Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

In light of our previous domestic midweek home games over the past two months – Fulham, QPR and Swansea – there was every reason for me to dread the game with newly-promoted Southampton. Not so much for the possible result; more so the cancerous atmosphere which was likely to envelope Stamford Bridge should a victory not be forthcoming.

Strong words? That’s what it has felt like to me.

My mate Paul collected me outside The Pheasant pub in Chippenham, just opposite my place of work for the past ten years. Both lie on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Aquae Sulis (Bath) with Londinium (London) all those centuries ago. Our route east on the M4 – the A4’s twentieth century equivalent – allowed us to chat about the current state of health of our team and club. The usual stuff; I won’t bore you with details. You can surely guess the majority of it.

Paul has just started a new business venture as a chauffeur. He is self-employed and therefore has a little more control on the amount of free-time he can enjoy. He already is going to the Swansea game in the Capital One Cup and has his sights on more away games during the rest of the season. He told me a beautiful story about his time in Cornwall when he again worked as a chauffeur. He was asked to meet the Gallagher brothers – Noel and Liam – at Par train station and take them to a hotel. The brothers famously dislike each other intensely – hate is such a horrible word – and Paul had to make two trips as neither brother wanted to share a cab with the other.

It was a welcome break for me not having to worry about the traffic on our approach into Londinium. He had already driven up to Heathrow earlier in the day – he was getting used to the M4, no doubt. I already knew that Paul was raised in the locale of Chelsea Football Club. As we turned off the A4 at Hammersmith, he was on auto pilot. Then, he regaled me with a few snippets of his early years in Fulham which fascinated me. We drove past the Pear Tree pub, where Parky, Russell and Jesus began our pub-crawl against Manchester United just under a year ago, and informed us that he had his first ever pint in that very same pub. There was more to come. His first school was just around the corner. His first few years were spent in a flat in one of the Clement Atlee Court buildings which tower over the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road. I’d imagine that a large proportion of The Goose’s clientele still resides in those hundreds of densely-packed flats. This housing estate – ground-zero, Fulham – houses over 800 flats and it’s fifteen or so buildings are named after former Labour politicians; Manny Shinwell, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson for example. Paul remembers the 1967 F.A. Cup Final when it seemed that every balcony was draped with Chelsea favours. It was predominantly Chelsea despite being geographically in central Fulham. As we buttoned our jackets and attempted to counter the early-evening chill, he told me – mischievously – that most of the Chelsea North Stand originated within that half-a-square mile of terra firma.

“One armed Babs was from here…”

Only time for one pint of Peroni – yet again damn it – in The Goose and a little bit of chat with the boys. The Goose seemed busy, but there was talk of the game not selling out. I wasn’t surprised. This game, remember, was postponed in mid-December in order for us to participate in the World Club Championships – ah, Tokyo! – and had only been re-arranged a couple of weeks previous. Talk was of the Brentford away game and the Swansea cup game. There was minimal chat about Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.

Southampton. What to say? Any other games from the past which provide me with any special memories? Maybe a couple.

It is a sad irony that the one player who more than any other was responsible for my Chelsea allegiance – Peter Osgood – departed from Stamford Bridge a matter of a few short weeks before my very first Chelsea game in March 1974. I enjoyed my first visit to SW6 – that is beyond question – but looking back, how perfect it would have been to see Ossie play in that inaugural game.

Stay still, my beating heart.

Ossie, of course, moved to Southampton. It is an irony that Saints were actually relegated in the May of that year – along with…whisper it…Manchester United – and so Peter Osgood played second division football in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976. After relegation in 1975, Chelsea joined Southampton in the second tier. As soon as the league fixtures were announced for the 1975-1976 season, there was one game I wanted to attend.

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. Somewhere I still have a grainy photograph of the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings. I have, sadly, no memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day almost 37 years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

In September 1995 – God, it seems like yesterday – we played a league game against Southampton and the day is rich with memories. Firstly, this was the game that the club chose to celebrate the club’s 90th anniversary. Before the game, Alan, Glenn and I spent an enjoyable time in “Drake’s” meeting some of the club’s former players and managers. “Drakes” was located on two tiers in the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding. During its first few years, only Chelsea Pitch Owners were allowed inside; it was a pleasant way to spend a pre-match, in fact. It was our normal pre-match venue in 1994 and 1995. We used to have a meal and a few pints in there. It was surprisingly under-utilised. Chelsea opened it up for season ticket holders in around 1997 and it tended to get rammed. On that day in 1995, I remember having my photograph taken with John Neal and Ian McNeil, though it pained me to see that they seemed to be ostracised by the other invited guests, who were mainly from the Sexton era. John Neal was a lovely quiet man. It’s hard to believe he was a football manager.

Out on the pitch, Chelsea walloped a reasonably good Saints team 3-0. We (Daryl, Alan, Glenn and yours truly ) had partial season tickets up in the East stand in 1995-1996. The games involved were the 8 or so “B” games and represented a nice cost-saving. It turned out to be the pre-curser to season tickets for all four of us in 1997. Two things stick in my mind about the day. The game marked Ruud Gullit’s first-ever goal in Chelsea blue, a lovely volley at the North Stand after a flowing move. Oh, how we celebrated that one. The other scorers were Frank Sinclair and Mark Hughes. All three goals were scored late in the game. I also remember a moment down below me in the second half when Ruud Gullit so scared the Southampton defender Francis Benali that Benali didn’t bother marking Gullit as he toyed with the ball and simply raced back ten yards in a position to tackle him again a few seconds later. Gullit was a magical player for us in that season. I can remember the buzz that we felt as a club when first Gullit and then Hughes signed for us. I can even remember where I was when I heard Ruud was signing for Chelsea, my Chelsea, the greatest under-achievers of all time…driving in my Fiat Uno in Westbury, about to turn into Eden Vale Road.

That season was a fantastic time; Chelsea were moving forward under Glenn Hoddle, playing with wing backs Petrescu and Phelan, Gullit launching balls towards Hughes and John Spencer, ably supported by Gavin and Wisey. Great days, great days. In that season, we reached an F.A. Cup semi-final and finished in eleventh place, but it was a brilliant season in many respects.

The club was growing, step by step, and the players and supporters were together.

Yes, dear reader…we finished in eleventh place but we had a great time.

Later that evening, I remember that Glenn and I called back at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster for our usual couple of drinks. Ron had been at the game as a guest of the club; in those days, his visits were rare. It would only be a couple of months after that game that Glenn and I would be back at the same pub for an evening with Peter Osgood (when I got to meet him face to face for the first time), on a night when Tommy Langley also called by.

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that we were in for our first sub-capacity league game for a while. The tell-tale sign was the hundreds of unoccupied seats in the top corners of the East Upper (always the last to sell) and, although it was difficult to discern, I also guessed a similar lack of bodies in the upper levels of the West Upper to my right.

It was also clear that many of the “sold” seats throughout the stadium – one here, two there, four there, five there – were unoccupied. The buyers obviously had other things planned for the night of Wednesday 16 January 2013 and the tourists were in no mood to take up the slack. This “non-appearance” of ticket-buyers is a strange conundrum, but is not reflected in the actual gates reported by the club. Chelsea always reports tickets sold, not bums-on-seats. Sometimes, the shortfall is astounding. I remember someone close to the club telling me that a midweek league game with Portsmouth a few seasons back was reported as being watched by 40,000, but the number of spectators in the stadium was only 32,000

That’s 8,000 lost opportunities for beers, food and merchandise.

And we need to move into a 60,000 capacity stadium do we, Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay?

Over in the far corner, even the Saints fans seemed underwhelmed. It took ages for their section to fill, and their number only totalled around 1,000 of the 1,400 seats allotted to them.

I will not take too long to talk about the game. Even in the first-half, winning 2-0, it wasn’t too special. I thought that Southampton seemed to want to attack us a little more than most teams and I relished the space which might – just might – be created in their defence. However, the away team only rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal during that first period. Our play was again laboured and there were the usual tons of possession with no end product. The game cried out for an occasional early pass to Demba Ba, who was continually level with the last man and looking for the vaguest hint of a well-hit through ball. Alan and myself discussed how ridiculously one-footed Juan Mata is, almost spinning himself in a complete circle to get the ball onto his left foot. Ashley Cole is another one. I’m no genius, but even I can pass with my “other” foot. Demba Ba’s goal was well-taken; a lovely swivel and a firm volley which found the bottom corner of the goal. Ba sunk to his knees in front of The Shed and appeared to kiss the turf. Strange – haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was looking for his contact lenses.

Alan and I attempted a rural Hampshire accent – for the expats, think John Arlott, the great cricket commentator – as we burred;

“They’ll have to come at us nowwwwww….”

“Come on my little di’mons.”

A Ramires effort hit the angle and the rebound was volleyed home by Eden Hazard who rushed off to celebrate in front of the Family Section.

These goals apart though, there was little reason to cheer. David Luiz, now in defence again alongside Cahill, threaded a couple of nice balls through, but the play was as dire as the atmosphere, or lack of it. Despite leading 2-0, the crowd probably reached an all-time low in terms of noise.

The decisive move of the night took place when Nigel Adkins replaced Jay Rodriguez with Ricky Lambert, a journeyman striker finally rewarded with football in the top division after a nomasic existence. Within three minutes, a cross was headed home emphatically by Lambert and it was a case of “game on.”

Our play seemed very lethargic with no bite or aggression in midfield. The midfield five were having poor games, none more so than Oscar and Mata. Paul was dismayed with Lampard’s play, though the whole team were underperforming in my eyes.

A great through ball from Mata fell for the in-rushing Ba, but his outstretched boot only resulted in the ball dipping over the bar. A couple of free-kicks from Lamps and Luiz did not trouble Artur Boruc in the Saints’ goal.

Southampton had the bit between their teeth now and Azpilicueta couldn’t handle the pace of Shaw as he broke down the left. From the cross, Puncheon struck low past Petr Cech to equalise. The Saints players ran towards their delirious fans in the south-east corner.

“One Nigel Adkins, there’s only one Nigel Adkins.”

Benitez was forced to make some changes, but like di Matteo before him, chose to do so late on. I haven’t seen much pro-active substitutions from Benitez yet. Torres replaced Lampard.

There was widespread booing, but I am really undecided if this was aimed at Benitez for the removal of Lampard, the arrival of Torres, or just a simple venting of frustration aimed at Benitez, the board, the entire circus.

Under such negative noise, is it any wonder that Chelsea currently play looser and more confidently away from the prickly atmosphere at Stamford Bridge? It took us a whole hour to get a stadium-wide chant going and the place was nervous and full of niggles all night.

I’m not one to instigate chants at home games; from my lofty perch, my voice wouldn’t be met with much of a response from fellow supporters in the upper tier. However, both Alan and I always join in when the more vocal fans in the lower tier “get going.” However, against Southampton these opportunities were very rare. Never have I sung so infrequently.

Oscar went deep, Torres was deployed out wide as a winger. I was hoping for him to form a partnership with Ba to be honest. Torres showed his usual poor ball control of late and was roundly jeered when he sent over a poor cross which missed not only the players huddled in the six-yard box, but the pitch completely, not to mention the strip of asto-turf surrounding it. However, Mata had been equally wasteful throughout the entire evening. A Torres break, nicely set-up by Mata, sadly resulted in a poor shot which did not even trouble Boruc as it whizzed wide of the near post. A late aerial bombardment was repelled – Cahill playing as a Robert Huth style renegade attacker – and we couldn’t score the winner.

More Wednesday night blues.

The boos echoed around the Bridge. Outside, there were all sorts of chatter about our poor form. I’m usually the first to bemoan the fact that spectators waste no time in moaning at the final whistle, but show no real signs of getting behind the team during the game. However, even I joined in on the walk past the Ossie statue.

“…is there any need to play with two defensive midfielders at home? Play 4-4-2, with Torres alongside Ba. Play a flat four in midfield, with full backs doubling up with the wide mid-fielders and attack them down the flanks.”

And there I was, the master tactician, almost making sense.

Further along, just where the spectators empty out into the Fulham Road, a couple of Chelsea fans were trading insults through song and they then squared up to each other like a couple of rutting stags, with one of them disliking the negative shouts aimed at Benitez, and the other standing up for his hatred of the new regime.

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

On the walk back to the car, the air was cold against my cheeks. Paul and I reluctantly discussed the game, but it was all oh-so familiar. It was a draw, but it felt like a defeat. In 1995, we would have shrugged our shoulders, but in 2013 it seemed almost catastrophic. And I am not sure how we have arrived at this juncture in our history – where a home draw is deemed to be absolute failure – but I sure as hell don’t bloody well like it.

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