Tales From Work

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 19 December 2015.

On most mornings, prior to myself leaving my home to collect the usual suspects en route to football, I invariably post on “Facebook” some sort of Chelsea-related message allied with the phrase “Let’s Go To Work.”

This reflects the rather business-like nature of football these days. It underlines the sense of focus that is required to progress at the top level of football. Over the past few seasons, especially under Jose Mourinho, I have considered it to be most apt. It is the phrase that the Milanese allegedly use, on occasion, rather than a standard greeting such as “good morning.” It cements the predominant work ethic in Italy’s industrial north. I can’t separate this from the old Italian saying “Milan works, Rome eats.” And while other teams and clubs have been doing a lot of eating recently – growing flabby and lazy, lacking focus and determination – Chelsea Football Club has been working hard.

“Let’s Go To Work.”

Work.

It made me think.

To be quite frank, as I stumbled around in the early-morning, for once, a trip to support my beloved Chelsea – never usually a chore – actually seemed like a work day. The decision by the board to dispense with the services of manager Mourinho on the afternoon of Thursday 17 December had meant that, in my mind, the game with Sunderland would not be an enjoyable event. In recent memory, there had been the toxic atmosphere of Rafa Benitez’ first game in charge after the sacking of Roberto di Matteo. I suspected something similar three years on. Yes, this seemed like a work day. A day when my appearance at Stamford Bridge was expected. It was part of my contract. There would be no chance of phoning in for a “sicky”. I had no choice but to don my work clothes, collect fellow workmates and “clock on.”

Chelsea? I’d rather be in Philadelphia.

There was even a small part of my mind that was glad that I had a duty to collect Glenn and Parky and to drive them to London. I was also glad that my local team Frome Town were away, at Kettering Town. Who knows what thoughts might have been racing through my mind had this just been about Chelsea and me, with the Robins playing a home game just three miles away.

In all honesty, it is very unlikely that I would forgo a Chelsea home game for a Frome Town game, but that the fact that I was even thinking these thoughts is pretty significant.

I collected Glenn and on the drive over the border from Somerset to Wiltshire, we spoke about the troubles and travails of Chelsea Football Club. There was talk of player power, a lack of summer signings, Mourinho’s intense and relentless demands, and dissension in the ranks. Not many stones were left unturned. There was concern that there would be boos for some players. There was never a chance that this would be part of my modus operandi for the day. I recalled, with Glenn, the one moment in my life that I had booed a Chelsea player. Back in 2000, the board chose to sack the loved Gianluca Vialli, and “player power” – yes those words again – was muted as the main reason for his demise. In the much-used phrase of the moment, Vialli had “lost the dressing room.” Frank Leboeuf was seen as one of the main instigators. In the home game which followed Vialli’s demise, against St. Gallen, as Leboeuf came over to retrieve the ball from a ball boy, a section of the crowd collectively decided to let him have it. I momentarily joined in the booing. If people think that I like Mourinho, I simply loved Vialli. However, the look of disbelief on Leboeuf’s face – of bewilderment and shock – quickly made me rue my actions. There would be no more boos from me.

As I have often said, “it’s like booing yourself.”

But I knew that there would be boos for some Chelsea players later in the day. And although it would not be for me, I wasn’t pompous enough to say that others would be wrong to vent however they felt fit. I usually grumble if there are boos at half-time if there has been a poor performance, but this day would be a bit different.

There were rumours of some players under-performing on purpose. I was not sure of the validity of these rumours, but this would not stop a certain amount of negative noise. I wondered if players would be individually targeted. Or would there be a blanket booing?

“Is that fair though? Not all players should be tarred with the same brush.”

I quickly listed those who I believed should be exonerated from any talk of players conniving against Mourinho.

“Willian stands alone, fantastic season. No problems with him. John Terry has tried his best, as always. And you can’t complain about the two ‘keepers Courtois and Begovic. Zouma too. And Dave. No complaints there. Even Ivanovic, who has had a pretty crap season, but nobody could accuse him of not trying. Cahill and Ramires, not the best of seasons, but triers. Pedro borderline, not great. Remy always tries his best. No complaints with Kenedy. You can’t include Loftus-Cheek as he hasn’t played too much.”

I then spoke of the others. If there was some sort of clandestine plot, then these under-performing players would be my main protagonists, based purely on lack of fight and application.

“No, the ones that you have to wonder about are Hazard, Fabregas, Diego Costa, Matic and even Oscar. Those five. So it’s only those five in my book.”

We very quickly spoke about our options for a new manager. Glenn made a very insightful comment about the world of top class football managers.

“Maybe there will be some sort of reaction against Chelsea. These managers obviously speak to each other. If they see that Mourinho didn’t last, maybe they will shy away from it. Too much a poisoned chalice. Too much pressure.”

Inside the pub, and outside in the beer garden, the troops assembled from near and far. The weather was mild for December. And the debate about Mourinho was mild too. Several of us spoke in little groups about the state of the nation. And all of it was level-headed and intelligent. It was good stuff, and I only wish that I could remember more of it to share here.

Rather than limit the discussion to a stand-off between Mourinho and players, which undoubtedly the media seem to want to focus on, we broadened it to include the whole club, embracing the various strands of its operation. We spoke about the ridiculous tour to Australia and the Far East right on the tail of last season. We chatted about a poor pre-season and questioned why the players were flown in to our three games in the US from a base in Montreal in Canada. We moaned about Mourinho’s increasingly weary outbursts and his tendency to blame others. For sure, his complex character was discussed. We questioned a very ineffectual set of summer signings. I condemned the over-long obsession with John Stones. We were annoyed with our manager’s continued reluctance to play our heralded youngsters.

“What has Loftus-Cheek got to do to get a game?”

“Say what you like about Benitez, but at least he played Ake.”

We grumbled about Michael Emenalo.

“Out of all the wonderful players that have come through this club over the past twenty years, surely we could find someone of greater credibility and standing than Emenalo. Our club, the director of football and other key positions, should be stacked full of former players.”

There was one point that took a few minutes to discuss.

“What I don’t understand, is that if Mourinho was having problems with some key players – maybe those five named above – why did he constantly pick them?”

Yes, that was the real conundrum of the day.

Fabregas was only recently dropped, yet has struggled for months. Matic awful all season long. Costa has lacked focus. Hazard has either suffered a horrendous drop in confidence – quite possible – or has not been up for the fight. Either way, he was rarely dropped. Oscar has not shown the fight.

More questions than answers.

The gnawing doubt in the back of my mind was that, despite his former prowess in cajoling the best out of his players, Mourinho had lost that gift. It’s possible.

But here was my last word before the game.

“Regardless of the relationship between Mourinho and the team, on many occasions it seemed to me that the players were simply not trying. And that doesn’t just mean not running around like headless chickens, but not moving off the ball, not tracking back to offer cover for the defenders, not working for each other. They have been cheating us. The fans. Inexcusable.”

That was where the “palpable discord” existed in my mind. Between players and fans.

However, before we knew it, the beers were flowing and our little group of Chelsea lifers from London, Essex, Somerset, Bristol, Wiltshire and Edinburgh were smiling and laughing.

At around 1.45pm, it was announced by Chelsea FC that former boss Guus Hiddink would be rejoining us. I reverted to old habits on “Facebook.”

“Welcome Back Guus. Let’s Go To Work.”

I was inside Stamford Bridge a little earlier than usual. Glenn was in earlier than me and had commented that some players had been booed when the teams were announced for the first time at about 2.15pm.

The team? Much the same as before, but without the injured Hazard.

As the clock ticked, the stadium filled up.

I was pleased to see that the Mourinho banners were still up behind both goals. To drag them down would have been unforgiveable. It was clear that he would remain a presence, spiritually, at our stadium for years.

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In the match programme, John Terry said that there had not been any player power. In the words of Mandy Rice-Davies :

“He would, wouldn’t he?”

Just before the teams entered, the teams were announced again.

Yes, there were boos. But there were claps and applause too.

The last three names to be announced – 22 : Willian, 26 : Terry, 28 : Azpilicueta – drew most applause, quite thunderous. Zouma was applauded well. I was saddened to hear Ivanovic booed. Others clearly did not share my view of him. Unsurprisingly, Fabregas, Matic and Costa were booed, though of course not by a large number. Many had chosen to stay silent. After all, the naming of the players at this stage every home game is usually met with varying degrees of indifference.

To be honest, as the game began, the backlash was not as great as I had feared. Maybe, just maybe, we are getting too used to all of this. Too used to the serial sackings. Too used to ups and downs and the slash and burn mentality of the current regime. I certainly didn’t feel the venom of the 2012 sacking of Di Matteo.

There can be no doubt that Roman Abramovich, watching alongside Hiddink and also Didier Drogba in his box in the West Stand, had agonised long and hard about the dismissal of Mourinho. For a moment, I had thought that we would ride it out, but no. In the end, there was an inevitability about it all.

The ground was rocking in the first few minutes in praise of our former manager. As we attacked The Shed, I joined in almost without thought.

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

With an almost eerie sense of timing, Branislav Ivanovic rose to head home a Willian corner as the name of Mourinho continued to be sung. In reality, from Sunderland’s perspective, it was that bad a goal that we could have conceded it. An unchallenged header. As easy as that.

We were 1-0 up after just five minutes. There was a roar, but this soon died down.

Soon after, with Chelsea playing with a little more spring to their step, a loose ball fell at the feet for Pedro to smash high in to the Sunderland net. After both goals, the name of Jose Mourinho rung out.

The Matthew Harding, capturing the moment, the zeit geist, burst in to spontaneous song.

“Where were you when we were shit?”

Self-mocking but sarcastic and poisonously pointed, it summed things up perfectly.

Oscar, undoubtedly much improved than during all previous appearances this season, was enjoying a fine game. His long run deep in to the Sunderland box, with the defence parting like the Red Sea, was sadly not finished with a goal. Elsewhere there was more high-tempo interchange, and our play was noticeably more cohesive. How is that possible after months of a more conservative approach?

I wish I knew the answer.

Sunderland hardly crossed the halfway line. It was virtually all one way traffic. Diego Costa, a little more involved in a central position, came close on two occasions.

Our visitors began the second-half with a lot more verve. However, from a counter-attack, Pedro – also showing a lot more zip – raced away before playing in Willian. He touched the ball forward but the Sunderland ‘keeper Pantilimon took him out. We waited as former Chelsea full-back Patrick van Aanholt was attended to, but Oscar coolly despatched the penalty. Again a burst of applause, but this soon died down. In truth, the game continued on with very little noise.

To be honest, a silent protest is difficult to ascertain at Stamford Bridge, since many home games are played out against a backdrop of sweet-wrappers rustling and birds chirping.

Soon after substitute Adam Johnson, booed for other reasons, sent in a free-kick and Courtois could only watch as his parry was knocked in by former Chelsea striker Fabio Borini. Sunderland then took the game to us, and went close on a few occasions. Shots from Borini and the perennial Defoe whizzed past our far post.

I almost expected a second goal.

“It’ll get nervous then, Al.”

Oscar shimmied to make space and hit a fine curler just past the post. Oscar was turning in a really fine performance. We briefly discussed his Chelsea career. He has undoubted potential – skillful, a firm tackler – but that potential is yet to be reached.

It is worthwhile to mention that there was not wide scale booing throughout the game. I was happy for that. However, when Mikel replaced Fabregas and Remy replaced Costa, boos resounded around The Bridge. I looked on as Costa slowly walked towards the Chelsea bench. He looked disgusted. He made a great point in looking – scowling, almost – at all four stands as he walked off. No doubt the noise had shocked him.

It was, if I am honest, as visceral as it got the entire day.

Ramires came on for Oscar. There were no boos. Maybe the Stamford Bridge crowd were changing their opinions, being more pragmatic, more forgiving.

There were a few late chances, with one being set up by a run from Jon Obi Mikel deep in to the Sunderland box. Yes, it was one of those crazy days.

At the final whistle, there was relief.

Out on the Fulham Road, there were still cries of “Jose Mourinho” but the mood was lighter than before the game.

Back in the car, we were just so happy with the three points and that another tough day was behind us. We quickly recapped on the day’s events, but then looked forward to the next couple of games, when we can hopefully continue some sort of run. It worked out rather well with Guus Hiddink in the latter months of 2008-2009, so let’s hope for a similar scenario.

On hearing that unfancied Norwich City had beaten The World’s Biggest Football Club, I went back on “Facebook” one last time.

“Van Gaal out. He never even won the league last season.”

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Tales From Yankee Stadium

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 25 May 2013.

The silver Amtrak train slowly trundled its way along the tracks deep below the streets of Manhattan and eventually came to a halt. I gathered my two cases and patiently waited until it was time to step down onto the platform at New York’s Penn Station. I edged along among the fellow travellers and then took a couple of steps onto the elevator. As I slowly rose, it hit me.

That New York City Subway smell.

It is difficult to define, but once experienced, it is never forgotten. It is a mixture of sickly sweat, of train diesel, of dirt and grime, of car fumes, of urine, of adrenaline, of oil, of body odour, of perfume and aftershave. It is a heady mix. Without any hint of self-censorship, I blurted out –

“I love that smell.”

I was back in New York.

The story of my return to the US at the end of yet another ridiculously entertaining and tumultuous season following Chelsea Football Club is worthy of a separate dissertation all by itself. Here are the bullet points. Like many others, I was at first shocked that Chelsea were returning to the US for two essentially money-making games against Manchester City. After all that the players have been put through, why not let them rest and allow their bodies time to re-charge over the summer? To me and countless others, it seemed illogical and quite pathetic. Personally, I was also surprisingly underwhelmed. Knowing my love of travelling to the US, my ambivalence truly surprised me. In the words of many a football fan, I was clearly not “up” for this crazy addendum to this longest ever season. My initial thought was to boycott it.

In fact, in all honesty, I was happy with a boycott. After almost 12 years of travelling to the US – and elsewhere – every summer following the Yankees or Chelsea, I was looking to try something different during the summer of 2013. I had already ruled out attending the Asia tour, simply because I had only just visited two of the three cities – Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur – as recently as 2011. No, that would be over-egging it. I wanted to spread my wings. I had thoughts about driving down through Italy, maybe seeing Depeche Mode in Milan and Rome. Maybe a relaxing beach holiday – not my scene at all, really, but something different – or maybe swimming with camels in Norway, cycling around the North Pole, learning to plate-spin in Greece, wine-tasting in Glasgow, scuba-diving in Siberia, maybe even something as simple as a week in London, catching up on all the tourist attractions that I never get the chance to witness despite being in London close on thirty days every single year. I just fancied something a little different.

And then Chelsea, as is so often the case, screwed it all up.

The club announced that the match in New York would be in Yankee Stadium.

Oh boy.

I honestly swear that if the venue had been the Red Bulls’ place in Harrison, the new NFL stadium in East Rutherford or the new Mets’ pad in Flushing, I would have said “no.”

But – damn Yankees and damn Chelsea! – I simply couldn’t resist a trip back to the house that George Steinbrenner III built in the Bronx and so I looked at travel options and my mind became infused with New York once again. I saw my first Chelsea game of 2012-2013 at Yankee Stadium and I would see my last Chelsea game of 2012-2013 there too. These twin games would prove to be two incredible bookends for another crazy season. Way back in the early ‘nineties – when I was just starting out on my own personal baseball journey – if someone had mentioned this to me, I think I would have fainted.

Without too much trouble, I soon sorted flights to the US and I was able to include a three-game Yankees series in Baltimore in my plans too. The baseball and footballing Gods were shining down on me once again.

Penn Station plays a small but significant role in my life as a Chelsea supporter. Just as I can remember exactly where I was when I heard that Ruud Gullit and Gianluca Vialli had signed for Chelsea (Westbury, Wiltshire and Gaviota State Park, California), I can well remember where I was when I heard that Frank Lampard had signed for us. I was at Penn Station. I had been in New York for eight days and I ‘phoned my good friend Glenn, who had been keeping an eye on my mother while I was abroad. In a hurried call, he had told me that Claudio Ranieri had bought both Frank Lampard and Emanuel Petit, with others “to follow.” At the time, I was excited that we were splashing the cash, though undecided about Lampard as a player. I needn’t have worried, eh?

A while back, with Frank unsigned for next season, I was worried that my personal Frank Lampard story would start in Penn Station and end in The Bronx, where his last ever game for Chelsea may have taken place. I love my symmetry, but that would have been tough to take.

I made my way up to street level and soon took a cab to Brooklyn. I had lucked out with accommodation for the NYC segment of the trip; my friend Alex had offered me the use of his apartment in Greenpoint while he was away on holiday in Denmark. I was soon hurtling over the Greensboro Bridge, slightly unsure if the cabbie knew where he was going, but just so excited to be back in one of my favourite places on Earth. The view was phenomenal; the East River down below, the Williamsburg Bridge, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building and, hauntingly, the now almost completed new tower at the World Trade Centre.

Oh lucky man.

Alex evidently lived in a great neighbourhood. Rather than charging me rent, all he wanted was a flagon of scrumpy, which I had given him in London on his recent visit, and a few packs of football trading cards to give to a young relative. Greenpoint was clearly a great place to base myself for a few days. There was a subway stop a hundred yards from Alex’ pad. I would be fine. There was an eclectic mix of Polish shops and other ethnic cafes, although the place was swarming with “trying too hard” hipsters. However, I was entranced by the mix of different accents as I walked the streets of Greenpoint . It was so typical of New York.

Sergei : “What we do here? I want go home Russia.”

Alexander : “We American now. We leave London, big chance in Big Beetroot.”

Sergei : “Big Apple. It’s Big Apple.”

Alexander : “Apple, Schmapple. Whatever.”

Sergei : “Oh boyski.”

In all honesty, this would not be like other trips to the Big Apple. This was a time for me to relax and to chill out at the end of another taxing season. On the plane over, I calculated that this would be my seventeenth trip to the US and my fifteenth time in NYC. There was little that I needed to see. Over the years, I have visited all of the major attractions, most of the main art galleries and museums, all of the sport stadia, all points north, south, east and west.

In a similar vein, Baltimore had been ultra-relaxing. I had landed at 4pm on the Monday and, by 5pm, I was booked in to my hotel a block from the excellent inner harbour and only five blocks from that jewel of a ballpark Camden Yards. By 6pm, I was back at the “Pratt Street Ale House”, which acted as a base for Chelsea fans ahead of our game with Milan in 2009, chatting away to a Baltimore-native and Liverpool fan called Dean. That first evening in Baltimore was magnificent; a lovely time spent high up in the seats beyond third base, chatting to strangers about Baltimore, the Yankees, Chelsea – inevitably – and my love of visiting The States, interspersed with beer and baseball. That I got to see Mariano Rivera successfully close a game in his farewell season was the cherry on the top of the crab cake. The Yankees won 6-4 and I was floating on air. However, after being awake for most of 26 hours, my walk home from “Pickles” – another bar from 2009 – to my hotel is a massive blur. I remember nothing of it.

Tuesday was another relaxing day, which unfortunately ended with a narrow extra-innings loss to the Orioles. On Wednesday, I got my tourist boots on and visited the Babe Ruth Birthplace Museum, just a few blocks away from Camden Yards, indulged in a Baltimorean crab cake fantasy, went on a speedboat into the Baltimore harbour and visited the World Trade Center, with fantastic views over the city. In the evening, my good friend Steve – who had travelled down from Philly – met me and we went on a little pub crawl before attending the final Yankees vs. Orioles game of the series. We lost 6-3, but still enjoyed our time thoroughly. In my stay in Baltimore, I had casually bumped into two other Chelsea fans; this simply would not have happened in days gone by. Back in the ‘eighties, I hardly bumped into many Chelsea fans in Frome, let alone Baltimore.

Just like 2009, Baltimore had been a blast.

However, I soon learned that my beloved Yankees had signed a deal with Manchester City to assist in the formation of a new MLS franchise, to come into fruition in 2015. This was a shocker and dismayed me. My initial reaction was that Chelsea had missed a trick; surely helping to foster links between a club in the US, with its links to new players, and a club in Europe was an excellent idea. I almost felt that the Yankees had been going behind our back. I felt cheated. It was a strange feeling. I then also remembered that way back in around 1998; the Yankees signed a commercial partnership with Manchester United to develop each clubs’ branding opportunities in both markets. I was irate then, too. I even phoned the manager of the Yankee clubhouse store on Fifth Avenue to tell him what I thought of it. So, the thought of my Yankees hopping into bed with both of the Manchester teams over the past fourteen years certainly annoyed me. Who says the course of true love runs smooth?

Thursday in New York was a relatively relaxing affair. Typically, I was lured in to Manhattan by the prospect of seeing our game in St. Louis against City on a TV screen in “Legends”, which was the scene of much debauchery last summer. First, though, I popped next door for a few pints in “Foley’s.” The bar was festooned with thousands of pieces of sporting memorabilia, from shirts draped from the ceiling, to old seats from Busch Stadium and Tiger Stadium, to signed baseballs, signed boxing gloves to photos and trophies. I settled in at the end of the bar, ordered a pint of “Blue Moon” – despite its City links – and began talking to a couple from Brighton. Mac and Jo were keen Brighton fans, and still lamenting their loss to arch rivals Palace in the play-offs, but soon became engaged in a long conversation with me about football. I think this pee’d off their American friend, who was soon off to see the New York Rangers play the Boston Bruins at nearby Madison Square Garden. This guy, by the way, chose to wear a NY Rangers shirt over his normal work shirt, like some sort of FIFA2013-addicted Uber Sports Nerd. Why do these people do this? As the evening progressed, Mac told me a few funny stories about football. This was the best one –

…Mac and Jo have been together for fifteen years and during the first few weeks of their courtship, all was rosy. They then decided to travel to Gillingham to watch a Brighton away game. The two of them were stood in the away end, when all of a sudden – and to Jo’s horror – Mac began pointing and gesticulating towards a policeman nearby. After a while, the gestures became ruder and ruder and Mac’s language descended to profanity and derogatory name-calling. Jo thought to herself; “oh great…I thought this guy was lovely…looks like he’s just a typical football hooligan…bloody hell.” This continued all game. Each time, the policeman ignored Mac’s taunts. He had good reason. It was Mac’s brother.

Mac introduced me to the bar-owner and the drinking continued. It was a great time. I was at ease with myself. That I could start talking to complete strangers was lovely, though I know only too well that football – not beer – acted as the great lubricant in this chat. For me, it wasn’t always like this.

Here’s another story. I always remember reading about Joe DiMaggio, probably my second-favourite Yankee of all time behind Don Mattingly, and his comments about how he regarded himself. Despite Joltin’ Joe’s fame, he always remained a very shy person. I remember reading about him commenting to a reporter – probably in the famous baseball bar in Manhattan called “Toot Shor’s” – as he looked on as the more gregarious members of the Yankee team of the day greeted friends and strangers alike with hugs, backslaps and laughter –

“I wish I could be like them.”

For many years, these words struck a chord with me.

And this from a man who bedded Marilyn Monroe.

Oh to be at ease in your own skin. Even you, Joe D.

Our 4-3 loss to Manchester City was a crazy end to Thursday. Even more crazy was the fact that there were only two other Chelsea fans in “Legends” watching the game.

Maybe this trip to New York was going to be a let-down after all. After leaving “Legends” I navigated my way back to Brooklyn and hoped for better things.

I awoke on Friday morning and all was well. A coffee and a bagel in a café on Nassau Avenue set me up for another fantastic day in New York; perhaps one of the best ever. I had a plan. Way back in 2008, I had visited Coogan’s Bluff, that high promontory in Manhattan which overlooks the East River and Yankee Stadium. Down below was the former site of the old Polo Grounds, that odd, horseshoe-shaped bath tub of a stadium which once housed the New York Giants, the New York Yankees and even the New York Mets at various stages. It was a sight which thrilled me. I knew only too well of the sporting tales which had taken place on that piece of real estate down by the river…the “shot heard around the world”, the Willie Mays catch, Babe Ruth’s first few seasons in NYC, the rivalries with the Yankees and the Dodgers…well…next in my sights was the old Brooklyn Dodgers’ stomping ground Ebbets Field, deep in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn, only some five miles away, but – in my mind – fifty years away…another time, another place.

I hopped on the subway, changed in the heart of Brooklyn and took a second train to Prospect Park. My nerves were tingling. Let me explain. If the Brooklyn Dodgers were still playing ball, I think they would be my team. Just a week before my very first trip to the US in September 1989, I visited that wonderful bookshop “Sportspages” – sadly no more, damn you internet shopping – and bought a book on baseball stadia called “Take Me Out To The Ballpark.” It was to be my first real introduction to a sport that I just knew that I would get to love over the course of my next year in North America. Those black and white photos of Ebbets Field – Pee Wee Reese, Roy Campanella, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Leo Durocher, Hilda Chester and her bell, the Abe Stark sign, the Dodgers Symphony, the rotunda, the whole nine yards – really struck a chord with me. The Dodgers were the perennial season after season losers, the stadium a rickety treasure, their fans charismatic. At the time, I regarded Chelsea as perennial underachievers. There would have been a “fit” there. There was another dash of synchronicity; the Brooklyn Dodgers’ and Chelsea’s only championship were both in 1955.

Damn you, Walter O’Malley. It could have been a perfect match.

That I chose the Yankees – or they chose me – in the winter of 1989-1990 is of course well known. I loved New York and I loved it that the Yanks were going through a lean spell. I wanted to earn my stripes – or my pinstripes – in support of this fabled team. I didn’t want to be labelled a glory hunter. They were my team. They are my team. I’ve seen the Yankees play some thirty-six times. I have loved reading and writing about the Yankees ever since; visiting The Bronx is always a journey of wonderment for me. Yet, for me to step out of Prospect Park subway station and to walk those same steps that millions of baseball fans took in the glory years of Brooklyn baseball was truly wonderful.

As I approached the intersection of Sullivan Place and McKeever Place, my mind played tricks on me. I easily visualised those famous old photographs of Ebbets Field, the streets busy with cars, hot dog vendors, souvenir stalls, fans of every creed and colour and the famous rotunda behind home plate. In reality, in 2013, I stared at a monumental block of social housing; brown apartments rising twenty stories or more into the Brooklyn sky. I turned and saw a gentleman of around seventy years of age. I felt I had to say something.

“I’m from England. I’m a Yankees fan. But I just love being here.”

“The Dodgers? I saw them play here.”

That was perfect. I slowly walked anti-clockwise around the former site of Ebbets Field…first base, second base, third base and home. It was magical. It stole my heart.

Why do I mention this? Why am I sentimental about a stadium that I never visited and about a team that died in 1958? In 2011, Chelsea Football Club wanted to buy my pitch owner share and initiate a move away from Stamford Bridge forever. In fifty years’ time, I don’t want football fans alighting at Fulham Broadway and making a similar trip to where football was once played.

Later on Friday, I made my way in from Brooklyn to Manhattan once again. I was hoping for a better turn out from the Chelsea Nation than on Thursday ahead of the game in The Bronx on the Saturday. I made my way into Jack Demsey’s bar, again just along from “Foley’s” and “Legends” on West 34th Street. I arrived at about 6.30pm and stayed way into the night. In truth, the night began slowly, with only a few familiar faces making an appearance. Of course, it was great to see Beth, John, Wobbley, Steve from California, Paul from Ontario and Jamie from NYC again. However, I was expecting more faces. Was this a game too far? Compared to previous pre-game parties, this was definitely a quiet start to the night. I got the beers in and hoped for the best.

Meanwhile, in a bar a few miles away, the importance of Saturday’s game at Yankee Stadium was being discussed.

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Hey, you see they’re playing soccer at Yankee Stadium again tomorrow?”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “What tha fcuk! Again? That grass is gonna be messed up. Who they got playin’?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Two English teams.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Who?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Chelsea.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a girl’s name. Who else?”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Man City.”

Big Johnny Leotardo : “Sounds like a gay nightclub.”

Little Johnny Brambilla : “Forget about it.”

As the night drew on – and on – more faces appeared and I was able to relax in the company of good friends. Brothers David and Scott arrived from their respective home cities, still dressed in their suits, straight from work; a lovely surprise. Nick and Shawn, the two Boston Blues, made a much heralded appearance at around midnight and it was great to see them. Mike and Fun Time Frankie arrived from St. Louis and more beers were quaffed. James, Pablo, Matt, Samantha, Lynda and Jaymee joined the throng and we had a blast. The beers were going down well. It was lovely. In truth, we didn’t talk too much about the team or the players. We just stood around, taking the piss out of each other.

Proper Chelsea.

Before I knew it, the time was 3.30am. Oh boy. It was time to say “goodnight.” A few of us slithered into Fun Time Frankie’s motor and he drove us home.

Unlike my usual commute of 110 miles to see a Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, my very last football trip of season 2012-2013 was of just six miles and around forty minutes on a couple of NYC subway trains. On the first of these trains, from Nassau Avenue to Court Street, I spotted two US Bayern Munich fans. It came as a jolt. I had forgotten all about the Champions League Final which was taking place in London in a few hours’ time. Of course, I couldn’t resist saying a few words to them –

“You won’t like me. I was in Munich last year. I’m a Chelsea fan.”

They smiled. I explained that I hoped that Bayern would be successful. Historically, I have never cared too much for them, but the warm welcome given to 40,000 Chelsea last May will not be forgotten. My vote was for Bayern – for Robben, for Schweinsteiger the pigfcuker, for Lahm, for Ribery, for my friend Michaela – though, in truth, I wasn’t bothered.

Eventually I reached “Legend’s” at just before 1pm, a little later than I had hoped. The place was already heaving with bodies. Downstairs, in Jack Keane’s “Football Factory” there was a riot of Chelsea and Adidas royal blue. I had a quick poke around – a “hello” to a few familiar faces – but then came up for air in the top bar, which was full of Bayern, Dortmund and neutrals. Interestingly, there was a precedent to this; in 1996, while in town for a three game Yankees vs. A’s series, I watched my beloved Juventus beat Ajax in Rome in that year’s Champions League Final. On that occasion, I watched in a small bar near Columbus Circle. I think I was the only one watching. How times change.

I spent most of my time with Steve from Philadelphia, who was chatting to Rick, also from Philly. I had met Rick in The Goose a season or so ago. Thankfully, my friend Roma and her youngest daughter Jenny – who I last saw in Los Angeles for the Galaxy game in 2007 – soon arrived. Roma had driven up from her home in Tennessee on the Friday with Jenny, her son Shawn, her mother Mary and their friend Missy, who was in NYC for the first-ever time. Only Roma and Shawn would accompany Steve and I to the game; the other three were left to explore the sights and sounds of Manhattan. I last saw Mary at that Galaxy game in 2007, too. It was smashing to see them all again. Roma, who dotes on Frank Lampard, has been present every Chelsea tour in the US since 2004. This would be her ninth Chelsea game in the US, her tenth lifetime. In July, her other daughter Vanessa, was with Roma and Shawn for the game against PSG.

Shawn seemed to be more interested in spotting Spiderman leaping between skyscrapers as we walked to the subway stop, but I approved of the Chelsea T-shirt – formerly Jenny’s – that he was wearing. We were soon hurtling north, beneath the streets of Harlem, and we soon found ourselves back in The Bronx. I commented to Steve that I hadn’t seen the area around Yankee Stadium so quiet on a match day since my first ever visit back in 1990. Seeing the white, pinstriped Yankee shirts on sale made me double-take. Was this a Chelsea game or a Yankee game? Who cares, get the beers in.

We called in at “Stan’s” for a “Rolling Rock” and it was so good to be back. It is my favourite bar in America, perhaps the world. The owner Lou wasn’t present but a couple of the bartenders, plus the bouncer, recognised me from previous visits. That gave me a real buzz. Bayern scored a goal at Wembley and I was happy with that. We then popped into “The Dugout” where the main Chelsea pre-game party was in full-flow. On the short walk from “Stan’s”, we heard another roar…this was Dortmund’s equaliser. I had never visited “The Dugout” before; it was quite cavernous, and full of Chelsea. There were even a few City fans dotted about. Roma and Shawn departed to take their seats in the stadium, while I chatted to a few other friends who I have made the acquaintance of over the years. It was lovely to see Chopper, Tommy, Steph and Steve from Connecticut again. Steve and I gulped down a last can of Pabst Blue Ribbon – there was no draught beer left – and we hurried to our seats, since there was only ten minutes to go until the game was due to start at 5.30pm.

As we walked through the Great Hall, we stopped to admire the Yankee greats whose photographs adorn every square inch. Although I am no real fan of the new ballpark, the Great Hall is its best feature. In truth though, I’d rather have the claustrophobic tunnels and alleyways of the original House That Ruth Built. The new stadium will grow on me I am sure, but I still think it has a few design faults. There is far too much exposed dull grey steel, the upper deck should be higher, deeper, without a mid-level break, the old stadium was just so dramatic, the new one is tame. The worst feature, though? The words “Yankee Stadium” high on the outfield wall behind the left-field bleachers.

We fcuking know its Yankee Stadium.

Unlike the game in July, our section was in the mid-level mezzanine – section 212. I was happy with the view. I was well aware that the tickets had not been selling well for this game. Despite the tremendous 48,000 sell out in St. Louis, I feared that around 20,000 to 25,000 would attend this one. I knew that a friend had picked up two for $60 out on the street. The gate for the PSG game in July was given as 38,000. I thought that was rather optimistic. On this cold and grey evening in The Bronx – typical English weather – the stadium was sparsely populated. As the teams did their drills out on the pitch, it was clear that there were far more Chelsea than City fans present. The City section away in left field was hardly full; there were even Chelsea shirts in it. I’d suggest that barely 20,000 spectators had bothered to attend the game. The published gate of 39,000 made me chuckle.

The 5.30pm kick-off never materialised. It was nearer 6pm when Fernando Torres led the Chelsea team out onto the Yankee Stadium turf. For many US fans, this would be the first sighting of Torres, plus quite a few others. Despite Chelsea’s team containing Nathan Ake, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Anders Christiansen, the team that Benitez chose did contain quality through its ranks. The Manchester City team, though, looked impressive. This would be our sixth game against them this season; they were our only real nemesis, on a one versus one basis, throughout 2012-2013 and I wondered if we would be able to match them.

As Rafa Benitez walked to the bench in shallow right field, I wondered what was going through his mind. I never really warmed to the bloke since his appointment in November. It was always going to be a tough relationship between him and us. I was present for his first game against City, I was there to usher him out after his last game against City.

In reality, we found this a tough old game. A goal from Gareth Barry, the world’s most boring footballer, on just three minutes gave City the advantage and a second from Samir Nasri on the half-hour gave City a 2-0 lead at the break. In between, we created a few chances, but the finishing was poor. Despite City’s lead, I heard no City songs. Perhaps they weren’t really here after all. Our section was in relatively good voice, with songs being aired at regular intervals. Our section resolutely ignored the “wave” which circled the stadium on a few occasions.

The “Come On Chelsea” chant just sounded odd, to my ears…it sounded flat, with no intent.

At home, it’s “COME ON, Chelsea” with encouragement in the first two syllables.

At Yankee Stadium, it was “Come On Chel-SEA” and sounded monotone and flat.

Just before the break, Paolo Ferreira came on to replace Loftus-Cheek. He received a magnificent reception from the royal blue hordes.

A goal from Ramires soon into the second-half gave us hope, but Milner – the second most boring footballer in the world – struck low past Petr Cech to give them a 3-1 lead. I was pleased that the New York fans were able to see Juan Mata play; he replaced David Luiz on the hour. Another goal from Ramires made it 3-2 and then Nasri scored to make it 4-2. This was now turning into a very cold evening in The Bronx and I felt for Roma, alongside me, wearing sandals. A delightful free-kick from Juan Mata, captured on film, the last of a long season of goal photos, gave us hope at 4-3, only for Dzeko to seal the 5-3 win late on. There was still time for me to let out a rasping “Zigger Zagger” and the fine fellows around me responded magnificently.

At the end, a few moments to reflect upon.

In the row behind me, a US fan was ranting about the poor performance by the team. In truth, he had been moaning all game. I had a go back at him.

“This is the last game in a long season, mate. Give them a break. It means nothing.”

“They’re a disgrace.”

“No, mate – you’re a disgrace.”

Another chap…an expat…never seen him before, was equally scathing about Chelsea’s performance. Tellingly, he chose to refer to Chelsea as “they” all the way through his tirade. Philly Steve was stood alongside me and could tell I was bristling. I had to jump in.

“You mean “WE” not “THEY” don’t you?”

It irritates me still, the use of “they” in talking about Chelsea. Almost as much as the inappropriate use of “Chels.”

“Ah, fcuk him” I thought…I let him rant away…I was too tired for further confrontation. His argument petered out after being met with indifference from myself and Steve.

At the end of the game, old blue eyes himself, Frank Sinatra, sang “New York New York” and I wiped away the tears of joy. I love this town.

“Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today.
I want to be a part of it – New York, New York.
These vagabond shoes, are longing to stray.
Right through the very heart of it – New York, New York.
I wanna wake up in a city that doesn’t sleep.
And find I’m king of the hill – top of the heap.
These little town blues, are melting away.
I’ll make a brand new start of it – in old New York.
If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.
It’s up to you – New York, New York.”

Back in Stan’s, we had met up with Andy Wray and were enjoying more “Rolling Rocks.” The place was full of happy Chelsea fans; who cares we lost? However, it was sadly time to say goodbye to Roma and Shawn and they made their way back to meet Mary, Jenny and Missy. A couple of Belgian Chelsea fans joined us, and we then ventured down into the adjacent subway.

There were already around fifteen Chelsea fans down on the platform, along with a Manchester City couple, and so – after a team photo – we decided to start singing. The acoustics were magnificent and we were in great voice. For ten minutes or more, we sang and sang and sang. Almost every song in the Chelsea songbook was aired – “One Man Went To Mow” managed to get the locals particularly interested – and the singing continued on the subway train south. Throughout all this, the two City fans were looking on, silent and bemused. I bet they were thinking –

“Wow. That’s impressive.”

Andy Wray suggested we sang “We Won In Munich, Munich” and I foolishly joined in. After a long day of singing, that one is a real rasper. Oh boy. I have to say, after the away section in Chester for the All-Star Game, the trips to Turin, Tokyo and Amsterdam, a chat with Roman, the wins at Old Trafford, White Hart Lane and The Emirates, that subway ride was one of the highlights of the season.

Back at “Legends” it was all Chelsea, the Bayern and Dortmund fans having long since disappeared. I chatted to more friends and the beers continued to flow. Steve set off for home at midnight, but the residual few – you know who you are – kept going until 3am. It turned into a crazy night and it turned into a crazy morning.

I didn’t get home until 5.30am.

On the Sunday, I treated myself to a nice meal in a steakhouse in Brooklyn, with Sinatra still singing in the background. Fun Time Frankie picked me up in Greenpoint and took me through Queens and out to Rockaway – a glimpse of the Atlantic, that body of water that bizarrely connects England and America – before dropping me off at JFK. There was talk of The Ramones, of John Gotti, of the Yankees, of the Mets, of football. We stopped for a slice of pizza at a roadside joint in Ozone Park and looked forward to our next meeting. It was the perfect end to a fantastic few days in New York.

Forget about it? Impossible.

And so, season 2012-2103 has finished. Another eventful campaign has passed. It has been – cough – interesting. There are tours in the summer to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and then, crazily, even a return to the US. Not for me. I need a rest.

I’m done.

…signing-off.

Chris, Sunday 2 June 2013.

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Tales From The Only Place To Be Every Thursday Night

Chelsea vs. Rubin Kazan : 4 April 2013.

Our Europa League Quarter Final against Rubin Kazan was game three of four games in nine days. This was our busiest Easter week for years. No complaints from me, though. We have a hunt for silverware on three fronts. Not even Manchester United can boast that.

I set off for London just after 4pm; alas, no Lard Porky once again. If this has been a tough season for all of us, it has been especially tough for him. As I drove past Swindon, a few light flurries of snow started to fall. The snow lasted until Reading, though it showed no sign of pitching. Snow in April. Whatever next? Tottenham in the Champions League? Let’s hope not. The snow made me think of only one thing, of one person; Julie had just flown in from the sunnier climes of Southern California and would be watching her first game at Stamford Bridge for two-and-a-half years. We had arranged to meet up in the pub; I hope her jet lag hadn’t hit her hard and that she’d be able to make it. The traffic, like the snow, was light, and I was parked up on Bramber Road in less than two hours.

Outside, the weather was unforgiving and cold.

Inside the pub, which I try to use as a barometer for the attendance at Stamford Bridge these days, things were quite busy. It was busier than the game against Steaua, in any case. I still thought that the gate might be as low as 25,000 though. I briefly spoke to Tim and Kev – two of the loyal Bristol contingent – about their trip to Moscow for the return leg. They are the only Chelsea folk who I know that are going. Fair play to them. I’m lead to believe that the main reason for Tim going is the fear of missing Frank’s 202 and 203 goals.

Chelsea makes us do irrational things, eh?

I soon saw Julie’s smiling face as she made her way towards the back part of the bar. Yes, she was freezing. It truly was a cold night outside. We had a good old chat about Chelsea, but also of her plans for her ten day visit to London Town. Julie is here for the Sunderland game, but leaves just before the semi-final at Wembley. We briefly mentioned the two games in the US in May. By the end of the 2012-2013 we will have played the two Manchester teams a total of eleven times.

United. City. Familiarity. Contempt.

Julie was not overly keen to leave the warm coziness of The Goose; every time I asked her if she wanted to leave, there was a muted response. At about 7.30pm, I eventually prised her away. We quickly walked down the North End Road, past the newly refurbished – but decidedly quiet – Malt House. For the last two hundred yards, Julie hardly paused for breath as she talked excitedly about Chelsea. Her enthusiasm was infectious. We made tentative plans to meet up on Sunday before disappearing our separate ways. I veered left to the Matthew Harding, Julie turned right to The Shed. There was a bigger line at the gate than for the Steaua game which was pleasing.

Inside, it was clear to see that the crowd was higher than I had expected. However, away in the opposite corner there was a mass of empty blue seats, save for the smallest pocket of away supporters I have ever seen at Stamford Bridge. The travelling army of Rubin Kazan supporters amounted to around forty-five, who were watching from the front rows of the lower tier.

It looked quite pitiful.

Yet, to be honest, I wondered if we would take half as many to the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow in a week’s time. From anecdotal evidence, I’d guess than a maximum of twenty or thirty Chelsea – if that – are travelling over from the UK. Maybe our ranks will be bolstered by our large Russian fan base and by those Levski Sofia fans from Bulgaria, but be prepared for some hauntingly sparse support in that large bowl of mustard coloured seats in Moscow.

Ugh. I had a flashback to 2008. That’s another reason I’m not going to Russia.

It was great to have Alan back alongside me. There had been many congratulatory handshakes for him in the boozer; after a fifteen year courtship with Sue, they are now engaged.

“Yeah, I wanted to get to know her first…” he joked.

To be honest, I remember little of the first twenty minutes of the game. Alan and I were catching up and chatting about all sorts. The game was being played down below us, but we weren’t paying too much attention. Often at Frome Town games, two mates and I chat constantly throughout the game. Sometimes it’s just nice to use football as a chance to catch up.

Rubin Kazan resembled Sparta Prague, all dressed in Torino-style burgundy.

Benayoun was buzzing around in the first few moments of the game, but then faded a little. It was good to see Juan Mata starting. With Ba cup-tied, I began to understand a little how Benitez may have approached these last three games. Torres had to play against Rubin Kazan. Three days earlier, Ba got the start against United. Two days earlier, Torres got the start against Southampton. Is that not a reasonable response to fixture congestion? The alternative was for Ba to play twice in three days. That approach may have worked, too, of course. We’ll never know.

Somebody was moaning about Benitez in the pub earlier. My response?

“Ignore him. He’ll soon be gone. Support the team.”

The first real chance fell to Fernando, still wearing the mask, but his shot was embarrassingly wide.

Soon after, a long ball into the penalty area was aimed at Torres. This isn’t his game really and I didn’t fancy his chances against the leaping defender. The ball evaded them both, but fell between the two of them, by which time Torres had fallen to the floor. He somehow managed to hook the ball in while sitting on the grass.

1-0 to Chelsea.

Alan and I did our “THTCAUN – COMLD” routine, but the accents were way off; more Germanic than Russian.

Ryan Bertrand, ensured a little run of games with Ashley Cole out, had a cracking run down the left but his shot was blocked. Not long after, a Moses header was clawed out spectacularly by the Russian ‘keeper but Torres chased down the loose ball before turning the ball back into the box. The ball eventually reached a waiting Victor Moses who fired high into the net.

2-0 to Chelsea.

There had been a few long shots from the visitors, but this was a poor team. A two goal cushion at the break was a nice score. Let’s kill this tie off at Stamford Bridge. However, on a rare foray into our half, a shot struck John Terry. I wasn’t sure it was a penalty. Alan pulled a face to suggest it was. John Terry was livid. The referee was hardly going to change his mind. Natcho converted the penalty.

2-1 to Chelsea.

Oh dear. The dreaded away goal.

As Tommy Baldwin was introduced to the crowd at half-time, I realised that our run in the Europa League in 2013 was one which was being endured rather than enjoyed. Oh well. So be it. I’d hope I’m not that much of a football snob to bemoan it.

It is what it is.

If we’re in it, let’s win it.

The good news was that Tottenham were losing at home to Basle. Both Alan and I wanted them out. The reasons are perhaps too complex to fully discuss here, but the thought of losing to them in a major final is too horrendous to comprehend. There would be bag loads of trouble too, surely; I’m not sure the club needs any more negative publicity these days. Newcastle were drawing. I’m sure they were trying to win the trophy; their last trophy of any kind was way back in 1969.

At one point in the first-half, we could hear their chant of “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!” Our support wasn’t great. I worried that Julie might be dismayed by the lack of noise. I wondered what the tiny contingent of Russians was thinking…

Alexander : “Is there line at kiosk?”

Sergei : “No. You want beer?”

Alexander : “I want beer. I always want beer.”

Sergei : “You not like this beer. It no alcohol.”

Aleaxander : “Beer with no alcohol. You are crazy man.”

Sergei (laughing) : “I like London. No line. Not like Kazan. Line for beer. Line for potato. Line for beer and potato. Line for potato beer.”

Alexander (shouting) : “But better now. You remember the beetroot shortage of 1977?”

Sergei : “Yes. Was bad. My mother line up for beetroot for thirty hours.”

Aleaxander : “Your mother stupid. In wrong line for thirty hours. She get cabbage.”

Sergei : “I eat cabbage for ten days.”

Alexander : “You the cabbage.”

Sergei (shouting) : “Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin! Rubin!”

Alexander (singing) : “Oh, Kazan is wonderful. Oh Kazan is wonderful. It is full of potato, beetroot and cabbage. Oh Kazan is wonderful.”

Sergei : “You need work on lyrics.”

Chelsea continued their dominance during the second-half. Alan and I spoke about the amazing save which Cech had made against Chicarito on Monday. I rated it as possibly the best ever. I remember a similar one which Eddie Niedzwiecki made at Stoke City in 1985. Alan and I both recollected the Carlo Cudicini save from a Jamie Redknapp free-kick at Three Point Lane in which the ball moved at the last moment. Top stuff.

We had a few chances as the game progressed. I have to say that Ramires was by far the better of the two deep-lying midfielders. The game was again passing Frank by, despite the presence of Julie in The Shed. How I wished he had scored for her in the first-half. I wondered how she was coping with the cold. At least she had a small walk to her hotel; she was staying right behind The Shed in the Copthorne hotel.

On sixty-nine minutes, a nice move found Juan Mata in a little space down below me. I not only managed to photograph the cross, but I was able to snap the leap from Torres which resulted in the goal. It was a fine cross, a finer finish.

3-1 to Chelsea.

I continued photographing as Torres – or “Zorro” as I called him – was clearly relieved. This was his seventeenth and eighteenth goals of the season. The Chelsea players swarmed around him. I have a great vantage point for these celebrations. I’m a lucky man.

The crowd had been announced as a few shy of 33,000. This was clearly a pretty good attendance in the circumstances; a cold night and the second of three home games in seven days. Just like the United game, these tickets were only £30. Considering it costs £10 to see Frome Town and £20 to see Bristol Rovers, £30 is a fine price for these Chelsea cup games. However, one wonders how 33,000 would look in a 60,000 stadium out at Old Oak Common, though. In the closing part of the game, Oscar replaced Mata and Marin replaced Benayoun. Whisper it, but Yossi received a pretty good reception from the Chelsea faithful.

A late effort from Ramires was the last real effort on target.

Would a 3-1 lead be enough for us to take to Moscow? Would it be enough to see us progress to our tenth European semi-final since 1995? I think so.

Out in the cold London night, the Russians were on their way out of Stamford Bridge.

Alexander : “You hear blonde girl? She on phone to mother in California. She says London cold.”

Sergei : “Cold?!? Ha! She know nothing.”

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Tales From The Match

Manchester United vs. Chelsea : 10 March 2013.

There was every reason to suggest that the trip to Old Trafford for our F.A.Cup quarter final with Manchester United would be a tough one. Our season seems to have taken a downward trajectory in recent weeks, culminating in that dire ninety minutes in Bucharest, one of the worst Chelsea performances in living memory. One phrase kept resonating in my mind on Sunday morning.

I was travelling in blind faith.

I’d try to make the most of the day – of course I would – and I already had a visit to the Lowry Art Gallery planned to take place before the match, but there were negative vibes running through to my core. I chose a black Henri Lloyd polo to wear to the game and I did wonder if it might be an ominous sign for the day ahead.

The man in black.

Gulp.

This would be my seventeenth visit to Old Trafford to watch the boys play Manchester United. I have only visited Anfield – eighteen – on more occasions. Of course, there have been good and bad memories. There were two previous F.A. Cup games that I had attended; in 1988 and in 1999. In truth, we have only been totally outclassed on a few of those seventeen occasions. Who remembers the surreal atmosphere and the false dawn last season under Andre Villas-Boas? We lost 3-1 but left the stadium singing “we’re gonna win the league” – and meaning it. Of course, there was a Torres goal, but also the career-defining Torres miss, too, both in front of the Stretford End. Somehow the Rooney penalty fluff seems to have been forgotten. Such is life.

I left home in Somerset at 9.45am. This was yet another solo away trip, this one. Not to worry. Music was soon blaring – Robin Guthrie, then Depeche Mode – as I drove north and onto the motorway network. It was mightily cold outside, but at least the grey skies were not issuing forth some of Manchester’s finest rain. No doubt that would come later.

I texted Alan – due to set off from Chelsea on one of the club coaches – to tell him that I was now “on the road.”

“Spring-Heeled Jack Kerouac.”

He soon replied “Ian Dury.”

As I headed north, I tried not to ruminate too much about the game. However, one topic kept dominating my thoughts. Ron Gourlay had recently reconfirmed the club’s priorities for the rest of the season; that of securing a Champions League place rather than silverware. Now, I’m no fool, and I understand the pure economic reasons behind that thought process. His view has probably placated some of our fans. But what a sad indictment on the modern game that my beloved Chelsea Football Club would put finishing fourth higher than winning the F.A. Cup.

“If that is the case, Ron…why the hell am I bothering with this eight hour return trip to Manchester?”

At just after 10.30am, I received a text from Californian Andy Wray, evidently over for the game.

“Kerouac.”

I had seen on “Facebook” that he was meeting up with Cathy and was travelling up by train. It would be his first-ever match at Old Trafford.

Then, an hour later, I received the exact same text. This time it was from Burger, the transplanted Canadian, and now living in Stafford.

“Kerouac.”

At 11.45am, I spotted the first United coach – from Devon, I believe – as I drove past West Bromwich.

Just after, I again texted Alan to let him know my progress.

“Five Goal Gordon.”

On the CD, Depeche Mode sang about a “Black Day.” In my mind, things were starting to take shape. A theme was definitely starting to evolve here. Would the day be black or would it be white? To be truthful, I expected a black thumping. The chances of the opposite seemed desperately remote. When snow started to fall, fleetingly, at around Stoke, the white flakes brought a smile to my face.

I changed the music and chose The Stranglers.

The men in black.

This was a proper black and white day. At that exact moment, I glanced to my right and spotted a herd of black and white Friesian cattle. Around thirty minutes earlier, I had spotted a large flock of both black and white birds suddenly take off from a field adjacent to the M6. This seemed an odd occurrence to me.

Yep – black and white…the theme for the day.

As I headed north through Staffordshire, there were the first few spots of rain. And then I saw some snow on the highest parts of the Peak District to my east. However, I was making good time and – I’ll be honest – I was in my element.

“What else ya gonna do on a Sunday?”

I’m rather familiar with the sights of Manchester now. It was, after all, only two weeks since that dire trip to Eastlands. Away in the distance, in the city centre, I spotted the tall hotel where Real Madrid had recently stayed. Further beyond, the desolate moors. More snow.

At 1.15am, I had parked-up, just three-and-a-half hours after leaving home. This was probably a personal best for Old Trafford. But my goodness, the wind was bitterly cold. I briskly walked through Gorse Park, with the European-style floodlight pylons of the Lancashire cricket ground to my right and the local council office block where Morrissey worked in his first ever job to my left.

Welcome to Manchest’oh. The home of Unih’ed.

Outside the stadium, the “half-and-half scarves” sellers were busy, as were the lads selling the two main United fanzines (“United We Stand” and “Red Issue”). Not many Chelsea were on the forecourt. I had a look around. The Munich memorial always looks classy. Without further ado, I headed north and soon found myself at the Salford Quays. Originally, this busy inland dock area allowed the products of the world’s first industrialised city to be transported west on the Manchester Ship Canal and out into the Irish Sea and beyond. The deep-seated rivalry between the cities of Liverpool and Manchester was, if not initiated, deepened by the building of this canal by Manchester’s entrepreneurs, who were unwilling to pay the expensive dock fees at Liverpool. The area has been revitalised in recent years, with the BBC having moved many of their staff north from the TV centre in London to the Media City complex at Salford Quays. In addition to waterside apartments, there is the Imperial War Museum North and the Lowry Art Gallery on either side of one of the widest channels.

I visited the Lowry once before, on the day that Avram Grant made his bow as Chelsea boss, and I could hardly believe that it was over five years ago. As I walked over the gently swaying footbridge, the wind was bitter as it came off the choppy waters of the former docks. Away to my right, the hulking structure of Old Trafford dominated the view.

I spent a very enjoyable hour and a quarter inside The Lowry. I made a confession to the rosy-faced chap on the information desk.

“I’m a Chelsea fan and I’m here just to take my mind off the game.”

He smiled and replied “oh, I’ll be a fan for you today.”

“Are you City? Ah,good man.”

What is it that they say about your enemy’s enemy being your friend?

L.S. Lowry was one of England’s most revered painters of the twentieth century, with his heavily stylised images of urban life in the industrialised centres of northern England. A short twenty minute film, including black and white film of him at work, was utterly fascinating. It was wonderful to hear his voice, too, matter-of-factly explaining how he went about his daily painting routine. He seemed a very complex character. A loner. Possibly autistic. In love with his work.

I then spent a while viewing a selection of his work in four or five rooms. His home in Pendlebury – in Salford, no more than a couple of miles to the north – afforded him easy access to the streets and mills, the bustling city-scapes, the desolation of urban blight, which became the focus of his work.

His trademark was of simplistic pencil-thin figures made famous in a 1978 song which I found myself constantly singing to myself –

“He painted Salford ‘s smokey tops.
On cardboard boxes from the shops.
And parts of Ancoats where I used to play.
I’m sure he once walked down our street.
Cause he painted kids who had nowt on their feet.
The clothes we wore had all seen better days.”

His famous painting “Going to the match” – based not on Old Trafford or Maine Road, but Bolton Wanderers’ Burnden Park – drew this comment from Jack Charlton, the brother of Bobby –

“This is just like it was when I was young; wooden open stands, cinders underfoot, terrible conditions in the toilets…it’s fabulous.”

Some script alongside the photo told its own story –

“Lowry’s interest in football was partly in the crowd itself and how a match brought them together. It is this, rather than the match itself, that he depicts.”

As I left, I looked over to Old Trafford and took a few photographs of the 21st Century equivalents of his Bolton spectators heading over the bridge, the skies now clear and blue, their eyes set on the stadium.

Adjacent to the art gallery, there is a large shopping outlet – surprisingly, I did not venture in. There were a couple of restaurants nearby and these were full of singing United fans. However, as I myself headed back over the bridge, I heard a defiant “Oh Dennis Wise” and then “Carefree.”

Accents from all parts of England were being spoken by the United fans going to the match. There was even a voice from Yorkshire. Now, even to my ears, that didn’t sound right. Yorkshire and Lancashire have animosities far out-reaching those of Manchester and Liverpool. For a Yorkshire native to support Manchester United was surely the oddest marriage. I immediately thought of my college mate Bob, a Leeds fan from Bramley in West Yorkshire, a few miles from Elland Road. He memorably once announced to me that “I’ve hated Manchester United longer than I’ve liked Leeds.”

I thought back to the cup game in 1988. On that day, Bob attended the game alongside me and some eight thousand rabid Chelsea fans. Of course, that 1987-1988 season eventually resulted in relegation via the dreaded play-offs (we are the only team to finish fourth from bottom and still get relegated – imagine how I felt that summer. Black ain’t half of it.)

However, in January 1988, we had not yet reached the relegation places, though manager John Hollins was under considerable pressure. I had just eleven days previously seen us lose 4-0 to Swindon Town in the Full Members Cup. Things were getting grim. Yet on that day some 25 years ago – and despite gates averaging only around 20,000 – we were roared on by almost half of our home crowd…the equivalent today of 16,000 away followers.

My diary from the day tells the story…

”pink Lacoste, Marc O’Polo sweatshirt, Aquascutum scarf, leather jacket, Reeboks…caught the train from Frome…there were ten familiar faces – all MUFC – who were on the train too, but they got off at Bath (probably to catch the supporters’ bus to Old Trafford)…sat with a young Chelsea lad from Bath…chatted to two girls from Cardiff who were Spurs fans on the way to Port Vale…missed our connection at Birmingham, so had to go via Stafford…a can of Grolsch…Chelsea lads joined at Crewe…got to Piccadilly at 2pm, a raucous bus to Old Trafford…pleased to see Bob already present…we had all of K Stand…we played poorly…Freestone saved a 7 minute McClair penalty…but Whiteside (42) and McClair (71) sealed our doom…no confidence in our team…we hardly had any attacks at all…brightened up when Nevin and Hazard came on…alas no fat copper to take the piss out of this time…a bloody long wait in the mud to catch the train back to Piccadilly…a row at the station, but not severe…eventually back to Bristol at 10.40pm…Dad picked me up…Spurs lost too…so much for Wembley.”

I was soon outside the away entrance. Unlike 1988, our “allowance” was 6,000 but I had heard that we had only sold 4,500 or so. I hoped that there would be no gaping holes in our section. The last thing I wanted was to hear the “WWYWYWS” nonsense being sung at us by 70,000 United fans.

In the bar areas, Chelsea were in good voice. I noticed the DJ Trevor Nelson, quietly stood to one side, and caught his eye. He nodded back. I suspect that his work for the BBC brings him up to Salford quite often. I bumped into Alan and Gary, then the Bristol lads – fresh from Bucharest – and then Burger and Julie. It would be Julie’s first ever game at Old Trafford. I said to one of my Chelsea acquaintances “well, we need to keep them out for the first twenty minutes…hell, no…the first five.”

I got to my seat…row 12 of the large upper deck, right in line with the penalty spot…the roof overhead afforded little light and there was a dark and gloomy atmosphere inside Old Trafford. For the first time ever at Old Trafford, I was able to see the outside world; a thin sliver of land above the lower main stand roof and the high roof overhead. Old Trafford is huge. The three-tiered North Stand was immense…the upper tier wasn’t even in view.

I took a look at all of the United flags and banners which decorate the balconies. They add so much character to the stadium in the same way that those at The Bridge add to our match experience.

The surprising news was that Van Persie was on the bench for United. As for Chelsea, there were masses of team changes since Bucharest.

The main one; Axon in.

As the two teams entered the pitch, the Stretford End unfurled a large banner featuring a photograph of the Busby Babes…black and white…but with bright scarlet shirts…from the fateful game in Belgrade, prior to the crash.

A Ba effort went wide and I commented to the bloke to my right “well, that’s one more shot than I thought we’d get.” I wasn’t smiling for long, though.

Before we had time to settle, Carrick pumped a great ball through to Chicarito. There was indecision from Cech and Cahill was lost at sea. A softly cushioned header from the little Mexican sent the ball looping up and over the stranded Cech and into the United goal. The stadium erupted. I looked at the clock to my left.

We hadn’t even lasted five minutes.

For Fcuk’s Sake.

Within five more minutes, a Wayne Rooney free-kick was played towards the far post and – how often do we see this in modern football? – the ball evaded everyone’s lunge and bounced past Cech into the goal.

Ten minutes gone.

2-0 down.

This could be a long day. With thoughts of a score resembling that of a rugby match, I sighed a million sighs. The Chelsea crowd, originally quite buoyant, were now resorting to the chants which have trademarked this season.

“We don’t care about Rafa…”

“When Rafa leaves Chelsea…”

“Roman Abramovich – is this what you want?”

“We want our Chelsea back…”

United were singing their songs too, needling the benched John Terry.

“Viva John Terry…”

“Where’s your racist centre-half?”

To be honest, I wanted to hide. We seemed to be on the end of a leathering both on and off the pitch. We had a few half-chances, but shots from Moses and Lampard were wasted. Cech made a sublime double-save, first from Rooney and then from the rebound which Luiz inexpicably headed back towards him. He rose, like Gordon Banks in Guadalajara in 1970, to tip it over. It was a sublime save.

We did manage to create a few more attempts on goal. I began talking to the two chaps to my left. Face Familiar Name Unknown #1, Face Familiar Name Unknown #2 and I agreed that although United had been on top, the first half had not been without chances. But then we agreed; United didn’t really have to attack. The mood was mixed…there was derision from some quarters, but I was ever hopeful. It was gratifying to note a few seeds of optimism amongst my two neighbours. To be honest, amongst the wailing and gnashing of teeth in the away section, it was lovely to chat with two lads who were forever cheering the team on – like me – and who were intelligent in their comments. There had already been an altercation further along the row which almost ended up in a fight. It was another example of near Civil War in the Chelsea ranks this season.

I chatted with Tim at half-time and we mulled over the game…”they don’t have to attack…they can just wait for us to attack and exploit our gaps…”

We expected more goals.

Soon into the second-half, I almost wanted the referee to blow up such was my fear for conceding more goals.

In the end it was the clichéd game of two halves.

One black, one white.

Soon into the second period, the manager made two key substitutions. Firstly, Mikel for Lampard. To be truthful, Frank had not enjoyed a great game and I thought that he gave Rooney far too much space. Secondly, Hazard – not the 1988 version – for Moses. Again no complaints.

In the upper tier of the East Stand our support increased.

Out of nowhere, a goal. Hazard picked the ball up on the edge of the box and, with hardly a moment’s thought, curled an exquisite shot past De Gea into the United goal. It was the same corner that United’s two goals had ended up.

Oh boy. The Chelsea support went crazy, jumping up and punching the air. I felt the sharp plastic of the seat in front cutting into my shin as I jumped and cavorted like a drunken fool.

Game on.

From then on, we dominated the game in a way that I have rarely seen. It was certainly our best 45 minutes this season and our best ever 45 minutes that I had ever seen at the home of United. With every passing minute, United’s support diminished.

Van Persie replaced Hernandez.

Worried? Of course.

“She said no, Robin, she said no…”

As I remember it, the increasingly confident Luiz won possession deep in our box and the worked the ball through. It found Oscar and he played in Ramires. Our little Brazilian dynamo wriggled inside Evans and found himself inside the box. With the entire Chelsea support roaring him on – “go on Rami!” – he coolly slotted the ball past the goalkeeper.

We went berserk.

Pandemonium.

Complete madness.

Arms up, bodies bouncing, screams of ecstasy, bodies falling, noise.

It was a Munich Moment all over again.

Ouch, my bloody shins.

The game now opened up further with Van Persie wasting several chances. However, United’s midfield gave us so much space that we were able to run at them each time we were in possession. Oscar and Mata twisted and turned, rarely losing the ball and Hazard provided much-needed thrust. A special word, though, for Mikel who continually broke up play in that indomitable way of his and provided the de facto defensive shield for Luiz and Cahill. Cahill, who had suffered badly in the first-half, grew with each minute. Luiz was very good.

With United fans starting to stream out, we chided them –

“Race you back to London – we’re gonna race you back to London…”

We roared the team on.

Torres replaced Mata. After last season’s game, could he be the saviour?

With the time running out, one amazing chance. Mata, stretching to take control of Luiz’ pass, and miraculously holding on to the ball despite appearing to run out of pitch in which to play, stayed on his feet, then twisted inside before prodding the ball towards goal. I immediately thought of Gianfranco Zola against United in 1997. I’m sure I saw the bloody net bulge.We jumped up as one, but turned aghast as the ball flew off of De Gea’s boot for a corner.

Phew.

The referee blew soon after and the Chelsea crowd roared their approval.

The United support was full of moans as I hot-footed back across Gorse Park. I was back at my car at 6.45pm…warmth! The incoming texts had provided me with a few moments of satisfaction on that walk back to the car.

From United fan Mike –

“Well done mate. Can’t see how you didn’t win that though. We were awful second half, mediocre in the first.”

From United fan Pete –

“Unlucky mate. The best team drew. Great pressing and control from your lot. Never seen us give the ball away so badly, so often.”

From me to them –

“Proud as fcuk.”

From United fan Pete –

“Rightly so.”

From United fan Mike –

“You should be mate. Showed great team spirit and were the better team over ninety minutes.”

I got back to the M6 in super-quick time. However, detours through Stoke and then the Black Country meant that I didn’t get home until 11.20pm. I was still buzzing when I got home…still buzzing as I trawled the internet at 1am.

Still buzzing at 1.30am…

Buzzing now…

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Tales From The Same Old Scene

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 2 March 2013.

At 10am, I collected Glenn from The Royal Oak in Frome and then Andy from The Black Horse in Trowbridge about twenty minutes later. I pointed my car towards The Goose in Fulham. From pub to pub to pub. A football Saturday. A 3pm kick-off.

Bada bing.

Of course, my friendship with Glenn goes back as far as 1977. At Oakfield Middle School in Frome, Glenn’s Liverpool-supporting brother Paul was in the same class as me. Once Glenn joined us at the same school – he is two years younger – it didn’t take Paul long to introduce him to me. My first game at Stamford Bridge was in March 1974. Glenn’s first game was the home-opener with Everton in 1977. Our Chelsea match-going pedigree goes back almost forty years. A chance meeting in The Shed in August 1983 fired up our friendship to a new level and in that most cherished of seasons – the promotion campaign of Dixon, Speedie and Nevin – we accompanied each other to several games. The first game in which we travelled up together was against Newcastle United and we were rewarded with an immense game, a 4-0 Chelsea win and plenty of memories. With each trip to see our heroes, the bonds were strengthened and the friendship grew.

I have known Andy for almost thirty years. I have told the story of how we met before; a chance meeting in The Crown in Frome’s Market Place in the fantastic sun-kissed summer of 1984. I was with a couple of mates. He was with some chaps from Trowbridge. His little gaggle of friends and me were all wearing football schmutter and we tentatively edged around the prickly subject of starting up a conversation. A few glances were exchanged. I looked for clues. There were no small Chelsea pin badges on show. The four Trowbridge lads were obviously wary; they were the visitors to Frome and, at the time, there was a little unhealthy rivalry between the two towns, separated by only eight miles. Fisticuffs between the hooligan-element from Frome, Westbury and Trowbridge was a common occurrence at weekends. However, once I declared myself a Chelsea fan, the barriers fell.

“Yeah, we’re Chelsea too. Where did you get those Nikes mate?”

Unbeknown to me until recently, these four lads were mates with Parky. One of the lads – Laszlo – and I were wearing the exact same blue and white Pringle pullover.

“Of all the bars, in all the towns…”

Why this fascination with that 1983-1984 era?

It’s easy really. It acts as a benchmark. Despite all of our recent successes, I was probably never happier as a Chelsea fan than during the summer of 1984. I can remember, as though it was yesterday, sitting on a low wall, overlooking the river which circumnavigated the dairy where I worked for four months in that summer.

An early morning tea-break. My overalls undone to the waist. The sun already beating down on my back. Thoughts of away days to Arsenal, Tottenham, Liverpool and United. The resurgence of a sleeping Chelsea. And I’d be part of it.

It was always the cause of much glee that in my over-simplistic way of analysing things in those days that a simple eight hour shift at the dairy in 1984 earned me a take-home wage of £15.

£15 happened to be the exact same price as a trip to Stamford Bridge (£8 train ticket, £4 admission £3 for a programme and a couple of pints).

Perfect.

Back to 2013 and the trip up to Chelsea Land seemed to take no time at all. The three of us chatted virtually non-stop as I drove east. After the Rafa Benitez outburst on Wednesday, we certainly had enough to keep us occupied. Andy, who has only been to a handful of games this season, was lured to the West Brom game by the chance to join in the scorn being heaped on Benitez.

As for me, I was less enthusiastic. The thought of Stamford Bridge being swamped in ‘negative noise” just made me weary. This is not to say that there is not a time for protests, but I just felt depressed at the thought of the media scrutinising everything that would be said and sung, booed and hissed later in the afternoon.

In The Goose – Glenn’s first visit since the refurbishment – there was no general consensus about ‘The Benitez Rant.” There were many different opinions. Some were relishing the opportunity to vent further anger on the manager. Whisper it quietly, but several were of the opinion that Benitez was quite correct to call for a cessation of hostilities and for fans to galvanise behind the team. When talk was broadened to talk about the team and the way forward, opinions were equally diverse. Even on the subject of Frank Lampard, views varied. Some wanted a one year extension as a bare minimum, but others were more forthright; that the summer of 2013 would be the time to dispense with not only Frank Lampard but John Terry, too.

Glenn asked a great question; “If Mourinho returns in the summer…takes a look at things…decides that it is time to dispense with Terry and Lampard…would you be OK with it?”

Clear the old guard and start afresh.

Big questions.

There were also discussions about Thibaut Courtois, excelling in Madrid, and some friends were all for jettisoning Petr Cech in favour of the young Belgian phenomenon. I wasn’t so sure.

What a muddle.

The relative merits of other players were also discussed.

I had to smile at Simon’s comment –

“For all of Luiz’ frailties and defensive blunders, I still love him because he’s typical Chelsea. Crap and brilliant in equal measure.”

We all agreed that if the old guard left, other players would fill the vacuum, and new leaders would emerge. We all thought that Gary Cahill was a captain in the making.

“Our best pound for pound signing for ages.”

Talk veered away from the team and a few of us spoke about the Chelsea match going experience in 2013 and how it has all changed and how we have changed with it. More than one person confessed that they are not enjoying it much at the moment. After the heady days of May and our twin cup triumphs, this is of course not surprising, but a lot of us often comment that the match-day malaise set in years ago. I wondered if this was a simple result of all of the games that we have seen; that by nature, fans in our mid-forties are unlikely to be as mesmerized by the thought of Chelsea as we were in our teens. Rob said that he doesn’t feel a bond with the players these days. I admitted the same; or at least to the bond I had with Joey, Mickey, Eddie and John.

Ah, 1983-1984 again.

We then briefly touched on the view that we have become a spoilt fan base. There is – of course – a huge great big dollop of truth in this statement. I’d like to think that, in the parlance of today, that myself and my closest mates try to ‘keep it real”, but there is no shadow of a doubt that increasingly large factions of our support are a complete embarrassment.

I was reminded of the Manchester United banner which quotes the words from a James song.

“If I hadn’t seen such riches, I could live with being poor.”

I took my seat with only a few minutes to spare, just as the teams were about to enter the pitch. I checked with Alan to see if there had been any anti-Benitez protests.

“Nah, nothing.”

Big John and I shared a few words.

“I’m dreading this.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Especially after last season.”

“Typical Chelsea though. When we won the league in 1955, we finished twelfth the next season.”

“Yeah. It was always going to happen. Written in the stars.”

Despite the sense of dismay with what has happened to Chelsea this season (oh, wait – let me check…sorry, we’re in third place…damn those riches), there was another capacity crowd at Stamford Bridge. I was amazed at the lack of venom which greeted Benitez as he took his place on the bench. The verbal onslaught never really materialised. Steve Clarke received a nice round of applause from the home supporters at the start of the game.

“Welcome back Clarkey.”

If anything, there seemed to be more “pro-Chelsea” noise (what a strange concept…as if there is any other type of support) at the start of the game than in recent home games.

The game was played out in bright winter sunshine and the first-half was virtually all Chelsea. Oscar came close on a number of occasions, but it was Demba Ba who broke the deadlock, slamming the ball home from close range after a well cushioned knock back from the head of David Luiz.

Our football was fine in the first half. We enjoyed tons of possession. Even though West Brom defended like Trojans, they rarely threatened Petr Cech’s goal. It was time for one of Alan’s quips –

“This is as one-sided as Heather Mills’ shoe collection.”

The 1,500 away fans hardly sung a note. Our support, maybe in a state of confusion at the current state of affairs, was quiet too.

My favourite piece of football in the entire game was an exciting run down the left by Eden Hazard. Starting from just over the half-way line, is run was full of power and speed, but included a mesmeric shimmy – feinting to go one way, sending the defender off balance, then gliding by. It reminded me of that beautiful feint by Roberto Baggio during the 1990 World Cup. A slight shift of the weight from one side of the body to the other can wreck the best defender’s chances.

I approved of the two attempts by the Chelsea support to honour the recent anniversary of the sad passing of Peter Osgood.

“The King of Stamford Bridge” was lustily sung by the home fans.

Good work.

Our domination of the game continued but a second goal was not forthcoming. Oscar continued his fine run of form. He looks more and more the complete midfielder. His touch is magnificent.

The funniest moment of the entire game took place when the ball was hit out of play and ended up in the sweaty hands of Benitez. Up until that time, the anti-Rafa songs had virtually died out. Touching the ball was the last thing that Benitez needed. He slammed the ball back towards a Chelsea player. With that, the Matthew Harding Lower sprung to life and the stadium echoed with a few songs aimed at the much-disliked manager.

“Stand up if you hate Rafa.”

“You’re not wanted here.”

There were a few choruses in praise of a much-loved former boss too.

“Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho – Jose Mourinho.”

As the game reached its completion, tension in the stands grew and grew. I was convinced that the visitors would score a late equaliser.

We all were, right?

Thankfully, the danger passed.

This was clearly a game which wouldn’t live long in the memory, but those three points were all that mattered.

No jaunt to Bucharest for me on Thursday, so Old Trafford next.

See you up there.

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Tales From High Noon

Chelsea vs. Brentford : 17 February 2013.

After encouraging wins against Wigan Athletic and Sparta Prague, we were looking for our third consecutive victory in our F.A. cup replay against Brentford. The first game at Griffin Park took place three Sundays ago; somehow, it seemed even further in the past than that. At times, it has been difficult to keep track of what is happening in 2012-2013. This season seems to be lurching along, victories here, defeats there. The whole campaign seems to be as downright tortuous and convoluted as I can remember. Our involvement in seven individual competitions then became eight as we were eliminated from the Champions League and entered the Europa League. We took part in the World Club Championships, playing football in Asia during a regular season for the first time, but breaking up the flow of the league campaign. There have been two managers. There have been cup runs. Extra games everywhere we looked. In the Europa League, a potential seven further games wait should we get past Sparta. We have played in cities from Seattle in the west to Tokyo in the east. There was a visit to Monaco for the Super Cup. Should we reach the Europa Final in Amsterdam, we might well have to visit that stadium twice within two months.

It’s turning into a right old mess of a season

I set off for Stamford Bridge at 8am on a crisp, cold, foggy morning. This was another solo-trip east. I wasn’t worried. With coffee to hand and music on the CD player, I set off across Salisbury Plain. At times, the visibility was terrible. The fields were frosted; the fog and mist almost enveloped me as I drove through the thatched-roof villages of Chitterne and Shrewton. As I drove past Stonehenge, suddenly bathed in early morning sunshine and looking quite sublime, I received a quick phone call from The Fishy Boy himself, the Right Honourable Lord Tuna. He was over for a couple of weeks, staying in Northamptonshire, but on his way down to London with my mate Andy, one of the Nuneaton bunch.

I quickly realised that of all the Chelsea characters from the USA who I have been lucky enough to meet over the past eight years, Tuna was the very first. Way back in 2004, I attended the Chelsea vs. Roma game at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh. On that very memorable trip, I travelled up from North Carolina with some friends and, to be quite honest, we kept ourselves to ourselves. We watched the game from behind a goal, away from the main bulk of the Chelsea support, which was based along the sideline. Looking back at a photograph of the 150 – at very most – Chelsea fans in that section, it seems like a different era already. From that little group of enthusiasts, our support in the US – and elsewhere – has grown exponentially and it is difficult to put it all into some sort of perspective. Amongst that group, there were around 10-15 folk who I have got to know very well over the ensuing years. Tuna is one of them. I bumped into him on the walk out of the stadium; we only shared a few words at the time, happy with our 3-0 win. I remember thinking, confused by his mid-Atlantic accent, “is this guy an Englishman who has been living in the US for a while or is this American putting on a London accent?” I bumped into Tuna the next year outside “Nevada Smiths” in Manhattan and we have been friends ever since.

Looking back – I may have told this story before – I only really became involved with the CIA people just before the Chicago trip in 2006. Things have steamrollered since then. Friendships have been strengthened. Further trips to the US have been enjoyed. My horizons have been broadened and I’m very thankful. Amongst it all, there is a notch of friends who I know will be my friends for life.

You know who you are.

These days, writing “Tales” seems as natural to me as buying a match ticket, meeting up in The Goose, taking photographs of the match day experience or verbally abusing Lord Parky.

“It’s what I do.”

Anyway, enough of the life story bollocks, let’s talk about Chelsea.

By the time I had reached London, the fog had lifted and it was a beautiful sunny winter’s day. As I went “up and over” the antiquated Chiswick flyover I made a point of spotting the high arch of Wembley Stadium a few miles to the north. It appeared, fleetingly, just above row upon row of red chimney pots on the roofs of the terraced houses of Chiswick.

Wembley Stadium was the goal, of course.

The F.A. Cup Final will be played out beneath its crescent of white steel in May. It still remains an iconic venue, despite losing a lot of its historical mystique during its reconstruction between 2000 and 2007. However, since the eventual opening of the new Wembley, it is without a hint of exaggeration, our second home.

2007 F.A. Cup Final
2007 F.A. Community Shield
2008 League Cup Final
2009 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2009 F.A. Cup Final
2009 F.A. Community Shield
2010 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2010 F.A. Cup Final
2010 F.A. Community Shield
2012 F.A. Cup Semi-Final
2012 F.A. Cup Final

Of the eleven visits, only the defeat to “those whose name need not be mentioned” in 2008 brought me any real sadness. The two Community Shield defeats against United were nothing in comparison.

At 10.30am, I strode into the already busy and noisy pub. I half expected a few rogue away fans, but they were elsewhere. I soon spotted Tuna clasping a pint of Guinness at the end of the bar. I eventually talked him into attending the game at Manchester City the following Sunday; Gill had a couple of spares. Job done. Chatter amongst my friends was mainly dominated by tales of Prague. Alas, I had not ventured to the beautiful city in the heart of Bohemia on this occasion, but everyone reported back with lovely anecdotes, mainly involving the crisp and pristine beer of which the Czech nation is famous.

Sadly, I had to make do with a pint of chemically-infested “Carlsberg.”

On the TV above the bar, we learned that Demba Ba was starting. The time passed way-too quickly. At 11.30am, Tuna and I set off for The Bridge.

Of course we are all used to Sunday (and Monday, and Thursday) football these days, but I can well remember that Sunday football was a novelty way back in the ‘seventies. In fact, in the programme for my first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, several letters from fans were aired, discussing the relative merits of Sunday football. There was quite a considerable “no” lobby, with people concerned that the religious “day of rest” was being used for un-Godly acts, that families would not benefit from games tearing the fabric of their life apart, that it would start the end of civilisation as we know it.

Joking apart, I wish that there was less Sunday football. It still – even after all these years – doesn’t feel the same as “Saturday 3pm football.”

Old habits and all that.

The six thousand Brentford fans were settled in The Shed by the time I took my seat alongside Alan, still tired from the excesses of Prague, in the MHU.

In addition to the choice of Demba Ba in attack, complete with Zorro mask, there were other changes too. John Terry returned to the heart of the defence, with Gary Cahill alongside him. Ivanovic, as so often is the case, shuffled over to the right in place of Azpilicueta. David Luiz – another central defender – was alongside Frank at the base of the midfield five. Victor Moses, fresh from the Africa Cup of Nations triumph, was deployed alongside Oscar and Mata. It was a very strong Chelsea team. With David Luiz now playing more and more in his midfield role, we now have four very able players fighting for those two defensive-midfield positions; Mikel, Luiz, Lampard and Ramires. On another day, in a parallel universe, those four would make a pretty formidable midfield four, in a 4-4-2, in their own right. Our squad is OK at the moment. Adding Ba and playing Azpilicueta has given us more options. Generally speaking – taking away the grief of Benitez and all of that negativity – there are reasons to be cheerful about this transitional season. Benitez seems reluctant to change from his trusted 4-2-3-1 during a game, and lacks creativity in his substitutions, but I have to be honest and say that the same could have been said of Di Matteo, too.

We were treated to a couple of early exchanges from both teams in the first quarter of an hour. I was very impressed with Brentford in the first game – a match, let’s be honest, that they should have won – and they twice threatened Petr Cech’s goal. As is always the case when lower league teams visit Stamford Bridge, the first few forays by Brentford into our half were enthusiastically roared on by the 6,000 away fans. It was quite endearing really. I remember the days when Chelsea – as underdogs at home against Liverpool in 1982, for example – were similarly roared on every time the ball was played into the opposition’s half. These days, we hardly even clap, unless there is a dramatic one versus one break taking place and the match is tied and going into the last minute of extra-time.

Against a lower level team, I wondered if it really was necessary to play with two defensive midfielders. However it was soon apparent that although Luiz and Lampard were based in front of the defence, both were looking to play the long ball or raid individually via penetrative runs from deep.

Headers from Ivanovic and Ba went close, but a loose shot from Luiz soared high on its way towards Battersea. A falling Oscar managed to guide his shot towards the goal, but the bouncing shot struck the outside of a post. We were treated to a huge slice of good fortune when a Luiz foul on Forshaw was called back by the referee even though the Brentford attack kept going and the ball was struck past Cech. The resulting free-kick struck the wall. Lampard uncharacteristically fumbled a shot from close in. We could hardly believe our eyes. These days, I feel cheated if Frank doesn’t score during a match that I attend. It was, in truth, a mediocre first-half. The Brentford fans, though not as loud as the northerners of Scunthorpe United or Huddersfield Town in similar cup games, out sung us throughout. Victor Moses was out of sorts and Ba hardly touched the ball. There were a few – only a few – boos at half-time.

The banana skin was still there.

Thankfully, we only had to wait eight minutes into the second-half for a breakthrough. A long punt up field from Cech was aimed at Ba. The ball broke to Juan Mata a good twenty yards out. He quickly unpacked his theodolite and rapidly surveyed the terrain, consulted his compass, took measurements of the prevailing weather conditions, did a quick geological assessment, including grass moisture content, and then cleaned his boots. As the ball bounced, he caressed the ball once and then struck it firmly, with an exact aim, right into the corner of the goal.

1-0 to the F.A. Cup holders and Juan Mata raced away to the far corner, smiling in that impish way of his.

Phew.

Our play was a little more pleasing to the eye in the second period, but the crowd still struggled to get behind the team. A great move resulted in our second goal of the game. Eden Hazard had replaced the lacklustre Moses and soon stole the ball from a Brentford midfielder who was obviously caught thinking about what he was going to have for tea later that evening. He spotted the magnificent lung-busting run from Ivanovic and the ball was played perfectly for our charging Serbian to run onto. His perfect pull back was aimed at Oscar. He executed a Zola-esque flick with his trailing foot to guide the ball towards goal. The ball crept in between the legs of a mesmerized Brentford defender, who was obviously wondering “steak and chips or a Chinese take-way” to himself.

2-0.

Phew again.

Alan emphasised what a magnificent run Ivanovic had made in order to create an option for Hazard. I had to agree. It was quite magnificent. Ivanovic is a much-loved part of our team these days. Those two errors against Swansea are long forgotten. We love him to bits.

Five minutes later, a nice move down the left resulted in Juan Mata – always involved – spotting the onrushing Frank Lampard who took great delight in smashing in goal number 199. My only dismay is that I didn’t catch the strike on film, unlike number 198 against Wigan Athletic. At least I caught his joyous celebrations on film immediately after.

3-0.

The icing on the cake – or the salt on the celery – was the fourth goal. A magnificent cross from the increasingly formidable Oscar found the head of John Terry, whose perfect leap dumbfounded both keeper and defender (as they were both going out for an Indian with their respective wives, they were just discussing whose turn it was to drive). I snapped away as John rushed over to the far corner and embarrassed himself with a cringe-worthy celebratory jig. It was, if my memory serves, not unlike the jig that he chose to celebrate his first-ever goal way back in 2000 against Gillingham (and for which he was lampooned amongst his team mates at the time.) At least the ensuing leap and punch was a bit more acceptable.

4-0.

Gary Cahill almost made it a nicely-rounded 5-0 but his shot was blocked by at least nineteen Brentford players a mere eight yards out.

As I drifted out of the stadium, the Brentford fans were applauding their players, but folding up their flags. It was not to be their day. John Terry was soaking up the adulation from the Matthew Harding. “Blue Is The Colour” was being played on the stadium PA system. The shoot-out at high noon had resulted in Chelsea advancing to the fifth round yet again.

Job done.

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Tales From Royal Berkshire

Reading vs. Chelsea : 30 January 2013.

In my desire to be as honest and upfront in these match reports as I possibly can, I have to say that, throughout the day, I wasn’t looking forward to the away game at Reading. It was just as well that the match was taking place just sixty miles up the road. Apart from that, there was little going for it. As I’ve said before, if the current ailments at Chelsea were solely linked to the form of the team, it would be an easier scenario for us all to cope with. However, the added angst amongst the supporters – aimed at the manager and the board – has resulted in attending Chelsea games to be rather depressing at the moment. I usually have to be away from my desk at 4pm for a midweek game at Stamford Bridge but, on this occasion, I joked with a few close friends that I could have the luxury of leaving as late as 6pm and still be there for the 8pm kick-off.

In the end, I worked on until 5.45pm. I had Reading in my sights, but was still not getting the usual match-day “tingle.”

The drive up the M4 was uneventful. With no Parky alongside me, I was alone with my thoughts. Echo and the Bunnymen – the “What Are You Going To Do With Your Life?” album from 1999 – were my sole accompaniment as I drove east. It gave me the chance to remember previous visits to Reading. To my surprise, I realised my last trip to the Madejski Stadium was in August 2007; it seemed a lot more recent. Five and a half years – where does the time go? This was a midweek game which was played in horrible rain that we easily won. I remember being on the phone to Beth just as our second goal was scored. She was watching the game on TV, but there was a slight delay. She heard the roar from the Chelsea fans a few seconds before the goal was scored. That must have been a strange sensation. During the previous season, there was the infamous game involving the Stephen Hunt challenge on Petr Cech, which so upset us all. In that crazy game, Carlo Cudicini was injured too, with John Terry ending up in goal. With Jon Obi Mikel getting sent off, what else could go possibly wrong? Well, my car was broken into during the game and a few items were stolen. Despite the narrow 1-0 win, this wasn’t a great day in our history. It was, however, the perfect coming together of Cockney Rhyming Slang and football since the birth of the game.

“Steve Hunt. Berkshire Hunt.”

The only other previous visit was a League Cup game in December 2003. Chelsea won that game, but the whole evening was a strange one for me; the previous week, a dear friend had undergone a major operation to defeat the threat of cancer and her follow-up examination was due to take place that evening. I watched the game, but my head was obviously miles away during the entire ninety minutes. Never has that silly quote about football being “more important than life or death” seemed more ridiculous. With great relief, a quick phone-call after the cup tie had finished brought the magnificent news of the “all-clear.”

My friend was at the Chelsea versus PSG at Yankee Stadium in July.

Those worrisome days of 2003 seem a long time ago.

On the approach to the Reading exit, the traffic slowed. I started looking at the clock with growing intensity. Surely I wouldn’t be late for my easiest away game of the season? The last couple of miles took ages. At last, I parked my car in one of the last remaining places in a nearby car park. The 60 miles had taken me an hour and forty-five minutes. At 7.45pm – the usual time for a Wednesday kick-off – I was hurriedly walking along the dual-carriageway with the stadium in my sights. I heard a father and son talking about the game. I said a few words and the lad, who was no more than eight, asked me who I thought would win…

“Well, I’m a Chelsea fan…so I fully expect we’ll lose.”

The boy replied “I like Chelsea, too” even though he was wearing a Reading hat. I secretly “tut-tutted” as I walked on. I’ve heard of supporters of lower league teams having a soft-spot for a “larger” team too, but two teams from the same division? That’s just not right, is it?

Modern football. Pah.

The Madejski Stadium is a different beast than Griffin Park. I could have spent a leisurely hour walking around Brentford’s home ground last Sunday, basking in its quirkiness, revelling in its old time feel. In my four visits to Reading’s pad, I am yet to venture further than the away entrance. In many ways it resembles Bolton’s stadium; an out-of-town stadium close to the motorway network and with an adjacent hotel attached. It’s not a bad stadium once inside – it has a few quirky features of its own – but is purely functional from the outside.

In the end, I reached my seat, high above the goal, with no more than two minutes to spare.

Perfect timing. I guess there is a reason why I work in logistics.

I’m not going to the Newcastle away game and was thankful that Bristol Tim was able to take my “spare.” I handed the ticket over just before I ascended the steep terrace to take my seat.

For a change, Alan, Gary and I were towards the rear of the away section. In our application for away season tickets, we have asked for seats in the middle. Not to worry, at least we were there. A quick look around revealed that there were many empty seats in our section. I believe that all of our seats for Reading were sold prior to the game; I guess some fans just didn’t fancy it.

So, the game.

Torres was still in. Not so John Terry. Ivanovic shifted over and Azpilicueta returned. Juan Mata started. Ryan Bertrand retained his place.

The first-half was a turgid affair.

As the Chelsea players struggled to find each other in attacking positions, the real battle was in the stands.

Firstly, the Chelsea and Reading fans exchanged songs.

Chelsea : “Champions Of Europe, We Know What We Are.”

Reading : “We Support Our Local Team.”

Chelsea : “You’ll Never Sing That Song.”

Reading : “You’ll Never Sing That Song.”

…this brought some polite applause from the Chelsea fans, acknowledging a witty response for once.

Chelsea : “We’re Gonna Have A Party, When Rafa Leaves Chelsea.”

Reading : “Get Behind Your Manager.”

Chelsea : “We Don’t Care About Rafa…”

Reading : “Rafa Benitez – He Thinks You’re All Scum.”

So, even the Reading fans were obsessing about Benitez. Down below, in the front section, we noticed a kerfuffle with stewards wading in to separate two Chelsea fans who were very close to coming to blows. I saw one lad spitting at his enemy. Oh dear; is this what it has come to? Although I wasn’t privy to the reasons for the altercation, it’s pretty clear that the two lads weren’t discussing the relative merits of Microsoft and Apple, the differences between the musical styles of Bach and Beethoven or were coming to blows in a heated discussion about which is the best sausage; a Lincolnshire or a Cumberland. It was obvious that the reason for the antagonism was Rafa Benitez.

It was a perfect illustration of what we are going through as Chelsea fans in 2012-2013.

I imagined the conversation.

“Stop booing, get behind the team!”

“Who are you, you mug?”

“Fcuk off you prick.”

“Wanker!”

Chelsea 2012-2013.

Welcome to Roman’s Empire.

To be honest, there was a good (or bad, depending on your point of view), five minute session of anti-Rafa songs in our section. I was annoyed. Keep all that for before or after the game, lads. Support the team during those precious ninety minutes.

We then had to endure the most pathetic Chelsea chant I have witnessed for years. There are large advertisements for Waitrose (an upmarket supermarket, prevalent in the prosperous south-east) around the Madejski and some Chelsea fans decided to use this as a spear of abuse against Reading.

“No noise from the Waitrose boys.”

Alan and I shook our heads.

Almost the only memorable piece of action from the first half was the wayward Torres shot which went off for a throw in.

Yes – as bad as that.

I turned around to Tom and said “I don’t know why I’m here.”

With the interval beckoning, a lovely interchange between Juan Mata and Fernando Torres resulted in a 1-0 lead. Torres’ delightful flick into the path of Mata certainly made up for his wayward shot a few minutes earlier.

I guess this averted more boos at half-time.

Our confidence grew during the second-half. We completely bossed the game, with Reading hardly daring to offer any resistance. As the game drew on, our whole body language changed; where there were extra heavy touches, there were now instinctive first-time passes, little dribbles and flicks. Torres, rolling his foot over ball, caressing the ball, was having a fine game and found himself out on the right with time and space to play in others.

Great chances for Oscar and Torres. We were in complete control.

I captured Frank Lampard’s headed goal on film – what poor marking! – and Alan and I tried to work out how far away he was from Bobby Tambling.

196 – and counting.

At around the 75 minutes mark, the away fans began singing – and kept it going for ten minutes. It was the best bout of singing at a game I have witnessed for ages. Each group of fans sung a separate part…thus keeping sore throats to a minimum.

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

“We Are The Champions.”

“The Champions Of Europe.”

By the end of it – oh dear – I was succumbing to a horrible sore throat, but I kept going.

Proper Chelsea.

The new Demba Ba song was sung with gusto by the fans around me. Did they want to see him make a late appearance? Wayward son Yossi Benayoun came on for Juan Mata. Oscar had another chance to make it 3-0. We were coasting this. An evening of dread was turning into a cracking night out, sore throat notwithstanding.

Then – unbelievable, crushing, damning, preposterous calamity.

Reading substitute Adam Le Fondre beat Turnbull at the near post and – after Ramires had a chance to restore our two goal lead – the same player finished superbly after a ball into the box evaded our defenders. There were three Reading players waiting on the ball to drop and a goal looked a formality. Le Fondre’s finish was immaculate.

It was now the turn of the Reading fans to bounce like fools.

I trudged back to the car. The Reading fans were ebullient. I was deflated.

That’s Chelsea 2012-2013.

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