Tales From The Temperance

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 26 December 2019.

At just before seven o’clock in the morning, I made my way into the darkness. I stood, alone with my thoughts, hood up on my jacket, a light drizzle in the air. I was waiting for Glenn, the day’s designated driver, to arrive to pick me up ahead of the Boxing Day game against a slightly rejuvenated Southampton. I heard the village church bell’s strike seven. I wondered what was in store for us.

Glenn duly arrived, with PD alongside him. We soon picked up Lord Parsnips and were on our way. As we headed east, the rain increased making driving difficult for him. I had not seen Glenn for a while; the last time was on the aborted away game against the same opposition in early October. With Glenn driving, this allowed me to indulge in a few drinks – OK, a sesh – for the first time at Stamford Bridge all season. The stretch of largely non-alcoholic home games stood at fourteen. There had been the odd pint here and there, but nothing too wild.

Fourteen games. Bloody hell. That has to be a record.

So, I had been relishing this for a while.

I had awoken early, at 4.30am, and knew that I wouldn’t be getting back to sleep again. My early morning thoughts, evidently, were about pints as well as points.

The rotten rain continued all of the way to London. At just before ten o’clock, Glenn dropped us off at West Brompton tube station and we soon caught a train to Putney Bridge. I had arranged to meet some friends from Germany at “The Eight Bells” and as the train left Parson’s Green, I looked ahead to the compartment in front and there they were.

Ben, Jens and Walt.

The day was off to a good start. Both Ben and I work in logistics. It was perfectly logical, therefore, for us to be on the same train.

I have known Ben for a good six or seven years. He used to work for a company that assists with getting our office furniture delivered in Austria, Germany and Switzerland. I managed to get tickets for the three of them for the Stoke City game just after Christmas in 2017, and Ben and Jens bumped into us after the Crystal Palace away game during the Christmas break last season. It was great to see them again. For this game, a friend had come up trumps for three tickets together in the Matthew Harding Lower.

At about 10.10am, I was the first one to enter “The Eight Bells.”

It felt good to be able to get the beers in.

We soon settled in our corner and the drinking, and not too much thinking, began. Jason Cundy popped in before his busy day ahead working for the Chelsea media team. I quickly pulled up his photo from 1991/92 to show the visitors. On this trip, the lads were again going to the darts on the Friday, and they had picked the West Ham United vs. Leicester City game on the Saturday. Ben supports Borussia Mönchengladbach, Jens supports Hamburg and Walt supports Bayern Munich. I did edge towards asking the three of them which English team they follow but Walt’s answer “not Arsenal” was good enough for me. We were joined by Mark from The Netherlands and his sister Kelly from High Wycombe, who we had not arranged to meet, but who often pop in. Next in were three from the US; Mehul and Neekita from Michigan, Matt from Illinois.

So, modern day Chelsea; England, Germany, The Netherlands and the United States. During the game, I would bump into a mate from Thailand who comes over once or twice a season.

All of us together, all sharing a beer, all having a laugh.

Good times.

I know that overseas supporters often get a rough ride at Chelsea – and elsewhere – but I get bored reading about it. I know plenty of passionate and clued-up foreign supporters of our club. The problem, at Stamford Bridge specifically, are the tourists – not Chelsea fans – who add us to the list of things to do in London without doing any research or background checks on what is likely to occur at games. That said, it still saddens me that many of the fans from overseas supporters’ clubs still buy game day scarves; surely they are aware of the hatred of these monstrosities?

In February, the boot will be on the other foot.

Let me explain.

I recently booked a flight to Buenos Aires to catch as many games as I can – but no darts, cough cough – and it will be interesting to see how I am treated by the locals.

Why Argentina? Why Buenos Aires?

It is no secret that I love visiting different football stadia, and I am a big fan of Simon Inglis, who has been the doyen of football architecture in the UK for decades. His book “Sightlines” (2000) featured stadia around the world and not just football; stadia devoted to baseball, cricket, rugby union among others are painstakingly detailed. However, underpinning the entire book – every couple of chapters – is the author’s attempt to visit as many of Buenos Aires’ twenty-five professional football stadia as he can in a crazy few days. This entranced me all those years ago, and I recently re-read it all again. And it started a train of thought.

I wanted to experience South America and I wanted to experience, for sure, South American football.  I craved Argentina. It is, undoubtedly, one of the last remaining countries where passionate, to the point of irresponsible and bordering on violent, support still exists. I wanted to delve deep into Buenos Aires but I soon realised that their season runs concurrently with ours and so that would be difficult. I couldn’t realistically plan to miss a few Chelsea games, although I have done so in the past.

This Chelsea thing. I’ve got it bad, right?

So, thoughts turned to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro. Theirs is a summer season. I tentatively looked at going over to see Flamengo or Fluminense or Botafogo or Vasco da Gama this summer, but Baku took over.

And then, it dawned on me that for the first time ever, there would be a winter break in English football in 2019/20. This meant that there would be a window of opportunity to visit Argentina. I looked at the dates. I preliminarily booked two weeks off in February to cover all eventualities. Around ten days ago, the TV games were firmed up for the Premier League reaching into February, and our free weekend would come between an away game against Leicester City and a home game with Manchester United.

I honed in on the Primera Division games planned for the weekend of Saturday 8 February, knowing that there would be a spread of games over four or five days.

I threw caution to the wind and booked my flights and I booked a hotel.

With superb timing, the very next day – Christmas Eve – that weekend’s games were confirmed and it meant that I would, hopefully, get to see four games, probably five, during my stay.

Friday : Estudiantes vs. Defensa Y Justicia.

Saturday : Lanus vs. Newell’s Old Boys.

Sunday : Independiente vs. Arsenal Sarandi and River Plate vs. Banfield.

Monday : Huracan vs. Aldosivi.

And it got me thinking about football tourism. I began to question why the Premier League seems to be the main destination for visitors outside our national boundaries. Is it because of our historical role as the birthplace of the sport? Is it because of the way the Premier League is marketed? Is it because of the language? Everybody speaks English, right? Is it because, by and large, we are a friendly lot? I do not know of the figures, but English football has always attracted visitors from Europe, but it seems to be the main footballing destination for visitors outside Europe too. Yet, for me, there are valid alternatives for visitors from Brisbane, Beijing, Bangkok and Baltimore. Certainly for a more visceral experience, visitors from distant lands might be better placed to visit the leagues of Germany and Italy or even the former communist countries of the old Eastern Bloc. The noise and intensity. The real deal. Not some watered down version. Because I will say it, yet again. Apart from away games, following Chelsea these days gets quieter and quieter with every passing season. And fans at Old Trafford, The Emirates and other venues say the same.

How about a Belgrade derby, a match in Moscow or a Legia Warsaw vs. Widzew Lodz battle?

Thought not. I think those games might be just a little outside many peoples’ comfort zones. I am keen to hear if Borussia Dortmund supporters are getting slightly weary of all the football tourists heading over to be part of “The Yellow Wall” which has to be a bit of a cliché by now. And what of the thoughts of Barcelona and Real Madrid fans? There must be just as many football tourists who plot up at the Nou Camp and the Bernabeu as at Old Trafford, Anfield and Stamford Bridge these days?

Of course it could be a double-edged sword all of this. A quick immersion in to the passionate and noisy nature of Argentinian football might make me realise how anaemic our football has become. A couple of mates, seasoned travellers themselves – Tommie from Porthmadog in North Wales and Foxy from Dundee in Scotland – have assisted in my plans for Buenos Aires, and two others, who I have not yet met, have both declared that it is the best place to watch football these days.

Watch this space.

We popped over the road to “The Temperance” and the drinking continued. Mark, who is local to the area despite having lived in The Netherlands for ages, spoke of how the pub used to be a snooker hall, and how he remembers playing there many years ago.

The Temperance.

What a great name for a boozer. None of us fancied joining any latter day temperance movement, though, and the drinking continued at a pace.

On the drive to London, we had briefly touched on Southampton. Not so long ago, it seemed that Southampton, Norwich City and Watford were certs for relegation, but the Saints had shown a sudden resurgence under Ralph Hassenpfefferstadenschnitzelheimerhuttel. None of us were making grandiose comments about a sure fire win, despite the magnificence of our play at Tottenham.

This was Chelsea, after all.

On the final few hundred yards to the stadium, the rain had stopped but the skies were dull and full of cloud.

OK, the game…once again : “do I have to?”

Please bear in mind that this was a very poor match from start to bloody finish and I had been knocking back “Birra Moretti” and “Peroni” since 10am, so this one isn’t going to win any prizes.

Here goes.

My guess after Tottenham was that the 3/4/3 might well be replaced for the standard 4/3/3 but Rudiger, Zouma and Tomori kept their places.

We lined up as below –

Arizzabalaga

Rudiger – Zouma – Tomori

Azpilicueta – Kante – Jorginho – Emerson

Willian – Abraham – Hudson-Odoi

The Sleepy Hollow lined up as below –

Chris – Alan – Glenn – PD

The old team were back together again for the first time since Brighton in September.

Southampton had a full three thousand, an easy away game for them. Rather than their usual red and white stripes, they showed up in a waspish black and yellow. The “Munich Two” were involved, with Ryan Bertrand starting but Oriel Romeu only on the bench.

Chelsea again dominated possession early on but were met with a solid wall of deep-lying midfielders and a solid defence. It was clear that we needed a little intuition and some pace out wide to get through the massed ranks of Southampton players. They were solid and defended tenaciously. It was like trying to manoeuvre a way through a variant of The Terracotta Army.

“They shall not pass.”

Soon into the game a beam of sunlight lit up a small section of the East Upper, but this also exposed the fact that there were pockets of empty seats throughout the stadium. And the absent foreign supporters from all over the world surely couldn’t be held totally responsible for every single one of those.

Our build up play was slow and ponderous, and it took an age for our first shot on target of note. My camera was hardly used in the first part of the game, but I miraculously caught Callum Hudson-Odoi’s swipe at the ball which was deflected wide.

The game struggled to get out of first gear.

Ten minutes later, a Southampton attack down our left flank resulted in Michael O’bafemi  – the young Irish lad – being allowed to twist into space and we watched as he ripped a fine effort high past Kepa to give the visitors a surprising lead, and a blow to us.

Bollocks.

The Southampton players celebrated down below us, the gits.

Was there a reaction?

Not really.

The crowd stood and sat in some sort of Turkey, roast potatoes, Brussel sprouts, parsnips, peas and carrot induced torpor, and the players looked out of sorts too. It was brewing up to be another frustrating match at Stamford Bridge. The moans and grumbles continued throughout the first half as we struggled to break down the resolute defence.

I took a photo of my pal Rob, sitting a few rows behind me, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of his very first game at Stamford Bridge; Chelsea vs. Southampton, 1969.

He was with his son Joe.

Well done Rob. Fantastic stuff.

Down below us on the Stamford Bridge pitch, there was stagnation. It was all very dull and all very predictable. There was no spark. It was shocking stuff. We hardly caused the Southampton ‘keeper to make a save in anger. There was a real reluctance to shoot on target and the extra wide men simply did not deliver.

Sigh.

At the start of the second-half, Frank reverted to a 4/3/3 as Mason Mount came on to replace Kurt Zouma. We hoped for some forward runs, some penetration, and soon into the second period, my infrequently-used camera miraculously captured our second real attempt on goal. Tammy Abraham was set free but lashed wide from an angle, only bothering the side netting.

Southampton became a little more adventurous and then Hudson-Odoi struck from outside the box, but the ball touched the top of the net, and the Saints ‘keeper was untroubled. By now, the mood in the home camp was deteriorating.

My very first Boxing Day game at Stamford Bridge came along as late as 1992. Until then, with no car and few local Chelsea mates that I knew, and with my parents solidly staying at home on every Boxing Day, and with no train service to London, I had been unable to attend a single game on all other Boxing Days. When I eventually did attend a game, it felt as if I was attending some sort of “Londoners only” event, a special match for invited guests only. It felt lovely. On that occasion – I have written about it before – I managed to smuggle my father’s bulky camcorder into the East Upper and my over-riding memory of that day – enhanced by playing the ten minutes of film that I shot – was the real increase in noise (clapping, shouts, voices from the crowd, encouragement) as the ball was sent into the Southampton half. In those days, it was a massively different style of football and much of it involved midfield battles. But as soon as there was a sniff of an attack, the crowd were on it and involved. Even in the East Upper.

In 1992, the gate was 18,344 but it felt as though everyone present was there to support the team. We had won nothing in twenty-one years and a trophy was still five years away, but it felt as though we were all in it together.

On Boxing Day in 2019, any fan involvement was not worthy of the name.

The game continued in front of a quickly worsening atmosphere.

Christian Pulisic came on for a very poor Hudson-Odoi.

Nathan Redmond should have made it 2-0 but Kepa saved well after a quick break.

Groans.

With twenty minutes or so remaining, the dangerous Redmond finished off a long Southampton move with a delicate touch past Kepa.

Chelsea 0 Southampton 2.

Fackinell.

Pedro replaced Willian late on.

Pulisic created the final shot on goal, but typically off target, screwing a low shot past the right hand post.

By this time, the atmosphere around me was caustic and abrasive.

I wanted to go home.

Sadly, this was another woeful performance. Whereas a couple of months ago, match-going fans were supremely positive with the way things were going, now many have changed their tune. Fair enough, each to their own. But this is still a long term project and we need to stick with it. And I’d like to see a more positive atmosphere at Stamford Bridge, but that’s just me.

Postscript 1 :

Glenn would later tell me that while he was waiting in the concourse with Les from Melksham before our match, the Tottenham vs. Brighton game was on TV. As Tottenham scored a second goal, a voice – a Chelsea fan, from England – was heard cheering. Les reprimanded him, rather strongly.

“What are you doing?”

“He’s in my fantasy team.”

I hate modern football.

Postscript 2 :

On the two other recent occasions of Chelsea losing at home to poor teams – West Ham United and Bournemouth – at least wins on both occasions for Frome Town helped raise my spirits slightly. On this occasion, no such luck; a 4-1 loss at Les’ Melksham Town.

Postscript 3 :

In the after game interview, involving Jason Cundy pitch side with Frank, there were no punches pulled. But Frank took everything on the chin. He answered all of the questions honestly and without serving up silly excuse after silly excuse. I totally admire his approach in these interviews. I am longing for us to turn the corner. For him, for all of us.

Postscript 4 :

At the halfway stage in the league season, we are in fourth place.

See you at Arsenal.

 

Tales From My Chelsea Family Tree

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 14 December 2013.

As strange as it seems for me to write these words, this was only my sixth sighting of Crystal Palace as a Chelsea supporter. During my teens and ‘twenties when my ability to attend matches was hampered by lack of money, there were some teams that I wittingly or unwittingly avoided. Admittedly our paths didn’t cross every season, but given the choice of travelling up from Somerset to see the boys play Tottenham or Palace, there would have been only one winner. My first-ever game was an away encounter at Selhurst Park in the autumn of 1991; a dull 0-0. There has only ever been one other visit to Selhurst Park for me to see us play Palace; a pre-season friendly in 2003 when the Arthur Waite Stand was overrun with a huge Chelsea army excited at seeing one of the first games of the Roman Abramovich reign. In fact, another odd statistic; I’ve visited Selhurst Park on five occasions, but only two games have involved Palace. The other three games were against their tenants Charlton Athletic (1989) and then Wimbledon (1996 and 1999).

So, this would only be my fourth Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace game at Stamford Bridge. I can remember the game in November 1992 when I watched on the Shed, uncovered, in spitting rain, with my mate Daryl. Our respective paths had crossed a year or so earlier as fans of baseball – the Yankees in particular, Daryl produced a Yankee fanzine and I contributed on occasion – but it only became apparent a year or so into our limited communication that we were both Chelsea fanatics. We arranged to meet up for a pint in The Black Bull before that game over twenty-one years ago and we have become the very best of friends since. I met Daryl’s brother Neil a month or so later for another game. It’s fascinating to me how these Chelsea friendships are forged. Daryl, Neil and I hope to celebrate our fiftieth birthdays watching baseball in New York in 2015. Meeting new fellow fans in that era was rare; at the time I usually travelled up from Frome by myself, meeting only Alan on occasion, and most commonly in the Black Bull. In those days, Gary used to call by occasionally. There were other acquaintances, but many have fallen by the wayside.

I remember introducing Daryl to Glenn at the Makita at White Hart Lane in 1993, then Alan a year or so later. For the 1994 F.A. Cup Final, Daryl and I watched the game together. The following season, we travelled to Prague and Zaragoza together. In Prague, we bumped into long-time Chelsea stalwart Andy from Nuneaton and friendships blossomed.

With each passing game, my number of match-going Chelsea mates grew one by one. One day I might sit down and type out a chronological chart of when friendships began.

A Chelsea Family Tree, if you will.

Glenn 1983.

Alan, Walnuts, Leggo, Mark and Simon 1984.

Gary 1988.

Daryl and Neil 1992

Andy and Neil 1994.

Jonesy and The Youth 1995.

Ironically, Daryl and Neil would not be in attendance for this one; instead, they were back in Guernsey to celebrate their father’s 70th. birthday.

I collected Glenn (from 1983, though we first met in 1977) at 8.45am and soon picked-up Parky (2000) too. Glenn always berates me for not wanting to talk too much about the football on the drive to Chelsea, but on this occasion there was lots to talk about. Players were discussed, performances analysed, games examined. There was hope that we could despatch Crystal Palace and stack up three points ahead of the pre-Christmas showdown with Arsenal.

Before the usual pre-match in The Goose (a friend since 1999), all three of us made a quick pilgrimage to the “CFCUK” stall to purchase Mark Worrall’s new Chelsea book. Detailing the first ten years of “The Roman Years”, it contains many anecdotes from Chelsea regulars, a selection of photographs and a forward by Sir Frank Lampard. My small contribution details the day of Frank’s 202nd and 203rd goals at Villa Park.

“Only £16.99, HURRY UP.”

It was a lovely pre-match in The Goose. The Manchester City vs. Arsenal game was garnering a fair bit of attention and yelps of approval greeted the City goals. Some may say that a draw would be the best result, but I just wanted a heavy Arsenal defeat so that their season could start its inevitable implosion in December 2013 rather than March 2014. I personally think that the league is City’s to lose. Being brutally honest, if we are not to win it – a tough ask, let’s admit it now – I would rather the title ended up at City rather than Arsenal.

There was chat with Rob (2005), Sophie (2000), Barbara (2011) and Eva (2012). Tim (2009) and the Bristol Boys were nearby.

As the goals rattled in at Eastlands, the laughter increased. A great time.

Rob warned that although the Crystal Palace “ultras” come in for a lot of stick, they would make a lot of noise.

And fair play to them. This would be their first visit since they were gubbed 4-1 in the 2004-2005 Championship season – WHEN EVEN MATEJA KEZMAN SCORED TWICE – and I was sure they would enjoy their visit regardless of the result. I’ve lost count of the number of games I have seen this season when Selhurst Park appears to be rocking, yet the only fans seemingly involved are the little knot of 200 “ultras” in the bottom corner of the Holmesdale Road End. They appear to be “miked” too.

I mentioned this to Alan.

“Of course” he replied. “The TV love that, miking the fans that make a racket, making out the atmosphere is loud throughout the stadium.”

On ascending the steps to the upper tier, confirmation that two very late goals had been exchanged in Manchester.

City 6 Arsenal 3.

Let the implosion commence.

As we entered the seats, I was given a Christmas card from Joe (1997) who sits nearby with his son Gary. Joe is now eighty-five. We love him to bits.

There have been few Chelsea versus Crystal Palace “classics” but the one game that always seems to grab the attention of my generation came in 1976 during our F.A. Cup campaign. As a struggling Second Division team, we were drawn at home with Malcolm Allison’s Third Division Crystal Palace in the fifth round of the cup. This fixture really captured the imagination of the London public and, with Stamford Bridge’s vast terraces able to withstand the demand, over 54,000 attended. Sadly, we lost 3-2 but it is an afternoon that I can easily recount some 37 years later.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7M6pRs5PHF4

Just after the first two Palace goals, thousands of Chelsea teenagers can be heard singing “Chelsea aggro, Chelsea aggro, ‘ello, ‘ello.”

With Chelsea chasing the game, the atmosphere is clearly electric. The old Stamford Bridge, full to bursting, was a grand old stadium in its time. The sight of The Shed holding almost twenty thousand spectators is just gorgeous.

Peter Taylor went on to play for Tottenham. I never liked him.

I had a quick run through the team and two players stood out; Michael Essien, despite having a nightmare two weeks ago, was back alongside Ramires and David Luiz was partnering John Terry. Further forward, Juan Mata, Willian and Eden Hazard were asked to provide ammunition for the recalled Fernando Torres.

Very soon into the game, the three thousand Palace fans were working their way through their own very distinctive repertoire of songs. They were bellowing them out. It was pretty impressive stuff. Maybe I was wrong; maybe Selhurst is rocked by more than those two hundred self-styled “ultras” in that bottom left corner of their home end.

They taunted us : “Is this a library?” and then “Here for the Palace, you’re only here for the Palace.”

We replied : “Here for the season, you’re only here for the season.”

The away team were fighting for every ball under new boss Tony Pulis. However, after only a quarter of an hour, Willian sensed an opportunity to run at goal. His positive dribble took him close and he sent a low shot towards Speroni. The Palace ‘keeper’s dive turned the ball onto the post only for Fernando Torres to pounce on the rebound.

1-0 Chelsea

Alan and I did our usual routine.

You know the score.

Immediately after, the Palace fans ignored the deficit and rallied behind their team. Well done them. It reminded of us when we were…er…shit.

We then hit a little purple patch with some lovely play from a strong Torres run and then a Mata touch enabling Ivanovic to strike at goal. His shot scraped the far post. This was good stuff. Maybe more goals would follow. Even the home crowd were getting involved.

A London derby with noise. Just like 1976. Luvverly jubberly.

Until then, Palace had only enjoyed rare opportunities to attack. Sadly, just before the half-hour mark, a Palace move down our right resulted in a ball being whipped in for an unmarked Chamakh to volley home.

We fell silent and the Palace fans bounced in unison. It was a celebration typical of fans from Istanbul, not Croydon.

I turned to Alan : “I don’t care what anyone says. That’s impressive.”

Thankfully, we regained the lead soon after.

Eden Hazard, relatively subdued until then, glided past his marker and passed to an unmarked Ramires. Our little midfield dynamo looked up, aimed and fired a curler into Speroni’s goal.

2-1 Chelsea. Phew.

At the break, Danny Granville – Stockholm 1998 and all that – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. Thousands upon thousands of new Chelsea fans in the West Upper scratched their heads.

In the second-half, Crystal Palace were clearly more aggressive than in the opening forty-five minutes. Our midfield were left chasing shadows and the frustration among the home support grew with each passing minute. Palace raided our goal, but thankfully neither Nicky Chatterton nor Peter Bloody Taylor was on hand to score. Petr Cech was able to smother and repel all of the efforts on his goal. Still the Palace fans sang.

Essien, though clearly not at his best, stayed on as Juan Mata was replaced by Oscar. Our chances had dried up and we were hanging on. Palace were surprising us all. There was a ridiculous scramble at The Shed End on seventy-five minutes, but continued shots at goal were thwarted by desperate defending by the Chelsea rear-guard. A header then flashed past the post. Cech’s goal was leading a charmed life.

And all around me, instead of generous support for Chelsea in our twenty minutes of need, there was little singing and little encouragement.

At one point, after a welcome period of positive Chelsea play, out of over one hundred spectators in our little section, Alan noted only Big John, Alan and myself clapped.

Welcome to Stamford Bridge 2013.

In the last ten minutes, Andre Schurrle replaced Willian and then Demba Ba replaced Torres. This really surprised me. Although there was little defensive options on the bench available to him, Mourinho chose to make offensive rather than defensive changes. Rather than bring on Lamps as extra cover, Jose chose other options. I quickly remembered an infamous game from only last season.

At Reading with us winning 2-1, Rafa Benitez replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. We let in an equaliser.

At home to Palace in 2014, with us winning 2-1, Jose Mourinho replaced Torres with Ba rather than shore up the defence. I hoped there would be no equaliser.

Our nerves were jangling. We were still hanging on. There was still no noticeable show of support for the boys.

There were two late Chelsea chances at the Matthew Harding. The ball was played through towards Ramires but, with only Speroni to beat, the little Brazilian fluffed his kick. Whereas I sighed in silent frustration, I looked quickly to my left where there were howls of indignation and anger being aimed at Ramires by many in the MH Upper.

These fuckers had hardly sung a note of support for the team all afternoon, yet their faces were contorted with rage at Ramires’ miss and were heaping abuse towards our own players on the pitch below.

Soon after, another Chelsea chance came and went. There was an almighty scramble after substitute Schurrle played a lovely wall pass with Ba, but shot right at the Palace custodian. The rebound came to Ba, but Speroni again saved. A further rebound was sliced wide by the suddenly hapless Rami.

I grimaced as fellow supporters in the MHU spewed vitriol once more.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, I commented to Alan that we were still looking to attack. This was a very different approach to the Mourinho team of ten seasons ago when a tight, nervy game would be notable for ball retention among the back four rather than forward passes.

Despite one more Palace chance, we survived.

However, such was the dreadful atmosphere during the last ten minutes, it honestly felt like we had lost.

IMG_3807

Tales From Third Gear

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 1 December 2013.

December was upon us and our first game in a very busy month involved the visit to SW6 of high-flying Southampton. The team from the south coast caused us huge problems during the two league games of the previous campaign, beating us 2-1 at St. Mary’s and earning a point in a 2-2 draw at Stamford Bridge. This would not be an easy game. After the very poor performance in Basel on Tuesday, another match could not come quickly enough.

However, although the minds of most Chelsea supporters were centred on the game, my build-up was focussed elsewhere. This game would mark the return to the fold of a good friend – one of the Frome Gang of Seven, then Six, then Five, then Four.

Paul – or PD – was back.

I first met Paul, famously – or infamously – on the train on the return trip from a famous – or infamous – away game at Cardiff in March 1984. After we drew 3-3 after being 3-0 down with just six minutes remaining, a couple of the Frome brethren had been arrested and there was talk in the crowded train compartment of the afternoon’s events. There was talk of “Daniels” and I wondered who this was. My Chelsea journey was in its infancy; these older lads had obviously been going to games for a few more years than me. I was all ears. Paul appeared at the door to our compartment wearing old school boots and jeans, maybe a green flight jacket, with cropped hair and a fearsome reputation that went before him. Soon after his appearance, the compartment was singing “Daniels Is Our Leader.” I was predictably impressed. Later that season, I travelled up with him in a car with three others for the decisive game with Leeds United.

Oh what a day that was.

Since then, there have been numerous Chelsea games in his company.

Sadly, in September 2010, Paul was involved in a horrific accident at work; he was working in one of the many tarmac gangs that have made my local town a veritable capital city for road resurfacing. There are many limestone quarries in the area – seen from the air, the local Somerset landscape is pot-marked by vast open areas of grey – and so, as a result, Frome is now home to hundreds of “Boys from the Black Stuff” who hurtle about the English countryside in teams, patching up roads and motorways with limestone.  After the accident, Paul almost lost his leg and has not worked since. I have often bumped into him at the local football club, and he has often aired his yearnings to be able to return, one day, to Stamford Bridge.

Sunday 1 December 2013 was that day.

I collected PD at 9.30am and Lord Parky soon after.

The Boys from the Blue Stuff were soon on our way east.

There was a real sense of the Southampton fixture being a “must win” game for Chelsea to keep in touch with Arsenal. With a fixture at the Emirates looming large on the horizon, we needed to keep on their coat tails. And yet it got me thinking; surely this contravened my general, relaxed, thoughts about this being a transitional season where the league title might be beyond us. Was this game important to gain three points or to simply expunge the awful performance in Switzerland from our collective memory? Well, whatever it was, I guess it is human nature to want to win every game. The thought of losing to Southampton, not unfeasible in the current “will the real Chelsea please stand up?” climate, and therefore allowing Arsenal to remain seven points clear, made me anxious.

In fact – and I am sure I am not alone – the thought of Arsenal winning the league, after their much-scorned period of drought, made me feel nauseous.  In comparison, a league win for either of the two Manchester teams seemed to be the far more palatable option should Chelsea falter. This wasn’t an exact science though; if questioned, I am sure that I dislike United more than Arsenal.

“Oh boy. Weird this football lark, innit?”

At 12.30pm I deposited PD and Parky in The Goose, where I knew that they were in for a warm welcome. I headed on to Stamford Bridge where, for the first time this season, I popped in to the megastore to buy a few Christmas presents. I was pleased to be able to collect the new, full game DVD of Munich.

Ah, Munich. Just the name, just the name.

By the time I had met up with the boys in the pub, Manchester United had dropped two welcome points at Tottenham. Soon after, the Hull City vs. Liverpool game was on the TV screens. We ignored the game and just chatted. My mate Foxy, who I had last met up with on a trip to Scotland a mere fortnight previously, soon appeared with his son Ricky. But the day was all about PD really; there were hugs a-plenty for him. It was great to see.

By the time we had walked down to the stadium, Liverpool had conceded a third goal at the KC Stadium and things were looking up. With points being dropped by United and Liverpool, a Chelsea win would be a magnificent winter warmer on this cold December afternoon.

PD took his seat next to Alan and me. This was another full house with hardly any empty seats. Southampton had around 1,500 and one paltry flag. I soon spotted Foxy and Ricky in the front row of The Shed. And there was Parky a few yards away.

Everyone in. Everyone ready.

A quick scan of the team; surprisingly a start for Michael Essien, the “three amigos” of Hazard, Oscar and Mata were reunited, no place for Sir Frank and Fernando Torres recalled. Still no Luiz.

Was Southampton’s goal by Jay Rodriguez the fastest-ever goal at Stamford Bridge in 108 years? Surely, there couldn’t have been many that were quicker. A terrible intervention by Michael Essien had spun the ball into the path of the Southampton striker, who slotted the ball past a stranded Petr Cech. The 1,500 away fans boiled over in jumping, leaping ecstasy.

With the Stamford Bridge crowd stunned into an eerie silence, Chelsea encountered a horrible first-half malaise; was it a hangover from Basel, one of the most lack-lustre performances that I can ever remember? We played in a fog of self-doubt and faltering confidence, with little movement, and a dearth of crunching tackles in the midfield and penetration up front. There was, again, a distinct unwillingness by key players to take hold of the game by the horns. Too often players played the ball to a disadvantaged team mate, eschewing responsibility, rather than create with their own skills. Oscar was very quiet and Mata peripheral. Hazard showed willing, but there was little movement off him.

A strong Torres run into the box at least showed willing and desire.

Southampton, to their credit pushed us hard, closing us down, putting pressure on us. As PD commented:

“Just like Mourinho likes us to play.”

However, Cech was largely untroubled despite Southampton’s persnickety persistence. We had no more than a few half-chances as the afternoon grew darker.

It saddens me to report that Michael Essien endured his own personal nightmare. His unfortunate error in the build-up to the Southampton goal aside, his play was strewn with passing errors, poor tackles and – worst of all – he often found himself out-muscled as he tried to retain possession. I felt for him. The biggest ignominy of all? A silly dive – simulation as it is called these days – after he had lost possession. He was rightly booked.

Two late chances in the first-half were the highlights of the entire first period. On forty minutes, Torres did ever so well to retain possession and battle off a defender and dig out a cross for Oscar but his header was right at Boruc. Soon after, there was a superb Boruc one-handed save from a Torres header.

Oscar fell injured and was replaced by Frank Lampard; so much for a day off, eh?

I’m also sad to report that there were – of course! – boos at half-time.

It dawned on me that I have an increasing, festering dislike for many of my fellow fans. To my annoyance and consternation, I have almost given up trying to support the team during those times when The Bridge is silent. Even only five years ago, I would try to rally the troops around me, but what is the point? What is the bloody point?

With every passing season, the atmosphere at home games decreases.

How far have we fallen? Let me give a quick illustration.

Way back in 1992, with Chelsea enjoying a little run of form under Ian Porterfield and in the top six of the table, we met Southampton at home on Boxing Day. In 1992-1993, I largely travelled to games alone and only met up with Alan by chance. I had just recently learned to drive the previous season and so was enjoying my new found freedom; it was, in fact, the first Boxing Day game I had ever seen at Stamford Bridge. I was well aware that there were plans to remodel Stamford Bridge and so I had decided to take my father’s rather large camcorder to the game and capture some of the day’s events on film, aware that The Bridge might soon be changing its appearance. I have rather grainy footage of the old Fulham Broadway station, early-morning risers walking past the old souvenir shops on their trudge to the forlorn entrance to the West Stand, all corrugated iron and ancient turnstiles. The main forecourt is captured, quiet, awaiting the day to unfold.

I managed to smuggle the camcorder inside and capture several moments of the actual game. I was sitting halfway back in the East Stand. Our football that season was rudimentary stuff. We often played with Tony Cascarino and Mick Harford in the team. It was direct and far from pretty. However, most tellingly of all, the video film from almost twenty-one years ago shows repeated evidence of honest and heartfelt clapping, encouragement and applause at every single worthwhile Chelsea attack.

The ball is played up for Graeme Stuart to run on to? Shouts of encouragement.

The ball goes off for a throw-in near the Southampton goal-line? Widespread clapping and applause?

A pleasing period of play involving Dennis Wise and Andy Townsend? More encouragement.

The difference between 1992 and 2013 is galling.

At half-time, I returned to my seat and spotted Neil Barnett on the pitch with an elderly gentleman in a gabardine coat. It was John Payton, apparently our oldest-ever former player at ninety years old. I can’t lie; it is not a name that I am familiar with. In a strong Scottish accent, he encouraged the crowd to get behind the players in the second-half and pleaded for us to make some noise. The response from the docile crowd annoyed him.

“Well, that’s not much of a roar.”

I knew how he felt.

No surprises – Demba Ba replaced the struggling Michael Essien.

I hate using clichés, but this was obviously a case of a “game of two halves.”

The crowd, thank heavens, seemed immediately more energised as we upped our play. A Frank Lampard free-kick was well saved by Boruc.

On fifty-five minutes, a Juan Mata corner was aimed high and Brana leaped to force a header back in towards goal. Demba Ba lunged at the ball and it bounced up and off a post back into the six yard box. Gary Cahill, falling, did ever so well to contort and twist his body to head the ball in.

The Bridge roared. Back level.

Gary raced away and milked the applause down below me.

There was noise – proper noise – at last.

“And it’s super Chelsea – super Chelsea F.C.”

Boruc injured his hand and was replaced by Gazzaniga.

Six minutes later, Juan Mata played a ball into the box. With the camera to my eye, I saw a body rise and loop a header up and over the substitute ‘keeper. I clicked just as the ball was on its rise. The ball nestled in the goal. There was a loud yelp and a jump from myself.  I let out a guttural scream.

“YES.”

I soon focussed on the player racing towards me and obviously realised that the scorer was JT. Until that point, it was all a mad blur. This was a very typical John Terry goal and it reminded me instantly of two similar goals at the same end, versus Barcelona in 2005 and versus Manchester United in 2009.

The emotion on our captain’s face was a picture. I photographed the scream, the shout, the slide.

Captain. Leader. Legs First Slider.

This was more like it, Chelsea. Southampton were tiring now and were soon chasing shadows as two sublime slide-rule passes from first Ivanovic and then Mata were played in, dissecting the Southampton defence.

Demba Ba added an extra dimension to our play and his strong run on seventy-one minutes was almost rewarded in a goal, but his shot was dragged wide.

PD kept saying “I’ve missed this.”

Fernando Torres worked tirelessly all afternoon and was replaced by Mikel late on. This was typical Mourinho. I approved. Rather than settling for a 2-1 victory, however, we continued to push forward.

On eighty-nine minutes, we witnessed great perseverance from Ramires as he fended-off tackles from three opponents, retained possession and, with a wicked turn, whipped in a lovely ball for Ba to prod in.

3-1.

At the final whistle, the poor first-half was virtually forgotten as we slowly made our exit out. “Blue is the Colour” was being played, John Terry and Frank Lampard were applauding the Chelsea faithful for our support and everything was well the world.

On the walk back to the car, PD and I quickly reviewed the race at the top of the table.

“I hate to say it, but Arsenal are flying. Can they keep it up, though? City are hot and cold. United too. Liverpool haven’t got enough depth. But we are in second place and yet haven’t even got out of third gear yet.”

“That’s right me zun.”

There is no trip to Sunderland for me on Wednesday but Parky and I have yet another jaunt up to The Potteries next Saturday. Stoke City is one of my favourite away games. However, I might have to rack my brains for new subject matter after five previous “Tales” involving “Stoke away.”

Oh no, wait – I have an idea.

Watch this space.

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Tales From The 41,548*

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 26 December 2011.

For the first time this season, I was having a day off. That is to say, the driving duties were not mine. At last I could relax and let somebody else worry about the traffic and the timings. Glenn called for me at 8am and we were soon on our way. Parky was collected at 8.30am, resplendent in a new Duck & Cover top, thankfully now recovering from his recent ailments.

The three amigos on the way to football once more.

Another season, another Boxing Day game, another game at The Bridge. Admittedly, we don’t have a game every December 26th (our last Boxing Day game was in 2009 at Birmingham City), but Chelsea invariably get home fixtures on this date.

As I live over 100 miles from SW6, it took until 1992 for me to see Chelsea in a Boxing day game; until then the friction of distance, plus lack of finances, prevailed against me. On that particular day, I drove up to Chelsea for the very first time and parked near the Lots Road gasometers and watched Chelsea scramble a 1-1 draw against Southampton. I remember I took an old-school camcorder up with me for that game and – quite illegally – recorded around ten minutes of match action from the East Upper. I also took a few shots of the old tube station, the souvenir shops on the Fulham Road, the forecourt, The Shed. I’m glad I did; within a few years, the old Stamford Bridge would be no more. That 15 minute film from Stamford Bridge – shrouded in midwinter mist, atmospheric, bleak – is a cherished part of my Chelsea archives. I remember how every time Chelsea (Dennis Wise, Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair et al) managed to cross the halfway line, there were encouraging cheers and claps from the Chelsea support in the East Stand. I watched this video film a few years ago and it was quite endearing to be honest; refreshing to see – and hear – Chelsea fans supporting the team’s pursuit of goals and glory. These days, the notion of Chelsea fans cheering each time we get past the centre-circle seems absurd.

1992 was my first ever CFC Boxing Day game, but my first ever trip to Stamford Bridge during the festive season was ten years earlier, during that bleakest of seasons, the 1982-1983 campaign. During that winter, Chelsea were stumbling along in the old second division and gates were hitting new lows. Despite drawing 25,000 for the visit of Leeds United in October, gates had dropped to as low as 7,000 in late 1982. Our neighbours Fulham, paradoxically, were flying high under the management of former player Malcolm MacDonald and with players such as Ray Houghton, Sean O’Driscoll, Gordon Davies and Dean Coney. I travelled up with my parents for the Chelsea vs. Fulham derby on December 28th 1982 and wondered how big the gate would be. If memory serves, the cancellation of a set of fixtures the previous week had resulted in massive crowds on the Boxing Day that year; everyone wanted their fix of football. Well, the Chelsea crowd did not disappoint on that afternoon in December 1982. I watched from The Shed and my parents watched from way up high in the East. The game was a scoreless draw, but the abiding memory is of the huge 29,000 attendance. Our average during that 1982-1983 season was just 12,672 (our lowest ever, from 1905 onwards), so getting a gate of 29,000 reconfirmed what I knew; we were a sleeping giant, we did have the fan base…with a little success, the crowds would return. I remember little of the day, apart from waiting at the bottom of The Shed after the game had ended. Thousands upon thousands of fans strode past as I waited for my parents to join me. I was overawed by the numbers and the wait seemed to take forever. I can see my father now, in his hat and overcoat, trying to keep warm in the cold December air. My mother alongside, with her face cheered for seeing me.

Lovely memories.

So much for Chelsea versus Fulham in 1982. What about Chelsea versus Fulham in 2011?

McBreakfasts were purchased at Melksham and were consumed “on the hoof.” Glenn made great time and we were rolling along nicely. We bumped into a few Cardiff City fans at Reading Services, en route to Watford, and then continued on our pilgrimage east. With the tube strike undoubtedly causing more fans to travel in by car, plus the closure of the A4 at Hammersmith, we had planned a different route in. We drove north on the M25, then came in to London on the A40, past the iconic Hoover Building near Hanger Lane. I quickly spotted Park Royal tube station and it brought back warm memories of my first ever trip to Chelsea in 1974; we had parked nearby, and then caught the tube in from that very station. My father was always fearful of the traffic in central London, bless him.

Past the floodlights of Loftus Road, then the new and architecturally brutal Westfield Mall – right in the heart of QPR land – and then past more familiar sights; Earls Court, Salvo’s restaurant, West Brompton Cemetry…Chelsealand.

We were parked-up at 10.40am and it had been a breeze. The weather was surprisingly mild.

A knot of customers were already waiting for The Goose to open up. As more punters joined the throng, I walked over to meet Nathan (a CIAer from the Bay Area of California) and his parents. He had previously visited HQ for the 3-0 thrashing of Birmingham City in the Double season, but his parents – Laurie and Paul – were first-time Bridge visitors. They had just raided the megastore. There is a sale on at present and I have my sights set on a couple of books which I’ll probably purchase before the Villa game.

Into The Goose and I could enjoy a few beers. I took my jacket off and got the beers in. A few pints of Peroni – currently my favourite by far – went down well. Paul, Laurie and Nathan settled down for a lovely pre-match and we covered tons of sport-related topics in the 90 minutes which was afforded us. Parky and Paul exchanged awful jokes, Laurie proclaimed her hatred of the Yankees and I gave her a hug. Paul and I chatted about the Brooklyn Dodgers while Nathan and I spoke about the upcoming Chelsea tour to the US in the summer. It was a fine time.

The Goose was terribly quiet, though. There was probably only 50% of the usual numbers present. I wondered if The Bridge would be well short of capacity on this particular Boxing Day.

Our American guests, fortified by the beer and the laughter of a Chelsea pre-match, set off for The Bridge. I had thoroughly enjoyed their company – sports mad, the lot of them – and I had said “we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.” Parky and I soon followed. I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the streets approaching the stadium were. It felt very odd.

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There wasn’t even much of a line at the turnstiles.

I reached my seat, buzzing from the alcohol intake, as the flags were ending their travels along the two tiers of the Matthew Harding Stand. In front of me were two empty seats. The Bridge appeared full, but after a glance around all four stands, it was clear that hundreds – no thousands – of seats were unoccupied. It wasn’t clear in my mind how Arsenal could call off their game on this day of tube-strike induced chaos, while Chelsea did not. Of course, it all became clear. Chelsea had sold all of the 41,500 tickets; why should they care if thousands couldn’t travel in and attend the actual game.

1-0 to Arsenal.

For the first time since September, Glenn, Alan and I were at The Bridge together.

It felt right.

I won’t dwell too much on the game. I thought that we had enough chances to win, but that much cherished commodity luck was not with us on this particular occasion. That is, of course, not hiding the fact that we did not play well. The first-half was particularly poor, with hardly any urgency in our attacking play.

The first real chance of the day fell to Clint Dempsey and his Barnes Wallace of a shot caused Cech to scramble to his right and turn past the post. Fulham had three thousand fans, but one flag; a Japanese flag. They don’t do flags, Fulham, do they? It goes without saying, the away fans made more noise consistently throughout the game than the Chelsea fans.

Mata played in Fernando Torres and the maligned Spaniard did well to bounce the ball off his chest to enable a swivel of the hips and a shot on target. Unfortunately, as is the way with Nando, the ball was struck straight at Stockdale in the Shed goal. Our approach play was laboured and The Bridge fell silent.Two wayward efforts from Torres left Tom with his head in his hands. A cross from wide rattled straight across Petr Cech’s area and we were lucky Fulham were only playing with one up.

A corner on 38 minutes typified our poor play; Mata sent in a corner towards the penalty spot, but it was headed clear by one of three defenders, with not a Chelsea player within five yards of the ball. I had signalled to San Francisco Pete, way up at the back of the MHU, to join me for a pint at the break. While lining up in line, we watched as Studge laced a shot wide.

It was good to see Pete again and we had the usual moan, huddled under the upper tier in the area by the refreshment stand. Chelsea has chosen to decorate this area with a set of large photographs of past Chelsea players and I approve of this. It adds character to an otherwise functional part of the stadium. While we supped away at our pints of Singha, photographs of Dickie Spence, Dennis Wise, Peter Bonetti, Ruud Gullit and others looked on. It is just the sort of detail which is so sadly lacking at the bland Wembley Stadium, which depresses me more each time I visit.

Unfortunately, Pete and I missed two important things due to our half-time chat. We missed the appearance of former striker Jimmy Greaves, who was on the pitch at the break. I wonder if he is aware that, rather ironically, there is a bar in the Matthew Harding called “Jimmy’s”, named after him. As a sad victim of alcoholism and now a teetotaller, I’m sure he would find the funny side of that.

We also missed the goal. We were chatting about some nonsense, just finishing our pints, when we heard a roar.

“Oh well.”

We smiled and toasted Chelsea.

I soon had an incoming call from Alan in the stadium, but twenty yards from me.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I don’t miss many goals at Chelsea matches – I’ve probably only missed five or six Chelsea goals in over 800 games.

I re-joined the boys at my seat in the MH wraparound and hoped for further goals. It was pretty lacklustre stuff to be honest. We seemed to have all of the possession. And then a defensive blunder and Dempsey struck from close in. It was a weak goal to let in and we all groaned.

AVB replaced the insignificant Frank Lampard with Florent Malouda and our form improved slightly. Fulham were happy to defend and we regained the upper hand. Alan came out with a Christmas cracker of his own –

“Come on Chelsea. This is as one-sided as Heather Mills.”

As the time passed, our chances piled up. The best move thus far involving Malouda and Terry found Sturridge who forced a fingertip save from Stockwell. From the corner, our bad luck continued as an opportunist back heel from Malouda, two yards out, was blocked.

Didier was given a chance to play, replacing Sturridge with twenty minutes to go. Torres was shunted wide and became marginalised. Alan and I had said that we wanted to see Torres on the shoulder of the last man while he was in Chelsea Blue, centrally, ready to pounce. We didn’t care to see him chasing back and turning up in all sorts of deep lying positions. We wanted to see him played to his strength. I’d like to know if AVB tells him to chase balls back in his own half. I’m not a great tactician, but I’d prefer to see Nando as goal poacher and goal poacher only during his time in SW6.

The two highlights for me were two majestically crafted lobs from David Luiz, both with just the correct amount of fade and spin to allow the ball to die as it hit the turf, allowing team mates to gather with the minimum of effort.

Truly great passes. Almost scooped up with Luiz’ right foot. Perfect.

A Drogba shot from the second one of these was hit straight at Stockwell. A curling effort from Meireles agonisingly missed the far post. Malouda set up Meireles with a header which flew over. The last chance, a Drogba effort from a free-kick, did not bother the Fulham ‘keeper.

It was one of those days.

There was a short bout of booing at the final whistle. On exiting the stadium, the Chelsea supporters around me were full of complaints about Andre Villas-Boas, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Winston Bogarde, Slavisa Jokanovic, Keith Dublin, Graham Wilkins, Peter Houseman, Keith Weller and Fatty Foulke. I found it a shame that these same fans couldn’t find time to cheer the boys on during the game.

There you go – the usual moan from me about the lack of noise from our home support.

Merry Christmas.

We returned back to Glenn’s van and were soon on our way. There was the briefest of post-mortems as Glenn wended his way back through the streets of West London, out past Ealing and Acton, past the urban sprawl of the inter-war years, out of London and back towards home.

My mate Steve texted me with updates from the Frome Town vs. Weymouth game as the afternoon became evening. Two missed Weymouth penalties, a Frome sending off, no goals, but a disappointing crowd of 533 in arguably Frome’s biggest ever home league game. Maybe there had been an unexpected tube strike on the Buckland Dinham and Trudoxhill underground lines.

From the Chelsea FC website –

Best Moment of the Match.

“The announcement that 41,548 resourceful fans had managed to fill Stamford Bridge despite travel problems on the tubes, trains and west London roads.”

The five thousand empty seats tell a different story.

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