Pat Nevin: One of the crowd

Having been on the first train out of Norwich on Saturday night, Chelsea legend Pat Nevin enjoyed plenty of good company, as he explains in this week’s column…

 

It has clearly been a taxing time for the players with the number and frequency of games but it has been every bit as taxing for the travelling Chelsea fans of late.

Apart from a whole bunch of games in and around London, there was a trek to Liverpool two days before Christmas and just to make matters worse that was an early kick-off. There was a midweek evening game up at Huddersfield which is not the easiest place to get to and from, and at the weekend there was the journey to Norwich, again not exactly a short hop on public transport.

At Norwich it was an outstanding turnout from the loyal Blues supporters, helped by the fact the FA Cup ensures quite a few more tickets are made available for us. After a less-than-sparkling first half, a few words from Antonio had a galvanising effect and we had the vast majority of the play in the second half when we were shooting towards where our supporters were massed.

Norwich with their three deep-lying and tight centre-backs confined Chelsea to mostly long-range shots in that period, none of which overly troubled the impressive Angus Gunn in the home side’s goal. I was hoping for a few more crosses from out wide, but then remembered that there were 30 crosses into the box in the aforementioned Everton game and we still couldn’t break the resolute Toffees down. 

Goalkeepers Willy Caballero and Angus Gunn greet each other after Saturday's game

There were of course nine changes to the team from the draw at The Emirates, so maybe it is understandable that it took a while to produce some fluency. It is worth noting however that any side in the world that rested the quality of Cesc Fabregas, Eden Hazard, Alvaro Morata, Marcos Alonso and N’Golo Kante among others might just suffer a little.

For all that it was a disappointment not to go through immediately, and the last thing anyone really needs is an extra game right now, the support was constant and that included on the journey back down south. I was on the first train out of town with a huge contingent of Chelsea fans and it really is something that I wish current footballers could do now and again, just to get a true feeling for the efforts made. Now I am not saying modern players do not care but more that it is actually an uplifting experience to spend a good amount of time with the foot soldiers, just as a reminder and to give a different perspective.

The chat in our carriage was fantastic about the current side, then about past times both recent and distant. There were fans there telling me things about when I played that I had long forgotten, which was a delight. It then went on to discussions about what the future might hold for the club, which was illuminating as well. The two hours flew by and even though I had been travelling from 5am and the game had failed to deliver a win, the spirits never dropped from those fans and they certainly lifted mine.  

There were of course sporadic outburst of Chelsea songs on board, with Zappacosta and Alonso being serenaded frequently in their absence, but when they sang some very old songs about yours truly, I knew fine well it was just a concerted effort to embarrass me. Sadly for them it didn’t work as I was having far too good a time in the company and anyway I had my embarrassment gene surgically removed years ago! The stories were all a joy to listen to regarding past travelogues, even if I was coerced into telling a few of my own for balance.

I thought the length of my trip was impressive. I started that morning from the Scottish borders by car, driving the 55 miles to Edinburgh airport, then the flight from Edinburgh to London was another 420 miles, followed by the train to and from Norwich which was 240 miles more. So 715 miles and 18 hours all in with a further 465 miles the next morning to get back home, but even so there were plenty who had easily outdone me. Specifically there was a young fan in the carriage who had made it all the way from Boston in the US who considered it a privilege to be there for the 6500 mile round trip. I am also acutely aware I got paid for doing it for the BBC, whereas he and everyone else had of course shelled out their hard-earned cash.

In reality, none of this is really a surprise to me as my father missed only a handful of games in my career, even though he lived in Scotland and most of my time was spent in England. He regularly regaled me about the years of dedication and the abundant kindness of many Chelsea fans on those long trips every other week, traits that perfectly mirrored his own. Of course every club has dedicated travelling fans, but the numbers that follow Chelsea are very special and their support on the road is undying whatever the circumstances.

So when I mentioned earlier that it was a shame that current players can’t do these journeys now and again, it is actually not written in a negative sense in any way. I honestly feel many would enjoy the craic, the normality and the reality. You also have to remember that most of the pros were fans once upon a time themselves, so it is something many lived through whether they were brought up in London or somewhere on a far-flung distant continent, so I suspect there is a longing to get back in there on the odd occasion.

Every now and again you will see a current Premier League player who is injured or suspended who actually does mingle with the fans during a game instead of sitting in a box. It honestly is because they really want to feel part of it and little to do with PR. I well remember standing in the Shed when injured for the last game of one season in my time at Chelsea. We played Liverpool, we got a 3-3 draw and I loved every second of it as a pure fan. There was no bother at all and our fans just had a pleasant chat or two with me throughout. Oddly enough, I think it would be pretty much the same now, with admittedly a few selfies thrown in to the mix.