Tales From The Mosh Pit

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 20 August 2017.

After our surprising defeat against Burnley last Saturday, I only wished that more Chelsea supporters had exhibited the considered calmness of Antonio Conte. In a post-match interview, despite some unsurprisingly barbed questions, he spoke serenely with his trademark soft voice, down-playing any concerns about our future, and even finding time to playfully joke about finding a way to cope with his team playing with ten, or nine, men in future games. His personality shone through. Elsewhere, within the ranks of some of our support – some of whom would not have lasted five minutes in the days of Alan Mayes, Mark Falco and the like – there seemed to be hysterics and over-reaction.

And then, on the Friday, there was that extended spell of giggling and laughter when he was questioned about Diego Costa being treated as some sort of criminal.

It was beautiful and therapeutic to watch, wasn’t it?

It must have been the final nail in the coffin for Diego Costa’s last vestige of self-pride. Conte was on top, and there would hopefully be no more nonsense devoted to our out of favour striker and his desire to move on and away from our club.

Going in to the tough away game at Wembley against Tottenham – without Gary Cahill, Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard – here at last were some positive signs.

And we needed some positives. Despite my gung-ho words of last week (“Next Sunday, I might put some money on us to do well against Tottenham. It would be typical Chelsea for us to dig out a result there”), as the week progressed, I became a little less confident. The thought us losing against Tottenham, and with no points from our first two league games, was playing heavily on my mind. And with good reason.

On the drive up to London, the Four Chuckle Brothers were of the same opinion.

“Spurs are a good team. Let’s take a draw today. A win at home to Everton next weekend and we’ll be back on track.”

The game at Wembley – the first-ever league game at the national stadium in almost one-hundred years – would surely be one of our toughest away games of the season. In my pre-season prediction, mirroring that of last season in fact, I had us finishing third behind Manchester City and Manchester United. If Tottenham were playing at the familiar White Hart Lane this season, they might have been in the mix too, but, like many, I predicted that their use of the larger and unluckier Wembley would work against them. I had them finishing fourth, or fifth.

Our drinking completed, we made our way up from the centre of London to Marylebone, catching the 3.20pm train. With only 3,100 away fans in attendance, we were certainly in the minority, but the train carriage that we chose was full of Chelsea. There were high spirits, but – alas – some vile songs of old too. There is no place at football for songs mentioning Nazi death camps. For a few moments I wondered what on earth possesses some people to utter such shite.

Knowing how heated it used to get outside the away end as we turned into Park Lane from the High Road at White Hart Lane, I fully expected a heavy police presence between Wembley Stadium train station and our entrance at the eastern side of the stadium. There was nothing. To be honest, I got the impression that most home fans were already ensconced in the stadium, no doubt jigging along to a Chas and Dave smash from the last century. The walkways to the stadium were relatively clear. I noted a gaggle of Old Bill walking away from us at the top of the incline – maybe one hundred yards away – but apart from a few expletives being exchanged, there was no trouble. I had visions of aggressive Spurs fans picking out stragglers. I had visions of coins being thrown at us – a White Hart Lane tradition of late – and I had thoughts of a few punches being exchanged. In the end, the walk to the stadium was bereft of any nastiness at all.

We made our way to the away turnstiles. At the eastern end – we have been rare visitors to this end over the years – there is much more space outside the gates. A thorough search and we were in. I had decided not to take my proper camera. Too much aggravation. I would have to make do with my camera phone. Imagine my annoyance when I clocked a couple of fans with cameras as big as the one I had left in Somerset. Oh well.

During the build up to the game, we had heard that the local council and/or police (it wasn’t really clear to me) had kept the attendance to a maximum of around 70,000. Conversely, I had heard from a local Spurs fan – I don’t know many – that 90,000 would be the norm this season. Even though Wembley is positioned in a Tottenham heartland, that still seems a massive number. Of course, with us looking to play at Wembley in around 2019, I am very intrigued to see how it all pans out. In the match programme, I spotted that tickets for our game ranged from £35 to £95. By and large, apart from the cordoned-off seats in the highest levels of the top tier, it looked like Spurs had sold out; even the expensive corporate tier looked full.

I think it’s imperative that Chelsea get the pricing structure right when our enforced exile happens. Although the distance from Stamford Bridge to Wembley is three miles less than from White Hart Lane to Wembley, Chelsea has always relied on its bedrock support to come from south of the river. Wembley is a north London venue and Spurs are a north London team. That fit just feels more natural than ours. So, the club needs to get it right. It needs to lower season ticket prices and match day prices to hold on to our existing support in the years ahead when we will leave the familiar surrounds of Stamford Bridge. The club needs to take a hit during the first year especially, or else fans will simply get out of the habit of going to see our games.

Season tickets as low as £500? Why on earth not?

Match day tickets as low as £20? Yes.

The last thing that I want to see at Wembley, with potentially room for 90,000, is for us to be playing some league games in a third-full stadium. The club needs to gauge it right. It needs to safeguard our support. It needs to bridge the gap from the old Stamford Bridge to the new Stamford Bridge. There’s much room for discussion on this subject. I’m sure that the club must realise this. I am sure much discussion is planned between the club and the various supporters’ groups. I just hope that they make the correct choices afterwards.

Much of the talk in the car on the drive to London had centred on Tiemoue Bakayoko. If he was fit, and chosen, he would surely play alongside N’Golo Kante. We chatted about which of the two potential defenders would play alongside David and Dave; Antonio Ridiger or Andreas Christensen? If Bakayoko was not fit – hell – then we wondered if Luiz or even Rudiger might anchor the midfield.

Well, Antonio Conte was ahead of all of us.

He had decided to play Bakayoko, Ridiger and Christensen. We wondered how the team would line-up.

Our section was down low; strangely in a different section to where I watched Bayer Leverkusen play Spurs last season. We were in good voice as the teams took to the pitch away to our right. The home club had issued flags to their supporters, and they feverishly waved them as kick-off approached. The problem for Tottenham is that white is a neutral colour. There was no real impact. It was all rather wishy-washy. It looked, in fact, like seventy-thousand surrender flags being flown.

There were hardly any of the normal, draped, flags on show from the usual vantage points. Instead, Tottenham had decided to transplant the “To Dare Is To Do”, “Spurs Are My Club” and “It’s All About Glory” taglines from White Hart Lane on the top, white, balcony. The lower balconies advertised various supporters’ groups from around the world on an electronic ticker, which changed every few seconds. If I was living in Florida, I would be very worried; there seems to be Tottenham fans everywhere within that sun-addled state– Tampa Spurs, Tallahassee Spurs, Ybor City Spurs, Orlando Spurs.

The game began.

What? David Luiz in midfield? Conte had surprised us all. Whether through circumstance or choice, our manager – thankfully wearing his suit after last weekend’s display – had chosen to play a 3/5/2 formation.

Courtois.

Rudiger – Christensen – Azpilicueta

Alonso – Kante – Luiz – Bakayoko – Moses

Willian – Morata

Or a 5/3/2.

Or a 3/5/1/1.

Whatever.

But boy it worked.

We dominated the early moments, and Alvaro Morata really should have put us 1-0 up after only a few minutes. A cross from Dave on the right picked out our Spanish striker, completely unmarked, but his firm header was off target by some margin. I noted that Luiz was able to tuck back into a very defensive position – an extra shield – to assist the back three, who were playing as a three together for the very first time.

Tottenham, as expected, began to have more of the ball. Kane troubled Courtois and the derided Alli blasted over from a tight angle. But I was happy with our play. We looked tight defensively. There was pace everywhere. We closed down space. Kante and Luiz were everywhere. This had the makings of a great game. I was just pleased – I will be blunt – that we were in it.

The Spurs offensive – and I find them very offensive – continued. Dembele shot over. But I was still pretty calm. All around me, the Chelsea fans were making a fine racket. The home fans were surprisingly subdued.

And then it started. A bizarre rumble of drums blasted out over the tannoy. We were in fits of laughter :

“What the fackinell was that?”

Good God Tottenham. Have a look at yourselves. Piped drums? What on bloody Earth? It continued at regular intervals throughout the first period. The Spurs fans looked embarrassed, as they should.

Our support? We were in fine form.

“Stand up for the Champions.”

Gary, alongside me, was in good form too. He is small of stature is our Gal, but has a booming voice. Just after they became excited about “standing up if you hate Arsenal”, he initiated the song of the game. Just as they were returning to their seats, he rasped –

“Sit down if you’ve won fuck all.”

The entire away end joined in.

And the Spurs fans duly sat down. So funny. Good work, Gal.

On twenty-four minutes, David Luiz was fouled. We waited for the free-kick, some thirty yards away from the goal. The familiar left-foot of Marcos Alonso swiped and curled the ball over the lilywhite wall. I had a perfect view. Loris was well-beaten. The net bulged and so did we.

GETINYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.

Our pre-match worries evaporated there and then. We were winning. Oh happy days.

Bakayoko had enjoyed a quiet start but he had a fine run deep into the Spurs half. Harry Kane twice threatened our goal, but his finishing was adrift. Spurs were biting back now, and just before half-time, a low drive from that man Kane came back off the post with Thibaut beaten. Spurs still had time to pepper our goal in the closing moments. We had ridden our luck, no doubt, but I was more than happy. Courtois had made a couple of saves but we looked like a team in control of our own destiny. It had been a very encouraging half. Andreas Christensen had been imperious. It was hard to fathom that this was his full debut. I have a contact through work who is a Borussia Monchengladbach supporter and we have been emailing each other at regular intervals over the past couple of seasons; he was distraught when we brought Christensen back from his loan spell. Elsewhere, we were full of running, full of fight.

Good old Antonio.

At half-time, I found out that the old Tottenham trick of throwing coins had followed them from White Hart Lane to Wembley; friends Liz and Michelle were both clutching coins that had been pelted their way.

That is just shite.

The second-half began. It was more of the same, to be honest, with much Tottenham possession, but Chelsea very compact, forcing Spurs to pass around us rather than through us. Whereas we have width up front and at the back, Spurs’ play was very central and they became stifled. Whenever they did pierce our midfield, I lost count of the number of times that Rudiger, Christensen and Luiz headed clear.

We then enjoyed a fine spell, with Willian teasing and testing the Spurs defence. Morata almost reached a cross. He then shot wide after fine close control although if I am honest I wished that he had not taken quite so many touches. He looks neat though. His goals will come. Moses danced into the box but blazed over. This was a fine Chelsea resurgence. Willian advanced and drilled a shot across the goalmouth, but we groaned as it hit the base of the post. Bollocks.

Ten minutes to go.

Pedro for Willian. Batshuayi for the exhausted Morata.

“Come on Chelsea.”

On eighty-two minutes, and after countless crosses being claimed by Courtois, or headed away by the defenders, we conceded a free-kick out wide and I immediately sensed danger.

I almost held myself back from saying it, not wishing to tempt fate, blah, blah, blah, but I simply could not help myself. I whispered to Gal –

“These are the free-kicks I hate us defending.”

Two seconds later, the danger man Eriksen whipped in a head-high cross.

Bam.

1-1.

Fuck it.

The action was so far away that I did not even notice that it was a Chelsea player – the luckless Batshuayi – who had thumped the ball in.

At last the Spurs fans exploded with noise.

And, I will be honest – I am hopefully honest in these reports – the place was fucking rocking. Only on a couple of other occasions have I heard more noise at an English football stadium. They only seem to have two songs, the fuckers – “Come On You Spurs” and “Oh When The Spurs Go Marching In” – but it was as noisy as hell. The rabble down to my left were pointing, gurning and strutting like Mick Jagger. What an unpleasant sight.

“Bloody hell. OK, deal. A draw here. A win against Everton. Back on track. Just don’t concede another.”

To be fair to us, we kept pressing. It was a fantastic game of football. With time running out, a ball was played in to Michy, but he crumpled under the challenge. We won the ball back – Luiz, magnificent – and he played in Pedro, fresh legs and full of guile. With Spurs a little flat and half-asleep, he fed in Marcos Alonso.

He advanced.

He struck low.

The ball zipped beneath Loris.

Oh my fucking goodness.

2-1.

What happened then has only happened on a few rare occasions in my football-life. I lost it. We all lost it.

A last minute winner.

Against Tottenham.

At Wembley.

On their big day.

Their big fucking day.

I bounced up and screamed. I quickly grabbed my sunglasses because I knew they would fly off. Damage limitation. I noticed fans flocking down the aisle steps, heading down, I had to join them, destiny. I wanted to run, but steadied myself as other fans knocked me sideways. It was mayhem. Arms flailing everywhere. Pauline had been knocked to the floor. I raced on. Bloody hell, what is Parky’s crutch doing here? At the bottom of the terrace, a mosh pit of ecstasy. Fans bouncing, jumping, arms pointing, bodies being grabbed, hugs with strangers, smiles wide, screams, screams, screams.

And a surreal sight ahead, just yards away.

I looked up to see the entire Chelsea team, or at least the ten men in royal blue – and the royal blue seeming, strangely, out of place among the away end regulars – celebrating wildly with the nutters in the front row.

“YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.”

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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Tales From The East End

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 24 October 2015.

So this was it, then. This was to be Chelsea Football Club’s last ever game at West Ham United’s Boleyn Ground, or Upton Park to give its more commonly used title. Next season, they vacate their century-old stadium within the cramped terraces of E13, and head off a few miles to the west and north to Stratford and the former Olympic Stadium.

The plan was to have one last look around the old place – hardly a personal favourite, in fact far from it – before going inside to join the three thousand royal blue loyalists. I had not ventured much past the main stand on Green Street in past years, not since the away end has flip-flopped from the South Bank to the North Bank in around 1993. That main stand, updated and enlarged in 2001, of course houses a ridiculous frontage consisting of a pair of Lego style towers. I wanted to have one last laugh at that. However, I also wanted to pop down to see the statue featuring West Ham’s 1966 heroes for the very first time before, I presume, it would take residency at their new home. I also wanted to rekindle a few memories – God only knows why – of a couple of visits to the South Bank, both heavy losses, in 1986 and 1988.

As I say, that was the plan.

I had missed the creditable draw in Kiev during the week. It was the first match that I had not seen thus far into the current season. I thought that we performed rather well in the Ukraine, especially in the first-half, and really should have put the game away. We tired in the second period and, in the end, were lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw. The reporting of an ambush by locals on a small group of Chelsea fans sickened me to the core. I was keen to hear from a few friends who had travelled of their experiences.

London was calling me.

I was relishing this one.

I left my home town relatively early at just after 7.30am. A long day lay in wait. Leaving so early meant that the M4 was clear.

It was a relaxing drive.

On the approach in to London, the last forty-five minutes maybe, I drove to the sound of New Order’s excellent new album “Music Complete.” The band from Manchester are back to their best. I can’t wait to see them – unbelievably for the first time – in Brixton in three weeks’ time.

Football and music.

Music and football.

New Order are a band – there are a few – that transcend both.

We were parked up at Barons Court at around 10.30am. PD, Parky and myself headed straight in to town on the District Line, but instead of joining up with one of many Chelsea pre-game rendezvous in various hostelries throughout the city, we had other plans. We alighted at Embankment, slap dash in the middle of the nation’s capital. There was to be no trip on the District Line from the West End to the East End on this occasion. Instead, the three of us caught a river bus from Embankment, just along from Westminster and the Houses of Parliament, to North Greenwich, adjacent to the O2 Arena, formerly the Millennium Dome.

Although the skies were grey, with no hint of sun, and the waters of the River Thames bleak, we thoroughly enjoyed our trip through the very centre of London. Of course, I snapped away like a fool. What did you expect? Oil paintings?

I have only ever taken a boat trip along the Thames once before, and that was with some US friends in 2002, when the trip was at a more leisurely pace and with a guide to hand. This one took around fifty minutes. And it was fantastic.

The Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Bridge, the Royal Festival Hall, the London Eye, Cleopatra’s Needle, the Oxo Building, the Tate Modern, the Millennium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, the Nat West Tower, The Gherkin, The Shard, The Walkie-Talkie, the GLC Building, The Tower Of London, Tower Bridge.

And then river boat sped around the broad sweep of the Thames, with that odd mixture of geometric architectural shapes appearing at first to our left and then to our right as our perspective changed.

Canary Wharf, and its financial towers, and then the slowly rising curves of the O2 Arena.

At just before midday, we were setting foot on the south side of the river. Twenty minutes later we found ourselves ordering pints of cider and lager in The Pilot public house a few hundred yards to the south east of the O2. In an area of massive urban renewal – huge blocks of concrete everywhere – this lovely pub was at the end of a row of old London terraced houses, allowed to remain amidst change.

We settled down and chatted about all sorts. We tracked others using our phones. Andy from Los Angeles – in town for just three days – was with others a mile or so away in a “proper” pie and mash shop in Poplar.

“We’ll do that next time. Not had pie and mash for years and years.”

There were a few Charlton Athletic fans in the pub – the Valley is around a thirty minute walk away – but, unsurprisingly, no Chelsea or West Ham fans. It was just pleasant to be doing something a little different at an away game.

Team news came through, and it was an unchanged eleven from Tuesday. I approved.

“The plan” went awry unfortunately. We didn’t leave the boozer until gone two o’clock, meaning that my planned walk down to the statue of Moore, Hurst and Peters – and Wilson – would disappear into the ether.

Unfortunately, mirroring the game in March, we were further delayed on the eastbound District Line from West Ham to Upton Park due to – again – “football crowds on the platform.” This was really frustrating. We were all restless as the train stalled for a few minutes at Plaistow. We walked up the shabby steps of Upton Park station for the final time and headed off to the game. We knew that we’d miss kick-off.

The Chelsea mantra of “one last pint” had struck again.

Bollocks.

We were funnelled down a familiar side street and soon entered the away end. We got in with around five minutes on the clock. I was just getting my bearings when Andy – Los Angeles – suddenly appeared next to me. Not only had he enjoyed some pie and mash, he had also visited one of the most infamous boozers in all of London, The Blind Beggar in Whitechapel, scene of gangster Ronnie Kray’s murder of rival gang member George Cornel in 1966.

Seat numbers were ignored by many as the late-comers just shuffled along the rows.

The Boleyn Ground.

Upton Park.

Our final game.

This would be my eleventh visit to the London Borough of Newham to see Chelsea play West Ham United. My first visit should have taken place on New Year’s Day 1986 – with both teams mounting a twin assault on the league title – but sadly I only reached Aldgate East tube station before hearing from fellow fans that the game had been called off due to a heavily frosted pitch.

My first visit was on Saturday 11 October 1986 – just over twenty nine years ago – and some details are remembered to this day.

There was a visit to Nathan’s Pie and Mash Shop on Barking Road, just behind the away end, and I can remember a West Ham supporter trying to illicit a conversation with me about the Hammers’ recent form. I was having none of it. I kept quiet. There was a clear singularity to my actions behind enemy lines that day; “don’t get sussed.” Although the match was “pay on the gate” (as usually they all were in those days, or at least, for the standing areas), we had to show our plastic Chelsea membership cards to be allowed access into the away enclosure, which was a tight and heavily partitioned area, full of metal obstructions and associated ugliness. I remember the away end being packed. I remember the heavy police presence. I remember Chelsea supporters being lugged out for swearing. I remember that bloody awful Chelsea Collection kit. What was Batesy thinking? I remember us going 3-2 ahead, but then letting the game slip away in the last five minutes, eventually losing 5-3.

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At the very end of the game, West Ham fans – from outside, to my left I think – threw a couple of flares into our end. The away support was 99% male. I remember being gutted to have lost. The Chelsea fans were given an escort – of some sort or another – because we were sent packing on a train west from Upton Park which did not stop until it reached Victoria. It meant that I had missed a connection to take me back home, but who mentioned anything about football fans being treated “normally” back in the ‘eighties? Certainly not me.

In 2015, although there were more females than in 1986, the Chelsea support was still predominantly male. As in 1986, colours were hardly worn.

With West Ham attacking us in the “Sir Trevor Brooking Stand”, I tried to settle. The Chelsea support was getting behind the team, with one particular favourite getting a good airing.

“Frankie Lampard scored two hundred…”

We probably edged the first portion of the game, but West Ham enjoyed the first real chance, with Begovic leaping high to palm Payet’s free-kick over. Sadly, the resultant corner was not cleared and Zarate’s low strike whipped past our ‘keeper and into the bottom corner.

Here we go again. Bollocks.

We tried to chip away at West Ham, who seemed happy to defend deep. We had a few half-chances. The mood in the away end was of grim resilience. I managed to capture on film – snap! – the moment of impact between ball and Kurt Zouma’s forehead as he rose to meet Fabregas’ corner. He headed down, but the ball was cleared.

Soon after, West Ham should have increased their lead as Lanzini broke, but thankfully his lofted effort just cleared our bar.

A chance at the other end; after good work from the tireless Willian, Fabregas’ fine low shot ploughed into the goal, only for our celebrations to be halted by the sight of the linesman’s yellow flag on the far side.

Just before half-time, Matic – already on a yellow – made a clumsy and needless challenge on Sakho, only a few feet from the right touchline. I sensed danger immediately. Matic walked away but I feared the worst. He was called back to receive a second yellow. In my mind, it was academic.

Matic was nothing but a fool.

Brainless.

In the ensuing melee by the touchline, two yellow cards were further brandished to complaining Chelsea players.

This again was brainless.

Did Diego Costa and Azpilicueta believe that their waling would reverse the referee’s decision?

This was just poor discipline.

The mood was dark at half-time. Down to ten men, a goal down, this was going to be a tough ask in the second period. There was a brief chat with Calvin about the perils of Kiev.

“We walked to the stadium. Tell you what, if it wasn’t for the army escort, we’d have got battered.”

Mourinho replaced Fabregas with Mikel. We didn’t notice it straight away, but the manager did not take his normal position in the technical area or in the dugout. We were not sure why.

Rather than succumb to continued West Ham pressure, we controlled much of the ball as the second half got underway. After ten minutes, Zouma managed to get on the end of Willian’s corner. The ball bobbled inside the area, and the Chelsea support sensed something. The ball fell, not ideally, to Gary Cahill, who managed to adjust slightly and smash the ball in.

Pandemonium in the North Bank. I was pushed forward, and clung on grimly to a few friends, rather than tumble on top of the person in front. Shins were bruised, but I remained on my feet. Sometimes having plastic seats in an area where people are standing all game is asking for trouble. I’m not sure why – maybe it is because of the shallow rake – but away fans’ celebrations at West Ham always look mad on TV.

How did we look?

Our faith restored, we roared the team on. Our players responded so well and continued to boss the game. It was indeed hard to believe that we were one man down. It was heart-warming stuff. The teams exchanged a few chances, but we remained ahead on points. Everyone around me was full of praise for Willian who worked relentlessly. It was sad to see, though, Eden Hazard unwilling to move in to space in that tight final third. Is his play simply due to a dip in confidence or are there other reasons for his collapse in form? Diego Costa seemed to be having an off-day too. Although we were enjoying possession, that final ball in to the danger area was missing.

Zarate was substituted, with Andy Carroll joining the fray.

The away crowd immediately chirped :

“Man or a woman? Are you a man or a woman? Man or a woman?”

As the game continued, we were more and more exposed down the West Ham left. A sliced clearance by JT was played back out to Creswell, who had time to spot Carroll in the middle. His prodigious leap over our defenders was oh-so predictable, as was the slow looping header which dolloped down and in, with Begovic caught in no man’s land. To be honest, it is doubtful if he had stayed on his line he would have saved it.

We slumped.

The home fans roared.

Throughout the game, of particular annoyance was the sound of them singing a ditty in praise of Dimitri Payet to the tune of “Achy Breaky Heart.”

For.

Fuck.

Sake.

Now they were in full voice.

I half expected the Chicken Run to start fucking line dancing.

We brought on Baba Rahman and Radamel Falcao late on, but despite the tireless energy of Willian inspiring the support, an equaliser never really looked likely.

The game was over.

And so was our last ever visit to the Boleyn Ground.

On the walk back to the long line at Upton Park tube, I chatted – I think you can call it a superheated conversation – with Mark from Westbury.

“It’s no good Mourinho blaming every one, and everything. The man needs to take responsibility. And the players too. Everyone. We need to stand up. All this of this blaming others…it probably gives the players the wrong message. He just has to prove that he is the manager that we know he has been and hope he still is.”

It was a long trip back to the familiar streets of West London and then our homes in the West of England.

Five losses out of ten league games.

That’s it. I’m not going to football ever again. I will see some of you at Stoke on Tuesday evening.

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Tales From The North Bank Of The River

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 26 April 2015.

Sometimes it often feels to me that the inhabitants of Planet Football have mindfully chosen to perpetually live as if they were children stuck in a particularly spiteful schoolyard where jagged and mean-spirited barbs are continually aimed at each of the other children’s football teams. I’m sure that football is not the only sport where this happens. On “Facebook” I often become privy to some occasionally nasty and rude conversations that take place between some US acquaintances as they discuss the merits of various college football teams, NFL teams or baseball teams. You can be sure it happens in Australian cricket, French rugby, Brazilian football and virtually all major sports currently being played too. Very often the debate is not about the abilities on show in the sport in question, but the personality disorders of players of hated rivals, sexual proclivities of other coaches and managers, to say nothing of the real or perceived differences between rival fan bases.

The reasons for this are many, but I suppose that the driving force for all this constant noise of abuse and antagonism is the desire to prove that your team, or club, is superior and aims to meet its goals in the correct way.

In football, it can get out of hand pretty easily.

There is a song which occasionally gets aired in and around football stadia, and elsewhere, about a certain Arsenal manager and a certain packet of sweets and a certain cheeky smile. To be honest, when we first heard this around twenty years ago it raised a smile, but as an example of how nasty a football song can be, there are few equals. I stopped singing it years ago. I can well remember being squashed inside a tube train en route to an Arsenal versus Chelsea game around ten years ago when the whole carriage seemed to be joining in. In the carriage were a few, only a few but a few nonetheless, young children. A good friend and I both rolled our eyes and admitted to ourselves that this was not a particularly edifying moment in our lives.

Sometimes Planet Football can be a cruel and painful place.

As the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game loomed on the horizon, the relative merits of both clubs came in to focus and the “banter” and dialogue on social media intensified. Out came the barbs once more. At times, I was back in the school yard. And I wondered to myself where I personally stood in this whole “us and them” thing. Of course, I’ve never liked Arsenal, why would I? In truth, I dislike Tottenham more. And yet there is something about Arsenal which annoys me intensely. It is their essential “Arsenalness.”

It is down to two things.

For the vast majority of their existence they have produced a rather humdrum and tedious brand of football, which even the doyen of all things Arsenal Nick Hornby has acknowledged. Yet since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, this “1-0 to the Arsenal” modus operandi has been airbrushed from the record books, with everyone inside and outside the media seemingly brainwashed into thinking that entertaining football has always been the Arsenal way. What nonsense. The memory of George Graham’s defensively strong Arsenal team of twenty-five years ago still lingers.

And then we need to talk about Arsenal supporters. For a sport which has traditionally drawn its support from the working classes, I never fail to be amazed with how painfully middle class the Arsenal support appears to be; they spend their entire life chattering, complaining, bickering, but never realising how lucky they are. This sense of entitlement, which I sadly see creeping in to certain sections of our support, really annoys me. What right have do Arsenal fans think they have to silverware? When Chelsea went without a single piece of silver for twenty-six years, did we wail and moan? No. We simply fucking got on with supporting our club, through hell and high water. Just imagine if Arsenal were to be relegated. The screams of torture emanating from North London would keep inhabitants of Australia awake at night.

And, of course – of course! – the Arsenal fans of 2015 are never shy in singing the two favourites, much beloved in school yards everywhere :

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Shit club, no history.”

Again, there is this insistence within Arsenal’s support – and other teams too – that our success of late is unwarranted due to our perceived lack of historical clout. I need to readdress this view.

Back in around 2002 or so, before anyone knew who Roman Abramovich was, I stumbled across a discussion on a Chelsea fans forum, which totally changed the way that I felt about my club. Back in 2002, even I was beginning to believe the media’s view that we were a mid-sized club. True, I knew that Stamford Bridge had hosted huge crowds, but I also knew that our support had dwindled from the late ‘seventies to the mid ‘nineties. Crucially, it was this era – the most recent – that fans of other teams had referenced in discussing our small support base. Of course, most other teams’ support had dropped in this period too, yet it seemed that it was only Chelsea that was ever mentioned.

In this forum, average attendances were being discussed, and – salvation – somebody posted a link to a Newcastle United forum which, for a lover of statistics like myself, I found to be utterly fascinating.

Here, was a complete list, ranked in order, of every Football League club’s average home attendance, taken from their first season to the most recent. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that “little old Chelsea”, far from being a mid-ranked team, was the fifth-best supported club in England and Wales.

So, as of 2002 (though I think this list might well date from a year or two later when it was updated slightly), the numbers do not lie :

  1. Manchester United – 36,165
  2. Liverpool – 33,591
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 33,386
  4. Arsenal – 31,692
  5. Chelsea – 31,113
  6. Everton – 30,917
  7. Newcastle United – 30,675
  8. Manchester City – 28,403
  9. Aston Villa – 27, 806
  10. Leeds United – 25,689

Of course, all sorts of things jump in to my mind here, but one key point needs to be addressed. Whereas in 2002 all of the clubs above us in this table had accumulated many more trophies than us, our support throughout almost one hundred years had stayed remarkably buoyant. Yes, Arsenal – for example – had won twelve or thirteen league championships in their storied history, but their average home gate was a mere 578 more than that of Chelsea, who had accumulated just one league championship to that point.

So, rather than the old notion of Chelsea’s support being poor, I would strongly suggest that our support has been historically the most unappreciated and arguably the most loyal of all.

I just wish that this little gem of statistical fact could easily be relayed into a witty terrace chant.

That would shut the bastards up.

My football weekend had encompassed a nervous ninety minutes watching my local team, Frome Town, eke out a 1-1 draw with St. Neots Town on the Saturday. The draw ensured survival for the fourth straight year at our highest ever level in the football pyramid, though this was due in part to the disappearance of former Football League club Hereford United around Christmas; thankfully, only three teams were relegated, not four.

On the Sunday, Parky and I decided to do something a little different. Everyone else seemed to be meeting in a Chelsea stronghold – The Shakespeare’s Head – at Holborn, which is where I have tended to assemble for Arsenal away games for ages, but I parked by the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick and we went on a really excellent pub crawl along the River Thames. We spent a few hours in four different pubs – The Old Ship, The Dove, The Rutland Arms, The Blue Anchor – before catching the Piccadilly Line east and then north at Hammersmith. This part of London is not specifically Chelsea territory – it is closer to Fulham’s ground – and I am sure that hardly any Chelsea match-going fans drink this far out on match days, but it is a pub crawl that we definitely want to repeat. Each pub was different, each had its own charms and each had lovely views of the river. There were blue plaques everywhere. The pubs are on the course of the University Boat Race. There was history and charm aplenty. Quirky and magnificent, it was a part of London that I had not yet witnessed until then. We’ll do it again.

Our meandering walk on the north bank of the river reminded me of the peculiar nature, in some respects, of our support. Yes, Chelsea is on the north side of the Thames, yet we have an SW6 postcode, and our traditional working class support was based not only in Fulham and Hammersmith but south of the river in Chelsea strongholds such as Battersea, Wandsworth and further south into Mitcham, Tooting and beyond. Arsenal, by contrast, eked out an existence south. That meandering Thames in its last twenty miles heading through the nation’s capital city has helped define and confuse the sense of geography of two of its teams.

Chelsea – north in location only, southern in spirit.

Arsenal – roots in the south, now in the north.

As soon as we entered “The Shakespeare’s Head” – packed with familiar faces and hardly any Arsenal – a new Chelsea song entered my consciousness. For a good ten minutes or more, it was non-stop. I quickly tried to work out the words. Within a few minutes, I was joining in.

“Fabrgegas is magic, he wears a magic hat.

He could have signed for Arsenal, but he said “no, fuck that.”

He passes with is left foot, he passes with his right.

And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

For the current climate, in current circumstances, this was a rather light ditty, without any associated malice. The cruel school yard seemed distant. I texted the words to a couple of friends, but word had got out. The Chelsea section of the World Wide Web was heating up with references to – gasp – a new song.

Lovely stuff.

The team news came through; “no striker.” Ah, the game…I hadn’t thought too much about it. A draw would be fine from my perspective. It seemed that Jose Mourinho agreed. A draw would knock Arsenal and their 578 extra fans out of the title hunt. I geared myself up for a dour defensive battle. Mourinho doing a George Graham, but with tons more charisma.

The stations at Holloway Road and Arsenal were closed (at the latter, there was the sulphurous odour of a smoke flare, Chelsea at work no doubt) so we had to alight at Finsbury Park. This resulted in a delay; I missed the kick-off by ten minutes. There is no doubt, for all the negativity about the lack of atmosphere inside, Arsenal’s stadium is striking.

Chelsea, in all blue, were attacking the other end.

Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Oscar, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard.

My pre-match expectation of a dour defensive battle was not too wide of the mark. As the game progressed, I commented to Gary that Arsenal never really looked like threatening us.

“We can soak all this up all day long, Gal.”

The first-half provided me with more good opportunities to observe how well our defence plays as a unit. Only on a few occasions did the Arsenal players find space. In a first-half of few chances, a shot from Ramires was saved by Ospina after good work by Willian. Penalty shouts came and went; Ospina clattered Oscar and Fabregas was booked for simulation.

Our support was in good voice, with the Willian song and the new “Magic Hat” song providing the highlights. One thought kept filtering in to my mind though –

“How can 57,000 people make such little noise?”

It was not difficult to judge the mood of the home fans though. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that even a win against us would not be enough. I can hardly remember a rousing Arsenal song the entire game. There was only a rise in the volume from the home areas when Arsenal attacked. There was no solid backing throughout the game.

Jose replaced Oscar with Didier Drogba at the break. I hoped for a little more attacking verve, but there was little. Courtois dominated the box time and time again, forever seeming to thwart high ball after hall ball. I thought that Dave had yet another fine game of football, but the star of our team was John Terry, who was simply magnificent. Walcott and Welbeck entered the fray late on for Arsenal, but we kept them at bay. I noted that a considerable amount of home fans applauded Cesc as he was replaced by Zouma.

The point was well won, and the away fans roared. After the final whistle, the screams of pure delight from John Terry were captured by me on camera.

Inside, if I am honest, I felt a little flat. Yes, I would have taken a draw before the game, but this particular game of football will not live too long in my memory. I felt a little empty. I wondered if it was only me experiencing these feelings. Sigh.

Outside, a little army of away fans had congregated outside the turnstiles and were baiting the home fans in the lounge and bar areas above. One song dominated.

It was magic.

We made our way south, back to Hammersmith, then repeated our footsteps back to the waiting car. As the evening sky was reflected in a resting River Thames, thoughts turned to Leicester City on Wednesday evening. Another win there and we will almost be home.

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Tales From The Tortuous Mediocrity

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 29 March 2014.

At last, here was a change to my typical match day routine. This trip to London South had been planned a few weeks ago. By car, Crystal Palace is notoriously difficult to reach. So, we had decided to travel up by train. It was an easy decision. I was relishing this one. It was a chance for me to travel to a game without pounding the tarmac. And it was a chance to unwind and let other worries, which have been quite considerable over the past two months, subside.

This match – placed just before the soiree to Paris – was going to be a good one.

We caught the 8.37am from Melksham and changed at Swindon. The journey to Paddington would only take a further hour and thirty minutes. While Parky launched into a four-pack of lager, I enjoyed a cappuccino. Old habits, I guess, die hard. I have, if I’m honest, never been a fan of drinking too early on a Saturday morning. As we hurtled through the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside, I was reminded of a time when my Chelsea trips were dominated by train travel. I thought back to the years from 1981 to 1991. Apart from occasional trips to Stamford Bridge in my father’s car, football meant train travel. Ah, 1981 to 1991…the years when I cut my teeth as a Chelsea fan, following the team whenever I could. In those ten years, I went from sixth form to college to sporadic unemployment and poorly-paid employment and eventually I was able to afford a car at the relatively late age of twenty-six.

I used to love going by train to be honest. If it wasn’t so expensive these days, I would do so more often. This was my first trip to London by rail, I think, since the F.A.Cup Semi-Final in 2009. We laughed as we remembered what had happened on the Paddington platform after the game; Parky had a disagreement with a Millwall fan. Let’s leave it there. In his youth, Parky often managed to get embroiled in other similar “disagreements” with other fans too. There was further laughter when he re-told (for maybe the twentieth time) the story of a “disagreement” with some Cardiff fans in around 1970 and Parky hiding for a few minutes in a skip full of mail bags.

First class.

As we darted past Reading, I got all misty-eyed as I remembered my first-ever girlfriend who disastrously moved away from Frome after seeing me for only three weeks (“was it something I said?”) when her father changed jobs. On every Chelsea trip in the 1982-1983 season, and those after it, the train took me within a mile of her house in the village of Charvil, but I just looked on, disconsolate and with a lump in my throat, from the train window.

“So near and yet so far.”

Anyway, she was more of a rugby fan. She didn’t have a clue about football. It would never have worked out.

We crossed the River Thames a few times and were soon headed into London. Going back to thoughts about the early-‘eighties, as I approached Paddington station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty terminus at the end of his glorious Great Western Railway – I remembered some graffiti which was sprayed on a brick wall under the Westway.

“I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this tortuous mediocrity.”

In those years of teenage angst, unrequited love, school day malaise and Second Division Football, those words struck a chord with me. I always used to look out for it. There was genuine sadness when I looked for it, yet it was no more, in maybe around 1986.

“Another rebel bites the dust.”

However, the way things work out, the writer of said graffiti is probably a stockbroker or a financial analyst in the city these days.

I, of course, am still an angry passionate soul.

We arrived at Paddington at 10.40am. Although we were playing Crystal Palace later in the afternoon, I had another game on my mind. My first task of the day was to head down to Stamford Bridge to collect seven tickets for myself and various friends for the game at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. We caught the District Line and whereas Parky alighted at West Brompton, I stayed on until Fulham Broadway. Despite a sadly predictable tense few moments at the ticket window in which the club official made me feel uncomfortable as I handed over the seven completed declaration forms (“do you know all these people?”, “do you have their addresses?”, “you could have found these forms on a train”, “have you got their season ticket cards?”), I was eventually handed seven tickets.

Phew. I could relax. I texted my six mates –

“Tickets in hand.”

I bounced back to West Brompton. There was time for a couple of pints at the “Prince of Wales” with Lord Parky and Dave (“We’ll Just Call You Azpilicueta.”) We were joined by two young Chelsea lads – Max and James – who had also just collected tickets for Paris. The five of us then caught the over ground train down to Clapham Junction, where we changed trains again. As we crossed the River Thames for the third time of the day, there was a frisson of excitement. Even for a seasoned traveller like me, an unexpected view of London very often cheers me. There was a mix of Palace and Chelsea fans on the train. Some Palace fans advised us to alight at Selhurst and not Thornton Heath. We spoke briefly with a chap from New York, who was attending the game with a Chelsea-supporting mate. He admitted to being a little wary of talking to us; we weren’t wearing colours of course, so he wasn’t sure if we were Palace or Chelsea. Maybe he was expecting some sort of “Green Street” scenario. We invited him to come and join us for a few bevvies, but he decided against it. We walked through the sunny South London streets, the stands of Selhurst Park playing hide-and seek to our left. Just after 1pm, we reached our target; the William Stanley at Norwood Junction. The pints were soon flowing. The pub was mainly Chelsea and the pub was soon playing host to a few choice songs.

“We Are The Chelsea So Fcuk All The Rest.”

All of the usual suspects were there.

I had visited this boozer on one occasion before, for a pre-season game against Palace in the summer of 2003. It was, I think, the first game in the UK of the Roman Abramovich era. Thousands of Chelsea descended on the quiet streets of South London that day; it was, in fact, my last visit to Selhurst Park. On that occasion, we won 2-1. I remember a Geremi free-kick, but little else apart from the blistering summer sun. I didn’t attend our last visit to Selhurst; a win during the first few weeks of the Mourinho era. Although I am rapidly approaching a thousand Chelsea games, I have only visited Selhurst Park on five previous occasions. Strangely, more games have featured Crystal Palace’s two tenants Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, than Palace themselves.

My very first visit to Selhurst was in August 1989; a midweek game against Charlton Athletic, in the days when their Valley stadium was unable to be used. We had begun the 1989-1990 with a couple of wins and a draw. I was soon off to the US for a year’s travel, and decided at the last minute to attend. It was going to be my big send-off. There was an added dimension to this game; should we win, we’d go top. How big a deal was this? Well, in all of my time of supporting Chelsea Football Club, I had never ever seen us at the top of the Football League. I travelled to London that day, almost a quarter of a century ago, in hope that I would be leaving England for America with us in first position.

On that Tuesday night, we lost 3-0 to a Charlton Athletic team which included our former defensive tandem Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates, and I was crestfallen.

So much for a big send-off.

Now – that was Proper Chelsea.

Goodbye England.

In the William Stanley, there was much talk of Paris, but not much of Palace. Rob adapted their “We’re Palace, we’re Palace” chant.

“We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

Whooooooooaaaaaaooooowwww – whooooooooooaaaaaaoooowwww.”

I was enjoying this. Drinking at football. I should do this more often.

Then, bizarrely, just after 2pm, the pub closed.

“What?”

As we left, we serenaded the locals –

“Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Max popped over the road and bought some tinnies for our slow ascent up the hill towards Selhurst Park. Although the terrain is different, the immediate area is similar to Highbury; humdrum terraced houses, quite plain, with little hint of a sport stadium nearby. We found ourselves amid a noisy group of Chelsea fans and a police escort soon arrived. We edged away, and then found ourselves behind a baiting mob of Palace fans.

“We are the Holmesdale.”

There was only posturing and no hint of violence.

Our American friend would have been fine.

Selhurst Park has changed, as have most of London’s football theatres, over the years. I can vividly remember open terraces at each end in the early ‘seventies, though only a few years earlier, there were only grassy banks. The main stand has remained mainly unchanged since the ‘twenties and other stands been built, one at a time, quite unrelated. It isn’t a particularly classy stadium. It fits in well among the nondescript houses which surround it. The Crystal Palace TV tower, on the hill to the north, is the sole landmark of note. Incidentally, the location of several F.A. Cup Finals at the turn of the twentieth century is a mile or two to the north; the site in fact, of the Crystal Palace athletics arena.

Inside the Arthur Wait Stand – dark and cramped – the three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice before the arrival of the teams. It was a fine sunny day. I was stood with Alan and Gary, as always. This was a very local game for both. Alan, from Anerley, lives just two miles to the north-east. Gary, from Norbury, lives just two miles to the north-west.

Crystal Palace, then, is their local team.

Gary : “I hate this lot more than Tottenham.”

I didn’t believe him…

London has so many teams of course. It is too simple and too easy to say that Arsenal and Tottenham have the north, West Ham has the east and Chelsea have the south. Rivalries, boundaries and catchment areas overlap. I’ve always viewed Chelsea’s old heartland to be Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to the north of the river and Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth and Clapham to the south. As Londoners moved to the suburbs and satellite towns, our support is now more likely to come from Reading, Slough, Wembley, Kingston-on-Thames, Crawley, Guildford, then Brighton, Oxford, Northampton and Swindon.

I’ve only ever met two Crystal Palace fans; I’d imagine their support is more local. I have no axe to grind with them; they have been a minor irritant over the years. Only an F.A. Cup defeat in 1976 and a League Cup defeat in 1993 sticks in my craw.

However, add the afternoon of Saturday March 29th 2014 to this list.

I am not going to dwell too long on the failings of Chelsea against Crystal Palace. Just like some of the supporters, was the focus on the imminent game in the Champions League? We wondered this after the poor performance against Aston Villa when our minds might have been clouded with thoughts of Galatasaray. If so, inexcusable. We knew that Tony Pulis’ team of journeyman would be up for the battle. They have slowly improved since he took over from Ian Holloway. In my mind, my thoughts were mixed. I expected us to win, though I couldn’t eradicate a haunting vision of a defeat to a Palace team, which would greatly reduce our chances of another league title.

The team appeared to be strong; surely David Luiz and Nemanja Matic would provide strength to our midfield?

The rather odd sight of a dozen or so lycra-clad cheerleaders welcomed the two teams onto the pitch. Just before, an eagle had swooped from goalmouth to goalmouth. How very American. Our friend would definitely have approved.

The game began. We struggled to get a foothold. Long balls were played forward, but passes were poor and our ball retention worse. We struggled to get Eden Hazard involved. The Palace team were over us like a rash. Our support appeared to wane. After a quarter of an hour, I looked around at my fellow supporters and was dismayed to see only around one in five joining in with a chant. However, a fine Gary Cahill tackle brought a raucous response from the away support and I hoped for better things. Alas, chances were at a premium. It was sad to see Frank Lampard playing so poorly.

There was only sporadic noise from the away end.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

At half-time, I disappeared off for a beer; I needed an artificial stimulant to keep me buoyed. The fare that we had served thus far was very poor. Down in the toilets, one young Chelsea fan uttered the immortal lines –

“I’ve only seen us lose two games.”

A few of us replied –

“What – this season?”

“No –ever.”

This was met with a barrage of light-hearted abuse.

I bumped into Parky and we chatted. The second-half began and I chatted to a couple more friends. Noticeably, in the one hundred Chelsea fans who were guzzling the last few dregs of their halftime beers, only one was wearing a replica shirt.

Proper Chelsea.

Then, a groan. News soon came through that we had conceded a goal. With a heavy heart, I took my place alongside Alan and Gary, the local lads.

“John Terry – own goal.”

There had been the introduction of Oscar for Luiz at the break, and Salah came on for Lampard. Our support quietened further. We found it so difficult to break Palace down and we didn’t use our flanks at all. At times, our play was tortuous and mediocre. Our support didn’t rally.

A John Terry header flew over the bar. It was a rare chance.

Demba Ba replaced Andre Schurrle. Speroni foiled Hazard. Torres wasted another opportunity. There was dwindling hope among the away support. Instead, irritation and frustration, then a horrible realisation that we were going to lose and our league title hopes were going to die in the South London sun. It was a horrible, dull feeling. Bizarrely, Palace could have increased their lead in the final ten minutes. Jerome, breaking, hit the post. A second goal would not have flattered them. At the end of the game, we quietly exited. Outside, words were exchanged among a few friends.

Parky, Dave and I were then denied entrance to a couple of pubs – “regulars only” – and so we jumped on a train back to civilisation. We chatted over a beer in a pub at Victoria – north of the river, Chelsea Land, home – and were our usual pragmatic selves. After all these games, I don’t find it too difficult to stay as realistic as I can after another testing defeat. Despite the loss, it was a fine day out.

And next week, at least we’ll have Paris.

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Tales From The High Road

Tottenham Hotspur vs. Chelsea : 28 September 2013.

I was cutting this one a bit fine. Despite leaving home in good time, I only reached Seven Sisters tube station at midday. The Tottenham vs. Chelsea game was due to start in just forty-five minutes. I ascended the elevators and steps and soon found myself on the Tottenham High Road. The warm September weather surprised me; I threw my rain jacket behind my shoulder and began walking north. This was a well-travelled path for me. And for thousands of Chelsea fans like me.

One of my favourite passages of Chelsea prose over the years came from the pen of the venerable Chelsea scribe Scott Cheshire. After another F.A. Cup Semi-Final replay defeat against Arsenal in 1952, closely following on from the same scenario in 1950, I remember his words as he described the long and painful walk south from White Hart Lane, a Wembley Cup Final appearance having just evaporated in the spring air once more. In 1952 remember, Chelsea had not one item of silverware to our name while Arsenal were the great London rivals with trophies aplenty. Scott Cheshire spoke of the depressing familiarity of Chelsea failure as he trudged through puddles alongside hundreds of other typically disheartened Chelsea fans. The sense of longing and the yearning for a trophy struck a chord as I read his evocative words in the mid-‘nineties. It seems that every time I repeat my walk to White Hart Lane, past the Turkish cafes, the colourful Asian clothes shops, the hardware stores, the supermarkets, the pubs and the eastern European convenience stores, I am walking with Scott Cheshire and all of those hopeful Chelsea fans from a greyer time over sixty years ago.

The day had begun with a cursory flick through a few Facebook updates. The match in London N17 was clearly the main event. There were a few references to the publicity in the media about the continued presence of the “Y” word at Tottenham games. A couple of classic lines from a Nick Love film were popular too. I wonder why.

“Up and at em! Early start for Y word away!”

“Time to rise and shine. Spurts away beckons, see some of you at that wonderful part of London!”

“What else are ya gonna do on a Saturday. Tottenham away. Love it!!”

“Off to cheer on the only London club to win the European cup.”

“Off out to catch a rattler to meet up with some of the chaps for a couple before going on to cheer on London’s first and finest against the Ys.”

“What else ya gonna do on a Saturday? I know what I’d rather do! Tottenham away… luv it!!”

“En route to Three Point Lane.”

“Very soon I’ll be off to our biggest away of the season. Tottenham away.”

“Tottenham oy vey. Love it.”

I entered the fray –

“The Biggest Away Game Of The Season. Why? Tottenham. That’s Why.”

After the faux rivalry of Fulham the previous Saturday, this was the real deal, the main event. I have detailed our ridiculous dominance over our bitterest rivals since 1990 many times before; to go over old ground seems pointless.

Just like Tottenham.

As I headed north – “head down, avoid eye-contact, be wary” – police sirens wailed and a phalanx of police vans raced past. I wondered what was going on a mile or so to the north. A Tottenham versus Chelsea encounter, even after all these years, still has an edge. Old habits die hard. There may not be the widespread violence of the ‘eighties, but the intense dislike – yes, hate, even – is still there. It is now standard form for the main body of Chelsea to meet at The Railway and The Hamilton Hall down at Liverpool Street and then travel up to Northumberland Avenue. For me, travelling up from Somerset, the early kick-off made this a non-starter. I wasn’t worried. On the drive to London, my head was full of thoughts of Swindon last Tuesday, the War Zone at Tottenham and Steaua Bucharest away on the following Tuesday, to say nothing of the game in deepest Norfolk the following weekend.

Four consecutive away games; tick, tick, tick, tick.

I reached the corner of the High Road and Park Lane at 12.25pm. There were a few familiar faces in and amongst the Spurs fans, but I had no time to dwell. I skirted past a couple of police vans and soon joined the short line outside the entrance to the away section of White Hart Lane; prison blocks have been more architecturally appealing. Tottenham, of course, have been given the green light to build a new stadium just a hundred yards or so to the north of their current stadium. My conscience was pricked slightly; that’ll be three London team with new stadia, while Chelsea will be limited to 41,500. Will we be left behind, struggling to compete against the larger, potential, attendances at Arsenal, Spurs and West Ham? In October 2011, should I, and the other CPO shareholders, have meekly surrendered our certificates to the club so that they could earnestly begin a search for a new home? The answer is still no. I hear rumours, just whispered at the moment, of the Hammersmith & Fulham council desperately trying to entice the club into redeveloping the Stamford Bridge site and the club, again, whispered rumours, being slightly more willing to listen than in the past. I have a feeling that this one will run and run, like a Jesper Gronkjaer dribble. My stance on this has not wavered.

I, like many more Chelsea fans – as per the recent Chelsea Supporters Trust survey – believe that tradition and history, and that difficult to describe notion of “community and brotherhood” are just as important as an overpowering lust for silverware. Staying at Stamford Bridge is wrapped up in all of this.

I soon met up with Alan and Gary and we took our seats. There was little time for chat. The players soon appeared on the pitch. Chelsea, for the first time in a while, were back to wearing white socks at White Hart Lane. Spurs have changed their kit yet again. Last year’s all white kit has now given way to white / navy / navy. As a kid, it was always white / navy / white. Every two or three years, it seems that Spurs try a different combination. It would drive me crazy. What was I saying about tradition?

We reviewed the team. Would Ramires be playing wide right with both Lamps and Mikel starting? The three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice as the match began. I always remember White Hart Lane, back when they longed to beat us, as having a very hostile atmosphere. In truth, the Spurs support before the whistle seemed subdued. I commented to a fellow fan that it is ironic that Fernando Torres is now many Chelsea supporters’ favoured striker.

“It’s a case of addition by subtraction.”

With Lukaku out of the picture, Torres’ stock has now risen.

The match began.

Down on the touchline, in the technical area, Jose stood, hands in pockets. He ignored the home fans’ shouts of “sit down Mourinho.” Villas-Boas, so often the fidgeting, crouching figure while at Chelsea, was nowhere to be seen. At times, it is hard to believe what has happened to Villas-Boas since the summer of 2011. He was lauded at the start. He looked the business. We were behind him. His demise was catastrophic. I still think he’ll be a good manager; hopefully not at Tottenham. Going in to the game, I was concerned. Spurs have been performing well – one of the form sides. We, however, had undoubtedly struggled. In reality, I would have been content with a point; Alan and Gal agreed.

We played well in the first quarter of an hour. What this really means is that we had more of the ball than I had expected. We weren’t subjected to raid after raid of home pressure. The home crowd were quiet. The away fans not so.

“We won 5-1, Wembley.”

“We won 6-1, at The Lane.”

“You got battered, in Seville.”

The Willian song, repeated again and again.

It was seemingly going well.

Then, a quickfire break by Tottenham down their left. A pass from Eriksen to Soldado, who played in Sigursson. He took a touch and I willed John Terry, slightly out of position, to get a block as he lunged forward. The Spurs player rode the tackle and delicately flicked the ball past Cech.

Groan. Here we go again. We always seem to concede first at Tottenham. The home crowd came to life. All four parts of the ground soon joined in with a rendition of “Oh When The Spurs.”

It was loud. Very loud.

An Ivanovic block from Paulinho saved us further blushes just after.

Spurs dominated the rest of the half. We just didn’t gel. Oscar was particularly poor, with awful first touches and wayward passes. But the whole team seemed to be off the pace. The one highlight of the first-half was an exquisite chipped pass, with perfect fade, from David Luiz into the path of a raiding Ramires down the right flank. A Hazard shot – I was right behind it – was goal bound, but a home defender blocked. Tackles were starting to test the referee and Townsend was booked for diving. It was turning into a predictably tetchy affair. Spurs again cut through our defence like a hot knife through butter but Paulinho – I last saw him in Tokyo, the bugger – scraped the near post from inside the box. At the break, time for quiet contemplation.

I wished that we had played the ball earlier to Torres. I explained to Gary –

“Not hitting it at his chest, Gal, but just hit it into the space behind the central defenders. We haven’t done that once yet.”

Over to you Jose. Work your magic in the away dressing room.

Either Hazard or Oscar, in my opinion, could easily have made way for Juan Mata. Instead, Mikel was substituted, with Ramires dropping in alongside Frank.

Soon after the restart, Fernando Torres did ever so well to turn and beat a couple of Spurs defenders down the right flank – running towards us in the Park Lane – before sliding in a low pass, which unfortunately Oscar just failed to reach. The Spaniard soon became embroiled in a personal duel with Vertongen. He was soon booked for a foul, though I presumed that the referee Mike Dean had shown him the yellow card for placing his hands on Vertongen’s face.

Torres was now on fire and a gorgeous jink and strong run past Dawson meant that he only had Lloris to beat; his shot was blocked. Soon after, a long ball from Luiz was expertly chested down by Torres into the path of Mata who shot home, but the goal was disallowed for offside. A daisy-cutter from Frank soon followed. We were playing well, with intelligent passing making life difficult for a faltering Spurs team. Mata was heavily involved.

A horrible tackle by Vertongen on Ramires brought us all to our feet. He was easily becoming the villain of the piece. From the resulting Mata free-kick, played with perfect strength and position, the Spurs back line seemed to freeze, allowing John Terry to launch himself and guide the ball in past Lloris at the near post.

Pandemonium in the Chelsea section.

I pumped my left arm continually, then glanced down to see the Chelsea players following JT into the near corner.

My camera was ready; click, click, click, click, click, click. A lovely mess of fans’ fists and ecstatic Chelsea players’ faces.

Mourinho brought on Schurrle for a quiet Hazard. Torres again did ever so well to shimmy away from markers and lay the ball into the path of the German substitute, but Lloris again thwarted a near certain Chelsea goal. This was evolving into a cracking game of football.

With around ten minutes remaining, with Chelsea well on top, the on-going feud between Vertongen and Torres came to a head. A ball was pumped towards Torres and the two protagonists leaped for the ball. From my viewpoint, there seemed to be little contact, save for the flailing of arms, which is to be expected in any airborne challenge. If anything, Vertongen’s right arm seemed to catch Torres in the face. Both players went down, but the Spurs defender stayed down. Both sets of fans were baying. We knew that both players were on a yellow. When Alan suggested that Torres was in greater danger, I could hardly believe my ears.

What had he done? I had witnessed nothing untoward.

Mike Dean brandished a yellow towards the crowd of players. Some of the away fans presumed that it was for Vertongen. Fearing the worst, I knew that it was aimed at Torres. It soon became a red. We howled our displeasure. Fernando could not believe it. He took ages to slowly walk off the pitch. There was a genuine level of support for our number nine from the three thousand away fans. I think that this was his best game – OK, his best 36 minutes – in a Chelsea shirt by far.

However, it still irked that our hopes were dashed so cruelly.

“Well, we won’t score now Gal.”

Thankfully, two long range efforts from Sigurdsson and substitute Defoe blazed wide and over Petr Cech’s goal. A loss would have been unbearable. A draw was, in the circumstances, well deserved.

Walking south along the High Road once more, there was an overwhelming feeling of pride in that second-half performance. Our team is still evolving, but here was a great standard for us to aim for in all subsequent games. I was soon heading home, listening to the demise of both Manchester teams on the radio, and I was quick to reflect that an away point at the league leaders (yeah, I know) was becoming greater and greater by the minute.

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Four Corners

Brentford vs. Chelsea : 27 January 2013.

If a week is a long time in politics, then eleven days is surely an eternity in football. Since the disappointment of those frustrating dropped points against Southampton in the league, Chelsea have played against Arsenal and Swansea City. I had tickets for both of those encounters, but due to a mixture of circumstances, I was unable to attend either. The Sunday jaunt to Griffin Park offered me salvation and the chance to get back in the groove. After the snowstorms of the previous week, I was very relieved to see clear roads and sunny skies as Sunday morning greeted me.

I set off at 8am, allowing me plenty of time to reach Griffin Park. I was certainly looking forward to visiting Brentford’s tight little ground, tucked away under the M4 a few miles to the west of Stamford Bridge. Although I visited it once before in 1992 – a game against Newcastle United with my Geordie mate Pete – this would be my first visit with Chelsea. We have played Brentford in a few friendlies over the years, but our two clubs have not met in a first team game for ages, decades even. Well, certainly not in my living memory anyway.

With me unable to attend the Arsenal match, my unbroken stretch of consecutive home games eventually came to an end.

The first game – Saturday 6 November 2004.

A fine 1-0 win against Everton, with a Robben goal at The Shed End after a rapid break down the right wing. Who can remember it? I know I can. We went top after the game.

The last game – Wednesday 16 January 2013.

The 2-2 draw against Southampton. Some people have forgotten that one already.

A total of 240 games without a break.

A total of 169 victories, 51 draws and 20 defeats.

What a fantastic record – it really was Fortress Stamford Bridge during this period.

And a total of 52,800 miles from Somerset to Stamford Bridge – and back.

It’s unlikely that I’ll ever get close to anything like that run again.

I watched both of the Arsenal and Swansea games at home on my laptop – and what a surreal experience it was for me to be watching Chelsea from Stamford Bridge in my own home. The last time I did that? Maybe as long ago as an Everton FA Cup tie in 1992.

I stopped off at Fleet services for a coffee and was surprised how cold it was outside. The bright sun and clear skies fooled me into thinking that the weather was warmer. I wasn’t worried. I was just happy to be back on the road in support of the team.

I drove in past Twickenham, the home of English rugby, and then took a left turn through Isleworth, with Syon Park to my right. I soon found a place to park a mere ten minute walk from Griffin Park. The surroundings were decent; I certainly felt that this was a nicer immediate vicinity than, for example, the surrounding environs of Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United’s grounds.

Of London’s twelve professional football teams, no more are clustered together in a tighter area than in the six miles between Griffin Park and Stamford Bridge; Brentford, Queens Park Rangers, Fulham and Chelsea all reside within a 30 minute bus ride of each other. Further south, there is Wimbledon, now playing in Kingston-on-Thames. Also south of the river, Crystal Palace just to the north of suburban Croydon, but also Millwall and Charlton Athletic closer to the Thames. To the east – and now back to the north of the river, there is West Ham United and lowly, almost forgotten, Leyton Orient. To the north, there is Arsenal. Then – lastly – Tottenham.

London football is often maligned as not having the unbridled partisanship and venomous passion of cities to the north or in Scotland, but within the M25 there is a magnificent tapestry of clubs, support bases and histories. What do I know of Brentford Football Club’s history? Sadly, I know very little. I know that Ray Wilkins’ father George played for Brentford and I know that former Chelsea icons Ron Harris and Micky Droy played for Brentford after leaving Chelsea. Brentford have flitted around the lower reaches of the Football League my entire life. With Orient, they are the two smallest clubs in the capital. In fact, every single one of the other ten clubs has enjoyed top flight football since 1988, but Brentford and Orient (the B’s and the O’s) have stunk. To their credit, Orient managed to ascend to the giddy heights of the second division in the late ‘seventies and early ‘eighties – and an F.A. Cup semi-final in 1978 – but Brentford have been the ultimate underachievers.

Which is why, I guess, they are never much of a threat and – dare I say it, without being too patronising – quite well-liked in Chelsea quarters. The fact that our reserves used to play at Griffin Park has helped in that respect too. One word of warning though; ex-Crystal Palace owner Ron Noades took over the helms at Griffin Park in 1998. However, in addition to being club chairman, he also managed the team for a few years. He even won the third division manager of the year award on one occasion.

I hope that Roman isn’t reading this.

On the short walk to Griffin Park, its four old school floodlit pylons signalling the way, the Brentford fans were bustling at a fair pace. I could tell from afar that they were invigorated by the appearance of their lofty neighbours from SW6. I’d imagine that Brentford was originally a small village, centred on a bridge across a small tributary of the River Thames, but has since been swallowed up by urban sprawl in the late nineteenth century. I was parked in a street called “The Butts” and this would have been, I’m guessing, where archers practiced their art. There is a similar street in my home town. Archery butts were a common feature of towns in past centuries. I noticed that the old red-brick Brentford library was a gift to the town of the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. These small details of urban history fascinate me.

Griffin Park was soon reached. From the west, the first stand that I stumbled across was the Brook Road away stand, a double-tiered structure which replaced a larger terrace in the late ‘eighties. Griffin Park is squeezed in amongst rows of terraced houses and there was a misty-eyed “old school” feel to the place. As I’m sure everyone now knows (it is the one fact about Brentford that everyone seems to be aware of), Griffin Park is the only football stadium with a public house on each corner. It was around 11am and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to dip into all four, but a circumnavigation of the ground was certainly achievable. The Griffin pub’s clientele was bursting out into the road, with a couple of “half-and-half” friendship scarves sellers doing a brisk trade amongst the chirpy Brentford fans. I was to learn later that this pub was used as the boozer in the hoolie-porn film “Green Street.”

I didn’t see any Chelsea faces and so continued along Braemar Road, past the main entrance. It was here, in 1992, when I and two mates arrived ridiculously early at Griffin Park – again on a Sunday – for that Newcastle game and were met by Kevin Keegan and Terry McDermott, who had just arrived by team bus. My mate Pete – the only Geordie amongst us – had not yet arrived and was miffed when we later told him. As I’ve said before, Keegan was a bit of a hero for me as a schoolchild. Seeing him close up was a treat. We muttered something about the game as the two of them disappeared into the stand. Twenty years later, Braemar Road was much the same. To be honest, I was half-expecting to bump into Rick Wakeman, Brentford’s most famous celebrity fan. Oh, that’s the second bit of Brentford trivia that everyone knows.

Walking past The Princess Royal and then The New Inn, I spotted some Chelsea faces. Lastly, The Royal Oak and time for a pint. The boozer was busy but mixed with fans of both clubs. Surely there would be no hint of trouble. On the way out into the crowded beer garden, I overheard a Brentford supporter mention Ashley Cole.

“We’ll have to give him some stick. Even though he’s awesome for England, I hate him.”

Parky was with me but was unable to get hold of a match ticket. His reward would be to attempt a “lap of honour” around the stadium and grab pints in all four pubs, while watching on the TV. At 11.45am, I joined the melee at the turnstiles and was soon inside.

The away stand at Griffin Park is an even smaller, if that is at all possible, version of the School End at Loftus Road. I quickly ascended the stairs and took my seat in the front row, just eight seats from the end. Bizarrely, even though we had booked tickets independently, I was sat next to my usual companions Alan and Gary. The shallow tier of seats was only six rows deep. Down below, around one thousand Chelsea fans were enjoying the bonhomie of a crowded terrace for the first time in years and years. As kick-off time approached, there seemed to be an air of great anticipation in the home camp. Eddie, Daryl and Rob were down below, but out of sight, tucked under the overhang. In the upper tier, there were familiar faces – too many to name. This was the Chelsea hardcore; every one of us befuddled with the current state of affairs at Stamford Bridge

Above, there were blue skies. A few tower blocks blighted the skyline, but this could so easily have been a game from the ‘fifties, ‘sixties or ‘seventies. Griffin Park was bursting to it seams with around 12,000 spectators locked inside. With such a perfect scene in front of me – a classic F.A. Cup setting and a lovely atmosphere – my thoughts now centred on the game and my spirits fell. The looks on my fellow fans suggested that they felt the same.

This had the potential of a classic cup upset and didn’t we all know it.

From my perch just over the goal-line, I felt privileged to have such a splendid view. The teams appeared in the tunnel, just twenty yards away. It seemed like I could almost reach out and pat John Terry on the back as he lead the team out. As with Fulham, the players and management team appear from a corner and then walk across the pitch to their dug-outs on the far side in front of the stand that was terraced back in 1992. Rafa Benitez therefore had to walk right in front of the baying 1,800 away fans. Even I was surprised at the venom. He avoided eye-contact with the Chelsea faithful. On his return trip, facing us, it would not be so easy.

Pre-match formalities took place and the game soon began.

Despite a promising few early attacks, with Torres involved, we didn’t threaten the Brentford goal. A bizarre back-pass from John Terry was picked-up by a clearly confused Ross Turnbull, but the resultant free-kick, inside the box, flew over the bar. Brentford soon realised that we seemed decidedly laid back in our approach. Alan and Gary – akin to the footballing equivalent to Waldorf and Statler, looking down from a lofty vantage point – were soon chastising the Chelsea players. The pitch wasn’t great; it was muddy and quite heavily sanded on our left. The wind blew left to right. It was a messy start, but Chelsea seemed to be struggling. All of the tough tackling seemed to be coming from the home team and they were the ones who started to trouble Ross Turnbull in the far goal. With Marin, Oscar and Bertrand clearly struggling, Brentford came close with a shot which narrowly went wide. Then, calamity. Just before the break, Lampard lost possession and Forrester wasted no time in lashing the ball at Turnbull. The ball was parried but Trotta coolly slotted home. The home fans erupted.

The cup shock was on.

Benitez had to endure the wrath of the away fans as he walked off the pitch. I kept an eye on him with my telephoto lens. He looked straight ahead. The players, too, looked solemnly ahead. Their body language was shocking. I was silent, of course. I don’t enjoy booing – my thoughts on that are well documented. Rather than characters from the Muppet Show, my fellow residents in the upper tier resembled emperors from the Roman Empire.

The thumbs were pointing down.

Lo and behold, a Benitez substitution took place at the break with the lack lustre Marin being replaced by Juan Mata. We definitely improved and equalised via a wonderful flick from Oscar.

Rather than push on, though, we seemed bogged down in the Griffin Park mud. At times, I was surprised how quiet the atmosphere had become. I expected more noise from the home fans, with only the terraces end at the eastern end making much noise.

Chances were at a premium. Then, a Brentford break and Adeyemi touched the ball past Turnbull. From my perspective, contact seemed minimal, but it was wishful thinking. There was only text which suggested that Ross didn’t touch him. The home crowd were on tenterhooks to see if a red card was to be issued. Thank goodness, it wasn’t.

However, the penalty was smacked home and we were down 2-1 with only twenty minutes remaining.

The home fans erupted once more and the hard-core in the far terrace set off a magenta flare to celebrate.

Things were now dire.

Perhaps thinking about any potential Mickey-taking which might be headed our way, Alan asked me if I knew of any Brentford fans. Thankfully, he had never met one. However, I knew of one. There was a chap, from Frome, who was a Brentford fan. He was the son of Frome’s mayor at one stage and went by the nickname of “Trotsky” due to his left of centre politics. He was a bit of a character when we used to watch Frome Town back in the early-‘eighties. Trotsky reached a formidable level of notoriety in Frome circles when he was caught in flagrante with his girlfriend on a mini-roundabout in the middle of Frome one night.

I wondered what he might have planned for his current lady if Brentford were to hold on for the win.

Meanwhile, time was running out for Chelsea Football Club.

Bizarrely, Benitez replaced Ivanovic with Azpiliueta. Work that one out. Lampard went close and Bertrand headed over when it was easier to score. At last, Ba entered the fray at the expense of the disappointing Bertrand. With time running out, Ba stumbled but did well to hook the ball towards Torres. Without checking, he intuitively curled the ball into the goal.

We roared with relief. To be fair, it was a great finish. Torres had not enjoyed the best of service all afternoon. His goal was an echo of his pomp at Liverpool. Fair play to him.

At the final whistle, more boos and jeers from the Chelsea fans were aimed at Benitez. The players seemed relieved but hardly happy. Frank and John especially thanked us for our support, but these must be testing times for them too. The turmoil within our collective psyche – certainly fans, certainly players, maybe even the board, with their consciences possibly pricked – is there for all to see.

Despite promising much, this was a dire Chelsea performance, with virtually no positives. There were grim faces amongst us all as we filtered out of the tight away end. Just to rub it in, the Brentford DJ decided to play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang.

“Thanks for that.”

The day turned even bleaker when I heard that Parky’s lap of the stadium had to be aborted after just two pubs when a dozen or so Chelsea yobs in their ‘fifties caused a major disturbance. Firstly, they became lippy with some Brentford fans. The mood in the pub then turned sour with fans squaring up to each other after the first equaliser. Then, finally, after the Torres goal, chairs and tables were smashed. How pathetic. To his credit, Parky soon realised that he didn’t fancy getting caught up in this mindless vandalism and so made a hasty retreat.

So much for the magic of the F.A. Cup

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