Well, I was going to write a meaningful and in-depth critique of the game on Saturday, but reading Jonathan’s article there really isn’t anything to add so I have decided to approach the day and the game from a different angle.
I may well have been very much in the minority of fans last week who suffered only a mild disappointment with the result from the Camp Nou/Nou Camp… whatever it’s called. My reasoning was that we had already lost the match at Stamford Bridge through poor refereeing, and adopting the view that we are also a “Work in Progress”? project like Manure, Airline and Liverpoo claim to be, I could gain satisfaction from knowing that we are further down that line than all of them. At the back of my mind I was also thinking in terms of what for me is the most important goal of the year — that of a second Premiership title, with the added bonus of a possible Double. This would to my mind put us in an elite group of only 4 other clubs who have achieved a domestic League and Cup Double. In recent years even this remarkable achievement has been cheapened by the plethora of “Doubles”? achieved by Airline and Manure, but now that it’s a distinct possibility for us, I am happy to be a complete hypocrite and state that this achievement is truly special, even more so if the team has won the League back-to-back.
And so it was that I wandered into The American Diner on the Fulham Road for my usual pre-match meal consisting of anything that Mrs Grocer Jack disallows me from eating at home. In other words proper football food consisting of such delights as chips, burgers, sausages and the like. I once went to a game and bought some “healthy living”?, low fat, low salt, low cholesterol, high fibre sandwiches from the mini-Sainsbury’s nearby. They were foul. It wasn’t right or proper and I immediately followed them up with a giant hot dog with tons of fried onions add lashings of English mustard from the nearest stall I could find.
The American Diner is run by Greek Cypriots and is a lovely ramshackle little place full of Chelsea fans on match days. The staff know me, through my continuing indecision when presented with a menu and always enter into a bit of banter about the day’s game. It’s a place where even in the queue to get in you can have a laugh and banter with complete strangers, all united by their replica kits from different Chelsea eras. This, for me, is where the whole match experience starts in earnest. I’ve done more Corporate Days than I can remember. I’ve eaten in Fishnets, in The Galleria and in the Hilaire Belloc Suite as well as others in or around the ground, but none gets the pre-match juices flowing like The American Diner. As nice as the others are, they are all typically a bit Corporate and a bit too tidy, clean, nice and polite. They are glittering palaces of reverence, white tablecoths, shiny cutlery, good looking waitresses and pompous waiters along with an awful lot of non-football going guests dressed in complete compliance to the Corporate hospitality dress code, with no replica shirts and just the odd brave soul wearing a Chelsea branded polo shirt. I’m dead rebellious me, I wear my replica shirt underneath. One day, when the lottery comes my way, I’m going to go on one of these Corporate Days and when we score I’m going to do a Superman and tear my proper shirt off and run around the restaurant. No doubt the outraged staff will eject me, women will faint at my chiselled, bronzed torso and men will doff their imaginary caps to my bravado. Or no-one will care a jot. Anyway, all of this comfortable air-conditioned nicety doesn’t come close to capturing the essence of football. All they do is save money because the booze is usually laid on and therefore free. Plus you get a free programme.
After the meal comes the obligatory walk up to the ground, past the stalls selling unofficial merchandise, old programmes and any type of badge, hat, scarf or t-shirt you’d care to mention. Try paying by card and the reaction is a swift growl accompanied by a terrifying “don’t take the piss”? glare. On Saturday the game was an early kick off, so my usual Megastore browsing session was not an option. Just as well really because Mrs Grocer Jack has started to notice the extra shirts I have in my wardrobe and increasing credit card bill that accompanies my apparent inability to go onto the shop without seeing something I desperately need. As we approached the main gates opposite the SO Bar, Chelsea’s very own version of Billy Graham stands there shouting into his microphone on the glory of a life based on God. Now, he’s a nutter, no question, but he’s our nutter, our Chelsea Bible bashing nutter, always smiling despite any amount of abuse. This week he got it from me. As he stood there shouting I couldn’t turn down the chance to gain a cheap laugh at his expense.
“Oh yeah,”? I shouted, “where was he when we needed him on Tuesday night… taking Spanish lessons?”?
It worked, and I got the cheap laugh. He smiled at me, with a kind of “you’re gonna burn in hell”? sneer hiding just behind his God-loving, God-fearing veneer. My own smile was a masked response of “I’ll take my chances mate”?. Honestly, does anyone ever walk by these people and in a moment of epiphany suddenly think, “He’s got a point you know”??
I love it when Spuds FC comes to town. The only shame is that the pitch didn’t reflect the kind of environment that these vegetables are reared in just to make sure their stodgy team felt at home. I don’t know, you turn your back for a few minutes and before you know it, they’ve swapped the pitch out. One day it’s a seething lumpy morass of wet mud and sand intermingled with the very occasional blade of grass, the next Roman’s lobbed a few of his newly converted roubles at someone and it’s a sea of pure green stretching out before the eye like a carpet made from the Axminster version of grass. If it were likened to cosmetic surgery then the Stamford Bridge pitch has just gone from a measly 30A cup to a boot filling 38DD with a free Botox jab chucked in for good measure. The transformation was truly splendid. The new pitch looked awesome, and no doubt this effect was exaggerated by the conditioning of the minds of the collective Stamford Bridge faithful to the rapidly declining temporary car park the pitch had become. Looking back at the Portsmouth game it’s hard to believe that Budweiser hadn’t had a Monster Trucks exhibition prior to kick-off. The build up was brief this week, but the obligatory rendezvous with the group outside gate 13 of the MHL still took place, albeit with an abridged version from each of us on the rights and wrongs of the week, the club, the manager and the players. None of us have names, other than Mate, and none of us ever asks for fear of breaching the code of unity through anonymity and love of Chelsea that exists once in the ground.
Once at my seat, the celebrations and tributes to my childhood hero Peter Osgood got under way and it’s no word of a lie to say that I had a lump in my throat and a small un-noticeable tear in my eye (I have an image to keep OK?) as the very players who had been my first taste of Chelsea came onto the pitch holding the floral arrangements stating the mantra of Ossie, King of Stamford Bridge. The giant scoreboard showed a picture of Ossie and Neil Barnett read out the names of those on the pitch paying tribute. He also mentioned the Spuds fans and acknowledged their respect paid when Matthew Harding died. The MHL applauded the Spuds fans for possibly only the first time in recorded history. During the minute’s appreciation we clapped and sung whilst the scoreboard focussed on his widow, Lyn Osgood and her best friend Elaine Hutchinson, the widow of another Chelsea great from the same era, Ian Hutchinson, a man who could throw the ball from one end of the pitch to the other on a good day. You won’t hear me say this often, if ever again, but the Spuds fans were truly excellent in their mutual applause and respect for this occasion. Hats off to them for showing that football still has a community spirit under all the faux hostilities we exhibit every week.
The game itself was a typical London derby affair, played with verve, passion and spirit. This Spuds team was the best I’ve ever seen and certainly hadn’t parked a bus anywhere on the pitch. Martin Jol does seem to have given them genuine hope of at least featuring in the top six, although on this performance I would place them ahead of Liverpool and in with a shout of 3rd if they put this defeat behind them. The referee, one Graham Poll was actually spot on and barely warranted a mention in any post match report, which is just as it should be. Surely he is the most common sense ref in the Premier League? Chelsea, as Jonathan stated seemed to reverse the philosophy of bad first half/good second half and seemed determined to try an bury Spuds by half time. Only poor finishing and bad luck prevented us from being 3 up by the break. Essien spooned a sitter wide but compensated a few minutes later with a tap in after a clever cross from a confidence oozing SWP and excellent dummy from Crespo. Hopefully Essien can improve on his tally and get close to the scoring form he showed at Lyon. Of course, 1-0 would have been good but in seemingly frequent Chelsea style we allowed ourselves to be mugged by Spuds’ first real effort on our goal. The increasingly excellent Huth was easily beaten in the air from an unnecessarily conceded free-kick, Peter Cech, as with Eto’o’s goal in the Champions League, appeared to be caught in two minds and chose neither to allow Jenas to score. I can guarantee that no-one in the MHL and probably the whole ground saw that one coming, but when you’re only one goal to the good, a lapse in concentration can be fatal. Huth can be forgiven this though based on his general improvement and he is starting to look like a German JT more and more with each game. I can pay him no higher compliment.
In the second half, Spuds lifted their game and started to break our passing game down, with a good degree of success. We always looked more dangerous, but they had at least one glorious chance to score when Jenas lost the magnificent Billy Gallas, but luckily for us, he’d had his moment of glory and he tamely shot the ball at Cech. As the game went on JM bought on Drogba to partner Crespo, and to my mind this actually worked quite well as the balance of the game swung dramatically in our favour. Presumably Drogba has had a kick up the proverbial arse after his ineffective displays of late, because he won near enough every header, held up the ball well, played Crespo in nicely a few times, and was desperately unlucky not to score what would have been an excellent goal. The opposition curse of having a superhero keeper was once again in evidence as Robinson turned Drogba’s fierce shot onto the post. The MHL didn’t find this out until Match of The Day.
And then came the denouement, the single moment of sheer brilliance that comes from being a fantastic player with big balls. Balls big enough to attempt a 25 yard shot, when playing as a right back, in the very dying seconds of the game. Billy Gallas thumped home a wonderful curving shot to stab Spuds in the football heart with barely 30 seconds left to play. If you don’t buy the ticket, you can’t win the lottery and Billy bought the ticket big time with that shot. I was just doing my jacket up and preparing to get on the starting blocks of the traditional post-match sprint to the exit when this happened. My sprint was completed with arms outstretched and I burst from the stadium knowing that we had done Spurs yet again. Just like the match we won in 2002 when Marcel Desailly scored a last gasp winner at Three Point Lane, when in fact Spuds had drubbed us all afternoon. The walk to the car to meet my travelling companions Mr and Mrs Chelsea, and Big Dave was completed with a cheesy grin, a phone call to Mrs Grocer Jack (she demands a post match report every week!) a huge bar of Fruit and Nut, 3 points in the bag, one more title a little closer and a very, very warm glow. Top this off with a visit from my younger, but dafter brother, a rather large, liver threatening and undoubtedly unwise helping of Guinness and Korai Chicken and you have all the elements of what can only be described as a Perfect Day.
Keep The Blue Flag Flying High!