Tales From Roger’s Big Night Out

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 31 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

The substantial debris from the game on Sunday was still falling all around us as I anticipated the Capital One game at HQ. After the ridiculously high-scoring Reading vs. Arsenal game on Tuesday plus Chelsea and United’s predilection for attacking football, I was expecting another entertaining contest. As the afternoon progressed, I spoke about the game at work and I remember mentioning to a colleague “it won’t be 0-0.”

After having driven to all but a couple of the Chelsea games over the past two seasons, salvation was at hand. My mate Roger had volunteered to collect me from work and take on the burden of rush-hour traffic and the battle against inclement weather conditions. We left Chippenham at 4pm and, unfortunately, it wasn’t too long into the drive that the rain arrived. As Roger drove east, we spent most of the trip to London reminiscing on past Chelsea memories.

I used to work with Roger at a factory in Trowbridge from 1996 to 1998, but after he moved away to Devon a few years ago, I lost contact with him. I was elated to bump into him outside The Pelican pub at Chelsea before the game with Tottenham two years ago. We couldn’t remember if we had ever travelled up to a game together. I don’t think we had. I know that Roger joined a few friends and I on a stadium tour of Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1997. We laughed at the memory of him stealing a scrubbing brush from the home changing room. He still claims to this day that it belonged to Dennis Wise. He might even have it framed.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first two Chelsea games took place within three weeks of each other in the early spring of 1974. Roger told me how he managed to cajole his school teacher, Mrs. Fry – a keen Chelsea fan – to take him and his school friend to Stamford Bridge for their first game. On February 22 1974, young Roger – aged eleven – watched from the seats in the architectural oddity that was the North Stand as Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers drew 3-3. I made my home debut against Newcastle United in mid-March. Between the dates of the two games, Peter Osgood left Chelsea for Southampton. It is a major sadness that I never saw my childhood hero play for us.

Roger mentioned a few matches from that era. One game in which our paths collided was the March 1975 game against Derby County. We lost 2-1 to the eventual League Champions on that rainy day, but the memory which stayed strong in Roger’s mind was the presence of the Marching Mizzou band of the University of Missouri who entertained the crowd before the game. I vividly remember their bright yellow uniforms. They memorably sat in the otherwise unused (and quite possibly unsafe) seats in the upper tier of the ramshackle North Stand and I can well remember them bursting into life, unannounced, on several occasions during the game. In the Sunday Express paper the next day, I recollect the Derby manager Dave Mackay moaning about the sudden eruptions of sound which emanated from the stands during the game.

I reminded him of his Chelsea lottery win during the dark days of the 1982-1983 season. He had told me about this while we were working together. He told me how Chris Hutchings presented him with his prize before one game and how the photograph of this was featured in a later home programme. I remember delving through my programme collection and bringing it in to show him. At the time, Roger used to sell around three hundred lottery tickets on Hounslow High Street during the week before every home game. On one particular day, his brother helped himself to a ticket from the large pile in Roger’s living room. Roger asked him to pay the 25p for it, but his brother declined. Roger was livid. The ticket was rubbed away to reveal the prize of another “free” ticket. Roger swore at his brother and said –

“Well, you’re not having another. I’m having it.”

With that, Roger picked the next ticket in the pile. He rubbed it to reveal, to his immense satisfaction, a prize of £1,000, which was a huge sum thirty years ago. Imagine the look on his brother’s face. He even got an extra 10% as he was the lottery seller.

“Happy days, Mush.”

The traffic slowed around Maidenhead and my hopes for a couple of pints in the boozer before the game were diminishing quickly. The rain worsened too.

“Not so happy days, Dodger.”

We spoke about a few of the characters that we used to work with in Trowbridge, but the talk soon returned to Chelsea. Roger was clearly relishing the game against United. I’ve often thought how key defeats against Manchester United have, in a way, acted as spurs for later triumphs.

Think back to 1994. A truly demoralising 4-0 loss to United in our first F.A. Cup Final in twenty-three years left us shell-shocked and tearful. Yet, just three seasons later, the memory of two Eric Cantona penalties amid the rain of Wembley were forgotten as we finally got our hands on some silverware, beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the same competition.

Think back to 1999. We only lost three games during the 1998-1999 league campaign, yet finished in third place behind the eventual champions Manchester United. After that, I was convinced that we would never win the league in my lifetime. We had reached our level. Just three defeats, yet no title. Just three years later, in 2005, we lost just one game all season long and became league champions for the first time in fifty years.

Think back to 2008. We had to endure the misery of Moscow with an excruciatingly painful defeat by Manchester United in the Champions League Final. Our greatest ever team, perhaps just past its prime, would surely never reach the final again. We lost out on the ultimate prize in European football by the width of a post and the splash of a puddle. Four years later in Munich, our beloved club won the Champions League for the first time ever.

In each of these triumphs, the joy of victory was made substantially sweeter due to the memory of those anguished defeats by Manchester United a few years previously. Additionally, with each trophy successfully attained, the next trophy was to be more prestigious. The F.A. Cup lead to the League and then to the European Cup. It seems, now, with the perspective of time, that we were following a natural order of progression. And it certainly seems that it was ordained in the stars that we would encounter pain and defeat in our quest for glory. With hindsight, that beautiful gift, I am fine with this. Everyone knows that the best things in life are worth the wait.

West London seemed especially dark and gloomy as Roger drove around the Hammersmith roundabout before heading down the Fulham Palace Road. We parked up on Bramber Road at 6.45pm. It had been a long journey in, but it had been excellent catching up with Roger. Inside The Goose, the team news had just been announced. I was very happy to hear that Robbie had chosen a strong team. I couldn’t stomach losing twice in four days to The Pride of Asia.

We had twenty minutes to drink-up in the boozer. There was just time for one pint again. A quick chat with a few mates. Rush, rush, rush.

“Let’s make a move, Rog.”

“No worries, Mush.”

There was light drizzle outside the West Stand turnstiles. The line at the Matthew Harding turnstiles meant that I missed the kick-off for the first time this season, if only by a minute.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

Ding ding.

As always, one of my first tasks of the game was a quick scan at the size and nature of the away support. The United masses took up 6,000 seats in both tiers of The Shed, though every single one was standing. No surprises there. The entire Matthew Harding Lower were standing too. There were around fifteen flags draped over the Shed balcony. One especially caught my attention.

“Clattenburg. Referee. Leader. Legend.”

Despite my Chelsea allegiance, that brought a wry chuckle.

There was an ironic flag, in Dundee United tangerine and black, honouring a much-maligned purchase that Alex Ferguson made from that club in around 1988.

“Ralph Milne Ultras.”

For a short period of time, a group of fans hoisted this one –

“Chelsea F.C. – Making a stand against racism since Sunday.”

Ouch.

There were a smattering of flags with musical references too, including one which honoured the drug of choice of the Mancunian ravers in the days of house music in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties.

“MD MDA MDMA OK.”

Football and music are so often entwined. At Chelsea, we have our own “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” flags, of course, honouring the Chelsea-supporting lead singers of The Clash and Madness.

Roger was to my left, Alan and Tom to my right. We wondered what events might unravel this time. None of us could have predicted what ensued on the night of Halloween, Wednesday 31st. October 2012. It was one for the ages. If Sunday’s game “had it all”, then this one had the same, though strangely, in the circumstances, no sendings-off.

A timeline of events tells the story.

6 – Daniel Sturridge, at last the lone striker, was played in with only Lindegaard to beat, but experienced a Torresesque slip in front of goal. It was also in front of the baying United fans, who had already mocked him with taunts of being a City reject.

The away fans began the game where they left off on Sunday; a wall of noise. The Chelsea fans rose to the challenge, though, and songs were exchanged with gusto. Not surprisingly, one issue was soon the subject –

“Where’s your racist at the back?”

“Where’s your racist referee?”

I didn’t bother joining in.

22 – I was busy checking my camera and so missed the error by Oriel Romeu, put under too much pressure by a silly Petr Cech pass, which resulted in Ryan Giggs picking up the loose ball and adroitly steering the ball into the goal. Cech seemed crestfallen and the Mancs roared.

Here we go again. If anything, it was against the run of play. Victor Moses was the star of our first-half, running the channels, strong on the ball, full of endeavour. Top marks to him.

31 – That man Moses attacked the United full-back Buttner and a foul resulted in a Chelsea penalty. David Luiz, one of the Munich Five, calmly slotted the ball low past the ‘keeper.

Game on.

43 – A typical David Luiz dribble out of defence, involving one touch too many resulted in him losing the ball. The United players pounced and eventually played in Chicarito, who again scored at the north end. No taunting celebrations this time. A pink flare was lit by the United fans. The Chelsea stewards seemed to take forever to extinguish it. The United fans were baying again. One ran onto the pitch, his arms flailing like a maniac.

There’s a five year ban straight away.

“We’re Man United. We do what we want.”

Run on the pitch you mean? Idiots.

It was a desperate way to end the half.

We had played reasonably well during the first period, but it was galling to be losing to errors of our own making. Lucas Piazon was struggling to get in the game, but elsewhere we were fine. However, Di Matteo replaced the under-scrutiny Mikel with Ramires at the break.

49 – A quick Juan Mata corner caught everyone unawares, but the unmarked Sturridge attempted an outrageous flick inside the six yard box where an old-fashioned header would have brought greater rewards. There were howls of disapproval from the Matthew Harding. Studge clearly has issues in selecting the correct option at times. He is so frustrating.

52 – A Juan Mata corner was met powerfully by the head of Gary Cahill. The ball crossed the line before a United defender had the chance to hook it away. The Bridge was roaring once more.

59 – A great United move found Nani who clipped the ball past Cech. The goal was against run of play and left us trailing 3-2 once more. Eden Hazard replaced the quiet Piazon.

65 – After a short corner, Hazard picked out Victor Moses, but he headed over.

68 – A Juan Mata cross, deep to the far post, found an unmarked and onrushing Azpilicueta, but his header infuriatingly flew over. Roger moaned “what do they teach you? Head it down!” Oscar replaced Romeu. The three maestros were back together again.

72 – Oscar played the ball to Mata and his shot struck the hand of Keane. The ball had travelled a good five yards and the defender surely could have moved his arm away. The referee waved play on. Shades of Barca in 2009? You bet. We howled with derision and I turned the air blew.

75 – Victor Moses shot straight at the United goalie. Things were getting very frustrating indeed. Our efforts could not be doubted, though.

I commented to Tom that “no matter who wins, we’ve played really well in this game.”

83 – Daniel Sturridge shot was saved. The groans continued.

85 – An Oscar shot from distance was parried, unconvincingly, by Lindegaard.

The Manchester United contingent were now sensing victory and another 3-2 triumph.

“Can we play you every week?” they taunted.

Oh, how I wanted to ram that down their throats.

87 – I turned to Alan and Tom and reluctantly admitted “we won’t win this, lads.”

Three minutes of extra time were signalled. The game played on. The minutes passed.

93 – I saw the referee twice put the whistle to his mouth. On the second occasion, Alan and Tom were leaving their seats.

“See you Saturday, pal.”

To be honest, I thought the referee had whistled.

“Oh, he’s not blown.”

The ball was worked inside the box and it found Ramires on the edge. A push in the back and the referee, bless him, pointed straight at the spot. I turned around and screamed, clenching my fists tightly. Who should be staring straight at me but 75 year old Tom, screaming away, looking me right in the eyes, with a face that Edvard Munch would have been proud to paint.

Euphoria.

The game was surely no more than five seconds away from its completion. The fans who had been leaving suddenly sat on any available seat. This time it was Eden Hazard who decided to take a shot from the penalty spot.

We waited.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!

Oh my. What a game. The place was rocking. I turned to Tom and said “that was more than three minutes.”

Tom, the quiet pensioner, smiled at me and, quite out of nature, barked back –

“I don’t give a fcuk!”

I had to laugh.

The period of extra-time began.

“No early night tonight, Dodge.”

“No, Mush.”

3 – For the second time, Sturridge shot from a ridiculously acute angle. If that lad was half as good as he thought he was, we’d be in business.

7 – I was lamenting Eden Hazard’s poorly directed long ball and looked away, only for the roars of the crowd to tell me that Studge had pounced on a loose ball. We stood as one as he calmly rounded the ‘keeper in front of the away fans and slotted the ball in. The ball rolled in and Stamford Bridge exploded.

For Sturridge, the “City reject”, this must have been oh-so sweet,

10 – Luiz and Nani were booked after an ugly altercation down below me. We responded with the funniest song of the night.

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

12 – Gary Cahill headed a whisker wide of the unguarded far post. The United fans were now quiet, their banners limp.

14 – A foul on Sturridge by the last man just outside the box had us all howling again. Why not a red? From the free-kick, David Luiz rattled the bar and United’s spirits.

What a game. Breathless stuff. The three substitutes had given new life, extra spirit, to the team. Oscar was simply exceptional.

Tom said “I have to keep lookin’ up to the scoreboard to remind me of the score.” It was the same for me during that equally crazy 4-4 with Liverpool in 2009.

19 – Daniel Sturridge twice shot over from similar angles within a minute.

21 – Studge played in the continually excellent Moses, but his effort was saved when it looked easier to score.

26 – The ball broke to Eden Hazard breaking clear. We all rose as one as he advanced. I raised my camera to capture his dribble deep into the United half. He stopped and spun, then dinked the ball into the path of Ramires. He drew the ‘keeper, then waltzed past him before angling a shot low into the goal.

FIVE-THREE.

Rather belatedly, Alan grabbed me and said –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

Laughing, I replied “COME ON MY LITTLE DIAMONDS!”

30 – At the other end, Azpilicueta pushed into a United player and Ryan Giggs, the aging talisman, stroked the ball in from the penalty.

5-4. Bloody hell.

31 – Hazard raced away and almost made it 6-3, but he shot wide. The look on Roger the Dodger’s face was a picture.

Before the match, during the long drive to London, Roger asked me to name my favourite ever game. An easy answer would be those three games from 1997, 2005 and 2012, but he really meant “the most entertaining game.” I cited the 4-2 game with Barcelona in 2005, whereas Roger went with a 4-3 win over Tottenham in 1994. As we left the stadium, I asked him if this game might even topple that one.

The two sets of supporters mixed on Fulham Road, but there was a heavy police presence. The Chelsea fans were exultant. We were buzzing. As Roger and I walked away from the ground, we could hardly contain ourselves. It had been a fantastic night of football. The last three Chelsea vs. United games at Stamford Bridge, all in 2012, had produced no fewer than twenty goals.

My mate Glenn, watching in a pub full of United diehards back home in Frome, soon texted the news of the quarter finals.

“Leeds away.”

I quickly decided that this would be one game too far for me. I just don’t have enough spare holiday left. No big deal. Elland Road on a cold winter Wednesday is not going to be one of the most welcoming places in the world.

Roger had to endure even worse weather on the drive back to Chippenham. I felt for him. Our spirits were up though. No bother. He dropped me off at work at 12.30am and I was home at 1am. He had to drive back to Paignton in Devon and it would be a further two hours before he would reach home.

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