West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 23 November 2013.
As I drove in to London on the elevated section of the M4 motorway, I caught sight of the cluster of skyscrapers in the City, some five or six miles further east. London is neither Chicago nor New York, but I am always excited by the sight of the Nat West Tower, Canary Wharf, The Gherkin and The Shard. Within an hour or so, I would be beyond these monoliths to industry, trade and finance and I would be nestled in an East End hostelry. The journey to the nation’s capital had been quick and easy. The late autumnal gold and orange hues of the journey from Somerset contrasted with the light greys of the London afternoon. I was soon parked-up and quickly disappeared through the large and imposing art deco façade of Acton Town tube station. The District Line took me to Westminster, and from there the Jubilee Line snaked south, east and then north towards West Ham tube station.
A visit to Upton Park has never been an enjoyable trip for me; it is, undoubtedly, my least liked away game. Thirty years ago, the threat of violent acts was reason enough for me to be wary. The aura surrounding the tightly-knit ICF meant that a foray down Green Street was akin to walking the gang plank. Thankfully, those days have passed. Today however, there is still a general tawdriness about the locale which eats away at my enthusiasm on match days. In the violent ‘eighties, the away end was the infamous South Bank, now the site of the Bobby Moore Stand and the home supporters. My first two visits were horrendous affairs; a 5-3 loss in the early months of 1986-1987 and a 4-1 loss in the closing stages of 1987-1988. The latter game effectively saw us relegated. It was gut-wrenching stuff. Since then, my visits have been relatively rare and I’ve only started visiting Upton Park regularly over the past five or six seasons. In the years when I could only afford to go to five or six away games each season, Upton Park remained way down the pecking order. This would be my ninth visit.
Of course, with West Ham United soon to de-camp to the former Olympic Stadium in 2016, there will only be a few more trips to the scruffy, down-at-heel streets around the Boleyn Ground left. I’m not convinced that many West Ham fans are too enamoured with a move away from their spiritual home. It would be trite for me to say that I am not going to waste too much time concerning myself with what West Ham fans think, but we should all be wary about teams moving out of their historic homes into new stadia. I’d imagine that, given the choice, most Hammers would prefer to see Upton Park redeveloped rather than move a few miles north-west to Stratford. However, I am sure that the board members of Chelsea Football Club be watching with interest once West Ham United move in to their new luxurious residence in August 2016. The dream scenario for me would be for The Irons to be opening up in The Championship. In such circumstances, surely gates of 35,000 rattling around inside a sterile new stadium will be a nightmare for West Ham fans who, at times, used to produce an intimidating atmosphere in the tightness of Upton Park.
I’ll watch with interest to see how this stadium move eventually works itself out.
At just after three o’clock, I alighted at Plaistow tube station. In the ticket hall, I looked back west towards those tower blocks and skyscrapers of the City of London, the mid-afternoon sky darkening by the minute but with the slight tint of the first few moments of an eventual sunset. I soon joined up with a few fellow Chelsea mates who were drinking in “The Black Lion.” This was a first-time visit for me. Just inside the long narrow bar, Rob, Gary, Andy, Daryl, Walnuts, Dave, Steve and I spent an enjoyable ninety minutes, supping lager and sharing laughs. It goes without saying that none of us were marked as Chelsea supporters. We were a small Chelsea enclave in a hot bed of West Ham supporters. The boozer was crowded and the bar staff busy. We were in enemy territory. We kept ourselves to ourselves. We blended in well. Contrary to popular belief, the locals were neither happy, smiling Cockneys, prone to singing “Bubbles” nor psychopathic hoodlums. They seemed quite – whisper it – normal.
At just before 5 o’clock, we threw our jackets on and walked the best part of a mile east towards the ground. There was time for the briefest of chats with Gary about how watching England now disinterests both of us. In fact, International breaks tend to bore us all to death these days. I made the point to Gary that, seasoned football follower that I am, I find myself picking and choosing what aspects of the wide world of football I choose to pre-occupy myself with these days. To be blunt, I’d rather watch my local non-league team than the national team. I’d rather read a good book on football than watch a game on TV. I’d rather plan the next away day than bother listening to another Premiership team on the radio.
“Been there, seen that, got the replica shirt with number and player’s name.”
There was a brief “meet and greet” outside the away turnstiles with a few friends and this resulted in me missing the kick-off. By the time I had squeezed my way in to row N behind the goal, I’d missed the entrance of the teams and all of that “Pretty Bubbles In The Air” bollocks. I find that the away end at West Ham – formerly the Centenary Stand, now the Trevor Brooking Stand – is particularly shallow.
The first thing that hit me was how good we looked in the white / blue / blue. Next, I realised that Mikel and Ramires were in the holding positions and so this must mean that Frank Lampard was one of “the three.”
I’ll be honest; Frank has looked a little tired of late and so maybe Jose was risking it a little. Alongside Frank were Oscar and Hazard. At the back, JT was paired with GC again. After a couple of fine performances, Dave retained his place at left-back.
A quick scan of the West Ham team and it soon became obvious that Sam Allardyce was playing with no obvious striker.
The first-half began and it was a scrappy affair. A few Chelsea half-chances and a block from John Terry denied former Blue Joe Cole. Then, a silly and clumsy challenge by Jaaskelainen on Oscar resulted in a penalty to Chelsea.
At moments like that, how I wish I had put £20 on Frank to score first. True enough, with camera poised, up-stepped our leading goal scorer to blast high into the West Ham net. Frank couldn’t resist; he ran towards the spectators in the Bobby Moore, right arm lifted, and no doubt muttered a few personal epithets to the watching thousands.
Alan : “They’ll ‘Ave Ta Cam At Us Nah.”
Chris : “Cam Own Moi Li’ul Dimons.”
I even did a Cockney – arms in braces – victory jig.
To my right, the blue smoke from a flare billowed in and around the celebrating hordes.
Our play became more focussed and our goal scoring chances increased. We moved the ball intelligently and Frank Lampard found himself in acres of space in the middle of the park. He in turn moved the ball on to Eden Hazard, who flicked the ball into the path of a raiding Oscar. The away end were on tip-toes as our little Brazilian dribbled forward, with no West Ham defender able to shackle him, and we watched as he dispatched the ball into the goal, tucking it neatly just inside the left post.
We roared again.
The Chelsea fans around me had been in good voice for all of the first-half and we goaded the home fans further :
“We’re the only team in London with the European Cup.”
How I love that song…it was sung over and over and over.
And then, a song especially for West Ham’s most successful former player :
“Frankie Lampard – he’s won more than you.”
Just before the break, a sad sight. Joe Cole was substituted. I watched as he raced off the pitch. I’m sure I wasn’t the only Chelsea fan who remembers Joe being hooked off at Fulham in 2006 after just twenty minutes by Jose.
A few hundred West Ham fans in the East Stand to our left decided to take on the might of the Chelsea away support by initiating a few songs aimed at us. One rather rotund West Ham fan was singled out and taunted :
“Gone for the salad. You should have gone for the salad.”
The first-half had been all Chelsea. There has to be one special mention for a great piece of defensive covering by Cesar Azpilicueta, who raced over from his left-back position to quell a rare West Ham attack. Top marks. The boy is doing well at the moment.
Soon into the second-half, a thunderous Gary Cahill header was hacked off the line by Mark Noble.
Then, a fine flowing move which involved an improving Eto’o, found Oscar unmarked on the far post but he volleyed over.
With the match seemingly safe, the three thousand Chelsea fans – all standing, of course – dipped into the pages of the travelling support songbook and created a roll-call for an assortment of much-loved former players. We began, as so often is the case, with a song – almost seasonal now – for Peter Osgood.
“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star, scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.”
Then, in a five minute period, the songs continued, praising several other Chelsea legends.
“Oh Jimmy, Jimmy – Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”
“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where – Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”
“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”
“Super, Super Dan – Super Dan Petrescu.”
“Oh Dennis Wise, scored a fackin’ great goal.”
“One Di Matteo, there’s only one Di Matteo.”
Then, a song which brought a smile to my face.
“He’s here, he’s there, he’s every fackin’ where – Joey Cole, Joey Cole.”
Although Joe has completed a full footballing circle now, from West Ham to West Ham, and although he joined Liverpool with a few disparaging comments aimed at Chelsea Football Club, he is still in our hearts. This was, to use the oft-quoted phrase, “Proper Chelsea” – singing the name of a rival player. In light of the abuse that Frank Lampard has received at the hands of the bitter followers of his former team, this made a refreshing change. I sincerely hope that Joe, showered and changed, was sitting within the stadium and was able to hear the words aimed towards him. As if to rub it in further, there was just time for one more.
“Joey Cole – he’s won more than you.”
The game continued on with Chelsea in the ascendency. Eto’o curled one just wide of the post. There was an air of relaxed calm in the away end, but I feared a West Ham goal might change things dramatically. West Ham substitute Maiga fluffed his lines at the far post and steered the ball wide when it looked easier to score. After an Eden Hazard shot was blocked, the ball fell invitingly for Frank to effortlessly guide the ball low and into the West Ham goal.
Frank raced over to celebrate in front of the celebrating three thousand and I hopped up on to my seat.
Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.
In one photo, Frank seems to be looking at me right in the eyes.
West Ham United 0 Chelsea 3.
We quickly walked out into the cold East London night with a bounce in our step. The home fans, some with claret and blue bar scarves wrapped around their necks, were mute. Alan and Gary decided to wait in line at the back of the large queue at Upton Park tube, but I decided to retrace my steps back to Plaistow. The “clip-clop” of a couple of police horses accompanied a few stragglers as we hurriedly walked the mile west. Once at Plaistow, there was a further wait on a crowded platform, but eventually the train took us back to West Ham tube station. I can well remember the journey on this District Line that my friend Gill and I took just under a year ago, our beloved team humiliated 3-1 by West Ham amidst turmoil, unrest and acrimony in the Chelsea end with Benitez at the helm. At the time, we sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t get any worse in 2012-2013.
Actually, it didn’t.
From my perspective, Upton Park 2012 was a recent low-water mark for Chelsea Football Club.
In 2013, Upton Park provided a far rosier picture. I texted Gill and she was able to share the moment.
By 9pm, I was back at Earl’s Court, knee deep in penne arrabiata in my favourite Italian restaurant, watching Benitez’ new team lose 1-0 at home to Parma.
And we were back in the hunt for the title.