Tales From Gillespie Road

Arsenal vs.Chelsea : 29 September 2012.

There was no doubt at all – in the vernacular of the British football fan – that I was “up” for this one. Chelsea versus Arsenal at The Emirates. This game would surely prove to be our first real test of the domestic league season. It was potentially a tough game, for sure. Would this be a case of the new Chelsea versus the same old Arsenal? Would there be a convergence of styles now that we have changed our modus operandi? With Didier, Arsenal’s tormentor for so many seasons, no longer in the Chelsea blue, would Arsenal now fancy their chances? Would they punish us? Would Chelsea’s position at the top of the table prove to be a false dawn? There were many questions to be answered.

I couldn’t wait.

Wagons roll.

I left the rural delights of east Somerset at 8.15am; with no Lord Parky alongside, this was another solo-run to the capital. Again, I headed up and over Salisbury Plain. It was a beautiful autumn morning. There was no need for a musical accompaniment. I was just happy to be alone with my thoughts, letting my mind wander and letting it pick out aspects of the up-coming game.

There is a passage in Nick Hornby’s book “Fever Pitch” in which he describes how football is never far away from thought. A vacant mind will soon become occupied at the merest hint of a football memory and then us football fans will then become dreamy with thoughts of Teddy Maybank scoring at Bristol Rovers in 1975, a Pat Nevin shimmy in 1984, a song at Anfield in 1985 or a depressing trip back from Villa Park in 1994.

My mind underwent the same process as I drove past Stonehenge. Above, there were no clouds in the sky; it was a perfect morning. I noticed that a battalion of soldiers were lining up, with the stones in the background, and I guessed that a photograph was being planned. There are army camps dotted all over Salisbury Plain; it is one of the training centres of the British Army. There are barracks in the garrison town of Warminster and Tidworth Camp is nearby. I presumed that the hundred or so soldiers, in battle fatigues, were lining up for a ceremonial photograph. I hoped that it was in recognition of their safe return from Afghanistan.

And then, in one split second, I made the connection between the young soldiers in a line on a field in Wiltshire in 2012 and the origins of Arsenal Football Club, formed in 1886 as Dial Square by some workers at the Woolwich Arsenal, the main armament factory of the British army.

As I edged onto the A303, I was deep in thought about Arsenal and Chelsea. How odd that Arsenal were once a team from south London – Woolwich is just south of the Thames, not far from Charlton Athletic’s home territory – but are now firmly based in North London, where most of their London fans are based. Chelsea, however, are geographically a team from north of the River Thames, but whose supporters have traditionally been based to the south of the river.

Of course, the seismic shift of Arsenal from Woolwich to Highbury in 1913 is one of the main reasons why supporters of Tottenham despise them so much. North London was Tottenham’s alone, but the arrival of Arsenal ate into their support base and things have been feisty, to say the least, ever since. I have read that the 12 miles which Arsenal moved just under one hundred years ago is comparable to the movement to Milton Keynes of the Wimbledon team in 2004, in terms of travel time between the two locations; 90 minutes by bus, tram and foot in 1913 and 90 minutes by tube and train in 2004.

Maybe Arsenal was the original “Franchise F.C.” after all.

And then I thought about Fulham’s relationship with us. Fulham was all theirs until we appeared on the scene, kicking and screaming, in 1905.

I can hear the disparaging call of a Fulham supporter from 1905 even now –

“And they have the damned audacity to call themselves Chelsea, but they want to play in our borough!”

Ah, the inter-borough rivalries of the nation’s capital are certainly intriguing.

As I approached Chiswick – presumably Fulham’s heartland, cough, cough – I was listening to the entertaining Danny Baker (Millwall, not too far from Woolwich) on Five Live. The musicians Midge Ure and Chris Cross, from Ultravox, were his studio guests and they were talking about the various musical backgrounds of the members of the band. The keyboard player Billy Currie was from a classical background. Chris Cross was explaining that Currie had a tendency to over play.

“At the start, Billy had to strip his style down. There were too many notes.”

Midge Ure laughed and said “yeah, there was a good tune in there somewhere. But there were just too many notes.”

“Too many notes.”

The phrase hit home. My mind leapt back to football again. Surely Arsenal played with too many notes. If they were a band, they would be either an interminably self-indulgent prog rock band or a jazz quartet, with each member trying to out-do each other. They would have had no number one hits, but a sweaty troop of obsessive fans.

And here is the real problem for Arsenal fans. The team is over-elaborate in its approach play. There are too many lilies being gilded. There are too many passes for the man who wears glasses. Chelsea’s play over the past ten years has been more pragmatic.

And more successful.

I can’t deny that – whisper it – Arsenal are a very well run club; they have a firm financial base and do not overspend. In many ways, they are the blueprint of how clubs should be run. And yet, the stubborn nature of Wegner must be so infuriating for their fans. He will not bend from his vision of the way Arsenal play.

And us Chelsea fans just love it. Seven years and counting.

Of course, we went twenty-six years with no trophies, but our expectations throughout that fallow, but fun, period were way different from the pompous expectations of the Arsenal hordes.

We never really expected to win much. It allowed us to be ourselves.

Put it this way, if Arsenal were to go a further nineteen years without silverware, I doubt it very much that they will have as much fun as we did between 1971 and 1997.

I parked up at 10.30am and walked past Brompton Cemetery to Earl’s Court. I caught the Piccadilly Line straight through to Arsenal tube station. The journey took just thirty minutes. Three generations of Arsenal fans – Turks, I think – sat opposite me. They each had the same bulbous nose. The grandfather and father were wearing Arsenal scarves but the young girl was wearing an Arsenal shirt and Arsenal shorts and a big “Number One Fan” foam hand. Lots more Arsenal fans were wearing scarves. They love their scarves, the Gooners.

As the train stopped at Holloway Road, I spotted around five or six Chelsea fans alighting. Funnily enough, I didn’t know any of them by name, but recognised their faces. Were they from Bristol Rovers in 1975, Anfield in 1985 or Villa Park in 1994? I don’t know. They just looked familiar.

Faces in the crowd.

I got off at Arsenal. For the first time, I spotted that the original tube station name of Gillespie Road was written in small mosaic tiles on the platform wall. I stopped to take a photograph. Herbert Chapman, the pioneering Arsenal manager who steered the club to a trio of back-to-back-to-back titles in the ‘thirties, negotiated with the tube authorities to successfully change it to Arsenal.

One can only imagine what the supporters of Tottenham thought of this.

Every time I alight at Arsenal, I am taken back to that sunny Saturday morning in 1984 when I and thousands more Chelsea fans welcomed our boys back to the First Division. That 20,000 army of Chelsea fans, packed like sardines, in the Clock End remains the one moment of my life that perfectly sums up what being a Chelsea supporter was all about.

Loyal, noisy, strong, humorous, unbridled, passionate.

Back in the big time.

Fcuk Them All.

I bumped into a couple of acquaintances on the short walk from the art deco frontage of the tube station to the grand new structure of The Emirates. We agreed that the match would be a test, alright. I circumnavigated the stadium for the first time; I was surprised how close it was to the main railway line from Kings Cross to the north of England. Ex-Arsenal defender Nigel Winterburn walked past. I took a few photographs. The Emirates is a very photogenic stadium.

For a change, I had arranged to watch the game alongside Gill. I arrived inside the plush and roomy seats of the away corner with a good thirty minutes to spare. Usually, my arrival at Arsenal is a lot more rushed. The Chelsea team went through their pre-match drill and, for once, I was able to observe. I was surprised how empty the seats remained until around ten minutes before kick-off. All of those red seats. Ugh.

The team was announced and I was surprised, though pleased, that Oscar had retained his place within the “three tenors” of the midfield. Frank was on the bench again.

There were blue skies overhead. The stadium was bathed in September sun. Most Chelsea fans were wearing jackets, though; there was a chill in the air.

We were in all blue and enjoyed the majority of the ball in the first opening minutes; this was a good sign. We didn’t appear to be fazed by the occasion. We moved the ball around intelligently, with the midfielders soon on top and playing the ball out to the flanks where we always seemed to have the extra man. John Terry, and Ashley Cole, were systematically booed throughout the first part of the game, though the Arsenal fans soon became bored of that.

As I was watching from the very front row, I found it hard to judge if the away contingent were making much noise. Gill and I had already reiterated how we prefer the fervour at away games to the morgue-like atmosphere at home these days. A steward was sat right in front of me and so I was unwilling to constantly use my main camera. The pub camera was used for a few shots.

The Chelsea choir erupted with a couple of beauties –

“Robin van Persie – he left ‘cus you’re s**t.”

“Seven years – you’ve won f**k all.”

Although we looked pleasing going forward, Arsenal had the first few attacks on goal, but Cech was untroubled.

On twenty minutes, Fernando Torres was fouled just outside the Arsenal box. I quickly lifted the main camera up to my eyes and snapped just as Juan Mata lofted the ball towards the far post. I just saw a group of players rise as one and then saw the net rustle.

Yes! Get in!

I was unsure who had scored. I was unsure how we had scored. The away support soon told me.

“Fernando Torres – he scores when he wants.”

Even better. Seventeen goals for us now. Lovely.

Gill turned to me and said –

“They’ll have to come at us now.”

Ah, that made me laugh…”come on my little diamonds.”

We were in good form, on and off the pitch, now. The Chelsea supporters behind me wasted no time in reminding the Arsenal fans about the events of Saturday 19 May.

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

Torres then robbed the ball from Koscielny and advanced alone, with just the ‘keeper to beat. We waited with intense anticipation. Two goals would kill them off. Sadly, Torres stumbled just as he was about to strike the ball goal wards. “One step forward, one step back” seems to be Torres’ mantra at Chelsea. We all want him to go one step beyond.

Oscar was rightly booked for a couple of silly fouls, but his overall play was excellent. We continued to attack down Arsenal’s flanks and our play was neat and tidy. The midfield were playing as a unit, passing the ball intelligently. I said to Gill that Arsenal seemed content for us to keep the ball. How they miss a Viera.

Sadly, with the first-half closing, a fine Arsenal move caught us out and Gervinho was able to spin and thump the ball past Petr Cech. We were then treated by the most naïve chant of the entire game. The Arsenal fans alongside us in the Clock End, exultant and jubilant, boisterously enquired of us –

“Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya? Who are ya?”

Hardly a nano-second had passed before we belligerently and joyfully replied –

“We know what we are. We know what we are. Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

There was silence in the Arsenal section.

At half-time, there were no complaints. It was an open game with some nice stuff being played. There was no doubt we could go on to win this.

David Luiz was booked, in my eyes, for a pitiful attempt at getting a penalty. He then decided to berate the referee further. Now that was just stupid. Soon after, Torres was released but Vermaulen clipped his heels. I steadied my camera again and snapped just as Juan Mata whipped the ball into the box. Again, it was headed towards the far post. By the time I had brought the camera down to my side, Gill was shouting in my ear and the ball had nestled inside the goal.

Again – how the hell did that happen?

The Chelsea section was again in full voice. We sang a couple of new songs in praise of John and Ashley.

“One England captain – pause – fcuk the FA.”

“Ashley Cole’s won the European Cup, the European Cup, the European Cup.”

We had to thank Petr Cech, though, soon after our second goal was scored. The quiet Podolkski looped a header goal wards, but our great goalkeeper arched his back as he flew through the air to his left and spectacularly clawed the ball away. It was a magnificent piece of ballet, let alone football.

Tu-tu, not 2-2.

Cech again beat out the ball, this time from Giroud effort which deflected off Luiz. Arsenal seemed to be in the ascendency in the last quarter and I lost count of the balls which were zipped and whipped across our box. A rogue deflection here, a prod there and we would be very likely to concede. In the end, shoddy finishing from Arsenal was the decisive factor. Giroud, again, sliced the ball into the side netting when it seemed easier to score.

Despite four minutes of extra time, we held on and the Chelsea fans, with several grey inflatable CL trophies playing prominent roles, were bouncing once more.

I walked back to Highbury & Islington tube with Gill, two Chelsea faces smiling away, amidst a sea of red despondency. This had been a massive statement of intent by Chelsea.

We had hit all the right notes.

It had been a fine day.

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Tales From A Perfect Sunday

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 15 April 2012.

The stakes were high. Chelsea versus Tottenham in the semi-final at Wembley. In our lives as Chelsea supporters, they really do not get much bigger than this. There were sub-plots aplenty for this game, but the simple truth was that revenge and retaliation was in the air. With our dominance over Spurs in the league since 1990, it is hard to believe that there is any revenge left to seek, but scratch the surface and there is plenty.

Let’s talk about the F.A. Cup Final of 1967; the first (and incorrectly dubbed) “Cockney Final” and a 2-1 loss. Of course, none of my friends were present at that one, but the memory is there in our collective psyche. There is 1982; the Quarter Final this time. Chelsea were a struggling second tier team and Spurs were the F.A. Cup holders, full of top players and swagger. A Micky Fillery goal gave us hope before the break, but the visitors agonisingly came back to beat us. I remember listening at home to the action on the old BBC Radio Two, staring at the swirls on the living room carpet, living every horrible minute of Spurs’ gut-wrenching come-back. It was as horrible a defeat as I can remember. And then there was 2008 and the Carling Cup Final defeat. This match was horrendous; a Drogba free-kick against the run of play, but then the eventual Spurs comeback and a 2-1 loss. Spurs out-sung us completely on the day; and it is that memory that haunts me. I actually hated vast swathes of our support on that Sunday afternoon. It left me wondering about my connection with the club, the fans, the whole nine yards.

How can I support the same team as so many Chelsea supporters who simply don’t live by the same rules?

I was up early – just after 7am. The sun was out, there was a slight frost. There was an incredible air of anticipation.

This seemed like the F.A. Cup final itself.

I collected Young Jake and then Lord Parkins by 10.30am. Stiff Little Fingers were the band of choice on the drive to London. The volume was cranked up and the raucous rasp of Jake Burns was knocking the cobwebs out of our bodies. I saw SLF in Bristol a few weeks back; still churning out the post-punk tunes of yesteryear, still tugging at my heartstrings, still taking me back to my youth. Songs about teenage angst, songs of rebellion, songs to make your blood bump. There was every danger that my vocal chords would be ruined even before I reached London, let alone Wembley. The words to “Roots, Radicals, Rockers And Reggae” were yelled at the passing traffic on the M4 –

“I said don’t fight against no colour, class nor creed.
For on discrimination does violence breed.”

“Equal rights and justice for one and all.
Cos only through liberty freedom shall form.”

I wondered if the Stiff Little Fingers’ mantra could be suspended for a few hours as we renewed hostilities with Tottenham.

We safely parked near The Lillee Langtry at West Brompton and caught the tube to Edgware Road. We reached The Duke Of York at about 1.30pm and a few of the lads were already there. We stayed three hours. We have been frequenting this corner pub since that Carling Cup game in 2008 (the defeat obviously didn’t deter us) and we usually sit outside, soaking up the sun’s rays. On this occasion, we were all inside; there was a bitter chill to the air. I limited myself to two pints of Kronenburg and found it hard going. I have driven to all but one of the games this season and I had reached frustration point; I longed to be able to free the shackles and dive in to more lagers, but knew I had to limit my intake. The F.A. had set the 6pm kick-off time and I had a long night ahead. As the others gulped their lagers, I sipped mine.

The chat swirled around me and more mates arrived. We talked briefly, and fitfully, about the game. There wasn’t a mood of optimism in the camp. Ed was realistic; the game could swing either way. Rick Glanvil, the respected club historian, briefly appeared and mentioned that a couple of Spurs mates were equally sombre about the game. This was reassuring; it reminded us that they hadn’t been performing as well as earlier in their season. Daryl mentioned that Tottenham had lost their last five F.A. Cup semi-finals and this brought a further moment of cheer. However, we spoke about the Barcelona game too; there was not a glimmer of hope for that one. We all knew it. We’re not stupid.

We set off at 4.30pm and caught the 4.55pm train at Marylebone. The train was packed with Chelsea, arriving from the south, and the carriage was soon rocking with noise.

I had a few moments to myself outside the stadium. The skies were clear and the sun lit up the shining steel of the stadium. I walked around to the front, underneath the Sir Bobby Moore statue. I took the inevitable batch of photographs of the glinting steel arch which dominates the surroundings. The Chelsea and Tottenham fans were boisterously walking up towards the stadium from the Wembley Park tube station to the north. This was our tenth visit to the new Wembley and we were allocated the east end for only the third time; again memories of 2008.

I ascended the elevators and was met with a packed concourse doing “The Bouncy” amid a sea of beer. We had seats behind the goal, just two rows from the rear. The stadium took an age to fill up, but what a sight it was. The tiers rose up to the sky and the pitch seemed ridiculously small. The new Wembley lacks something though; I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe it just lacks charm.

To my right; Parky, Milo, Simon, Rob, Daryl, Ed, Alan and Gal.

The tickets only cost £30 – no complaints there.

To my left were Steve and Darren Mantle. Mick the Autograph King was in the row in front.

As the kick-off time approached, I surveyed the scene. To my annoyance and embarrassment, it was clear that we hadn’t sold all of our tickets. A large block of around 300 were completely empty down to my left. There were odd areas dotted around the Chelsea section unused. This sickened me.

Again, I conjured up thoughts about our size as a club. Steve and I chatted about Chelsea and Spurs. When I was growing up, Arsenal and Spurs were the two biggest clubs in London. Despite our in-roads of late, I would still contend that Arsenal have the biggest fan base of all the London teams. Whereas I think that Chelsea have a bigger global name than Spurs (we have ridden the internet at a key time), I still think that Chelsea lag behind Spurs in the south-east. The evidence in front of me could not be ignored.

I received an email recently from the club asking about my opinions about a few topics, but the questions were quite clearly hinting at our thoughts about a move to a new stadium. What a surprise. Well, I fully expect that the club will announce shortly that – “following a random sample of season-ticket holders and members” – the majority of Chelsea fans back a move to a new 60,000 stadium. Excuse my cynicism, but that would be a nimble piece of marketing by Chelsea, pushing through more propaganda in their desire to “up sticks” from our beloved stadium. Well, I will say one thing; it is a shame that more of the same fans couldn’t be bothered to fill 31,500 seats at Wembley.

Not many Spurs flags. More Chelsea ones.

Dare I mention the silence for the Hillsborough victims?

Notwithstanding Liverpool’s wish to avoid playing on the 23rd. anniversary of Hillsborough which then forced the F.A. to schedule us at a ludicrous time on the Sunday before a CL semi-final against the best team on the planet…notwithstanding all that…there was simply no reason for a few fools to besmirch the memory of the 96 fans who lost their lives all those years ago.

I glowered at two imbeciles in the row behind me, faces contorted with drunken rage, shouting obscenities.

Now is not the time to write about the events of that horrific day in Sheffield in 1989 – and Liverpool fans were not without blame – but it truly saddened me that a minority of Chelsea fans behaved in such a way in 2012.

Jose Bosingwa in. Didier Drogba in. Mikel in.

Let’s go.

The first-half was played out in front of a fading sun, with Chelsea only occasionally breaking into strong positions. A few players were soon the target of a few mates’ ire. Gary is not backward in coming forward in moments like these and his caustic comments brought a mixture of anger and mirth to the occasion –

“Fcuking ‘ell Kalou – your boots are worth more than you are.”

Of the two sets of fans, Spurs seemed more audible, though not up to their 2008 levels. The dirge-like “Oh When The Spurs” echoed around the west end, but we couldn’t respond. Our little group of mates, ably supported by a few others in the vicinity, tried our damnedest to get things moving, but we were met with opposition.

There were only a few chances in the first quarter for both teams. We were sounding each other out. I feared Modric, but also the pace of Bale and Lennon. Drogba was booked for a senseless challenge and I wondered if we would rue this later. Kalou broke on the left before playing in Juan Mata, but his weak effort was easily saved by Carlo Cudicini, the much-loved former Blue.

A Van der Vaart header was cleared off the line by John Terry down below us. In a nervy few minutes, Spurs ought to have gone ahead when a Van der Vaart ball towards the lurking Adebayor bounced up and rebounded off the far upright. Cech was beaten. Had Adebayor reached the ball, we would have been behind.

The Chelsea end eventually warmed up and our little gang of rebel-rousers initiated a “Carefree” which rolled around the upper tier; good work, boys.

With half-time approaching, the ball was played up to the previously subdued Didier Drogba in a central position. In a piece of classic Drogba action, he spun the ball past William Gallas and pushed the ball to his left. He unleashed a devastating shot past Carlo and the net rippled, sending us into a state of euphoria. Only Drogba could do that. How he loves Wembley. How we celebrated.

Miraculously, we were winning. Good old Chelsea.

More “Bouncy Bouncy” in the concourse at the break, but I wondered why the same fans felt so inhibited inside the stadium.

The second-half began with a flurry of Chelsea chances. Juan Mata soon forced a superb save from Carlo Cudicini and the ‘keeper parried a Luiz header from the corner which followed. There then followed a moment of infamy which will be talked about for ages. The ball bounced back towards Juan Mata who prodded the ball towards goal. The ball seemed to hit a cluster of players on the line and before any of us reacted, Mata celebrated and the referee was running back towards the centre-circle. I quickly glanced towards the linesman, but his flag was not raised.

Goal.

More manic pandemonium in the upper east end. Oh you beauty. We could hardly believe this. I noted that more than a handful of Chelsea fans, enjoying half-time refreshments, had missed this goal; fools.

Within what seemed like a few moments, Spurs had pulled a goal back. A ball from Scott Parker, the scowling former Chelsea midfielder, played in Adebayor. A clumsy challenge from Petr Cech but the ball rolled out to Bale who neatly turned the ball in to the empty net. The west end roared; that was more like it Chelsea, things were going too bloody well.

Unfortunately, David Luiz, who had been reasonable, had been injured during his attempt to block and was sadly stretchered off. Gary Cahill replaced him. Chelsea then enjoyed lots of the ball, moving the ball very well and keeping possession.

“That’s it boys, tire the fcukers out.”

The midfield were great – pass, pass, pass. We stretched them out if we could, Ramires especially doing well. Cahill did ever so well to track back and put in a sublime tackle on the raiding Bale. This was clearly a great game now. I watched on with a nervous resilience.

Juan Mata spotted Ramires’ fine run and, as Carlo advanced, the little Brazilian dinked a gorgeous chip over the advancing Number 23. The ball dropped in to the goal and bodies all around me were flying everywhere.

Get in!

Soon after, Gallas (yes, him) fouled his nemesis Drogba and Frank Lampard placed the ball. From my viewpoint, the distance seemed too far for a shot on goal, but I had my camera at the ready in any case. Surely he wouldn’t go for goal?

Frank took a swipe.

Snap.

The ball flew past Carlo and we were 4-1 up.

Yes, 4-1.

More mayhem.

Thousands of Spurs fans left en masse and I couldn’t resist taking many photographs of this perfect picture postcard scene; the scoreboard plainly stated Tottenham 1 Chelsea 4, the setting sun was disappearing behind the upper reaches of the west end and with it, Spurs season. The west end turned red.

We were roaring now…”Your support is – well, you know…”

Florent Malouda and then Fernando Torres came on as late substitutions and more chances appeared as we caught Spurs flat-footed at the back again. In the fourth minute of extra-time, with the Spurs support down to around 2,000, further joy. That man Mata, below his best these past few weeks, clipped the ball through for the onrushing Malouda who calmly stroked the ball below the hapless Cudicini.

Tottenham Hotspur 1 Chelsea 5.

It was almost cruel now…

“One di Matteo, there’s only one di Matteo, one di Matteo.”

“Who the fuck are Barcelona? Who the fuck are Barcelona?”

We – of course – couldn’t believe it. This was as an unexpected win as I have ever known in over 38 years of attending matches. Before the match if someone had said that the result was going to be 5-1, there is a very strong chance that I may have expected a Spurs win. I was not present at the 6-1 win at 3PL in 1997, so this represented the biggest ever Chelsea win against Tottenham. Oh boy.

We said our goodbyes – “see you Wednesday” – and we joined in the songs on the triumphant walk down the many flights of stairs.

“We won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley – we won 5-1, we won 5-1, we won 5-1, Wembley.”

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There was a definite case of “we don’t believe it” as we exited the stadium, shaking hands and hugging friends, almost delirious with glee. The joy continued as we slowly trudged along Wembley Way. I kept looking behind to see the illuminated arch lighting up the darkening sky. This was a lovely sight, witnessed by myself for the first time – I have not been a fan of new Wembley – but this iconic sight struck a chord.

The clear night sky, beaming Chelsea faces, the cold April evening, the arch towering over all.

Superb.

Parky, Jake and I headed back into town. I was absolutely starving as I hadn’t had anything to eat all day long…we ended up, predictably, at Earls Court where Salvo entertained us with the perfect denouement to the day’s action; an Americano pizza with extra anchovies and a single ice cold Peroni.

I eventually reached home at 12.45am – it had been a magnificent day in London. Easily one of my top ten favourite matches of all time. For Tottenham, it was their sixth consecutive semi-final defeat. I joked with Parky on the way home that even though we sing “we hate Tottenham”, I am sure that they hate us more.

Let’s keep it like that.

We now play Liverpool at our second home on Saturday 5th. May – our fourth F.A Cup Final in six seasons.

Tottenham, meanwhile, look wistfully on.

Us.

1994 – Luton Town – won
1996 – Manchester United – lost
1997 – Wimbledon – won
2000 – Newcastle United – won
2002 – Fulham – won
2006 – Liverpool – lost
2007 – Blackburn Rovers – won
2009 – Arsenal – won
2010 – Aston Villa – won
2012 – Tottenham Hotspur – won

Them.

1993 – Arsenal – lost
1995 – Everton – lost
1999 – Newcastle United – lost
2001 – Arsenal – lost
2010 – Portsmouth – lost
2012 – Chelsea – lost

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Tales From W12

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 28 January 2012.

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

By 7.35am, I had bought my ticket.

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

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

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

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

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

Sometimes in truly leaves me in a spin.

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

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

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

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

Parky wondered if Michael Essien would be on the bench.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet, the spiteful step-brothers were delusional –

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

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

Pathetic. Truly pathetic.

Chelsea soon gave it to them –

“Your ground – is too big for you.”

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

But, really, what a poor game of football.

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

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

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

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

QPR – quite pitiful, really.

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

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

The Chelsea fans then remembered who we were playing –

“We don’t hate you ‘cus you’re 5hit.”

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

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

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

“Get in.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Suicide. Suicide. Suicide.”

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

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

Well done us.

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

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

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Tales From The School End

Queens Park Rangers vs. Chelsea : 23 October 2011.

After a rather nondescript and unexciting season in 2010-2011, it certainly seems that the current campaign is trying desperately hard to make up for it. With less than ten games in, the season seems to have had more exciting games, sub-plots and talking points than last year already. This was another crazy day of football. It left us breathless. It also left us pointless, but not without a fight.

It is one of the strange anomalies of my Chelsea supporting life that I had only ever visited Loftus Road on one other previous occasion. Admittedly, we hadn’t played them in the league since the 1995-1996 season, but even so. However I then thought back about my priorities in the days when my income was at a lesser level than of late. Back in the ‘eighties and ‘nineties, I only used to go to between four and five away games each season. In those days, the temptation of an away day to Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury or White Hart Lane was always more alluring than a trip up to the pokey confines of Loftus Road. Looking back, away games at QPR always seemed to be on Boxing Day, Easter Monday or midweek days too; more reasons which made travel from Somerset more difficult.

Yep, my only other visit to Loftus Road was on a Wednesday in the spring of 1995. I remember travelling up to London on a half-day holiday to collect away tickets for the Real Zaragoza game, but I then drove up to Shephard’s Bush for our game against QPR in the evening. As was the way in those days, Daryl and I were one of the hundreds of Chelsea fans who had tickets in the home stands. We had great seats, right in the middle of the single tiered Ellerslie Road stand, but the game was poor. We played in the atrocious – and infamous – tangerine and graphite away kit and a lone Kevin Gallen goal gave the home team a deserved win.

Sixteen years later, I was long overdue a second visit.

On a bright autumnal Sunday morning, I collected His Lordship at just before 11am. This was a pretty late start, really, but we were in no rush. We had another lovely drive up to London, stopping for yet another Costa Coffee at Reading. The high spot of the morning’s drive involved us chatting about us in thirty years time, still going to Chelsea, Parky 85 years old and myself ten years younger.

We had a few moments visualising the scene of myself, arriving at his care home, smoking a pipe – Popeye style – and shouting out at him –

“Come on you old fool, get a move on.”

And then Parky propelling himself out in a wheelchair. Both of us wearing slippers. Both of us in cardigans. Both of us as deaf as a post.

“Who are we playing?”

“Arsenal today…Spurs on Thursday.”

“Thirsty, you say? So am I. Let’s stop off for a pint.”

Getting to The Goose, Lorraine the landlady in a blue rinse, Reg the landlord still waiting for Liverpool to win the league after 50 years.

“A pint of Carling? Seventy-five quid please.”

I was crying with laughter and did well to keep the car steady.

Well, let’s hope we are all able to go to Chelsea in 2041, wherever we may be.

Yes, wherever we may be. With our game against Queens Park Rangers taking place a few miles north of The Bridge, it gave me yet more time to ponder on the CPO shenanigans of late and the likelihood of us playing at Stamford Bridge, or elsewhere in the next few decades. As I have mentioned before, this is the first time that the borough of Hammersmith & Fulham had its three teams in the top flight of English football; quite an achievement. I pondered on the landscape of football in the capital and, more pertinently, the landscape of football in West London. Although Chelsea has traditionally drawn its support from large swathes of South London and parts of West London, we are, of course, located just north of the River Thames. We are a London club, for sure, but also a club of the Home Counties, those counties which nudge against the city of London itself. But, with football, location and identity are intrinsically linked. Territory is important. Location is important. Of the options being mentioned in the infamous Chelsea / CPO proposal, the sites at Earls Court and Imperial Wharf are close to home and within walking distance of The Bridge. Battersea is obviously south of the river, but just across from the borough of Kensington & Chelsea – at a push, this would get my approval if we had to move. But, throughout these recent discussions, the Wicked Witch in all this was the site at Old Oak Common, just over three miles to the north of Stamford Bridge. And, very importantly, even further north than QPR’s stadium at Loftus Road.

Not only that, the immediate location seems to be surrounded by rail yards, dead-end streets and industrial estates. A veritable Millwall North. For Chelsea to end up playing in this awful location, miles from our traditional home, fills me with absolute dread.

And yet, for overseas fans, this must seem strange.

What’s three miles? It’s only a sport stadium. It’s still in London. What’s the big deal?

Well – it’s everything. It’s absolutely everything.

With the reappearance of Wimbledon playing in Kingston-On-Thames this season, there are fully twelve league clubs in London and our proximity to each other is so important. If you think about just the five teams in the South and West – Chelsea, Fulham, QPR, Brentford and Wimbledon – these clubs are all clustered within a radius of three or four miles. For us to be shunted north a few miles would undoubtedly alter the dynamic of our club.

With all of this heavy in my mind, I drove into the heart of Rangers territory. Up the North Circular, past Gunnersbury Park, just like my dear father used to do from 1974 to 1983. Dad hated driving in London and he always used to park at Ealing Common, away from the heavy traffic, and we would then get the tube in. I passed through Acton and we noted quite a few Kiwis with All Blacks shirts, fresh from celebrating their triumph against the French. I eventually parked up barely half a mile from Rangers Stadium.

It was a warm Sunday lunchtime and Parky and I soon found us ensconced in an old-fashioned boozer called The Orchard Tavern, just off the Uxbridge Road. Despite there being signs on the door which said “Home Supporters Only” we encountered no problems. We settled down to watch the Mancunian derby, amongst a gaggle of United fans, a few wearing replica kits. There were a few Rangers lads at the bar, and save a few hard stares from a lad with an Aquascutum scarf, there were no problems. After tons of possession in the first quarter, United imploded and the score was 3-1 when we left at about 3pm.

Fifteen minutes later, we had walked up Bloomfontein Avenue and were chatting to Alan and Bristol Tim. Tim had been drinking in one of their main pubs. There had been no trouble. We heard crazy talk that United had won 6-1, but quickly dismissed this as a silly rumour.

Then, Alan took a call from Gary and began smiling…6-1 it was.

Oh boy.

I spotted Cathy and Dog a few yards away and so I went down for a quick chat. They were amazed to hear that City had trounced United and we had a little conversation about City. To be honest, I know they are now major rivals with us, but I’ve always had a major soft spot for them. Their support has always held firm. If any team deserves a little success, under the shadows of United for so long, it’s them.

Who should be with them but Tuna – and also Joe and Michelle from Chicago, last seen in Turin. Two Americans, wearing the colours of the Chicago Bears, were also there. After a little explanation, it all clicked – they were over for the NFL game at Wembley, but sadly had to leave Loftus Road before half-time to get up to Wembley for the game.

Well – I know what I’d do. See all of the Chelsea game, then get up for the last two hours of the NFL game. Easy.

Maybe it has been a different story up in London, but there hasn’t been too much hoo-ha about the Bears vs. Bucanneers game this past week. I have no problem with America’s sports teams playing friendlies in the UK, but I loathe the idea of regular season games taking place here. You can be damned sure that the fools at the FA look at this and will revisit the odious idea of the 39th Game again in the next few years.

For the first time ever, I approached the away end at Loftus Road – the School End – and its tiny structure looked ridiculous. The whole ground, although neat and compact, seems to resemble a Subutteo stadium. Once inside, there is no room to breath. Gary, Alan and I were in the upper tier – £55, the most I have ever paid for a normal league game – while Parky was down below.

Loftus Road only holds 18,500 and it only ever used to hold around 23,000 back in the ‘eighties. Back in those days, Chelsea would swamp the home areas and virtually take over the entire stadium.

That man from 1995, Kevin Gallen, was down below, reminiscing with the very excitable public-address announcer about previous games with us. I’m surprised that the infamous 6-0 shellacking from 1986 wasn’t mentioned to be honest. For the immediate period before the entrance of the teams, the PA was pumping very loud music at us and I longed for the days when fans made their own entertainment before games began, the atrmosphere bubbling, the noise rising each minute. These days, the noise is enforced upon us from above.

“London Calling” (our song, damn it – Joe Strummer was a Chelsea fan) gave way to “Pigbag” and the teams eventually entered the pitch.

But I couldn’t help but notice lots of empty seats in the main stand to my left. This was their biggest game for 15 years and they couldn’t even sell 16,000 seats.

Pathetic.

Oh boy, I was concerned that Mr. PA Guy was going to explode, such was his excitement of his beloved Rs playing Chelsea. He could hardly contain himself.

“Come on you SUPER-HOOPS.”

Bless.

Above us, the sky was pristine blue and the patch of sun on the pitch contrasted strongly to the areas of shadow to my right. The two spindly floodlight pylons at the other end – The Loft – gave the stadium even more of an appearance of a model kit. It took a while for the home fans to get behind their team and I thought our support, split over two tiers, sometimes struggled too.

My mate Alan commented –

“It seems like a game from the second division. From the ‘eighties.”

I’m not going to dwell too much on the game. I thought that, apart from Sturridge and Mata, we got out of the blocks slowly and Rangers’ midfielders seemed to be first to all of the loose balls.

I have to be honest, I thought that David Luiz’ challenge which lead to the early penalty was a stupid piece of football. It was rash and clumsy. You have to give the referee no excuse to award a foul once you get your body inside the penalty area.

And again, I’ll be honest; I did see the Bosingwa tug which lead to his sending off, though I wasn’t convinced that John Terry could not have covered.

And Drogba’s sending off was just an awful tackle.

By this stage, the Rangers support was in ecstasy and I suspected that PA Man had simultaneously combusted somewhere.

We were down to nine men and we were struggling to maintain any foothold in the game.

Oh hell.

But – what a second-half performance.

It was with growing pride that I looked on from row F of the upper tier as the Chelsea players down below me rose to the challenge of being not one, but two players down. Villas-Boas made the changes and the final nine did themselves proud. I was convinced that we would get a goal.

A Lampard header.

An Anelka header.

Anelka played through but he decided not to shoot, the ball instead coming out for Luiz to attempt an overhead kick which Lamps touched over.

A John Terry shot over.

And then the awful refereeing decisions – the grab on Luiz, not helped by his accentuated fall, and the fouls on lamps and JT.

A few breaks at the other end and Petr Cech kept us in it.

Tons of Chelsea possession – they did us proud.

Five minutes of extra time…COME ON!

But no – QPR held on, the irritating gits.

At the final whistle, the Chelsea fans roared our thanks for the team’s proud performance and John Terry, Ashley Cole, Frank Lampard and David Luiz walked down to the away end to thank the travelling two thousand for our support. I watched John Terry point at all of us, pat his chest (his trademark) and then dismiss the muppets in the other three stands with a derisory flick of his palms. The Chelsea fans roared. Us and them together.

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Outside, there were around five police vans parked alongside South Africa Road as we descended the steps, still disbelieving that we hadn’t scored. I met up with Tuna, Joe and Michelle and I wished them well on their travels back to the US. The police moved us along and I then walked around to meet up with Parky. The home fans were buzzing, but we had seen it all before. It had seemed like a day from another era all of the way through and here we all were once again, the victims of those jumped-up Herberts from Shephards Bush once more.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, eh?

Still, as always, Parky and I had enjoyed being part of it. Even in defeat, we’d rather be part of the rich Chelsea matchday experience than being sat at home on our sofas.

Or being a United fan – that definitely helped us cope on the drive home.

What a crazy game.

What a crazy day.

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Tales From The West Lower

21 September 2011 : Chelsea vs. Fulham.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh great.”

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

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

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

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

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

Just my thoughts.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Penalties.

Here we go again.

I was texting Alan in Venice and said –

“You know how this will end, right?”

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

Moscow is a perfect example.

Everton in the F.A. Cup last season.

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

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

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

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

Well done Chelsea.

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

His children would be so proud.

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

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

“Won on pens. Poor game though.”

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

IMGP4724

Tales From The David Luiz Show

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 20 March 2011.

Saturday had seen beautiful Spring weather in Southern England, mixed in with yet more faltering footsteps from our protagonists at the top of the table. When I awoke on Sunday morning, I was hoping for another pristine day – more clear skies and sunny weather please – and a continuation in our steady upturn in form. As I collected Glenn and Parky, the skies were a little less inviting than the previous day, but the buzz was there alright. We had a brilliant drive up to London, hardly pausing for breath as we discussed all sorts of topics. The chat continued over a Full English in the caff. Good vibes, good friends, good fun.

I left them to it and – yet again – sauntered off down to Stamford Bridge. This is a familiar routine for me these days. As I drive to 90% of all of the games these days, I need other distractions than drinking in a pub for three hours. I limit myself to just a couple of pints; any more would be silly. I met up with Mick The Autograph King and also had a little chat with Ron Harris, Clive Walker and Kerry Dixon. I collected a signed photo of Fernando Torres from Mick, plus I got Chopper to personalise a photo – “To The Philly Blues” – for 612Steve to get framed up and hang behind the bar at the meeting point of the Philly Chapter.

I breezed back down towards the pub, with the skies lightening and the sun slowly coming out. There were fans everywhere. Outside the tube, I brushed past the usual dozen or so touts plying their trade and I silently tut-tutted. Over at the CFCUK stall, Mark Worrall was wearing a Luiz wig. A quick “hello Cathy, hello Dog” and I was then on my way through Vanston Place, past the upmarket restaurants on the left, and then onto the more down-at-heel North End Road.

I joined the boys in The Goose at about 1.30pm and – of course – everyone was out in the ridiculously busy beer garden. Two pints of “Carling, me darling.”

Faces everywhere, conversations taking place, beers being quaffed.

Somebody asked me for my prediction of the day’s game.

“Two-nil, I reckon.”

The news soon came through from the ground that Fernando Torres had been paired with Salomon Kalou and nobody saw that coming. The general view had been another stab at the Drogba / Torres partnership…and I use that term loosely. It certainly hadn’t worked yet, but has to be the way forward this season. I had spoken to Glenn and Parky about Kalou on the way up in the car, in fact. Of course, everyone knows that Kalou isn’t the most liked of our players and I wondered if this was fair. At Chelsea – and I am sure we are not alone – we always seem to have a scapegoat. If it isn’t Kalou, it’s Mikel. However, in his defence, Kalou tries his best and keeps his head down. He never grumbles. Do fans really expect that Chelsea can maintain four top line A list strikers? There will always be room in our squad for bit-players, squad players, players that can be relied upon to come in and know they will play every third game. We know he’s infuriating, we know his choice of final ball often lacks judgement, but he fills a role for us. Out in the beer garden, a few more of my vocal friends were at it already – slagging him off – and the game hadn’t even started.

The pub was rammed and the beer garden too. It’s nothing special – dark brown brick walls surround a patio area with around ten low-lying benches and tables – but the pre-match chats are always nicer out in the fresh air than in the stifling and crowded pub itself. I had a quick chat with Jon and Lee, whom many on CIA know, plus Digger, his baseball cap laden with around 100 badges. This was our first foray out into the beer garden since the Arsenal game in October.

Our hibernation was over. We were out and about and lapping up the early Spring sun. At last, blue skies dominated. We were some of the last to leave the boozer – even though I was looking forward to the game, a little bit of me wanted to just stay there, chatting in our small groups, enjoying our friendships. Having a giggle.

We set off from The Goose at 3.30pm. By 3.45pm, we had all splintered off to line up at our various entrance turnstiles. By 3.55pm, I was inside and the two teams were being read out by Neil Barnett. There was the confirmation of the team – yep, it wasn’t a lie, Kalou in – and Tevez was out for our visitors. City only brought down 1,500 for this game. We always take 3,000 up to Eastlands. For all of their new found wealth, I can never hate Manchester City. They have suffered too much at the hands of their local rivals. Their support has always held up. I’ve always got on really well with their fans to be honest. They don’t take themselves too seriously and seem well grounded. They had a few flags and the largest one was in City sky blue, white and claret –

“MCFC – Warrington – Don’t Look Back In Anger.”

Elsewhere, it seemed like the home flags had multiplied. I spotted that a lot of the supporters clubs flags had moved from the East stand to the West stand. I noted the Motor City Blues flag down towards The Shed. There were others, but my vantage point was too far away for clarification of their origin. Along from me, a small flag was just visible on the MH balcony.

“547 SW6”

Who knows what this refers to? I know: just wonder if anyone else does. It’s a toughie.

I couldn’t miss the huge Pimlico “We’ll Never Be Mastered” flag on The Shed wall, too. It’s strange that we don’t have too many local flags at games these days – in fact I can only think of this one and a Battersea one – but this is confirmation of how our support really comes from the suburbs and beyond these days. Not many of the local populace in Lambeth, Battersea and Putney are Chelsea fans. A similar situation exists for Tottenham and West Ham too. For whatever reason, these more ethnically diverse populations are not match goers.

For five minutes before the game began, The Bridge was rocking to the sound of “One England Captain.”

On the cover of the programme, a lovely photograph of David Luiz, hair wild, after scoring against United recently. Inside, one game was featured in two separate articles. Firstly, our former striker Colin Lee spoke about his two goals during our 1986 Full Members Cup victory over Manchester City. Then, Rick Glanville dissected several photographs from that game twenty-five years ago. It brought back some memories alright. The Full Members Cup was the “brainchild” of our former chairman Ken Bates who recognised the need to generate extra revenue amongst the teams unable to participate in UEFA competitions after the Heysel ban. This was a strange competition in a strange era for football in England. Hooliganism was rife, crowds were down, the long-ball game dominated. But I loved it. I was at Stoke, at college for a second season – er, year – and attended 22 games in that 1985-1986 campaign.

I remember that we played in a league game at The Dell on the Saturday – I didn’t go – but then played the very next day at Wembley against City. I went out for a few drinks around a couple of pubs close to my digs in Stoke and caught a very late train down to London at about 2am.

Big mistake.

The train was packed with City fans, or should I say their lads. Everyone who was involved in football in the ‘eighties will recognise this term.

Their lads. Their boys. Their chaps.

Their firm, in other words.

If I am not mistaken, while we were beating Southampton, City had played a Manchester derby against United at OT. As I stepped inside the train, the carriages were full to overflowing. There was no room to sit, hardly any room to stand. There were City lads everywhere. I had to stand next to the doors, cheek by jowl with a couple of Mancs. I was soon sussed, but thankfully the lad I was talking to – drunk beyond words, clutching a can of lager, his accent punctuated with classic Manchester words and phrases – didn’t spill the beans. After a while, the rumours came through that a few Chelsea had been spotted towards the rear of the train and had got a pasting. I remained quiet and tried to stay clear of eye contact and didn’t make conversation with passers-by as they roamed the train chatting to other lads.

Eventually, I sidled off to a first class carriage – which, in the classic joke of the era…was empty! – and tried to get some sleep. Outside Wembley Stadium, I bumped into my mate Alan and we posed from particularly cheesy photos outside the Twin Towers. I watched the game with two lads from my college in Stoke who I also bumped into. Despite gates for this cup being really low, over 68,000 attended this game. It was Chelsea’s first game at Wembley since 1972 and our end was packed. I would suggest we had 50,000 there, City just 18,000. We went a goal down, but then stormed into a 5-1 lead with goals from David Speedie (the first Wembley hat-trick since a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1966) and Colin Lee. We were buoyant and in great voice. I had a spot on the terrace in the west end. It was only my third ever visit to the famous old stadium. Then – typical, oh so typical Chelsea – we let City score three times in the last six minutes.

Chelsea 5 Manchester City 4.

Unbeknown to me, Chelsea’s lads had “got it on” with City’s firm (they were called The Mainline) before and after the game, yet this would be the final chapter in the original Headhunters story. On the following Friday morning – just before our game at home to West Ham and the ICF – all of the main Chelsea faces were rudely awoken by various members of the police and things would never be the same again.

Back to 2011.

Manchester City – in that classic kit – began the stronger and had the best of the initial exchanges. After just five minutes, the ball broke to Yaya Toure but his low shot was stopped, low down, by Petr. And then, we slowly got into the game with a few half-chances. Kalou was played in but – stumbling – his effort was smothered by Hart.

While we were watching, Alan and I chatted about a few things and – I am not sure what initiated it – he spoke about another crazy day in that 1985-1986 season. On New Year’s Day 1986, our game at Upton Park was called off. I heard the news when I was about ten stops away on the tube so turned tail and sadly returned home. Alan, however, had found out at the ground and was with around one hundred Chelsea fans who then decided, on the spur of the moment (excuse the pun), to attend the Arsenal vs. Tottenham Hotspur game. They filtered in to the Clock End amongst the away support, keeping it quiet. Just before the teams came out, they burst into song –

“Chelsea – clap, clap, clap – Chelsea – clap, clap, clap.”

Tottenham soon scarpered and the one hundred Chelsea had a police cordon around them for the rest of the game.

Oh, how I wish I had been there.

Proper Chelsea.

On thirty-five minutes, a sublime back-heel from Fernando Torres set up Ramires who crossed for Frank, but the chance was squandered. We had a few more attempts, but our finishing was off. Malouda set up Kalou, who swivelled nicely on the penalty spot, but his shot was hit squarely at Hart. The Kalou- Booers were out in force.

The best moment of the first-half was the sublime ball that new hero Luiz chipped out to Ashley Cole. Central defenders just don’t do that! The weather was now gorgeous – blue skies overhead and strong shadows on the pitch for the first time in 2011.

We continued to dominate possession into the second period but I rued my mate Neil’s comment that “goals will be hard to come by today.” David Luiz then provided me with another moment to remember for a while. He chased down a City attacker, tackled cleanly, hustled for the loose ball and strode away majestically before playing a perfect ball inside. It was as perfect a piece of defending that I have seen for years and years. There is clearly something about David Luis’ instant relationship with us fans that is so reminiscent of Frank Leboeuf’s first few games in 1996. A ball playing, confident central defender. But Luiz offers so much more. He looks the real deal and his play got better and better. A lone Dzeko header was City’s only real attempt on our goal. Cech was rarely bothered.

A cross found the head of Ivanovic, but his strong header was blocked. I eventually realised that our support had waned a fair bit during the second-half and I hadn’t even noticed. After Carlo signalled for Torres, and not our friend Kalou, to come off, the crowd suddenly came to life and roundly booed. At least they didn’t sing “YDKWYD.” An image of Roman, slumping in his seat when he saw Torres walking off, was splashed on to the TV screen in the stadium. However, a double-substitution involving Didi and Nico energised the whole stadium and we took it to City. Then Yuri came on for Kalou and our domination stepped up even more.

Now, we were roaring.

Down below me, the David Luiz master class was ready for another inspirational moment. 15 yards away, he faced a defender and tapped the ball rapidly between his feet.

Left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right, left, right.

Oh boy. What a player.

The City defender didn’t enjoy this and hacked into him. Thankfully, Frank Lampard did not fancy taking the free-kick (his set pieces were yet again slow and inaccurate). Instead, Didier whipped in a fantastic ball and there he was.

Luis. A forward thrust. A header, A mass of hair. The ball going in.

Yeeeeeeeeessssssssssssssssssss!

Such drama. With ten minutes to go, we had timed it right. The Bridge erupted.

There was still time for another memorable Luis moment. Inside his own half, he was faced with a City attacker. Leaving the ball completely alone, he moved to his left, stepped and moved again and the City player lurched to his right, off balance. With that, Luis returned to the ball and passed it out to a team mate. I’ll be honest, that ranks up there with the very best Pat Nevin and Ruud Gullit shimmies.

This boy can play.

And then, the stunning denouement. Ramires – he of the surging runs and beautifully timed tackles – spun past three immobile defenders and despatched the ball into the net. The sense of anticipation before the strike was worth the entrance fee alone. The Bridge again erupted and the world was a very fine world once again. In the closing seconds, I remembered how out-of-sorts Ramires was at the corresponding game at Eastlands back in October. He just wasn’t in it. I wondered about his size and his skill level. I need not be worried. Although he scored at Bolton, this was his crowning glory. This was a lovely result and augurs so well for the future. We are changing our personnel at the business end of a testing season, evolving as we go. Once Torres – I simply cannot fault his effort – gets going he will be fine. But the game was all about two other new players.

David Luiz and Ramires. Simply Braziliant.

It had been quite a sideshow.

023

Tales From The Bleak Midwinter

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 27 December 2010.

“In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.”

Our last game – it seems ages ago, doesn’t it? – was at White Hart Lane and we now found ourselves heading for The Emirates. I’m sure it has happened before, but I certainly can’t remember two consecutive away games at our traditional London rivals. From the urban blight of Tottenham’s stadium to the swanky lines of Arsenal’s new pad, a distance of no more than a few miles, but with fifteen days in between. Fifteen days of sporting inactivity. Fifteen days of anticipation – and doubt.

I have been suffering with a heavy cold, with associated coughing and wheezing, for much of the past week. Thankfully, I awoke feeling much better and I was able to look forward to the day ahead with a more positive angle. The fields around my village have been coated in snow for quite a while, but I noted a slight thaw taking place in the morning. By comparison to the previously arctic conditions, the temperature outside seemed positively tropical. I was happy that our game against Arsenal was put back 24 hours as it gave me one more day to continue my recuperation. The coughing had subsided…I would be OK.

I gathered together my various match day essentials – coat, cap, phone, wallet and camera – and stepped outside into the bright winter sun. As I turned the ignition of my car, the bells of Saint Andrews parish church struck one. In the distance, the muffled sounds of a local shoot could be heard. The village is set amongst countryside owned by various farmers – to say nothing of our very own landed gentry, the Earl of Oxford and Asquith. Dairy farming is to the fore, but arable crops are often rotated around too. During the winter, the local farmers supplement their incomes by hosting events as pheasant shoots and suchlike. It was the crack of a rifle that I could hear a mile or so away. During the morning, I had driven past a heavily camouflaged team of “beaters”, crouching near a hedge, waiting for the next instruction from the leading hand.

There is something quite laughable about the clothes worn by these hunting types – all checked shirts, tartan ties, flat caps, muted green and beige tweed jackets and britches, outlandish mustard cord trousers, Barbour jackets and Daks pullovers. They really are a picture of upper-middle class buffoonery. I always smile when I see them. Without a doubt, they are a rare breed.

And yet – in case anyone is wondering why I am mentioning all this, in addition to setting the scene for my wintry foray through England’s green ( and white ) pleasant land – there are a couple of items which are favoured by the hunting set which have been adopted by the football fraternity over the years. Back during the early onset of football fashion madness, circa 1981 maybe, deer-stalker hats were worn with drainpipe jeans and the leisure wear of the day. I can certainly remember dear-stalkers on show on The Benches in 1983, but they soon disappeared from view. I saw one, being worn with ironic gusto, at a European away a few years back. And then, of course, the Barbour wax jacket, with the oily feel to the fabric and its inherently pungent aroma. These were worn around the 1986-1988 period and I contemplated getting one for a few short weeks. Barbour has come back into football circles over the past few years and a few of us have the classic quilted jackets, polo shirts, long-sleeved shirts and pullovers.

Proper English gear – as worn by the middle-classes in The Shires and football followers on the terraces.

As I left the village, Texas were on the CD singing about “some foolish mission” and I rued their words. This would be a tough game for sure. Despite their defensive frailties, Arsenal represented one of our toughest opponents this season. This would be a solo trip up to London for me. It felt strange to be heading east all alone. Both Parky and Glenn, season ticket-holders, were keen to go to Arsenal, but had missed out. Arsenal away is a tough ticket. Despite 60,000 spectators at Arsenal, any away team is limited to a maximum 3,000 tickets. There are around 500 in the away scheme and the rest goes 60% / 40% to season ticket-holders and members. Parky missed out on an away trip to Goonerville by one solitary loyalty point and was mortified.

I raced over Salisbury Plain, the fields still white with snow, and was soon stopping for an espresso on the A303. Onto the M25, the traffic slowed to a crawl and gave me the chance to observe the westbound planes leaving Heathrow, now getting back to normality after our unusual wintry spell. The Killers gave way to the Cocteau Twins as I neared my destination. I enjoyed listening to the two atypical Cocteaus songs “Winter Wonderland” and “Frosty The Snowman” – never have the words to those Christmas songs sounded so ethereal and shimmery.

I was parked-up near West Brompton and walked to Earls Court, before catching the Piccadilly Line to Holborn. We had arranged to meet, as always for Arsenal, at The Shakespeare’s Head. I rolled in, a little late, at about 4.30pm.

“Chris!”

The Americans were there – Rick and Becky from Ohio, and Paul and Mary-Ann from Tennessee – and it was lovely to see them. I first met Rick in that cramped wedge of Chelsea support at Toyota Park in Chicago in 2006. I met Paul and Mary Anne at “Yankee Doodles” in Santa Monica in 2007. Great to see them again – they had just arrived in London and were all staying in the hotel at The Bridge. Paul and Mary Anne had already packed in a Boxing Day excursion to Stonehenge, Glastonbury and Avebury…a mystical mystery tour of Wessex. They should have popped in for a coffee as they must have passed very close to my own little part of England. We joined Daryl, Rob, Alan and Gary further inside the boozer.

We stayed in the pub for around two-and-a-half hours and we were joined by Kev, now back in Michigan, at about 5.30pm. Kev had been on his own little tour of England, visiting friends and family alike. The pub was busy – there were clusters of middle-aged Chelsea fans everywhere I could look. We spoke about what? All sorts, really…Paul’s bright orange Tennessee Volunteers sweatshirt, the idiosyncrasies of English TV, the Amish, scrumpy, mutual friends, plastic surgery for Kev,plans for Wednesday, my new CP pullover (a deep, muted green – very “Shooting Party”! ), past summer tours, Detroit Bob’s beer intake… even the team occasionally.

At 7pm, I acted as tour guide and rustled up the troops for the ten minute tube ride to Arsenal. Mary Anne began talking to a chap from Texas, bound for the game, but wearing a Longhorns T-shirt. We all made out we were Vols fans – the London Branch – and, amidst much laughter, I think we confused him a little. His next comment was a classic –

“Anyway, I hope it’s all a bit more civilised than a Cowboys game.”

With a dozen Chelsea fans bellowing further down the carriage, we soon advised him that he might be in for a shock. To be honest, we the ratio of 20:1 against, we all presumed he was an Arsenal fan. But no – this was his first ever football game and his son, sitting bemused nearby, was a Chelsea fan…

“Oh – good man!”

Mary Anne, ever the CIA cheerleader, quickly placed a CIA calling card in his hand and we wished him a good time. He was from Dallas and it is hoped that this friendly encounter deep below the cold streets of Holloway will result in another member, or two, for the Texas Blues. As we marched through the narrow tunnels at Arsenal tube, a few Chelsea up ahead began The Muppets-inspired “Ivanovic – Na Na, Na NaNa – Ivanovic – Na NaNaNa” chant. It was great to hear – and I could see that Jim the Texan loved it. One lone Arsenal fan, no older than ten, was trying to muster a response with a shrill “Red Army” offering.

“On your own, mate.”

At street level, we turned left and not right. I had promised my five guests a quick glimpse at the old Arsenal stadium, Highbury, now a housing development but with the two classic Art Deco side stands intact. It was the first time I had paid it a visit since the move to The Emirates to be honest. We took a few photos out on Avenell Road, the Arsenal Stadium signage still intact. We then sat on the steps leading up to the famous marble halls and took a few photos, Becky’s Chelsea scarf unfurled for effect.

I had immediate memories of the 1984 game – detailed in depth in “Chelsea Here Chelsea There” – and of the smiling Chelsea players giving us the “thumbs-up” from the large windows of the changing rooms as we marched past. What a day that was – ah, the memories.

We backtracked past the tube station, joining the flow of match traffic heading west, past the Arsenal souvenir stalls, past the hot dog stands, past the T-shirts. To my left, one other stall caught my attention.

A candy-striped awning covered box upon box of assorted confectionary. There must have been forty or fifty boxes, filled with various items such as liquorice sticks, boiled fruit sweets, peanut brittle, toffees, mint imperials, fudge, candy walking sticks, chocolate covered nuts, peppermint creams, chocolate raisins, flying saucers, wine gums and pastilles. It was quite a picture. Sweets of every shape and size.Sweets of every colour.Sweets of every hue. Quite tempting in fact.

The Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was not available for comment.

We walked, slowly – taking it all in – up and over the footbridge which links the old Arsenal of the narrow terraced streets around Highbury with the 21st Century space-age Emirates Stadium. I squeezed both Paul and Mary Anne’s hands – “Welcome To London” – and I could sense that they were besides themselves with excitement. I’m lucky to be able to be able to share these moments of unbridled joy with so many new visitors to these footballing shores.

I reached my seats in that corner section with a few minutes to spare.

The Emirates – my fifth visit – and, of course, rich with memories already. We lost the hold on our champions crown at the 1-1 game in 2007, when Jose Mourinho made that iconic walk towards us, thanking us for our support, the famous “chin up” gesture to us all. To me, that was a defining Chelsea moment – it reminded me that even in defeat, we could be defiant, belligerent, noisy, passionate and united.

But then, the game before Christmas the same year under the tutelage of Uncle Avram was a grim affair…a 0-1 loss and were never in it. Since then, the 2009 games – the 4-1 and the 3-0 goal fests – were just too good to be true…two magnificent results and the old phrase “men against boys” was never more apt.

What of the game of Monday 27th. December 2010?

I can hardly remember anything of note in that mediocre first period. I remember a long shot from Didier Drogba flitting past Fabianski’s far post. We had quite a bit of possession, but what did we create? A great Cech tip-over came on forty minutes and I could hardly believe that the first-half had gone by so quickly. Let’s get to the break, mix things up a bit and get at them. Then, a bit of pinball in our area and Arsenal had an extra man. We could all sense danger. Song swept it in and I bowed my head – “oh no.”

It was all doom and gloom at half-time in the CFC section. We hadn’t threatened, had we? Kalou was in for the usual slating, but nobody shone, JT excepted. I couldn’t quite fathom why Mikel was taken off as the underperforming Ramires took his place. I yearned for a “Spurs Away Part Two” in that second forty-five minutes.

Our game plan fell apart within a few crazy minutes – first Essien losing possession and Fabregas slotting home, then Malouda guilty of the same and Walcott rifling home from distance. This made the home fans erupt and the sight of their flailing arms is haunting me as I write. At this stage, I had visions of a capitulation and our heaviest league defeat since a 5-1 drubbing at Anfield in 1996.

Thank heavens that didn’t happen – I’m searching for small morsels of positive news here – and at least the Chelsea support stayed to support the team. There was no mass exodus at three-nil. We were rewarded with a fine Ivanovic header from a pin-point Drogba free-kick. We temporarily roared our support and hoped that the wounded beast would respond. It shows what a deeply pathetic romantic soul that I am that I still had hopes for us to get it back to 3-3. I’d suggest that JT was our only player who showed any drive and skill, yet – bizarrely – all three Arsenal goals came through our middle. We tried to rally the troops – despite a recent sore throat, I gave my all.

We had possession, for sure, but no threat. No threat at all. Bosingwa and Kakuta entered the fray – and Kalou stayed on. But Arsenal could sit back and soak it up, then threaten us at will on the break. I think I was just grateful that we didn’t concede further and it stayed 3-1.

Arsenal made a few late substitutions and it reminded me of how little attention I had been paying to their personnel. I was only vaguely aware of who was in their team. I don’t pay such scant regard to other teams, so why am I so ambivalent as to who plays for Wenger? I think that this has been the way with Arsenal for the past few years. I think I lost any interest in Arsenal’s players when people like Hleb and Flamini flitted in and out of the team. They might still be there for all that I care. Is there a Clichy that still plays for them? I really don’t know and do you think I care? If I am honest, it just seems to me that Wenger has a whole squad of interchangeable waiflike metrosexuals and to hell with the lot of them.You see, rather than berate our own players – they need our support in these troubled times – I would much rather kick-out at the opposition.

The Emirates, for large periods, remained incredibly quiet. It seems that some things, Highbury or not, don’t change.

Regrettably, with a long drive ahead of me, I left on 90 minutes and so didn’t witness the final few moments of this most depressing night in North London. At Earls Court, feeling famished, I couldn’t resist popping into “Dall’Artista” for a fiery pizza which certainly put an end to the final vestiges of my head cold. Salvo rewarded me for another year of patronage of his restaurant with it being “on the house” and so there was at least some comfort in my solo trip to London.

I got home, the thaw almost complete, the roads now ice-free, at about 1am. I collapsed onto my bed and hoped for a deep sleep, but I knew that when I eventually woke, the pain would still be there.

Where is it all going wrong? I don’t know, but maybe we will find out more against Bolton.

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Tales From The F.A. Cup Quarter-Finals

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 7 March 2010.

And so there were eight teams left…

Portsmouth vs. Birmingham City.

I had a busy Saturday, doing a few chores, but managed to sit down and watch the first of the four televised F.A.Cup games. It was nothing to shout about, but I was pleased that Pompey defied the odds to advance into the semis. At around 3pm, my phone rang and there was a young child’s voice on the other end singing “que sera sera, whatever will be will be, we’re going to Wembley.” I soon realised it was my Pompey mate Rick’s young son Matthew. Sadly, Rick has had a tough time of it of late – redundancy from his job and then the shambles of the Pompey administration. Suffice to say, they had both been to Fratton and were dreaming of Wembley once again.

One team through, three to go.

Fulham vs. Tottenham Hostpur.

Boy, this was a pretty dull game. I was aware that Steve Azar was watching this with a Fulham mate of his, along with those docile home fans and their pitiful noisemakers. I was able to see this on TV too. A dreadful first-half, but it got a little better in the second. I was cursing Duffer every time he missed those three chances. I was hoping Spurs would fall out of the cup to be honest, but it came as no surprise that they eked out a hard-fought draw.

Both teams went into the bag for the semi-final draw.

On Sunday morning, I made a solo-trip up to London, the rest of my usual match-day companions otherwise engaged. It was a lovely drive up, me alone with my thoughts and The Stranglers on the CD player. On my last final approach on the A4, the main road from Bristol to London, which actually passes a few yards from my workplace, I peeked over at the River Thames, barely one hundred yards away. The winter sun was glinting on the water. With clear blue skies overhead, it was another perfect Sunday in the capital.

The meet was arranged for 1pm in The Goose. I spent a lovely two-and-a-half hours in the pub, chatting with a few Chelsea mates from near and far. Steve soon showed-up, having just about thawed out from the previous night’s game at Craven Cottage. He was lamenting Fulham’s unsurprisingly quiet support. We spoke about the Chelsea / Fulham rivalry “that isn’t” – oh, how it winds up Fulham fans that most Chelsea have a soft-spot for them. A few words with Daryl and Rob, who were chatting with Steve for the first time proper – talk focussed on a few games from the past which threw up a few anecdotes…Rob’s eventual getaway in a bright yellow Ford estate after the Millwall game in 1984 caused much hilarity…also talk of Spurs away in 1975 and Fulham at home in 1976. All of these tales of past games help bind our friendships.

There’s a part of me that would much rather meet up on match days, talk about these games from our childhood when the experiences were wilder and more intense, rather than go to the actual games. I know I’m not alone in this thought. Sometimes the trigger of “Bristol Rovers away in 1980” garners more chat than that for the up-coming game. ( We lost 3-0 and Tony Pulis scored, in case anyone is wondering…) Daryl then told of his father and a few mates from Guernsey hiring an old ambulance ( yes, really ) to tour the venues of Italia 1990 following England. I really should have gone to Italia 1990 – almost the last time I really felt connected to the national team. Steve had been to the England game on Wednesday and how things have changed since 1990. He spoke of jester hats, painted faces and Mexican waves. I stood aghast as he described all this to me. The last England game I saw in person – sitting alongside Daryl – was the “Zola” game at Wembley in 1997. This was Daryl’s last game, too.

“Another pint boys?”

Mick ( bluemick ) and his son soon showed-up to join our little group and it was lovely to see him again. I first met Mick in Chicago in 2006 and he now lives in Denver, one of my favourite US cities. We spoke about the 1972 League Cup Final ( we lost 2-1 to Stoke ) and Orient away the same year…not that I remember those two.

Next to arrive was Wes, from Texas, via South London. More stories, more laughter. Glad to hear he was sorted with a ticket for next week against West Ham, where there will be quite an influx of CIAers.

I made the point to Steve that Chelsea’s resurgence since around 1997 has been perfectly timed with the onset of the internet, which has maximised our reach around the globe. Think back to Aston Villa and Everton’s periods of success in the ‘eighties…lost in the ether. Our rapid rise in global support has certainly been greatly aided by the internet.

There wasn’t much chat about the day’s encounter with Stoke. With the League causing us the jitters – and with Arsenal and United winning – I was pleased that we had a Cup tie. Maybe the chance for us to relax a bit, though Stoke would be no mugs.

Reading vs. Aston Villa.

I had my back to the TV which was showing this game, but was pretty contented to see the un-fancied home team race to a 2-0 lead. However, John Carew ( he played against us for Valerenga in 1999, another away game to remember ) got his act together and Villa had a great second-half. We spoke of the 2000 F.A.Cup Final – against Villa – and how it was such a poor game.

Into the semis went Villa.

Chelsea vs. Stoke City

We left these stories, and many more, behind as we made our way to The Bridge. For a change, I would be sitting alongside Steve in The Shed Upper. I grabbed a programme. Sad to see that one of the old women who sat quite near me until around 2005 had passed away…people who have John Ingledew’s books will know of her as the “scarf lady.”

We had superb seats, row five, just behind the goal. Probably the best seats I’ve ever had at Chelsea in over 35 years of games, in fact. However, the fact that I was sitting in such a prime location worked against me as I spent the first-half snapping away like an idiot, finding it hard to concentrate on the actual game. I was trying to capture some new angles with my camera…a Paolo cross here, an Anelka dribble there. Plenty of shots of the Stoke defence standing firm as corner after corner rained in.

The Stoke fans were in good voice, although we all expressed surprise that they only brought 3,000 down from my former stomping ground in The Potteries.

“Go On Stoke, Go On Stoke, Go On Stoke!”

I looked over to my left at the towering West Stand, the winter sun lighting up the glass screens. Two things worth commenting on…another new banner ( County Down ) on the balcony, but hundreds and hundreds of empty seats ( yet again ) in the Millennium Boxes. Chelsea really does need to re-market these at a more realistic price. These were the only seats unsold, though, apart from a few pockets here and there. Another full house at HQ.

Stoke had a few chances in the first-half, but we were the stronger side. I was impressed with Anelka and Malouda’s movement, swarming around the Stoke defence, but of course they defended deep and it was difficult for us to break them down. Alex and JT were repelling the bombardment, via crosses from Tuncay and throw-ins from Delap. Good to see Hilario involved with a few stops.

We peppered the Stoke goal – a mere 25 feet away from me – and a deflected shot from Frank gave us a deserved lead at the break. There’s certainly less foot room in The Shed than the MH, though – I had nowhere to leap when Frank scored. From Alan, up in the NW corner, came the expected text message.

“THTCAUN.”

To which I replied “COMLD.”

Of course, the away fans were on John Terry’s back the entire game, though even my trained ear for the Stokie accent found it difficult to decipher what they were singing…

“John Terry – He’s Shagging His Gums.”

“John Terry – He’s Shagging A Laugh.”

“John Terry – He’s Shagging Giraffes.”

Who knows? After Frank swung in – at last!!! – a corner with pace, JT rose like a freshwater fish with pink coloured flesh native to Scotland to plant the ball firmly in the Stoke net. We roared our approval. I had my camera at the ready for his trot back to our half and was able to capture his rolling up of his left sleeve and the stare at the 3,000 away fans. Then the point to the captain’s armband.

Not sure if there was any reference to England – I just think it was a case of saying “I’m the Chelsea captain and I’m not going away.”

Of course, The Shed responded – in clear English.

“John Terry – Has Knocked You Out.”

Into the semis we went. Our ninth such appearance in the past seventeen years – that’s just fantastic. By contrast, from 1970 to 1993 – twenty three years – we made not one single semi-final appearance. JT, Alex and that man Ivanovic were fantastic all afternoon. Let’s hope we are back on track.

As Steve and myself walked back up the North End Road, I half expected my phone to be buzzing with news of the draw. By 6.10pm, all was quiet. If we had got Pompey, my mate Rick would have phoned. If we had drawn Tottenham, all of the world and his dog called spot would have phoned. I surmised, therefore, that it had to be Villa.

At 6.14pm, a text from Steve –

“Villa.”

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Tales From The Game Of Four Penalties

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 20 December 2009.

As we stumble towards the half-point in the season, what an amazing weekend.

What with both Liverpool and then Manchester United losing on Saturday, the Sunday game at West Ham was set up perfectly. A Chelsea win would solidify our lead at the top but also confine West Ham to bottom place. Too good to be true, eh?

My first concern as I awoke on Sunday morning was getting out of my Somerset village. I set off, rather gingerly, at 9am and made it over to collect Lord Parky at 9.40am The first hour was spent in a snow-dusted landscape, as I drove east. The Devizes duck pond was completely frozen. The swans and ducks must have been confused. As we headed through Savernake Forest, we encountered many “picture postcard” scenes. The sky above was clear and it was a truly gorgeous morning. It was a pleasure to be alive. We spoke about the madness of Mark Hughes losing his job at City. What a crazy decision. At a garage en route, I refuelled and we had to laugh at West Ham Dad and West Ham Kid who were buying some junk food for the trip to London. Dad was unshaven, tattooed and wearing some scabby jeans. Kid was dopey. Stereotypes for us all to admire.

I spoke to Parky about a book I had just purchased – “Mad For It” by Andy Mitten. This details various derby matches all over the world, mainly from a fan’s perspective, and looks to be a great read. He starts with Liverpool vs. Manchester United, but the book also encompasses a wide range of matches from Barca vs. Real, Boca Juniors vs. River Plate to Wolves vs. West Brom. It made me think about our rivals…and the fact that our natural “derby” against Fulham is hardly passionate, in the way that others are. For a derby to be genuine, the animosity has to go both ways. I’m sorry, but I can’t hate Fulham. Of course, in London, the biggest derby is the Arsenal vs. Spurs encounter. West Ham might say that their “derby” is Millwall, but this game is so infrequent as to be unworthy of the name. Where does that leave Chelsea? To be honest, I don’t really know. I still think our biggest London game is Spurs, even though they dislike Arsenal much much more.

Back in the early ‘eighties, Chelsea and West Ham were mired in division two and it felt like West Ham were suddenly our natural rivals, both sub Arsenal and Spurs, but with potential to be much bigger. In the past ten years, we have diverged!

Of course, in London we are spoilt for choice for geographical rivals. These rivals change through time, but I remember that in the 1988-89 season ( and this may surprise a few ) that our London league rival was only Crystal Palace. Believe it or not, in that one season, when Chelsea were in the second division, we played second best to seven other London teams ( Arsenal, Tottenham, West Ham, QPR, Wimbledon, Charlton and Millwall ) who were in the top division. Only twenty years ago, but we were the eighth best team in London.

How times change. And thank heavens they do.

At Reading services, we stopped for coffees and I heard from Kevin ( “Gromit” ) who was heading down to East London from Wolverhampton. He was running late, but we would meet up somewhere. We continued on, reaching London at 12.45pm. Rather than head over to meet the boys in Barking, Parky and myself dropped into The Goose for a burger and a pint. Just the business. We walked to West Brompton and boarded the district line train. Some 26 stops later, we arrived at a freezing Barking station at about 2.30pm. We joined up with Alan, Daryl, Gary and Whitey in The Spotted Dog, having just missed Cath and Dog. Just time for one pint and a few laughs…we weren’t wearing colours, so nobody sussed we were “the enemy.”

We took the five minute train journey back west to Upton Park, to be met outside by Walnuts, who had endured a horrendous train trip up from Brighton.

We quickly walked through the tight terraced streets, sliding on the ice, and were soon inside the packed away end.

I was in row H, just beyond the goal with a great view of the game. I noted the thin sliver of a crescent moon way up above the main stand. We stood the entire game. I spotted many empty seats in the top corners of both the home end and the main stand. In fact, the gate was a full two thousand below capacity…for a London “derby” – pathetic.

We began brightly but then seemed to lose momentum and West Ham got into the game, with ex-Chelsea midfielder Scott Parker increasingly involved. I was warned by a steward not to use my camera and Gary was also having a battle of wills with another steward about something or other. It was getting spiky and the steward was itching to get him nicked. Two Frank Lampard shots from distance and one from John Terry were our only chances of note. Kalou offered no threat at all.

In one notable moment, JT had to head clear as Cech remained routed to his line. JT had a word with Petr, while Frank shaped “ball” with his hands and gave him an old-fashioned look as if to say “make sure you bloody come next time.” From the resultant corner, Cech came and punched superbly away. Phew.

Then, a rash challenge from Ashley gifted them with a penalty which was converted.

Here we go again.

Just before the break, about twenty West Ham numpties in The Chicken Run serenaded us with “You’ve Got No History” which must surely go down as one of the most ridiculous songs ever. From West Ham! To be blunt, this song really annoys me anyway – it implies that a club’s “history” is solely dependent upon trophy success, whereas we all know that it’s to do with so much more than that.

Loyalty. Comradeship. Humour. Fraternity.

At the break, we mixed things up with two substitutions. Drogba and Kalou had been poor, but the service from midfield was very scant. To be fair, both Mikel and Sturridge did well in the second period.

With Robert Green but ten yards away, Gary was on form.

“You’d might as well put Hughie Green in goal – your rubbish!”

And he meant that most sincerely.

We got behind the team and they responded with an improved performance – or was it the other way around?

We enjoyed so much more of the ball as the game developed and it was great being able to see the movement and strength of our players from such close quarter. We tied to prise open their defence, but it wasn’t easy. Then, a challenge on Sturridge and we were overjoyed with the referee’s decision.

Frank steadied himself and despatched it.

Get in you beauty. Gary began winding up the steward, but it transpired he wasn’t a West Ham fan.

He was a Liverpool fan – even better! Much laughter.

We then turned around, only to see Frank taking another penalty. We had been oblivious to the re-take and I had to wonder if I was in a Groundhog Day loop.

He scored the retake and we yelled again.

We then turned around, only to see Frank taking another penalty. We had been oblivious to the re-take and I had to wonder if I was in a Groundhog Day loop.

He scored the retake and we yelled again.

This time – it counted!

Drogba narrowly missed from an angle and we sang for a winner. I felt sure we would score again, but despite more pressure, including a disappointing shot from Joe which blazed over, it stayed at 1-1.

Outside the packed away end, the weather was freezing. We marched back to the tube and were soon thawing out on the train. We chatted to three fellow Chelsea fans and we all agreed that this is turning out to be a poor season with United, Liverpool and us fighting to find the form of the recent past. Our form has suffered over the past three weeks, but the form of the other two teams mentioned seems more terminal.

Where will it end? Watch this space.

We dropped into Salvo’s for a warming coffee and I made good time on the M4. I got home at 10.40pm, just in time to switch on the TV and see the move which lead to our thrice-taken penalty. The “foul” on Daniel Sturridge?

Oh boy – we were lucky!

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Tales From A Steak And Ale Pie Addict

Chelsea vs. Queens Park Rangers : 23 September 2009.

Throughout the day, I was wondering when I would be able to leave work for the game against QPR. For a spell, with work getting a bit more complex than I had anticipated, I did wonder if I wouldn’t get away until 5.30pm. If so, I would miss the kick-off. If I was delayed further on the drive east – like against Porto – I would have to contemplate giving up and returning home. There has to be a point when showing up for just ten minutes gets pretty pointless! To add to the drama, I had to change a tyre at about 2pm!

It’s just this damned home stretch I have going. I haven’t missed a first-team game since January 2004. A stretch of maybe around 110 games or so. Surely, under normal circumstances, I would give the game a miss, like I used to. I can’t imagine the stresses and strains that Cathy ( thirty years and counting ) is under.

I left at 4.40pm.

Chris – Jack Kerouac

Alan – Al Murray

Chris – Roxy Music

As it happened, it was a brisk trip up to London, without the rain of last week. It was almost as if I was on auto-pilot. As I drove through West London, I passed a Police Dog Unit van and I was reminded that after the cup game with QPR last year, Cliff was attacked outside The Goose by some police dogs and was badly injured. His crime was protecting his sons from the dogs. I didn’t see any Chelsea or QPR fans in any of the pubs from Hammersmith through to the North End Road. Once parked up, it was a different story. There were two policemen on horseback by the flats on Lillee Road and then four police crossing the road by junction with the North End Road. As I turned the corner, two more police horses were stood right outside The Goose. Reg had a bouncer on the door, but Reg allowed me in. This was at about 6.50pm. Into the crowded pub and there was a pint of lager waiting for me.

Made it.

Parky and his ( long suffering! ) partner Jill was with three lads from Wiltshire, while the “London contingent” of Simon, Milo, Rob, Daryl and Ed were nearby. I flitted between the two groups and gulped the pint down.

We left in good time – past some QPR fans “larging it” in The Slug – and got in with time to spare this week.

QPR are an odd club really…in my mind the biggest clubs in London are Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and West Ham. Not just in terms of attendances, honours and image, but the spread of their support throughout the UK. Growing up in the south-west, I never bumped into Charlton, Fulham, Palace, Millwall or QPR fans. QPR had their period of pomp from 1976 to about 1990. They finished second to Liverpool in 1976, but never really had great gates. I disliked them in the 1982-86 period when they often beat us, but I think I would have to be a West Londoner from Hammersmith and Fulham to truly hate them. For once, I felt like an outsider in this inter-borough spat.

There were 6,000 QPR fans in The Shed ( with one poxy flag ) and this was five times as many as they used to bring to The Bridge in the ‘eighties.

Before the game, I devoured another steak and ale pie…the business.

It was great to see Joe Cole playing again. He buzzed around joyously in the first-half, with one turn being ( almost ) worth the admission price alone. We were on top during the first period but there weren’t too many clear cut chances. Kalou saw a lot of the ball, but his retention wasn’t great. Sam Hutchinson defended well. In the last minute of the half, Juliano whipped in a great free-kick, a real blooter, which their keeper pushed over.

The away fans were singing loudly, but the Chelsea support got involved too. The MH balcony wall was festooned with banners, including one for the CYF – “London’s Finest” – and I pondered the “political correctness” of this.

The atmosphere was bubbling along nicely and it was turning out to be a gem of a game. There were no surprises when Frank came on in the second-half. It seems that every domestic game in which he is rested is level at the break and he then comes on as a substitute. He looked very lively and played in Zhirkov and Kalou down below me many times. Kalou’s goal was very neat and I managed to capture his approach, shot and celebrations on film. Borini, after a quiet first-half, grew in confidence and had a good shot saved. Even Kalou grew stronger as the game progressed. However, QPR had a few half-chances, notably when Zhirkov headed off the line. Hilario made a few good stops.

It was a good game and I was enjoying it. Joe began to tire in the second half. What about our three substitutions, eh? Frank Lampard, John Terry and Ashley Cole! Our England lions. Ashley was given his best reception yet.

In the last part of the game, Belletti had a barn-storming run down the right flank but shot weakly…the place was on fire. Memories of Zola. Kind of. Then Joe had a screamer saved.

Lots of shots in the second half, lots of atmosphere. And I thought the referee had a good game, too.

All games used to be like this!

I walked back to the car, thinking that I simply could not wait for the next game at Wigan. We are doing well and long may it continue. As I approached my car, a very tame fox was sniffing around some rubbish on the pavement, one of the thousands of urban foxes in London these days.

He looked at me as if to say “don’t tell me, the Rs lost again.”

Ray Wilkins was waxing lyrical on Five Live about the game – lots of “supers, delightfuls and wonderfuls” – and I raced home, stopping only for the now customary top-ups of junk food.

Home at 12.30am. Job done.

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