Tales From Seventy-Nine Minutes

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 4 March 2015.

In many of these match reports, I have often spoken about running a few errands in my local town before eventually setting-off on a trip to see Chelsea play. It is with great relief that my pre-match on Wednesday 4 March 2015 will never have to be repeated ever again. On the face of it, the three hours that I spent in Frome were as sombre a period of my life that I have had to endure. I firstly collected my mother’s death certificate and I then spent an hour at the undertaker’s as plans for my mother’s funeral took shape. However, if I am honest, I managed to get through this potentially traumatic period with few moments of heartache. That I was with a very dear friend throughout made this testing time so much easier.

We had a small lunch in the café adjoining my village post office and as the time passed, I admitted that I was not relishing the drive to London and then the evening game at West Ham.

My friend reassured me :

“Once you get going, you’ll love it.”

I collected Parky at around 3.30pm and my friend was of course correct. As I drove east, stopping for a large coffee en route, my mood had perked-up considerably. I made great time. The roads were clear, and I was parked-up at around 6pm. We rushed to Earl’s Court and met Dave The Hat in the increasingly familiar Courtfield pub. There was just time to knock back a pint of lager before catching a District Line train at just after 6.30pm. Halfway through the journey, all was well. We were eating up the miles and we envisioned that our arrival time at Upton Park would be just after 7.15pm. The laughs were bouncing back between the three of us and all was well with the world.

Or so I thought. There were several moments when I was overcome with horrible pangs of guilt. I was just uneasy with the fact that the pint of lager had loosened my mood slightly and that the three of us were having a proper laugh. I felt as if this was all too soon after my mother’s passing. I felt conflicted. And yet, as I looked around the packed tube train, with several supporters of our opposition sporting the famous claret and blue, there was a reassuring inevitability that I would be here, on this train, on this day, heading over to East London to see Chelsea. I inwardly smiled and silently “tut-tutted.”

Me and my football.

However, at around 7.15pm, the train came to a standstill. It occasionally lurched forward a few yards, but then stopped further. Progress was slow. As we achingly passed through a procession of stations at a ridiculously slow speed, the three of us began to re-evaluate our predicted arrival time. As the minutes passed, we realised that we wouldn’t make kick-off. An announcement detailed heavy traffic at Upton Park. Dave hoped that the kick-off would be delayed; the voices of some West Ham fans in our compartment watching the game unfold on their mobiles told the true story. At around 7.55pm, a full ten minutes after the match had begun – I hadn’t heard any squeals of pain or shouts of joy from the West Ham contingent – we alighted at Upton Park, just after a full train load had deposited some other fans on the platform. Again, progress was slow.

Out into the night, past the market and the Queens pub, we hurriedly walked. We were drawn towards the floodlights of the Boleyn Ground like moths to a flame. Many Chelsea fans were walking with us. At last, I entered the turnstiles and then in to the narrow concourse behind the away enclosure.

A check of my ticket again…row Q…ah, there’s Alan and Gary, good stuff.

It was still 0-0. There were twenty-one minutes on the clock.

Gary quickly updated me :

“We began well, Chris, then they’ve got into it.”

It was the same team as on Sunday save for the additions of Courtois and Oscar. Despite the floodlights, it seemed particularly murky. I could hardly believe that we chose to wear our dark and dingy black number. Why not the bright yellow? It simply made no sense. This was my first ever night game at Upton Park; it was only my tenth ever visit. For many seasons, I wasn’t tempted to venture. From 1995 to 2008, there was just one trip.

In a horrible fore-shadowing of recent events, our 4-1 defeat in May 1988 is remembered by me as being particularly sad. That loss would eventually cost us our place in the top division within a few weeks, though the loss is not the only reason that causes that game to haunt me so. My maternal grandmother’s funeral was to take place the next day. Those two days were tough. I shan’t really miss Upton Park once West Ham move to their new home in 2016.

And then, only a minute or so after reaching my place on the away terrace, the away fans saw Eden Hazard move at will towards the opposition. The noise around me grew as the move developed. The ball was played out towards Ramires, who quickly played the ball back in towards the six yard box. There was a thrust towards the ball by a Chelsea player in black.

The net rippled. The Chelsea fans roared.

I smiled, I shouted,

“It’s all about timing, Al.”

We were ahead and I had only been in the stadium for about a minute.

Phew.

The remaining twenty-three minutes, with an added four minutes of extra-time, seemed to race past. We peppered their goal with a few chances, but West Ham really should have equalised when a horribly unmarked Sakho headed tamely at Courtois. Zouma was a dominating presence in our midfield, but was injured just before the break; thankfully he was able to carry on. There had been bookings. This was going to be a tough, old-fashioned London derby. Billy Bonds versus Chopper Harris, the Krays versus the Richardsons, Julian Dicks versus Dennis Wise, James Collins versus Diego Costa.

There was an extra four minutes at the end of the half.

“That’s for us poor buggers who got in late.”

At half-time, my recent past caught up with me and a few good friends wanted to share their condolences about the loss of my dear mother and to give me a hug. The reaction among my Chelsea mates to my mother’s recent passing has not surprised me; I knew that I could count on my closest friends to smother me in comforting words and warm wishes. However, the reaction of others, outside my immediate circle of friends, has simply blown me away. I was informed that my mother was remembered with a toast in Nashville and New York before the game on Sunday. There have been the kindest of words from many other locations too.

I thank you all.

Unlike the first-half, the second-half dragged on so slowly. Neither Gary nor I could believe that only fifteen, then twenty, then twenty-five minutes had passed.

There is no doubt about it; we rode our luck in the second period. For many minutes, West Ham dominated possession and it seemed inevitable that an equaliser would come. They went close on a number of occasions, but we had to thank the magnificent agility of Courtois to keep their efforts out. I lost count of the number of times that Chelsea defenders threw themselves at the ball in order to block a shot or pass. In our midfield, both Oscar and Fabregas were struggling to get any foothold in the game. Eden Hazard, as always, was our leading light. A superb run from deep was followed by a pass to Ramires, who twisted past Collins before rolling a ball past the impressive Adrian and against the base of the far post. For all of the home team’s dominance, we ought to have increased our lead. The same combination, our number ten and seven, again linked but Adrian easily saved from a Ramires header.

This was a tempestuous and spirited game of football.

More efforts on our goal by Sakho, but also more wonderful saves from Courtois.

Willian replaced the lacklustre Oscar.

A clear moon, almost full, looked down on the game, which became even more heated as the minutes slowly passed.

Terry and Kouyate clashed heads and there would be extra minutes at the end because of it. Ivanovic, a hero of late, took his time and crashed a shot goalwards, only for his shot to seemingly strike the lower arm of a defender. Another free header at the other end was wasted by Sakho.

We were hanging on.

The referee added on an extra six minutes at the ninety minute mark. Within that period, we had another gift-wrapped chance to score another. Eden Hazard jinked into the box, and surely should have curled a low shot past Adrian, but instead elected to roll the ball square to Willian. His firm shot was blocked on the line, as dramatically as it gets, by Cresswell.

The away end howled.

Diego Drogba entered the fray, replacing Diego Costa. Thankfully, we withstood some pressure and then killed time in the West Ham half.  I didn’t even notice that Loic Remy came on for Hazard.

All eyes were on the referee.

At around 9.45pm in the heart of the East End, Andre Marriner blew his whistle.

Another vital three points were loudly celebrated by us all and the players took great pleasure in slowly walking towards us to accept our cheers. This felt like a massive win. It also felt like a somewhat fortuitous win.

As I met up with Parky outside the gates, I simply said –

“File under lucky.”

There was a long and tedious return back to civilisation, involving a walk to Plaistow and then a wait in a queue to reach the platform. We eventually boarded the train and headed west. At 11.30pm, we met up with Bob from San Francisco at a familiar Italian restaurant known by many. It had been a tough game and at times we had struggled. Yes, Manchester City had won against a lowly Leicester, but we had won a potentially awkward game at West Ham.

The omens, whisper it, were looking good.

The temperature of the night air was now dropping fast as we walked past the familiar hostelries near West Brompton. I set off for home at 12.30am and was so tired that I needed to stop at Membury Services, deep in Wiltshire, at around 2am, to sleep for thirty minutes.

I eventually reached home at around 4am.

It had been a long day, but the twin comforts of friends and football had served me well.

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