Tales From Both Sides Of The River

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2013.

I was able to leave work slightly earlier than usual at 3.45pm. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to attend once more. It would be me – just me – alone with my thoughts on the familiar drive to SW6. There was certainly much to dwell upon. Firstly, my mind was full of thoughts of my father. Wednesday 17th. April 2013 was, sadly, the twentieth anniversary of his passing. My father was taken ill while shopping in Frome during the afternoon of Friday 16th. April 1993. He sadly passed away at the Royal United hospital in Bath in the small hours of the following day. In truth, much of my grieving twenty years later had taken place on the Tuesday; virtually all of the tearful memories and the strongest emotions came from the Friday 16th. April 1993.

Dad wasn’t a massive football fan; his sports were swimming, diving and badminton. He once boxed in the RAF during World War Two. However, once I fell in love with Chelsea Football Club, he soon realised how much the club meant to me. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I often hear stories of friends saying “my dad hated football and never took me to any games.”

Not so my father – and mother.

My Christmas present in 1973 – the best ever – was the news that my parents were going to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. Oh my; just writing these words some forty years later brings it all back. That realisation that I’d be seeing my heroes in that iconic royal blue kit – in colour, for real, not on our black and white TV – made me so excited. As I have said before, I owe my parents so much.

My father attended many games with me over the years. His last one was against Everton on the first day of 1991. As I drove past Swindon on the M4, I remembered a game from January 1988. My father finished work in Frome and drove home to collect my mother and I to take us all to Swindon for Chelsea’s Simod Cup (aka Full Member’s Cup ) game against Swindon Town at their County Ground stadium. At the time, we were plummeting towards the First Division’s relegation zone while Swindon was a Third Division side. We were caught up in traffic, however, and found it difficult to find a parking place. The plan was for my parents to sit in the main stand while I joined 2,000 Chelsea in the cramped corner terrace. We were so late arriving that I heard the roars from the home crowd celebrating Swindon’s second goal as I was still trying to get in.

“Oh great. This is going to be a great night.”

In the end, we lost 4-0. We were awful, even though our team contained stalwarts such as Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Tony Dorigo; good players one and all. I remember chants of “Hollins Must Go, Hollins Must Go, Hello, Hello” all night long. It was a dire night and it was a grim fore-telling of our eventual fate come May.

We were kept inside for ten minutes while the local hoodlums were pushed away from the stadium. I looked around the terraces where we had been stood all evening. Twenty yards away, looking out of place amongst hundreds of young Londoners, were my mother and father. I trotted over to greet them. It seems that they had arrived too late to gain entrance to the main stand; they had not bought tickets beforehand, we hadn’t thought it necessary. In those days, paying on the day was the norm. My parents had informed the club officials that they were Chelsea supporters and so, unbelievably, had been led around the pitch by stewards and put inside the away pen.

I think if I had seen them, I would have thought “oh no, what have they done now?”

Twenty-five years on, the image of my Mum and Dad, dressed in his suit, with a sheepskin coat, still brings a smile to my face.

Later that season, they were in The Shed for the Charlton Athletic game. But that’s another story for another time.

I stopped at Reading services on the drive east. As I returned to my car, I strangely noticed the incessant roar from the traffic hurtling towards London on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway. I was thrilled by it. I smiled. It reinforced my love of travel, of moving, of visiting new and old places, the constant desire to see new cities, new landscapes, new towns, new villages, new people. There is still romance in travel; from seeing the ocean as a four year old boy – the wonder of that vast body of water – to visiting foreign lands in my middle years. I never want it to stop.

During the last hour of my journey, this was enforced further as I attempted to put some plan in place in order to visit Old Amsterdam for our potential participation in the Europa Cup final and New Amsterdam for our friendly at Yankee Stadium. I have already block-booked that fortnight from work; now for the intricate fine tuning…schedules, dates, hotels, flights, just lovely.

My pre-match plans for the evening’s game at Craven Cottage actually stemmed from my visit to Yankee Stadium in July. After the Chelsea game in Philly, I returned to NYC to catch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game before I returned home. In “Stans Sports Bar” that evening – before and after the game – I got chatting to Britt, an American who was over from London, visiting NYC with friends. I was wearing a CFC T-shirt and she soon announced she was a Fulham season-ticket holder. We exchanged email addresses and promised to meet up for a pint during the season. We had arranged to meet that night at The Spotted Horse in Putney at 6.45pm.

On the approach into London, high on the elevated M4, I was again mesmerized by the panorama of London’s skykline which was particularly clear in the early evening sun; Harrow On The Hill to the north, the Wembley Arch, the Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf away in the distance, a quick glimpse of The Shard, the hills around Clapham to the south. Up close were the new high-rises at Brentford, the old art deco buildings, the Lucozade sign, the floodlights of Griffin Park, Earls Court and Olympia.

Travel. I love it.

I soon drove around the Hammersmith roundabout and down the Fulham Palace Road. No need to turn off along Lillee road this time; I was heading south to Putney, not east to Stamford Bridge. As I drove on, I caught glimpses of the floodlight pylons at Fulham’s classic stadium to my right. At the Golden Lion pub I saw a sign which stated that access was for FFC season ticket-holders or membership card holders only. I was stuck on Putney Bridge for a while as neon-clad cyclists, cars and London buses jostled for position.

Just after 6pm, I was parked up.

Walking past a few pubs by the River Thames – The Half Moon, The Duke’s Head – I soon realised what a lovely pre-match this would be. There is nothing quite like a game of football at Fulham. I looked up and saw a modern red bus crossing Putney Bridge. It wasn’t the old classic shape of a Routemaster, but it was still an iconic sight.

I needed sustenance and so looked for options. Unlike my expensive meal in Turin in November, there was no gastronomic treat for me this time. I ended up with a typical football meal of chicken and chips. Bloody hell, even KFC even sounds like a football club.

I reached The Spotted Horse at 6.30pm. Britt soon appeared and it was lovely to see her again. She was with her bloke Chris – an armchair Liverpool fan – and we had a quick catch up. As I quaffed a pint of Peroni, we chatted about all sorts. In addition to being a Fulham season ticket holder, she also follows Saracens rugby union. She is originally from DC and we spoke about that area’s sports teams. In fact, it was a similar conversation that I have had with various US guests to Stamford Bridge over the years. It felt almost liberating to be chatting to a fan of a rival team though. I had promised myself not to have too many digs at Fulham during the evening; I almost succeeded. In truth, Britt summed things up when she said –

“You don’t care about us, though, do you?”

Broadly she was correct, though I have a little soft spot for Fulham, which I am sure winds most Fulham fans up further. It’s true though. Long may the SW6 derby continue in the top flight.

Before we left The Spotted Horse, I briefly mentioned my father and we toasted him.

“Cheers Dad.”

There was talk of Peter Osgood, my first game, a Chelsea vs. Fulham game from 1982, a game from 2002, the banter was flying, it was super.

We then moved onto an even better pub – The Coat & Badge – and I had another pint while talking to more US Fulham fans. I had to stop and think –

“Shouldn’t I be talking to Chelsea fans? What will my mates think?”

To be honest, I was revelling in the change of scene, seeing new people, new places. I spoke to a Fulham fan from Philly and he was baffled by our club’s decision to sack Roberto di Matteo. To be truthful, I was stuck for words. I couldn’t – still – validate Roman’s decision. I also chatted to a girl – another American – about her experiences watching Fulham and living in London. Her accent suggested she was from The South, but I recognised a few cadences which lead me to believe she was from North Carolina or Georgia. To be honest, her accent was very similar in places to that of Mary-Anne from Knoxville Tennessee. I decided that I had to quell my inquisitiveness and so I asked her if she was from North Carolina or Georgia.

“Yes! North Carolina, Tennessee.”

“Ah, I thought so…you sound like a friend from Knoxville.”

“Knoxville is my home!”

“Damn…I should have gone with my hunch and said Knoxville…would have freaked you out, right!”

At 7.30pm, it was time to depart. We had a fantastic walk across Putney Bridge, with Britt leading the way, nothing getting in her way. It was quite an aerobic workout. I again commented that there is something quite therapeutic and hypnotic about walking towards a football stadium with thousands more.

It was a lovely spring evening as we strode through Bishop’s Park. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts on the river at Putney Bridge of course. It’s a lovely part of the world.

I wished Britt and Chris well – “may the best team win and all that bollocks” – and then turned towards the red brick of the away turnstiles where more familiar faces were everywhere I looked.

I soon bumped into two lads from Melksham, near where I work; “no Parky, mate?”

I looked down at my phone…what was the time?

1955.

A good year.

Up into the seats and I was soon alongside Alan and Gary and Kev from Bristol.

We were lower down than usual. Not far from the pitch. Excellent.

Before I had time to blink, the teams were on the pitch, walking across from the cottage to my right. Chelsea were in all blue. Although I love the design of our kit this year, I still think the blue is not dark enough, not vivid enough, too light, too muted. There was to be no show of hostility that we saw at Griffin Park as Benitez strode across the pitch. I quickly ran through the team. John Terry back, Ivanovic at right-back, Lamps back, Moses in, Torres in. I looked at the Fulham team to see if Duffer was playing, but didn’t spot him.

Let’s go to work.

This was a game that we simply had to win to stay in the hunt for a top four place in the league. We all knew that. But it wouldn’t be easy. The last two visits to Craven Cottage were draws.

Gary mentioned that he had seen some American Fulham fans on the tube on his journey from work. I can see the attraction, what with the pleasant setting of Craven Cottage, plus the former US players such as McBride, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Keller and Johnson who have represented Fulham recently. I wonder if those Fulham fans were aware of Fulham’s first batch of American players in the ‘thirties; the often forgotten trio of Lou Schattendorrf, Farmer Boy O’Malley and Chuck Rosencrantz III.

Fulham began strongly, much to our chagrin, and we heaved a massive sigh of relief as Ruiz volleyed over from close in. We weren’t playing well and a Karagounis effort bounced against the top of the bar. There were murmurs of disquiet in the away end. I looked around the trim stadium. I noted small pockets of empty seats, but it was near capacity. The Chelsea choir decided to start mocking our neighbours with a few choice ditties –

“We don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

“Michael Jackson – he’s one of your own.”

“Nonce for a statue. You’ve got a nonce for a statue.”

I felt that Dimitar Berbatov was their main threat, yet we seemed to be offering him too much space. He was often unmarked. A few half-chances came and went, but it clearly wasn’t a great start by Chelsea.

The Chelsea fans were in good voice, though, with a variety of songs being aired. I could hear some sort of noise emanating from the Hammersmith End – where Britt and Chris were watching – but I couldn’t decipher it. I never heard once their usual “We are Fulham, fcuk Chelsea” song once.

On the half-hour, with frustrations rising, the ball was played square to David Luiz, some thirty-five yards out. Many fans behind me simultaneously yelled “shoooooot!” and I am sure this was mirrored in bars all over the world. Luiz touched the ball once, it sat up for him, and he unleashed a curling, dipping, thunderbolt which crashed into Mark Schwarzer’s goal.

Oh boy.

What a cracker. Schwarzer was beaten before he could move.

The Chelsea end roared.

In truth, the goal had come against the run of play. Until then, we had looked disjointed.

Just after, Emanuelsen had the ball under his spell, looked up and painstakingly aimed a shot at the far post. I was right behind the path of the ball and expected a goal. From the middle of the six yard box, Petr Cech stretched low and touched the ball out for a corner. It was a phenomenal save. Just after, a lovely flowing move out from defence found Torres in space and in the inside-right channel. His shot was crashed over and we sighed.

A shot from Berbatov went wide, a Lampard free-kick went close. Just before the break, the previously quiet Juan Mata floated a cross towards the far post and John Terry, making a great blind run, was able to rise and head home. How he celebrated that one.

With us 2-0 up, we were able to breath a massive sigh of relief. A Ruiz penalty claim was waved away by Mike Dean. We had ridden our luck, but the two goal cushion meant there were smiles at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, with the pressure seemingly off, we were able to relax and sing. The Putney End, which seems to have excellent acoustics, was rocking to a fantastic foot stomping and hand clapping rendition of a song from Munich.

“We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe.”

The place was rocking. What noise.

To be honest, despite the awful anniversary, this was turning into a just magnificent evening down by the banks of the Thames. The jokes were coming thick and fast between Alan, Gary and myself, the boys were winning 2-0 and the Chelsea fans all around me were turning in the best vocal performance of the season.

The majority of Chelsea’s play seemed to be coming down our right flank, with Torres putting in a great night’s performance, full of energy and application. I was able to capture a lot of Hazard’s dribbles on film. The team were creating more chances and the fans were responding. A great Torres cross almost resulted in a goal, but Mata was unable to connect.

A Moses curler forced a fine save from Schwarzer. From the corner, Torres flicked on Mata’s delivery and John Terry made sure, heading it in from beneath the bar. The Chelsea fans in the Putney End believed that Nando had scored and so soon serenaded him. John Terry smiled at us and pointed towards Torres, while Torres dismissively waved away the adulation. Texts soon confirmed that it was JT’s goal.

Whatever.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 3.

Time for more song.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
We are coming in the month of May.”

Towards the end of the game, the Chelsea fans began looking ahead towards Sunday and our game at Anfield by warming up with a smattering of Liverpool songs. This was almost Mourinho-esque…with games won, he would often change the focus, ask players to conserve energy and start to think about the next challenge. Alas there is no Anfield for me on Sunday but I am not disappointed. With all of the noise about Benitez which will undoubtedly dominate the day, I am happy missing it.

There was a cooling wind coming off the Thames as I hurriedly walked back through Bishop’s Park. The lights alongside the river created flickering reflections on the water. It was a lovely scene. The Chelsea fans were still in good voice. The Fulham fans, who must have been taking part in an odd oath of silence since half-time, were unable to be heard.

IMG_9228

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s