Tales From Europe Lite

Chelsea vs. BATE Borisov : 25 October 2018.

I will be perfectly honest. Throughout the day at work, I continued to be underwhelmed about the thought of the evening game against BATE Borisov from Belarus in the Europa League. I had never ever thought about not going. But as the day dragged on, I almost found myself questioning why I had decided to go. Over the last twenty years or so, I have missed some home games; many through work, a few because I was on holiday, one or two because of inclement weather and a few because I needed to take extra care of my mother. There have hardly been any when I simply could not be bothered. One work colleague – Terry, a Liverpool fan, he has seen them play a few times – wondered if I sensed a feeling of guilt if I was to miss a game, a home game especially.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

Maybe one day I will book a session on a psychiatrist’s couch – maybe for ninety minutes, how appropriate – to see what has caused this feeling.

I’ll report back on the findings.

I left work at 3pm, which meant there was time for a bite to eat with fellow-Chucklers PD and Lord Parkins in the pub opposite. We were joined by local Chelsea season-ticket holder Sir Les, who we last saw at Southampton away. PD drove us up to London. There was the usual snarl of traffic approaching London and we swung in to our parking place at about 6.45pm.

Talk of the match ahead was the briefest-ever.

“Should win easily.”

“Play Morata. He will surely get his confidence back if he bangs in a few goals.”

“Virtually guarantee qualification if we win tonight.”

And that was that.

This has been a near perfect group really; an easily-winnable selection of games, and an intriguing trio of cities to visit. As far as Europa League groups go – by far the second-best UEFA competition – it was good enough for me. A group of four letter words and our good old CFC.

BATE.

PAOK.

VIDI.

We hoped that Chelsea would not be making us utter more four letter words during the imminent game.

In “The Goose” – two more pints of Peroni – there was a pleasant surprise. We had been chatting at the bar, occasionally looking over at the televised Sporting vs. Arsenal game (ah, memories of a near perfect trip to Lisbon, how can it be over four years ago?), and I was aware that a couple of Chelsea fans were sat close by. After a while, I looked down and realised that one of them was Glenn aka Leggo (or Lego, it was never fully explained) who I used to sit with in The Benches from 1984 to 1987. I had not seen him for ages; I have a vague recollection of seeing him walking down Vanston Place on the day we were given the league trophy against Charlton Athletic in 2005. But not since. He explained that reluctantly he gave up his East Upper season ticket seat back in 1999 and when he said “I’ve missed it all” I really felt for him. He goes to Bedford Town these days, though he is still obviously part of the Chelsea Nation. It was a real joy to see him again, though. I showed him the photograph from our “Benches 1984” reunion before the Leicester City game at the start of this year. Leggo used to go home and away back in the ‘eighties. I used to see him at every home game and at most of the away games that I attended. I remember seeing him at Ashton Gate at a friendly in 1984. Infamously, at a pre-season game at Plymouth Argyle in around 1988, he was set upon by some home fans and ended up with a broken leg.

It was just great to see him again.

The team news came through.

Arrizabalaga.

Zappacosta – Cahill – Christensen – Emerson.

Loftus-Cheek – Fabregas – Kovacic.

Willian – Giroud – Pedro.

The pub was busy enough and it felt like there would be a decent enough crowd once more. The game had been advertised as a sell-out but I was aware that there were a few spares floating around. The ticket price of £20 across the board had obviously enticed many. During half-term, there would surely be a few youngsters dotted around Stamford Bridge.

I had foolishly guessed that around a thousand visitors from Belarus would be present. Once inside the stadium, I was way off. There were Chelsea in the entirety of the Shed Upper with only around one hundred and fifty away fans in the lower corner.

“Possibly the smallest away support I have ever seen at Chelsea.”

And then I remembered back to December 1984 and a similar number with Stoke City.

The place filled up. There were very few empty seats around me. And, as promised, Brad from New York was close by with his father, the both of them relishing the chance to see Chelsea play for the second time in six days on his father’s first-ever visit to England. But for all of the Europa League logos and associated nonsense, to me the game felt very much like “Europe Lite” and the atmosphere, as good a barometer as any, never really got going in either the pre-match or the game that followed.

Over in the away corner, there seemed to be just as many stewards and people working in the refreshment area as fans.

“Bloody hell, I think we’ve made too much borscht.”

Before the game, a Matthew Harding flag was passed over the heads of those below me in the lower tier. The anniversary of his passing was during the week.

The game began with Chelsea attacking The Shed.

Only a minute or so had passed when Davide Zappacosta created some space with a burst which enabled him to deliver a low cross into the box. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was on hand and perfectly placed to slam the ball home with a natural and clean strike. Over he went to Parkyville to celebrate.

We had, bizarrely, been unable to win our first two Europa League games by a solitary goal. With an early goal, I had thoughts of a thumping for our current opponents.

There was a shot from Willian was deflected over after he cut in from the left.

Soon after, on eight minutes, a Willian corner was aimed towards the near post and both Loftus-Cheek and Olivier Giroud both went for the ball. It was our Ruben who was able to poke it home. Off he went to Parkyville once more. We were coasting.

Alvaro Morata, watching Ruben score two in under ten minutes, must have been wondering about the futility of life itself.

A few more chances came our way; Pedro, Cahill, Christensen.

Mateo Kovacic continued to impress both Alan and myself.

“You know what player he reminds me of?” said Alan.

“Go on, mate.”

“Mickey Hazard.”

“Yeah, I can see that.”

“With the long sleeves, and the way he keeps the ball.”

I thought back to our first Hazard, who I personally loved seeing at Chelsea, despite his Tottenham past. I thought back to seeing him play. I remembered how he used to run with his arms straight and low, keeping his balance as he ran. I saw similarities with Kovacic.

A few more chances; Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek.

There were a few chants, as well as chances, for our Ruben throughout the night.

The basic “Ruben, Ruben, Ruben” was hardly original but the other one was even worse.

“He’s one of our own, he’s one of our own, Loftus-Cheek, he’s one of our own.”

Nah, not for me. A blatant copy of the Kane song.

Hearing the syllables stretched – “Loftus- Chee-eeek” – was torture.

Not good enough.

Just before the break, a spectacular scissor kick from Willian was so high of the target that it almost hit the police surveillance studio hanging from The Shed roof, and a couple of us signaled a cricketing “six.”

If felt like we were trying to gild the lily at times, but we were well on top. Despite us winning, the atmosphere had been deathly quiet.

“Europe Lite” indeed.

At the half-time break, we dreamed of further goals.

Not long into the second-half, Loftus-Cheek pushed the ball out to Pedro, whose run was blocked, but Loftus-Cheek was able to steer the ball which nicely broke to him in at the far post. It was a fine goal, the best of the three, but all three were pretty decent.

With that Alvaro Morata booked ninety-minutes with a sports psychologist.

Down below, Cesc Fabregas lifted the hat-trickster up and the Stamford Bridge crown cheered.

Victor Moses replaced Willian, and then proceeded to frustrate many with his heavy touches.

Soon after, it dawned on us all that former Arsenal player Aleksander Hleb had been playing for BATE; we only realised this when he was substituted.

Shots from Willian and Zappacosta.

Then, Callum Hudso-Odoi took over from Pedro.

The last time we had two players with double-barreled names was when we were graced with the services of Peter Rhoades-Brown and Alan Mayes-Ohbollocks.

Giroud’s shot was saved after being set up by an unconvincing dribble from Moses.

With ten minutes or so remaining, we conceded a poor goal when a long. Low cross from a free-kick out wide on our right avoided everyone; Rios dabbed it in, and the Stamford Bridge groaned. His blindside run was not spotted by anyone. The tiny band of away supporters were heard for the very first time.

“…mmm, I know our support has again been pretty shite again this evening, but at least we didn’t get out sung by the away fans.”

Things got a little nervy, and Alan was convinced that we would let in a second goal. As the clock ticked, a strong run from Loftus-Cheek into the BATE box did not result in his fourth of the night.

At the final whistle, I was already packed up and on my way out of the seats. I looked over to the players on the pitch and then headed out of the exit.

“Let’s get home.”

 

 

Tales From Saints And Singers

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 14 April 2018.

We were back at St. Mary’s for another Southampton vs. Chelsea match. An easy away game for most Chelsea fans, I haven’t missed a game at their new stadium, going all of the way back to the first match in August 2001. It seems like Southampton have always been in the top division, but they were out of it from 2005/2006 to 2012/2013. Our opponents, under new manager Mark Hughes, were entrenched in the relegation mire. Going into the game, we all agreed that this was a match that we surely had to win. Of course, we were in an awful run of form too. But we had to win it. We just had to. On the following Sunday, at Wembley, there would be an F. A. Cup semi-final against Southampton too. Wins in both games were so important, for reasons that are too obvious to spend too much time talking about.

The 12.30pm kick-off meant that there was little time for any lengthy pre-match drink. There were five of us in the Chuckle Bus, and it was Young Jake’s first visit to St. Mary’s with Chelsea. On the short drive down to Southampton, he asked a few questions about Southampton’s old ground The Dell. Over the past few weeks, I have added a new feature to this website in which I have posted seventy photographs – so far – of the changing face of Stamford Bridge.

https://caxonblog.com/chelsea-land/

As a way of explaining how unique The Dell was, I include a few photographs here – two from 1994/1995, one from 1995/1996 and three from 1996/1997 – and it certainly brings back some memories.

It is perhaps hard to believe, but these are the only away games that I saw at The Dell. Tickets always seemed to be difficult to get hold off in the days before I became a season-ticket holder, and a few of us only managed to get tickets for the latter two games via Matthew Le Tissier, who went to school in Guernsey with my pal Neil. The Dell was intimate alright. And it was nestled in among leafy streets and semi-detached houses, with no floodlight pylons to indicate a football stadium was in the vicinity. It would have been quite possible to have walked within twenty yards of The Dell and not realise that it was there. As an old romantic who dotes on stadia which are no longer with us, I miss The Dell.

St. Mary’s – a mile or so further east – is one of many bland and boring football stadia that have appeared over the past twenty years. I am sure many of Southampton’s supporters are annoyed that the close and intimate feel to The Dell has not at least been attempted at their new stadium. A more spacious stadium with a larger footprint equates to more income though.

I battled my way through the massed ranks of the Chelsea supporters in the dark concourse beneath the Northam Stand and headed up the steps into the seats.

“World In Motion” was on the PA, a fine choice.

It was soon apparent that I needed to take my coat off. It was already a warm afternoon, and we were not far from the front. It was fantastic to see Alan at a game, his arm still in a sling after his broken shoulder caused him to miss a few games. As Parky arrived on the scene, he noted one of his favourites from a few decades ago.

“The Saints Are Coming” by The Skids.

Kick-off approached.

The PA announcer urged the home crowd to “wave your flags” and “make some noise.”

I looked around and was pleased to see that hardly a seat in our section was unoccupied. Despite a dip in form since Christmas, the loyal three thousand had continued to attend each and every away game. This was reassuring to see.

The team?

Courtois.

Azpilicueta – Christensen – Cahill

Zappacosta – Fabregas – Kante – Alonso

Willian – Morata – Hazard

As ever, Saints had two from “Munich” – Ryan Bertrand (their captain, in fact) and Oriel Romeu.

The first-half was a pretty depressing affair. We controlled much of the game but without seriously testing the Southampton ‘keeper Alex McCarthy. Southampton’s attacks were rare. We poked a few balls into their penalty box, but there was no dynamism and little threat. Again there was a tendency to over-elaborate. On more than one occasion I was heard to yell “shoot” to Willian, Kante and Hazard, amongst others. I didn’t remember hearing it against Tottenham nor West Ham, but there was a rousing rendition of “Antonio, Antonio, Antonio” not long into the game, and our manager responded briefly with a clap towards us. I looked over at him, aware that many fans have commented that he has not seemed anywhere as involved as last season. I spotted him, and he did show some level of engagement, urging the players on. But what a difference a year makers. Last year he was our leader, our charismatic manager, full of calmness and charm, and he became only our fourth championship-winning manager. I suspect we will never know the full extent of what has happened in the corridors of power at Stamford Bridge and Cobham in the intervening twelve months, but I can never forget his role last season. It ultimately saddens me to read and hear what some sections of our fans think of Antonio Conte now.

On around twenty minutes, a rapid break down our right flank which involved Ryan Bertrand caught us unawares. Our former left-back managed to race past Cesar Azpilicueta and clip a perfect pass back to Dusan Tadic from just inside the penalty box. Tadic was on his own, with Marcos Alonso trailing, and the Serbian rolled the ball in. The home crowd found their voice at last, and our heads in the away end dropped.

A typical piece of nonsense from Courtois annoyed us all. Instead of hoofing a ball clear, he ludicrously played it square to Dave, who was soon charged down right on the edge of the box. It was lucky that nothing more came of it. There had been similar foolishness from our lofty Belgian earlier; suffice to say he is not flavour of the month at the moment. However, he made amends with a double-save just before the break.

I remember saying to Gal :

“If a person who had never seen this sport was here today, they would think that the main objective of the game was to give the fellows in blue shirts out on the edge of the pitch the ball as often as possible.”

Alonso and Zappacosta must have had more touches than anyone.

A couple of Chelsea long-shots were deflected high and over the Southampton cross-bar as the half ended.

At half-time, with the sun beating down on the front section of the away terrace, there was a noticeable melancholy and lethargy as I looked around at my fellow supporters. It looked to me that we were almost resigned to yet another league defeat.

It seemed that we were at a low ebb.

Whether or not a few hundred half-time pints helped loosen inhibitions, but the second-half began with a fantastic barrage of noise cascading towards our players from the away section. One song dominated. It was a chant that I have always looked on as an away game speciality, and during the second-half of away games too. To the tune of “Amazing Grace.”

“CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.

CHELSEA. CHELSEA. CHELSEA.”

And we repeated it over and over and over.

I joined in, we kept it going, and I realised that I had not really sung too much up until then. My throat was so sore, so painful, but I kept going, just like in days of yore. All around me, others kept it going. It was life-affirming stuff. The chant went on and on. And it made me proud. Call me old-fashioned, but this is a mark of a true supporter. We might be supported, or followed, by millions around the world, but they’re worth nothing to me if they ever attend a Chelsea match and don’t sing and shout with all their might in games when the team needs it. Years ago, I often used to sing until I was hoarse. It used to happen to me all the time. Very often, perhaps following an evening game, I would appear at work the next day with my voice shot to pieces.

“Go to Chelsea last night, Chris?”

And I would nod.

The singing continued.

“YOU ARE MY CHELSEA.

MY ONLY CHELSEA.

YOU MAKE ME HAPPY WHEN SKIES ARE GREY.”

How this pleased me. I was hoping that my pals watching at home would hear us. The Chelsea of old. Underperforming but singing on.

Chelsea Fundamentalism.

“COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA. COME ON CHELSEA.”

I had a second wind now, and my throat wasn’t hurting quite so much. A couple of shots from Hazard and Willian hinted at better things.

And then it all went Pete Tong.

On an hour, a long free-kick from James Ward-Prowse looked like missing everyone, but it landed past the far post and was remarkably volleyed home by Jan Bednarek, whoever he is.

“Oh bollocks.”

The crowd roared again and the Southampton players raced over to the far corner. I looked around and spotted a few empty seats in our section. Maybe they had disappeared off to turn their bikes around, but I suspected that the lure of Southampton’s city centre pubs was too much for some. Almost immediately, my admiration of my fellow fan took a battering. Several began singing “we’re fucking shit” and I just turned around and gave the perpetrators a Premium Class A Glower.

I was inwardly fuming.

How pathetic.

The manager made some changes.

Pedro for Zappacosta.

Giroud for Morata.

There was, apparently, a change in shape but I was too busy in supporting the team to notice. There seemed to be an immediate reaction. On seventy minutes, Alonso delivered an early ball into the Saints’ box from a relatively deep position. Giroud used all of his physical strength to get to the ball before his marker and he headed the ball firmly down and past McCarthy.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 1.

GET IN.

The away crowd roared, and we were – unbelievably – back in it. A clenched fist from Giroud signalled his intent.

Just four minutes later, Willian jinked into the box from the Chelsea left. His low bouncing ball across the box found the unmarked Hazard. His first touch killed the ball dead, and there was a beautiful moment of anticipation – I always call it a Platini moment after his touch in the 1984 European Championships set up a slight delay in the eventual shot – before he slammed it home.

Now we really celebrated.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 2.

“A Bishop Desmond.”

All eyes were on Eden as he raced back. He turned and pointed towards the badge. A little moment that made me think a million things at once.

“That might shut the people up who think you are off.”

“But a lot of fans want you to “Quote-unquote” fuck-off to Madrid anyway.”

“Easy to point at the badge, wonder what you really think.”

“Don’t you dare disappear off to Madrid after pointing at the badge.”

“Just crack on, less of the nonsense, and work hard for a winner.”

After just another three more minutes, we were awarded a free-kick in prime Willian territory. Rather than play the ball in towards the players assembling in the box, he played it out to Hazard. A dink into the box was headed up by Alonso under pressure, then it was Christensen’s’s turn to keep the ball alive with another header. The ball fell towards none other than Giroud.

We inhaled and prepared to yell.

He slammed it home.

I brought my camera down momentarily and yelled along with three thousand others.

I then caught the slide from Giroud just as a photographer at the other end did the same, and – not for the first time this season – the photograph would later find its way onto the official Chelsea website. And there I am, still and focused among the lunacy, next to Gary and Parky, who ended up with a bump on his head after the bloke behind him landed on top of him. Look at the joy on our faces.

Ecstasy in the away end.

Southampton 2 Chelsea 3.

What a comeback.

“Two nil and you fucked it up” echoed around the stadium. I was amazed how a few of our players kept a straight face.

There was still time for a couple of fine Courtois saves – making amends for his earlier brain dead indiscretions – but we held on. With four minutes remaining, Victor Moses replaced Eden Hazard. Many fans in the away end serenaded Eden with his own song.

“EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN. EDEN EDEN HAZARD.”

I turned around and barked “you two-faced bastards.”

I was half-serious.

Gary laughed anyway.

We bounced out of the ground, just happy to see Chelsea win an unlikely game of football. We tried to remember the last time that we had come back from a 0-2 deficit in the league. The five of us struggled but news came through that it was, evidently, away to Charlton Athletic on the opening day of 2002/2003. We were bouncing that day too.

We stopped off for a few pints on the drive home, extending the day, going over the game, chatting about our immediate future and the matches ahead.

It had been a fine day out.

No midweek jaunt to Turf Moor for me on Thursday so my next one is Southampton at Wembley on Sunday.

See you there.