Tales From Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 3 December 2014.

In my book, there is no bigger game each season than Chelsea vs. Tottenham. This was a match that I had been relishing for a while. Midway through my working day, the excitement was rising with each “match-day thought” that entered my mind. There were the usual nerves, too. I’m more nervous about Spurs at home than any other. There’s that unbeaten run – stretching back to 1990-1991 – which needed to be preserved. I am sure that other Chelsea fans would only be happy at 9.30pm with a win, but I was a little more pragmatic;

Anything but a loss please Ye Footballing Gods.

That is not to say that I was unduly worried too much.

The only negative thought fluttering in and out of my consciousness as the hours raced by was the thought that our team would be missing Diego Costa.

I wondered who Jose Mourinho would turn to.

Didier Drogba?

Loic Remy?

Only time would tell.

When I left the office at 3.30pm, there was a supreme sense of joy that I would soon be on the road with three good friends – Glenn, PD and Lord Parky – and an evening’s football lie ahead.

To paraphrase Tommy Johnson – “Tottenham At Home – Love It.”

PD, bless him, kindly volunteered for driving duties and so I was able to relax a little. The four of us had enjoyed the From The Jam gig in Frome ten days previously and our spirits were buoyed by a cracking ‘eighties compilation CD which accompanied our trip east. I remember mentioning to somebody at the gig that there was a spell a few years ago that as soon as we hit the traffic at Hammersmith, The Jam would always seem to be playing on my CD player. On this occasion, PD had changed the CD and to a “Suggs Selection” and, yes – lo and behold – as soon as we neared the church underneath the M4, “Beat Surrender” came on.

“Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.
Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.

All the things that I care about.
Are packed into one punch.
All the things that I’m not sure about.
Are sorted out at once.

And as it was in the beginning.
So shall it be in the end.
That bullshit is bullshit.
It just goes by different names.”

We were parked just before 6pm and The Goose was predictably heaving.

As soon as I walked in, I was pleased to meet up with Danny and his girlfriend Sonja. I got to know Danny , who hails from the wonderfully named Rancho Cucamonga in California – through my trips to the US over the past ten seasons and I first met him – to talk to – in Texas in 2009. This was his third trip over to England to see the boys play – he was at Sunderland on Saturday – but this was Sonja’s inaugural visit to London and England. I introduced them to my closest Chelsea mates and I had to smile when Sonja exclaimed that she was the “token female.” I quickly looked up and scanned the pub. Of course, Sonja wasn’t wrong. In a pub full of Chelsea fans, no more than 5% were female. I presume this came as a slight shock to Sonja. It reminded me of a similar comment by another American female last season who was amazed by the lack of the fairer sex in and around the pubs at Chelsea.

I quickly remembered some of my many visits to various baseball stadia – plus the Chelsea games I have seen too – in the US over the years. There were, indeed, many more females at the games in the US than there are at football in the UK. No time for too much social commentary on this, but I would suggest that this shows that football is still predominantly a male preserve in the UK.

In Chelsea’s case, it remains a preserve of middle-aged men with receding hairlines and a predilection for trainers, polo-shirts, lager and taking the piss out of each other.

Proper.

As we left the pub on a cold, but thankfully not bitter, evening, we all wanted to make sure that we were in the stadium well in advance of the minute of appreciation and applause for our former manager John Neal, who sadly passed away at the age of 82 the day after our last home game against West Brom.

There was a nice piece devoted to John Neal in the night’s programme. He was a much-loved man by us Chelsea fans of a certain generation.  I only met him in person on one occasion. Back in the autumn of 1995, Chelsea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1970 F.A. Cup win with a pre-match gathering of former players in the bar which used to be called “Drake’s” (named after our 1955 Championship-winning manager). In those days, only CPO share-holders were allowed in to “Drake’s” (which nestles under the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding, but is renamed these days and is, presumably, one of the many corporate suites at Stamford Bridge). On that particular day – before a game with Southampton – Chelsea legends such as Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris attracted the attention of the Chelsea fans in attendance. Away in a quiet booth – I can picture it now – sat John Neal and his assistant manager Ian McNeill, quietly eating a meal, generally being ignored by the majority. A few fans dropped in to say “hello” – I am sure that it was John Neal’s first visit back to Stamford Bridge since his early retirement in the mid-‘eighties – but I was shocked that these two figures from our relatively recent past were being generally shunned.

My only conclusion was that the Chelsea fans present were so in awe of the heralded 1970 team, that the appearance of John and Ian was – wrongly, of course – overlooked.

I made sure that I said a few words of welcome and gratitude and was very pleased that they allowed me to have my photograph taken with the quietly spoken former manager and his trusted Scottish assistant. I did – to be blunt – wonder why the two of them had been invited on a day when a different team was being honoured. In retrospect, the two should have had been the centrepiece of a ten year anniversary of the 1983-1984 season a year previously, but that is a moment lost forever.

Looking back, John Neal had a very mixed reign as Chelsea manager. He joined us after a spell as the Middlesbrough manager, and his teams were relatively steady, occasionally entertaining, but playing to low attendances in the First Division. Chelsea, in 1981, were dire and entrenched in the Second Division. I remember being hardly enamoured by his appointment. I can easily recollect attending John Neal’s first ever league game as Chelsea manager in August 1981 and the photograph of him on the front cover of the programme, standing proudly by the newly-adorned Chelsea crest above the tunnel, is quite an iconic image. After two years of poor performances, narrowly avoiding relegation in 1983, it is – with hindsight – a miracle that Chelsea maintained the services of John Neal over the summer of 1983.

1983-1984 was a different story of course. We plundered the lower leagues for talent during the close-season and John Neal’s true worth as a man-manager bore fruit from the very first game. For anyone who was at the 5-0 annihilation of promotion favourites Derby County, wasn’t it fantastic?

Kerry Dixon scored twice, we triumphed 5-0 and the tube was literally bouncing back to Earl’s Court after that one.

John Neal – for that 1983-1984 season alone – must rank as one of my favourite Chelsea managers.

It is a shame that we never saw him back at Stamford Bridge over the past twenty years or so. I believe that he suffered from dementia towards the end.

The Boys In Blue From Division Two would have loved to have said “thanks” one more time.

Thankfully, the timings were fine and I was inside Stamford Bridge with five minute to spare. As I stepped inside the seating area, I noticed that the main flood lights had been dimmed and, instead, the advertising boards were shining bright along with smaller strip lighting in and around the stadium. It was a scene which was quite similar to the pre-match routine at Manchester City a few seasons back, with the lights dimmed and blue moons appearing on the TV screens.

It looked stunning to be honest – other worldly – though my immediate reaction was “what the bloody hell is this, more contrived nonsense?”

The two teams appeared from the tunnel, but the lights were still dimmed. Only when all the players were walking on the deep green sward of the pitch were the main lights turned on.

Another full house, though the Tottenham section took forever to fill.

The two sets of players assembled in the centre-circle and Neil Barnett spoke. The minute of applause in memory of John Neal, bless him, was loud and heart-felt. A chant of “Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

God bless you, John.

Of course, Jose Mourinho had decided on Didier Drogba to lead the line. My choice would have been the nimbler Loic Remy, but – once again – what do I know?

Right then, game on, and a near twenty-five year record to defend.

We had agreed in the chuckle bus on the drive to London that Tottenham were a “hot and cold” team thus far this season. In the first twenty minutes, they were warmer than us. Harry Kane (“he’s one of our own” sang the away fans, as if it mattered) threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal with a header which rattled the crossbar. The same player twisted away from Gary Cahill and screwed a shot wide. My pre-match nerves were seemingly vindicated. It took a while for a Chelsea player to threaten the Spurs goal; a Cesc Fabregas shot curled into Loris’ clasp.

At around 8.02pm, I decided to take a comfort break.

At around 8.04pm, I approached the refreshment stand with a pie in my sights. I glanced up at the TV set above the servers (blimey, imagine that in 1983 – a TV set by the tea bar) and spotted Eden Hazard clean through. Before he had struck the ball, I heard the roar of the crowd. The TV had a split-second time delay and I then saw the ball flash past Loris into the net.

I returned back to Alan and Glenn with a chicken and mushroom pie and a very big smile on my face.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Before I could let it all sink in, Oscar had tee’d up Didier – mmm, maybe offside? – who calmly slotted the ball past Loris.

2-0 to Chelsea and my magic pie had done the trick.

I confided in Alan…”you know, to be honest, over the years…there have been times when Tottenham have played pretty well here. How they have never beaten us here is a mystery. And here they are again. Playing well, but now 2-0 down. I know we say we hate Spurs, but they must fucking loathe us.”

Alan agreed.

And then we both smiled.

The highs and lows of the rest of the half?

The high was a sublime volleyed cross field ball by Fabregas to Hazard – I think – which was pinpoint perfect and with just the right amount of dip and fade.

The low was me finishing my magic pie; no more goals ensued.

The noise was pretty decent in the first forty-five minutes, though the volume noticeably fell away towards the end.

At half time, two stalwarts from the John Neal era were on the pitch with Neil Barnett; Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman. Nevin is still much revered, Spackman not so, after his sporadic comments about his spell at Liverpool and a few thinly-disguised digs at Chelsea.

Neil then spoke about “two girls from America – Lisa and Sonja (yes, that Sonja) who are at Stamford Bridge for the first time tonight, with their blokes Joe and Danny (yes, that Danny)…enjoy the match.” There was a picture of Joe and Lisa in the programme; I remembered Joe from a few pre-season tours too.

A nice touch. I texted Danny to see if Sonja was OK.

“Sonja is singing more than the chaps in the row in front.”

Good work.

Prior to the second-half, Kurt Zouma replaced Gary Cahill, who had battled on after an early collision with Vertonghen, but who was obviously unable to resume.

Nemanja Matic, possibly my player of the season thus far, was stupidly booked for a clumsy challenge on Kane.

“Silly Alan. Just silly. We’re two-up, for heavens’ sake. What’s the likelihood of them scoring from that move? 5%? Silly challenge.”

The Spurs dirge “Oh When The Spurs…” was roundly booed, but there wasn’t a great deal of Chelsea noise to take its place.

Tottenham were continuing to have a lot of the ball, but on the instances when we picked them off and moved forward we just looked more cohesive. Drogba shot from outside the box, but it was an easy save for Loris. Jose then replaced Didier with Remy. We enjoyed some sublime twists and shimmies from Eden Hazard throughout the night. I enjoyed the energy of Willian too. With around twenty minutes remaining, Dave played in Remy inside the box. Showing great strength to hold off Vertonghen, he nimbly side-stepped a challenge and passed the ball into the Spurs goal.

3-0 and the game was safe.

Fantastic stuff.

1 December 1990 to 3 December 2014.

25 games, 25 seasons, undefeated.

15-10-0

In the south-east corner, there was a fire-drill.

Happy days.

We saw off the last minutes of the game with the minimum of fuss, though the news of Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Sunderland was disappointing. As, of course, was the news that Arsenal had beaten Southampton 1-0 with a goal in the very last minute.

Not to worry. We’re the ones to catch.

Let’s keep this beautiful thing going.

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