Tales From The Benches

Chelsea vs. Leicester City : 13 January 2018.

Last Saturday at Norwich, I bumped into a chap who I had not seen at a Chelsea game for years and years. Dave, originally from St. Albans, used to sit alongside a few of us on The Benches in the West Stand at Stamford Bridge in the mid-‘eighties. I was thrilled to see him again, and even more thrilled to hear that he was planning to meet up with two other lads from that era – Simon, who I see occasionally at Chelsea, and Rich, who I have not seen for three decades – at the Leicester City home game. As the Chuckle Brothers made our way to London, my mind was full of thoughts about this most brilliant of reunions. And it got me wondering about the absurdities of fate.

As I recalled the circumstances that led to us all getting to know each other, it just seemed that some things were just meant to be.

Rewind to the evening of Saturday 10 March 1984.

Glenn and I were on our way back to King’s Cross on the Chelsea Special after an action packed day watching The Great Unpredictables at Newcastle United’s St. James’ Park. Glenn shot off to the buffet, leaving me to read the creased match programme one more time. Coming out of Newcastle, the train had been bricked by some far-from-friendly locals and a window in our compartment had been shattered, leaving a young lad wearing glasses with bloodied cuts to the head. It was a rude awakening to the pitfalls of travelling by train in support of Chelsea. A few others, more experienced, more seasoned, had put the blinds down as soon as we had left Newcastle, just in case this very thing happened, to try to stop the glass flying everywhere. I probably tried to catch some sleep – we had been awake since 4am – but the compartment was so cold that sleep was probably out of the question. After an hour or so – “blimey, what has happened to Glenn?” – my travel companion returned.

“Just been talking to some lads from Brighton. A good laugh.”

I thought no more of it.

Fast forward to the afternoon of Saturday 31 March 1984.

In the days before we had spare money to pop into the pubs around Stamford Bridge on match days, Glenn and I were in early for our game against Fulham. We had watched our first two games together against Newcastle United in November and Manchester City in December on The Shed, but our next couple of matches – Portsmouth, Sheffield Wednesday – had been in the trendier and more enjoyable benches which used to run alongside the old dog track in front of the West Stand. It was where I had seen my very first game at Chelsea ten years’ earlier. But where there was a mixture of middle-aged supporters in suits and ties, young schoolkids, and pensioners mixed in with the teenagers in 1974, in 1984 the benches were occupied by a very different beast. In the main, and certainly at the northern end of The Benches, as near to the hated away fans as it was possible to get, were legions of Chelsea supporters – 99% male and 99% aged sixteen to twenty-five – who were dressed to impress with the latest casual labels of the day.

You would pay your general admission money to get in The Shed – £3? I forget – and then show your membership card at the back of the Shed terrace to a club official and then pay an extra quid at those peculiar turnstiles (a unique feature really, a turnstile inside a stadium) at the bottom of those steps between The Shed and the West Stand. And then you were in, walking the catwalk of that wide walkway at the back of the enclosure, watching the peacocks strut their stuff, and sing their songs.

This was all relatively new to the two of us from Frome.

1983/1984 was a season of enlightenment for the two of us and there has not been a season like it before or after.

The wedge haircut, blonde highlights, Lacoste polo shirts, Sergio Tacchini tracksuit tops, Fila roll-necks, Adidas rain jackets, Patrick cagoules, complete Kappa tracksuits, Lyle and Scott pullovers, Pringle pullovers, Gabicci cardigans, light blue Levi jeans, Lois jumbo cords with side splits, Nike Wimbledons, Diadora Borg Elites, Puma Guillermo Vilas, Kickers, swagger, swagger and more swagger.

The two of us were overdosing on football and fashion and we could not get enough of it.

On that day against Fulham, we had nabbed the very back row of the benches; always a highly-desirable spot. We were on the halfway-line. Prime seats. No tickets in those days; first-come first-served. Lo and behold, who should arrive a little later and be sitting right in front of us than the two lads “from Brighton” who Glenn had met on the way home from Newcastle. In fact, only one was from Brighton; Paul – aka Stamford in lieu of his mane of blonde hair – while Alan was from Bromley, a proper Sarf Londoner. We struck up a little conversation. Glenn must have introduced me. It felt nice to meet some young lads who were as mad on Chelsea as us. Growing up in rural Somerset, it was a rarity to find another blue, let alone one who were as feverish about our club as Glenn and little old me.

The next game that Glenn and I attended at Stamford Bridge was the legendary promotion-decider against Leeds United. Again, we aimed for the back row of The Benches. The pre-match was a little different on this occasion, though, and rather historic too. We had popped into a pub called “The Cock” and I had supped my very first pint before a Chelsea game – a lager and lime if memory serves – and we had arrived a little later than planned. As I remember it, Alan and Paul made us some space on the back row, and I am sure that we also met a few other lads that day too.

Leggo from Bedford, Mark from Sunbury-on-Thames, and the trio of lads from the St. Albans area, Simon, Dave and Rich.

Chelsea won 5-0 and promotion was secured.

They were the days of our lives.

Back in the top flight for the first time in five seasons, the next campaign was one of the best-ever too. Even though I was at college in Stoke, I managed to attend 16 out of 21 home league games. There was a smattering of away games; Arsenal, Sheffield Wednesday, Leicester City, Liverpool, Stoke City. I would save my pennies through the week, eating frugally, and live for my magical footballing Saturdays. Throughout the season, the little gang of us would always gather on the back row at the halfway-line. Often we would get in at 1.30pm when the gates opened. From memory, for the big games – Liverpool, United – the gates were open at 1pm. We would sit, read the programmes, soak up the pre-match atmosphere, laugh and joke about previous games, watch the players warm up, sing out their names, enjoy the camaraderie.

What a buzz.

I used to take my camera in those days too.

In the spring of 1985, on the day the club celebrated its ninetieth anniversary against Tottenham – all-ticket due to the risk of violence, but only 26,310 attended – I snapped away. In the first photo are Stamford, Alan and Dave, sporting the ski-hats which were all the rage that season. In the second one, in profile and with The Shed behind, are Alan, Dave, Rich, Mark and Leggo in his bloody awful ginger leather jacket. It is no surprise that Simon is not in either picture, since he always tended to be the last to arrive, and usually the worse for wear after several pints in the pub.

By then of course, after the riot against Sunderland in the Milk Cup semi-final, the wooden benches were no more. They were replaced by cold concrete slabs. In the picture below, also from the Spurs game in 1985, the full roll-call is as follows :

Gareth (another Bedford lad), Glenn, Stamford, Alan, Dave, Rich, Swan (one of our lot, from Radstock, an Ian Botham-lookalike), Mark with his back-turned and Leggo and Leggo’s jacket.

We would meet up again, with slightly dwindling numbers in 1985/1986, but by 1986/1987 the group had tended to disperse. The wooden benches were no more and the concrete slabs just didn’t cut it. On my visits to Stamford Bridge, I mixed it up a little; The Shed one week, The Benches the next. By the time of 1988/1989 Alan had moved over to a season ticket in the front row of the East Upper, and I only bumped into the others on rare occasions.

Fast forward to Saturday 13 January 2018.

I had dropped Glenn, Parky and PD off at “The Famous Three Kings” at West Kensington, and drove off to park my car on Normand Road, just in front of Normand Mews where former F1 World Champion James Hunt used to live, as the small blue plaque commemorates. I was therefore late to the party when I strolled in at around 11.30am. But there they all were, The Benches from 1984/1985.

Rich, Simon, Glenn, Chris, Dave, Alan.

What a joy to see each other again. It would be the first time that we had all been together since, I reckon, around the autumn of 1985. We wasted little time in turning back the years. We spoke about the others. Swan moved up to Leeds, we think, and the last time I saw him was in Bath in around 1986. Gareth used to go, but has not been seen for two decades. Mark still goes home and away, I see him everywhere. Leggo has not been seen at Chelsea for fifteen years. Neither has his jacket. Stamford aka Paul aka Walnuts still goes, and will be at the Brighton vs. Chelsea match next week. As I said, I still see Simon at games, though for many years, his was a missing face. I remember how pleased I was to see him at Wolves in 2003 after not seeing him since the mid-‘eighties. I saw Dave for the first time in ages at the Luton Town semi at Wembley in 1994 and again at the Nou Camp in 2000, and he still goes, though our paths have not crossed. Rich goes, but not so often.

It was a miracle that we were all together again in 2018.

And we owed it all to Glenn going to the buffet on a Chelsea Special in 1984 and the lure of The Benches at Stamford Bridge.

The banter continued.

Alan : “When Dave saw Glenn he called him “Polly”.

“Polly” – I had quite forgotten this. Indeed. “Polly.” I scratched my head as to why this was.

Dave, Rich, Simon and Alan were soon locked in to a special memory from September 1983 when they drove up to Sheffield Wednesday in Rich’s Ford Cortina and played an impromptu game of football on the moors above Hillsborough.

Alan : “It was cowpats for goalposts.”

Photographs were shared from our mobile phones.

Simon : “Here’s a photo of Kerry and me at Aberystwyth in 1983.”

We remembered the fashions of the day.

Dave : “Rich, I am sure that we went to Highbury in 1984 wearing white tennis shorts.”

Glenn : “Remember those multi-coloured jackets made from suede and leather? We all had them.”

Chris : “Remember those two girls who sold programmes from that hut on the main forecourt and then walked behind the goal at The Shed End to The Benches every home game?”

We did. Of course we did. Ah, Sharon and Paula, where are you now?

I was reminded of the time in 2004 when Glenn and I posed for a couple of photographs outside The Goose with photos from The Benches which Alan had taken. The one of me with the black jacket is the one which appears with my piece on “Arsenal 1984” in Mark Worrall’s book from a few years back. In the photo that Glenn is holding, he is with Dave and Simon.

Chris : “Never mind Polly, we should have called you Shirley Temple with that Barnet.”

We chatted about the hold that Chelsea has on all of us. We updated each other with what we have been doing with ourselves in the past thirty-odd years. I have to be honest, it was the most wonderful pre-match for ages. The chat and the laughter bounced around the pub. It was bloody lovely.

With kick-off time approaching, we started to finish our drinks. We looked up and saw about forty of Leicester’s “lads” enter the pub, a strange mix of middle-aged henchmen and Stone Island patches, Adidas trainers, CP goggles, Aquascutum scarves, Ma.Strum jackets and glowering looks. I suspect that they were remnants of the Baby Squad, but we wasted no time in finding out. Rather than involve ourselves in conversations with them about the export/import imbalance, the threat of global warming, heightened political tension in the far east, the lack of funding for the arts by the current government and the futility of life itself, we decided to down our pints and head out.

With us were Kev and Rich, the Jam Tarts, down from Edinburgh for the day. It had been a proper gathering of the clans.

Inside Stamford Bridge, Leicester City were backed by a strong three-thousand. I recollected a game that I had attended – all on my lonesome, September 1982, hating sixth-form, trying and failing to get over my first girlfriend, not exactly enjoying life – between Chelsea and Leicester City. It was just a run-of-the-mill Second Division game, and yet over 14,000 like-minded souls had evaded the clutches of loved ones, made excuses, saved hard, traveled long distances, and bothered to attend. I remember looking over to the middle of The Shed and thinking :

“We’ve got something here. This huge stadium. A loyal support. If only we had a good team.”

Who would have thought that thirty-five years later, the two teams involved on that sunny afternoon in 1982 would be Champions of England for three consecutive seasons?

Antonio Conte had opted for a 3-5-2 although all four of us in The Chuckle Bus had wanted a more fluid 3-4-3.

Courtois

Azpilicueta – Cahill – Rudiger

Moses – Fabregas – Kante – Bakayoko – Alonso

Morata – Hazard

At ten to three, the musical countdown began.

“Park Life.”

“The Liquidator.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

The teams, the flags, “COME ON CHELSEA.”

The game began with a shot that Victor Moses slashed wide from a Cesc Fabregas pass. But then the visitors got their arses into gear. Bloody hell, Leicester– dressed in all black, how original – were all over us. I have no idea why our defenders allowed so much space for the visiting attackers, but they could have been two-up after just eight minutes. Firstly, a cross from down below me from their left was played into Shinji Okazaki but his connection was poor. Then, twice in a minute, Jamie Vardy could have scored on both occasions. We were simply not at the races.

“FACKINELL CHELS.”

Next up, was a fantastic diving save from Courtois from Wilfred Ndidi. The crowd around me were already restless and barely ten minutes had passed. At least – I was hunting for any scrap of positivity that I could – the crowd seemed to be slightly more involved than of late.

To the tune of “Amazing Grace” – our name boomed from the Matthew Harding. However, amazing we certainly bloody weren’t.

Cesc broke into the box at the other end and drew a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel. But this was very much a “one-off” as the visitors tore us to shreds. On a cold afternoon in SW6, Glenn was huddled up close to PD and Alan, his hat over his ears. He acknowledged that a brilliant pre-match had taken its toll.

“I had an opinion before six pints of Guinness.”

We laughed.

We had to laugh at something. Down on the pitch, we were as lacklustre as it gets. Our tackling was off. Our passing was so slow. Eden was finding it hard to get an inch of space anywhere. I so wanted Tiemoue Bakayoko to have a solid game, and I went out of my way to encourage him. But, let’s not kid ourselves, he had another stinker. His intensity was off, and he gave virtually nothing to the side in that woeful first-half. He struggled to fit in. He seemed unsure of his role, as did I. I wondered if he will continue to exist as some sort of Corporal Sponge to the other more established stars in our team, pottering around like one of those members of McDonalds who are only trusted to wipe dirty surfaces and dispose of debris in the rubbish bins.

We seemed to be overmanned in central midfield, yet we were over-run too. How is that possible?

A great tackle from Cahill managed to repel the threat from the fleet-of-foot Mahrez, enjoying a fine game, and a trademark crunching block from the same player stopped Vardy.

The crowd tried to lift the players.

“ANTONIO.”

Gary Cahill was then replaced by Andreas Christensen, after the captain fell, clutching his leg. The youngster soon impressed. Alvaro Morata for once set himself free of his markers and caused Schmeichel to save at his near post. But our chances were rare. At the other end, there were countless breaks from the twin threats of Mahrez and Vardy, and Leicester continued to dominate. Marc Albrighton slammed one wide. Only in the final five minutes of the half did we look like getting back to our old form. When we did, the crowd were noticeably more involved. But it shouldn’t have to be like this, should it?

Back in the “F3K”, Glenn had spoken about our time on “The Benches.”

“We didn’t know too much about tactics or formations. We just showed up and sang until we were hoarse.”

Quite.

If only supporters could support.

Not rocket science is it?

And although it is surely a myth that Stamford Bridge was a cauldron of noise three decades ago – it wasn’t because so much of the noise generated by our support simply drifted away into the London air, with the supporters so far away from the pitch –  at least we bloody well tried. The Shed tried, The Benches tried, Gate 13 tried. We all tried. Once we were in the midst of it, the noise sounded deafening…it just didn’t travel too far.

The second-half began. There was no noticeable step up from us in terms of quality nor intensity. This was all very strange. After ten minutes of play, Leicester City had a penalty appeal turned down and I commented to Alan that instead of Thibaut releasing the ball early to Morata while many of the opposing players were still moaning at the referee, and the team in momentary disarray, our Belgian ‘keeper held on to the ball and allowed the visitors to regroup. For some reason, I heard Jose Mourinho’s voice yelling at Thibaut and not Antonio Conte, not sure why. Maybe it was a definite Mourinho trait for his teams to expose the slightest weakness in any opposing team.

That man Mahrez threatened again. We were lucky that his shot – deflected – ended up spinning wide.

At last, a change.

Hazard was replaced by Pedro. Fabregas was replaced by Willian. Neither had been special. In fact, they had both been poor.

So, we got our desired “3-4-3.”

I was reminded back to Manchester United in around 2005, when we were in our pomp, and it was perceived by many among United’s match-going support that Sir Alex Ferguson was evidently “losing” it with his dalliance of new formations. On many occasions, the United support used to bellow “4-4-2, 4-4-2, 4-4-2” at their manager when things were not going their way. It made me chuckle that plasterers from Prestwich, accountants from Ardwick, taxi drivers from Totnes, nurses from Norwich, electricians from Eccles and lorry drivers from Launceston suddenly knew more about the Manchester United players and their strengths and weaknesses than one of the most revered managers the game has ever seen. Still, in this day and age, the customer is king. It is the way of the world to boo. We are a nation of moaners. And I am not saying that there was no negativity in days gone by, but the vitriol today seems to have reached new, horrible levels. There was, surprisingly, hardly any boos though at halftime, but if the score remained the same, I wasn’t so sure of a familiar outcome on ninety minutes.

Immediately, Pedro on the left and Willian on the right helped to energise us. There was a lot more pressure to win the ball, and we hoped we could breach the Leicester defence.

Chris to Alan : “Bakayoko, thirty yard screamer.”

Unfortunately, the only screaming came after a couple of Bakayoko shots were woefully off target.

“WE ALL FOLLOW THE CHELSEA, OVER LAND AND SEA.”

I was so pleased to hear a reaction from the home support. Not deafening, but at least it was something. The Benches of 1984 would have been proud of us. Maybe.

We were then handed some help when Ben Chilwell was sent off for two yellows in quick succession. It seemed that we had tons of the ball now, but with only Vardy upfront, Leicester were packing their box with players. There was no space. But our crossing was poor. Moratra, the poor bleeder, had not had much quality service the entire match. We tried and tried. I saw effort, in the main, but not much more than that. Our movement off the ball was especially woeful. Morata was at times immobile. It was, perhaps, a miracle that our man Tiemoue stayed on the entire game, but the manager obviously wants to persevere with him. Shots from Kante and Willian did not really test the ‘keeper.

In the last few minutes, a Marcos Alonso free-kick flew over the wall, and dipped, but Schmeichel scrambled low to push the ball around the post. The game ended as it had begun, with a shot from Moses which was so wide of the goal as to almost warrant being called a defensive clearance.

At the final whistle, our third 0-0 in a row and the inevitable boos from a few.

“Triffic.”

Back in the car, there were of course the expected moans – and not much chuckling – as we went through our usual post game post mortem.

Within twenty minutes, all three passengers were dozing as I headed home on the M4.

It was another day that had been spoiled by the football – ah, that familiar refrain, as pertinent now as in 1984/1985 – and I knew that my phone, tablet and computer would be on fire throughout the evening with rants, moans and complaints. Those who know me well will not be surprised by my response to the bitching and moaning which was taking place across the globe, in cyberspace and in cider space alike. I’d try to be pragmatic. I’d try to keep an even keel. I’d try not to over-react. I’d acknowledge how little we really know about the mechanics of a football team. I’d respect how hard it must be for one manager to work for a trigger-happy owner and to continually try to inspire and cajole a squad of millionaires. After all, it can’t be easy to win the league every year.

Even in 1984/1985, back on The Benches, I always was the boring and sensible one.

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Tales From Friday Night Football

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 16 September 2016.

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Friday Night Moans :

When it was announced that, as part of the new multi-billion trillion gazillion Marillion Carillion TV deal with Sky last season, that there would be games on Friday nights in season 2016/2017, it will not surprise anyone to read that I was far from happy. I already despair at the thought of games such as the one at Middlesbrough later in the season, which will kick-off at 4pm on a Sunday, which in reality means that I will not be home until near midnight on that particular “day of rest.” Similar games have haunted us for years. Lunchtime kick-offs in Newcastle, Monday nights on Merseyside, you know the score. But this seemed different. Football on a Friday night. It seemed that the football authorities were seeking extra ways of making life even more difficult for the average match-day fan. It seemed almost cruel.

After a long week at work – I am up at 6am every day – I am usually crawling over the finishing line at 4pm on a Friday. And now I have to fend off tiredness, and drive along congested motorways in order to attend a football match on a Friday evening? It’s crap. And it’s another small step in the process of me saying “enough is enough” with modern football. That point may never come, but I am, like a few others I know, thinking along these lines. I love my football, my Chelsea, but there has to be a point when I say “hang on, they’re taking the piss, here.”

If we ever play a regular season game in Adelaide, Bangkok or Chicago, I will have given up on it.

I have, as a lovely counterbalance to the increasingly commercial and all-consuming Premier League, found myself attending non-league football, and specifically my local team Frome Town. In the past fortnight, there was an away day at Salisbury City in the F.A. Cup, and then two home games against Biggleswade Town and Dorchester Town. I have loved every minute of it. Whisper it, but it just might be my future.

Friday Night People :

Thankfully my good mate PD had kindly volunteered to drive up to Chelsea for the visit of Liverpool. He is usually awake before me – a 5am start during the week for him – but as he picked me up in Melksham, he said that he went to bed extra-early – 7.30pm – on the Thursday in preparation for the drive to London. Also on board the Chuckle Bus was Young Jake. We all expected a keenly fought game against Liverpool. A cracking game was anticipated.

Friday Night Traffic :

No surprises, the journey was long and arduous. The one-hundred-mile journey took a tiresome three hours exactly. I was yawning throughout. Thankfully, PD coped remarkably well. On approaching Hammersmith, a coach had broken down in the middle lane of the A4. Just what we bloody needed.

Friday Night Beer :

I just had time for a solitary beer before the game, in The Malt House at the end of Vanston Place. Until now, with me on driving duties for all of the five previous domestic games, I had vowed to stay on “cokes” in order not to risk drowsiness at the wheel. The single pint of “Kronenberg 1666” would surely hit the spot. I savoured my first Chelsea beer since Minneapolis in August. It tasted just fine.

Friday Night Teams :

We already knew that Antonio Conte would play the returning David Luiz in place of the crocked John Terry. Elsewhere there were no changes. Thibaut, Brana, Dave, Luiz, Cahill, Kante, Willian, Matic, Oscar, Hazard and Diego Costa were chosen against Klopp’s team of familiar and not-so familiar adversaries.

Friday Night People :

“The Malt House” is typical of a Chelsea pub these days. The front part houses a section where, even on a Saturday lunchtime, people, and they don’t even look like football match-goers, are enjoying meals at tables. The bar area is always cramped and busy, with nowhere to stand in comfort. I was starving, but baulked at the ridiculous price of bar snacks; £5 for a Scotch egg, £4.50 for a sausage roll. Out in the beer garden, the football followers were amassed. It is a cliché I know, but I know more people on a match day at Chelsea than I do on a night out in Frome. I chatted to Barbara and Denise, both nervous with worry about the game ahead, which was under an hour away now. There was also an enjoyable few minutes in the company of former Chelsea player Robert, who played around fifteen games for us between 1985 and 1987. One big family, everyone together. It is moments like this that make supporting Chelsea so special.

Friday Night Games :

This was, from memory, only the fourth Chelsea game to take place on a Friday, except for the obvious exceptions of games over Christmas and the New Year period, and possibly some in the dim and distant past.

Leading up to the match, there was talk among the Chelsea aficionados about previous Friday night games. Common consensus was that this would indeed be game number four. All three previous matches were in 1984. During that season, “live football” was introduced for the very first time, shared equally between the BBC and ITV. A grand total, five games were on a Friday night, five games on a Sunday afternoon. That was it, though; ten games for the entire season.

We played Blackburn Rovers at home in March, away at Manchester City in May (the first non-First Division match to be shown on live TV in the UK) and then, back in the top tier, at home to Everton in August. I didn’t attend any. In 2016, I would be a Friday Night Virgin.

Incidentally, I did attend a mid-season friendly on a Friday night in February 1986; a game at a very cold Ibrox, between Rangers and Chelsea, and strangely enough Robert and I spoke about that game. He played in that one, but my memories of it are very scant, with it being over thirty years ago, and me being half-cut on all-day drinking.

Friday Night Lights :

In the build-up to this game, it seemed that the club were treating it as something of a novelty. There was talk of a free bottle of “Singha”, but I was not able to partake as I reached the turnstiles too late for my voucher. Some people might regard this as a plus point. I was inside in time to see, at about 7.50pm, the advertised “pre-match entertainment” which the club had also advertised. The lights dimmed, and smoke started billowing in front of the East Stand. In the past – the distant past, the ‘seventies and ‘eighties – pre-match entertainment was a very hit and miss affair at Chelsea. I remember a couple of instances of the Police Dog Display Team (I think we must have been easily pleased in those days), a Marching University Band from Missouri – I know this sounds like a figment of my imagination, but the Marching Mizzou did a pre-game show at a Chelsea vs. Derby County game I attended in March 1975, and which I have detailed here previously – and a Red Devils parachute show against Tottenham in April 1985, in which one poor chap missed the pitch completely and landed on top of the West Stand.

Stamford Bridge was bathed in darkness as a heartbeat pulsed through the stadia’s PA system. Then, from searchlights positioned in front of the East and West Stands, blue and white lights danced across the Stamford Bridge turf.

My thoughts on this?

It looked OK, to be honest – in a happy clappy, “look! bright lights!” kinda way – but was rather out of place. This wasn’t a rock concert. It wasn’t the NBA. It wasn’t the NFL. It was a regular season football match. It might have worked at an end of season trophy presentation – “I wish” – but not for an ordinary league game.

File under “trying too hard.”

Friday Night Flags :

During this light show, a far more agreeable show was taking place in The Shed. The large “The Shed” banner, which I believe has been aired before, was joined by three smaller yellow banners. It was pretty effective, though I am not one hundred percent sure that the suits at the club completely understood the exact meaning and rhetoric of the words used.

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Friday Night Football :

Chelsea, in white track suit tops, and Liverpool, in black tracksuit tops, marched across the turf. The good guys and the bad guys. Neil Barnett had, prior to the pre-match “show,” welcomed our two new signings to the Stamford Bridge crowd. There was hearty applause for the returning David Luiz, and also for Marcos Alonso.

From the start, from the very first whistle, Liverpool looked more lively. Very soon, Thibaut Courtois was tested from outside the box by Daniel Sturridge, and we had our hearts in our mouths as he momentarily spilled the ball, which was hit straight at him, but then recovered before the ball was able to crawl apologetically over the line.

I always keep a look out for Philippe Coutinho when we play Liverpool, but on this occasion it was one of Klopp’s summer signings Sadio Mane – one in a never ending line of players who have gone from Saints to Sinners – who caught my eye. He looked lively, and linked well with others. In fact, the entire Liverpool team looked neat on the ball and hungry when hunting the ball down.

On a quarter of an hour, an infamous goal was scored at Stamford Bridge. The ball was slung in by that man Coutinho from a quickly taken free kick, and no fewer than four red shirted Liverpool players appeared to be completely unmarked on the far post. It is an image that is etched in my mind still. The four players were able to play a game of “Scissors, Paper, Stone” among themselves as the ball floated over. In the end, Dejan Lovren – another former Saint – won the right to prod the ball homewards.

We groaned a million groans.

Chelsea, in our rather feeble attempts to impose ourselves on the game, stumbled. Yet again we were one-paced. Matic – looking a little better this season to be honest – struggled to release the ball early. Oscar was humdrum. Willian fizzed around but ended up running across the pitch more often than not. Ivanovic – oh boy – always took an extra touch before attempting to cross.

Sturridge, as his style, skipped through and then selfishly shot from a ridiculously tight angle. The shot went off for a throw in. This player is so disliked by many at Chelsea, that it is hard to believe that he was part of our squad on that night in Munich.

The one exception to our underperforming players was N’Golo Kante, who stood alone, attempting to stifle any attacking intent within a twenty-yard radius of his diminutive frame. I was very impressed with his work rate and his desire. Where was this desire among the others?

I kept a special look out for David Luiz, and hoped and prayed that he would not commit any embarrassing moments on his return after two seasons in Paris. To be fair, he at least showed his worth as a ball-playing defender, with three fine balls to the feet of Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.

Efforts on the Liverpool goal were rare.

With ten minutes to go before the break, the ball broke into our half. David Luiz was under pressure from a Liverpool player, but with Thibaut Courtois unwilling to leave his six-yard box to collect a back pass, nor to communicate with Luiz, the ball was hacked off for a throw in. Liverpool dallied on taking the throw in, and referee Martin Atkinson urged it to be taken. Gary Cahill’s clearance unfortunately dropped right at a Liverpool player. He had time to touch the ball, and curl a superb shot up and over Courtois’ leap.

The scorer?

Jordan bloody Henderson, this generation’s Geoff Thomas.

The Scousers were buoyant again.

“Stevie Heighway on the wing.
We had dreams and songs to sing.
Of the glory, round the Fields of Anfield Road.”

And then their ditty about “History.”

Are they as obsessed with us as we are with them? It really is a close run thing.

However, there was certainly no denying it; Liverpool had deserved the lead, even though chances had been rare.

A Luiz header from a Willian corner just before the break hinted of a Chelsea revival.

As I made my way into the concourse at half-time, I looked up to see our first goal being dissected on TV by a Sky TV “expert” and although I could not hear the commentary, I could guess his words of mockery.

“It must be an easy job being an expert on TV, yet not having the balls to be a coach or a manager in your own right” I thought to myself, but not in so many words.

2-0 down to Liverpool at half-time brought back clear memories of the FA Cup in 1997.

“Bring on Sparky” said PD.

The second-half began, but there were no changes to Antonio Conte’s team.

No Mark Hughes. No Cesc Fabregas. No Michy Batshuayi. Nobody.

We certainly enjoyed more of the ball in the opening period. Hazard was full of running, and we were pressing for the ball with more determination. Ironically, it was the much maligned Nemanja Matic who helped our cause, exchanging passes and showing a rare turn of speed as he drove deep into the heart of the Liverpool box. He reached – miraculously – the by-line and picked out Diego Costa with a little flick.

Diego doesn’t miss those.

2-1 and Stamford Bridge was vibrant once more.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, there was – at last – hope.

I hoped that the support would rally behind the team, providing a noisy backdrop to a fine recovery.

The noise never really materialised.

Diego shot straight at Mignolet as our play continued to improve.

Liverpool countered and, at the Shed End, Courtois was able to save from Coutinho and then substitute Origi’s shot. This latter save was quite magnificent.

The hoped-for rally never really materialised either. Conte made a bizarre triple substitution with eighty-three minutes on the clock.

This was late, way too late, surely?

Victor Moses for Willian, Cesc Fabregas for Nemanja Matic, Pedro for Oscar.

For a few moments, it looked like we were playing with three wingers; Moses on the right and both Pedro and Eden on the left, before Eden dropped inside.

Our only real chance, gift-wrapped for a deafening equaliser, was a free-kick on the edge of the box after Hazard was fouled. It took an age for Atkinson to sort out the wall and this added to the drama. Both David Luiz and Cesc Fabregas stood over the ball.

The ref’s whistle, and Cesc stepped up.

Typical of the night, the ball hit the wall and our hopes drifted away.

So, a first domestic loss for Antonio Conte.

Hopefully some lessons to be learned, and some home truths to be shared.

Friday Night Shite :

Exiting the stadium, pushed close against a sombre crowd, I overheard the most ridiculous comments being aired by my fellow fans. I know only too well that we had not played particularly well all game, and the first-half was – of course – very poor, but some of the nonsense I heard produced a mixture of displeasure and hilarity. Why do we – Chelsea fans, but football fans in general – veer from one extreme to the other so easily? When is there ever an even, balanced opinion? I glanced at my phone on the way out of London as PD drove west. The internet was evidently melting. A 2-1 loss at home to a pretty decent Liverpool team and fools were already on Conte’s case, and I even saw someone calling for his head.

Get a fucking grip.

We were five games into a new campaign, and old hardened supporters and new FIFA17 “experts” were already on Conte’s case. The man is at a new club, with a new team, in a new league, and he is being questioned by some of our own. Give the man some slack, please.

The night is young.

I remembered back to a game in September 2009. In our eighth game of that season, we lost 3-1 at Wigan Athletic and the team was under the orders of a new Italian manager.

New to the club, new to the team, in a new league.

Later in that very season Carlo Ancelotti won us the double.

I am not saying that we will be in the hunt for trophies at the business end of this season, but we have to show a little more restraint with our words of disdain, blame, antipathy and antagonism.

A club in disarray has never won anything.

On Tuesday, we play at Leicester City, but I will not be there. I haven’t bought a ticket; I won’t be travelling. I hope that those who have bought tickets will be there. It would be horrible to see a half-empty away section, especially since the away allocation sold out rather quickly.

My next game will be at Arsenal on Saturday. A cracking day out is planned. See you there.

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Tales From The Shed Lower

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 1 March 2011.

At work in the morning, I had a little chat with one of my work colleagues, a Manchester United fan.

“If you’re involved in the loading of the vehicles today, I want everything done sharpish as I have an evening’s entertainment to attend.”

“Oh, you’re playing tonight are you? Who against?”

“Uh – yeah. You may have heard of them. From Salford. Play in red.”

The penny dropped, and he was full of embarrassment.

Such is the way with United fans, all the world over I guess.

With my workload eventually completed, I left Chippenham at just after 4.30pm and I could relax a little. For once, I was travelling alone. Parky had taken the “slow boat to China” option and had travelled up by coach. Due to concerns about getting away on time, I had warned him that I might be away late. On Monday, for example, I didn’t leave until 6.15pm. A repeat would mean that I would be trapped in rush-hour traffic and would be unlikely to reach The Bridge until half-time. So, Parky caught a coach at 11.30am and eventually reached Earls Court at 3.30pm. By the time I was leaving Chippenham, he was probably on his third pint in The Goose.

As I drove past the Griffin Park floodlights at around 6pm, I switched over to listen to the sports bulletin on the radio. Carlo Ancelotti confirmed that Drogba and Torres would both take part in the game against United, though he didn’t say if both would be starting. After a delay getting in to London, I eventually walked into The Goose at 7pm. Parky was especially glad to see me as it meant that he wouldn’t have to wait around for the 2am return coach trip. James (zippy) from Kansas City had been in touch during the build up to the game and I had pointed him in the direction of The Goose, Parky and the rest of The Bing. He had enjoyed the pre-match hospitality and it looked like a good time had been shared. I took a couple of swigs from Parky’s pint and we were soon on our way up the North End Road. There was a chill in the air but our jackets kept out the cold.

Chelsea versus Manchester United. The Blues versus the Reds. The South versus the North. The Good Guys versus the Forces of Darkness. I have been lucky enough to attend every single one of the last twenty Chelsea vs. Manchester United league games at The Bridge and, of course, there are tons of memories. Our last defeat against them at home was way back in 2002 – we have certainly held the advantage in recent years.

For a change, I had a seat in The Shed Lower – not far from where Lord Parky resides – and I found myself near James, too. Luckily, there was a spare seat next to him, so I soon sat alongside. Our seats were just three rows from the back of the lower tier near the SW corner flag, underneath the overhang. If my memory serves, the last five rows were originally part of an enclosed corporate area when the stand was built in 1997. To be quite honest, the seats were cramped and the overhang gave a claustrophobic feel to the area. I’d hate to watch from there every game – Shed or no Shed. I longed for my usual perch, way up in the Matthew Harding wraparound. However, I had my camera at the ready – as ever – and I was preparing myself for plenty of shots from a different angle for a change.

I had only ever visited the Shed Lower on two other occasions. Ironically, on the fifth anniversary of the passing of the legendary Peter Osgood, I was reminded of that emotional Sunday in October 2006 when I attended The King’s memorial service, including the burial of his ashes at The Shed End penalty spot. Everyone who was there will remember the rain shower during the service, but then the sky lighting up with sun just before the casket was taken to its final resting place. I watched, with quiet and stony-faced reverence, on that saddest of days, from around Gate 5 in the Shed Lower. Then, in May 2007, I was back in the same corner for the Chelsea vs. Manchester United encounter. I took Judy’s boy James – a United follower – along for that one and it was a bitter-sweet experience…we had just relinquished our title to a resurgent United and so we had to give them a guard of honour as they entered the pitch. To be honest, both teams put out B teams and it ended 0-0. It was enjoyable, though, to be able to share my passion for Chelsea with James and he certainly got a kick out of seeing United up close. We had the last laugh, of course, later that month…F.A. Cup winners against United at the new Wembley.

Back to 2011 and all of those United memories evaporated in the noise as the teams entered the Stamford Bridge pitch.

This was here, this was now. Let’s go to work.

Being so low down, I immediately found the viewing position very frustrating. I spent the first few minutes acclimatising myself to my new surroundings. Having been tuned to see Chelsea in a standard 4-3-3 for the past six years, it took me a while to work out if Florent Malouda was the third striker or out wide in a flat 4-4-2. I think it took me all of the game to work it out and, even by the time he was subbed deep into the second-half, I still hadn’t sussed it.

I thought we began brightly and had the majority of the early ball. Fernando Torres was finding himself in lots of good positions and his movement and enthusiastic play was good to see. He seemed to especially enjoy drifting into the space out in that wide area in front of me, and I was transfixed with the way we worked the ball between Torres, Ramires and Ivanovic. It certainly was fantastic to be so close to the action. I snapped away as Branislav, in particular, sent balls into the area. Soon into the game, Anelka sent a ball in to the area from the inside-right berth, only for Malouda to fluff his shot, hitting it straight at Van De Sar. This sort of finishing was often repeated in the first quarter.

After our left-back’s stupidity at the training ground, the Matthew Harding was shouting “shoot” every time he touched the ball. What Ashley thought of this is not known, thank heavens.

Midway through the first period, I spotted Roy Bentley, no more than thirty feet away from me, sitting in the last remaining part of the old corporate area. As The Shed Lower curves around to the West Stand, there is one little private box left – and I got the impression that there were a few players’ wives and partners sat alongside Roy. Despite this being the hottest of tickets, most of the seats in the area were unused.

Then United’s presence grew and dominated the rest of the first-half. Paul Scholes, that old warhorse, was repeating his performance at last summer’s Community Shield, sitting deep and sliding other players in. Our midfield was giving United far too much respect and space and the frustration amongst the nearby home support rose. Rooney headed over on twenty minutes and a cross from Nani screamed across our six yard box soon after. Then, calamity. We backed off as Rooney was allowed to turn and, from about twenty-five yards out, drill a superbly accurate shot into Cech’s goal.

Silence. Not just from the Chelsea support, but for a split second, from the United support too. But then, rather than being subjected to the triumphal roar that I am used to hearing from the away fans, instead there was an eerily muffled noise. I looked over to my right, above the heads of silent Chelsea fans, to the lower tier of the away section. I saw a forest of pumping arms and joyous faces, but – quire bizarrely – the overhang of the top tier and the thousand or so Chelsea fans had acted as noise insulation and the United fans’ obvious roar was ridiculously quiet. What a strange feeling. I’ll be honest, from my position in that cramped corner, I hardly heard a United song throughout the entire game, though I am sure they were in good voice. I suspect that they went through their usual repertoire. The Chelsea support responded with a ditty which amused James; I guess he hadn’t heard it before…

“Live round the corner, you only live round the corner.”

United were in their pomp and our midfield was missing. Frank Lampard and Michael Essien were so poor as to be not worth comment. The moans continued and our support quickly waned. Then, bizarrely, we upped the tempo briefly in the last few minutes of the half and an amazing chance fell to Ivanovic after a goalmouth scramble from a free-kick. From my position, the ball seemed to hang in the air with just the slightest touch required to send the ball over the line, an open goal at his mercy, but the ball didn’t go in. The ball was hacked away amid absolute astonishment from all of us. Astounding. We needed an action replay – “what happened???”

James and I met up with Lord Parky in the crowded area below the seats at half-time and the mood wasn’t great. We wanted Carlo to change something – the shape, the system, something. We weren’t sure what needed to be done – we just hoped for the best. I feared further United goals and humiliation.

Well, what a second-half. Our appetite was noticeably different and our midfield – at last! – pressed United at every opportunity. We grew with each passing minute and the home support grew louder with each thunderous tackle, each rampaging run, each towering header. Every man stepped up and it was a joy to watch.

David Luiz, one of the brighter elements in that staid first half, gave a truly unforgettable performance. He was full of enthusiasm, full of dashing runs, full of character and energy. He made a few reckless tackles to be honest, and he needs to watch that, but the Chelsea crowd immediately warmed to him. Then – his defining moment. From a cross on 54 minutes, the ball was played back to the waiting Brazilian and he slammed the ball into the United net.

What a deafening roar accompanied that strike from Luiz. After riding our luck in that first-half, we were level. With that, we had a lovely spell and our players sensed the chance to dominate a clearly troubled United team. Our defence was supremely marshalled by John Terry and we limited United to just a few chances. On the hour, Carlo changed things and brought on Didier for Anelka. Fresh blood. However, after giving Luiz the slip, Rooney (the target for much abuse from the home support) broke and I feared the worse. I watched, on tenterhooks, as he dribbled closer to Cech and struck a ball which thankfully sailed wide of the far post. On other occasions, Cech’s hands were thoroughly dependable.

The game continued and what a great game it was, full of tempo and pace. The tackles grew fiercer and fiercer. Ramires was everywhere, Torres was running the channels and Drogba was leading the line. Carlo replaced Malouda with Zhirkov and our spritely Russian was soon in the thick of it.

Was it a penalty? I wasn’t so sure. Watching from 100 yards away, it looked like Yuri just ran into the United defender, but to our absolute joy, Martin Atkinson pointed to the spot.

Oh you beauty.

With my camera poised, I zoned in on Frank Lampard. He placed the ball on the spot. Snap. He nervously pulled up his shorts. Snap. He approached the ball and struck. Snap.

In that split second between me taking the photo and pulling the camera away from my eye, I knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on the flight of the ball, so I just waited for the roar.

There was a roar.

We were 2-1 up.

Screams, shouts, arms thrust skywards, hugs with a stranger to my left and with James to my right. What a joyous moment. We grew even stronger, United went to pieces.

In the closing moments, the substitute Ryan Giggs came over to take a corner, no further than ten yards from me. I took a few photographs. I have a lot of time for Giggs – a tremendous player and, surprisingly, a United player who is not loathed and hated by the non-United section of the football fraternity . This was his 606th league game for United. This therefore tied the United record with Bobby Charlton, whose last ever game for United (yes, you guessed it, at The Bridge in 1973…a game I remember seeing on TV, if only for a comical Ossie goal) was featured in the night’s programme.

Alex came on for David Luiz – one Brazilian for another – and Luiz was given a fantastic reception. And still the tackles thundered in. I could see someone getting sent off and, after a couple of rash challenges, Nemanja Vidic was ordered off. Oh boy –it gets better. Of course, the absolute dream ending to this great game would have been El Nino’s last minute shot going in rather than being blocked.

At the final whistle, a huge roar and the PA immediately played “One Step Beyond.” The Bridge was bouncing and nobody wanted to leave. James, thousands of miles from his home in Kansas and over for one game only, was in heaven. We met up with Lord Parky and I could see he was dewy-eyed.

Chelsea does that to you, you know.

With that, Danny and Mike from the New York chapter suddenly appeared and there were more smiles and hugs.

We sauntered – yes, that’s a good word – through the masses of jubilant Chelsea fans on the Fulham Road and the London night was full of Chelsea songs. Danny and Mike disappeared off to a pub – “see you at Blackpool”- but we needed to get home. The resurgence in our play during that excellent second period surely augurs well for the rest of the season. Carlo is in the middle of a testing spell as he needs to plan his assault on the Champions League campaign this year, but he also needs to look to the future and change the personnel for the new season, too. Let’s push on now and see where this team can take us. As we battled the crowds, I told Parky that a third-place finish in the league this year is well within our capabilities.

At the intersection of the North End Road and Lillee Road, James and I said our goodbyes. He promised a yearly visit to Chelsea in the years ahead and I look forward to welcoming him back. As he headed off towards West Brompton tube, I’m sure I saw him jump up and click his heels.

It had been a lovely, lovely night.

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