Tales From The Best Seats In The House

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 5 April 2014.

It is a familiar theme in these match reports for me to contrast the fortunes of Chelsea Football Club for the period of time before – let’s pick a famous date – 1997 and for the period since. There are simple reasons for this. I always like reminding myself, if not others, how damned lucky I have been to be a Chelsea supporter during the previous seventeen years. This is obvious. Other reasons are more tangential to the story. There are contrasts in the atmosphere on match days. There is the bewildering difference in our fan base. On a more personal level, there are massive differences in my circle of Chelsea friends and acquaintances. In 1997, I thought it to be wildly cosmopolitan to number Chelsea fans from Brighton, Southend and Nuneaton in my closest group of match-going mates. In 2014, at the Stoke City match, my fellow supporters came from as far flung places as California, North Carolina, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

As I stood outside the Copthorne Hotel at Stamford Bridge just before 1pm, I spent a few moments trying to visualise how the same piece of terra firma used to look back in the days when I was, fleetingly – for no more than three seasons – a Shed Ender. I concentrated on the site of the former blue gates and took the open space now to be my reference point. Looking left, I visualised the dirty brown brick work of the shops which abutted onto Fulham Road. I remembered the old portakabin of a club shop which was so miniscule that it could probably only hold around fifteen people before an unplanned sexual act took place.

“Sorry love.”

I remembered the open space of the forecourt – nothing grand, but it represented as far as we were allowed to go without paying admission, a sort of holding area for our emotions on match days – and the ivy-clad walls of the modest two-storey club offices where I would often get players to sign autograph books as they hurried between there and the East Stand. I reminisced on the turnstiles, virtually unchanged, in essence, since the ‘twenties and the memorable “click click” as I entered. I remembered the laughable gents’ toilet – another bloody portakabin – and then the steps to The Shed; a veritable stairway to heaven.

And then I looked around and saw the modern bricks of the hotels, the restaurants, the modern “Chelsea brand” signs, the rush of foreign tourists with blue and white scarves, the arrival of taxis outside the hotel, the TV crews, all the accoutrements of modern day football. I wasn’t sad. I was just happy that I had witnessed both. I took comfort that my memories were strong; of when we waited in line behind former Arsenal ‘keeper Bob Wilson before a game with Southampton in 1976, when Millwall and Chelsea ran at each other in 1977, when Glenn tried to chat up the two blondes who used to run the programme stall under the wall to the far right, when I spoke to Pat Nevin for the first time before a game with Fulham in 1984 and when we were locked inside the forecourt for our own safety when the ICF came calling later that year.

Within an hour or so, I had met up with Nick – Massachusetts – and Tim – Pennsylvania – and we had enjoyed a quiet chat in the equally quiet hotel bar. Luckily, we just met Ron Harris before we left. I then gave the two chaps a tour around the periphery of the stadium. This was Tim’s second visit, but the game represented Nick’s first Chelsea match at The Bridge. I had met Nick in NYC twice before, plus the game in Philly too. He was – without wishing to state the bleedin’ obvious – very excited about the whole day. I was intrigued and partially saddened to hear that one of the deciding factors behind his trip was to see Stamford Bridge – I am unsure if I should call it the “old” Stamford Bridge since the current incarnation is only thirteen years old – before it is either redeveloped further or we end up playing in Battersea, Earls Court, Brighton, Southend or Nuneaton. I told the story of the CPO and how “my generation” of Chelsea fans can vividly remember the thought of losing Stamford Bridge for good due to the ruinous East Stand; we remembered “Cash For Chelsea” buckets on the forecourt in 1977 and “Save The Bridge” buckets in 1986.

“Save The Bridge.”

It seems almost implausible that mighty Chelsea Football Club ever had to contemplate such a campaign, yet the same three words could well have been used during the “Say No CPO” campaign of 2011.

We live in changed times, we live in the same times.

In The Goose, there was a gathering of like-minded Chelsea souls. I had travelled up with three Chelsea stalwarts who were most definitely pre-1997; Glenn, Lord Parky and PD. Outside, two supporters’ groups from the other side of the Atlantic were swelling the numbers in the beer garden. I was introduced to a gaggle of Chelsea “first timers” including three from the proud city of Pittsburgh. I was also introduced to Leke from The Bronx. With my New York baseball past, I wondered if Leke was a follower of the Yankees too.

He wasn’t. He cared not a jot for baseball. Not to worry. We had Chelsea to talk about.

Leke, like Nick, ended up sitting close to me in The Shed Upper for the game with Stoke City. I was among the twenty-five strong party of New York and Pittsburgh Blues; it was a privilege to be among them. I had, no surprises, left it fashionably late to squeeze in through the Shed Upper turnstiles and arrive at my allotted seat in the fourth row just in time to see the two large flags in the Matthew Harding disappear from view. This was my first game in the Shed Upper since our F.A. Cup game with Stoke in 2010. I was immediately struck with how good the view is from the first ten feet of the Shed Upper. The Shed End is ridiculously small and intimate compared to both towering side stands at modern day Stamford Bridge. I was ridiculously close to the action. The first few rows of the Shed Upper are arguably the best seats in the house. Before me, the stadium looked magnificent. It was, of course, another full house. The Stoke fans, without a win at Chelsea in the league in forty naughty years, were already making a din.

“GOOO ON STOKE – GOOO ON STOKE.”

Beside me was Andrew, a former New York resident now living in Kent. He commented –

“They’re only singing so much because the game is on TV.”

I think he had a point.

Our team contained a few surprises with Salah, Willian and Schurrle behind Torres. I am sure that the US visitors were happy to see Frank start. It was clear from the kick-off that the Stoke fans to my immediate right were going to be consistently noisier than the Chelsea fans around me. This, as we all know, is the norm.

Away fans sing, home fans watch.

I’m sure that there was a Norwegian fan group sitting behind me; a song soon into the match contained no English words at all. A father and son behind me kept saying “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” and I’m thankful that nobody joined in. An irate Irishman behind me soon drew my ire by calling one Chelsea player an “eejit” and then loudly criticised another. I bit my tongue. There are a fair share of moaners around me in my normal seat over one hundred yards away so I am used to “tut-tutting” to myself during games. It would also be too simplistic for me to say that my presence among the tourists of the Shed Upper was a metaphor for the new Chelsea. We have always had a fair share of visitors at The Bridge for as long as I can remember.

But something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the noisy Stoke fans. Maybe it was the constant use of smart phones and cameras by the surrounding visitors.

“But you take lots of photos at games, Chris.”

“I know. I was being ironic.”

It just felt…I don’t know…it just felt different. I just think I missed my usual seat, my familiar view for the best part of eighteen years, my usual companions. In all honesty, despite our dominance from early on, the atmosphere was quite muted. Surely the result on Wednesday in Paris and the up-coming game on Tuesday were both counter-productive to producing a noisier atmosphere. On more than one occasion (OK, fifty-six to be exact), I let my mind wander…

“2-0…we just need to win 2-0.”

After a noisy song from Stoke City about the joys of eating oatcakes, spinning a piece of Wedgewood on a potter’s wheel or some such other Stoke tradition, the Chelsea choir behind me responded with a hearty chorus of –

“You Never Won Fuck All.”

I again tut-tutted and explained to Bob –

“Wrong on two counts. Double negative. And they beat us in the 1972 League Cup Final.”

Andrew had his own particular take on this –

“We’re just politely reminding them that they have won something.”

“Yeah, and what thanks do we get?”

Before I knew it, Chelsea were completely dominating the game and were starting to pepper one-time target Begovic’ goal. Just after half-an-hour, the ball was played out to Mohamed Salah by Nemanja Matic and the Egyptian’s low shot thudded in despite a slight touch from the Stoke ‘keeper.

It was time to celebrate and time to relax. I think most Chelsea fans had written off the league title, but it was important to keep the pressure on the reds of Liverpool and the blues of Manchester. A header from Branislav Ivanovic was wildly celebrated by us in the Shed Upper and it took us all a rather embarrassing amount of time to realise that it had been called back, presumably for offside.

Our dominance was total, but the noise was half-hearted. I have often wondered what it must feel like to finally attend a game at Stamford Bridge after years of support…all of that yearning, all of that longing…only for the atmosphere to be slightly subdued. I guess this, sadly, was one of those days.

In the second-half, we were treated to a substitute appearance by the snarling Scot Charlie Adam who soon chopped down Andre Schurrle. On the hour, Salah was unceremoniously hacked down by Wilkinson. Although Eden Hazard, scorer from twelve yards in Paris on Wednesday, had replaced Schurrle, Frank Lampard called rank and took the penalty instead. His rather poor effort was blocked by the ‘keeper, but Frank was on hand to slam home the rebound in a scene similar to Claude Makelele’s first ever goal for us in 2005.

“2-0…yes, 2-0.”

Not long after, Willian capped a fine display by squeezing the ball around a Stoke defender and into the goal. As soon as he moved the ball onto his right foot, I sensed a goal.

And there it was.

As easy a 3-0 win as I can remember.

Ashley Cole and David Luiz appeared in late cameo appearances and the US guests were surely happy with that.

Job done.

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