Tales From St. Mary’s

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 27 February 2016.

I should dislike Southampton Football Club a lot more than I do. When I was a mere eight-year-old boy, they stole my childhood hero Peter Osgood away from Stamford Bridge a mere couple of weeks before my very first Chelsea match.

That is reason enough to carry a lifetime of dislike for them – hatred would, of course, be far too strong – surely?

Looking back at this event some forty-two years later, although I can well remember the sense of pain that I felt at the time, my memories are rather sketchy, not surprisingly. But here are the facts :

My first ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 16 March 1974. Peter Osgood’s last ever Chelsea game was on Saturday 29 December 1973, although he appeared in a friendly at Aberdeen on Friday 16 February 1974.

He left Chelsea a couple of weeks before my first-ever game.

How cruel.

In those formative years of my fledgling support for Chelsea, Peter Osgood was my favourite player, my hero and my idol. He was our charismatic goal scorer and the focus of my adoration. I’ve told the story before of how some family friends, who worked alongside Peter Osgood’s sister Mandy at an office in Windsor, managed to obtain a signed 8” by 10” black and white photograph of Ossie in around 1971 or 1972, and that the excitement of opening up that brown buff envelope containing the photograph was one of the most wonderful moments of my childhood. I still have the autograph of course. It is a treasured memento to this day. Incidentally, I recently spotted a photograph of Ossie’s sister Mandy planting an oak tree in a park in Windsor in memory of her brother, and it brought my childhood memories racing back.

http://www.windsorexpress.co.uk/News/Areas/Windsor/Oak-tree-planted-in-memory-of-England-footballer-Peter-Osgood-08022016.htm

I once spoke to Peter Osgood about the signed photograph and he explained that Mandy was a fine footballer in her own right, and an England international to boot. He laughed when I suggested that she used to sport a fine pair of sideburns, too.

But in 1974, Southampton – and Peter Osgood – broke my heart.

I can vaguely remember the stories in the ‘papers and on the TV about the infamous fall out between our manager David Sexton, and a few of our star players – most notably Alan Hudson and Peter Osgood – and as the day of my first ever game approached, there was this horrible gnawing realisation that I would not be seeing Ossie play. Hudson’s last game for Chelsea was also against Liverpool in December 1973, and he was sold to Stoke City in the first few weeks of 1974. The 1970 and 1971 cup winning team was falling apart in front of my eyes, and – to my sadness – my hero Peter Osgood would be the next to leave. There are hints of an olive branch being pointed towards Ossie with his appearance in the Aberdeen friendly at Pittodrie and possibly a chance of reconciliation, but my idol was sold to Southampton for £275,000 in the first few days of March 1974.

I would never see Ossie play for Chelsea.

Although Chelsea’s 1973/1974 was far from impressive – we only just staved off relegation – it is with a certain amount of melancholy that I note that Ossie’s new club were duly relegated in the May. I am sure that this must have been a huge blow to Ossie, and I am sure that he wistfully looked on as Chelsea stayed up. With a cruel twist, I saw him play against us in March 1976 in a Second Division game, and can sadly remember the furore in the media about The Shed chanting an unsavoury song towards our former hero, and Ossie “flicking some Vs” back at them.

It wasn’t meant to be like this.

When Ossie returned for some games in 1979, our paths sadly never crossed, and his time as a Chelsea player ended with me never seeing him play in our club colours.

It is one of the few regrets that I have as a Chelsea supporter.

As we approached the tenth anniversary of Peter Osgood’s sad passing, how fitting that the Premier League fixture list should pair Southampton and Chelsea together.

For the first-ever time, we had decided to take the train to Southampton. The four of us – Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – met up at Westbury station and caught the 9.01am train down to Southampton Central. Other local blues Les and Graham were on the train too. Opposite us were four Bristolian Chelsea supporters. Throughout the day, we would bump in to many West Country Blues. It is one of the nicest attributes of Chelsea fans that Londoners very rarely take umbrage to Chelsea fans coming from other areas, unlike a couple of Northern teams that I could mention.

Soon into the trip, through rolling countryside, and then the spired city of Salisbury, Parky and PD opened up a couple of cans. I was just happy to share a few laughs as the day unfolded. It was time for me to relax. Leaving work on Friday, I was able to look forward to two fine away games within the space of just four days.

We rolled in to Southampton, breakfasted at a local café, and then joined up with many familiar Chelsea fans in “Yates’s” in the city centre. I am not particularly smitten with Southampton. Right outside the train station, there are a couple of brutal concrete tower blocks, more akin to those on show in the former communist cities of Eastern Europe, which hardly create a welcoming impression. The civic buildings and the Guildhall are fine, but the city centre seems jumbled.

As I worked my way through six pints of San Miguel, such matters disappeared from my mind.

I was able to relax, to chill out, to unwind.

It was important for me to just sit upstairs with Glenn, chatting and relaxing, rather than join in with others in the crowded ground floor, packed to the rafters, and scene of a Chelsea karaoke.

On the previous day, I had silently marked the first anniversary of my mother’s passing by taking some flowers to my parents’ grave, and I was in no mood for too much ribaldry before the game.

I remembered the time in 1981, when my mother and I watched a Southampton vs. Nottingham Forest game from the lower tier of the cramped bench seats in the East Stand at The Dell, lured by the chance to see another hero of my youth, Kevin Keegan, when a work colleague of my father gave us their two season tickets for the day.

Outside the weather looked cold. There seemed to be a biting wind. More than a few of the local police force were watching us. Only two of the central pubs allow away fans.

“Yates’s” was heaving. The lagers were going down well. Good times.

On the walk to St. Mary’s, I joked with Mick that it was lovely to see him holding hands with Pauline.

“It’s not romantic, Chris. I just needed to prise her out of the pub.”

We laughed.

St. Mary’s, positioned next to the River Itchen to the east, but hemmed in by industrial units to the south and two rusty gasometers to the north, is a rather bland stadium. It is no Dell.

There was not a lot of time to spare and I joined up with Alan and Gary in our seats just in time.

All of a sudden, among the beers, and the laughter and the song, it was time to pay attention to the actual match. Guus Hiddink, quietly going about his business and without the squealing histrionics of our previous manager, had chosen the same starting eleven that had defeated Manchester City the previous weekend. In the home team were former blues Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu, both involved to varying degrees on a certain night in Munich in May 2012.

Southampton, winners at The Bridge earlier in the season, and finding their feet again under Ronald Koeman would be a tough proposition.

The Chelsea support, rising up from the darkened concourse in to the light of the stadium, were in fine voice from the start. However, an early injury to Pedro – improving of late – caused Hiddink to reconfigure. On came Oscar.

Chelsea seemed to control much of the possession during a rather tame first-half, yet Southampton were able to carve out the clearer goal scoring chances.

Thibaut Courtois seemed to be a little unsure of himself on a couple of occasions, and dithered once too often for my liking. Shane Long, the journeyman striker, headed over with our ‘keeper stranded. At the other end, the masked marksman Diego Costa went close. Southampton just seemed a little more dynamic in the final third. Whereas we passed the ball without a lot of purpose, the Saints seemed more clinical. Charlie Austin, the steal of the season, struck a firm shot past our post.

Sadly, on forty-two minutes, two defensive blunders resulted in us conceding. A high ball was weakly headed square by Baba Rahman, and Shane Long pounced. His rather heavy touch seemed, to my eyes, to be within reach of Courtois to race out and clear, but the tall Belgian seemed to react slowly. As he raced off his line, Long delicately clipped it in.

Our ten game unbeaten run in the league was under threat against a capable Southampton team. Our attempts on goal were minimal. It was a deserved lead for the home team at the break. At the interval, the ruthless Hiddink replaced Baba with Kenedy.

We slowly improved. Cheered on by the loyal three thousand, who have taken to singing about Frankie Lampard’s goal against West Ham in 2013 with ever-increasing zeal, we began stretching the Saints’ defence.

Mikel headed over.

Diego volleyed wide.

I said to Gary : “Although we have players in wide positions, we don’t really have wingers any more.”

A few tackles resulted in Martin Atkinson brandishing some yellows. Diego Costa looked like a man “in the mood” and some of his industry seemed to inspire others.

At the other end, a rare Southampton attack ended with a robust challenge on Austin by Cahill. From my position some one hundred yards away, it was clearly not a penalty.

Cough, cough.

Eden Hazard, finding pockets of space, played the ball out to a rampaging Diego Costa. He managed to pull the ball back to Cesc Fabregas, who advanced. He played the ball – almost lazily – in to the box, and I was right behind the course of the ball as it avoided a lunge by Hazard and a late reaction by Forster. It nestled inside the net and the Chelsea support screamed.

What a strange, odd, easy goal.

It had was a fine reward for our increasing urgency in the last portion of the game.

In the eighty-ninth minute, we won a corner and Willian – often unable to get his corners past the first man – sent over a fine ball with pace. The warhorse Ivanovic timed his jump to perfection and his thundering header crashed down past Forster.

Get in.

The Chelsea support again screamed.

Hiddink shored things up with the late addition of Nemanja Matic, and the game was safe.

On a day of late goals, we were more than grateful to hear that Leicester City had grabbed an 89 minute winner of their own.

Get in.

There were songs as we walked back towards the train station. This doesn’t happen too often. It seemed to underline the new sense of belief and happiness within our ranks at the moment.

We had time to relax before catching the train home. There was time for two more pints, and a lovely assessment of our resurgence, not only in the last quarter of the game, but over the past few months.

Back in Frome, Glenn and myself finished off the day with a few more drinks, with more reflections on our fine time among good friends, and then, finally, a late night curry.

It had been a wonderful away day.

On Tuesday evening, we reassemble at the home of Norwich City, another of Peter Osgood’s clubs, and our most famous number nine will again be in our thoughts once more.

See you there.

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Tales From Tyneside

Newcastle United vs. Chelsea : 2 November 2013.

Damn it. Damn it. Damn it. There are many occasions when I just wish that the football didn’t get in the way of a football weekend. This was clearly one of those times.

This was only my eighth trip up to St. James’ Park to see Chelsea. There are simple reasons of economy and geography for this; to put it bluntly – too expensive and too far. My last trip to Tyneside was in 2008-2009. When the season’s fixtures were announced way back in June, I quickly decided that a visit was long overdue. No six hour drive up and six hour drive back for me though – for the first time ever, I had decided to fly to a game in England.

A return flight from nearby Bristol to Newcastle was duly booked for £63 and I counted the months and days until it was time to head north to the mad city on the banks of the River Tyne. I was clearly treating this as an equivalent to a European away game.

Excited?

Why, aye pet.

At just after 5.30am, I texted Alan to let him know that I was – once more – on the road.

“Wor Jackie Kerouac.”

The reply?

“Wor Georgie Stephenson.”

As I headed over the Mendip Hills once again towards my most local airport, I was reminded of the special significance of flying to Newcastle – of all places – for a game of football. In the ‘seventies, Chelsea Football Club produced a yearbook and one of its most tantalising features was the listing, towards the back covers, of many miscellaneous facts and figures pertaining to the club. I was a glutton for such items of trivia and often used to devour the contents. There are a few items which still stick in my head to this day.

  1. Chelsea’s youngest ever player was Ian “Chico” Hamilton.
  2. Eddie MacCreadie – at the time – was our most capped player with twenty-three appearances for Scotland.
  3. Our record aggregate score was 21-0 versus Jeunesse Hautcharage in 1971.
  4. Newcastle United’s record gate was 68,000 to see the return of Hughie Gallacher in a Chelsea shirt to St. James’ Park in the ‘thirties.
  5. Chelsea were the first English team to use air travel for a football match; or to be more exact, to travel back from a football match. The venue? Yes, you’ve guessed it – Newcastle.

The flight was over in a flash; just time for a cursory glance through the inflight magazine and a coffee. Within fifty minutes, the plane had dipped its wings – I glimpsed a pristine white lighthouse guarding the Tyne estuary as the plane banked – and the descent into Geordieland had begun. Although there had been a cold shiver down everyone’s spine when the pilot had gleefully announced that the temperature in ‘Castle was “minus one”, in truth the temperature outside was a minor disturbance.

I was soon on my way into town on the city’s metro. A few fellow football fans were on board. The buzz had begun. As I headed into the city, eventually beneath the streets, I felt that Chelsea were impregnable. We had found our feet, we were scoring goals, we were playing some great stuff. I felt an echo to our dominant form of November 2004, when things really started clicking under Jose Mourinho the first time around. And what an away game to revel in our new-found invincibility.

Newcastle away.

Fantastic.

I had a superb time wandering around along the banks of the River Tyne for a few hours. From the area around the central train station, it is a steep descent down to the quayside. There is almost a gorge-like feel to the river. The iconic Tyne Bridge dominates, but the recent addition of the Gateshead Millennium Bridge augments the view rather well. There are three more bridges which cluster together linking Newcastle to the north and Gateshead to the south. It’s all too photogenic to resist. I happily snapped photographs as I walked in the fresh winter morning air. To be honest, there was a dull grey stillness to the early hours, but it seemed to encapsulate the mood of the city perfectly.

I always remember my first-ever trip to St. James’ Park in March 1984; a Chelsea special, my first proper Chelsea away game, a 1-1 draw and the likes of Kerry Dixon, Colin Pates, Mickey Thomas, David Speedie and Pat Nevin playing for a mythical Chelsea team. I remember crossing the Tyne, high on the railway bridge to the west, and spotting the magnificent and striking Tyne Bridge away to my right. What fantastic memories from almost thirty years ago.

I dipped into a hotel and soon devoured a fulfilling breakfast and then continued walking towards the converted Baltic Flour Mill which has been rejuvenated over the past fifteen years and is now renamed the Baltic Art Centre. I ascended to the viewing platform on the fifth floor and what a vista greeted me.

The Tyne River, the bridges, the spires, the layers upon layers of streets, the deep gorge, the city.

And there, right at the top of the hill to my right, the towering stands of St. James’ Park, where I would be positioned in under three hours for the game.

I retraced my steps and sheltered from the rain in The Redhouse pub right under the shadows of the Tyne Bridge. A pint of Erdinger went down well; I toasted absent friends and supped away. The pub was magnificent; it had darkened rooms, dingy alcoves and there were echoes of its historic past at every turn. My mind cascaded back to when the nearby quayside would have been manically busy with ships, traders, sailors, rogues and thieves.

The rain had thankfully subsided as I began a slow walk north towards the stadium at the top of the town. There are several fine Georgian streets in the city centre and none is more elegant than Grey Street which slowly curves up towards the monument to Earl Grey. From here, the stadium is but a few hundred yards away.

Here was Newcastle United’s saving grace; a city-centre location. It’s the real heart of the city.

The rain began falling again as I sidestepped protests against Mike Ashley under the massive steel structure of the Gallowgate Stand, with the famous Strawberry pub nestled underneath, quite out of place, like an historic throwback to a more simple time.

As I headed around towards the away entrance, I spotted the statue in honour of Newcastle United’s most loved son, Sir Bobby Robson, standing proud and looking out into the Tyneside mist. Above was the towering steel of the Milburn Stand; quite astonishing in its scale.

The fourteen flights of stairs at St. James’ Park are always a test; I passed this time, but without flying colours. A plastic bottle of Coors – hardly on the same scale as an Erdinger – was my reward as I waited for Alan and Gary to arrive. We had three thousand tickets for this game and we had sold out. With no Rangers game on the Saturday, our legions were bolstered by many from their royal – and loyal – blue ranks. I spotted a few friendly faces, but many amongst our support did not register.

Eventually, Alan and Gary arrived and we entered the away section. We were in row V, maybe only around six or seven rows from the very top. The view which greeted me was, despite the dull grey weather, quite phenomenal.

Away in the distance, on the horizon, was the high ground of Gateshead. A solitary spire broke the line of where land met sky in a fuzzy grey smudge. Sadly, only a few miles to the west from that high land, in 1957, Hughie Gallacher – the fiery and tormented former Newcastle United, Chelsea and Scotland centre-forward – took his own life by descending from a footbridge and walking out in front of a train. Hughie Gallacher is a Chelsea player that fascinates me. One of these days I will try to hunt down a biography written by Newcastle fan Paul Joannou about this most loved of players.

Down below, way down below, to my left, just visible through the perspex glass screens of the Leazes Stand can be seen the Georgian terraced houses of Leazes Terrace. In the days when St. James’ Park was virtually all standing, these houses overlooked the eastern terrace at the stadium. They were very distinctive. In around 1972, a new concrete stand was constructed on that eastern terrace, thus blocking their view of the stadium. It is their presence today, though, that gives St. James’ Park such a lop-sided feel. That 1972 stand – the most modern aspect of the stadium when I visited in 1984 – can’t be enlarged due to the fact that the houses on Leazes Terrace are listed buildings; some are used for university students, some are in private hands.

They can’t however, be demolished. In the meantime, the monolithic west and north stands at St. James’ tower over all. Their size is truly mesmerizing.

Ahead of me, the home end – the Gallowgate. Once a relatively slight terrace, containing very distinctive concrete crush barriers, this end was dismantled and built anew around 1993. I can always remember a sight from the days when Kevin Keegan reinvigorated the club when he joined them from Southampton in 1982. At the time, this story was unheard of – an England international signing for a struggling team in the second division. I remember a winter’s game, rain lashing down on the open Gallowgate terrace, the stadium packed with Geordies and steam coming up of their boiling bodies, piled high on the crush barriers.

Truly amazing.

In the distance, clearly visible was the curving green iron of the Tyne Bridge. The traffic was heavy, the cars’ lights were on and I wondered if they were tuned in to the match.

The unlucky ones outside. The lucky ones inside.

The teams entered the pitch. There was an impeccably well-observed minute of silence for those who have fallen.

The grey Tyneside air turned darker.

We quickly ran through the Chelsea team and there were few surprises.

Juan Mata was playing. David Luiz was playing.

The Chelsea support, massed high on the upper tier of the Leazes Stand stood the entire game. It is something that we do without even thinking about these days; a subconscious statement of defiance to those who try to sanitise and sterilise our beautiful game.

To the memory of those ten thousand Geordies huddled together in the rain in 1982.

Chelsea certainly had most of the possession in that first-half, but sadly had nothing to show for it all at half-time. Our play at times was slow. There were occasional thrusts from Hazard on the left and Torres on the right, but Krul was hardly tested apart from at a succession of corners midway through the half. A John Terry header crashed against the bar. A deflected Torres effort too.

The home support during the first-half had been dire. We had begun well with the new Moyes & Wenger song getting some airtime along with the Willian effort. Our support, like the form of the team, drifted away as the half continued.

At the break, there were the usual murmurs of discontent, but we knew we were in good hands.

“Just hope Mourinho weaves his magic at the break and we change things in the second-half.”

I wandered down to the toilets at half-time, the concourse absolutely packed with away supporters. In the middle of the crowd, quietly talking to a fellow fan, was Pat Nevin, sporting a blue and white Chelsea scarf. A quick handshake for that most wondrous of Chelsea players. I reminded him that he was my favourite player of all time.

The rain continued to fall as the game continued. Mourinho surprisingly replaced Torres with Eto’o. Although Torres had not enjoyed his best of games, his level of service in the first hour was poor. I was surprised when he was substituted. Additionally, Juan Mata was replaced by Willian. This was another surprising move by Jose. We all thought that Oscar – and maybe Hazard – was more deserving to be replaced. Elsewhere, Lamps struggled to get a foothold. In defence, David Luiz was having one of those games which left even me mouthing expletives at his reckless challenges.

A couple of half-chances for the home team suddenly galvanised the home support and there was a definite change in the sway of the game. This was now getting tougher by the minute. Our play was deteriorating fast.

A header from an unmarked Gouffran on 68 minutes gave the Geordies a deserved lead and the stadium rocked.

Mourinho immediately replaced Frank with Andrea Schurrle, whose initial industry promised an upturn in our fortunes. Half-chances for Willian and Eto’o didn’t convince the away support that our luck would change.

Only the barnstorming Ivanovic and the solid defensive play of Terry provided any comfort.

A late goal from Remy, cracked in off the near post settled the game for sure. With that, hundreds of Chelsea fans decided to head into the bars and pubs of the city centre. Five minutes of extra time was signalled but we all knew that we wouldn’t score if we had played all afternoon.

That was as clear as black and white.

It had undoubtedly been a very poor Chelsea performance. We were lost for words to be honest. Our fine form of the past month – wins, flair, goals – had shrivelled up in the Tyneside rain. We looked for answers. In the warmth of The Union Rooms opposite the train station, a few of us tried to put together an explanation of our failures, but we struggled.

“It’s not as if they’re a great time.”

Alan and Gary then left for London.

“See you Wednesday, boys.”

The night was still young. I chatted away to a couple of locals. There were warm memories again of 1983-1984 and the tantalising forward line of Keegan, Beardsley and Waddle. I mentioned the very memorable hip-shake move that Peter Beardsley used to effectively confuse and befuddle opposing defenders. The locals talked about their loathing of Joe Kinnear and Mike Ashley, the painful wait for silverware on Tyneside, the skill of former midfielder Tony Green and the talk went on and on and on.

And then, alone, out into the craziness of a Newcastle night.

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Tales From The Blue Haze

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 5 January 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Don’t recognise him.”

“Don’t know him.”

“Or him”

“Who’s that?”

“Don’t know him.”

“Don’t know him.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post-modern football hooliganism.

The Southampton fan took it well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea : “Are You Tottenham In Disguise?”

Southampton : “Are You Pompey In Disguise?”

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

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

Get in!

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

Oh boy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Game over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BOOM.

Just like a proper football match.

Bring the noise.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our attentions moved to another ex-Southampton player –

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

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

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

Click…and 5-1.

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

What an achievement.

193 goals. Simply magnificent.

With this, the home fans began to leave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Third gear to fourth.

In and out of the traffic.

Up to fifth

Job done, Chelsea.

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