Tales From Another Chelsea Debut

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 9 February 2013.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. Except…this was a Chelsea game with a difference. After relinquishing my grip on the 240 game unbroken home run against Arsenal some three weeks ago, the game with Wigan Athletic now represented “Game One” of a new sequence. I don’t expect to go nine years this time, but let’s see how far I can get. Unfortunately, Lord Parky has been suffering with the ‘flu and so was unable to accompany me to Stamford Bridge on this occasion. I hoped that he would be “match fit” once again for the Brentford F.A. Cup replay.

Before I say too much about the events of Saturday 9 February 2013, I feel that I need to share a solemn tale. On Monday, a former Frome Town player was killed in a road traffic accident and, although I did not know him personally, I remembered him from school days when he played in both the school and cricket teams. On Wednesday, I attended a Frome Town game with a few friends and there was a minute’s silence before the match in his memory. Ironically, on my drive out of the Frome area, I needed to top up with diesel at Beckington. It was here, coming home late from a mid-week Chelsea game before Christmas, that I last saw him. As I circumnavigated Warminster on the town by-pass, I drove past the crash site. There was blue and white police tape marking his car’s final resting place. There were bouquets of flowers propped against a fence. Why do I mention this story? I mention it to highlight the fragility of human life. On my travels around the highways and byways of England and Wales, I have had a couple of small-scale accidents. I have been lucky. But this was a deeply sobering incident which has played deeply on my mind over the past few days. The drive past the crash scene was a deeply moving moment. As I headed past Warminster and up on to Salisbury Plain, the solemnity inside my car was all too apparent.

Outside, the weather was murky. As I climbed up onto the A303, snow started to fall. I wondered what sort of weather would be awaiting me once I arrived in London. Thankfully, by the time I had stopped at Fleet in Hampshire for a McBreakfast, the snow had stopped. I spotted a group of four Chelsea fans – unknown to me – at the services and I rolled my eyes to the sky when I saw their appearance. All four were rather rotund and all four were wearing tight-fitting Chelsea shirts – but crucially they were all wearing Chelsea shirts over various sweatshirts and the like. They were all in their mid-‘fifties – not a sin in itself of course, I’ll be there sooner rather than later – but I’ve always thought that tight-fitting football shirts look plain silly on people of a certain age.

I could only imagine what conversation Parky and I might have had in the circumstances.

I made great time and was parked up at 10.50am. I had plans to meet a few friends at the hotel at 11.30am, but had just enough time to pop in to “The Goose” which had recently been closed for refurbishment. Although I didn’t have time for a drink, I greeted a few friends who were already enjoying a few liveners. The place looked excellent, with new leather seats, floor tiles, carpets, wallpaper and fittings. There is even a TV out in the beer garden. As I headed down to The Bridge, I noted that The Malt House had opened-up again, too. No doubt there will be higher beer prices at each locale, but I guess that’s inevitable.

Down at the hotel, there was a gathering of friends from near and far. My guest for the day – Constanza, born only a few miles away from The Bridge – was visiting London for a week from her home in Michigan. She was in town to attend a couple of interviews at colleges in order to get a place for a Master’s degree in the autumn. She had already done the stadium tour and museum earlier in the week, but this was her big day.

Her first ever Chelsea game.

Without wasting much time, I quickly introduced her to Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, who were sitting in their usual area. Cons’ smile was wide as she shook hands with both of these Chelsea legends. Mike from New York was over for the game – he got out of JFK just before the snow fell on Friday – and was chatting to father and son Jim Senior from NYC and Jim Junior, who now lives in Thailand. Gill and Graeme were also present and we soon posed for a photo with Gill’s “Kent Blues” flag.

Happy days.

It is always a big thrill for me to meet first-time visitors to Stamford Bridge and to show them a few of the sights and share few stories. I’m a very lucky person. With no children of my own, I at least get the chance to play “father” to a few first-time visitors to Chelsea every season and it is something that I treasure. Thankfully, a “meet and greet” with Ron Harris is part of the usual routine now and I am very grateful for that too. Unfortunately for Cons, Ron Harris passed on the news that John Terry wouldn’t playing. His old knee injury had become enflamed again. JT is Cons’ personal favourite, so my heart went out to her.

Cons and I then walked around Stamford Bridge as I explained a few of the sights. Outside the East Stand, we met up with Steve Mantle who was with another first-time visitor from the US; a member of the infamous “OC Blues” in California.

“Oh – you know Steve-O and Wrayman? My condolences.”

So, Steve and I were doing our little bit for Anglo-American relations.

I asked Steve’s guest how many times she had used the word “awesome”: but she replied “no – just amazing…everything is amazing.”

How wonderful it is to see Stamford Bridge through fresh eyes. It’s easy to get a little disheartened at the ever-diminishing atmosphere and the increasingly disconnected support base at The Bridge, but we mustn’t lose sight of how intimate Stamford Bridge is, nestled amongst the bars and pubs of the Fulham Road. There is nothing like the re-match buzz on match days in deepest SW6.

We continued our walk around The Bridge, stopping off for a photo-call at the Peter Osgood statue, before meeting up with Mike again down at the White Horse on Parson’s Green.

There were reminiscences of Tokyo and also thoughts about the Asia tour in the summer. Once the tour dates for the games in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta were announced on Thursday, I felt the adrenaline start to pulse through my body and within a few hours of checking and cross-checking flights on the internet, I had found some very agreeable prices. However, I explained to Mike that I have since thought hard about the tour and have “stepped back from the edge of the cliff.” I was ready to take the plunge, but I need time to look at all options. In truth, I am a little dismayed that Chelsea has again chosen games in Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. These are a couple of fine cities, but it was only eighteen months ago that I visited them in 2011. I was hoping and praying for games in China – Shanghai and Beijing would have been perfect – but I am not sure about returning to BKK and KL so soon after my last visit. It seems that the Chelsea “problem” of getting drawn against teams from familiar cities – Barcelona, Prague, Porto, Rome, Milan, Valencia – in UEFA competitions is now being replicated in Asia.

Another pal – Dave – arrived at around 2pm. He is from London but has been living in New York for seven years. I first met him out in California on the 2007 tour. He is now living back in England – and badly missing New York. He is especially missing the view from his apartment in Brooklyn, overlooking the East River, bridges and all. The view of a pub from his flat in Tufnell Park just doesn’t match up.

Cons was enjoying the pre-match and there was talk of her getting a season ticket for 2013-2014 should her interviews be successful. It warmed me to hear her mention the phrase ‘my Chelsea family” on more than one occasion.

Although I originally wanted to be inside the stadium at 2.30pm to allow Cons the sight of the players’ pre-match routine, I’m afraid that old habits meant that we reached our seats with only five minutes to spare.

Wigan’s away following was unsurprisingly small. For the first time that I can remember, all 200 away fans were encamped in the lower tier, allowing an extra 1,000 Chelsea fans above them in the upper tier. I’ve long been advocating this; good to see. David Luiz partnered Frank Lampard at the base of our midfield five, which meant that Cahill partnered Ivanovic in the defence. I am – of course – not Benitez’ biggest fan, but at least he has spotted the potential of Luiz in the midfield, as a playmaker rather than a destructor.

I thought that Wigan caused us a few problems in the first-half, with old boy Franco di Santo involved. When he came to retrieve a ball from behind the goal line, the MHL gave him a nice reception and he clapped us back; nice to see. A fine Petr Cech save from Shaun Maloney brought us all to our feet.

A through ball from David Luiz, fresh from his captaincy of the Brazilian national team on Wednesday, found Fernando Torres who ably pushed the ball into the path of an advancing Ramires. He thumped the ball past Al Habsi and we could relax a little. A couple of efforts from Fernando Torres – another Cons favourite – promised good things. As the first-half drew on, our dominance increased. A few efforts from fizzed close to the Wigan goal but there was no further addition to the score line. I had already warned Cons of the lack of atmosphere at games these days, but she didn’t seem fazed.

Frank Leboeuf was on the pitch at the break. He hasn’t put on an ounce of fat since he hung up his boots.

Soon into the second half, a rampaging Azpilicueta sent over a great ball which easily found Eden Hazard, unmarked. The finish was cool and clinical. 2-0 and coasting.

But this was Chelsea.

Within two minutes, we conceded. A hopeful punt into space seemed to befuddle Cahill and Ivanovic. Maloney ran on to the ball, rounded Cech and adroitly slotted home from an angle.

I turned to Cons and said “and that’s why I’ve gone grey.”

The crowd were slowly getting into the game. A Lampard shot whizzed past the post. Ramires chased down a defender right down in front of us – it was a great piece if aggressive play – and this single action galvanised the support. Of course, in my mind, this is completely the opposite of what should happen at Chelsea.

Our loud and partisan support should galvanise the team.

The two highlights of the second-half were two perfectly played passes from Lampard, with perfect weight, direction and “fade.” However, Wigan threatened again, causing Benitez to change the personnel. Juan Mata replaced the impressive Oscar. He was soon involved. A Hazard pass found Mata. He played the ball back towards Lampard, who took aim and slotted the ball low past Al Habsi. With great pleasure, I photographed the goal – number 198 – and the resultant celebratory leap, before Frank returned back to thank Mata for the perfect pass.

3-1. Phew.

The crowd found its voice towards the end of the game and Cons was joining in.

Job done.

Some more changes. Benayoun for Cahill, Luiz back into defence. Marin for Hazard.

Another rampaging run from Azpilicueta took him in to a central position. He fired in a dipping shot, which the Wigan ‘keeper could only parry. The ball flew out to Marko Marin who flung himself at the ball. He appeared to head it – like a youngster, unsure of the best way – with eyes shut and head down, the ball thumping against the top of his head. In truth, he did well to contort his neck to meet the ball in the first place. I snapped away as he celebrated amongst a few exultant fans in the MHL. In truth, the score line flattered us. There were no anti-Benitez chants throughout the game, which I regard as a positive. All things considered, a good – albeit quiet – day at the office.

After the game, Cons joined me for the first Supporters Trust meeting in the Fulham CIU club, just a few yards down from the old So Bar. I was happy that she was able to witness a key moment in the history of our club. Although the meeting was rather chaotic, a few key statements were announced and there was a good vibe in the crowded bar. I would heartily recommend that any Chelsea supporter – in the UK, in the USA, in Thailand, in Indonesia – join up. It only costs £5.

Outside, Cons and I said our goodbyes, but with a promise that we’d do it all again soon.

I walked back to the car, past a busy Goose, and set off for the return home. A strange thing happened, however, at Fleet Services. As I sat inside the services, eating a brie, lettuce and grape sandwich, refuelling myself for the next hour’s drive, I suddenly had a moment of concern. A moment of clarity.

It was 8pm on a Saturday night. I was all by myself. I was at a service station in Hampshire. It was a cold night outside. What on Earth was I doing? Without Parky – or Glenn – or any of the friends who used to travel up from Frome for home games – the return drive back to Somerset appeared to be a rather sad journey.

I sighed. I haven’t felt like that for years and years. I then smiled.

“Don’t knock it Chris…millions of Chelsea fans around the world would love to be in your shoes.”

The rest of the drive home was uneventful, save for some foggy weather as I tentatively made my way past Stonehenge. This slowed my progress, but on this particular occasion, after the events of the past week, I was more than happy to take it easy. I peered in to “The Cornerhouse” pub as I made my way through Frome and imagined conversations taking place.

“Do anything today?”

“Stayed in. Watched the rugby.”

“Went shopping.”

“Nothing much.”

“I see Lampard scored again.”

That moment of concern which I had encountered at Fleet services an hour or so before, was put into perspective.

“Yep, Lampard scored again. I was there.”

The home run had begun again.
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Tales From The Blue Corner And The Red Corner

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 11 November 2012.

It was early morning on Remembrance Sunday.

Outside, the fields surrounding my Somerset village were frosted white. The sky was pure blue, devoid of clouds. Although this was a day of football, this was also a day of solemn contemplation and appreciation. Later in the morning, there would be a church service at the parish church of St. Andrew’s to commemorate those who had died while serving in the armed forces. Before the day gathered speed, I decided that I’d like to have my own little moment of quiet. I made my way down to the centre of the village and took a few photographs in and around the village church. Poppies bordered the pathway leading into the churchyard. The sun shone brightly. The village was barely awake.

Towards the eastern edge of the churchyard, there was one gravestone which I needed to capture on film. Siegfried Sassoon, one of England’s famous war poets – along with Wilfred Owen and Rupert Brooke – spent much of his life in my home village. It was his wish to be buried underneath the limestone spire of Mells church, alongside the avenue of yew trees, facing forever east into the Somerset countryside. As I approached his grave, I noticed the shadow from another grave – a cross – slanting across the plain tombstone. There was a ruby red bouquet and a single red poppy.

I wandered down to the village war memorial and took several more photographs. The memorial was designed by Edwin Lutyens, the famous British architect who was also responsible for London’s Cenotaph. In a quiet moment, I stood in the quiet Somerset morning. The names of the brave young men from the village who lost their lives in the two world wars were etched on Somerset stone. It was time for silence.

A Whispered Tale.

I’d heard fool-heroes brag of where they’d been,
With stories of the glories that they’d seen.
But you, good simple soldier, seasoned well
In woods and posts and crater-lines of hell,
Who dodge remembered ‘crumps’ with wry grimace,
Endured experience in your queer, kind face,
Fatigues and vigils haunting nerve-strained eyes,
And both your brothers killed to make you wise;
You had no babbling phrases; what you said
Was like a message from the maimed and dead.
But memory brought the voice I knew, whose note
Was muted when they shot you in the throat;
And still you whisper of the war, and find
Sour jokes for all those horrors left behind.

Siegfried Sassoon.

My friend Francis, who I first met on my inaugural day at Frome College in September 1978, collected me at just after 9am. Parky joined us en route. The banter soon started flying around. Francis is a Liverpool fan and, in some respects, is my lucky charm. He has attended around seven Chelsea vs. Liverpool games with me – including the momentous Champions League semi-final from 2008 – and was yet to see his team victorious.

The very first of these was way back in May 1991, when we travelled up by train from Frome, along with two of my former workmates Dave and Matthew. Liverpool, under Graeme Souness, were putting in a very late challenge to retain their title, but a strong Chelsea performance that day gave us a deserved 4-2 win. Our team included players such as Dave Beasant, Jason Cundy, Andy Townsend, Dennis Wise, Alan Dickens, Kerry Dixon and Gordon Durie. The four of us watched from high up in the old West Stand. It was a great game, our last home match of the season. I remember that I had to defend Francis and Matthew, who was also a Liverpool fan, from abuse from Chelsea fellow fans after they celebrated a little too noisily. Two goals from King Kerry gave us the win. Arsenal went on to win the League Championship. Liverpool, of course, is still waiting for their first title since 1990. It’s hard to fathom that the team which so dominated the football scene in my childhood (championships in 1973, 1976, 1977, 1979, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1984, 1986, 1988 and 1990) are still waiting. Although Manchester United suffered twenty-six years of title-drought from 1967 to 1993, their success in the ‘sixties was not as dominant as Liverpool in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties. The comparison is valid, in terms of yearning, though Liverpool’s drought seems more dramatic somehow. I think that league success for Liverpool is still some time away.

Francis is off to the US next summer with his family. They are visiting Orlando, Miami and New York. We have been chatting about places to see, travel tips and possible itineraries for ages. For once it will be me living vicariously through his travel experiences. He has always been supremely interested in my trips to the US, to NYC especially, and I can’t wait to hear of his time across the Atlantic next August. We’ve spoken about baseball; rather annoyingly, the only Yankee game taking place is on the evening of his arrival from Miami, only hours after touching down at La Guardia. We think he’ll settle for a Mets game instead.

At 11am, we turned the radio on in order to hear the chimes from Westminster to signal the two minute’s silence at The Cenotaph.

We were parked up in good time and dived into the café for a filling breakfast. Parky darted into The Goose, but Francis and I headed down to The Bridge. I pointed out a few of the changes to the landscape since Francis’ last visit. Walking along Vanston Place, we passed a wine merchants’ and an upmarket restaurant. Often after midweek games, these two establishments are often full of late night carousers. I mentioned to Francis that there is often a late-night wine-tasting session taking place in the former. It’s typical Hammersmith and Fulham, typical Kensington and Chelsea, typical London. I don’t suppose that there are similar activities at 10pm near stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I collected my Juventus ticket – fantastic to get my hands on it – and we walked around to the main forecourt, past the old Shed wall; the last remaining structure, apart from the East stand, from that game in 1991. My friend Lynda, from Pennsylvania, had arranged to meet us. She introduced us to Tee, her significant other, and we quickly popped up to the hotel foyer to meet Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. I first met Lynda in The Goose on a NYB trip two seasons ago. Lynda was in the Chelsea team against PSG at Chelsea Piers in New York in July. It was great to see her again. The two of them had just flown in and were off to the delights of Madrid during the week. Tee, once he had spotted Ron Harris, needed a little moment to compose himself. Of course, Ron is the Chelsea equivalent of Manchester United’s Bobby Charlton, Bayern Munich’s Franz Beckenbauer, Baltimore Orioles’ Cal Ripken, San Francisco 49ers’ Joe Montana. What a treat for him to meet Chelsea’s two leading appearance makers on his first trip to Chelsea, his first trip to England. It would be like me informally chatting to Yogi Berra and Whitey Ford on my first ever visit to Yankee Stadium.

Wow. No wonder he was dizzy.

We took some photos. Francis quizzed Tee about visiting America while Lynda and I caught up on a few things. Thankfully, Sandy didn’t cause too much hardship to her house and home. I also bumped into Gary from LA, an ex-pat who I first met on the US tour in 2007.

For the next two hours, we spent an enjoyable time in two Chelsea pubs; “The Imperial” on the Kings Road, the former watering hole of Matthew Harding, and “The Pelican” on Waterford Road. I was able, at long bloody last, to chill out and enjoy some pints, even though they were served in poxy plastic glasses. Tee, who is a professional footballer with the Dayton Dutch Lions, was having a great time. He has been a Chelsea fan since 1998 and his personal favourite was Michael Essien. He was dismayed when he was loaned out to Real Madrid; imagine Tee’s pleasure, then, when he realised that he is able to see Ess play in Madrid next weekend. Free tickets too, but that’s another story. It was lovely for Francis and I to spend time with our guests from the US, to experience their enthusiasm for the game at first hand, to join in their fun. It’s what football is all about. On leaving “The Pelican,” all four of us almost got knocked over by a crowd of several hundred in-line skaters, streaming through the streets of Fulham, ghetto-blasters roaring. I repeat my comment about stadia in Wigan, Sunderland or Swansea.

I bought a programme and we said our goodbyes to Lynda and Tee, who would be watching from the south-west corner of The Shed Lower, only a few yards away from Lord Parky. I told Lynda to keep an eye out for his flailing crutches should we score. This part of the stadium seems to be the de facto home for all CFC supporters’ group tickets these days.

Inside the stadium, all of the usual banners had been removed from behind both goals and, in their place, two banners of remembrance stood alone, just above the goalmouths. This was a great touch by Chelsea. We took our seats – Francis to my left, Alan to my right – and ran through the teams. It would be a big day for the two young full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Cesar Azpilicueta. Torres was starting of course, and we lived in hope. We wanted him to constantly attack the aging Carragher. Despite the F.A. Cup Final win over Liverpool in May, there is no doubt that they have been a thorn in our side of late. Their last three visits to Stamford Bridge all resulted in away wins. It was time for revenge, of sorts. We just don’t like Liverpool, do we?

This game would be my fifty-ninth game involving the two teams (thirty-seven games at Stamford Bridge, eighteen times at Anfield, two at Cardiff, one at Old Trafford and one at Wembley). What is that old saying about familiarity and contempt? I’ve seen Chelsea play Liverpool more times than any other team. Every fifteen games, around come Liverpool again.

Both teams gave a guard of honour to members of the serving armed forces and, of course, to the Chelsea pensioners, marching so proudly in their bright scarlet coats and tricorn hats.

There was a near perfect silence in honour of the fallen before the kick-off. The only sound, thankfully not particularly audible, was from down below in the area underneath the Matthew Harding where some shameless home fans were singing about “poor little scousers.” I hoped that the noise was not discernible on the live TV feed.

After the two magnificent matches against Manchester United and Shakhtar Donetsk, we all wondered what the game would have in store for us. Tom looked as though he couldn’t take another 94 minutes of drama.

Despite the two clubs’ recent intense rivalry, I thought that the atmosphere wasn’t great at all. Maybe we had been “all yelled out” against Shakhtar. The Liverpool fans began noisily but soon faded. They held up a flag saying “Football Without Fans Is Nothing” before the game – nice sentiment, not sure who it was aimed at. They also had a flag which stated the oft-cited “Against Modern Football.” I first saw Ipswich Town fans with this banner at Stamford Bridge on their visit in 2009. Again, I understand the sentiment. For all of my enjoyment in following the club and for all of the magical moments I have witnessed, the sport of football can still be a bloody train wreck.

Obscene wages, aloof players, malevolent owners, loathsome agents, numpty fans, the cult of celebrity and lurid tabloid headlines, the WAGs, the hangers-on, the gutter press, the cost of tickets. It goes on.

Maybe one day even I will stop in my tracks and cry “enough is enough.”

Liverpool enjoyed the bulk of possession in the first-half, but rarely troubled Petr Cech. A shot from Oscar, so strong of late, was our only real threat on the Liverpool in the first twenty minutes. It sailed high of the Shed End goal. Fernando Torres began the game brightly, though, skipping away from his markers on two occasions, and we hoped that his enthusiasm wouldn’t wane.

A great corner from Juan Mata, with Lynda and Tee looking on, was whipped in and John Terry, returning from his four game ban, rose unhindered and the ball flew into the net. It was a dramatic blow and The Bridge erupted with noise. Our captain sprinted down to the south-west corner and I snapped away like a fool, catching the players behind one of the three large flags which are waved each time a Chelsea goal is scored. In several photos, Tee can be seen grinning maniacally.

Fantastic stuff.

Chelsea goal scorers always seem to celebrate by running down to the three “Chelsea” corners of the pitch at Stamford Bridge. Luckily for me, this affords great photo opportunities. I can’t think of many other teams that similarly do this. Long may it continue.

The headed goal from JT reminded me of a similar goal on Remembrance Sunday in 2009 when we defeated Manchester United 1-0. A similar result would be just fine. In truth, chances were at a premium for both teams. Liverpool laboured away without much threat. A Torres strike was aimed at Brad Jones in the away goal and Hazard shot wide. Sadly, John Terry fell awkwardly in his own half and I could see immediately that our captain was in tremendous pain. We watched on as players, then our medical team, surrounded him. He was sadly stretchered off and Alan wondered if we would see him again this season.

In the closing moments of the first period, Juan Mata broke through and shot wildly over when we all wanted him to take an extra touch and possibly waltz around Jones.

At the break, Ron Harris was on the pitch with Neil Barnett. I always remember a story Ron told about a game against Liverpool in March 1979. He had been told that he would not be playing, so he went out on the Friday night and, quite unlike him, had got rather drunk on Irish coffee (of all things). On the day of the game, the Chelsea manager Danny Blanchflower had a change of heart and Chopper was playing. Although we were a very poor team that season, we drew 0-0 with the European Champions and Ron was named Man of the Match. It is not known if he repeated that pre-match ritual in later games. As an aside, Ron often played in a midfield role during that season and – even more bizarrely – often wore the number nine shirt.

Soon into the second-half Francis and I were treated to another classic comment from Alan –

“I saw that game the other night. Liverpool versus Anzi Machalach…Anzi Mallacaz…Anzi Makhachkala …I’d never heard of them before. Turns out they’re a team from Merseyside.”

Even Francis enjoyed that one. Down below us, we could hardly believe our eyes when Howard Webb only gave Glenn Johnson a yellow for seemingly elbowing Oscar in the face. The Brazilian was visibly upset and the supporters around me wailed in protest. From the free-kick, Jones saved from Torres.

Thankfully, the game was devoid of the “Murderers” and the “You Killed Your Own Fans” chants. Long may it continue. Maybe the solemnity of the pre-game silence negated this. Either way, the two chants were notable absentees.

Ryan Bertrand was having a fine game attacking down the left flank at every opportunity. It has been an aspect of his game that I wished that he could improve. From a whipped-in cross, Torres just failed to connect. In this period of our ascendency, the Liverpool fans were woefully quiet. Jon Obi Mikel was the next player to spurn an opportunity after Gerrard fouled Oscar and Mata centered.

On seventy-two minutes, Liverpool stunned us all by equalising. Carragher rose to head a corner across the goal. Luiz Suarez, the master irritant, was on hand to head the ball in from underneath the cross bar. It was his turn now to celebrate over in the corner. The visitors now fancied their chances after being poor for over an hour. We changed things and brought on Victor Moses to run at the Liverpool defence but, in truth, he saw little of the ball. Liverpool grew stronger and two saves from Petr Cech denied them an unlikely winner.

Although the game ended 1-1, it felt like a defeat.

Francis was happy. I clearly wasn’t.

Tellingly, on the way home, while we were listening to some soothing music from Paul Weller in some slow-moving traffic, Francis said, possibly in jest –

“You’re too spoiled at Chelsea, Chris.”

It made me think. I’d hope that I’d never feel spoilt. I’m sure I wasn’t. It was just a big disappointment to give up three points and, because of it, be shunted down to third place.

For the record, the fifty-nine games against Liverpool now reads –

Won 24
Drew 14
Lost 21

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Tales From A Lucky One

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 7 April 2012.

Another Saturday, another Chelsea home game. I collected Young Jake in Trowbridge just before 9am and we were soon on our way to collect Lord Parky. As I have said, my mind is full of the Spurs and Barcelona cup ties at the moment and I soon commented to Jake that I expected that the rest of the crowd at Stamford Bridge would be thinking along similar lines. I reluctantly added that I expected that there would be a resultant poor atmosphere. Parky was still suffering with his cold and the drive up to London was a little quieter than usual. I was pleased to be able to give Glenn’s semi-final ticket to Jake and he was very thankful. Jake is a new acquaintance and is full of youthful enthusiasm for Chelsea. Parky and I were asked for our opinions on all sorts of Chelsea-related subjects as we headed towards London. Jake wondered how many miles all of these pilgrimages to Stamford Bridge equate to. Although I wasn’t able to answer him there and then, the game against Wigan Athletic would be my 579th Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge. That adds up to over 127,000 miles of travel.

This would be my 47th. Chelsea game of the season and Parky was keen to add that he is not far behind; Wigan would be his 40th. The 1-1 draw up at the DW stadium before Christmas was one of only two leagues game in which he was not alongside me, riding shotgun and talking nonsense.

The weather was nondescript, but the traffic quiet. I slapped on the Depeche Mode “Sounds Of The Universe” CD and the familiar tones of Dave Gahan and Martin Gore provided a nice backdrop as I drove on. Approaching the Hogarth roundabout, I was expecting traffic arriving for the Oxford and Cambridge boat race which would soon be taking place on the nearby River Thames. I was pleasantly surprised when I was able to drive on through unhindered. I was parked up at 11.15am.

The three of us walked straight down to the ground and soon met up with Gill and Graeme on the walk underneath the old Shed wall. I commended Gill on her refreshingly upbeat report on the Benfica game. We spent about two hours in the hotel bar and the time absolutely flew past. We shook hands with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti and waited for a few more friends to arrive. Mick the Autograph King was already there, to be soon joined by Beth and her friend Terri (!) – her first game at Chelsea – from Texas, then Jesus, then my good mate Alan. This was Alan’s first ever visit to the hotel bar on a match day as far as I could remember; he was with a friend called Richard and Richard’s young son Jake. This was a big day in Jake’s life – his first ever Chelsea game. He was bedecked in the white away shirt and had a lovely beaming smile. Alan had arranged for a photo of Jake to appear in the match programme and he soon had his photo taken with Chopper. Mike from NYC soon arrived and we chatted very briefly about Tour 2012 “logistics.” I spotted Kerry Dixon over by the bar and we all sauntered over to meet him and get photographs taken with the great man. By this stage, Trowbridge Jake had thanked me five times for getting him up to this area; he was clearly thrilled to be about to meet three of our greatest ever players. Jesus, too, loved it, though he admitted to me that he needed to sharpen up his Chelsea history. Jesus was relieved to be able to buy Graeme’s Arsenal ticket; Jesus had been busy at work when the tickets went on sale and hadn’t been too happy with himself.

All of us were trying to avoid Jesus / Easter jokes, but a few slipped through. I think we got away with it.

Jesus and the two Jakes descended to watch the Chelsea players walk through from their team briefing room to the Centenary Room. I stayed upstairs with Parky, but caught a few of the players from above –

https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v…type=2&theater

It was 1.30pm now and we needed to move on. As we waited for Parky to join us, I noted two Chelsea fans wearing replica shirts over undershirts and I had a little conversation with Trowbridge Jake and Jesus about cockney rhyming slang.

“If my mate Rob was here, he’d say those two blokes had no Plymouth.”

“No Plymouth?”

“Yeah – Plymouth Argyle…style. No style.”

Jake’s late father was a Londoner and so knew exactly what I meant, but Jesus was left wondering, I think, what on Earth I was talking about. We dropped in for a very quick stop at the CFCUK stall, then plotted up at The Maltsers as none of us could be bothered to walk up to The Goose. Time was against us. One last pint, then further acknowledgement of what a lovely pre-match it had been. During the previous few hours, we had made plans for the meet ups for Fulham and Spurs. It was still surprisingly cold on the quick walk back to The Bridge.

Wigan wore the exact opposite of our home kit. Around 200 had made the journey down from Lancashire. I have no real catalogue of previous Chelsea vs. Wigan games to draw on, but there is, of course, one game which sticks out; the title decider on the final day of the 2009-2010 season.

Chelsea 8 Wigan Athletic 0.

One of the most joyful days in our history and our biggest ever league win. Magnificent. No more words are needed.

A quick scan of the line-up revealed many changes. Gary Cahill in for JT, Ryan Bertrand starting at left-back, with Essien, Meireles and Malouda in the midfield, Sturridge and Drogba recalled in attack.

After a nondescript start, the first real moment of interest took place on 19 minutes when the ball broke to Gary Cahill some 30 yards out. It seemed that thousands shouted “shoooooot” and our new defender soon took heed. A fine rising shot was ably palmed over by Al Habsi, one of the most under-rated ‘keepers in the division. In a matter of seconds, first Raul Meireles won a tackle and then Daniel Sturridge passed the ball to a team mate.

“Miracles never cease” exclaimed Alan.

“Well, it is Easter” I replied.

Wigan had two long range shots which didn’t really trouble Petr Cech. Soon after, a delightful turn from Didier Drogba had us all salivating, but his finish ended up just wide. Chances were rare and the atmosphere was eerily quiet.

In fact, I will go further. The atmosphere in that insipid first-half period was the worst I can remember in those 579 games.

Three late chances fell to Chelsea but we couldn’t capitalise. Juan Mata wriggled free to receive a ball from Drogba but shot at the ‘keeper. The rebound reached Drogba, but Didier’s header lacked both power and placement. It came straight at him though; he did well to connect in the first place. Then, a header from Drogba and a shot from Studge did not trouble Al Habsi.

It was hardly inspiring stuff and The Bridge remained morgue-like.

Alan quipped “we don’t need cheerleaders, we need a medium.”

The second-half began and the noise level increased a little. Alan and I always try our best, but it gets totally dispiriting after a while. One of these days, I may just give up completely and watch like the thousands of others.

Please take a gun to my head if this happens.

On 54 minutes, Mata worked the ball to Didier but his shot was saved from close in. Fernando Torres, a real crowd favourite now, came on for Malouda, despite Sturridge not really enjoying a great game. Just after, our first goal relieved some of the building tension inside The Bridge. A free-kick was cleared but an intelligent chip by Meireles was met by an on-rushing Ivanovic who poked home from close range. His first reaction was to glance at the linesman, but no flag was raised. He ran down to the corner flag below us and his team mates soon joined him. Texts from Philadelphia and Guernsey told us that we had got away with that goal. Phew.

A minute later, our talismanic Serbian saved the day when a rapid Wigan break resulted in a shot from former Chelsea starlet Di Santo being cleared off the line by Brana.

It was annoying to see an advancing Fernando Torres twice slip in almost the same place when clear of a defender. At no time did the crowd get on his back though; if anything the “Torres Torres” shouts grew louder. Didier Drogba set up Daniel Sturridge in the inside-left position, but his shot was slashed wide when the youngster really ought to have taken an extra touch.

What then happened really sickened me; Sturridge was booed.

His own fans in both tiers of the Matthew Harding booed him.

This hardly surprised me; it was noticeable that there were vast periods of the game when the Chelsea fans around me chose to sit on their hands and barely talk to each other, let alone actively cheer the team on. They were sat there like dummies. Then, as soon as an errant pass or miss-timed tackle took place, these same people were audible and noisy. It did my nut in.

Rather than move our support up a few notches, The Bridge reverted to type. With eight minutes remaining, Diame enjoyed an unhindered dribble at the heart of the defence and unleashed a fine shot which left Cech static.

1-1.

Moses came close for the visitors, the industrious Torres set up Kalou but the shot was wide.

With four minutes of extra time signalled, the crowd were buoyed. Could we go again?

Mata found Drogba down below me. Despite a packed penalty area, he lofted the ball delightfully to an unmarked Torres. Thankfully, he stayed on his feet this time and volleyed at goal. It was a beautiful thing; the timing was perfect as Torres kept his eye on the ball dropping before him, then hitting through the ball, keeping it down, following through perfectly.

To our disgust, the ball hit the base of the far post.

To our joy, the ball bounced up into the path of Juan Mata and the ball flopped over the line. Al Habsi’s desperate swipe was in vain.

2-1.

Torres could have added a goal at the death, but 3-1 would have flattered us further.

This was clearly a pretty poor performance against a surprisingly spirited Wigan team. We’re limping from game to game at the moment, but the last three games have produced three wins, engineered in a similar style; ahead, level, ahead. At least that shows spirit and desire.

Fulham on Monday evening, on the banks of the River Thames, will not be a walk in the park.

See you all there; we’re meeting at The Duke’s Head in Putney.

Mine’s a Peroni.

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Tales From The Debutants

Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 20 April 2011.

We are in the middle of a busy period. It seems as if the season is in some sort of rush to get itself finished. With just six games of Chelsea’s 2010-2011 campaign remaining, I was well aware of the need to relish every second, every minute, and every kick of every last game of this season.

On the Tuesday, Manchester United dropped points at St. James’ Park. Maybe this crazy season wasn’t finished just yet. During another busy morning at work, I found just enough time to daydream of a Chelsea win over a struggling Birmingham City, allied with a favourable result between our North London “friends”. I told anyone who would listen –

“We could be second tonight.”

Thankfully, I had booked myself another half-day holiday and I left the delights of work at 12.30pm. Easter week is always notoriously busy and we always struggle to fit five days’ work into four. It was with guilty pleasure that I left the rest of my workmates to it. For this midweek game against Birmingham, it was the same scenario as against Manchester United a mere fortnight ago; pick up Parky, home to change, then up on the A303 and M3. A lot has happened in two weeks; too much, to be honest. Out of Europe, for sure, adrift in the league, maybe.

The sky was hazy, but the temperature warm as we headed east. By 4.15pm, I had parked up. I left Parky to head into the pub and I briskly walked down to The Bridge as I had people to meet. My goodness, it was muggy. It felt like the warmest day of the year. As I took a left outside The So Bar, I headed towards the West Stand and passed a chap in his late forties wearing both replica shirt and shorts. This isn’t a good look, mate. Take a look at yourself.

Inside the Megastore, I met Chelsea debutants Mike, Ashley and Brandon. Mike had contacted me a while back on the off-chance of getting tickets for the game. Luckily, tickets became available and “Bob’s your uncle,” as we say. This was Mike and Ashley’s first ever visit to the UK and they arrived via a quick tour of Europe, involving a few days in Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Seven hours after landing at Heathrow, they were at Stamford Bridge and clearly excited by the prospect of their first ever Chelsea home game. Brandon now lives In Madrid and was accompanying them on this trip. They were only town for a few days and had an itinerary all sorted.

Chelsea was obviously the centre-piece.

I briskly took the three Americans up to the hotel foyer to quickly meet – you all know where this is going, right? – Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. We posed for photos with these two affable Chelsea legends and it was all very friendly and relaxed. Peter spoke about his time in America in the mid-‘seventies, including a season spent in the heat of a Missouri summer with St. Louis Stars in the NASL. Brandon thought it odd that The Cat called football “soccer” but I think he was just being friendly, bridging the gap between our great two nations, separated by the same language, as the saying goes. Peter Bonetti once played against Pele in The States and knew him from their time at the 1970 World Cup.

Then, decision time. As this was the three Americans’ first ever visit to The Bridge, I didn’t want to force their hands. I was heading back to The Goose, but was well aware that the three guests may want to stay closer to the stadium and get wrapped up in the pre-match buzz there. I was happy with their decision to join me back at the pub. On the walk back down the Fulham Road and up the North End Road, I did my tourist-guide bit with tales of the old Shed, the Osgood statue, The So Bar, the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and the tube station. All Chelsea landmarks. Our bricks and mortar. Our history.

As I handed over the two season ticket cards to Ashley and Mike, I joked that they had left America single, but they were now newly arrived in England and passing themselves off as a married couple, Karen and Dave Lambert, from Frome in Somerset. How very murky. Their friends will be shocked. They would be sitting in the Shed Upper. Brandon would be alongside me in the MHU.

We made it back to The Goose at about 5.30pm and it was again nice to be able to relax a little before a midweek game. In addition to my little tour party, there was a sizeable gathering of the US clans taking place in the pub and beer garden. Beth was in mid-conversation with Cathy, a rare visitor to The Goose, and the New York Blues were represented by some Neat folk, plus Linda and Napoli Frank (who I had inadvertently bumped into in The Megastore, much to our amusement.)

The pints of lager and lime were going down well and Parky was flitting around like the socialite that he is. My boys – Alan, Gary, Rob, Andy, The Youth, Ed, Daryl, Russ – were in another corner. Busy, busy, busy. Conversations were flowing and it was great. I reconvened with Ashley, Mike and Brandon and we reignited some football-related conversations. We briefly touched on the strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes, of the franchise aspect of American sport teams and specifically the movement of a team from one city to another. The loathed MK Dons aside, this simply doesn’t happen in the UK. We specifically spoke about how Ashley and Mike’s home town of Seattle has reacted to the demise of the Sonics NBA team. They believe that the upsurge in support of the Seattle Sounders MLS team is linked to the flight of the Sonics a few years back. Ashley spoke of a friend who was a lifetime Sonics fan, whose dream was to work for the club in some way. He studied hard and eventually got an internship with the Sonics and loved it. He was heartbroken when the owner sold the club and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. He was offered a job at the new city and reluctantly took it. I commented that it must be like marrying your school sweetheart, raising a family, but then getting a divorce and having to work for her new husband.

I hope that the franchise system never comes into our sporting landscape in the UK.

We also briefly touched on football hooliganism, but that’s a story for another day.

I took a few photos of Linda and Frank with two lovely trophies which they were due to present to Didier Drogba before the game. I believe Beth’s crew have a similar presentation against West Ham United.

The First-Ever Transatlantic Lacoste Watch.

London.

Andy – racing green

Chris – pink

Philadelphia.

Steve – lime

Just before we all set off for the walk to the ground, Rich from the Philly Blues popped in. Even more American visitors are planned for Saturday, when we will be hoping to celebrate a St. George’s Day victory over West Ham. I walked down the North End Road, past the pubs and fast-food cafes, with Rob and he said that some West Ham are taking a River Thames boat down the river for the game on Saturday.

“Yeah, which bridges are they going under?”

We both had the same thought.

There is new signage on the West Stand wall now – the tagline is “All Blues” and there are photos of the new 2011-2012 Chelsea kit. In fact, the new kit featured on the cover of the programme too. I loathe this premature arrival of new kits before the current season is finished. I don’t doubt we will wear it against The Geordies on Sunday 15th. May. Pathetic.

Brandon was already chatting to Alan when I arrived in my seat with about five minutes to go before kick-off. I had my cursory look around. Like me, many fans were in short-sleeved shirts. The clouds were still hugging the stadium in a claustrophobic clasp. Still very muggy. Birmingham City had about 700 fans and just four flags. I pointed out all of the US flags to Brandon. Despite a gate of over 40,000, there were many empty seats dotted around. I suspect we were 3,000 down on capacity. I got my lens out and quickly spotted “The Lamberts” in the Shed Upper.

So, the same team as against West Brom, apart from Paolo in for Ivanovic. I hope Ramires quickly returns. Birmingham were in a white–white–blue reverse of our kit.

We only had to wait two minutes for a goal. Alan had just commented to me about it being a long time since Chelsea scored a first-half goal at home in the league, when Paolo Ferreira sent over a perfect cross for the leaping Didier Drogba to get the feintest of flicks (snap!) and Florent Malouda to sweep the ball home.

Get in.

Mike, Ashley and Brandon – Welcome To Chelsea!

I’ll be honest; I was enjoying chatting to Brandon during the first-half about all sorts of things and found myself drifting away from the game. We spoke mainly about football but various other topics found their way into our chat. It was fun talking to an avid fan with a different perspective to mine. I hoped that having a Madrid resident next to me might somehow jolt Torres into goal scoring action later in the game. The atmosphere, despite our early goal, was quite subdued and there seemed to be a strange air throughout the evening. It didn’t seem like a game at the business end of the season.

On 26 minutes, what a lovely goal from Salomon Kalou. It was most unlike him, wasn’t it? A forceful run and an even better early strike. I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball hit the back of the net before the ‘keeper Ben Foster was even able to move.

Not so Kalou-less.

On 35 minutes, Didier cut in from the left and hit a daisy-cutter which the Birmingham City ‘keeper did well to turn around the far post.

Birmingham had a few sporadic attacks, but Cech was mainly untroubled.

The main problem for me was that for the second time in about a month, an over officious steward warned me not to take any photographs. It was a case of “cat and mouse” with him for the rest of the game. A similar fate befell Cathy against Wigan.

Vince – a former season-ticket holder – was sat in front of the three of us and I explained to Brandon that he lives out in East London, deep in West Ham territory. Sadly, his young son is a West Ham fan. Vince’s son could become the secretary general of the United Nations, find a cure for cancer, become CEO of a company which outsold Microsoft, beat Stephen Hawking at chess, record a platinum selling album, win five gold medals at a future Olympics and bring the warring factions in the Middle East together in peace; Vince would still feel that he had failed as a father.

West Ham. I ask you.

At the break, Tommy Baldwin was walked around the pitch by Neil Barnett. I explained to Brandon that he was known as “The Sponge” by fans and players alike in his time at Chelsea. Just as I had finished talking, the automatic sprayers came to life and the two of them had to sprint away from the water. With typical quick-witted gusto, Alan remarked “go on, soak it up, Tommy.”

Soon into the second-half, from a Drogba corner, a David Luiz header went wide.

The highlight of the second period was the introduction of debutant Ryan Bertrand for Ashley Cole on 56 minutes. He fitted in well and, after just five minutes in a first team shirt, sent over a cross from down below me by the north-west corner post. His pinpoint cross was headed down and in by Florent Malouda.

3-0 and coasting. The Malouda and Kalou Show.

Malou and Kalouda.

A strange old night in SW6.

To be honest, after our ridiculous bad luck at St. Andrews in November, it was only right that there would be Chelsea goals in this game.

On 66 minutes, a double substitution; Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka came on for the two goalscorers.

On 74 minutes, we conceded a very silly penalty when David Luiz uncharacteristically chopped at a Brum attacker – going away from the goal – and the referee had no choice but to award the penalty. It was easily despatched.

3-1.

Not to worry – we conceded just as we heard that Tottenham had recovered from being 1-3 down at home to Arsenal to get it back to 3-3. This cheered us up!

Anelka, playing deep, lost possession on the halfway line and Larsonn had the whole half at his mercy. Thankfully, he was short on confidence and chose to shoot early and his tame effort skidded well wide.

The last action of the match took place after Birmingham were penalised for a back-pass inside their box and the free-kick was only eight yards out. The crowd bellowed for Torres, but Drogba – enjoying a fine game – blasted high over the bar.

3-1 to The Champions – job done!

Brandon and I watched as the team left the pitch, but noted that yet again JT was the last man off, stripped to the waist, beating his chest.

Outside, we met up with “The Lamberts” and they were very contented. Thankfully, they didn’t use the word “awesome”, but I was in no doubt of their happiness.

The four of us soon said our goodbyes – but I made sure that Mike does his match report once he has time.

We dropped into The Goose to catch a glimpse of the Real vs. Barca game from Valencia and to let the traffic subside. Another pint for Parky and a refreshing Coke for me.

We left London at 10.30pm and I was home by 12.45pm.

Yep – up to second place now and who knows? Despite the doom-mongering of a few weeks ago, we’re still in contention.

Current Form.

Chelsea : 5 – 1 – 0

Manchester United : 3 – 1 – 2

Arsenal : 1 – 5 – 0

Five games to play. Let’s go.

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Tales From The F.A. Cup

Chelsea vs. Watford : 3 January 2010.

From Stamford Bridge to Wembley…

Let’s hope so.

I had been looking forward to this FA Cup game throughout the holiday season because it coincided with my mother’s eightieth birthday. After looking at some options, I booked the two of us into the Copthorne Hotel at The Bridge on the Saturday afternoon, ahead of the game on the Sunday. I was a bit concerned about the cold weather, but Mum was really looking forward to it. We began with an Italian meal at West Brompton on Saturday evening and Mum was clearly enjoying her time in London.

However, at 2.30am on Sunday morning, we had a major scare!

Our sleep was rudely interrupted by the wailing of a fire-alarm at the hotel and for a few scary moments, I wondered what would befall us. I put on some clothes and did my best Corporal Jones “don’t panic, don’t panic” impersonation…I peeped out into the hallway and noted a few indifferent Italians giving loads of hand gestures…I hoped and prayed that it was a false alarm. Thank heavens it was. Phew.

However, I was unable to get back to sleep for ages and for some reason all I could think about was Jamie’s question about our team of the decade…in the small hours, I toyed with a few ideas…the troublesome right-back berth, could I really leave out Duff and Robben ( only two good seasons apiece? ), I had to find a place for Eidur, Jimmy and Drogba upfront ( blimey – I don’t think they’d get on! ), I couldn’t put Dan Petrescu in as he only played five months into 2000…decisions, decisions. We were over-stacked at left-back with Le Saux, Bridge and Ashley, but oh that right-back place…

At about 3.30am, I went with

Keeper – Cech
Right back – Gallas
Centre Half – Terry
Centre Half – Desailly
Left Back – Cole
Holding – Makelele
Midfield – Lampard
Midfield – Essien
Hole – Gudjohnsen
Striker – Drogba
Striker – Hasselbaink

So, a right old mixture of names, eras and formations. With that sorted, I fell asleep.

The match day morning began lazily – we were in no rush. I peered out of our hotel room down at the old Shed wall, the winter sun lighting up the South London horizon beyond. A few fans were already clutching Megastore bags.

With the cold weather showing no signs of letting up, we sat in the hotel foyer / bar area from 11am to 2.15pm. It was a lovely time. The place gradually filled-up with Chelsea fans. My two mates Glenn and Parky arrived at about 11.30am and we sat in a cosy corner with Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti, chatting about all sorts. Peter was there with his daughter and grand-son. We spoke about our shoddy form of late, but we didn’t let it spoil our time. Autograph King Mick showed up too and I was able to chat to him for a bit. A couple of pints, a coffee for Mum…nice. At 1.20pm, we heard a yelp from a gaggle of people watching the Manchester United vs. Leeds United game on the bar TV…Leeds were 1-0 up. Lovely stuff. Nobody at Chelsea likes Leeds, but we put our dislike of them to one side for one day only. I thought of those 9,000 Leeds fans going doo-lally.

I had briefly popped into the megastore on the Saturday, but only bought one item. I flicked through a Stamford Bridge Tour Brochure and was chuffed to see a full page photo of some US-based CFC fans at the Milan game at Giants Stadium in 2005.

In clear focus – Chopper, Leila, Gumby, Mike, Steve, Lawson, Elliot, Tommy, Wobbly, Andy and his wife, Alex, Steven Cohen plus a few more.

I went to the Frome Town versus Paulton Rovers game on New Years Day and I chatted to Glenn about it…it was a dire game, no goals, freezing cold, but a bumper crowd of over 600 showed up. Good times at Frome Town, up to fifth place now. The first ever “professional” game I saw was a Frome home game in around 1972 and I went with my mother…my Dad was working in his shop and so was unable to attend. I remember nothing of the game apart from a heavy Frome defeat and Mum buying me some cherries to eat at half-time.

Of course, Mum has been to Chelsea many times before and I guess she has been to The Bridge around twenty-five times…mainly in the 1974 to 1979 period, when Dad would drive us up from Somerset twice per season. Mum also went to games at the two Bristol clubs – and Swindon. The last game Mum saw at Chelsea was the Birmingham match in 2005, our centenary championship!

Happy memories.

We left the hotel, coats buttoned, scarves on. We battled against the crowd. The 6,000 away fans were out in force. The weather was brutal, but Mum wasn’t complaining. There was the usual ten minute wait to get inside the MHU. Leeds had hung on to the lead at Old Trafford. Great stuff. We managed to take the lift up to the top tier. Mum is in good health, but six flights of stairs is too much ( sometimes for me! ).

Once inside the stadium, it didn’t seem so cold. A full Shed End of away fans, but only three paltry flags. They didn’t make much noise. No balloons!

The big surprise that Anelka wasn’t playing and I wasn’t sure of the formation…was it not a “Christmas Tree” ( with Malouda and Joe behind Sturridge )? To be honest, after three early goals, I was far from caring…whatever formation it was, it was definitely working. What attacking options down the left with Ashley and Zhirkov and Malouda! I was very pleased that Sturridge scored his first goal for us, but the other two were scrappy. Not to worry – coasting. I think I counted just two Watford shots in the entire first-half.

At half-time, more congratulatory handshakes and kisses for my mother. Anna brought us some coffees and Russ gave some mince pies. It was a lovely feeling for Mum to meet my match day mates.

Loads more Chelsea pressure in the second period and what a strike from Frank – especially for Mum! I was really impressed with the cool finish from Sturridge for his second goal…very nice. We all thought it a shame that Carlo took the lad off when he was “on” for hat-trick.

The Chelsea support was quiet and were only really roused after each goal.

I was so pleased when I glimpsed Mum singing along to “Chelsea, Chelsea” to the tune of “Amazing Grace.” How sweet the sound. She could teach a few JCLs a lesson or two!

Carlo made a few substitutions but it stayed at five. I shan’t make any further comments about our performance because – after all – it was only Watford. I was impressed with Sturridge and Zhirkov. JT seemed intent on going on more mazy runs in the attacking third. Maybe he’s a frustrated striker. I’m convinced that one day he’ll score a goal of the season contender from forty yards. Towards the end, our former left-back Jon Harley ( he of the scuttling runs ) came on as a Watford substitute and was given one of the noisiest songs of the game. That was a nice touch. The “referee has added on a further five minutes” announcement was met with frost-bitten groans.

We walked back to the car, stopping off for a good old-fashioned plate of pie and chips and a mug of tea on the North End Road. We eventually thawed out. On the drive back home to Somerset, we listened to the FA Cup draw and I was elated that we face an away jaunt to Preston. At last a new stadium to visit ( well, actually a very old stadium, but a first-time visit for me. )

Later in the evening I opened a couple of my books on football stadia and “read up” on the history of Deepdale. The National Football Museum was once based there, but I heard recently it was going to be moved to “more fashionable” Manchester. I hoped it will be open – and still in Preston – for our visit later this month.

From Stamford Bridge to Deepdale…to be continued.

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Tales From The Ice Road

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 7 February 2009.

I live in a small village in rural Somerset, nestled in a valley to the east of The Mendip Hills. Like most of the UK, the village has been hit with a couple of heavy ( for us ) snowfalls the past week. On the local news on Friday, the weatherman advised “if you don’t have to travel on Saturday morning, please don’t.” Icy roads were to be expected.

So – a bit of a dilemma for me? No, of course not. Chelsea were at home and I was going.

I woke up at 6.45am and peeked outside. The snow was still thick on the front lawn and the fields, but the roads just looked icy with no fresh snow. I had to park the car on the road on Friday night because the driveway was too slippery, or rather, too steep. Got my things together ( wallet, camera, coat ) and defrosted the car. I didn’t like the look of the roads. I set off for Frome at 7.30am and tentatively edged my way down through the village, the road completely covered in a sheet of ice. Apart from a spell at college and a ten month stint in North America, I have lived all of my life in Mells ( claims to fame…the home of Little Jack Horner, the final resting place of WW2 poet Siegfried Sassoonand the home of TV presenter Kirsty Young)…as I crept past the village pub and church, which date from the fifteenth century, I thought back to my first ever game, March 1974…and here I was, doing the same trip, thirty-five years on.

Up Wadbury Hill, made it…nice one… and down through Great Elm. Here, I was faced with a real dilemna, whether or not to go straight on to Mutry and chance a dodgy hill, or head through a country lane which was probably less risky. I took option B and drove slowly over packed ice. I made it to Buckland Dinham, home of my maternal grandmother, and gave a little “woop” of congratulations to myself. From there, down through Lower Street, past the homes of my two aunts, and out onto the clear A361. I had made it. Phew.

I collected Glenn at 7.50am although the roads on his estate were pretty bad… then PD and Dave at 8am. Karen was missing this one and Tuna The Fishy Boy was using her ticket. To be honest, the road from Frome to Warminster was surprisingly bad. I felt my wheels slide as I made my way through Corsley. We noted that some skiers and snowboarders had been busy on the slopes of Cley Hill, just opposite the gate to the Longleat estate. To be honest, the fields were a picture. Once onto the Warminster by-pass, down the clear A36 and then past Stonehenge on the old 303, the roads were fine. They had been gritted and caused no problems. I relaxed and could now enjoy the drive.

Burger had been in touch. The clans were gathering. I stopped at Fleet for a coffee, but was parked-up at Chelsea by 10.30am. Three hours of driving and I breathed a deep sigh.

“Made it.”

As always, our first port of call was The Yadana Café and their breakfast hit the spot. Glenn and myself walked down past the markets stalls on the North End Road and reached a sunny, yet cold, Stamford Bridge at 11.15am. Burger and Julie were spotted taking photos by the Chelsea mural. It was great to see them again – I have a feeling the last time our paths crossed was the debacle at Barnsley last season. They were visiting with Julie’s sister and her bloke. The ubiquitous Mr. Coden was there too. Trouble was – where was The Fishy Boy? Was he making his way inland from The Thames, flipping away madly? Where was he? He eventually emerged from The So Bar and we were all together for the first time since LA.

That sounds terribly jet-set doesn’t it?

We made a bee line for the hotel where I had hoped that Tuna and Burger could meet up with Mr Chelsea himself, Ron Harris. Thankfully, he was sat in a quiet booth with his brother Alan and Barry Bridges, both team mates from the ‘sixties. The legendary Mick was nearby too and Burger met him to discuss plans for Spain vs. England in Seville on Wednesday. Ron was his usual relaxed and charming self and posed for snaps. Luckily, Peter Bonetti soon arrived too and so more snaps. As Tuna stood with Peter Bonetti, both Burger and myself made a quip at the same time about “The Cat eating Tuna.” I could sense that they were both very happy to be able to meet these great Chelsea personalities. Job done and we headed off for a beer at The So Bar.

I was just about to suggest a team photo outside the megastore, when I heard someone shout “Chris” and of course it was Jordan, who was also in town. Good job he recognised me…he was in London with his girlfriend Christine and was looking forward to his first ever Chelsea match, although they had already been on the stadium tour. While the others headed for some beer, we went back to the hotel foyer. Unfortunately, Ron had disappeared, but Peter Bonetti was joined by top-scorer Bobby Tambling. Jordan and Christine were in luck and I was able to get them to pose for photos with Peter and Bobby. I also managed to mug Mick for a classy black and white photograph of Peter Bonetti so he could sign it for Jordan. I had a quick little chat with Bobby and his wife, who remembered me from the CPO event in November. A lovely time – the Chelsea Family, all together, smiling and laughing.

We dipped into The So Bar, which was stating to come to life. Had a little chat with Jon for the first time in a while. Things were a bit tight at his place of work and so I wished him well. Glenn was chatting with Tuna and I noted they were on the Guinness. Tuna, Glenn, Jordan, Christine and myself then walked back to The Goose, which was already heaving. In our little area, tucked next to the back section of the bar, there was over thirty people that I knew, all chatting away, drinking, partially-watching the City versus ‘Boro game on Sky. It was pretty manic and there was nowhere to move. Burger’s party soon joined us and the drinking continued apace…well, apart from me…of course I was driving. I explained to Jordan that The Goose was the cheapest boozer in SW6 by far. My home area was well represented, with eleven fans from Frome, Westbury, Trowbridge and Melksham…the others had travelled up by train. Wimps!

Parky was amongst the Trowbridge lot and we spoke about going to the Chelsea Old Boys game at nearby Swindon on Wednesday evening. Watch this space.

Jordan and Christine left early to make sure they could see the pre-match. They had seats in the Shed Lower. I went around to chat with Burgs and Julie, but there were conversations flying around everywhere. As is so often the case, the pre-match was the best part of the entire day.

Tuna and myself made our way to our seats in the Shed Upper and we bumped into CFC Cathy by the CFCUK stall. Perfect timing. Thank heavens, unlike the season opener versus Pompey, there were no queues at the turnstiles. We reached our seats just as the “Chelsea – Pride Of London” flag was wending its way along the Matthew Harding lower. It was a magnificent sight actually. We were pleased to see Ricardo Quaresma starting…but I am sure Glenn wasn’t. He was having trouble pronouncing his surname and I am sure I heard five different versions, ranging from Querro to Quasimodo during the day.

We began brightly and of course JT should have scored within the first few minutes. Quaresma looked lively, but we all found it bizarre he chose to cross using the outside of his boot on four separate occasions. The first-half was quite promising and I was enjoying being close to the action in the Shed Upper. It does afford great views. However, as the game progressed, I kept looking at the clock and couldn’t believe how quick the time was passing…a bit like the school holidays when the first two weeks are spent frittering away time and the rest is spent thinking how soon the end would be in sight. We frittered away too many chances in that first-half and later paid for it.

I phoned Andy so that Tuna could say a few words just as a “Zigger Zagger” began…this was probably the highlight of the entire game.

We were all dismayed that Q was taken off to be honest. He looked a threat. There was no change in tempo throughout the game. The midfield three didn’t dominate. Ballack drifted. Our defence, too, seemed to be disjointed and Hull so easily could have won it. Tuna was bellowing his disgust, but the atmosphere was again morgue-like. I felt for our guests from North America. At least Lovejoy stayed awake.

The post mortem?

I am going to find it terribly difficult to remain buoyant and positive about this. I am neither a champion of Scolari but neither a great critic of him. At this moment in time, it is obvious that things are not right within the club. However, I sincerely hope that we do not become a “slash and burn” club, with hirings and firings taking place every year. Of course, I am not convinced that Scolari has the stomach nor the skill-set to manage Chelsea in this league. However, at the moment, I feel we need to give him the full season. I loathe the idea of managers being fired ( Ince and now Adams ) after four or five months. If he goes, who can we get to replace him? No, let’s work through this. Supporting Chelsea was never easy and these things are tough, but let’s stay with it. Again, I think the entire club’s support has been spoilt since 2003 and the spectre of Mourinho looms large. I personally think United will walk it this season. Is coming second a reason to sack the manager? I don’t know…I really don’t know.

Set off from London at 5.30pm and – thankfully – no more snow. Infact, the weather had been quite sunny and a lot of the ice on the roads close to home had turned to brown slush. My three passengers slept for most of the drive home. I listened to England capitulate to 51 all out in the West Indies and Liverpool edge a win at Pompey with two late late games. It was one of those days.

Eventually home at 8.30pm after six hours of tiring driving. I must be mad.

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