If football had an equivalent to the Oscars then Saturday’s clash at the Hawthorns would be this season’s “Brokeback Mountain”; much drama and passion, virtuoso acting performances and an experience for those who witnessed it first hand, but short on any serious gongs collected once the critics had finished hyping it as a work of great substance and controversy. But as a dress rehearsal, the game provided Mourinho and his men with a small-scale example of the kind of pressure cooker that will be bubbling away at the Nou Camp come kick-off on Tuesday evening. Award for best supporting role would certainly go to the crowd for their impeccably observed minute’s silence in honour of West Brom employee Scott Poll and our own Peter Osgood; special mention going to the Chelsea fans who organised the distribution of thousands of posters showing Ossie’s memorable FA Cup final goal – an excellent tribute to the great man.
Seeing a kid wearing a Lampard or Terry replica Chelsea shirt is always heartening. Another soldier has joined the ranks of the Blue army and made the toughest of decisions that faces anyone during their formative years; choosing a hero. Doing so has always been a difficult task, a very personal thing – one minute you revere them as a living God, the next the posters have been torn down because they’ve upped and left for a hated rival. Hero worship can be a cruel business.
Despite our return to winning ways with a 2-0 victory over Portsmouth, it saddens me to report that yet again this week the fans have let Chelsea down. Yes, we created a terrific atmosphere at the Bridge for the visit of Barcelona and supported the team with a sense of passion and no small degree of righteous anger that is all too frequently absent these days. But whilst the team do their absolute best to make us unpopular by ruthlessly winning (well, most of the time) and Kenyon’s slick marketing machine attempts to turn the world Chelsea Blue by peddling merchandise to the unsuspecting masses, the fans have disappointed once more, making precious little effort to help further blacken the bad name of the club. I refer to the feeble ‘death threats’ issued to Norwegian referee Terje Hauge by the sinister band of ‘Chelsea netcases’. It must be true – it said so in the Sun. Our ‘previous’ in the form of the Anders Frisk incident led the ever-helpful press to warn Mr. Hauge that he would soon receive word from the Blue army that his end was indeed nigh after his dismissal of Asier Del Horno in our Champions League tie last week.
I’ve always been in awe of people who dedicate their lives to study and academia; nuclear fission, the reproductive system of the European earthworm or whatever. It must be quite an achievement to be the leading expert in the field on that particular subject. It brings to mind watching the news and seeing little men in half-moon spectacles with an uncontrollable greying mop of hair in well-worn corduroy jackets, spouting passionately about their particular area of knowledge.
Your mid-thirties are a very strange time. Mortgages, responsibility and a decade or two of that creeping disease known as adulthood suggest that you shouldn’t drink like Oliver Reed in his prime and wake up on a Sunday morning, head thumping like the ghosts of the Sheffield Wednesday Kop band have taken up residence. But very occasionally, you do. Where on earth am I? What happened last night? A glance at the papers at least helped to stem the tide of unease and confusion.
For all the talk of midfielders during the build-up to the umpteenth clash between Chelsea and Liverpool in the last eighteen months, the game itself was all about strikers or the lack thereof in Liverpool’s case. Two masters of the profession, Zola and Osgood, were back at their spiritual home to watch a Hernan Crespo masterclass as we brushed aside Liverpool’s title ‘challenge’ at a buoyant Stamford Bridge yesterday afternoon.
After the blanket coverage of Chelsea’s financial results (OK, overdraft) and a day of “Isn’t it scandalous?!” style comment from the media and numerous newly created experts on football finance (i.e. anyone with a grudge and a calculator), it was a welcome relief to sit back and contemplate that most basic of football pleasures; the prospect of a good old-fashioned FA Cup tie against Everton. As an added bonus, the game remained resolutely unmoved by TV schedules and kicked off at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. A self-confessed fan of the FA Cup since childhood, Jose would surely have appreciated the traditional aspect of a fourth round game in the only domestic competition he has yet to win.
The arrival of a whale in West London caused something of a stir over the weekend; possibly a pre-ordered buffet for all the Japanese tourists at Stamford Bridge, as one wag suggested to me. But after our third encounter with them this season, Charlton’s trip down the Thames proved rather more successful than that of the confused mammal. An entertaining one-all draw ended the only perfect home record in English football, although results elsewhere did little to halt our march towards a second Premier League title.
After the disappointment of missing out on the signings of Evra, Adebayor, Diaby and Walcott along with the countless others we were supposedly “in for” during the first fortnight of the transfer window, as Grocer Jack detailed below Chelsea were ultimately deserving winners in the North East on Sunday afternoon. A hectic but perfect Christmas / New Year programme and a sizeable lead is the stuff that last season’s title win was built upon; if more excitement were needed, Jose could almost hand the team over to Kevin Keegan now and still be reasonably certain of picking up the Premiership trophy come May. Yes, I said almost…
The media may be reporting that dark and sinister forces are trying to ban the traditions that underpin Christmas, but it’s good to see that the sports journalists are having none of it. Yesterday they reported gleefully that a Ruud ‘n’ Roo powered Manchester Utd. were breathing down our necks; yes, the title race is back on! This morning in true pantomime style the headlines brayed “Ooooh no it isn’t!” following our first League win at Highbury in fifteen years. The manner in which we achieved it was magnificent; Arsenal were out-muscled, out-thought and outplayed for much of the game. The “Arsene knows” mantra chanted by Arsenal fans has a different ring to it today; one thing the Frenchman certainly knows now is that the phrase ‘rebuilding process’ no longer applies to just the stadium in which his team plays.
The spectacle and glamour of the World Cup draw in Leipzig last Friday wasn’t exactly low-key; any ceremony that involves Heidi Klum and a load of balls brings to mind numerous puns far too weak and contrived for even this column, but the ballot for the group stages of Germany 2006 threw up some intriguing clashes and a relatively kind grouping for Sven’s England. The World Cup draw is a strange beast; seeing Togo and Switzerland pulled out of the hat just doesn’t have the sense of magnified excitement and anticipation that comes with the FA Cup 3rd round draw. Interviews with nervous non-league club chairmen hoping for a Premiership payday to clear the overdraft and the plumber turned hat-trick hero of the second round are oddly preferable to disinterested supermodels and the spray-on tension of the ever-barking Sepp Blatter’s global circus; David Davies may not be the stuff of Vogue covers, but there is something about him announcing that a couple of 1970’s cup legends have just given Manchester United a trip to Burton Albion or Burscough that all the blonde hair, pouting and dull stats about 350 million people tuning in to watch can’t quite match.
Somewhere in London right now, a cabbie is shouting at TalkSport because of the injustice of it all.
“Bloody Chelsea, they’ve done it again, haven’t they? They bought the league with their stolen Russian oil / drug / blood money, ruined English football and buggered up my kids’ Christmas by taking all the stock of that X-Box 360. But they’ve gone too far this time — they’ve only gone and invented the bad tackle haven’t they? That Michael Essien on the German bloke, and he didn’t even get booked for it! Gawd, the Queen Mother’s probably turning in her grave, God rest her…”
Following the death of one of football’s most enduring characters last Friday, the most refreshing aspect of the weekend’s fixtures was how football found its own voice and identity in the way that it celebrated the on-pitch life of one of the game’s greats. Aside of the games at the New Den and the City of Manchester Stadium where the planned silent tribute had to be cut short after the fairly shameful (if not entirely unpredictable) actions of a few Leeds and Liverpool fans, it was testament to how the football-going public felt about George Best; many shunned the maudlin minute’s silence that has become common place in the post-Diana era for a minute of applause — most notably at Fratton Park where Portsmouth chairman Milan Mandaric, a close friend of Best was visibly moved by the tribute.
Apologies for the weak pun but the temptation to indulge in Bond-style headlines has been too great given recent events; with Special Agent Jose already annoying the nation’s non-Chelsea contingent by leaping across rooftops and staring down from billboards with his Samsung mobile that doubles as a plastic explosives detonator and radar jamming device (probably), the weeks following our first consecutive defeats of the Mourinho era have seen the Chelsea soap opera become a fully-fledged spy thriller. There has been sufficient material for Le Carré to produce an espionage masterpiece with enough sub-plots left over to keep Daniel Craig in exotic blondes and Aston Martins until well into the next decade; the media have wasted no time in casting Roman as the mysterious Blofeld-esque villain, complete with hit squads and pools of hungry pet sharks to deal with those who fail him in his quest for world domination.
There is nothing worse than a rude awakening. There I was, quietly browsing the morning papers with both tabloids and broadsheets declaring that despite the pervading sense of doom and gloom they had hysterically constructed — sorry, reported upon in a sensible and unbiased manner, the clouds had finally lifted and the sun was once again shining upon our beautiful game; after forty league games the Evil Empire had finally been defeated. Just as I was getting used to the idea, the phone rang. Who is calling at this time, I asked myself? Double glazing salesman? The bank? Some other irritant telling me that I am paying too much for my house and contents insurance?
After a relatively gloomy week by our standards, the entertaining if slightly nervy win over Blackburn was a welcome boost and a poke in the eye for the circling vultures who were eagerly awaiting the demise of our thirty-nine game unbeaten league run. The highlights of the weekend’s other games provided further entertainment; great goals including superb efforts from Portsmouth’s Matthew Taylor and a rejuvenated Michael Owen being the pick of the bunch. Amusement came courtesy of some truly hilarious defending; Sunderland’s Alan Stubbs assuming the character of a Sunday league player still feeling the effects of a heavy Saturday night, Paul Robinson’s generous assist for Robert Pires in the North London derby and most amusingly Rio Ferdinand’s own personal Groundhog Day at the Riverside (ably supported by the usually reliable Edwin van der Sar) as the wheels spectacularly fell off the already stuttering United bandwagon. Ronnie Barker may no longer be with us but great comedy is alive and well and living in many Premiership defences.