Tales From Benny’s First Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

This was our homecoming after three games on the road at Walsall, Newcastle and Porto. It would also be our last game for a fortnight, with another international break looming. After the disappointment of our game in Portugal – the stinging defeat on the pitch allied with the spate of robberies off it – I was hopeful that the game against Southampton would put us back on track.

No, let’s be honest and exact here, this was a game we had to win. I knew that the Saints, continuing their fine play from last season under Ronald Koeman would be no pushover, but I was adamant that we could – and should – prevail.

However, my main focus as I drove up to London with Parky and Bournemouth Steve was centred upon seeing my close friend Ian and his young son Ben, who would be watching from the East Lower. It would be Benny’s first ever Chelsea game; a present for his eighth birthday during the late summer.

Ian and I go back to 1984, when we found ourselves on the same human geography course at North Staffs Poly in Stoke. Our friendship slowly grew over the three years, aided by our love of football and music, and was solidified on a trip around Europe on a three week Inter Rail holiday in the September of 1987. Ian was with me, memorably, on my first ever European football match, an Internazionale vs. Empoli game in the San Siro. During that trip we also visited the Bernabeu, Camp Nou and Munich’s Olympic Stadium. Our first afternoon in London after that Inter Rail trip was spent at Stamford Bridge – a good 2-2 draw with Newcastle United, Paul Gascoigne and all – and this was Ian’s first game at Chelsea.

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Ian has watched a few more games with me at The Bridge since. In our thirty plus years of friendship, football has never been too far away.

Ian is from South Yorkshire and a lifelong Rotherham United fan. Ian was at one of the most infamous games in Chelsea’s history; our 6-0 loss at Millmoor in the autumn of 1981. A few of my close Chelsea mates were there too, though I wasn’t. I can remember playing a school football match on that particular day, strangely on a Saturday afternoon, and coming in at half-time in our match to find the boys three-nil down at Rotherham. I can distinctly remember – always an optimist – thinking to myself that we would come back to win 4-3 with Alan Mayes scoring the winner. Sadly it was not to be. For those newish Chelsea fans who think that our current run of poor form entitles them to proudly boast that they can claim that they were there when we are “shit”, watch this and think again.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_nZfwdx9zLA

In 2015, we are League Champions, League Cup Winners, in the Champions League and one of the top twenty clubs on the planet.

In 1981, we were a struggling Second Division team, with no trophy of any description for ten years.

Later in the season, the same Rotherham United beat us 4-1 at Stamford Bridge.

Compared to 1981, 2015 doesn’t even come close.

Since leaving college, Ian and I met up again in 1989 for our never-to-be-forgotten adventure in North America; cycling down the East coast, visiting city after city, living some sort of American dream. We drove down through France for a Juventus vs. Sampdoria game in 1992. Ian now lives in Fareham, close to Portsmouth, with his wife Maria – I was the best man at his wedding in 2006 – and their two boys Tom and Benny. Both boys have teams; Tom is Arsenal, Ben is Chelsea. Once I managed to secure match tickets for the Saints match, I am sure that Ben has been so excited. But so was I. I couldn’t wait to meet up with him for the game.

We had arranged to meet up at the Peter Osgood statue at 1.30pm. It was magical to see them both, smiling and full of anticipation of the day ahead. Benny was wearing a blue and white bar scarf, and it made my day. During all of our years of friendship, who on earth would have predicted that Ian’s son would be a Chelsea fan.

Lovely.

We spent an hour in the hotel foyer. I am not honestly sure if Ben will remember too much of his first ever Chelsea game, nor the people that he met, but I made sure that I took enough photographs to help. Although it seemed that a camera was always on hand to take key photographs of my formative years, it is one of my big regrets that neither of my parents took any photographs of my first Chelsea game in 1974.

We chatted with Bobby Tambling, as always a lovely man, and it was good to look back on the summer tour in the US. I explained to Ben that Bobby scored 202 goals for Chelsea and Ben’s face was a picture. Coming from Hayling Island, Bob explained how everyone naturally presumed that he would play for Portsmouth after his impressive English schoolboy career. Instead, they made no offer, and despite an approach from Wolves, Bobby ended up at Stamford Bridge.

There were photographs with John Hollins, and Ben predicted a 10-0 win for Chelsea, and our former captain and manager loved the optimism.

There was a prolonged chat with former captain Colin Pates concerning his current job at the Whitgift School in Croydon, where he spotted the potential in a young Victor Moses, and also a few words from Colin which answered Ian’s enquiry about how difficult it was to make the transition from player to another trade.

“Put it like this. It’s like being at the best party you have ever been to. Then someone comes along and says it’s over.”

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

“Colin found it so difficult, that he ended up playing for Arsenal.”

Colin and Ian laughed.

However, I chose not to talk to Colin about the Rotherham game in 1981, since he had played in that game. Neil Barnet called by and reminded us that it was Petar Borota’s last ever game for the club. What a wayward player he was, but loved by all. Bless him.

Paul Canoville joined us and I explained that this was Ben’s first-ever game. Paul spent a good few minutes with the three of us, welcoming Ben to the Chelsea family, and entertaining Ian with anecdotes from his various travels over the past summer.

I really appreciated the time that these three former players took in spending time with young Ben. And I am sure that Ian got a kick out of it too. Outside the main reception, there was time for a team photo with Ron Harris.

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Back in The Goose, it was lovely to see Alan and Gary again after their tribulations in Porto. I also bumped into a cheery Stan, too, and he seemed unperturbed, and showing no signs of distress after temporarily losing his passport. It was a sublimely beautiful Saturday evening and it was hard to believe that it was October now. The team news came through via various ‘phone updates.

John Terry was back.

Parky bought a round of amaretto shots and we then set off for the Bridge.

Southampton opted for the smaller away allocation for this fixture; around 1,500.

After the initial sparring, we were awarded a free-kick to the left of the Southampton goal. Willian swung in a looping free-kick which bamboozled Stekelenburg in the Saints goal. The ball struck the far post and rippled the net. For what seemed the umpteenth time already this season, we had scored with a free-kick from the left, and this was yet another one from Willian. He ran off to the East Stand and I can only imagine how excited young Ben must have been. Ian Hutchinson scored after ten minutes in my first game in 1974 and Willian did exactly the same for Ben in 2015.

Alan and myself attempted the Hampshire burr of cricket commentator John Arlott as we went through our “come on my little diamonds / they’ll have to come at us now” routine.

Chances were rare. Oscar and Eden Hazard struggled to find the target. Southampton burst through our ranks on several occasions. Sadio Mane was booked for diving. On more than one occasion, the alert Asmir Begovic saved our blushes.

However, a certain amount of sleepiness in our defence allowed Pelle to chest down for Davis to strike a low drive past Begovic.

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

Southampton bossed the early moments of the second period. They are a fine team these days and they continually exposed the increasing self-doubt within our team. Then came a major talking point. Fabregas played in Falcao, who stretched to go past the Southampton ‘keeper, but fell. A penalty was not given, but the referee added insult to injury and booked Falcao for simulation. Our Colombian beat the Stamford Bridge turf in frustration.

The visitors were on the front foot now and several periods of Keystone Cops defending from our back line began to turn an already edgy Stamford Bridge crowd over the edge. With too much ease, Mane broke through after we lost possession, twisting past the recalled Terry to score.

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

Hazard, so obviously lacking any sort of confidence, gave the ball away and Southampton broke with pace. There was a feeling that this break would result in another goal. The ball was played outside to Pelle, who struck a low shot past Begovic from an angle. It was no more than Southampton deserved.

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

I was just surprised that consistently underperforming Fabregas managed to avoid the manager’s axe yet again. Of all the disappointments this season, Cesc must rank as one of the biggest. Despite us losing 3-1, and despite hundreds of Chelsea supporters having vacated their seats, I was really pleased with the way that most Chelsea fans responded.

First of all, though, I noted a few hundred Chelsea fans in the Matthew Harding Lower singing – to my annoyance – “we’re fucking shit” and I really am lost for words to explain that.  However, a far greater number throughout both levels of the MH really got behind the team with rousing renditions of several Chelsea favourites. The noise boomed around Stamford Bridge and I so hoped that the watching millions around the globe could hear us.

Although we came at Southampton towards the end, a goal never really looked like coming.

So, no surprises, at the final whistle, there were loud boos.

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

We’re in a bad moment together and we’ll hopefully get out of it together too.

If we lose a few of our number along the way, so be it.

I have no logical reasons for our current malaise and I am not sure that many fellow Chelsea fans do either. We are a team so obviously low on confidence, and without that elusive “spark.” However, as I said to one or two others on the walk back to the car, it doesn’t really matter.

“I’ll be here next game, and the one after.”

However, it saddened me to receive a text from Ian later in the evening to say that Ben cried his eyes out at the end of the game.

At the age of eight, my first game, I would have done the same.

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Tales From Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 3 December 2014.

In my book, there is no bigger game each season than Chelsea vs. Tottenham. This was a match that I had been relishing for a while. Midway through my working day, the excitement was rising with each “match-day thought” that entered my mind. There were the usual nerves, too. I’m more nervous about Spurs at home than any other. There’s that unbeaten run – stretching back to 1990-1991 – which needed to be preserved. I am sure that other Chelsea fans would only be happy at 9.30pm with a win, but I was a little more pragmatic;

Anything but a loss please Ye Footballing Gods.

That is not to say that I was unduly worried too much.

The only negative thought fluttering in and out of my consciousness as the hours raced by was the thought that our team would be missing Diego Costa.

I wondered who Jose Mourinho would turn to.

Didier Drogba?

Loic Remy?

Only time would tell.

When I left the office at 3.30pm, there was a supreme sense of joy that I would soon be on the road with three good friends – Glenn, PD and Lord Parky – and an evening’s football lie ahead.

To paraphrase Tommy Johnson – “Tottenham At Home – Love It.”

PD, bless him, kindly volunteered for driving duties and so I was able to relax a little. The four of us had enjoyed the From The Jam gig in Frome ten days previously and our spirits were buoyed by a cracking ‘eighties compilation CD which accompanied our trip east. I remember mentioning to somebody at the gig that there was a spell a few years ago that as soon as we hit the traffic at Hammersmith, The Jam would always seem to be playing on my CD player. On this occasion, PD had changed the CD and to a “Suggs Selection” and, yes – lo and behold – as soon as we neared the church underneath the M4, “Beat Surrender” came on.

“Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.
Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.

All the things that I care about.
Are packed into one punch.
All the things that I’m not sure about.
Are sorted out at once.

And as it was in the beginning.
So shall it be in the end.
That bullshit is bullshit.
It just goes by different names.”

We were parked just before 6pm and The Goose was predictably heaving.

As soon as I walked in, I was pleased to meet up with Danny and his girlfriend Sonja. I got to know Danny , who hails from the wonderfully named Rancho Cucamonga in California – through my trips to the US over the past ten seasons and I first met him – to talk to – in Texas in 2009. This was his third trip over to England to see the boys play – he was at Sunderland on Saturday – but this was Sonja’s inaugural visit to London and England. I introduced them to my closest Chelsea mates and I had to smile when Sonja exclaimed that she was the “token female.” I quickly looked up and scanned the pub. Of course, Sonja wasn’t wrong. In a pub full of Chelsea fans, no more than 5% were female. I presume this came as a slight shock to Sonja. It reminded me of a similar comment by another American female last season who was amazed by the lack of the fairer sex in and around the pubs at Chelsea.

I quickly remembered some of my many visits to various baseball stadia – plus the Chelsea games I have seen too – in the US over the years. There were, indeed, many more females at the games in the US than there are at football in the UK. No time for too much social commentary on this, but I would suggest that this shows that football is still predominantly a male preserve in the UK.

In Chelsea’s case, it remains a preserve of middle-aged men with receding hairlines and a predilection for trainers, polo-shirts, lager and taking the piss out of each other.

Proper.

As we left the pub on a cold, but thankfully not bitter, evening, we all wanted to make sure that we were in the stadium well in advance of the minute of appreciation and applause for our former manager John Neal, who sadly passed away at the age of 82 the day after our last home game against West Brom.

There was a nice piece devoted to John Neal in the night’s programme. He was a much-loved man by us Chelsea fans of a certain generation.  I only met him in person on one occasion. Back in the autumn of 1995, Chelsea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1970 F.A. Cup win with a pre-match gathering of former players in the bar which used to be called “Drake’s” (named after our 1955 Championship-winning manager). In those days, only CPO share-holders were allowed in to “Drake’s” (which nestles under the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding, but is renamed these days and is, presumably, one of the many corporate suites at Stamford Bridge). On that particular day – before a game with Southampton – Chelsea legends such as Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris attracted the attention of the Chelsea fans in attendance. Away in a quiet booth – I can picture it now – sat John Neal and his assistant manager Ian McNeill, quietly eating a meal, generally being ignored by the majority. A few fans dropped in to say “hello” – I am sure that it was John Neal’s first visit back to Stamford Bridge since his early retirement in the mid-‘eighties – but I was shocked that these two figures from our relatively recent past were being generally shunned.

My only conclusion was that the Chelsea fans present were so in awe of the heralded 1970 team, that the appearance of John and Ian was – wrongly, of course – overlooked.

I made sure that I said a few words of welcome and gratitude and was very pleased that they allowed me to have my photograph taken with the quietly spoken former manager and his trusted Scottish assistant. I did – to be blunt – wonder why the two of them had been invited on a day when a different team was being honoured. In retrospect, the two should have had been the centrepiece of a ten year anniversary of the 1983-1984 season a year previously, but that is a moment lost forever.

Looking back, John Neal had a very mixed reign as Chelsea manager. He joined us after a spell as the Middlesbrough manager, and his teams were relatively steady, occasionally entertaining, but playing to low attendances in the First Division. Chelsea, in 1981, were dire and entrenched in the Second Division. I remember being hardly enamoured by his appointment. I can easily recollect attending John Neal’s first ever league game as Chelsea manager in August 1981 and the photograph of him on the front cover of the programme, standing proudly by the newly-adorned Chelsea crest above the tunnel, is quite an iconic image. After two years of poor performances, narrowly avoiding relegation in 1983, it is – with hindsight – a miracle that Chelsea maintained the services of John Neal over the summer of 1983.

1983-1984 was a different story of course. We plundered the lower leagues for talent during the close-season and John Neal’s true worth as a man-manager bore fruit from the very first game. For anyone who was at the 5-0 annihilation of promotion favourites Derby County, wasn’t it fantastic?

Kerry Dixon scored twice, we triumphed 5-0 and the tube was literally bouncing back to Earl’s Court after that one.

John Neal – for that 1983-1984 season alone – must rank as one of my favourite Chelsea managers.

It is a shame that we never saw him back at Stamford Bridge over the past twenty years or so. I believe that he suffered from dementia towards the end.

The Boys In Blue From Division Two would have loved to have said “thanks” one more time.

Thankfully, the timings were fine and I was inside Stamford Bridge with five minute to spare. As I stepped inside the seating area, I noticed that the main flood lights had been dimmed and, instead, the advertising boards were shining bright along with smaller strip lighting in and around the stadium. It was a scene which was quite similar to the pre-match routine at Manchester City a few seasons back, with the lights dimmed and blue moons appearing on the TV screens.

It looked stunning to be honest – other worldly – though my immediate reaction was “what the bloody hell is this, more contrived nonsense?”

The two teams appeared from the tunnel, but the lights were still dimmed. Only when all the players were walking on the deep green sward of the pitch were the main lights turned on.

Another full house, though the Tottenham section took forever to fill.

The two sets of players assembled in the centre-circle and Neil Barnett spoke. The minute of applause in memory of John Neal, bless him, was loud and heart-felt. A chant of “Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

God bless you, John.

Of course, Jose Mourinho had decided on Didier Drogba to lead the line. My choice would have been the nimbler Loic Remy, but – once again – what do I know?

Right then, game on, and a near twenty-five year record to defend.

We had agreed in the chuckle bus on the drive to London that Tottenham were a “hot and cold” team thus far this season. In the first twenty minutes, they were warmer than us. Harry Kane (“he’s one of our own” sang the away fans, as if it mattered) threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal with a header which rattled the crossbar. The same player twisted away from Gary Cahill and screwed a shot wide. My pre-match nerves were seemingly vindicated. It took a while for a Chelsea player to threaten the Spurs goal; a Cesc Fabregas shot curled into Loris’ clasp.

At around 8.02pm, I decided to take a comfort break.

At around 8.04pm, I approached the refreshment stand with a pie in my sights. I glanced up at the TV set above the servers (blimey, imagine that in 1983 – a TV set by the tea bar) and spotted Eden Hazard clean through. Before he had struck the ball, I heard the roar of the crowd. The TV had a split-second time delay and I then saw the ball flash past Loris into the net.

I returned back to Alan and Glenn with a chicken and mushroom pie and a very big smile on my face.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Before I could let it all sink in, Oscar had tee’d up Didier – mmm, maybe offside? – who calmly slotted the ball past Loris.

2-0 to Chelsea and my magic pie had done the trick.

I confided in Alan…”you know, to be honest, over the years…there have been times when Tottenham have played pretty well here. How they have never beaten us here is a mystery. And here they are again. Playing well, but now 2-0 down. I know we say we hate Spurs, but they must fucking loathe us.”

Alan agreed.

And then we both smiled.

The highs and lows of the rest of the half?

The high was a sublime volleyed cross field ball by Fabregas to Hazard – I think – which was pinpoint perfect and with just the right amount of dip and fade.

The low was me finishing my magic pie; no more goals ensued.

The noise was pretty decent in the first forty-five minutes, though the volume noticeably fell away towards the end.

At half time, two stalwarts from the John Neal era were on the pitch with Neil Barnett; Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman. Nevin is still much revered, Spackman not so, after his sporadic comments about his spell at Liverpool and a few thinly-disguised digs at Chelsea.

Neil then spoke about “two girls from America – Lisa and Sonja (yes, that Sonja) who are at Stamford Bridge for the first time tonight, with their blokes Joe and Danny (yes, that Danny)…enjoy the match.” There was a picture of Joe and Lisa in the programme; I remembered Joe from a few pre-season tours too.

A nice touch. I texted Danny to see if Sonja was OK.

“Sonja is singing more than the chaps in the row in front.”

Good work.

Prior to the second-half, Kurt Zouma replaced Gary Cahill, who had battled on after an early collision with Vertonghen, but who was obviously unable to resume.

Nemanja Matic, possibly my player of the season thus far, was stupidly booked for a clumsy challenge on Kane.

“Silly Alan. Just silly. We’re two-up, for heavens’ sake. What’s the likelihood of them scoring from that move? 5%? Silly challenge.”

The Spurs dirge “Oh When The Spurs…” was roundly booed, but there wasn’t a great deal of Chelsea noise to take its place.

Tottenham were continuing to have a lot of the ball, but on the instances when we picked them off and moved forward we just looked more cohesive. Drogba shot from outside the box, but it was an easy save for Loris. Jose then replaced Didier with Remy. We enjoyed some sublime twists and shimmies from Eden Hazard throughout the night. I enjoyed the energy of Willian too. With around twenty minutes remaining, Dave played in Remy inside the box. Showing great strength to hold off Vertonghen, he nimbly side-stepped a challenge and passed the ball into the Spurs goal.

3-0 and the game was safe.

Fantastic stuff.

1 December 1990 to 3 December 2014.

25 games, 25 seasons, undefeated.

15-10-0

In the south-east corner, there was a fire-drill.

Happy days.

We saw off the last minutes of the game with the minimum of fuss, though the news of Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Sunderland was disappointing. As, of course, was the news that Arsenal had beaten Southampton 1-0 with a goal in the very last minute.

Not to worry. We’re the ones to catch.

Let’s keep this beautiful thing going.

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Tales From The Group Of Death

Chelsea vs. Shakhtar Donetsk : 7 November 2012.

This game was my fifty-sixth Champions League game at Stamford Bridge and there have been few which have turned out to be more dramatic. In fact, this one turned out to be one of the most dramatic home games that I have ever seen.

Well, since last Wednesday, anyway.

Parky was back in the fold again and he accompanied me on my Wednesday evening drive to the city. As part payment, he plied me with a Cornish pasty and a Coke. In return, I made sure we were safely was parked up at 6.30pm.

I have mentioned before that my mate Simon is heavily involved in the shooting of a film and he had been in touch during the week in the search for a specific prop. He was in need of an old style, pre-modern badge Chelsea pennant to hang in the front of a car. He asked a few of us if we could come up with anything. I had a rummage around. I was successful.

The pennant race was over. Inside The Goose, I handed over a rather tattered plastic pennant with wonky lettering from around 1970. I said I wanted a mention in the film credits. The filming starts on Saturday and Simon is in for a very intense four week period. The game against Shakhtar will be his last for a while. I’m not too sure what the film’s plot entails, but it stars Aiden Gillen from “The Wire.” There will be one scene to be shot inside a boozer and all of us were hoping to be involved in that, but Simon told us that the date for that particular scene was a Wednesday. The Wednesday, in fact, of the last Champions League group phase game, when we play the team from Denmark with the unpronounceable name.

So, we will miss out on being involved in the film. A shame. We’re good in pubs.

I endeavoured to make it inside for the kick-off. It was a close-run thing. A large line at the MHU turnstiles meant that I missed the teams coming out onto the pitch, but thankfully I made the start. I ran through the team and there were a few changes from our trip to Swansea. The biggest surprise was the omission of John Terry. There were only a few empty seats in the away section. It held around 1,300 Ukrainians. This far surpassed our following in Donetsk which was in the 150-250 range. I have no doubt that the 1,300 in the south-east corner were bolstered by many Ukrainians who now call London home. It is, after all, the most cosmopolitan of all European cities.

I had a quick scan of the match programme. There was a little preview of our game on November 20th in Turin when we play Juventus. Unbeknown to me, the Piedmont capital is twinned with the city of Detroit, due mainly to both cities’ links to the motor industry. Soon into the game, I received a text message from my mate Tullio in Turin to say that he had managed to secure a ticket for the match. Just as in 2009, we will be watching our two teams play against each other. I have known Tullio since 1981. More of that later.

We began like a team possessed. After only a few minutes, Oscar sent over an absolutely fantastic cross from wide on the right wing. Not only was it played with perfect depth and precision, but it even dropped right on the six yard box, making the goalkeeper Pyatov have to judge the immediate bounce of the ball. An onrushing Fernando Torres was only inches away from connecting. The keeper then failed to read a back pass and Torres charged down his poor attempted clearance. By the time the ball had crossed the line, the Stamford Bridge crowd were roaring and Fernando Torres was running down to Parkyville in wild celebration.

Get in!

It was Fernando Torres’ nineteenth Chelsea goal and – yes, here we go again – I have seen every one of them.

Alan – in a generic Slavic accent:

“They will have to come at us now.”

Chris – similarly:

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Almost immediately after, Torres broke free and almost scored a second, but his shot was parried. Crazily, Shakhtar equalised in the very next move. Fernandinho – possibly some lost relative of the gruesome twosome from Peckham – was allowed to cross from the right and a virtually unmarked Willian easily prodded home.

Game on.

There was no denying it; our visitors – wearing a bright orange and black kit – played some superb football in the first-half. Their play reminded me of our home game with Manchester City last December, when they made us look like fools in the first half. Their passing and movement was excellent. But, equally so, our defending was shocking. We gifted their playmakers far too much room and continually failed to close down the man with the ball. That’s a cardinal sin in my book. In particular, though I hate to single him out, Ryan Bertrand was continually out of position. Mistakes were being made all over the pitch though. We seemed to be half-asleep. We were sloppy.

Alan and I gave a running commentary throughout.

“Come on Ramires, that’s poor…Ivanovic, what are you doing…come on Cech, talk to your defenders…oh God, Luiz, just clear it…Ryan, watch your marker…come on boys…get in the game, Oscar…get stuck in Torres…Mata looks knackered.”

We agreed that Mikel was the one player holding firm and doing his job well.

Cech scrambled away a quickly-taken corner which caught everyone unawares. Eden Hazard found Torres, who nimbly turned on a sixpence but hit the side-netting. Teixera was narrowly wide with a low drive which zipped low past Cech’s right hand post. There was no denying it, Shakhtar were mustard.

Before the game, it was obvious that this would be a tough one. In theory, we had to win it. Of course, a lot depended on the Juventus game. If they dropped points, could we –just – afford to also? The news came through that Juve were ahead.

Porca Dio.

Oh boy. Anyone who thought that this would be an easy qualification group was wrong. This was as tough a group that I have known.

Italian Champions, Ukrainian Champions, European Champions.

Forget faltering Manchester City’s group. Here was 2012’s Group of Death.

This was a quiet and definitely nervy Stamford Bridge. We were too edgy to sing many songs. The MHL were all standing – a good sign – but there was hardly any noise. I watched with gritted teeth. I sensed that my face must’ve been a picture.

“Look at that miserable bastard.”

My face changed on forty minutes. A Mata ball was headed away by the Donetsk ‘keeper, who was under pressure from Ivanovic, of all people. The ball fell right at Oscar, but he chose not to take a touch and control the ball. He knew that the ‘keeper was stranded on the edge of his box, so he decided to act quickly. He side-swiped a volley back over the doomed ‘keeper and we all watched, amazed, as the ball flew into the net.

YES!

We could hardly believe it. It was a magnificent strike and the crowd thundered. Oscar ran towards The Shed and his delirious team mates soon joined him. I remember a similar lob from distance from the late David Rocastle in the Viktoria Zizkov game in 1994.

At the break, we knew that we were extremely lucky to be ahead. Tore Andre Flo was on the pitch at the break. We all loved him down at Chelsea, though at first he looked gangly and was unconvincing. His two goals at Real Betis in 1998 turned him into an instant Chelsea folk hero.

Well, lamentably, we were still asleep at the start of the second. A quick move by the visitors and the ball was crashed low into the box by Srna. That man Willian was there again to pounce.

2-2.

Bollocks.

With Juventus wining easily, things were looking desperate and my face mirrored the situation. Frown lines appeared and my hair grew even greyer.

For the next forty minutes, Chelsea fought to get a grip on the game. Chances were created, but the tension grew as each minute passed with no goal. Jon Obi Mikel shot over and then Shaktar countered with a long shot from distance with thudded against the base of Cech’s post. Mikel then scored, but the linesman had flagged early for offside. Ramires, after a poor first period, was back to his old self, tackling with perfect timing and balance, charging forward with gusto.

On 73 minutes, Eden Hazard – who was becoming more and more involved – sent a ball through for Ramires. His run was perfectly timed and he looked confident and strong. Just as he was about to pull the trigger he fell to the floor and we all expected the Spanish referee to blow. To our consternation, he waved play on.

I was so angry, I couldn’t speak.

I sat down and put my head in my hands.

Had I miss-read what I had just seen? Am I so blindly partisan that I immediately think that any challenge against a Chelsea player is a foul? Am I that far out-of-touch?

No. It was a penalty.

The home crowd erupted in displeasure.

Here we go again.

The game continued on and I spent a lot of my time clock-watching. It’s always the same when we are chasing the game.

“I’m surprised there’s been no subs, Al.”

We tried to engineer our way through the orange and black rear guard. The Shakhtar defence were giants. Oscar was replaced by Moses.

The quote of the night came from Alan alongside me after a Shakhtar player had stayed down too long after a Chelsea challenge.

“Get up you radioactive cnut.”

We had a lot of corners. Obi wide with a volley. Cahill over from a corner. The tension mounted. In truth, the visitors had not been so much of a threat in the second period. They were obviously happy with a share in the spoils. And yet, they had a flurry of half-chances in the very last minute as the game was agonisingly stretched. I was aging by the minute.

The referee signalled three extra minutes. I sighed once again. We would have to go Turin and win.

We were mired in third position with only five points from twelve.

Sorry, Tullio. Sorry, Mario. Needs must.

On 93 minutes, Alan rose and said “well, in light of what happened last week, I’m off. See you Sunday.”

“See you Sunday, Al.”

A few seconds later, we won a corner and the crowd roared our support. Juan Mata walked over to take it. I held my camera and centered on the action. I focussed. I saw Mata strike the ball well.

Bloody hell, that’s a great corner – that’s right on the money.

Click.

I caught the leap of Victor Moses. My photograph caught that moment in time of when the ball is but a foot away from his forehead and is on its way.

I watched as the ball crashed into the goal and the net bulged.

The net bulged.

Anyone who is into football will know that feeling.

The net bulged.

YEEEEEEEEEES! GET IN!

I was bubbling over again, but captured the resultant race of the players alongside and behind Moses as he ran towards the NE corner. One photo has Pyatov hacking the ball away disconsolately. I immediately turned back to my right and saw Alan racing back towards me, his face an absolute picture, his fist clenched.

YES!

There was a massive celebration taking place on the far side. Moses was engulfed by fellow team mates and the moment seemed to last forever.

Within seconds of the restart, the Spanish referee blew for time.

We had done it again. Bloody hell.

There was a predictable mood of euphoria as the teams left the pitch, but also one of bewilderment. Two consecutive Wednesdays, two consecutive nights of high drama, two games where goals were scored in the 94th minute.

Oh boy.

There are no doubts that the visitors were desperately unlucky not to at least draw. Over the two games, they were by far the better team. In fact, had the two games been played in the knockout phase, Chelsea would be out, since the Ukrainians scored more away goals than us.

But we kept battling, we kept going. The Chelsea of old has not been completely dismantled. For once, let’s look on the bright side. Let’s wallow in the positives. We didn’t give up. Full credit to us for that.

Liverpool – be warned.

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Tales From Roger’s Big Night Out

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 31 October 2012.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

The substantial debris from the game on Sunday was still falling all around us as I anticipated the Capital One game at HQ. After the ridiculously high-scoring Reading vs. Arsenal game on Tuesday plus Chelsea and United’s predilection for attacking football, I was expecting another entertaining contest. As the afternoon progressed, I spoke about the game at work and I remember mentioning to a colleague “it won’t be 0-0.”

After having driven to all but a couple of the Chelsea games over the past two seasons, salvation was at hand. My mate Roger had volunteered to collect me from work and take on the burden of rush-hour traffic and the battle against inclement weather conditions. We left Chippenham at 4pm and, unfortunately, it wasn’t too long into the drive that the rain arrived. As Roger drove east, we spent most of the trip to London reminiscing on past Chelsea memories.

I used to work with Roger at a factory in Trowbridge from 1996 to 1998, but after he moved away to Devon a few years ago, I lost contact with him. I was elated to bump into him outside The Pelican pub at Chelsea before the game with Tottenham two years ago. We couldn’t remember if we had ever travelled up to a game together. I don’t think we had. I know that Roger joined a few friends and I on a stadium tour of Stamford Bridge in the summer of 1997. We laughed at the memory of him stealing a scrubbing brush from the home changing room. He still claims to this day that it belonged to Dennis Wise. He might even have it framed.

By a strange quirk of fate, our first two Chelsea games took place within three weeks of each other in the early spring of 1974. Roger told me how he managed to cajole his school teacher, Mrs. Fry – a keen Chelsea fan – to take him and his school friend to Stamford Bridge for their first game. On February 22 1974, young Roger – aged eleven – watched from the seats in the architectural oddity that was the North Stand as Chelsea and Queens Park Rangers drew 3-3. I made my home debut against Newcastle United in mid-March. Between the dates of the two games, Peter Osgood left Chelsea for Southampton. It is a major sadness that I never saw my childhood hero play for us.

Roger mentioned a few matches from that era. One game in which our paths collided was the March 1975 game against Derby County. We lost 2-1 to the eventual League Champions on that rainy day, but the memory which stayed strong in Roger’s mind was the presence of the Marching Mizzou band of the University of Missouri who entertained the crowd before the game. I vividly remember their bright yellow uniforms. They memorably sat in the otherwise unused (and quite possibly unsafe) seats in the upper tier of the ramshackle North Stand and I can well remember them bursting into life, unannounced, on several occasions during the game. In the Sunday Express paper the next day, I recollect the Derby manager Dave Mackay moaning about the sudden eruptions of sound which emanated from the stands during the game.

I reminded him of his Chelsea lottery win during the dark days of the 1982-1983 season. He had told me about this while we were working together. He told me how Chris Hutchings presented him with his prize before one game and how the photograph of this was featured in a later home programme. I remember delving through my programme collection and bringing it in to show him. At the time, Roger used to sell around three hundred lottery tickets on Hounslow High Street during the week before every home game. On one particular day, his brother helped himself to a ticket from the large pile in Roger’s living room. Roger asked him to pay the 25p for it, but his brother declined. Roger was livid. The ticket was rubbed away to reveal the prize of another “free” ticket. Roger swore at his brother and said –

“Well, you’re not having another. I’m having it.”

With that, Roger picked the next ticket in the pile. He rubbed it to reveal, to his immense satisfaction, a prize of £1,000, which was a huge sum thirty years ago. Imagine the look on his brother’s face. He even got an extra 10% as he was the lottery seller.

“Happy days, Mush.”

The traffic slowed around Maidenhead and my hopes for a couple of pints in the boozer before the game were diminishing quickly. The rain worsened too.

“Not so happy days, Dodger.”

We spoke about a few of the characters that we used to work with in Trowbridge, but the talk soon returned to Chelsea. Roger was clearly relishing the game against United. I’ve often thought how key defeats against Manchester United have, in a way, acted as spurs for later triumphs.

Think back to 1994. A truly demoralising 4-0 loss to United in our first F.A. Cup Final in twenty-three years left us shell-shocked and tearful. Yet, just three seasons later, the memory of two Eric Cantona penalties amid the rain of Wembley were forgotten as we finally got our hands on some silverware, beating Middlesbrough 2-0 in the same competition.

Think back to 1999. We only lost three games during the 1998-1999 league campaign, yet finished in third place behind the eventual champions Manchester United. After that, I was convinced that we would never win the league in my lifetime. We had reached our level. Just three defeats, yet no title. Just three years later, in 2005, we lost just one game all season long and became league champions for the first time in fifty years.

Think back to 2008. We had to endure the misery of Moscow with an excruciatingly painful defeat by Manchester United in the Champions League Final. Our greatest ever team, perhaps just past its prime, would surely never reach the final again. We lost out on the ultimate prize in European football by the width of a post and the splash of a puddle. Four years later in Munich, our beloved club won the Champions League for the first time ever.

In each of these triumphs, the joy of victory was made substantially sweeter due to the memory of those anguished defeats by Manchester United a few years previously. Additionally, with each trophy successfully attained, the next trophy was to be more prestigious. The F.A. Cup lead to the League and then to the European Cup. It seems, now, with the perspective of time, that we were following a natural order of progression. And it certainly seems that it was ordained in the stars that we would encounter pain and defeat in our quest for glory. With hindsight, that beautiful gift, I am fine with this. Everyone knows that the best things in life are worth the wait.

West London seemed especially dark and gloomy as Roger drove around the Hammersmith roundabout before heading down the Fulham Palace Road. We parked up on Bramber Road at 6.45pm. It had been a long journey in, but it had been excellent catching up with Roger. Inside The Goose, the team news had just been announced. I was very happy to hear that Robbie had chosen a strong team. I couldn’t stomach losing twice in four days to The Pride of Asia.

We had twenty minutes to drink-up in the boozer. There was just time for one pint again. A quick chat with a few mates. Rush, rush, rush.

“Let’s make a move, Rog.”

“No worries, Mush.”

There was light drizzle outside the West Stand turnstiles. The line at the Matthew Harding turnstiles meant that I missed the kick-off for the first time this season, if only by a minute.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United.

Seconds out, round two.

Ding ding.

As always, one of my first tasks of the game was a quick scan at the size and nature of the away support. The United masses took up 6,000 seats in both tiers of The Shed, though every single one was standing. No surprises there. The entire Matthew Harding Lower were standing too. There were around fifteen flags draped over the Shed balcony. One especially caught my attention.

“Clattenburg. Referee. Leader. Legend.”

Despite my Chelsea allegiance, that brought a wry chuckle.

There was an ironic flag, in Dundee United tangerine and black, honouring a much-maligned purchase that Alex Ferguson made from that club in around 1988.

“Ralph Milne Ultras.”

For a short period of time, a group of fans hoisted this one –

“Chelsea F.C. – Making a stand against racism since Sunday.”

Ouch.

There were a smattering of flags with musical references too, including one which honoured the drug of choice of the Mancunian ravers in the days of house music in the late ‘eighties and early ‘nineties.

“MD MDA MDMA OK.”

Football and music are so often entwined. At Chelsea, we have our own “London Calling” and “One Step Beyond” flags, of course, honouring the Chelsea-supporting lead singers of The Clash and Madness.

Roger was to my left, Alan and Tom to my right. We wondered what events might unravel this time. None of us could have predicted what ensued on the night of Halloween, Wednesday 31st. October 2012. It was one for the ages. If Sunday’s game “had it all”, then this one had the same, though strangely, in the circumstances, no sendings-off.

A timeline of events tells the story.

6 – Daniel Sturridge, at last the lone striker, was played in with only Lindegaard to beat, but experienced a Torresesque slip in front of goal. It was also in front of the baying United fans, who had already mocked him with taunts of being a City reject.

The away fans began the game where they left off on Sunday; a wall of noise. The Chelsea fans rose to the challenge, though, and songs were exchanged with gusto. Not surprisingly, one issue was soon the subject –

“Where’s your racist at the back?”

“Where’s your racist referee?”

I didn’t bother joining in.

22 – I was busy checking my camera and so missed the error by Oriel Romeu, put under too much pressure by a silly Petr Cech pass, which resulted in Ryan Giggs picking up the loose ball and adroitly steering the ball into the goal. Cech seemed crestfallen and the Mancs roared.

Here we go again. If anything, it was against the run of play. Victor Moses was the star of our first-half, running the channels, strong on the ball, full of endeavour. Top marks to him.

31 – That man Moses attacked the United full-back Buttner and a foul resulted in a Chelsea penalty. David Luiz, one of the Munich Five, calmly slotted the ball low past the ‘keeper.

Game on.

43 – A typical David Luiz dribble out of defence, involving one touch too many resulted in him losing the ball. The United players pounced and eventually played in Chicarito, who again scored at the north end. No taunting celebrations this time. A pink flare was lit by the United fans. The Chelsea stewards seemed to take forever to extinguish it. The United fans were baying again. One ran onto the pitch, his arms flailing like a maniac.

There’s a five year ban straight away.

“We’re Man United. We do what we want.”

Run on the pitch you mean? Idiots.

It was a desperate way to end the half.

We had played reasonably well during the first period, but it was galling to be losing to errors of our own making. Lucas Piazon was struggling to get in the game, but elsewhere we were fine. However, Di Matteo replaced the under-scrutiny Mikel with Ramires at the break.

49 – A quick Juan Mata corner caught everyone unawares, but the unmarked Sturridge attempted an outrageous flick inside the six yard box where an old-fashioned header would have brought greater rewards. There were howls of disapproval from the Matthew Harding. Studge clearly has issues in selecting the correct option at times. He is so frustrating.

52 – A Juan Mata corner was met powerfully by the head of Gary Cahill. The ball crossed the line before a United defender had the chance to hook it away. The Bridge was roaring once more.

59 – A great United move found Nani who clipped the ball past Cech. The goal was against run of play and left us trailing 3-2 once more. Eden Hazard replaced the quiet Piazon.

65 – After a short corner, Hazard picked out Victor Moses, but he headed over.

68 – A Juan Mata cross, deep to the far post, found an unmarked and onrushing Azpilicueta, but his header infuriatingly flew over. Roger moaned “what do they teach you? Head it down!” Oscar replaced Romeu. The three maestros were back together again.

72 – Oscar played the ball to Mata and his shot struck the hand of Keane. The ball had travelled a good five yards and the defender surely could have moved his arm away. The referee waved play on. Shades of Barca in 2009? You bet. We howled with derision and I turned the air blew.

75 – Victor Moses shot straight at the United goalie. Things were getting very frustrating indeed. Our efforts could not be doubted, though.

I commented to Tom that “no matter who wins, we’ve played really well in this game.”

83 – Daniel Sturridge shot was saved. The groans continued.

85 – An Oscar shot from distance was parried, unconvincingly, by Lindegaard.

The Manchester United contingent were now sensing victory and another 3-2 triumph.

“Can we play you every week?” they taunted.

Oh, how I wanted to ram that down their throats.

87 – I turned to Alan and Tom and reluctantly admitted “we won’t win this, lads.”

Three minutes of extra time were signalled. The game played on. The minutes passed.

93 – I saw the referee twice put the whistle to his mouth. On the second occasion, Alan and Tom were leaving their seats.

“See you Saturday, pal.”

To be honest, I thought the referee had whistled.

“Oh, he’s not blown.”

The ball was worked inside the box and it found Ramires on the edge. A push in the back and the referee, bless him, pointed straight at the spot. I turned around and screamed, clenching my fists tightly. Who should be staring straight at me but 75 year old Tom, screaming away, looking me right in the eyes, with a face that Edvard Munch would have been proud to paint.

Euphoria.

The game was surely no more than five seconds away from its completion. The fans who had been leaving suddenly sat on any available seat. This time it was Eden Hazard who decided to take a shot from the penalty spot.

We waited.

YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES!!!

Oh my. What a game. The place was rocking. I turned to Tom and said “that was more than three minutes.”

Tom, the quiet pensioner, smiled at me and, quite out of nature, barked back –

“I don’t give a fcuk!”

I had to laugh.

The period of extra-time began.

“No early night tonight, Dodge.”

“No, Mush.”

3 – For the second time, Sturridge shot from a ridiculously acute angle. If that lad was half as good as he thought he was, we’d be in business.

7 – I was lamenting Eden Hazard’s poorly directed long ball and looked away, only for the roars of the crowd to tell me that Studge had pounced on a loose ball. We stood as one as he calmly rounded the ‘keeper in front of the away fans and slotted the ball in. The ball rolled in and Stamford Bridge exploded.

For Sturridge, the “City reject”, this must have been oh-so sweet,

10 – Luiz and Nani were booked after an ugly altercation down below me. We responded with the funniest song of the night.

“You’re just a shit Michael Jackson.”

12 – Gary Cahill headed a whisker wide of the unguarded far post. The United fans were now quiet, their banners limp.

14 – A foul on Sturridge by the last man just outside the box had us all howling again. Why not a red? From the free-kick, David Luiz rattled the bar and United’s spirits.

What a game. Breathless stuff. The three substitutes had given new life, extra spirit, to the team. Oscar was simply exceptional.

Tom said “I have to keep lookin’ up to the scoreboard to remind me of the score.” It was the same for me during that equally crazy 4-4 with Liverpool in 2009.

19 – Daniel Sturridge twice shot over from similar angles within a minute.

21 – Studge played in the continually excellent Moses, but his effort was saved when it looked easier to score.

26 – The ball broke to Eden Hazard breaking clear. We all rose as one as he advanced. I raised my camera to capture his dribble deep into the United half. He stopped and spun, then dinked the ball into the path of Ramires. He drew the ‘keeper, then waltzed past him before angling a shot low into the goal.

FIVE-THREE.

Rather belatedly, Alan grabbed me and said –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

Laughing, I replied “COME ON MY LITTLE DIAMONDS!”

30 – At the other end, Azpilicueta pushed into a United player and Ryan Giggs, the aging talisman, stroked the ball in from the penalty.

5-4. Bloody hell.

31 – Hazard raced away and almost made it 6-3, but he shot wide. The look on Roger the Dodger’s face was a picture.

Before the match, during the long drive to London, Roger asked me to name my favourite ever game. An easy answer would be those three games from 1997, 2005 and 2012, but he really meant “the most entertaining game.” I cited the 4-2 game with Barcelona in 2005, whereas Roger went with a 4-3 win over Tottenham in 1994. As we left the stadium, I asked him if this game might even topple that one.

The two sets of supporters mixed on Fulham Road, but there was a heavy police presence. The Chelsea fans were exultant. We were buzzing. As Roger and I walked away from the ground, we could hardly contain ourselves. It had been a fantastic night of football. The last three Chelsea vs. United games at Stamford Bridge, all in 2012, had produced no fewer than twenty goals.

My mate Glenn, watching in a pub full of United diehards back home in Frome, soon texted the news of the quarter finals.

“Leeds away.”

I quickly decided that this would be one game too far for me. I just don’t have enough spare holiday left. No big deal. Elland Road on a cold winter Wednesday is not going to be one of the most welcoming places in the world.

Roger had to endure even worse weather on the drive back to Chippenham. I felt for him. Our spirits were up though. No bother. He dropped me off at work at 12.30am and I was home at 1am. He had to drive back to Paignton in Devon and it would be a further two hours before he would reach home.

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Tales From A Perfect Sunday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 15 April 2012.

The stakes were high. Chelsea versus Tottenham in the semi-final at Wembley. In our lives as Chelsea supporters, they really do not get much bigger than this. There were sub-plots aplenty for this game, but the simple truth was that revenge and retaliation was in the air. With our dominance over Spurs in the league since 1990, it is hard to believe that there is any revenge left to seek, but scratch the surface and there is plenty.

Let’s talk about the F.A. Cup Final of 1967; the first (and incorrectly dubbed) “Cockney Final” and a 2-1 loss. Of course, none of my friends were present at that one, but the memory is there in our collective psyche. There is 1982; the Quarter Final this time. Chelsea were a struggling second tier team and Spurs were the F.A. Cup holders, full of top players and swagger. A Micky Fillery goal gave us hope before the break, but the visitors agonisingly came back to beat us. I remember listening at home to the action on the old BBC Radio Two, staring at the swirls on the living room carpet, living every horrible minute of Spurs’ gut-wrenching come-back. It was as horrible a defeat as I can remember. And then there was 2008 and the Carling Cup Final defeat. This match was horrendous; a Drogba free-kick against the run of play, but then the eventual Spurs comeback and a 2-1 loss. Spurs out-sung us completely on the day; and it is that memory that haunts me. I actually hated vast swathes of our support on that Sunday afternoon. It left me wondering about my connection with the club, the fans, the whole nine yards.

How can I support the same team as so many Chelsea supporters who simply don’t live by the same rules?

I was up early – just after 7am. The sun was out, there was a slight frost. There was an incredible air of anticipation.

This seemed like the F.A. Cup final itself.

I collected Young Jake and then Lord Parkins by 10.30am. Stiff Little Fingers were the band of choice on the drive to London. The volume was cranked up and the raucous rasp of Jake Burns was knocking the cobwebs out of our bodies. I saw SLF in Bristol a few weeks back; still churning out the post-punk tunes of yesteryear, still tugging at my heartstrings, still taking me back to my youth. Songs about teenage angst, songs of rebellion, songs to make your blood bump. There was every danger that my vocal chords would be ruined even before I reached London, let alone Wembley. The words to “Roots, Radicals, Rockers And Reggae” were yelled at the passing traffic on the M4 –

“I said don’t fight against no colour, class nor creed.
For on discrimination does violence breed.”

“Equal rights and justice for one and all.
Cos only through liberty freedom shall form.”

I wondered if the Stiff Little Fingers’ mantra could be suspended for a few hours as we renewed hostilities with Tottenham.

We safely parked near The Lillee Langtry at West Brompton and caught the tube to Edgware Road. We reached The Duke Of York at about 1.30pm and a few of the lads were already there. We stayed three hours. We have been frequenting this corner pub since that Carling Cup game in 2008 (the defeat obviously didn’t deter us) and we usually sit outside, soaking up the sun’s rays. On this occasion, we were all inside; there was a bitter chill to the air. I limited myself to two pints of Kronenburg and found it hard going. I have driven to all but one of the games this season and I had reached frustration point; I longed to be able to free the shackles and dive in to more lagers, but knew I had to limit my intake. The F.A. had set the 6pm kick-off time and I had a long night ahead. As the others gulped their lagers, I sipped mine.

The chat swirled around me and more mates arrived. We talked briefly, and fitfully, about the game. There wasn’t a mood of optimism in the camp. Ed was realistic; the game could swing either way. Rick Glanvil, the respected club historian, briefly appeared and mentioned that a couple of Spurs mates were equally sombre about the game. This was reassuring; it reminded us that they hadn’t been performing as well as earlier in their season. Daryl mentioned that Tottenham had lost their last five F.A. Cup semi-finals and this brought a further moment of cheer. However, we spoke about the Barcelona game too; there was not a glimmer of hope for that one. We all knew it. We’re not stupid.

We set off at 4.30pm and caught the 4.55pm train at Marylebone. The train was packed with Chelsea, arriving from the south, and the carriage was soon rocking with noise.

I had a few moments to myself outside the stadium. The skies were clear and the sun lit up the shining steel of the stadium. I walked around to the front, underneath the Sir Bobby Moore statue. I took the inevitable batch of photographs of the glinting steel arch which dominates the surroundings. The Chelsea and Tottenham fans were boisterously walking up towards the stadium from the Wembley Park tube station to the north. This was our tenth visit to the new Wembley and we were allocated the east end for only the third time; again memories of 2008.

I ascended the elevators and was met with a packed concourse doing “The Bouncy” amid a sea of beer. We had seats behind the goal, just two rows from the rear. The stadium took an age to fill up, but what a sight it was. The tiers rose up to the sky and the pitch seemed ridiculously small. The new Wembley lacks something though; I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it just lacks charm.

To my right; Parky, Milo, Simon, Rob, Daryl, Ed, Alan and Gal.

The tickets only cost £30 – no complaints there.

To my left were Steve and Darren Mantle. Mick the Autograph King was in the row in front.

As the kick-off time approached, I surveyed the scene. To my annoyance and embarrassment, it was clear that we hadn’t sold all of our tickets. A large block of around 300 were completely empty down to my left. There were odd areas dotted around the Chelsea section unused. This sickened me.

Again, I conjured up thoughts about our size as a club. Steve and I chatted about Chelsea and Spurs. When I was growing up, Arsenal and Spurs were the two biggest clubs in London. Despite our in-roads of late, I would still contend that Arsenal have the biggest fan base of all the London teams. Whereas I think that Chelsea have a bigger global name than Spurs (we have ridden the internet at a key time), I still think that Chelsea lag behind Spurs in the south-east. The evidence in front of me could not be ignored.

I received an email recently from the club asking about my opinions about a few topics, but the questions were quite clearly hinting at our thoughts about a move to a new stadium. What a surprise. Well, I fully expect that the club will announce shortly that – “following a random sample of season-ticket holders and members” – the majority of Chelsea fans back a move to a new 60,000 stadium. Excuse my cynicism, but that would be a nimble piece of marketing by Chelsea, pushing through more propaganda in their desire to “up sticks” from our beloved stadium. Well, I will say one thing; it is a shame that more of the same fans couldn’t be bothered to fill 31,500 seats at Wembley.

Not many Spurs flags. More Chelsea ones.

Dare I mention the silence for the Hillsborough victims?

Notwithstanding Liverpool’s wish to avoid playing on the 23rd. anniversary of Hillsborough which then forced the F.A. to schedule us at a ludicrous time on the Sunday before a CL semi-final against the best team on the planet…notwithstanding all that…there was simply no reason for a few fools to besmirch the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives all those years ago.

I glowered at two imbeciles in the row behind me, faces contorted with drunken rage, shouting obscenities.

Now is not the time to write about the events of that horrific day in Sheffield in 1989 – and Liverpool fans were not without blame – but it truly saddened me that a minority of Chelsea fans behaved in such a way in 2012.

Jose Bosingwa in. Didier Drogba in. Mikel in.

Let’s go.

The first-half was played out in front of a fading sun, with Chelsea only occasionally breaking into strong positions. A few players were soon the target of a few mates’ ire. Gary is not backward in coming forward in moments like these and his caustic comments brought a mixture of anger and mirth to the occasion –

“Fcuking ‘ell Kalou – your boots are worth more than you are.”

Of the two sets of fans, Spurs seemed more audible, though not up to their 2008 levels. The dirge-like “Oh When The Spurs” echoed around the west end, but we couldn’t respond. Our little group of mates, ably supported by a few others in the vicinity, tried our damnedest to get things moving, but we were met with opposition.

There were only a few chances in the first quarter for both teams. We were sounding each other out. I feared Modric, but also the pace of Bale and Lennon. Drogba was booked for a senseless challenge and I wondered if we would rue this later. Kalou broke on the left before playing in Juan Mata, but his weak effort was easily saved by Carlo Cudicini, the much-loved former Blue.

A Van der Vaart header was cleared off the line by John Terry down below us. In a nervy few minutes, Spurs ought to have gone ahead when a Van der Vaart ball towards the lurking Adebayor bounced up and rebounded off the far upright. Cech was beaten. Had Adebayor reached the ball, we would have been behind.

The Chelsea end eventually warmed up and our little gang of rebel-rousers initiated a “Carefree” which rolled around the upper tier; good work, boys.

With half-time approaching, the ball was played up to the previously subdued Didier Drogba in a central position. In a piece of classic Drogba action, he spun the ball past William Gallas and pushed the ball to his left. He unleashed a devastating shot past Carlo and the net rippled, sending us into a state of euphoria. Only Drogba could do that. How he loves Wembley. How we celebrated.

Miraculously, we were winning. Good old Chelsea.

More “Bouncy Bouncy” in the concourse at the break, but I wondered why the same fans felt so inhibited inside the stadium.

The second-half began with a flurry of Chelsea chances. Juan Mata soon forced a superb save from Carlo Cudicini and the ‘keeper parried a Luiz header from the corner which followed. There then followed a moment of infamy which will be talked about for ages. The ball bounced back towards Juan Mata who prodded the ball towards goal. The ball seemed to hit a cluster of players on the line and before any of us reacted, Mata celebrated and the referee was running back towards the centre-circle. I quickly glanced towards the linesman, but his flag was not raised.

Goal.

More manic pandemonium in the upper east end. Oh you beauty. We could hardly believe this. I noted that more than a handful of Chelsea fans, enjoying half-time refreshments, had missed this goal; fools.

Within what seemed like a few moments, Spurs had pulled a goal back. A ball from Scott Parker, the scowling former Chelsea midfielder, played in Adebayor. A clumsy challenge from Petr Cech but the ball rolled out to Bale who neatly turned the ball in to the empty net. The west end roared; that was more like it Chelsea, things were going too bloody well.

Unfortunately, David Luiz, who had been reasonable, had been injured during his attempt to block and was sadly stretchered off. Gary Cahill replaced him. Chelsea then enjoyed lots of the ball, moving the ball very well and keeping possession.

“That’s it boys, tire the fcukers out.”

The midfield were great – pass, pass, pass. We stretched them out if we could, Ramires especially doing well. Cahill did ever so well to track back and put in a sublime tackle on the raiding Bale. This was clearly a great game now. I watched on with a nervous resilience.

Juan Mata spotted Ramires’ fine run and, as Carlo advanced, the little Brazilian dinked a gorgeous chip over the advancing Number 23. The ball dropped in to the goal and bodies all around me were flying everywhere.

Get in!

Soon after, Gallas (yes, him) fouled his nemesis Drogba and Frank Lampard placed the ball. From my viewpoint, the distance seemed too far for a shot on goal, but I had my camera at the ready in any case. Surely he wouldn’t go for goal?

Frank took a swipe.

Snap.

The ball flew past Carlo and we were 4-1 up.

Yes, 4-1.

More mayhem.

Thousands of Spurs fans left en masse and I couldn’t resist taking many photographs of this perfect picture postcard scene; the scoreboard plainly stated Tottenham 1 Chelsea 4, the setting sun was disappearing behind the upper reaches of the west end and with it, Spurs season. The west end turned red.

We were roaring now…”Your support is – well, you know…”

Florent Malouda and then Fernando Torres came on as late substitutions and more chances appeared as we caught Spurs flat-footed at the back again. In the fourth minute of extra-time, with the Spurs support down to around 2,000, further joy. That man Mata, below his best these past few weeks, clipped the ball through for the onrushing Malouda who calmly stroked the ball below the hapless Cudicini.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 5.

It was almost cruel now…

“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo, one di Matteo.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona? Who the fuck are Barcelona?”

We – of course – couldn’t believe it. This was as an unexpected win as I have ever known in over 38 years of attending matches. Before the match if someone had said that the result was going to be 5-1, there is a very strong chance that I may have expected a Spurs win. I was not present at the 6-1 win at 3PL in 1997, so this represented the biggest ever Chelsea win against Tottenham. Oh boy.

We said our goodbyes – “see you Wednesday” – and we joined in the songs on the triumphant walk down the many flights of stairs.

“We won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley – we won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley.”

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There was a definite case of “we don’t believe it” as we exited the stadium, shaking hands and hugging friends, almost delirious with glee. The joy continued as we slowly trudged along Wembley Way. I kept looking behind to see the illuminated arch lighting up the darkening sky. This was a lovely sight, witnessed by myself for the first time – I have not been a fan of new Wembley – but this iconic sight struck a chord.

The clear night sky, beaming Chelsea faces, the cold April evening, the arch towering over all.

Superb.

Parky, Jake and I headed back into town. I was absolutely starving as I hadn’t had anything to eat all day long…we ended up, predictably, at Earls Court where Salvo entertained us with the perfect denouement to the day’s action; an Americano pizza with extra anchovies and a single ice cold Peroni.

I eventually reached home at 12.45am – it had been a magnificent day in London. Easily one of my top ten favourite matches of all time. For Tottenham, it was their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. I joked with Parky on the way home that even though we sing “we hate Tottenham”, I am sure that they hate us more.

Let’s keep it like that.

We now play Liverpool at our second home on Saturday 5th. May – our fourth F.A Cup Final in six seasons.

Tottenham, meanwhile, look wistfully on.

Us.

1994 – Luton Town – won
1996 – Manchester United – lost
1997 – Wimbledon – won
2000 – Newcastle United – won
2002 – Fulham – won
2006 – Liverpool – lost
2007 – Blackburn Rovers – won
2009 – Arsenal – won
2010 – Aston Villa – won
2012 – Tottenham Hotspur – won

Them.

1993 – Arsenal – lost
1995 – Everton – lost
1999 – Newcastle United – lost
2001 – Arsenal – lost
2010 – Portsmouth – lost
2012 – Chelsea – lost

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Tales From 1981 And 2011

Stoke City vs. Chelsea : 14 August 2011.

It had been a strange week. The riots which began in Tottenham and then swept through various locations in the nation’s capital, and beyond, threatened to put the 2011-2012 season on hold. Thankfully, the decision to “Carry On And Keep Playing Footy” came through on Thursday.

Good. Let’s try and get back to normal. There’s nothing like a trip to football to help put the grim realities of life to one side.

But it got me thinking…riots, summertime, football. It got me focussing on 1981, the last time that similar riots ripped through our green and pleasant land.

For some reason, I have been thinking quite a lot about 1981 during the last few weeks…perhaps it was just due to the simple 30th. anniversary of my sixteenth summer but I can’t really put a finger on why this should be. I’ve noticed, though, that I have been wistfully remembering extracts from my youth more and more often of late and the clichéd fears of a “mid-life crisis” are never too far from my thoughts. During that summer, inner city riots sprang up throughout England and it was certainly a summer of discontent, even though the Royal Wedding diverted our attention at the end of July. From a footballing perspective, 1981 was a pretty nondescript year for Chelsea Football Club. We were mired in the old Second Division and were going nowhere. However, the first game of the 1981-1982 was a pretty momentous event for me, though. For the very first time, I traveled up to London without my parents for a Chelsea game. I caught a Crown Tours coach up to the capital along with my two mates Kev and Fran. They were off sightseeing, but I was headed for Stamford Bridge. Before the game, I remember being in the old Chelsea Supporters Club shop at 547 Fulham Road (opposite the current tube station entrance) and listening in as an infamous Chelsea skinhead called Lester spoke to a few friends about his involvement in the Toxteth riots in Liverpool that summer.

I took a gulp and thought to myself “blimey, welcome to Chelsea.”

I stood on The Shed for the first ever time for that game with Bolton Wanderers some thirty years ago. Chelsea won 2-0 and we wore that shimmering Le Coq Sportif kit for the first time in a league game. It represented my support for Chelsea going up a notch, moving away from trips with my parents, being more independent, moving on. I would watch Chelsea three more times in that 1981-1982 season. The football wasn’t great, but I enjoyed every second of every minute of the Chelsea experience in that momentous year. And by the end of it, I was wearing that Le Coq Sportif shirt on my first ever date with my first ever girlfriend.

Ah, 1981-1982.

I set off at 9am and as I drove over to collect Parky, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that I would be watching Chelsea again within a few hours. I was happy to be back on the treadmill once again, but I was also well aware that my enthusiasm of previous years was just not there. I guess this can be put down to the passing of time. I also knew that, come September, with the league season well underway, there would be a moment when I would think “OK. This Is The Moment. I’m Ready.” To be honest, for someone who prides themselves on being pretty clued-up on all things Chelsea, I have felt more and more adrift of all of the rumours and hoopla which has surrounded the club over the summer. There seems to be an infinite array of papers, magazines, websites, chat rooms, phone-ins and the like these days. It’s simply too much. Information overload. I can’t keep up. I have an image of myself as a cartoon character desperately attempting to hang on to the side of a ship, but gallantly failing, nails clawing against the steel, that horrible high-pitched screech. I felt myself plunge into the deep, unable to keep up with a Modric transfer rumour or the latest tweet from cyberspace.

As I slowly approached Parky’s house, I had to slam on my brakes to avoid a black cat.

I wondered if some good luck was on the cards.

With Parky collected, we drove north on the familiar route up to my former college city of Stoke-On-Trent.

This would only be Chelsea’s eleventh away game in those thirty opening games since that 1981-1982 season. It certainly felt strange to be heading to an away fixture. An opening day usually meant a sweltering time in The Goose and a sun-drenched afternoon at The Bridge. And usually a win. Our last opening day defeat was way back in 1998 when we lost at Coventry. Marcel Desailly still has nightmares from that day. Our last away game opener was in 2005 when Crespo scored that winner in the last minute…and we never looked back on our march to our back-to-back championship. Happy memories. Was it really six years ago? Where does the time go?

An away game at Stoke would not be easy. However, our last league defeat in The Potteries was way back in the mid-‘seventies, in the days when prawn cocktail, gammon and chips and arctic rolls were considered the height of culinary sophistication in suburban England.

We were parked-up outside the Britannia Stadium at 12.15pm and we were soon walking up the hill towards the shiny new stands. There were immediate thoughts of our visit only a few months earlier, when we had sadly heard that United had come back from 2-0 to win 4-2 at Blackburn on that same walk to the Stoke stadium.

With every season, the memories overlap and intertwine.

Handshakes with Alan and Gary who were waiting for us to arrive.

“Alright, boys?”

We were soon inside the stadium, through the turnstiles – click, click, click – and into the melee of a Chelsea pre-match at Stoke City. We gulped down a lager and stood in a corner, catching up with each other, talk of the summer, of Kuala Lumpur, of Bangkok, of Glasgow. A few friends called by. It didn’t take long for it to start.

“One Man Went To Mow”.

The bar area underneath the terraces started to reverberate to the sound of 300 Chelsea fans singing and clapping, clapping and singing. And it didn’t take long for the beer to start to be thrown. Luckily, we were well clear, but the spray was visible to our right. It’s a bit of a tradition at Stoke – the pre-match Chelsea beer party. A few other songs were aired…”Carefree” and “The Bouncy.” And then, the asinine “Chelsea – Hooligans, Chelsea – Hooligans” chant. Alan and I rolled our eyes and grumbled. Of all the Chelsea match day chants, this surely has to be the most pathetic.

We made our way into the seats at about 1.20pm and I soon realised that I hadn’t yet heard the team announced. We had nice seats, a third of the way up, just above the disabled section, behind a wall. I was able to lean on it throughout the match.

Big shock – we were soon to learn that Fernando Torres had got the nod ahead of Didier Drogba. This surprised us all. A few hellos to some friends. Behind me was a chap from Scunthorpe who I last saw in Kuala Lumpur.

The wait was over. The teams entered the pitch.

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In the opening ten minutes, the crowd was lively with the usual exchanges of witty – and other – banter. The home fans really made a bee line for John Terry, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard. The usual songs deriding our three England Lions. The exact reasoning behind Stoke fans targeting our three English internationals could be the subject of a dissertation all by itself. In addition to stealing the famous Southampton song “Oh When The Reds (Saints) Go Marching In”, the local Stokies also nicked the Manchester United ode to Ryan Giggs –

“Stoke. Stoke Will Tear You Apart, Again.”

The riots were the subject of an (almost) humorous ditty from the home fans, aimed at the travelling three thousand –

“Town full of looters. You’re just a town full of looters.”

It was a frustrating time for us all in that opening period. Stoke did what Stoke do. Balls were launched into the Chelsea penalty time and time again, with Delap’s throw-ins causing us problems. Jones and Walters, scorer of the goal against us last spring, looked in fine form. However, Petr Cech was able to fling himself around with reckless abandon to ensure our goal remained intact. Alex was magnificent in the first half, heading away threat after threat. Torres looked busy and interested, with a shot flying wide early on and an excellent wriggle and shot just before the break. It seemed that all our eyes were on him; we still plead with him to be a success at our club. Ramires, too, had a superb run at the Stoke defence from deep, but his cross-shot drifted well away from the goal. We all thought that John Terry had handled under pressure, but thankfully Mark Halsey waved the penalty claims away. Stoke were always a threat in the first period. Chelsea were much the same as the previous campaign. It seems churlish to expect a massive change in style with the same personnel as last season, but our play was still laboured and slow. I texted a few mates –

“Same old, same old.”

Mikel was holding things together well, though, and he produced the pass of the day with a beautifully weighted cross field pass to the left wing. More of the same please.

The atmosphere was pretty subdued really. These 1.30pm kick-offs are horrible in that respect with not enough time to oil the vocal chords.

At half-time, a chance to reflect. Kalou was poor and Lampard quiet. The Chelsea crowd were not getting on anyone’s back, but there was no over-riding feeling of us turning the corner. Andre Villas-Boas, now wearing the club suit and looking more the manager than when he simply wore an Adidas tracksuit, was animated on the touchline and I admired his passion. The Chelsea choir were still working on that first AVB chant. I am sure it will come eventually. Alan, Gary and I had a quick chat with Mark at half-time and there was talk of gigs in October to see Stiff Little Fingers and Sham 69 within the space of a few days.

Ah, chasing my youth again.

We began the second period far more brightly and a lovely shimmy and run from Ramires set the scene for the next forty-five minutes. I got out of my seat for the first time to applaud a lovely move which involved Bosingwa winning a tackle, playing a ball to Torres and then on to Florent Malouda. The counter attack used to be our killer move, but this one soon broke down in the final third. As the half progressed, we all got more and more animated with every Chelsea attack…and every poor refereeing decision. The trip on Lampard brought torrents of heated abuse raining down on Mark Halsey and even the Stoke fans turned on him after a few decisions went our way. The dislike of the referee acted as a catalyst for a noisy period in the stands.

Begovic flicked a dipping effort from Mikel over the bar and the atmosphere grew more intense. While Delap was receiving treatment, the Stoke and Chelsea fans enacted a battle royal of club songs.

Delilah versus Carefree and the place was rocking.

I was chatting on and off to a bloke to my right, who was watching with his young daughter. We spoke, in pained tones, about Lampard’s quiet performance and I grimaced when I said “to be honest, his legs have gone and I think his demise could be quite sudden, if he can’t change his game.” Frank often just plays the simple ball these days and his bursts from deep are getting more and more infrequent.

Nicolas Anelka came on as a substitute for Malouda and his trademark dribbles and turns were causing the Stoke defence to cover new angles. A delightful chip was magnificently flicked on to the bar by Begovic and we groaned three thousand groans. Torres was still looking busy and keen and his perfect cross fell to Kalou, but his week header was easy for the Stoke ‘keeper. If only Drogba had been there. Soon after – but too late! – Drogba replaced the lacklustre Kalou and the away end erupted with pleasure. For a while, our attack consisted of Drogba, Anelka and Torres and I bet Jose Mourinho was thinking –

“Villas-Boas…what are you doing?”

However, apart from two identical free-kicks from Didier, our threat diminished. Benayoun replaced Torres with five minutes to go and then struggled to get in the game. A couple of Stoke half-chances came to nothing and the final whistle was met with polite applause. There were differing views around me as I made my way to the exits. It was always going to be a tough game. The players looked frustrated and as I took a few photographs of the boys, I noted that the manager headed straight towards the tunnel, his head full of thoughts and ideas. We didn’t sing his name – still working out that song – and he didn’t clap us. So be it…so be it.

His time – and our time – will come.

As we blended in with the home fans on the slow traipse back to the car, a Stokie addressed a lone Chelsea fan and his comment made me chuckle –

“Cheer up, duck. I think you’ll stay up.”

It took me less than three minutes to race from my parking place on the grass verge to the M6. Stoke is now officially the easiest place to park for a game. On the drive south, we avoided listening to the United game (we drove within a mile of their game at The Hawthorns) and listened to some music from our youth once more.

The song of the trip home was Patti Smith’s “Because The Night” and it was a typical return trip home from a game, full of junk food, beer for Parky, coffees for me, memories of past Chelsea games and plans for the next one. We listened to “606” for a while, but having to listen to Joey Barton talk to Robbie Savage seemed to be particularly brutal. We soon switched it off and went back to the music. I was soon back at Parky’s village. It had been a fine day out in The Potteries, but we were both rueful of the fact that it was simply a case of “drive-game-home.” We were glad that not every away game would be the same. We both enjoy sampling the delights of all the away cities we visit and Stoke 2011 didn’t have the depth of memories as previous visits. I didn’t even get to buy a “Wrights Pie” FFS!

“See you on Saturday, mate.”

It was only after I had dropped Parky off that I put the radio on and discovered that United had won.

Oh well. They will be the team to beat again this season.

I watched the highlights on “Match Of The Day 2” and was invigorated when I saw the praise being heaped on Fernando Torres. Let’s hope that he continues to improve and that we get off to a good start in our home opener against The Baggies.

6-0 last season, wasn’t it?

Let’s do it again.

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Tales From February 13th. 1982 And February 13th. 2010

Chelsea vs. Cardiff City : 13 February 2010.

An early kick-off at HQ meant that I collected the two Glenns by 8.30am and, by the time we hit the M4, the banter was flying. We passed quite a few coaches from South Wales en route. We spoke of the FA Cup…May 2009 was fresh in our minds, but I was more interested in remembering a game from my youth.

Leading up to our encounter with Cardiff City, I was well aware that there was a favourite Chelsea game from the past which also took place on February 13th. At the time, it was the best game I had ever witnessed in the flesh. Throughout this week, my mind was full of memories of our game with Liverpool on FA Cup Round Five day in 1982. On the Friday, in order to get the juices flowing, I emailed a few CFC mates and we bantered back and forth with memories of that day…we mentioned the players, the atmosphere, the thrill of that great game. I’m lucky – so lucky – to have so many Chelsea mates who “know their stuff” and can help rebuild memories of games in the distant past.

In 1981-82, Chelsea were floundering in the old Second Division, but had hit a bit of form over the Christmas and New Year period. This was our third season in the second tier. Our swish Le Coq Sportif kit was worn by such stalwarts as Clive Walker, Mike Fillery and Colin Pates. Personally, I was floundering in the Sixth Form – I had soon realised I had picked the wrong subjects – but was living for football. Playing for my school team kept me sane, but following Chelsea was my passion. For the first time, I was travelling up to games at Chelsea by myself. I was sixteen and the train fare was only £6. I had seen us play against Bolton and Wrexham and had watched these two games in The Shed for the first ever time. For the Wrexham game, a red-head from Texas was watching her first ever Chelsea game and we must’ve been no more than twenty yards away from each other. We had struggled to get past Hull and Wrexham, after replays, to meet Liverpool in Round Five. Liverpool, meanwhile, were in their absolute pomp…European Champions and on their way to three consecutive titles. It was a huge miss-match. In the Daily Mail, Ian Wooldridge had written that “the only hope I can give Chelsea is that they have no hope at all.” I think I knew what he meant. To add to our plight, I’m pretty sure that Liverpool had lost to Ipswich in a League Cup semi-final first-leg on the Wednesday and were looking for revenge. We looked easy targets. Things were mighty ominous.

I remember so many things from that day. Let me share more of them. My parents and myself caught the 8am train from Westbury and there were a gaggle of Doctor Marten-wearing Chelsea fans on the platform…no doubts, I would get to know some of these lads over the next few years. At Paddington, Mum and Dad went off to do some sightseeing, while I headed down to The Bridge to savour the pre-match atmosphere. I arrived at Fulham Broadway at around 11am and the place was already buzzing. No doubt I walked up to the East Stand, but I remember staying down by the entrance to the old West Stand for ages. I had never been to the Bridge so early and I was amazed how many fans were milling around the area by The Brittania pub ( now The So Bar. ) There seemed to be many more street vendors than usual. I specifically remember an old chap in his seventies selling old black and white photos of players from the ‘forties and ‘fifties. For some unfathomable reason, I bought one of United’s Duncan Edwards. Like all of this chap’s photos, he was pictured as he ran out onto the pitch, on those wooden running boards which used to go over the dog track.

We had West Stand seats and I remember being thankful. I am pretty sure that the game wasn’t all ticket, hence the massive crowds outside. For the 24,000 fans who would be using the terraces, it would be a case of “first come, first served.” I remember looking at the ever-growing line of Liverpool fans lining up outside the buildings of the Oswald Stoll Foundation. I looked on in awe. These lucky so-and-sos had enjoyed successes since the early ‘seventies that I could only dream of. I can’t, unfortunately, remember if the legions of scallies were wearing Adidas Stan Smiths or Slazenger and Lacoste pullovers.

The gates opened at 1pm and, for the first time since my debut in 1974, I ascended those lovely steps on that huge embankment of the West Stand. Our seats were right by The Shed – seats 1, 2 and 3, row 2 or 3. Magical stuff. My parents arrived at about 2.15pm. By then, The Shed was heaving. I believe the gates closed at 2pm. For an hour, I watched on as 14,000 Chelsea fans in The Shed sang and swayed, anticipating the game ahead. A few hundred fans were watching from atop a block of flats across the Fulham Road. I watched aghast as the shared North terrace bore witness to several charges by the Chelsea boys at their Liverpool counterparts. Two pens were Chelsea, two pens Liverpool, with a line of police somewhere in the middle. I remember seeing some Chelsea scamper through the Brompton Cemetery behind the East Stand, rush over the train lines and attack the Scousers from behind. I had never seen the like of it. To be truthful, I was sick of it. Our big day, the whole of Britain watching and these loons were dragging our name through the dirt. I was yet to learn the nuances of hooliganism. I was only 16 remember.

I remember, right down below me, about twenty Chelsea kids in their late teens, jumping over The Shed fence into The Benches in order to run up to the North Stand to join in the fray. To my huge displeasure, my mother was shouting at them to get back! I grimaced, as you can imagine.

The game kicked-off at 3pm with 41,412 jammed inside the grand old stadium. I can distinctly remember looking across at the towering East Stand, so out of place with the rest of the stadium, and noting that every single seat – row upon row – was occupied. I saw 10,000 heads, with not one single gap. Surely that doesn’t happen often. This reassured me of our massive potential. We were a middling second-tier team, but could draw in 41,000. As a comparison, our highest league gate in 1981-82 was barely 20,000.

The game was a classic. Liverpool boasted such legends as Rush, Dalglish, Souness, McDermott, Hansen and Lawrensen. After just eight minutes, we won the ball in midfield and Peter Rhoades-Brown broke away in the inside left channel. He shot early and I had an unimpeded view as the ball crept into the goal by the far post, just evading Grobbelaar’s dive.

The Bridge erupted and so did I.

For the rest of the game, Liverpool probed away without creating too many chances. Colin Pates and Kevin Hales were an odd choice in midfield, but they nullified Liverpool’s midfield maestros. At half-time, we heaved a sigh of relief. We wondered about the task ahead. Could we do it?

All I remember of the second period is the action down in front of me at The Shed End goal on about 84 minutes. We had held on – teeth grinding tension throughout – and after a goalmouth melee, the ball broke kindly to Colin Lee, who stabbed the ball in from close-range.

In that split second – I can still see the net bulge – I knew we were safe at 2-0 and I celebrated again. A different kind of celebration…the fear had gone. We were going to beat Liverpool! The thrill was almost too much. I had seen us beat Liverpool 3-1 in 1978 and we had done it again. Unbelievable.

Back to 2010. It took a while for us to find a parking space, but I eventually found one near The Elm pub. Who should be outside, pints in hand, but Cathy and Dog. There were police outside. We were on the look out for Cardiff, but hadn’t spied any apart from on the M4. We were expecting a big show from them. This was the first time I had seen Cardiff at Chelsea since 1983. I remember they sang the Welsh national anthem throughout the minute’s silence for a Chelsea fan killed at Huddersfield. We responded with boos and a chant about Aberfan, the site of a landslide which wiped out a primary school in the Welsh valleys in the ‘sixties. A different era.

Parky dipped into The Elm – he later reported that the pub was full of some Chelsea faces from the past – while Glenn and myself sat down for a fry-up at the refurbished Yadana cafe. I met a mate from work. Tickets were exchanged. The Goose was shut – not opening until 12.30pm – and I can understand why. The threat of violence pervaded most of our conversations throughout the morning.

On the walk down the North End Road, the bitter chill still in evidence, we saw no Cardiff, except in The Kings Head, which was guarded by twenty policemen and around five on horseback. For a change, we had a pint in “Jimmy’s” inside the Matthew Harding.

Unbeknown to me, Petar Borota had passed away on the Friday. How ironic that this player from 1981-82 ( he didn’t play in the Liverpool game, his place was taken by the young Steve Francis ) which a few of us had mentioned in our emails on Friday should be taken from us that very same day. He was as mad as a bucket of frogs, but was well loved at Chelsea. We applauded him for a minute before kick-off.

RIP Petar.

I spotted two inflatable sheep being passed around the MHL. There is now a “Malta” flag in the West Stand. About time more American flags showed up, I reckon. I almost missed our opener. I was looking down at the MHL singing “Ingerland” at the Welsh hordes when I looked up to see Didier clean through on goal. An easy finish and 1-0 to us after a couple of minutes. Good stuff. The rest of the first period was a bit messy. A few long-range efforts…a lob from Drogba from just inside the Cardiff half, a thunderous strike from Sturridge, a tame Lampard effort. At the other end, Bothroyd and Chopra were being given too much space and Cardiff were getting into the game. Their support was roaring. We accused them of doing “unmentionables” to sheep. Virtually all of the Cardiff fans were standing, but I did see gaps. Maybe they hadn’t made it past The Elm! A cross from Burke and Chopra headed in, totally unchallenged. Not a set piece this time, but as good as. Like Dracula, we hate crosses. With The Bluebirds flying high, I became mesmerized by three pigeons flying around the stadium. Suffice to say, it wasn’t a great game! Joe Cole was poor…he’s trying too hard. A sublime ball from Ballack, into space, was the highlight.

Mumbles and grumbles at half-time. Daryl’s son Ed came down to bemoan our woefully quiet support. Charlie Cooke was paraded at the break by Neil Barnett. I spotted Michael Essien watching from the same seat in the West Middle as Jose Mourinho versus Fulham. How we miss Essien.

We played better – much better – in the second period. Kalou came on for Joe Cole and he did well. Drogba was akin to a one man wrecking crew, full of strength and running. His ball to Ballack carved open the entire Cardiff defence and was just gorgeous. Ballack finished with aplomb. Phew. Cardiff’s support soon quietened down – and their team tired.

I had said to Alan at Preston that Daniel Sturridge would go on to emulate Peter Osgood in 1970 by scoring in all of the rounds – a pretty rash statement, I’ll admit. He wasn’t playing particularly well, but the ball broke to him down below me. The trouble was that it was on his right side…”and he hasn’t got a right foot” I said to Alan. With that, the ball broke kindly and he slotted it in wuith his left. How we laughed. Up and down we bounced. Three-one and coasting. Salomon capped a fine performance with a lovely header from a stunning Ferreira cross. Roman’s smiling face was shown on The Shed screen and we serenaded him…he responded with a wave. About time we gave him some love – his reign has not been without flaws, but he’s no Glazer, no Hicks, no Gillette.

On the walk back to the car, police sirens were wailing and we heard rumours of post-game naughtiness. We were soon on the road West. It felt strange heading along the M4 at 2.45pm…so odd to be heading back so early on a Saturday. I spotted the Wembley Arch in the distance, as we listened to some Depeche Mode. They were in the charts with “See You” in February 1982 and, like us, are still going strong. We drove past The Madejski, where Reading and West Brom were eking out an FA Cup draw…and we then overtook an armada of Cardiff City coaches. We pondered options for the Quarters. With us due to play Pompey in the league on March 6th., we wondered if we just might get them on that same date in the cup instead.

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