Tales From The Storm Chasers

Liverpool vs. Chelsea : 27 April 2014.

Here was a match that I had been dreading for some time. As our league campaign has spluttered and faltered over recent weeks – defeats against the combined talents of Aston Villa, Crystal Palace and Sunderland perhaps convincing all of us to believe the manager’s comments of us being likely championship bystanders – the Liverpool juggernaut continued at a heady pace. How grateful I was that a Manchester City win last week meant that a defeat for us at Anfield would not hand the title to them.

We are not friends.

The mild dislike of ten years ago seems like a distant era; another time and two different clubs. Since then, the increasing animosity between Liverpool and Chelsea has grown. I was once ambivalent to Liverpool to be honest. Their glory years were in the past. As our stock gradually rose, theirs appeared to stagnate. Then came Mourinho, the ghost goal in 2005, a chant about “history” and one of modern football’s newest and most bitter rivalries.

Liverpool, confidence high after a stretch of winning games, were now championship favourites. To some in the media, the title was already won. As I prepared for the trip to Merseyside – sandwiched between the high drama of Champions League dates with Atletico Madrid – my whole body was filled with dread. Our team would be weakened. Liverpool were on fire. The momentum was with them. In addition to concerns about the football side of things, there was also the worry of going into the cauldron of red noise of Anfield and the jibes between both sets of fans. I wondered if the atmosphere would be blighted by the “H” words of Hillsborough, History, Hooligans, Heysel and Hate. I missed the game at Anfield last season; I wasn’t sorry.

On this occasion, though, I was drawn in like a moth to a flame. This was a game I had to attend; despite my concerns about a possible mauling and the horrendous mocking that would accompany it, there was an unquenchable desire to attend. Regardless of the outcome, I had to be there. I wanted to be part of it. I wanted the buzz, the thrill, the risk of danger, the chance of sweet success. I likened my desire to attend the game at Anfield to mirror that of storm chasers in the United States; lured by the awesome strength and power of a tornado, regardless of the threat to human life, like sailors swept up against rocks answering the song of a siren.

We were the storm chasers.

The Scousers sing about walking through a storm.

On the morning of Sunday 27 April 2014, as I left my sleeping Somerset village at 7.45am, I wondered if it was our turn to walk through a storm.

I collected Oscar Parksorius just after 8am, then diverted back to Bristol to collect Dennis from his hotel in Clifton. Dennis is one of the many fine American Chelsea fans who I have made friends with over the past ten years. He was in Bristol with work for a week but, what luck, was able to attend three Chelsea games during his spell in the south-west. As I drove north, we chatted about all sorts. I was, however, keen to give him a couple of facts about Liverpool Football Club which, I am sure, he was not familiar.

“Dennis…let me tell you this. Liverpool fans, along with many others, always harp on about us having no history, no past…that we are a small club with money. Well, let’s talk about attendances. If Liverpool’s highest ever gate at Anfield was ranked among Chelsea’s highest ever gates at Stamford Bridge, where would it come?”

Dennis : “I have no idea.”

Parky : “Eleventh?”

Chris : “At number sixty-seven.”

Dennis : “Wow.”

Yes, it’s true.

Stamford Bridge – 82,905.

Anfield – 61,905.

And sixty-six gates at The Bridge between the two figures.

“And here’s another one, Dennis. All-time averages. These figures are from 2004. Chelsea’s all-time average home gate in the league, dating back to 1905, was around 31,000. In that time…1905 to 2004…one league championship. Liverpool’s average all time…with a mighty eighteen championships, was around 34,000. That is just three thousand more. So tell me – doesn’t that suggest to you that it is our fans that are more loyal? In ninety-nine years, one title. Yet in in 2004, we were the club with the fifth-highest lifetime home attendance. I know we were blessed with a big ground, but we still had to fill it.”

We stopped at Strensham for a McBreakfast and then headed north through Birmingham. We dipped into Stafford to collect Dave The Hat, newly arrived on a train from The Smoke.

“The train was full of Scousers. Ugh.”

We drove on, the weather brightening with each mile. The laughs were roaring. The others supped on lagers, ales and ciders while I concentrated on the road.

“Dennis – this will be my nineteenth trip to Anfield with Chelsea. In all that time, just three wins. The 2-1 in 1992, the 3-1 in 2009 and the 2-0 in 2010. Hardly rich pickings.”

This would be both Dennis’ and Dave’s first visit.

Lacoste Watch –

Dennis – Brown.

We spoke briefly about the game. Dave and I both foresaw an early goal and a potential gubbing. We were, of course, going to be without key personnel. I inwardly groaned. In the back of mind was another piece of trivia. Our last really heavy league defeat against any team was the 5-1 loss at Anfield in 1996. By itself, that is a rather astounding statistic; in almost eighteen years, we haven’t conceded a heavier loss. In that period we have beaten other teams by mightier scores; Tottenham (6-1), Arsenal (6-0) and Manchester United (5-0) to name just three.

As we drove over the Manchester Ship canal, we were diverted by a barrage of Madonna / food puns and it took our mind off the game.

“Hollandaise.”

“Poppadom Preach.”

“Like A Pear.”

“La Isla Fajita.”

“Like A Gherkin.”

As I slowed at traffic lights before sweeping north on Queens Drive, Dennis exclaimed –

“Oh look at that.”

Over on the side of the road, just by the pavement, was a hubcap, welcoming us into the city.

Too funny.

On previous visits to Merseyside – and certainly in the hooligan era of the mid-‘eighties – trips to either Goodison or Anfield could be tense affairs. On one occasion I was chased by a few Liverpool scallies around Lime Street. On other occasions, the threat of physical harm was never too far away. Although I didn’t expect the same level of danger in 2014, I did warn the others that a visit to a pub would be silly in light of the animosity twixt Liverpool and Chelsea. There is no love lost. The idea, once I had parked up a mile to the south of Anfield, was for us to keep our heads down, avoid the locals and then let our hair down in the bar in the away end.

Imagine my surprise, then, when Dave – who is a man of Kent – bounced towards two locals, leaning back, arms all over the show, doing his best Micky Flanagan impersonation, and enquired –

“Owright mate – gotta liiiiiight?”

Dave couldn’t have given the game away more easily if he was wearing hob-nail boots, a Pearly-King suit, eating jellied eels, singing a Tommy Steele number and doing a Cockney knees-up.

Good grief.

We walked up Utting Avenue towards the grey steel of Anfield at the top of the hill. The streets were full of red favours. A gaggle of local women in onesies walked past; surely the perfect item of clothing for the city of Liverpool. There were three police vans outside “The Arkles.” Once inside the away end on Anfield Road, we could relax.

A pint of lager for the driver.

My mood was still sombre, though. I still had visions of a defeat. And possibly a heavy one.

5-1, 1996.

We chatted to four lads from Trowbridge who had been involved in a head-on collision at some lights at 8am. Thankfully, despite the car being written-off, they were OK.

The storm chasers were in town.

I pulled a face as Big John walked past.

“It’s all about Lisbon, mate.”

And I guess it was.

The general mood among my friends in the crowded bar was that we would be very grateful for a 0-0 draw. The team flashed up on the TV screen.

Schwarzer, Dave, Brana, Kalas, Cole, Mikel, Matic, Lamps, Schurrle, Ba, Salah.

I didn’t flinch. It was as I thought it might be. It was hardly a team of youth players.

For a change, I was watching the game alongside Lord Parky. Our seats were in row two. As I edged in to seat 80, I looked down at a carrier bag in front of a middle-aged chap; in it was a Manchester United logo’d match ball.

…mmm.

I didn’t recognise the people immediately around me, except Cathy who was sitting five seats along to my right. Like me, her camera was at the ready. I was hoping for some nice photographs in this game. Thankfully, my large lens was not garnering too much attention from the match day stewards. Behind me – five rows back – was Dennis. Dave was sitting – OK standing – with Alan and Gal, further towards the rear. Our end was packed. There wasn’t a spare seat in the house. There was an over-riding feeling of nervous tension.

The flags and banners were being waved with gusto in The Kop. Ah, The Kop. On one memorable occasion, I watched Chelsea from the old, vast, unruly and unregulated old Kop; the 1992 game, the 2-1 win. I have in fact, watched Chelsea from all four sides at Anfield. I’d guess not many Chelsea fans can claim that.

The stadium then sang “You’ll Never Walk Alone” and I took it all in. The benchmark for me was the infamous Champions League Semi-Final in 2005. Anfield was electric that night. In 2014, it was loud, but not as loud as in 2005. I remember the European-style whistling in 2005, too. It was one of the noisiest atmospheres I have ever experienced. By contrast, when we went to Anfield four years ago and virtually set up the championship with a 2-0 victory, I have never known Liverpool’s stadium to be so subdued.

The game began and after one minute, I was already watching the clock high up between the Centenary stand and The Kop. It always gets my attention. I have become obsessed by the clock at Anfield.

Let’s keep them out. One minute, five minutes, ten.

The stadium was rocking during the first twenty minutes as Liverpool dominated possession. An early shot from Ashley Cole was not followed up with any other real Chelsea chances and we dug in. Coutinho blasted over right in front of me. This was torrid stuff. Cole cleared off the line and Sakho shot over. I watched him as he shouted in despair. Being so close to the pitch was wonderful, though. I was able to marvel at the speed and skill of both sets of players. Liverpool kept finding players out wide, but cross after cross was either blocked or headed away. I was unhappy with our time-wasting and was worried that it would end up with bookings or worse.

As the minutes edged past – twenty, twenty-five – the noise quietened and I was more hopeful. Chelsea began to cause the home team problems, especially from set pieces. On more than one occasion, corners were whipped in. Our presence was increasing. The Chelsea choir responded. In the home areas, a new song –

“We Are Liverpool – Tra La La la La.”

We responded –

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

Thirty minutes.

A third of the way there.

“Come on Chels.”

Ba was toiling well, and we began to enjoy periods of possession, moving the ball around, making Liverpool chase. The noise was definitely lessening. I don’t often sit/stand with Parky and his fervour was astounding. It seemed that every time a Liverpool player had possession for more than two touches, Parky would bark out :

“Hit him, stab him, hit him with a brick.”

My eyes picked out Luis Suarez – I’ll admit it, my eyes hurt each time I saw him, such was his prowling presence and threat of danger. His one real chance was spurned though; his shot flashed over.

In front of The Kop, another corner flashed in and the leaping Tomas Kalas – the debutant – headed wide when he really should have tested Mignolet.

Thirty five minutes, forty minutes.

Then, a miracle. A slip from a Liverpool player and Ba pounced. He ran untroubled from just inside the Liverpool half. What a daunting sight if he dared look; twelve thousand steely eyes on The Kop praying for him to fail. Ba kept his composure and shot. The ball was struck low. I kept my composure and snapped just as the ball crossed the line. Twelve thousand Liverpudlians in The Kop looked on aghast. Three thousand Chelsea fans in the away corner erupted.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

I turned to my left in order to hug someone, anyone, but was met by four stony faces. There had been warnings of Scousers somehow – how??? – getting tickets in our area, and here was proof. I smiled at one chap, and pointed  –

“Sussed.”

He looked worried, but I was in no mood to grass anyone up. The mother and daughter next to me…mmm, half-and-half scarves, surely a telling sign…were quiet too. I just smiled at them.

“Get in Chelsea!”

A song swept our end –

“Steven Gerrard – You’ve Done It Again.”

Oh boy…so it was his slip. I simply hadn’t noticed who was involved, being so low. After his back-pass to Didier Drogba in 2010 on the same ground – and the same end, too – he had done it again. I may be hung, drawn and quartered for saying it, but Gerrard is a great player; I love the way he pings long passes around, knee over the ball, textbook. On this occasion, though – with thoughts of the premature celebrations and his protestations in the Liverpool huddle a few games back – I could only laugh.

There was a sense of huge bewilderment in our end at the break; we had weathered the storm. We had defended heroically. We just might do this.

We just might do this!

The second-half followed along similar lines. There was much possession from Liverpool, but simply magnificent and resolute defending from the entire Chelsea team. The second-half of Chelsea at Anfield in 2014 will be remembered by these few motifs…

The sight of Steven Gerrard, alone, in acres of space at the centre of every Liverpool move. I was surprised how much room we gave him, but I think it was decided that we would simply defend deep and repel all of his prods into the runners ahead. He resembled an NFL quarterback, but whose wide receivers kept running into blocks.

The Liverpool finishing; so poor. On not one occasion did I feel that our goal was under threat. There was not one single expectant hush from The Kop, as so often happens before a goal is scored. Even the “oohs” and “aahs” after each wayward shot were quiet.

The performance from Mark Schwarzer was magnificent. He kept on coming and claiming cross after cross, then scrambled down on a few occasions to foil Allen and others. Seeking extra confidence ahead of the return leg with Atletico, this game was a Godsend.

Willian replaced Salah. As the sun beat down on us in the away end, it was our turn to play. Runs from Willian and Schurrle caused panic in the home support and Mignolet reacted well to deny Schurrle. A Matic shot skidded wide. Ba held the ball up so well and proved to be quite a handful for the Liverpool defence. Behind him, everyone had run their proverbial socks off.

Gary Cahill replaced Schurrle, and Jose went with three – no, five – at the back. I am not a fan of changes to shape late on, but – there again – I know fcuk all about football. The Chelsea fans seemed too nervous to sing. It was excruciating. The minutes ticked by.

That bloody clock.

More wayward shots from Liverpool.

With the end in sight, Mourinho acted as chief cheerleader, beating his chest, pointing at the watch, scowling at us, demanding more support. It was an incredible sight.

To be honest, I felt myself bracing for an equaliser in the last fifteen minutes. This was my game plan. I remembered my pre-game thoughts; an equaliser, though tough, would be “OK.”

Into four or five minutes of added time, we were tested at a corner but Schwarzer saved from Suarez. Thankfully, space had been at a premium all day long in our box and those intricate through balls from Gerrard into Suarez had been noticeably missing.

Space, however, took on an extra dimension in the last minute. Chelsea won the ball just inside our own half and the ball was played to Fernando Torres.

“Oh my God, son – go on…do it.”

I had time to raise my camera and photograph his run at Mignolet, his pass to Willian and the walking in of the ball into the empty net.

Game. Set. Match.

The Chelsea end exploded once more.

It was time for a few crazy, magical photographs of the players celebrating just yards from me. I probably heard their voices, but it is a beautiful royal blue blur. I scrambled up on to the seat in front. Arms outstretched. I yelled until I could yell no more.

At the final whistle, complete bliss.

From behind, came a raucous chant –

“We’re Gonna Win The League…”

I joined in, but I was far from convinced, despite our magnificent performance at the home of the champions-elect. Another song brought me greater cheer :

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.”

I shook hands with Cathy, our smiles wide. Parky was going mad, as per normal. Dennis, the Anfield virgin, was beaming. I could only begin to imagine his emotions. Then, Dave, arms wide, lapping it up.

I was now 4 wins in 19, but Dennis and Dave were 1/1.

There had been a storm and the storm was caused by us.

Walk on now, Liverpool.

As we sidled out into the evening sun, we roared once more. I looked at the reactions of a couple of grizzled Liverpool stewards, maybe veterans of Rome 1977, Wembley 1978, Paris 1981, Rome 1984 and Istanbul 2005. I think I caught one of them smiling as we sung once more. England’s new European specialists were taking centre stage now –

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal – I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

We kept quiet on the steady walk back to the car, save for a few knowing winks with some Chelsea faces. Once inside the sanctity of my car, we roared. We were soon met with a dilemma of the game taking place at Selhurst Park, though. Really, we should have wanted City to drop points, but we just wanted the whole day to be remembered as the day that Liverpool were knocked out of the title-race.

“They won’t come back from this. I think its City’s now.”

“Unless Everton can beat them…”

“Nah. We’ll probably finish third.”

“Just like Jose says.”

“And who can argue with him?”

It was a gorgeous drive south. Dennis, especially, was just so happy. We smiled as we heard Brendan Rodgers and then a few Liverpool fans on “606” blaming Mourinho and Chelsea for their defeat. It was just like old times…Liverpool blaming Chelsea…

Jog on.

I had whispered to Dennis, walking back to the car in Liverpool –

“This could be the best week of your life.”

On Wednesday, let’s make sure it is.

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Tales From Swansea / Hanesion O Abertawe

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 13 April 2014.

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Parky, Glenn, Bob, Chris.

So there we were; the four of us, basking in the early-afternoon sun at Bracelet Bay, just south of The Mumbles on the Gower Peninsular. We had just enjoyed a fine lunch at the Castellamare restaurant – where Parky and I enjoyed a similar pre-game meal before the January 2012 game – and were just about to head back into town to join the rest of the supporters for the Swansea City vs. Chelsea game. It had been a fine trip thus far. Due to the – relative – close proximity of the Liberty Stadium to my home (110 miles in case anyone is wondering) and the relatively “newness” of this venue, this always was going to be one of the most anticipated away days of 2013-2014. The four of us were having a blast, in fact. The story of how the trip came about is an interesting one.

Parky.

Until about a week before the game, Parky wasn’t going to be attending this game. Although he is a Chelsea season ticket holder, he had missed out in the application process. This was a real shame. We had enjoyed our first league game in Wales for 28 years on that trip in 2012 and were keen to repeat it. I was hopeful that a ticket might somehow become available from a Chelsea mate, but I also had a back-up plan. I work in logistics and one of our suppliers is based in Swansea. About a month ago, after we learned of Parky’s cruel twist of fate, I enquired if they could possibly muster up one ticket from somewhere. After a couple of subtle hints, the dialogue dwindled. I wasn’t too hopeful. Then, out of the blue, I received the great news that not one but two tickets had been acquired. Not only that, they were gratis…free…complimentaries. This was a result of the highest order. I quickly ‘phoned His Parkyness to tell him; he was, as the old cliché goes, “over the moon Brian.” I quickly decided that Parky would have my ticket, alongside Alan and Gary in the away section, while I would make use of one of the complimentaries. Who would get the other one? It was an easy decision.

Glenn.

My good friend – in fact, my oldest Chelsea friend by a good few years – Glenn was free on Sunday 13 April and so he unsurprisingly jumped at the chance to travel with me to Swansea for the game. Glenn has been keeping an extra special eye on my ailing mother of late and so here was a lovely way to reward him for his time, not that a reward was being sought of course. It was just nice that he was free, that we could watch the game together. Originally, I had visions of us schmoozing in a corporate area, but I found out on the Wednesday that the two tickets were located within the home end. This wasn’t a problem. The tickets – two season tickets – were posted to me and arrived on the Friday. This was coming together rather well. I longed for the weekend. It was, quite possibly, going to be the best weekend of the year so far. On the Friday, I saw iconic punk poet John Cooper Clarke in my home town with a few old (non-Chelsea, gasp) friends and on Saturday I awaited the arrival in town of a Chelsea friend from afar.

Bob.

I first met The Bobster in Palo Alto in 2007, ahead of our game against Club America on a perfect Californian summer day, and we have become very good mates during the intervening period. Bob has travelled over to England on around six or seven occasions since then – plus away games in Rome and Paris – and has even travelled down to my home town in Somerset to see my local team play. Bob had this trip booked, in that meticulous way of his, some months ago. There was always going to be a trip to Frome on the day before the jaunt to Swansea, and Parky was always going to be accompanying us, regardless of match ticket. Additionally, there was always going to be a boozy rendezvous around the pubs of Frome (aka “Dodge City”) too. What made it all the more enjoyable was the sudden news about the extra two tickets. Four of us were going to South Wales and it was going to be a cracker.

Chris.

I followed up the night out on the Friday with a well-planned pub crawl around Dodge on the Saturday. I invited two local Chelsea stalwarts – PD and Brian – to join Glenn, Bob and I and the evening’s entertainment began at PD’s local “The Crown.” I had warned Bob that this pub would be as “old school” as they came. The linoleum on the floor and the – ahem – minimalistic décor proved my point. Bob’s enquiry if the pub served food was met by a quick rebuttal from me. We assembled just after 7pm, but were saddened to see Wigan squander a 1-0 lead and to end up losing their F.A. Cup semi-final against Arsenal. The drinks went down well. It was lovely to be out in my local town with four other Chelsea supporters. We felt untouchable. Glenn and I ended up at an “80’s Night”, where the drinking continued, and where – in one surreal moment – we found ourselves up on stage dancing to Tiffany’s “I Think We’re Alone Now.” It was a good night. Thankfully, I awoke the next day hangover-free. Glenn didn’t fare quite so well.

I had collected The Bobster outside his hotel in Frome’s Market Place at 9.15am and I called for Glenn soon after. To be honest, I was just thankful that he was in the land of the living. However, on a day when our behaviour in among the home fans would probably be under intense scrutiny (“who are those two, by there?) – and heaven knows we had joked about us putting on Welsh accents, and growing moustaches, to blend in – I was taken aback by Glenn’s choice of puffa jacket.

It was royal blue.

“Nice neutral colours, Glenn.”

“Oh shit. I got dressed in a hurry. Look!”

He had a royal blue Quiksilver polo, too.

“Oh boy.”

We swung over to collect His Lordship. A quick breakfast at McMelksham (“look at those two twats with their Arsenal shirts on”) and then up onto the M4. It was a splendid day. The weather was superb. As we rose on a hill to the north of Bristol, we could easily see the hills of Wales on the horizon. The view was exceptional.

I drove over the new (well, circa 1997) Severn Bridge and we were soon in Wales.

“You been to Wales before, Bob?”

“Nope. First time.”

Bob was soon chuckling at the dual road signs on show as I thundered past Newport, then Cardiff, then Bridgend, then Port Talbot. In a little more than two hours after leaving Parky’s Wiltshire village, I had parked-up outside the Swansea train station to allow Bob to deposit his overnight bag in the Grand Hotel opposite. A few Chelsea faces were already drinking in the hotel bar – I paid it a visit last season in fact, during the dying embers of Roberto di Matteo’s tumultuous reign. Parky didn’t accompany me on that trip. Both of the league games at the Liberty Stadium ended as 1-1 draws. As for the League Cup semi-final (which none of us attended), the less said the better. So, three visits to Swansea and three draws. On the trip, little was said about the up-coming match. I have sensed that there is a shifting of focus by Chelsea supporters from the domestic league towards European glory. Although I was hopeful of a Chelsea win later that evening, and with it a continued presence in the crazy and unpredictable title race, I was surely not alone in thinking that our league campaign might end with most Chelsea fans focussing on Madrid and Lisbon. This, to be honest, was unlike me. I have always counted league glory over European glory. And yet…and yet…Munich gave me the best night of my life and the best weekend of my life. How could I not want a second European Cup? These are heady days.

For an hour or so, the four of us chatted over lunch. Glenn’s hangover had subsided, but Bob gave us all headaches when he informed us that Manchester City had let in two early goals at Anfield.  In that moment, had the power shifted towards the city of Liverpool?

As I drove slowly back into the city, we were given a sightseeing tour by Parky. He had been so smitten by The Mumbles on our visit in 2012 that he had soon returned back with his far-better half Jill for a few days. As I passed through The Mumbles, Parky spoke of that visit. It seemed that there were few pubs that Jill and Parky hadn’t frequented.

Then, mayhem. The news came through that David Silva had not only scored once but twice at Anfield. When the second one was announced on Five Live, we roared. My car may have shifted a few lanes. Suddenly, in Swansea, with the terraced houses clinging to the surrounding hillsides, and the sky so blue, we were back in it.

Then, just after the stadium came into view…utter dismay.

Liverpool 3 Manchester City 2.

I parked up and we sauntered down to the neat stadium, the sun warming the Welsh air. Outside, I said my goodbyes to The Bobster. He walked with Parky up to the northern end of the stadium, while Glenn and I headed to the other end. After a few paces, I spotted a Swansea face; one of the wannabee hooligans featured in that laughable documentary about an ill-fated trip to Notts County game a few years ago.

Johnny The Brains.

Oh boy.

We had no problems entering the stand. In a quiet moment, I whispered to Glenn –

“The last time we were sat in the home end together was in Barcelona in 2005. Wonder if a bloke will prod you with his walking stick like at Camp Nou.”

Glenn laughed.

“I don’t think he was too impressed when I said ‘VIVA MADRID’ was he?”

Inside, we had great seats. We were in only the fifth row in the lower tier, just yards from the goal. Around us, of course, were natives. We spoke in hushed tones. I have watched games in home areas before of course; Liverpool, Arsenal, Everton, Blackburn Rovers, Bristol Rovers, Bournemouth, Bristol City to name a few. I have never encountered any trouble. However, this game was a little different. I was using someone else’s season ticket; it was likely that we would soon be sussed. We vowed, therefore, to randomly cheer the odd Swansea move, but – obviously – stay silent should Chelsea score. I also didn’t want the kind benefactor to be reprimanded by the club for letting in away fans.

I already had a story : “We’re visiting our sons at Swansea University and had the chance of tickets.”

Glenn : “What subjects?”

Chris : “I don’t bloody know. Football?”

The Chelsea end slowly filled-up. I spotted Bob, Alan and Gary. This was going to be a weird sensation for me. For once, I would be the outsider looking in. There were a few flags. But quite a few empty seats.

The teams entered the pitch and the hitherto quiet home sections were roused.

Then, a whistle.

We remembered the ninety-six Liverpool fans, including one lad from Swansea, who tragically perished twenty-five years ago.

R.I.P.

At 4.07pm, the game began and it was pretty surreal to be among strangers. We had made a point of clapping some of the Swansea players as their names were announced, but one lad behind us kept giving us some very old-fashioned looks. It was great to be so close to the action. Swansea began well. A lot of our early play came down our right, just where we sat, and I so wanted to give support to Mohamed Salah, Branislav Ivanovic or Demba Ba, so found it hard to sit motionless. A fine move found Brana but his excellent cut-back was tucked wide by Salah. Willian buzzed around and Matic looked in control. Another Salah effort, then a header from Bony. The home support was predictably loud –

“Gary Monk’s Barmy Army”

CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP.

But the Chelsea fans matched it well –

“He Hates Tot’num, He Hates Tot’num.”

The game, however, changed when Chico Flores was booked twice within a few minutes. Swansea were down to ten men. The home fans were incandescent with rage.

One chap behind said –

“I fcuking hate Chelsea.”

We seemed to have all of the possession then, but never looked like getting behind their back-line.

“If we can’t beat ten men…”

A few chances were exchanged, with Salah and Willian heavily involved. When Andre Schurrle was booked, the Swansea fans cheered and clapped. I joined in.

“Bloody hell Glenn, I’m confused.”

It had been a strange game. Our play was slow and I wondered what magic might issue forth from Jose Mourinho’s mouth at the interval. At the break, two changes – Oscar for Ramires and Eto’o for Schurrle. We were now on the offensive and Oscar was very involved. We stepped up the pressure, moving things nicely in the Swansea half. A Ba header was flicked wide. Then, with Eto’o just yards from goal and centrally placed, he shanked it wide. I silently sighed. Then, a shot from Ba. The chances were mounting up.

The home fans responded –

“And We Were Singing, Hymns And Arias, Land Of My Fathers, Ar Hyd Y Nos.”

And so did the team. Only a timely block from John Terry denied Routledge. The clock was ticking and I again wondered if we would ever score. Would our league title challenge end with a whimper in Wales?

A quick throw in by Dave found an unmarked Matic. This was poor defending by Swansea, but their ten men had chased us down for an hour. They were starting to tire. Matic wasted no time in toe-poking the ball up-field to Demba Ba. Our number 19 adeptly brought  the ball down. He edged left and shot early. Vorm could only deflect the ball in. I remained silent and still. Two thousand Chelsea fans were doing the celebrating for me. It was a great, immediate, bellow of noise.

A few more Chelsea chances. Mourinho then put the bolt across our defence and brought on Mikel for Ba. A great reflex save by Petr Cech from Shelvey, just ten yards away from Glenn and I, kept us ahead. I wanted to yell out my support. Instead, I whispered to Glenn –

“That’s why he’s still our ‘keeper.”

By then, many of the home fans around us had already left.

The final whistle blew. Our foray behind enemy lines had been a huge success. However, it had been an odd game. We had enjoyed tons of possession, and had peppered the home goal with a multitude of shots, but it was all much laboured. But let’s be honest, at this stage of this very strange season, all we can attempt to do is win.

Job – most definitely – done.

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Tales From A Night Of Nerves And Noise

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 8 April 2014.

Despite our vivid memories of our “come from behind” triumph against Napoli in the round of sixteen in 2012 – and it was referenced thousands of times around the Chelsea world since the first leg in Paris – I was far from convinced that we would prevail. Throughout the day at work, I was asked if I thought Chelsea would “do it” against Paris St. Germain.

On each occasion, there was the vague “I’m not sure” or the negative “no, I don’t think we will.”

Of course, I lived in hope. We all live in hope. There was just something down, way down, in my being that taught me to do me wary. My view was that I could see us scoring (how? We have no goalscorers?) However, I could also see us conceding (how? We have the best defensive record in the Premier League.) Sometimes, in Planet Football, there is no logic.

Maybe it was the realist in me. Or the pragmatist. Maybe the Chelsea pessimist. I was just wary of too many Chelsea fans getting carried away with our hopes of advancing. I just aimed for a sense of balance. In an attempt to try to put some empirical value on my thoughts, I gave us a 40% chance of getting into the semis. I knew one thing; should my pre-game predictions be way out, I would be in for one of the greatest ninety minutes of football at Stamford Bridge in over forty years.

I collected Lord Parky at 3.30pm and I was able to inform him how I had managed to get him a ticket for the upcoming game in Swansea at the weekend. Parky, unlike me, was more upbeat about our chances against PSG and he took the good news about Swansea to be a fantastic omen for the evening’s game. As I have mentioned before, there is nothing quite like the buzz for a springtime trip to Stamford Bridge for a midweek Champions League knock-out game. With the evenings now lighter, there is a magical feel to the whole proceedings. As I drove east, I revaluated my predictions.

Maybe 42%.

We were delayed by a nasty crash ahead of us around Reading, so our pilgrimage took us a lengthy three hours.

At 6.30pm, we were in The Goose. I spent some time with some of the New York supporters’ group; the lucky five or six who had stayed on from the Stoke City game at the weekend.  After the damp squib atmosphere on Saturday, at least the noise would be a hundred times better against PSG. I was itching to head down to The Bridge and so rounded up the troops and headed south and then east.

The fifteen minute walk was soon over. Frank disappeared to buy half of the contents of all of the stalls on the Fulham Road, while Taryn joined the line for the Upper Tier of the West Upper. This would only be her second game at Stamford Bridge; the Stoke game, on her birthday, was her first. I hoped for great things.

Inside, that “Chelsea Champions League Feeling.”

Just a magical buzz…I could sense the atmosphere building with each minute. Over in the far corner, the three thousand Parisians were adorned with brightly coloured red, white and blue. Noticeably, one section, just above the corner flag, was devoid of scarves, flags and shirts. I presumed this was the PSG version of our executive club.  I wondered if Nicolas Sarkozy and Gerard Depardieu were present – maybe in the West Stand directors’ box – just like in Paris last Wednesday.

The team had been announced while we were in the pub; I guess that it picked itself. The only slight surprise was seeing Frank Lampard. Then, with not long to go, there was the typical pre-game Champions League routine. We had each been given a nylon flag, and some of these were waved as the rather embarrassing opera singer belted out “Blue Is The Colour.” I looked over to the East Middle and noted that the spectators had each been given blue and white bar scarves; the sight, rather than stirring me, made me shudder. I remembered that scarves were similarly given out to spectators in the East Stand for the Internazionale game in 2010. I hoped there would not be a similar result; on that occasion Jose Mourinho was the foe.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, eyes turned towards the balcony of the Matthew Harding Upper. We had already seen the Champions League flag for the first time at the Tottenham game, and it was joined by the Europa League flag against Galatasaray. Now, a third flag – that of the European Cup Winners’ Cup – was unveiled alongside.

Three flags representing four triumphs.

1971 and 1998.

2012

2013

Our European pedigree.

As the game began, I was so heartened to hear loud and passionate support booming around the stadium. Talk before the game was of us getting an early goal. It didn’t happen. With each passing glance at the stadium clock…5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15 minutes…we sensed that our golden moment had passed us by. Throughout the first period, the away fans provided constant noise, but without many familiar tunes. A defiant tricolour was constantly held aloft in the Shed Lower. PSG possibly began stronger with Lavezzi showing good involvement, but then Chelsea began to bite back. A few Frank Lampard corners and free-kicks from wide areas were fizzed in, but we were unable to hit targets. Samuel Eto’o was neat in possession, but was often out wide rather than being in the midst of the penalty area. Hazard had shown a few neat touches out on the left, but we were shocked to see him substituted after only around twenty minutes. Without Hazard, our creativity would surely suffer. On came Andre Schurrle. The noise quietened slightly. The nerves began to jangle.

It seemed that the referee, Pedro Proenca, he of the 2012 Final, seemed to book anyone who moved. The frustrations began to increase. Midway through the first-half, maybe caused by a poor refereeing decision, a new chant was born. Maybe someone deep down in the MHL began singing “Fcuk UEFA – We’ve Seen It Before”, but a new chant soon boomed around Stamford Bridge.

“CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE – WE’VE DONE IT BEFORE.”

This was immediately the song de jour.

“WE’VE DONE IT BEFORE. WE’VE DONE IT BEFORE. CHAMPIONS OF EUROPE – WE’VE DONE IT BEFORE.”

The noise was fantastic. The whole crowd latched on to the song. Love it.

Our play was typical of this season. A fair bit of possession, but we hardly got behind them. The cutting edge, of course, was missing. A Lampard free-kick was whipped in and the ball took a deflection, but Sirigu pulled off a stunning save. Just after – on 32 minutes – a lofty throw-in from Ivanovic was flicked on by David Luiz. The substitute Schurrle was the first to react and he stroked the ball in.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

1-0 and the game came alive.

There was the usual interchange between Alan and myself.

“Zey will have to come at us now.”

A pause, a shrug, and a look of insouciance.

“Come on my little diamonds.”

It was far from an early goal, but – bollocks – it was a first-half goal.

Soon after, Schurrle was clearly energised by his goal and wriggled into the PSG box, but was met with the brick wall of a challenge by Verratti. A loud appeal was turned down. The game continued, with more yellow cards being brandished. At times, as PSG attacked us, I felt myself looking away from the pitch. I can never remember doing this with such a regular occurrence ever before.

After all these games, I was reassured that football – no, wait, Chelsea – still means so much.

Two songs at the break –

“Sweet Dreams.”

“Reasons To Be Cheerful – Part Three.”

Off the pitch, positive feelings. On the pitch, Peter Bonetti was given a tour of the Stamford Bridge turf.

Soon into the second-half, a beautiful strike by Andre Schurrle crashed against the bar. Only seconds later, an Oscar free-kick thudded against the exact same portion of woodwork. The groans were desperate. A Cech save from Lavezzi cheered us. In truth, Cech had not been called on too often. Blanc brought on the impressive Cabaye. Mourinho replaced Lampard with Ba, who was soon flicking on balls for others to run on to. It seemed that, at least for a few minutes, Ba played upfront with Eto’o.

The damned clock kept ticking away. I must’ve glanced at it every two minutes. Cavani blasted high. I noted the reoccurrence of a song that I had heard from the Boulogne Boys in Paris – a PSG version of “Flower Of Scotland.” Javier Pastore – yes him, the scorer of that bloody goal – came on for them. PSG peppered our goal with a few efforts.

The clock ticked.

As PSG broke, I looked away once more. Cavani wasted a golden opportunity, firing just high of Cech’s goal once more.

With ten minutes to go, Jose Mourinho played his final card, replacing Oscar with Fernando Torres. Three forwards were now on the pitch and the crowd, like the players supporting them, realised the rarity of this and upped the level of support.

“And It’s Super Chelsea – Super Chelsea Eff Cee.”

The clock ticked.

Alan and I didn’t know whether to stand or sit. We were up and down like West Bromwich Albion. I had decided not to take many photos. My focus was elsewhere. The team needed my support, so I did my best to roar the team on. Throughout the evening, however – despite the noise – at times the nervousness on the stands resulted in a few periods of quiet. Then, out of nowhere, the noise would begin again. Big John played a great role in galvanising our support; on three or four occasions, he thudded against the balcony wall.

Clap clap – clap clap clap – clap clap clap clap :

The Matthew Harding responded –

“CHELSEA!”

However, there was no denying it; this was tough. Alan rued –

“That third goal in Paris.”

Tick, tick, tick, tick, tick.

It looked like our European campaign was ending. I momentarily looked back on trips to Bucharest, Istanbul and Paris. It had been a good run. No complaints.

With three minutes remaining, the ball found itself being pin-balled around the PSG box. The ball eventually came out to Dave, who had been excellent all night, and our Spanish right-back come left-back fired the ball in to the box. Miraculously, Demba Ba pounced from close in and the net billowed.

Scream.

Shout.

Let It All Out.

We had done it.

I was triumphant, bellowing noise deep from inside my being.

Out of nowhere, Rob bounced down the steps and hugged me and we soon found ourselves bouncing up and down, acting like fools.

“Bonnet de douche you fcuker.”

I turned around and screamed at a few fans right behind me.

Bruges 1995, Vicenza 1998, Barcelona 2000, Barcelona 2005, Liverpool 2008, Liverpool 2009, Napoli 2012, Barcelona 2012 and now PSG 2014.

What a litany of magical nights in deepest gorgeous SW6.

The referee signalled four minutes of extra time and Alan began the countdown on his phone. Again, we didn’t know if we should sit or stand. PSG poured forward and – bless him – Petr Cech was able to repel everything. I am not sure if I was more nervous when we were chasing the second goal or after we had scored it.

Nerves?

My whole body was riddled with fear and worry. Why do we do this? Why does it mean so much? Will I ever know?

I was quiet. I looked at the referee.

He brought his whistle to his mouth.

We were through.

Rob, Gary and Alan bounced to “One Step Beyond” and everyone was exhausted. My smiles were wide, my throat was sore. Then, as the fans slowly left, another song…

“Cus Chelsea…Chelsea Is Our Name.”

We sang as we exited the stadium –

“Portugal, Portugal – We Are Coming.”

As I walked past the Peter Osgood statue, I touched his right boot. It is a little superstition that I have developed on big European nights. More songs walking along the Fulham Road, a few PSG fans sprinkled in among us, but no trouble. I met up with Parky and gloriously headed back to the pub. After a few minutes, Taryn joined us.

“Oh…My…God.”

I knew what she meant.

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Tales From Happy Monday

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 April 2013.

The Easter weekend of 2013 was turning out to be a bitterly cold one. After our meek capitulation at Southampton on the Saturday, Chelsea were not able to give us any added warmth on that particular afternoon. As Easter Sunday passed, thoughts turned to the Easter Monday F.A. Cup replay with Manchester United. In all honesty, I wasn’t too worried. After years of supporting the club through thick and thin, it would be “typical Chelsea” for us to follow up a poor performance against one of the division’s lesser teams with a sterling victory against one of the giants. And yet, it would also be “typical Chelsea” for our fine performance in the first game – which seemed like ages ago – to be unrewarded with a defeat in the replay.

Inevitably – everyone knows how my mind works by now – I thought back to previous games in the F.A. Cup with United. In recent memory, there have been two. And the vibes were not great. In 1998-1999, we did well to eke out a 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, despite getting Robbie di Matteo sent off, but then lost in the replay. I didn’t attend the second game; it was the days of doing shift-work and so I had to listen in on the radio at work. I wondered if a similar scenario might exist in 2013. I certainly didn’t fancy a repeat of the horrendous F.A. Cup game of 1998.

We, of course, were F.A. Cup holders; a phrase which we had been unable to utter for a full 27 years. Manchester United were the reigning League Champions. Ruud Gullit was our manager, Dennis Wise was our captain. Our team included some well-loved players; Dan Petrescu, Frank Leboeuf, Mark Hughes. We met United in the third round. It was our first game as defending F.A. Cup holders. What followed was probably one of the most humiliating trouncings that I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge.

At one stage, we were losing 0-5.

Yes, that’s correct.

0-5.

That we scored three very late goals to give the score line a vague hint of acceptability did not fool anyone.

We had been found out.

Not long after, we lost to United again in the League. We also lost to Arsenal in the League and League Cup in quick succession. Soon after, Ruud Gullit was given the sack, with rumours of contract negotiations causing problems in the relationship between the chairman Ken Bates and our dreadlocked manager. As a fan base, we were saddened and confused. That our first manager to bring us a major trophy in 26 years could be dismissed within nine months seemed crazy, cruel and heartless.

Does this ring any bells?

Thought so.

In truth, the team was brilliant one minute, awful the next. I’d say that the football that we played in the autumn of 1997 was the best ever. The midfield of Poyet, Di Matteo, Wise and Petrescu was magnificent. Upfront, we had Hughes and Zola. Great times. But how they can soon change.

Travelling up to Stamford Bridge on Easter Monday 2013, I was sure that there wouldn’t be a 0-5 score line confronting me at any stage of the upcoming game, regardless of Rafa Benitez’ inadequacies.

In the pub, there was a lovely little Tokyo reunion; Mike was over from Brooklyn, Foxy was over from a ship off the coast of New Zealand, via Nottingham. It was great to reminisce about that most magical of foreign trips, regardless of the end result.

Parky was with us too. He has had a rough week or so. His spirits are always up, though. I have to admire his resilience. He came out with a piece of “Classic Parky.”

“Yeah, they wanted to see me in the hospital. I stayed in there a few hours. They gave me a check up. They hooked me up to the scanner. Apparently I cost £2.20.”

On the walk down the North End Road – the cold wind added to the freezing temperatures – we spotted five or six Manchester United fans. To the uninitiated, there would be no clue; they were not wearing scarves, shirts, caps, or even small pin badges. But we knew. The way they were dressed, the fact that they were silent, the fact that they looked a little concerned.

They were United.

The days are gone, really, of having to run the gauntlet at away matches, but there is no point in advertising to the world of your allegiance at certain away games. Anyway, they made their way unhindered. The Shed would be full of 6,000 Mancs for this one; I feared that their noise would drown ours.

As I checked the starting line-ups, my spirits were raised. Juan Mata and Eden Hazard started for us. I checked out the opposition; Manchester United fielded a decidedly unglamorous team, and their personnel suggested a more prosaic form of football, far from their swashbuckling style much admired throughout the footballing world. Crucially, Wayne Rooney was injured and Robin Van Persie was on the bench. This confused me. United have virtually won the league and they are out of Europe; why would Alex Ferguson not start the most prolific striker in British football?

The Shed balcony was adorned with the red / white / black flags of United. There was one which mocked Steven Gerrard’s lack of league titles. He has, of course, twelve less than Ryan Giggs.

The first-half was a strange affair. It was a decidedly slow game; a game of cat and mouse. Chelsea enjoyed most of the possession, but on the first day of the baseball season, it appeared that both teams were attempting a no-hitter. Apart from a slow daisy-cutter from Mikel, the first real shot on target, which warranted a save, took place on 31 minutes; an effort from Demba Ba which De Gaea saved with an outstretched leg. Soon after, Ramires set up Ba again, but his shot was blocked. It took United 37 minutes for their first real effort on goal; an effort from Nani. A lovely dribble from Hazard, a lay-off from Oscar, but Hazard blazed over. Then, a wild, swerving shot from Chicarito was booted clear by Cech.

It had been a strange half. Ashley Cole had pulled up on twenty minutes, of course; we hoped that Ryan Bertrand would cope better than on Saturday.

At half-time, with no match action to distract me, I stood and froze.

The second-half began in a lively fashion. A cheeky back-heel from Ba provided the first attempt on goal. Soon after, the game changed. Mikel won the ball right on the left touchline in our half and the ball was eventually played through to Juan Mata – the king pin – who was in acres of space in the middle of United’s half. Oscar had continued to move up the left wing and I pleaded for Mata to push the ball through for him inside the full-back. Instead, Mata caught us all on the hop. He played a ball which nobody expected, chipping the ball up and into the penalty area. He had spotted the slightest hint of a move by Ba; great vision. With one amazing piece of dexterity, Ba let the ball fall over his shoulder and he cushioned the ball so it flew over De Gaea’s flailing – and failing – body.

The crowd exploded.

I screamed.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Over in the far corner, Demba fell to his knees in silent prayer and was then mobbed by his team mates.

Rio Ferdinand, who had been booed relentlessly, had been the victim of Ba’s magnificent finish. How we laughed.

Chelsea enjoyed a nice period of possession. The United fans – despite their numbers – were not so loud. We had a special message for our friend in the middle of United’s back-four :

“Rio Ferdinand – fcuk off to Qatar.”

On the hour, a most brilliant piece of football. A blistering cross from the right, a fine leap from Chicarito.

I cringed and grimaced.

It was the equaliser for sure. Damned United.

But, no. Petr Cech threw out an arm and the ball was deflected over the bar.

It was the save of the season, no doubt. The applause for our great goalkeeper was loud and heartfelt.

Free beers for him in the bar after.

The chances for Chelsea then came and went in quick succession.

Juan Mata forced a save which rippled the side-netting, but the linesman did not give a corner. Eden Hazard was clean through, but dragged his shot wide. Ramires belted one off target. At the other end, Valencia well wide. There was intriguing physical battle between Ba and Ferdinand. Our play was more direct than with Fernando Torres in the team.

More chances. Mata over, Mata wide.

No matter.

I was surprised – really surprised – that we had reached 80 minutes with no substitutes being made by Benitez. Ferguson had already brought on Van Persie and Giggs.

Oscar shot meekly wide; he is having a tough time of late.

I have to say that I thought that Ryan Bertrand performed admirably at left-back after replacing Ashley Cole. His positioning was much better, his marking tight. One of the other poorer players at Southampton, Branislav Ivanovic, was much better too. Maybe Southampton was just a bad day at the office. Two late chances for Van Persie were wasted and we held on.

As I made my way down the Fulham Road, my phone was going crazy with incoming texts. We were back at the new Wembley for the twelfth time in under six years.

It is our second home and, quite possibly, our third home too.

As I drove home on the westbound M3, I happened to glance over at the Thorpe Park roller coasters which are easily visible from the motorway.

I had a chuckle to myself.

“Don’t waste your money on that. Just get a Chelsea season ticket.”

At 4.40pm on Sunday 10th March, we were virtually out of the F.A. Cup.

At 2.30pm on Monday 1st April, we were back at Wembley.

No joke.

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Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

In light of our previous domestic midweek home games over the past two months – Fulham, QPR and Swansea – there was every reason for me to dread the game with newly-promoted Southampton. Not so much for the possible result; more so the cancerous atmosphere which was likely to envelope Stamford Bridge should a victory not be forthcoming.

Strong words? That’s what it has felt like to me.

My mate Paul collected me outside The Pheasant pub in Chippenham, just opposite my place of work for the past ten years. Both lie on the A4, the old Roman road which linked Aquae Sulis (Bath) with Londinium (London) all those centuries ago. Our route east on the M4 – the A4’s twentieth century equivalent – allowed us to chat about the current state of health of our team and club. The usual stuff; I won’t bore you with details. You can surely guess the majority of it.

Paul has just started a new business venture as a chauffeur. He is self-employed and therefore has a little more control on the amount of free-time he can enjoy. He already is going to the Swansea game in the Capital One Cup and has his sights on more away games during the rest of the season. He told me a beautiful story about his time in Cornwall when he again worked as a chauffeur. He was asked to meet the Gallagher brothers – Noel and Liam – at Par train station and take them to a hotel. The brothers famously dislike each other intensely – hate is such a horrible word – and Paul had to make two trips as neither brother wanted to share a cab with the other.

It was a welcome break for me not having to worry about the traffic on our approach into Londinium. He had already driven up to Heathrow earlier in the day – he was getting used to the M4, no doubt. I already knew that Paul was raised in the locale of Chelsea Football Club. As we turned off the A4 at Hammersmith, he was on auto pilot. Then, he regaled me with a few snippets of his early years in Fulham which fascinated me. We drove past the Pear Tree pub, where Parky, Russell and Jesus began our pub-crawl against Manchester United just under a year ago, and informed us that he had his first ever pint in that very same pub. There was more to come. His first school was just around the corner. His first few years were spent in a flat in one of the Clement Atlee Court buildings which tower over the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road. I’d imagine that a large proportion of The Goose’s clientele still resides in those hundreds of densely-packed flats. This housing estate – ground-zero, Fulham – houses over 800 flats and it’s fifteen or so buildings are named after former Labour politicians; Manny Shinwell, Hugh Gaitskell, Harold Wilson for example. Paul remembers the 1967 F.A. Cup Final when it seemed that every balcony was draped with Chelsea favours. It was predominantly Chelsea despite being geographically in central Fulham. As we buttoned our jackets and attempted to counter the early-evening chill, he told me – mischievously – that most of the Chelsea North Stand originated within that half-a-square mile of terra firma.

“One armed Babs was from here…”

Only time for one pint of Peroni – yet again damn it – in The Goose and a little bit of chat with the boys. The Goose seemed busy, but there was talk of the game not selling out. I wasn’t surprised. This game, remember, was postponed in mid-December in order for us to participate in the World Club Championships – ah, Tokyo! – and had only been re-arranged a couple of weeks previous. Talk was of the Brentford away game and the Swansea cup game. There was minimal chat about Pep Guardiola’s move to Bayern Munich.

Southampton. What to say? Any other games from the past which provide me with any special memories? Maybe a couple.

It is a sad irony that the one player who more than any other was responsible for my Chelsea allegiance – Peter Osgood – departed from Stamford Bridge a matter of a few short weeks before my very first Chelsea game in March 1974. I enjoyed my first visit to SW6 – that is beyond question – but looking back, how perfect it would have been to see Ossie play in that inaugural game.

Stay still, my beating heart.

Ossie, of course, moved to Southampton. It is an irony that Saints were actually relegated in the May of that year – along with…whisper it…Manchester United – and so Peter Osgood played second division football in 1974-1975 and 1975-1976. After relegation in 1975, Chelsea joined Southampton in the second tier. As soon as the league fixtures were announced for the 1975-1976 season, there was one game I wanted to attend.

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

Sadly, I don’t remember too much about this game. I recollect that we had to collect our tickets from the box office and I remember that former Arsenal goalkeeper Bob Wilson, who was by then working for BBC TV, was in front of us. I guess he was waiting for his press pass. Strangely, the Chelsea fans ignored him. Somewhere I still have a grainy photograph of the young Chelsea captain Ray Wilkins leaning forward in the centre-circle to shake hands with the referee at the start of proceedings. I have, sadly, no memory of Peter Osgood’s play on that day almost 37 years ago, but I believe that I am correct in saying that there was a little bit of animosity towards him from The Shed during the game and he responded by flicking a V sign at them. My vague memory of the day is being churned-up seeing him playing against us. The game ended 1-1. Chelsea’s new number nine Jock Finnieston was our scorer.

In September 1995 – God, it seems like yesterday – we played a league game against Southampton and the day is rich with memories. Firstly, this was the game that the club chose to celebrate the club’s 90th anniversary. Before the game, Alan, Glenn and I spent an enjoyable time in “Drake’s” meeting some of the club’s former players and managers. “Drakes” was located on two tiers in the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding. During its first few years, only Chelsea Pitch Owners were allowed inside; it was a pleasant way to spend a pre-match, in fact. It was our normal pre-match venue in 1994 and 1995. We used to have a meal and a few pints in there. It was surprisingly under-utilised. Chelsea opened it up for season ticket holders in around 1997 and it tended to get rammed. On that day in 1995, I remember having my photograph taken with John Neal and Ian McNeil, though it pained me to see that they seemed to be ostracised by the other invited guests, who were mainly from the Sexton era. John Neal was a lovely quiet man. It’s hard to believe he was a football manager.

Out on the pitch, Chelsea walloped a reasonably good Saints team 3-0. We (Daryl, Alan, Glenn and yours truly ) had partial season tickets up in the East stand in 1995-1996. The games involved were the 8 or so “B” games and represented a nice cost-saving. It turned out to be the pre-curser to season tickets for all four of us in 1997. Two things stick in my mind about the day. The game marked Ruud Gullit’s first-ever goal in Chelsea blue, a lovely volley at the North Stand after a flowing move. Oh, how we celebrated that one. The other scorers were Frank Sinclair and Mark Hughes. All three goals were scored late in the game. I also remember a moment down below me in the second half when Ruud Gullit so scared the Southampton defender Francis Benali that Benali didn’t bother marking Gullit as he toyed with the ball and simply raced back ten yards in a position to tackle him again a few seconds later. Gullit was a magical player for us in that season. I can remember the buzz that we felt as a club when first Gullit and then Hughes signed for us. I can even remember where I was when I heard Ruud was signing for Chelsea, my Chelsea, the greatest under-achievers of all time…driving in my Fiat Uno in Westbury, about to turn into Eden Vale Road.

That season was a fantastic time; Chelsea were moving forward under Glenn Hoddle, playing with wing backs Petrescu and Phelan, Gullit launching balls towards Hughes and John Spencer, ably supported by Gavin and Wisey. Great days, great days. In that season, we reached an F.A. Cup semi-final and finished in eleventh place, but it was a brilliant season in many respects.

The club was growing, step by step, and the players and supporters were together.

Yes, dear reader…we finished in eleventh place but we had a great time.

Later that evening, I remember that Glenn and I called back at Ron Harris’ pub in Warminster for our usual couple of drinks. Ron had been at the game as a guest of the club; in those days, his visits were rare. It would only be a couple of months after that game that Glenn and I would be back at the same pub for an evening with Peter Osgood (when I got to meet him face to face for the first time), on a night when Tommy Langley also called by.

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that we were in for our first sub-capacity league game for a while. The tell-tale sign was the hundreds of unoccupied seats in the top corners of the East Upper (always the last to sell) and, although it was difficult to discern, I also guessed a similar lack of bodies in the upper levels of the West Upper to my right.

It was also clear that many of the “sold” seats throughout the stadium – one here, two there, four there, five there – were unoccupied. The buyers obviously had other things planned for the night of Wednesday 16 January 2013 and the tourists were in no mood to take up the slack. This “non-appearance” of ticket-buyers is a strange conundrum, but is not reflected in the actual gates reported by the club. Chelsea always reports tickets sold, not bums-on-seats. Sometimes, the shortfall is astounding. I remember someone close to the club telling me that a midweek league game with Portsmouth a few seasons back was reported as being watched by 40,000, but the number of spectators in the stadium was only 32,000

That’s 8,000 lost opportunities for beers, food and merchandise.

And we need to move into a 60,000 capacity stadium do we, Mr. Buck and Mr. Gourlay?

Over in the far corner, even the Saints fans seemed underwhelmed. It took ages for their section to fill, and their number only totalled around 1,000 of the 1,400 seats allotted to them.

I will not take too long to talk about the game. Even in the first-half, winning 2-0, it wasn’t too special. I thought that Southampton seemed to want to attack us a little more than most teams and I relished the space which might – just might – be created in their defence. However, the away team only rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal during that first period. Our play was again laboured and there were the usual tons of possession with no end product. The game cried out for an occasional early pass to Demba Ba, who was continually level with the last man and looking for the vaguest hint of a well-hit through ball. Alan and myself discussed how ridiculously one-footed Juan Mata is, almost spinning himself in a complete circle to get the ball onto his left foot. Ashley Cole is another one. I’m no genius, but even I can pass with my “other” foot. Demba Ba’s goal was well-taken; a lovely swivel and a firm volley which found the bottom corner of the goal. Ba sunk to his knees in front of The Shed and appeared to kiss the turf. Strange – haven’t seen that before. Maybe he was looking for his contact lenses.

Alan and I attempted a rural Hampshire accent – for the expats, think John Arlott, the great cricket commentator – as we burred;

“They’ll have to come at us nowwwwww….”

“Come on my little di’mons.”

A Ramires effort hit the angle and the rebound was volleyed home by Eden Hazard who rushed off to celebrate in front of the Family Section.

These goals apart though, there was little reason to cheer. David Luiz, now in defence again alongside Cahill, threaded a couple of nice balls through, but the play was as dire as the atmosphere, or lack of it. Despite leading 2-0, the crowd probably reached an all-time low in terms of noise.

The decisive move of the night took place when Nigel Adkins replaced Jay Rodriguez with Ricky Lambert, a journeyman striker finally rewarded with football in the top division after a nomasic existence. Within three minutes, a cross was headed home emphatically by Lambert and it was a case of “game on.”

Our play seemed very lethargic with no bite or aggression in midfield. The midfield five were having poor games, none more so than Oscar and Mata. Paul was dismayed with Lampard’s play, though the whole team were underperforming in my eyes.

A great through ball from Mata fell for the in-rushing Ba, but his outstretched boot only resulted in the ball dipping over the bar. A couple of free-kicks from Lamps and Luiz did not trouble Artur Boruc in the Saints’ goal.

Southampton had the bit between their teeth now and Azpilicueta couldn’t handle the pace of Shaw as he broke down the left. From the cross, Puncheon struck low past Petr Cech to equalise. The Saints players ran towards their delirious fans in the south-east corner.

“One Nigel Adkins, there’s only one Nigel Adkins.”

Benitez was forced to make some changes, but like di Matteo before him, chose to do so late on. I haven’t seen much pro-active substitutions from Benitez yet. Torres replaced Lampard.

There was widespread booing, but I am really undecided if this was aimed at Benitez for the removal of Lampard, the arrival of Torres, or just a simple venting of frustration aimed at Benitez, the board, the entire circus.

Under such negative noise, is it any wonder that Chelsea currently play looser and more confidently away from the prickly atmosphere at Stamford Bridge? It took us a whole hour to get a stadium-wide chant going and the place was nervous and full of niggles all night.

I’m not one to instigate chants at home games; from my lofty perch, my voice wouldn’t be met with much of a response from fellow supporters in the upper tier. However, both Alan and I always join in when the more vocal fans in the lower tier “get going.” However, against Southampton these opportunities were very rare. Never have I sung so infrequently.

Oscar went deep, Torres was deployed out wide as a winger. I was hoping for him to form a partnership with Ba to be honest. Torres showed his usual poor ball control of late and was roundly jeered when he sent over a poor cross which missed not only the players huddled in the six-yard box, but the pitch completely, not to mention the strip of asto-turf surrounding it. However, Mata had been equally wasteful throughout the entire evening. A Torres break, nicely set-up by Mata, sadly resulted in a poor shot which did not even trouble Boruc as it whizzed wide of the near post. A late aerial bombardment was repelled – Cahill playing as a Robert Huth style renegade attacker – and we couldn’t score the winner.

More Wednesday night blues.

The boos echoed around the Bridge. Outside, there were all sorts of chatter about our poor form. I’m usually the first to bemoan the fact that spectators waste no time in moaning at the final whistle, but show no real signs of getting behind the team during the game. However, even I joined in on the walk past the Ossie statue.

“…is there any need to play with two defensive midfielders at home? Play 4-4-2, with Torres alongside Ba. Play a flat four in midfield, with full backs doubling up with the wide mid-fielders and attack them down the flanks.”

And there I was, the master tactician, almost making sense.

Further along, just where the spectators empty out into the Fulham Road, a couple of Chelsea fans were trading insults through song and they then squared up to each other like a couple of rutting stags, with one of them disliking the negative shouts aimed at Benitez, and the other standing up for his hatred of the new regime.

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

On the walk back to the car, the air was cold against my cheeks. Paul and I reluctantly discussed the game, but it was all oh-so familiar. It was a draw, but it felt like a defeat. In 1995, we would have shrugged our shoulders, but in 2013 it seemed almost catastrophic. And I am not sure how we have arrived at this juncture in our history – where a home draw is deemed to be absolute failure – but I sure as hell don’t bloody well like it.

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Tales From Yet Another Semi-Final

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 9 January 2013.

Our second domestic cup game in five days provided us with a Capital One Cup semi-final first leg against those entertaining and resourceful fellows from Swansea City. There had been virtually no “build-up” for this game. I’ve probably never been less bothered about a semi-final. Of course, there is a tinge of guilt about that, but we are in a frantically busy spell. After our nine games in December, there would be a further nine in January. It is unlikely that these two months have ever been more demanding. No time to sit back and relax; game after game after game. Of those nine matches in December, I missed four. There were various reasons for this – my trip to Tokyo sucked a lot of my time and resources – but I would be back on track for January. God willing, I hope to attend all nine. It will probably turn out to be my busiest Chelsea month ever.

Wednesday – Saturday –Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday – Sunday – Wednesday – Saturday – Wednesday.

The nearest I got to an official build-up occurred at about 3.45pm in Chippenham. In the office at work, there are eight co-workers. There are only two who are also footy fans – typically, Liverpool and Manchester United. Andy, however, is not in to football at all. He is, however, from Swansea. Just before I left Chippenham on the drive up to London, I asked him –

“No banter, then?”

Seizing his moment, Andy bristled “no need, Chris. We’ll win tonight. 2-1.”

I smiled and said “oh – that’s banter, mate.”

He replied “and we’ll win 3-1 in the next game, too.”

I smiled again. This wasn’t a sign of me underestimating Swansea’s threat over two games. It was more a result of Andy’s new-found hobby of forecasting scores.

Semi-finals used to be a ridiculously rare event in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties.

From our famous League Cup semi-final in 1972 against Tottenham (I don’t remember it, but Chris Garland’ s finest hour), we went a complete thirteen years until our next one; another League Cup semi-final (in the guise of The Milk Cup) against Sunderland in 1984-1985.

Yes, that’s correct.

Thirteen years with not one single semi-final appearance in any cup competition.

Read it and weep.

Another League Cup semi-final followed in 1991 against Sheffield Wednesday, when it was known as the Rumbelows Cup.

And then came an FA Cup semi-final in 1994 against Kerry Dixon’s Luton Town (now a non-league team)…a wait of 24 years in that particular competition.

So, you hopefully get the message; these games were rare events for us Chelsea fans. To put it bluntly, from the age of 7 to the age of 28 (my prime, damn it!), I witnessed just two Chelsea semi-finals.

And now the other side of the coin.

The Swansea City game would be our twenty-fifth cup semi-final in twenty seasons.

1993-1994 FA Cup
1994-1995 European Cup Winners Cup
1995-1996 FA Cup
1996-1997 FA Cup
1997-1998 League Cup
1997-1998 European Cup Winners Cup
1998-1999 European Cup Winners Cup
1999-2000 FA Cup
2001-2002 League Cup
2001-2002 FA Cup
2003-2004 Champions League
2004-2005 League Cup
2004-2005 Champions League
2005-2006 FA Cup
2006-2007 League Cup
2006-2007 FA Cup
2006-2007 Champions League
2007-2008 League Cup
2007-2008 Champions League
2008-2009 FA Cup
2008-2009 Champions League
2009-2010 FA Cup
2011-2012 FA Cup
2011-2012 Champions League
2012-2013 League Cup

Our winning percentage in these ties? 63%.

For our legion of new fans; you lucky gits.

But, let’s go back to 1985, the year the drought ended. Season 1984-1985 was a classic Chelsea campaign. We had won promotion in 1983-1984, with the likes of Colin Pates, John Bumstead, Micky Thomas, Kerry Dixon, Pat Nevin and David Speedie entertaining us along the way. We found the transition to top flight football to be relatively easy and the season was memorable for a successful Milk Cup (named after the sponsors, the Milk Marketing Board) campaign. Sheffield Wednesday were memorably dispatched over three tumultuous games in the quarters and we were paired with Sunderland in the semis. We unfortunately lost the first-leg at Roker Park on a bitterly cold night 2-0. The return leg was originally pencilled in for Wednesday 20 February. I was at college in Stoke-on-Trent at the time and can remember walking to the train station, buying a paper and then being shocked to see that the evening’s game was not listed. The winter had been particularly cold with many cancellations and I picked up another paper to see that the game had indeed been postponed. It’s amazing to think that in these days of internet and smartphones, a person living in the Midlands would not have known that a football game in London had been postponed, but it shows how the world has changed. I can certainly remember my crestfallen walk back to my house on that Wednesday afternoon. I was gutted. This would have been my first ever home midweek game too; living in Somerset, a trip to Stamford Bridge on a Wednesday would have been nigh on impossible. The game with Sunderland was rescheduled for Monday 4 March; it was my 55th Chelsea game.

Some 28 years later, I can remember lots about that day, though little is very positive. I attended some lectures in the morning and then caught a lunchtime train from Stoke down to Euston. I remember getting over to Chelsea really early and lining up at The Shed turnstiles. The kick-off was the usual 7.45pm, but as the game wasn’t all-ticket (games very rarely were), I wanted to make sure of my place in the stadium. By 4.30pm, I had joined the back of the already 500 strong line as it wended its way down the Fulham Road. There was real, uncontainable excitement in the air. Supporters were just so thrilled to be watching a semi-final at The Bridge for the first time in 13 years. I remember that the early evening was bright and sunny. It just felt so strange for me to be in London at that time of the day. I was totally thrilled by the whole experience. My first semi-final. My first mid-week game. And hopefully a trip to Wembley, that sacred ground, at the end of the evening.

Fantastic.

As crazy as it sounds, I got in the ground as early as 5.15pm. In those days, it was about £5 to go in The Shed and you could then show your Chelsea membership card at a gate into the West Stand Benches, pay an extra £1 and get a seat in the enclosure. These were magical times at Chelsea. And I always felt that The Benches were my spiritual home. My first ever game – in 1974 – had been in the Benches too. I sat with Alan – and a few other mates…Mark, Leggo, Dave, Rich – in the very back row, right on the half-way line. From 5.15pm to 7.45pm we waited. The stadium soon filled-up. The Sunderland hordes…some 5,000 strong…filled a few pens in the large, sweeping north terrace to my left. The night fell. It got colder.

Chasing a 0-2 deficit from the first leg (Dale Jasper’s far from finest hour), we broke through after just 6 minutes when Pat set up Speedo. The 38,000 crowd exploded. If I was to try to recreate in words what the noise was like back in those days, I would fail. It seemed like the world would cave in. After this opener, with more to hopefully come, it is very likely that the entire Benches would have jumped up, landed on top of a neighbour, pushed themselves upright, hugged a neighbour, yelled, screamed, with faces contorted with near-orgasmic delight.

We were, however, stunned when former Chelsea favourite Clive Walker equalised down at The Shed.

Oh boy.

The noise continued into the second-half, however. We would not go meekly. We had a few chances and they hit the bar. Walker scored their second.

We were losing 2-1 on the night and 4-1 overall.

This is when it got nasty.

Fans in the East Lower ripped up their seats and threw them on the pitch. Fellow citizens in The Benches, away to my left, ripped up the wooden struts and launched them onto the pitch. A pitch invasion was attempted. The Old Bill attempted to quell the situation. There were policemen and photographers swarming everywhere. Police horses raced around the pitch from behind The Shed. Chelsea fans again attempted to get the game called-off by encroaching onto the pitch. Believe it or not, when Sunderland scored their third goal, a policeman was standing inside our six yard box.

Then, with disarray all around me, a Chelsea fan – John Leftly – ran onto the pitch from a few yards away and tried to assault Clive Walker, the former hero turned villain.

By this stage, I was mortified and in deep shock.

So much for Wembley.

I was deeply saddened by the hooligans. This was the real face of 80s hooliganism. Wanton violence and destruction, yobbish and callous behaviour. This was just after Millwall at Luton. Just before Leeds at Birmingham. Just before Heysel.

I was pig sick and couldn’t muster a cheer as Pat lobbed the goalie from 8 yards to make it 2-3 on the night.

No one cared.

I remember I walked back to South Kensington tube just to avoid the inevitable trouble which would have occurred at Fulham Broadway; not only between Chelsea and Sunderland, but West Ham were down at Wimbledon in an FA Cup tie on that night and I didn’t fancy being in the vicinity when the ICF came through Fulham Broadway.

It was a long train ride home back to Stoke-on-Trent that night.

28 years later, the Chippenham to London drive only took two hours and fifteen minutes. On the short walk from the pub to the stadium, I happened to glance at the poster on the window of a bookie.

Michu : First Goal Scorer – 7 to 1.

“Yep, that Michu is a cracking player. We’ll have to watch him” I thought as I rushed past.

Along Vanston place, I overheard a couple of Chelsea fans running through a couple of “Ba” songs. Three songs to his name on Sunday, with plenty more to follow no doubt. On the ascent up the six flights of stairs to the Matthew Harding Upper, an irate fan was loudly berating Benitez about the dropping of Ba and the insertion of Torres.

Inside the stadium, I soon noted that Swansea’s away following was a lot less than I had expected. I’m sure that Swansea has never appeared in a major cup final. Therefore, was this their first-ever semi-final? Either way, I certainly expected 3,000 (if not 6,000) followers from South Wales to attend the game at Stamford Bridge. There was a large section of around 800 seats unused in the upper tier and the lower tier wasn’t 100% full. Therefore, I guess that they only had 2,000. I remember Burnley bringing down 6,000 in 2008 for an early round in the same cup. I suppose many Swansea fans thought “been to Chelsea last season, not going again.”

I found this a bit sad really. The tickets, after all, were only £25.

Alan was sat elsewhere in the MHU with Gary. It felt decidedly odd to be sat by myself at a home game. I don’t think it has ever happened in the 15 years of having a season ticket; either Alan or Glenn is always sat alongside me.

A quick scan of the team; Ross in goal. A sturdy back four of Ash, Gary, Brana and Dave. Luiz and Rami holding in the deepzone. The three amigos of Oscar, Mata and Hazard in the shallowzone. Torres as the target man.

The game began and the first song from the home fans poked fun at the Swansea contingent.

“Is that all? Is that all? Is that all you take away? Is that all you take away?”

Swansea sang “Land of my fathers” all through the night.

The Swansea away kit made me smile. Although the red / white / green mirrored the colours of the Welsh flag, these are also the colours of Hungary. Our former manager Dave Sexton so admired the ground-breaking football of the Hungarians of the ‘fifties – Puskas, Hidekguti, Kocsis et al – that he chose the national colours of Hungary as our away kit from 1972 to 1974, which was also reprieved in 1975-1976. I looked down on the players and had a sudden and heart-warming thought. The last time I had seen that lovely combination of red shirts, crisp white socks and light green socks in a live game was at the Bristol Rovers vs. Chelsea game in November 1975. For a spilt second, I was transported back to Eastville Stadium, the Tote End, Rover’s blue-and-white quartered shirts and their “Smash & Grab” strikeforce of Alan Warboys and Bruce Bannister. On that Saturday afternoon, my mother and I had seats among the home fans and we saw us win 2-1. There were quickly lovely memories of a goal from Teddy Maybank and Bill Garner getting sent off.

Red / white / green.

A classic Chelsea combination. And – the magic of memory – I was a ten year old boy once more. Incidentally, the red / white / green bar scarf was often seen on The Shed for many years. It remains a cult item of clothing amongst Chelsea fans to this day. My friend Daryl sometimes wears his; it looks fantastic.

On ten minutes, a really exceptional move cut through the Swansea defence and Ramires seemed certain to be able to shoot early. Instead, he held on to the ball slightly too long and was only able to poke the ball towards goal. The ‘keeper saved easily.

We began the game well. On 16 minutes, the RDM minute. Although I only clapped for around 10 seconds at Southampton, I clapped for a few more against Swansea. I looked around and had a quick vox pop. In the MHU, maybe one in five were clapping. Down in the MHL, it was nearer 50/50. In the East Stand, maybe one in ten. In the West Stand? Who cares about the West Stand?

The travelling fans were making some noise…

“We’re Swansea City, We’ll Sing On Our Own.”

On 22 minutes, Azpilicueta – who was defending well – struck a low shot just past the Swansea far post. From a similar location a week earlier, SWP had been more successful. On 25 minutes, the best chance of the game; a sublime Hazard dribble set up Juan Mata, but his shot was weakly hit and straight at the ‘keeper. I noticed that the entire MHL were standing; always a good sign that the spectators were “up for it”, yet the noise was again pretty poor. On the half-hour, an Oscar back heel set up Mata, but he shot wide. Then a fantastic ball from David Luiz from deep picked out Oscar, but he had a poor first touch and the ball bounced away. Luiz was having a pretty good game, though he tended to react to play rather than being able to predict play. On many occasions, his speed came to his assistance. His tackling was fine, his reading of the game not so good.

A text from Philadelphia summed up my thoughts too –

“Plenty of chances. One of these will go in, no?”

Right after, an Ivanovic error gave the ball away. It was played in to Michu – yes, of course – and he slotted past the diving Turnbull.

It wasn’t what Philly Steve nor I had meant.

Just before the break, Ivanovic turned nicely and, attempting to make up for his error, struck a sweet shot which the ‘keeper did well to turn wide.

There were a few boos at the break. Former custodian Dave Beasant was on the pitch at half-time; looking pretty fit and healthy. Beasant memorably injured himself while at Chelsea by dropping a bottle of salad cream on his toe. True story.

To be honest, we were playing OK, moving the ball around nicely. However, Torres – apart from winning a ball out wide and playing the ball in for others – was quiet. Swansea were clearly a better team than QPR, but it was noticeable that it was all eerily similar to that game seven days before. I joked with the guy next to me –

“I have a ticket for the away leg but, to be honest, I was hoping for a big win tonight and then I might not bother with the second leg. Give myself a night off. Well…it looks like I’m going to Swansea.”

We were worse in the second-half, no doubts. With every passing minute, the frustration rose with the team and manager alike. David Luiz shot wide from a fee-kick and he then had a low shot saved. But chances were at a premium. In truth, Swansea were well marshalled and didn’t really need to attack. Frank Lampard and Demba Ba were serenaded as they warmed up in front of the family section.

“We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba. We got Demba Ba. Say we got Demba Ba.”

Frank replaced Ramires and I predicted that Frank would score a last minute penalty. He rattled in a trademark shot which was well hit, but an easy take for the Swans’ keeper.

With only ten minutes remaining, Demba Ba appeared on the far side of the stadium and the applause rang out. Torres was the man to be substituted and then, to my sadness, the stadium was full of boos, perhaps the loudest I have ever heard for a Chelsea player. I just wished that those same fans had reached similar volume levels when we were in possession and attacking. Like most people who have been steadfastly attempting to defend Torres, I am finding this an increasingly difficult task. Yet, here is the crunch; discuss his faults away from the game by all means, but please support him while in the stadium. Not just Torres, any player. Surely this is the golden rule of Chelsea Fundamentalism?

To be fair to Ba, in those ten to fifteen minutes, he made a massive impact. He had two good headers and was also sent sprawling in the penalty box, but was bizarrely booked for simulation. Marin replaced a poor Oscar, but further catastrophe was just around the corner. Ivanovic’ back-pass to Turnbull was intercepted by Graham who rounded Turnbull and slotted in.

0-2.

There was a tumultuous rendition of “One Di Matteo, There’s Only One Di Matteo, One Di Matteo” immediately after this second goal – I didn’t join in – and I wondered what the members of the board were thinking. The final twist of the knife saw a rampaging Ba blast the ball in, only for an offside to be given. Unsurprisingly in these circumstances, a volley of boos echoed around the emptying stands at the final whistle.

I have heard a few fans call this particular brand of the beautiful game “Feast and Famine Football.” This is certainly the Chelsea of old; the Great Unpredictables. After the win in Southampton, Bob in California quite succinctly called it “Bi-Polar” football.

On the walk to the car, I realised that attending games at Stamford Bridge is not enjoyable at the moment. That’s a terrible thing to be forced to admit. Thoughts turned to the away leg. We have the capacity to turn things around in the second-leg, but we will be foolish to chase the game in a gung-ho fashion right from the start. With Dyer, Routledge, Britton and Michu playing their own little brand of tiki-taka in deepest Wales, Swansea could easily increase their aggregate lead.

Which Chelsea will show up? Please send your answers to our usual address.

As I drove home, I got some comfort in the fact that, at least in Swansea, I will be amongst the more vociferous members of our support. At that point in time, I was grateful for any positives that I could find.

The only other positive was that Swansea Andy didn’t text me.

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Tales From The Blue Haze

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2013.

At last, a relatively short away day trip. Southampton is only 55 miles away from base camp. My Saturday was all planned. I had two appointments in Frome in the morning (a hair cut at 9am and an eye test at 9.40am) and then an appointment in Southampton in the afternoon (a sanity check at 3pm). That my sanity would remain intact and unscathed from the rigorous trial that Chelsea Football Club would enforce upon it was open to debate.

The weather was incredibly mild, but overcast. I set off from Frome at 11.30am and – for one of the few times for a Chelsea away game – pointed my car south-east. The boys from London were already nearing Southampton, having set off by train an hour or so before. The “meet” was at a pub called “The Giddy Bridge.” As always I hit some traffic in the cathedral city of Salisbury, but I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be visiting a stadium that I hadn’t frequented since April 2005, when a win even convinced the most cynical of Chelsea supporters to start singing about “winning the league.” I have very happy memories of that game. We were on the march to our first league title in fifty years and our mood was stratospheric.

As I drove out of Salisbury on the A36, I climbed Pepperbox Hill just as a group of country folk were walking through some woods, dressed in tweed and flat caps, Barbour jackets and plus-fours, with gun dogs barking at their feet. They were out on a shoot. Barbour jackets are a current brand which is favoured by football fanciers these days; the quilted variety, rather than the original waxed jackets which were de-rigueur for a brief period on the terraces in the mid-‘eighties. No doubt I would see a few later in the day.

Although Southampton is relatively close to my home town, I have been a relatively infrequent visitor over the years. I have a very vague notion of being in Southampton, maybe when I was around three or four, when the QE2 was berthed. It must be one of my earliest memories; being on the quay alongside the enormous bulk of that famous cruise ship. My next visit was in 1981. Yes, it was football-related; though, surprisingly perhaps, not Chelsea-related.

In 1980, Southampton – a middling First Division team – signed the England captain Kevin Keegan from Hamburg in the biggest transfer coup for ages. I was particularly upset at this because Chelsea had been linked with his signature; even though we were a struggling Second Division team. Keegan has become a much derided figure since his managerial days with various teams, but in 1980 Keegan was England’s biggest name and the ‘seventies biggest football superstar. In 1980-1981, he was scoring goals for fun for his new team while Chelsea was faring less well. I saw us play Newcastle at home (won 6-0) and Bristol Rovers away (lost 1-0) in 1980-1981. However, these games were augmented by a visit down to Southampton’s old stadium, The Dell, in April to see Keegan play for the Saints against reigning European Champions Nottingham Forest. My father was a shopkeeper – menswear, but no Barbour jackets – and one of his regular customers was a Southampton season-ticket holder. He had mentioned I was a bit of a Keegan fan and some tickets found their way into Dad’s hands. It wasn’t Chelsea, but it was good enough.

Ironically, the game in April was my second Southampton game of that particular season; in the autumn, a Southampton team had visited my local club Frome Town to play in a friendly which celebrated the opening of the club’s first ever set of floodlights. It had been advertised that they would be bringing a full-strength team. My friend Steve must have sold 100 tickets alone. Even girls – girls, I tell you! – had been tempted to attend. They were there to see one man; Kevin Keegan. A bumper crowd of around 2,500 assembled on a cold Wednesday night and I can well remember peering over at the Southampton coach as it arrived in the car park. As we stood on tip-toes on the grass bank, the visiting players stepped down off the coach and my friends and I memorably commented –

“Don’t recognise him.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Or him”

“Who’s that?”

“Don’t know him.”

“Don’t know him.”

What a let-down. It was a reserve team. I think the only players who would go on to play for the first team was Rueben Agboola and one of the Wallace brothers.

Ironically, Southampton and Chelsea played each other at The Dell in the third round of the FA Cup in 1981 – like this year – too. We lost 3-1.

For the Nottingham Forest game, we watched from the bench seats along the east-stand side of the ridiculously compact Dell. Southampton won 2-0. I enjoyed it – of course – but it felt odd to be at a game which didn’t involve Chelsea. It was the same day that Aldaniti won the Grand National with former cancer victim Bob Champion the triumphant jockey. Weird how I can remember sporting stories from 31 years ago, eh? I guess it just highlights how important those first ten, twenty, thirty games were. Every game counted. Every memory was etched in stone. I did note, though, that the Southampton fans seemed less partisan – less rabid – than my experiences at Stamford Bridge. Or perhaps I was biased.

Strangely enough, I didn’t get to visit The Dell with Chelsea until 1994. Our allocation was always small at The Dell which meant I wasn’t often in a position to apply for tickets. For some reason, fate always seemed to contrive against me. Games at The Dell either took place while I was at college in Stoke, on Boxing Day when transport was difficult or – to be blunt – when I was hard up for cash.

Outside of that QE2 visit in around 1968 and an Everything But The Girl gig in 1999, I’ve only ever visited Southampton for football.

Ditto Sunderland, Blackburn, Leeds, Watford, Coventry, Middlesbrough…

With Southampton in my sights, I drove on, right on the eastern edge of the New Forest, and stopped off for my second McCoffee of the trip. Forget beer and football, it is caffeine and football for me these days. I headed into Southampton on the dual carriageway, right past thousands of containers waiting to be shipped-out from one of England’s busiest ports. A huge cruise ship was nearby too. Just over 100 years ago, The Titanic set off from Southampton Water and was never to return.

I was parked up near the train station at 1.15pm and soon received a text from Alan to say that they were now drinking in “The Standing Order.” Southampton was heavily bombed during WW2 and the shopping centre of the town is rather bland due to the abundance of ‘fifties concrete rather than medieval stone and Victorian brick. I had a jacket on – a new quilted Henri Lloyd – and the mild weather meant that I was sweating like a Scouser in court by the time I reached the pub. Outside “Yates” there was a gaggle of policemen observing Chelsea singing inside the packed interior. We had 4,500 tickets for this and were out in force.

In the cavernous pub – a “Wetherspoons” – I eventually located the chaps, although the boozer was full of familiar Chelsea characters. Home fans, kitted out in a variety of old and new Southampton shirts, were drinking in the pub too, but there wasn’t any hint of trouble. Our visits in the ‘eighties were never so peaceful. I knocked back a solitary pint and spoke to Simon about the ailments of Fernando Torres. Some lads had been there since 9.30am and were showing the signs of it too. It was soon time to make a move. Just outside the pub, we heard that Demba Ba was in the team. There was a little buzz of excitement.

We briskly walked east and then north – bumping into Mark Worrall and a selection of other Chelsea fans. Walking over a footbridge, they did “The Bouncy.” Spotting a Southampton fan in a wheelchair, they started singing – in jest –

“If we don’t win, we’ll buckle your wheels.”

Post-modern football hooliganism.

The Southampton fan took it well.

We walked north through a strange hinterland of new apartments and then industrial units with the grey roof supports of St. Mary’s beckoning us ever closer. The railway line was to the west with cranes and gasometers to the east and north. It was a typical twenty-first century football setting; away from dense residential areas, but not on the edge of cities. Instead, the stadium was used to infill a previously derelict part of town. It was neither here nor there. Outside the main stand, there was a statue of Ted Bates, the former manager from the ‘sixties and ‘seventies.

With typical Chelsea timing, I arrived at my seat just as the teams were entering the pitch. Wait a moment; why were Southampton wearing an all-white kit? That was just silly. To be honest, I don’t like the fact that they jettisoned their traditional red and white stripes this season for a 1981-1982 Liverpool kit of all red and thin pinstripes. Maybe in 2013, they are thinking outside the box; the red and white stripes will turn into all red for one match, all white for the other.

Southampton in all white, Chelsea in all blue. Game on.

In truth, we took a while to warm up. The first twenty minutes was dominated by cagey approach play on the pitch and a cacophonous noise from the travelling blue army in the Northam Stand. We stood the entire game. The mood among the away support was boisterous and upbeat, but there was no real improvement on the performance against QPR. The grey skies overhead suggested an afternoon of grim attrition. Then, we were caught sleeping and a superb pass by Jason Puncheon dissected our centre-halves and allowed Jay Rodriguez to strike, rolling the ball past Ross Turnbull.

The home fans cheered and sections of our support grew even more boisterous. Insults were exchanged. The Chelsea fans sang the “Pompey Chimes” to rile the home fans. Then it was their turn.

Southampton : “Champions League – You’re Having A Laugh.”

Chelsea : “Play Up Pompey, Pompey Play Up.”

Southampton : “Small Town In Fulham – You’re Just A Small Town In Fulham.” (…what?)

Chelsea : “Are You Tottenham In Disguise?”

Southampton : “Are You Pompey In Disguise?”

Chelsea : “They’re Here, They’re There, They’re Every Fcuking Where – Empty Seats, Empty Seats.”

We began to get into the game. Eden Hazard advanced and curled a shot low just past the far post. On 34 minutes, our equaliser came. Nice play from Moses and Hazard down our left…I brought the camera up to my eyes…click, click, click…just in time to capture Mata’s flick being bundled over the line by a Southampton defender and / or Demba Ba.

Get in!

Ba’s celebrations were rather muted and I wondered if he had indeed got the final touch. I immediately thought of the difference between Ba and Torres’ start for the club.

Oh boy.

The game was opening up now, but Southampton seemed a little toothless in attack. I was surprised that Ricky Lambert wasn’t playing. On the stroke of half-time, a lovely finish from Victor Moses gave us a 2-1 lead. The ball was perfectly drilled into the far corner. He celebrated with several summersaults.

The Chelsea crowd were in good form and the singing increased. More drinking took place at half-time in the ridiculously crowded concourse below the seats. Throughout the first-half, I had watched Rafa Benitez pacing the technical area, cajoling the players and trying his best to communicate with them. I was still struggling to feel one iota of warmth towards him. My sanity check was now in progress.

“Is he Chelsea? Is he more Chelsea than Liverpool? Should I dislike him? Should I trust him? Should I feel sorry for him? Should I support him? Should I ignore him? Do the players like him? Do the players want to play for him? Is he a better coach than Robbie?”

I was stood next to a Chelsea fan – name unknown – who I have spotted going to Chelsea since the mid-‘eighties…I remember him rabbiting away on a tube after a game at Chelsea…just one of those characters you don’t forget. Anyway, we chatted away.

“Trouble is…I look at Benitez. And I just think Liverpool.”

Soon into the second-half, a perfect Juan Mata cross was headed in by Branislav Ivanovic.

Game over.

Down to my right, a Chelsea fan set off a couple of blue flares and the Southampton fans were well and truly mocked.

“You’ve Had Your Day Out – Now Fcuk Off Home.”

To be truthful, the 300 or so locals in the corner section next to us were the only ones in the crowd who were up for a song. The rest of the 22,000 or so Saints fans were totally docile. Maybe I was right in 1981.

It was all Chelsea now, both on and off the pitch.

“We Know What We Are…F.A.Cup Holders – We Know What We Are.”

A little group of semi-familiar Chelsea lads to my left kept singing a song in honour of Juan Mata, but I couldn’t quite discern the tune. Fair play to them; despite nobody joining in, they kept going. In the end, it came to me.

“Rhythm Is A Dancer” by Snap, a dance anthem from 1992.

“You can play him everywhere.
Whoaaa – Juan Mata…”

After a quiet start, Demba Ba began to impress me with his link-up play and close control. On the hour, we scored our fourth with a fine move. Ramires found Hazard who picked out a perfect run in to space by Ba. An exquisite touch and the Chelsea crowd exploded. I watched as Ba was mobbed by his team mates. He blew a kiss to us. Amidst the noise and adulation, more blue haze from around five more smoke bombs. Then a thunderclap.

BOOM.

Just like a proper football match.

Bring the noise.

“We got Demba Ba, We Got Demba Ba, We Got Demba, We Got Demba, We Got Demba Ba.”

“He’s Here, He’s There, He’s Every-Fcuking-Where, Demba Ba, Demba Ba.”

“Demba, Demba Ba – Demba Ba – Demba, Demba Ba.”

Benitez brought on Lamps for Ivanovic, with Luiz dropping back into the defence. A perfect Moses cross was met by Ba…click…but the Saints ‘keeper miraculously blocked the goal bound header. Turnbull saved twice at the other end. Marin replaced the impressive Moses.

Two songs for two heroes rang out in the closing quarter.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star.
Scoring goals past Pat Jennings from near and from far.
And Chelsea won – as we all knew they would.
And the star of that great team was Peter Osgood.
Osgood, Osgood, Osgood, Osgood.
Born is the king of Stamford Bridge.”

I half-expected the Saints fans to applaud us in lieu of Ossie’s spell at The Dell, but there was nothing.

Our attentions moved to another ex-Southampton player –

“Oh Dennis Wise.
Scored a fcuking great goal.
In the San Siro.
With ten minutes to go.”

Lampard attempted to play in a team mate with a delicate flick, but a defender handled. I immediately thought “Ba” but a fellow on the other side of me said “no, Lamps…to equal Kerry.”

Of course. I steadied myself as Frank approached the ball.

Click…and 5-1.

Frank ran to celebrate with the Chelsea fans…click, click, click, click, click.

What an achievement.

193 goals. Simply magnificent.

With this, the home fans began to leave.

“Is There A Fire Drill, Is There A Fire Drill?”

At the final whistle, the Chelsea players and supporters were one. As it should be.

The police and stewards shepherded the singing Chelsea hordes out of the stadium and I raced back to the car. I overheard a conversation between a father and young son, both Southampton supporters, as I overtook them.

“The decisive goal was the second just before half-time, really.”

“Yes. That was when the nightmare began Dad.”

Bless him. He reminded me of me, aged nine, trying to evaluate yet another Chelsea capitulation.

At 5.30pm, I threw my jacket in the back seat, turned the ignition on, wound down the windows and pulled away. The winter air chilled me, but it was a welcome relief. It was superb in fact. I just about beat the traffic and would be home by 7pm. For a change, I was listening to some classical music on the CD. I accelerated away, over the railway bridge, the city’s lights in my rear view mirror.

There is nothing better than driving away from an away game, a Chelsea win under our belts, enjoying the moment.

Third gear to fourth.

In and out of the traffic.

Up to fifth

Job done, Chelsea.

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