Tales From The Tortuous Mediocrity

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 29 March 2014.

At last, here was a change to my typical match day routine. This trip to London South had been planned a few weeks ago. By car, Crystal Palace is notoriously difficult to reach. So, we had decided to travel up by train. It was an easy decision. I was relishing this one. It was a chance for me to travel to a game without pounding the tarmac. And it was a chance to unwind and let other worries, which have been quite considerable over the past two months, subside.

This match – placed just before the soiree to Paris – was going to be a good one.

We caught the 8.37am from Melksham and changed at Swindon. The journey to Paddington would only take a further hour and thirty minutes. While Parky launched into a four-pack of lager, I enjoyed a cappuccino. Old habits, I guess, die hard. I have, if I’m honest, never been a fan of drinking too early on a Saturday morning. As we hurtled through the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside, I was reminded of a time when my Chelsea trips were dominated by train travel. I thought back to the years from 1981 to 1991. Apart from occasional trips to Stamford Bridge in my father’s car, football meant train travel. Ah, 1981 to 1991…the years when I cut my teeth as a Chelsea fan, following the team whenever I could. In those ten years, I went from sixth form to college to sporadic unemployment and poorly-paid employment and eventually I was able to afford a car at the relatively late age of twenty-six.

I used to love going by train to be honest. If it wasn’t so expensive these days, I would do so more often. This was my first trip to London by rail, I think, since the F.A.Cup Semi-Final in 2009. We laughed as we remembered what had happened on the Paddington platform after the game; Parky had a disagreement with a Millwall fan. Let’s leave it there. In his youth, Parky often managed to get embroiled in other similar “disagreements” with other fans too. There was further laughter when he re-told (for maybe the twentieth time) the story of a “disagreement” with some Cardiff fans in around 1970 and Parky hiding for a few minutes in a skip full of mail bags.

First class.

As we darted past Reading, I got all misty-eyed as I remembered my first-ever girlfriend who disastrously moved away from Frome after seeing me for only three weeks (“was it something I said?”) when her father changed jobs. On every Chelsea trip in the 1982-1983 season, and those after it, the train took me within a mile of her house in the village of Charvil, but I just looked on, disconsolate and with a lump in my throat, from the train window.

“So near and yet so far.”

Anyway, she was more of a rugby fan. She didn’t have a clue about football. It would never have worked out.

We crossed the River Thames a few times and were soon headed into London. Going back to thoughts about the early-‘eighties, as I approached Paddington station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty terminus at the end of his glorious Great Western Railway – I remembered some graffiti which was sprayed on a brick wall under the Westway.

“I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this tortuous mediocrity.”

In those years of teenage angst, unrequited love, school day malaise and Second Division Football, those words struck a chord with me. I always used to look out for it. There was genuine sadness when I looked for it, yet it was no more, in maybe around 1986.

“Another rebel bites the dust.”

However, the way things work out, the writer of said graffiti is probably a stockbroker or a financial analyst in the city these days.

I, of course, am still an angry passionate soul.

We arrived at Paddington at 10.40am. Although we were playing Crystal Palace later in the afternoon, I had another game on my mind. My first task of the day was to head down to Stamford Bridge to collect seven tickets for myself and various friends for the game at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. We caught the District Line and whereas Parky alighted at West Brompton, I stayed on until Fulham Broadway. Despite a sadly predictable tense few moments at the ticket window in which the club official made me feel uncomfortable as I handed over the seven completed declaration forms (“do you know all these people?”, “do you have their addresses?”, “you could have found these forms on a train”, “have you got their season ticket cards?”), I was eventually handed seven tickets.

Phew. I could relax. I texted my six mates –

“Tickets in hand.”

I bounced back to West Brompton. There was time for a couple of pints at the “Prince of Wales” with Lord Parky and Dave (“We’ll Just Call You Azpilicueta.”) We were joined by two young Chelsea lads – Max and James – who had also just collected tickets for Paris. The five of us then caught the over ground train down to Clapham Junction, where we changed trains again. As we crossed the River Thames for the third time of the day, there was a frisson of excitement. Even for a seasoned traveller like me, an unexpected view of London very often cheers me. There was a mix of Palace and Chelsea fans on the train. Some Palace fans advised us to alight at Selhurst and not Thornton Heath. We spoke briefly with a chap from New York, who was attending the game with a Chelsea-supporting mate. He admitted to being a little wary of talking to us; we weren’t wearing colours of course, so he wasn’t sure if we were Palace or Chelsea. Maybe he was expecting some sort of “Green Street” scenario. We invited him to come and join us for a few bevvies, but he decided against it. We walked through the sunny South London streets, the stands of Selhurst Park playing hide-and seek to our left. Just after 1pm, we reached our target; the William Stanley at Norwood Junction. The pints were soon flowing. The pub was mainly Chelsea and the pub was soon playing host to a few choice songs.

“We Are The Chelsea So Fcuk All The Rest.”

All of the usual suspects were there.

I had visited this boozer on one occasion before, for a pre-season game against Palace in the summer of 2003. It was, I think, the first game in the UK of the Roman Abramovich era. Thousands of Chelsea descended on the quiet streets of South London that day; it was, in fact, my last visit to Selhurst Park. On that occasion, we won 2-1. I remember a Geremi free-kick, but little else apart from the blistering summer sun. I didn’t attend our last visit to Selhurst; a win during the first few weeks of the Mourinho era. Although I am rapidly approaching a thousand Chelsea games, I have only visited Selhurst Park on five previous occasions. Strangely, more games have featured Crystal Palace’s two tenants Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, than Palace themselves.

My very first visit to Selhurst was in August 1989; a midweek game against Charlton Athletic, in the days when their Valley stadium was unable to be used. We had begun the 1989-1990 with a couple of wins and a draw. I was soon off to the US for a year’s travel, and decided at the last minute to attend. It was going to be my big send-off. There was an added dimension to this game; should we win, we’d go top. How big a deal was this? Well, in all of my time of supporting Chelsea Football Club, I had never ever seen us at the top of the Football League. I travelled to London that day, almost a quarter of a century ago, in hope that I would be leaving England for America with us in first position.

On that Tuesday night, we lost 3-0 to a Charlton Athletic team which included our former defensive tandem Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates, and I was crestfallen.

So much for a big send-off.

Now – that was Proper Chelsea.

Goodbye England.

In the William Stanley, there was much talk of Paris, but not much of Palace. Rob adapted their “We’re Palace, we’re Palace” chant.

“We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

Whooooooooaaaaaaooooowwww – whooooooooooaaaaaaoooowwww.”

I was enjoying this. Drinking at football. I should do this more often.

Then, bizarrely, just after 2pm, the pub closed.

“What?”

As we left, we serenaded the locals –

“Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Max popped over the road and bought some tinnies for our slow ascent up the hill towards Selhurst Park. Although the terrain is different, the immediate area is similar to Highbury; humdrum terraced houses, quite plain, with little hint of a sport stadium nearby. We found ourselves amid a noisy group of Chelsea fans and a police escort soon arrived. We edged away, and then found ourselves behind a baiting mob of Palace fans.

“We are the Holmesdale.”

There was only posturing and no hint of violence.

Our American friend would have been fine.

Selhurst Park has changed, as have most of London’s football theatres, over the years. I can vividly remember open terraces at each end in the early ‘seventies, though only a few years earlier, there were only grassy banks. The main stand has remained mainly unchanged since the ‘twenties and other stands been built, one at a time, quite unrelated. It isn’t a particularly classy stadium. It fits in well among the nondescript houses which surround it. The Crystal Palace TV tower, on the hill to the north, is the sole landmark of note. Incidentally, the location of several F.A. Cup Finals at the turn of the twentieth century is a mile or two to the north; the site in fact, of the Crystal Palace athletics arena.

Inside the Arthur Wait Stand – dark and cramped – the three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice before the arrival of the teams. It was a fine sunny day. I was stood with Alan and Gary, as always. This was a very local game for both. Alan, from Anerley, lives just two miles to the north-east. Gary, from Norbury, lives just two miles to the north-west.

Crystal Palace, then, is their local team.

Gary : “I hate this lot more than Tottenham.”

I didn’t believe him…

London has so many teams of course. It is too simple and too easy to say that Arsenal and Tottenham have the north, West Ham has the east and Chelsea have the south. Rivalries, boundaries and catchment areas overlap. I’ve always viewed Chelsea’s old heartland to be Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to the north of the river and Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth and Clapham to the south. As Londoners moved to the suburbs and satellite towns, our support is now more likely to come from Reading, Slough, Wembley, Kingston-on-Thames, Crawley, Guildford, then Brighton, Oxford, Northampton and Swindon.

I’ve only ever met two Crystal Palace fans; I’d imagine their support is more local. I have no axe to grind with them; they have been a minor irritant over the years. Only an F.A. Cup defeat in 1976 and a League Cup defeat in 1993 sticks in my craw.

However, add the afternoon of Saturday March 29th 2014 to this list.

I am not going to dwell too long on the failings of Chelsea against Crystal Palace. Just like some of the supporters, was the focus on the imminent game in the Champions League? We wondered this after the poor performance against Aston Villa when our minds might have been clouded with thoughts of Galatasaray. If so, inexcusable. We knew that Tony Pulis’ team of journeyman would be up for the battle. They have slowly improved since he took over from Ian Holloway. In my mind, my thoughts were mixed. I expected us to win, though I couldn’t eradicate a haunting vision of a defeat to a Palace team, which would greatly reduce our chances of another league title.

The team appeared to be strong; surely David Luiz and Nemanja Matic would provide strength to our midfield?

The rather odd sight of a dozen or so lycra-clad cheerleaders welcomed the two teams onto the pitch. Just before, an eagle had swooped from goalmouth to goalmouth. How very American. Our friend would definitely have approved.

The game began. We struggled to get a foothold. Long balls were played forward, but passes were poor and our ball retention worse. We struggled to get Eden Hazard involved. The Palace team were over us like a rash. Our support appeared to wane. After a quarter of an hour, I looked around at my fellow supporters and was dismayed to see only around one in five joining in with a chant. However, a fine Gary Cahill tackle brought a raucous response from the away support and I hoped for better things. Alas, chances were at a premium. It was sad to see Frank Lampard playing so poorly.

There was only sporadic noise from the away end.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

At half-time, I disappeared off for a beer; I needed an artificial stimulant to keep me buoyed. The fare that we had served thus far was very poor. Down in the toilets, one young Chelsea fan uttered the immortal lines –

“I’ve only seen us lose two games.”

A few of us replied –

“What – this season?”

“No –ever.”

This was met with a barrage of light-hearted abuse.

I bumped into Parky and we chatted. The second-half began and I chatted to a couple more friends. Noticeably, in the one hundred Chelsea fans who were guzzling the last few dregs of their halftime beers, only one was wearing a replica shirt.

Proper Chelsea.

Then, a groan. News soon came through that we had conceded a goal. With a heavy heart, I took my place alongside Alan and Gary, the local lads.

“John Terry – own goal.”

There had been the introduction of Oscar for Luiz at the break, and Salah came on for Lampard. Our support quietened further. We found it so difficult to break Palace down and we didn’t use our flanks at all. At times, our play was tortuous and mediocre. Our support didn’t rally.

A John Terry header flew over the bar. It was a rare chance.

Demba Ba replaced Andre Schurrle. Speroni foiled Hazard. Torres wasted another opportunity. There was dwindling hope among the away support. Instead, irritation and frustration, then a horrible realisation that we were going to lose and our league title hopes were going to die in the South London sun. It was a horrible, dull feeling. Bizarrely, Palace could have increased their lead in the final ten minutes. Jerome, breaking, hit the post. A second goal would not have flattered them. At the end of the game, we quietly exited. Outside, words were exchanged among a few friends.

Parky, Dave and I were then denied entrance to a couple of pubs – “regulars only” – and so we jumped on a train back to civilisation. We chatted over a beer in a pub at Victoria – north of the river, Chelsea Land, home – and were our usual pragmatic selves. After all these games, I don’t find it too difficult to stay as realistic as I can after another testing defeat. Despite the loss, it was a fine day out.

And next week, at least we’ll have Paris.

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