Tales From Bad Saturday

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 March 2013.

It was somewhat typical in this strangest of seasons that as soon as Chelsea hit a little bit of form – a life-affirming draw at Old Trafford plus home wins over Steaua and West Ham at The Bridge – we were then hit with a dreaded international break. Our momentum was stalled, therefore, for a full two weeks. The England games came and went with little interest from myself. I lasted around twenty-five minutes in each game before falling to sleep. I was last genuinely captivated by the national team in 1996, maybe 1998. After forty years of heartbreak – I remember the Poland game at Wembley in 1973 – I just can’t get excited by the national team these days. My views on the pitiful atmosphere at Wembley for England games have been voiced before, so I won’t bore anyone further.

But, strangely, the visit to St. Mary’s for the second time in 2013 didn’t excite me too much. Maybe my momentum was upset too. I knew one thing; Southampton would prove a bigger threat to Chelsea Football Club than in the F.A. Cup game in January when many of their first team were rested.

I set off for Hampshire at 10.45am. The weather was grey and miserable. It was colder than in January. I had purchased the new Depeche Mode album in town an hour previously and as I reversed out of my drive, the first track boomed throughout the car.

“Welcome To my World.”

How very apt. Despite my work and my home life, despite my friends and travels, my other hobbies and past times, this indeed was my life…setting off on a Saturday morning, coffee to hand, music blaring, heading off to watch my boyhood idols once more. This would be game number 939.

“Welcome To My World Part 939.”

I struggled to muster enthusiasm for the day ahead, though, as I headed through Frome and Warminster and down through the thatched-roof villages on the A36. I breathed a sigh of relief when, not far from home, I saw that Southampton was just 48 miles away. It is easily my nearest game. I had a little chuckle to myself when I found myself indicating to turn left just after passing through Warminster.

Not today, Chris. There’s no trip to London today, mate. No need to turn left and head across Salisbury Plain today. It was if my car was thinking for me. I was on automatic pilot. I had to manually intervene –

“Keep going, straight ahead, Southampton is this way.”

Oh boy.

As Salisbury neared, I struggled again with the rest of the season. It was still a bloody mess. Our schedule of games, which are stretching out until May, are never-ending. Some games have been re-arranged, some games are squashed together – three in six days coming up – and some games are waiting to happen. An F.A. Cup semi-final? Maybe. A Europa league semi-final? Maybe. An F.A. Cup final? Maybe. A Europa League final? Maybe. Two trips abroad to plan and finance? Maybe. And then, ludicrously, there was the sudden announcement of the jaunt to the USA for the second time this season. For someone who likes to plan ahead, my brain was frazzled in attempting to evaluate it all. To be honest, I simply couldn’t justify a trip over to the US in May, especially since it might follow a game in Amsterdam so quickly. But then…the ultimate twist of the knife…there were growing rumours of a second game in New York, my second-home, the home of the Yankees. For me to miss out on a Chelsea game in New York just seemed so wrong.

Fcuk it.

To be honest, I hoped that the drive down to Southampton – me alone with my thoughts – might allow me the requisite personal time to evaluate if I could stomach my second trip to the US in the same footballing season.

I failed. It was never going to be that easy. Watch this space.

I was enjoying the album – a few tracks were immediately memorable. The CD began its second “loop” as I hit Salisbury.

I hardly ever listen to the CIA Podcast, but I remembered Campy imitating me a few weeks back –

“…yeah, so there I was…on the road to yet anuver away game following Chowlsea and would you Adam and Eve it, this Depeche Mode song came on and…well…it got me finking…about that Chowlsea game in 1995…I remember like it was yesterday…”

Welcome To My Tales, Danny.

The traffic stalled, as it always does, through the medieval city of Salisbury.

Slow.

At least it allowed me to admire the lovely view of Salisbury Cathedral as I edged along the elevated city-by pass. Now I’m no history buff. Geography is more my game. But I guess the two subjects are indelibly interlinked. My father was the history man. He used to read masses of books on the kings and the queens of England, the archbishops and the cardinals, the cavaliers and the roundheads, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and the Jarrow Marchers, the Magna Carta and the Doomsday Book, Judge Jeffreys and the Bloody Assizes. We used to visit Salisbury quite often in my childhood – gammon and pineapple at the Berni Inn, what a treat – and we would always visit the magnificent cathedral which dates from the thirteenth century. The cathedral has a huge knave, but its spire is the tallest in England. It still takes my breath away to this day. As I slowly drove past, I was in awe of its magnificence.

Depeche Mode were playing still as I drove on. I’m always reminded of one of my favourite ever days when I listen to their music. Right after our game in Palo Alto in 2007, I drove to Las Vegas in one session and Depeche Mode provided the musical backdrop as I drove past Bakersfield and Barstow and through the magnificent scenery approaching Vegas. It was if I was in my own personal Anton Corbijn video.

Heaven.

Southampton was reached at about 12.45pm. I again parked at the train station. Outside, the weather was indeed cold. I buttoned up my Barbour and donned my Yankee cap. The boys were in “Yates” a mere fifteen minutes away. The site of Southampton’s lovely old stadium, The Dell, was around ten minutes to the north. I only ever visited The Dell on three occasions with Chelsea – 1994 to 1996 – and I miss it. It was their home from 1897 to 2001. It was an idiosyncratic and cosy old place. Peter Osgood, of course, graced it with his presence after he left Chelsea in 1974. I remember when it was terraced on four sides and gates of around 30,000 squeezed in, but it only held 15,000 towards the end of its existence.

One of my friends, Neil, grew up with the Southampton and England player Matthew Le Tissier on the island of Guernsey. For the two games in 1996, Neil was able to get tickets for a few of us, in the home seats, from Matthew. For the game in February 1996, Neil arranged for us to meet Matt briefly before the game. We met up in a nearby pub, and then walked over to the match day office. The Dell was very compact, squashed between four roads in the shape of a parallelogram; that is, the two end stands were oddly shaped triangles. Everything about the place was quaint, quintessentially English – and cramped.

We met Matt Le Tissier and posed for a few photographs in a ridiculously small hallway. There were four of us; Neil, his brother Daryl, plus Glenn and myself. It was great to see Neil just chatting away to his old school friend. We looked on in awe. The late Chelsea director Matthew Harding always had a massive crush on Le Tissier and tried desperately to get him to sign for us in around that time. It was rumoured that he always carried a Le Tissier sticker in his wallet. Although a boyhood Spurs fan, Le Tissier loved life at Southampton and was not tempted. He played his entire at Southampton and credit to him for it. ( I would strongly advise any new Chelsea fans to Google his goals; you won’t be disappointed.) This story took an inevitable twist, however, when the Chelsea team suddenly appeared in this most ridiculously small hallway. Before we knew it, we were rubbing shoulders with our heroes as they made their way into the changing rooms. Fair credit to the players, though – we were still able to get our photographs taken with a few of them. They took the time for us and we really appreciated it.

There are photographs of us with Dennis Wise, John Spencer, David Lee and – wait for it – Ruud Gullit.

Chelsea went on to win 3-2, with Wisey scoring two and – if memory serves – Ruud getting the winner after a lovely break with the scores level. I think we tried to restrain ourselves when the winner went in – we were amongst home supporters remember – but I’m sure we gloriously failed. One of the loveliest away games of that Glenn Hoddle era was completed when the four of us stayed the night at Ron Harris’ hotel and bar in Warminster.

Lovely times.

“Yates” was heaving with Chelsea – on two floors – and I eventually found Alan and Gary, along with a gaggle of other away day regulars. There was time for just one pint. I spoke with friends about the priorities for the season. I again uttered disdain that Chelsea has prioritised finishing fourth – and maybe elimination from next year’s Champions League after a single tie – ahead of winning the F.A. Cup Final in May.

Yes…I know…”must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players, must get Champions League football, must generate money, must tempt quality new players…”

That’s all well and good. But I don’t see “Finishing Fourth” in our honours section yet.

Of course, joking aside, this clamour for a Champions League spot every season is not the fault of Chelsea Football Club but the fault of UEFA and their buggering-up of the old established European Cup which served everyone one so well from 1956 to 1992.

And I hate them for it.

We made our way to St. Mary’s, no more than a twenty-minute walk to our east. After Saints moved out of The Dell in 2001, the first game in the league at St. Mary’s was the visit of Chelsea. Surrounded by several gasometers, industrial units and a large cement works, the setting is far from salubrious and far from the residential charm of The Dell.

I was in the seats in good time. I popped down to take several shots of the team warming up. I chatted briefly to Gill and Graeme who were as non-plussed about the game in Missouri as me.

“Foreign tours should be at the start of the season when everyone is fresh and eager and full of enthusiasm.”

I spotted that Fernando Torres was wearing a face-mask. A chap next to me was moaning.

“Bloody ridiculous. You wouldn’t get Peter Osgood wearing a face mask.”

He clearly had it in for Torres, but I am afraid I was not quick-witted enough to mutter –

“Or Demba Ba.”

The team was announced and there were mutters of discontent. There were wholesale changes, but we heard rumours that Mata was ill. We always miss his intelligent play. Hazard – the form player – was on the side-lines. Elsewhere, in came Moses and Marin.

The M and M boys.

Maris and Mantle, they ain’t.

“Well, Benitez – prepare yourself for some flak if we mess this up.”

The game, in the end, was a shocker.

Southampton – just as they did in the cup game in January – were faster out of the traps and their players were evidently more at ease than us. Their passing and movement was causing our defence early problems, with the central pairing of John Terry and Branislav Ivanovic seemingly ill-prepared for the raids of Lambert and Rodriguez. Two early blocks from Ivanovic kept us in the game, but the portents were not good.

Midway through the first-period, disaster struck. A fine move from Southampton found Rodriguez breaking into the box. I almost looked away, so convinced was I that he would score. He neatly tucked the ball past Petr Cech and the home crowd erupted. This was no more than the home team deserved. We hoped for an F.A. Cup style recovery. Our play suggested that we were in for a tougher battle this time around, though.

Then, a Moses cross was deflected for a corner. The diminutive Marin sent over a cross. I snapped a photograph of John Terry rising unhindered and heading easily into the Southampton goal. The defence was nowhere. The simplicity of the goal astounded me.

Soft touch.

Our relief was short-lived. Two minutes later, a Ricky Lambert free-kick from around twenty-five yards out was sent spinning and curving over the wall and past a late dive from Cech. I unfortunately captured that on film, too.

Bugger.

The mood in the Chelsea end was of growing annoyance with the team and manager alike. I chatted to Alan about the resting of players ahead of Monday’s big game with United. Surely Benitez’ resting of Hazard and Cole – the obvious examples – suggested that he was thinking ahead to Monday. Of course, some fans want the best team to play in every game, others claim rotation is the key to success.

What is my opinion? I don’t know. Give me another forty years to work it out and I’ll tell you.

After a few barbed exchanges between the two sets of supporters based on our winning of the Champions League, a Southampton chant made me chuckle amongst the gloom.

“The Johnstone’s Paint Trophy – You’ll Never Win That.”

The first-half finished with Southampton back on top and causing us many headaches. Torres – apart from having a goal called back for offside – wasn’t in the game. Oscar was nowhere to be seen. Marin ran into defenders. The play completely by-passed Frank Lampard. Our defence looked brittle. There were, to sum up, no positives.

During a toilet-break at half time, I heard that the Southampton announcer was barking some nonsense about fans racing from one penalty box to the other in a half-time contest. I groaned. During the race, the theme to the Benny Hill Show was played.

How bloody apt.

Our players had been running around like comedians all game.

The second-half was similarly dire. Our play was slow and our movement poor. At last a touch of skill from Torres, who danced past several challenges, but the move then broke down. A pass from Azpilicueta set up Moses, who blasted over.

On the hour, Benitez changed it, replacing Marin with Hazard. We were surprised that Oscar stayed on to be honest; such was his lack of involvement. A few Southampton chances came and went. Despite a few strong blocks, Ivanovic seemed constantly out of position. Even Terry looked troubled. Azpilicueta often found himself in a good position but his crossing was awful. Ryan Bertrand often looked lost. The Chelsea support was quiet. I haven’t sung so little at an away game for ages.

I commented to Al, with a pained expression on my face –

“There’s nobody talking to each other, nobody encouraging each other.”

With the Chelsea support getting ever more frustrated, Hazard at last showed his class, breaking into the box and flashing the ball across the box where a ball back to Lampard was the better option. Ramires added a little more thrust in place of Mikel. We wanted Ba to enter the game so that Benitez could play Torres and Ba together. Instead, his last roll of the dice was Benayoun for the lacklustre Oscar. Benayoun is not the worst player to play for Chelsea – I’ll admit he was a fair player in the past – but he is clearly disliked with a passion by the Chelsea support. One burst from him almost silenced the critics.

I was watching the clock continually and hoped for salvation. A Lampard free-kick flew over the bar. He had been awful all day long. The miss did not surprise me.

The whistle blew. In truth, a draw would have been unfair on Southampton.

We were dire and we knew it.

The fans knew it.

The players knew it.

What a bloody season.

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