Tales From The Same Old Scene

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 2 March 2013.

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

Bada bing.

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

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

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

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

“Of all the bars, in all the towns…”

Why this fascination with that 1983-1984 era?

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

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

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

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

Perfect.

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

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

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

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

Clear the old guard and start afresh.

Big questions.

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

What a muddle.

The relative merits of other players were also discussed.

I had to smile at Simon’s comment –

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

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

“Our best pound for pound signing for ages.”

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

Ah, 1983-1984 again.

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

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

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

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

“Nah, nothing.”

Big John and I shared a few words.

“I’m dreading this.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“Especially after last season.”

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

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

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

“Welcome back Clarkey.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good work.

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

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

“Stand up if you hate Rafa.”

“You’re not wanted here.”

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

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

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

We all were, right?

Thankfully, the danger passed.

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

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

See you up there.

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Tales From The Badlands

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 17 November 2012.

I left work on Friday, thrilled by the prospect of five straight days of holiday and, within that time frame, there would be two Chelsea games which I would attend.

First up was an away trip up the M5 to West Bromwich Albion’s neat Hawthorns stadium, a mere 111 miles away.

I didn’t have to be up there early. This was another solo-trip – no Parky – and I wasn’t in any particular mood to do much before the game. This would be a simple “in and out “affair. In truth, the drive up through a busy Bristol and up onto the motorway, then through the overcast countryside of Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, was rather dull. I listened to “Fighting Talk” on Five Live and then caught the opening section of that station’s football coverage. The drive took me two and a half hours, similar in length to a home game, and I was parked up at the Park Inn at 1.40pm. There was a long line at the bar and, to be honest, I had a headache and didn’t fancy a beer. A quick hello to a couple of acquaintances in the bar and I soon decided to head off to the stadium. The North London derby was on a TV screen, but I gave it scant regard.

There was a time, before the M5 motorway ploughed right through the heart of the Black Country, when The Hawthorns probably felt like a natural extension of the historic town centre of West Bromwich. Now, the six-lane motorway dissects the two locales. The town centre is a mile to the west of junction 1 of the M5. The ground is isolated, cut off and disowned by the town centre, a few hundred yards to the east, surrounded by industrial units, a bakery, a McDonalds and a single housing estate.

And yet, I’ve always liked trips to this stadium, set on a slight incline, with its angled floodlights being easily visible from the motorway as it bends and curves its way north. I suspect that this could be, in part, due to our fine record at this stadium. A fine record, that is, until last season when a lamentable performance spelled the end of Andre Villas-Boas’ short, and eventually unloved, term in charge of our team. This would be my eighth journey to The Hawthorns; the first six of these resulted in straight Chelsea wins. The seventh, was that 1-0 loss in March.

I took the usual mix of photographs outside the stadium, which is clad in dull grey and navy steel, yet maintains a clean and trim feel. I was last in the area on my drive to Villa Park for the Community Shield in August, when our young team was still finding its footing. I took a few photographs of those angled floodlight pylons. There were times in the distant past when my sorties around the highways and byways – OK, the roads and railways – of this land were immortalised by shouts of “there’s Huddersfield’s ground” or “there’s Cardiff’s.” This was code for the fact that the floodlight pylons, rather than the stadia themselves, could be spotted, from maybe several miles away. It was somehow reassuring to know that they were still there; totems, if you like, for the stadium, for the club, for the respective communities which those clubs represented. These days, the lighting at stadia is more likely to be tucked under the roof of stands. The visual impact of those high and towering spider-webbed structures is, therefore, sadly missing from our urban landscape. It was always an anomaly of Stamford Bridge that, until 1994, we had three floodlight pylons, remnants from the days when the vast bowl was served by six pylons. In 1972, the three on the east side were taken down, leaving just the three on the west side. Spotting them from way out on an approach into London always got the pulses racing.

A few girls were handing out fliers for a Status Quo album or gig. Talk about taking a step back in time. Bad music in the badlands of the Black Country.

I also took a few photographs of the Jeff Astle gates, which are typically understated. Astle was a much-loved striker from the late ‘sixties and early ‘seventies, who sadly passed away in 2002. He was probably the Albion’s most famous son and appeared in Sir Alf’s 1970 World Cup squad. I met up with Alan and Gary, who were on the lookout for match badges. We walked down to the away entrance, where we chatted to the four Bristolians who frequent The Goose and all stadia east, west, north and south. Tim, one of the four, attended a Stiff Little Fingers concert with me in Bath on Monday. I had bumped into him at the same concert a year ago and, typically, I bumped into another Chelsea acquaintance – we recognised each other from The Goose – again this past Monday. Chelsea world gets smaller every year.

Talk was of the team. It was certainly a surprising eleven; no doubt the upcoming game in Turin on Tuesday forced Di Matteo’s hand.

Inside the stadium, we had great seats; in the first row above the walkway. Just before the teams entered the pitch, the resident DJ played the magnificent “Love Will Tear Us Apart” by Joy Division and then followed it up with sings by Oasis and The Killers. I certainly enjoyed hearing those three classic songs. Well done to the DJ. It sure beat Status Quo.

The music changed to the classical sounds of “Carmina Burana” as the teams walked onto the pitch.

Stirring stuff.

“I need some Old Spice aftershave” I said to Gary.

We began well, controlling possession, and a fine move down the left resulted in a Ryan Bertrand effort from inside the box being hacked off the line. However, our early smiles were turned to despair when West Brom worked the ball wide and the resulting cross was headed home by Shane Long, with the floundering David Luiz absent. Maybe Luiz was still finding a place to park his car at the Park Inn, maybe he was outside the stadium buying some pork scratchings, or maybe he was in a line at the nearby McDonalds. Joking apart, it was shocking defending.

The locals celebrated by singing about one of their local rivals.

“Shit on the Villa, Shit on the Villa tonight.”

Victor Moses seemed to be involved on the left, more so than Sturridge on the right. A shot from Moses and another from Mikel hardly troubled Myhill in the home goal, though. Over on the touchline stood the former team mates, Roberto Di Matteo and Steve Clarke.

Wembley 1997 and all that.

We still dominated possession but rarely threatened. Studge worked himself into the game, firing at the ‘keeper, but Torres was woefully absent from any worthwhile activity. At times it was as if we were playing without a centre-forward, perhaps like the famous Hungarian formation from the ‘fifties. Fernando Torres, however, is no Ferenc Puskas. A quick break involving that man Shane Long almost put us 2-0 down.

Thankfully, we eventually broke through the well-marshalled ranks of striped defenders. An Azpilicueta cross deep into the West Brom six yard box was met by a rising Eden Hazard. I wasn’t sure how the ball managed to cross the line, but the net rippled and the Chelsea fans at last roared. To be honest, the away support had been pretty quiet until that point, with the noisy neighbours to our left providing more noise and variety. For some reason there was a heavy police presence in our end, with all of them looking our way. Maybe they had never seen Champions of Europe before.

…”Champions of Europe – we know what we are.”

I captured the celebrations of the Chelsea players away in the distance, but was then reprimanded by a weasel of a steward who warned me that further use of my camera would result in it being confiscated. The home fans then responded to our eventual noise.

“We know what we are.
We know what we are.
Pride of the Midlands.
We know what we are.”

As the sun cast long shadows on the spectators in the far stand, the Chelsea fans replied with an old chant from the late ‘seventies; quite rare these days.

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

There were mumbles and grumbles at half-time. The only players performing well, in my mind, were Mikel and Azpilicueta, though Moses and Bertrand were adequate. As the second-half began, the air grew colder. We again began well, with a strong run down the right flank, but Sturridge turned to shoot only at Myhill. It was to be the first of many misses during the second half from our frustrating number 23. Just as we appeared to be improving – “this is much better, Gal” – our error-prone defending let us down once again. Long was not charged down by Luiz and his quick cross was turned in by Odemwingie, with Bertrand unable to get close. The home fans roared again.

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

The Lord’s Prayer – Psalm 23 – then had an airing and The Hawthorns was rocking.

The songs continued. Chelsea were silent.

“We’re Albion till we die. We’re Albion till we die. We’re blue and white, the Wolves are shite, we’re Albion till we die.”

On the hour, time for action. Oscar for Romeu. Mata for Torres.

Soon after, two delightful balls from Juan Mata were lofted into the path of Sturridge, now playing centrally, but there was just too much “on” them. In truth, Studge did well to even reach the first with a header. However, despite the promising play from Mata, Studge’s two “misses” drew howls of derision.

The Chelsea fans, at last, decided to get behind the team. In response, the home fans countered and for a few minutes the atmosphere was electric, just like a game from the days of yore. The chances still came for Daniel Sturridge. Mata played the ball through, and Sturridge only had the goalkeeper to beat, but the ball was on his “wrong” side. His right-footed shot was tame and was easily blocked by Myhill, who was now turning in quite a performance in the Albion goal.

The best chance of the game again fell to Strurridge four minutes from time. Oscar, who had been playing in quite a withdrawn role, played the ball in but Sturridge screwed the ball wide. The Chelsea supporters had already decided that “enough was enough” and began to drift away. Two late corners, however, stopped the flow and the walkway in front of us became congested. Out came my camera to capture the last pieces of action. A short corner was played in by Mata and I snapped. The ball flew across the box and the sight of the yellow shirt of Petr Cech, flying through the air, at the far post caused a moment of supreme surprise and great expectation. I had not seen our ‘keeper arrive. It would have been some goal.

His outstretched leg did not connect with the ball. The referee blew for time. The glum faces of the Chelsea followers filed away into the night and the home spectators celebrated with a wild roar. I patted Al on the back – “see you in Turin” – and soon departed. As I turned one final corner, I glanced back at the spectators in the main stand –

“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”
“Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing – Baggies, Baggies, Boing, Boing.”

Fair play to them, the baggy buggers, let them enjoy the night.

Outside in the cold West Midlands night, the crescent of a waxing moon welcomed me as I hurriedly walked past the red brick of an old factory to my left. The Chelsea supporters around me were in a foul mood. Of course, I was far from happy either. I made my way past the onrushing home fans, battling the crowds, well aware that my solemn face did not match that of the locals. They were buzzing, to be fair. Steve Clarke has fashioned a hard-working team at West Brom. I wasn’t really sure if he would “cut it” as a stand-alone manager, but the dour Scot from Saltcoats has done a grand job. What of us? There were some below-average performances for sure. No need to mention names. Everyone knows who. However, I was later to learn that we had won twelve corners to West Brom’s zero. It certainly felt like we were always in with a chance of scoring. I think that a draw would have been a fair result.

Alas, not.

I got caught in some bad traffic as I tried to leave the area but, after ages, I found my way back onto the southbound M5. I just couldn’t be bothered with the radio. The United game would be referenced every five minutes and I couldn’t stomach that. Instead, Massive Attack accompanied me on the lonely trip home. I was typically melancholic as I drove on; dismayed by the result, but also with the standard of support from the away fans. At times, it was woeful. We were quiet at Swansea too.

Must do better.

As I reached home, I flicked on my laptop and could hardly believe the news that Norwich City had defeated Manchester United at Carrow Road. What a shocker. I suspect that the United legions were all over the internet moaning about their manager, the under-performing players, the formation, the whole nine yards. They have already lost three out of their twelve games so far this season.

Fergie out.

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