Tales From The Heart Of Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 8 April 2018.

I had just left work on Wednesday afternoon when my mobile phone flashed a horribly brief news update.

Ray Wilkins, my boyhood hero, our Chelsea captain, an England international, a Chelsea assistant coach, had died.

There were no immediate tears, but certainly an excruciating, horrible silent numbness. I drove home in a state of shock. I was as subdued as I can remember. Ever since we had all heard that Butch had suffered a heart-attack, and had been in an induced coma, we had of course feared the worst. The future did not promise too much hope, and with every passing day, I feared imminent news.

On Wednesday 4 April, it came.

Ray Wilkins. Just the name sends me back, somersaulting me through the decades to my youth, to a time when Chelsea probably meant more to me than I realised, and to the very first few moments of my fledgling support.

In season 1973/1974, Ray Wilkins had made his debut at the age of just seventeen as a substitute against Norwich City in the October. However, I have to be honest, living in Somerset, I don’t think that I was aware of his presence that campaign. I certainly can’t remember seeing him play in any of the – few – games which were shown in highlights on “Match of the Day” or “The Big Match.” In the March of 1974, I saw my first-ever Chelsea game. I like the fact that we made our debuts in the same season. The very letter which accompanied the match tickets for that Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match was signed by “Miss J. Bygraves” and this young girl would later become Ray Wilkins’ wife and mother to their two children. By that stage, my then favourite player Ian Britton had been playing for Chelsea a couple of seasons. In that first game, neither played, and I would have to wait a whole year to see my two boyhood idols play, sadly in a lacklustre 2-1 defeat by soon to be Champions Derby County. Chelsea were managed by Ron Suart at the time of that match, but soon after former defender Eddie McCreadie took over. Very soon, he spotted the leadership potential of Ray – or “Butch” as he was known – and made him captain at the age of just eighteen despite the presence of former captains Ron Harris and John Hollins being in the team. Those last matches of the 1974/1975 season were marked by the manager flooding the first team with youngsters; alongside Ray Wilkins and the comparative “veteran” Ian Britton were Teddy Maybank, John Sparrow, Tommy Langley, Steve Finnieston and Steve Wicks.

With the influx of youngsters, playing against the backdrop of the sparkling new East Stand, I hoped that the future was bright despite our eventual relegation. If anything, it all got worse. A cash-strapped Chelsea were unable to buy any players for a few seasons, and at one stage it looked like we would be forced to sell both Ray Wilkins and Ian Britton. We finished mid-table at the end of 1975/1976, and promotion back to the First Division seemed distant.

It is an odd fact that although I have taken thousands upon thousands of photographs at Chelsea games over the years, in the period from my first game in 1974 to the start of the 1983/1984 season I took just one. It marked the return of Peter Osgood with Southampton in March 1976, but instead of an image of Ossie, the camera is fixed upon the young Chelsea captain, leaning forward to shake hands with his Southampton counterpart Peter Rodrigues.

Ten seasons, twenty-seven Chelsea games, but only one photograph.

And that photograph is of Ray Wilkins. It seems, with hindsight, wholly appropriate.

For season after season, in those dark years of false hope, the threat of financial oblivion, of wanton hooliganism and occasional despair, our young captain seemed to be our one beacon of hope.

He was our Ray of light.

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At the end of that mediocre 1975/1976 season, I can remember being absolutely thrilled to hear that young Butch would be making his England debut.

At the remodelled Yankee Stadium in New York on Friday 26 May, Butch played a full ninety minutes against Italy, playing against such greats as Dino Zoff, Giacinto Facchetti, Roberto Bettega and Franco Causio. I can vividly remember seeing the highlights on the following day’s “World of Sport” (I specifically remember the blue padded outfield walls, and the dirt of the baseball diamond).

Butch had arrived.

That summer, I sent off to the “Chelsea Players’ Pool” – remember that? – and acquired a signed black and white photograph. It was pinned close to my Peter Osgood one. Two real Chelsea heroes.

The following season, Chelsea stormed to promotion with Ray Wilkins the driving force. The man was a dream. Equally gifted with both left and right feet, he had a wonderful balance, and a lovely awareness of others. He didn’t merely touch the ball, he caressed it. He made everything look so easy. There was a languid looseness to him. But he was no slouch. Although not gifted with lightning pace, he had the energy and guile to tackle when needed, but to break forward too. His long-range passing was his party-piece. I have no single recollection of one Ray Wilkins pass, but the buzz of appreciation – cheering, applause, clapping – that accompanied a searching Wilkins cross-field pass, perfectly-weighted to a team mate, is what sticks in my mind. And there were many of them. Those were the days when supporters used to clap a great pass. It doesn’t happen much these days.

And he just looked like a footballer. My Dad always commented how Butch had thighs like tree trunks. There was a certain confident strut to him. I always thought that it was a plus point that his legs were slightly – ever-so slightly – bowed, though not as noticeable as, say, Malcolm MacDonald or Terry McDermott. Many footballers did in those days. I am sure it was not in a ridiculous body-sculpting homage to him, but as I grew up, I noticed that my legs were slightly bowed too. Nobody ever took the piss out of me, and what if they did? I would have an easy answer.

“If it’s good enough for Ray Wilkins, it’s good enough for me.”

I am told he melted a few female hearts too. I remember a few girls at Oakfield Road Middle School mentioning Butch to me.

It must have been the stare from those dark brown eyes when Butch was at his most serious.

Back in the First Division, we finished mid-table in 1977/1978 under the tutelage of Ken Shellito. Before the thrilling 3-1 win over European Champions Liverpool in March 1978 (often over-looked in favour of the 4-2 FA Cup win over the same opposition a couple of months before), I was able to obtain Ray Wilkins’ autograph as he came on to the pitch for the kick-about at around 2.30pm. Access to the players at these moments were an added bonus to getting seats in the East Lower. In those days, I would rush over to the curved concrete wall, spending up to twenty minutes or more reaching over towards the players as they passed. To be so close to Ray Wilkins, within touching distance, as he signed by little black autograph book just thrilled me. Forty years on, just writing this, I am getting goose bumps.

Magical, magical times.

Sadly, the elation of promotion in 1976/1977 and consolidation in 1977/1978 was followed by relegation in 1978/1979. During that campaign, we never looked like climbing out of the drop zone. It was such a depressing season. I went through a tough year at school too. It was not a good time in my life.

And I can always remember the pain that I felt during the very last time that I saw Butch play for us, a home game versus QPR in March 1979. It was a miserable day – we lost 3-1, some mouthy QPR fans were sat in front of us in the East Lower – but I was horrified to hear Ray Wilkins getting a fair bit of abuse from the Chelsea supporters around me. It was obvious that the team was at a low ebb, and perhaps too much was expected of our captain, who was still only twenty-two, but every mis-placed Wilkins pass drew loud boos and moans from those close by. Rather than support for a hero when he needed it there was derision. It made such an impression on me that I can remember the sense of betrayal that I experienced thirty-nine years later.

I only saw Ray Wilkins play twelve times for Chelsea, but from March 1975 to March 1979, he was ever-present in all the games that I saw. He wore the number eight shirt in every single one of them. I saw him score just one goal, against Blackpool, in 1975.

He was one of the most revered footballers in the Football League. He was an England regular. It thrilled me each time I saw him play for the national team. He was our sole England international from Peter Osgood in 1973 to Kerry Dixon in 1985. In 1979, he played his twenty-fourth game for England as a Chelsea player, thus beating his former manager McCreadie’s record as a Chelsea internationalist.

In 1979, despite appearing in the Chelsea pre-season team photograph, Ray Wilkins was sold to the hated Manchester United for £825,000. It was on the cards. I knew that we would never keep him. Chelsea certainly needed the money. But to Manchester United? This was just too much. There was a memory of a home programme from 1975 with Butch holding a Manchester United mug at his family home. Had he been hiding some dark secret from us all along?

In the following years, I watched from afar as Ray Wilkins played for the Old Trafford club. From 1979 to 1984, United were an under-achieving team under Dave Sexton and then Ron Atkinson. His goal against Brighton in the 1983 FA Cup Final was not celebrated by me.

It still hurt.

Thankfully, he never played for United against us.

And the nickname “Butch” never really followed him to Old Trafford.

He then moved over to Italy to play for Milan from 1984 to 1987.

I saw him play for England – as captain – at Wembley in November 1985 against Northern Ireland on a night which saw a young Kerry Dixon make his home debut, and on a night when the cry of “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” could memorably be heard at the tunnel end.

As the years passed, he played for Rangers and then QPR. I can recollect seeing him early in 1989/1990 at Stamford Bridge, and looking as classy as ever. He was only thirty-three. It would have been lovely to see him come back in West London to play for Chelsea and not QPR, who he later managed, but it was not to be. He then played on with other teams – Wycombe, Hibernian, Millwall, Orient – and then retired to manage Fulham. So near and yet so far.

There were the famous “Tango” commercials.

“Smashing.”

He was often the co-commentator on the Italian games which were shown on Channel Four.

“Hello everyone.”

He seemed so pleasant, so decent, so natural.

In 1998, Butch finally returned home to coach alongside Gianluca Vialli. He worked alongside Luiz Filip Scolari. He took charge for one game at Vicarage Road. He then memorably assisted Carlo Ancelotti – his Milan team mate – and helped us win the double. He was a steadying influence, and a much-loved member of the Chelsea family. His sacking by the club – I am guessing – might well have sent him towards a publicised alcohol addiction.

We felt numbed. For some alcohol is never the right answer, and alcoholism is a horrid disease.

But it felt as though Ray Wilkins has always been part of this club. The red devil mug from 1975 was obviously a red herring. He was not only a season ticket holder, but an away season ticket holder too. There were numerous sightings of our former captain at away grounds – I can recollect photos of him posing happily with some friends of mine – at various away sections, despite the fact that he could have spent those afternoons on the golf course, at home with his family, or out with friends.

It is a cliché, but he was one of us.

My good friend Glenn and I only bumped into him at Stamford Bridge a couple of months back. He was warm and friendly, happy to spend time with us, and I am blessed that I was able to see him one last time.

Just writing those words.

Oh my.

…the days passed. Wednesday became Thursday, Thursday became Friday. Friday became Saturday. Saturday became Sunday. Over these days, many stories were told of his decency and his humanity. But this all added to the sense of loss.

Sunday 8 April 2018 would be another emotional day for us all. On the drive to London, it seemed almost churlish to talk about our game with West Ham. We muddled our way through some conversations and predictions. At many moments, my mind was elsewhere.

We had set off from Somerset earlier than usual so that we could visit one of Parky’s old haunts from the days when he served in the army in the early ‘seventies. It was something of an anniversary. Forty-five years ago last Friday – 30 March 1973 – Parky stepped foot inside Millbank Barracks in Pimlico for the first time. An avid Chelsea fan despite being born near Arsenal’s stadium, Parky’s first Chelsea match was as a six-year-old in 1961. Being stationed so near to Stamford Bridge in Pimlico was a passport to football heaven. We had booked a table for 12.30pm at his then local “The Morpeth Arms”, which overlooks the river and the M16 building on the opposite bank.

But first, we popped in to “The Famous Three Kings” near West Kensington station at eleven o’clock for a quick pint and I made a toast.

“Ray Wilkins.”

We then tubed it to Pimlico, and had a lovely time in Parky’s old local. We met up with some pals from Kent and the nine of us had a relaxing and enjoyable time. During the two hours that we were in The Morpeth Arms, we spotted two boats heading west on the river which were bedecked in West Ham flags and favours. Often teams from London take a cruise down the river before a game at Chelsea. The game flitted into my mind, but only briefly, at the sight of the West Ham flags.

Glenn and I then split from the rest, and headed back to Fulham Broadway. In “The Malt House” we had arranged to meet up with pals from Bournemouth, Los Angeles, Jacksonville and Toronto. In the meantime, we soon learned that a main West Ham mob had caused a fair bit of havoc in The Atlas and The Lily Langtree, just half a mile or so away. There had been talk of them having a bash at The Goose too. We often frequent those pubs. I am glad we had avoided any nonsense.

It was lovely to meet up with the Jacksonville Blues once again; it was Jennifer and Brian’s first visit, though their pals Jimmy and Steve had visited Stamford Bridge before. Brian had presented me with a Jacksonville Blues scarf while I was over in Charlotte for the PSG game in 2015. It wins the prize as the Chelsea scarf with the finest design that I have seen, bar none. We met up with Tom from LA again, and bumped into Mick from Colorado too. There was a quick hello to Bill, a pal from Toronto who was over for the game. The famous Tuna from Atlanta was in town, but our paths just failed to connect.

“Next time, Fishy Boy.”

Overseas fans sometimes get a rough ride from certain sections of our support, but many are as passionate as fans from these isles. They have tended to add to my experience as a Chelsea supporter, not taken away from it.

There was horrible drizzle in the air. The Floridians were finding it a rather cold few days. But their enthusiasm for the game was bubbling over, or was it the alcohol?

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, we were soaked.

There was just time to pay a few moments of silent respect to the little shrine that the club had set up for Ray Wilkins. His photo had been moved along to a more spacious section of The Shed Wall. I was pleased to see the armband that John Terry had left was still in place. The photo of a young Butch in that darker than usual kit from 1977 made me gulp at the enormity of it all. The thought that both Ian Britton and now Ray Wilkins are no longer with us is – I will admit – a very difficult thing for me to comprehend.

I had a ticket in the MHL for this game – alongside Bristol Pete – and it was my first game there since Olimpiakos in 2008. But I was happy that I’d be getting a different perspective at a home game. We were stood, level with the crossbar and just behind the goal.

Very soon, it became clear that some fans in The Shed would be holding up a few banners, and I steadied my camera. The teams entered the pitch, and the spectators rose as one. There were no words from Neil Barnett – in hindsight, I suspect that he might well have decided that the emotion of the occasion would have got the better of him – and very soon both sets of players were stood in the centre circle. The TV screens provided some images, and the words Ray Wilkins 1956-2018 chilled me. We all applauded. Very soon, a blue flag passed over my head. I would later learn that it was a huge tribute to Butch, so well done to the club for producing it in such a short timescale. There was a chant of “one Ray Wilkins” and the clapping continued.

And then the applause softened, and the noise fell away. The game soon started, but my head was not really ready for it. All of that raw emotion squeezed into a few minutes had taken my focus away from the game. I tried my hardest to concentrate on the play, but I found it difficult. There was an extra constraint; I was not used to witnessing a home game from anywhere other than seat 369 in The Sleepy Hollow. I struggled with the perspective.

Antonio Conte had stayed with the choice of Alvaro Morata up front, and all was to be expected elsewhere on the pitch, apart from the return of captain Gary Cahill instead of Andreas Christensen. The first part of the game seemed pretty scrappy but Eden Hazard threatened with a low shot, and we hoped for further chances.

On eight minutes, there was more applause for Ray Wilkins. I spotted the image of the floral bouquet on the Chelsea bench.

“Blimey, that’s poignant.”

We feared the worst when Marko Arnautovic managed to get his feet tangled and Thibaut Courtois blocked from close range. It would be the visitors’ only real effort on goal during the entire first-half. I was so close to the action; the nearest I have been to the pitch at Chelsea for years. Being so low, both side stands seemed higher than ever. I wondered what the first-time visitors from Florida’s First Coast thought of their first visit to Stamford Bridge.

There was occasional neat passing in the final third, but our chances were rare. Already there was a feeling of nervous tension starting to rise within the massed ranks of the MHL, who were stood throughout. I can’t remember the last time the MHL and the Shed Lower sat throughout a game; a long time ago for sure. But there wasn’t a great deal of noise either. The usual shout of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” was noticeably missing. On a day when I had flitted around Stamford Bridge – to the north, to the west, to the east, momentarily to the south – it felt that I was watching the match from the heart of Chelsea. The reduced capacity Shed is not the same place as it was in years past, and the MHL has usurped it in many ways as the epicentre of our support. I looked around and, although I did not spot many faces I knew, I certainly felt that I was in the heart of it.

The away fans were boring me rigid with their version of the Blue Flag, and their ridiculous nonsense about “no history.”

A beautiful move ended with a chance from Morata going just past the post. Then, another delicate move ended with Willian forcing a fine save from Joe Hart. With half-time beckoning, and with West Ham more than happy to sit deep, at last there was a reward for our possession. A short corner – which normally I detest – was played back to Moses. I remember thinking “this is usually Dave’s territory and he usually finds the head of Morata.” Well, Moses found the head of Morata and it was none other than Cesar Azpilicueta who managed to get the slightest of touches to stab the ball home – the crowd roared – before running away towards the away support and slumping to the floor.

Up in the MHU, Alan texted me : “THTCAUN.”

In the MHL, I soon replied : “COMLD.”

And that was that. A deserved one goal lead at half-time against an opponent that had rarely attacked, and I just wanted the second-half to produce some more goals. Our recent form has been abysmal. We desperately needed the three points.

Into the second-half and I was thrilled to be able to witness our attacks from so near the pitch, with the full panorama of a packed Stamford Bridge in view. It was a spectacular sight. Throughout the second-half, there were back-heels and flicks aplenty from several of our players – alas, most were to no avail and drew moans – but a deft touch from Eden Hazard set up Willian, who went close. There were more moans – and a growl of consternation from me – when a cross from the raiding Marcos Alonso was touched back by Morata into the path of Victor Moses. With no defender closing him down, and with time for him to concentrate on getting his knee over the ball, he panicked and thrashed the ball high over the bar.

“FORFUCKSAKE.”

We continued to create chances. Morata headed over from a corner, and had a goal disallowed for offside soon after. It looked close from my viewpoint, and it did not surprise me that the linesman had flagged.

In quiet moments, the West Ham ‘keeper was mercilessly taunted by the front rows of the MHL.

“England’s number four. England, England’s number four.”

“You’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff, you’ve got dandruff. And you’re shit.”

…there’s a terrible pun coming soon, by the way…you have been warned.

We still dominated possession. From my viewpoint, all that I could see was a forest of bodies blocking our passage. As I said, there were many attempted “one-twos” and suchlike, but the West Ham defence did not have time for such frivolous play. They blocked, blocked, and hacked away to their hearts content. The groans were growing as the game continued. Hazard, always involved but unable to produce anything of note, was nowhere near his best. He lost possession way too often. His pass selection was off. There was the usual proto typical display of midfield greatness from N’Golo Kante, but elsewhere we struggled. Morata hardly attempted to pull his marker out of position. Moses was as frustrating as so often he is. Fabregas was not the creative influence we needed. Alonso ran and ran down the left flank, but the much-needed second goal just eluded us.

Moses sent a shot curling narrowly wide.

At the other end, the distant Shed, West Ham created a rare chance. A half-hearted header from Cahill was chased down by Arnautovic and he was allowed time to cut the ball back for the onrushing Chicarito – a recent sub – to score with a low shot at Courtois’ near post.

It was, I am sure, their first real shot on goal in the second-half.

“BOLLOCKS.”

There were around twenty minutes’ left.

We urged the team on.

At last, the first real stadium-wide chant roared around Stamford Bridge.

A rasping drive from Alonso forced a magnificent finger-tipped save from Hart, and the ball flew only a matter of feet past my left-hand side. The manager replaced Moses with Pedro, Morata with Giroud. There were shots from Hazard, but there were gutsy West Ham blocks. At the other end, I watched in awe as Kante robbed Arnautovic – showing an amazing turn of pace – inside the box. There was another lovely chase-back from Marcos Alonso to rob a West Ham player the chance to break. A fine looping high cross from Willian found the leap of Giroud, who jumped and hung in the air like a centre-forward of old. We were just about to celebrate the winner when we saw Hart – agonisingly – collapse to his left and push the ball away via the post. It was a simply stupendous save. He was head and shoulders their best player.

There you go. You’re welcome.

The game continued but there was no late joy. A meek header from Cahill and a wild swipe from an angle by Pedro did not bother Hart.

Sigh.

There were boos from inside the MHL at the final whistle.

I had the misfortune to time my exit just as the main slug of away support marched past the West Stand gates. I just walked through them all. Their further taunts of “no history” just raised a laugh from me. And there were moans, of course, once we all met up inside my car on Bramber Road long after the final whistle. As I drove us all home, we chatted about the game, a game that we should have won easily. Those moments when we lack concentration had hit us hard once again. We had our post-game post-mortem. We chose to keep our thoughts to ourselves. Elsewhere, of course, many other Chelsea fans were not so private. As ever, there was much wailing.

I had a sideways look at our current state of affairs.

“We finished tenth in 2016. If somebody had said that we would finish in fifth place and as champions over the following two seasons with Antonio Conte in charge, we would have been ecstatic with that.”

The boys agreed.

“Conte just got his seasons mixed up, the silly bastard.”

The inevitable gallows humour helped us in the immediate aftermath of yet another disappointing result.

It had been a strange day. A day of wild extremes. A day of immense sadness. A day of fine friendships. A day when The Great Unpredictables lived up to their name. A day of memories. A day of melancholy. A day of remembrance. A day of frustration. A day of contemplation.

Meanwhile, this most typical of Chelsea seasons continues.

See you all at Southampton.

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In memoriam.

Ray Wilkins.

14 September 1956 to 4 April 2018.

 

Tales From Game 2 And Game 881

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 24 March 2012.

This game came two-thirds of the way through our very own March Madness. Nine matches, of which I would be present at all but one, two managers, Champions League games, Premiership games, Youth Cup games, F.A. Cup games and a game with Tottenham.

Busy, busy, busy.

Nobody needs to be reminded that our unbeaten home record against Tottenham goes back to February 1990. A 2-1 defeat in that game was our last reverse. This is an astounding record. Don’t forget that we also had a 32 game unbeaten run in the league against Spurs home and away from that game until 2006 too. I’d suggest that never in top flight football in Europe has one team been unbeaten in 32 games – in consecutive seasons to boot – against another team. Those were heady days, no doubt. But the rare defeats against Spurs are even more awful because of our ridiculous ascendency in the past 22 years. The League Cup Final in 2008 was one of my worst days as a Chelsea fan; thinking about it, probably worse than the 2002 F.A. Cup Final against Arsenal.

My second-ever Chelsea game, way back in the autumn of 1974, was against Tottenham. Surprisingly, since I remember lots and lots from my first game in the March of that year, I don’t remember too much from that 1-0 win against Spurs. I know that I sat in the East Stand for the first ever time (row B seat 67 my ticket tells me) and I remember that a Johnny Hollins penalty gave us a 1-0 win. The only other thing I remember is a conversation which took place at my Aunt Muriel and Uncle Harold’s house in Southall after the game. My father had parked his car there and we had taken a bus and a tube in from there. My father was quite terrified of the London traffic; thank fully a trait I have not inherited. I remember comments being made by Uncle Harold about the football hooliganism that had taken place on that sunny day in October 1974. I think the news of the trouble between Chelsea and Spurs hooligans had made the news and, although I can’t remember details, no doubt there were words along the lines of –

“They’re not real fans.”

“It spoils if for the real supporters.”

Such is my fascination with football in my childhood, it is quite likely that I can name most of that Spurs team from October 1974, but I sometimes struggle to name many of our opponents in 2012. That Spurs team? Off the top of my head…Pat Jennings, Phil Beal, Mike England, Jimmy Neighbour, Martin Chivers, Steve Perryman, Martin Peters, maybe Chris Jones, maybe Joe Kinnear.

Infamously, the return game at White Hart Lane in the second-from-last game of the 1974-1975 season virtually condemned Chelsea to the old second division. We lost 2-0 and the hooligans were centre-stage again.

We hate Tottenham.

Yesterday. Now. Forever.

Lord Parky was collected at just before 9am and it was clear that the day was shaping up to be the brightest and warmest of the year thus far. A day for polo shirts, no doubt. I had to pick up Steve, from Bournemouth, at Amesbury and so I had to double-back on myself to an extent. As Parky and I zoomed over Salisbury Plain, Parky put one of his own drum and bass mixes on the CD player. The music boomed out and it there was a super start to the morning. We drove past Stonehenge and Steve was collected at 9.45am. A little traffic held us up, but we were in The Goose just after 11.30am.

We only had time for two pints of Peroni. I hate having to endure a rushed pre-match to be honest. Eliot from the New York Blues was over for the one game and it was great to see him again. The trip back to the UK was a sad one for him as his grandfather passed away recently. Once he knew that he was returning for the Spurs game, he sounded me out for a ticket; I didn’t hold out much of a chance to be honest. Unbelievably, he had been able to get hold of three tickets for the game via general sale…yes, that is correct; general sale.

Arguably our second biggest game of the season and the tickets go on general sale.

Eliot and I had a good little chat and moan about all things Chelsea. We covered quite a few topics in a short amount of time. Top work! Parky was flitting around and I saw Jesus briefly; he is off to Portugal on Monday, for three days of sun and Champions League football. As I have no holiday left, I will be missing out on the trip to Benfica. I can say it now; I told Jesus I was jealous of him. That boy is certainly packing everything in to his time in Europe. He has thrown himself into supporting Chelsea while on these shores with a ferocity that brings a massive smile to my face and gives me a warm glow inside.

On the quick walk down to The Bridge, I spotted the first tourist wearing a Chelsea / Tottenham “half-and-half” scarf. I scowled as I brushed past him. It made me conjure up a quick little list of personal pet peeves with the Chelsea match day experience in 2012.

1. Friendship Scarves; come back when you have decided which team to support, idiots.
2. “Chelsea Till I Die”; this isn’t a Chelsea song, never was a Chelsea song, never will be a Chelsea song. Typically, it gets sung by Football League teams and that’s where it should stay.
3. Replica shirts being worn over long-sleeved shirts; did your mother dress you?
4. Noise; the atmosphere gets worse each season. I’m sick to death of being one of only three or four in a section of two-hundred who sings throughout the game.
5. “You never won fcuk all”; the double-negative messes up the intended message. I blame the parents.
6. The West Upper; even if we provided song sheets, I suspect you lot couldn’t be bothered to sing.
7. Chelsea Pensioners; the club has shunted their seats further away from the middle of the East Stand with each passing year. Give them a prime seat bang on the half-way line.
8. The nerd like fascination by some fans with Chelsea club doctor Eva Carneiro; have these people never seen a woman before?
9. What a load of clap; if we get a throw-in or a corner, don’t just sit there with your arms folded, acting cool; clap. It’s really easy to do.
10. Boo boys; don’t do it. It’s not big, it’s not clever. Support the players or fcuk off.
11. The “Chelsea – hooligans” chant; grow up.
12. Roman – after nine years, I’d really like to hear you speak. Hear your thoughts. Explain what Chelsea means to you.

I made it inside with a few minutes to spare…up the six flights of stairs and up to the upper tier bar area…then inside.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50753620512658

Spurs, of course, had three thousand in the south-east corner. Only two flags, though. At the start of the game, quite a large central section of away seats were empty. I guess these were the Tottenham corporates. God, what a bunch they must be.

The game was a strange one really. The first-half was played out in great periods of hushed quiet. I had to pinch myself that this was a Chelsea vs. Tottenham game. In a way, we were surprised to see David Luiz on the bench, but there can be no doubts that Gary Cahill gave a polished and resolute performance alongside John Terry at the heart of the defence. Didier started and I have a feeling Fernando will start in Lisbon; hopefully able to exploit the space on the inevitable counter-attacks.

The sky was devoid of clouds. It was a gorgeous day in SW6. “Chelsea weather” said Alan.

After five minutes, a ball from Daniel Sturridge found a completely unmarked Didier Drogba – in tons of space – but he got tangled up with Frank Lampard and the chance was gone. The Chelsea midfield were struggling to impose themselves and Studge was having a very quiet game indeed. Tottenham were flooding the midfield but it took until the 30th minute for their first real shot on goal when Gareth Bale shot over. Soon after, Adebayor had an unhindered run down the left in front of me but tamely shot wide. Our chances were rare. There was a penalty appeal when Frank tumbled. We lost count of the times Bosingwa was exposed or out of position. However, Spurs were doubling up on him and our midfield players were not covering.

The first-half came to a close with a ridiculous flurry inside the Chelsea six yard box. We seemed to go to sleep and Modric drifted through and set up a chance for Rafael Van der Vaart, but Petr Cech made a miraculous block, followed up by two other attempts, but Spurs only won a corner.

Phew.

The first real chance of the second half was an old-style route one attack; a Cech punt, a Drogba pass to a raiding Studge, but his shot flashed wide of Brad Friedel’s upright.

“OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO.”

This shot seemed to warm up the home fans and The Bridge eventually stirred with a few minutes of the “Chelsea / Amazing Grace” chant. Spurs responded with a shot from Luke Walker which hit the side netting.

On 58 minutes, the most skilful moment of the entire game; the way Juan Mata killed a ball from a punt from Bosingwa, stopping it dead with his foot, was pure art. Unfortunately, the ball fell behind him and the chance was spurned. Frank Lampard, to be fair had lofted a superb chipped pass in the first-half, but the game was one of industry and toil rather than of skill and touch.

David Luiz replaced Jose Bosingwa and then provided us with a typical Luiz performance; strong tackles one minute, terrible positioning next. We had a penalty appeal refused and the place was at last noisy. A free-kick from Juan Mata hit the base of a post and the ball ricocheted back towards Luiz but his prod took the ball away from the waiting Drogba. There were rueful looks when nemesis Louis Saha came on in place of Van der Vaart. Soon after, a horrendous moment and I thought that our unbeaten run was coming to an end. A Modric pass found Adebayor and he raced past an advancing Cech. Thankfully, his heavy touch forced him a few yards wide and these extra split seconds cost Spurs dearly. A shot on goal was miraculously cleared off the line by Gary Cahill. We were dumbfounded. It was exceptional play. Gary’s subsequent roar at the Chelsea fans in the Shed Lower was Terry-esque in its intensity. From the resultant corner, Spurs again went close when a Bale header crashed against the bar. Torres was now on, toiling on the right in place of the poor Sturridge. With a minute to go, another great ball from the otherwise average Lampard found Didier, but his delicate chip was over. In the last minute, a finger-nail chewing moment; a Tottenham free-kick was drilled in, but Cech flew himself to his left to scramble the ball for a corner. We withstood that last threat and the whistle blew.

Phew.

It was the first 0-0 result between Chelsea and Spurs in the league at The Bridge since the infamous “parking the bus” game in September 2004.

The mood was quite sombre on the walk down Fulham Road. Points dropped; yes. Five points behind Spurs; yes. Only eight games left in the league to pass Spurs; yes. The Europa League beckons; yes.

Oh well. We’ve seen worse. To be quite blunt, I was just relieved that our unbeaten run against Tottenham was extended to 22 games. At least it means that my favourite Chelsea joke will still get the occasional airing –

“Dad, when did Chelsea last lose at home to Spurs in the league?”

“I don’t know son. Ask your granddad.”

After seven Chelsea games in twenty-one games for Lord Porky and me, we are taking a rest next week. No game on Tuesday, but we will meet up for the jaunt to Aston Villa next Saturday. Who knows, Spurs might be out of the F.A. Cup by then.

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Tales From The Ibis

Birmingham City vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2010.

As I drove through the old mill town of Bradford-On-Avon on the way to collect Parky and Kris, I received a text from Danny in California. He is coming over to England for our two games next week, but asked if I could send him updates from our game at St. Andrews. It made me realise how “My Chelsea Supporting Life” has changed over the past few years. Not only do I have my long-standing friendships with mates throughout the UK, built up over the years, but I now have an “extended family” of Chelsea friends who live in various states in America. It’s lovely, you know. Not a match day goes by without texts from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Fort Worth, San Antonio, New York and Philadelphia. I guess it’s all about sharing that common experience. I presume that it is human nature for friendships to either remain strong through the years or eventually weaken and I suppose it’s the same story for my match day mates too. However, I get the feeling that my ten or so closest mates will continue watching Chelsea for many seasons yet. I do wonder though – since I am currently encompassing my American mates in this topic – how many US based fans will dwindle by the wayside over the years. I only recently commented to Parky that quite a few CIA regulars seem to have fallen off the edge of this Blue Earth recently. Chelsea is for life, remember, not just for Christmas.

We departed from Parky’s village at about 9.30am and we were on our way north once more. What a horrible, overcast morning. We encountered low lying grey clouds, drizzle and then rain…and then heavy rain as we drove past Bath and Bristol. It made the driving tiring…and I didn’t need that. Kris, like Parky, is into music and often DJs at weekends. This was to be his first away game and I could tell he was excited. I told the lads of a strange chat I had with my boss on the Friday. I’m not really sure what triggered the conversation, but my boss suddenly announced that one of his uncles once played for England. Despite being in the middle of a frantic few minutes, I had to put the demands of work to one side and ask him the player’s name.

“Lawton.”

“Not Tommy Lawton?” I replied with a look of astonishment on my face.

“Yes. Tommy Lawton.”

At this point, it’s worth saying that my boss Paul is not a football fan in the slightest and I am sure that he was not aware that his uncle once played for Chelsea immediately after the Second World War. So, I immediately filled him in…1947, bought him from Everton for a record fee, moved to Notts County, famous for his headers and that he was “one of the greats.”

Paul, my boss, seemed genuinely shocked that the miserable uncle that he often used to meet in his childhood, always wearing a blazer, was one of the greatest ever England centre-forwards. With a twinkle in my eye, I brazenly enquired –

“Where’s all his memorabilia, these days?”

With this story aired, Kris spoke of a football-related tale of his own. In addition to being a drum and bass DJ, Kris is a carpet fitter during the week. On the Thursday, he was working in nearby Corsham and it transpired that he was in the house of the one-time assistant manager at Derby County Stan Anderson, who worked alongside the legendary Dave Mackay in Derby’s championship season of 1974-1975. This triggered some memories. I told the story of a Chelsea vs. Derby County game that I saw with my parents in the March of that season. It was only my third-ever Chelsea game and we had seats right behind the away bench in the new East stand. It rainy day and it was a poor game. We lost 2-1, but the thing that my parents and I always remembered was the abuse that a Chelsea fan in her ‘sixties gave Anderson throughout the game. He was constantly up on his feet, remonstrating with the referee, the linesman and this caught her attention. She started telling him to sit down in no uncertain terms. At one stage, I am sure she walked to the front and threatened him with her brolly. It was hilarious. For the next few years, whenever we saw Mackay and Anderson on the TV, we always laughed and pictured that woman waving her umbrella at them. Out of interest, before that game, I very well remember an American university marching band from Missouri performing on the pitch. I can still see the bright yellow of their colourful tunics to this day. After their display, they sat in the rickety old North Stand, perched on stilts in the NE corner. The band even started playing at various stages during the game – a bang of drums and a crash of cymbals here, a cacophony of trumpets and bugles there. It was quite a surreal sight…and sound.

I wonder how many of those American kids from The Marching Mizzou remember their appearance at Stamford Bridge and I wonder if any are Chelsea fans today.

As the rain worsened around Gloucester, we spoke of the games coming up in the tough month of December and the rumours about the fitness of Alex and JT, the stories about Ray Wilkins, the probable line-up at St. Andrews, and the inevitable raft of reminiscences from the past. Parky rolled out a few tried-and-tested tales, familiar to me, not so for Kris. On this day of quirky stories involving footballers from the past and present, Kris reminded me that one of his friends went out with former Chelsea winger Scott Sinclair. Like me, Scott was born in Bath, and of course now plays with Swansea. Another link – Scott now plays alongside Nathan Dyer, a local lad from Trowbridge.

We stopped at Strensham and Lord Parky got the coffees in. I received texts to say that Burger was on his way and would be meeting up with Cathy, Dog and Mark in the city centre. By 11.30am, I had navigated the inner city ring round – past the Edgbaston county cricket ground – and was parked up at the Ibis Hotel, just a stone’s throw from the away end. We had made great time. We settled in for a lovely pre-match.

“Get the beers in.”

As I said hello to the first of the fellow Chelsea fans in – Nick, Robbie and Mark – the hotel staff were clearing away the breakfast cereals and croissants in preparation of the onslaught of Chelsea fans.

“Three pints of Grolsch please mate.”

We settled down in a corner and awaited the arrival of the troops from near and far. Ajax from Wrexham soon came over to spend an entertaining twenty minutes with us. He used to run the North Wales coaches down to The Bridge, but his real claim to fame in Chelsea circles is that he often used to travel to and from games back in the ‘eighties with players Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas. There was quite a Wrexham connection at the time – Johnny Neal and Eddie Niedzwiecki too – and the club used to allow special privileges to these two Chelsea greats…they used to live in Wrexham, their childhood home, and only come down to Harlington to train once a week, then again for games at the weekend. Mickey was one of the fittest players we have ever had – he didn’t need to train – and Joey was just Joey.

Imagine that happening these days.

Ajax – it turns out – is a big Rangers fan too and has attended twelve Old Firm games in his life. It turns out that the both of us attended one particular Rangers vs. Motherwell game in the 1986-1987 season. It’s a small world at Chelsea. Especially for me. I’m five foot six.

At about 1.15pm, the other members of The Bing arrived and joined the ever-growing throng. They had planned to have a few liveners in the centre, but their train had been delayed and so they got a cab direct to the hotel from New Street. After getting their beers, Alan, Gary, Daryl, Whitey, Simon and Milo came over to join us and we caught up with a few topics close to our heart…access to match tickets, travel plans for the next few games and the wash ability of Fred Perry, Lacoste and Henri Lloyd polo shirts. There were a few other familiar faces dotted around, too. The Nuneaton lot soon arrived too – Neil, Nigel, Jokka, Chopper and Jonesy – and it was good to see them. Our paths don’t often cross. It suddenly dawned on me that in that crowded hotel bar in Birmingham there were around 100 Chelsea fans, the die-hards, the loyalists…and most of us in our ‘forties. It’s our core demographic.

As Daryl commented – “Middle-aged, Caucasian, balding.”

“And that’s just the women.”

I’m on 800 or so games, yet I suspect most were on 1,000 easy. Alan and Gary must be on 1,500 I would imagine. So, around 100,000 Chelsea games in that crowded bar. And as I looked around again, taking it all in, I hardly spotted any Chelsea gear, save for an odd scarf here or a pin badge there. I smiled to myself. I approved. However, there is no doubt that if I lived in Austin TX or Athens GA – or Bangkok or Botswana – I would occasionally wear Chelsea gear on game days just to show willing. Indeed, there are rare shots of me fully-garbed up in Chelsea blue at the Pittsburgh, DC, New Jersey, Chicago, LA and Baltimore games. But I haven’t worn a Chelsea replica shirt at a game in England since about 1995. If anything, I am more presupposed to wearing quirky Chelsea T-shirts. It’s just too easy to simply buy a replica shirt and try to feel part of Chelsea Football Club, but there really is – truly, madly, deeply – more to it than that. I’d rather spend £45 on a match ticket than the latest Adidas monstrosity. Besides, neither me nor any of my mates would be seen dead wearing the same shirt. Wink.

You know the score.

We heard that Spurs came back from 2-0 down to get a highly unlikely win at Arsenal and we laughed. Not because Spurs had won – hell, no! – but because Arsenal had lost. I tried to picture Wenger’s squirming face.

Millsy arrived at about 2.30pm and I commented about a photo he had recently posted on Facebook. It was a photo of him playing against a Charlton player at The Valley. It turns out he used to play for Tonbridge in Kent and once played against the then Charlton Athletic midfielder Lee Bowyer. Tommy Lawton, Stan Anderson, Scott Sinclair, Mickey Thomas, Joey Jones and now Lee Bowyer. It was certainly a day for stories. Where would it end? I was feeling left out. I once met former Bristol Rovers player Mike Brimble on a West Bay caravan park in Dorset in about 1971. Does that count?

As we walked up to the ground, we heard the team and we approved…glad to hear Number 33 was playing and it was a big day for Malouda, who was dropping back into the midfield in an attempt to solidify the team alongside the unconvincing Ramires. Despite the overcast weather enveloping us all, I was confident we would do well. We had 4,400 tickets and surely we would be rocking. This was only my fifth visit to the humble and dowdy surroundings of Birmingham City’s down-at-heel home ground. I am yet to circumnavigate it – most unlike me. It’s the usual Ibis routine for me. So, after stopping to take a shot of Parky and Kris outside the away turnstiles, I walked through the unwelcoming approach to the away end. There were bare concrete walls and ugly steel roof supports to greet me. St. Andrews won’t win any awards.

The game. Do I have to?

To start with, we were wearing the lime green kit. What was I saying about Adidas monstrosities?

I’m struggling to think of a game amongst my other 800, where we have so dominated possession and yet have got nothing from it. Didier had three or four great chances in the first-half alone, yet the Birmingham City goal lived a charmed life. It goes to show how little attention I pay, at times, to some teams that I was under the impression that it was Scott Carson, not Ben Foster, in the Birmingham goal. I wish it was Carson, who was letting in three against Stoke a few miles to the west. Just like Joe Hart on Boxing Day last year, Foster was having a blinder.

A few sticks of celery were tossed around to my right. And then we sang a song from Joey Jones and Mickey Thomas era –

“Come along, come along, come along and sing this song…”

Then, on seventeen minutes, a rare break – we didn’t close down the cross, the ball was whipped in to Jerome who softened a header into the path of Millsy’s mate Lee Bowyer. He was completely unmarked. He easily scored and we had to endure this most unliked of players ( Leeds and West Ham on his curriculum vitae ) celebrating in front of us.

Where was that woman’s umbrella from 1975?

The rapidity of the break and goal reminded me of United’s first at Wembley in the Community Shield. Of course, the home fans chirped up for the first time in the whole game and it was to be the loudest they would be all day. Their club song really is the most horrible of dirges. It’s dire.

At half-time, the immediate people around me occupied ourselves by listing our worse players ever…Dave Mitchell, Graham Wilkins, David Stride, John McNaught and Les Fridge all got votes, but I stood up for Keith Jones, while Gary defended John Coady. After Kalou’s non-show in the first-half, I wondered if he would get a vote. Someone said that the shot count was 14-1 in our favour in that first forty-five.

I greeted Les from Melksham and his two word retort was succinct and to the point –

“I’m bolloxed.”

We had even more of the ball in the second period, but the Chelsea support grew more and more irritable. There was, sadly, no great show of noise from the 4,400. There were no texts from Jamie, Bob or Steve in the US saying “we can hear you loud and clear.” We tried desperately to move the ball around to get a spare foot of space. But with the home showing no inclination to attack, the game was compressed in front of us…it was as hopeless as hell. Time after time the ball was played to Malouda and Anelka, then Ashley and the sub Bosingwa, but we couldn’t breach the defensive line. A penalty shout – Ramires, involved at last – and then Kalou chipped over. From South Philly, a text from Steve –

“Is it OK to start worrying?”

I replied – “I’ve been worrying since 1974.”

The Chelsea support, in a rare show of noisy solidarity, resurrected an old favourite from around the 1977-1978 season –

“Attack – Attack – Attack, Attack, Attack!!!”

There was deep frustration welling all around me. The shots reigned in, but block, block, block. An Ivanovic header – thump! – but it was dramatically clawed away by that man Foster. A Didier free-kick right at the ‘keeper, then a Kalou header flashed past the right post.

The final whistle. At least no boos…not that I could ascertain anyway…my mind was too clouded to hear, maybe. Our third league defeat in the last four games and this hurt. I briefly saw Drogba, minus his shirt, having an altercation with some fans down at the front. It seemed that the fans were unhappy with the Ivorian’s performance…how quickly people forget. He was suffering with malaria ten days ago. To Didier’s credit, he didn’t bite and clapped the fans as he turned and walked away. As we sloped out of the ground, I could not help involuntarily joining in a classic Chelsea gallows humour chant –

“We’re 5hit And We’re Top Of The League.”

Of course, we aren’t, but it helped my own coping mechanism. Back down at the Ibis, the troops had re-gathered and were enjoying a few post-game bevvies. I was expecting long faces and grumbles, but the mood was of stubborn resilience. We had tried our best. We had out-shot Birmingham something like 25-2. We would undoubtedly play worse and win this season. The ten of us had seen it all before…and the beers helped irradiate any maudlin feelings from the match. I supped on a strong coffee and Parky told of an altercation he had at half-time with a fellow Chelsea fan. Milo – 14 – took a couple of sips from one of Parky’s brandies. Whatever helps you through the night, eh?

We laughed and his Dad said “don’t tell your mother.”

We stayed at the hotel until about 6.15pm. To be honest, we had a laugh and it made me realise what a very special bunch of mates I have. We had spent almost seven enjoyable hours in Birmingham; almost five hours in the Ibis and two hours at the game. That’s a good beer / footy ratio. The evening traffic was moving slowly…eventually I got back on to the southbound M5 and Parky was asleep. We heard that United had won – what a surprise. Kris bought me a “wake me up and slap me in the face” coffee at Strensham and I eventually dropped them off at 8.45pm. Parky was well messy and almost fell out of the car. As he stumbled, several beer cans fell out of his bag. Out of nowhere, Ben Foster leapt to Parky’s feet and caught them all.

It was one of those days.

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