Tales From The Riverbank

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 1 March 2014.

Has there ever been a more dramatic contrast between consecutive away games in the history of Chelsea Football Club? On Wednesday, there was the electric and intimidating atmosphere of an encounter against Galatasaray in Istanbul, that alien city on the banks of the Bosphorus, amid acrid fumes from flares and festering vitriol from fans. Then, just three days later, a match against our benign close neighbours Fulham at Craven Cottage, nestled alongside comfortable town houses and the River Thames, just across the water from the chattering middle classes of Putney and Barnes.

It was no surprise that my head had been full of memories from my short spell in Turkey since my return. The vault of recollections was plundered at regular moments; it was a rich seam. The time that I spent in Istanbul will stay with me for a long time. However, time waits for no man in the world of football and the West London Derby was to soon occupy my thoughts.

The drive into London – I took the southern route for a change, which took me past Stonehenge, and then over the hills of Hampshire and through leafy Surrey before zipping past Twickenham and into the centre – was a joyous affair. There were laughs-a-plenty from my co-passengers Brian and Parky. The time flew. Before I had time to blink, I was edging my car through the highly desirable area just south of the snaking Thames. I was parked-up just off the Lower Richmond Road at around 12.15pm. We soon embarked on a little pub-crawl which was centered on the area just to the south of the river in Putney. First up was the familiar Duke’s Head; a regular meeting-point for our forays to Craven Cottage over the past ten years. It’s a fine Victorian boozer. However, the fact that our Peronis were served in plastic glasses was met by frowns. On non-football days, I am sure that the beers and lagers would be served in proper glasses. This attitude annoyed me; there was little likelihood of any trouble “kicking-off” in this pub. There is no place for plastics at football; this extends to beer glasses too.

This would be my seventh trip to Craven Cottage with Chelsea. My very first visit to the ground was way back in 1985, when I was in London visiting a friend from my home town who was at college at Middlesex Poly. Chelsea were elsewhere and I was keen to visit a new football stadium. I steadfastly refused to go to Arsenal and talked my mate into watching the Fulham vs. Charlton Athletic Second Division match. We endured a dour 0-0 draw from the terraces of the home Hammersmith End on that March afternoon twenty-nine years ago. I remember absolutely nothing about the game.

Our paths rarely crossed until Fulham gained promotion to the top flight in 2002. Our dominance over them has continued, though; an infamous 1-0 defeat at Fulham in 2005-2006 is our only defeat at the hands of our pesky neighbours since 1980. On that Sunday afternoon, when Joe Cole was memorably substituted by Jose Mourinho after just twenty minutes, the Fulham fans celebrated as if they had won the league.

Bless’em.

Next, we popped into The Spotted Horse; another Peroni, this time – thankfully – in a proper glass. A few familiar Chelsea fans were inside. Our last port of call was The Railway, which was a large public house with bars on two floors. Here, even more Chelsea fans, including many who had been in Istanbul. Alan and Gary were sat towards the rear and we soon joined them. There was a mix of both Fulham and Chelsea fans inside and not a hint of animosity between the two.

As soon as we sat, Alan asked us to raise our glasses –

“Peter Osgood.”

Our legendary centre-forward was taken from us eight years ago to the day. How we miss him.

In the back room of that Putney boozer, Istanbul was fondly remembered and our performance quickly analysed. But we soon moved on. This season is racing past. Alan and Gal were pleased to see Brian once again; Brian used to attend many home games a few years ago, but this would be one of only a small amount of away games that I had attended with him. It would be his first visit to Craven Cottage.

As we left The Railway and walked north, over Putney Bridge – stopping for a few photographs with the Thames behind – Brian’s excitement was palpable. He had recently heard that Fulham were planning to expand their stadium and was keen to visit Craven Cottage before these possible changes might take place. I had remembered seeing these plans a few years ago. Fulham aimed to throw another tier on the Riverside Stand, allied with a very pleasing new walkway abutting the river, bringing the capacity up to around 30,000, but I think plans have stalled.

We walked through Bishop’s Park alongside hundreds of other match-goers; it is always one of the nicest approaches to any stadium in these isles. On the river, several rowing crews flew past. The starting point of the Oxford vs. Cambridge boat race is at Putney Bridge every Easter.

There was the usual scrum at the red brick turnstiles on Stevenage Road. My timing wasn’t bad; I reached my seat between Alan and Gal a matter of seconds before the game kicked-off. The stadium was virtually full; I noted just a handful of empty seats in the Riverside Stand to my left and two patches of empty seats behind the two roof supports in the Hammersmith Stand opposite. Since my visit in 1985, the stadium has changed, but its ambiance has survived. The cottage – more a pavilion – in the corner to my right is its defining motif. It’s a lovely sight. The Johnny Haynes Stand to my right – I am sure I have mentioned this in every one of my match reports from Fulham – is exactly the same size as the old East Stand at Stamford Bridge which lasted from 1905 to 1972.

Our end – The Putney End – was full of boisterous away fans. There always seems to be a good sing-song at Fulham. The sun shone brightly and there was anticipation for a fine Chelsea performance.

I hoped for good things as the first-half began.

Ha. What a let-down.

Despite some strong vocal support, Chelsea were as poor in the first-half as we have seen this season. I almost feel as if I shouldn’t waste too much time in reporting our failings.

We were dire.

An early chance fell to Fulham – a Clint Dempsey header, from a Kasami cross, but Cech untroubled – and the home team certainly looked the more likely to score as the entire Chelsea team struggled to get a foothold. The support from the away contingent soon fell away and I found myself looking out at the Thames in desperation at our poor showing. Passes were wayward, there was poor movement off the ball, little industry, a lack of width down our right, scant desire and a general malaise which dumbfounded me and plenty of others.

However – this is the worst part. Rather than get behind the team, many Chelsea fans within earshot chose to signal out individual players for personal abuse.

“Oscar – you are shit. You ain’t played well for months.”

“Crap Torres. Get him off.”

“Cech’s past it. Get Courtois back.”

“Matic. Poor.”

“We need two new full backs.”

“Schurrle – rubbish.”

“Ramires – awful.”

“Hazard has been crap since his hat-trick.”

If the football was poor, the atmosphere inside the Putney End was worse. Of course, every spectator who attends Chelsea games has their own take on what supporting Chelsea – on match day – means. I just felt dismayed at the screams of negativity. There were shouts of frustration at every poor pass and wayward shot – I get that – but it just annoys me when fellow fans show a greater willingness to be negative than to be positive.

A couple of shots – one well saved, the other poor – from Torres were the only hints during the entire half that our fortunes might change. In our defence, I thought that Gary Cahill was our best player, closing and blocking well. It had been a half of few chances for either side. A couple of Fulham chances at the end of the break were thankfully spurned.

As the teams slouched off the pitch at the break, my eyes were centered on a quiet and contemplative Jose Mourinho as he walked alone towards the changing rooms beneath the cottage in the corner.

I wondered what our manager might say to the players.

At the break, I slumped in my seat. I looked out at the River Thames again. The waters sped past.

“Well, surely we can’t play as poorly in the second-half.”

The Chelsea crowd sensed a greater drive from our players in the opening few moments of the second period. The volume, thankfully, was a lot better. We were soon rewarded. The talismanic Hazard, showing a lot more verve, spotted the fine run of Schurrle. His lofted ball was perfect. Schurrle steadied himself and slotted past Stekelenburg. I had time too; I captured his goal on film.

The Chelsea support roared.

It was supremely ironic that the one player who had drawn most disdain in the first-half had opened the scoring. Soon after, the buzzing Hazard’s perfect rabona found the leaping Torres but his header spun wide. Within a few minutes, Hazard picked out Schurrle’s subtle run behind the sleeping Fulham defence. The German forward tucked the ball in. And another goal captured by my camera.

Again, a euphoric scream from us all.

Only minutes later, a lofted ball to Torres was nicely played into the path of – guess who? – Schurrle and he adroitly slammed the ball in.

3-0.

An Andrea Schurrle hat-trick. Unbelievable, eh?

We boomed –

“DA DA DA DA DA – ANDRE SCHURRLE – DA DA DA DA DA – ANDRE SCHURRLE.”

Smiles all over the Putney End. What a transformation. Fulham were chasing shadows during this period, but caused us a little anxiety when Heitinga turned in a corner after we momentarily went to sleep. Sound familiar? Thankfully, we showed enough shape and resilience to resist any further Fulham attacks. At the time of the final whistle, the Chelsea end was buoyant.

“WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE. SAY – WE ARE TOP OF THE LEAGUE.”

And four points clear.

What a strange season. At times, we have struggled. There have been brief flashes of brilliance. In general, there have been periods of dogged pragmatism interspersed with moments of pure joy. Deep down, I still need a little convincing that we might end up winning the league this season. Arsenal are fading fast, as they always do; how we enjoyed their demise at Stoke City. Of course, I still fear Manchester City. And whisper it, Liverpool scare me too. However, two words surely bring optimism to the Chelsea ranks.

Tottenham next.

See you there.

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Tales From The Twilight Zone

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 21 September 2013.

There was a fleeting moment, at around 1.30pm – a good four hours ahead of the kick-off between us and near neighbours Fulham – when my mate Glenn and I found ourselves walking past the main entrance to the Fulham Broadway tube station. We were directly opposite Mark Worrall’s “CFCUK” stall and Bob the Tee-Shirt son’s “Half & Half Scarves” stall. I’m not really what made me think of it, but I recollected both of us, aged 18 and 16, walking those same steps almost thirty years ago; our first game of travelling up from deepest Somerset, by train in those days, was against Newcastle United in November 1983. How nice it would be to travel back in time and to be able to show ourselves – young and innocent versions of ourselves – a little clip of us together at Chelsea in 2013. I wonder what we would have made of it.

Firstly, I am quite sure that we would have been utterly amazed that our friendship was still going strong after all of those years. At school, our paths crossed occasionally, but only through stunted conversations about Chelsea. At school, I was so shy while Glenn was always more gregarious. We were quite different; calcium carbonate and cheddar. There was a bond through Chelsea, but we were never close enough to be called “mates” per se in those days. Since then – that storied 1983-1984 season has so much to answer for…we met Alan during that campaign too – our friendship has stayed strong and buoyant. We have shared a treasure trove of laughs and memories;  Newcastle United away 1984, Anfield 1985, Tottenham 1987, Wembley 1994, Wembley 1997, Seville 1998, Stockholm 1998, Rome 1999, Barcelona 2005, Bolton 2005, Munich 2012. And all games and places in between. Of course, apart from receding hairlines and the horrible aging process, what would we have noticed about 2013? The new tube station, replacing that little row of charismatic shops which included the famous Stamford Bridge café and the Chelsea souvenir shop, would have been noted for sure. The new modern church, which has replaced the red brick edition, with its little café down below – which we sometimes visited circa 1996 – would have been noted. The old Chelsea Supporters Club – at 547 Fulham Road – has long since been demolished, to be replaced by apartments. I’m sure the 1983 Chris and Glenn would have been intrigued to hear how our footballing fortunes had fared in the ensuing thirty years.

The answer, of course, is the stuff of dreams; two promotions, one relegation, six F.A. cups, three League titles, three League Cups, a European Cup, a UEFA cup and a ECWC cup. If we had known that all of these trophies would eventually come our way in 1983, we might well have dived into The Britannia pub – now a tiki cocktail bar, whatever that is – and chanced our luck in nervously ordering two pints of lager, knowing that our Chelsea life would be just fine.

“Cheers Chris.”

“Cheers Glenn…here’s to the next thirty years.”

After I collected my away ticket for the Steaua Bucharest game at the box office – just £19, I think I’ll like Romania – the two of us spent an hour in the foyer of the hotel. In a repeat of the last game of the previous season, we were privileged to spend a precious few moments chatting to Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti and Bobby Tambling.

What the Glenn and Chris of 1983 would have made of this, I can’t imagine.

Bobby Tambling, now full of colour and fully recovered from his awful illness of the past eighteen months, was able to chat to us for a few moments about his miraculous recovery; he now walks at least two miles per day, has lost a lot of weight and looks magnificent. Glenn and I – plus Parky – first met Bobby at an event in Wiltshire in April 2011 and I can’t praise him enough. He is a lovely, humble man and one of the nicest Chelsea players that I have been lucky enough to meet. I also briefly chatted to former Chelsea player and manager Ken Shellito, who was visiting from his home in Malaysia; there was a reunion of the 1962-1963 Second Division promotion-winning team at the Harris Suite on Thursday. Ken is another lovely man.

Glenn and I backtracked to meet the rest of the boys in The Goose. The place didn’t seem too packed. I spent an hour or so in the bosom of my Chelsea family, chatting away about all sorts; it was lovely to see Daryl’s Mum for the first time for a while and we caught up with a few things.

Lacoste Watch :

Daryl – yellow.

Alan – orange.

Parky – lavender.

There was chat about Simon’s film, Rob’s son’s foray into writing about the sport of boxing, tickets for Swindon, tickets for Norwich, plans for Bucharest, but little talk pertaining to neither our team, nor the perceived crisis at Chelsea since Wednesday’s defeat. Glenn and I had got all that out of our system on the short drive to collect Parky a few hours earlier.

In a nutshell, we trusted Mourinho to sort it out. It might take a while, but so be it. I’m the first one to realise his faults, but I’d rather have him in charge at Stamford Bridge than anyone else.

I decided to leave for the stadium earlier than usual and I spent a while slowly walking up to the main entrance. The analytical part of me wanted to gauge the mood of the Chelsea support base. In truth, all was relatively quiet. The one exception made me roll my eyes to the sky. I do a lot of that at Chelsea these days. To my annoyance, on passing the West Stand entrance, I saw a group of knob heads playing up for a TV camera, and mysteriously singing “Blue Army! Blue Army!” while struggling to stand up straight.

Since when has this been a Chelsea song?

At least they didn’t start singing “I’m Chelsea Till I Die” – another non-Chelsea song which I am yet to recollect hearing at either home or away matches yet seems to be spotted on various Chelsea social media sites with increasing regularity. If I have heard it, I must have consciously deleted it from my memory. It is a bland generic chant, mainly sung by followers of lower league teams, and as far as I am concerned is neither Chelsea, humorous, tuneful or relevant.

This, of course, would be a game played at 5.30pm; a strange time for football, in the twilight zone between afternoon and evening. It was mild. Rain threatened, but there was only mist and a grey stillness.

Inside the stadium, it was clear that the rumours were true; Fulham had failed to sell all of their 3,000 away tickets. There were gaps in the upper tier…a seat here, a seat there…but a large swathe of empty seats in the lower tier. Above, a limp Fulham flag sagged in the damp early evening air. I’d hazard a guess that they only sold 2,500.

Only 2,500 for an away game at their biggest – and closest rivals…or so they would have us think.

Quite pathetic.

Even more pathetic was their oh-so original chant, soon into the match –

“Where were you when you were shit?”

Bloody hell.  The irony.

“You’re not even here when you’re good.”

Despite my pre-game comments about Mourinho, the first-half was bloody awful. There was no room for Juan Mata, even on the bench, and I just knew that the pro-Mata/anti-Mourinho brigade would use this as continued evidence that our manager sees Mata superfluous to our needs. Mourinho, to be fair, has continually stated that he rates Mata and wants to integrate him into our team. I think this one might run for a few weeks yet. The sad thing is that Juan Mata is surely one of the most genuine, ego-free, and pleasant and charming players we have seen at Chelsea for a while. He’s in the mould of Gianfranco Zola and that is praise enough. Inside, he must be hurting. I was personally surprised that Eto’o was starting, but I guess he needs games. In the Fulham side, former Chelsea players Steve Sidwell, Damian Duff and Scotty Parker lined up to face our midfield of Ramires, Mikel, Schurrle, Hazard and man of the moment Oscar.

Highlights of the first-half?

A wicked cross from the industrious Ivanovic was met by Eto’o at the near post – a great run – but his touch was heavy and the ball flew away from the goal rather than towards it. A lovely defence-splitting ball set up Darren Bent, who broke away with only Cech to beat; his shot was low and Cech cleared with a mixture of hand and foot. A sustained period of Chelsea pressure ended when the ball broke to Ivanovic but his shot was easily blocked. There was another shot on goal from Eto’o but chances were at an all-time low. The mood inside Stamford Bridge was of depressing concern at our lack of pace, creativity and penetration. All was quiet. There was an audible barrage of boos at the end of the half; supporters began gesturing and pointing among themselves, annoyed at the booing, annoyed at the lack of support. Please, not another civil war like last season, please.

I chatted to a couple of mates at the break. I hate to try to pretend to be the tactical analyst simply because I am not that great at understanding the nuances of modern day football. However, I got dragged into an analysis of the current state of our team.

My point was this –

We all know that Jose Mourinho leaves no stone unturned in his pre-match analysis of where his teams can take advantage of opponents’ weaknesses. I imagine Don Revie-style dossiers on opposing players, flipcharts, DVDs, Powerpoint presentations and training sessions to replicate possible game day situations. Practice, practice, practice. Detail, detail, detail. The 4-2-3-1 formation is merely the skeleton on which Mourinho adds body.

I just wonder if he over-manages. Is he too much the puppeteer? Other managers may have left that vital 10% – the off-the-cuff, the irrational, the personal, the spontaneous, the ludicrous, the tantalising – to the players themselves. I imagine Ruud Gullit saying to the Chelsea team –

“You boys are great footballers. Go play for each other.”

I just wonder if the current players, at this juncture in the team’s growth, are not allowed that personal freedom. There definitely seems to be a lack of bohemian creativity in the team just now, save for an occasional Hazard back-heel. And then I remembered back to Jose Mourinho’s first spell in charge and the rather prosaic and pragmatic approach to our games in the first few months of 2004-2005; defence first, clean sheets, win at all costs, kill the game, then build. That season ended in just one defeat, just fifteen goals conceded and our first league title in fifty years. I hoped for an enigmatic Mourinho pep talk at half-time. In order to make that omelette, it was time to turn up the heat.

During the interval, Neil Barnett spoke –

“As Chelsea fans, we certainly believe in miracles.”

Bobby Tambling, in a mid-sixties retro shirt, walked unaided around the Stamford Bridge pitch and was serenaded by all. I had warned him that he might well be a blubbering wreck during this, but he appeared to be holding it together well. His shirt bore the words “thank you” and his convalescence was due in no half-measure to the love he has received from us all.

Thankfully, we only had to wait five minutes into the second period for a much-needed goal. Persistence from the fitful Andrea Schurrle down below us in the Matthew Harding Upper resulted in a cross come shot which Stockdale only parried. A prod from Eto’o was blocked, but the ball spun out to Oscar who struck home.

The place roared. A jig from Oscar in front of the Chelsea fans in the corner. Phew.

There was a Tommy Trinder-eseque “THTCAUN/COMLD” from Alan and myself and all was well with the Chelsea World.

1-0 to Chelsea.

It was autumn 2004 all over again.

In truth, we completely dominated the second period. Apart from a Steve Sidwell miscued header at the far post, Fulham were on the back foot, rarely troubling us.

Mourinho rang the changes. Eto’o, who was starting to show good movement, was replaced by Torres. The volume of support for the boy from Fuenlabrada surprised even me; the Chelsea fans clearly haven’t given up on him. I am dreadfully worried where goals will come from this season, but all we can do as supporters is to support and encourage them all.

This was much better fare from Chelsea now, with Fulham tiring and our passing improving with every move. Ramires’ movement and drive spurred others on, Mikel was breaking up play, Hazard and Oscar were linking well with Torres. Fulham simply were not in it.

A corner was met by a lovely jump from Torres. His downward, goal bound header, was parried by the Fulham keeper. Frank Lampard, on for Schurrle, swiped the ball in. A header from Terry kept the ball alive and Mikel twisted his body to connect and slam the ball in from eight yards. I snapped a photograph, but the image is too blurred – maybe I was in a state of shock – for sharing.

Again, the Stamford Bridge stadium roared. Thankfully, Mikel ran straight towards Frank right down below me. I was able to take a succession of photographs of his beaming face, tongue cheekily poking out to one side, before he was engulfed by smiling team mates. I noted that JT stuck his head right into Mikel’s chest and I can only imagine what words of encouragement our captain gave our massively underrated midfielder. At last, he had scored his first league goal.

A song was soon forthcoming from the Matthew Harding Lower –

“Jon Obi Mikel – He Scores When He Wants.”

At the final whistle, Neil Barnett was soon keen to point out that Chelsea, the crisis club as always, were top of the league.

It had been the strangest of days.

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Tales From Both Sides Of The River

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 17 April 2013.

I was able to leave work slightly earlier than usual at 3.45pm. Unfortunately, Parky was unable to attend once more. It would be me – just me – alone with my thoughts on the familiar drive to SW6. There was certainly much to dwell upon. Firstly, my mind was full of thoughts of my father. Wednesday 17th. April 2013 was, sadly, the twentieth anniversary of his passing. My father was taken ill while shopping in Frome during the afternoon of Friday 16th. April 1993. He sadly passed away at the Royal United hospital in Bath in the small hours of the following day. In truth, much of my grieving twenty years later had taken place on the Tuesday; virtually all of the tearful memories and the strongest emotions came from the Friday 16th. April 1993.

Dad wasn’t a massive football fan; his sports were swimming, diving and badminton. He once boxed in the RAF during World War Two. However, once I fell in love with Chelsea Football Club, he soon realised how much the club meant to me. That shouldn’t be taken lightly. I often hear stories of friends saying “my dad hated football and never took me to any games.”

Not so my father – and mother.

My Christmas present in 1973 – the best ever – was the news that my parents were going to take me to Stamford Bridge to see Chelsea. Oh my; just writing these words some forty years later brings it all back. That realisation that I’d be seeing my heroes in that iconic royal blue kit – in colour, for real, not on our black and white TV – made me so excited. As I have said before, I owe my parents so much.

My father attended many games with me over the years. His last one was against Everton on the first day of 1991. As I drove past Swindon on the M4, I remembered a game from January 1988. My father finished work in Frome and drove home to collect my mother and I to take us all to Swindon for Chelsea’s Simod Cup (aka Full Member’s Cup ) game against Swindon Town at their County Ground stadium. At the time, we were plummeting towards the First Division’s relegation zone while Swindon was a Third Division side. We were caught up in traffic, however, and found it difficult to find a parking place. The plan was for my parents to sit in the main stand while I joined 2,000 Chelsea in the cramped corner terrace. We were so late arriving that I heard the roars from the home crowd celebrating Swindon’s second goal as I was still trying to get in.

“Oh great. This is going to be a great night.”

In the end, we lost 4-0. We were awful, even though our team contained stalwarts such as Kerry Dixon, Steve Clarke, Colin Pates, John Bumstead and Tony Dorigo; good players one and all. I remember chants of “Hollins Must Go, Hollins Must Go, Hello, Hello” all night long. It was a dire night and it was a grim fore-telling of our eventual fate come May.

We were kept inside for ten minutes while the local hoodlums were pushed away from the stadium. I looked around the terraces where we had been stood all evening. Twenty yards away, looking out of place amongst hundreds of young Londoners, were my mother and father. I trotted over to greet them. It seems that they had arrived too late to gain entrance to the main stand; they had not bought tickets beforehand, we hadn’t thought it necessary. In those days, paying on the day was the norm. My parents had informed the club officials that they were Chelsea supporters and so, unbelievably, had been led around the pitch by stewards and put inside the away pen.

I think if I had seen them, I would have thought “oh no, what have they done now?”

Twenty-five years on, the image of my Mum and Dad, dressed in his suit, with a sheepskin coat, still brings a smile to my face.

Later that season, they were in The Shed for the Charlton Athletic game. But that’s another story for another time.

I stopped at Reading services on the drive east. As I returned to my car, I strangely noticed the incessant roar from the traffic hurtling towards London on the eastbound carriageway of the M4 motorway. I was thrilled by it. I smiled. It reinforced my love of travel, of moving, of visiting new and old places, the constant desire to see new cities, new landscapes, new towns, new villages, new people. There is still romance in travel; from seeing the ocean as a four year old boy – the wonder of that vast body of water – to visiting foreign lands in my middle years. I never want it to stop.

During the last hour of my journey, this was enforced further as I attempted to put some plan in place in order to visit Old Amsterdam for our potential participation in the Europa Cup final and New Amsterdam for our friendly at Yankee Stadium. I have already block-booked that fortnight from work; now for the intricate fine tuning…schedules, dates, hotels, flights, just lovely.

My pre-match plans for the evening’s game at Craven Cottage actually stemmed from my visit to Yankee Stadium in July. After the Chelsea game in Philly, I returned to NYC to catch a Yankees vs. Red Sox game before I returned home. In “Stans Sports Bar” that evening – before and after the game – I got chatting to Britt, an American who was over from London, visiting NYC with friends. I was wearing a CFC T-shirt and she soon announced she was a Fulham season-ticket holder. We exchanged email addresses and promised to meet up for a pint during the season. We had arranged to meet that night at The Spotted Horse in Putney at 6.45pm.

On the approach into London, high on the elevated M4, I was again mesmerized by the panorama of London’s skykline which was particularly clear in the early evening sun; Harrow On The Hill to the north, the Wembley Arch, the Post Office Tower, Canary Wharf away in the distance, a quick glimpse of The Shard, the hills around Clapham to the south. Up close were the new high-rises at Brentford, the old art deco buildings, the Lucozade sign, the floodlights of Griffin Park, Earls Court and Olympia.

Travel. I love it.

I soon drove around the Hammersmith roundabout and down the Fulham Palace Road. No need to turn off along Lillee road this time; I was heading south to Putney, not east to Stamford Bridge. As I drove on, I caught glimpses of the floodlight pylons at Fulham’s classic stadium to my right. At the Golden Lion pub I saw a sign which stated that access was for FFC season ticket-holders or membership card holders only. I was stuck on Putney Bridge for a while as neon-clad cyclists, cars and London buses jostled for position.

Just after 6pm, I was parked up.

Walking past a few pubs by the River Thames – The Half Moon, The Duke’s Head – I soon realised what a lovely pre-match this would be. There is nothing quite like a game of football at Fulham. I looked up and saw a modern red bus crossing Putney Bridge. It wasn’t the old classic shape of a Routemaster, but it was still an iconic sight.

I needed sustenance and so looked for options. Unlike my expensive meal in Turin in November, there was no gastronomic treat for me this time. I ended up with a typical football meal of chicken and chips. Bloody hell, even KFC even sounds like a football club.

I reached The Spotted Horse at 6.30pm. Britt soon appeared and it was lovely to see her again. She was with her bloke Chris – an armchair Liverpool fan – and we had a quick catch up. As I quaffed a pint of Peroni, we chatted about all sorts. In addition to being a Fulham season ticket holder, she also follows Saracens rugby union. She is originally from DC and we spoke about that area’s sports teams. In fact, it was a similar conversation that I have had with various US guests to Stamford Bridge over the years. It felt almost liberating to be chatting to a fan of a rival team though. I had promised myself not to have too many digs at Fulham during the evening; I almost succeeded. In truth, Britt summed things up when she said –

“You don’t care about us, though, do you?”

Broadly she was correct, though I have a little soft spot for Fulham, which I am sure winds most Fulham fans up further. It’s true though. Long may the SW6 derby continue in the top flight.

Before we left The Spotted Horse, I briefly mentioned my father and we toasted him.

“Cheers Dad.”

There was talk of Peter Osgood, my first game, a Chelsea vs. Fulham game from 1982, a game from 2002, the banter was flying, it was super.

We then moved onto an even better pub – The Coat & Badge – and I had another pint while talking to more US Fulham fans. I had to stop and think –

“Shouldn’t I be talking to Chelsea fans? What will my mates think?”

To be honest, I was revelling in the change of scene, seeing new people, new places. I spoke to a Fulham fan from Philly and he was baffled by our club’s decision to sack Roberto di Matteo. To be truthful, I was stuck for words. I couldn’t – still – validate Roman’s decision. I also chatted to a girl – another American – about her experiences watching Fulham and living in London. Her accent suggested she was from The South, but I recognised a few cadences which lead me to believe she was from North Carolina or Georgia. To be honest, her accent was very similar in places to that of Mary-Anne from Knoxville Tennessee. I decided that I had to quell my inquisitiveness and so I asked her if she was from North Carolina or Georgia.

“Yes! North Carolina, Tennessee.”

“Ah, I thought so…you sound like a friend from Knoxville.”

“Knoxville is my home!”

“Damn…I should have gone with my hunch and said Knoxville…would have freaked you out, right!”

At 7.30pm, it was time to depart. We had a fantastic walk across Putney Bridge, with Britt leading the way, nothing getting in her way. It was quite an aerobic workout. I again commented that there is something quite therapeutic and hypnotic about walking towards a football stadium with thousands more.

It was a lovely spring evening as we strode through Bishop’s Park. The Oxford and Cambridge boat race starts on the river at Putney Bridge of course. It’s a lovely part of the world.

I wished Britt and Chris well – “may the best team win and all that bollocks” – and then turned towards the red brick of the away turnstiles where more familiar faces were everywhere I looked.

I soon bumped into two lads from Melksham, near where I work; “no Parky, mate?”

I looked down at my phone…what was the time?

1955.

A good year.

Up into the seats and I was soon alongside Alan and Gary and Kev from Bristol.

We were lower down than usual. Not far from the pitch. Excellent.

Before I had time to blink, the teams were on the pitch, walking across from the cottage to my right. Chelsea were in all blue. Although I love the design of our kit this year, I still think the blue is not dark enough, not vivid enough, too light, too muted. There was to be no show of hostility that we saw at Griffin Park as Benitez strode across the pitch. I quickly ran through the team. John Terry back, Ivanovic at right-back, Lamps back, Moses in, Torres in. I looked at the Fulham team to see if Duffer was playing, but didn’t spot him.

Let’s go to work.

This was a game that we simply had to win to stay in the hunt for a top four place in the league. We all knew that. But it wouldn’t be easy. The last two visits to Craven Cottage were draws.

Gary mentioned that he had seen some American Fulham fans on the tube on his journey from work. I can see the attraction, what with the pleasant setting of Craven Cottage, plus the former US players such as McBride, Bocanegra, Dempsey, Keller and Johnson who have represented Fulham recently. I wonder if those Fulham fans were aware of Fulham’s first batch of American players in the ‘thirties; the often forgotten trio of Lou Schattendorrf, Farmer Boy O’Malley and Chuck Rosencrantz III.

Fulham began strongly, much to our chagrin, and we heaved a massive sigh of relief as Ruiz volleyed over from close in. We weren’t playing well and a Karagounis effort bounced against the top of the bar. There were murmurs of disquiet in the away end. I looked around the trim stadium. I noted small pockets of empty seats, but it was near capacity. The Chelsea choir decided to start mocking our neighbours with a few choice ditties –

“We don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

“Michael Jackson – he’s one of your own.”

“Nonce for a statue. You’ve got a nonce for a statue.”

I felt that Dimitar Berbatov was their main threat, yet we seemed to be offering him too much space. He was often unmarked. A few half-chances came and went, but it clearly wasn’t a great start by Chelsea.

The Chelsea fans were in good voice, though, with a variety of songs being aired. I could hear some sort of noise emanating from the Hammersmith End – where Britt and Chris were watching – but I couldn’t decipher it. I never heard once their usual “We are Fulham, fcuk Chelsea” song once.

On the half-hour, with frustrations rising, the ball was played square to David Luiz, some thirty-five yards out. Many fans behind me simultaneously yelled “shoooooot!” and I am sure this was mirrored in bars all over the world. Luiz touched the ball once, it sat up for him, and he unleashed a curling, dipping, thunderbolt which crashed into Mark Schwarzer’s goal.

Oh boy.

What a cracker. Schwarzer was beaten before he could move.

The Chelsea end roared.

In truth, the goal had come against the run of play. Until then, we had looked disjointed.

Just after, Emanuelsen had the ball under his spell, looked up and painstakingly aimed a shot at the far post. I was right behind the path of the ball and expected a goal. From the middle of the six yard box, Petr Cech stretched low and touched the ball out for a corner. It was a phenomenal save. Just after, a lovely flowing move out from defence found Torres in space and in the inside-right channel. His shot was crashed over and we sighed.

A shot from Berbatov went wide, a Lampard free-kick went close. Just before the break, the previously quiet Juan Mata floated a cross towards the far post and John Terry, making a great blind run, was able to rise and head home. How he celebrated that one.

With us 2-0 up, we were able to breath a massive sigh of relief. A Ruiz penalty claim was waved away by Mike Dean. We had ridden our luck, but the two goal cushion meant there were smiles at half-time.

Soon into the second-half, with the pressure seemingly off, we were able to relax and sing. The Putney End, which seems to have excellent acoustics, was rocking to a fantastic foot stomping and hand clapping rendition of a song from Munich.

“We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe. We are the Champions – the Champions of Europe.”

The place was rocking. What noise.

To be honest, despite the awful anniversary, this was turning into a just magnificent evening down by the banks of the Thames. The jokes were coming thick and fast between Alan, Gary and myself, the boys were winning 2-0 and the Chelsea fans all around me were turning in the best vocal performance of the season.

The majority of Chelsea’s play seemed to be coming down our right flank, with Torres putting in a great night’s performance, full of energy and application. I was able to capture a lot of Hazard’s dribbles on film. The team were creating more chances and the fans were responding. A great Torres cross almost resulted in a goal, but Mata was unable to connect.

A Moses curler forced a fine save from Schwarzer. From the corner, Torres flicked on Mata’s delivery and John Terry made sure, heading it in from beneath the bar. The Chelsea fans in the Putney End believed that Nando had scored and so soon serenaded him. John Terry smiled at us and pointed towards Torres, while Torres dismissively waved away the adulation. Texts soon confirmed that it was JT’s goal.

Whatever.

Fulham 0 Chelsea 3.

Time for more song.

“Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam I pray.
Amsterdam, Amsterdam – we are coming.
We are coming in the month of May.”

Towards the end of the game, the Chelsea fans began looking ahead towards Sunday and our game at Anfield by warming up with a smattering of Liverpool songs. This was almost Mourinho-esque…with games won, he would often change the focus, ask players to conserve energy and start to think about the next challenge. Alas there is no Anfield for me on Sunday but I am not disappointed. With all of the noise about Benitez which will undoubtedly dominate the day, I am happy missing it.

There was a cooling wind coming off the Thames as I hurriedly walked back through Bishop’s Park. The lights alongside the river created flickering reflections on the water. It was a lovely scene. The Chelsea fans were still in good voice. The Fulham fans, who must have been taking part in an odd oath of silence since half-time, were unable to be heard.

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Tales From A Night Of Gallows Humour

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 28 November 2012.

On the way in to work on Wednesday, I was pondering (I do a lot of pondering, has anyone noticed?) about the club’s hold on our emotions. Despite putting us through periods of strain, we are still slave to its hold on us. It is a very strange relationship, this; the club and the fan. It suddenly came to me in a flash. If being hitched to Chelsea was like a conventional marriage, then there is no doubt that the two parties would have divorced years ago. The fan base would have cited irreconcilable differences, to say nothing of periods of mental torture. And the inevitable question has to be; why do we keep coming back for more?

The glib answer is “because it’s part of who I am” but it has to run deeper than that. I don’t expect there will be any conclusions about this complicated question in this report, but it might for form the basis of what I’ll be thinking over the next few weeks and months.

“Why do I keep putting myself through this?”

Let it be said, Chelsea vs. Fulham on a Wednesday night in November, with all of the inherent negativity that would probably be evidence, was doing very little for me.

I left work a little earlier than usual. It was already getting cold on the short walk from the office to the car and I thought to myself “oh great – another bonus about going tonight. I’ll be freezing my bits off.” The journey, unfortunately without His Lordship once again, still took me two-and-a-half hours. A work-related problem unfortunately got me tied up in knots and kept me mentally occupied on the last hour, to such an extent that I suddenly looked up at the Chiswick roundabout and I thought to myself “hell, how did I get here.” I had been driving slowly and safely, yet my mind had obviously been elsewhere. Suffice to say, it hadn’t been one of my most enjoyable drives into the great city of London.

At just after six o’clock, I had arrived. I was right; outside the temperature had dropped and it was freezing. I made a bee-line for the boozer. I needed that one pint. It barely touched the sides. My good friend Russ, who I last saw on the night of the Reading home-opener, was already in the pub chatting to the lads. He would be sat alongside Alan and I for the night’s game. There was the usual banter flying about and the pub was full of the usual faces; the faces of the Chelsea lifers.

A chap was selling some special edition Christmas cards in the pub; “Merry Christmas from the Champions of Europe.”

Five for four quid. I had to indulge.

I just need to work out which five non-Chelsea fans receive them on December 25th.

We were in the stadium early, at around 7.30pm. My goodness, the place was empty. Surely the Chelsea nation were not as depressed as this? Surely we’d get another full house? Maybe the general malaise amongst the Chelsea support manifested in the masse late arrival.

The team was unchanged from the Manchester City game, except the insertions of Ryan Bertrand for Juan Mata and Oriel Romeu for Jon Obi Mikel, who have been two of our most consistent players so far in 2012-2013. We did our own little bit of second-guessing about Rafa Benitez (can I say his name?) and his own methodology.

Forget FIFA2013, it’s RAFA2013 that will be keeping us awake at night over the next few months.

As everyone knows, the game was a turgid affair. Eventually the stadium reached its capacity, but the mood among the viewing populace was of quiet suffering. There were no boos for the manager on the same scale as on Sunday. Thankfully I had the company of two good friends alongside me to get me through the ninety minutes.

The Fulham fans had sold out their three thousand allocation and were enjoying their time in the sun, seizing the moment to out sing the solemn home support.

“We are Fulham, we are Fulham…”

We chatted about Fulham for a few seconds. Although it still annoys Fulham fans that some Chelsea supporters still have a soft spot for them, a recent survey suggested that the newer Fulham fans ranked QPR as their biggest rival. I personally find that hard to believe. Alan chipped in –

“Fulham and QPR, eh? I like women’s football.”

By the time of the minute’s applause for Roberto di Matteo, which I supported by again clapping throughout, hardly any chances had transpired.

One of our brethren had decided that the bitterly cold weather was too much for him. Tom – in his ‘seventies – had stayed at home in Sutton. Alan called him from the match and assured him that he had made the right decision.

“You’ve made the right call, Tom, it’s dire.”

A few seats along, Joe – now in his mid ‘eighties, another Chelsea lifer – had braved the elements but was clearly not enjoying himself.

The cold weather had necessitated a few players to wear extra protection against the cold.

“More gloves out there than in the Harrods’ accessories department.”

Meanwhile, somebody in our midst was letting rip with a couple of trouser coughs. Jacket collars were pulled up to mouths.

Ugh.

“God, something’s died.”

“Yeah, our season.”

The chances were rare. A Ramires shot couldn’t have been further from the goal if he had tried. A David Luiz free-kick ended up in Wandsworth. A neat move found Fernando Torres who turned swiftly but shot right at Mark Schwartzer. A cross skimmed across the box with nobody able to connect. How we missed a late-arriving Frank Lampard.

And that was the first-half.

On the night that the club broke with the usual format of the home programme and instead chose to feature former Dave Sexton on the cover, one of the greatest-ever Chelsea players from the Sexton era skipped around the pitch with Neil Barnett.

It was none other than the Bonnie Prince himself Charlie Cooke. Charlie’s trips back to the UK from his home in Ohio are getting more and more regular. It’s great. He’s a lovely man. It has been my pleasure to meet him on a couple of occasions and he is indeed a prince and a gentleman. I think his smiles were the highlight of the evening. Great to have you back Charlie.

The second-half began and it was more of the same. Alan was full of it –

“Blimey, there are more headless chickens out there than at KFC.”

There was no doubt that our players were struggling to break down a team that was well marshalled by Martin Jol, but whose main aim was containment. On 54 minutes though, we lost the ball in midfield and were exposed for the first real time. A rapid Fulham break thankfully ran out of steam when Jan Arne Riise (we have a song about you, sir) shot meekly at Cech.

Soon after, Ramires found himself inside the box but a delicate toe-poke didn’t test Schwarzer. Juan Mata came on for the more defensive-minded Bertrand. A fine Mata corner was whipped in but the ball ended up going wide after a flurry of players attacked the ball. A Riise long-shot at Cech was followed by two half-chances (maybe quarter chances) from Torres. Torres has not been the subject of any boos yet. Who knows if that will last?

Fulham were content to defend, but I was always worried whenever Berbatov got the ball. Continental drift moves faster, but he does possess silky skills when he is in the mood.

The Chelsea team looked like a team which had lost a lot of its confidence and belief. Team mates were idly standing by. Team mates were not moving for each other.

Alan was at it again –

“More static than a pair of nylon underpants.”

At long last, Marko Marin made his league debut as he replaced the ineffective Hazard and Joe’s son “Skippy” was quite enthused.

“I haven’t seen him kick a ball yet.”

“Don’t worry, he won’t tonight” I was quick to add.

The home fans began to leave. The away contingent seized their chance.

“Is there a fire drill? Is there a fire drill?”

It was, I am quite sure, the funniest song ever to emanate from a Fulham supporter’s mouth. At this very moment, El Fayed is planning on erecting a statue in honour of this song smith to be erected at Craven Cottage.

The last ten minutes were played out and, despite some nice spirit from the substitute Marin, the game slithered away. The very last kick of the game was an Azpilicueta drive from distance which whizzed past the far post.

Outside, the winter was well and truly here.

Russ and I walked back to the car as quickly as we could, with the air now bitter. On the drive back to Reading, we had an excellent appraisal of the current situation at Chelsea, but ended up with more questions than answers. I dropped Russ off at his house and reached my home at 1am.

It had been a rotten night.

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Tales From Sixth Place

Fulham vs. Chelsea : 9 April 2012.

It was Easter Bank Holiday Monday 2012 and the Fulham versus Chelsea derby game was due up in the evening. Normally, I would try to do something of note during the day, but I awoke with an annoying headache and sore throat. As Parky had been rough with similar symptoms over the past week, I soon blamed him. Since 1979, my village has hosted an Easter Fair on every Bank Holiday Monday and I intended to spend a little time amongst the attractions. However, as the morning drew on, the weather deteriorated with an increasingly blustery wind and worsening showers. I saw a few visitors heading into the centre of the village; coats buttoned with hats and scarves to the fore. They didn’t seem to be enjoying the bracing wind or rain. However, I decided to brave the elements and strolled down, past children’s fair rides, food stalls, arts and crafts stands, hog roasts, bric-a-brac stalls and trade stands. I made it as far as the village shop and picked up a few items of food for lunch. I soon realised that my cold-like symptoms were getting worse. By the time I had returned home, my jacket was soaked.

Great.

The time soon passed and I reluctantly gathered my things together ahead of the drive to London. I will admit that there was a certain element of drudgery about all of this. I threw some headache tablets down my neck and battled the elements as I headed out to the car. As the centre of the village was closed off to vehicular access, I had to head out to the west rather than the east. What a dreary day. Heading past Faulkland, past the village green with the stocks, then past the Tucker’s Grave Inn (one of the last remaining scrumpy pubs in the area), the weather was truly awful; a lifeless sky and incessant rain.

I reached Parky Towers at just after 3pm. We were both coughing and spluttering in unison as I pulled out of his road. Parky and Jill had visited the village fair last Easter – when the weather was much more enticing – and so I soon chatted about my grim walk through the wet streets a few hours earlier.

“It was pretty pathetic mate. It wasn’t too bad for me I suppose, because I live in the village. But I have to wonder why people would want to travel over especially and traipse about in the rain…”

My voice trailed off. I soon realised what I was saying. I was mocking the people I had seen at the fair, but here we were, the two of us suffering with colds, about to drive 100 miles to watch a game of football.

I recognised the irony and chuckled to myself.

Why was I going to Craven Cottage? I guess the £49 ticket was burning a hole in my pocket…especially since we missed the game just after Christmas last year when we both felt ropey. There was some vague notion of “duty” to the team I suppose, but neither of us has to prove anything in our support of the boys. I suppose, the reason was straightforward; it’s what we do. I guess the question never really needs to be asked, let alone answered.

I pulled into Melksham for a coffee and I immediately felt chirpier. My mate Steve texted me to say that Frome Town (aka the Mighty Dodge) were drawing 0-0 down on the seaside in Weymouth, but the weather was cold and blustery there too. If truth be known, I was pretty dismayed that I was missing Frome’s game against the biggest club in their division.

As we headed east, we listened to the exploits of both Newcastle and Tottenham on the radio. We were both elated to hear of Spurs’ 2-1 loss and we were soon chattering about us finishing up in fourth place at the final whistle at Craven Cottage. On Friday, the gap was a massive five points. Later in the day, we could be level.

Easter weekend is a long time in football

Parky threw a Stiff Records compilation on the CD player as I headed into The Smoke. I especially enjoyed the thunder of “Destination Zulu Land” by King Kurt, a song I hadn’t heard for a good 25 years. As we zipped through the twee side streets of Barnes and Putney, songs from The Pogues, Tracey Ullman and The Belle Stars sent us down memory lane. We left Memory Lane and parked up just a few hundred yards from the River Thames. Good news from Weymouth; Steve texted me to say The Dodge won 3-0.

We strolled into “The Duke’s Head” bang on 6pm and settled down alongside the stalwarts Alan and Gary, plus Mike from NYC and his son Matthew. Within a short period of time, Matt from NYC joined us and then Jesus and his cousin Darlene; she had just flown in to London and the Fulham vs. Chelsea derby game would be her first ever footy game. They have tickets for the F.A. Cup semi-final on Sunday, too, and Jesus has been teaching her a few songs. The less said about those the better…wink. By the time of that game next Sunday, Jesus will have added Paris and Amsterdam to his list of European cities visited during the past three months.

Alan and Parky exchanged jokes and the Heineken was going down well. A few familiar Chelsea faces were spotted at the bar. Mike and I spoke about the massive game against Tottenham at Wembley, but we both expressed dismay and concern that our 31,500 tickets sold so poorly that during the last window for sales, both season ticket holders and members alike could buy an additional two tickets. This suggests to me that our fan base as a whole is not as “up for it” as it should be. Surely the Spurs’ followers will take up their 31,500 more readily. Worrying signs…

“Another pint, boys?”

I can well remember a conversation that a few of us had on the pavement outside this pub ahead of our game with Fulham in March 2006. This was, of course, during the closing stages of our second championship season under Jose Mourinho; there was a certain amount of pomp in the way that our club was perceived by the media at the time and we were seen as almost unbeatable domestically. Looking back, they were the very best of times. And yet, the five or six of us on that Sunday lunchtime were far from happy; we had noticed chinks in our armour and were not completely happy in the way that we were playing of late. Question marks were raised about manager and players alike. The fact that we lost the game 1-0 added a little gravitas to our typically pessimistic appraisal of the team six years ago.

Why do I mention this? It just proves that football fans, in general, are never happy. We were soon to be crowned English champions for the second successive season, but there was still room for improvement in our collective minds.

We left the boozer at 7.15pm and wrapped ourselves up against the cold before walking over the exposed Putney Bridge, with the bright lights of Craven Cottage shining like beacons to our west. We hurriedly walked through the park which abuts the river and were soon outside the red brick turnstiles of the Putney End. The others entered the away end, but I spent a few moments taking a few photographs of the relatively new Johnny Haynes statue. However, the rain was falling and the light was poor. The photos weren’t great. I didn’t even bother looking for the allegedly hideous Michael Jackson statue. True Fulham fans must hate the presence of it outside the Johnny Haynes stand.

I wouldn’t mind a Raquel Welch statue outside The Shed though; it would be, at least, somewhere to shelter in the rain.

Underneath the away stand, I soon stumbled into Darlene, Parky and Jesus supping “one last pint.” Craven Cottage is a lovely stadium – one of my favourites. Its setting is unique. I love the façade of the main stand. Top marks. However, it does contain the infamous “neutral area” alongside the 3,000 seats officially allotted to away fans in the Putney End. Once inside the seats, I soon realised that my seat – on the aisle – was right on the boundary between the “away” and “neutral” zones. I chatted to Alan about this; if truly neutral, one wonders if it would be appropriate to encounter Liverpool, Leicester City, Leeds United and Lincoln City shirts amongst the neutrals. It is truly a weird concept. I quickly spotted a few Chelsea shirts and scarves in this area, but also some Fulham ones.

Bizarre.

It was noticeable that the 3,000 away fans stood for the entire game and provided some of the most vocal singing of the season so far. In contrast, the 3,500 fans in the neutral zone remained seated throughout and did not utter a single word of song during the evening’s entertainment. The home fans were pretty docile, too. However, I scanned the stadium and there were hardly any empty seats. The teams walked across the pitch.

https://www.facebook.com/video/video…50789675197658

I caught a glimpse of some white signs being held up by a section of home fans in the Hammersmith End and I groaned; I suspected that these doubled as the equally infamous “Fulham noise-makers / clappers / thundersticks” (also spotted at Wembley amongst the plebs at England games.)

The future of football? Heave.

I’m not really sure why Fulham have disregarded their black shorts; I have a passing dislike for teams who meddle with their kit design.

The game began and we were soon singing –

“Six days till Tottenham, there’s only six days till Tottenham – six days till Tottenham.”

“We don’t hate you, we don’t hate you, we don’t hate you – ‘cus you’re s***.”

“You can stick your fucking clappers up your arse.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona, who the fuck are Barcelona? As the Blues go marching on, on, on.”

It was a cold and wet night by the banks of The Thames.The game wasn’t great at all, though we kept singing all of the way through. Ryan Bertrand pleased my eye throughout the game and he has fared well over the past two games. Gary Cahill created a strong barrier alongside John Terry. Ivanovic was his usual self. The problems came in the attacking positions really. We all said that Ramires is best used when he wins the ball centrally and drives on. He is not so effective when he receives the ball wide and then has to create for others. Lampard covered ground but wasn’t the driving force of old. Up top, Torres was quiet, Kalou also.

Clint Dempsey had a few strong chances in the first-half, but Petr Cech kept him at bay. I like the look of the buzzing winger Frei . Damien Duff, as always these days, flattered to deceive.

The foul on Kalou which lead to the penalty took place, of course, up the other end and so my sighting was not great. Frank struck the ball low and it just evaded Schwarzer’s dive. Phew.

In the first ten minutes of the second period, we enjoyed three or four gilt-edged chances to increase our lead but the chances went begging. I can still see the look of pain on Fernando Torres’ face after his neat lay-off for Meireles resulted in a wild blast over. Slowly, our play deteriorated and Fulham began to bother Petr Cech. A few half-chances peppered our goal. A stunning point-blank save from Petr was met with tumultuous applause from the standing loyalists in the Putney End. From the resulting corner, though, our hearts were broken when Clint Dempsey – yes, him – rose to head home.

In the last cameo of the night, we broke forward but Frank Lampard stumbled after a tackle inside the box. The referee Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle, leaving a frustrated Lampard sitting on the pitch, bemused.

We scuttled back to the car and were soon away. There was little to bring us any cheer to be honest. Another evening, another game, another night of song. Our chance to leapfrog ahead of Tottenham had been missed – and with it, a timely boost ahead of the cup semi-final. Still, Fulham away is never an easy game these days. We still have a shot at fourth place, but we will see.

We returned to the Stiff Records compilation as I took the reverse route out of south-west London. I drove right past the spot where T-Rex lead singer Marc Bolan met his untimely death in 1977. All those years ago, his mini slammed into a tree-trunk and I noted that it was festooned with pictures and mementos of the iconic singer, whose “Children Of The Revolution” is one of my favourite songs of my very early childhood.

As I headed home, Parky soon fell asleep and I soon realised that my sore throat had returned; looking back this was hardly surprising since I had unthinkingly joined in at every opportunity to bellow support for the boys.

Let’s hope that all 31,500 of us have equally sore throats next Sunday evening.

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Tales From The 41,548*

Chelsea vs. Fulham : 26 December 2011.

For the first time this season, I was having a day off. That is to say, the driving duties were not mine. At last I could relax and let somebody else worry about the traffic and the timings. Glenn called for me at 8am and we were soon on our way. Parky was collected at 8.30am, resplendent in a new Duck & Cover top, thankfully now recovering from his recent ailments.

The three amigos on the way to football once more.

Another season, another Boxing Day game, another game at The Bridge. Admittedly, we don’t have a game every December 26th (our last Boxing Day game was in 2009 at Birmingham City), but Chelsea invariably get home fixtures on this date.

As I live over 100 miles from SW6, it took until 1992 for me to see Chelsea in a Boxing day game; until then the friction of distance, plus lack of finances, prevailed against me. On that particular day, I drove up to Chelsea for the very first time and parked near the Lots Road gasometers and watched Chelsea scramble a 1-1 draw against Southampton. I remember I took an old-school camcorder up with me for that game and – quite illegally – recorded around ten minutes of match action from the East Upper. I also took a few shots of the old tube station, the souvenir shops on the Fulham Road, the forecourt, The Shed. I’m glad I did; within a few years, the old Stamford Bridge would be no more. That 15 minute film from Stamford Bridge – shrouded in midwinter mist, atmospheric, bleak – is a cherished part of my Chelsea archives. I remember how every time Chelsea (Dennis Wise, Eddie Newton, Frank Sinclair et al) managed to cross the halfway line, there were encouraging cheers and claps from the Chelsea support in the East Stand. I watched this video film a few years ago and it was quite endearing to be honest; refreshing to see – and hear – Chelsea fans supporting the team’s pursuit of goals and glory. These days, the notion of Chelsea fans cheering each time we get past the centre-circle seems absurd.

1992 was my first ever CFC Boxing Day game, but my first ever trip to Stamford Bridge during the festive season was ten years earlier, during that bleakest of seasons, the 1982-1983 campaign. During that winter, Chelsea were stumbling along in the old second division and gates were hitting new lows. Despite drawing 25,000 for the visit of Leeds United in October, gates had dropped to as low as 7,000 in late 1982. Our neighbours Fulham, paradoxically, were flying high under the management of former player Malcolm MacDonald and with players such as Ray Houghton, Sean O’Driscoll, Gordon Davies and Dean Coney. I travelled up with my parents for the Chelsea vs. Fulham derby on December 28th 1982 and wondered how big the gate would be. If memory serves, the cancellation of a set of fixtures the previous week had resulted in massive crowds on the Boxing Day that year; everyone wanted their fix of football. Well, the Chelsea crowd did not disappoint on that afternoon in December 1982. I watched from The Shed and my parents watched from way up high in the East. The game was a scoreless draw, but the abiding memory is of the huge 29,000 attendance. Our average during that 1982-1983 season was just 12,672 (our lowest ever, from 1905 onwards), so getting a gate of 29,000 reconfirmed what I knew; we were a sleeping giant, we did have the fan base…with a little success, the crowds would return. I remember little of the day, apart from waiting at the bottom of The Shed after the game had ended. Thousands upon thousands of fans strode past as I waited for my parents to join me. I was overawed by the numbers and the wait seemed to take forever. I can see my father now, in his hat and overcoat, trying to keep warm in the cold December air. My mother alongside, with her face cheered for seeing me.

Lovely memories.

So much for Chelsea versus Fulham in 1982. What about Chelsea versus Fulham in 2011?

McBreakfasts were purchased at Melksham and were consumed “on the hoof.” Glenn made great time and we were rolling along nicely. We bumped into a few Cardiff City fans at Reading Services, en route to Watford, and then continued on our pilgrimage east. With the tube strike undoubtedly causing more fans to travel in by car, plus the closure of the A4 at Hammersmith, we had planned a different route in. We drove north on the M25, then came in to London on the A40, past the iconic Hoover Building near Hanger Lane. I quickly spotted Park Royal tube station and it brought back warm memories of my first ever trip to Chelsea in 1974; we had parked nearby, and then caught the tube in from that very station. My father was always fearful of the traffic in central London, bless him.

Past the floodlights of Loftus Road, then the new and architecturally brutal Westfield Mall – right in the heart of QPR land – and then past more familiar sights; Earls Court, Salvo’s restaurant, West Brompton Cemetry…Chelsealand.

We were parked-up at 10.40am and it had been a breeze. The weather was surprisingly mild.

A knot of customers were already waiting for The Goose to open up. As more punters joined the throng, I walked over to meet Nathan (a CIAer from the Bay Area of California) and his parents. He had previously visited HQ for the 3-0 thrashing of Birmingham City in the Double season, but his parents – Laurie and Paul – were first-time Bridge visitors. They had just raided the megastore. There is a sale on at present and I have my sights set on a couple of books which I’ll probably purchase before the Villa game.

Into The Goose and I could enjoy a few beers. I took my jacket off and got the beers in. A few pints of Peroni – currently my favourite by far – went down well. Paul, Laurie and Nathan settled down for a lovely pre-match and we covered tons of sport-related topics in the 90 minutes which was afforded us. Parky and Paul exchanged awful jokes, Laurie proclaimed her hatred of the Yankees and I gave her a hug. Paul and I chatted about the Brooklyn Dodgers while Nathan and I spoke about the upcoming Chelsea tour to the US in the summer. It was a fine time.

The Goose was terribly quiet, though. There was probably only 50% of the usual numbers present. I wondered if The Bridge would be well short of capacity on this particular Boxing Day.

Our American guests, fortified by the beer and the laughter of a Chelsea pre-match, set off for The Bridge. I had thoroughly enjoyed their company – sports mad, the lot of them – and I had said “we’ve only touched the tip of the iceberg.” Parky and I soon followed. I couldn’t help but notice how quiet the streets approaching the stadium were. It felt very odd.

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There wasn’t even much of a line at the turnstiles.

I reached my seat, buzzing from the alcohol intake, as the flags were ending their travels along the two tiers of the Matthew Harding Stand. In front of me were two empty seats. The Bridge appeared full, but after a glance around all four stands, it was clear that hundreds – no thousands – of seats were unoccupied. It wasn’t clear in my mind how Arsenal could call off their game on this day of tube-strike induced chaos, while Chelsea did not. Of course, it all became clear. Chelsea had sold all of the 41,500 tickets; why should they care if thousands couldn’t travel in and attend the actual game.

1-0 to Arsenal.

For the first time since September, Glenn, Alan and I were at The Bridge together.

It felt right.

I won’t dwell too much on the game. I thought that we had enough chances to win, but that much cherished commodity luck was not with us on this particular occasion. That is, of course, not hiding the fact that we did not play well. The first-half was particularly poor, with hardly any urgency in our attacking play.

The first real chance of the day fell to Clint Dempsey and his Barnes Wallace of a shot caused Cech to scramble to his right and turn past the post. Fulham had three thousand fans, but one flag; a Japanese flag. They don’t do flags, Fulham, do they? It goes without saying, the away fans made more noise consistently throughout the game than the Chelsea fans.

Mata played in Fernando Torres and the maligned Spaniard did well to bounce the ball off his chest to enable a swivel of the hips and a shot on target. Unfortunately, as is the way with Nando, the ball was struck straight at Stockdale in the Shed goal. Our approach play was laboured and The Bridge fell silent.Two wayward efforts from Torres left Tom with his head in his hands. A cross from wide rattled straight across Petr Cech’s area and we were lucky Fulham were only playing with one up.

A corner on 38 minutes typified our poor play; Mata sent in a corner towards the penalty spot, but it was headed clear by one of three defenders, with not a Chelsea player within five yards of the ball. I had signalled to San Francisco Pete, way up at the back of the MHU, to join me for a pint at the break. While lining up in line, we watched as Studge laced a shot wide.

It was good to see Pete again and we had the usual moan, huddled under the upper tier in the area by the refreshment stand. Chelsea has chosen to decorate this area with a set of large photographs of past Chelsea players and I approve of this. It adds character to an otherwise functional part of the stadium. While we supped away at our pints of Singha, photographs of Dickie Spence, Dennis Wise, Peter Bonetti, Ruud Gullit and others looked on. It is just the sort of detail which is so sadly lacking at the bland Wembley Stadium, which depresses me more each time I visit.

Unfortunately, Pete and I missed two important things due to our half-time chat. We missed the appearance of former striker Jimmy Greaves, who was on the pitch at the break. I wonder if he is aware that, rather ironically, there is a bar in the Matthew Harding called “Jimmy’s”, named after him. As a sad victim of alcoholism and now a teetotaller, I’m sure he would find the funny side of that.

We also missed the goal. We were chatting about some nonsense, just finishing our pints, when we heard a roar.

“Oh well.”

We smiled and toasted Chelsea.

I soon had an incoming call from Alan in the stadium, but twenty yards from me.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

I don’t miss many goals at Chelsea matches – I’ve probably only missed five or six Chelsea goals in over 800 games.

I re-joined the boys at my seat in the MH wraparound and hoped for further goals. It was pretty lacklustre stuff to be honest. We seemed to have all of the possession. And then a defensive blunder and Dempsey struck from close in. It was a weak goal to let in and we all groaned.

AVB replaced the insignificant Frank Lampard with Florent Malouda and our form improved slightly. Fulham were happy to defend and we regained the upper hand. Alan came out with a Christmas cracker of his own –

“Come on Chelsea. This is as one-sided as Heather Mills.”

As the time passed, our chances piled up. The best move thus far involving Malouda and Terry found Sturridge who forced a fingertip save from Stockwell. From the corner, our bad luck continued as an opportunist back heel from Malouda, two yards out, was blocked.

Didier was given a chance to play, replacing Sturridge with twenty minutes to go. Torres was shunted wide and became marginalised. Alan and I had said that we wanted to see Torres on the shoulder of the last man while he was in Chelsea Blue, centrally, ready to pounce. We didn’t care to see him chasing back and turning up in all sorts of deep lying positions. We wanted to see him played to his strength. I’d like to know if AVB tells him to chase balls back in his own half. I’m not a great tactician, but I’d prefer to see Nando as goal poacher and goal poacher only during his time in SW6.

The two highlights for me were two majestically crafted lobs from David Luiz, both with just the correct amount of fade and spin to allow the ball to die as it hit the turf, allowing team mates to gather with the minimum of effort.

Truly great passes. Almost scooped up with Luiz’ right foot. Perfect.

A Drogba shot from the second one of these was hit straight at Stockwell. A curling effort from Meireles agonisingly missed the far post. Malouda set up Meireles with a header which flew over. The last chance, a Drogba effort from a free-kick, did not bother the Fulham ‘keeper.

It was one of those days.

There was a short bout of booing at the final whistle. On exiting the stadium, the Chelsea supporters around me were full of complaints about Andre Villas-Boas, Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, Fernando Torres, Winston Bogarde, Slavisa Jokanovic, Keith Dublin, Graham Wilkins, Peter Houseman, Keith Weller and Fatty Foulke. I found it a shame that these same fans couldn’t find time to cheer the boys on during the game.

There you go – the usual moan from me about the lack of noise from our home support.

Merry Christmas.

We returned back to Glenn’s van and were soon on our way. There was the briefest of post-mortems as Glenn wended his way back through the streets of West London, out past Ealing and Acton, past the urban sprawl of the inter-war years, out of London and back towards home.

My mate Steve texted me with updates from the Frome Town vs. Weymouth game as the afternoon became evening. Two missed Weymouth penalties, a Frome sending off, no goals, but a disappointing crowd of 533 in arguably Frome’s biggest ever home league game. Maybe there had been an unexpected tube strike on the Buckland Dinham and Trudoxhill underground lines.

From the Chelsea FC website –

Best Moment of the Match.

“The announcement that 41,548 resourceful fans had managed to fill Stamford Bridge despite travel problems on the tubes, trains and west London roads.”

The five thousand empty seats tell a different story.

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Tales From The West Lower

21 September 2011 : Chelsea vs. Fulham.

This was a strange old evening in the borough of Hammersmith and Fulham. For the first time ever, all three of the borough’s three professional teams are in the top flight of English football. This is quite an achievement. In fact, I wonder if there have ever been three clubs so closely situated in any European top flight league football before. However, league games would have to wait. This was a Carling Cup game against our neighbours from the banks of the River Thames.

It was the usual pre-match routine, involving a quick blast up the M4 from Chippenham to London. Another two hour trip. I was parked-up at 5.40pm and we were soon in The Goose, chatting at the bar with a few mates. For the first thirty minutes, perhaps inspired by the recent Millwall vs. West Ham United derby, talk was of various encounters with Millwall, that notorious beast of a club from the shadowy lands of Rotherhithe and Bermondsey. Although none of my close Chelsea mates have ever got involved in the darker side of football sub-culture, the rumours of various battles and “meets” of various hooligan groups always manage to keep us talking for ages. My only memory of a Chelsea versus Millwall game was from February 1977 and a 1-1 draw at The Bridge which was over-shadowed by grim battles in The Shed and the North Stand.

Our meetings with Millwall are very rare – and I was in North America when both sides met in the league for the last time, way back in 1989-1990. I was chatting to a lad called Duncan – never met him before – and he recalled a funny story from the November 1989 game against them at The Bridge. He was in the benches and giving the Millwall hordes plenty of abuse. The game happened to coincide with his eighteenth birthday and imagine his horror when, above the 5,000 Millwall, a message from his parents flashed up on the scoreboard.

“To Duncan XXXXXX – Happy Birthday From Mum & Dad.”

One of those cringe-making moments for the poor lad. He hoped that none of his Millwall acquaintances happened to glance back and spot this most personal of messages.

Anyway, enough of the Millwall and West Ham rivalry, this was all about Chelsea and Fulham. As far as inter-London rivalries go, this simply doesn’t compare. It’s the oldest story in the book that Fulham hate us, but we couldn’t care less about them. Our main rivals in London are Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham; Fulham are not really on the radar. I am pretty sure most Chelsea fans dislike QPR more than Fulham. The fact that we are totally ambivalent to Fulham just infuriates them further.

I wasn’t sure if we would reach a healthy gate for this game. I had heard on the football grapevine that Fulham had only sold between 3,000 and 4,000 of the 6,000 Shed seats allocated them. After the 33,000 against Leverkusen, I thought we’d do well to beat that figure. The Goose seemed pretty busy, though. And the tickets were ₤25 rather than ₤40, so the cheaper price would hopefully entice a few more.

A few more friends joined us but one mate was missing. Alan was away with his girlfriend Sue in Venice for a few days. It felt strange with him not being there. He hasn’t missed a home game for ages. It got me thinking about how things change over the years and how our match-day mates come and go. Thirty years ago, I used to travel to Chelsea alone. Twenty years ago I would bump into Alan and Gary – occasionally Glenn and Daryl. Ten years ago the numbers were massive; around twelve of us meeting up for most home games. Recently, things have changed as finances have got tighter and as peoples’ priorities shift. These days, we are down to about nine regulars at all home games; Alan, Gary, Rob, Daryl, Parky, Simon, Andy, Milo and myself. I guess the comings-and-goings of my match-day colleagues at Chelsea mirrors the change I have witnessed on CIA recently…plenty of new blood, but also – mysteriously – we seem to have lost quite a few stalwarts who never seem to post at all these days. I guess this is natural wastage in football form. We’ll lose some, we’ll win some. For a change, I had swapped tickets with Parky and would be watching in the unfamiliar surrounds of the West Lower. Alan, Glenn and I have had season tickets since 1997 and I presumed that this would be the first time since then – over 400 games – that none of us have occupied seats 369 to 371 in row D of the MHU. The team news came through on Gary’s ‘phone…a mixture of youth and experience and quite a bench.

I set off early for the game and was buoyed by the numbers of spectators heading east down the North End Road. As I approached the Broadway, barbeque smoke wafted around from an open air grill outside the Gourmet Burger café – a new venture, aiming to capture some trade off the passers by.

The first Fulham shirt I saw was of a young lad heading up the Fulham Road just as I turned left to buy a programme outside the West stand. It’s always a battle of wits to avoid an annoying bag search at the turnstiles. On this occasion, I avoided eye-contact and skipped past two stewards, leaving my camera and zoom lens unbothered. I had only ever seen two other games from the West Lower (Coventry City in 2000 and Dirty Leeds in 2004) and it felt odd to be in a part of the stadium with which I was unfamiliar. Underneath the seats of the lower tier, the concourse was dark but quite spacious. I headed straight for the entrance into the stand itself, up the steps and out into the evening light.

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For the second time in a week, my immediate thoughts were “another poor gate.” At 7.30pm, there were only a thousand away fans centrally nestled in The Shed and there were thousands of empty seats in all home areas.

“Oh great.”

My seat was in row 6, all of the way down towards the Fulham fans in The Shed. I looked around and saw hundreds of unfamiliar faces. I heard a few foreign accents. I took a few photos of The Bridge from this new angle. I sat myself down – not much legroom – and prepared myself for a mind-numbingly quiet evening. It’s another cliché that the West Lower is one of more reserved parts of The Bridge. By the time of the kick-off at 7.45pm, the 3,500 away fans had all arrived and were singing their hearts out. The rest of the place took some time to fill up, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see few empty seats.

The first-half allowed me to take a good look at the wide players on our right with Daniel Sturridge heavily involved. A couple of Kalou chances went begging. A Fulham break involving their number nine Orlando Sa was ably foiled by Petr Cech, who was a rather surprise choice in the sticks. The Fulham fans were getting behind their team, singing a whole host of songs, some of which I had never heard before. In comparison, the West Stand was silent and the MHU barely murmured. We got the ball in the Fulham goal on 38 minutes, but it was flagged for offside. From my angle, I’m not so sure if the goal bound shot required that extra touch, nor if it was that stab which had been penalised. Unfortunately, Studge was injured just before the break, with Frank Lampard the strange substitution. I was watching from a low angle and I found it difficult to ascertain if the 4-3-3 formation had changed to accommodate Lampard. However, he settled down in a deep-lying position for the rest of the game, fitting into the midfield berth which was occupied by Josh soon into the second-half.

At the break, I had a wander around the spacious area at the front of the West Stand. I was not aware of this, but I noted that Elvis and “Ledge” (friends of a few CIAers) take turns in flying the large blue Chelsea flag on the half-way line. Neil Barnett walked Ron Harris around the pitch at half-time. He had already riled the away fans by welcoming them to The Bridge as “our friends from Fulham” at the start of the game. As the two of them walked down towards The Shed, Neil Barnett tormented them further –

“and he’s laid out more Fulham forwards than there are Fulham fans here this evening.”

I didn’t know what to make of this. I suppose he thinks he’s doing a good job, but at times I find Neil Barnett’s comments to be just embarrassing. I know of no other announcer who so winds up opposing fans. Away from his role as agent provocateur on match days, Neil is a nice enough bloke, but I really do wonder how he gets away with some of his comments.

Just my thoughts.

In the match programme, there was a touching obituary for Kevin Barney, the chap who I mentioned in one of my other reports this season.

Ross Turnbull appeared in place of Cech at the break and was soon earning his bacon. A Fulham break, a clumsy tackle from Alex and our boy from Brazil got his marching orders. With no assistance from TV replays, I couldn’t tell if it warranted a penalty. Not to worry, Ross Turnbull threw himself to his right and parried the shot high and away.

However, we were now down to ten men and it was going to be a tough one.

John Terry entered the fray and I was able to take a good look at him, from close range, from a new angle. I noticed how he chased and harried, stretched himself and covered ground, closed people down, bellowed instructions and how he cajoled and encouraged his team mates. From my usual viewpoint, all of this is not so clear. At times, I was only ten yards from him.

A few chances for both sides, but from my angle, I was struggling to make sense of the shape of the play.

If I am honest, I wasn’t enjoying the game. The Fulham fans were making too much noise and I was getting rather frustrated with the lack of support from the Chelsea fans around me. In the West lower, many couples weren’t even talking to each other, let alone getting behind the team via songs of encouragement. Despite the songs of derision cascading down on us from the away fans, I couldn’t bring myself to truly despise them, unlike the supporters of other teams. I tried to put myself in their shoes. It reminded me of life as a Chelsea fan in my youth, railing against the bigger teams, forever the underdog. Forever the underachiever.

Two magnificent saves within a minute from Ross Turnbull around the 75 minute provided us with an immediate re-assessment of his worth to us. He was having a great game. At the other end, Mark Schwarzer was thwarting our attempts to breach his goal line. A goal-line clearance, a mad scramble, but still no goal.

At no time did it seem like we were playing with a man short.

Romelu Lukaku saw a lot of the ball, but I was amazed at the amount of times he found himself out wide, crossing the ball in, rather than being in the middle himself. The way he held off defenders reminded me of Mark Hughes. Romeu had a steady home debut.

Just before full time a Malouda cross found David Luiz, but his swivel and shot was smashed straight at Schwarzer. Luiz held his head manically as he sprinted back to his defensive position. Ironically, it took until the very last breath of the 90 minutes for the West lower to join up with the Matthew Harding and bellow a hearty “Come On Chelsea.”

The referee blew his whistle to end the 90 minutes and I inwardly groaned. I had been in purgatory for the whole game – surrounded by predominantly silent fans – and I was only able to yell out a few shouts of support on a few occasions throughout the duration. And now we had a further 30 minutes…maybe more.

Chances were exchanged in the extra thirty minutes and at least the Chelsea support grew louder. A nice break from deep involving Frank and a strong run and cross by Lukaku were our highlights. Fulham wasted a few goal-scoring chances. The one abiding memory of the extra-period was of David Luiz, racing around all four corners of the pitch, tackling, dribbling, sprinting, turning. Quite a performance, but still only one miss-timed tackle away from a sending off.

Penalties.

Here we go again.

I was texting Alan in Venice and said –

“You know how this will end, right?”

Frank misfired with our first penalty and the Fulham fans to the right were bouncing. I saw a young blonde girl hug her boyfriend and I almost thought “ah, bless ‘em.” In the back of my mind, however, I was very aware of the amount of times that teams often go behind in shoot-outs, but eventually win.

Moscow is a perfect example.

Everton in the F.A. Cup last season.

Well – we did it. Fulham missed one and Luiz, JT, Kalou and Malouda all scored.

It all came down to Penalty Number Ten. My camera was at the ready.

The Fulham player struck it high and it rebounded down onto the line…and out.

Around me, for the first time in two hours or more, the West stand roared. I was just relieved that it was over and that we were through. No massive yelp of joy. Just happy we had got the job done against the extra man.

Well done Chelsea.

I was still mesmerized by the antics of a few of the Fulham fans to my right. As we roared, they fell silent. Plenty of their fans were flicking “Vs” at us, plus a few more unsavoury gestures. Tons of abuse rained down on us but I still felt it hard to get too bothered. However, one middle-aged Fulham fan went the extra yard. He pointed to a few Chelsea fans near me and began swearing at them, then gesturing. Then – oh no – he reached for his belt, turned his back at us and pulled his jeans down, and struck the pose of a mooning Homer Simpson.

His children would be so proud.

We walked back to the car and it felt odd to realise that a lot of the away fans lived within walking distance of The Bridge, whereas I had a 110 mile journey ahead of me. Surprisingly, Parky had said that he thought that the Chelsea fans had made a fair bit of noise. I had to be honest and disagreed. The Bridge must have weird acoustics. Not for the first time were there differences of opinions on which end was the noisier.

Elsewhere on Planet Football, my old school mate Francis had spent his evening at the Frome Town vs. Hallen F.A. Cup replay and he texted me the following at 10.30pm –

“Won on pens. Poor game though.”

And I thought to myself – “blimey…same here.”

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