Tales From The Twilight Zone

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 21 September 2013.

There was a fleeting moment, at around 1.30pm – a good four hours ahead of the kick-off between us and near neighbours Fulham – when my mate Glenn and I found ourselves walking past the main entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station. We were directly opposite Mark Worrall’s “CFCUK” stall and Bob the Tee-Shirt son’s “Half & Half Scarves” stall. I’m not really what made me think of it, but I recollected both of us, aged 18 and 16, walking those same steps almost thirty years ago; our first game of travelling up from deepest Somerset, by train in those days, was against Newcastle United in November 1983. How nice it would be to travel back in time and to be able to show ourselves – young and innocent versions of ourselves – a little clip of us together at Chelsea in 2013. I wonder what we would have made of it.

Firstly, I am quite sure that we would have been utterly amazed that our friendship was still going strong after all of those years. At school, our paths crossed occasionally, but only through stunted conversations about Chelsea. At school, I was so shy while Glenn was always more gregarious. We were quite different; calcium carbonate and cheddar. There was a bond through Chelsea, but we were never close enough to be called “mates” per se in those days. Since then – that storied 1983-1984 season has so much to answer for…we met Alan during that campaign too – our friendship has stayed strong and buoyant. We have shared a treasure trove of laughs and memories;  Newcastle United away 1984, Anfield 1985, Tottenham 1987, Wembley 1994, Wembley 1997, Seville 1998, Stockholm 1998, Rome 1999, Barcelona 2005, Bolton 2005, Munich 2012. And all games and places in between. Of course, apart from receding hairlines and the horrible aging process, what would we have noticed about 2013? The new tube station, replacing that little row of charismatic shops which included the famous Stamford Bridge café and the Chelsea souvenir shop, would have been noted for sure. The new modern church, which has replaced the red brick edition, with its little café down below – which we sometimes visited circa 1996 – would have been noted. The old Chelsea Supporters Club – at 547 Fulham Road – has long since been demolished, to be replaced by apartments. I’m sure the 1983 Chris and Glenn would have been intrigued to hear how our footballing fortunes had fared in the ensuing thirty years.

The answer, of course, is the stuff of dreams; two promotions, one relegation, six F.A. cups, three League titles, three League Cups, a European Cup, a UEFA cup and a ECWC cup. If we had known that all of these trophies would eventually come our way in 1983, we might well have dived into The Britannia pub – now a tiki cocktail bar, whatever that is – and chanced our luck in nervously ordering two pints of lager, knowing that our Chelsea life would be just fine.

“Cheers Chris.”

“Cheers Glenn…here’s to the next thirty years.”

After I collected my away ticket for the Steaua Bucharest game at the box office – just £19, I think I’ll like Romania – the two of us spent an hour in the foyer of the hotel. In a repeat of the last game of the previous season, we were privileged to spend a precious few moments chatting to Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling.

What the Glenn and Chris of 1983 would have made of this, I can’t imagine.

Bobby Tambling, now full of colour and fully recovered from his awful illness of the past eighteen months, was able to chat to us for a few moments about his miraculous recovery; he now walks at least two miles per day, has lost a lot of weight and looks magnificent. Glenn and I – plus Parky – first met Bobby at an event in Wiltshire in April 2011 and I can’t praise him enough. He is a lovely, humble man and one of the nicest Chelsea players that I have been lucky enough to meet. I also briefly chatted to former Chelsea player and manager Ken Shellito, who was visiting from his home in Malaysia; there was a reunion of the 1962-1963 Second Division promotion-winning team at the Harris Suite on Thursday. Ken is another lovely man.

Glenn and I backtracked to meet the rest of the boys in The Goose. The place didn’t seem too packed. I spent an hour or so in the bosom of my Chelsea family, chatting away about all sorts; it was lovely to see Daryl’s Mum for the first time for a while and we caught up with a few things.

Lacoste Watch :

Daryl – yellow.

Alan – orange.

Parky – lavender.

There was chat about Simon’s film, Rob’s son’s foray into writing about the sport of boxing, tickets for Swindon, tickets for Norwich, plans for Bucharest, but little talk pertaining to neither our team, nor the perceived crisis at Chelsea since Wednesday’s defeat. Glenn and I had got all that out of our system on the short drive to collect Parky a few hours earlier.

In a nutshell, we trusted Mourinho to sort it out. It might take a while, but so be it. I’m the first one to realise his faults, but I’d rather have him in charge at Stamford Bridge than anyone else.

I decided to leave for the stadium earlier than usual and I spent a while slowly walking up to the main entrance. The analytical part of me wanted to gauge the mood of the Chelsea support base. In truth, all was relatively quiet. The one exception made me roll my eyes to the sky. I do a lot of that at Chelsea these days. To my annoyance, on passing the West Stand entrance, I saw a group of knob heads playing up for a TV camera, and mysteriously singing “Blue Army! Blue Army!” while struggling to stand up straight.

Since when has this been a Chelsea song?

At least they didn’t start singing “I’m Chelsea Till I Die” – another non-Chelsea song which I am yet to recollect hearing at either home or away matches yet seems to be spotted on various Chelsea social media sites with increasing regularity. If I have heard it, I must have consciously deleted it from my memory. It is a bland generic chant, mainly sung by followers of lower league teams, and as far as I am concerned is neither Chelsea, humorous, tuneful or relevant.

This, of course, would be a game played at 5.30pm; a strange time for football, in the twilight zone between afternoon and evening. It was mild. Rain threatened, but there was only mist and a grey stillness.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that the rumours were true; Fulham had failed to sell all of their 3,000 away tickets. There were gaps in the upper tier…a seat here, a seat there…but a large swathe of empty seats in the lower tier. Above, a limp Fulham flag sagged in the damp early evening air. I’d hazard a guess that they only sold 2,500.

Only 2,500 for an away game at their biggest – and closest rivals…or so they would have us think.

Quite pathetic.

Even more pathetic was their oh-so original chant, soon into the match –

“Where were you when you were shit?”

Bloody hell.  The irony.

“You’re not even here when you’re good.”

Despite my pre-game comments about Mourinho, the first-half was bloody awful. There was no room for Juan Mata, even on the bench, and I just knew that the pro-Mata/anti-Mourinho brigade would use this as continued evidence that our manager sees Mata superfluous to our needs. Mourinho, to be fair, has continually stated that he rates Mata and wants to integrate him into our team. I think this one might run for a few weeks yet. The sad thing is that Juan Mata is surely one of the most genuine, ego-free, and pleasant and charming players we have seen at Chelsea for a while. He’s in the mould of Gianfranco Zola and that is praise enough. Inside, he must be hurting. I was personally surprised that Eto’o was starting, but I guess he needs games. In the Fulham side, former Chelsea players Steve Sidwell, Damian Duff and Scotty Parker lined up to face our midfield of Ramires, Mikel, Schurrle, Hazard and man of the moment Oscar.

Highlights of the first-half?

A wicked cross from the industrious Ivanovic was met by Eto’o at the near post – a great run – but his touch was heavy and the ball flew away from the goal rather than towards it. A lovely defence-splitting ball set up Darren Bent, who broke away with only Cech to beat; his shot was low and Cech cleared with a mixture of hand and foot. A sustained period of Chelsea pressure ended when the ball broke to Ivanovic but his shot was easily blocked. There was another shot on goal from Eto’o but chances were at an all-time low. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was of depressing concern at our lack of pace, creativity and penetration. All was quiet. There was an audible barrage of boos at the end of the half; supporters began gesturing and pointing among themselves, annoyed at the booing, annoyed at the lack of support. Please, not another civil war like last season, please.

I chatted to a couple of mates at the break. I hate to try to pretend to be the tactical analyst simply because I am not that great at understanding the nuances of modern day football. However, I got dragged into an analysis of the current state of our team.

My point was this –

We all know that Jose Mourinho leaves no stone unturned in his pre-match analysis of where his teams can take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. I imagine Don Revie-style dossiers on opposing players, flipcharts, DVDs, Powerpoint presentations and training sessions to replicate possible game day situations. Practice, practice, practice. Detail, detail, detail. The 4-2-3-1 formation is merely the skeleton on which Mourinho adds body.

I just wonder if he over-manages. Is he too much the puppeteer? Other managers may have left that vital 10% – the off-the-cuff, the irrational, the personal, the spontaneous, the ludicrous, the tantalising – to the players themselves. I imagine Ruud Gullit saying to the Chelsea team –

“You boys are great footballers. Go play for each other.”

I just wonder if the current players, at this juncture in the team’s growth, are not allowed that personal freedom. There definitely seems to be a lack of bohemian creativity in the team just now, save for an occasional Hazard back-heel. And then I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge and the rather prosaic and pragmatic approach to our games in the first few months of 2004-2005; defence first, clean sheets, win at all costs, kill the game, then build. That season ended in just one defeat, just fifteen goals conceded and our first league title in fifty years. I hoped for an enigmatic Mourinho pep talk at half-time. In order to make that omelette, it was time to turn up the heat.

During the interval, Neil Barnett spoke –

“As Chelsea fans, we certainly believe in miracles.”

Bobby Tambling, in a mid-sixties retro shirt, walked unaided around the Stamford Bridge pitch and was serenaded by all. I had warned him that he might well be a blubbering wreck during this, but he appeared to be holding it together well. His shirt bore the words “thank you” and his convalescence was due in no half-measure to the love he has received from us all.

Thankfully, we only had to wait five minutes into the second period for a much-needed goal. Persistence from the fitful Andrea Schurrle down below us in the Matthew Harding Upper resulted in a cross come shot which Stockdale only parried. A prod from Eto’o was blocked, but the ball spun out to Oscar who struck home.

The place roared. A jig from Oscar in front of the Chelsea fans in the corner. Phew.

There was a Tommy Trinder-eseque “THTCAUN/COMLD” from Alan and myself and all was well with the Chelsea World.

1-0 to Chelsea.

It was autumn 2004 all over again.

In truth, we completely dominated the second period. Apart from a Steve Sidwell miscued header at the far post, Fulham were on the back foot, rarely troubling us.

Mourinho rang the changes. Eto’o, who was starting to show good movement, was replaced by Torres. The volume of support for the boy from Fuenlabrada surprised even me; the Chelsea fans clearly haven’t given up on him. I am dreadfully worried where goals will come from this season, but all we can do as supporters is to support and encourage them all.

This was much better fare from Chelsea now, with Fulham tiring and our passing improving with every move. Ramires’ movement and drive spurred others on, Mikel was breaking up play, Hazard and Oscar were linking well with Torres. Fulham simply were not in it.

A corner was met by a lovely jump from Torres. His downward, goal bound header, was parried by the Fulham keeper. Frank Lampard, on for Schurrle, swiped the ball in. A header from Terry kept the ball alive and Mikel twisted his body to connect and slam the ball in from eight yards. I snapped a photograph, but the image is too blurred – maybe I was in a state of shock – for sharing.

Again, the Stamford Bridge stadium roared. Thankfully, Mikel ran straight towards Frank right down below me. I was able to take a succession of photographs of his beaming face, tongue cheekily poking out to one side, before he was engulfed by smiling team mates. I noted that JT stuck his head right into Mikel’s chest and I can only imagine what words of encouragement our captain gave our massively underrated midfielder. At last, he had scored his first league goal.

A song was soon forthcoming from the Matthew Harding Lower –

“Jon Obi Mikel – He Scores When He Wants.”

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett was soon keen to point out that Chelsea, the crisis club as always, were top of the league.

It had been the strangest of days.

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2 thoughts on “Tales From The Twilight Zone

  1. Good stuff, as per usual, Chris! I’m so happy Mikel finally got his goal. The sheer look of happiness on Brana, JT and Lamp’s faces when they went to celebrate the goal with him was nothing short of awesome.

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