Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 17 February 2013.

After encouraging wins against Wigan Athletic and Sparta Prague, we were looking for our third consecutive victory in our F.A. cup replay against Brentford. The first game at Griffin Park took place three Sundays ago; somehow, it seemed even further in the past than that. At times, it has been difficult to keep track of what is happening in 2012-2013. This season seems to be lurching along, victories here, defeats there. The whole campaign seems to be as downright tortuous and convoluted as I can remember. Our involvement in seven individual competitions then became eight as we were eliminated from the Champions League and entered the Europa League. We took part in the World Club Championships, playing football in Asia during a regular season for the first time, but breaking up the flow of the league campaign. There have been two managers. There have been cup runs. Extra games everywhere we looked. In the Europa League, a potential seven further games wait should we get past Sparta. We have played in cities from Seattle in the west to Tokyo in the east. There was a visit to Monaco for the Super Cup. Should we reach the Europa Final in Amsterdam, we might well have to visit that stadium twice within two months.

It’s turning into a right old mess of a season

I set off for Stamford Bridge at 8am on a crisp, cold, foggy morning. This was another solo-trip east. I wasn’t worried. With coffee to hand and music on the CD player, I set off across Salisbury Plain. At times, the visibility was terrible. The fields were frosted; the fog and mist almost enveloped me as I drove through the thatched-roof villages of Chitterne and Shrewton. As I drove past Stonehenge, suddenly bathed in early morning sunshine and looking quite sublime, I received a quick phone call from The Fishy Boy himself, the Right Honourable Lord Tuna. He was over for a couple of weeks, staying in Northamptonshire, but on his way down to London with my mate Andy, one of the Nuneaton bunch.

I quickly realised that of all the Chelsea characters from the USA who I have been lucky enough to meet over the past eight years, Tuna was the very first. Way back in 2004, I attended the Chelsea vs. Roma game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. On that very memorable trip, I travelled up from North Carolina with some friends and, to be quite honest, we kept ourselves to ourselves. We watched the game from behind a goal, away from the main bulk of the Chelsea support, which was based along the sideline. Looking back at a photograph of the 150 – at very most – Chelsea fans in that section, it seems like a different era already. From that little group of enthusiasts, our support in the US – and elsewhere – has grown exponentially and it is difficult to put it all into some sort of perspective. Amongst that group, there were around 10-15 folk who I have got to know very well over the ensuing years. Tuna is one of them. I bumped into him on the walk out of the stadium; we only shared a few words at the time, happy with our 3-0 win. I remember thinking, confused by his mid-Atlantic accent, “is this guy an Englishman who has been living in the US for a while or is this American putting on a London accent?” I bumped into Tuna the next year outside “Nevada Smiths” in Manhattan and we have been friends ever since.

Looking back – I may have told this story before – I only really became involved with the CIA people just before the Chicago trip in 2006. Things have steamrollered since then. Friendships have been strengthened. Further trips to the US have been enjoyed. My horizons have been broadened and I’m very thankful. Amongst it all, there is a notch of friends who I know will be my friends for life.

You know who you are.

These days, writing “Tales” seems as natural to me as buying a match ticket, meeting up in The Goose, taking photographs of the match day experience or verbally abusing Lord Parky.

“It’s what I do.”

Anyway, enough of the life story bollocks, let’s talk about Chelsea.

By the time I had reached London, the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful sunny winter’s day. As I went “up and over” the antiquated Chiswick flyover I made a point of spotting the high arch of Wembley Stadium a few miles to the north. It appeared, fleetingly, just above row upon row of red chimney pots on the roofs of the terraced houses of Chiswick.

Wembley Stadium was the goal, of course.

The F.A. Cup Final will be played out beneath its crescent of white steel in May. It still remains an iconic venue, despite losing a lot of its historical mystique during its reconstruction between 2000 and 2007. However, since the eventual opening of the new Wembley, it is without a hint of exaggeration, our second home.

2007 F.A. Cup Final
2007 F.A. Community Shield
2008 League Cup Final
2009 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2009 F.A. Cup Final
2009 F.A. Community Shield
2010 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2010 F.A. Cup Final
2010 F.A. Community Shield
2012 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2012 F.A. Cup Final

Of the eleven visits, only the defeat to “those whose name need not be mentioned” in 2008 brought me any real sadness. The two Community Shield defeats against United were nothing in comparison.

At 10.30am, I strode into the already busy and noisy pub. I half expected a few rogue away fans, but they were elsewhere. I soon spotted Tuna clasping a pint of Guinness at the end of the bar. I eventually talked him into attending the game at Manchester City the following Sunday; Gill had a couple of spares. Job done. Chatter amongst my friends was mainly dominated by tales of Prague. Alas, I had not ventured to the beautiful city in the heart of Bohemia on this occasion, but everyone reported back with lovely anecdotes, mainly involving the crisp and pristine beer of which the Czech nation is famous.

Sadly, I had to make do with a pint of chemically-infested “Carlsberg.”

On the TV above the bar, we learned that Demba Ba was starting. The time passed way-too quickly. At 11.30am, Tuna and I set off for The Bridge.

Of course we are all used to Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday) football these days, but I can well remember that Sunday football was a novelty way back in the ‘seventies. In fact, in the programme for my first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, several letters from fans were aired, discussing the relative merits of Sunday football. There was quite a considerable “no” lobby, with people concerned that the religious “day of rest” was being used for un-Godly acts, that families would not benefit from games tearing the fabric of their life apart, that it would start the end of civilisation as we know it.

Joking apart, I wish that there was less Sunday football. It still – even after all these years – doesn’t feel the same as “Saturday 3pm football.”

Old habits and all that.

The six thousand Brentford fans were settled in The Shed by the time I took my seat alongside Alan, still tired from the excesses of Prague, in the MHU.

In addition to the choice of Demba Ba in attack, complete with Zorro mask, there were other changes too. John Terry returned to the heart of the defence, with Gary Cahill alongside him. Ivanovic, as so often is the case, shuffled over to the right in place of Azpilicueta. David Luiz – another central defender – was alongside Frank at the base of the midfield five. Victor Moses, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations triumph, was deployed alongside Oscar and Mata. It was a very strong Chelsea team. With David Luiz now playing more and more in his midfield role, we now have four very able players fighting for those two defensive-midfield positions; Mikel, Luiz, Lampard and Ramires. On another day, in a parallel universe, those four would make a pretty formidable midfield four, in a 4-4-2, in their own right. Our squad is OK at the moment. Adding Ba and playing Azpilicueta has given us more options. Generally speaking – taking away the grief of Benitez and all of that negativity – there are reasons to be cheerful about this transitional season. Benitez seems reluctant to change from his trusted 4-2-3-1 during a game, and lacks creativity in his substitutions, but I have to be honest and say that the same could have been said of Di Matteo, too.

We were treated to a couple of early exchanges from both teams in the first quarter of an hour. I was very impressed with Brentford in the first game – a match, let’s be honest, that they should have won – and they twice threatened Petr Cech’s goal. As is always the case when lower league teams visit Stamford Bridge, the first few forays by Brentford into our half were enthusiastically roared on by the 6,000 away fans. It was quite endearing really. I remember the days when Chelsea – as underdogs at home against Liverpool in 1982, for example – were similarly roared on every time the ball was played into the opposition’s half. These days, we hardly even clap, unless there is a dramatic one versus one break taking place and the match is tied and going into the last minute of extra-time.

Against a lower level team, I wondered if it really was necessary to play with two defensive midfielders. However it was soon apparent that although Luiz and Lampard were based in front of the defence, both were looking to play the long ball or raid individually via penetrative runs from deep.

Headers from Ivanovic and Ba went close, but a loose shot from Luiz soared high on its way towards Battersea. A falling Oscar managed to guide his shot towards the goal, but the bouncing shot struck the outside of a post. We were treated to a huge slice of good fortune when a Luiz foul on Forshaw was called back by the referee even though the Brentford attack kept going and the ball was struck past Cech. The resulting free-kick struck the wall. Lampard uncharacteristically fumbled a shot from close in. We could hardly believe our eyes. These days, I feel cheated if Frank doesn’t score during a match that I attend. It was, in truth, a mediocre first-half. The Brentford fans, though not as loud as the northerners of Scunthorpe United or Huddersfield Town in similar cup games, out sung us throughout. Victor Moses was out of sorts and Ba hardly touched the ball. There were a few – only a few – boos at half-time.

The banana skin was still there.

Thankfully, we only had to wait eight minutes into the second-half for a breakthrough. A long punt up field from Cech was aimed at Ba. The ball broke to Juan Mata a good twenty yards out. He quickly unpacked his theodolite and rapidly surveyed the terrain, consulted his compass, took measurements of the prevailing weather conditions, did a quick geological assessment, including grass moisture content, and then cleaned his boots. As the ball bounced, he caressed the ball once and then struck it firmly, with an exact aim, right into the corner of the goal.

1-0 to the F.A. Cup holders and Juan Mata raced away to the far corner, smiling in that impish way of his.

Phew.

Our play was a little more pleasing to the eye in the second period, but the crowd still struggled to get behind the team. A great move resulted in our second goal of the game. Eden Hazard had replaced the lacklustre Moses and soon stole the ball from a Brentford midfielder who was obviously caught thinking about what he was going to have for tea later that evening. He spotted the magnificent lung-busting run from Ivanovic and the ball was played perfectly for our charging Serbian to run onto. His perfect pull back was aimed at Oscar. He executed a Zola-esque flick with his trailing foot to guide the ball towards goal. The ball crept in between the legs of a mesmerized Brentford defender, who was obviously wondering “steak and chips or a Chinese take-way” to himself.

2-0.

Phew again.

Alan emphasised what a magnificent run Ivanovic had made in order to create an option for Hazard. I had to agree. It was quite magnificent. Ivanovic is a much-loved part of our team these days. Those two errors against Swansea are long forgotten. We love him to bits.

Five minutes later, a nice move down the left resulted in Juan Mata – always involved – spotting the onrushing Frank Lampard who took great delight in smashing in goal number 199. My only dismay is that I didn’t catch the strike on film, unlike number 198 against Wigan Athletic. At least I caught his joyous celebrations on film immediately after.

3-0.

The icing on the cake – or the salt on the celery – was the fourth goal. A magnificent cross from the increasingly formidable Oscar found the head of John Terry, whose perfect leap dumbfounded both keeper and defender (as they were both going out for an Indian with their respective wives, they were just discussing whose turn it was to drive). I snapped away as John rushed over to the far corner and embarrassed himself with a cringe-worthy celebratory jig. It was, if my memory serves, not unlike the jig that he chose to celebrate his first-ever goal way back in 2000 against Gillingham (and for which he was lampooned amongst his team mates at the time.) At least the ensuing leap and punch was a bit more acceptable.

4-0.

Gary Cahill almost made it a nicely-rounded 5-0 but his shot was blocked by at least nineteen Brentford players a mere eight yards out.

As I drifted out of the stadium, the Brentford fans were applauding their players, but folding up their flags. It was not to be their day. John Terry was soaking up the adulation from the Matthew Harding. “Blue Is The Colour” was being played on the stadium PA system. The shoot-out at high noon had resulted in Chelsea advancing to the fifth round yet again.

Job done.

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