Tales From A Lucky Escape

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 9 November 2013.

One of my earliest footballing memories as a small child was being informed by my father that my chosen football team’s nickname was “The Pensioners.” The year was 1970, or maybe 1971, and the club’s link to those famous scarlet-clad residents of the Royal Hospital in Chelsea was explained to me. Of course, in reality, this nickname – our original nickname – was dropped in the ‘fifties by the then manager Ted Drake in favour of the more generic “The Blues.” My father, not really a football fan, was probably unaware of this change. As my support for Chelsea grew with each passing season in the early ‘seventies, I seem to remember that I soon adopted the newer nickname despite “The Pensioners” being mentioned in various schoolboy football magazines and on bubble gum cards. With each year, though, the usage declined.

There had clearly been, if you will excuse the pun, a changing of the guard since the ‘fifties.

“The Pensioners” were out and “The Blues” were in.

I’ll be honest; in all of my time of going to football at Chelsea, I cannot recall a single instance of a supporter yelling “Come on you Pensioners.”

It’s a shame really. One of football’s more charismatic and romantic nicknames is no more. I can remember writing a letter to Ken Bates c. 1982 asking if “The Pensioners” could be reinstated in place of the bland and ubiquitous “Blues.” It was met with a swift rebuff from the chairman. He cited Ted Drake’s reasoning that “The Pensioners” made the club sound like a music hall joke.

And yet, the link between Chelsea Football Club and the Royal Hospital still exists. At every home game, free tickets are given by the club so that up to eight former soldiers can attend. I always remember – back in the late ‘eighties – a Chelsea Pensioner, “Geordie”, dropping in to our favoured hostelry of the time, The Black Bull, and enjoying a pre-match tipple. I loved seeing him in there. He was a Newcastle fan through birth, but a Chelsea fan through fate. Although our colour is blue, there is something quite beautiful about that rich red tunic. Maybe this is because red is such a rare colour at Stamford Bridge. The contrast always strikes me as quite endearing.

One of my favourite memories of recent years at Stamford Bridge was the perfectly choreographed Championship celebrations after the match against Charlton Athletic, following on from the win at Bolton. The Chelsea Pensioners played an integral role that day. It was magnificent, stirring stuff.

So, although the nickname is consigned to history, the vivid scarlet uniforms and the neat black caps of the Chelsea Pensioners still play a role in the public face of Chelsea Football Club. And long may it continue.

It had been a rather long-winded journey up to Stamford Bridge from Somerset. I had collected Parky and then Bournemouth Steve en route to the capital. An England vs. Argentina rugby game at Twickenham had forced me up on to the M4, where I managed to get embroiled in heavy traffic. Eventually, I was parked-up at 12.30pm.

Parky and I fancied a change and so dipped into “The Rylston” – formerly the Normand Arms – on Lillee Road for an hour. Previously, the pub had looked rather rough and ready in its former guise, but has recently experienced a makeover so typical of many pubs in and around the Fulham area. There was new décor with a classic retro feel, black and white tiles, black and white photos, a food menu and some great brews on tap. Although it was only four hundred yards on from the football-mad “Goose”, there was little evidence of any Chelsea fans inside.

At 1.30pm, we had moved on and the difference in “The Goose” was all too evident.

A packed pub, a boisterous crowd, familiar faces – and cheaper prices.

Outside in the beer garden, it was a pleasure to see Mike from NYC once again, alongside Dave the Hat, both full of beer and bollocks.

The laughter rang out.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, it was a typical scene on a Saturday match day. Although Londoners were going about their usual routines – queuing up at the busy market stalls along the North End Road, dipping in and out of betting shops, catching the tube into central London at Fulham Broadway, dining out along Vanston Place – the area was dominated by the football match soon to commence a few hundred yards away. The hundreds marched towards Stamford Bridge as three o’clock neared. And so shall it always be.

An image from Chelsea’s history once again; a black and white photograph of Stamford Bridge just after World War One, many former soldiers, in wheelchairs, in front of the old East Stand on the old dog track, blinking in the afternoon light, their bodies weakened by the ravages of conflict, but now smiling at the camera, contented to be watching their footballing heroes once more. One wonders what stories those fellows could tell; of brothers no longer able to embrace the gentle caress of the autumn sun, of glorious battles won and the searing pain of loss.

I’m sure I am not the only Chelsea supporter who can’t escape linking the early years of our club, formed just nine years before the outbreak of what was called “The Great War”, with our country’s military history in those tumultuous years. We were, after all, participants in the “Khaki Cup Final” of 1915. I wonder how many Chelsea followers from our first few years only enjoyed the briefest of lives.

Let’s remember them.

The roar of the crowd ushered the end of the perfectly-observed minute’s silence and the four Chelsea Pensioners slowly walked from the Stamford Bridge pitch to take their seats in the East Stand, just like their predecessors throughout the years.

Time to check the team – Frank Lampard and Eden Hazard returning. Time to check the crowd – another full house, and 1,500 away fans. The return of Steve Clarke but no Nicolas Anelka.

The first-half was a hum-drum affair. West Brom were well drilled and made life difficult for us. A few chances were exchanged at either end. The Shed End could be heard singing at various times, but generally the atmosphere was quiet. The away fans were not in the same caliber as the visiting Schalke contingent on Wednesday.

With Mourinho yet again favouring Ramires and Lampard at the base of the midfield, we looked towards the three of Hazard, Oscar and Willian to unravel the Baggies’ well-marshalled defence. Chelsea again relied on the advanced runs of Ivanovic, who was often a full fifteen yards further upfield than Oscar; it didn’t always pay off. There was yet more over-elaboration and a reluctance to hit Eto’o early with intelligent through balls. It was turgid stuff. Willian, though new to the club, looks willing yet at this stage is only a link player – moving the ball on – rather than an impact player. We’ll give him time.

I missed Shane Long’s follow through on John Terry, though the crowd wailed in displeasure.

On the half-hour, Oscar lined up a free-kick from a central location. His wildly dipping shot was easily tipped over by Myhill.

Just before the break, Hazard at last decided to run at pace at the West Brom defence. He cut inside and watched as his low shot was clawed away by the Albion ‘keeper. The ball was not cleared and Samuel Eto’o slammed the ball in from behind the hesitant Ridgewell.

1-0.

This sort of predatory goal from Eto’o seems to be his trademark in his early Chelsea career. More of the same each week please. The goal brought the home support to life, but it didn’t fool anyone; it had been a poor half.

During the break, former midfield stalwart, captain and manager John Hollins was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. It was time for me to quickly scan the match programme. There were lovely words for Steve Clarke from Jose Mourinho –

“I have to publicly say thanks to a great man who gave me all of his support in my first period at Chelsea, a man of values, a family guy, a hard worker and a loyal man.”

A few friends and I were discussing Steve Clarke only recently. I had posed the question as to “who was the last Scot to play for Chelsea?” and, although I initially thought it was Craig Burley, of course the answer – unless I am mistaken – was Steve Clarke, whose last match in royal blue was in Stockholm in 1998. Our history has been littered with Scottish players throughout the years, yet it is over fifteen years since a Scot appeared in a Chelsea shirt.

No pressure, Islam Feruz…

The Scottish players reel off the tongue…Jimmy Croal, Hughie Gallacher, Tommy Walker, Eddie MacCreadie, Charlie Cooke and Ian Britton . Ironically, elsewhere in the programme,  Rick Glanvill chose to pick a game from the 1984-1985 season, against West Brom, which highlighted the presence of several Scottish players of that era; the three internationals Pat Nevin, David Speedie and Doug Rougvie, plus the steady Joe McLaughlin.

Elsewhere, a whole article was devoted to one of my favourite Chelsea matches of all; Chelsea vs. Newcastle United, November 1983. Thankfully, the programme mentioned in great detail the one absolute highlight.

“Nevin’s run.”

Just before half-time, Pat Nevin won a loose ball from a Newcastle United attack in The Shed penalty box on the West Stand side. “When Saturday Comes” founder Mike Ticher, in a great article about the run a few years later,  claimed  that Pat had nut-megged Kevin Keegan at the start of the move, but I can’t confirm this. However, Pat then set off on a mesmerizing dance down the entire length of the pitch, around five yards inside the West Stand touchline. This wasn’t a full-on sprint. Pat wasn’t that fast. At five foot six inches he was the same height as me. Pat’s skill was a feint here, a feint there, a dribble, a turn, a swivel, beating defender after defender through a body-swerve, a turn…it was pure art, a man at his peak…he must have left five or six defenders in his wake and I guess the whole run lasted around thirty seconds…he may well have beaten the same man twice…each time he waltzed past a defender, the noise increased, we were bewitched, totally at his mercy…amazingly he reached the far goal-line…a dribble of around 100 yards. He beat one last man, looked up and lofted a ball goal ward. Pat’s crosses always seemed to have a lot of air on them, he hardly ever whipped balls in…his artistry was in the pinpoint cross rather a thunderbolt…a rapier, not a machine gun. The ball was arched into the path of an in-rushing Kerry Dixon. We gasped…we waited…my memory is that it just eluded Kerry’s head and drifted off for a goal-kick, Kerry may have headed it over. Whatever – it didn’t matter. On that misty afternoon in West London, we had witnessed pure genius. I loved Pat Nevin with all my heart – he still is my favourite player of all time – and most Chelsea fans of my generation felt the same.

Alongside Bournemouth Steve, Alan and I was Gary’s father Ron, who has been going to Chelsea for decades. He had no recollection of Pat Nevin’s master class against Newcastle in 1983, though he was surely there, but mentioned an equally impressive run by Horatio “Raich” Carter, who played for Derby County against Chelsea in the ‘forties.

So many games, so many memories.

The second-half began. Oscar found Eden Hazard with an absolutely sublime through ball which arched over the West Brom defence and ended up on Hazard’s toes. Sadly, the reinstated Belgian struggled to control the exquisite ball – the best pass of the season thus far – and the ball squirmed away.

West Brom began to exert some pressure on our defence and a fine, firm cross from Amalfitano found the leaping Shane Long, whose header had Cech beaten, but bounced up and away off the post.

Our play was faltering, and I shouted out in frustration –

“Someone take some responsibility.”

Soon after, the visitors – perhaps deservedly – equalised when a header from McAuley was parried high by Cech from close range, only for Shane Long to do “an Eto’o” and squeeze home from a leap between our dithering defenders.

1-1.

The away fans sang “The Lord Is My Shephard.”

Mourinho replaced the poor Lampard with Demba Ba, while Oscar moved back alongside fellow Brazilian Ramires. Sadly, a second away goal soon followed. Ivanovic, forever pressing up field, was caught in possession (illegally to my, no doubt, biased eyes) and West Brom broke. Our defence was now back-peddling and we struggled to pick up the rampaging attackers. It was one of those moments when I sensed fear; I was sadly correct. The ball was worked quickly to the impressive Sessegnon, whose weak shot managed to evade Cech’s rather pathetic attempt to block.

1-2.

Mourinho rolled his dice once more; on came Mikel and the much loved Mata. A shot from Ivanovic was saved by Myhill, a header from Willian flew over, a cross from Cahill was aimed at Ba and he couldn’t connect. The frustration amongst the home fans was now apparent as we struggled to fight our way back. Yet, the noise levels slowly grew, as we pounded the West Brom rear guard. Corner after corner were met with resounding headers from Olsson and the rest of the visiting defenders who seemed able and willing to rebuff all of our attacking notions with vigour.

Then – heart in mouth. A West Brom break and we were staring a third goal in the face. We were outnumbered, but thankfully Brunt chose to shoot himself rather than play others in.

Four extra minutes were signalled and we willed the team on. Big John banged the balcony wall once more.

Thud, thud – thud, thud, thud – thud, thud, thud, thud – “CHELSEA!”

A ball was pushed into the path of Ramires, running alongside Reid. The Brazilian fell and I looked at the referee Andre Marriner. In truth, there wasn’t a great shout for a penalty and I fully expected the referee to book Rami for diving. After a momentary stall, the referee unbelievably pointed to the spot. Everyone around me – we had a perfect view – shook our heads and mouthed “never a penalty.” One chap in front of me clearly couldn’t take the tension and hurriedly clambered over the seats to leave before the penalty was taken.

After what seemed like ages, we watched as Eden Hazard calmly waited and slotted the ball in. There was a guttural roar from the Stamford Bridge crowd and I caught Hazard’s ecstatic leap and spin on camera as he raced away.

2-2.

Phew.

This was clearly a ropey performance from Chelsea, albeit against a pretty reasonable team. One can only hope that the manager, players and supporters react well and move on. This is clearly a season of transition and evolution, rather than whole spread change; a season where Mourinho is trying to identify strengths and weaknesses in his squad, in order to provide a stable future. There will be periods of growth and periods of fallow. So be it.

I’m not going anywhere.

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