Tales From The Winter Chill

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 21 November 2015.

After a break of two weeks of no football, the boys were back in town. On a bitterly cold morning, Glenn, Parky and I had travelled up from the West of England once more and that simple treat of a Chelsea game, at home, at three o’clock on a winter afternoon, was keeping us warm.

We were inside the pub at just before 11.15am and the first round of beers were purchased.

Although we were playing Norwich City in the league, most of my thoughts – if not everybody else’s – were centred on our away game in Tel Aviv on Tuesday. Many a moment was spent discussing the imminent trip and, it goes without saying, the degree of risk involved. I spoke with several fellow fans who are headed over to Israel to watch our game against Maccabi Tel Aviv on Tuesday. There were detectable words of concern in our chat. This is hardly surprising, bearing in mind the current state of affairs at present.

A Chelsea game being played a hundred or so miles from the Syrian border.

What could possibly go wrong?

I leave for Tel Aviv early on Tuesday morning – just in time to catch a coach up to Haifa for the game, which does not begin until 9.45 pm – and was originally thinking of taking the train to Jerusalem on the Wednesday. After realising that this was not the wisest of ideas, my plans were changed and I aimed at just staying put in Tel Aviv on the Wednesday and Thursday. However, while chatting in The Goose, Alan quickly talked me in to joining him on a coach trip on the Wednesday to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I suddenly experienced that wonderful buzz of adrenalin that thoughts of foreign travel provides.

Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, Bethlehem.

Just typing these four cities, I am getting excited all over again.

We were joined by Bob and Michelle, from Nashville Tennessee, who were in London for a week or so. It was Michelle’s first visit to England, to London, to Chelsea. I first met Bob on tour with Chelsea in Chicago in 2006, and the three of us were all together for the game in Charlotte in July. I had managed to obtain tickets for them, together, in the MHU. They were very appreciative. It was lovely to see them again.

I chatted to Tim, Julia, Bryan and Kev – the Bristol Four – about the trip to Israel out in the bracing chill of the beer garden. It seemed that none of us were completely worry-free. However, I mentioned a conversation that Alan and I had recently had.

“It’s a bit like going into the eye of the storm.”

“Yeah, but they often say that is calmest of all there.”

What a great metaphor for our trip to Israel.

However, back at the bar, talking with Andy from Nuneaton, I was still struggling to answer his simple question.

“Why are you going?”

I couldn’t conveniently answer it.

The buzz? Foreign lands? A new destination? New experiences? All of these reasons seemed to be too easy, too clichéd.

Maybe on Tuesday, all will become clear.

Due to the heightened security induced by the horrific and cowardly attacks in Paris the previous week, we made sure that we had left The Goose earlier than usual. There were extra stewards inside the West Stand forecourt and again by the turnstiles, but we breezed through. I have to say that I never once felt threatened – or under siege, or however else one might decide to describe it – the entire day.

Bob and Michelle stood with me in our little part of Stamford Bridge – I have often called it The Sleepy Hollow for obvious reasons – and we had a last little natter before they disappeared off to their seats in Block 12, further along to my left and nearer the goal.

The fourth row of Block 9 is where my season ticket seat is located, and I have enjoyed many fond memories with Alan and Glenn in our three seats since we “moved in” during the autumn of 1997. Our neighbours have changed over the years, but two elderly gentlemen had been with us all along; Joe, latterly with both of his sons Gary and Alan, and Tom, who habitually sits right next to Glenn. Sadly, this season, neither Joe nor Tom have been well enough to attend any of our games. Joe, now eighty-eight years old, has been taken ill and is in a care home. Tom, in his mid-‘seventies, with his health worsening rapidly, has sadly recently been admitted to hospital. Right after the game, Alan had plans to call in to see Tom at the hospital in Tooting on his way home. Glenn and I recorded a little video message into Alan’s phone for Alan to play back in the hospital. Joe’s two sons contributed too. It was a nice touch by Alan, who has been fantastic over the past few years, taking time to natter away to Tom on the phone, talking Chelsea of course, and escorting Tom to and from his seat back down to either the tube station or a waiting car outside. Tom’s sad deterioration has been tough for the three of us, but Alan especially.

In all honesty – this is where this gets difficult to write – none of us are sure how many days, or weeks at most, Tom has left with us. The three of us had clinked our glasses together in The Goose before the game – “Tom” – with memories flickering through my mind of the times he sat with us at Wembley Cup Finals, in addition to the hundreds of home games at Stamford Bridge.

The empty seat alongside Glenn will take some filling once the sad inevitability happens.

2015 has been the toughest of years.

Kick-off was approaching fast and I noted that the blue, white and red flag of France was starting to be raised above the heads of the supporters down below in the Lower Tier. Paris came back in to my thoughts once again. We live in awful times at the present. It seems so unfair that the beautiful city on the banks of the River Seine should be targeted twice in the same year by cowardly terrorists. However, the opinion of most of my friends in the pub beforehand was that although the singing of “La Marseillaise” before the England vs. France match at Wembley on Tuesday evening was exactly the correct thing to do, the decision by the FA to play it again at all games on this Saturday seemed to dilute the impact of Tuesday’s message.

There was just something that seemed a little odd, off kilter, about it. Goodness knows we are all standing alongside the people of France at this particularly difficult time for them, but this just struck me as “overdoing it” a bit. Years ago, I do not remember many silences at football games at all. I am very pleased that we have the minute of silence at the game nearest Remembrance Day, but it seems to me, and possibly many more, that these silences – or actually minute’s applause these days – happen with increasing regularity each season and, because of this, lessen the impact each time.

The teams strode across the pitch. There were the usual handshakes in front of the West Stand, but then – with the French flag being held tightly down below – the players marched back to the centre-circle and, mirroring the message from Wembley, stood together in a line.

The French national anthem was played. Although the words were displayed on the screen, everybody just applauded. It is difficult enough to get English people to order a beer and a sandwich in French let alone expecting us to get our tongues wrapped around some difficult French words in song.

It has to be said, though, it is a magnificent, stirring anthem.

I could not resist singing along to the last few words.

“Marchons, marchons.
Qu’un sang impur.
Abreuve nos sillons.”

With the winter chill continuing to bite at my skin, my ridiculously warm scarf was wrapped tightly around my face, and the game began. I suppose that the main talking point was that there was no place for the supremely consistent Cesar Azpilicueta. Instead, Jose Mourinho chose Branislav Ivanovic at right back and Kenedy, starting a league game for the first time, at left-back.

The Norwich team was largely unknown to me I am ashamed to say.

Their goalkeeper John Ruddy was wearing pink socks.

I have no words.

The young Brazilian, the kid from Fluminense, quickly impressed with his energy. I think that I will begin calling him “Five Minutes To Go” since he always seems to play with the intensity that you would normally expect of a substitute joining the fray with eighty-five minutes on the clock and us losing an important cup tie.

As the game ebbed and flowed – well, it mainly flowed, there wasn’t too much ebbing from Norwich – I couldn’t help but notice many empty seats around the stadium, in little knots in the East Lower especially.

The electronic advertising boards flickered with the words “Liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

Chelsea Football Club’s at times tempestuous love affair with the city of Paris in 2015 was continuing.

The first-half was very one-sided, with Chelsea attacking us in the Matthew Harding for a change. Norwich City, backed by three thousand and wearing a Newton Heath colour scheme, rarely threatened. We had a few chances. From a corner, none other than John Terry attempted a Zola-esque flick, but the ball flew in to the Matthew Harding Lower rather than the net. In all of his years, our captain is yet to score a jaw-dropper. I await that moment. I know it is coming.

We were playing some nice stuff at times with Eden Hazard a little more involved. A wonderful move found Diego Costa, but he fired over. Hazard fired a ball in but nobody – Diego, we are talking about you – had gambled to attack the six yard box.

I thought that Willian was particularly lucky not to have conceded a silly penalty on thirty minutes when he seemed to run in to the back of an advancing Norwich attacker. The referee appeared unsighted and waved play on. A few in The Sleepy Hollow pulled “we got off lightly there” faces. Soon after at the other end, Costa seemed to fall easily inside the box but the consensus among The Sleepy Hollow was that he should have stayed on his feet.

Another fine move found Diego Costa, but possibly taking one touch too many, we groaned as his low shot was deflected wide.

Only on the odd occasion did the crowd make much noise. The cold still stung. Maybe we were all too frozen to think about song.

Into the second half, young Kurt Zouma – who had been pictured on the front cover of the match programme, with a subtle “Tricolour” behind – connected well from a corner but the ball narrowly flew over.

Norwich again defended deeply and were additionally keen on time-wasting and rough-shod tackles on our attacking players. They had no attacking will. It was all Chelsea. They kept their shape, though, and proved difficult to break down. As the time ticked by, nerves appeared to fray inside Stamford Bridge.

Another ball flew in to the six yard box, but nobody – Diego Costa we are talking about you once more – was close.

“Gamble, you fcuker.”

I again found it odd that against a team with hardly any desire to attack, we were playing with two holding midfielders and yet only one attacker.

Thankfully, just after the half hour mark, Fabregas – or Fibreglass, as Alan called him – quickly took a free-kick. Diego Costa collected, advanced, steadied himself, checked the direction of the wind, the acidity of the soil and the moisture content in the air, and calmly slotted past Ruddy’s pink socks.

Get Fucking In.

Zouma almost doubled our lead soon after when he ghosted in to volley a Willian free-kick against the bar.

Norwich City made a triple substitution involving a couple of players that I had heard of.

A fine run from Nemanja Matic, in that almost stumbling way of his, resulted in an effort which deserved a goal, but Ruddy again saved. The Norwich ‘keeper had been the main reason why we had not scored more. By now, Mourinho had made three substitutions of his own, and despite the gnawing feeling that we might just concede a freak equaliser, we grimly held on.

Phew.

Up to fifteenth.

Arsenal had lost at West Brom, and a couple of mates were doing the “Boing Boing” down the MH stairs.

Outside, underneath the Peter Osgood statue, I met up again with our visitors from Tennessee. They had loved it. I was so glad that the crowd had rallied a little once we had scored and had provided a noisy memory for Michelle, especially, to take away from her first ever visit to SW6.

The walk back to the car was the quickest of the season.

Once inside, I defrosted myself and set off for home.

It was a quiet drive back to Wiltshire and Somerset. There was not too much introspection. A few more goals would have better reflected our dominance. A narrow win was just enough, though.

After I had dropped off both Parky and Glenn, I received a text from Alan. He had indeed called in to see Tom, and I was pleased to hear that the video messages that we had recorded had raised a smile.

Bless you, Tom.

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