Tales From The Third World

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2010.

And so the season continues on a knife edge.

I collected His Lordship from Parky Towers and we were full of chat on the drive up the M4. There was not a single cloud in the sky throughout the drive. Once we parked-up at the usual place, the sun’s warmth shocked us.

We hoped that it would turn out to be a lovely day. To quote a line from a famous film –

“Tottenham Away. Love It.”

We had arranged to meet “Folsom Blue” Steve Azar at Earl’s Court at 1pm, but we were a bit late in arriving. We bounced into “O’Neils” on the corner of Brompton Road and Earl’s Court Road at about 1.25pm, with the Manchester derby on the TV screens. Also present were Ashley, from San Jose, and her mate Jason, from even further away. Jason is from the Far East and was at college in Newcastle, but has since been living and working in London for over a year. The reason he decided to stay on and reside in England?

Chelsea Football Club.

Excellent stuff. Shades of Burger, even. This would be Ashley and Jason’s first ever away game.

Anyway, we got the beers in, chatted away and stood at the bar throughout the second-half of the City vs. United game. It didn’t appear to be a particularly exciting game. A few half-chances for both teams. I was happy when Rooney was taken off…even happier when his replacement Berbatov headed meekly wide. City didn’t appear to be playing well, Tevez was quiet. As we supped our pints, we continued chatting. We had sorted out our plans for the rest of the trip up to N17 and were thinking about our game against our hated rivals. We contemplated the gap being narrowed to just three points. Three minutes of extra time…

When Scholes headed in, our spirits dive-bombed. The previously quiet pub erupted with noise, while I walked away in disgust. I had the feeling that there were more than a few Spurs fans in the pub watching. This was a terrible result and we knew it.

The five of us hopped on a tube and then got a cab from Finsbury Park to White Hart Lane. We wanted to get there early in order for Parky to collect his match ticket from Lovejoy. The cabbir dropped us off opposite The Corner Pin pub – no windows, just shutters. My phone was already buzzing away with a few Chelsea-related texts, from near and far. One text came in from Pete all of the way over in San Francisco. It contained an amazing photograph of a football pitch – or rather a goal – with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. An image of football which made me smile. I have often toyed with the idea of getting a photographic project up-and-running containing football pitches from wherever my travels take me. The sort of images that often pop up in “When Saturday Comes.” Anyway, by means of a contrast, I took a photo of a boarded-up shop, right on the High Road, right outside White Hart Lane.

I entitled it “Greetings From Tottenham.”

For anyone who is yet to visit, the area around White Hart Lane is pretty rough. The difference between Spurs’ HQ and our HQ is immense. Boarded-up shops, empty premises, council flats, chip shops…I’d hate to have to visit it every fortnight.

Lovejoy was running late and so we just circumnavigated White Hart Lane.

It was a painful operation.

Still, no skin off my nose.

The surroundings are truly gruesome and there were copious amounts of horse5hit – from the police horses – everywhere. Just about summed the place up really. There was the usual selection of T-Shirt stalls. One T-shirt design was poking fun at Arsenal’s title aspirations and I thought this was a bit rich coming from a club who last won the championship in 1961.

We walked around to the heavily-policed away turnstiles and spotted a few familiar faces arrive. There was quite a subdued air about the place though…not the noisy hub-bub you get walking along the Fulham Road. At long last, Lovejoy arrived with Woody and Andy and Parky got his sweaty mitts on the ticket. He would be up in the top tier, not far from me.

We got in with ten minutes to spare, just as Alan and Gary arrived. And there we were – the assembled masses of the Chelsea away support, all 3,000 strong, and us in the middle of the block of 511 away season-ticket holders.

The plasterers, the office managers, the painters and decorators, the laboratory technicians, the estate agents, the sales managers, the French polishers, the project managers, the export co-ordinators, the account clerks, the millionaires, the directors, the shop owners and the students.

All of us Chelsea – all of us up for it.

Spurs began strongly and had us reeling as they found space in and around our box. Gareth Bale was running at Paolo and we were worried. Our play struggled to get going. A Pavlochenko effort from way out was tipped over by Petr Cech and I gasped. It was a superb save. The first of the three or four “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” dirges – painfully slow – were sung and the whole place joined in.

Apart from us of course – we rallied with our usual supply of passionate songs and it was a good atmosphere.

Then – no! – a handball and Dowd pointed to the spot after a moment of thought. Defoe smashed it in and we had to watch the home support pumping their arms in mad jubilation. It was a truly hideous sight. There must be worse things that could possibly happen to me on my journey through this life, but at that particular moment, I could not think of any.

We equalised – how we celebrated – only for us to spot the yellow flag for offside. Gutted.

Ballack on for Mikel.

Cech made another stupendous save down below me.

The Spurs cockerel was glinting high atop the East Stand – home to the Shelf in years gone by – and it made me feel ill.

Eidur Gudjohnsen was warming up down below and I neither applauded nor booed. Not a nice sight, though. During the closing stages of the first-half, we were getting back into it a bit. Of course, Bale then cut inside with ease and slammed the ball in to give Spurs a deserved 2-0 lead at half-time. Paolo Ferreira ended-up on his knees and he looked truly befuddled.

At the break, the toilets were full of cigarette smoke and depressing opinions from the Chelsea faithful. This wasn’t going well.

Anelka on for the quiet Joe Cole, Ivanovic on for the out-classed Paolo.

We began the second-half with a bit more spirit, but the two stupid John Terry yellow cards put paid to us. JT – what were you thinking mate? Why did you make such a rash challenge way out on the right wing? An awful bit of football.

The Spurs fans were now in their element, but we quietened them down pretty easily –

“Have You Ever Seen Tottenham Win The League?”

Eidur came on and I hated it. Gary, my companion for so many away games, was a constant barrage of abuse. It was quite a performance. Never before had I heard such constant negativity. Let’s leave it there.

If it wasn’t for Petr in goal, we would have conceded more. However, down to ten men, we showed a bit more drive, but of course our defence was left wide-open as we chased the goals we so craved.

I photographed Ballack’s fine cross into the box for Frank to score and our section – minus about 400 early leavers – erupted. We pressed and pressed and it reminded me of the last few minutes from the 2008-2009 game.

It was not to be.

We soberly made our way past the line of police by the Spurs shop and headed over to the White Hart Lane train station. The home fans were bouncing and it sickened me. One noisy bloke said “first Arsenal, then today – I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

“If only” I thought.

As we queued up to get on the train, one Spurs fan in front of me said he “truly despised John Terry” and I imagined a right jab to his head. We eventually reached civilisation at about 9pm and had a meal at “Salvo’s.” Wes came up to join us – this was to be Steve’s last game of his two month stay – and we wished him the best of luck in getting back to the US, what with all of the air-traffic delays. We joked about him being still here for Stoke City.

What a crazy season. United aren’t good enough to win it. Arsenal aren’t good enough to win it. Liverpool aren’t good enough to win it. Chelsea aren’t good enough to win it.

Who knows? It could be us, it could be us.

I sent out a glimmer of hope to a few mates, by text –

“3 Games. 3 Wins. 1 Champion.”

I reached home, eventually, at 11.45pm and there, on the front doormat, was my ticket for Liverpool vs. Chelsea.

And so it continues…

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Tales From A Nervous One Hundred Minutes

Chelsea vs. Bolton Wanderers : 13 April 2010.

Since the wonderful events of the weekend, I had been walking tall. Not many people wanted to talk football with me at work though. Strange, eh? However, I awoke nervous and I stayed nervous all day. This was to be a huge day in our season.

Despite the concerns I had about missing a midweek home game with the new people at work, I pulled out of the car-park bang on 4.15pm, my earliest “get away” for ages. It was a stress-free trip up through Wiltshire and Berkshire and into the Thames Valley. I made Steve Azar aware of my progress using the usual shorthand –

Kerry Dixon.

David Brent.

Rifles.

This was to be Steve’s last home game on his two-month sabbatical and we had planned a post-match curry. Throughout the trip up to HQ, my only thoughts about the line-up was the “Drogba or Anelka” conundrum. As I neared London, the weather brightened, with the sun breaking through. The sky was full of vapour trails from the planes flying in and out of Heathrow and, higher, cirrus clouds were everywhere. It was a glorious evening. The traffic was light. I was on target. The Killers gave way to Morrissey and all was good with the world. As I drove past the former Chelsea training ground at Harlington ( the coldest place on Earth, according to Marcel Desailly ), I noted that the trees and hedges were almost starting to turn green with new shoots and buds. The odd cherry blossom was already in bloom. I noted the twin sights of the Wembley Arch to my north and Brentford’s Griffin Park to my south. To be honest, this had the “feel” of a mid-week CL game, such was its importance to us. Past the Fuller’s brewery at Chiswick and the sky was gorgeous blue, devoid of any clouds. Lovely stuff. I had good vibes, despite the odd nervous moments of doubt.

I was parked-up at 6.25pm – that cherry blossom in Normand Park was smelling wonderful – and I soon arrived at The Goose.

With the 8pm kick-off, I had a good hour to relax out in the sunny, but cold, beer garden with the usual suspects. Time for two pints and a chat with the boys – perfect. We were neither confident and cocky nor nervy and pessimistic. We were realistic, to be fair. We knew Bolton would be a tough set of opponents, but the game was certainly “winnable.” Immediate chat focussed on the game against Villa at Wembley. Steve told us of two “big Frank Lampard fans” who left on 80 minutes and all of us were outraged by the hordes who left at 2-0. Daryl said he bumped into more than a few Chelsea fans later in the evening who had left the ground early and had thought we had only won 1-0.

Not my Chelsea.

Our fans dominated a lot of our talk. Whitey spoke about the 2006 league-winning game against United…he couldn’t get a ticket for love nor money and watched the game unfold on the TV in The Slug at FB. He spoke of the shame of seeing hundreds drift past, immediately after the whistle, obviously oblivious – or uninterested – to see the league trophy being presented to the team.

Truly shameful behaviour. Who are these people?

I walked down to the ground just in time to make the kick-off. My first thoughts were about the truly pitiful away support…no more than 120. I then looked to the right and say a lovely new banner on The Shed balcony ( and I knew Beth would be pleased ) –

BENTLEY’S BOYS

Lovely stuff.

The line-up that Carlo chose surprised a few of us…both Drogs and Nico. We were amazed that Malouda was on the bench, along with a surely disappointed Joe Cole. Our midfield seemed solid, but having Mikel and Ballack in there always slows things. The enigma of Kalou upfront. Oh boy.

Within five minutes, our flying Russian was hurtling down the wing as if his life depended on it and set up Didier who shot over. During the first-half, we had the usual majority of possession, with a few Bolton counter-attacks keeping us on our toes. We were worried when JT appeared to twist his ankle, but he’s no Rooney. He soon rejoined the fray. Soon after, Yuri suffered a cut to the head and lay in the six-yard box for some time. He was patched up and resembled Bert from Sesame Street, a tuft of hair peaking over his bandaged forehead.

We were nervous – that word again – and The Bridge was muted for long periods. It should have been jumping.

I thought that Frank – playing deep again – and Ballack were quiet. The Bolton tackles were flying in from all angles. They were upsetting our mood. The fans were growing restless and the clock was ticking. Yuri popped off to get his head wound stitched and Frank filled in at left-back for five minutes. Kalou was miss-firing upfront, but Anelka was roving well.

With me chatting to Alan about a lack of movement, we worked the ball well out to Didier on the left, in front of the taxi-cab load of Bolton fans. He had space and time to curl in a perfect cross, on the money, and Anelka headed down – and in – from close range.

A huge sigh of relief, mixed in with a euphoric yelp. That was massive.

Six minutes of added time…

Wes was sitting next to me and at half-time Alan entertained him. Alan is a master of a thousand voices and Alan chatted to Wes in the style of “Boomhauer,” the fellow Texan from “King Of The Hill.”

“Get-on-that-Chelsea-dang-flying-through-there-the-middle-ball-whoop-goal-whoo-woo-you-hear?”

Health issues from two fellow fans called Frank at half-time…London Frank, recovering from a heart-attack, getting better day by day…Frome Frank, chest pains, but still able to attend games and watching fifteen feet away. We wish them well. Peter Bonetti came out onto the pitch again at the break.

With the Chelsea players awaiting their opponents to rejoin them on the Stamford Bridge pitch, Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds” was played on the Chelsea PA.

“Don’t Worry About A Thing, ‘Cus Every Little Thing Is Gonna Be Alright.”

This is yet to really catch on…watch this space.

Yet another Yuri run down the left, yet another fluffed chance. After Drogba shot high and wild from way out, Tom commented “Drogba is either caviar or cabbage” and we knew what he meant. Salomon Kalou broke through but the ‘keeper parried and the same player shot wide barely a minute later. He was annoying large sections of the crowd. This didn’t help the collective nerves of us all. Then, out of the dark London night, a chant which lit up the entire evening. It took until 57 minutes, but at last we got behind the team –

“And It’s Super Chelsea, Suuuuuuper Chelsea Eff Ceeee – We’re By Far The Greatest Team The World Has Ever Seen”

It was the loudest, most coherent chant for ages. Good stuff.

After Drogba skied a clearance, Petr Cech back-pedalled and reached up to stop the ball going out for a corner. It reminded me of a famous catch from my other favourite sport. I spoke to Wes and texted Danny, no doubt watching in deepest Rancho Cucamonga –

“Did you see that Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds catch from Cech?”

Danny soon replied –

“I did. I was expecting him to turn and hit the cut off man. Which would be Mikel.”

I laughed. A bit of baseball humour from 6,000 miles away. I will call Mikel “the cut off man” from now on in. It seems appropriate.

The nerves increased as Bolton improved around the hour mark. However, it was becoming a game of half-chances for both teams.

Another Zhirkov run deep into their box.

We moaned when the industrious Anelka gave way for Malouda…it ought to have been Kalou in our minds. More Bolton possession. Soon after, Joe took Kalou’s place. At last, a flurry of Bolton yellow cards and these were long overdue. Joe Cole danced into the box on a few occasions…the chances were starting to come again. Frank flashed a shot against the left post. Joe set up Ballack with a super cross, but he headed weakly at the goal. From a Florent Malouda corner, JT shaped beautifully and struck a low daisy-cutter which narrowly missed that left post.

Oh boy.

Bolton had chances too and every time the balls came across our box, my heart was in my
mouth…too many late goals at that end ( the one we usually defend in the second-half ) were heavy in my mind.

The clock was ticking.

80 minutes.

Oh those nerves.

85 minutes.

Zirkov again raced forward and set up Joe, who was clean through, but with the whole crowd about to explode, Joe contrived to tread on the ball and the chance was lost.

Four minutes of added time.

Tick – tick – tick.

At last, the referee ( much berated by all ) blew up and we roared. It had been a middling performance, but the result was all-important. We headed out just as that old warhorse of a song by Journey was played on the PA. It seemed appropriate –

“Just a small town boy, born and raised in South Detroit…”

Wes, Steve and myself spent from 10pm to almost midnight in The Lily Tandoori, chatting away about all things Chelsea ( 1983, 1988, 1994, 1997, 1999, 2002, 2005, 2006…) and I could honestly have stayed all night. We visited this same curry house – the same table – after the Inter game and the mood was way different. Steve and myself chatted away like fools – all those games, all those Chelsea days out, all those laughs – and Wes watched, open-mouthed at our memory. The curries were fantastic too. Dutch Mick, also present after Inter, was across the room.

Good times. No – great times.

I was exhausted driving home and even the combined forces of Johnny Rotten and Elizabeth Fraser’s disparate voices couldn’t help. I had to stop between 1am and 2am to get some sleep.

I eventually reached home at 2.40am and watched the highlights before crashing out soon after.

And here we are – five games from Heaven.

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Tales From Our Second Home

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 10 April 2010.

At work on Friday, I received a few emails and texts from a few mates, everyone anticipating the build-up and the game at Wembley. If had been a tough old week at work and nobody was looking forward to the day more than myself. With a full day of beer ahead, Parky and myself booked ourselves onto a train so that I didn’t have to worry about the drink / driving problem. I was relishing it all – I was buzzing on Saturday morning.

Clear blue skies, lovely weather – even at 8am.

We caught the 8.29am train from Bradford-On-Avon to Bath, then the 9.13am from Bath to Paddington. I very rarely catch the train these days, but it brought back some memories of those 1981-1984 games when I would catch trains from Frome and Westbury up to London. To be fair, it’s a lovely journey, passing through some nice countryside along the way. We expected the train to be full of Chelsea, but we were the only ones. We spotted two Villa in the next carriage. At Chippenham, we noted about ten young lads get on the train – all clobbered up, wearing football gear – but we couldn’t work out who they were supporting. We hadn’t seen them at Chelsea. We wondered if they were Swindon lads. It brought back memories of train trips down to London Euston from my college town of Stoke, when there were clearly football fans on the train, but nobody gave anything away…save for the odd half-inch pin badge, much beloved by all at the time.

Heading in to Reading, we passed along the side of the River Thames and it was a lovely scene, full of rowers, barges and riverboats. We spotted a football ground, enclosed and well appointed…it was the ground of Reading Town, a team I had never heard of. At the train’s busy station, more Chelsea joined us. Reading has always been a Chelsea stronghold.

Heading into Paddington, the spindly floodlights of QPR were spotted. I was remembering all of the sights from those trips on this line from my youth. I had a word with those ten casuals and it turned out that they were off with Swindon Town to Colchester United. They were good lads and were keen to hear of our views on the atmosphere at The Bridge these days, plus our general take on a few topics. They all came from Calne, a few miles from where I work, and clearly loved their footy – and their labels. Parky and myself saw a bit of ourselves in them.We wished them well.

Steve Azar, met us at Paddington and we were soon tucking in to a large breakfast at The Tyburn pub on Marble Arch. A few of the boys – the lads I often write about, the members of The Bing – were already there…we could feel the buzz of anticipation in the air already. Rob was already passing around the amaretto.

Wes soon joined us and we then headed off to the Duke Of York, ten minutes away, the classic London boozer on a street corner. It was a predictably enjoyable pre-match…we love this pub. It never gets too busy and the landlord always looks after us. More and more troops arrived. Chelsea historian Rick Glanvill was present and I had a quick word. I spent a large proportion of my time chatting with Steve and Wes about my particular take on what being a Chelsea supporter should be about. I think it’s my favourite subject. The previous weekend’s game at Old Trafford acted as a good reference point and a catalyst for some good blue-blooded discusion. Looking at the assembled masses flooding the pavement outside the pub, of around thirty people, only one replica shirt ( worn by a young boy ) was on show and Wes asked for Steve and my opinions on this. Clearly, the sub-culture of football in the UK is well-developed , getting fine-tuned and altering with each passing season. I joked with Steve that the first thing a new Chelsea fan wants to do is buy a replica shirt these days. I’d prefer new fans to buy books, buy DVDs, talk to fellow fans…find out what it really means to be Chelsea. I retold the story of a friend of a friend who met us at a pub in Frome to watch the Liverpool vs. Chelsea 0-0 game in 2005. He hadn’t been into football much as far as I could tell and clearly wanted to impress the three of us…he showed up wearing a Chelsea shirt. The look I gave my mate Glenn said it all. Suffice to say, this chap hasn’t shown any interest in going with us to games since, save for one solitary trip to Cardiff for a Community Shield game.

Beers were being ordered, conversations buzzing away, more friends were joining us. It was a lovely time.

Lacoste Watch

Milo – royal blue.
Andy – dark blue.
Simon – white.
Steve – white.
Daryl – orange.
Lord Parky – lemon.
Chris – buttermilk.

Wes darted off to meet Mo to collect his match ticket. We were then joined by Ashley – from San Jose – and her friend James – currently studying in Dirty Leeds – and I could relax. Everyone was accounted for. I dished out the remaining match tickets. James was 7-0 watching Chelsea…great stuff. We then made our way to Marylebone, a ten minute walk away. I raced ahead and took an “Abbey Road” photo of everyone crossing the road…or was it more like “Resevoir Dogs.” I said to Steve that we hadn’t spoken about the game once.

We caught the train from Marylebone to Wembley Stadium and this only takes ten minutes. I was nicely buzzing. We heard a few new Chelsea songs – pretty original actually – from a group of lads. On that slow walk up to the turnstile entrances, I found myself walking alone amidst some Villa, with some Chelsea lads to my right. All of a sudden, a shouting match started, then some pointing and gesturing, then a lone Villa fan waded into a group of Chelsea. The police – on horseback and on foot – arrived too late and I think the Villa fan came off the worse for wear. This sort of incident – spur of the moment, unplanned – is pretty rare these days. I went over to talk to one of the Chelsea involved –

“Come on mate, you’re too old for all this nonsense.”

I met Jonesy outside Entrance A and handed over the very last of my match tickets. We ascended the many flights of stairs and I then had to walk up to row 42 to reach my seat. We were four rows from the very top, along the side, opposite the royal box. My goodness, we were high up.

I was sat alongside Walnuts, Parky, Alan and Gary, friends from 1984 and onwards.

That first-half was tedious. As dire as it gets. I remember two Joe Cole efforts, lots of passing, no pace. Lots of players were slipping on the greasy surface.

The Villa fans were outsinging us. Lots more pointing and gesturing.

“Have you won a European Cup?”

“Where were you at Stamford Bridge?”

Lots and lots of empty seats…great clumps of empty seats in both Villa and Chelsea sections. The corporate areas were only 75% occupied. The FA should be proud of themselves.

At half-time, we heard rumours of the grass being kept long in order for a Saracens rugby union game next weekend. This was met with howls of complaint…Wembley is a football stadium…why can’t club rugby be played at Twickenham? The grass was kept long but then watered in order to allow the ball to be zipped, despite the long grass, but the result was a slow game with players slipping. All for rugby game in a week’s time. Pathetic.

I noted that it wasn’t until the 51st minute that the whole Chelsea support rallied as one –

“We All Follow The Chelsea – Over Land And Sea – And Leicester
“We All Follow The Chelsea – Onto Victory.”

To be fair, I got the impression our section was trying to get the singing going, but Villa were definitely the noisiest. Memories of that hideous 2008 Carling Cup Final.

Gary was berating a few players, frustration was creeping in…he mentioned the quoted Ancelotti game plan of waiting until Villa tire on about the 70th minute.

Well – game plan or not – it worked.

Goals from Didier Drogba ( how he loves Wembley ), Florent Malouda ( his second Wembley goal ) and Frank Lampard ( how he loves Wembley – his third Wembley goal ) gave us a 3-0 win in those last tewnty minutes. The first was a poke in from close range after a corner, the second was from the best move of the game and a sublime Ballack cross, the last one a classic Frank finish, cooly finding time for an extra touch before blasting home. The Villa support was silent after Didier’s goal and swathes of their support departed after Malouda’s. However, a few thousand Chelsea decided to leave at 2-0 too.

You can imagine my views on this. The five stalwarts in Row 42 glowered at those who “excuse me’d” past us.

It was a poor game, but we deserved to win it. The realisation of us getting to another FA Cup Final hit home and I was loving it. A few team photos, everyone happy. Parky and myself slowly walked down to the front rows of the upper tier and took a few cheesey photos of each other, bathing in the early London evening sun. We were some of the very last to leave.

We bumped into Steve, Ashley and James ( 8-0! ) outside and the usual hugs and kisses.

The line for the train was long, but the time soon passed. By 8.15pm, we were back in The Duke Of York, where the post party was in full flow. I was gasping for a drink and chose a couple of double G and Ts for a change.

How refined!

Rob was tucking into some nachos, Parky was hopping about, guzzling some Staropramen, plans were being made for The Final. The texts had been arriving too…”see you for the final,” “can you get me a ticket?”, “where are we sitting?” We spoke of The Double.

The Double!

Good times, everyone, good times.

We got back in plenty of time to catch the 9.30pm from Paddington. A couple of Villa fans were singing…I said to one –

“You outsung us, but we outplayed you.”

“Fair comment mate.”

Parky still had time to have an altercation with a trappy Millwall fan on the platform. Oh well. The mood was of quiet euphoria on the return back to Wiltshire…one more G and T, a chat with two Newcastle United fans who had been to Toon Town…Chelsea and Villa mingling in the buffet.

It had been a long day, but start making plans for Saturday 15th. May.

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Tales From Sir Matt Busby Way

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 3 April 2010.

For some reason, I awoke at about 3.45am and, for about two hours, I couldn’t get back to sleep…the game at Old Trafford was on my mind, along with memories of other past trips to that particular part of Lancashire. I was buzzing as England slept. At 6.15am, the alarm sounded. At last I was ready. This had the feel of a massive day. I was both nervous and superbly excited.

At 7.15am, I opened my car door, clutching a coffee, just as my neighbour Liz appeared, just about to take her two dogs out for their morning walk. She gave me an old-fashioned look as if to say –

“There’s that idiot off following Chelsea again.”

My village is festooned with daffodils at this time of the year and the hedgerows were full of yellow and green. I would be seeing a lot of those two colours during the day. I texted Alan the first of many…

7.20am – “Jack Kerouac.”

This was swifly followed by

7.22am – “Jenson Button.”

The F1 World Champion grew up a mere mile from my house in Upper Vobster. I was on my way north and I exchanged texts with Alan over the next few hours –

Chris – 7.46am – “Acker Bilk.”

Alan – 7.48am – “Cobblers.”

Chris – 7.59am – “Fred Wedlock.”

Alan – 8.12am – “Webb Ellis.”

Chris – 8.44am – “The Gold Cup.”

As I passed Worcester, I sent a text to my oldest friend ( 1977 and counting ) Pete, a United fan…

“Good luck today. The best team will win.”

At 9.45am, with the sun attempting to break through the grey clouds, I spotted the first United cars, with yellow and gold bar scarves draped by the rear windows. I had been listening to New Order, but soon changed to Everything But The Girl. It felt wrong for the sons of Manchester to be in my car on such a pivotal day. I had been thinking about Manchester – the city – in the build up to the game. I wondered about the demographics of that city’s two clubs. The city is ringed by several league clubs from outlying towns, and I guess their support is locally-based. The cliched-view is that no United fan comes from Manchester and of course this is ridiculous. I remember talking to a City fan – from south Manchester – and he commented that it was 50/50 where he grew up. I think that the historic United heartland of Salford, Urmston, Kersal and Stretford still holds true, whereas the City support is rooted in that south-central area of Hulme and Moss Side. However, due to the working class fan being priced out of the game these days, football has become a suburbanites plaything. How many hardcore Chelsea fans still live in Balham, Battersea, Wandsworth and Lambeth? Not many. In days of yore, the grimy street urchins of working-class Manchester would support their very local clubs, but these days United’s support now comes from every town in the British Isles. Still, I did wonder about that “map” of red and blue support within the Manchester connurbation and how it would look in 2010. Who “owns” Crumpsall and Harpurhey in the north, who “owns” Gorton and Hyde in the east? For me, these excursions into other cities on away days are like urban history trips…my mind races with past stories of club histories, past players, past battles, local personalities, local flavour. I love these trips with all my heart and always try to get under the skin of each host city. As I have mentioned before, my ancestors come from SW Manchester – an Axon stronghold – and this has played on my mind for some time. It’s just a good job Ossie and Webbie scored in that 1970 game at Old Trafford – yes, I realise the irony – or who knows who I would be supporting today.

Back in my youth, United were always seen as a bit of a sad old club, followed by neanderthal glory-hunters…the fact that they had not won the league for ages was richly celebrated. Their one season in the old second division was seen as perfect poetry for their legions of fans. Their lone star, George Best, was a laughing stock, missing matches, getting suspended. He was lampooned by us at school in those years from 1972-1974.

“Georgie Best, Superstar – He Wears Frilly Knickers And He Wears A Bra.”

And here’s the thing…back in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, I always got the impression that kids who weren’t really into football, but went along with it to fit in, always supported Manchester United and Liverpool. More irony – that those two bitter rivals should have such a shared gene pool amongst their support.

Infact, I remember finding my class photo from 1978 a while back and it acted as a fine snapshot in time for me. My class contained maybe 15 boys and 15 girls. We would have been 13. I clearly remembered who supported who…no clubs were supported by any of the girls ( how times change! ) but the list of boys’ support was as follows –

Liverpool – Peter, Richard.
Tottenham Hotspur – Andy, David.
Manchester United – Jerry.
Chelsea – yours truly.
Leeds United – Tim.
Bristol Rovers – Dave.

The fanatics were Rover’s Dave and myself. But only a quarter of that class were footy fans…I bet the figure is higher these days.

Anyway, I put all of these myriad thoughts to one side as I turned off the M6 and began the oh-so familiar approach into Manchester. I was soon on the orbital and always find it odd that “The World’s Biggest Football Club” is never signposted. Methinks that there are some City fans in high places in the city council offices!

“Let the idiots from Surrey and Devon get lost.”

There were lots of youths in high-visiblity jackets shepharding cars into industrial estate parking lots – £5! £6! £7! – but I parked up on Gorse Avenue outside a house, no charge. Easy. This was at 11am. I walked out onto the Chester Road, the main approch, and the white steel roof supports of Old Trafford were clearly visible. The street vendors – or grafters – were out in force, selling the yellow and gold scarves.

“Get your protest scaaaaarves – only a five’uh” in that Mancunian vernacular.

A £3.50 “cheeseburg’uh” and I was on my way. The cross-roads by Sir Matt Busby Way is always a hive of red and white activity on match days…a massive queue to get into The Bishop’s Blaize pub, full of song, chippy after chippy, souvenir stalls, a riot of colour. I had to get in line to withdraw some cash and as I waited for what seemed like ages, I took it all in. Three young lads from Northern Ireland, their accents even more impenetrable than the locals, were stood behind me in the queue and I could sense they were worried, running through United’s attacking options, minus Rooney. Our team appeared stronger in comparison. Lots of United fans appeared tense. Fans were decked in protest scarves. Some had Megastore bags. An uneasy alliance.

On the final approach, I bought two fanzines…”CFCUK” from Dave Johnstone, but “United We Stand” too…for my mate Pete. But I do occasionally like to read other fans’ perspectives on this great game of ours. To be fair, “UWS” is a great read, albeit red-tinted, and it even allowed a Chelsea fan’s perspective on the current state of play. There were the predictable noises about the Glazer conundrum, the green and gold protest ( now getting passe, according to some ), the return of Beckham, but also some views from the hardcore about “Day Trippers”, corporate hospitality goons, the over-pricing of tickets and the loathing of Liverpool. Sound familiar?

I took a few shots of the stadium – the United Trinity, the statue of Sir Matt, the understated Munich memorial. I chatted briefly with a few mates on the forecourt, then lined-up to get in. However, an over eager steward stopped me from taking my camera in…he was just being vindictive I am sure…but thankfully, I sweet-talked my way into leaving the whole bag behind the desk at the main reception. The gentleman was very kind and I thanked him ( it meant I didn’t have to traipse back to the car and miss the kick-off ), but I daren’t tell him I was Chelsea! I would go for Plan B and would take a few photos with my phone. Sorted.

I was in the side stand again, but unlike the pre-match vibes at our game at OT last season, the mood was up-beat. It made a refreshing change I must say. In that crowded bar, so many familiar faces. I had a bottle of Bud – United most love America.

Alan, Gary and myself had great seats, four rows from the rear, level with the six yard box. The sun was shining, the nerves were tingling. I spotted Steve Azar, face aglow, in the corner section, right in the middle. There were 2,500 Chelsea in the corner, 500 along the side. We stood the entire game.

We had agreed that a strong, determined start was paramount and the boys didn’t let us down. From the kick-off, we worked the ball into Deco who shot from distance. And it didn’t stop there. We dominated that gorgeous first-half in a way that few of us could imagine. United couldn’t get near us. We were moving the ball so well, keeping United at bay. The defense was hardly troubled, but we kept asking questions of United. Mikel was at his best ; a defensive rock infront of Alex and JT. Frank and Deco moved the ball intelligently, Malouda was always happy to drive into the heart of the red back line. Anelka held up the ball well. We were loving it. The United support was reeling.

After a quarter of the game gone, Malouda, our French prince, skipped deep into the heart of the United defence…he whipped in a cross and we saw a blur of players at the near post. The ball ended-up in the goal, we knew not how, we did not care.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

The Chelsea support roared like never before this season. Up and down we bounced. We could not believe our eyes. A text from a mate…Joe’s goal…must’ve been the deftest of touches. For the next five minutes, our support roared and roared and I noted many sticks of celery being tossed into the air.

Our very own take on the yellow and green on show at Old Trafford.

For the rest of the half, we probed away, but with only a few shots from distance. However, United were as poor as I have seen in thirteen visits to their stadium. Neville, that loathed, ridiculously-moustachioed individual, was having a howler and Scholes’ cross-field passes often went out of play. Ji-Sung Park was coming in for some stick from Alan, Gary and myself.

“I hear that Park has bought a new labrador.”

“Oh yeah – what flavour?”

“He’s kicking chunks out of us.”

“Not a pal of mine.”

“They’ll never winalot with him in the team.”

Such lovely moments of humour really make watching football with Al and Gal so wonderful. We were hooting.

Of course, at half-time, we fully expected Ferguson to be giving his underperforming players the famous “Hair Dryer Treatment” and we knew that United couldn’t possibly perform as poorly in the second.

And so it proved. United had a lot more of the ball and I became trapped in a world of nervous doubt, hating every United attack, begging for us to close them down, but screaming support nonetheless. Paolo broke through soon into the second period, but was stage-struck and tamely shot wide. Damn. The time appeared to stand still. I looked at my watch constantly. Scholes, deployed so deep, was having so much of the ball and was having better joy with his “quarterback-style” long balls to the wings. United were getting back into it and eventually the home support was rocking. We stood firm – encouraging the boys, urging them on. Two stalwarts next to me, old school veterans, were annoying the hell out of me. They were so negative.

“Of course, United are stronger you fools, we couldn’t keep that dominance going forever, stop moaning!” – I thought. One of the “moaning two” couldn’t watch. He stood next to me, head bowed, muttering about wanting to be “in a darkened room.”

Drogba came on for Anelka and we approved. Nico had led the line superbly, but was tiring. Drogba had a couple of breaks, a couple of duels with Vidic. Dean was annoying us with his decisions. Send Scholes off, you muppet!

And then it happened.

A through ball from Kalou, the other sub, and Drogba was offside…but no flag…”go on my son.”

Drogba slammed the ball towards Van der Sar and the net rippled. Is there a more beautiful sight in football?

That was it. We exploded. I screamed, then jumped up onto my seat and ended up in the row infront. Gary ended up two rows infront. I screamed and shouted “it was offside, it was offside – you beauty!” The concensus was that, yes, Didi was offside, but we couldn’t care. A text confirmed it…it came from Del, a Liverpool fan, eager to see us halt United’s progress to Number 19 and four in a row.

Then, almost immediately, a United break and a close-range goal from Macheda.

And so it started all over again…the clock-watching, the nerves…a few sporadic United attacks. Thankfully, they were misfiring. But – oh – what a tense time. I was hating it, but loving it too.

“Back to the darkened room” I whispered to the fan next to me.

Everyone was talking about “Fergie time” and some expected five minutes or more – even seven – to be played. Thankfully, my call of “four” turned out to be right. With the Chelsea support roaring, we repelled every ball into the box…a Cech grasp, a JT head, a block, a penalty claim – EFF OFF! – but we stayed the distance.

At around 2.38pm, the final whistle.

I momentarilly slumped – YES! – payback for Moscow.

I then clambered high on my seat, hugged a few strangers, kissed a few strangers, then joined in –

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Right in line was our mate Simon, 1984 vintage, and he spotted the three of us.

His smile said it all.

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Down below, the players celebrated and we continued singing. It had been a momentous match in deepest Manchester. I felt shattered. I bounced down the stairs, to be met with ashen-faced United fans staring at us…I gathered my wits, then gathered my bag from the reception.

Out on Sir Matt Busby Way, the natives were silent, save for a couple of United lads gobbing off, then squaring up to a couple of Chelsea “scarfers.” I didn’t want to be the one Chelsea fan looking on if it kicked-off, so I quickly side-stepped a few United lads and walked amidst the Chelsea. I kept looking around to make sure the trouble had subsided, keeping my wits about me. I doubt if I would ever get involved – more of a peacemaker, me – but we had to stick together. Anyway, a lesson there. I never wear colours and that is why.

I hot-footed it back to the car with texts flying in from Glenn, Parky, a euphoric Del and then from further afield…Bob in ST, Andy in LA, Beth in TX. The locals were moaning about the referee too. Love it!

I was hot and flustered. I wanted to get away. I threw my Lacoste rain jacket into the back seat, gulped down a Red Bull and set off. On the CD player, Tracey Thorn –

“Wherever you go I will follow you.”

At just before 3pm, I entered the Chester Road and Old Trafford was – like Manchester United – in my rear view mirror. It was a beautiful drive home…blissed out…music on the CD…who cares about the rest of the football results…

“We Are Topoftheleague.
Say – Wearetopoftheleague.”

Nearing the M6, I was overtaken by a fat replica-kit wearing United fan, in a Mercedes, guzzling a Coke…he was a big old target…a United stereotype, no doubt loathed by the United hardcore…I put on “Blue Is The Colour” and wound down the windows, as I sidled up alongside.

The texts continued, the Chelsea CD continued.

“Son Of My Father.”

“Allouette.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

…as if to top a wonderful day out, I then learnt that both Spurs and Leeds had lost. The rain couldn’t dampen my spirits. I was loving every damn minute of it.

Nearing home, passing through Midsomer Norton, a text from Pete –

“Fair play mate. Sounded like you deserved to win. Hope you enjoyed it.”

Did I ever!

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Tales From The Frank Fest

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 27 March 2010.

What an amazing week. I don’t mind admitting it, I was quite deflated on the drive home from Blackburn last Sunday. In my mind, the two upcoming games with a spirited Portsmouth and a resilient Aston Villa would represent a tough challenge for us.

Little did I know.

The pre-match was as per usual…Lord Parky, Folsom Steve and the usual suspects enjoying pints and chat in The Goose. However, on this occasion, we were joined by another Northern Californian visitor, San Francisco Starla, who flew in for the Villa game on Thursday. It was great to see her again. She joined in the pre-match banter as we giggled away like fools. We took a few photographs outside the stadium – a Starla Rose between two thorns – and Steve led her away to pick up her match ticket, albeit for the silent wilderness of the West Lower.

Into the stadium and Alan told me that Didier was on the bench…not quite sure what I made of that. I noted a huge area of around 750 empty seats in the Shed Upper, in the Villa section. I would imagine that the “Villa faithful” ( ha! ) had decided against coming down for two Chelsea games in a fortnight. I was far from impressed. The sad thing of course is that no CFC fans could use those empty seats due to segregation.

In the match programme, I spotted some CFC / Emporio Armani charity T-shirts on sale for £20. I would surely buy one. To avoid it would be akin to King Canute trying to stop the tide.

The game began in nice sunshine, but with clouds present too.

In the first-half, there were predictable grumbles of discontent when Chelsea appeared to be unable to unlock the Villa defence. I noted that with Deco, Joe and Malouda playing, we would be OK for creativity, but the play was over-elaborate…pass, pass, pass…and we noted that the attacking six were often ball-watching ( a cardinal sin in my book ) and unable to free themselves into space.

However, Malouda worked some space well and rifled in a low ball into the danger area. Frank was on hand to toe-poke it goalwards and we breathed a sigh of relief. Villa’s attacks were quite rare, but we didn’t close Young down and his cross was tucked in by Carew, who did appear to be in an off-side position.

Damn it.

More of the same for the rest of the half…Chelsea pressure, Villa resilience. That man Malouda then played Zhirkov in…a trip and the referee pointed to the spot. From 100 yards away, it appeared to be a dodgy penalty. Not to worry, we’ll take it.

I steadied my camera and Frank slammed it high past Friedel. I snapped his high leap and spin of celebration, down in the SW corner…Parkyland.

At half-time, the grumbles ceased.

We noted Arsenal were being held 0-0 in the Second City.

Deco had enjoyed a few nice touches in the first-half and the crowd continued to warm to him after the break. He started a nice flowing move through the midfield, then pinged a sublime through ball through to Zhirkov…I was in line with its trajectory and it really was a perfect ball…heavenly. The ball was played in to Malouda and he stroked the ball in. The crowd erupted…3-1.

Didier had been warming up on the far touchline and Malouda ran over to celebrate with him. It was heart-warming to see their little victory jig. Meanwhile, the sky turned darker…

However, Chelsea provided a great antidote for the grey skies and another “give and go” involving our Russian left-back resulted in another poor Villa challenge inside the box. The referee pointed to the spot again and we held our breath. My camera was at the ready as Frank approached the ball.

Strike. Snap. Goal.

Frank lept to the air once more, fingers pointing heavenwards…how many photos of this personal celebration do I have? Special memories. The PA quickly announced that Frank Lampard had now scored 150 Chelsea goals and The Bridge roared in adulation. Some achievement.

The Chelsea choir wound up the Villa contingent with a pre-semi final rendition of “Che Sera Sera.” Aston Villa had a few half-chances, but were repelled by our defensive line. One resounding tackle, perfectly timed, by The Captain was met by thunderous applause.

More goals followed. Frank selflessly set up Malouda with a pass and our much-maligned Frenchman depatched it into the goal past Friedel. Like last Spring, Malouda’s form is now a joy. I didn’t capture his celebrations on film, but just stood and watched him give “high-fives” to about ten lucky Chelsea fans in the front fow of the MHL. I was smiling, lapping up the moment. It was a perfect moment of players and fans together, as one. To be honest, it left me quite giddy and I had to sit for a few seconds.

5-1.

We couldn’t believe it.

The heavens opened with quite a deluge and we wondered if Lovejoy, sitting in the front row of the East, would run for cover. We then serenaded Villa with –

“Are you West Ham in disguise?”

We then heard that West Ham were losing…fantastic. However, the Goons had scored a late goal.

Nicolas Anelka, who was working tirelessly all afternoon, did so well to hang on to the ball before setting up Salomon Kalou to rifle home.

6-1. This was getting crazier by the minute. Even Kalou had scored.

There was then a lovely moment. For a while now, the manager’s abilities have been debated and concerns have been raised. I have always said he needs time. My tune hasn’t changed. Others haven’t been so forgiving. So – out of the MHU came a lovely chant…

“Carlo – give us a wave, Carlo, Carlo – give us a wave.”

He responded.

“Carlo! Carlo! Carlo! Carlo!”

The PA announced “another four minutes” and I whimsically commented “enough time for at least two more then.”

Sure enough, Frank blasted in a loose ball and the stadium roared once more.

7-1. This was totally overwhelming stuff. As someone once said…”Football. Bloody hell.”

Who would have thought that – after the disappointment of Ewood Park – we would respond with twelve league goals in four days. I wondered if we had ever scored twelve in two consecutive league games ever before. Surely not. And yet – bizarrely, magnificently – this had been the second time we had scored 12 in consecutive games this season, having followed up the 5-0 bashing of poor Watford in the FA Cup with the 7-2 annihilation of The Mackems in January.

On a day when Super Frank blitzed his way into the upper echelons of top Chelsea scorers behind only Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. For a midfielder, this is some achievement. And on a day when John Terry crept past Ron Harris in total appearances as Chelsea captain.

Both were enjoying the celebrations at the end of the game, soaked to the skin, but so, so happy.

What a perfect afternoon. However, as we were still smiling from our win, the PA announced –

“Birmingham City 1 Arsenal 1” and The Bridge bounced again. I punched the air and let off my biggest roar of the whole day.

The texts of stunned exhileration started to fly around and I joined the slow-moving tide of euphoric Chelsea fans walking slowly down the Fulham Road. My face was aching with all of the smiling. I spotted a cute WPC a few yards ahead and how I never planted a kiss on her cheek I will never now.

We met up back outside The Goose and I gave Folsom Steve a bear hug. He couldn’t belive what he had just seen. We thought of Starla, 7,000 miles for one game, and we wondered how she was coping!

A while back, I asked the question “is our cup half-full or half-empty” and although I still don’t know the answer, be sure of this.

The next six league games ( three at home, three away ) will be some of the most exciting any of us will possibly witness.

We’re lucky people.

Our game at Old Trafford next Saturday is already dominating my mind. The next week will be full of conjecture, banter and excitement. It reminds me of the week before the FA Cup Finals of old.

Fasten those seat belts, everyone.

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Tales From Pompey

Portsmouth vs. Chelsea : 24 March 2010.

They say that baseball is a game of inches. Well, getting to midweek Chelsea games is a game of seconds. I wanted to get away from work by 5pm at the absolute latest in order to reach Portsmouth by 7pm – maybe time for just one pint in the “Good Companion” outside Fratton Park. I sat in my car at 4.59pm and reached my seat in the away end at 7.46pm. Needless to say, there was not any time for pre-match festivities. Instead, I endured a stressful two-and-a-half hours fighting the traffic on the M4, A34, M3 and M27. Lord Parky had been on the ale all day and was therefore in an especially jovial mood. To be truthful, the time flew.

I was parked up at 7.25pm and it was no surprise that there was drizzle in the air – there always seems to be so in Portsmouth. It’s a shame we have never enjoyed an away game at Pompey at any other time than in the depths of winter and usually mid-week. A game in September would have been lovely. With Pompey’s demise, I wondered when our next visit would be. Let me just declare an interest here – I’ve developed a slight soft spot for Portsmouth of late. They’re a real old-fashioned club with a quintessential old-school stadium. It is rough around the edges, but it oozes character, wedged into the tight terraced streets of Fratton. Their fans are pretty passionate. I tip my hat to them. Some clubs you just naturally loathe…some clubs, not so.

Parky and myself joined the back of the line at the antiquated turnstiles. It was moving so slow I presumed that Michael Ballack was ahead of me. I note that a souvenir stall was selling pink and burgundy scarves, Pompey’s original colours, and I guessed this was a sad copy of United’s Green & Gold protest. I ascended the steps behind the terrace, underneath a twisted mess of roof supports and beams. Mike Oldfield’s “Portsmouth” was being played on the PA system – the home crowd were joining in with the clapping – and I saw the Chelsea players in white, preparing for the start. I must have just missed the kick-off. At least I made it. I sidled up alongside Alan and Gary, right next to the mesh between us and a small section of Pompey fans. Parky and Steve Azar, plus other friends, were dotted around amongst the 2,000 away contingent.

I was very happy that Petr was playing. Petr Cech for us, Bouncing Cheques for them.

Prior to departing from work, I was hardly enthused about this game – I knew it would be a toughie and that our form had dipped. I think the fans around me shared this view as I haven’t heard quite so much blatant moaning at a game for quite a while, especially in that meandering first period. We had tons of possession with little end product. It was a typically frustrating game, just as I had expected really. However, there were moments. After ten minutes, Frank let fly from well outside the box. I was right behind its flight and it swerved wickedly. James arched to his right and touched it over.

Great football.

I noted that Sturridge was playing deep, playing wide…not involved. Deco was quiet, too. The home fans in the Fratton End provided the first score update of the night…they chanted “1-0 to Fulham” and I approved. Of course, Portsmouth would meet the winners of the Spurs vs. Fulham cup replay taking place in North London. Rocha was laid out by an errant arm from Malouda and the home fans near me weren’t happy. They sang about the referee not being fit to do so. JT was getting the usual barracking too. We replied with chants about their perilous financial straits.

“Harry’s got your money.”

Riccy was injured, to be replaced by Alex. It was a rough old game, with tackles flying in. I noted the ball bobbling quite badly on a few instances. A lot of our play went down the left in front of the old Leitch Stand, but invariably all of this ended up with a miss-placed cross or a variety of shots from distance. I noted a few excellent cross-field balls from Jon Obi Mikel – most unlike him. Alan and myself chatted about this…his distribution is usually limited to square balls over ten yards. The frustration was increasing when a loose ball was completely missed by James as he raced out to clear. Drogba had the easiest chance of his Chelsea career. We celebrated, but it was difficult to shout too loudly when laughter was the first impulse.

Ho ho ho.

At half-time, Joe Cole warmed up right in front of me and I got my telephoto lens out to take a succession of shots of his close control, including one of that “reverse cross” that he likes. As we waited for the game to recommence, we noted a fan in the North Stand being led out on a stretcher. It looked serious. Fans and players alike were dropping like flies. Right – as at Blackburn on Sunday, we needed that second goal. We knew that one was not good enough. Joe continued to warm up alongside the side stand and we serenaded him

“We want you to stay, we want you to stay – Joey Cole – we want you to stay.”

Soon after, this morphed to –

“We want you to play, we want you to play – Joey Cole – we want you to play.”

We enjoyed a purple patch in the first twenty minutes or so of the second period. A sublime ball from Lampard, enjoying more space, was played to Florent Malouda in the inside left berth. I thought he had taken it too far, but as James came out, he drilled it high into the net, no more than ten yards away from me. It was a superb finish. The players raced over and I tried desperately to shout some yelps of support and take some snaps of the players at the same time. Never easy!

Joe came on for the increasingly absent Sturridge and he joined in the fray with his usual vigour. Frank was in his element and soon set up Joe with another perfectly-paced through ball right in front of us. A strong shot, but James did well to save. Just after, our third goal came after Malouda pounced on a James fumble of a Lampard effort. Three-nil and coasting. This was quite a stunning turnaround. More photos of the celebrations. This was good stuff. The Chelsea crowd got into the game.

I had to laugh when I noticed Didier Drogba and Herman Hreidarsson tussling inside the box, off the ball. They were pushing and pulling each other, then they realised the opportunity for a comic moment and appeared to be dancing – maybe a waltz – and smiling. I don’t think anyone else noticed it. It made me giggle.

The only downer was the news filtering through that Spurs were 2-1, then 3-1 up.

Van Aanholt, the youngster, came on for Zhirkov and there was a conversation amongst us about his “52” shirt number. Surely the highest ever. The bloke behind me thought it was too. He then asked me the old favourite –

“Who had shirt number 25 before Zola?”

With the home team fading fast, another superb ball from deep from Mikel found Drogba who advanced on the goal from an angle. This was Didi at his best, forcefully holding off a challenge and slamming into the net. There was a roar from the Chelsea fans, but Drogba ignored his usual celebratory posing and raced back to thank Mikel for the sublime through ball. Neither Alan nor myself could believe it – Mikel as a quarterback, anyone? Just after, a superb run and low cross from Malouda was skied over from just six yards by Drogba. How did he miss? Portsmouth’s chances were few, but a late header should have tested Cech more. It drifted, rather pathetically, past the post. Portsmouth’s support was quiet – not surprisingly – but the trademark drum and bell kept sounding throughout the game. The noise is usually louder at Fratton Park, so I don’t often hear these. There was a bit of banter between the sets of fans, but nothing serious.

A Frank Lampard header from close range after an initial parry gave us a 5-0 win and I, for one, could hardly believe it. David James, who hadn’t had the best of nights ( ! ), kicked the ball away in disgust and the referee decided to book him…presumably for some sort of “physical dissent” as it surely couldn’t have been for time-wasting. This seemed churlish in the extreme. The referee was poor all night and this crazy booking just about summed it up. So – we won 5-0. A fantastic result, but Portsmouth were very poor. We will have far greater challenges in our remaining games in 2009-2010. However, this equalled my highest ever away win, on a par with Wolves 2003 and ‘Boro 2008. My mate, Rick – from Frome, now residing a mere mile away from his beloved Pompey – had been watching from the North Stand, but had not been in touch since pre-match. I guess he was hurting.

In the last few minutes of the game, my ears registered a new song emanating from the rowdy fans to my right. It didn’t take long to work out that it was a few lines from a Bob Marley song. More and more Chelsea joined in as our brains deciphered it. It had been an easy night, so we needn’t get carried away, but the song provided a nice uplift…a positive vibe for once.

“Don’t worry – CLAP CLAP – about a thing…CLAP CLAP CLAP – ‘cus every little thing – CLAP CLAP – is gonna be alright.”

What a great song…incredibly slow, but everyone was joining in. Let’s see if it shows up against Villa on Saturday.

On leaving the ground, I glimpsed across at the deserted light blue seats in the North Stand, row after row, and it reminded me a little of Fenway Park, all roof supports, dark corners, row upon row of seats and little legroom. Good old Fratton Park. I wondered if Chelsea would ever be back…

I met up outside with Parky and spent £2.50 on the worst burger ever. We then decamped back to the pub to wait for the Chelsea traffic to subside. We agreed that Portsmouth is a quite unique city and its club has a strong character all of its own. We wished them well. As we set off for home at 10.30pm, the floodlights of Fratton Park still lit up the night sky. We were surprised – a club in their position should be saving energy, not wasting it.

It seemed like we were the last Chelsea fans to leave Portsmouth.

“Can somebody turn off those flippin’ lights?”

There was terrible weather on the drive home. I drove, Parky slept, I stopped for junk food refills, Parky slept. Eventually, he woke up and we pondered the chances of Chelsea and Pompey meeting for one last time this season.

Stranger things have happened.

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Tales From The Darwen End

Blackburn Rovers vs. Chelsea : 21 March 2010.

A bleak weekend.

First of all, Arsenal winning and then Eidur scoring for Tottenham. This was not good news at all. Blackburn – irrespective of the United vs. Liverpool result – was now a “must-win.” We were still licking our wounds from the Inter game, which seemed to be ages ago. Oh well, nobody said being a Chelsea fan was ever easy.

I awoke early on Sunday morning and, faced with doing an hour’s extra housework or getting to Blackburn earlier than I had planned, I opted for the former. What an indictment on the Lancastrian town.

I was aware that Steve Azar had continued his whirlwind tour of UK football grounds by going to QPR vs. Swansea on Saturday. This got me thinking about the relatively small amount of non-Chelsea games I have witnessed in my 44 years. I worked out I had been to around 25 non-Chelsea games in England…add to this around 10 non-Chelsea games in Scotland…and a pretty miserly total of only 5 England games. To put this in perspective, I am up to about 780 Chelsea games lifetime…clearly, Chelsea comes first. I looked back on the smattering of non-CFC games I have seen and I concluded that the majority were either local ( Yeovil Town Swindon Town, Bristol City, Bristol Rovers – and Stoke City and Port Vale from my student days ) or with mates, supporting their various teams.

Mates, eh? Why else would I go to Brighton vs. Scunthorpe or York City vs. Swindon?

One of these non-CFC games was back in 1997 when I accompanied my work colleague ( and good friend ) Mark up to the Blackburn Rovers vs. Villa game as guests of one of our then company’s suppliers. It was a good day, but a poor game and it felt totally un-natural to be watching from behind a window. This hospitality package was repeated later in that same year when we were invited back to see the Rovers vs. Chelsea game. However, Chelsea lost in another poor game. These remain my only forays into the world of Prawn Sandwiches and I don’t see myself ever wanting to go back.

I left my Somerset village at 9.15am. There are now bunches of wild daffodils alongside the snowdrops in the hedgerows around my home. The sun was out – clear skies overhead, too. I shall be using the weather as an un-subtle metaphor throughout this match report. You have been warned. As I drove through the streets of Bristol, I noted the usual smattering of morning joggers and cyclists…cycling clubs in the UK are out in force on Sunday mornings. This day was no exception. For some reason, the visibility was incredible and I clearly saw Brunel’s Clifton Suspension Bridge in the distance, not far from City’s Ashton gate, the venue of three of those non-CFC games. I headed past the former home of Bristol Rovers, Eastville, now the site of an Ikea. Four Chelsea visits from 1975 to 1981 and three painful defeats. Ouch – those memories.

With the visibility remaining very clear, I even glimpsed the River Severn as I drove up the M5. The Forest Of Dean – that strange land of trees, coalmines and cottage industries – was in the distance. On the CD player, The Killers gave way to Coldplay as I headed past Gloucester. I was playing “guess my location” with Steve, who was on the second Chelsea coach.

Chris – WG Grace

Steve – Cobblers

Chris – Sauce

Steve – Gordon Durie

Chris – The Three Degrees

A Robin Guthrie CD at Bromsgrove then gave way to Japan Greatest Hits at Stoke-On–Trent. I wasn’t thinking much about the game ahead, more about getting some food inside me. I stopped at Sandbach, just off the M6 – not far from Matthew Harding’s fatal crash in 1996 – for an overpriced roastie. Before I knew it, I was zipping over the Thirlwall Viaduct, with Runcorn to the west and Manchester to the east. I tried to peak the towering steel frames of Old Trafford’s stands some twelve miles away, but with no luck. A moment was spent thinking about the gargantuan encounter between the two red sides of Liverpool and Manchester due to start very soon. I hoped for an upset, but knew it would be a tough one.

It was clouding over on my approach to Blackburn, but the southern edge of the Lake District was clearly visible. The hills provided a brooding presence. I was parked up at Darwen Vale School by 1.30pm – £4 – and found it ironic that this was my mate Mark’s former school. His mother still lives nearby and was a season ticket holder at Ewood for a while.

It had been a long drive – a pretty boring one, too – and after 214 miles I was able to relax. Steve texted me to say that Liverpool had gone ahead, but United had soon equalised. Drat. I made a bee-line for The Fernhurst, one of the first away fan only pubs in England. I bought myself a pint of Carling – in a plastic glass, horrible – and said “hi” to a few familiar faces. Most of the 300 Chelsea were inside watching the United game, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I waited outside for Steve, Alan and Gary to arrive at around 2.15pm. A quick word with Cathy – on crutches – and Dog. I chatted with Steve outside in the pub car park and I have to admit I wasn’t on good form. The hangover from the Inter debacle was hanging over me and the general mood amongst my fellow fans was sombre. Meanwhile, the skies was getting darker. We had a quick chat with Mark Coden who had travelled up on a whim – I hadn’t seen him for quite some time. We had heard that United were 2-1 up. Oh dear…

Alan took a nice photo of Gary, Steve and myself outside the away stand and we climbed the stairs to the upper tier, arriving just in time to see Torres fluff his lines with a few minutes to go. That miss-hit could prove to be oh-so costly. I was still hungry and so bought a meat and potato pie…I think it must be a ploy by Rovers to damage the vocal chords of away fans as the pie’s contents were as hot as volcanic lava.

We were high up, behind the goal…the first time in the upper deck for me. I remember watching Zola’s first ever game for us at Ewood in November 1996, sat with Mark in the home stand along the side. The little magician’s presence had enticed 5,000 Chelsea fans to travel up for that game and it was a joy to see so many away fans in that Darwen Stand. Our support was nearer 3,000 this time…the upper deck was 90% full, with a few hardy souls down below, as per usual.

We began well – despite the dreaded unlucky kit – and applied good early pressure. Anelka did well to provide Didier with a good chance, but Didi swept it past the right post. However, soon after, a similar combination – Anelka to Drogba – resulted in us taking the lead. I grabbed Alan as we bounced around like fools. The noise was great in that first twenty minutes and we looked like scoring again. We were moving the ball well, getting behind them. Nice movement.

Malouda had a lovely shimmy as he lost his two defenders, but shot weakly with his right foot.

We noted Paolo Ferreira wearing lavender and pink boots.

Shocking.

At half-time, I told everyone and anyone “we need a second.” We had enjoyed a lot of the ball, but 1-0 to Chelsea was not the certainty it once was. I spotted Lovejoy and showed him the photo of him being “anointed” by Mourinho from Tuesday. Alan, Gary and myself suggested options for possible captons…

Gary – “Is that hair real?”

Alan – “The shampoo used for that hair is not from the bottle…it is a special one.”

Despite this laughter at the break, the game provided less and less for us to be happy with. Zhirkov cleared off the line soon into the second period. Our play went to pieces for a while and we struggled to get in the game. There was frustration amongst the 3,000. Quite a few of our fans had northern accents and Blackburn always tends to be a focal point of our quite considerable Northern support. I noted a York blues flag nearby. The groans continued. Ivanovic limped off and this was grave news. I’d say he has been our most consistent player this season – every game is a 7/10 performance – and we had to re-schedule our defence. We seemed rattled – the midfield were getting outfought, never a good sign.

A deep cross from the Rovers right, Paolo caught out beneath the ball and Douf headed down and in.

Oh God.

Eventually, our support – which was declining with each misplaced pass – was roused and we got behind the team. That was good to hear. But it was so frustrating. A Drogba volley – blocked. Corner after corner. The tension grew. Deco came on, despite Joe Cole warming up, but was only involved sporadically. There were injuries, clashes of heads, a typical Blackburn encounter. Men against men. The pitch appeared to be soaked…it is always wet at Ewood. I have one photo of Yuri dancing down the left, the whole pitch lit up with puddles.

We had some half-chances, a penalty appeal, a blocked shot, frantic stuff.

Despite a big final push, it was not to be. I quickly descended the stairs. Let’s get home.

A text from Steve –

“Gutted.”

There was drizzle in the air as I quickly sped back to the car. The Rovers fans were loud and enjoying their next game, against local foes Burnley.

“Bring on the Dingles.”

I had to walk up a hill – I didn’t notice it being so steep earlier – and my calves were aching. A quick “hi” to Gill and Graeme, who looked cold and bedraggled. I sometimes like to think that there is something wildly romantic and endearing about following my team around the highways and byways of England. Not on this occasion. My return trip was just painful. I set off from Blackburn at 6.15pm and had a weary trip south, driving through a never-ending procession of “50mph” speed limit signs as I drove the 214 miles home.

I got home at 10.30pm, totally knackered and having just missed “Match Of The Day Two.” After our poor performance, perhaps it was just as well.

Ho hum.

At least Ballack had his best game for ages.

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