Tales From Third Gear

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 1 December 2013.

December was upon us and our first game in a very busy month involved the visit to SW6 of high-flying Southampton. The team from the south coast caused us huge problems during the two league games of the previous campaign, beating us 2-1 at St. Mary’s and earning a point in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. This would not be an easy game. After the very poor performance in Basel on Tuesday, another match could not come quickly enough.

However, although the minds of most Chelsea supporters were centred on the game, my build-up was focussed elsewhere. This game would mark the return to the fold of a good friend – one of the Frome Gang of Seven, then Six, then Five, then Four.

Paul – or PD – was back.

I first met Paul, famously – or infamously – on the train on the return trip from a famous – or infamous – away game at Cardiff in March 1984. After we drew 3-3 after being 3-0 down with just six minutes remaining, a couple of the Frome brethren had been arrested and there was talk in the crowded train compartment of the afternoon’s events. There was talk of “Daniels” and I wondered who this was. My Chelsea journey was in its infancy; these older lads had obviously been going to games for a few more years than me. I was all ears. Paul appeared at the door to our compartment wearing old school boots and jeans, maybe a green flight jacket, with cropped hair and a fearsome reputation that went before him. Soon after his appearance, the compartment was singing “Daniels Is Our Leader.” I was predictably impressed. Later that season, I travelled up with him in a car with three others for the decisive game with Leeds United.

Oh what a day that was.

Since then, there have been numerous Chelsea games in his company.

Sadly, in September 2010, Paul was involved in a horrific accident at work; he was working in one of the many tarmac gangs that have made my local town a veritable capital city for road resurfacing. There are many limestone quarries in the area – seen from the air, the local Somerset landscape is pot-marked by vast open areas of grey – and so, as a result, Frome is now home to hundreds of “Boys from the Black Stuff” who hurtle about the English countryside in teams, patching up roads and motorways with limestone.  After the accident, Paul almost lost his leg and has not worked since. I have often bumped into him at the local football club, and he has often aired his yearnings to be able to return, one day, to Stamford Bridge.

Sunday 1 December 2013 was that day.

I collected PD at 9.30am and Lord Parky soon after.

The Boys from the Blue Stuff were soon on our way east.

There was a real sense of the Southampton fixture being a “must win” game for Chelsea to keep in touch with Arsenal. With a fixture at the Emirates looming large on the horizon, we needed to keep on their coat tails. And yet it got me thinking; surely this contravened my general, relaxed, thoughts about this being a transitional season where the league title might be beyond us. Was this game important to gain three points or to simply expunge the awful performance in Switzerland from our collective memory? Well, whatever it was, I guess it is human nature to want to win every game. The thought of losing to Southampton, not unfeasible in the current “will the real Chelsea please stand up?” climate, and therefore allowing Arsenal to remain seven points clear, made me anxious.

In fact – and I am sure I am not alone – the thought of Arsenal winning the league, after their much-scorned period of drought, made me feel nauseous.  In comparison, a league win for either of the two Manchester teams seemed to be the far more palatable option should Chelsea falter. This wasn’t an exact science though; if questioned, I am sure that I dislike United more than Arsenal.

“Oh boy. Weird this football lark, innit?”

At 12.30pm I deposited PD and Parky in The Goose, where I knew that they were in for a warm welcome. I headed on to Stamford Bridge where, for the first time this season, I popped in to the megastore to buy a few Christmas presents. I was pleased to be able to collect the new, full game DVD of Munich.

Ah, Munich. Just the name, just the name.

By the time I had met up with the boys in the pub, Manchester United had dropped two welcome points at Tottenham. Soon after, the Hull City vs. Liverpool game was on the TV screens. We ignored the game and just chatted. My mate Foxy, who I had last met up with on a trip to Scotland a mere fortnight previously, soon appeared with his son Ricky. But the day was all about PD really; there were hugs a-plenty for him. It was great to see.

By the time we had walked down to the stadium, Liverpool had conceded a third goal at the KC Stadium and things were looking up. With points being dropped by United and Liverpool, a Chelsea win would be a magnificent winter warmer on this cold December afternoon.

PD took his seat next to Alan and me. This was another full house with hardly any empty seats. Southampton had around 1,500 and one paltry flag. I soon spotted Foxy and Ricky in the front row of The Shed. And there was Parky a few yards away.

Everyone in. Everyone ready.

A quick scan of the team; surprisingly a start for Michael Essien, the “three amigos” of Hazard, Oscar and Mata were reunited, no place for Sir Frank and Fernando Torres recalled. Still no Luiz.

Was Southampton’s goal by Jay Rodriguez the fastest-ever goal at Stamford Bridge in 108 years? Surely, there couldn’t have been many that were quicker. A terrible intervention by Michael Essien had spun the ball into the path of the Southampton striker, who slotted the ball past a stranded Petr Cech. The 1,500 away fans boiled over in jumping, leaping ecstasy.

With the Stamford Bridge crowd stunned into an eerie silence, Chelsea encountered a horrible first-half malaise; was it a hangover from Basel, one of the most lack-lustre performances that I can ever remember? We played in a fog of self-doubt and faltering confidence, with little movement, and a dearth of crunching tackles in the midfield and penetration up front. There was, again, a distinct unwillingness by key players to take hold of the game by the horns. Too often players played the ball to a disadvantaged team mate, eschewing responsibility, rather than create with their own skills. Oscar was very quiet and Mata peripheral. Hazard showed willing, but there was little movement off him.

A strong Torres run into the box at least showed willing and desire.

Southampton, to their credit pushed us hard, closing us down, putting pressure on us. As PD commented:

“Just like Mourinho likes us to play.”

However, Cech was largely untroubled despite Southampton’s persnickety persistence. We had no more than a few half-chances as the afternoon grew darker.

It saddens me to report that Michael Essien endured his own personal nightmare. His unfortunate error in the build-up to the Southampton goal aside, his play was strewn with passing errors, poor tackles and – worst of all – he often found himself out-muscled as he tried to retain possession. I felt for him. The biggest ignominy of all? A silly dive – simulation as it is called these days – after he had lost possession. He was rightly booked.

Two late chances in the first-half were the highlights of the entire first period. On forty minutes, Torres did ever so well to retain possession and battle off a defender and dig out a cross for Oscar but his header was right at Boruc. Soon after, there was a superb Boruc one-handed save from a Torres header.

Oscar fell injured and was replaced by Frank Lampard; so much for a day off, eh?

I’m also sad to report that there were – of course! – boos at half-time.

It dawned on me that I have an increasing, festering dislike for many of my fellow fans. To my annoyance and consternation, I have almost given up trying to support the team during those times when The Bridge is silent. Even only five years ago, I would try to rally the troops around me, but what is the point? What is the bloody point?

With every passing season, the atmosphere at home games decreases.

How far have we fallen? Let me give a quick illustration.

Way back in 1992, with Chelsea enjoying a little run of form under Ian Porterfield and in the top six of the table, we met Southampton at home on Boxing Day. In 1992-1993, I largely travelled to games alone and only met up with Alan by chance. I had just recently learned to drive the previous season and so was enjoying my new found freedom; it was, in fact, the first Boxing Day game I had ever seen at Stamford Bridge. I was well aware that there were plans to remodel Stamford Bridge and so I had decided to take my father’s rather large camcorder to the game and capture some of the day’s events on film, aware that The Bridge might soon be changing its appearance. I have rather grainy footage of the old Fulham Broadway station, early-morning risers walking past the old souvenir shops on their trudge to the forlorn entrance to the West Stand, all corrugated iron and ancient turnstiles. The main forecourt is captured, quiet, awaiting the day to unfold.

I managed to smuggle the camcorder inside and capture several moments of the actual game. I was sitting halfway back in the East Stand. Our football that season was rudimentary stuff. We often played with Tony Cascarino and Mick Harford in the team. It was direct and far from pretty. However, most tellingly of all, the video film from almost twenty-one years ago shows repeated evidence of honest and heartfelt clapping, encouragement and applause at every single worthwhile Chelsea attack.

The ball is played up for Graeme Stuart to run on to? Shouts of encouragement.

The ball goes off for a throw-in near the Southampton goal-line? Widespread clapping and applause?

A pleasing period of play involving Dennis Wise and Andy Townsend? More encouragement.

The difference between 1992 and 2013 is galling.

At half-time, I returned to my seat and spotted Neil Barnett on the pitch with an elderly gentleman in a gabardine coat. It was John Payton, apparently our oldest-ever former player at ninety years old. I can’t lie; it is not a name that I am familiar with. In a strong Scottish accent, he encouraged the crowd to get behind the players in the second-half and pleaded for us to make some noise. The response from the docile crowd annoyed him.

“Well, that’s not much of a roar.”

I knew how he felt.

No surprises – Demba Ba replaced the struggling Michael Essien.

I hate using clichés, but this was obviously a case of a “game of two halves.”

The crowd, thank heavens, seemed immediately more energised as we upped our play. A Frank Lampard free-kick was well saved by Boruc.

On fifty-five minutes, a Juan Mata corner was aimed high and Brana leaped to force a header back in towards goal. Demba Ba lunged at the ball and it bounced up and off a post back into the six yard box. Gary Cahill, falling, did ever so well to contort and twist his body to head the ball in.

The Bridge roared. Back level.

Gary raced away and milked the applause down below me.

There was noise – proper noise – at last.

“And it’s super Chelsea – super Chelsea F.C.”

Boruc injured his hand and was replaced by Gazzaniga.

Six minutes later, Juan Mata played a ball into the box. With the camera to my eye, I saw a body rise and loop a header up and over the substitute ‘keeper. I clicked just as the ball was on its rise. The ball nestled in the goal. There was a loud yelp and a jump from myself.  I let out a guttural scream.

“YES.”

I soon focussed on the player racing towards me and obviously realised that the scorer was JT. Until that point, it was all a mad blur. This was a very typical John Terry goal and it reminded me instantly of two similar goals at the same end, versus Barcelona in 2005 and versus Manchester United in 2009.

The emotion on our captain’s face was a picture. I photographed the scream, the shout, the slide.

Captain. Leader. Legs First Slider.

This was more like it, Chelsea. Southampton were tiring now and were soon chasing shadows as two sublime slide-rule passes from first Ivanovic and then Mata were played in, dissecting the Southampton defence.

Demba Ba added an extra dimension to our play and his strong run on seventy-one minutes was almost rewarded in a goal, but his shot was dragged wide.

PD kept saying “I’ve missed this.”

Fernando Torres worked tirelessly all afternoon and was replaced by Mikel late on. This was typical Mourinho. I approved. Rather than settling for a 2-1 victory, however, we continued to push forward.

On eighty-nine minutes, we witnessed great perseverance from Ramires as he fended-off tackles from three opponents, retained possession and, with a wicked turn, whipped in a lovely ball for Ba to prod in.

3-1.

At the final whistle, the poor first-half was virtually forgotten as we slowly made our exit out. “Blue is the Colour” was being played, John Terry and Frank Lampard were applauding the Chelsea faithful for our support and everything was well the world.

On the walk back to the car, PD and I quickly reviewed the race at the top of the table.

“I hate to say it, but Arsenal are flying. Can they keep it up, though? City are hot and cold. United too. Liverpool haven’t got enough depth. But we are in second place and yet haven’t even got out of third gear yet.”

“That’s right me zun.”

There is no trip to Sunderland for me on Wednesday but Parky and I have yet another jaunt up to The Potteries next Saturday. Stoke City is one of my favourite away games. However, I might have to rack my brains for new subject matter after five previous “Tales” involving “Stoke away.”

Oh no, wait – I have an idea.

Watch this space.

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2 thoughts on “Tales From Third Gear

  1. I know we have talked about this quite a bit…but do you look more forward to the away dates then the home dates as it stands? Our away crowd seems second to none at times. True supporters showing near and far. Seems like the best times and support are seen miles, scratch that, kilometers away from HQ. Thoughts?

  2. Yes, the difference between the home and away match-day “experience” grows by the season. And it’s not just Chelsea; it is widespread throughout the UK. I’ve touched on all the main reasons before but the obvious reason for the disparity is that the away support is far more involved and passionate. At home, there has been an erosion of our traditional support over the years. It’s a familiar story at other clubs too.

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