Tales From The Blue Corner And The Red Corner

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 11 November 2012.

It was early morning on Remembrance Sunday.

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

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

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

A Whispered Tale.

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

Siegfried Sassoon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow. No wonder he was dizzy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francis was happy. I clearly wasn’t.

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

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

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

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

Won 24
Drew 14
Lost 21

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Tales From The South Bronx

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 22 July 2012.

It was all so different in 1989.

My first trip to North America, almost a year in duration, was in 1989. In some ways, it seems like a lifetime away. In other ways – because many of the memories still remain vibrant and strong – it seems like last week. In September 1989, my college mate Ian (with delicious irony, a Rotherham United fan…and yes, he went to our 6-0 defeat in 1981) and I touched down at JFK. Our flight had been delayed due to an almost calamitous malfunction just before take-off at Gatwick. A tyre had burst as the jumbo hurtled down the runway and had flew up into the engine causing severe damage to the engine and our hearts alike. Thankfully, there was enough room left on the runway for the pilot to slow down. Several passengers were visibly shaken, but Ian – on his first ever trip on a plane – remained remarkably calm. We were delayed for eight hours as an alternative plane was located and this resulted in us not getting to New York until around 10pm. Our plans to travel in to Manhattan by bus were jettisoned and our first real sighting of North America was through the dirty windows of a yellow New York cab as it took us on a rather circuitous route through Queens, with the glistening lights of the Manhattan skyscrapers beckoning us closer and closer to the heart of the city. Once over the Brooklyn Bridge, the slow ascent up one of the north-south avenues of Manhattan is a memory that remains strong to this day. The cab driver seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in telling us that a local had been killed just opposite our hostel near Times Square the night before. I can vividly remember trying to fall asleep on the upper bunk in a youth hostel dorm as police sirens wailed outside. My head was spinning. I was scared and exhilarated in equal measure.

Welcome to America.

I remained in North America until June 1990 and my travels took me to many states. We cycled down the east coast, from Virginia to Florida, and I particularly enjoyed the cities of New York, St. Augustine, New Orleans, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle and Vancouver. I snorkelled off the Florida Keys, saw basketball in Denver, baseball in New York and Toronto, ice hockey in Vancouver. In many ways, it was the time of my life.

But throughout that entire ten month period, I only ever bumped into one other Chelsea fan. Before heading down to Florida for one final month, I stopped off in New York for my first ever New York Yankees baseball game. On the day after that momentous match in the South Bronx, I walked over the Brooklyn Bridge and chanced upon an ex-pat wearing a particularly hideous umbro Chelsea training shirt.

Ten months, many cities, many states, many people, but only one other Chelsea fan.

Twenty-two years later, things have changed a million fold.

In 1989, I arrived in America with Chelsea as second division champions.

In 2012, I arrived in America with Chelsea as European champions.

Let’s recap on 2011-2012. Of course, it began on an overcast summer day at a downbeat Fratton Park as the previously trophy-less season under Carlo Ancelotti was laid to rest. The very next day, I flew off to Kuala Lumpur for the first game of the Asia tour. Little did I know, but the season would prove to be the most unbelievable and tumultuous season of my life. Mid-way through it, at the nadir of Andre Villas-Boas’ reign, I had visions of our worst finish for twenty years. The team was in a desolate state of health. The spirit – at Goodison Park especially – was horrendous. Even I was at a low ebb. I began to wonder if my support would be tested during the last painful months of the campaign. That the season would finish with tears of happiness in Munich would have been seen as a simply ridiculous and unattainable vision, conjured by some foolish fantasist.

But the resurgence of Chelsea under Roberto di Matteo on the European trail was just one of a plethora of equally marvellous moments.

Back in October, the SayNoCPO campaign defeated the heavy handed desire by a patronising board of directors to loosen the CPO’s hold on Stamford Bridge. Never have I felt prouder to be a Chelsea fan as we exited that EGM, the club defeated, the fans high on euphoria.

We thumped our old enemies Tottenham 5-1 in the F.A. Cup semi-final and went on to defeat our new enemies Liverpool in the final. It was our fourth such triumph in just six seasons. The youngsters again won the F.A. Youth Cup. Arsenal went trophy less of course. Tottenham too. Manchester United – never my most liked of teams – lost the league title in the most ridiculous and heartbreaking of circumstances in the last few minutes of a long season to arch rivals Manchester City. A trophy for Liverpool unfortunately, but there was a certain element of glee in the way that they celebrated their Carling Cup victory against Cardiff City…on penalties…as if they had won the league. My local team Frome Town enjoyed a strong first season at the highest ever level in their history. A new stand had been built in time for the March 31st deadline and more than a few Chelsea friends in America had donated funds to help. Further afield, my favourite European club team Juventus had christened their first season in their new trim stadium with a championship involving not one single defeat.

With victories against Napoli, Benfica, Barcelona and Bayern, Chelsea had become European Champions for the very first time and – in doing so – had relegated Tottenham to a season in the shadows on Thursday nights.

Munich was the best weekend of my life, the best night of my life.

Yes – 2011/2012 was some season.

Our greatest ever season.

In some ways, there was certain reluctance on my part to even contemplate thinking about the next one. My focus, if anything, was for the World Club Championship, way ahead in December. And Munich was but a heartbeat away. This is a familiar comment from me, but I don’t think I was ready for 2012-2013 to start. Yet again, my main focus as I crossed the Atlantic once more was to meet up again with old friends. The football, most certainly, was of secondary importance.

I flew into Boston on the night of Saturday 14 July. For six days, I relaxed at my own pace, basing myself in the historic town of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I drove up the Maine coast a few times and also inland to Vermont. I’ve had a pretty hectic period at work and I certainly enjoyed the tranquil change of pace.

I caught a train from Boston to Penn Station on Friday 20 July. After almost a week of – in the main – my own company, I was ready for the madness of New York. The tribes were gathering and, despite a torrential downpour on my arrival in Gotham, my fervour could not be dampened.

I was ready for all that New York City – after Stamford Bridge, maybe my third home – could throw at me.

Here are some highlights.

8pm, Friday 20 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Down in the cellar of The Football Factory at Legends, a dark but atmospheric epi-centre of football fandom underneath the considerable shadow of the Empire State Building, the first troops were greeting each other with backslaps and handshakes. I spotted Paul Canoville, wearing a brightly coloured shirt and a trademark baseball cap, who I had met on a couple of occasions before. At the South Station in Boston earlier that day, I had bought a copy of the New York Post. An article had made me giggle and I knew that it would amuse Canners too. The former NBA player Dennis Rodman, while on a tour of The Philippines with an exhibition team, had met his father – the wonderfully named Philander Rodman – for the first time since he was a very young child. There was a photo of them greeting each other. Rodman Senior had been living in Manila for many a year, but I was staggered to read that he had fathered 26 children with 19 different women.

Here was a story to share with Canners, who himself had fathered a similarly large brood, with a variety of women. Canners smiled as I shared the story with him and he enjoyed hearing it, no doubt, but there was another tale, which I did not dare to mention, underneath this one.

Canners was separated from his father too, but memorably met up with his dad for the first time since his childhood on the night at Hillsborough in Sheffield when he tore Sheffield Wednesday to shreds in his greatest ever game for Chelsea. We were 3-0 down at half-time, came back to lead 4-3, only for an infamous Doug Rougvie foul to gift Wednesday a late penalty. I didn’t dare ask him if that emotional meeting had inspired him to greatness on that night in 1985. Some questions are best left unasked.

I had seen his first ever game at Stamford Bridge against Luton Town in May 1982. Thirty years ago. That game – our last game in a mediocre season at the second level – does seem like yesterday. Strange how some games drift off into oblivion, but the memory of Paul Canoville, the local boy from Hillingdon, coming off the bench to be met with a mixed reaction from The Shed is a strong one.

It was great to see him in America.

1pm, Saturday 21 July – Chelsea Piers.

As the fans tournament, involving four teams of Chelsea fans from throughout the US, was coming to an end, I was as nervous as I have been for years. I had been chosen to captain the Chelsea team to play in the Friendship Cup game against Paris St. Germain. When I had heard this news a few weeks back, I was very humbled, certainly very proud, but the over-riding feeling was of fear. I hadn’t played for two months and I was genuinely concerned that I may pull a muscle, or jar my once troublesome right knee, or give away a penalty, or run out of gas after five minutes or just look out of my depth. This is typical of my times in various school football teams over thirty years ago when I would tend to be shackled by fear and a lack of confidence in my ability on the pitch.

Once the game began, my fears subsided and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. We lead 3-1 at the break, but soon allowed PSG to scramble some goals. At 4-4, I managed to squeeze in a goal and my heart exploded. Could we hang on? In the end, PSG went 8-6 up and there was no Canoville-like inspired recovery at the end. Canners, plus Frank Sinclair, were the refs and what a pleasure it was to be on the same football pitch as them both.

Upstairs in the gallery, no doubt making a few humorous comments, was Ron Harris. When I saw my very first game at Chelsea in 1974, Ron was playing. Now, 38 years later, he was watching me play.

Now that, everyone, is just beautiful.

9pm, Saturday 21 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

As a lot of people know, Ron Harris used to live in the town of Warminster, no more than eight miles from Frome, my home on the Somerset / Wiltshire border. It was with growing pleasure – and disbelief – that a few mates and myself got to know Ron rather well. We used to call into his bar on the way home from Stamford Bridge from 1995 to 2000 and he always made us feel very welcome. To see him in New York, thousands of miles from England, was magnificent. I couldn’t help but sidle up to him and tell him that I saw him play around fourteen times for Chelsea, but I was still waiting to see him score a goal…

He, however, had seen me score for Chelsea that very day.

Don’t worry, I got away from him before he could tackle me.

1am, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

My mate Millsy – another season ticket holder – had flown in on work (strangely involving trips to NYC, Philly and Miami – wink) and was regaling us all with some of his rough-and-tumble tales from life on the edges of the murkier aspects of supporting Chelsea. His exploits from Rome in 2008 – when I first met him and the legendary mad Scot Davie – had us rolling in the aisles. From punching a transvestite to waking up in a warehouse after a night on the ale in a Rome night club, to staying a few days in a Spanish jail…the stories came thick and fast. I briefly mentioned that I had turned down the chance to attend a “Q&A” with Ron Gourlay at the Chelsea hotel in Manhattan as I was concerned that I might say the wrong thing. Somebody asked our little group, which included Rick “Funchficker” Finch and Boston Ben, what we would say to Ron Gourlay if we had the chance.

As one, both Millsy and Funchficker said –

“Why are you a c**t?”

1pm, Sunday 22 July – Legends, West 33rd. Street.

Despite the game against PSG not starting until 7pm, I had arrived at Legends bang on midday and awaited the arrival of friends. I soon bumped into Tom, a fellow Chelsea home-and-away season ticket holder, who was revelling in his first ever visit to the US. His comment to me struck a chord.

“This is the most surreal experience I’ve had, Chris. This pub is full of Chelsea, but I don’t know anyone.”

Of course, to Tom, this was akin to supporting Chelsea in a parallel universe. I think he was amazed at the fanaticism from these people who he didn’t personally know. For Tom, it must have been unnerving. This scenario is so different to our experiences in the UK and Europe where the close-knit nature of the Chelsea travelling support has produced hundreds of friendships. In Wigan, in Wolverhampton, in Milan, in Munich, there are faces that are known. On this afternoon in the heart of Manhattan, fans kept entering the pub, with nobody leaving. I wondered if it would collapse with the volume of people in both bars. Thanks to my previous travels to the US with Chelsea, wherever I looked, I managed to spot a few familiar faces. I was sat at the bar, chatting with Scott from DC, his brother David from Athens, Phil from Iowa, Mark from England, Andy from California, Stephen from New Orleans. The blue of Chelsea was everywhere. Down below in the basement, a gaggle of around twenty-five PSG fans were singing, but their chants were being drowned by the boisterous chants of the Chelsea fans.

It dawned on me that, unlike in 1989, the Chelsea fans that I would be encountering were not just English ex-pats or not just Americans of English extraction, but Americans with ancestors from every part of the world. Just the previous week in Portsmouth NH, I had met a young lad who had seen me wearing a pair of Chelsea shorts and had declared himself a massive Chelsea fan. His birthplace? Turkey. I asked him if he was a fan of Galatasaray, of Besiktas or of Fenerbahce, but he said that Chelsea was his team. This frankly amazed me. It confirmed that Chelsea has truly gone global.

The simple truth in 2012 is that people like Tom and me, plus the loyal 5,000 who make up our core support at home and away games in the UK and Europe are in the massive minority amongst our support base. For our millions of fans worldwide, the typical scenario is just what Tom had witnessed at first hand in NYC; a pub in a foreign land, bristling with new Chelsea fans, fanatical for success.

I found that quite a sobering thought.

4.45pm, Sunday 22 July – New York Subway.

I travelled up to the game at Yankee Stadium with Scott and David, plus Josh from Minnesota and Stephen from New Orleans. The idea had been to get the subway bouncing with Chelsea songs, but there were too few of us to kick start this idea. Stephen contributes to the official Chelsea website as “A Blogger From America” and I first met him in Texas in 2009. He is full of football anecdotes and very good company. We swapped humorous tales from the world of football. He spoke of a game in Romania between club sides from Romania and Bulgaria. During the pre-match kick-in, the players heard music being played. The Romanians thought that it was the Bulgarian anthem and so stopped in their tracks and stood still. The Bulgarian players saw this and presumed that the music was of the Romanian national anthem. Both sets of players were stood perfectly still.

The music was from a Coca-Cola commercial.

I had recently seen a similar video. Two teams were lining up at the start of a game, facing one way, as a national anthem was being played. A TV cameraman was jostling for position, holding a huge camera in a hoist around his waist. He lost his footing, stumbled and fell. He lay motionless for a few seconds. As the national anthem played on, a team of medics attended him and he ended up being stretchered off, the two teams trying their hardest to stifle some laughs.

5.30pm, Sunday 22 July – Stan’s Sports Bar.

My friend Roma and her two children Vanessa and Shawn were on their way to find a parking spot near the stadium and so I had told Roma to meet me in “Stan’s”. I have known Roma since that very first trip to America in 1989 and she has been ever-present at all of the Chelsea US tours since 2004. They travelled up from North Carolina on the Saturday and had stayed overnight in New Jersey. Well, knowing Roma and her infamous logistical planning, “New Jersey” could mean anywhere on the eastern seaboard of America.

Roma had briefly called in at “Legends” at about 4pm, but had simply parked her car outside Penn Station. I had told her to rush back in case it got towed. Since she left New Jersey at around 11am, I struggled to understand where she had been for five hours. However, at least she was in New York City. It was a start.

As I waited for them to arrive, I enjoyed a few beers with Josh. “Stan’s” is my bar of choice when attending games at Yankee Stadium. I first ventured inside its cramped, yet atmospheric, interior in 1993. It was then that I became friends with Lou, the owner. I had seen him featured on a sports programme from 1991 when the Yankees were at a low ebb and a TV crew entered a deserted “Stan’s” for opinions. I had recorded the programme on tape – such was my passion for baseball in those days – and I arranged to get a copy sent over for Lou. Ever since that day, I always stopped by for a few words on each visit and I often brought him Chelsea stuff as gifts; a pennant here, a t-shirt there. I forget the number of free bottles of Rolling Rock I have had on the back of this.

Lou now lives in Santa Barbara and flies over for most home stands. I last visited “Stan’s” in 2010 when I was over in the US with my mother. On that occasion, I was so annoyed that I had just missed him. On this occasion, I was so pleased to see him behind the bar and we had a chat about Chelsea playing in Yankee Stadium.

Yes, that’s right.

Chelsea at Yankee Stadium.

When I first heard about this game, I was overcome with happiness. For my favourite team to play at the home stadium of my second favourite team is – to be honest – beyond description.

My trips to the US have been truly blessed. This one would surely top the lot.

Inside “Stan’s,” it didn’t take me long to meet up with three young girls – one dressed in the blue of Cruzeiro – who had obviously done their research and had brought their own little plastic sealed bag of celery. Now, this was a photo opportunity which was too good to miss.

My goodness, it wasn’t like this when I first set foot in New York in 1989.

Chelsea fans. Girls. Celery.

Pass me the smelling salts please, nurse.

My good friends The Bobster, Lottinho, Captain Jack and Speedy arrived and joined the merry throng inside “Stan’s.”

“Where’s Roma now, Chris?”

“Bunker Hill, maybe.”

I had almost given up hope on Roma reaching “Stan’s” in time. It had reached 6.30pm and I promised myself that I wouldn’t be late for the pre-game singing and the anthem. In Baltimore in 2009, Roma arrived fashionably late for the Milan game and I missed Drogba’s goal as I waited outside for her. I had been selected as one of Chelsea’s “fan photographers” for this trip and so I was worried that I might miss some great photo opportunities. I was literally in the process of handing over the envelope with Roma’s three tickets for Lou to take care of until she arrived when Vanessa tapped me on the shoulder.

“Oh boy. Am I glad to see you?”

Finally, I could relax. We headed off into Yankee Stadium to see the European Champions.

More smelling salts please nurse.

7pm, Sunday 22 July – Yankee Stadium.

This was a game in which I needed to be in many different places at once and to be able to do many different things at once. I wanted to be able to meet friends, take photographs, sing songs, concentrate on the game, analyse the behaviour of fellow fans, kick back and relax, compare to previous visits to see the Bronx Bombers and compare to previous Chelsea games in the US.

In the end, it was one glorious blur. It was simply too surreal for me to say too much about to be honest.

However, I see these Chelsea players every ten days back home during the regular season and so it is always my main goal on these trips to look instead at the faces in the stands, the fellow Chelsea in my midst.

What were my findings?

The hardcore of the Chelsea support – maybe 2,000 in total – were spread out along the first base side, like different battalions of confederate soldiers at Pickett’s Charge in Gettysburg, ready to storm the Yankee lines.

Down in the corner, behind home plate, were the massed ranks of Captain Mike and his neat ranks of soldiers from New York. Next in line were the battalion from Philadelphia and the small yet organised crew from Ohio. Next in line were the wild and rowdy foot soldiers of Captain Beth and the infamously named CIA company. On the far right flank stood the massed ranks of the Connecticut Blues who were mustered under the command of Captain Steve.

It was really fantastic to see our section fully adorned with the four official banners which Steve had arranged to bring over from Stamford Bridge (Peter Osgood, Matthew Harding, John Terry and Frank Lampard). They don’t go for banners in American sports in the same way do they?

Within the CIA ranks, where I watched the first-half, the stars were the songsters from Captain Andy’s OC branch, with Steve-O leading the singing with a perfectly pitched “Zigger Zagger.” Nearby, Ben, Shawn and Nick from the Boston branch were ably assisting the support of the team.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9j_6q…&feature=g-upl

However, as the play developed on the pitch in front of us, quite a few noticed that the singing was rather intermittent and there were pockets of Chelsea fans that were quite happy to sit and keep still and keep silent.

More than a few of us sung the sadly truthful “our support is fcuking shit” fighting song in an attempt to shame the silent ones into belated action.

On the pitch, a deflected shot gave Paris St. Germain a narrow 1-0 lead at the break.

I had told Roma to head up to my section as soon as she could, but there was no sign of her. At half-time, I wandered down to see if I could spot her. Thankfully, despite stringent ticket checks by an over-efficient Yankee steward, I managed to sneak in alongside Roma, Vanessa and Shawn who were sitting, unknowingly, very close to Ron Harris and Paul Canoville among the New York Blues. This was the first time that I had met Shawn, who has the curly locks of David Luiz and a wonderful personality. He is only five. I even caught him singing “Chelsea” a few times. That boy has a great future ahead of him.

I was now able to take photographs from a different perspective; two views for the price of one.

In truth, the game wasn’t fantastic. With our players attacking the goal in left field, underneath the 500 PSG fans, I found it even more difficult to concentrate on the game.

It was fantastic to see John Terry back on the pitch. I took several photos of him adjusting his armband after taking over from Frank. The noise which greeted him was the loudest of the night.

The stadium was nowhere near full. The new stadium holds just over 50,000 and the attendance was given as just 38,000. However, I think that this was total ticket sales. I honestly think that the actual number of attendees was only around 30,000. Compared to 71,203 in Baltimore in 2009, I’d imagine that Chelsea will be disappointed. However, the vast majority of spectators inside were favouring Chelsea. And PSG aren’t Milan.

As the second half continued, the Chelsea fans in the seats along the third-base side (the area not dedicated as being solely Chelsea), mustered a chant of their very own. It mirrored the chant – the bog standard US sports team chant – which we witnessed in Arlington in 2009.

“Let’s Go Chelsea.”

I know I grumbled about this in 2009, but I was more favourable this time around. I couldn’t fault their desire to get involved. However, I just hope that there were a few neutrals or a few new Chelsea fans who had been inspired by the singing of the massed ranks on the first base side.

Apart from the players putting on a show, it’s just as important that we, the fans, put on a show too.

To this end, mid-way through the second period, I screamed out a blood-curdling “Zigger Zagger” of my own which got everyone singing and which elicited a wide grin from Canners to my left.

A neat finish from substitute Lucas Piazon gave us a share of the spoils, for which we were so relieved.

At the end of the game, Paul Canoville kindly posed for a few photographs with Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

It was the perfect end to an amazing few hours in the South Bronx.

Late night, Sunday 22 July – Manhattan.

Roma had to race off to collect her car and I joined up with Captain Jack, Lottinho and Speedy as we caught a slow-moving train back to Manhattan. In our carriage, we chatted to a few Chelsea fans from Toronto who were in the middle of a crazy footy and baseball road trip.

Back at Legends, I realised that my voice was fading. I devoured a few more beers as I chatted to more friends before heading off with Lottinho and Speedy for a late night snack at a classic American diner.

In the city that never sleeps, it was time to get some shut-eye.

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Tales From A Lucky One

Chelsea vs. Wigan Athletic : 7 April 2012.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No Plymouth?”

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

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

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

Chelsea 8 Wigan Athletic 0.

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

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

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

“Miracles never cease” exclaimed Alan.

“Well, it is Easter” I replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please take a gun to my head if this happens.

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

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

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

What then happened really sickened me; Sturridge was booed.

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

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

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

1-1.

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

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

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

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

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

2-1.

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

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

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

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

Mine’s a Peroni.

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Tales From Friday Night And Saturday Afternoon

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 14 January 2012.

I had a few things to do in Frome on Saturday morning. This delayed my start, but I left to collect Parky at about 9.45am. The countryside was white with frost and the sky was magnificent; cloudless and perfect. I had heard a few shots from a local shooting party (pheasants, not deer or foxes) ringing out in the clear winter air as I left the village. As I headed out towards Great Elm, I had a niggling bout of anxiety; it would have been nice to go out with my camera on this particular morning and take a few atmospheric shots of the Somerset countryside. I could lose myself in the quietness of it all, enjoy the moment, breath in some frosty air, and get some exercise.

But no. Chelsea were at home and I was on my way to my 210th consecutive home match.

These weekends are set in stone by now.

It occurred to me recently that I am not distracted with many other hobbies. Of course, I love travel, music and films, but so do most people. Photography ticks a few boxes for me, but I’m otherwise free of diversions. Other sports, save baseball, have fallen by the wayside and although I have a passing interest in a few other sports, football – or more importantly Chelsea – is it for me. I blame Ossie and my parents. Ossie for making me fall in love with Chelsea Football Club. My parents for taking to my first ever Chelsea game almost 38 years ago; once I ascended the steps up into the old West Stand and saw the verdant Stamford Bridge pitch, I was hooked.

Big time.

I collected Parky at 10.15am, refuelled with petrol and a McBreakfast at Melksham, and we were on our way. I had arranged to meet a couple of friends and continually updated them with later and later times of arrivals as I headed east. I dipped into Reading to collect my good friend Russell, who had just relocated there from South London. He gave us a quick tour of the house, a further coffee apiece and we were then headed towards The Smoke.

Russ is from Frome and used to come up with Glenn and me in the 1994 to 1997 period before he went to university in Birmingham. We caught up with each other as we drove along the M4 and I spoke particularly of the previous evening. On Friday, Parky and I attended another Ron Harris evening. This was for the fourth time in 14 months. We must know every anecdote word for word by now. This time, the venue was only five miles away and the evening was especially pertinent; it was a fundraiser in aid of the Frome Town new stand appeal. Only around 40 to 50 attended, but the evening was a huge success. It was held in a cosy bar at a local hotel and the intimacy made the evening. Over £1,000 was raised during the evening and the small room was soon rocking with laughter at Ron’s stories.

Good company, good beer, good food, plenty of laughter – a perfect way to spend three hours in deepest Somerset.

Amidst the tales of Tommy Docherty team talks, Peter Bonetti quips, battles with Emlyn Hughes and many stories, said in awe, of Peter Osgood and George Best, there were a couple of new anecdotes.

Ron Harris soon made it clear that he had been no fan of the former Chelsea manager Geoff Hurst. Early in the pre-season of 1979-1980, the playing squad were enjoying some banter in the changing rooms at the training ground. They were waiting for Hurst to come in and lead the training. A ‘phone call came through from Geoff Hurst and a young apprentice answered. Hurst asked the young lad to bring two cups of tea through to the manager’s office. Well, the banter was flying around and the apprentice completely forgot to take the two drinks through for Hurst and his assistant Bobby Gould. After about ten minutes, Hurst ‘phoned again and repeated his request.

“Sorry, gaffer, I forgot” apologised the trainee.

Hurst was annoyed and retorted “Do you know who I am?”

The trainee replied “Yeah, you’re Geoff Hurst, the Chelsea manager. Do you know who I am?”

“No.”

“Well, in that case, get the fcuking teas yourself.”

One other comment made me smile. One chap asked Ron Harris what he thought of Arsenal’s playing style and of their chances during the season.

“Well, to be honest, I couldn’t care less about Arsenal. Chelsea is my club.”

This was a telling comment since Ron grew up in Hackney as an Arsenal supporter and attended games at the old Highbury stadium with his father during his childhood.

As we headed down the M40, Russ and I spoke back to his very first game at Stamford Bridge. This had taken place a full twenty years after my first game in 1974. On a sunny afternoon, we watched from the temporary seats at the Shed End as we saw Chelsea beat Norwich 2-0 in the opening game of the 1994-1995 season. Russ’ first ever Chelsea game had been four years earlier in early 1990. And quite a game too – Bristol City 3 Chelsea 1 in the F.A. Cup; a game which was quite notorious at the time…a heavy defeat of a Division One team by a Division Three team. It was a bloody good job for me that I was in Vancouver at the time, not in Frome; I would have endured untold grief from my friends. In the League Cup in that same season, we had lost to Scarborough – and I was in Fort Lauderdale when that particular monstrosity occurred…again, thank heavens.

Ironically, I had only just seen highlights on YouTube a day or so earlier of the game at Ashton Gate.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k9-1ZRpiox8

We spoke a little about Gary Cahill and, in particular, the protracted negotiations which have taken forever to resolve. We had heard rumours he would be at the match. I asked Russell if he could remember the last bona fide northerner to play for Chelsea. Not only have our English players been rare of late, they have usually been from the south. Sure Daniel Sturridge is from Birmingham, but who was the last Chelsea player to come from the ‘proper’ north; Yorkshire, Lancashire and above?

Russ came up with a great answer. More of that later.

Surprisingly, the traffic was clear and I was parked-up at 1.30pm. It did feel strange to be arriving at a – absolutely rammed – Goose so much later than usual. Russ bought me a pint and I quickly spotted the usual gaggle of mates in the corner. My mate Paul, from my paternal grandmother’s home town of Poole in Dorset, had arranged to meet me and we had a chat out in the less-crowded beer garden. He has eyes on the upcoming US Tour and we chatted about that for more than a couple of minutes. We are just waiting for dates to be announced by Chelsea and we’ll then get moving.

My other pre-match guest arrived at about 2pm; I had first met Jesus from California at the last game of the 2010-2011 season, that dour performance at Goodison Park. He announced to me – via CIA – that he had been successful in applying for an internship in London and was in town for four months. What a lucky chap.

Is anyone jealous?

This reminds me of Farmer John (mgoblue06) who was over at Reading university in 2009 and was able to join in with our little band of brothers in our weekly pilgrimages to watch the boys in royal blue. I last saw said Farmer John at Baltimore in 2009 and I guess he has, sadly, fallen by the wayside.

Jesus – you have to pronounce it with a certain Latin lilt – was absolutely buzzing to be able to be in London and was hoping to get to as many Chelsea games as he can afford. He hoisted up his Chelsea shirt to reveal a large Chelsea tattoo on his shoulder blades and Parky and I were impressed with his fanaticism. We retuned inside and Jesus was able to meet a couple more of my mates, both who no doubt bamboozled him with London patois.

“Don’t fackin worry, mate, we’ll soon ‘ave you tawkin’ like a Londonah by April, shun.”

Jesus was keen to down another pint, but it was 2.30pm and we needed to make a move. I walked down past the multinational grocery shops of the North End Road. He reminded me of his previous Chelsea matches –

Home to Tottenham, away to Valencia, Blackburn Rovers in the F.A. Cup semi-final at Old Trafford and away at Everton.

This would be his fifth Chelsea game.

It will be great for me to report on his findings about English football culture over the next four months; who knows, by the end of that period, his Chelsea replica shirt might even be replaced by a Fred Perry, a Rene Lacoste or a Ralph Lauren.

I reached the Matthew Harding Upper just in time to catch Steve Mantle helping to unfurl the “Carefree Since 1905” flag.

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

OK, game time. Clear skies on a cold afternoon, about a thousand Mackems, very few empty seats, the pitch in good condition, Jesus down in the MHL, Russ next to Alan and me, a settled defence, Torres upfront for us and the idiot Bendtner upfront for Sunderland. Three points please my Blue Boys.

In the first few minutes, we had an early scare as a Sunderland attack ended up with a ball rattling across the six yard box. But then we had all of the ball and we were playing reasonably well for the first period of the game. Our goal came on just thirteen minutes. The ball found its way to Ramires on the right before he moved it on to Juan Mata who lofted a ball which arced over the heads in the Sunderland defence. Torres was waiting on the far post, but the ball seemed to be above and beyond him. In an amazing piece of artistry – for that is what it was – Nando jumped, fell back, and swung his right leg high above his waist. He connected with a magnificent volley which flew goal wards.

Surely not.

In a split second the ball ricocheted off the bar, but the crowd roared. In another split second, I tried to evaluate if the ball had indeed gone over the line…my initial celebrations were muted, but I then roared once I knew that a goal had been given. I didn’t know how the goal had been scored.

Did Torres’ effort bounce down and go in?
Did it go on to bounce off the far post and go in?
Did it go in off the ‘keeper?

Only when the name of Frank Lampard was flashed up on the scoreboard did I know what had happened. It was a total blur. But there, in a passage of play which had taken no more than one second to play itself out was an encapsulation of the enigma of Fernando Torres; the magnificence of his effort, but yet no goal to his name. Happiness and melancholy. Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. What has this player got to do to score more goals in Chelsea blue? If I was to add all of the narrow misses, the strikes on woodwork and the last minute blocks that he has suffered over the past year, I am sure he would be on 15 Chelsea goals and not just 5.

Such is football. It can be a fickle friend.

As if to emphasise this point, a delightful dink from Ramires to Torres was met with a firm header on goal. With the ‘keeper elsewhere, the ball was headed clear of the line by a covering defender.

Make that 16 goals.

Despite the Chelsea lead, the biggest cheer of the first-half was when the Wolves goal at Tottenham was flashed on the screen above the Mackems.

The best Sunderland effort on goal in the first-half came from Bendtner, but his shot was dragged just wide of Petr Cech’s far post, with the ‘keeper beaten. The temperature was dropping by the minute and I jealously eyed the gloves being worn by both Russ and Alan. A Torres spin and shot flew past the Sunderland goal.

At half-time, Alan Hudson was introduced by Neil Barnett and he was applauded by the home faithful. How the passage of time affects some more than others; John Hollins is older than Hudson yet looks 15 years younger. I had a chat with Gary at the break. He now sits ten yards away and can often be heard barking out abuse at referees and players alike. He’s quite an attraction. He pointed out to me a chap who was sat just in front of him, blatantly wearing a red, white and black Sunderland scarf. Now, I’ll be honest, I’ve had friends of other teams sat next to me on a few occasions, but never have I seen an away scarf in the home areas at The Bridge before.

Shocking.

Back to the question about the last northerner; Russ suggested the flying full-back Terry Phelan, the wing back from Manchester, but although technically correct, Alan reminded us that he was officially an international for Ireland.

So – any advance on Terry Phelan?

The first-half had been one of mainly Chelsea pressure, but few chances. The midfield was solid, but creativity was in scant supply. As the game progressed, Russ and I repeated the Chelsea mantra of “we need a second” every few minutes, like a beating metronome. I commented that we were playing like an away team, with our attacks being limited to occasional breaks.

On 51 minutes, Torres was released and bared down on the Sunderland goal, but his strong shot was saved at the near post. Within two minutes of play, the referee Phil Dowd waved away three penalty shouts at both ends; first, a block on Torres, second a trip by Mignolet on Mata and third a shove by Ashley on Bendtner.

Sunderland, being cajoled by Martin O’Neil on the touchline, were fighting for every ball now and had a few good chances. McClean wasted a very good chance as he bobbled the ball wide following a cross by Larsson.

Next, fury as Fernando Torres was booked by Dowd for diving inside the penalty area. Torres looked crestfallen and pleaded with the referee for leniency, but it was not to be.

It was a huge surprise for me to see Michael Essien come off the bench in the last twenty minutes. How we have missed his physical presence and his bursting runs. To be honest, the Essien of yore may be long gone as his injuries are bound to take their toll. With our weaknesses at right back, I wonder if the manager has remembered that Essien played ahead of Ferreira in that position at the Luzhniki in 2008? The Bison thundered over from close in. The home fans groaned again.

Our last real chance came when the quiet Meireles calculatingly chipped from distance, but the Sunderland custodian back-peddled and tipped over. To be honest, both Romeu and Meireles had been quiet. Sunderland had a late charge and the nervousness of the crowd was mirrored by the team. Careless punts from Cech, crazy runs upfield from Luiz and misplaced passes by everyone heightened the sense of anxiety. At times our play in the final few minutes was laughable.

There were, however, more groans to come. In the final two minutes, Gardner shot wide from a central position after the impressive Sessignon drove past two defenders and then, the last move, Luiz was completely out-thought by Bendtner but the useless ex-Gooner bundled the ball over.

My goodness, it hadn’t been pretty. Chelsea had kept us on tenterhooks for eighty minutes. Sunderland had deserved a draw, no doubts.

All together now – phew.

One of the games of the season next Saturday; the long-awaited excursion to rural Norfolk and the game with Norwich City, a 470 mile round-trip, nine hours of driving and I for one can’t wait.

Mow that meadow.

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Tales From The Unbeaten Run

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 30 April 2011.

Another amazing game, another wonderful day in London, another busy day with friends. If there is a slight chance that these days, these games and these match reports get to sound eerily similar and contain the same happy themes, I for one will only be too glad. It would be churlish for anyone to complain. Chelsea Football Club – or, at least this current team – continue to surprise me with their spirit and determination. Who knows where this will end this season? Just two weeks ago, we travelled to West Brom with no thoughts of the title. Now – who knows?

Admittedly, we got two massive pieces of luck against Tottenham, but we were due our little piece of good fortune.

The Journey.

Just outside of Frome, I dropped in to a farm shop and bought a few pints – in a clear plastic container – of Somerset Scrumpy for Michigan JR, who had expressed an interest in this lethal drink last week against West Ham. Soon after, I collected Lord Parky at just after 10am and it was a perfect drive in. We commented that we could hardly believe that there were only four games left in 2010-2011. The time has flown by these past few weeks. The end is in sight, damn it. The skies were lovely and clear. A slight breeze. Not so much traffic. Good vibes. We briefly discussed the team and possible formation. We wondered if Carlo would go with a 4–4–2 and employ Ramires wide right to counter the threat of Gareth Bale. However, 4-4-3 has worked these past two weeks, so big decisions for Carlo.

The Music.

New Order from 2001 and The Killers from 2004.

Lloyds.

We were parked-up at a quiet Chesson Road at bang on midday. With five-and-a-half hours to go until kick-off, we were well ahead of the game. Just as well, we had lots to do. You know how it is. We raced down to Fulham Broadway and met up with some friends from North America. Beth was there with Dave from Toronto (formerly from Essex) but also the lovely Texas JR – and his wife, Grace – from San Antonio. JR is the elder statesman of CIA and is well respected. I brought ten old Chelsea programmes, dating from as far back as 1947, to show the guests from across the pond. JR was lapping it up, commenting on former players Roy Bentley and Len Goulden. Next to arrive was Ben (nuhusky13) from Boston, via Poughkeepsie, along with Steve and Darren Mantle. A big welcome to him; this would be his first ever game at The Bridge after arriving on Friday. He was clearly buzzing and it was lovely to feel his enthusiasm. Steve and Darren had a treat for him – they went off to find Dave Johnstone and help realign some of the match day flags and banners which give The Bridge such a distinctive feel.

The veterans from last week, Anna, Dennis and JR, then arrived and joined us for a few drinks. I don’t often go into Lloyds, but it’s not a bad place. Lloyds is just one of the 25 or so pubs and bars which are within a 15 minute walk from the stadium. We’re pretty lucky with respect to that. Lots of cafes and restaurants too – many have gone upmarket of late, but that’s typical of England.

Ben came back to join us and he had another Stella. However, I was concerned that we needed to move on. I gathered the troops and we set off.

The Hotel.

Thankfully, we just managed to grab a few special moments with Ron Harris in the hotel bar. I took a couple of photographs of Ben with Chopper and then sat down beside them briefly. Ben is a fellow Yankee fan and I had been wearing my NYY cap. I placed it down on the table in front of us.

“There you go Ben. You’ve made it to Stamford Bridge. You’re sat next to Ron Harris and there’s a Yankee cap right in front of you.”

Ben quickly replied – “It would be better if Chopper was wearing the Yankee cap.”

Everyone laughed and – for a split second, I toyed with the idea of getting Ron to put it on. I quickly decided against it. I slipped off to the bar and left Ben to chat with Chopper. I’m not sure what was said, but I am sure Ben has some extra special memories of those five minutes. Again, he repeated the comment that “this just wouldn’t happen” in America. It would be like myself sitting down next to Yogi Berra for a quick natter at my first ever Yankees game.

“Yogi – hiya, mate. I’ve got this Chelsea cap…”

We met Gill and Graeme again – always a pleasure – and then we just happened to be at the right place at the right time as Kerry Dixon arrived downstairs. Another photograph with Ben. Lucky boy. Just before we left the hotel, Hilario appeared and posed for a photo with Gill. It was now 3.15pm and we needed to move on again.

The Pelican.

Parky, Michigan JR, Ben and myself slipped down to another boozer, The Pelican, positioned halfway between the Fulham and Kings Roads. I had arranged to meet my good pal Pete – from San Francisco – who I first met at the Chelsea vs. Bluewings game in LA in 2007. Sadly, Pete lost his father last week and I just wanted to personally pass on my condolences. I needed to make a phone call, so just popped outside for a split second. I looked up and saw the face of an old mate, Roger, suddenly appear. I used to work with Rog about 15 years ago in Trowbridge and we went to a few games together. I had lost contact with him and – get this – he presumed I had stopped going. What a lovely moment. He was on his way to The Imperial but spent ten minutes with me, catching up. He now lives down in Exmouth. Great to see him.

In Chelsealand, it’s never a small world.

The Goose.

We eventually made it to The Goose at 4pm and I was just happy to have completed my circuit. Another Coke, photos with Ben and JR in the packed beer garden, chat with the boys. The usual mix of replica shirts for some, designer gear for others. None of my mates were wearing The Crocodile – Lord Parky in a black Fred Perry, myself in a light orange Boss – but I have to say that I saw many lads sporting the classic polo of Rene Lacoste on this most summery of days. Even after all these years – in football circles, 1981 to date – there is nothing like the sumptuous quality of a Crocodile.

Ben was now in Chelsea Heaven, sipping on another Stella. A quick chat with Neil about baseball – Mickey Mantle, no relation of Steve and Daz, I guess – just to make him feel at home.

Good times.

No – the greatest of times.

Let’s just take a moment to reflect.

A sunny day in London. In the beer garden with ten or so of my very best mates. Lads I can trust and rely on. Mates who share a common bond, but also the same sense of humour, the same outlook on life, the same joy of sharing our friendships with others. Six years ago to the day, we were all together at Bolton watching our beloved club of illustrious underachievers, much maligned for decades, finally put the ghosts of 1955 behind us and lift the League title once again. On the day that our captain, derided by many, loved by us, would be playing his 500th first-team game. Ah, these are good times. Don’t let the nay-sayers tell you otherwise.

I walked JR and Ben down to the Fulham Broadway at about 4.45pm and pointed them in the direction of HQ. Fulham Broadway – formerly Walham Green, to give it the former name – is our own little Piccadilly Circus and Times Square rolled in to one. It’s where five roads converge and it’s where I watched on with joyous glee as our 1997 and 2000 F.A. Cup victories were gloriously celebrated. It’s where thousands of Chelsea fans alighted at the old red-brick tube station and then imbibed gallons and gallons of beer and spirits at the immediate vicinity’s three or four pubs. From there on in, the Fulham Road is closed to thru-traffic and you get a real sense of place walking past the Hammersmith & Fulham town hall and the CFCUK stand to the right, Bob the T-Shirt’s stall to the left, Chubby’s Grill to the right. Fanzines and scarves, charity collections, voices, songs, laughter.

There had been rumours of a Spurs presence on the North End Road, but nothing materialised. JR had asked me in the pub where away fans drink and I had to tell him that I really didn’t know. Up by Earls Court, maybe. As I approached the West stand, I realised that I hadn’t seen a single Spurs fan all day.

No last minute downpour this week.

I reached my seat at 5.15pm. Not a cloud in the skies. A very slight breeze. Chelsea weather. A bloody perfect day.

Neil Barnett spoke of the anniversary of the 2005 title – with a few pointed barbs aimed at the away fans, 1961 and all that – in the far corner and the two Lampard goals were shown on the big screens. Surprisingly, the crowd didn’t really react and this saddened me.

“Oh God – I hope we are up for it today. This is Tottenham. Nothing else matters.”

Zoom lens out, I tried to locate Ben, JR, Beth and co, but no luck.

The teams were announced and I took a few moments attempting to work out if we were going back to a 4-4-2.

The Game.

We began brightly, but the first real chance fell to Pavlyuchenko, who shot wide after Ivanovic slipped. Didier, playing wide it seemed, played in Frank but his shot was deflected wide for a corner. I took a photo of Didier about to slam a viciously dipping free-kick which slammed against the bar from a good 35 yards out. Gomes got a touch, but only just. However, a little bout of tardy marking from a throw-in presented Sandro the ball and he unleashed an unstoppable effort which crashed past Petr Cech. As the ball dropped down inside the net, I could hardly believe it. The away team ran off to celebrate with the Spurs management team and it was a hideous sight.

“OK – let’s keep going. We have ages to equalise. Keep calm.”

Fernando Torres, playing in a variety of central positions – sometimes in the hole, sometimes on the shoulder of the last man, sometimes in the channels – was full of energy and seemed revitalised after his goal last week. Some of his passing was sublime. However, a lot of the balls needed him to be on the end of…

Essien headed over and, from the corner which followed, a glancing header from Drogba bounced up at Torres, who could not react quick enough and headed over from close in.

“Oh when the Spurs…”

On 34 minutes, a lovely shimmy from a rampaging Ivanovic fooled the entire 41,000 but his brave run into the box was snuffed out. Yet again – despite tons of possession – we appeared to be over-passing and the crowd were again restless. After a bright half an hour, Torres was now quiet. With the half-time break approaching, the ball broke to Lampard.

“Go on Frank – shoot.”

Thankfully, he took my advice and hit a low swerving shot straight at Gomes. The Spurs ‘keeper, always prone to horrendous gaffs, did not stop the ball and it seemed to go through him. Despite a desperate lunge to keep the ball from crossing the line, the crowd were up and celebrating, claiming the goal.

Time stood still.

I looked at the linesman, who didn’t seem to be doing anything. The Chelsea players seemed to be hounding the referee. What was going on? I wasn’t sure, but there was a sudden roar from the Chelsea fans. A massive sigh. We’ll take it.

Amazingly, Malouda was through – one on one – just after but couldn’t connect. As the players strode off at the break, the home fans were baiting the Tottenham ‘keeper, with echoes of chant with which we serenaded David Seaman in 1995 –

“Let’s all do the Gomes” (with flailing arms).

The texts had arrived at the break to say that the goal hadn’t completely crossed the line. Oh well – even better! After the World Cup debacle in the summer, Fat Frank was entitled to a little luck.

As the Spurs ‘keeper took his place in front of the baying Matthew Harding Stand at the commencement of the second period, the Chelsea fans applauded him wildly and he looked bemused…or confused. I don’t know – the bloke looks flustered and confused all the time if you ask me.

Another bludgeoning run from Ivanovic caused problems for the Spurs defence, but he was stopped short with a decidedly dodgy tackle. I took another photograph of a Drogba free-kick from way out and this one again dipped. This was straight at the nervous Gomes, but he just stuck out his hands and never really attempted to save it “properly.” The ball bounced down, but nobody could get on the end of it. We sensed Gomes’ fear and we wanted his blood.

“Let’s all do the Gomes.”

Ramires on for Essien. Maybe a knock, but happy with Ramires joining the fray.

On the hour, the Chelsea crowd – at last – sang as one and the noise roared around The Bridge.

“Carefree – Wherever you may be. We are the famous CFC.”

Torres, jinking here and there, such lovely close control, was looking good, so it was a shock to see him replaced by Kalou.

I had a feeling that the referee had been told that the Chelsea goal “wasn’t” during the break and so would be loath to reward us any 50-50 decisions in the second period. On 68 minutes, we broke into the penalty area – contact.

But no penalty.

The Bridge – me included – was incensed. We howled and howled.

I remained confident that the goal would come. I was nervous that Jermaine Defoe came on as a Spurs substitute and I was hoping that Modric would not feed him. However, Spurs rarely threatened Pet’s goal in that second-half and we continued our assault on Gomes’ goal. A Lampard shot flew wide after nice interplay between Didier and Nico, now on as a substitute.

The clock was ticking.

Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick. Tick.

A move down below me and we suddenly had extra blue shirts everywhere. We watched on as the ball was played in to Didier and he had his typical run with the ball – shielding it well. Anelka made a move, but almost got in Didier’s way…oh boy! Thankfully, Didier remained in control of the ball and sent the ball in to the six yard box.

An outstretched leg – Kalou – and the ball was played into the goal. The ball hit the back of the net – what a gorgeous sight – and The Bridge went wild.

YESSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSSS.

Such noise. Such joy. Tottenham – we’ve done you again! I picked up my camera and snapped the Chelsea players down below me. The expressions on their faces were euphoric. David Luiz was screaming with ecstasy. A lone Chelsea fan raced across and jumped on Frank Lampard. The celebrations continued, but the stewards were now trying to get the fan off the pitch. Luiz and Lampard pleaded with the stewards to be lenient with the fan – there was obviously no malice – and were doing their level best to calm the fan down, too.

Calm down? Easier said than done.

Alan – “They’ll have to come at us now.”
Chris – “Come on my little diamonds.”

Down below, three rows in front of me, Big John began banging the metal hoarding of the MH balcony and the whole Matthew Harding, and then what seemed the entire ground joined in.

“BANG BANG – CLAP CLAP CLAP – CLAP CLAP CLAP CLAP – CHELSEA.”

The final whistle and we were bouncing. Another Chelsea win over Spurs at The Bridge. Lovely, lovely stuff.

The Chelsea PA played the new crowd favourite “One Step Beyond” and for a minute or so we all bounced along…as it played out, the last bars fading, we were left with the sound of the Matthew Harding singing, deep, resonant, defiant…to the sound of “Tom Hark.”

“We hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham, we hate Tottenham.”

I spotted JT, his 500th game over, and he was caught up in the moment. Screaming at us – screaming with joy.

Smiles all over my face at the end – “see you at Old Trafford, Al” – and my immediate thoughts were with young Ben, over there in the Shed Lower. I really wondered if he was still in orbit. I bounced down the Fulham Road and Big Pete told me that Kalou’s goal was offside.

“Even better. Happy days.”

Back at the car, I handed over the container of Scrumpy to JR and I realised that he had just enjoyed a week that he would never ever forget. He took a swig of the potent, smoky brew and said –

“Wow.”

Wow indeed.

The Journey Home.

We pulled out of Chesson Road at 8pm and Parky could hardly speak. What a fantastic week it has been. A coffee stop at Heston and some Stranglers for the rest of the journey home. Since 1990, we have now played Tottenham at home in the league on 21 occasions and we have remained undefeated in every single one of them.

1990 to 2011 – and so it goes on.

I reached home at 10.45pm just in time to see the “Match of the Day” team dismissive of our 4-3-3 shape and apoplectic about our two goals.

You know what? I couldn’t care less.

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Tales From Heroes And Villains

Chelsea vs. Aston Villa : 2 January 2011.

It was time for the Three Wise Men to be on the road again. I collected Glenn from Frome at 8am and Parky soon after. With the rest of the South of England recovering from the excesses of New Year’s Eve, never has the M4 motorway been so devoid of traffic. The 110 miles were completed in double-quick time and, at just after 10am, the three of us were tucking into a Full English at the Yadana Café on Lillie Road. Of course, during the previous day, all of our natural rivals had ground out wins (even the lowly but despised West Ham United had won…) and now the focus was on us. On a rare occasion of annoyance with football, I had deliberately avoided the football highlights on “Match of the Day” on the Saturday night – instead I watched a whole night devoted to the much-loved comedy duo Morecambe and Wise on BBC2.

Eric Morecombe is playing the piano.

Andre Previn, the musical conductor – “But you’re not playing the right notes.”

Eric Morecombe – “…I’m playing all the right notes…pause…but not necessarily…pause…in the right order.”

As we wolfed down our eggs, bacon, sausages, baked beans and black pudding, we re-emphasised the need for us to defeat an Aston Villa team which had been on a dire run of form under Gerard Houllier. With Bolton defeated, we were faced with a run of games against teams – Villa, Wolves and Blackburn Rovers – which could and should give us maximum points.

I had recently purchased a new book on Chelsea Football Club, “When Football Was Football – Chelsea – A Nostalgic Look at a Century of the Club,” and I had brought this up on the car ride for Glenn and Parky to take a look at. This book is stacked full of previously unseen photographs from the Daily Mirror and I certainly enjoyed pouring over classic photos of past-players such as Hughie Gallacher, Roy Bentley, Peter Bonetti and Charlie Cooke. If there is one player from our distant past who I would love to know more about, it is the fiery, pint-sized Scottish centre-forward Gallacher. His demeanour in photos suggests a massive personality. The tough Scottish up-bringing, his time on Tyneside, the big money move to London, the goals, the temper, the fall from grace and the eventual suicide. That has to be a story worth telling.

A few photographic highlights from “When Football Was Football” –

1922 – a panoramic view of the wide bowl of Stamford Bridge during the F.A. Cup Final between Huddersfield and Preston.

1924 – the King being introduced to the players of the Chicago White Sox and New York Giants before a baseball game at The Bridge.

1931 – a classic shot of the trio Andy Wilson, Hughie Gallacher and Jackie Crawford in suits, bowler hats and thick overcoats in the London fog on the old forecourt.

1945 – an outside photograph of the swarming crowds locked outside the stadium at the Moscow Dynamo game, with hundreds standing on The Shed roof.

1953 – Chelsea vs. Arsenal – a shot from the dog track – with hundreds sitting on the grass between the old East stand and the pitch…and around fifty on the East stand roof.

1961 – a bemused Jimmy Greaves – in the blue shirts, white shorts, white socks – in the centre circle on the occasion of his last ever game for us, the steep west terrace behind.

1964 – a brilliant colour shot of Ron Harris, aged just twenty, arms crossed, proud.

1965 – a lovely photo of Barry Bridges, Joe Fascione, John Hollins, Bert Murray and Marvin Hinton, sipping coffee in a London café…the old Stamford Bridge Café opposite the town hall if I am not mistaken.

1966 – the look of pain on the faces of George Graham, John Hollins, Terry Venables and Ron Harris as they learn of getting Liverpool in the F.A. Cup.

1967 – the Chelsea wives crying after defeat by Tottenham in the Cup Final.

1980 – fans entering the Shed turnstiles – £2.00 – and an old red / green / white bar scarf being born by a youth in the foreground.

1981 – angry fans on the pitch in protest after the last game – a loss to Notts County – and a broken Shed End cross-bar. We were a right bunch of b******* when we lost.

1984 – Kerry Dixon triumphant, Leeds defeated, promotion gained and shirtless fans celebrating wildly in Gate 13.

It made me realise how I missed the old Stamford Bridge, but these photos vividly enabled me to remember the sense of belonging I used to experience every time my parents brought me up to London in my childhood. I hope that the sense of belonging will never die.

As we finished our breakfasts, I toasted our friendships and reminded Glenn that we travelled up to our first ever game together in November 1983 – a game against the Geordies and we had a cup of coffee in that same café on the Fulham Road as the players in 1965.

The pre-match was a little rushed…down to meet Becky, Rick, Mary Anne and Paul – and also San Francisco Pete, plus Gill and Graeme – at the hotel. I took some photos of them all with Gill’s “Kent Blues” and “CIA” flags. Outside the megastore, I heard one of the most ridiculous comments ever at a Chelsea game…a couple, hand in hand, brushed past me and the bloke said, in a pretentious mid-Atlantic accent “Wow – this is a girl’s paradise…there are guys everywhere.”

I thought like saying “hell – you should have been here in the ‘eighties, mate.”

Then back up to The Goose, where I soon bumped into Burger, Jon and Lee, then Cathy and Dog alongside The Usual Suspects – Parky and Glenn talking to Alan, Daryl, Rob, Andy, Chops…another year, another game, another beer, another pre-match. There was talk in the pub of the Old Firm game taking place in Glasgow – on the fortieth anniversary of the Ibrox disaster. Our mate Ajax would be in attendance.

Reg and Lorraine were manning the bar and had put on a special offer for us hardened Chelsea enthusiasts –

Fosters – £1.49 a pint.

“Here’s one-fifty, Lorraine, keep the change…”

On the walk down to the ground, Daryl commented – “blimey, I’ve had five pints and I’ve got change from a tenner.” In contrast, down at the Chelsea hotel bar, three pints had cost me £12.30.

I reached my seat at 1.15pm and soon noted an abundance of free flags being waved with gusto by the inhabitants of the Shed, East Lower and Matthew Harding Lower. This is the first time I have known free flags for a league game, though it seemed that not everybody got one. I took a few photographs of the new American flags. There were gaps in the Villa section – they only had around one thousand. They soon started their song about winning a European Cup, but it’s a shame they couldn’t sell all their tickets for a game against the League Champions. We soon reminded them about “Wembley 2000.”

The game began and Agbonlahor fired in the first clear chance when he was poorly marked and was able to swivel and shoot. Cech wasn’t troubled but it was a sign that Villa would not lie down. Soon after, an Ashley Young cross / shot was dropping straight into Petr Cech’s goal and our great ‘keeper did well to re-adjust and palm the ball over. Play was even in the first quarter. But we had not really troubled the Villa goal up until then.

After 23 minutes, the ball was lobbed into the Villa box and Malouda stood his ground and then went sprawling. To be honest, I thought that it was a soft penalty, but I wasn’t complaining. I steadied myself and then clicked my camera as Frank slammed the ball centrally into Brad Friedel’s goal.

Great stuff – let’s build on this, let’s go.

Villa were rather loose with their tackles, to say the least, and the yellow cards were stacking up. Yet an errant swipe at John Terry in our own box went unpunished. We thought that the referee seemed out of his depth.

Frank Lampard was taking a few pot shots from distance, but he was not troubling the Villa goal. It has long been my opinion, from when I first saw Frank play for us in Chelsea blue in 2001, that he doesn’t always strike balls that well, especially from distance. He often scuffs his shots, he often gets little power. Alan and I had a little discussion about this and he was in agreement. It’s pretty bizarre when you think about it, considering the amount of goals he scores for us. However, compare him to, say, his nemesis Steven Gerrard – how often does Gerrard strike the ball so sweetly, with his laces, getting his entire body behind the ball? Frank’s sideway scuffs pale in comparison. It might be seem as sacrilege by some, but this is my view. Frank is better with the gentle prod inside the box rather than optimistic punts from way out. I honestly think that one of the reasons why Frank scores so often is due to the vast amount of shots he takes over the course of a whole season.

On 37 minutes, Richard Dunn clipped a ball over Cech’s bar after nobody attacked the ball to clear. Soon after, Paolo Ferreira unfortunately took an extra touch in clearing the ball when a simple swipe would have sufficed. The ball was deflected into the box and Michael Essien was adjudged to have taken the legs of a Villa attacker. It all happened so quickly, nobody knew what was going on. No Villa players appealed, the Villa fans didn’t even celebrate.

Ashley Young repeated Frank’s methodology and hit the ball centrally into Petr’s goal. They all celebrated in our corner, the gits.

I met up with San Francisco Pete at half-time and we had our usual moan – it’s a bit of a lucky superstition now…the five minute moan to each other and then, more often than not, an improved performance in the second forty-five. Didier needed to get in the game, Malouda too. Let’s see what the second half would hold.

Oh boy – after just two minutes we went a goal down. We didn’t stop the cross and a great hanging ball had “goal” written all over it. Hesky jumped against Bruma, but we stood no chance. Villa were 2-1 up.

Hell.

Individually, the three midfielders did some good stuff in the second period…going forward. However, too often that defensive block – that shield in front of the defence – was missing. A nice move involving Didier and Malouda set up Frank, but Friedel saved. Soon after, another defence splitting ball from Frank found Malouda, but the goalie got down to block. We certainly had a spell of domination around the hour mark, but our chances were wasted. Malouda – one of our front three remember – was memorably behind Ashley Cole on a few occasions. He is a player that doesn’t seem confident right now. Carlo rang the changes and we hoped…

Kalou had a couple of mesmerizing runs at the defence before falling over his feet in a heap while appealing for penalties. I think he may well have trademarked that move. Can somebody phone the patents office please?

On 84 minutes, Chelsea pressure resulted in a mad scramble and I was on my toes…I’m not sure how he did it, but Drogba steadied himself and struck low. The ball may well have entered the goal via two Aston Villa defenders.

We roared. We jumped. We screamed.

Well, apart from a row of around eight middle-aged supporters down below me and away to my right…oh dear, here I am moaning again, but why do these people bother? There were just sitting there, stony-faced, hardly moving, let alone applauding. I guess they think that Chelsea owes them something. The rest of the crowd, though – invigorated and noisy – was roaring the team on.

And then it happened – a whipped in cross from Ess, a blocked Drogba header and the ball bounced out to John Terry. John steadied himself and drilled the ball into the waiting goal.

Up we jumped – oh God the noise – and I simply screamed “COME ON – COME ON – COME ON.” My camera was in my hand ( I had clicked on the Essien cross ) and I shot away as JT wheeled away towards the East Lower. We don’t often celebrate there. It was reminiscent of Wayne Bridge’s run towards the Portsmouth fans at Christmas 2004. I steadied my hand and took five or six shots of the players catching up with JT, jumping on him, screaming away, fists pumping. I was aware that the whole team was heading towards the Chelsea bench and took one last photograph of the captain embracing Carlo Ancelotti. The photos are of a scene of wild euphoria amongst fans and players alike – wild times. I could only imagine how Becky, Rick, Mary Anne and Paul were reacting. I envisaged them jumping high and falling out of the Shed Upper onto the fans below.

And there they were – the team celebrating with the manager.

Beautiful.

My spirits were so high, I was even hoping for a ridiculous fourth. Even without this goal, I thought that JT was again our best player. His form has been excellent of late. Then, the cruel twist and the horror of the Villa equaliser – the ball dropping to an unmarked player at The Shed End at the end of a game seems to be such a familiar sight these days.

3-3.

We even had a last minute chance which rocketed past the North Stand goal…Stamford Bridge would have gone into orbit had that one gone in.

It was not to be.

We all met up at the hotel after the game in order for the four American guests to meet, at last, Ron Harris. At the top of the escalators, we stood as Ron gave his own little appraisal of our current woes. The problem I have in discussing the inherent frailties of Chelsea Football Club is that I still maintain that joyful glee that I first experienced on my first visit to The Bridge in 1974. All of the players are still heroes to me and I am still so proud to be able to come to games and witness the team in action. I don’t like hearing negativity. I abhor it to be honest. So, I listened with gritted teeth as Ron spoke about “something’s not right, the youngsters are not up to it, it looks like there is a split in the camp, the punters won’t put up with this for much longer.” The notion of everyone not pulling in the same direction at Chelsea is still something that I have difficulty coming to terms with.

The “split in the camp” angle has been mooted in the UK press for a while – though I don’t always read the papers – but the unity showed by the team after The Captain’s goal would suggest that there is nothing wrong with the team spirit. I know I’m always the optimist, but there are signs we are pulling together…but we are still lacking in confidence. I’m hoping that Ramires continues his improvement and we look a much better team with Frank back in the midfield.

We then joined up with the rest of the boys for a post-game pint in the Lillie Langtry. I was expecting a heated post-mortem, like after our loss at home to Manchester City in February, but the moment had passed. Instead, we shared some laughs and we planned some arrangements for Wolves away on Wednesday and for Ipswich next Sunday. I’m hopeful that a few of the other teams at the top can take some points of each other, that some will go on a rough run of form and that we can slowly rise again.

Damn that optimism.

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Tales From A Chelsea Saturday

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 28 August 2010.

During the week, my alarm on my mobile phone sounds at 6.30am and I invariably “snooze” until 7am.

On matchdays, it’s a different story.

At 6.30am, my alarm woke me and, with a Chelsea game beckoning, I was up straight away. I had to pop into Frome to do some early morning shopping, but at 8.30am I was outside Glenn’s house in Frome, collecting him for the day’s main event. I’m always happier with games taking place at 3pm on Saturdays as it just seems right…after the two early evening kick-offs, the natural order had been restored. During my childhood and into my teens and beyond, there was a natural rhythm to the week…work for five days, football at 3pm on Saturday, then “Match Of The Day” on BBC1 to close things at 10pm on Saturday night.

Nice and easy – no early morning starts, no televised football, all games starting and ending at the same time. Just right.

It has dawned on me over the past year that, in some ways, my support of Chelsea has defined me. Once I had seen my first Chelsea game in 1974, all I have ever really wanted to do ( if I am blunt and honest ) is to attend as many Chelsea games as I can afford and justify. This has provided me with a lifetime of absorbing memories from games and cities in far-flung places plus of course many enduring friendships, some long-standing and some very recent, with some springing up from the most unlikely of places. I really do shudder to think what I’d do with myself should Chelsea be taken away from me.

And – of course – it’s not just the football. Supporting Chelsea is akin to being part of the biggest, greatest, funniest social club in the world. Once people get their heads round that, they have solved why I find Chelsea so alluring. Often conversations amongst my mates are dominated by anecdotes of what happened to friends on a visit to Bristol Rovers in 1980, Seville in 1998 or Tottenham last season…sure the football gets a mention, but our chat isn’t dominated by labourious discussions of formations and form. We’d rather talk about friendships and fandom.

It has always been so noticeable that we only tend to have discussions on the performances of the team after sub-standard displays…and then – oh boy – we go to town. I always remember the mother of all post-mortems after we were gubbed 4-1 at Sunderland in 1999 which began on the car ride south, continued on at a curry house in Nuneaton and was concluded on a plane to Rome on the Monday.

I picked up Lord Parky at 9am and we were on our way. This was Glenn’s first game since West Ham in March, so it was great to be travelling up together again. I’ve known Glenn since around 1977 – the two of us were the only Chelsea fans at our school, so we instantly bonded on that level – and he has been my regular travel partner for hundreds of home and away games since we began travelling to games in 1983.

Glenn – like me, not the most technically savvy of people – has just bought an I-Phone and he was jabbering away in the back seat about its many various applications and suchlike, like the proverbial child with a new toy. Parky and myself were rolling our eyes in the front seats. As we approached Membury Services, deep in the Wiltshire countryside, Glenn asked me to pull in so he could use the toilets.

“Hasn’t your phone got an app for that, mate?” I quipped.

Parky opened up a can of lager as we rattled past the Madejski Stadium at Reading and the chattering continued. The sky was full of white fluffy clouds and it looked like we were in for some fine weather. As I headed past Heathrow, I had a warm glow. Next Saturday, I am off to America for the week and Heathrow will be the starting point. I’m taking my mother too – we had relatives who lived in Philadelphia in the 1850’s and she has always wanted to visit the city. So, while her health is still good, we’re going. No time like the present. Unfortunately, we only arrive back on the morning of the West Ham game, so I’ll be missing that one…the first Chelsea weekend game I will have missed since Sunderland away in 2008. So be it.

I was parked-up at Chesson Road, opposite the hotel where we kipped after May’s Cup Final, at 11am and we quickly demolished a Yadana Cafe Super Breakfast.

£4.90 of England’s finest.

Parky heard The Goose calling and disappeared, while Glenn and myself shot down to HQ. I had promised 612Steve – who lives in Philly – that I’d get him a programme to take across with me and I was hoping to get Ron Harris to sign it. Luckilly, our timings were perfect as we bumped into Chopper just as he was due to join the corporate guests in a nearby lounge. Ron used to live in Warminster, just over the Wiltshire border from Frome, for about 15 years and we used to routinely pop into his pub after most home games back in the ‘nineties. Glenn and myself have had some truly unforgettable evenings at “The Hunters Moon” over the years – meeting Peter Osgood, Tommy Langley, Kerry Dixon for example – and on a lot of occasions, Ron would get a Karaoke DJ in for the evening. On one memorable night in around 1996, Glenn and myself duetted on “Da Do Ron Ron” with Chopper’s wife Lee on backing vocals.

What a laugh.

We had a quick chat with Ron – he always finds time for a few words – and Steve’s match programme was duly signed. On the walk back the North End Road, Glenn updated me on his daughter Amelia’s progress and she starts school in September. It was lovely to hear that she is looking forward to the new experience. It turns out that Amelia’s headmistress used to frequent Ron’s old pub when we used to go over there and so she told Glenn –

“Let’s do a deal – I’ll make sure Amelia settles in and does well, while you don’t mention what I used to get up to at The Hunter’s Moon.”

Laughs from the both of us.

By the time we reached the pub – and we met up with our mates in Casual Corner – the place was packed and conversations were taking place everywhere I looked. Daryl’s mother was over for the game from Guernsey in The Channel Islands and Simon and Milo were at their first game of the new season. The Blackburn vs. Arsenal game was on Sky, but very few were paying it much attention.

There was talk of Alan, Gary and Rob’s trip to Slovakia – a game which I can’t attend due to lack of cover at work – but there was a lot less chat than usual following a CL Draw. I might do Marseille away, but that decision can wait. The general consensus was that it was a good draw for the team, but not so for the fans.

Crocodile Watch

Chris – navy
Parky – black
Trowbridge Andy – neon
Daryl – azure

With kick-off approaching, Glenn and myself set off for The Bridge, past the myriad of shops on the North End Road, the crowds coverging at Fulham Broadway and the souvenir stalls on Fulham Road.

There is a familiar figure on match days at Stamford Bridge. Often wearing a bowler hat, dressed in a black suit, he can always be seen with his charity bucket, collecting away. To be honest, he always strikes me as quite a forlorn figure, like something from another age, a Dickensian street figure maybe. He doesn’t seem to be “all there” – a couple of sandwiches short of a picnic as we say over here. As I walked by, I noted that he was being reprimanded by two young policeman and he seemed to be quite distressed. Meanwhile, less than 15 feet away, ticket touts were plying their trade unhindered. It made me angry.

Into the stadium and the place looked a picture. I soon noted that not many away fans had travelled down from Staffordshire, now home to our very own Burger. Stoke only had around 400 away fans…very poor. One change in the Chelsea starting XI and Paolo was in for Ivanovic. It would be the same team that had played against West Brom.

We began well. After five minutes, a quite beautiful flowing move, involving virtually all of our outfield players found an advancing Ashley Cole, but he scuffed his shot wide. Soon after, Malouda was sent sprawling in that same inside-left channel and the referee pointed to the spot. This surprised all of my immediate neighbours as it looked like the Stoke defender had played the ball. However, Frank shot tamely and Sorensen easilly saved. A few of us muttered something along the lines of “justice being done.” Then the texts came through about it being a “nailed on penalty” and we wanted it retaken.

Stoke had a few half-chances, but were limited to the predictable Delap bomb and crosses from deep. Truly one-dimensional football. But we were in control, playing some nice stuff. Drogba sent in a powerful free-kick from way out – maybe near Battersea – which Sorensen did well to palm away. Then, after 31 minutes, the ball broke for The Captain and he played a lovely ball, with just the right amount of fade, into the path of Malouda who scored with a neat finish. I watched as JT ran over to join in the celebrations in the far corner, down below Andy and Daryl.

A minute later, Ashley was played in down below me again but his volley struck the bar. There was something quite amazing the way he contorted his whole body to get the right shape for his volley. Stunning stuff. I commented to Alan that we had actually played better football in the first-half of this game than in either of the other two league games. Only on a few occasions did we hear the normally noisey Stoke fans sing anything…they tried to get “Delilah” going, but it was a poor show.

At the break, our man Ron Harris was paraded around the pitch by Neil Barnett and he was warmly applauded, by The Shed especially –

“One Chopper Harris – There’s Only One Chopper Harris.”

When we first got to know Ron back in around 1995, he had not been back to The Bridge since he left the club for Brentford in 1980. These days, he is very much part of the matchday experience at Chelsea and that is the way it should be.

I had a quick flick through the programme and the highlight again was a piece by Rick Glanvill. There was a double-page photo from the Chelsea vs. Stoke City game in May 1989; Kerry Dixon scoring at the North Stand end, with the austere Benches ( actually concrete slabs by then, following the riot in 1985 ) behind. Quite a difference to the luxury of The Bridge these days. I remember watching that game high up in the East Upper and being mesmerized by Stoke winger Peter Beagrie. His dribbling style was very unique and had a lasting affect on me. In fact, to this day, whenever I go on a mazy dribble in five-a-side, I often come to an abrupt stop, with the ball close by, throwing the defender off balance, and “Peter Beagrie” always comes into my mind.

In the second-half, Stoke played even more deeply. I lost count of the number of times we played the ball from left to right, then back again. Essien and Mikel were seeing a lot of the ball, pushing it around, looking for an opening. It’s great to see Mikel rarely losing possession these days and “Ess” is getting better with each game. We were carving up openings down the left, but were struggling to get behind the Stoke left-back on the other flank. But it’s so difficult to create against a team so intent on destruction. They were playing with ten men behind the ball and even their lone striker Kenwyne Jones had a knock and was looking disinterested. Frank was having a quiet game I thought. And with the play compressed into Stoke’s final third, Drogba was unable to burst forth into space in his usual style.

The support wasn’t exactly restless, but there were periods of quiet throughout the game. I didn’t hear the two side stands sing throughout the match. Such is life. Such is our home support, the die-hards diluted by thousands of meek souls, unwilling to get involved.

Then – out of nowhere, a threat. Anelka played a loose ball to Mikel who easilly lost possession, allowing Whelan to strike a thunderous shot against the bar.

A lovely Anelka cross from the left found Drogba but he headed meekly at the ‘keeper. Frank was subbed and there were no complaints.

Anelka was played in with a long ball from Drogba and we could hardly believe it when he was tripped by the advancing goalie. Drogba slammed the resultant penalty in and we could relax.

The last part of the game was notable for the great news that Wigan were winning in North London, a typical miss from Kalou and new-signing Ramires’ debut.

Welcome to Chelsea, mate.

This had been a solid team performance against a stubborn Stoke City team. Our league goal-scoring run now stands at 32-0. No complaints at all.

With Glenn catching some shut-eye in the back seat, Lord Parky and myself headed west and listened to a CD from last week’s sojourn to Wigan, a Soft Cell compilation…nineteen songs from my youth. Lord Parky had been “fishing” for me to stop off at a pub on the way home for “one last pint” and I eventually relented. At about 7pm, I exited the M4 at Chippenham, with Glenn now awake and the three of us singing along to an anthemic dance version of “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye.” Within ten minutes, we were in the picturesque village of Lacock, where my mate Stu and his wife Shelley run “The Red Lion” in the main street. Lacock is a village of only two hundred residents, but it has five pubs. I like that ratio, I must say. The reason for this is that Lacock is very photogenic and is on the tourist trail between Bath and Stonehenge. Our man Andy Wray visited here in 2008. It was used as a location of many of the “outside” shots in the first Harry Potter film.

The Red Lion was hosting it’s very own cider festival over the Bank Holiday weekend and we joined the crowd of over two-hundred in the busy beer garden. Pints were ordered and we settled down for an hour or so of fun. Shelley had booked a Wurzels tribute band, The Mangled Wurzels and they began with the classic “Combine Harvester.”

“Oh boy – if our street-wise London mates could see us now” I thought.

Parky was in his element, illiciting cheeky comments from a few local ladies ( his crutches are always a talking point ) and Glenn was being Glenn, singing along to “I Am A Cider Drinker.”

It was an unplanned, but memorable end to the day.

I had seen The Mangled Wurzles perform at a cider festival in Bath a year or so back and I remembered loving their version of a Rolling Stones song –

“Hey ( Hey ), You ( You ) – Get Off Of My Land.”

As the music continued and the evening sun eventually subsided, the cider was going down well and everyone was loving it. Simple pleasures.

Is everyone from the West Country a smock-wearing, scrumpy-drinking simple-minded yokel?

No…just some of us.

Top of the league and having a laugh at ourselves.

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