Tales From Selhurst Park

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 17 December 2016.

Our game at Selhurst Park would be our third game in just seven days; by the time I would return home from South London, I would have driven over 1,100 miles in support of the boys in blue. No complaints from me though; what else are you going to do on a Sunday lunchtime, a Wednesday evening or a Saturday lunchtime? For the second year in a row, I had decided to use one of those pre-paid parking spaces outside a private address. Last year, it worked a treat, despite the severe soaking we suffered walking to and from the stadium, and our win at Selhurst was an enjoyable day out. It was our first game of 2016, and it felt like we had turned the corner after the malaise of the autumn slump.

What a difference a year makes, eh? A year ago we had just lost at Leicester City and Jose Mourinho had been sacked. We were mired in the bottom five. Twelve months on, there is a beautiful and uplifting vibe in SW6. We were chasing our eleventh win on the trot, and with it, a ridiculous pre-Christmas lead of a massive nine points.

Just before I left home, I posted on Facebook.

“Let’s Go To Work, Antonio.”

“VINCI PER NO11.”

The roads were thick with fog as I collected PD, Parky and Young Jake. Over Salisbury Plain, I was forced to keep my speed down due to poor visibility. On the drive to London, although the driving conditions gradually improved, the fog never really lifted.

My GPS sent me through the backroads of South London, along unfamiliar streets and roads. This was a route right through the Chelsea heartlands of Tolworth, New Malden, Mitcham, and then south to Wallington to catch the A23 Purley Way up to Thornton Heath. It seemed to be a rather circuitous course, and as we finally parked up on Kynaston Avenue, I joked that I bloody well hoped that our route to the Palace goal would not be so messy.

We were parked-up at 11.45am. We were there. There was no time for a pre-match pint, unlike last year, when we dried out in front of a roaring fire at the “Prince George” pub.

The fog was hanging in the South London air. As we shook hands with a few mates outside the red-brick of the turnstiles to the Arthur Wait Stand, and knowing how “old school” Selhurst Park remains, there was a definite old-time feel to this. The floodlights were on, of course, and they only seemed to increase my awareness of how foggy it all was. I loved it to be honest. Love it or loathe it – and most people tend to belong to the latter camp – there is no doubt that Selhurst Park, representing football stadia in their natural settings, alongside terraced streets, local pubs, cafes and shops, strikes a chord with me. There was a large souvenir Chelsea only stall selling favours plotted-up right outside the away end. Two hi-vis jacketed policemen on horseback watched over us as we milled around outside. It’s terribly cramped at Selhurst. Once inside, you wait your turn until you have the chance to slowly sidle through the crowded concourse before entering the Arthur Waite Stand at its rear, its roof so cavernous and dark above, a mess of ugly steel supports, and the pitch can only be glimpsed, a thin line at the bottom of the steps.

Parky, Alan, Gal and myself were low down in row four, with PD just in front of us. The fog made visibility difficult. As the teams entered from the far corner – I have this image of the dressing rooms at Selhurst being temporary Portakabins to this day, I am sure I am wrong – I took a few photographs and soon realised that my haul on this footballing Saturday would be grainy and lacking the usual crispness.

If you squinted, Crystal Palace in their blue and red, and Chelsea in our all-white, resembled an ersatz El Classico homage : Palace as FCB, Chelsea as the Real deal.

As for the team, there were changes. Thankfully Eden Hazard was back in, with Willian keeping his place in the attacking trio with Pedro missing out. Nemanja Matic returned to take the place of Wednesday’s match-winner Cesc Fabregas.

The little knot of self-styled Holmesdale Ultras were doing their bit in the opening formalities, fervently waving their flags, and trying to get the rest of the home areas involved. The game began with Diego Costa playing the ball back to a team mate, and we were away.

I thought Wilfrid Zaha, running with intent, in front of us on the Palace right looked threatening in the first few moments. And Johan Cabaye looked at ease, picking up passes in front of the home defence, before playing intelligent balls through for the runners. A David Luiz free-kick, following a foul on Eden Hazard, was our first real attempt on goal; the ball bounced up off the wall and went for a corner. Soon after a ball was fizzed in from the Palace right and we gasped as Jason Puncheon stabbed the ball wide. Most of our attacking intent seemed to come down our left flank with the industrious Alonso linking up well with Nemanja Matic and Hazard. There was a little frustration with Matic and his inherent slowness. Alongside him, Kante was a lot more economic, releasing the ball with minimum fuss. One of the highlights of the first period was the incredible jump from Eden to control a high ball with consummate ease. He brought the ball down and moved on. All within twenty yards of me. I’m so lucky to see such skill week in, week out.

Diego Costa gave away a silly foul. After living life on the edge for what seems an eternity, his fifth booking eventually came.

Palace were causing us a few moments of concern. It clearly wasn’t all about us.

There didn’t seem to be the usual barrage of noise emanating from the away section this time. There were occasional songs and chants, but the team was causing moments of mild concern rather than reasons to celebrate.

The home team had a couple of chances. James McArthur headed wide, Puncheon wasted a free-kick.

Just as it looked like the half would end in a stalemate and hardly a real Chelsea chance on goal, Eden Hazard turned and kept the ball close as he cut inside. He played the ball out to Cesar Azpilicueta, who sent over a hanging cross into the box. Diego, a thin wedge of white sandwiched between two defenders, was first to the ball and met it squarely.

We watched, open-mouthed and expectant, as the ball dropped into the goal.

It was almost in slow-motion.

There was a split-second of delay before we celebrated.

Two immediate thoughts entered my mind.

Was it offside?

Bloody hell, a headed goal.

Crystal Palace 0 Chelsea 1 and thank you very much Diego Costa.

There was a little bubble of sunshine in the gloom and murk of a wintry South London at half-time. All was well with the world.

Was that it then?

With minimal effort, we had taken the lead against a troublesome Crystal Palace team. At that moment in time, we were on our way to our eleventh consecutive win, and we were nine points clear at the top.

It seemed – almost – too easy.

Well, we were soon to learn that nothing is easy. For the first period of play in the second-half, the home team put us under pressure, and it suddenly felt that we were in for a good old-fashioned battle. The Chelsea support had boomed with celebratory support after Diego’s goal, but we now realised the team needed a different tune. Whereas before there had been “we’re top of the league”, there was now a more supportive “come on Chelsea.” This was music to my ears. I love it when our support recognises that the team needs us and we respond accordingly.

The home support responded too, invoking the same chant that I noted the Bayer Leverkusen fans using at Wembley a month or so back.

“Tra La La La La La La – Crystal Palace.”

They’re so European, these Holmesdale Fanatics, the buggers.

Cabaye forced a smart save from Thibaut Courtois. The one defensive trademark of the second-half would be the towering Belgian rising high in a packed six-yard box to claim cross after cross. We rode a little home pressure, and then were back to our best, and the game opened up further. A blistering shot from N’Golo Kante forced a save from the Palace ‘keeper Wayne Hennessey.

Willian, not at his best, was replaced by Cesc Fabregas. Soon into his game, we serenaded him with his own song; he looked over to the Chelsea hordes and applauded.

The chances continued. It was a different game than in the first-half. Victor Moses zipped past a few challenges and caused Palace a few moments of discomfort. Alonso, from an angle, volleyed low but wide. It rustled the net and a few in our ranks thought it was a second. I spotted a Palace fan, sitting behind the goal, stand to his feet and mock our errant cheering. His only problem was that he was wearing a full-on green elf costume.

“Sit down, you prick.”

A weak Fabregas shot, and then a Benteke turn and shot was well-saved by Thibaut.

Ivanovic for Moses.

There were a few classic Chelsea masterclasses at Selhurst.

Kante snapping at the heels of various Palace players, and showing ridiculous energy levels.

The refreshed Hazard back to his best, running at speed, stopping on a sixpence, bringing others into the game.

The absolutely dependable Azpilicueta, the quickest of the back three, covering ground well, and blocking many Palace moves.

Alonso, up and down the left-flank, always involved.

Cesc Fabregas, only on the pitch for twenty-five minutes, but showing what an intelligent passer he can be.

And lastly, but not least, the relentless Diego Costa, in his current form as complete an attacker that we have seen at Chelsea; foraging, battling, fighting, shielding, thrusting.

Scoring.

The bloody referee Jon Moss – booed by us throughout for some odd decisions – had reckoned to an additional five minutes. It got a little nervy. Thankfully Andros Townsend skied a very late free-kick.

We had done it.

Eleven in a row.

Fackinell.

It was time for a festive celebration :

“Jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Oh what fun it is to see Chelsea win away.”

Very soon, the Chelsea players walked towards us and clapped. And very soon the focus was our Italian manager. As we serenaded him – “Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio! Antonio!” – he beamed a huge and endearing smile, before doing a little hand-jive, and then turning to say that the applause should really be for his players. It was just a lovely moment.

 

We waited for a while before we exited. There were many handshakes – “Happy Christmas” – to those stood close by. We made the point of shaking hands with the line of stewards who had been lining the segregation area between our noisy section and the docile home support. Chelsea fans in friendly behaviour shock. The walk back to the car was triumphant. I made the point of telling anyone who would listen that these three narrow 1-0 wins would surely frustrate and annoy the hell out of our title rivals. But it had revealed a great tenacity to our play.

3-0, 4-0, 5-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

1-0, 1-0, 1-0.

“Yes, we can win like that.”

I weaved my way south, and out onto the M25 before heading home. It had been a triumphant week. Over one thousand miles, entailing twenty-five hours of driving, just three goals, but nine magnificent points.

What a week. What a team.

In my match report for our game at Selhurst Park in the Spring of 2014, I weaved the lyrics to Sarf London boys Squeeze’s most loved song “Up The Junction” as an ode to that particular part of our nation’s capital. In Frome, after I had dropped the boys off, later in the evening, I combined a trip to see Chelsea in deepest South London with a gig by Squeeze front man Glen Tilbrook in the town’s concert hall.

It seemed right.

We now have a rest. It’s Christmas. A week off. We reassemble at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day 2016 for the visit of Bournemouth.

“Eleven in a row” just doesn’t scan, so let’s make it twelve.

On we go.

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Tales From The Tortuous Mediocrity

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 29 March 2014.

At last, here was a change to my typical match day routine. This trip to London South had been planned a few weeks ago. By car, Crystal Palace is notoriously difficult to reach. So, we had decided to travel up by train. It was an easy decision. I was relishing this one. It was a chance for me to travel to a game without pounding the tarmac. And it was a chance to unwind and let other worries, which have been quite considerable over the past two months, subside.

This match – placed just before the soiree to Paris – was going to be a good one.

We caught the 8.37am from Melksham and changed at Swindon. The journey to Paddington would only take a further hour and thirty minutes. While Parky launched into a four-pack of lager, I enjoyed a cappuccino. Old habits, I guess, die hard. I have, if I’m honest, never been a fan of drinking too early on a Saturday morning. As we hurtled through the Wiltshire and Oxfordshire countryside, I was reminded of a time when my Chelsea trips were dominated by train travel. I thought back to the years from 1981 to 1991. Apart from occasional trips to Stamford Bridge in my father’s car, football meant train travel. Ah, 1981 to 1991…the years when I cut my teeth as a Chelsea fan, following the team whenever I could. In those ten years, I went from sixth form to college to sporadic unemployment and poorly-paid employment and eventually I was able to afford a car at the relatively late age of twenty-six.

I used to love going by train to be honest. If it wasn’t so expensive these days, I would do so more often. This was my first trip to London by rail, I think, since the F.A.Cup Semi-Final in 2009. We laughed as we remembered what had happened on the Paddington platform after the game; Parky had a disagreement with a Millwall fan. Let’s leave it there. In his youth, Parky often managed to get embroiled in other similar “disagreements” with other fans too. There was further laughter when he re-told (for maybe the twentieth time) the story of a “disagreement” with some Cardiff fans in around 1970 and Parky hiding for a few minutes in a skip full of mail bags.

First class.

As we darted past Reading, I got all misty-eyed as I remembered my first-ever girlfriend who disastrously moved away from Frome after seeing me for only three weeks (“was it something I said?”) when her father changed jobs. On every Chelsea trip in the 1982-1983 season, and those after it, the train took me within a mile of her house in the village of Charvil, but I just looked on, disconsolate and with a lump in my throat, from the train window.

“So near and yet so far.”

Anyway, she was more of a rugby fan. She didn’t have a clue about football. It would never have worked out.

We crossed the River Thames a few times and were soon headed into London. Going back to thoughts about the early-‘eighties, as I approached Paddington station – Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s mighty terminus at the end of his glorious Great Western Railway – I remembered some graffiti which was sprayed on a brick wall under the Westway.

“I am an angry passionate soul crying out in the midst of this tortuous mediocrity.”

In those years of teenage angst, unrequited love, school day malaise and Second Division Football, those words struck a chord with me. I always used to look out for it. There was genuine sadness when I looked for it, yet it was no more, in maybe around 1986.

“Another rebel bites the dust.”

However, the way things work out, the writer of said graffiti is probably a stockbroker or a financial analyst in the city these days.

I, of course, am still an angry passionate soul.

We arrived at Paddington at 10.40am. Although we were playing Crystal Palace later in the afternoon, I had another game on my mind. My first task of the day was to head down to Stamford Bridge to collect seven tickets for myself and various friends for the game at Parc des Princes on Wednesday. We caught the District Line and whereas Parky alighted at West Brompton, I stayed on until Fulham Broadway. Despite a sadly predictable tense few moments at the ticket window in which the club official made me feel uncomfortable as I handed over the seven completed declaration forms (“do you know all these people?”, “do you have their addresses?”, “you could have found these forms on a train”, “have you got their season ticket cards?”), I was eventually handed seven tickets.

Phew. I could relax. I texted my six mates –

“Tickets in hand.”

I bounced back to West Brompton. There was time for a couple of pints at the “Prince of Wales” with Lord Parky and Dave (“We’ll Just Call You Azpilicueta.”) We were joined by two young Chelsea lads – Max and James – who had also just collected tickets for Paris. The five of us then caught the over ground train down to Clapham Junction, where we changed trains again. As we crossed the River Thames for the third time of the day, there was a frisson of excitement. Even for a seasoned traveller like me, an unexpected view of London very often cheers me. There was a mix of Palace and Chelsea fans on the train. Some Palace fans advised us to alight at Selhurst and not Thornton Heath. We spoke briefly with a chap from New York, who was attending the game with a Chelsea-supporting mate. He admitted to being a little wary of talking to us; we weren’t wearing colours of course, so he wasn’t sure if we were Palace or Chelsea. Maybe he was expecting some sort of “Green Street” scenario. We invited him to come and join us for a few bevvies, but he decided against it. We walked through the sunny South London streets, the stands of Selhurst Park playing hide-and seek to our left. Just after 1pm, we reached our target; the William Stanley at Norwood Junction. The pints were soon flowing. The pub was mainly Chelsea and the pub was soon playing host to a few choice songs.

“We Are The Chelsea So Fcuk All The Rest.”

All of the usual suspects were there.

I had visited this boozer on one occasion before, for a pre-season game against Palace in the summer of 2003. It was, I think, the first game in the UK of the Roman Abramovich era. Thousands of Chelsea descended on the quiet streets of South London that day; it was, in fact, my last visit to Selhurst Park. On that occasion, we won 2-1. I remember a Geremi free-kick, but little else apart from the blistering summer sun. I didn’t attend our last visit to Selhurst; a win during the first few weeks of the Mourinho era. Although I am rapidly approaching a thousand Chelsea games, I have only visited Selhurst Park on five previous occasions. Strangely, more games have featured Crystal Palace’s two tenants Charlton Athletic and Wimbledon, than Palace themselves.

My very first visit to Selhurst was in August 1989; a midweek game against Charlton Athletic, in the days when their Valley stadium was unable to be used. We had begun the 1989-1990 with a couple of wins and a draw. I was soon off to the US for a year’s travel, and decided at the last minute to attend. It was going to be my big send-off. There was an added dimension to this game; should we win, we’d go top. How big a deal was this? Well, in all of my time of supporting Chelsea Football Club, I had never ever seen us at the top of the Football League. I travelled to London that day, almost a quarter of a century ago, in hope that I would be leaving England for America with us in first position.

On that Tuesday night, we lost 3-0 to a Charlton Athletic team which included our former defensive tandem Joe McLaughlin and Colin Pates, and I was crestfallen.

So much for a big send-off.

Now – that was Proper Chelsea.

Goodbye England.

In the William Stanley, there was much talk of Paris, but not much of Palace. Rob adapted their “We’re Palace, we’re Palace” chant.

“We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

We’re on our way to Paris.

To Paris.

To Paris.

Whooooooooaaaaaaooooowwww – whooooooooooaaaaaaoooowwww.”

I was enjoying this. Drinking at football. I should do this more often.

Then, bizarrely, just after 2pm, the pub closed.

“What?”

As we left, we serenaded the locals –

“Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

Portugal, Portugal I Pray.

Portugal, Portugal We Are Coming.

We Are Coming In The Month Of May.”

Max popped over the road and bought some tinnies for our slow ascent up the hill towards Selhurst Park. Although the terrain is different, the immediate area is similar to Highbury; humdrum terraced houses, quite plain, with little hint of a sport stadium nearby. We found ourselves amid a noisy group of Chelsea fans and a police escort soon arrived. We edged away, and then found ourselves behind a baiting mob of Palace fans.

“We are the Holmesdale.”

There was only posturing and no hint of violence.

Our American friend would have been fine.

Selhurst Park has changed, as have most of London’s football theatres, over the years. I can vividly remember open terraces at each end in the early ‘seventies, though only a few years earlier, there were only grassy banks. The main stand has remained mainly unchanged since the ‘twenties and other stands been built, one at a time, quite unrelated. It isn’t a particularly classy stadium. It fits in well among the nondescript houses which surround it. The Crystal Palace TV tower, on the hill to the north, is the sole landmark of note. Incidentally, the location of several F.A. Cup Finals at the turn of the twentieth century is a mile or two to the north; the site in fact, of the Crystal Palace athletics arena.

Inside the Arthur Wait Stand – dark and cramped – the three thousand Chelsea fans were in good voice before the arrival of the teams. It was a fine sunny day. I was stood with Alan and Gary, as always. This was a very local game for both. Alan, from Anerley, lives just two miles to the north-east. Gary, from Norbury, lives just two miles to the north-west.

Crystal Palace, then, is their local team.

Gary : “I hate this lot more than Tottenham.”

I didn’t believe him…

London has so many teams of course. It is too simple and too easy to say that Arsenal and Tottenham have the north, West Ham has the east and Chelsea have the south. Rivalries, boundaries and catchment areas overlap. I’ve always viewed Chelsea’s old heartland to be Hammersmith and Fulham and Kensington and Chelsea to the north of the river and Battersea, Tooting, Wandsworth and Clapham to the south. As Londoners moved to the suburbs and satellite towns, our support is now more likely to come from Reading, Slough, Wembley, Kingston-on-Thames, Crawley, Guildford, then Brighton, Oxford, Northampton and Swindon.

I’ve only ever met two Crystal Palace fans; I’d imagine their support is more local. I have no axe to grind with them; they have been a minor irritant over the years. Only an F.A. Cup defeat in 1976 and a League Cup defeat in 1993 sticks in my craw.

However, add the afternoon of Saturday March 29th 2014 to this list.

I am not going to dwell too long on the failings of Chelsea against Crystal Palace. Just like some of the supporters, was the focus on the imminent game in the Champions League? We wondered this after the poor performance against Aston Villa when our minds might have been clouded with thoughts of Galatasaray. If so, inexcusable. We knew that Tony Pulis’ team of journeyman would be up for the battle. They have slowly improved since he took over from Ian Holloway. In my mind, my thoughts were mixed. I expected us to win, though I couldn’t eradicate a haunting vision of a defeat to a Palace team, which would greatly reduce our chances of another league title.

The team appeared to be strong; surely David Luiz and Nemanja Matic would provide strength to our midfield?

The rather odd sight of a dozen or so lycra-clad cheerleaders welcomed the two teams onto the pitch. Just before, an eagle had swooped from goalmouth to goalmouth. How very American. Our friend would definitely have approved.

The game began. We struggled to get a foothold. Long balls were played forward, but passes were poor and our ball retention worse. We struggled to get Eden Hazard involved. The Palace team were over us like a rash. Our support appeared to wane. After a quarter of an hour, I looked around at my fellow supporters and was dismayed to see only around one in five joining in with a chant. However, a fine Gary Cahill tackle brought a raucous response from the away support and I hoped for better things. Alas, chances were at a premium. It was sad to see Frank Lampard playing so poorly.

There was only sporadic noise from the away end.

“Attack! Attack! Attack, attack, attack!”

At half-time, I disappeared off for a beer; I needed an artificial stimulant to keep me buoyed. The fare that we had served thus far was very poor. Down in the toilets, one young Chelsea fan uttered the immortal lines –

“I’ve only seen us lose two games.”

A few of us replied –

“What – this season?”

“No –ever.”

This was met with a barrage of light-hearted abuse.

I bumped into Parky and we chatted. The second-half began and I chatted to a couple more friends. Noticeably, in the one hundred Chelsea fans who were guzzling the last few dregs of their halftime beers, only one was wearing a replica shirt.

Proper Chelsea.

Then, a groan. News soon came through that we had conceded a goal. With a heavy heart, I took my place alongside Alan and Gary, the local lads.

“John Terry – own goal.”

There had been the introduction of Oscar for Luiz at the break, and Salah came on for Lampard. Our support quietened further. We found it so difficult to break Palace down and we didn’t use our flanks at all. At times, our play was tortuous and mediocre. Our support didn’t rally.

A John Terry header flew over the bar. It was a rare chance.

Demba Ba replaced Andre Schurrle. Speroni foiled Hazard. Torres wasted another opportunity. There was dwindling hope among the away support. Instead, irritation and frustration, then a horrible realisation that we were going to lose and our league title hopes were going to die in the South London sun. It was a horrible, dull feeling. Bizarrely, Palace could have increased their lead in the final ten minutes. Jerome, breaking, hit the post. A second goal would not have flattered them. At the end of the game, we quietly exited. Outside, words were exchanged among a few friends.

Parky, Dave and I were then denied entrance to a couple of pubs – “regulars only” – and so we jumped on a train back to civilisation. We chatted over a beer in a pub at Victoria – north of the river, Chelsea Land, home – and were our usual pragmatic selves. After all these games, I don’t find it too difficult to stay as realistic as I can after another testing defeat. Despite the loss, it was a fine day out.

And next week, at least we’ll have Paris.

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