Tales From Firework Night

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

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Tales From Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 3 December 2014.

In my book, there is no bigger game each season than Chelsea vs. Tottenham. This was a match that I had been relishing for a while. Midway through my working day, the excitement was rising with each “match-day thought” that entered my mind. There were the usual nerves, too. I’m more nervous about Spurs at home than any other. There’s that unbeaten run – stretching back to 1990-1991 – which needed to be preserved. I am sure that other Chelsea fans would only be happy at 9.30pm with a win, but I was a little more pragmatic;

Anything but a loss please Ye Footballing Gods.

That is not to say that I was unduly worried too much.

The only negative thought fluttering in and out of my consciousness as the hours raced by was the thought that our team would be missing Diego Costa.

I wondered who Jose Mourinho would turn to.

Didier Drogba?

Loic Remy?

Only time would tell.

When I left the office at 3.30pm, there was a supreme sense of joy that I would soon be on the road with three good friends – Glenn, PD and Lord Parky – and an evening’s football lie ahead.

To paraphrase Tommy Johnson – “Tottenham At Home – Love It.”

PD, bless him, kindly volunteered for driving duties and so I was able to relax a little. The four of us had enjoyed the From The Jam gig in Frome ten days previously and our spirits were buoyed by a cracking ‘eighties compilation CD which accompanied our trip east. I remember mentioning to somebody at the gig that there was a spell a few years ago that as soon as we hit the traffic at Hammersmith, The Jam would always seem to be playing on my CD player. On this occasion, PD had changed the CD and to a “Suggs Selection” and, yes – lo and behold – as soon as we neared the church underneath the M4, “Beat Surrender” came on.

“Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.
Come on boy, come on girl.
Succumb to the beat surrender.

All the things that I care about.
Are packed into one punch.
All the things that I’m not sure about.
Are sorted out at once.

And as it was in the beginning.
So shall it be in the end.
That bullshit is bullshit.
It just goes by different names.”

We were parked just before 6pm and The Goose was predictably heaving.

As soon as I walked in, I was pleased to meet up with Danny and his girlfriend Sonja. I got to know Danny , who hails from the wonderfully named Rancho Cucamonga in California – through my trips to the US over the past ten seasons and I first met him – to talk to – in Texas in 2009. This was his third trip over to England to see the boys play – he was at Sunderland on Saturday – but this was Sonja’s inaugural visit to London and England. I introduced them to my closest Chelsea mates and I had to smile when Sonja exclaimed that she was the “token female.” I quickly looked up and scanned the pub. Of course, Sonja wasn’t wrong. In a pub full of Chelsea fans, no more than 5% were female. I presume this came as a slight shock to Sonja. It reminded me of a similar comment by another American female last season who was amazed by the lack of the fairer sex in and around the pubs at Chelsea.

I quickly remembered some of my many visits to various baseball stadia – plus the Chelsea games I have seen too – in the US over the years. There were, indeed, many more females at the games in the US than there are at football in the UK. No time for too much social commentary on this, but I would suggest that this shows that football is still predominantly a male preserve in the UK.

In Chelsea’s case, it remains a preserve of middle-aged men with receding hairlines and a predilection for trainers, polo-shirts, lager and taking the piss out of each other.

Proper.

As we left the pub on a cold, but thankfully not bitter, evening, we all wanted to make sure that we were in the stadium well in advance of the minute of appreciation and applause for our former manager John Neal, who sadly passed away at the age of 82 the day after our last home game against West Brom.

There was a nice piece devoted to John Neal in the night’s programme. He was a much-loved man by us Chelsea fans of a certain generation.  I only met him in person on one occasion. Back in the autumn of 1995, Chelsea celebrated the 25th anniversary of the 1970 F.A. Cup win with a pre-match gathering of former players in the bar which used to be called “Drake’s” (named after our 1955 Championship-winning manager). In those days, only CPO share-holders were allowed in to “Drake’s” (which nestles under the north-east corner of the Matthew Harding, but is renamed these days and is, presumably, one of the many corporate suites at Stamford Bridge). On that particular day – before a game with Southampton – Chelsea legends such as Peter Osgood, Tommy Baldwin, Alan Hudson, Peter Bonetti and Ron Harris attracted the attention of the Chelsea fans in attendance. Away in a quiet booth – I can picture it now – sat John Neal and his assistant manager Ian McNeill, quietly eating a meal, generally being ignored by the majority. A few fans dropped in to say “hello” – I am sure that it was John Neal’s first visit back to Stamford Bridge since his early retirement in the mid-‘eighties – but I was shocked that these two figures from our relatively recent past were being generally shunned.

My only conclusion was that the Chelsea fans present were so in awe of the heralded 1970 team, that the appearance of John and Ian was – wrongly, of course – overlooked.

I made sure that I said a few words of welcome and gratitude and was very pleased that they allowed me to have my photograph taken with the quietly spoken former manager and his trusted Scottish assistant. I did – to be blunt – wonder why the two of them had been invited on a day when a different team was being honoured. In retrospect, the two should have had been the centrepiece of a ten year anniversary of the 1983-1984 season a year previously, but that is a moment lost forever.

Looking back, John Neal had a very mixed reign as Chelsea manager. He joined us after a spell as the Middlesbrough manager, and his teams were relatively steady, occasionally entertaining, but playing to low attendances in the First Division. Chelsea, in 1981, were dire and entrenched in the Second Division. I remember being hardly enamoured by his appointment. I can easily recollect attending John Neal’s first ever league game as Chelsea manager in August 1981 and the photograph of him on the front cover of the programme, standing proudly by the newly-adorned Chelsea crest above the tunnel, is quite an iconic image. After two years of poor performances, narrowly avoiding relegation in 1983, it is – with hindsight – a miracle that Chelsea maintained the services of John Neal over the summer of 1983.

1983-1984 was a different story of course. We plundered the lower leagues for talent during the close-season and John Neal’s true worth as a man-manager bore fruit from the very first game. For anyone who was at the 5-0 annihilation of promotion favourites Derby County, wasn’t it fantastic?

Kerry Dixon scored twice, we triumphed 5-0 and the tube was literally bouncing back to Earl’s Court after that one.

John Neal – for that 1983-1984 season alone – must rank as one of my favourite Chelsea managers.

It is a shame that we never saw him back at Stamford Bridge over the past twenty years or so. I believe that he suffered from dementia towards the end.

The Boys In Blue From Division Two would have loved to have said “thanks” one more time.

Thankfully, the timings were fine and I was inside Stamford Bridge with five minute to spare. As I stepped inside the seating area, I noticed that the main flood lights had been dimmed and, instead, the advertising boards were shining bright along with smaller strip lighting in and around the stadium. It was a scene which was quite similar to the pre-match routine at Manchester City a few seasons back, with the lights dimmed and blue moons appearing on the TV screens.

It looked stunning to be honest – other worldly – though my immediate reaction was “what the bloody hell is this, more contrived nonsense?”

The two teams appeared from the tunnel, but the lights were still dimmed. Only when all the players were walking on the deep green sward of the pitch were the main lights turned on.

Another full house, though the Tottenham section took forever to fill.

The two sets of players assembled in the centre-circle and Neil Barnett spoke. The minute of applause in memory of John Neal, bless him, was loud and heart-felt. A chant of “Johnny Neal’s Blue And White Army” sounded out from the Matthew Harding.

God bless you, John.

Of course, Jose Mourinho had decided on Didier Drogba to lead the line. My choice would have been the nimbler Loic Remy, but – once again – what do I know?

Right then, game on, and a near twenty-five year record to defend.

We had agreed in the chuckle bus on the drive to London that Tottenham were a “hot and cold” team thus far this season. In the first twenty minutes, they were warmer than us. Harry Kane (“he’s one of our own” sang the away fans, as if it mattered) threatened Thibaut Courtois’ goal with a header which rattled the crossbar. The same player twisted away from Gary Cahill and screwed a shot wide. My pre-match nerves were seemingly vindicated. It took a while for a Chelsea player to threaten the Spurs goal; a Cesc Fabregas shot curled into Loris’ clasp.

At around 8.02pm, I decided to take a comfort break.

At around 8.04pm, I approached the refreshment stand with a pie in my sights. I glanced up at the TV set above the servers (blimey, imagine that in 1983 – a TV set by the tea bar) and spotted Eden Hazard clean through. Before he had struck the ball, I heard the roar of the crowd. The TV had a split-second time delay and I then saw the ball flash past Loris into the net.

I returned back to Alan and Glenn with a chicken and mushroom pie and a very big smile on my face.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now.”

Chris : “Come on my little diamonds.”

Before I could let it all sink in, Oscar had tee’d up Didier – mmm, maybe offside? – who calmly slotted the ball past Loris.

2-0 to Chelsea and my magic pie had done the trick.

I confided in Alan…”you know, to be honest, over the years…there have been times when Tottenham have played pretty well here. How they have never beaten us here is a mystery. And here they are again. Playing well, but now 2-0 down. I know we say we hate Spurs, but they must fucking loathe us.”

Alan agreed.

And then we both smiled.

The highs and lows of the rest of the half?

The high was a sublime volleyed cross field ball by Fabregas to Hazard – I think – which was pinpoint perfect and with just the right amount of dip and fade.

The low was me finishing my magic pie; no more goals ensued.

The noise was pretty decent in the first forty-five minutes, though the volume noticeably fell away towards the end.

At half time, two stalwarts from the John Neal era were on the pitch with Neil Barnett; Pat Nevin and Nigel Spackman. Nevin is still much revered, Spackman not so, after his sporadic comments about his spell at Liverpool and a few thinly-disguised digs at Chelsea.

Neil then spoke about “two girls from America – Lisa and Sonja (yes, that Sonja) who are at Stamford Bridge for the first time tonight, with their blokes Joe and Danny (yes, that Danny)…enjoy the match.” There was a picture of Joe and Lisa in the programme; I remembered Joe from a few pre-season tours too.

A nice touch. I texted Danny to see if Sonja was OK.

“Sonja is singing more than the chaps in the row in front.”

Good work.

Prior to the second-half, Kurt Zouma replaced Gary Cahill, who had battled on after an early collision with Vertonghen, but who was obviously unable to resume.

Nemanja Matic, possibly my player of the season thus far, was stupidly booked for a clumsy challenge on Kane.

“Silly Alan. Just silly. We’re two-up, for heavens’ sake. What’s the likelihood of them scoring from that move? 5%? Silly challenge.”

The Spurs dirge “Oh When The Spurs…” was roundly booed, but there wasn’t a great deal of Chelsea noise to take its place.

Tottenham were continuing to have a lot of the ball, but on the instances when we picked them off and moved forward we just looked more cohesive. Drogba shot from outside the box, but it was an easy save for Loris. Jose then replaced Didier with Remy. We enjoyed some sublime twists and shimmies from Eden Hazard throughout the night. I enjoyed the energy of Willian too. With around twenty minutes remaining, Dave played in Remy inside the box. Showing great strength to hold off Vertonghen, he nimbly side-stepped a challenge and passed the ball into the Spurs goal.

3-0 and the game was safe.

Fantastic stuff.

1 December 1990 to 3 December 2014.

25 games, 25 seasons, undefeated.

15-10-0

In the south-east corner, there was a fire-drill.

Happy days.

We saw off the last minutes of the game with the minimum of fuss, though the news of Manchester City’s 4-1 win at Sunderland was disappointing. As, of course, was the news that Arsenal had beaten Southampton 1-0 with a goal in the very last minute.

Not to worry. We’re the ones to catch.

Let’s keep this beautiful thing going.

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Tales From More Wednesday Night Blues

Chelsea vs. Southampton : 16 January 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

“One armed Babs was from here…”

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

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

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

Stay still, my beating heart.

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

Saturday 13 March 1976 : Chelsea vs. Southampton.

The return of The King.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Drinking with Peter Osgood.

Ah, those nights were the times of our lives.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come on my little di’mons.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Wednesday night blues.

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

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

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

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

“You sayin’ I’m not Chowlsea?”

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

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