Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

3 thoughts on “Tales From Our National Game

  1. Thanks for the reports Chris. Always a good read. Liverpool or Spurs winning the league would be a disaster. We’ll never hear the end of it. As you say, let’s hope City snatch it at the 11th hour.
    Have a great 2019.
    Will.

  2. Congratulations on your 100.000 clicks Chris 👍 I’ll be clicking in Egypt and Turkey for the rest of the season but I suppose they count under Germany. Good health for the new year don’t work to hard but just do enough to pay our pensions 😎

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