Tales From Vanessa’s Birthday Weekend

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 19 March 2016.

PSG hurt. And Everton really hurt. Those were two tough losses.

Heading in to our game with West Ham United, our season suddenly felt rather flat. Season 2015-2016 now had an end in sight. We had nine games left – four at home, five away, all in the league – and I was wondering where on Earth our season had gone. From a results perspective, it had clearly gone up in smoke, but this has seemed a very quick season, despite the troubles along the way. It did not seem five minutes ago that I was catching a train with my friend Lynda en route to the season’s first game in New Jersey in July.

And now I could hear New Jersey’s favourite son Frank Sinatra singing.

“And now the end is near.”

Nine games left. These games would soon fly past. And yet I’m still relishing each and every one of them. The five away games would be enjoyable just because they are away games. The four home games would be important, for varying reasons.

And there would be the usual laughs along the way.

There was an extra-special reason for me to be relishing the visit of West Ham to Stamford Bridge. My friends Roma, Vanessa and Shawn – often mentioned in dispatches – were visiting London for five days, lured by the chance to see our captain John Terry one last time before he, possibly, heads west to the US or east to China. I have known Roma since 1989, when my cycling holiday down the East coast of the US took me to her home town of St. Augustine in Florida. Since then, there have been many laughs along the way, and also many Chelsea games too.

Roma announced to me a couple of months back that she was planning a visit to London, specifically Chelsea-centred, with her daughter Vanessa and son Shawn. Tickets were hastily purchased, and we waited for the day to arrive. Vanessa, fourteen years after her first game at Stamford Bridge against Fulham in 2002, was especially excited. She would be celebrating her twenty-fifth birthday while in London. This was very much her trip.

And I so hoped that John Terry, side-lined for a while, would be playing. He was the reason, in a way, why the three of them had decided to visit us. I was so relieved when our captain made a late appearance off the bench at Goodison last weekend.

I made an early start. I left my home town as early as 8am. Just after 11am, I turned the corner outside the West Stand and spotted my three friends from North Carolina and Tennessee walking towards me. It was lovely to see them again. Shawn was wearing not one but two Chelsea shirts, plus a Chelsea tracksuit top. His favourite player is Diego Costa and he was wearing a “19” shirt. Vanessa favours Cesc Fabregas and was wearing a “4.”

My love of Chelsea Football Club has certainly rubbed off on Roma’s family. Her other daughter Jenny now has a two-year-old boy, who himself yells “Chelsea” at the TV set whenever we are playing. This is all too crazy for me to comprehend at times. Back in 1989, Chelsea were off the radar in the US.

We spent a lovely hour or so mixing with a few of the former Chelsea players who meet up in the Copthorne Hotel before each and every home game. The three visitors first met Paul Canoville at Yankee Stadium in 2012; there was an updated photocall in 2016. The girls loved being able to meet Bobby Tambling again too. They recreated a photograph from Charlotte. John Hollins and Colin Pates gave them signed photographs.

Good times.

My friend Janette from LA was also in town, excited at getting a last minute ticket, and it was great to meet up with her at last. Elsewhere, there was a contingent from the New York Blues honing in on The Goose. Chopper – the NYC version – called by at the hotel before moving on. There was talk of how I picked up Chopper and two others at Bristol airport on a Saturday morning in 2007, before our Carling Cup win against Arsenal in Cardiff, and how – just over an hour later – we were drinking fluorescent orange scrumpy in a Somerset cider pub.

Good times then, good times now.

This was another mightily busy pre-match.

On leaving the hotel, I spotted Kerry Dixon and offered a handshake. It was good to see him again, especially at Stamford Bridge, and he appreciated my well wishes. Back in 2005, Roma had posed for a photo with Kerry in “Nevada Smiths” before a game with Milan, but there would not be time, alas, for a repeat in 2016.

Back at The Goose, more New York Blues arrived. I think around twenty were over in total. It was lovely to see some old friends once again. Mike, the NYB’s chief bottle-washer, was over from NYC for a bare twenty-four hours, flying in at Heathrow at 10.30am and leaving on Sunday morning, his birthday. Such dedication is truly heart-warming. There was whispered talk of the upcoming 2016 US summer tour, and the inevitable moans from some “huge” stateside Chelsea fans about the club not playing in their part of the country. Some of them should take a leaf out of Mike’s book.

We worked out that Shawn, only nine, would be seeing his seventh Chelsea game.

“Seven! You are a lucky boy. When I was nine, I had only seen three, and you live four thousand miles away!”

Team news filtered through.

“John Terry is playing.”

Fist pump.

Who would have guessed that Loic Remy would have been given the nod over Bertrand Traore? There was no Eden Hazard, injured. The surprise was that Kenedy, who Roma, Vanessa and Shawn saw make his debut in DC, was playing in an advanced midfield role. Elsewhere there were the usual suspects. There were grumbles that Ruben Loftus-Cheek was not involved from the start.

The beer garden was packed.

There were memories of last season’s game against Southampton, when Shawn was filling The Goose beer garden with bubbles from a toy. I joked with Roma then that it was a West Ham thing. Suffice to say, there were no bubbles in The Goose beer garden in 2016. There were, however, a small group of West Ham fans, wearing no colours, minding their own business. As we left the pub, early, at just before 2pm, I sensed that another little mob of West Ham walked past. I decided to hang back and let them walk on. The last thing that I wanted was for my guests to witness any match day silliness. To be fair, I didn’t see any trouble the entire day.

It is not always the same story when West Ham come visiting.

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn took their seats in the rear rows of the West Stand, underneath the overhang. They would soon be posting pictures. Fantastic.

The stadium slowly filled. How different this all is to the “pay on the gate” days of yesteryear, when the terraces often became full a good hour before the kick-off oat some games. In those days, the atmosphere would gradually rise with each passing minute. There would be songs from The Shed. On occasion, the pre-match “entertainment” would involve scuffles in the North Stand as opposing fans battled for territory.

In 1984, the ICF arrived very early in the seats of the old West Stand, causing me – a teenager on the benches – to worry about my safety.

Different times.

Prior to the game, Ron Harris presented John Terry with a memento marking his seven-hundredth Chelsea game the previous week. For a while, I wondered if Ron’s 795 might come under threat. Unless the club have a change of heart regarding John Terry, that record will go on forever.

There were three thousand away fans – three flags – in the far corner. They were mumbling something about “pwitty bahbles in de air” as the game began.

The first-half was a poor show to be honest. From the moment that Manuel Lanzini looked up twenty-five yards out and fired a fine curling effort past Thibaut Courtois on seventeen minutes, we struggled to get much of a foothold. A few chances were exchanged, but I felt that West Ham looked a little more focussed when they attacked. A penalty claim was waved away by new referee Robert Madley as the ball appeared to strike the arm of Enner Valencia. I am not one to moan about referees as a rule, but this was one of the first of many odd decisions made by the man in black.

We plugged away, but it was hardly entertaining or productive. I was slightly surprised that West Ham didn’t hit us further; they seemed to resist the temptation to attack at will, despite having a one-goal cushion.

This was not going well.

Aaron Cresswell struck a shot wide, Willian hit a free-kick over.

In the third minute of extra-time in the first-half, we were awarded another free-kick and I am sure that I am not the only one who presumed that Willian would take another stab at goal. Instead, Cesc Fabregas struck a magnificent free-kick over the wall and past the flailing Adrian.

Vanessa’s man had done it. We exchanged texts.

“Happy?”

“Extremely.”

“Bless.”

I instantly remembered Vanessa’s funny comment in Charlotte after Fabregas had fluffed an easy chance against Paris St. Germain…

“Ah, he’s always nervous around me.”

Not so today, Ness.

I am not sure what magical dust Guus Hiddink sprinkled in the players’ half-time cuppas, but it certainly worked. Pedro replaced the injured Kenedy, and we then upped the tempo. Apart from a John Terry goal-line clearance from the mercurial Payet in the first attack of the half, we dominated the second-half right from the offset.

An effort from Oscar, a header from JT. We were getting behind the West Ham full backs and causing problems.

And yet…and yet…completely against the run of play, Sakho played in the overlapping Cresswell who smacked a shot against the bar with Courtois rooted to the floor.

Remy, twisting, forced a save.

The crowd sensed a revival but the noise was not thunderous as I had hoped.

Andy Carroll, who scored the winner at Upton Park earlier this season, replaced Sakho. His first bloody touch turned in Payet’s through ball.

Bollocks.

With West Ham going well this season, I almost expected a few to get tickets in the home areas of The Bridge. When they nabbed this second goal I looked hard to see if there were any odd outbreaks of applause from away fans in home areas – the corporate West Stand especially – but there was nothing.

Traore replaced Remy, who had struggled.

Over in the far corner :

“Fawchunes always idin.”

We rallied well, and the West Ham goal suddenly lived a very charmed life. A Fabregas header went over, an Oscar shot was blocked, and Fabregas’ bicycle kick flew over. Corner after corner. A Terry header went close.

Carroll then twice tested Courtois, but the threat was averted.

The time was passing.

This would be Guus Hiddink’s first loss in the league.

Keep plugging away boys.

At last Ruben Loftus-Cheek appeared, replacing Oscar, who had another indifferent game. Ruben’s run into the box was curtailed by Antonio. It looked a clear penalty to me.

Fabregas coolly sent Adrian the wrong way.

2-2.

Phew.

Vanessa’s man did it again.

At last…at last…the noise bellowed around Stamford Bridge.

I thought that we had definitely deserved a draw on the back of a more spirited second-half show. The first-half had been dire. We kept going. I thought JT was excellent, as was Mikel. Elsewhere, I liked Kenedy and Loftus-Cheek. They must be given more playing time in the remaining eight games.

At the Peter Osgood statue, my three American friends were full of smiles.

Lovely stuff.

As I drove towards Barons Court, I realised that there would be no home game, now, for four whole weeks.

Oh Stamford Bridge, I will miss you.

“Oh wait. Hang on. I’m back again tomorrow.”

On Sunday, there would be day two of Vanessa’s birthday weekend, with a stadium tour, a quick call at the highly impressive Chelsea museum – and my first sighting of the excellent 3D model of the new stadium – a Sunday lunch on the banks of the Thames at Chiswick and a couple of hours under the shadow of Windsor Castle in Peter Osgood’s home town.

It would turn out to be a simply wonderful weekend.

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