By rights, the biggest games of the season are played at the end of each campaign. The FA Cup final, the final day of the Premier League season, the Champions League final, the Blue Square South play-off final, we all know the list. But tucked in amongst these matches was an epic encounter at Stamford Bridge on Monday. At 1pm on a stupidly hot afternoon in West London, a Thomas Cook Sport XI faced off against a Competition Winners XI, with your CFCnet correspondent given an unexpected call-up to the latter squad of 15.
It’s probably a dream we all hold, emerging from the tunnel in the famous blue shirt, taking a spot in the team and kicking-off alongside the likes of John Terry, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba. Ok, so they were busy on Monday, but living the dream I was regardless, just shoulder to shoulder with similarly wide-eyed and open-mouthed lucky fans instead.
Thomas Cook Sport had arranged the match and kindly invited CFCnet along, after filling the squad with genuine winners of a competition placed in the national press and realising they needed to find a player who could not only write creatively, but provide a natural spark on the pitch too. Unfortunately for them, I was the first to reply to their message.
With two spots available I invited a fellow Blues fan along, and we made the trip to the Bridge at around 9am, leaving from Bristol with only myself – disappointingly – already in full kit. Shockingly, tuning into Five Live and talkSPORT provided nothing but real sports news, with not a mention of our chance to become heroes. Nevertheless we still talked up our chances and virtually went through every possible permeation in the match ahead, with every scenario ending with one of us scoring a belter.
Arriving at the ground and encountering several footballing types, our anticipation was heightened by a group of lads who looked like they knew how to play. Then we found out they were Thomas Cook Sport – of course, the tans should have given it away – and mild panic set it. We had heard rumours that Cristiano Ronaldo did one day a week at Thomas Cook as a baggage handler while Kaka occasionally manned the check-in desk, but fortunately they must have just been wicked whispers.
Without being unkind, one could tell immediately who our players were, as they strolled up to the East Stand entrance dragging oxygen tanks and clutching confirmation letters. That was just the young ones too. We were going to fit right in.
We were then taken to a small desk to register, signing disclosure forms with nothing more than a flick of the wrist, no doubt all neglecting – in our fervent excitement – to read the small print which probably didn’t protect us against the very real possibility of burning away to nothing but a pile of ash in the mid-day sun. Then we were handed our squad numbers. Yes, squad numbers, Thomas Cook Sport weren’t messing about. Fearing a ‘nothing’ number like 12 or 13, I was pleasantly surprised by hearing I was to be a number 7. A flying winger. The hub of all our attacks. Arjen Robben, but with even more chance of picking up an injury, if you can believe such a thing.
If you’re being pedantic, I was more realistically following in the footsteps of the likes of Bernard Lambourde, Winston Bogarde and of course, Sheva. I aimed to make them proud, and I think I succeeded, if by proud you mean utterly ashamed to indirectly share a sport with.
Then we headed out to the pitch for a warm-up. Wow. Although it was empty, bar a few stewards – Thomas Cook Sport have a notorious travelling firm – and some passing tour groups – who, at one point in the game, chanted from the Shed: “We hate Tottenham”- it was still as beautiful as a matchday. Scooping a few shots embarrassingly high and wide of the goal at the Matthew Harding end, I thought, ‘I could get used to this’.
We were kicking from the MHL and mercifully I was given the right-wing berth, the only spot on the pitch that was in the shade. Most of the game was a blur, but a few ‘highlights’ stick in the mind. I latched on to a cross-field ball in the first ten minutes, running through on goal and sending a vicious, swerving shot straight into row 28 of the Shed Lower, closer to the corner flag than the goal.
There was also a decent penalty shout turned down as I found some pace I thought I’d left behind at the age of 15, beating the Thomas Cook Sport ‘keeper to the ball and knocking it past him, only to be felled like a passenger plane in an ash cloud (not a Thomas Cook one of course). The referee shook his head and very possibly laughed at my sprawling figure on the turf. I made a mental note to study later that night in the England V Mexico game just how Steven Gerrard does it so convincingly.
We went 1-0 down, only to equalise minutes later, while several changes were made to our system in an attempt to get a foothold in a game which – despite the scoreline – we were barely clinging on to. I took in spells at left-back and left-wing before finally being given the chance to lead the line in the second-half.
Unfortunately, this coincided with a nasty bout of cramp. I attempted to hide from our manager on the day, Matt Peden from Thomas Cook Sport, for fear of being subbed, but running in a stilted manner as if I needed to evacuate my bowels immediately probably didn’t help.
I was taken off moments later, refusing to look at my boss and contemplating removing my shirt and throwing it in his direction. Then I realised it was rolling subs, he’d probably just saved my life, and I’d get back on in about ten minutes. By now the match was 2-2, and thoughts turned to penalties already. I volunteered to take number five if it came down to it, pretending it was because I could handle the pressure, but really just wanting to score the winning goal at Stamford Bridge.
I got back on with a few minutes to go, and loitering on the half-way line, waiting for a break after a succession of Thomas Cook Sport corners, I had the perfect view of their last goal. Literally seconds remained when a pinball scramble in the box resulted in a prodded winner. Gutting. I know how Bayern Munich felt now in 1999 against Manchester United. Shut up, it’s exactly the same.
Heartbroken and dejected, we left the pitch amidst a sea of empty seats. The tour groups had left long before the third goal, and who could blame them? They’re running to a tight schedule. A few of us took the opportunity to hang around the pitch for as long as we could before being chucked off, back to the showers and the sadness etched onto the faces of our fellow competition winners.
Except we weren’t really too peeved, we’d played at Stamford Bridge for crying out loud. Ordinary people like us, writers, bankers, students, were given a chance to emulate our heroes for a day, and although I’m still in immense physical pain two days later, it was definitely worth it. The life of a footballer is one we’ll never have, but competitions like this create memories which will last our normal lifetimes.
Attempting to blag my way into next year’s game, Matt replied only with, ‘You never know!’ which to me feels as if he wasn’t overly impressed with my grand total of around nine touches in 90 minutes. But perhaps you can make a bigger impression next season. Enter the competition, live the dream, and tell your grandkids you once played at the home of football, Stamford Bridge.
A big thanks goes out to Thomas Cook Sport.