Tales From Gillespie Road

Arsenal vs.Chelsea : 29 September 2012.

There was no doubt at all – in the vernacular of the British football fan – that I was “up” for this one. Chelsea versus Arsenal at The Emirates. This game would surely prove to be our first real test of the domestic league season. It was potentially a tough game, for sure. Would this be a case of the new Chelsea versus the same old Arsenal? Would there be a convergence of styles now that we have changed our modus operandi? With Didier, Arsenal’s tormentor for so many seasons, no longer in the Chelsea blue, would Arsenal now fancy their chances? Would they punish us? Would Chelsea’s position at the top of the table prove to be a false dawn? There were many questions to be answered.

I couldn’t wait.

Wagons roll.

I left the rural delights of east Somerset at 8.15am; with no Lord Parky alongside, this was another solo-run to the capital. Again, I headed up and over Salisbury Plain. It was a beautiful autumn morning. There was no need for a musical accompaniment. I was just happy to be alone with my thoughts, letting my mind wander and letting it pick out aspects of the up-coming game.

There is a passage in Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch” in which he describes how football is never far away from thought. A vacant mind will soon become occupied at the merest hint of a football memory and then us football fans will then become dreamy with thoughts of Teddy Maybank scoring at Bristol Rovers in 1975, a Pat Nevin shimmy in 1984, a song at Anfield in 1985 or a depressing trip back from Villa Park in 1994.

My mind underwent the same process as I drove past Stonehenge. Above, there were no clouds in the sky; it was a perfect morning. I noticed that a battalion of soldiers were lining up, with the stones in the background, and I guessed that a photograph was being planned. There are army camps dotted all over Salisbury Plain; it is one of the training centres of the British Army. There are barracks in the garrison town of Warminster and Tidworth Camp is nearby. I presumed that the hundred or so soldiers, in battle fatigues, were lining up for a ceremonial photograph. I hoped that it was in recognition of their safe return from Afghanistan.

And then, in one split second, I made the connection between the young soldiers in a line on a field in Wiltshire in 2012 and the origins of Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as Dial Square by some workers at the Woolwich Arsenal, the main armament factory of the British army.

As I edged onto the A303, I was deep in thought about Arsenal and Chelsea. How odd that Arsenal were once a team from south London – Woolwich is just south of the Thames, not far from Charlton Athletic’s home territory – but are now firmly based in North London, where most of their London fans are based. Chelsea, however, are geographically a team from north of the River Thames, but whose supporters have traditionally been based to the south of the river.

Of course, the seismic shift of Arsenal from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 is one of the main reasons why supporters of Tottenham despise them so much. North London was Tottenham’s alone, but the arrival of Arsenal ate into their support base and things have been feisty, to say the least, ever since. I have read that the 12 miles which Arsenal moved just under one hundred years ago is comparable to the movement to Milton Keynes of the Wimbledon team in 2004, in terms of travel time between the two locations; 90 minutes by bus, tram and foot in 1913 and 90 minutes by tube and train in 2004.

Maybe Arsenal was the original “Franchise F.C.” after all.

And then I thought about Fulham’s relationship with us. Fulham was all theirs until we appeared on the scene, kicking and screaming, in 1905.

I can hear the disparaging call of a Fulham supporter from 1905 even now –

“And they have the damned audacity to call themselves Chelsea, but they want to play in our borough!”

Ah, the inter-borough rivalries of the nation’s capital are certainly intriguing.

As I approached Chiswick – presumably Fulham’s heartland, cough, cough – I was listening to the entertaining Danny Baker (Millwall, not too far from Woolwich) on Five Live. The musicians Midge Ure and Chris Cross, from Ultravox, were his studio guests and they were talking about the various musical backgrounds of the members of the band. The keyboard player Billy Currie was from a classical background. Chris Cross was explaining that Currie had a tendency to over play.

“At the start, Billy had to strip his style down. There were too many notes.”

Midge Ure laughed and said “yeah, there was a good tune in there somewhere. But there were just too many notes.”

“Too many notes.”

The phrase hit home. My mind leapt back to football again. Surely Arsenal played with too many notes. If they were a band, they would be either an interminably self-indulgent prog rock band or a jazz quartet, with each member trying to out-do each other. They would have had no number one hits, but a sweaty troop of obsessive fans.

And here is the real problem for Arsenal fans. The team is over-elaborate in its approach play. There are too many lilies being gilded. There are too many passes for the man who wears glasses. Chelsea’s play over the past ten years has been more pragmatic.

And more successful.

I can’t deny that – whisper it – Arsenal are a very well run club; they have a firm financial base and do not overspend. In many ways, they are the blueprint of how clubs should be run. And yet, the stubborn nature of Wegner must be so infuriating for their fans. He will not bend from his vision of the way Arsenal play.

And us Chelsea fans just love it. Seven years and counting.

Of course, we went twenty-six years with no trophies, but our expectations throughout that fallow, but fun, period were way different from the pompous expectations of the Arsenal hordes.

We never really expected to win much. It allowed us to be ourselves.

Put it this way, if Arsenal were to go a further nineteen years without silverware, I doubt it very much that they will have as much fun as we did between 1971 and 1997.

I parked up at 10.30am and walked past Brompton Cemetery to Earl’s Court. I caught the Piccadilly Line straight through to Arsenal tube station. The journey took just thirty minutes. Three generations of Arsenal fans – Turks, I think – sat opposite me. They each had the same bulbous nose. The grandfather and father were wearing Arsenal scarves but the young girl was wearing an Arsenal shirt and Arsenal shorts and a big “Number One Fan” foam hand. Lots more Arsenal fans were wearing scarves. They love their scarves, the Gooners.

As the train stopped at Holloway Road, I spotted around five or six Chelsea fans alighting. Funnily enough, I didn’t know any of them by name, but recognised their faces. Were they from Bristol Rovers in 1975, Anfield in 1985 or Villa Park in 1994? I don’t know. They just looked familiar.

Faces in the crowd.

I got off at Arsenal. For the first time, I spotted that the original tube station name of Gillespie Road was written in small mosaic tiles on the platform wall. I stopped to take a photograph. Herbert Chapman, the pioneering Arsenal manager who steered the club to a trio of back-to-back-to-back titles in the ‘thirties, negotiated with the tube authorities to successfully change it to Arsenal.

One can only imagine what the supporters of Tottenham thought of this.

Every time I alight at Arsenal, I am taken back to that sunny Saturday morning in 1984 when I and thousands more Chelsea fans welcomed our boys back to the First Division. That 20,000 army of Chelsea fans, packed like sardines, in the Clock End remains the one moment of my life that perfectly sums up what being a Chelsea supporter was all about.

Loyal, noisy, strong, humorous, unbridled, passionate.

Back in the big time.

Fcuk Them All.

I bumped into a couple of acquaintances on the short walk from the art deco frontage of the tube station to the grand new structure of The Emirates. We agreed that the match would be a test, alright. I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time; I was surprised how close it was to the main railway line from Kings Cross to the north of England. Ex-Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn walked past. I took a few photographs. The Emirates is a very photogenic stadium.

For a change, I had arranged to watch the game alongside Gill. I arrived inside the plush and roomy seats of the away corner with a good thirty minutes to spare. Usually, my arrival at Arsenal is a lot more rushed. The Chelsea team went through their pre-match drill and, for once, I was able to observe. I was surprised how empty the seats remained until around ten minutes before kick-off. All of those red seats. Ugh.

The team was announced and I was surprised, though pleased, that Oscar had retained his place within the “three tenors” of the midfield. Frank was on the bench again.

There were blue skies overhead. The stadium was bathed in September sun. Most Chelsea fans were wearing jackets, though; there was a chill in the air.

We were in all blue and enjoyed the majority of the ball in the first opening minutes; this was a good sign. We didn’t appear to be fazed by the occasion. We moved the ball around intelligently, with the midfielders soon on top and playing the ball out to the flanks where we always seemed to have the extra man. John Terry, and Ashley Cole, were systematically booed throughout the first part of the game, though the Arsenal fans soon became bored of that.

As I was watching from the very front row, I found it hard to judge if the away contingent were making much noise. Gill and I had already reiterated how we prefer the fervour at away games to the morgue-like atmosphere at home these days. A steward was sat right in front of me and so I was unwilling to constantly use my main camera. The pub camera was used for a few shots.

The Chelsea choir erupted with a couple of beauties –

“Robin van Persie – he left ‘cus you’re s**t.”

“Seven years – you’ve won f**k all.”

Although we looked pleasing going forward, Arsenal had the first few attacks on goal, but Cech was untroubled.

On twenty minutes, Fernando Torres was fouled just outside the Arsenal box. I quickly lifted the main camera up to my eyes and snapped just as Juan Mata lofted the ball towards the far post. I just saw a group of players rise as one and then saw the net rustle.

Yes! Get in!

I was unsure who had scored. I was unsure how we had scored. The away support soon told me.

“Fernando Torres – he scores when he wants.”

Even better. Seventeen goals for us now. Lovely.

Gill turned to me and said –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

Ah, that made me laugh…”come on my little diamonds.”

We were in good form, on and off the pitch, now. The Chelsea supporters behind me wasted no time in reminding the Arsenal fans about the events of Saturday 19 May.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

Torres then robbed the ball from Koscielny and advanced alone, with just the ‘keeper to beat. We waited with intense anticipation. Two goals would kill them off. Sadly, Torres stumbled just as he was about to strike the ball goal wards. “One step forward, one step back” seems to be Torres’ mantra at Chelsea. We all want him to go one step beyond.

Oscar was rightly booked for a couple of silly fouls, but his overall play was excellent. We continued to attack down Arsenal’s flanks and our play was neat and tidy. The midfield were playing as a unit, passing the ball intelligently. I said to Gill that Arsenal seemed content for us to keep the ball. How they miss a Viera.

Sadly, with the first-half closing, a fine Arsenal move caught us out and Gervinho was able to spin and thump the ball past Petr Cech. We were then treated by the most naïve chant of the entire game. The Arsenal fans alongside us in the Clock End, exultant and jubilant, boisterously enquired of us –

“Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya?”

Hardly a nano-second had passed before we belligerently and joyfully replied –

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

There was silence in the Arsenal section.

At half-time, there were no complaints. It was an open game with some nice stuff being played. There was no doubt we could go on to win this.

David Luiz was booked, in my eyes, for a pitiful attempt at getting a penalty. He then decided to berate the referee further. Now that was just stupid. Soon after, Torres was released but Vermaulen clipped his heels. I steadied my camera again and snapped just as Juan Mata whipped the ball into the box. Again, it was headed towards the far post. By the time I had brought the camera down to my side, Gill was shouting in my ear and the ball had nestled inside the goal.

Again – how the hell did that happen?

The Chelsea section was again in full voice. We sang a couple of new songs in praise of John and Ashley.

“One England captain – pause – fcuk the FA.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

We had to thank Petr Cech, though, soon after our second goal was scored. The quiet Podolkski looped a header goal wards, but our great goalkeeper arched his back as he flew through the air to his left and spectacularly clawed the ball away. It was a magnificent piece of ballet, let alone football.

Tu-tu, not 2-2.

Cech again beat out the ball, this time from Giroud effort which deflected off Luiz. Arsenal seemed to be in the ascendency in the last quarter and I lost count of the balls which were zipped and whipped across our box. A rogue deflection here, a prod there and we would be very likely to concede. In the end, shoddy finishing from Arsenal was the decisive factor. Giroud, again, sliced the ball into the side netting when it seemed easier to score.

Despite four minutes of extra time, we held on and the Chelsea fans, with several grey inflatable CL trophies playing prominent roles, were bouncing once more.

I walked back to Highbury & Islington tube with Gill, two Chelsea faces smiling away, amidst a sea of red despondency. This had been a massive statement of intent by Chelsea.

We had hit all the right notes.

It had been a fine day.

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