Tales From A House Divided

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 17 September 2014.

Since last season’s midweek forays east on the M4 to Stamford Bridge, my working day has changed to 7am to 3.30pm. This basically means that I have more time, and hopefully a less stressful drive, to reach The Goose – er, Stamford Bridge – but it means I’ll be lucky to get four hours’ sleep before the alarm rings the following morning. I guess this can be called taking the smooth with the rough.

The journey, with LP and PD alongside me for the second time in five days, still took three hours though; damn the traffic. We were in the pub for 6.30pm; time for a couple. It was pleasing to see several faces from back home for the second successive home game. In addition to PD and myself from Frome, there were Parky, Andy and Cooky from Trowbridge, Graham and Rob from Melksham and Mark from Westbury. Rob smiled as he told me:

“I’ve only stepped out into the beer garden, but I’ve ended up in the West Country.”

While we were supping our lagers, the news came through that Didier Drogba was playing.

Big surprise.

I was informed of the rest of the starting eleven and my honest, immediate, reaction was this:

“Drogba? The weakest link.”

Although it seems like a sacrilegious act writing those four words, it was a commonly held view. My immediate mates had a little pow-wow. Like many, we had presumed that the manager might rest the in-form Diego Costa ahead of the league game at Manchester City on Sunday, but I’d imagine that most were expecting to see Loic Remy starting, especially since he impressed on his brief goal-scoring debut on Saturday. There were puzzled looks in the pub. Maybe the manager knew something that we didn’t.

[a shout from off-stage : “of course he fucking does, he’s the Chelsea manager, you tit!”]

I pondered it all further. Ever since the re-signing of Didier, my mind has been far from satisfied as I tried to evaluate the pros and cons of the move. He was certainly a once feared striker, certainly a strong character in the dressing room, certainly an experienced head and certainly a modern Chelsea legend. But something jarred. Again I’ll be blunt and honest; I would have much preferred our last ever remaining memory of Didier to be that penalty in Munich.

Never go back.

Unlike the legions of Chelsea fans that only saw the positive aspects of Didier’s game, I also remembered the negatives. The pathetic diving in order to gain free-kicks in the first few seasons, the attitude, the pouting and the posturing and the half-hearted approach in some of the lesser games towards the end of his career. Here was a complex conundrum for me to understand. After jettisoning Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard – both unable to entice contracts from the club – why was Didier Drogba given the green light to return?

His return troubled me then, and it troubled me still. I guess, in Mourinho’s defence, Drogba was seen as a reliable third striker – “been there, done that” – in a period when our striking options seemed to be built on sand. Was Lukaku staying? Was Torres staying? Was Ba staying? Who could we get as cover for the seemingly injury-prone Diego Costa? Could the youngsters be trusted?

We left the pub on a warm September evening and hoped that Drogba would bag a hat-trick and send us all home with our collective tails between our legs, eating humble pie and promising to never again question Jose Mourinho.

After all of these European campaigns, there is still something special about Champions League nights in SW6, even though the experience now seems to include more and more tourists who happen to find themselves at a football match without understanding or buying in to the widely-held view that supporters are there to participate rather than just attend. Outside the West Stand, underneath the Peter Osgood statue, there was a cast of thousands; a broad spectrum of well-heeled voyeurs, with programmes clutched to their chests, friendship scarves hanging around their necks, and with tickets being scrutinised for validity. Chelsea Football Club enjoys the support of thousands of passionate fans in all parts of the world. It is a sad fact of life that many of the overseas visitors to Stamford Bridge cannot be mentioned in the same breath.

I raced by, and soon found myself among more familiar faces in the brief line for the MHU.

Up in my seat, I took stock. I immediately spotted the new floodlights, rather awkwardly placed on the roofs of both end stands. They shone bright, but they were ugly. They disrupted the norm. I took an immediate dislike to them.

This was the third time that we had played the blue and whites from Gelsenkirchen in eight seasons. Last season, in November, we had beaten them 3-0 at The Bridge the day after Guy Fawkes’ Night. I remember walking away from that game feeling rather bored by the whole evening, despite the resounding win. I hoped for a better post-game feel in 2014. The German fans, many holding Nord Kurv scarves, were already in fine voice and I just knew, damn it, that it would be the visitors from The Ruhr who would be singing throughout the game.

Marie-Chantal from Lyon, Jan from Oslo, Kevin from Baltimore, Paolo from Brindisi, Roz from Cape Town, Kyong from Seoul and Pablo from Valencia just wouldn’t be able to compete.

It was another good show from Schalke. Even though they had visited us less than twelve months ago, they still brought around 1,400.

Another near capacity stadium, save for a few hundred empty seats – again – in the “no go” zone in The Shed. Filipe Luis in for Dave, and the midfield jiggled again. Schalke included the vaunted Draxler and the valuable Huntelaar.

The anthem.

It was brilliant to have the Champions League with us once more.

I quickly commented to Alan;

“They’re sponsored by Gazprom, right?”

There were Gazprom advertisement boards surrounding the pitch.

“Yep.”

We gave each other an old-fashioned look, and images of UEFA’s top brass, business executives, hotel rooms and brown envelopes flitted momentarily in to view.

The Germans, wearing the same muted green and black as in 2013, were under immediate pressure from a forceful Chelsea. After only eleven minutes, a lovely pass from Eden Hazard found an advancing Cesc Fabregas, who slotted the ball home. The Stamford Bridge faithful roared while Marie-Chantal, Jan, Kevin and co, stood and clapped, awkwardly looking around to ascertain the correct code of conduct.

There was an immediate chant from the terraces;

“Are you watching Arsenal?”

Defeated in The Ruhr the previous night, the Gooners were now being taunted about the one that got away.

For the next twenty minutes, Chelsea had most of the ball, but didn’t cause the Schalke defence too much concern. A Drogba header here, a Hazard shot there. I felt that we weren’t going for the jugular; that we were playing within ourselves. Then, on thirty-six minutes, the best move of the game thus far. Ivanovic, playing further up field this season in my mind, reached the by-line and hooked the ball back towards a waiting, and unmarked, Fabregas, but his shot was wild and flew over the bar. There was a collective groan from the home support, while in the West Upper, there was a groan from Roz when she realised alcohol is not served at Champions League games.

Despite being behind, the away fans were relentless in their support for their team. Our support was shocking, despite both the spectators in the MHL and The Shed Lower standing the entire half, which is usually a sure sign that they were collectively “up” for it. Occasionally, the fans in these areas attempted a song, but the others were generally reluctant to follow their lead. Not a single song was heard from the two side stands.

There were hushed comments about Drogba’s performance; it was average at best.

Courtois was asked to produce a fine save from Boeteng. Then as the first-half closed, Draxler was allowed to run unhindered past several Chelsea defenders – “after you Fritz” – before sending a low shot past the post. There was a look of pure anguish on his face as he realised how close he had been to equalising.

I read the programme during the break; the 1994/1995 European campaign is set to be featured throughout this season’s UEFA home programmes. We’d best have a long run; we reached the semi-final in the ECWC that season.

Bloody hell. Twenty years ago. This was the season when we were but Chelsea European novices and every away game was a huge adventure; Jablonec, Vienna and Zaragoza for yours truly.

What fantastic times.

The second-half began. It was more of the same from an apparently jaded Chelsea. Chances were rare. Hazard blazed over. There was growing concerns that the Germans were edging back in to the game. John Terry was booked for shooting at goal after the referee had given a free-kick for an apparently loose challenge, amidst boos from the home support.

On the hour, Didier was narrowly wide.

Then, a rapid Schalke break, with Chelsea all at sea, and players and fans feeling aggrieved for a foul on Fabregas in the build-up. I sensed danger throughout the advance.

My comments to PD as Huntelaar was played in were succinct;

“They’ll score here…told ya.”

Then, something that warmed me. An immediate, loud and passionate response from the Matthew Harding.

“Carefree, wherever you may be.”

The Bridge was shaking with noise for a few blissful moments.

“That’s more like it” I thought.

“Wow” exclaimed Marie-Chantal.

“Awesome” shouted Kevin.

With Drogba looking a shadow of himself, we inevitably started to discuss his performance. It was almost inevitable that I would end up taking extended, studious and contemplative looks at his play throughout the night. He looked slower than the Drogba of old, and it was obvious that his general play was missing several attributes of Drogba in his prime. It felt absurd at times to be talking so bluntly about a loved player – for that is what he is – after just one game but we knew that our views were shared by many.

As he was subbed, I admitted to Alan;

“Drogba, no more than four out of ten tonight.”

And it felt wrong again.

Sigh.

Mourinho, now chasing for a winner, had replaced Ramires with Oscar, now brought on the fifth cavalry in the form of Diego Costa and Remi. Alongside Drogba, Willian was substituted. Almost immediately, Costa looked hungry and involved. Remy’s header was cleared off the line. We were begging for the winner. Two dropped points against Schalke could prove costly. In Maribor, Sporting Lisbon were 1-0 up.

Damn it.

Things were getting desperate. The crowd urged the team on. On two separate occasions, Mourinho had to run and scramble after the ball after it had left the field of play; Jose as ballboy.

Hazard shot over after good work from Diego Costa. Then, a cross from wide found a stretching Eden Hazard, completely unmarked, but his prod was remarkably saved by Neustadter in the Schalke goal. In was quite a final onslaught – too little too late – but a couple of headers in the last few moments did not worry the German goal.

At the final whistle, there was thankfully no boos, but there was many a grumble from the spectators in and around me. On the walk out into the London night, I overheard many share comments similar to the ones expressed by Alan, PD and myself. I cringed as I felt myself agreeing with them.

“Remy should have played.”

“Drogba’s past it.”

“Didn’t attack’em enough.”

“Two dropped points.”

“Blame Mourinho for that.”

I searched for positives. I grasped at the idea of this being a wake-up call ahead of the trip to Manchester City on Sunday.

“This will hopefully bring us down a peg and help to concentrate our minds.”

“At least it sets up the away game at Lisbon. Adds a bit of bite to it.”

“At least they only drew.”

Outside a chip shop, Andy from Trowbridge spotted PD and me, and we must have been looking decidedly glum. He called out and imitated Mourinho at Arsenal in 2007 –

“Chin up, come on, chin up, remember that? Chin up! Remember Cambridge and Rotherham and Swansea. Come on!”

We met up with Parky back at the car. He was seething at the lack of support from the people in his section of The Shed.

“All bloody tourists. Nobody sang. Crap.”

So, the evidence from Parky’s Shed End backed up the commonly held view among Chelsea’s hardcore that on Champions League nights, there is a real chasm between the regulars and the once or twice a lifetime visitors. I take no pleasure in reporting this. And I’m not being particularly xenophobic, either. A silent one from Guildford is just as prevalent as a silent one from Gothenburg these days. Either way, a divided house is not good.

It’s not good at all.

With road works on the M4, it was another tiring three hour journey home.

Mile after mile, mile after mile.

Home at 1.30pm, sleep at 2am.

The alarm clock would soon be ringing.

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Tales From 05 Versus 04

Chelsea vs. Schalke 04 : 6 November 2013.

I was inside Stamford Bridge by 7.30pm and my usual routine was followed; as soon as I had a chance to glimpse the upper echelons of the East Stand through the gap of Gate 9 of the Matthew Harding Upper, I did so. Here would be a clue to see if there would be yet another full-house (or as near as damn it) at HQ. My fellow supporters did not disappoint; the very back rows were filling up nicely. Should we ever hit sub-standard attendances – Southampton last season, 38,000 – then those very back rows tend not to be used.

I needn’t have worried. Another 41,000 at Stamford Bridge. Excellent.

It was a surprisingly mild night in London. I soon dispensed of my chunky jacket for a few moments and stood, refreshed, in just my shirtsleeves.

Away in the south-east corner stood three thousand travelling Germans; it was soon evident that they would provide just as much entertainment during the following two hours as the millionaire sportsmen scurrying around on the perfect Stamford Bridge turf below. Champions League nights at Chelsea, especially those in the group phase of autumn, tend to be odd affairs. Our support is augmented by tourists and sightseers and the atmosphere often suffers. These are big nights for the corporate dollar too, of course. The club’s clamour for such a clientele was brought home to me recently when I – for once – bothered to read a Chelsea magazine from cover-to-cover. There were advertisements for corporate hospitality everywhere. It appeared that every spare square yard of free space at Stamford Bridge has now been designated a pre-match venue for a variety of dining options, with supporters – sorry, clients – being then escorted up towards the rarefied atmosphere of the West Upper.

“Spend your £150, buffet lunch, Chelsea gift, ex-player appearance, open bar, off you trot to the West Upper, thanks for the money.”

It is no wonder that vast swathes of Stamford Bridge remain ghostly quiet on many match days.

Alan and Tom, the two stalwarts were alongside me.

Following on from our trip to Tyneside at the weekend, Alan and I spoke in Geordie accents for a large slice of the evening. It was no surprise. We both love an accent.

Wor Ally : “How was the toon Sat’dy neet, but?”

Wor Chrissy : “Ah diven’t knaa. It’s al a bit of a blur, like.”

As the teams entered the stadium, the Chelsea in the Matthew Harding draped a large new flag over the balcony wall at the east end of the stand. It was a clear and simple, stunningly effective, blue flag containing a pristine white image of the sexiest cup of them all, the European Cup. Good work. I hope it appears every game. In the away section, an equally impressive sight; three thousand Germans rhythmically bouncing, as one, in unison, both tiers together. I will be blunt and honest here; it was probably the greatest show I had ever seen performed by an away contingent at Stamford Bridge. It was mesmeric and tantalising to see so many bodies bouncing in time. Linear ripples of movement, bounce, bounce, bounce. Fantastic.

There is no doubt that Schalke 04 are one of the largest German clubs in 2013, but for many years they existed under my radar. I have a distinct feeling that they played second tier football for a few years during my football youth and certainly never rivalled the more well-known teams such as Bayern Munich, SV Hamburg, 1FC Koln, Borrusia Moenchengladbach and the like. It came as some surprise to me, in around 1990, for me to read of the size of their support. They appeared to be an authentic sleeping giant. And yet their home town – city – of Gelsenkirchen was not famous at all; possibly unheard of by people outside Germany and outside football. They appeared to be an enigma, cossetted away in the heart of the Ruhr, unknown and yet with an historic past.

I remembered that their old stadium was used at the 1974 World Cup – its vast terrace was similar to that of the Olympic Stadium in Munich – but for years, Schalke 04 continued their existence in the footballing shadows.

Chelsea played a game against Besiktas at Schalke’s new stadium in the 2003-2004 CL campaign and then met Schalke for the first time in the 2007-2008 group phase. A few friends and I travelled over to Germany for the away leg. We flew into Koln/Bonn airport and stayed two nights in the city of Koln. A heavy night of drinking the local kolsch beer on the first evening was followed by a more subdued match day. We took the local train up to Gelsenkirchen, giving me the first real taste of the Ruhr. Despite having travelled extensively in Germany in my twenties, I had skirted this vast industrial power zone, instead preferring Hamburg, Munich and other more touristy locales. In truth, Gelsenkirchen was bleak. Its city centre was astonishingly small. At the time, I searched for an English equivalent.

Massive club, once successful, hidden away in a small town within a larger metropolitan area.

I know.

Wolverhampton Wanderers.

That was as good a fit as I could come up with.

Just as only football fans have heard of Gelsenkirchen, surely only football fans from elsewhere in the world have heard of Wolverhampton?

On the night, I was impressed with the two-tiered, roofed Arena Auf Schalke – the Veltins Arena – but the game was poor, ending scoreless.

Gelsenkirchen 2007 ranks very poorly in my list of favourite European aways.

The game began and Schalke – in dark jade shirts – began on the front foot. In their first attack, Cesar Azpilicueta – strangely preferred at left-back in place of Ashley Cole – was caught way out of position in the middle of the field. Alan and I groaned, but thankfully Julian Draxler drilled a low shot wide of Petr Cech’s far post. Within a few moments, Szalai produced an almost carbon-copy finish.

We were all over the place. Our play was loose and we lacked structure.

Schalke 04 were causing Chelsea 05 to play at sixes and sevens.

Another few minutes and another Schalke effort; the away team had enjoyed a great start and had peppered our goal with three good efforts in the opening eight minutes. In the far corner, the singing from the away fans was constant. There were capos with loudspeakers, rhythmic clapping, scarves being held aloft and then twirled. They were in fine form.

Chelsea started to get a foothold.

For a few moments it was the Schalke and Schurrle show; our German international had a free-kick well saved by Hildebrand and then followed up with a fine strike on goal.

For once, the Chelsea fans began to rise to the challenge offered by the noisy Germans. The Matthew Harding Lower led the singing and for a few fleeting moments the stadium resembled a football stadium.

Our play had been rather slow, relying on the raiding Ivanovic down the right. Very often the intricate triangles involving Oscar, Ramires and Willian only resulted in the ball being played back, relentlessly, through the back four. We lacked vitality. I longed for an early ball for Samuel Eto’o to run on to. For the most part, all of the play was in front of Schalke.

However, on the half hour, calamity for our visitors.

Hildebrand delayed and delayed his clearance up field. The otherwise quiet Eto’o seized his chance and rushed in to block. In the blink of an eye-lid, the ball had ricocheted off his leg and had rolled beautifully into the empty Shed End goal.

We could hardly believe our eyes.

After the Hart faux-pas against Manchester City and the Eto’o touch against Cardiff City, the Shed End were treated to another “what happened next?” moment. There was a mixture of glee and relief in the Chelsea ranks. We had begun poorly and had hardly warranted a 1-0 lead.

Alan and I cleared our throats.

“Zey vill ‘ave to come at us now.”

“Wir kommen mein klein diamonds.”

The rest of the first-half was devoid of incident, apart from a bizarre moment when a Chelsea attack was called back by the referee because a Schalke player’s boot had come off.

Alan and I were dumbfounded.

Modern football. Pah.

Chris : “Fackin’ell…Bert Trautman played on with a broken neck.”

Alan : “Ref! Ref! Stop the play! My sock has fallen down.”

Paolo Ferriera made a welcome return to the Stamford Bridge pitch as he slowly walked with Neil Barnett. I had last seen him, tearful, after his last ever game in New York in May. It was lovely to see him again.

In the first few minutes of the second-half, probably the best moment of football thus far; a superb spin and shot from Draxler inside our box and it looked like certain equaliser. To our pleasure, Petr Cech threw himself to his right and touched the low shot past the post for a corner.

Thibaut who?

Soon after, a fantastic Chelsea counter-attack (we seem to specialise in these attacking the MH in the second-half of games, don’t we?) and we added to our lead. Willian fed in Eto’o whose run was near perfect. The veteran goal scorer calmly struck the ball past the hapless Schalke ‘keeper with the minimum of fuss and raced over to the far corner to milk the applause of the home support.

I was unconvinced about the signing of Samuel Eto’o over the summer, but if he continues to ply his trade as effectively as that over the next six months, I will be very contented.

With the game seemingly safe, the Chelsea support quietened. Even the ball-achingly dull and tedious “Ten German Bombers” soon faded after a minute. The Schalke fans, meanwhile, kept going.

I remember when our support was like that.

The game appeared to be won. We seemed more than content to pass, pass, pass our way to three more points. Mourinho rung the changes, bringing on Demba Ba, Kevin de Bruyne  and Frank Lampard.

The midfield, where Mikel had put in a fine and steady performance, was re-jigged.

Demba Ba shot meekly soon after entering the field, but then made amends on 82 minutes. Frank Lampard lobbed the ball towards Ba – he looked offside to me, and a few others – and he calmly despatched the ball into the far corner.

3-0.

As the game drifted on, the Schalke fans still sang.

At the final whistle, I couldn’t help but feel a slightest twinge of sympathy for the Germans. Over the two games, they had certainly not deserved to be at the end of a 0-6 gubbing. I think that they had missed a cutting edge. Their progress in this year’s competition is not known. At least ours seems more likely.

On the walk back to the car, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. I was obviously happy that Chelsea had triumphed on the night and were now leading the group after that calamitous defeat versus Basel. However, a win against a bland and anonymous team – which, to my eyes, Schalke still were – just left me a bit cold and unfulfilled. I know that UEFA has served up these six group phase games for our gratification and pleasure, but maybe the thrill is starting to wane a little. There certainly isn’t that edge which is present during the knockout games and the muted atmosphere – again – at a Chelsea CL game provides extra evidence of the “hey-ho” nature of these encounters.

Back at the car, Parky’s response summed it up succinctly.

“All a bit boring wasn’t it really?”

On Saturday, it’s back to the cut and thrust of the league campaign.

Steve Clarke. Nicolas Anelka. Bouncy Bouncy. Boing Boing.

See you all there.

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