Tales From The Sun And The Rain

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 20 August 2011.

The late kick-off at Chelsea meant that I didn’t need to leave for London until 11am. On the ten minute drive in to Frome to collect Glenn, my match-going companion at Chelsea for 28 seasons, I managed to contact Texas Wes and sell him a spare ticket. Well, two spare tickets to be precise. A few phone calls and everybody was happy.

Over to Trowbridge, where I used to work from 1992 to 2003 for two separate companies, and I collected Claire and Kris. Claire is Parky’s step daughter, Kris her fiancé. And then, at about 11.45am, we collected His Lordship, Lord Parky of Parky Towers, Parkyshire. He was resplendent in a new blue Aquascutum polo and mid blue Fred Perry tracksuit top. Glenn commented that his crutches matched the bright blues of his new clothes.

Blue clearly is the colour.

On the drive up towards London, the weather went from benignly overcast to annoyingly rainy. Kris hadn’t packed a jacket and was moaning. I was trying to fend off an irritating headache as I drove east and, as the precipitation increased, I had to concentrate further. While Parky and the rest chatted away, I remained quiet. To be honest, my lack of enthusiasm for yet another Chelsea season was playing on my mind. I guess there are myriad reasons for this, but I was hoping that as the day unfolded I would begin to lose this disturbing feeling. I drove past Windsor Castle, just a few miles to the south and was reminded of my return flight from Asia just three weeks previously. On our approach into Heathrow, our plane flew right over Windsor Castle and it was a lovely sight. In fact, that final thirty minutes of the twelve hour flight from Bangkok was magnificent; we approached Blighty from Holland, headed in over Essex and I was able to spot Southend’s mile long pier, the Thames Barrier, then the new Olympic Stadium and then the “London grounds tick list” included West Ham United, Orient, Tottenham, Arsenal, Chelsea, QPR, Fulham and Brentford.

That oh-so familiar approach into Chelsea Town and I felt a little better. My melancholic fog was lifting. Past the Lucozade sign, past the Ark, down off the Chiswick flyover and south at the lights. As we drove past “The Famous Three Kings” we spotted a Liverpool replikid heading in to watch his team’s game at Arsenal and he became the un-knowing recipient of a torrent of abuse from Parky, Glenn and I. The swearing tumbled towards him like waves breaking on a beach and it was a stunning performance.

“Good work boys.”

Glenn darted off to get a breakfast (I had dined at home – a rare pre-match treat these days) and we joined the massed ranks of the Chelsea faithful in the sweaty confines of The Goose. We stayed out in the beer garden from 1.30pm to 5pm. Unfortunately, the rain had followed us up the M4 and so we sheltered under the awning until the rain eventually stopped at about 3.30pm. Stuck under the awning, sipping at a lager, the mood was a little depressing. All the familiar faces eventually showed up throughout the afternoon. I handed out a few of the Chelsea Thailand plastic cups to a few friends and these were well received. Gary had a nice little tale from the summer. He is a French polisher and part of his work over the past few months has been working on the interior of the corporate boxes in the West stand at Chelsea. He also tipped me off about a new feature inside The Bridge, but more of that later.

Thankfully, the rain dispersed and the sun eventually came out. The clouds disappeared, it got warmer. I limited myself to three lagers and the vibe improved. Daryl arrived with a few family members and The Bing were now fully represented. The laughter and chat increased and I was feeling much more enthusiastic. My most insightful moment of the pre-match came in a little chat I had with Daryl’s Mum; “Do we change our players to fit AVB’s preferred formation, or do we fit the formation to suit the players?” But generally, talk was of other stuff, not of the game and the season ahead.

Texas Wes and his friend Chrissy arrived bang on 4pm, just in time for drinks at the bar. However, with the landlord away on holiday, the service in The Goose was awful. I must’ve waited 20 minutes for my round of ten drinks. The prices are still great though – ten drinks for £24. I guess that is why we keep returning.

We quickly dashed down to The Wellington in order for Wes to collect his ticket from Burger, who was drinking with Mark, Lee, Cathy, Dog and Beckie. We were running a bit late and so I had to rush on through the meandering supporters to get myself down to the ground. I bought the newest copy of “CFCUK” and headed on down the Fulham Road.

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I bought the programme – still £3, Fernando Torres on the cover – and skipped past “The Chelsea Wall”, now bedecked anew with images from our history. Part of the wall is devoted to advertising the new Chelsea Museum, located behind the Matthew Harding, but the centre segment seems to be an extended Adidas advertisement, under the odd tagline “All Adidas.” I felt like adding “Chelsea Kits Are Crap.” I joined the long queue at the steps of the MHU. It was 5.20pm and I doubted I would be inside in order to see the kick-off. This annoyed me, but I only had myself to blame. I got up at 7am and here I was, ten and a half hours later, struggling to get in to see the kick-off.

However, by some miracle only known to the Footballing Gods, I was inside at 5.28pm and in my seat at 5.29pm.

And there it was – the new feature, as described to me by Gary.

Over on the Shed Stand wall, looking over the lower tier of the West Stand Lower, a lovely lovely sight. Over the summer, the beige bricks had been painted blue and the three words “Chelsea Football Club” had been painted. However, history buffs amongst the Chelsea support (you know who you are), surely recognised that the words – their design and layout – effectively mirrored those which were visible on the old Leitch East Stand from the early years of our existence to the early seventies.

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There was also the modern Chelsea badge and the additional “The Shed End” added and I – for one – appreciated this new feature.

Good work, Chelsea.

At kick-off, the sky was cloudless and the sun beat down. We had heard that Liverpool had won at Arsenal, but the rest of the day’s results were not known. I had to keep reminding myself this was a late game. There were no new supporters’ flags on show on the various balconies. Gary has swapped his season ticket seat from the East Upper to just eight seats away from us in the MHU Wraparound. Nobody seemed to know if Juan Mata was soon to join us or not.

The team had just one change from the previous Sunday; Anelka in for Malouda. I was surprised that Kalou had got the nod over Malouda to be honest.

As I surveyed the scene, checking the friends and faces around and about, I was sadly reminded that one face was missing. I first met Kevin Barney, along with his friend Ally, in a bar in Vienna in 1994. I was over there by myself and was a little wary of certain sections of our support at the time, so it was with great relief that the three of us were able to sip lagers and discuss our love for Chelsea in a foreign city. We shared the same views, the same passion, the same outlook on Chelsea. It was one of those lovely times on only my second foreign trip to see the boys play. Since then, we would always say “hi” though I can’t say we were mates. Just a face I often saw at home and away – he sat only ten places away from me, behind me in the Wraparound. We would always shake hands and he would always say…

“Alright son?”

It was with sadness that I found out from Big John, who sits close by too, that “Barney” had passed away on 16th. June. I didn’t know him well, but I will miss him. He was a loyal Chelsea fan and I noted that there was a fine obituary for him in the current “CFCUK.”

West Brom were wearing a red / white / red kit and it reminded me that this most common of kits is not present as a first choice kit in this year’s top division.

A moment of shocking defending after just four minutes allowed Shane Long to evade the lunging Alex to calmly slot past Hilario in the Chelsea goal. Although West Brom had only sold around 50% of their 1,500 allocation, all we could hear was the guttural celebrations from the SE corner.

The rest of the first-half was pretty depressing, despite the occasional twists and runs from a rejuvenated Fernando Torres. After 13 minutes, a fine run from Salomon Kalou allowed him to shoot at Ben Foster in the WBA goal, but his effort was high, drawing the usual mumbles and grumbles from the whiners. We were struggling to escape from the mind-set of the previous season, with a lack of movement and a very slow approach. West Brom, defending deep of course, played a succession of fine balls out of their half which continually breached our back line. To be honest, they could easily have been 2-0 up. The Stamford Bridge crowed were quiet, too. So much for the 5.30pm start and all the extra intoxication resulting in a noisy atmosphere.

After 35 minutes, shades of Mourinho and a bold substitution. Well, not so much bold, as surprising. Villas-Boas hauled off Kalou and replaced him with Malouda. Good to see that AVB was on the front foot with game-changing substitutions. I liked Carlo, but one of his problems was late substitutions. I look forward to more positive changes in the new regime.

With every Torres tackle or run, he was applauded. It seems like we, as fans, are doing utmost to encourage him and to continue his improvement in form. That surely has to be our role for the whole team, too.

Our chances were few and far between. Shots from Torres and Ashley Cole, a low free-kick from Alex. Foster remained untroubled. A nice run along the goal-line, right in front of Parkyville, from Torres and he played the ball back to Bosingwa. His cross was headed down by Anelka and another easy save from the ‘keeper.

The half-time whistle and a mixed response from the spectators. Some clapped, some did nothing, some booed. The boos came as no surprise. To be honest, the volume wasn’t massive, but it was noted.

This is where we are everyone, this is what we have become, this is what we are up against.

I spoke to Gary at half-time and we agreed that it would be – at least – interesting to see how AVB would react and change things. And how the players would react. A big half-time talk. I returned to my seat and glanced at the match programme. Again, it hasn’t really changed too much over the past few seasons. The same design and typeset, the same articles. It’s not a bad read at all. I enjoyed the photo spread of the entire staff of the club from the fateful 1974-1975 season; players with ridiculous hair (step forward Walker, Britton and Dempsey) and some famous faces from behind the scenes (Ron Suart, George Anstiss, Eddie Heath and Ken Shellito). TV presenter Johnny Vaughan has taken over from Tim Lovejoy and has a column inside the back cover. My mates and I all remember seeing him in Stockholm in 1998, singing “WTFAMU?” outside “The Dubliners.” His view on AVB?

“I like the appointment because it came out of nowhere. It meant that the bloke down the pub (you know the one!) didn’t really have an opinion on him.”

We began the second period with a little more urgency. After a ludicrous dive from Frank Lampard, the ball fell to Anelka out on the right wing. He shimmied and approached the goal, before shooting low at goal. The ball took a slight deflection and I was able to follow the path of the ball into the goal, off the far post.

An almighty “phew.”

West Brom were not unbowed, though. They had a free header from beneath the bar, but the ball flew over. A shot from Florent Malouda was blocked at the other end. I noted that the first really noisy (I hate to use the word old school) chant came as late as around the hour mark. This is clearly not good enough. In the sleepy hollow, only Alan and myself bothered to rouse the troops.

Didier Drogba replaced Fernando Torres and I was a little sad. He had tried his best all day. Elsewhere, we were starting to test the Baggies’ defence. However, Tchoyi unleashed a curling shot at the Shed End goal, but Hilario sprang and twisted, palming the ball wide with his trailing hand. It was a fine save. Hilario gets a bad press, but he’s no mug.

Soon after, Mikel played the ball to a surging Bosingwa but his hard cross just evaded the lunge of a sprawling Drogba. Ivanovic replaced Alex with a good half hour still to play. All three substitutions made early; very Mourinho.

On 81 minutes, Ben Foster had a rush of blood to the head and was lucky not to be embarrassed as Anelka’s shot from 40 yards flew past his advance but narrowly missed the near post.

Well, what a fantastic piece of play from the much-maligned Bosingwa. He danced between two defenders and sent in an absolutely inch perfect low cross into the danger area. It almost appeared to travel too far, but Malouda arrived on cue to turn the ball in from an acute angle.

Perfect cross. Perfect finish. The Bridge awoke.

Alan – rather subdued, but no doubt relieved: “They’ll Have To Come At Us Now.”

Chris – rather subdued, but no doubt relieved; “Come On My Little Diamonds.”

Malouda raced over to our corner and leapt high. Big relief and big celebrations.

At the final whistle…”phew.”

I grabbed my camera and bag and said my goodbyes to the lads. It had been a painful afternoon and – if I am honest – there are tons of questions hanging over our 2011-2012 season. But, a win is a win is a win. “Blue Is The Colour” rang around the stadium and I smiled. This direct link to my childlike fanaticism of the early ‘seventies reminded me that although the players and seasons change, my love for the club will go on regardless. I’ll be OK this season. I’m not so sure about the players, though.

We made our way back to the car and, while we were waiting for the troops to arrive, Glenn and I spoke to a few out-of-town Chelsea fans, heading back to their cars. Everyone was of the same opinion; we are too set in our ways. We need flesh blood. We need to add pace and urgency. These are not new themes and the song remains the same.

I headed west and the game was discussed amongst the cramped confines of my car. But that can only last so long. The music CD took our minds of the football and Parky’s early-‘eighties compilation got us all singing along…music from Kirsty McColl, the Go Gos, David Sylvian, The Cure and the song of the night “Number One Song In Heaven” by Sparks (Giorgio Moroder at his finest, way ahead of his time.)

I reached home at 10.30pm and watched the highlights from our game. The most telling comment – and one that I hope didn’t go unnoticed by the booers and whiners – was from the manager commenting on the anxiety amongst the home support finding its way onto the pitch, resulting in anxiety from the team.

“Well said, AVB.”

Let us create a positive environment for the team to perform to their potential. Let’s cheer, let’s sing, let’s support. If we see a piece of poor play from our players, let’s not wail like children not being allowed to have sweets. Let’s cheer them. Show our love. Give a little. It ain’t all about us wanting to be pleasured. It’s all about us giving to the team.

…but, deep down, I have a feeling that there will be more childish wailing ahead.

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Tales From The Debutants

Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 20 April 2011.

We are in the middle of a busy period. It seems as if the season is in some sort of rush to get itself finished. With just six games of Chelsea’s 2010-2011 campaign remaining, I was well aware of the need to relish every second, every minute, and every kick of every last game of this season.

On the Tuesday, Manchester United dropped points at St. James’ Park. Maybe this crazy season wasn’t finished just yet. During another busy morning at work, I found just enough time to daydream of a Chelsea win over a struggling Birmingham City, allied with a favourable result between our North London “friends”. I told anyone who would listen –

“We could be second tonight.”

Thankfully, I had booked myself another half-day holiday and I left the delights of work at 12.30pm. Easter week is always notoriously busy and we always struggle to fit five days’ work into four. It was with guilty pleasure that I left the rest of my workmates to it. For this midweek game against Birmingham, it was the same scenario as against Manchester United a mere fortnight ago; pick up Parky, home to change, then up on the A303 and M3. A lot has happened in two weeks; too much, to be honest. Out of Europe, for sure, adrift in the league, maybe.

The sky was hazy, but the temperature warm as we headed east. By 4.15pm, I had parked up. I left Parky to head into the pub and I briskly walked down to The Bridge as I had people to meet. My goodness, it was muggy. It felt like the warmest day of the year. As I took a left outside The So Bar, I headed towards the West Stand and passed a chap in his late forties wearing both replica shirt and shorts. This isn’t a good look, mate. Take a look at yourself.

Inside the Megastore, I met Chelsea debutants Mike, Ashley and Brandon. Mike had contacted me a while back on the off-chance of getting tickets for the game. Luckily, tickets became available and “Bob’s your uncle,” as we say. This was Mike and Ashley’s first ever visit to the UK and they arrived via a quick tour of Europe, involving a few days in Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Seven hours after landing at Heathrow, they were at Stamford Bridge and clearly excited by the prospect of their first ever Chelsea home game. Brandon now lives In Madrid and was accompanying them on this trip. They were only town for a few days and had an itinerary all sorted.

Chelsea was obviously the centre-piece.

I briskly took the three Americans up to the hotel foyer to quickly meet – you all know where this is going, right? – Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. We posed for photos with these two affable Chelsea legends and it was all very friendly and relaxed. Peter spoke about his time in America in the mid-‘seventies, including a season spent in the heat of a Missouri summer with St. Louis Stars in the NASL. Brandon thought it odd that The Cat called football “soccer” but I think he was just being friendly, bridging the gap between our great two nations, separated by the same language, as the saying goes. Peter Bonetti once played against Pele in The States and knew him from their time at the 1970 World Cup.

Then, decision time. As this was the three Americans’ first ever visit to The Bridge, I didn’t want to force their hands. I was heading back to The Goose, but was well aware that the three guests may want to stay closer to the stadium and get wrapped up in the pre-match buzz there. I was happy with their decision to join me back at the pub. On the walk back down the Fulham Road and up the North End Road, I did my tourist-guide bit with tales of the old Shed, the Osgood statue, The So Bar, the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and the tube station. All Chelsea landmarks. Our bricks and mortar. Our history.

As I handed over the two season ticket cards to Ashley and Mike, I joked that they had left America single, but they were now newly arrived in England and passing themselves off as a married couple, Karen and Dave Lambert, from Frome in Somerset. How very murky. Their friends will be shocked. They would be sitting in the Shed Upper. Brandon would be alongside me in the MHU.

We made it back to The Goose at about 5.30pm and it was again nice to be able to relax a little before a midweek game. In addition to my little tour party, there was a sizeable gathering of the US clans taking place in the pub and beer garden. Beth was in mid-conversation with Cathy, a rare visitor to The Goose, and the New York Blues were represented by some Neat folk, plus Linda and Napoli Frank (who I had inadvertently bumped into in The Megastore, much to our amusement.)

The pints of lager and lime were going down well and Parky was flitting around like the socialite that he is. My boys – Alan, Gary, Rob, Andy, The Youth, Ed, Daryl, Russ – were in another corner. Busy, busy, busy. Conversations were flowing and it was great. I reconvened with Ashley, Mike and Brandon and we reignited some football-related conversations. We briefly touched on the strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes, of the franchise aspect of American sport teams and specifically the movement of a team from one city to another. The loathed MK Dons aside, this simply doesn’t happen in the UK. We specifically spoke about how Ashley and Mike’s home town of Seattle has reacted to the demise of the Sonics NBA team. They believe that the upsurge in support of the Seattle Sounders MLS team is linked to the flight of the Sonics a few years back. Ashley spoke of a friend who was a lifetime Sonics fan, whose dream was to work for the club in some way. He studied hard and eventually got an internship with the Sonics and loved it. He was heartbroken when the owner sold the club and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. He was offered a job at the new city and reluctantly took it. I commented that it must be like marrying your school sweetheart, raising a family, but then getting a divorce and having to work for her new husband.

I hope that the franchise system never comes into our sporting landscape in the UK.

We also briefly touched on football hooliganism, but that’s a story for another day.

I took a few photos of Linda and Frank with two lovely trophies which they were due to present to Didier Drogba before the game. I believe Beth’s crew have a similar presentation against West Ham United.

The First-Ever Transatlantic Lacoste Watch.

London.

Andy – racing green

Chris – pink

Philadelphia.

Steve – lime

Just before we all set off for the walk to the ground, Rich from the Philly Blues popped in. Even more American visitors are planned for Saturday, when we will be hoping to celebrate a St. George’s Day victory over West Ham. I walked down the North End Road, past the pubs and fast-food cafes, with Rob and he said that some West Ham are taking a River Thames boat down the river for the game on Saturday.

“Yeah, which bridges are they going under?”

We both had the same thought.

There is new signage on the West Stand wall now – the tagline is “All Blues” and there are photos of the new 2011-2012 Chelsea kit. In fact, the new kit featured on the cover of the programme too. I loathe this premature arrival of new kits before the current season is finished. I don’t doubt we will wear it against The Geordies on Sunday 15th. May. Pathetic.

Brandon was already chatting to Alan when I arrived in my seat with about five minutes to go before kick-off. I had my cursory look around. Like me, many fans were in short-sleeved shirts. The clouds were still hugging the stadium in a claustrophobic clasp. Still very muggy. Birmingham City had about 700 fans and just four flags. I pointed out all of the US flags to Brandon. Despite a gate of over 40,000, there were many empty seats dotted around. I suspect we were 3,000 down on capacity. I got my lens out and quickly spotted “The Lamberts” in the Shed Upper.

So, the same team as against West Brom, apart from Paolo in for Ivanovic. I hope Ramires quickly returns. Birmingham were in a white–white–blue reverse of our kit.

We only had to wait two minutes for a goal. Alan had just commented to me about it being a long time since Chelsea scored a first-half goal at home in the league, when Paolo Ferreira sent over a perfect cross for the leaping Didier Drogba to get the feintest of flicks (snap!) and Florent Malouda to sweep the ball home.

Get in.

Mike, Ashley and Brandon – Welcome To Chelsea!

I’ll be honest; I was enjoying chatting to Brandon during the first-half about all sorts of things and found myself drifting away from the game. We spoke mainly about football but various other topics found their way into our chat. It was fun talking to an avid fan with a different perspective to mine. I hoped that having a Madrid resident next to me might somehow jolt Torres into goal scoring action later in the game. The atmosphere, despite our early goal, was quite subdued and there seemed to be a strange air throughout the evening. It didn’t seem like a game at the business end of the season.

On 26 minutes, what a lovely goal from Salomon Kalou. It was most unlike him, wasn’t it? A forceful run and an even better early strike. I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball hit the back of the net before the ‘keeper Ben Foster was even able to move.

Not so Kalou-less.

On 35 minutes, Didier cut in from the left and hit a daisy-cutter which the Birmingham City ‘keeper did well to turn around the far post.

Birmingham had a few sporadic attacks, but Cech was mainly untroubled.

The main problem for me was that for the second time in about a month, an over officious steward warned me not to take any photographs. It was a case of “cat and mouse” with him for the rest of the game. A similar fate befell Cathy against Wigan.

Vince – a former season-ticket holder – was sat in front of the three of us and I explained to Brandon that he lives out in East London, deep in West Ham territory. Sadly, his young son is a West Ham fan. Vince’s son could become the secretary general of the United Nations, find a cure for cancer, become CEO of a company which outsold Microsoft, beat Stephen Hawking at chess, record a platinum selling album, win five gold medals at a future Olympics and bring the warring factions in the Middle East together in peace; Vince would still feel that he had failed as a father.

West Ham. I ask you.

At the break, Tommy Baldwin was walked around the pitch by Neil Barnett. I explained to Brandon that he was known as “The Sponge” by fans and players alike in his time at Chelsea. Just as I had finished talking, the automatic sprayers came to life and the two of them had to sprint away from the water. With typical quick-witted gusto, Alan remarked “go on, soak it up, Tommy.”

Soon into the second-half, from a Drogba corner, a David Luiz header went wide.

The highlight of the second period was the introduction of debutant Ryan Bertrand for Ashley Cole on 56 minutes. He fitted in well and, after just five minutes in a first team shirt, sent over a cross from down below me by the north-west corner post. His pinpoint cross was headed down and in by Florent Malouda.

3-0 and coasting. The Malouda and Kalou Show.

Malou and Kalouda.

A strange old night in SW6.

To be honest, after our ridiculous bad luck at St. Andrews in November, it was only right that there would be Chelsea goals in this game.

On 66 minutes, a double substitution; Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka came on for the two goalscorers.

On 74 minutes, we conceded a very silly penalty when David Luiz uncharacteristically chopped at a Brum attacker – going away from the goal – and the referee had no choice but to award the penalty. It was easily despatched.

3-1.

Not to worry – we conceded just as we heard that Tottenham had recovered from being 1-3 down at home to Arsenal to get it back to 3-3. This cheered us up!

Anelka, playing deep, lost possession on the halfway line and Larsonn had the whole half at his mercy. Thankfully, he was short on confidence and chose to shoot early and his tame effort skidded well wide.

The last action of the match took place after Birmingham were penalised for a back-pass inside their box and the free-kick was only eight yards out. The crowd bellowed for Torres, but Drogba – enjoying a fine game – blasted high over the bar.

3-1 to The Champions – job done!

Brandon and I watched as the team left the pitch, but noted that yet again JT was the last man off, stripped to the waist, beating his chest.

Outside, we met up with “The Lamberts” and they were very contented. Thankfully, they didn’t use the word “awesome”, but I was in no doubt of their happiness.

The four of us soon said our goodbyes – but I made sure that Mike does his match report once he has time.

We dropped into The Goose to catch a glimpse of the Real vs. Barca game from Valencia and to let the traffic subside. Another pint for Parky and a refreshing Coke for me.

We left London at 10.30pm and I was home by 12.45pm.

Yep – up to second place now and who knows? Despite the doom-mongering of a few weeks ago, we’re still in contention.

Current Form.

Chelsea : 5 – 1 – 0

Manchester United : 3 – 1 – 2

Arsenal : 1 – 5 – 0

Five games to play. Let’s go.

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