Tales From Frank, Incensed

Chelsea vs. Bournemouth : 14 December 2019.

A Figure In Black And White.

Our home game with AFC Bournemouth, to give them their full name, would be my twenty-fifth match of the current season. I was in London, in Fulham, early and I had a little time to kill. I had dropped the lads off at West Brompton tube station at around 10am, and had then parked the car outside the mews on Bramber Road where James Hunt, the former Formula One champion, had lived for a while. I needed to be in The Goose to collect a ticket for a mate at 11am, and had about an hour to kill. I decided to head down to Stamford Bridge and pop in to the Copthorne Hotel for a coffee and to see who else was around and about.

Everything was pretty quiet. It was a bitterly cold morning. It felt like it was yet to become a match day in these familiar streets. As I neared the site of the old red-bricked Fulham Broadway tube station, I was surprised how still and silent it all was. The long expanse of pavement outside the Broadway Bar & Grill, which then lead on past the former entrance hall of the station, was totally devoid of people. I was touched by the serenity of the scene. I decided to take a photograph with my ‘phone as a scene-setter for my day at Chelsea. I had decided to mention that I loved the fact that my grandfather had probably exited that very same station in the early part of the twentieth century as he made his way to Stamford Bridge, the only stadium he would ever visit apart from a midweek trip with my parents and I to see Chelsea at Bristol Rovers in 1976. I love that on every trip to our home stadium, I walk in his steps.

I steadied myself and was just about to “shoot” when I noticed the figure of a man, cigarette in hand, white silk scarf around his neck, like a figure from the inter-war years. I then realised that it was no ghost from the distant past. It was none other than Tommy Baldwin who I had seen play just once, my second-ever game against Tottenham in 1974, but who was a huge part of our famous team of the ‘seventies.

He was the leader of the team, after all.

I approached him, shook his hand, and he seemed surprised that anyone would recognise him.

It was a lovely little moment.

I continued my advance to Stamford Bridge. It was so early that the fellows on the “CFCUK” stall were only just setting up shop. I walked on, into the forecourt, underneath the old Shed Wall. Past images of our former stars; Bobby Tambling, Kerry Dixon, Peter Osgood, Frank Lampard, Ron Harris and all. And one of Gianluca Vialli – the first one if the walk begins outside the hotel – who is still battling cancer. I took some photographs.

So many memories.

I have said before that I can often walk around the centre of my local town for thirty minutes and recognise nobody, but already on this morning in SW6 I had spoken to Mick and Pauline, Tom, Raymondo and the leader of the team.

At Chelsea, I feel like I am at home and I love that feeling.

In the hotel, I chatted to some others, then picked up the ticket at The Goose.

I was then on my way to Putney Bridge, to The Eight Bells, to my “local” some one hundred miles away from my house.

The Chelsea Social.

I arrived at about midday and my travelling companions – Simon, PD and Parks – were already on their fourth pint. Guests of honour were Gillian and Kev from Edinburgh – their second home game in a fortnight – but we were also joined by Gary and John from Edinburgh too. I chatted to Gary and how his local team, Hearts, have instigated – along with many other league teams north of the border – a “keep fit” campaign based at their Tynecastle stadium. I love the fact that Gary is able to use the stadium as a backdrop to his efforts to lose weight; up and down the terraces, stretches against the seats, press-ups in the tunnel. It is inspired. As an adjunct to this, Gary took part in a half-time shootout at Hampden Park during the Scottish League Cup tie with Rangers. He played in goal – in front of 52,000 – and saved three out of five shots on goal. What a great story.

Later, Mike and Courtney from Chicago joined us, and I spent an unusually long time talking to them both about baseball. I admitted to them that part of my fading love of that sport is the simple fact that my team – and Mike’s, definitely not Courtney’s – the Yankees moved out of their historic home in 2008 – dramatic, fearsome, cramped – and into an anaemic and watered down version in 2009.  I am always aware of the role that stadia play in our appreciation of sport. Too many resemble shopping malls these days. Balls to shopping malls. Give me stands that drip history, ooze memories and reverberate to the sound of honest fans and not consumers and wannabees. At old Yankee Stadium in 2008, I struggled to squeeze past fans in the claustrophobic concourses which reeked of sweet popcorn, salted pretzels and beer. In 2009, at the new pad, I was able to watch as a butcher took great delight as he went to work on rare cuts of beef behind a glass screen, as some sort of entertainment, and – fuck me sideways – I know what version I preferred.

And it is getting worse.

My good friend Steve in South Philly – while we were talking about the new riverside stand at the wonderful Craven Cottage – sent me notice that in his part of that great city, there are plans for a $50M e-Sports venue where – let me get this right – people go to watch people gaming.

I am glad I’ll be dead in thirty years.

The Game.

We made our way to the stadium. Mike and Courtney were in the Shed Upper – using the same season ticket seats belonging to a friend that Mike met while living in Richmond upon Thames for a year in around 2008 – and I promised that I’d try to spot them with my zoom lens. I did. The four from Edinburgh were dotted around the Matthew Harding. I took my place alongside PD and Simon in The Sleepy Hollow.

The team? Mason Mount in for Mateo Kovacic.

Arrizabalaga

Azpilicueta – Rudiger – Zouma – Emerson

Jorginho

Mount – Kante

Willian – Abraham – Pulisic

As a contrast to our league of nations, Bournemouth fielded a team consisting of solid, and relatively unknown, Anglo-Saxons

Ramsdale, Stacey, Francis, Mepham, Billing, Cooke, Gosling, Fraser and King. It all sounded like a school register from my childhood.

“Yes miss.”

Bournemouth only average 10,000 home fans so it was perhaps no surprise that there was a section of their three-thousand unfilled.

We attacked The Shed End as the game began.

Fraser on the Bournemouth left immediately made an impression and looked the liveliest of the away team. But we were soon on the attack, and a sublime ball from deep from Jorginho found the advanced run of Mount. From an angle, it was always going to be a tough ask, and his shot drew a save from Ramsdale in the Bournemouth goal.

Little did we know that this effort inside the first ten minutes or so would be our main effort on goal during the entirety of the first half.

The atmosphere was morgue like, and the away fans made more noise.

“Red Army.”

A lone voice in the Matthew Harding Upper was heard to mutter :

“Fuck off back to your care homes.”

Guilty.

Chelsea were faced with a packed final third as players took it in turns to pass their way around the danger zones as if there was a force field centered on the penalty spot. There were shades of last season – pass, pass, pass, pass, pass, pass – and the home fans sat in sombre silence. On too many occasions players failed to take ownership to make a killing ball. Yet there was poor movement off the ball too. A shot from Tammy midway through the contest narrowly missed the target.

It was all very humdrum.

And, to reiterate, the away team were unwilling to attack and open the game up, more’s the pity.

We were forced to trudge slowly over quicksand.

It was dull stuff.

I willed the boys on, but chances of any real quality were rare. Eddie Howe’s team, on a very poor run of form, seemed to grow more resolute as the tedious half progressed. On their rare forays up field though, such is our fragility these days, it always seemed that they might score.

Sadly, I have to report that there was not one single “stadium wide” song of support and encouragement throughout the first forty-five minutes.

We’re all getting older, we’re all getting quieter, we’re all fighting a losing battle.

The most repeated ball of the half was a long diagonal from Rudiger to Emerson or Pulisic on the left, but I wished that there was the occasional quick ball over the top for Tammy to eat up. On one occasion, nearing the end of the half, a gap was yawning to Tammy’s left, but the ball was played elsewhere and our young striker flung his arms up in frustration. He had a point. In the last dying embers of the first period, a corner from the boot of Willian found the leap of Tammy but the striker could not get over it and it flew over the crossbar.

It had been, definitely, a tough watch.

At least there were no boos at half-time.

Inside my head : “we tend to play better in the second-half, Frank will sort them out, we often make amends for a lacklustre first period with a more determined second-half show. Come on Chels.”

To a pal : “the last time we went in 0-0 at half-time against this lot, we let in four in the second-half.”

The second-half began and, alas, there was no noticeable improvement. If anything, we had deteriorated further, and the away team were more involved in attacking play.

Inside my head : “that will help us, draw them in then counter-attack them with pace.”

But this never really happened.

Rejoice – on fifty-one minutes, at last a Chelsea song joined us all together. It was hardly deafening, but it was a start. Willian struck the red and black wall from a far-too-central free-kick and then Pulisic broke through with a trademark burst but seemed to lose his footing as a shot skidded wide.

But the mood in the Stamford Bridge stands was not good at all.

I kept silent – lips pursed, hands in pockets, the occasional scowl, the look of a worried man – but elsewhere others were happy to howl and swear and yell obscenities. That upset me a bit. I hate that a misdirected pass – of which there were an increasing number – drew five times as much noise as a fine touch.

To hear someone close by call our players “fucking wankers” was one of the low points of my year.

Aren’t supporters meant to rally behind our team when players need encouragement? I get the frustration, but at times it was too much, too audible, and I am adamant that it affected the players’ collective confidence. It reminded me of the “you don’t know what you’re doing” phases of the Scolari, Villas-Boas and Sarri eras when it was possible to see players undergo some sort of meltdown with misplaced passes and poor control as they fell apart.

But that’s my standard view. It hasn’t fucking changed in years.

Managers manage. Players play. Supporters support.

It took a fantastic last-gasp tackle from Kurt Zouma to get the crowd in a positive mood. But elsewhere, everything seemed to be falling apart. We over-passed, and at times the passing was so poor. Misplaced balls from Rudiger and Zouma from deep, misplaced passes from Jorginho, and even from Kante who was – a tell-tale sign – being dragged down to the level of others after a strong start to the game. Rudiger, actually – everyone’s favourite when he was side-lined – had a ‘mare and to see his form deteriorate over the second forty-five minutes was equally surprising and shocking in equal measure. In fact, nobody played well.

On sixty-five minutes, a double substitution.

Mateo Kovacic for Pulisic.

Callum Hudson-Odoi for Willian.

After a ridiculous bout of pinball in the penalty area below me, Emerson headed straight at Ramsdale. From the angle where I was watching, it looked like it hit the bar. The crowd groaned.

Fackinell.

Abraham stretched but saw a header go wide. But we barely created anything of note.

Frank went for two upfront as Michy Batshuayi replaced Jorginho.

With ten minutes to go, a Bournemouth attack and the ball was lofted up into the box.

An offside flag.

But the ball was lobbed goal wards.

Dave seemed to clear it.

The Bournemouth fans celebrated.

I did not react.

“Offside, you wankers.”

Oh no.

A delay.

Oh bollocks.

VAR.

A wait.

A bad sign.

Goal.

And nobody that I was sat with really knew what was going on. We presumed the bloke wasn’t offside, but there was no real clear explanation.

Great.

CFC 0 AFCB 1.

Only in the fading moments of this dire game did we seem to want to go at their defence. A couple of thrusting runs from Hudson-Odoi hinted at the kind of football that we should have been producing all afternoon but it was too little and too late.

At the final whistle there were boos.

Really?

I know – I am not stupid – this was a bloody poor performance, but are people so mean spirited that the “give our kids a chance, we’ll be happy with tenth this season, Frank knows the club” mantra has been so easily jettisoned?

For many, it would appear so, eh?

But there again, the league table doesn’t lie, and we are fourth from bottom and out of the Champions League. And we have spent £200M on new players since the end of last season.

Frankly.

As I drove home, I was relieved – so relieved – that my ‘phone was off and I was not able to see the reaction – over reaction? – of so many on social media. Again, I get the passion, and I get a lot of constructive analysis, but some comments I would later discover were just excruciating.

I trust Frank. He knows football. He knows more about football than you and I. I’ve never wanted a Chelsea manager to succeed more than Frank.

In his post-game interviews, he was clearly rattled, as he should be, and – again – I loved his honesty and intelligence, and how we need to improve all over the pitch for the game at Tottenham. Despite his annoyance, his desire to get it right shone through. And unlike last season under Sarri, at least Frank understands what it means when we play at Tottenham.

I will see some of you – the lucky ones – there.

Tales From The Debutants

Chelsea vs. Birmingham City : 20 April 2011.

We are in the middle of a busy period. It seems as if the season is in some sort of rush to get itself finished. With just six games of Chelsea’s 2010-2011 campaign remaining, I was well aware of the need to relish every second, every minute, and every kick of every last game of this season.

On the Tuesday, Manchester United dropped points at St. James’ Park. Maybe this crazy season wasn’t finished just yet. During another busy morning at work, I found just enough time to daydream of a Chelsea win over a struggling Birmingham City, allied with a favourable result between our North London “friends”. I told anyone who would listen –

“We could be second tonight.”

Thankfully, I had booked myself another half-day holiday and I left the delights of work at 12.30pm. Easter week is always notoriously busy and we always struggle to fit five days’ work into four. It was with guilty pleasure that I left the rest of my workmates to it. For this midweek game against Birmingham, it was the same scenario as against Manchester United a mere fortnight ago; pick up Parky, home to change, then up on the A303 and M3. A lot has happened in two weeks; too much, to be honest. Out of Europe, for sure, adrift in the league, maybe.

The sky was hazy, but the temperature warm as we headed east. By 4.15pm, I had parked up. I left Parky to head into the pub and I briskly walked down to The Bridge as I had people to meet. My goodness, it was muggy. It felt like the warmest day of the year. As I took a left outside The So Bar, I headed towards the West Stand and passed a chap in his late forties wearing both replica shirt and shorts. This isn’t a good look, mate. Take a look at yourself.

Inside the Megastore, I met Chelsea debutants Mike, Ashley and Brandon. Mike had contacted me a while back on the off-chance of getting tickets for the game. Luckily, tickets became available and “Bob’s your uncle,” as we say. This was Mike and Ashley’s first ever visit to the UK and they arrived via a quick tour of Europe, involving a few days in Barcelona, Madrid and Dublin. Seven hours after landing at Heathrow, they were at Stamford Bridge and clearly excited by the prospect of their first ever Chelsea home game. Brandon now lives In Madrid and was accompanying them on this trip. They were only town for a few days and had an itinerary all sorted.

Chelsea was obviously the centre-piece.

I briskly took the three Americans up to the hotel foyer to quickly meet – you all know where this is going, right? – Ron Harris and Peter Bonetti. We posed for photos with these two affable Chelsea legends and it was all very friendly and relaxed. Peter spoke about his time in America in the mid-‘seventies, including a season spent in the heat of a Missouri summer with St. Louis Stars in the NASL. Brandon thought it odd that The Cat called football “soccer” but I think he was just being friendly, bridging the gap between our great two nations, separated by the same language, as the saying goes. Peter Bonetti once played against Pele in The States and knew him from their time at the 1970 World Cup.

Then, decision time. As this was the three Americans’ first ever visit to The Bridge, I didn’t want to force their hands. I was heading back to The Goose, but was well aware that the three guests may want to stay closer to the stadium and get wrapped up in the pre-match buzz there. I was happy with their decision to join me back at the pub. On the walk back down the Fulham Road and up the North End Road, I did my tourist-guide bit with tales of the old Shed, the Osgood statue, The So Bar, the Hammersmith & Fulham Town Hall and the tube station. All Chelsea landmarks. Our bricks and mortar. Our history.

As I handed over the two season ticket cards to Ashley and Mike, I joked that they had left America single, but they were now newly arrived in England and passing themselves off as a married couple, Karen and Dave Lambert, from Frome in Somerset. How very murky. Their friends will be shocked. They would be sitting in the Shed Upper. Brandon would be alongside me in the MHU.

We made it back to The Goose at about 5.30pm and it was again nice to be able to relax a little before a midweek game. In addition to my little tour party, there was a sizeable gathering of the US clans taking place in the pub and beer garden. Beth was in mid-conversation with Cathy, a rare visitor to The Goose, and the New York Blues were represented by some Neat folk, plus Linda and Napoli Frank (who I had inadvertently bumped into in The Megastore, much to our amusement.)

The pints of lager and lime were going down well and Parky was flitting around like the socialite that he is. My boys – Alan, Gary, Rob, Andy, The Youth, Ed, Daryl, Russ – were in another corner. Busy, busy, busy. Conversations were flowing and it was great. I reconvened with Ashley, Mike and Brandon and we reignited some football-related conversations. We briefly touched on the strange phenomenon, at least in my eyes, of the franchise aspect of American sport teams and specifically the movement of a team from one city to another. The loathed MK Dons aside, this simply doesn’t happen in the UK. We specifically spoke about how Ashley and Mike’s home town of Seattle has reacted to the demise of the Sonics NBA team. They believe that the upsurge in support of the Seattle Sounders MLS team is linked to the flight of the Sonics a few years back. Ashley spoke of a friend who was a lifetime Sonics fan, whose dream was to work for the club in some way. He studied hard and eventually got an internship with the Sonics and loved it. He was heartbroken when the owner sold the club and moved the franchise to Oklahoma City. He was offered a job at the new city and reluctantly took it. I commented that it must be like marrying your school sweetheart, raising a family, but then getting a divorce and having to work for her new husband.

I hope that the franchise system never comes into our sporting landscape in the UK.

We also briefly touched on football hooliganism, but that’s a story for another day.

I took a few photos of Linda and Frank with two lovely trophies which they were due to present to Didier Drogba before the game. I believe Beth’s crew have a similar presentation against West Ham United.

The First-Ever Transatlantic Lacoste Watch.

London.

Andy – racing green

Chris – pink

Philadelphia.

Steve – lime

Just before we all set off for the walk to the ground, Rich from the Philly Blues popped in. Even more American visitors are planned for Saturday, when we will be hoping to celebrate a St. George’s Day victory over West Ham. I walked down the North End Road, past the pubs and fast-food cafes, with Rob and he said that some West Ham are taking a River Thames boat down the river for the game on Saturday.

“Yeah, which bridges are they going under?”

We both had the same thought.

There is new signage on the West Stand wall now – the tagline is “All Blues” and there are photos of the new 2011-2012 Chelsea kit. In fact, the new kit featured on the cover of the programme too. I loathe this premature arrival of new kits before the current season is finished. I don’t doubt we will wear it against The Geordies on Sunday 15th. May. Pathetic.

Brandon was already chatting to Alan when I arrived in my seat with about five minutes to go before kick-off. I had my cursory look around. Like me, many fans were in short-sleeved shirts. The clouds were still hugging the stadium in a claustrophobic clasp. Still very muggy. Birmingham City had about 700 fans and just four flags. I pointed out all of the US flags to Brandon. Despite a gate of over 40,000, there were many empty seats dotted around. I suspect we were 3,000 down on capacity. I got my lens out and quickly spotted “The Lamberts” in the Shed Upper.

So, the same team as against West Brom, apart from Paolo in for Ivanovic. I hope Ramires quickly returns. Birmingham were in a white–white–blue reverse of our kit.

We only had to wait two minutes for a goal. Alan had just commented to me about it being a long time since Chelsea scored a first-half goal at home in the league, when Paolo Ferreira sent over a perfect cross for the leaping Didier Drogba to get the feintest of flicks (snap!) and Florent Malouda to sweep the ball home.

Get in.

Mike, Ashley and Brandon – Welcome To Chelsea!

I’ll be honest; I was enjoying chatting to Brandon during the first-half about all sorts of things and found myself drifting away from the game. We spoke mainly about football but various other topics found their way into our chat. It was fun talking to an avid fan with a different perspective to mine. I hoped that having a Madrid resident next to me might somehow jolt Torres into goal scoring action later in the game. The atmosphere, despite our early goal, was quite subdued and there seemed to be a strange air throughout the evening. It didn’t seem like a game at the business end of the season.

On 26 minutes, what a lovely goal from Salomon Kalou. It was most unlike him, wasn’t it? A forceful run and an even better early strike. I could hardly believe my eyes as the ball hit the back of the net before the ‘keeper Ben Foster was even able to move.

Not so Kalou-less.

On 35 minutes, Didier cut in from the left and hit a daisy-cutter which the Birmingham City ‘keeper did well to turn around the far post.

Birmingham had a few sporadic attacks, but Cech was mainly untroubled.

The main problem for me was that for the second time in about a month, an over officious steward warned me not to take any photographs. It was a case of “cat and mouse” with him for the rest of the game. A similar fate befell Cathy against Wigan.

Vince – a former season-ticket holder – was sat in front of the three of us and I explained to Brandon that he lives out in East London, deep in West Ham territory. Sadly, his young son is a West Ham fan. Vince’s son could become the secretary general of the United Nations, find a cure for cancer, become CEO of a company which outsold Microsoft, beat Stephen Hawking at chess, record a platinum selling album, win five gold medals at a future Olympics and bring the warring factions in the Middle East together in peace; Vince would still feel that he had failed as a father.

West Ham. I ask you.

At the break, Tommy Baldwin was walked around the pitch by Neil Barnett. I explained to Brandon that he was known as “The Sponge” by fans and players alike in his time at Chelsea. Just as I had finished talking, the automatic sprayers came to life and the two of them had to sprint away from the water. With typical quick-witted gusto, Alan remarked “go on, soak it up, Tommy.”

Soon into the second-half, from a Drogba corner, a David Luiz header went wide.

The highlight of the second period was the introduction of debutant Ryan Bertrand for Ashley Cole on 56 minutes. He fitted in well and, after just five minutes in a first team shirt, sent over a cross from down below me by the north-west corner post. His pinpoint cross was headed down and in by Florent Malouda.

3-0 and coasting. The Malouda and Kalou Show.

Malou and Kalouda.

A strange old night in SW6.

To be honest, after our ridiculous bad luck at St. Andrews in November, it was only right that there would be Chelsea goals in this game.

On 66 minutes, a double substitution; Fernando Torres and Nicolas Anelka came on for the two goalscorers.

On 74 minutes, we conceded a very silly penalty when David Luiz uncharacteristically chopped at a Brum attacker – going away from the goal – and the referee had no choice but to award the penalty. It was easily despatched.

3-1.

Not to worry – we conceded just as we heard that Tottenham had recovered from being 1-3 down at home to Arsenal to get it back to 3-3. This cheered us up!

Anelka, playing deep, lost possession on the halfway line and Larsonn had the whole half at his mercy. Thankfully, he was short on confidence and chose to shoot early and his tame effort skidded well wide.

The last action of the match took place after Birmingham were penalised for a back-pass inside their box and the free-kick was only eight yards out. The crowd bellowed for Torres, but Drogba – enjoying a fine game – blasted high over the bar.

3-1 to The Champions – job done!

Brandon and I watched as the team left the pitch, but noted that yet again JT was the last man off, stripped to the waist, beating his chest.

Outside, we met up with “The Lamberts” and they were very contented. Thankfully, they didn’t use the word “awesome”, but I was in no doubt of their happiness.

The four of us soon said our goodbyes – but I made sure that Mike does his match report once he has time.

We dropped into The Goose to catch a glimpse of the Real vs. Barca game from Valencia and to let the traffic subside. Another pint for Parky and a refreshing Coke for me.

We left London at 10.30pm and I was home by 12.45pm.

Yep – up to second place now and who knows? Despite the doom-mongering of a few weeks ago, we’re still in contention.

Current Form.

Chelsea : 5 – 1 – 0

Manchester United : 3 – 1 – 2

Arsenal : 1 – 5 – 0

Five games to play. Let’s go.

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