Tales From W12

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 28 January 2012.

I need to be brutally frank about this; I wasn’t really relishing our F.A. Cup appointment at Loftus Road. There can be few games over the past ten years that have so filled me with dread. The game at Old Trafford just after Mourinho departed immediately springs to mind, but there have been few others. There was a brief, fleeting chance of me giving it a miss. I just didn’t fancy all of the aggravation from the police and the stewards, the vindictiveness of the media, the tedious school playground name-calling from both sets of fans, the risk of a small section of our support letting the club down. The spectre of our name being dragged through the mud loomed heavily in my mind. And then came the date of when away season ticket holders were able to get their seats – 7am on Thursday 19th. January.

By 7.35am, I had bought my ticket.

At 10.10am on Friday 20th. January, the day of the CPO AGM, in an internet café opposite The Goose, I was with Parky when he bought his.

But that is not to say that my view had changed significantly. Ever since the John Terry / Anton Ferdinand game in October, the hate-filled world of racism has been again linked to the comings and goings of Chelsea Football Club. As the game drew nearer, I was still feeling depressed about what might unfold on the day of the game. Then we had to endure the story about the alleged bullet being sent to QPR by post on the day before the game. This sent me lower, deeper into a brooding mood of malcontent.

There are times when I simply adore football. From a purely aesthetic perspective, what in the world of sport is better than a Gianfranco Zola shimmy, a Didier Drogba turn and blast, a Peter Cech finger-tip save, a Pat Nevin feint, a Kerry Dixon volley, a David Luiz dummy? What makes my heart bump and my blood pump more than a last-minute winner? What makes me feel more at home and at ease with myself than being sat around a table in a pub, chatting and laughing with the very best of friends? What is more emotional than 40,000 like-minded souls singing in unison, in praise of our heroes in royal blue?

Football as a shared experience. A bonding mechanism for friends near and far. The sense of community and brotherhood. I owe it so much.

And then there is the other side. There is my growing irritation with fans who bellow abuse at players from both teams, not just the opposition. The attitude of agents. The arrogance of some players. The crass commercialism. The silliness of some fans, unable to view anything unless from a purely partisan position. The hate.

Sometimes in truly leaves me in a spin.

I had set the alarm for 6.30am and I awoke of my own accord at 6.29am. Maybe my subconscious was telling me something. I collected Parky at 8am and we were soon on our way; a little capsule of merriment and mirth, heading east once more, fuelled by coffees and a common love of The Boys in Blue from Division Two.

The plan was to park up at the same place as for that infamous game in October, barely half a mile from Loftus Road. We didn’t really expect to find a pub that would be willing to allow away fans in. Alan, Rob and Daryl had arranged to meet at a pub in Holborn as early as 9am for a fry-up and pre-match pints, but there was no point in us heading into town. However, as I edged through Acton, Parky spotted a pub which was open and he spotted a Chelsea shirt inside. I doubled-back on myself and parked-up. We spent an enjoyable thirty minutes in The Red Lion and Pineapple on the Uxbridge Road. It was a pub on the angle of two streets, with a lovely circular bar with pumps glistening and bar staff cheery. For 10.30am, the boozer was pretty busy. There were around eight Chelsea fans at two tables and a couple of Rangers fans too. There was a punter at a table, wearing a flat cap, sipping a pint, studying the racing form. Parky and I briefly spoke about QPR. In all of my life, I have only ever met three or four QPR fans. Certainly none at school and none at college. A couple through work. They are a rare breed. We spoke about the fact that they had failed to sell their 15,000 allotted tickets for this game to season tickets and members. The shame of it all; the tickets had gone on general sale. Still more shame; they hadn’t even sold all of their tickets, even for this big grudge match against “their” bitter rivals.

Now, no club should be ashamed of who they are. No club’s fans should have to constantly measure up against others. Just be who you are. But it has certainly felt like QPR seem to want to constantly prove themselves against us. To be blunt – and I really don’t want to be arrogant – QPR have always been something of an irrelevance to us. We seem to have engineered a strange relationship with Fulham over the years. They hate us, but we have a little soft spot for them, which winds them up even more. That’s a lovely position to be in, eh? That’s a winner. Several have likened Fulham to a little brother, with us forever ruffling the brother’s hair. No real threat. What of QPR then? Maybe they’re the unloved step-brother, forever wanting to be part of the London football scene, but never quite managing it. The step-father has lavished prizes and monies on the step-brother, but trophies and contentment are still no nearer. So, Chelsea, Fulham and QPR; the three brothers of the Borough of Hammersmith & Fulham. Two out of three ain’t bad.

The pub was around two miles from the QPR ground; too far to walk. We hopped in my car and quickly drove east. At 11.15am, we were scuttling along the last five hundred yards of the Uxbridge Road, our jackets tightly zipped and buttoned. There was a chill to the air. A few home pubs looked busy, but there just wasn’t the buzz of excitement that seems to envelope the area around the Fulham Broadway on big games.

Parky wondered if Michael Essien would be on the bench.

“Yeah, he’s just the person to bring on when we are down to seven men.”

On the walk up Bloomfontein Avenue, the Chelsea lads from the pub overtook us just as some noise bellowed out.

“Was that a roar from the home fans?” one of them asked.

“No, the sales are on at the Westfield Mall” I answered.

Outside the away entrance, we spotted the yellow jackets of the stewards checking the Chelsea fans for catapults, knives, machetes, guns, rifles, rocket launchers and celery. To be honest, it was no more severe than in the league game. The mood was quiet. There was a hush.

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I was again up in the cramped confines of the upper tier of the School End. By goodness, the seats are crammed in. It’s a bloody good job we stood the entire game. I reached my seat at 11.45am and two lads – a father and son – from Bristol were next to me. They are regulars in The Goose. The Chelsea players were finishing off their pre-game routines and I took a few snaps. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the ignominy of QPR’s support was there in front of me…hundreds of empty seats in The Loft, the main stand and the Ellerslie Road stand.

And yet, the spiteful step-brothers were delusional –

“West London is ours, West London is ours – fcuk off Chelsea, West London is ours.”

I almost felt sorry for them. Nobody can help the team they support and I am sure there must be some decent Rangers fans out there somewhere. But please don’t large it with nothing to back it up. They couldn’t even sell 15,000 tickets for the visit of big brother.

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

Chelsea soon gave it to them –

“Your ground – is too big for you.”

The teams entered the pitch and we roared our support of our heroes. It seemed that John Terry touched the ball twice as many times as anyone else on the pitch in the first five minutes. Maybe this was intentional; get the home fans all “booed out” as soon as possible. Apart from an early slip (oh how the step brother enjoyed that), our captain’s performance was impeccable.

But, really, what a poor game of football.

An early break from Juan Mata allowed our Spaniard a shot on Paddy Kenny’s goal, but other chances were rare. QPR still booed JT’s every touch, but thankfully – thank heavens – there was no silliness from my fellow Chelsea fans. Unlike Stamford Bridge, festooned with flags from all points of the compass, Loftus Road sported only five measly flags. While Chelsea has a global reach, maybe QPR’s global reach just about makes it to their training ground at Harlington. I noted that Torres was toiling hard, but venturing out of his comfort zone. After half-an-hour, he had hardly been played in at all in that central area. Why we don’t look to hit him early mystifies me.

QPR of course, were happy to defend deep and soak it all up. It was a surprisingly clean game.

Almost the highlight of the first-half was a delightful turn by former Blue, SWP. He then fell over and normality was resumed.

By 31 minutes, Chelsea had got bored with QPR and sung a derisory song about Tottenham, our natural rivals, and it was if we were making a statement.

QPR – quite pitiful, really.

Our play was again slow. We had masses of possession. QPR were much poorer than in October. Our efforts were rare; a looper from Meireles, a wide shot from Malouda.

I said to Bristol “this is Norwich all over again.”

The Chelsea fans then remembered who we were playing –

“We don’t hate you ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

At the break, there was bemusement amidst the ranks that the game had been so poor. Neither of the two goalkeepers had been really tested.

Soon into the second period, Torres made a nice run and dribble into the penalty box but his excellent pull back was blasted high by Daniel Sturridge. At the other end, a rare QPR attack resulted in Petr Cech saving from SWP.

The penalty? Well, it looked like there was hardly contact. I am not sure why, but I hardly celebrated it. I steadied myself, as did Juan Mata, and took a few photographs as he slammed the ball in. Now it was time to celebrate.

“Get in.”

The rest of the game reverted to type. Chelsea passed across the pitch so much that I wondered if the two teams had decided on a new set of rules at the break. The highlight for me was another delightful dollop of a Luiz lofted chip right into the path of Studge. I could watch those all day. Dan Marino eat your heart out. There were moans from a few fans about Torres, but I thought he did OK really. His control was neat and he never stopped running. I just wish we could use him properly.

As the game continued, we just couldn’t resist –

“Anton, what’s the score? Anton, Anton – what’s the score?”

While Ramires was receiving attention for his worrying injury, a lone QPR fan jumped over the balcony wall in The Loft and stood in a small, un-manned, TV gantry. He gestured towards us. The Chelsea fans had a response –

“Jump in a minute, he’s gonna jump in a minute.”

“Suicide. Suicide. Suicide.”

John Terry continued to impress, Florent Malouda continued to infuriate. One low shot from Luke Young was well parried by Cech and – after a full seven minutes of extra time – the final whistle blew.

It was a shocking game, but we were cheered by the win if not the performance. To be honest, I was so relieved that there had been no unsavoury chanting from the 3,000 away fans and for that reason alone, I was so grateful.

Well done us.

On the way home, we rued not only the trip to Swansea on Tuesday, but the visit from United next Sunday. With 2012 starting with four wins, one draw and for clean sheets, things could be worse. But, as we know, they could be so much better.

As for Loftus Road; I hope I never have to go there again.

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Tales From The 33,820

Chelsea vs. Bayer Lerkusen : 13 September 2011.

At 4pm in deepest Chippenham, I collected Parky from The Pheasant pub and pointed my car in an easterly direction. To be honest, I’m relatively confident that my Vauxhall Corsa could find its own way up to Stamford Bridge these days. The journey was blue-tinted inside the car, what with numerous Chelsea references, to say nothing of the occasional swear word, and it was blue-tinted outside too, with the sky gorgeously clear of clouds.

The quickest drive yet – just two hours from The Pheasant to The Goose. We were soon inside, buying lagers and catching up with a few mates. The first thing I noticed, though, was how quiet the pub appeared to be. On the drive up in the car, the two of us had spent a little time chatting about the planned boycott of the Genk home game. It certainly came as a big surprise for the Champions League home games to have increased in price from £30 last season to £40. It seems that, despite the regular meetings of the Chelsea Fans’ Forum, the club had decided to increase these tickets by a whopping 33%. However, by the time I had heard about the tentative boycott of the Genk game in November, I had already purchased my ticket.

I can certainly understand the feelings of the Chelsea supporters who believe that the club has taken liberties with its pricing structure for this season. Nobody likes paying top whack for football, that’s for sure. I certainly toyed with the notion of not attending the game on October 19th. as a protest. I can understand the fans who shout “enough is enough – for the greater good of the club, let’s make a stand.” And yet…and yet…we’re Chelsea supporters. I work hard during the week for my weekly fix of Chelsea. It seems inherently wrong to boycott the club I love. In the back of my mind was the horrible memory of that game in September 2007 when we drew just 24,973 for that CL game with Rosenborg. It was an infamous match for more than one reason; with it being Jose Mourinho’s last ever game in charge of the team. I well remember the sadness I felt at the lamentable crowd on that night. In fact, I can just imagine that figure of 24,973 being quoted by either party in the presumably heated conversation which may or may not have taken place within the grounds of Stamford Bridge the day after.

Roman to Jose: “Only 24,973 were here last night. Play more attractive football!”

Jose to Roman: “This is a big club? No. Just 24,973 were here yesterday.”

In addition to games won and trophies garnered, surely the size and clout of a football club is measured by its pull at the turnstiles, too. Despite our proud boast of being the fifth best-supported club in England (behind Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur), this is an area in which we often let ourselves down. We do have a history of having quite fickle fans. I also remember the match against Coventry City on a Wednesday in 1994, just ten days before our first F.A. Cup Final in 24 years and we drew just 8,923.

Yes – 8,923.

Of course, the pro-boycott fans point to the Rosenborg game as a watershed moment for Chelsea’s recent pricing policy. It shocked the club into action with all subsequent CL group phase games being reduced in price and, as a result, all CL group phase games since September 2007 have been 39,000 or more. So, all of these thoughts rattled around inside my mind as support for the “Genk Boycott” gathered momentum on Facebook during the week. I saw points being made by supporters in both camps. I pondered my options. To be honest, if I am truthful, I was more likely to miss the Fulham game in the League Cup and that would not have been for reasons of protest, but simply of not being able to muster up enough enthusiasm to attend. But no – I bought a ticket for that, too. I also have the small matter of my home streak to think of, currently stretching back to late 2004 and edging towards 200 games. Additionally, I love the buzz of European nights at Chelsea. God knows I waited long enough – 1974 to 1994 – for my first one.

Boycott? Thanks, but no thanks.

In the end, there wasn’t much talk of the Genk game in the boozer, but of other topics; music, summer holidays, the game at Old Trafford, European aways in Germany and Spain, the new boys Mata and Meireles, the usual banter, the usual schtick. Alan announced that both Lampard and Terry were not starting and that Torres was up front.

Parky and I set off down the North End Road at around 7.10pm and – yes, I was right – there just wasn’t the volume of spectators as for a normal league game. I bought the latest copy of “CFCUK” and had the briefest of words with Mark, who mentioned that he had just been reading about Cathy’s recounting of the Asia tour in the new edition.

I noted Champions League banners covering the “Adidas Wall” opposite the Peter Osgood statue. CL banners were also draped all over the West Stand, too. I really wanted to take a few photos, but wanted to head inside too. Next time maybe. For once, I reached the queue at the turnstiles in good time; no nervous rush up the steps to get to my seat just in time for the kick-off on this occasion.

At the top of the steps, I walked through into the small concourse and I barged past a couple of dopey stewards. I glimpsed at the East Stand and my heart sank. It was 7.30pm and the East stand was a third full.

“Oh fcuk.”

I texted a few fellow fans to share this bleak news. Alan had said in The Goose that he doubted if we would get 35,000. With the return of Michael Ballack and with it being the CL home opener I was hoping for a few thousand more. This wasn’t good. Thankfully, the stadium did fill up a bit more in the final 15 minutes. The West Stand – notoriously quiet these days – seemed to be packed. There were around 1,200 noisy Leverkusen encamped in the SE corner, but heavily segregated from 2,000 Chelsea in The Shed. There were many empty seats in both tiers of the MH. But the biggest culprit was the East, with both the top corners of the Upper Tier devoid of fans. I tried to calculate the gate. It looked like 6,000 empty spaces.

And there was I thinking that the boycott was planned for the Genk game.

Michael Ballack was quickly presented with a gift on the touchline before the entrance of the two teams. We sang his name. Both teams were kitted out in the same hideous Adidas lime green and black training tops, and they strode across the pitch as the CL flag rippled behind them. Then, the lovely Champions League anthem.

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It was with no surprise that the away fans provided all of the noise and colour throughout the evening’s game. This is what happens at so many of the games at The Bridge these days. If anyone is getting fed up to the back teeth of reading this in every single one of these match reports, then please imagine how I feel having to write it. Their shouts of “Bayer, Bayer, Bayer” echoed around the stands. Their name, by the way, comes from the Bayer chemical company – who also are linked to Bayer Urdingen – and the team moniker is not related to Bayern (meaning Bavaria) Munich.

It was certainly a bright start from both teams with an overhead looper from Fernando Torres just missing the target after just one minute. Two disallowed goals – one at each end – in the first three minutes. Phew. Torres was then through on goal – just the goalkeeper to beat – but a tame finish and the Stamford Bridge groaned. Despite this promising start, the home supporters fell silent and the away fans dominated proceedings. On many occasions, they all linked arms and jumped rhythmically…not a Man City “Poznan” or a Celtic “Huddle” but their own version of The Bouncy. Alan and myself noted that Bayer were chasing every ball and making life difficult for us. Daniel Sturridge, forever cutting in onto his left foot, was looking very confident and a few long distance blasts troubled the German ‘keeper. The away fans yelled “Leverkusen! Leverkusen! Leverkusen!”

It might well have been “Lederhosen.”

They seemed to be chanting in English at the docile members of the East Lower, but there was not a response. Not a flicker.

In 1994 – pick a game…Zizkov, Austria Memphis, Bruges…the denizens of the East Stand would have been up on their feet, singing, pointing, gesturing, shouting, being hostile, being Chelsea.

Not in 2011.

At the break, legend Frank Lebouef walked around the pitch with Neil Barnett and it was lovely to see him again. I spoke with Zac about the team (“doing OK, Meireles looks good, Mata too, Torres still impotent in front of goal, Malouda poor”), but also the turnout. The empty spaces were dominating my thoughts and I think others too. There was a hush all over the stadium – it was at times surreal.

“You’d think, since the club seems to be obsessed with getting the daytrippers in so they can spend money in the megastore, that they would keep the prices low…keep it at £30…get a sell-out…increase the footfall in the shop, more merchandise sold, more programmes, more hot dogs.”

It’s September 2011 and I actually said the word footfall inside Stamford Bridge. God, the shame.

Maybe we should be renamed Chelsea Footfall Club. That might please Ron Gourlay.

“Never mind contracts, how many customers were in the megastore at 6pm?”

As the second-half began I said to Alan that Raul Meireles reminded me of Jody Morris…something in his shape, his gait, his hair colour. Alan agreed in fact. We tended to dominate possession, but Leverkusen were – cliché coming up – organised and functional. There didn’t seem to be much flair in their team, but they certainly chased every ball. A lovely pinpoint cross from the left foot of Malouda down below me found Torres, but his equally lovely header – a gorgeous flick – went straight to the ‘keeper. Drat. Then, another cross was headed goal wards by Studge but the ‘keeper smothered it as he fell, but the ball still touched the post.

It was looking like a 0-0.

Nico and Lampard entered the fray and our possession increased. Michael Ballack was substituted by Leverkusen and he was given a nice reception by the Stamford Bridge crowd. Ballack played four seasons for Chelsea, but divided a lot of the match-going support. We certainly took ages to warm to him, and I am convinced we never saw him at his best. He was a good servant, though. It was good to see his tanned face, his strut and his slightly bowed legs back at HQ. It had been Ballack, in fact, who spurned Leverkusen’s best chance of the game but he shot squarely at Petr Cech from only ten yards.

Then – a lovely move and a great lay-off by Fernando Torres back towards David Luiz. With a lovely sweeping shot, he dispatched the ball into the far corner of the Bayer goal.

Get in. A whoop of joy and a scramble to get my camera up to record the celebrations…”damn, he’s running towards the other corner”…click, click, click. Lots of screams from the players and Luiz pointed at Torres as if to say “you da man.” In fact, that probably is what he said.

Alan: “Zey vill have to come at us now.”

Chris: “ Come on meine kleine diamonds.”

Anelka was king of the dribbles in the last quarter and he found Juan Mata who blasted at the goal, only for the German ‘keeper to tip over.

Alex came on for David Luiz. It was a typical Luiz game – awfully timed tackles, brilliant shimmies, majestic dribbles, classy headers, dramatic goals. On eighty minutes, we got the ball in the net again, but Anelka’s neat header was called back for offside. In the last move of the game, Torres was set free in the inside left channel, but chose to release the ball to Mata rather than shoot himself. Mata simply pummelled the ball in and the crowd roared. I caught his leap into Torres’ arms on film and there was a lot of love between the players in the immediate aftermath.

The disappointing attendance and – worse – the near funereal atmosphere clouded my immediate judgement of the game I think. It seemed that we made hard work of it, but I think that was only because we scored relatively late in the game. It wasn’t a bad show. Sturridge looked lively and I like the all-round play of Meireles. I just wish we could break quicker, but of course this is always so difficult at Chelsea when teams never really stretch themselves. However, we have a massive challenge coming up in a few days. Talking to a few close friends throughout the evening, I think we will be sorely tested on Sunday up in Manchester. United are on-song and I am dreading us conceding an early goal. In fact, in my mind, the spectre of Sunday hung over the night like a black cloud. I slowly made my way out and stopped to take a few atmospheric photos outside the West Stand with the crowds drifting off into the London night, past the pubs and bars, the restaurants, the cafes.

Parky and I called in for a curry at the packed Lily Tandoori – owned by a chirpy Fulham fan…”see you next Wednesday!” – and didn’t leave there until 11.30pm. Roadworks on the elevated section of the M4 then resulted in a detour through Brentford and Osterley and I felt increasingly tired. I knocked back two Red Bulls on the drive home and shovelled Parky out of the car at about 1.45am. I reached home at 2.15am…now typically wide awake, damn you Red Bulls. Just time to upload 16 of the 92 photographs I had taken at the game onto my Facebook album. And that took bloody ages, damn you Facebook.

I eventually crawled upstairs to bed at 3.30am, knowing I would need to be up again at 7am.

Midweek football – I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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Tales From Juan Mata’s Debut

Chelsea vs. Norwich City : 27 August 2011.

As I left work on Friday, I heaved a deep sigh of relief. Another week over, but with a three day Bank Holiday Weekend coming up.

The patterns of work and play are so entrenched aren’t they? We toil for five days and then the weekends are “our time.” Back when I was growing up, though, there was always a big difference between Saturdays and Sundays. Saturdays were always pleasurable. Throughout my childhood, Saturdays were days of sheer joy and were always based around football. Watching the football previews on “Grandstand” and “World of Sport” on Saturday lunchtimes, playing football in the local recreation ground, watching the village team, playing for my school, then nervously awaiting for the football results to come through on the “vidiprinter” on “Grandstand” at my grandparents’ cottage at 4.40pm. My Dad would come home from work at 5.30pm and his first words to me were always based on the Chelsea result.

He used to work in a menswear shop in Frome and, although he was never a massive football fan, he would always listen to the second half commentary on Radio Two. These were the days of those wonderful commentators Peter Jones and Bryon Butler. Dad would burst through the front door and say –

“I see Chelsea did well then.”

“Left it late, didn’t they?”

“Lucky today, weren’t they?”

There would then be a long wait throughout Saturday evening – through editions of “Doctor Who”, “It’s A Knockout”, “Kojak” – until the tedious “Nine O’Clock News” gave way to the undoubted highlight of any weekend “Match of the Day.” In the ‘seventies, we only had extended highlights of two league games each Saturday night. Chelsea would be featured around 6 or 7 times each season, or only a 3 or 4 when we played in the second tier. Of course, this is radically different to these days.

Saturdays tended to more enjoyable than Sundays. Sundays were always more staid. Church in the morning, a family meal at lunchtime, tedious visits to relatives in the afternoon, another church service in the evening, then the ultra-boring Sunday evening with Dad listening to classical music on the radio, with the fear of school on the Monday. The only respite was the London-based “Big Match” programme, with Brian Moore, at 2pm and Chelsea were always featured more often on this show.

I can still hear Brian Moore’s voice as he began the programme with the welcome smile of a trusted and amiable schoolteacher. Whenever Chelsea were involved, there always seemed to be an extra twinkle in his eye.

After my lukewarm feelings to the home opener last week against West Brom, I was back to my normal levels of enthusiasm for the game with Norwich City. I drove over to collect Parky and we wasted no time getting ourselves up to London. Maybe the years of listening to Dad’s classical music has eventually rubbed off as we listened to a Proms CD which contained a few classical standards, including Elgar’s “Pomp & Circumstance” and Blake’s “Jerusalem.”

As I drove between Swindon and Reading we belted out a few lyrics –

“And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen?

And did the countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark satanic mills?

Bring me my bow of burning gold.
Bring me my arrows of desire.
Bring me my spear : Oh clouds unfold.
Bring me my chariot of fire.

I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand.
Till we have built Jerusalem,
In England’s green & pleasant Land.”

We were parked up on Chesson Road just after 11am and it was a warm and sunny morning in Chelsealand. We made our way to the café and I had my first Full English brekkie of the season. The owners are from Myanmar, adjacent to Thailand, and I had a little chat about my trip in the summer. San Francisco Bob was over for the game and he joined us for a coffee before we decamped to the familiar confines of The Goose.

Thankfully Reg and Lorraine were back this week and helped restore some calm to the manic activity behind the bar.

Lagers were guzzled as more and more mates arrived. The main topic of conversation was the Champions League group phase fixtures which had been announced on Thursday. My plans were cemented on Friday afternoon when I booked a flight to Cologne. This will enable me to watch our game against Bayer Leverkusen on Wednesday 23rd. November. An extra bonus is that I am staying with my Italian friend Mario, who I first met on an Italian beach in the summer of 1975. He now lives in Bergisch Gladbach, just 10 miles away from Leverkusen. After meeting up with my other Italian mate Tullio for the Juve game in Turin in 2009, this gives me a chance to complete another on my lifetime wish list, to watch a Chelsea game with Mario.

A few other mates – the usual suspects, Rob, Alan, Gary, Daryl and Neil – are also going to Leverkusen. I do like travelling to Germany for football, having previously seen us in Stuttgart, Bremen and Gelsenkirchen.

The First Transatlantic Lacoste Watch Of The Season.

Bob – bon bon.
JR – pink.

I was in a light pink Henri Lloyd, so pink was definitely the order of the day. Additionally, San Francisco Bob had brought over a strawberry Lacoste for Rob from an outlet in Gilroy, California. I can’t remember the exact cost-saving, but it was pretty formidable. Lacoste polos can cost up to £75 a pop in the UK. We were joined again by Texas Wes, who was able to pick up Glenn’s seat ticket next to myself in The Sleepy Hollow. He was wearing a black polo, in case anyone is wondering. We learned that we were paired with Fulham in the League Cup and everyone was totally unenthused. There are dull cup draws and there are dull cup draws. This one redefines the term. Yawn.

Despite my best plans to get to my seat in time for the kick-off, I was beset with delays when one of the five turnstiles into the Matthew Harding Upper Tier decided not to work. I eventually reached my seat at about 3.03pm.

The news was that AVB had decided to go with Malouda, Drogba and Torres upfront.

Although we had another sudden rain shower while we were in the pub, the sun was shining as the game went through its first opening minutes. Norwich City had brought down a healthy 3,000 and they were soon getting behind their team. I’ve been aware of a new song this season and after a little research, it seems that Celtic –amongst others – have introduced Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” into the terrace lexicon. And Norwich were singing this too.

I think we, as Chelsea fans, have missed a trick here. DM’s Dave Gahan and Andy Fletcher are big Chelsea fans and this should be our song.

Still, we won’t nick it. Or at least, I hope we won’t.

When the ball was played square to Jose Bosingwa after just five minutes, more than a few fellow fans around me yelled “shoooot!” Jose teed the ball up and then let fire with his right foot. From my seated position in the MHU, I was right behind the trajectory of Bosingwa’s exocet strike. I almost expected the ball to veer off at the last minute, but the ball remained true and it didn’t drift or curve at all. It was a pure strike. What a goal.

It was noticeable that during the first-half virtually all of the away fans were stood, while I noted that the Shed Lower were standing up too. I easily spotted Bob in the second row of that section, his bright shirt easily visible amongst a sea of blue.

After a nice start, Norwich got back into the game and often threatened Hilario’s goal, but our Portuguese ‘keeper was solid and fended off any attacks. At the other end, our chances were rare and the Drogba / Torres partnership wasn’t firing on all cylinders. The noise levels in the home sections were predictably low and the Norwich fans were making all the noise. Yellow shirts were out in force in the SE corner of The Bridge, but I noted one central block which housed hardly any yellow-clad fans. I presumed that this was the Norwich City executive / complimentary tickets section. It stuck out like a thumb.

Of course, we have rarely met Norwich over the years and, with the August sun shining, I soon remembered a previous visit some 17 summers ago. On the opening game of the 1994-1995 season, we met Norwich City and easily dispatched them 2-0. This game was notable more for the changes to the stadium which had taken throughout that summer. The Shed had been razed to the ground and a temporary stand had taken its place. A few of us had bought tickets in that temporary stand and it was quite amazing to be – at last! – so close to the action at a Chelsea home game. It was a wonderful feeling. It gave us all a little glimpse of how magnificent the new stadium’s acoustics would be if it was ever to be completed. At the other end, the North Stand was slowly rising and all of us daydreamed of how noisy a tight and compact new Stamford Bridge would be. That temporary South Stand was a riot of noise and venom on that day in 1994 and it saddens me to report how those ideals of Chelsea fervent fanaticism have simply faded away over the subsequent 17 years. On that day, around 1,500 Norwich City fans were in the East Lower. And I suspect we hardly heard them the entire day.

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John Terry came close with a header from a corner which was cleared off the line right on the half-time whistle. But chances were rare. One Drogba free-kick hit a seat in the Shed Upper which was around thirty yards from the goal.

Quite an achievement.

Things were far from convincing. Although Hilario didn’t appear too troubled, Norwich City hadn’t arrived simply to defend. The mood was of uncertainty at the break. At least Alan was entertaining Wes with a variety of his tried and tested accents, from good ole Southern homeboy to Sarf London wide boy.

Out on the pitch, our reserves did a lap of honour with their 2010-2011 championship trophy.

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Into the second half and a chance from John Terry – another header which was blocked. With my camera centered on the entertaining antics of our new manager – crouching one minute, standing and gesticulating the next – I missed the deep cross and the subsequent balls-up between Hilario and Ivanovic. I looked as Holt – always a handful – hooked the ball back towards the Shed End goal. Our captain’s despairing lunge was too late. They had equalised and the away end bubbled away like a boiling saucepan of custard.

There – that’s the Deliah Smith reference accounted for.

On 63 minutes, a delightful cross from the quiet Torres was played into Didier Drogba, who headed the ball over just before he was clattered by the Norwich ‘keeper. We screamed for a penalty, but then grew more and more concerned as our number eleven lay completely still. After ages, he was stretchered off, to be replaced by Anelka and we wondered how severe his injuries would be. At the same time, new boy Juan Mata replaced Florent Malouda. He buzzed around and looked as keen as mustard (oh dear, another Norwich reference, sorry.)

However, Norwich still caused a threat and only a last-ditch tackle from a magnificent John Terry robbed them of a great goal-scoring chance. Norwich always looked a threat, but JT was heavily involved in thwarting their attacks. Mata had a lovely little feint and jink to go past his marker before sending over an inch-perfect cross right onto Torres’ forehead. However, more frustration for the boy from Fuenlabrada and his effort did not trouble Ruddy. Soon after, we had a lovely break from deep. Juan Mata flicked the ball to Nicolas Anelka and he played in a surging Ramires. The whole of the stadium held their breath as our little Brazilian sprinted towards the box. A poke past Ruddy, but down he went.

“Penalty!”

Well, we couldn’t believe how long the referee waited before he pointed to the spot. Deep yelps of joy from us all.

Phew. Ruddy was then sent-off and we waited and waited for Frank to eventually place the ball on the spot as the replacement custodian took his place in goal.

Thwack. Straight down Broadway.

2-1 to Chelsea and Frank points to the heavens.

Immediately after the goal, we warmed to the appearance of Romelu Lukaku who replaced El Nino. He looked impressive during the rest of the game. It is too much of a cliché to compare the lad to Didier Drogba, but he certainly looks strong and mobile. If the manager keeps everyone (he only has a few days to change things), what an array of attacking talent we have, eh? His first chance was a header – always stretching – which went wide. He also had a bustling run and a shot which was partially saved, but the ball bobbled too far for Lampard to strike. After the Didier injury, we were awarded a massive 11 minutes extra time. Then an incredible miss from Branislav Ivanovic. How his towering leap and downward header never even hit the target was a mystery for all of us.

In the last moment of a strange game, Chelsea pressure in the far corner resulted in a poor pass which was ably intercepted by new boy Mata. He quickly controlled the ball, took a touch, and dispatched it under the diving body of the hapless ‘keeper.

Oh yes. He enjoyed that. We all enjoyed that. I caught his joyous leap on film and, as he was swamped by his delirious team mates, a fan in the East Lower unfurled the red and yellow of a Spanish flag. It was a perfect moment in fact. As we made our way out, we all agreed it had been a far from perfect performance from us and Frank was again very quiet. We could hardly believe it when somebody confirmed that we were now top. What a joke! Top of the league? Surely somebody somewhere is having a laugh.

Bob, Parky and me met at the Ossie statue and then made our way to The Finborough for drinks and on to Salvo’s for pizza. On the walk past the Fox & Pheasant, I bought a new Chelsea T-shirt (“Keep Calm & Support Chelsea”) and then Dave Johnstone thrust three copies of “CFCUK” into our hands.

The pizza at Salvo’s again went down well and it was a lovely end to a typical Chelsea Saturday. While Parky and I headed back towards Wiltshire and Somerset, Bob retraced his steps and joined in the post-game fun with a few friends on the Kings Road and then with a couple of terrace legends in The Elm, that hard-nosed boozer opposite his hotel on the North End Road. Song of the night on the drive home was “Up The Junction” by Squeeze and we sang along to that one, too. I got home at 10.15pm and there it was, waiting for me like an old friend…

“Match of the Day.”

We were the first game featured – a sure sign that the game was entertaining – but I soon lost interest after our match.

Apparently some other team leap-frogged us at the top of the table.

Pah.

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