Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 28 April 2013.
Brian was full of smiles when I collected him in Frome at 9am. As I pulled out of his road, I remarked that “this is just like the old days” when the Frome Four (Brian, Glenn, Frank and little old me) would take it in turns to drive up to Stamford Bridge for home game after home game. I first got to know Brian in around 1996. From 1997 through to around 2001, he was able to attend most of our matches at HQ. Although Brian had a pretty severe health scare in October 2011, he has been back at work as a lorry driver for well over a year. Through texts and messages throughout the proceeding few weeks, I knew that he was really looking forward to his first visit to The Bridge since the game against Wigan Athletic last season. With Parky unable to attend the game against Swansea City, Brian would prove to be perfect replacement; a pinch hitter, perhaps, or maybe a pinch bullshitter. Either way, the banter and laughter was flying as I drove past Stonehenge and eastwards towards London. We updated each other with various stories and tales involving friends and acquaintances. Brian tends to watch Chelsea games from the comfort of his living room these days. On many occasions, he ends up swearing at the inadequacies of our players and manager alike. These irate comments always get a response from his other half, Linda, and a heated debate often ensues.
“She shouldn’t complain really. It’s the only time I talk to her” said Brian, amidst much laughter from us both.
Gill was with her son Graeme in the Copthorne Hotel bar area when Brian and I arrived at just after midday. I waved a “hello” to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti as I strolled over to give Gill a birthday hug. Graeme had contacted me during the week and had asked if I could meet them; it was Gill’s 60th birthday on the following Wednesday but this would be her “Chelsea birthday party.” Gill was wearing a spangly birthday sash and was wearing a “Teacher Gill 60” Chelsea shirt; a present from her school kids. Gill was handing out Chelsea cup cakes to a few friends. I joked that she ought to make sure that her friend Ferdi gets one. Ferdi is a Tottenham fan.
“It’ll be the only cup he’ll see this season.”
Gill’s school kids had collaborated in a handmade book for Frank Lampard and Gill proudly showed me each page, which contained hand written messages from her beloved pupils. Her school in Kent has attained FA Special School Charter status and Gill has worked closely with Chelsea over the past year in order to achieve this. I’m so proud of her. It’s a magnificent story. I first met Gill, with her eldest son Neil, over in New York before our game with Milan in 2005. Our paths have crossed at increasingly smaller intervals since then and her support of the club never ceases to amaze me. Gill’s hometown is Folkestone, which is a good 75 miles to the south of Stamford Bridge. Away trips must be a huge effort. But Gill is usually there, at the away grounds, in the front row, waving her flag. And how she loves the youngsters. Gill even travelled out to Barcelona this season in order to support the youth team. She is in an inspiration. When I get to her age – I’m sure Gill doesn’t mind me saying this – I hope I still have that same enthusiasm for life and for our football club. It was lovely to spend a little time with her before the game.
She even got a kiss from Kerry Dixon.
Curtis spotted me outside the tube station at Fulham Broadway as Brian and I walked back down the Fulham Road on our way to The Goose. Curtis, along with his sister Karen, is from Pittsburgh and was visiting London on his annual pilgrimage. They had been in town for a few days and also had tickets for the Basel game on Thursday. We quickly reached The Goose and my usual Chelsea mates were sat chatting around a table inside. The pub was rammed. I joined up with a few of the visiting New York Blues out in the beer garden. I asked Curtis how it must have felt for a Chelsea fan to see his team play in his home city. Remember that Chelsea played Roma in July 2004 at the Steelers’ Heinz Field. This was a game that I attended too; it was a momentous game for me as it was my first Chelsea game outside of Europe. Curtis spoke about the excitement of seeing the team play in his back yard. The other cities on that first US Tour for 15 years or so were Seattle and Philadelphia. Curtis’ main feeling was –
It was, indeed, a strange choice. However, I was more than happy to be able to attend. And, as I knew, this game by the confluence of the Alleghany, Monongahela and Ohio Rivers represented a historic date in the history of Chelsea in the US. It marked the first real confluence of several disparate fan groups across the US. The story goes that there was a very drunken pre-game meet in a hotel in Pittsburgh involving the New York Blues, the now defunct US Blues, the Texas Blues and several key individuals. Until that point, Curtis said, he had only corresponded to these folks by email. It was, I guess, a seminal date in the history of Chelsea fandom in North America. I famously took a photograph, from my viewpoint behind the north goal, of the Chelsea section away to my left and although there were only around 100 Chelsea standing together, I am able to spot and name many.
Keith was one of that group and his was the next face I recognised in The Goose. He is one of the mainstays of the New York Blues and again makes an annual visit to SW6. I first bumped into Keith at the Chicago game in 2006 as we were both milling around the team hotel, hoping to meet the players. As more New York Blues arrived out in the increasingly crowded beer garden, it didn’t take long for Keith and myself to start chatting about our other shared love; the New York Yankees. Keith had paid a visit down to Florida in March to see three Spring Training games – in Tampa, Bradenton and Lakeland. I was keen to hear about his experiences as I eventually hope to take in a Spring Training trip at some stage in my life. It is in my – in the phrase which is used now – bucket list of things to do before I grow old. With my trip to the US now booked and looming large on the near horizon, we spoke about my plans for that week which will culminate with the Manchester City game at Yankee Stadium on May 25th.
Alex was the next New York Blue to arrive. I am pretty sure that I remember being able to spot him in that photo from Pittsburgh in 2004 too. However, I first got to know Alex a few years ago and he is yet another NYB who is excellent company. It must be something that they put in the water in the City That Never Sleeps. He was over in Munich for the Champions League Final – oh boy, is it really almost a year ago? – and I saw him again in NYC last summer. Last Wednesday, I received an email from him which made me punch the air; he would be in Denmark with his girlfriend while the Chelsea game is due to take place at Yankee Stadium in May, so very kindly offered me the use of his apartment in Brooklyn.
I immediately envisaged myself being able to be immersed in the Brooklyn vibe for three days. I had visions of Jackie Gleason and “The Honeymooners”, Pee Wee Reese and the Brooklyn Dodgers, sharp-talking Italians and lots of pastrami on rye. As I downed a pint of Peroni, I joked with Alex about me still being in his flat when he returned, unable to leave his Brooklyn home, married to a local sweetie, my life changed forever.
“That’s fine. Just don’t scratch any of my records.”
He also spoke, worryingly, of the Polish construction workers who live in the basement of his apartment block.
“If they invite you out for a drink, never ever refuse.”
Anyway, no matter what happens, for three days in May, I will be a Brooklyn bum.
Alan was a New York Blue who I never met. Mike Neat spoke of Alan occasionally over the years; he was an artist, but a Chelsea fan first and foremost. He sadly passed away last year. I can remember another NYB, Dominic, mentioning a retrospective of Alan’s paintings which was on show at a Manhattan gallery and I remember many NYBs attending. He appeared to be, from an outsider such as me, to be quite a character. Out in the beer garden, I introduced myself to Alan’s widow who was part of the visiting group. They first visited Stamford Bridge way back in 1978 and it soon became apparent that Alan loved being a follower of Chelsea, despite the thousands of miles between New York and The Bridge. On this particular trip, Alan made his last ever journey; his ashes were scattered at his favourite place in London.
Frank arrived, typically late, for the pre-match rendezvous in The Goose. He was full of his usual boisterous enthusiasm. His booming voice was soon heard in the far corner where he was entertaining some Chelsea fans from Norway and Sweden; the New York Blues had been out until the small hours in The Butcher’s Hook on Saturday night and it seems that the Scandinavians had been involved in their late night revelry. I spoke to one of the Norwegian lads; he was from Oslo and also followed Vaalerenga. We spoke about the European Cup Winners’ Cup tie between the two clubs which took place in 1999. My mate Alan spent quite some time chatting to Frank in the beer garden; I think they must be kindred spirits (or at least when Alan puts on his best Bada Binglish accent) because I noted them laughing and joking as if they were long lost cousins.
Andy spotted me walking towards the stadium. He was with his young boy Jude, who was dressed in Chelsea gear. I think that Jude’s first ever game was the West Ham match from 2011 when a certain Fernando Torres opened his goal scoring account. I can only imagine how excited he must have been; almost as excited as Andy. Andy had just returned from a work trip from Texas. I think that he had enjoyed himself. He had visited the stockyards in Fort Worth during his stay; a place that a few of us CIAers know very well…paging Jeremy, Wobley, Nathan, Danny and Christy Boner. As we walked towards the stadium, with the sun shining, the sight of Andy and Jude reconfirmed what I already knew; that Chelsea Football Club has played an integral role in the lives of countless families, going back generation after generation. The club has acted as a backbone for many of us. It has helped fathers and sons and mothers and daughters to become closer, to share experiences, to laugh together, to grow old together. Let’s hope that this will always be so.
Frank waited patiently on the sidelines until the injured Ramires was taken off. Although his blue-blooded brother John Terry had been recalled to the starting eleven for the game, Rafa Benitez had decided to keep Frank on the bench until needed.
He was now needed.
The game, thus far, had been a timid and scrappy affair. The spring sun had bathed the Stamford Bridge stadium in light, but had turned the spectators to sleep. My first shout had taken thirty long minutes to be uttered.
“Come on Chelsea.”
I had looked over at the foreign visitors in the Shed Upper – flags from New York and Sweden – and wondered what was going through their minds.
“We come all this way and the atmosphere is bloody crap.”
In the last five minutes of the half, Frank was involved in our two goals. Firstly, Frank received a ball from John Terry and then played in Oscar, who calmly slotted the ball in at Vorm’s far post. Just after, Juan Mata was chopped inside the box and Frank slammed the ball in from the spot. I captured his 201st Chelsea goal and euphoric leap on film. The crowd, at last, came to life.
Bobby appeared simultaneously on the pitch and on the large TV screen above the 1,500 Swansea fans at half-time. In the hotel bar area before the game, I was able to walk over to his wheelchair and lean forward to shake his hand. Compared to the last time I saw Bobby at Stamford Bridge, he looked frail. I wished him well and for a full recovery from his recent ailments. At least, I figured, he was well enough to travel over to London from his home in the Republic of Ireland. That had to be a good sign. Down on the pitch, Bobby was soon raising his arm and waving to the spectators who were applauding him. Alongside him was his lovely wife Val. Neil Barnett had announced his arrival on the pitch and was soon lauding Bobby with praise. The crowd then stepped it up a gear.
“One Bobby Tambling.
There’s only one Bobby Tambling.
One Bobby Tambling.
There’s only one Bobby Tambling.”
I looked up to the screen and could see that Bobby was wiping away a tear.
I did the same.
Of course, in the end, the dream scenario of Frank equalling Bobby’s haul of 202 Chelsea goals never materialised. However, for Brian, Gill, Curtis, Keith, Alex, Alan – watching I am sure – Frank and Andy it was just enough to witness Frank and Bobby being indelibly linked on another momentous day in the history of our club.
It had been a good day.