Tales From Everything But The Game

Chelsea vs. Scunthorpe United : 10 January 2016.

As I have said so often, although we are drawn to the sport of football through our love of the game, and to Chelsea because of our love of the club, it is the friends that we meet along the way that sustains the attraction and makes the whole process richer and more enjoyable. So, although the F.A. Cup has a special spice all of its own, and as our game with Scunthorpe United grew closer, my mind was not really focused on the game itself, but the social niceties which would be in store as the day progressed.

The game with The Iron would be our first of three home games in rapid succession, with games against West Bromwich Albion and Everton on the following Wednesday and Saturday. Three trips to London. Three trips to HQ. Three games in seven days. For us in Somerset, another six hundred miles on the Chelsea odometer.

Of course, we weren’t complaining.

And yet. And yet. I would be lying if I said that all of these home games occasionally didn’t fail to muster up the right amount of enthusiasm. Having seen so many games at Stamford Bridge over the years, I think this is only natural.

And this is where the “other stuff” comes in to the equation. The friendships, the chance meetings with mates, the shared experiences, the banter. I had no real expectation that the game with Scunthorpe would be a “cracker” but I was so looking forward to sharing a few laughs with some trusted pals in deepest SW6.

The first stop of a busy pre-match was to an old haunt, much visited in previous years, but off my chosen match day route for around twenty years. “The Chelsea Pensioner” is just over the railway bridge outside the main entrance at Stamford Bridge, and is therefore ridiculously well-placed for pre-game drinks. It was formerly known as “The Black Bull” and I first started going in there on match days with Alan and Gary – and Paul and a few of his Brighton mates, plus the brothers Mark and Paul – way back in our promotion season of 1988/1989. Tons of good memories in there. Plenty of beers too, in the days when I wasn’t shackled to a car, and when I used to travel up to London by train. Parky, PD and I enjoyed a pint with a few friends – Pete, Calvin – and it was nice to be back. I told Calvin about the time, in April 1989, when we were due to play Leeds United, and a coachload of Leeds fans slowly drove past. It was the week after Hillsborough, and on a day when the normal fever and fervor of club loyalties may have been weakened somewhat due to the horrible events of the previous Saturday, I can well remember the tension in the air as the baiting between the Chelsea and Leeds fans continued. I specifically remember all of the Leeds fans peering out from their coach, wearing what I can only adequately describe as Ku Klux Klan style head wear, hastily constructed from the day’s newspapers. It was an odd sight, a startling sight, one which has evidently left an impression on me after over a quarter of a century.

At just after midday, I headed up to West Brompton to meet my good friend Pete. I have known Pete since 1984, when the hand of fate threw us together, attending college in Stoke, on the same course, for a few years. Pete is from Scunthorpe and although he followed his father’s love of Newcastle United, his hometown team is also close to his heart, unsurprisingly. We headed off to The Goose, where the usual suspects were waiting, while we reminisced about the last time that we were at Chelsea together.

In January 2005 – in the third round of the cup again – Chelsea met Scunthorpe United. We traveled up together, drank in The Goose together, then watched from different stands as Scunthorpe took an early lead, only for Chelsea to come back to win 3-1. We memorably posed for a photo outside the West Stand, but that particular photo-call went horribly wrong.

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For that game, the six thousand away fans were housed in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding, as was the case on occasion in those days. I can well remember the surplus of claret and light blue balloons bouncing around on the grass behind Carlo Cudicini’s goal as the Scunthorpe scorer exuberantly celebrated. In that game, we were witness to a very rare event; a goal by Mateja Kezman. I remember it as a patchy Chelsea performance but an entertaining match, watched by a capacity crowd. Steven Watt and Nuno Morais played for us, in one of their very few starts. I was intrigued to hear from Pete that Scunthorpe, eleven years on, had only sold three thousand tickets. Despite being pummeled with hyperbole from various interested parties about the “magic of the cup”, here was proof that the World’s oldest cup competition was losing its allure.

In 2005, 6,000.

In 2016, 3,000.

I felt like saying “bloody hell, we’re the Champions of England. Where is the love?”

Tickets were competitively priced at just £30 too. Scunthorpe, the town, has been hit with job losses announced at its steelworks, but even so, I was taken aback with their projected turnout.

We met up with Alan and Gary – “Black Bull, 1989” – plus a few other good friends, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie, out in the beer garden. Pete is well known at Chelsea among my mates. He is a veteran of many Newcastle United games at Chelsea over the years. I remember the first one that we attended together, a league cup game in 1992, when five thousand Geordies followed Kevin Keegan’s team down for a midweek game.

I digress.

Actually, let me digress further.

Back in 1991 – January, another F.A. Cup third round – I traveled with Pete for Scunthorpe United’s game with Brighton & Hove Albion on a bitterly cold Saturday. During that particular season, I was virtually unemployed for the entire duration, and so trips to Chelsea were relatively rare; I only attended ten games the entire season. Looking back now, it seems implausible that I chose to watch a Scunthorpe United game on a day that Chelsea were at home to Oxford United in the F.A. Cup. I would imagine that a few people reading this are lost for words.

It’s a head-scratcher isn’t it?

Looking back, I think that the lure of a trip to a new ground for a relatively cheap price won me over. What do I remember of that day twenty-five years ago? I remember watching from that odd, exposed, open to the elements sloping terrace along the side at the old Goldstone Ground. I remember Brighton winning 3-2. I remember a good few pints in the pub beforehand.  I remember former Chelsea players Clive Walker and Gary Chivers – plus Ray Wilkins’ brother Dean – playing for Brighton. I also remember their bloody awful kit; not only blue and white striped shirts, but blue and white striped shorts too, in a strange Brighton beach deck chairs meet Harlem Globetrotters fashion accident. Pete lived in Bristol in those days and on that day in Brighton, we met up with two Bristolian Scunthorpe United fans that Pete had bumped in to at a pub in the city a few months earlier. These two lads – I still find this odd to this very day – had chosen Scunny as their team by randomly sticking a pin in a list of teams. I wondered then, as I do now, if this is a common practice among football fans.

I suspect not.

It was a fine day out to be fair, spoiled only by returning to Pete’s car and hearing on the radio that we had lost 3-1 to Oxford in front of only 14,500.

Ugh.

However, these football stories, these football away days, these friendships. Bloody superb.

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Pete and I set off for the ground earlier than usual. Pete was to meet up with an old school friend that he had not seen in around thirty years. There was time for a quick photo of us outside the West Stand entrance. No mishaps in 2016.

We wished each other well, and I wondered if those two oddballs from Bristol would be in the away contingent, or if they had randomly chosen another team to follow.

I had time to quickly dip in to “The Chelsea Pensioner” a second time to have a quick word Rob and also Foxy, visiting from Dundee, just before heading in to the stadium. Rob told me a lovely story. He now lives in Essex, but was brought up in South London. Just recently, he found out that his grandmother used to work in “The Goose” back in the 1920’s, and – get this – first met Rob’s grandfather in “The Goose” when there used to be a boxing gym in the room above. In all of these years of Rob drinking in “The Goose” he was completely unaware of this. What a lovely story. In a similar tale, I found out during the week that my paternal grandmother lived in a house in Parkstone in Poole in Dorset right opposite a pub where I had a drink before a “Buzzcocks” gig in 2012. These stories, these twists of fate, send my head spinning.

I’m digressing again.

In the whirlwind of this pre-match, there was not even time to pay any attention to the team that Guus Hiddink had chosen.

Rush, rush, rush, and inside just as the two teams were marching across the turf.

Phew.

Ours was a strong team. However tempted he was to play a smattering of youth players against Scunthorpe, Hiddink resisted. Of course, there are two schools of thought here. On one hand, he had chosen to respect the competition and to play virtually a first XI. The opposing view, he had missed the chance to give valuable experience to a few, and most notably Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the recalled Patrick Bamford, and maybe a couple of others.

Begovic

Ivanovic – Cahill – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Ramirs – Fabregas

Willian – Oscar – Pedro

Diego Costa

I could not help but look for comparisons with 2005. Firstly, the away fans were, of course, neatly tucked in the South-East corner. There were no balloons. In fact, I could hardly believe my eyes; virtually every single one of the three thousand away fans were seated. This really surprised me. Most away visitors to Chelsea stand these days – as do we on our travels – and especially those on the lower tier, where sight-lines are not wonderful. Where was the sense of fun, Scunny? Where was the magic of the cup? They were pretty quiet too. I wondered what Pete, sitting at the rear of the upper tier, was making of it all.

He soon texted me “4-6-0.”

There was no false nine involved, either. Every yellow shirt behind the ball, every one covering ground, but relatively few tackles flying in. Scunthorpe’s plan was that of containment.

On the rare occasions that the away team moved the ball in to our half, there was optimistic cheer from the away fans. It was quite endearing, in a highly patronising way.

Bless ‘em.

However, I wasn’t getting too complacent. Even after being 2-0 up against Bradford City last year, we still managed to bugger it up.

Thankfully, we soon went ahead. Ivanovic, as far forward as ever, picked out the fine run of Diego Costa with a low cross from the right. Our number nineteen squeezed himself between two defenders and managed to guide the ball low past their ‘keeper. There was a warm sense of relief, but nothing more. We were up and running against a team that was already looking beaten. A lovely, sweetly struck drive from Fabregas caught us unawares, but the Scunny ‘keeper Daniels did well to tip over. Pedro and then Oscar shot at goal as our easy dominance continued. Scunthorpe’s attacks were rare. A fine block – ouch! – from Gary Cahill and then a magnificent sliding tackle on Williams from King Kurt were the defensive high points for us throughout the first-half.

None other than Gary Chivers – Brighton, 1991 – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at half-time.

Hiddink appeased many supporters with the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Oscar as the second-half began. Willian had frustrated us throughout the first-half with his woeful corners, but went close with a free-kick.

Then, a moment of concern. Kevin van Veen was sent through on goal and three Chelsea defenders were drawn towards him. From our vantage point at the other end of the stadium, it looked like too many cooks spoiling the broth, but Ramires got the closest of all to the Scunny attacker, who collapsed just inside the box. My view was unsubstantial, but the bellows of derision from the away fans after the penalty appeal was waved away suggested we had got off lightly.

Pete sent me another text : “Clear pen shocker.”

At last the away fans rose from their seats, especially in the lower tier, and their noise levels increased. Elsewhere, it had been morgue like. It was great to see so many youngsters at Chelsea for once, but the singing had been dire. I only joined in a few times. Another difference to 2005 no doubt.

With Scunthorpe getting back in to the game, a fine move down our left ended with the masked man Azpilicueta playing a low ball in to the path of Loftus-Cheek, who adeptly slotted the ball home just inside the post. I was happy, but immediately dismayed that I just missed photographing his slide down below us.

We could relax a little, though this Chelsea supporter was still fixated on the game with Bradford City less than a year ago.

Kenedy and Traore came on to replace Pedro and Diego Costa in the last twenty minutes and although Scunthorpe rallied again – and their supporters too, bless ‘em – we managed to keep them out.

It was far from a great game. I will be honest, I didn’t enjoy it too much. We did enough, but without making the pulse race. But our little unbeaten run goes on. We are up to five games now. By next weekend, let’s hope that we are up to seven.

And Wembley is one game closer too.

Job done.

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