Tales From Our National Game

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 30 December 2018.

So, the last game of 2018. Whereas some teams were given a normal Saturday match, Chelsea Football Club ended the calendar year with a game on the Sunday at South London rivals – kind of – Crystal Palace. The game seemed typically out of sync at this odd time of year where nobody really knows what day it is, what to do, nor what day is coming up next. To add to the discombobulation, our game was kicking-off at midday. So, this was another early start for the Fun Boy Four. I set my alarm for 5.30am and was up not long after. I was on driving duties again, but I did not mind one iota. By 7.30am, the fellow Chuckle Brothers were collected and we were soon tucking into a McBreakfast at Melksham.

“Not very busy is it?”

“Not bloody surprising, who else is up at 7.45am on a Sunday?”

Saturday had been a big day football-wise. While I was watching my local team Frome Town capitulate to yet another league defeat at home to Tiverton Town, I was overjoyed to hear that Tottenham had surprisingly dropped points to Wolves at Wembley. Later that evening, we hoped that Arsenal could dent Liverpool’s charge to their first league title since 1990, but an early Arsenal lead was soon overtaken. On Saturday evening, myself and many looked at the bleakest of scenarios. With Manchester City suffering a recent tumble at Leicester, the thoughts of either Liverpool or Tottenham winning the league made many of us shiver.

For Chelsea fans like me, this is a “no-win” scenario. If pushed, and as much as it hurts, I would pick Liverpool over Tottenham. But – grasping at long straws – there is still the prospect of Manchester City, 2014 style, overhauling them both. Chelsea will not win the league this season; like many others, I am hoping that City find some form to pip the other two – hideous – contenders, preferably on the last day and with as much pain to both as possible.

Getting to Selhurst Park in South London from our base in the South-West of England is not the easiest of journeys. From my home, I headed east, then north, then east, then south-east, then north-east, then south-east, then south. At 10.30am, after a journey of three-and-a-half hours, I was parked on a pre-paid driveway within sight of the oddly-shaped barrelled roof of the Holmesdale Road stand, a mere ten-minute walk away. The first friend of many who we met throughout the day – Welsh Kev – caught up with us as we slogged up the hill past the main stand and the busy intersection at the top. The immediate area around Selhurst Park is surprisingly hilly. On this Sunday morning, there were no options to drink in local hostelries. The other three headed inside for a drink while I took a few photographs of a typical pre-match. The floodlights were on at 11am and the air – although mild – was full of an atmospheric glaze of mist. Down the Park Lane, police horses trotted back and forth. The away turnstiles at the bottom of the hill were busy. Programmes were hawked. Lottery tickets were sold. A few good friends walked past. A photograph of Alan and Daryl against the stark red-bricked backdrop of the low wall of the Arthur Wait Stand.

Some stadia are antique and charming – step forward Goodison Park, Craven Cottage and Fratton Park – but Selhurst Park does not thrill many. There are grandiose plans to completely redevelop the main stand – a virtual copy of the Archibald Leitch stand at Fulham, and of the old East stand at Chelsea – and turn it into a curving three-tiered edifice, with plenty of glass to honour the original palace which was dismantled at Hyde Park and rebuilt nearby at Sydenham Hill before being destroyed by fire in 1936.

Many would advocate the modernisation of the dark and cavernous Arthur Wait stand as quickly as possible too.

After bumping into many other friends and acquaintances outside the away turnstiles, there was a slight wait for a body search and bag check. In those few moments while I waited in line, and with the mist hanging heavily over the rising terraced houses of the immediate vicinity, and the chitter-chatter of the Chelsea supporters filling the air, a beautiful bonhomie, I found a new love for this enduring game of ours, still enticing thousands and thousands out of their warm houses every week of the season. Football truly is our national game in this historic and magical land of ours and nothing comes remotely close.

I love football like life itself.

The camaraderie. The banter. The friendships. The laughs. The trips. The players. The teams. The heroes. The stadia. The rivalries. The songs. The humour. The smiles. The tears. The routines. The superstitions. The drinks. The fads. The fashions. The clobber. The game itself.

It’s the bollocks.

There were fleeting thoughts of Selhurst Park which cascaded through my mind. There were images and recollections of previous encounters at the same ground going back into history; the iconic photo of Eccles being lead out by the Old Bill in front of the main stand in around 1969, an infamous game in 1982 involving a certain Paul Canoville, my first-ever visit to Selhurst in August 1989 when thousands of Chelsea descended on the Holmesdale Road after two wins out of two but were humbled 3-0 by a Charlton Athletic team which absurdly contained both Colin Pates and Joe McLaughlin in the centre of their defence, a dull 0-0 against Palace in 1991 when I watched from near the former grass bank in the corner between the Arthur Wait and the Holmesdale, the rain sodden League Cup quarter final in 1993, an equally misty evening in 1996 when we defeated Wimbledon in the FA Cup against a bellowing backdrop of noise from the Chelsea support, a win against Wimbledon in 1999 when I watched from the “Sainsbury’s End”, a Geremi free-kick beating Palace in a pre-season friendly in 2003, the first game in England of the Abramovich era, the recent losses, the recent wins, the constant chanting of “we’re top of the league” in 2014, getting soaked in 2016, and getting abruptly turned over by a previously pointless Palace in 2017.

This had the feel of a very old-fashioned football occasion.

Once inside, I struggled to shuffle through the crowds who were massed in that little area in the corner, where quite commendable dance music was booming out over Chelsea fans nursing plastic bottles of cider and lager, and with occasional community singing for good measure.

More familiar faces, more bonhomie.

The Arthur Wait Stand goes back forever. The view from the rear is horrific – I watched the 2003 friendly from this area, it is like watching the game from inside a post-box – and I am not surprised it is the reason why the font rows are always over-subscribed.

“Stand where you want.”

The team news had filtered through; Olivier Giroud was in, as was Ross Barkley.

Kepa

Dave – Toni – David – Marcos

N’Golo – Jorginho – Ross

Willian – Olivier – Eden

I shuffled down to row six and took my position alongside Gal and Parky. But Alan met me with some grave news. The wife of one of our extended band of Chelsea supporters had passed away overnight. I was silent with grief.

Oh my.

Oh bloody hell.

I stood, unable to think, unable to talk. What a cruel world.

My mind was spinning as the teams entered the pitch ten minutes later, and I struggled to get motivated. The teams lined up on the centre-circle and the PA announced that there would be a minute of silent remembrance for all of those Crystal Palace supporters that had passed away in 2018. This was a nice touch, and as the whole crowd stood still and in complete silence, around forty names were displayed on the TV screen above the executive boxes of the “Sainsbury End” to my right.

At the end, the names of the Chelsea players who were sadly taken from us this year was shown too, again a very fine gesture.

Roy Bentley.

Phil McNight.

Derek Saunders.

Ken Shellito.

And then, at the end, a photograph of Ray Wilkins.

My memory recalled that he played – fleetingly – for Crystal Palace too. I still find it hard to believe that Ray Wilkins is no longer with us. On this day, how raw, I remembered one other member of our Chelsea family who was no longer with us.

Rest In Peace.

In truth, I didn’t really feel much like football as the game began. Thoughts of our own, my own, immortality crept into my head.

Chelsea, in all yellow, attacked the Holmesdale Road in the first-half.

Almost immediately, without really thinking – my mind certainly was elsewhere – I found myself singing along to “The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see the Pope” and my mind again went into overdrive, quickly equating what the outcome might be.

“Right, we didn’t sing the word on Wednesday at Watford and a lot of beer had been consumed. Nobody has had much to drink this morning; I can’t see it being sung today either.”

Thankfully, the Chelsea support had read the script perfectly.

“Barcelona, Real Madrid, Tottenham are a load of ssssssshhhhhhh.”

And then I felt like admonishing myself for honestly caring about a song when a good mate’s wife was no longer with us.

Fucking hell, football.

Being so low down, the action in front of the men in black, the Holmesdale Ultras, in the corner to my left was a mystery to me. I struggled to get in the game. At the Frome Town game on Saturday, I had revelled in being able to stand behind the goal at the club end and move to my left or right to get a better view. It felt natural. Here, hemmed in my seats and fellow fans, I was stuck in a poor-viewing position, and it did not help my enjoyment of the game. The pitch had been well-watered before the game and was slick. I wished that our passing was slick, too. For all of our possession – apart from a few early forays into our box, Palace were happy to sit back and defend deep – we struggled to hurt their defence.

Wilfred Zaha began as their main threat – a very nimble skip past three Chelsea challenges even drew muted applause from a few fair minded individuals in the Chelsea section – but as is his wont his role soon diminished.

Chelsea attempts on goal were rare throughout the first-half.

There was rising frustration with our reluctance to shoot.

“Bloody hell, shoot. The pitch is wet. If the goalie fumbles, we can pounce on the rebound.”

We were limited to a few speculative efforts. We had been especially hard on Jorginho, to either release the ball early or to shoot. With that, he took aim from distance and thumped a ball ridiculously high and wide of the target. This was met with howls of self-deprecating laughter.

“Ah, fuck it, you’re right, don’t bother next time.”

Ross Barkley was neat and tidy, economical in possession, moving the ball well. Eden Hazard tried his best to twist and turn, to run at players, to cajole others into action. Willian was under-used out on the right wing, a spare part. Olivier Giroud struggled to get involved. N’Golo Kante was everywhere, chasing balls, nicking possession, moving the ball early, just magnificent.

A foul on Hazard, surprise surprise, allowed Willie to clip a ball against the post, just beyond the dive of the Crystal Palace ‘keeper. Bizarrely, the referee gave a corner. From this, my view was blocked but Barkley hot the same post. Another effort from us forced a bona fide save from the ‘keeper Guaita.

A fine shot, from an angle, from Giroud which beat the ‘keeper was flagged for offside, but my view was impeded that I hardly saw the shot nor the flag.

At the break, there was a noticeable gloom amidst the Chelsea support in the murky twilight of Selhurst Park.

“We’ll win this, Gal.”

“0-0 I reckon Chris.”

As the half-time break continued, I turned my back to the choreographed Lycra nonsense of the Palace cheerleaders and the lame penalty shoot-out, and tried to spot a few friends in the crowd. I had already spotted Lynda and T from Brooklyn a few rows behind us before the game. In the depths of the Gents, I had bumped into Mick from Denver, over for just one game. Somewhere in the home section of the Arthur Wait was my work associate Ben, from Germany, who was visiting these shores again. To the day, it was a year ago that I welcomed him to Stamford Bridge for the Stoke City game, when with his friends Jens and Walt, we enjoyed a lovely pub-crawl around Fulham before the match.

The game recommenced with Chelsea on top.

After six minutes of action, with Palace massed in defence and closing our players down, we watched as Kante spotted an avenue of space, and ran from deep. For us in the Chelsea section, this was great viewing, as his run was in line with all of us. He ran past several blue and red shirts and a perfectly lofted ball – not sure from whom, my eyes were on Kante exploiting the gap – was chested into a yard of space and then the ball was turned low past Guatia. The ball just about rolled over the line.

“GET IN.”

We were treated to an N’Goalo.

He was mobbed by his team mates and with good reason. The run and finish was quite exceptional.

I turned to Parky.

“Who passed to him?”

“Luiz.”

“Ah excellent.”

I looked at Alan.

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

“Come on my little diamonds.”

Over Christmas, I had re-watched the famous clip of Tommy Doc in the press box at Stamford Bridge after a Chelsea goal when he uttered his famous phrase –

“Go on my little diamonds. They’ll have to open out now.”

We had joked about how we managed to get it all wrong, all arse about face, but agreed that our little superstition would continue on regardless. I am sure Docherty would not object, it is not like we are paying him royalties.

Was there a reaction from the home side? Not at all.

The game rumbled on but still with little likelihood of us increasing our slender lead. The noise around us was quiet, but louder towards the rear. A couple of efforts, from Willian – out of sorts in this game – and Barkley peppered the Crystal Palace goal. The long lost, and probably forgotten, Connor Wickham came on for Palace. There was another disallowed goal for Giroud, who cleanly converted a Willian pass, but then injured himself in the process. He was replaced by Alvaro Morata, cue lots of hilarious “bants.” We still waited for Palace to “come at us now.”

Eden walked towards us and, on hearing his name being bellowed, clapped and gave us a thumbs-up.

Two late substitutions followed; Emerson for Willian (an odd game for our number twenty-two, he really struggled to get involved) and Mateo Kovacic for Barkley (“he’s not given the ball away much, but he hasn’t done much with it”).

A wild shot from Palace went the same way as the Jorginho effort an hour earlier. But things were now getting nervy in the away section. If we could hang on, we would be a mighty five points ahead of Arsenal. In the last five minutes, Palace at last found their compass and their attacking boots. That man Wickham thankfully slashed a rising ball over after a headed knock-down.

Four minutes of extra time were signalled.

My eyes were on referee Craig Pawson.

With a cheer, he blew up and the game was won.

There is a common phrase, possibly “proper Chelsea” – please God, not “Proper Chels” – and maybe even Chelsea-esque which is doing the rounds these days and it is this :

“Bloody hell, we made hard work of that.”

And dear reader, without more quality in front of the goal, we will hear this phrase again and again.

The players came over to see us, but Sarri did not join them. He likes to keep his distance, which I find a little odd. Alonso threw his shirt into the crowd and there were waves from Luiz and a defiant “Keep the Faith” from captain Dave.

Job done.

We slowly made our way to the top of the stand, and dived in to use “the facilities” one last time. The gents’ toilets at Selhurst are rather primeval, and you need a certain constitution to use them. There were jokes about having to wear Wellington Boots, and to avoid the deep end, but as I descended into hell, I met Alan coming up the steps and he chirped :

“I enjoy potholing.”

That made me chuckle.

Outside, as we gathered together and turned to set off up the slope, Ben from Germany suddenly appeared with his two mates. It was perfect timing. They had attended the darts on Thursday, the Fulham game on Saturday and had now seen Chelsea play once more. It was great to see them again. I had been certain that I would bump into them some when during the day.

We trudged back to the car, and I then headed slowly north and our escape route took us tantalisingly close to Stamford Bridge. Over Wandsworth Bridge, the Thames looking greyer than ever, and then up towards Fulham Broadway. We stopped for food on the North End Road – “can’t keep away” – and I pointed the car west for one last time in 2018.

As I deposited Parky, Glenn and PD off at each of their homes, I said the same thing to all of them.

“Thanks for your friendship this year. See you on Wednesday.”

It has been a great year again. I remember gasping earlier this week when I saw one Chelsea fan describe it as “difficult”; well fuck that, we won the FA Cup in May.

Turning inwards, a word of real appreciation for those of you who continue to support me in my efforts with this website. Just before Christmas – on Christmas Eve no less, almost perfect timing – I was happy to see that I had reached one hundred thousand views since I set this all up in the summer of 2013. And, over the next few hours, last year’s total of 23,847 views will surely be eclipsed (currently on 23,835) although total visitors this year is down.

In those five years, I have seen the UK viewing figures increase and that means a lot to me. Originally on the “Chelsea In America” website from 2008, I have witnessed a decrease in views from the US, but levels have grown elsewhere. I like that. So, thanks to all once more.

For those interested – who does not like a list? – here is the Top Ten.

  1. USA – 41,409
  2. UK – 38,568
  3. Canada – 2,471
  4. Australia – 2,018
  5. Ireland – 1,197
  6. India – 1,002
  7. Germany – 965
  8. Indonesia – 841
  9. Belgium – 679
  10. France – 606

Here’s to 2019. I hope that everyone stays healthy and happy. After a particularly stressful year for me – in a nutshell, work – I am looking forward to a more relaxed twelve months ahead. It really is all about staying healthy and well. Everything else really is gravy.

I will see some of you at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday.

Tales From Benny’s First Game

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 3 October 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lovely.

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

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

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

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

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

Ian and I knew exactly what he meant.

I commented back, looking at Ian –

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

Colin and Ian laughed.

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

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

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

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

John Terry was back.

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the break, Nemanja Matic replaced Ramires.

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

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

Pedro replaced Willian.

There were boos.

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

1-3.

Bollocks.

To my dismay, many spectators decided to leave.

Fuck them.

The substitute Matic was replaced by Loic Remy.

More boos.

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

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

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

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

We’re in a bad moment, no doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tales From Another European Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Basel : 2 May 2013.

There was a nice, cool vibe leading up to our Europa League semi-final second leg against Basel. For the first time in my spectating life, Chelsea had already done the hardest part by winning the first leg away from home. On all other occasions, things have been a little trickier.

A quick resume of previous semi-final encounters in which we played away first?

Yes, why not.

1994-1995 Real Zaragoza – lost
1997-1998 Vicenza – lost
1998-1999 Real Mallorca – lost
2003-2004 A.S. Monaco – lost
2007-2008 Liverpool – drew
2008-2009 Barcelona – drew

So, this was new ground for me. Uncharted territory, if you will. For many of our hundreds, thousands, millions of new fans, there has only been life at the top table as a Chelsea fan; participation in the Champions League has been second nature for us over the previous ten successive seasons bringing a massive increase in our global recognition. However, for many years, even competing in any type of European football was seen as a holy grail. From an infamous defeat to Atvidaberg in the ECWC in 1971, we waited patiently for the next European night. Thankfully, it finally came against Viktoria Zizkov in 1994, but only after a wait of twenty-three long years.

Put it this way. I was twenty-nine years of age before I saw us play in any UEFA match.

Oh boy.

So, naturally, there has been a certain amount of teeth-grinding by myself at some of the comments aired by some Chelsea fans recently about the trivial nature of the much-maligned Europa League. However, this has been a personal voyage for me since we were knocked out of this season’s Champions League campaign by Shakhtar in December. On that night, when we beat Nordsjaelland but Shakhtar still went through, I was initially upbeat about our participation in the Europa League. Since then, my feelings have waivered a little, but as the final in Amsterdam has loomed nearer and nearer, thoughts have been more positive again. The extra round of games in this competition – the dreaded “Round of Thirty-Two” (which sounds like the biggest round of beers ever) – stretched out this competition further, but after the defeats of Sparta Prague, Steaua Bucharest and Rubin Kazan, only one game remained.

A few weeks ago, I booked up flights from Bristol to Schipol in readiness of Chelsea reaching the final in Amsterdam but took out an “insurance bet” on Basel beating us to minimise my loss if we didn’t make it. In fact, there were so many Chelsea fans betting on Basel to win the tie, I’m surprised that the police weren’t suspicious of illegal betting practices.

The first-leg went our way – we were back on the main ITV channel, Luiz scored a cracker, things were looking good – and so there was a certain amount of relaxation going in to the return leg.

I set off for London town just after 4pm and the voices of Chelsea fans Paul Weller and then David Gahan helped prolong the air of relaxation as I ate up the miles heading east.

I reached The Goose at 6.45pm. Outside in the beer garden, there were friends mingling.

I can imagine Paul Weller writing about the scene which greeted me.

“A police car and a screaming siren.
Pneumatic drill, Napoli Frank’s laughter.
Lord Parky wailing, a stray dog howling.
The clink of glasses and the joy of drinking.
That’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.
A smash of glass, the sunlight fading.
A team photo, the excitement rising.
The boys together, polo shirts and trainers.
The fear of defeat and a kick in the balls.
I say that’s entertainment, that’s entertainment.”

Just time for one pint; my trusted Peroni went down well, too well, but I didn’t fancy risking another one. There was a nice mixture of friends old and new. Orlin from San Francisco, with his fellow Bulgarian Evo – living in Ealing now – was rubbing shoulders with Napoli Frank and Dartford Dave. The Kaminskis from Pittsburgh were also present. These six would be sitting – no, standing of course – in the first row of The Shed Lower.

“I’ll be sure to take of photo of you all.”

Keith, from New Jersey, was also in the beer garden. He was with his friend Fernanda who has been living in England for nine months. This would be her first ever Chelsea game, her first ever football match. With a name like Fernanda, I wondered who her favourite might be.

The walk down to Stamford Bridge was lovely. There was nothing but a clear blue sky overhead. The sun hit the stone of the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and gave it a golden sandy hue. There was noise and colour all around me. I turned to my left and again the sun had highlighted the towering West Stand to perfection. With massive banners from last season’s twin triumphs adorning its yellow stoned walls, it, looked a picture. I’m sure I saw the Peter Osgood statue blink in the sunlight.

Alexander : “Any spare ticket, please…come on Chelsea!”

Sergei : “I want go home Russia. I miss my Babushka.”

Alexander : “We Chelsea now.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

On the wait to ascend the steps leading up to the MHU turnstiles, I found myself alongside Tim Rolls and Rick Glanvil. There was talk of Frank Lampard. Rick seized the moment and asked a trivia question.

“So, Frank has scored 201 goals for Chelsea. How many has he scored against our last four league opponents in the league this year…United, Spurs, Villa and Everton.”

The answer?

A staggering 36.

Amazing.

I made my way up the stairs…always to the left, one of my match-day superstitions, then out into the seats. A near full house, but Basel didn’t completely fill up their 3,000 spots. I can’t grumble though; I didn’t travel to Basel for the first game. In fact, only around 1,000 Chelsea did.

So – team news.

Ryan in for Ash. Brana alongside Cahill. Luiz pushed up alongside Fat Frank. Ramires out right. Moses out left. Torres in for the cup-tied Ba.

I had difficulty in remembering any of the Basel team from the first leg; this was not helped by seven of their team having surnames which began with the letter S.

Shostakovich, Solzenitzen, Socrates, Sinatra, Schumacher, Spielberg and Strauss.

Some team.

In the first chance of the game, Basel – playing in white – almost got off to a dream start when Stella – sorry, Strella – shot wide. At the other end, Lampard reacted quickly but hit the upright. On 17 minutes, Fernano Torres hit a bobbler, but it was saved by the goalkeeper. On 25 minutes, that man Stella – sorry, Strella – raced into the box and beautifully met a perfect cross on the volley. It was a magnificent strike and it whizzed past Cech’s far post. Their big number nine was looking a handful for Cahill…Ivanoviv…Luiz…whoever was closest.

Away in the opposite corner, the Basel fans were in good voice. Elsewhere, the Chelsea faithful were sporadic inn their support. This clearly didn’t feel like one of “those” magical European nights. I joked with Alan that next Wednesday’s encounter with Tottenham was more likely to be akin to a Champions League semi-final than a run-of-the-mill league game.

Gary Cahill made a quite magnificent tackle as Basel again threatened. At The Shed End, Ramires shot at the goalkeeper from only six yards out after good work from Moses down the left. This wasn’t a great Chelsea performance. There was a disjointed feel to our play and we missed the intelligence of Juan Mata. I lost count of the number of crosses which ended up in acres of space at the far post, away from any Chelsea players. The six visitors in the front row of The Shed would have had good sightings of all this. Our choice of ball in the final third was poor. Basel broke though again, only for Petr Cech to make a fantastic save from Sinatra – sorry, Salah.

Just before the break, Fernando Torres did ever so well to come inside from his inside-left position, only to hit a shot high and wide.

Oh boy.

Our profligacy would cost us. Right on the very stroke of half-time, Socrates – sorry, Stocker – played in Sinatra – sorry, Salah – who stroked the ball past a stranded Cech. We had been caught sleeping. The Basel fans bounced in unison; a very fine sight. To be honest, Basel had probably edged it in the first-half. At the break, the scoreboard told the story of the game thus far –

Chelsea – 8 shots
Basel – 10 shots

“Never mind, Al. I’m sure that the Chelsea fans will decide to stand all of the way through the second half and roar the team on.”

“Yeah, in a parallel universe, mate, millions of light years away.”

“It’s a bit like Vicenza in 1998, mate. 1-0 down, we need to bounce back.”

Ah, Vicenza, April 16th 1998. It was one of the greatest nights that I have enjoyed as a Chelsea supporter. We had lost the away leg on a rainy night in northern Italy 1-0. In the return game – with Chelsea deciding to play in all yellow – we went a further goal down on the night. It was looking awfully bleak. Then, miraculously, a goal from Gus Poyet gave us hope before half-time. In the second-half, with the 34,000 capacity crowd roaring us on (comparable to Bruges 1995), a fantastic cross from Vialli was headed home by Zola and then Mark Hughes turned and volleyed in a low shot to send as absolutely delirious.

It truly was heart-stopping stuff.

Those were the days…

Colin Pates was Neil Barnett’s guest at half-time. He was on the pitch with his two sons. Neil started to say a few words about our much-loved former captain.

“When Colin retired from football…”

(He should have said…”he played for Arsenal”)

…”he became sports master at Whitgift School. And who was his star centre-forward? Victor Moses.”

I had read about Victor Moses’ life story during the summer…how he had witnessed both of his parents being killed in Nigeria, then came to England as an asylum-seeker, settling in South London with relatives, then playing football with Patesy at Whitgift.

It is some story.

I bet Colin is so proud.

The second-half began and I was pragmatic. I said to Alan ; “we always play better in the second-half at home.”

I was to be proved right.

After 49 minutes, Eden Hazard went on a fantastic run deep into the heart of the Swiss defence. The ball found Frank Lampard who blasted towards the goal. The Basel custodian saved, but couldn’t gather the ball. The on-rushing Torres was able to pounce and fired the ball high into the net. Parity on the night was restored, but we were ahead on aggregate.

It was Fernando Torres’ twentieth goal of the season.

Only three minutes had passed when Victor Moses was able to follow up his own shot after it was initially saved to make it 2-0 on the night and 4-2 on aggregate. There is nothing like two quick goals to stir the emotions; such was the case on this night in SW6. The crowd were now back in this game and the songs rang out.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe. We know what we are.”

The most memorable piece of skill on the night caught us all unawares. Frank Lampard pushed the ball on to David Luiz. Although he was some thirty yards out, he looked up and decided to unleash a dipping, curling masterpiece. I followed its trajectory as it flew goalwards. As the net rippled, the stadium erupted. It was another Luiz masterstroke.

“Getinyoufcukingbeauty.”

I pulled my camera up to my head and quickly shot a succession of photographs of the ecstatic Luiz as he ran towards us in the north-west corner.

Eyes bulging.

Hair flying.

Heart racing.

Screaming.

And that was just me.

Click, click, click, click, click, click, click.

We were now 5-2 up and surely Amsterdam-bound.

Just after Luiz’ stunner, Frei unleashed an incredible shot which rattled against Cech’s bar and drew applause from those around me in the MHU. Cech saved again, then Hazard’s delicate lob caused concern for Basel. It was, in all honesty, a fine game.

The Basel fans were in good voice, still. Although they are based in the German-speaking section of Switzerland, the antics of their fans was more akin to the Italian ultras. They bounced, they sang, they held their scarves aloft. They then had a lovely dig at us, singing in perfect English –

“Sing when you’re winning. You only sing when you’re winning.”

We chuckled at that. Top marks.

With the game now irretrievably lost, the Swiss fans had one last treat in store for us. They unfurled a large blue and red striped banner – almost Barcelona-esque – and then lit several pink and blue flares. It was a magnificent sight. Their fans were hidden among the billowing smoke; something that I always think looks wonderful.

Like something from another world.

The Chelsea faithful had a response, though.

Seeing the seven or eight bright candle-like flares burning bright, the MHL bellowed –

“Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday to you.
Happy birthday dear Basel.
Happy birthday to you.”

In the last few minutes, Nathan Ake made his home debut. I had a little chuckle to myself; my nickname for many years among school friends was Acky.

At last, Acky plays for Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

With the game won, several left the stadium before the end of the game. It wasn’t like this in the Champions League.

At the final whistle, I momentarily punched the air, but – I can’t fool myself – I knew that it wasn’t the same. However, we had deserved the win on the back of our second-half show and I wasn’t complaining. Of course, we are so spoiled these days. Coming right after the biggest night in our history, there is no doubt that this cup run has felt a little underwhelming. And yet, we all know that if we had gone even five years without silverware, we would be ecstatic about reaching a major final.

Ask Arsenal.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out and I smiled. We had another European final – only our fifth in 108 years – to celebrate.

Good times.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam, We Are Coming.”

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Tales From The Fortress

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 30 November 2008.

Fortess Stamford Bridge – yeah, big joke, eh?

I’ll try to keep things nice and concise for this report, but will be referring back to 1983 at least once, and to Friday a few times too.

Fasten your seat belts – it’s gonna be a rough ride.

A late start from Frome, where we had sleet and snow as we departed at 10am. I had watched the highlights of Saturday’s games on “Match Of The Day” and rarely had the weather at all of the games been so bad. The poor souls at Sunderland looked frozen. As we teared past Stonehenge, I did wonder what weather the Gods would throw at us again. I’m fed up with all of this football in the rain. Sad to report that Dave and PD aren’t getting much work still – this, along with the utterly depressing performance from the boys on Wednesday, gave the trip up to London a bleak feel. Even six hours before kick-off, we were all fearing the worst.

Anyway, into the café on the Lillee Road and a gorgeous fry-up again. Now then, the first reference to Friday. For the first time in my life, I attended an official Chelsea Football Club function – the 2008 CPO Luncheon at the Hilton, Park Lane…Beth always goes and she coerced me into going this year. We met up at Stamford Bridge at 9.15am and – until we departed our separate ways at 11pm – had a fantastic time. I won’t mention every minute detail, but my mate Glenn, from Frome, was a big Marcel Desailly fan ( he favours Milan, too – the poor misguided soul ) and so I presented Glenn with a signed “Desailly 6” photograph I had for him. He was well chuffed.

Into “The Goose” at 12.45pm and a few pints of lager. Some of you will remember that we bumped into Pat Nevin, amongst others, in Moscow…well, I knew that Wee Pat would be at the CPO Lunch and so I got him to personally sign two 8 by 10 photos of Pat with both Alan and Daryl. This was a surprise for my two mates, so they were pleased too. I must have around ten to fifteen close Chelsea mates, but I would describe Alan, Daryl and myself as the Inner Circle…between the three of us, all the important decisions are made!

To be fair, the mood in the boozer was quite subdued. The Bordeaux game was the topic of conversation. I guess any team is only as good as their last performance and ours was flat and lifeless. So – lots to groan and moan about. Daryl voiced the opinion that getting Eidur back from Barca wouldn’t be a bad move come January…a fine idea. Rob arrived and was full of chat about France…he had met up with Alan and Gary out there. After a shedful of beers one night, they found themselves drinking the almond liquor amoretti.

After six of these, Rob was leading the singing of “Chelsea Amoretti.”

The pub got busier and busier. I was wary I had to meet Beth at some stage…I owed her some money, £20 of which was for a bet I had lost with her. I had bet her that she would show at least one former Chelsea player at the lunch on Friday her new silver CFC belly button ring. The plan didn’t work and, despite a plan I had hatched with Clive Walker, Beth won her bet. Beth was doing a mini pub crawl by the sounds of it and I eventually met up with her in La Reserve, where she was enjoying a quiet drink with Mark Coden ( if that is possible…)

Into the ground nice and early for once, thus avoiding problems at the turnstiles.

Arsenal had the usual 3,000, but only two flags…a poor show. One of them was quite simple and effective – The Arsenal – but I knew this would wind Alan up as he hates the way Arsenal are sometimes referred to in this manner, like as if they are The Bank Of England or The Royal Family or something. For virtually all of their history Arsenal Football Club have hosted some of the most pragmatic and boring football teams to come out of these Isles…only since Wenger took over, in 1996, has the more expansive style of football been evident. Tell that to the JCL Gooners in America…they were called Lucky Arsenal in the thirties because they only did “enough” to win, nothing more…1-0 To The Arsenal is about right. The football Arsenal played in my childhood and youth was dire, with Liam Brady a rare entertainer.

A nice atmosphere to start – this is more like it…the extra hour in the various bars and pubs that surround Stamford Bridge on match days seemed to have a nice effect. In between Chelsea attacks, I spoke to Alan about some of the events on Friday…the highlights were nice chats with Paul Canoville, Bobby Tambling, Ken Shellito, Ken Monkou, Colin Pates and Tommy Hughes. I think I worked out I managed to say a few words to 19 of the 63 former players present. I batted .332 – pleased with that!

I thought we were fine in the first half and played the nicer stuff. After a barrage of abuse at the start, Gallas got away quite lightly really. However, it was so funny when there seemed to be a bizarre reaction when Bosingwa’s fine cross was put into his own net by Djourou – it seemed that the whole ground thought that Gallas had scored. There were almost boos when we heard that #20 and not #10 had scored! Hilarious. Even more hilarious was Alan’s off the cuff comment…”when it comes to crosses, I’m like a midget nymphomaniac…I like them low and hard.”

To me, the formation resembled 4-4-2, rather than 4-4-3, with Deco very withdrawn and Kalou quite central. What did anyone else think? Although we were playing some reasonable football, I was concerned that the Chelsea players weren’t getting very close to the Arsenal midfielders. Thought Fabregas was being given too much respect. Why not man mark him? He was always going to be their main threat.

At half-time, I noted in the programme that Chelsea have recently tied up a deal with Los Angeles Futbol Club in which training programmes will be set up with Chelsea, plus coach-exchanges. They will be known as LAFC Chelsea. They play in Simi Valley. Anybody heard of this club before?

Of course, we all know what happened after the break. We did let Arsenal have a bit more of the ball, but at 1-0 I still didn’t see a real threat from them. The first goal did look a bit close to being offside from my position – admittedly many yards away – and this was borne out on TV. The calls went against us, no doubt. But we threw the game away in three crazy minutes. I was standing the entire time – evidence I wasn’t happy.

Too many players had poor games – Deco especially, but nobody came out with too much credit. However, fair’s fair – again thought Ivanovic played well. A solid performance from the man with the 1980 haircut. We had a good viewpoint of Terry’s awful two-footed challenge which should have resulted in a red. He’s having a patchy spell right now, no doubts.

At this point, I go back to Friday night – and also 1983-84 again. I had a lovely few words with Colin Pates, the captain of that fabled team and I made the point to him that in those days the fans weren’t experts on formations or playing systems – we just had ten pints in the pub beforehand and sung our hearts out. Colin laughed and agreed that there really wasn’t too many tactics in those days. A far more simple era really, though we didn’t realise it at the time. Players played – supporters supported. Easy.

Now then – excuse me while I get on my soap-box here. I have often lamented – at length – the decreasing levels of our home support of late. At times, I get so frustrated with the lack of effort, I honestly feel like only going to away games. With Chelsea 2-1 down to Arsenal ( Arsenal FFS! ), not only did our team not react in the right way, the home support simply did nothing. It’s like my car at the moment – the turbo is broken – and we just couldn’t get that extra boost…I was putting my foot to the floor, but not getting a response. My mate Daryl has commented to me today that we all thought that the Carling Cup Final in February was a low point, but yesterday was just as bad.

It grieves me like you can not imagine.

I noted the three lads – in their forties, been going for years, been sat behind them since 1997, but they rarely sing – just sat, arms crossed, not even talking, let alone singing and clapping. I leaned forward and said –

“Is there any chance you lads can start putting your hands together and supporting this team of ours?”

Albert turned around, annoyed with me, claiming he does support the club.

“Yeah, whatever mate, whatever.”

Of course, I felt bad about it on the drive home, but please tell me – who is right?

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

We support – we don’t spectate.

Of course, things got very frustrating and Deco became the poster boy for the hate and derision raining down from the stands around me. I have a rule here – and I try my hardest to keep to it. When a player miss-hits a pass, or skies a shot, I try my damned hardest to say nothing, to stay silent. Not the fans around me – in the last horrible twenty minutes, with the noise getting louder and louder with every poor pass, I had to wonder what was going through the collective minds of those around me. If they truly love the club, why the hate towards certain players. One guy behind me was truly venomous. It made me feel sick.

On one occasion, JT lofted a lovely pass into the pass of Ash down below me and not one clap…not one. These people make more noise when players play badly than when we play well.

Can someone please explain that to me? I just think us Chelsea fans have been spoilt rotten and as soon as a defeat is on the cards, suddenly implode. We can’t cope. We blame referees. We blame the coach. We pick on players. We behave like petulant kids.

Not my Chelsea.

Back in 1983-84, my fourth game of the season was a horrible 1-0 defeat a home to Manchester City…twenty five years ago on Wednesday.

In 1983-84, I was gutted we lost. In 2008-2009 I am gutted we have lost our support.

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