Tales From The Lap Of Honour

Chelsea vs. Blackburn Rovers : 13 May 2012.

After ten months of – cliché warning – highs and lows, the 2011-2012 season was approaching its inevitable conclusion. The game against relegated Rovers was always going to be a strange game and I drove over into Wiltshire to collect Young Jake and Old Parky with a mixture of happiness and sadness. Happy to be paying our respects to the team, at home, before the mammoth game in Bavaria. Sad to be travelling the well-worn path up to Chelsea Town for the last time for a few months.

After opening with a flurry of songs by Stiff Little Fingers, we were soon hurtling east to the sounds of Chelsea fans Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher.

“I’m taking a ride with my best friend.”

Another picture-perfect day. The sky was dotted with white clouds, the sun was out and the green fields of Wiltshire and then Berkshire were awakening from the dull months of winter. We spoke a little about the denouement of this crazy Premiership season. No question who I wanted to triumph.

“I just hope City win it, lads…in the most dramatic and heart-breaking way possible for United.”

We sped past the Madejski Stadium at Reading, then Windsor – Ossie’s town – and then in to London. The Shard was visible way in the distance and the Wembley Arch to the north. The roads were strangely quiet. As I sped in past Fullers’ Brewery at Chiswick, it felt like I was taking part in a city-centre grand prix. The road ahead was completely clear of traffic.

I parked up to the sounds of Depeche Mode’s funky version of “Route 66.”

“Well it winds from Chicago to LA.”

No mention of Beckington, Trowbridge, Melksham, Chippenham, Swindon, Reading, Slough, Brentford and Hammersmith, though.

At 12.45pm, we were inside The Goose and the first person I bumped into was Mark Coden, who some of you know from previous U.S. tours. Unfortunately, he was still without a ticket for Munich, but was going regardless. I wished him well and then met up with a gaggle of mates out in the sunny beer garden. Unsurprisingly, the talk was virtually all devoted to Munich. Most of the people I spoke to were Bavaria-bound and the sense of anticipation was tangible. Everyone wanted to know which route Glenn and I were taking. Everyone seemed to be going their own separate way.

East Midlands to Zurich.
Manchester to Munich.
Stanstead to Stuttgart.
Heathrow to Stuttgart
Bristol to Prague

We all agreed that the next four days of work would be the longest four days of all time. We just wanted to get to Munich and let the party begin. There were a few comments backing up the widely held view that this had been the most unlikely of Chelsea seasons. I always remember two contrasting moments.

Walking through Bristol airport in February on my return from Naples, we were 3-1 down and most likely heading out of Europe.

“Wonder when my next Champions League trip with Chelsea will be?”

At that same airport around two weeks ago, I had a bounce in my step as I covered the same ground. We were off to Munich in the Champions League Final.

Staggering. Stupendous. Ridiculous. Magnificent. Bewildering.

All of these words.

If I was an American, I would no doubt use just one.

Awesome.

Conversations were abuzz all around me. Special mention for two friends; Milo 15 and Ed 22. The trip to Munich, with their fathers Simon and Daryl, will be their first ever away games in Europe. They know how lucky they are. They are great lads and it will be a pleasure to drink with them next Saturday. Our plan will be to assemble in a secret location – a beer hall – far away from the crowded city centre and then see how the mood takes us. We all agreed that we would rather spend four hours in the company of some friendly locals rather than three hours amongst the divs singing “Ten German Bombers” ad nauseum in the Marienplatz. Regretably, Parky isn’t going to Bavaria. This would be his last game of the season and he was celebrating it by throwing pint after pint of lager down his throat.

Andy from Nuneaton is going to Munich with several others of his mates, but he is the only one with a ticket. I wonder how many Chelsea will be heading to Germany without a match ticket? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Maybe more?

Breaking the protocol, Simon and I even spoke about Roberto’s possible team selection for the game in Munich. I ran through my personal thoughts. Hopefully, the twin central defenders Gary Cahill and David Luiz will be fit. If not, we will struggle against the crosses from the flanks aimed at Mario Gomez. I’d pick the speed of Bosingwa over the experience of Paolo. Fingers crossed on that one.

Peter Cech, Jose Bosingwa, Gary Cahill, David Luiz, Ashley Cole.

Holding, there are no other options apart from Jon Obi Mikel and Frank Lampard. Michael Essien is past his best – and it hurts for me to write this – and Oriel Romeu is too inexperienced.

Then, the three attacking players.

I’d go with the pace and honest endeavor of Salomon Kalou, the touch and guile of Juan Mata (our kingpin) and then the spirit and skill of Fernando Torres. I can see Kalou and Torres doubling back to thwart the threats of Ribery and Robben. I can’t see Florent Malouda or Daniel Sturridge putting in that same level of commitment, Champions League Final or not.

Up front, Didier Drogba.

If the centre-backs are doubts, one supposes that either of Bosingwa or Ferreira would have to shuffle in to the middle.

It was 2.30pm and time to leave for the last domestic game of 2011-2012. It was simply exhilarating to be able to utter the magical words –

“See you in Munich.”

On the walk down to the stadium, the streets seemed ridiculously quiet. In Vanston Place, we again met up with Scott and Andy from Trowbridge. There are five or six of them going to Munich from Trowbridge, but with no tickets between them.

“We’ll be there, Chris.”

Further along Vanston place, a piece of classic Parky. On the pedestrianised cobble-stones, there are occasional bollards to stop vehicular access. Parky called out to Jake just as he was approaching a previously unseen bollard. Suffice to say, Jake will never be a father.

On the approach into the stadium, there was still a lack of hustle and bustle. Where were the missing fans? Were they already inside The Bridge? I was puzzled. I made it to my seat just before the kick-off. My good mate Alan presented me with two tickets for Munich and it was fantastic – at last – to get my sweaty mitts on them.

First thoughts about the new Chelsea kit were very favourable. Very smart. Very minimalist. Classy. It reminds me so much of the Umbro kit from 2005-2006. Memories of Crespo, of del Horno, of Maniche.

Roberto’s selection was very interesting. Maybe I was getting ahead of myself, but I was intrigued that there were no players from “my” Munich XI playing against Blackburn. Was Roberto thinking the same as me? It was great to see Sam Hutchinson starting a game, of course, and I hoped that Romelu Lukaku would shine in a central location. Over in the far corner, there were more Blackburn fans that I had actually expected; maybe around 400. There was the predictable “Venky Scum Out” banner.

The planned applause in honour of Didier Drogba’s (possible…probable?) last ever game at The Bridge on eleven minutes was pretty disappointing. It only really got going at around the 11 minutes 45 seconds mark. I had to explain it to the lads in front. To be honest, bearing in mind that we were only six days away from the joint second biggest game in 107 years, the atmosphere was surprisingly quiet. I spotted many empty seats all around the stadium. Even after the two well taken goals around the half-hour mark, the place remained docile. Maybe everyone was saving themselves for Munich.

They were two nice goals. A great cross from Lukaku was headed in by John Terry. A strong dribble, away from the goal line – confusing us all – by Michael Essien resulted in the ball being tee’d up for Raul Meireles to toe-poke in. This was yet another goal that I was right in line of. Amongst these two goals, there was the usual exchange between Alan and myself, said in a broad Lancastrian burr, that “they will have to come at us now” and the usual “come on my little diamonds” response. Let’s hope we will be saying this in a German accent next Saturday.

On the TV screen at The Shed End, the tickertape-style updates from other games seemed to be the centre of attention for us all. It seemed that all was quiet and calm at The Bridge, while there was a maelstrom of activity taking place all around us. I likened it to be in the eye of the storm, with other clubs and other issues whirring around in every direction. Blackburn Rovers were already relegated. We were guaranteed a sixth place finish. Two other games were dominating our thoughts – the ones involving the two Manchester teams.

United 1-0 up. Drat.

City drawing.

Arsenal losing. Always good.

City 1-0 up. Good. This might mean QPR will get relegated.

Stoke 1-0 up.

And so it continued. Every five minutes or so, our attention would drift up to the south-east corner as scores were updated. There was genuine shock and then sadness when the news came through that QPR had not only equalized at Eastlands but had miraculously gone 2-1 up. And with ten men. FFS.

Poor old City. What a way to lose it. Always in their shadows. Remember when they won the league in 1968? On the following Wednesday, United won the European Cup. Always in their shadows. Would they ever recover from this?

Down on the pitch, chances were at a premium, but we let Blackburn back in the game when JT was out jumped by Dann, before Yakuba stooped to get a finishing touch. Lukaku had been replaced by Didier Drogba, who was roundly applauded as he entered the fray. What a talisman he has been for us since his arrival from Marseille in 2004. Ramires then hit the bar with a delicate chip. In the last minute, Didier swung in a corner and Sturridge – as frustrating as ever – decided to chest rather than head the ball in from close range.

To be honest, this was a mediocre performance, but nobody was too bothered. I noted with interest that both Torres and Drogba were on the pitch for the last segment. Was RDM thinking along the same lines as me for Munich? It seemed that every part of my being was focusing on the game at the Allianz Arena.

So, the final whistle and the season had finished. Bolton were relegated; no more visits to The Reebok (2005 and all that) for a year or two perhaps. Wins for Arsenal and Spurs had provided them with top four finishes. Well, for Arsenal, anyway. Tottenham needs an asterisk next to it. I was gutted that United had pipped their neighbours to the title. In this amazing season, City had beaten United twice. Their players had lit up the season.They had surely deserved the title. Yet, typical City; just like them to mess up right at the end. The Chelsea players disappeared down the tunnel and I sensed an air of anti-climax. In preparation for a lengthy lap of honour by the playing staff, I disappeared out into the toilets.

And then – a roar.

A mate joked “don’t say City have won 3-2!”

Within a split second, another fan blurted out – “City have won 3-2.”

Well, I erupted with a smile and raced back to see Alan and Jake. City may not be everyone’s cup of tea and I suppose we should be worried that their league title will entice further stars to join their “project” but I for one was very pleased. At last, City managed to trump United – and how. The news of the two injury time goals filtered through and I was transported straight away to Eastlands (hysteria) and the Stadium of Light (mysery), trying to even imagine what the supporters of those two bitter rivals would be experiencing. Give me the City fans and their self-deprecating wit and gallows humour over United’s glory-hunting legions of non-attendees any day of the week.

Good old City.

It seemed that the majority of the Chelsea crowd was in agreement. There would have been no roar had United come from behind in such a manner to defeat City. Just a gnawing pain. I immediately relished the chance to witness the frame-by-frame coverage of the games in Manchester and Sunderland on “MOTD2” when I would reach home later that evening.

But now, it was time for the Chelsea supporters to thank the Chelsea players and management team for their sterling efforts over the past three months. We all love these end-of-season laps of honour. A fair few fans, though, had decided to leave, but I was relieved that most stayed behind. I snapped away as the players and their children slowly strolled around the pitch. The wives and girlfriends watched on from in front of the players’ tunnel; designer handbags and huge Sophia Loren sunglasses to the fore.

First, the triumphant boys with the F.A. Youth Cup, victors against Blackburn Rovers. Not their day, was it?

Then, Neil Barnett introduced Roy Bentley to the crowd; now walking with a stick, but still a joy. After a hug from John Terry, he lapped up the applause cascading down from all four stands. One minute, he was using his walking stick as a conductor’s baton, the next as a snooker cue, the next as a golf club. What a character. Proper Chelsea. The first of the players’ children to raise a cheer were Georgie and Summer; JT’s twins raced towards the near goal and continually scored goals, pushing the balls past the line. Petr Cech’s son was next up and the look of determination on his face was fantastic. Over in the distance, Ramires Junior seemed to be dwarfed by the matchball. Frank’s children were more subdued. On the walk past, everyone was smiling, everyone was applauding the fans. Didier waved to someone in the West Stand and I wondered if it was Gill. Fernando posed with his children at The Shed End goalmouth, enabling the doting fans in the lower tier to take some photographs. I wonder if he knows that I have big plans for him in Munich?

Rather embarrassingly, Neil Barnett suddenly appeared with the F.A. Cup and he hurriedly presented it to Roberto di Matteo. With the focus on next Saturday, had the club simply forgot to schedule the F.A. Cup as part of the day’s proceedings?

The microphone was then thrust into John Terry’s hands and he thanked the fans with a few words.

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“Frew the ups and the dans…”

As with Wembley the previous weekend, I was one of the last to leave the stadium. We stopped for a refreshing drink in The Goose and then headed home. It was a glorious English evening, the sun slowly fading, the shadows lengthening and the music on the CD player stirring my senses.

“Don’t turn this way, don’t turn that way.
Straight down the middle until next Thursday.
Reverse to the left, then back to the right.
Twist and turn till you’ve got it right.
Get the balance right.
Get the balance right.”

I said my goodbyes – for the current season – to Parky and Jake. It has been a tumultuous ten months. We will need to raise ourselves for one last time, for one massive challenge, for one ultimate goal and for one final push. Just like Manchester United in 1968, we need to steal the thunder from Manchester City by winning the biggest prize of all.

Five days and counting…

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