Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 2 March 2013.
At 10am, I collected Glenn from The Royal Oak in Frome and then Andy from The Black Horse in Trowbridge about twenty minutes later. I pointed my car towards The Goose in Fulham. From pub to pub to pub. A football Saturday. A 3pm kick-off.
Of course, my friendship with Glenn goes back as far as 1977. At Oakfield Middle School in Frome, Glenn’s Liverpool-supporting brother Paul was in the same class as me. Once Glenn joined us at the same school – he is two years younger – it didn’t take Paul long to introduce him to me. My first game at Stamford Bridge was in March 1974. Glenn’s first game was the home-opener with Everton in 1977. Our Chelsea match-going pedigree goes back almost forty years. A chance meeting in The Shed in August 1983 fired up our friendship to a new level and in that most cherished of seasons – the promotion campaign of Dixon, Speedie and Nevin – we accompanied each other to several games. The first game in which we travelled up together was against Newcastle United and we were rewarded with an immense game, a 4-0 Chelsea win and plenty of memories. With each trip to see our heroes, the bonds were strengthened and the friendship grew.
I have known Andy for almost thirty years. I have told the story of how we met before; a chance meeting in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the fantastic sun-kissed summer of 1984. I was with a couple of mates. He was with some chaps from Trowbridge. His little gaggle of friends and me were all wearing football schmutter and we tentatively edged around the prickly subject of starting up a conversation. A few glances were exchanged. I looked for clues. There were no small Chelsea pin badges on show. The four Trowbridge lads were obviously wary; they were the visitors to Frome and, at the time, there was a little unhealthy rivalry between the two towns, separated by only eight miles. Fisticuffs between the hooligan-element from Frome, Westbury and Trowbridge was a common occurrence at weekends. However, once I declared myself a Chelsea fan, the barriers fell.
“Yeah, we’re Chelsea too. Where did you get those Nikes mate?”
Unbeknown to me until recently, these four lads were mates with Parky. One of the lads – Laszlo – and I were wearing the exact same blue and white Pringle pullover.
“Of all the bars, in all the towns…”
Why this fascination with that 1983-1984 era?
It’s easy really. It acts as a benchmark. Despite all of our recent successes, I was probably never happier as a Chelsea fan than during the summer of 1984. I can remember, as though it was yesterday, sitting on a low wall, overlooking the river which circumnavigated the dairy where I worked for four months in that summer.
An early morning tea-break. My overalls undone to the waist. The sun already beating down on my back. Thoughts of away days to Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and United. The resurgence of a sleeping Chelsea. And I’d be part of it.
It was always the cause of much glee that in my over-simplistic way of analysing things in those days that a simple eight hour shift at the dairy in 1984 earned me a take-home wage of £15.
£15 happened to be the exact same price as a trip to Stamford Bridge (£8 train ticket, £4 admission £3 for a programme and a couple of pints).
Back to 2013 and the trip up to Chelsea Land seemed to take no time at all. The three of us chatted virtually non-stop as I drove east. After the Rafa Benitez outburst on Wednesday, we certainly had enough to keep us occupied. Andy, who has only been to a handful of games this season, was lured to the West Brom game by the chance to join in the scorn being heaped on Benitez.
As for me, I was less enthusiastic. The thought of Stamford Bridge being swamped in ‘negative noise” just made me weary. This is not to say that there is not a time for protests, but I just felt depressed at the thought of the media scrutinising everything that would be said and sung, booed and hissed later in the afternoon.
In The Goose – Glenn’s first visit since the refurbishment – there was no general consensus about ‘The Benitez Rant.” There were many different opinions. Some were relishing the opportunity to vent further anger on the manager. Whisper it quietly, but several were of the opinion that Benitez was quite correct to call for a cessation of hostilities and for fans to galvanise behind the team. When talk was broadened to talk about the team and the way forward, opinions were equally diverse. Even on the subject of Frank Lampard, views varied. Some wanted a one year extension as a bare minimum, but others were more forthright; that the summer of 2013 would be the time to dispense with not only Frank Lampard but John Terry, too.
Glenn asked a great question; “If Mourinho returns in the summer…takes a look at things…decides that it is time to dispense with Terry and Lampard…would you be OK with it?”
Clear the old guard and start afresh.
There were also discussions about Thibaut Courtois, excelling in Madrid, and some friends were all for jettisoning Petr Cech in favour of the young Belgian phenomenon. I wasn’t so sure.
What a muddle.
The relative merits of other players were also discussed.
I had to smile at Simon’s comment –
“For all of Luiz’ frailties and defensive blunders, I still love him because he’s typical Chelsea. Crap and brilliant in equal measure.”
We all agreed that if the old guard left, other players would fill the vacuum, and new leaders would emerge. We all thought that Gary Cahill was a captain in the making.
“Our best pound for pound signing for ages.”
Talk veered away from the team and a few of us spoke about the Chelsea match going experience in 2013 and how it has all changed and how we have changed with it. More than one person confessed that they are not enjoying it much at the moment. After the heady days of May and our twin cup triumphs, this is of course not surprising, but a lot of us often comment that the match-day malaise set in years ago. I wondered if this was a simple result of all of the games that we have seen; that by nature, fans in our mid-forties are unlikely to be as mesmerized by the thought of Chelsea as we were in our teens. Rob said that he doesn’t feel a bond with the players these days. I admitted the same; or at least to the bond I had with Joey, Mickey, Eddie and John.
Ah, 1983-1984 again.
We then briefly touched on the view that we have become a spoilt fan base. There is – of course – a huge great big dollop of truth in this statement. I’d like to think that, in the parlance of today, that myself and my closest mates try to ‘keep it real”, but there is no shadow of a doubt that increasingly large factions of our support are a complete embarrassment.
I was reminded of the Manchester United banner which quotes the words from a James song.
“If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”
I took my seat with only a few minutes to spare, just as the teams were about to enter the pitch. I checked with Alan to see if there had been any anti-Benitez protests.
Big John and I shared a few words.
“I’m dreading this.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Especially after last season.”
“Typical Chelsea though. When we won the league in 1955, we finished twelfth the next season.”
“Yeah. It was always going to happen. Written in the stars.”
Despite the sense of dismay with what has happened to Chelsea this season (oh, wait – let me check…sorry, we’re in third place…damn those riches), there was another capacity crowd at Stamford Bridge. I was amazed at the lack of venom which greeted Benitez as he took his place on the bench. The verbal onslaught never really materialised. Steve Clarke received a nice round of applause from the home supporters at the start of the game.
“Welcome back Clarkey.”
If anything, there seemed to be more “pro-Chelsea” noise (what a strange concept…as if there is any other type of support) at the start of the game than in recent home games.
The game was played out in bright winter sunshine and the first-half was virtually all Chelsea. Oscar came close on a number of occasions, but it was Demba Ba who broke the deadlock, slamming the ball home from close range after a well cushioned knock back from the head of David Luiz.
Our football was fine in the first half. We enjoyed tons of possession. Even though West Brom defended like Trojans, they rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal. It was time for one of Alan’s quips –
“This is as one-sided as Heather Mills’ shoe collection.”
The 1,500 away fans hardly sung a note. Our support, maybe in a state of confusion at the current state of affairs, was quiet too.
My favourite piece of football in the entire game was an exciting run down the left by Eden Hazard. Starting from just over the half-way line, is run was full of power and speed, but included a mesmeric shimmy – feinting to go one way, sending the defender off balance, then gliding by. It reminded me of that beautiful feint by Roberto Baggio during the 1990 World Cup. A slight shift of the weight from one side of the body to the other can wreck the best defender’s chances.
I approved of the two attempts by the Chelsea support to honour the recent anniversary of the sad passing of Peter Osgood.
“The King of Stamford Bridge” was lustily sung by the home fans.
Our domination of the game continued but a second goal was not forthcoming. Oscar continued his fine run of form. He looks more and more the complete midfielder. His touch is magnificent.
The funniest moment of the entire game took place when the ball was hit out of play and ended up in the sweaty hands of Benitez. Up until that time, the anti-Rafa songs had virtually died out. Touching the ball was the last thing that Benitez needed. He slammed the ball back towards a Chelsea player. With that, the Matthew Harding Lower sprung to life and the stadium echoed with a few songs aimed at the much-disliked manager.
“Stand up if you hate Rafa.”
“You’re not wanted here.”
There were a few choruses in praise of a much-loved former boss too.
“Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho.”
As the game reached its completion, tension in the stands grew and grew. I was convinced that the visitors would score a late equaliser.
We all were, right?
Thankfully, the danger passed.
This was clearly a game which wouldn’t live long in the memory, but those three points were all that mattered.
No jaunt to Bucharest for me on Thursday, so Old Trafford next.
See you up there.