Tales From The Homecoming

Chelsea vs. Reading : 22 August 2012.

I had obviously been relishing the first home game of the current campaign. I had gone six games without a match at Stamford Bridge – Munich, New York, Philadelphia, Brighton, Villa Park and Wigan – and it certainly felt like I had been absent from my second home for too long. However, at around 3.30pm, I was sat at my desk at work and I was full of yawns. I was evidently tired and I was concerned about the next few hours. Time was of the essence and, although I honestly felt like having a twenty minute power nap, I knew I had to move. I quickly fuelled up and picked up Lord Parky from The Pheasant at 4pm. I was on my way once more. The large tin of Red Bull that I guzzled set me up for the familiar drive east and there were no more yawns during the rest of the night.

Parky has been confined to barracks over the summer; he doesn’t often get out of the house these days due to his lack of mobility and so he was supremely excited to be “up and at’em” once again.

Another Chippenham to Chelsea pilgrimage. I didn’t spare the horses and was we parked up on Chesson Road at 6.15pm.

The Goose seemed relatively quiet.

“Two pints of Peroni” please.

I had explained to Parky on the drive to Chelsealand that I had sampled – probably – around fifteen different ales and lagers on my trip to America, but the two bottles of Peroni that I quaffed on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in New York towards the end of my holiday were by far the best.

Out in the beer garden, the familiar faces were congregated in the far corner. Talk of Munich was surprisingly scant. My friend Russ, originally from Frome and now residing in Reading, arrived and we exchanged stories of Portsmouth, NH. Like me, Russ and his wife Bethan had enjoyed staying in that excellent town in New England. Actually, Russ had been visiting the town when we beat the English Portsmouth at Wembley in 2010. I mentioned to him that Oxford United had their pre-season training camp in the town this summer. It’s not only the big guns who appreciate the training facilities that the US has to offer these days. I wonder when Frome Town will be doing the same; a week or two in Dodge City maybe?

Rob from Melksham came over to join us. Parky has known Rob for ages. Thankfully, Rob managed to get a ticket for the Champions League Final in May, but only through sad circumstances. One of his friends, from South Wales, had to go to his mother-in-law’s funeral on the same day. There must be hundreds of similarly odd stories regarding Chelsea fans’ presence in Munich. Surely someone, somewhere is going to round them all up and publish them?

We briefly spoke about potential opponents in the Champions League group stage and Celtic was mentioned a few times.

Shudder.

I left Parky to finish off his second pint and walked down to The Bridge with Russ. I noted that a couple of pubs were temporarily closed, presumably awaiting refurbishment. The West Stand is now adorned with massive banners from our twin triumphs last May. I can only approve. The blue banners have certainly brightened up the approach to StamfordBridge. Good work, Chelsea.

There was the predictable wait to gain access at the turnstiles but, with typical great planning, I was in my seat with two minutes to spare. I don’t often arrive late. I had picked up a match programme and, typically, Fernando Torres was featured on the cover.

“No pressure, then.”

A quick look around. Three thousand Reading fans in the far corner. The “Born Is The King” banner was draped by itself at The Shed, with all other official banners at the Matthew Harding. There were a few hundred empty seats around the stadium at the kick-off, but these virtually all filled up by 8pm. Familiar faces nearby; so lovely to see Tom (c. 75) and Joe (c. 85) in good spirits.

The teams soon appeared and Alan advised me that Ramires was effectively in for Ryan Bertrand, although on the opposite wing. For the majority of the 41,000, this would be the first sighting of Eden Hazard.

The 2012-2013 home campaign began. I admitted to Russ that – apart from Pogrebynak, the lad who played for Fulham last season – I was unable to name many more Reading players. How different to days gone by, when football was my only concern. Way back in the early ‘seventies, around the 1972-1973 season, it would be my job to walk down to the village post office every Saturday to collect a loaf of bread and a few other items of groceries if required. My mother would allow me a few pence to buy bubble gum cards of the First Division footballers of the time. It would be my first activity of each weekend; down the shop, then morning TV including “The Partridge Family” and “Sesame Street”, then dinner at my grandparents and “Football Focus” with Sam Leach, then a walk up to the recreation ground to watch the village team play. They were, although I was never aware of it at the time, the most – ahem – carefree days of my life.

I often asked my father to sit down and “test me” on the names of the players in my collection of cards.

Although I probably had around 200 cards in total, I certainly remember my father being flabbergasted on a number of occasions when I was able to name the clubs of every single player in my collection.

David Wagstaffe – “Wolves.”

David Best – “Ipswich.”

Dick Krzywicki – “Huddersfield Town.”

Alan Bloor – “Stoke.”

Trevor Hockey – “Sheffield United.”

Alec Lindsay – “Liverpool.”

These days, the Reading team could play host to Gordon Ramsay, Bill Gates and Claudia Schiffer and I’d be none the wiser.

I couldn’t help but notice that although I like the new home kit, the colour seems to be a little on the dull side – a muted blue, if you will. Admittedly, it isn’t as off-colour as the hated light blue of the 1997-1999 shirt, but it certainly seems to be lighter and “greyer” than the royal blue of old. Think back to the ”bang on” colour of the 2003-2005 home shirt. It’s quite different.

I think Chelsea should keep with the same shade of blue. Identify its pantone reference and stick with it.

Well, what a crazy game. On a night when we only needed to draw 0-0 to finish the night on top of the pile, we were treated (if that is the correct word) to a feast of goals.

As often is the case, both the team and the crowds began well. In the first few minutes, Stamford Bridge was rocking with our new song of the moment.

We know who we are alright.

The volume of this song elicited a text from Jamie in NYC –

“That sounded amazing on the TV.”

A shot from new boy Hazard whizzed wide after just a few minutes. Then we were treated to a nice one-touch move which ended with Ramires taking aim and shooting from inside the box when Fernando Torres was clearly in acres of space on the penalty spot. I shared his frustration. All eyes were on Torres again when he neatly dribbled inside the box himself, beautifully nut-megged a defender, but found his shot blocked.

“Hope it won’t be one of those nights.”

On 16 minutes, the events at Wigan were repeated. Hazard cut inside, only for Gunter to chop at his legs and halt his progress.

Frank Lampard struck the penalty home and the crowd celebrated. Alan and I had a little chat about Frank’s penalties. They are usually either straight and high into the net, or low to the goal keeper’s right. We were frankly amazed that such a low percentage of his penalties are saved. Surely the opposing ‘keepers are aware of his tendency to hit in the same areas. For a right-footed player, the general view is that the best place to aim a penalty is to the keeper’s left, so that the natural arc of the in swinging ball will stay beyond the goalie’s dive.

We concluded that the power of Frank’s strikes is the reason for his high success rate.

The sky above was full of pink-tinted clouds. The stadium was a picture.

However, the post-Munich glow was soon ended when Reading scored a superb goal. A McCleary cross from the right was whipped in and a fantastic leap and glancing header from Pogrebynak gave Cech no chance. There was even a ripple of polite applause from the Chelsea supporters around me. For what is worth, I clapped once, just to show solidarity.

Oh dear.

Soon after, Reading went ahead. A low free-kick was taken by Guthrie and it simply bounced off Cech’s body into the goal. We were speechless. Of all of Petr’s mistakes, this was probably the most embarrassing.

I remarked that it was bad enough losing, but we were losing to a team that looked like Leeds United, playing in their all yellow away kit.

“Ian Harte, too” said Russ.

Oh yes; Ian Harte. The former Leeds full-back. There’s two players I recognise.

At the other end, Mata sent over a great free-kick which John Terry headed over and into the quiet Shed Upper. Soon after, a Reading free-kick evaded everyone, dropping tantalisingly into the box but thankfully past the far post. A Hazard cross was headed wide by Torres right on the stroke of half-time.

There was one solitary person booing the team off at the interval.

I hope that he or she likes hospital food.

At the break, I quickly flicked through the programme. Not many photos from the US Tour, apart from one of four of the players running up the Rocky Steps in Philadelphia. Oh, and one of the three Iowa Blues (Sam, Chris and Phil) in Chester. There was a nice feature on Paul Canoville and it was Canners himself who did the lap of honour with Neil Barnett at the break. He played for both teams, so received a lovely reception from both sets of fans.

He also said a few words about being treated very well by the US fans on the recent tour when Neil gave him the microphone.

Nice one, Canners.

In the match programme, Graeme Le Saux has taken over the “back page” slot from Johnny Vaughan – and Tim Lovejoy before him. I chatted to Rousey at the break. He, of course, was in Munich. We both agreed that had we won the Champions league in 2000 or 2004 – at our first and second attempts – the feeling would not have been the same. It was our infamous failures of previous campaigns which made Munich so brilliantly intense and wonderful. I will never tire of talking about that perfect night in Germany.

It seemed to be all Chelsea in the second-half. However, only an Ivanovic blast from an angle really threatened the visitor’s goal. We kept probing away against an organised Reading team. The support was hardly roaring, though. How I wish we could get more involved at every match, not just on high days and holidays.

Ramires was replaced by Oscar and the Bridge faithful warmly applauded his home debut.

A Mata shot was blocked. A delightful ball from Oscar was threaded to Torres, but the shot was blocked.

Another change; Sturridge for Mikel.

Attack!

Soon after, the ball broke to Gary Cahill who took his chance and thundered the ball home from almost thirty yards out. It was some strike and how we loved it.

Gary Cahill’s biggest fan in Michigan loved that I am sure.

Big John seized the moment and stood up from his seat in the front row, leaned forward and walloped the balcony in front.

BANG BANG
BANG BANG BANG
BANG BANG BANG BANG

CHELSEA!

The crowd were back in it now. A shot from Sturridge drew moans when Torres was free – he needs to win back the crowd it seems – and then two floating efforts from Mata went wide too. Thankfully the all-important goal came when Ashley Cole clipped the ball towards Torres, who slammed the ball in. I was too busy with my camera, but the consensus was that Nando was offside. He didn’t mind; his smiles said it all.

I’ve still seen all of his goals in the flesh. Long may it continue.

The craziness of the game was personified in its closing moments. Reading had a free-kick on 93 minutes, which was deflected just past Cech’s post. Their ‘keeper came up for the resulting corner, but the ball was cleared. Hazard – yes him, he was having a fine home debut – ran with the ball out of the defence, with the Reading ‘keeper scrambling back, and passed to Ivanovic to slam home.

Game over.

Phew.

On the drive home, we reviewed the game. I commented how similar Eden Hazard’s movement is to Joe Cole in his prime. We were treated to another “spin on a sixpence” during the game and I love the way that he collects the ball with the sole intention of running at players and taking people on. There were a few moans aimed at Mikel and I will admit he had a mixed game. However, this young man – still only 25 – is a victim of circumstances beyond his control. It wasn’t his fault that he was vaunted as a wunderkind at seventeen, nor took over from Claude Makelele in the holding midfielder role. I rate him. He was excellent in Munich. Let’s show our support for the boy.

With Oscar, Mata and Hazard on the pitch, we can but dream about all of the goal scoring chances that this holy trinity of talented midfielders will hopefully create for our number nine.

We were handed a nice selection of opening games for this campaign. There is a very good chance that we might well get maximum points from our first five league games, but I am not taking the next one lightly. Newcastle United were full value for the three points that they took from us last season at HQ. I do not take them lightly at all. It should be a cracking match on Saturday.

I can’t wait.

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