched himself and covered ground, closed people down, bellowed instructions and how he cajoled and encouraged his team mates. From my usual viewpoint, all of this is not so clear. At times, I was only ten yards from him.

A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.

If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.

Two magnificent saves within a minute from Ross Turnbull around the 75 minute provided us with an immediate re-assessment of his worth to us. He was having a great game. At the other end, Mark Schwarzer was thwarting our attempts to breach his goal line. A goal-line clearance, a mad scramble, but still no goal.

At no time did it seem like we were playing with a man short.

Romelu Lukaku saw a lot of the ball, but I was amazed at the amount of times he found himself out wide, crossing the ball in, rather than being in the middle himself. The way he held off defenders reminded me of Mark Hughes. Romeu had a steady home debut.

Just before full time a Malouda cross found David Luiz, but his swivel and shot was smashed straight at Schwarzer. Luiz held his head manically as he sprinted back to his defensive position. Ironically, it took until the very last breath of the 90 minutes for the West lower to join up with the Matthew Harding and bellow a hearty “Come On Chelsea.”

The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration. And now we had a further 30 minutes…maybe more.

Chances were exchanged in the extra thirty minutes and at least the Chelsea support grew louder. A nice break from deep involving Frank and a strong run and cross by Lukaku were our highlights. Fulham wasted a few goal-scoring chances. The one abiding memory of the extra-period was of David Luiz, racing around all four corners of the pitch, tackling, dribbling, sprinting, turning. Quite a performance, but still only one miss-timed tackle away from a sending off.

Penalties.

Here we go again.

I was texting Alan in Venice and said –

“You know how this will end, right?”

Frank misfired with our first penalty and the Fulham fans to the right were bouncing. I saw a young blonde girl hug her boyfriend and I almost thought “ah, bless ‘em.” In the back of my mind, however, I was very aware of the amount of times that teams often go behind in shoot-outs, but eventually win.

Moscow is a perfect example.

Everton in the F.A. Cup last season.

Well – we did it. Fulham missed one and Luiz, JT, Kalou and Malouda all scored.

It all came down to Penalty Number Ten. My camera was at the ready.

The Fulham player struck it high and it rebounded down onto the line…and out.

Around me, for the first time in two hours or more, the West stand roared. I was just relieved that it was over and that we were through. No massive yelp of joy. Just happy we had got the job done against the extra man.

Well done Chelsea.

I was still mesmerized by the antics of a few of the Fulham fans to my right. As we roared, they fell silent. Plenty of their fans were flicking “Vs” at us, plus a few more unsavoury gestures. Tons of abuse rained down on us but I still felt it hard to get too bothered. However, one middle-aged Fulham fan went the extra yard. He pointed to a few Chelsea fans near me and began swearing at them, then gesturing. Then – oh no – he reached for his belt, turned his back at us and pulled his jeans down, and struck the pose of a mooning Homer Simpson.

His children would be so proud.

We walked back to the car and it felt odd to realise that a lot of the away fans lived within walking distance of The Bridge, whereas I had a 110 mile journey ahead of me. Surprisingly, Parky had said that he thought that the Chelsea fans had made a fair bit of noise. I had to be honest and disagreed. The Bridge must have weird acoustics. Not for the first time were there differences of opinions on which end was the noisier.

Elsewhere on Planet Football, my old school mate Francis had spent his evening at the Frome Town vs. Hallen F.A. Cup replay and he texted me the following at 10.30pm –

“Won on pens. Poor game though.”

And I thought to myself – “blimey…same here.”

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