Tales From The Underdogs

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 12 August 2012.

The weather on the oh-so familiar drive up the M5 to Birmingham was horrendous. The near constant rain was painful enough, but the inclement driving conditions resulted in the traffic slowing right down to the speed of a Florent Malouda dribble. As a result of the delays, our pre-game plans of popping into the Crown and Cushion for a couple of pints of Red Stripe were knocked into touch.

I didn’t park up until 12.50pm.

It didn’t seem that long ago that Parky and I had last visited this particular part of Birmingham; the 4-2 win against Aston Villa seemed like yesterday. Ah, a lovely Torres goal too, I seem to remember.

We were parked to the north of Villa Park; the end allocated to the City fans. I expected the area to be inundated with them. To be honest, it was surprisingly quiet. There was a mixture of Chelsea and City fans milling around in the warm drizzle. It soon became apparent that many fans had expected warmer weather. Many were wearing shorts with trainers and plimsolls, with no rain jackets for cover.

It appeared to me that the drizzly conditions had travelled south with the thousands of Mancunians.

It was typical Manchester weather.

As we approached the stadium, we spotted a gaggle of familiar faces sheltering under the slight overhang of the Doug Ellis Stand. It was good to see them all once again. The others were off to sit in the two-tiered Holte End (the home end at the stadium), while I was by myself in the upper tier of the Doug Ellis. Just as I was finding my bearings, none other than Lovejoy walked past. I hadn’t seen him for almost two years. I was wondering if I’d see him at football ever again.

My seat was in the second row from the rear of the upper deck, down at the south end, behind the goal line. It soon became apparent that the 42,000 capacity was not going to be tested on this particular match day. I spotted large gaps in both tiers of the Holte End. Chelsea had been entitled to over 13,000 tickets for this game, but it was clear that we were a few thousand short of that figure. As kick-off approached, there were just as many gaps in the City sections. City had fans on three sides; the main west stand, the north stand and about a quarter of the Doug Ellis.

It was easy for me to think back to the one game that this scenario reminded me of; our 1996 F.A. Cup semi-final against the other Manchester team, in the days when Gullit and Hughes played for us and Cantona and Beckham played for them. I used to love attending F.A. Cup semi-finals en masse at these neutral venues. I loved the idea of 20,000 Chelsea fans taking over large swathes of other clubs’ stadia. And it preserved the thrill of Wembley for the Cup Final itself. How I wish the F.A. would revert to this, but I know it will never happen again.

Chelsea had both tiers of the Holte End for that game and, as luck would have it, our seats were in the very first row of the upper tier. I immediately seized this opportunity and decided to make a banner to hang over the balcony wall.

Over a week, I painstakingly made my “Ruud Boys” banner, featuring the smiling face of our dreadlocked hero who had so thrilled us in his first season.

The Chelsea fans were out in force on that Sunday in the spring of 1996. Our end was festooned with banners, streamers and balloons as the teams entered the pitch. I always remember that the United sections filled up really slowly and I am pretty sure that there were empty seats throughout the game. Just before the break, that man Gullit leapt at a cross and headed us into a lead.

Oh, how we celebrated that one.

Sadly, two defensive errors – and some unfortunate injuries to key players – allowed United to recover and win 2-1. Wembley would have to wait for one more season.

However, the story continues.

The sight of the Chelsea fans packing out the Holte End in a riot of colour must have been spectacular. There are many photographs of us from that day. One in particular was used in two publications.

One photographer down at pitch level took a photo of my Ruud Boys flag and it was used by “Action Images” to illustrate a piece on Chelsea’s influx of foreign players in a copy of “Total Football” later during that year.

It gets better.

The former Wimbledon striker Dean Holdsworth once had an affair with glamour model Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie. At a game at Selhurst Park in the 1996-1997 season, the Chelsea fans were full of rude comments about this romantic liaison. In the “Daily Sport” newspaper – that beacon of journalistic integrity – the following day, there was a photo of Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie (baring all) with a headline to the effect of “How dare Chelsea fans be rude to both Dean and me.”

The editor chose to illustrate her tirade at the Chelsea fans with a picture of some Chelsea fans, set just behind a large photograph of Lindsey Dawn and her quite substantial charms.

The photo that the editor chose was from the Villa Park semi-final. It was the photo of my Ruud Boys flag. Or rather, a close-up photo of Glenn and me (looking, strangely, straight at the camera).

Imagine the scene.

Glenn was sitting with his workmates during a tea break when one of them opened up the middle pages of his “Daily Sport” to exclaim –

“Hey, Glenn – there’s a picture of you and Chris Axon next to Lindsey Dawn MacKenzie here!”

The Chelsea and Manchester City teams entered the arena from that quirky tunnel towards the corner of the main stand. I guess this was a conscious decision by the Villa club, who were lambasted for replacing the much loved Trinity Road stand with a brutal structure, to maintain certain elements of the old stand. The curved panelling of the original Leitch balcony has been replicated, too.

Chelsea were in the royal blue of old, while City wore a new away kit of Torino pomegranate. The guests of honour were the former city winger Mike Summerbee and none other than our very own Ron Harris. I saw Ron sharing a joke with several of the Chelsea players as he was introduced to them.

The game began and it was clear that di Matteo was staying with his tried and tested 4-2-3-1, with Mikel and Lamps in the withdrawn roles, and Ramires out right, Hazard out left, Mata in the middle. With our influx of new players, I wondered if the manager was wondering about testing the old conundrum of whether teams should be system based or player based.

Should the formation dictate which players to use or should the players force the formation? One suspects that the answer, like a lot of things in life, is a muddy compromise.

The rain had ceased and Manchester City created a flurry of early chances. Petr Cech was in the thick of it and was soon covering himself in glory as he repelled several City efforts. With time, though, we began to make inroads as the game progressed. Eden Hazard took a few nice touches, but then drew instant laughter from the City hordes when he cut inside but tripped over his feet as he attempted a back-heel to Ashley Cole. I’m sure we’ve all done that in our time on the football pitch; I know I have.

I must admit, I didn’t know too much about Eden Hazard before we became linked with him. My knowledge of his attributes is due to a typical search on YouTube; I was mightily impressed. I just hoped that there wasn’t another selection of Eden Hazard clips on YouTube involving him falling over himself, clipping balls Gronkjaer-esque into row Z of the stands at Lille, losing possession after one touch, missing clear chances and setting up opponents’ goals with lazy back-passes.

Two chances in quick succession raised our hopes; a flowing move involving Mata and Ramires allowed Fat Frank to shoot straight at the City ‘keeper and then Hazard cut inside before shooting low.

It then occurred to me – in a lovely moment of self-awareness – that after three games of varying involvement, I was now right back in to the football. After the surreal experience in New York, the boozy song-fest of Chester and the docile frustration of Brighton, I was now kicking every ball, making every tackle, shouting words of encouragement and getting more and more involved with every passing minute.

This turned out to be the most important moment of the entire afternoon for me.

There may come a time when I suddenly lose this passion for Chelsea, but I knew at around 2pm at Villa Park that it wouldn’t be this season; European Champions or not, there are still games to attend, games to win and songs to be sung.

“Come On You Blue Boys.”

With the first half coming to a close, we were rewarded for our slight improvement in play with a goal against the general run of play. What a lovely finish from Fernando Torres, who deftly flicked the ball over the ‘keeper from Ramires’ through ball. I celebrated wildly – yes, I was back – and still managed to capture several shots of El Nino reeling away towards the Chelsea fans in the upper deck of the Doug Ellis. Another goal for him at Villa Park. I maintained my proud record of seeing every Fernando Torres goal in the flesh, from Stamford Bridge to Old Trafford to Camp Nou to Villa Park.

I hope that continues.

I spotted Mick and Della a few yards away from me and I walked over to say “hi” just as the Ivanovic tackle happened. My first reaction was that it was a tough decision; replays on the TV in the bar area at half-time suggested that Kevin Friend got it right. Down to ten men, I doubted that we would be able to hold off a physically tough City side. Up front, Tevez and Aguero looked the business.

I had more words with Mick and Della at the break; they had thoroughly enjoyed their time with Ron Harris in New York and it was great to see them once again.

At the start of the second half, Mancunian drizzle and then Mancunian goals. A couple of lax defensive clearances allowed the ball to fall to Kolo Toure. He smashed it goal wards and I was right behind the path of the ball. I said “goal” as soon as it left his foot.

The City fans, who had swelled their numbers considerably during the first-half, now roared. Their version of “Hey Jude” was deafening to be fair. I wondered if there had been traffic problems for the City fans on their trek south down the M6 from Ancoats, Hyde, Droylesden and Longsight.

A sweet strike from Tevez and a flick from Nasri got them singing again. This now looked like “damage limitation” for us. I wanted Friend to blow up straight away. As Daniel Sturridge warmed up, he took tons of abuse from the City fans in the main stand.

“One greedy bastard, there’s only one greedy bastard.”

That’s ironic, eh? Half of City’s team are only there for the sheikh’s millions.

Oh well. It is what it is.

It was sad to hear the Chelsea support so quiet. Even when we were 1-0 up, the noise was no more than a murmur.

Must do better.

I thought back to the game at Yankee Stadium. The only three English shirts I saw at the stadium which were not Chelsea belonged to two Manchester City supporters and one Manchester United fan. I was expecting more to be honest. I was certainly expecting shirts to be worn by a few Liverpool, Spurs and Arsenal fans in a sad attempt to wind us up. There is nothing sadder than that, in my opinion. However, the sight of the two City shirts certainly made me double-take; outside of Manchester, sightings are rare. In NYC, I decided to take the “good cop, bad cop” approach.

To City Fan #1 – “You’re at the wrong game mate”

This resulted in the City fan puffing his chest out and giving me a look of aggression.

To City Fan #2 – “Congratulations on the title…at least you’re not a red.”

This resulted in the City fan looking confused and befuddled at my – honest – compliments.

Late on, a Daniel Sturridge shot was only parried by Pantilimon and the other substitute Ryan Bertrand pounced. We roared again. Could we rise up from the dead and snatch a draw? Despite a late charge, including big Pete coming up for a corner, it was not to be.

In truth, City could have scored again at the death but Sergio Aguero screwed the ball wide in front of a virtual open goal. With us a man down throughout the second-half, a 3-2 loss was no big deal. Outside, Parky was sage like and philosophical, sharing the opinion that there were several plus points to take from the game.

With a lot of the City fans still inside, our escape route north and then west to the M6 was clear of traffic and, aided by some classics from the Stranglers, we made good time on the drive south.

Throughout the game, I had soon realised that City were the new target for all clubs in the division this season. They are a formidable team – solid in the right areas, with many attacking options. I also realised that it certainly felt “right” for Chelsea – or at least “my” Chelsea – to be classed as the underdogs once more. I’d guess we are third favourites for the league, behind the two Manchester clubs, but I can deal with that. After all, I dealt with it – and the club certainly dealt with it – against Barca and Bayern.

It’s no big deal. I quite like it. After all, a goal scored by the underdogs is celebrated five times as loudly as a goal by the favourites.

I won’t deny that there are the inevitable concerns about our team at this very moment in time. But let’s give everyone time to adapt to each other, to let the newcomers settle, to give the manager his six months to sort out his formation and his methodology. With the possible triumvirate of Hazard / Mata / Oscar feeding Fernando Torres, we could be in for quite a ride.

The league season is almost upon us.

Wigan awaits.

I’m ready.

Let’s go.

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