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.

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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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Tales From Boring, Boring Chelsea

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 14 August 2010.

What a difference a week makes. Last Sunday, I was trying my best to muster up enough enthusiasm for the Community Shield, but – having seen Chelsea in the flesh – my pulse was racing all week. I couldn’t wait another day, in fact.

There aren’t many nicer feelings than leaving work on a Friday evening with a Chelsea game to attend on the Saturday. I’d been pretty dormant all summer but I was “chomping at the bit” to get up to HQ once more, meet my mates and see the boys put on a show.

A 5.30pm kick-off for the league opener against the Boing Boing Baggies meant that I had time to run a few errands in the morning. There was dismal rain and misty, grey skies as I zipped around and about my village and the local town of Frome. The grey weather seemed strange…opening days, even in England, usually take place against a backdrop of clear skies and hot weather. This was more like cricketing weather to be honest, an ironic comment I made to the village shopkeeper, who looked at me with a vacant stare.

Just before I left home to collect Dave at 11am, I noted a few “opening day scorchers” being shown on Sky Sports News and I loved seeing the “Zola flick, Poyet scissorkick” goal from 1999 against Sunderland once again. Of all the goals I have witnessed, this still remains my favourite.

Big Dave works on the roads in one of Frome’s many tarmac gangs and he had just worked a double-shift, finishing at 6.30am He looked tired. The slow journey over to pick up Lord Parky was completed by 11.30am and we were on our way.

West Bromwich Albion, eh? This meant the return of ex-Chelsea players Roberto di Matteo and Eddie Newton, stalwarts in that 1997 F.A.Cup Final team and I was sure we’d give them a good reception. But I was struggling to name many of their players after their single season in the second tier. They are the archetypal yo-yo team of late…or maybe, this should be the “yow yow” team, as in the Black Country greeting

“Am yow alright?”

I drive past The Hawthorns on every single trip I make following Chelsea in the north-west as the stadium is just off the M5 in the heart of the West Midlands. I don’t mind them as it happens…they’re a good honest club. However, unlike Villa, West Brom doesn’t really have support from outside that West Midlands base. In all my life, I can only remember meeting two West Brom fans, one a college friend, one a former boss. There are no Baggies’ fans in Frome, anyway, that’s for sure.

The drive up to London via the M4 was easy, despite some unsettled weather…drizzle one moment, the sun attempting to break through the next. It felt odd getting up to London at 1.30pm – a time that we would normally be settled in The Goose.

Dave shot off for a breakfast and Parky headed into the boozer, but I had an appointment to keep at The Bridge. As I keep statistics of all the Chelsea games I have witnessed, I was well aware that the game against West Brom would put me on 795 games…a holy grail as far as I am concerned, as it matches the momentous total reached by Ron Harris in his playing career. I was hoping to meet up with him in the hotel foyer and get my photo taken.

I raced past the busy fruit and veg stalls on the North End Road, my pace quickening with each step. As I rounded the corner by The Kings Arms ( aka The Slug ) public house, I noted that there were “home fans only” notices on show…a change from last season, when it was the dedicated away pub. I wondered if there would be an option for away fans at Chelsea this season. I noted that the old Fulham Broadway tube station, with that wonderful red brick façade, is now a greengrocers…the “TGI Friday’s” is no more. A shame – I never did pay it a visit.

I quickly ascended the elevator to the first floor of the Copthorne Hotel and there was the familiar smiling face of Ron Harris, holding court in the seated area to the left of reception. I shook hands with Ron and also with Mick the Autograph King, who I bump into a few times each season. It was lovely to see them both. I spent an enjoyable 45 minutes in Ron’s company and Mick was kind enough to take a few photos on my momentous day. I had bought a photo-mount that morning in Frome so that Chopper could sign something for me. It worked a treat. I bought myself a pint of Singha ( our new beer sponsor ) and relaxed, enjoying the laughter, stories and comments about the new season. Kent Blues Gill and Graeme popped over for a few words. We were all excited about the new season – of course! – but I said to Graeme that I wondered if our double success of May would ever be bettered in our Chelsea lives.

I noticed a lovely black-and-white photograph, taken in the mid-sixties, on the wall by the bar. It showed five Chelsea players jogging around the old Stamford Bridge dog-track on a cold winter morning, the pitch and shed terraces covered in fresh snow. Ron Harris, Terry Venables and Eddie Macreadie, plus two other players, were sporting those rather odd striped training shorts which are often seen in photos from that era. It’s a super photo, but it came to life when I saw two of the players holding snowballs, grins on their faces. I wondered if the photographer was the intended recipient.

Lovely stuff.

On the way out of the ground, I noted that the “photo-wall” by the West Stand is no more. I bought a programme and a copy of “CFCUK” and had a brief word with Mark and Dave on the stall. I kept checking my watch and tried to equate what time it would be on a “normal 3pm Saturday.” The home programme this season again contains 76 pages, but is published by a different company than of late. It’s much the same, though – same contents, with a piece by historian Rick Glanvill the highlight. The cover of the programme is an improvement though – nice and clean, less clutter. A photo of JT, stretching for the ball was on the cover, with a blue background. Pretty effective I thought. In the fanzine, I noticed that somebody had penned a brief preview of our first three games under the name Vinci Per No ( sp.) and I immediately realised I should have copyrighted my CIA user id.

Oh well.

I made it into The Goose and it was magical to be back after 14 weeks away. The place was sweaty and noisy, but I edged my way towards our corner, past the bar in the back room. I looked for familiar faces and was not disappointed. Almost the first face I saw was that of Burger, along with Julie and Josh, now residents in the UK, but soon off to relocate in the midlands. Parky had been keeping them occupied with his unique brand of banter, reminiscing in particular about the post-game meal after West Ham in March.

Burger, Julie and Josh are going to be residing in Stafford shortly and this works out perfectly for me as I head past Stafford on my way to many away games. In fact, it reminded me of around ten years ago, when my mate Alan would often get a train to Stafford and I’d pick him up en route to such northern outposts as Bolton, Blackburn and Leeds. It also reminded me of one of the main reasons why I chose nearby Stoke-On-Trent for my college town in 1984…close proximity to many away grounds. I’m just a bit worried that Burger will be calling me “duck” within a month or two.

What else? There were conversations going on all around me and I stopped still for a few seconds, listening to the buzz of voices, interspersed with laughter, the occasional shout, the occasional lull. The Wigan vs. Blackpool game was causing us great yelps of enjoyment and I felt certain that Blackpool’s Golden Mile would be the place to be in the whole of the UK come 10pm. I chatted to Daryl and Neil – we spoke briefly about our plans to commemorate our fiftieth birthdays with a trip to NYC for a Yankees vs. Mets series in 2015. Daryl and myself, the two Yankee fans, have been promising ourselves a trip for years and we finally toasted our plans. I enjoyed more talk of America with Dutch Mick out in the beer garden – we are both enthusiasts of the American Civil War and I needed his advice on visiting Gettysburg. I am off to Philadelphia ( and New York ) in September, but the highlight could well be the visit I have planned to that most momentous of civil war sites.

Parky was chatting to Andy and Les from Trowbridge, friends from way back.

Lacoste Watch

Burger – navy

Andy – brown

Wes from Texas – still with us on his sabbatical – showed up with a college mate from Siberia, both very excited to be witnessing an opening game of the season.

I spent quite a few moments chatting to Andy from Nuneaton. I’ve been mates with Andy since we met out in Prague on the Viktoria Zizkov trip in 1994, though I knew of him by sight from many train trips home to Stoke in the mid-eighties. In reference to Burger’s move to Stafford, Andy spoke about an eventful game involving Stafford Rangers and Nuneaton Borough back in around 1980…not sure about the result, but it seems the Nuneaton boys had the upper hand in a pub before the game. I had to laugh, though, when Andy commented “they looked the part though – they all had wedges.” It seems that the Nuneaton lads were still dressed in bomber jackets and sported skinheads and I could tell Andy was a bit envious.

It was soon time to leave the boozer. Sigh.

Blackpool had won 4-0 and would surely finish the day as league leaders. We made our familiar way to The Bridge, but the heavens opened at 5.10pm and for a few minutes those with jackets ( including myself ) were lording it over those without. As I ascended the stairs to the MHU, the lovely chant of “Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions – Chelsea – Champions” was heard…one of our staples from the 2005-2007 period. Lovely stuff. Then as I walked in to the seats, with the pitch looking perfect below me, “Blue Is The Colour” was playing on the tannoy. Even better. I shook hands with the familiar faces…Zac, Joe, Tom, Russ, Frank. Great to see everyone again.

I had a quick look around and was dismayed to see hundreds of empty seats in The Shed. I hoped and prayed that they would soon fill up. I spotted an impressive white flag draped over the wall by the southern end of the West Stand.

“Pimlico Blues – We’ll Never Be Mastered.”

Wes was sandwiched between Alan and myself as we awaited the appearance of the teams. I had no problem with Carlo’s starting eleven, but I would have preferred to have seen Ivanovic at right-back ahead of Paolo Ferreira. Zac, however, was far from pleased. Zac always tends to have more grumbles that even the most pessimistic Chelsea fan should be entitled to. In fact, I am convinced that if Ancelotti had personally phoned Zac on the Friday and left the team selection to Zac, he would still moan about the players chosen.

We began well and after only five minutes, with a free-kick just outside the “D”, I sensed a goal. I steadied my camera and snapped as Drogba struck. After a goalmouth melee, Florent Malouda slid the ball in and we were on our way once again. I looked towards Alan and he put his arm around Wes, bent towards him and executed a part-Boomhauer, part-Rhett Butler style “See that, dang, good old, yep – they’ll have to come at us now, you hear.”

I whooped “Come on ma little diamonds”, sounding just a bit like Scarlet O’Hara, but thankfully only Wes and Alan heard me.

I think Wes appreciated it.

However, as is so often the case, a second goal was not immediately forthcoming. In fact, West Brom got into the game and their number 14 was giving Paolo a tough time, attacking him at will. There were the oh-so typical moans and grumbles as we struggled to penetrate. I commented to Wes that it seemed our best chances were through free-kicks only. A Lampard free-kick was saved by Carson, but Malouda headed over. Damn. Just before half-time, Drogba stepped up and as I snapped his shot with my camera, I saw the ball head straight for the defensive wall and I uttered an obscenity. Imagine my surprise when I saw the ball tuck itself into the goal.

“How did that happen?”

Never mind, the all important second goal was scored…a bit like Wigan in May, and we could relax a little. However, the stands were pretty quiet, despite the volumes of lager being imbibed all afternoon. A familiar lament from me, eh?

A real treat at the break – legend Ruud Gullit was introduced to all of the Chelsea faithful and he received a tumultuous reception.

Inspired by his appearance, the PA played The Specials’ “Message To You Rudi.” I looked down to see Burger lip-synching and dancing away like a teenager.

A perfect moment.

Welcome to England, mate.

Soon into the second half, the intermittent rain subsided and we were treated to blue skies and more Chelsea goals. A Drogba stab from close range after a JT header made it 3-0. Then, soon after, the best move the match. Initiated by Mikel, we witnessed a great move down the Chelsea left… Anelka passed sublimely to Ashley Cole who fed Frank to tuck in.

Oh you beauty. It was a lovely move.

“Are we Arsenal in disguise?” I ironically sung to Alan.

We then realised “one more and we’ll go top.”

The ball was worked to Ashley Cole down below me – snap! – and he evaded a rash challenge – snap! – before shifting the ball to Drogba, who moved on to his favourite side before shooting – snap! – and the ball nestled in the goal. Again, I could hardly believe it. This was like Wigan ( or Stoke, or Villa, or Sunderland – take your pick ) all over again.

“Top Of The League – Having A Laugh.”

The last goal – the sixth – from Malouda was just one to savour and politely applaud…this is getting crazy. Soon after, we were awarded a couple of long-distance free-kicks and, each time, we serenaded Alex’ name for him to be chosen…his face was a picture as he grinned from ear to ear.

There were more smiles as we sung “Boring Boring Chelsea.”

By this time, the MHL were getting all the various stands to sing, even the visitors –

“West Brom – Give Us A Song.”

And Roberto di Matteo’s name was sung with gusto as the game came to its conclusion.

Phew.

So, let’s get the calculator out…our last three home games have ended 7-0, 8-0 and 6-0. That’s 21-0.

I think we’d best stick on that.

It took an age to leave London, but once on the trusty M4, both Big Dave and Lord Parky were asleep. I had a slight headache, but was listening to some quiet and evocative music by Japan as I flew past Slough and Reading. I tried to put the game’s events into perspective, but it was too close, too soon. It didn’t in truth, seem like we had been away.

As I headed on into the night, past Swindon, the sky looked dramatic and wild…an orange sunset here, a brilliant white crescent moon there, dark storm clouds to the north, vivid blue above. It was quite a backdrop.

It had been some day at HQ.

Wigan – my away ticket safe in my wallet – next!

Mow That Meadow.

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Tales From The Tribal Gathering

Chelsea vs. West Ham United : 13 March 2010.

Although this was a fine day out in Chelsealand, the spectre of Jose Mourinho and his Internazionale team visiting us was never far away. It was as if I was thinking about two games at once throughout the entire day.

For a change, my good mate Glenn was driving, allowing me to relax a bit. Because I have been doing a lot of the driving of late, this came as a welcome break for me. Glenn has a VW van and we made good progress in the morning, heading up the M4, with me in the front with Glenn and Lord Parky bouncing around in the back. We hoped that if Parky was seated in the back, alone, he might give us a break from his incessant jabber.

Alas not.

I texted a few of the main protagonists from North America, who would be meeting up at various stages of the day. It would be a big day for a few visitors…more of all that later.

Glenn screeched around the streets of Hammersmith and was soon parked-up at about 10.30am. We park up near the Queens Club – just a few minutes from The Goose – and we noted that the other Frome car, containing Frankie Two Times and Big Dave, was parking a few yards away. Frank commented that Glenn had cut him up coming around the Hammersmith roundabout.

Some things will never change.

Back into the usual match-day routine…straight into the café, soon to be joined by San Francisco Bob, the first of the many CIAers to join us. Bob had been in Rome for a few days and was wearing his latest purchase, a nice dark blue Paul & Shark number. I left Bob in the capable hands of the Frome Four as I had to zip down to HQ to meet Danielle, over for her first ever game at HQ.

The day was gathering speed.

Kent Blues Gill and Burger then sent me updates. It was going to be a manic old day. I met Danielle outside the megastore and we made a bee-line for the Copthorne Hotel foyer, where I knew Ron Harris would be based for an hour or so. We stayed there for about two hours and it was a lovely time. Danielle had her photo taken with Chopper and was able to meet Peter Bonetti, too. The infamous Autograph King, Mick, was also in our little group and before I knew it, we were joined by Pete, Gary and Dave from LA and SF. Next to arrive was Jens, Scott, Tim and Lalo, the Texas contingent. Ex-player David Lee – “Rodders” – was having a drink in the bar, too. One of the highlights of this particular part of the day was Ron Harris winding up Texas Tim by saying the alarm will go off in the hotel if Tim attempted to leave without paying Mick for his match ticket. A lovely memory for Tim to take away with him.

At about 12.30pm, Mick was able to prep Danielle to stand in a prime location for the players “walk-through” down by reception. By about 1pm, Danielle had managed to get around 6 players – plus Carlo Ancelotti – to sign her shirt. Frank signed the back – by his name and number – and added a little “X” too. By the time Danielle returned to the foyer, she needed a sit-down to gather her thoughts. To be honest, it was lovely to see her enthusiasm. I spent some time chatting to Lalo, too – and he was bowled over by the days’ events. I supped up my pint and then headed up to The Goose, passing Mark Worrall’s stall, where copies of “CFCUK” were purchased.

Danielle, Tim and Lalo were going to experience the packed Goose with me, leaving Jens and Scott in the hotel. As I neared the pub, I passed Burger heading down to get his tickets. Into the pub and it was absolutely rammed. I meet Julie, chatting with Jon and Lee, then popped out to the beer garden to see Dutch Mick chatting with Bluemick, mates from Chicago in 2006. Who else? Kent Blues Gill and Graeme were in the thick of it and my usual mates were clustered around too. I gulped down two pints and was able to relax a bit. I had a nice chat with Lalo about baseball, believe it or not. He was loving the pre-match routines that us UK-based fans take for granted. Wes – another Austin Blue – was in The Goose, too. Friends were being reunited everywhere I looked.

Good times.

Into the stadium and let battle commence.

Of course, West Ham were very poor, so I don’t think we need to write too much into the score. It was a comfortable performance. John Terry was the subject of some typically offensive chanting from the West Ham fans, but within five seconds, the ball was played out to Malouda and his lovely cross was headed firmly in by Alex.

The first-half was a little similar to the Manchester City game. It was all Chelsea in the first 25 minutes, but we then allowed the returning Scott Parker the space to let fly from 25 yards. I said “goal” as soon as it left him.

1-1…damn it.

We had more pressure before the break, with Malouda shining, but no more goals. At half-time, I was positive we would push on, but the mood around me wasn’t so upbeat. I met up with San Francisco Pete, who has a seat in the very back row of the MHU, and we had our usual half-time moan and groan, albeit tongue-in-cheek. Even when it’s bad, it isn’t that bad.

I thought both sets of fans were pretty quiet. Yet again, I didn’t hear a peep from either of the side stands.

A fantastic run from midfield by John Terry was wildly cheered by everyone, and the ball broke to Florent Malouda down below me. I snapped his cross with my camera and it was headed in by Drogba. Didier gathered the ball and ran towards JT, the joy there for all to see. Malouda joined the celebrations and blew a kiss to the Matthew Harding.

Malouda was on fire, in fact. When he gathered the ball outside the box, he took a touch in order to bring the ball under control. This brought a few grumbles of discontent from the seats behind me, but I knew instinctively that he needed that extra touch. A shimmy later and he swept it in. The crowd roared. Just like last spring, our wide Frenchmen is now finding the best form of the season. Long may it continue.

Carlton Cole was widely applauded when he came on as a substitute.

Likewise, when Malouda was substituted, the whole ground clapped him off and it was a joy to see this. As Alan commented, like a lot of wide players, Malouda is such a confidence player and this reception would have touched him. Let’s hope he is warmed by it and can go on to produce another top class performance against Inter.

In the last minute, the ball was swept in by Drogba after a Lampard shot was fumbled by Green. This mirrored the 4-1 win against the same opposition back in 2006…Burger’s first ever game at HQ, in fact. The plus points for me were Malouda’s best ever game for us and a solid performance from the defence. I thought Frank and Ballack were pretty quiet. Maybe they were saving themselves…

We all met up outside the hotel and marched off to Earls Court where post-game activities were planned. First though, a couple of drinks in the Finborough Arms and a chance to chat with Burger, Julie and Danielle about the game we had just witnessed. Danielle loved the noise levels, but I warned her that on Tuesday the volume would be cranked up several notches.

I had booked the downstairs room at “Dall Artista” on the Brompton Road and I think I can say that everyone present had an enjoyable time.

Lacoste Watch

Burger – navy blue

We got stuck into some cold Peronis, then ordered some choice Italian fare. Salvo – as ever – was the convivial host and he was aided by his side-kick waiter from “And Leicester.” As the evening wore on, the fourteen of us ( NY Mike, Burger, Mrs Burger, Tim, Danielle, Wes, Jens, Scott, Lalo, Lord Parky, Mr and Mrs San Francisco Bob, Glenn and myself ) joined in with some choice CFC songs, then had a few toasts to our beloved club.

A few quotes from the evening –

“Parky – behave yourself!” – Chris.

“Today, I lost my Chelsea Virginity” – Lalo.

“This has been better than my Prom Night” – Danielle.

“Today was all about the friendships, but Tuesday will be about the game” – Julie.

“The famous Tottenham Hotspur went to Rome to see The Pope” – Burger.

“Amoretto, Chelsea Amoretto” – Mike, Burger, Bob and Chris.

“Damn it – Arsenal have won 2-1” – Chris.

“Carefree” – all fourteen of us.

At around 9pm, Salvo waltzed down the stairs carrying fourteen glasses of champagne, on the house. He was smiling, in that lovely way of his.

We toasted each other and then said our goodbyes out in the cold of Brompton Road. All of the alcohol – Peronis, a Sambuca, a Limocello and an Amoretto -were having a grave effect on me. I slept all of the way home.

Meanwhile, somewhere, in Italy, Jose Mourinho was making plans for Tuesday…

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Tales From The F.A. Cup

Chelsea vs. Watford : 3 January 2010.

From Stamford Bridge to Wembley…

Let’s hope so.

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

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

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

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

At about 3.30am, I went with

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy memories.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From Stamford Bridge to Deepdale…to be continued.

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Tales From The Last Sixteen

Chelsea vs. Juventus : 25 February 2009.

A lovely evening at HQ, but there is still a nagging doubt that our 1-0 lead may not be enough over the two legs.

I had booked a half day holiday. I had a dental appointment first thing and then worked 9.45am to 2.15pm. Well, I say “worked” but it was very quiet indeed. I had been “working” on my account of my personal journey into Italian football for Dave Johnstone’s “CFCUK” and I fine-tuned it in the morning before submitting it. This is my first article for this fanzine and I just knew I had to do it. Just had to share it with the Chelsea Nation. Glad I completed it just in time for the game. “The Game Of My Life” just about sums it up. I submitted this on CIA, too, so that I can refer back to it once I get to write up my recollections of Torino in March.

Parky was collected from the pub opposite and we set off for Chelsea. There was the usual banter flying around on the drive east, but he was quiet for the longest ever time in living memory as he read through my recollections of Italy. We both agreed that the internet is a wonderful medium to share such things with people around the World. I am sure Parky could tell a few tales, so to speak. Best not encourage him though.

Before we knew it, we were parked-up just off Lillie Road at about 4.15pm. This was always going to be a extra special game for me, but I had planned an extra level of enjoyment by arranging for Ohio Silver Lining / Farmer John / mgoblue and a mate, Bob / unagi1 and two stalwarts from across the pond ( Chopper and Hoss ) to meet me for a meal at “Dall Artista” at 5pm. Bob was already settled with a pint in the Lillie Langtry as Parky and myself strolled in. Bob had visited Barcelona since Villa on Saturday. Then two phone calls in quick succession. John was on his way and needed directions. Then my friend Tullio in Torino called, but he was off work with a high temperature. I wished him well and said I would see him in a fortnight.

I met John’s college mate Greg, a guy from Salonika in Greece and a Juve admirer. We sunk the first beer of the evening and I was buzzing. Chopper was on his way too. We walked past Brompton Cemetery which sits behind the East stand and arrived at the restaurant bang on 5pm. A big hug from my good friend Salvo – who has met Teri and Starla – and also a hug from Hoss, who was already there. I first met Hoss in Chicago in 2006 and he now lives in Missouri…he’s over for two games. He told us of a great deal he managed to strike up at the Chelsea Hotel, paying about £48 a night! Introductions were made and the air was full of chat and laughter with everyone chipping in with comments about Chelsea and life…there, that’s profound, eh?

I made the point that if my life could be distilled, with all the nonsense and irrelevancies turned to ether, this is what it would be…sat around a table with close friends, jabbering away like fools about all sorts of Chelsea chat.

“And then, in about two hours’ time, we are going to watch our eleven heroes play for us.”

We raised a toast.

We asked for the menus just as Chopper, his daughter Kelly and her Chelsea-debutant boyfriend Shaun arrived. Happy days. More beers please Salvo. Parky was in good form and we were having a good laugh. Because of the differences in the sense of humour between us Brits and North Americans, I often feel we need to put on a bit of a show for our guests and Parky is my ideal partner for this, full of wisecracks, plays on words and sideway glances to camera! I last saw Chopper in NYC in June and it’s always good to see him. I phoned Beth and was pleased she was able to join in our little party.

I had brought up a few photographs from the ‘eighties of myself with my friend Mario, his parents and some shots of his home town. It is Salvo’s home too and I suppose – in the light of things – it came as no surprise that he recognised Mario’s father Franco. It turned out that Salvo played for the same town football team – Dianese – in the ‘sixties as Mario did in the ‘eighties. We ordered our pizzas – an Americana, how appropriate, with anchovies – and more beer, Salvo! I had to put the brakes on though…four small bottles would be my limit. In a quiet moment, I asked Salvo if he was excited and he said he hadn’t been able to eat all day! Bless him.

Henry, who I met in NYC in June, but was now back home in Blighty, popped in and this was a surprise for us all. Fantastic.

It was 6.40pm and we really needed to move on. We marched down to The Goose and joined the milling throng. Unfortunately, we lost Chopper’s lot but Salvo, Parky, John, Greg, Bob and myself were soon chatting with Alan, Gary, Walnuts, Russ, Daryl, Ed, Simon, Milo, Rob, Andy and Lovejoy.

Bada bing!

At 7.15pm we set off for The Bridge and I called Mario. After meeting on that beach in 1975, here we were talking thirty minutes before the first ever Chelsea vs. Juventus game. We wished each other well. It was lovely to hear his voice.

Then a text from Tullio…”tick tock tick tock.” The game was approaching. We were walking along on a tide of adrenalin as the lights of the stadium appeared. I bought Chelsea / Juventus scarves for Tullio and Mario, plus four programmes. Managed to lose Bob and Parky, but Salvo was close by as we entered the stadium.

“Welcome to my home” I said to Salvo, who smiled. Just as we entered the arena, a red Juventus flag was being carried around the pitch and met us in our corner. Salvo beamed. Into our seats in good time and the Champions League build-up began. John was down below me in the corner. The disappointing thing for me was that La Vecchio Signora were not playing in the famous black and white.

On many occasions throughout the game my gaze was centered on the 3,000 Juventus fans in The Shed. I noted the banners and tried to pick out any slogans. Juventus, like all of the Italian teams, have an array of various supporter groups, which tend to constantly evolve through time. The fan leader Beppe Rossi seems to be the Juve leader of note and I have a book at home called “Il Gruppo” which is a photographic record of the various factions since the first fan group in around 1973. Not all groups are hooligans, but it is safe to say that they are all “ultras”, that Italian definition of rabid support. I have lost count of the many Juve groups, but names include “Vikings”, “Indians”, “Black And White Supporters”, “Fighters” ( I have a scarf ) and the infamous “Drughi” and “Arancia Meccanica” ( literally Clockwork Orange ) inspired by Kubrik’s iconic film. There is an amazing photograph from around 1984 of around 500 Juve ultras at an away game in Milano wearing black bowler hats, in homage to Kubrik’s “horrorshow.” That must have been a spine-chilling sight for opposing fans. Juve, Inter, Verona, Atalanta and – most famously of all – Lazio align themselves to the political right, whereas Milan, Roma and Livorno are to the left…historically at least, maybe not quite so much these days.

The Juve fans made a fair bit of noise. I noted several held-aloft signs showing four silhouetted figures with the word Drughi below. One guy in white was the cheerleader, sitting on the balcony wall, looking back towards the fans and instigating the rhythmic singing. Italians often do this. You see it all over. Fans as an organic body, singing their allegiance. For many fans the world over, this is the real battle.

Never mind the game, just show up, sing and win the battle of noise on the terraces.

The game was a bit of a blur. My mind was racing, trying to capture some nice photographs, making sure Salvo was enjoying himself, trying to get some singing going, trying to make out how the game was going, texting a few friends. After some early pressure, I had my telephoto lens centered on the Shed goal. On twelve minutes, Drogba shot and so did I. I depressed the button and loved it as I saw his strike head towards goal… but was gutted when I realised the camera switch was off. I saw Drogba’s goal through my inactive camera! Not really mixed emotions – I was ecstatic we had scored so soon.

Get in!

I prayed we would be treated to more early goals, thus killing the tie off even before the away leg. I couldn’t be more wrong. Juve tended to increase their possession throughout the game. It turned out to be a fractious, nervy game and I was surprised how quiet the Chelsea support was in the main. I tried my best, but not even I was getting stuck into the singing. Thought Frank was lively and honest, moving the ball around well. Ballack? Another missing-in-action performance. We were solidly sticking to the 4-3-3, but I thought Anelka did OK, rarely losing the ball. It was a pleasure to see players like Nedved ( whose hair appears to live a life of its own ) and Del Piero ( or Bruce Springsteen, as Al called him…I can see the resemblance…he was born to run, too ). Not really sure why Malouda came on and not Stoch. Generally speaking, though, despite the win, I am rather worried for our future in the competition.

Not so much has the Fat Lady sung, but has the Old Lady sung yet?

Gutted to hear Liverpool won away in Europe again. You know the rest!

After the game, I received a congratulatory text from Tullio and we then moved onto “Barbarella’s” where I had arranged to meet my mate Buller. This is the little bar and Italian restaurant where a lot of the ‘seventies players hung out. As luck would have it, Ron Harris was in there…small world…and so I introduced him to Salvo, who appreciated meeting a Chelsea legend.

As we came out onto the Fulham Road, a little mob of around forty Juve ultras were being ushered along by the police. Not sure if we had missed some action or not.

Loads of traffic meant that I didn’t get home until 2am. Parky the Nodding Dog was away in some dream world for most of the journey, no doubt dreaming of more Peronis.

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Tales From The Ice Road

Chelsea vs. Hull City : 7 February 2009.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Made it.”

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

That sounds terribly jet-set doesn’t it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The post mortem?

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

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

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

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