Tales From A Blue Day.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 1 March 2015.

On the morning of Sunday 1st. March, I was in no mood for a game of football. And now, a day later, if I am honest I am in no mood to write this match report. This is a “Tale” that I have feared for some time. Its inevitability was certain. It was only a question of time.

At around 10pm on Thursday 26th. February, my dear, sweet, gentle and kind mother sadly passed away. Words will be difficult to find, words might struggle to flow, but no end of words will ever do justice to the life of Esme Amy Axon, who left us a few days ago at the age of eighty-five. In the last chapter, I spoke about my mother’s recent short stay in hospital and how I was buoyed by her seemingly good recovery from ill-health, but it was a horrible false dawn. Worried by my mother’s weight loss, I decided to miss the Burnley home game to stay and look after my mother and I stayed away from work all week, too. I am so grateful that I made that decision. As the days passed throughout that week, with my Mum’s health faltering and then momentarily improving, I quickly sensed that work didn’t matter too much and neither did football. Chelsea, my obsession, was put into bleak perspective; after attending seven games in January, I only attended one game in February. It eventually became the darkest month of my life.

The first day of March would be a testing day for me, but I had soon decided that I needed to attend our Capital One Cup Final against Tottenham. To stay at home, possibly alone, would have been unthinkable.  As I awoke after a solid and sound eight hours of sleep on Sunday morning, football itself seemed an irrelevance, but my main desire was to meet up with some of the most wonderful friends anyone could ask for. I collected PD at 7.30am and Parky at 8pm. To give me a break, we caught the 8.37am train from Chippenham. Soon into the journey my two companions were knocking back the cider. I sipped a strong coffee. I was doing OK. I was quiet but content. Zipping through the towns of Reading, Maidenhead and Slough brought back fresh memories of a trip by train to Chelsea with both my parents in 1981 and 1982. Good memories. Strong memories. As the day developed I was sure there would be more.

It was a cold but sun-filled morning. We hopped on the tube at Paddington and were soon meeting up with others at The Tyburn at Marble Arch. We soon bumped into Gal, and I received the first of many warm embraces from friends throughout the day. Bob, over from San Francisco for a couple of games, was already in the pub. Daryl, then Neil, then Alan soon arrived. More hugs. Breakfasts were ordered. Again, I was OK. It was lovely to be among friends.

At around 11.15am, we shifted to our old favourite, The Duke Of York. The pub was already full of Chelsea. A sizeable portion of The Goose’s regulars had simply shifted a few miles north. More hugs. To be honest, after we toasted the memory of my mother, I was hardly in the mood for lager. I don’t think I have ever sipped two pints so slowly in my life.

There was time for me to detail the events of the past few days, weeks and months. Friends shared a few memories of my mother, who made the occasional trip to Stamford Bridge in her later years, and who also met friends on their visits to Somerset. Off the top of my head – and few friends would doubt my memory –  my mother’s last five trips to Stamford Bridge were against Charlton Athletic in 1988, Everton in 1991, PSV Eindhoven in 1996, Birmingham City in 2005 and Watford in 2010. It was a joy for me to be with my mother for the 2005 game; my mother had witnessed a part of our first League Championship in fifty years.  What joy! The Watford game five years later was on my mother’s eightieth birthday. Again, a wonderful memory. Does anyone think that was my mother’s last ever live sporting event? If you do, you are wrong. Later in 2010, I took my little mother to the US and we saw baseball games in Philadelphia and at Yankee Stadium. And only sixteen months ago, on a trip to Scotland, Mum was alongside me at Brechin City’s outrageously picturesque Glebe Park for a game versus Ayr United. Mum loved her trips to Scotland; after my father passed away in 1993, it became a regular event. For six straight years, we made an autumnal trip to various cities in Scotland. Mum saw Scotland – and Pat Nevin – at Hampden Park in 1994 and we also paid a lovely visit to Arbroath in 2009. I have photographs from most of these trips and – of course – I will be hunting these out over the next few emotional and delicate weeks.

All told, my mother went to a few games shy of thirty Chelsea games.

Two other games are worthy of re-telling.

In around 1972, I saw my first-ever Frome Town game. I had watched my local village team, who I later played for on a few occasions, at the local recreation ground, but the trip to Badger’s Hill for a Western League game on a wet autumn afternoon was the first time that I had seen a ‘’proper’’ game. Sadly, Frome lost that day – I remember being really sad – but my most vivid memory is of sitting alongside my mother (my father was working in his menswear shop in the town centre) and sharing a bag of cherries at half-time. Yes, that is correct – my mother took me to my first ever ‘’real’’ game of football. Bless her.

One of the travelling salesmen who used to periodically call in at my father’s shop was a chap from Exeter. My father soon told him of my love of football and, in a pre-curser to corporate hospitality, the salesman managed to obtain three of Exeter City’s allocation of tickets for the 1978 Football League Cup Final between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest. I must admit at feeling rather guilty about travelling to a game not involving my team, but seeing a match at Wembley was a huge thrill. We had three lower-level wooden bench seats near the Forest end. It was a pretty dull 0-0 draw, and I remember thinking how small Wembley seemed. I expected it, from the fish-eye lens perspective of TV cameras to be ridiculously huge. I remember thinking Stamford Bridge to be smaller than I had imagined on my first visit, too.

Anyway, there you have it. In 1978, my dear mother attended a League Cup Final at Wembley.

Thirty-seven years later, I was too. Of course, our two most recent League Cup wins were in Cardiff. In fact, our sole Wembley win in the competition was back in 1998 versus ‘Boro. Our other win – one of only four major trophies that our club had won in its first ninety-two years – was a two-legged final in 1965.

I fancied a little time to myself, so left the other drinkers, and walked to Marylebone. It really was a crisp and sunny day, but with a wicked swirling wind.

I was soon alighting at Wembley Stadium at around 2.45pm. There was a quiet calm. To be honest, the walkways around the stadium seemed eerily silent. Maybe the old Chelsea adage of “one last pint” was in full effect. This game, incredibly, would be our thirteenth game at the new Wembley.

I had managed to source a ticket from a mate for another mate who was travelling down from Glasgow, but arranging to meet both parties at 3.30pm meant that I was caught up in a major melee to enter the block K turnstiles. Frustrations were running high; sadly, I missed the kick-off by a couple of minutes. I took my seat alongside nine friends.

Daryl, Neil, Alan, Gary, Parky, PD, Walnuts, Milo, Simon, Chris.

We were in the very last row of the upper tier above the corner flag where Frank Lampard did his spontaneous homage to his father after scoring against Everton in 2009. We stood the entire game.

Chelsea in all blue.

The scale of the new Wembley is quite staggering, especially from our lofty perch. The side stands go on for ever. I spotted a few Chelsea flags draped on the balcony walls, but very few Tottenham ones. Although I hated the defeat to them in the 2008 final, my worst memory of that day was the fact that Chelsea were heavily out sung by them. I did not want a repeat. In all honesty, I thought both sets of fans were rather quiet, especially in the first-half.

The big surprise was the appearance of Kurt Zouma in a midfield role alongside Ramires. Petr Cech in goal. A midfield three of Cesc, Eden and Willian. There were few chances in the first-half. Chelsea had a few headers which did not cause Spurs too much anxiety. After a run by Kane, the undoubted danger man, a free-kick was rewarded to Spurs outside our box. A hard strike by Eriksen thumped against Cech’s bar. Hazard shot wide. Our play seemed to be a little unadventurous at times, with most of our chances coming from set plays. I thought John Terry had a magnificent first-half, with Willian buzzing around tirelessly. Dave, too, was solid. With half-time approaching, I looked across at the huge upper tier opposite; I could hardly believe that so many fans – and they were mainly our fans – had vacated their sets with still a few minutes left. Why would they choose a pie, a pee, or a pint over watching a Chelsea Cup Final?

On forty-five minutes, a lofted ball by Terry was sent over to Ivanovic, but Chadli fouled our right-back. The resultant free-kick by Willian seemed to ghost past several Spurs defenders before eventually being deflected back to John Terry. To be honest, I was watching all of this through my camera lens, so details are scant. I did, however, see the net bulge and I did hear the resulting roar.

I did not react. I don’t think I will ever react to a Chelsea goal at Wembley as calmly as I did at around 4.45pm on Sunday March 1st. 2015. I think that the events of the previous three days had taken their toll. Sure, I had encouraged the team on with shouts of support during the first-half, but I did not feel the need to “lose it” on this occasion. I simply took a few photographs of John Terry – so glad it was him – running away towards a Tottenham corner and being mobbed by his comrades.

Phew.

There were a few lovely smiles towards me from the chaps.

Just after, unbelievably, we had a great chance to double our lead. Cahill rose to head low, but Loris reacted superbly and clung on to the ball.

At half-time, I had time to explain to a few of the lads why I was wearing my “Chelsea The Blues” scarf, which last saw the light of day on a rainy day in Moscow. After my very first game at Stamford Bridge in 1974, while I was talking to my father outside the West Stand, my mother – on the quiet, quite unannounced – shot off to buy me this scarf from one of the blue wooden huts which teetered at the top of the bank of steps leading down to street level. It has stayed with me for the past forty-one years. It is in remarkably good condition. Now, I’m not a wearer of club colours, but I chose to wear it in Stockholm – definitely a lucky charm – in 1998 and then again in 2008. Wearing it in 2015 was a simple choice.

With noise levels noticeably higher in the second-half, we went from strength to strength. A surprising overhead kick from the otherwise quiet Fabregas tested Loris and we were clearly the better team. A neat move found Costa advancing on Kyle Walker and as he shimmied past his man, I confidently blurted out –

“He’ll never score from there.”

He did. His powerful shot miraculously ended-up in the net (it was a mystery to me at the time how it evaded Loris) and the strangers to my right were hugging me and laughing at my comment. Now I could celebrate a little more. This felt great. I snapped as Costa ran to the corner. The noise boomed around Wembley. More lovely smiles from the lads.

The heavens opened and the rain poured down. The wind seemed to be blowing it towards the Tottenham fans, and many in their lower tier hid for cover. The first few red seats were starting to appear. Two good chances from Hazard and Fabregas came close. We were rampant. The noise increased. A lovely rendition of “Born Is The King” swept around the western terraces. Although I had been too subdued to sing along to many of the Chelsea standards, I knew I had to join in with that one. I commented continually to Simon; I was able to relax and enjoy – if that is the right word – the last thirty minutes, twenty minutes, ten minutes, five minutes. A fine defensive performance was highlighted by a couple of wonderfully-timed blocks by Cahill and Terry. The kid Zouma was fantastic. We simply gave them nothing. Our end was awash with royal blue flags. The minutes ticked by.

At the final whistle, there was a smile from myself to my mother and a kiss of her scarf.

The boys came over, one by one, to hug me.

In Munich there were tears of joy.

There were no tears at Wembley. There had been little moments of silence, of quietness, of tears, throughout the day, but at Wembley I was just happy that the team had won. A defeat, after the past few days, would have been awful.

We did it.

Simon took a photograph of me and the scarf. It was a very special moment. I looked behind me and spotted that the Wembley arch had turned blue. As the cup was presented and as the players joyfully cavorted in a time-honoured Chelsea tradition dating back to May 1997, I was calm. There were the usual Chelsea songs at the end of the celebrations; I quietly whispered the words of “Blue Is The Colour” and a few of the boys were dancing to another favourite. As always, we were some of the last to leave. As we began the descent, our hymn from 1997 boomed out.

“The only place to be every other Saturday is strolling down the Fulham Road.”

What lovely memories of one of the best Chelsea weekends ever. The words washed over me, and I sang along. However, I held back in order to hear a few words. I was waiting for one specific line, delivered by Suggs with a subtle key-change…

“Now even heaven is blue today.”

I kissed my scarf again.

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Dedicated to the memory of my little Mum, who gave me so much and expected so little in return. In my heart forever. 

Esmé Amy Axon : 3 January 1930 to 26 February 2015.

Tales From Life.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 11 February 2015.

As the minutes ticked by, late in the game, my thoughts splintered along two different paths. One thought encompassed the fact that Manchester City, winning by a large margin at Stoke City, would now only be five points behind us. Our inability to convert chances to goals against Everton would result in an entertaining but fruitless 0-0 draw. From a position of power, there would be an unwelcome intrusion of doubt, now, in our ability to stay at the top of the table. The other thought, more fanciful, with diminishing strength with each passing minute, would be that Chelsea would, somehow, manage to strike a late winner, and maintain that healthy and possibly insurmountable seven point lead over our newest title rivals.

The clock kept advancing; the time moved on, the night grew older.

With only four minutes remaining, a thunderous strike from Nemanja Matic took the slightest of deflections off Branislav Ivanovic. The ball flew hard into the net. Stamford Bridge erupted and our salvation was complete. As the stands roared with noise, I captured the run of Ivanovic towards the corner flag below. The powerful defender had scored another huge goal. The stadium was rocking. We were back to a seven point gap. Then, a look of concern on his face – captured through my lens – forced me to glimpse up and across towards the lone linesman on the far side.

A raised flag. Bollocks.

We slumped in our seats.

The five point gap came back in to my thoughts.

Soon after, another errant challenge by Gareth Barry – a player that is so boring that I am amazed he has never played for Arsenal – resulted in a long-overdue second yellow of the night. Everton were down to ten men, but I was pragmatic enough to realise that the likely result of this would be even more resourceful defending from the Everton back-line, rather than an advantage to us.

Five points.

The free-kick which resulted from the Barry challenge on Willian was pumped into the Everton box. It was cleared by a defender, but only reached as far as Willian, in space and unmarked. With little time for any other option, he swiped at the ball, endeavouring to keep the ball low. Through a crowded penalty area, taking the slightest of deflections, the ball flashed past Tim Howard and into the net.

I screamed. We all screamed. The noise was louder than ever. With camera raised, I snapped. I could feel the whole upper tier bouncing and vibrating beneath me. It is the reason these photographs are occasionally blurred.

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Willian – that was surely something.

The gap was back to seven.

Photographs completed, I simply turned to Alan and our faces were full of wild joy. I looked to my right and a fellow fan was leaning towards me, arms out, screaming. I reciprocated. I looked over at Joe, a few seats away, past Alan. Joe is around eighty-five and his face was a picture. He too was stood, arms out-stretched, looking straight towards me. We just looked at each other, our faces and our bodies were mirror-images of each other. Wide smiles but arms wider. It was a fantastic and magical moment.

Chelsea smiles everywhere.

Seven points.

Despite my thoughts about our lead being reduced to just five points, this had been a very enjoyable game of football. Sure, our team missed the clinical finishing of Diego Costa, but elsewhere there had been an awful lot to admire. I kept saying to PD that I simply could not fault a single player. Everyone had been excellent. Rather than get too troubled with the lack of goals, I had simply admired the play of all eleven on the pitch and, regardless of the end result, knew that I had witnessed a fine team performance.

However, I am positive that my perspective on the evening’s football in SW6 had been greatly affected by the events of the previous few days. Let me explain.

On the day of the Aston Villa match, with Parky and myself set to travel to Birmingham for a long-awaited away game after three home games on the trot, my dear mother was admitted to hospital in Bath. Saturday afternoon and Saturday evening was spent worrying about my mother’s health rather than getting too wrapped up in events at Villa Park. I was in the Accident & Emergency Department of the Royal United Hospital in Bath when Eden Hazard opened our scoring on Saturday and I was in Parky’s front room when Villa equalised and when Brana gave us the lead. A win at Villa Park was welcomed, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I was able to visit my mother later on Saturday evening and was relieved to hear – and see – that she was responding well to a course of antibiotics, while both nurses and doctors calmed me with positive news. Mum continued her rehabilitation on Sunday. What a relief.

On Monday, however, another twist.

After work in Chippenham, I drove over to visit my mother in hospital. As I drove past Bath race course, then down the steep and narrow Lansdowne Lane, I was relishing to see my mother’s smiling face once more. Just after 4pm, I noted that traffic was halted ahead of me. I waited. I saw a couple of cars reverse and head through a housing estate. The road was obviously blocked ahead of me. I followed suit, but just happened to glance past where a bus had stopped. I was saddened to see a young chap, plainly distressed and agitated, pacing the road and talking on his mobile phone. Then, a horrific sight. I saw a woman, lying on her side, amid debris. Sadly, I also saw a rug or blanket seemingly covering a body completely. My heart sank. I looked up and saw another person on the phone, in tears. As I slowly drove to the hospital, police cars and ambulances flew past. My head was spinning. An accident – maybe involving the bus – had only just happened. I immediately remembered that I had stopped off, for around five minutes, in Chippenham for a sandwich wrap, some crisps and a drink. I had been annoyed at the length of the queue in the shop. Looking back, those five minutes might have saved my life. After visiting my mother – more improvement, more smiles – I listened to the radio on the drive through Bath and the breaking news was that four people – four! – had been killed when a tipper truck careered out of control down Lansdowne Lane.

I was numb. I needed to talk to someone, so I ‘phoned a work colleague.

Five minutes.

I slept uneasily on Monday night.

My mother continued to improve on Tuesday. On Wednesday, I was required to meet a doctor around midday, so I booked a half-day of holiday. The doctor confirmed that Mum had experienced a mild bout of pneumonia, but was well on the road to recovery, with a discharge likely to happen by the weekend. What relief.

I drove to Parky’s, met up with Young Jake for his first game of the season, then we all piled in to PD’s Chuckle Bus as he drove to London. It was time for me to relax. It had been a tough few days. I slept for an hour; I guess I needed it.

We were in the pub by 4.30pm.

“And relax.”

And it was a relaxing time in The Goose. Friends showed concern for my mother, but also for me, following the road traffic accident. It was lovely to see my mate Orlin, just in from his home in San Francisco, and en route to his home city of Sofia before dropping in to Paris on his way home again next week. Orlin is a member of the UEFA away scheme and our paths often cross in a variety of exotic locations; Tokyo, Istanbul, Turin, Bucharest.

And Fulham.

There were, typically, moments of roaring laughter, but also moments of quiet contemplation.

A friend – The Youth  – spoke earnestly with me and with great understanding about aging parents, dementia and care. It was good to talk with someone who can relate to my circumstances; he lost his father only recently. At times of need, my Chelsea Family are always there for me, rain or shine, just like we are always there for the team.

The simple fact should never be forgotten.

On this day, more than others, I was able to stand back and take a wide-angled look at life, football, the whole 110 yards. In The Goose, among friends, I liked what I saw.

As an aside, I was reminded of that ridiculous statement, claimed as an original by Bill Shankly, but possibly purloined from a US football coach, about football being more important than life or death. Although I understand the underlying message, it is of course, utter nonsense.

Life, death, football, in that order.

Inside the stadium, I think Alan was surprised to see me. In the circumstances, a half day holiday worked just fine. Sadly, one of our match-going friends, Tom, isn’t so well and there was concerned conversations among a few of our near neighbours. Warm wishes go to him.

Everton had brought around two thousand; around a thousand had been returned. Their season has been a strange one; one of promise unfulfilled. The 6-3 game at Goodison in the warm August sun was a crazy game of football. There would be no repeat on a cold night in February.

It was a fine game of football, however. New signing Juan Cuadrado, wearing Carlo’s old number 23 shirt, started alongside Willian and Eden Hazard in midfield, with Loic Remy up top. Matic was paired with Ramires. Mourinho elected to chop and change his defenders again; in came Zouma, out went Cahill. Between the sticks, in came Petr Cech. I was glad to see Mourinho rotating slightly. Over the course of the whole season, nothing can replicate game-time for our squad members.

I liked the way that our midfield three ran at Everton in the first-half, often changing positions along the line. The Tottenham loanee Aaron Lennon was roundly booed. We peppered the Everton goal early on, but Petr Cech did well to save from Lukaku. A crunching tackle by Kurt Zouma on the returning Romelu Lukaku, down in front of me, was simply wonderful theatre. I was thrilled by the dominating presence of Nemanja Matic, who patrolled the middle of the park in a regal fashion, breaking up play, tackling, then turning and opening up the Everton defence with clever passes and strong dribbles. Cuadrado looked sharp. We just needed a goal. Remy and Terry went close, but the game remained without goals at the break.

At half-time, Frank Sinclair walked the pitch and it was time for Alan’s sublime and irresistible impression of Frank Sinclair’s mother :

“My bwoy Franklyn.”

In the concourse, I bumped into another mate from the west coast of America; Pete, once of San Francisco, now in Seattle and the proud father, at the age of forty-eight, for the first time. It was lovely to see him again.

In the second-half, more pressure from Chelsea, with Hazard and Willian in devilish form, spinning away from markers, causing panic everywhere. Tim Howard was enjoying a brilliant game, thwarting many of our strikes on goal. Off the pitch, the noise was encouraging without being too loud. Everton were quiet.

With Chelsea on top by quite a margin, it came as a blow to the stomach to see a cross from the Everton left pick out an unmarked Lukaku inside the Chelsea six-yard box. Here was an Everton goal surely?

Miraculously he missed. To be exact, miraculously Petr Cech saved.

It was a stunning block.

With twenty minutes to go, Remy and Cuadrado – both had played well – were replaced by Didier Drogba and Cesc Fabregas. Everton rang the changes too. Substitute Mirallas went close.

With four minutes to go, the game came alive.

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Tales From On And Off The Pitch.

Chelsea vs. Manchester City : 31 January 2015.

I was in my own little spell of Chelsea Mania. The trip to SW6 for the long-awaited appearance of Manchester City would be my fourth visit to Stamford Bridge within just eight days. In addition to the three Chelsea home games, encompassing FA Cup, League Cup and League, there was also the Chelsea Pitch Owners AGM on the Friday.

I don’t always attend these meetings; in fact, the sad truth is that, until the tumultuous events of autumn 2011, I had not bothered too much with the CPO. However, following the club’s toxic handling of the attempted buy-out, I have eagerly awaited any news emanating from the CPO. Other shareholders, I am sure, have felt the same. It certainly galvanised the shareholders and caused all of us to re-focus our thoughts on Stamford Bridge. I attended the EGM in 2011 and also the AGM in 2012, when feelings were still feverish, but did not attend any others. Why did I bother this year? I was keen to hear if there had been any substantial updates on the rumoured expansion plans of the stadium and also to see how the CPO was faring in general terms.

Around one hundred and twenty shareholders, to my reckoning, attended the meeting in the plush surroundings of the Hollins Suite on the third floor of the West Stand. The meeting lasted just over an hour-and-a-half. To be honest, it was all relatively quiet and calm, with few moments of heated discussion. Dan Levine – journalist, Chelsea supporter and CPO shareholder – had requested to be allowed to post immediate updates from the meeting via Twitter and this was put to the vote. It was carried.

It was announced that one of the company’s biggest objectives was to nullify the impact of the over-selling of approximately 1,500 new shares in the period leading up to the football club’s attempted buyout in 2011; that figure will be reached within the next two months.

Questions were asked from the floor regarding the plans to increase the capacity of Stamford Bridge. The CPO board confirmed that there had been no communication whatsoever between the football club and the CPO regarding this. So, no news on that score, unfortunately. I think that many in the room were hoping for progress on this, but alas not.

However, there had been consultation between the local council and 120 interested parties – stakeholders – including the CPO, regarding plans to upgrade the immediate area around the Stamford Bridge site. I, for one, was intrigued by this, since it shows a level of intent by the Hammersmith & Fulham council to develop the relationship between themselves and the football club. It hasn’t always been so. Any positive communication, of which this is a clear example, is to be lauded. It shows a desire by the council to work with Chelsea Football Club. Questions were asked about the size and scope of this possible improvement in the “streetscape” around Stamford Bridge, but very little detail was given. A brief mention of the planting of trees, benches and possible pedestrianized areas whetted my appetite (maybe it evoked memories of an urban geography course I took at college) but elsewhere such talking points were dismissed as being rather boring and not worthy of further elaboration. It was mentioned that Rick Glanvill – club historian and CPO shareholder – was counselled on a possible colour scheme for the area, and I had visions of Rick flicking through a book of pantone references, but there was little other detail. I was keen to ask about the geographical limits of this potential upgrade to the Stamford Bridge streetscape (I presumed it would stretch from the area outside the tube station along the Fulham Road to the railway bridge), but the moment soon passed and the discussion moved on.

There were questions about the selling of new shares, which carries on at a reasonable pace. The board reminded us that they took the decision to set up a “pay as you go” payment plan for those unable to lay out £100 in one hit. This was news to me, and a few others to be honest, but which was well received within the meeting. I raised the issue of overseas supporters and wondered if there had been a change in the geographical profile of new shareholders, since a desire to grow the share base around the world was mentioned at the 2012 AGM. I was pleased to hear that there had been an increase in supporters outside the UK buying new shares and I was keen to point out that, due to the vast size of our global support, this should be encouraged.

It was a good meeting and it was lovely to see a few familiar faces present. It still gives me great comfort to know that I am one of the 19,000 or so landlords of Stamford Bridge.

Chairman Steve Frankham’s statement can be found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/cpo-news/chairman_s-agm-statement.html

Details on how to buy shares are found here :

http://www.chelseafc.com/fans/chelsea-pitch-owners/buy-cpo-shares.html

It is worth noting that as I left Stamford Bridge after the meeting, I was approached by a tout who was asking after spare tickets for Saturday’s game.

Yep. This was going to be a big one alright.

It was my turn, once again, to drive to London. I travelled with Glenn and Parky. At Membury Services, just to the east of Swindon, we stopped at a Starbucks and Glenn spotted an old school mate – a Sheffield Wednesday fan – who was headed to their game at Reading with his wife. I remembered him from way back too, though I haven’t seen him around town for years. There was a time when Sheffield Wednesday was, briefly, one of our biggest rivals. The 1983-1984 Football League Division Two season has been detailed here before, but another mention will do no harm. In that wonderful campaign, six of English football’s big hitters found themselves in the second tier; Chelsea, Newcastle United, Manchester City, Leeds United, Derby County and Sheffield Wednesday. Although Leeds United’s promotion challenge, along with pre-season favourites Derby County, soon withered away, the other four battled for the top three places throughout the season. In the end, it was Manchester City who just missed out.

I wonder whatever happened to them.

During the next campaign, in addition to two feisty league games with Sheffield Wednesday, there were the classic three game set in the League Cup too. What a host of fantastic memories from thirty years ago. A trip to Hillsborough is long overdue.

Before hitting The Goose, we paid a quick visit to another Chelsea pub, a hundred yards further along the North End Road, The Old Oak. The place was rammed with Chelsea “of a certain generation” and we spotted a few mates. One day I’ll make sure I visit every single one of the many pubs which surround Stamford Bridge, although not in one day, unless Parky is buying.

We reached The Goose at around 3.30pm. A few of the lads had been “on it” since midday. The place was heaving. There were a few City fans dotted around. I was told that a few of them even had a little sing-song at the front of the pub. This is a very rare occurrence in The Goose. There was no trouble, though. In fact, their presence was probably the reason for a little spell of singing, which again is a rare event in The Goose.

There was no talk of Frank Lampard during the time I spent – ninety minutes – in the pub.

I reached the seats just as the teams entered the pitch. Again, the club had chosen to dim the lights in the same style as against Liverpool the previous Tuesday. Additionally, the four huge flags denoting out four European trophies hung proudly from the balcony of the MHU.

It was a lovely sight.

Forced to make changes, with no Fabregas and no Diego Costa, Mourinho chose Zouma ahead of Cahill and Remy ahead of Drogba.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Ramires – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Remy.

There were four young’uns on the bench; Christensen, Loftus-Cheek, Ake, Brown.

The home crowd continued on in the same fashion from Tuesday against Liverpool, with greater noise levels than usual. Soon into the game, the MHL produced an x-rated ditty aimed at a Sky pundit who may not be allowed back to these parts ever again –

“Frankie Lampard – Your Cousin’s  A C**t.”

Although City brought a full three thousand, they were pretty quiet. I only remember one song of note –

“Champions of England, we know what we are.”

We countered with –

“Champions of Europe, you’ll never sing that.”

This was entry-level banter and it never really got any better.

It was a rather tight first-half with chances at a premium. City probably had the best chances. Fernandinho shot wide, then Courtois was called in to action to save from Sergio Aguero. A John Terry error allowed Aguero a strike on goal, but the dangerous striker – always a threat in these games –  screwed wide. Elsewhere, there was passing and possession from both sides, but little penetration. A sublime tackle by Zouma on Aguero was given God-like status.

This boy looks good and – boy – we’ll let him know it.

With five minutes of the first-half to go, a fine deep cross from right to left by Ivanovic found Eden Hazard, who had stealth fully crept behind his marker. His first time cross was met by the unmarked Remy who slotted in from inside the six yard box.

Chelsea 1 Manchester City 0

Alan tee’d me up.

“Come On My Little Diamonds.”

There was an immediate thought of an eight point gap.

Ridiculously, we allowed City right back in to the game just before the break. City were allowed too much space down our right and Courtois, usually so trustworthy in the air, jumped but failed to stop a cross. The ball fell to Aguero who slammed the ball in and Silva dabbed past the stranded Courtois and the two Chelsea defenders standing on the posts.

Ugh.

If City had edged the first-half, they completely dominated the first part of the second period. City dominated possession and we constantly reshaped to soak up their probing. I was impressed with Ramires, ably closing down space and nibbling away at City attackers. Matic, too, was impressive. In contrast, this wasn’t one of John Terry’s best games. Alongside him, Zouma continued to shine.

With Chelsea starting to enjoy a little more possession, I spotted a familiar figure on the far touchline. Frank Lampard, track suit off, in City sky blue, stood next to his new manager Pellegrini.

Ugh.

Here we go, then.

He replaced Fernando.

Initially, I detected boos but these were soon drowned out by warm applause. No name calling – no “Super Frank” – like we experienced at City in the autumn, but just a growing number of Chelsea fans showing their pleasure in seeing an old friend by simply clapping. That this clapping soon morphed into a “Chelsea” chant was perfect. I was proud of my fellow fans. Well done.

I’ll be honest; I spent an inordinate proportion of my time during the remainder of the game keeping an eye on Frank.

My worry was obvious.

“Just put someone on Lampard” I whispered to Alan.

“Two if necessary.”

This was genuine concern amidst our nervous humour.

Please Frank – don’t score.

Mourinho rang the changes and on came Drogba, Cahill and Loftus-Cheek.

We kept them at bay. On at least one occasion, Frank gave the ball away.

“Good boy.”

With five minutes still to play, a few fans left. I was speechless. Not only were they missing the most crucial part of the game, they were also missing out on the chance to say thank you and farewell to one of our finest ever players.

“…mmm…maybe you were the ones booing. Best you leave, then.”

One last period of City pressure was repelled and the final whistle was met with relief all around me.

Phew.

Our first dropped points at home this season and a pretty dour performance. We shouldn’t complain, though. Robbed of two of his key players, this was typical Mourinho.

I watched as the players shook each other’s hands and there were embraces between others. All eyes were on Frank Lampard. He walked alone from The Shed towards us in the Matthew Harding. He clapped us and we reciprocated. No boos, no silliness.

I don’t know the intricacies of Frank’s departure from Chelsea, or the exact detail of his employment at New York City or his temporary deployment at Manchester City.

All I know is that at the away game in September and at the home game in February, on his long walk to say goodbye, there were no smiles from Frank.

He was sombre. He was alone with his thoughts.

He simply looked gutted – on both occasions – that it had to be like this.

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Tales From Two Hours Of Noise.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 27 January 2015.

In the middle of our lengthy and, so far successful, league campaign came a hiatus of eight days in which Chelsea Football Club were set to play three cup games. Some European leagues shut down for a winter break at this time of the year; we just got down and dirty with games against Liverpool and Bradford City in our two domestic cup competitions.

The game at Anfield was a strange one for me. I set off a little later than planned, but just after catching wind of a large traffic snarl-up on the M6. There was also a looming threat of snow in the north-west. I was forced to divert, south of Birmingham, and take some minor roads through Kidderminster, Bridgenorth and Telford. We experienced some snowfall, and at just after 5pm, still miles from the M6, I decided to head home. Parky and I re-traced our steps and ended up watching the semi-final first leg in a pub in Tewkesbury, surrounded by squealing Liverpool supporters. My friend Tim, who is from the same neck of the woods and had set off thirty minutes before me and who advised on the detour, missed the kick-off. It is likely that we would have missed the entire first-half had we decided to plough on. It would be the first game in over forty years that I have missed in such circumstances. Games have been postponed once I have set off– I can think of four or five – but this is the first one in over one thousand where I was forced to return back with a ticket in my pocket. Well, apart from one occasion – another Anfield game, this time in 2002 – when car trouble caused me to head home after just a few miles. On that occasion, I have to give full credit to Liverpool Football Club, who were more than helpful in allowing a mate of mine to attend in my place using a faxed copy of my match ticket.

After the Bradford City game, maybe I would have preferred to have missed that one, too.

All of this came after our barnstorming win in the league at Swansea when we annihilated our opponents in a footballing masterclass.

January 2015 was turning into a soap opera all of its own for Chelsea.

After the Bradford City defeat – yes, it seems strange typing these words – it was like being back at school in the early ‘eighties, when school friends would habitually seek me out after yet another demoralising defeat against Wigan, Watford, Rotherham or Shrewsbury. At work on Monday, for once everyone wanted to talk to me about football. I wondered where they had been since August.

To be honest, there was something quite liberating about the whole experience. It enabled me to put things into perspective and – vitally – it helped me appreciate the game against Liverpool even more.

This was going to be – I was absolutely bloody sure of it – a night to remember. I was just so happy that we only had to wait a few days for the manager, players and supporters to form one unbreakable unit against the visiting hordes from Merseyside. This, I hoped, would be a night for the ages. I was convinced that the Chelsea support would want to show our love for the team by cheering the team on to another Wembley final. I wasn’t sure how Jose Mourinho’s recent bombast which ridiculed the Chelsea support would affect the noise levels. I just hoped that the manager’s game plan for the rest of the season would show better focus and reasoning than the frankly embarrassing outbursts in which he ridiculed us. If the noise levels against Liverpool proved to reach the predicted high levels, I was not sure that Jose Mourinho should get any credit. The team would need our support regardless of our manager’s recent comments.

PD had collected LP en route to Chippenham and they picked me up at just after 3.30pm.

As we pulled out of the pub car park, “The Story Of The Blues” by The Mighty Wah! was playing on PD’s CD player.

We drove up to London as night fell.

The illuminated signs above the M4 guided us in.

Lucozade.

Audi.

Mercedes.

EMC2.

We reached the pub at around 6pm. Time for a couple of pints and a few laughs.

On the walk to Stamford Bridge, I stopped to take a few photographs of the bustling crowds heading in to the stadium. Blurred bodies in dark coats rushed by. I spotted a grafter selling red and blue half-and-half scarves and snapped. As others rushed past, he looked straight at my camera. The expression on his face suggested a variety of emotions.

“Ah, you’ve got me. Fair play. I know these are crap. Embarrassing. But I’ve got to make a living somehow, haven’t I? It’s knock-off T-shirts outside Wembley Arena and the O2 on Sunday and Monday, and these bloody scarves at football tonight. They sell, mate. They sell. Kerching.  A fiver each. Who wants one?”

I was inside a darkened Stamford Bridge with a few minutes to spare. The main floodlights were dimmed, leaving just the perimeter lights and those on the balcony walls to produce any illumination.

Blur’s “Park Life” was played.

The lights stayed dimmed. There was an ethereal quality to the scene in front of me. I took my camera and trotted to the rear of the MHU and took a few panoramic shots as the two teams entered the vibrant green of the arena. Gradually the main floodlights grew stronger.

The crowd was invigorated and roared.

As I re-joined Alan and PD, I soon realised that The Shed looked different. The 4,100 away fans were housed in the entire lower tier, as I expected, but were also occupying the west half of the upper rather than the east. There were around two thousand Chelsea fans, including the displaced Parky, in the area usually occupied by away fans. It looked odd. There were a few Liverpool flags draped over the balcony wall.

The team?

Courtois –Luis, JT, Zouma, Ivanovic – Matic, Cesc – Hazard, Oscar, Willian – Diego Costa.

From the very first kick of the ball, the home support was involved. It was beautiful. My prediction about the noise levels was proved correct. We rose to the challenge. The tickets were only £25 and I got the distinct impression that there were more “proper” fans in attendance than usual for a midweek game. It was stirring stuff. Of course, there were the usual barbed songs and anthems throughout the night, plus a couple of new ones.

Liverpool : “Where’s your famous plastic flags?”

Chelsea : “Steven Gerrard, he lost you the league.”

Liverpool : “Diego Costa, the elephant man.”

If I am truthful, I think that Liverpool slightly edged the first forty-five minutes. The opening portion of the game was so tight, with possession split evenly. I was unsighted for the foul by Skrtel on a twisting and turning Diego Costa. Then two good Liverpool chances;  a searching ball by Gerrard found the raiding Moreno, but Thibaut saved, then our defence opened-up for the impressive Coutinho to race through, but our ‘keeper pulled off an even better save.

This was already a fine match.

And the home crowd roared on.

A couple of late chances fell to Oscar, but he misfired. Fabregas was playing deep, and hardly in the game. Willian was infuriating everyone with his tendency to continually cut inside, rather than sweep past his marker or pass to the advanced Ivanovic. Tensions always tend to be heightened during our recent tussles with Liverpool and there was an underlying sense of antagonism as the half developed. This was akin to our battles with another northern team, some forty years on.

Liverpool as the new Leeds, anyone?

At the break, no goals.

Fabregas, injured, was replaced by Ramires. The challenges kept crashing in. An altercation involving Skrtel and Costa again took place down below me though I was again unsure of the detail. Referee Oliver was surrounded by players and the noise continued.

We began to turn the screw.

Our talisman Hazard enjoyed a devastating run deep in to the Liverpool defence, twisting and turning, before unleashing a shot which screamed past Mignolet’s left post.

Chances for both teams, the pace relentless, the noise thunderous.

Then, sudden drama. The ball was slotted through, slightly ahead of Sterling, and Courtois was able to rush from his goal and save. Filipe Luis, playing well, was injured and replaced by Cesar Azpilicueta. A few chances to both sides did not bother either goalkeeper.

With away goals only counting after extra-time, the 1-1 result from Anfield meant that there would be extra time.

The two squads regrouped underneath the towering East Stand.

At times it looked like we were tiring. Eden Hazard, full of running, seemed to be totally exhausted one minute, only to embark on yet another spirited run at the Liverpool defenders the next. His spirit was magnificent.

We roared them on.

“And it’s super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC – we’re by far the greatest team the world has ever seen.”

The bookings had stacked up throughout the game and we were howling when Lucas – one of those booked – was allowed to remain on the pitch after a rash foul on Hazard. Willian took the resulting free-kick, in front of the away supporters, whose noise had dwindled as the night progressed, Jose please note. The ball was sent in to the six yard box with pace and precision. Amazingly unmarked, Ivanovic rose and planted the ball into the Liverpool net.

Yes.

The Bridge, no doubt nervous at times despite the noise, roared as one.

Chelsea  1 Liverpool 0.

Advantage – even more so – to us.

The noise enveloped Stamford Bridge further; it had to be one of the best atmospheres at Chelsea for ages.

Lovely.

There was still an air of tension, though; a Liverpool goal would almost certainly mean penalties. Nobody wanted that. Thankfully, despite yet more antagonism between players, and more bookings, Chelsea were able to dampen Liverpool’s scarce efforts on goal.

There was, thankfully, just one minute of added time on top of the 120 minutes.

The referee’s whistle was met by a punch to the sky from me.

Wembley.

Fantastic.

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Tales From A Shock To The System.

Chelsea vs. Bradford City : 24 January 2015.

After the Champions League group phase is completed in December, it always feels that the months of January and February are a relatively quiet period of the season before the games ramp up again later. However, this season does not fit this model, with our club active in all four trophies. Games are coming in rapid succession. Blink and you will miss them.

Sandwiched in between two games in the League Cup against Liverpool, came an F.A. Cup game against League One side Bradford City, who were making their first appearance in SW6 since the 2000-2001 Premiership campaign. The headline-making tie with Millwall was averted thanks to the Bantams’ fine 4-0 win in West Yorkshire and I – for one – was relieved. A Chelsea vs. Millwall cup tie might enthuse and excite a sizeable section of our fan base, but I was dreading such a tie, simply because there would undoubtedly be trouble – if not at the game, then in side streets and on train platforms – and the name of Chelsea Football Club would be besmirched once again. It just wouldn’t be worth the – pardon the pun – aggro.

Football hooliganism has played an integral role in the social history of our national game for decades. Although I – like many – get drawn almost subconsciously in to certain aspects of the subculture and I have always been intrigued by it, I have always remained an outsider, an observer, rather than wanting to actively participate in it. For ages, it was part of the game. Growing up as a child and then a teenager who attended games in the ‘seventies and ‘eighties, there was no denying its brutal attraction. I can remember sitting, in the relative security of the East Lower, and watching untold scenes of violence at games against Tottenham, Cardiff City and Millwall. The noise and intensity was mesmerising. At the time, it was all part of the football scene. With hindsight, my ambivalence to it was, looking back, quite disturbing. However, after I was punched in the face at a friendly against Bristol City in 1984, I suddenly became more wary of the threat of violence. Things got real. Thankfully, despite near misses at a few games since, I have avoided further encounters with opposing fans intent on causing me physical harm.

Many romanticise the ‘eighties, me included. The noise and passion at games could be mesmerizing. I miss parts of it. However, with hooliganism, came fences to separate rival factions, which added to the brutal landscape of football and almost inspired thuggish behaviour. In addition to grief from opposing fans there was also antagonism from police forces. The match going scene in the early ‘eighties was not for the feint hearted. Part of the away game experience was avoiding getting slapped. These days, I am glad that “trouble” tends not to rear its head too often. I love the noise, passion and tribalism of football, but I’ve never felt the need to hit someone simply because our football teams are playing each other.

So, there would be no Millwall Hoolie-Porn Fest this season. We last played them in 1995. This is fine with me.

I travelled up to London with a few mates and we decided to pop in to The Rylston, rather than head straight in to The Goose. It was quiet. You would never know that there was a game on. Apart from us five, there were no other Chelsea fans present. The Goose, only a five minute walk away, was however rammed with home supporters. In a quiet corner, we chatted about all sorts of football-related topics, though the game with Bradford was hardly mentioned. There was talk of Bristol City – them again – away in the cup in 1990, the brief Chelsea career of Paul Hughes – whatever happened to him? – a few minutes talking about non-league football, fellow Chelsea mates and all sorts of stuff. I was dismayed to see a paltry crowd at Ewood for the televised Blackburn Rovers vs. Swansea City match. The attendance seemed to be around 7,000. Here was awful proof that the FA Cup, despite the hyperventilating rhetoric of every media presenter touting the competition, was dying on its feet. There would be a full house at Stamford Bridge, boosted by six thousand away fans, but elsewhere gates continue to decline. In a climate where fourth place in the league is seen as a better prize, this is no surprise.

I may not hate modern football, but I do hate the way that the FA Cup has had its allure systematically tarnished in the past twenty years.

There was a time, maybe as recently as the ‘fifties, when the winning of the FA Cup was more prestigious than winning the league.

On the walk to the stadium, with the weather milder than I had expected, I spotted several people handing out fliers asking for spare tickets for the Chelsea vs. Manchester City game, with a telephone number brazenly advertised. This was taking touting to a new level. Obviously next Saturday’s game is a massive event – it will probably be this season’s defining moment, along with Parky eventually buying a round – but I have never seen touts so desperate for tickets that they would resort to this.

I always remember, back in the brief period when our capacity in a stadium being modernised was temporarily at the 34,000 mark, in early 1998, touts asking £120 for a ticket for a standard league game with Barnsley. I was staggered. The match day price at the time was around £25. Heaven knows how much tickets for the City game will sell for.

A few Bradford fans were spotted, their accents cutting in to the cosmopolitan London air. We rarely get Yorkshiremen and women along the Fulham Road these days; long gone from the top flight are any representation from either West or South Yorkshire. Our old foes Sheffield Wednesday last appeared in 2000, the universally-disliked Leeds United in 2004 and – most recently of all – Sheffield United in 2006. It is odd that Yorkshire’s only representative of late is Hull City, who are based in a city more known for its rugby league.

Inside Stamford Bridge, my focus was immediately drawn to The Shed.

There they were, six thousand strong. No balloons, but many amber and yellow bar scarves, and several flags.

I was in my seat just before kick-off.

Jose Mourinho had certainly rung the changes.

Petr Cech.

Andreas Christensen.

Gary Cahill.

Kurt Zouma.

Cesar Azpilicueta.

Jon Obi Mikel.

Ramires.

Loic Remy.

Oscar.

Mohamed Salah.

Didier Drogba.

As soon as the match began, the Bradford City contingent copied the Watford fans in the preceding round by goading the home support :

“Mourinho’s right. Your fans are shite.”

All of these Mourinho comments about our – admittedly – lack lustre support is very odd. I wish I understood, completely, why he has chosen to do this.

The match began and the first action of any note took place down below us in the goalmouth at the Matthew Harding end. A Bradford corner was met by a fine header from Andrew Davies, but Petr Cech reacted superbly, swatting the ball away for a corner. It was a simply incredible reflex save. We stood to applaud that; magical stuff. We began to impose ourselves, and we took the lead when an Oscar corner was flicked home by Gary Cahill at the near post. I watched as Cahill raced, fist-pumping, away, obviously delighted to score. Gary has divided opinion of late; many fans want him dropped.

On the subsequent replay, both Alan and I responded with one word, spoken at exactly the same time.

“Zola-esque.”

Next, it was the turn of Didier Drogba to turn his marker and force a save from the Bradford ‘keeper. Didier’s inclusion was an odd one for me; poor Remy has hardly had a look in this season, so I would have like to see him spearhead our attack. Drogba generally laboured throughout the first-half. Elsewhere, we looked tired, with Mo Salah being singled out as the most disappointing. Here was a player who was simply trying too hard. He often chose to dribble when easier options were available. In truth, we were struggling. However, a firm Ramires tackle on the half-way line set up a fine flowing move with Salah, and our number seven scored with a shot which bounced in off the post.

We were up by two goals to nothing, but we hadn’t been convincing.

The away fans sang –

“Two nil, and you still don’t sing.”

Just before the break, a Bradford free-kick wasn’t cleared and journeyman striker Jon Stead composed himself well and fired high past the partially unsighted Cech. The away fans roared. Bradford had possibly deserved the goal. At the break, Neil Barnett walked the pitch with three heroes of yesteryear.

Ron Harris, Peter Bonetti, John Hollins.

Thankfully all of the home stands afforded fine responses as these three greats paraded past. I wondered why these fans had been so damned quiet during the actual match.

In an attempt to get a reaction for the formidable away following Neil chirped –

“The conquerors of Leeds…Chopper, Holly and The Cat.”

The Bradford fans, enjoying the moment, applauded heartily.

Growing up, these three players were the three highest-ever appearance makers at our club; only recently have John Terry (number three) and Frank Lampard (number four) breached this little group.

Soon into the second half, and after a flurry of Bradford corners, we were hanging on by the skin of our teeth. Shots and headers flashed in, but we held on. We had the occasional effort on goal, but both Alan and myself knew that Bradford were in with a chance. Our play seemed to be without flair and purpose, and there were clearly no leaders on the pitch. As the game continued, we went into our collective shell. The limited spirit withered away. Zouma was in the wars, but carried on, but Mikel was forced to be substituted after a clash of heads. In fact, Jose Mourinho made two changes with twenty minutes remaining…Willian for the poor Salah, Fabregas for the unlucky Mikel.

Our play took an immediate upturn, with a couple of chances testing Williams in the Bradford goal.

However, Bradford were still full of fight and running and vigour.

The ball was launched into our box and ex-Chelsea youth prospect Billy Knott forced a save from Cech. The rebound fell invitingly for Filipe Morais to belt home. Both players and fans celebrated wildly.

Ugh. The thought of a replay in West Yorkshire made me shudder.

“Filipe Morais…didn’t he play for us? There was a Nuno Morais, wasn’t there? Strange – no mention in the programme.”

Jose replaced Remy with Eden Hazard.

At last – AT LAST! – the home support rallied behind the team and the noise seemed to inspire our play, with Hazard full of energy.

Ridiculously, though, it was Bradford who kept attacking and kept stretching us. A well-worked move involving Stead allowed the ball to be tee’d up for Halliday to thump past Cech.

Oh shite.

The away end exploded. What a sight.

Things were now deadly serious. The mood changed and all around me, instead of passive support, the spectators were instantly nervous and vocal.

In an echo of past times of when Mourinho sent Robert Huth upfront at Anfield in 2005, Kurt Zouma was deployed alongside Drogba. Both, agonisingly, then wasted fantastic chances to spare our ignominy with an equaliser.

Sections of the home crowd were now incandescent with rage. A few songs of support urged us on.

A lifeline was handed to us when the referee signalled a massive seven minutes of extra time.

There was hope.

Yet it was Bradford who kept the pressure on us and Stead, again – the key to their attack – did well to set up Yeates to nonchalantly prod past the spread-eagled Cech.

Chelsea 2 Bradford City 4.

Hundreds left for the exits.

We were beaten.

We were well beaten.

I wondered if this FA Cup defeat was the biggest shock, at home, for decades.

I was numb.

Crystal Palace in 1976…Wigan in 1980…Oxford City in 1991…Millwall in 1995.

Ugh.

The reasons for this pitiful performance?

My own take is that Jose has been too loyal to the usual starting eleven for our league games. The fringe players simply haven’t had enough worthwhile playing time this season. Yes, we have a very busy schedule at the moment – four games in just twelve days – but I am not convinced such wholesale changes were needed for this game. The players used against Bradford were just too unfamiliar with each other’s style. With more exposure and match-day experience throughout the season, our play might have been more cohesive.

As for desire and hunger and fight, only the players can answer why these key elements were in such short supply.

As others silently left, I made sure that I clapped the players…both Chelsea and Bradford City, especially Bradford City, off the pitch. Down at The Shed, it looked like they were having the time of their lives.

As I walked back to the car, my thoughts were centered on two games within four days in January 1986, when we were turfed out of the two domestic cups, both at Stamford Bridge, by Liverpool and QPR. I traveled down from Stoke from both of them; Kerry Dixon was injured in the Sunday FA Cup game with Liverpool, and Eddie Niedzwiecki was injured in the Wednesday League Cup game with QPR. Neither player would be the same again. Those two crushing defeats still hurt to this day.

On Tuesday, I’m expecting all of us – manager, team, support – to ensure that 1986 is not repeated.

We travelled back to Wiltshire and Somerset in a state of shock. We had certainly witnessed one of the most almighty cup shocks of living memory. With a little gallows humours and a few ciders – for the others – we managed to survive.

As I dropped Parky off, I wound down the window, and paused.

“See you next Tuesday.”

The car jolted with laughter.

I watched “Match Of The Day” later…I must be a glutton for punishment…and people might find this odd, but I actually reveled in seeing the ecstatic expressions on the faces of the travelling Bradford fans as each of their goals were scored. It was just fantastic. Fans and players together, enjoying the moment, jumping up and down in joy, faces so happy, as one.

As it should be.

It reminded me of other times, when us Chelsea fans used to celebrate wildly, when success was hoped-for and not expected, when things were different.

Sigh.

Well done Bradford City.

An enemy of Leeds United is a friend of mine.

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Tales From The Liberty Stadium.

Swansea City vs. Chelsea : 17 January 2015.

As I slowly pulled away from the busy roundabout at the bottom of the hill, with the white steel supports of the Liberty Stadium roof still glowing from the floodlights beneath, and with thousands of home fans making their way back to their cars, Jose Mourinho was being interviewed on Radio Five Live, only a few hundreds of yards away. There are times when I wonder if Jose might suddenly lose his composure after being asked yet another clichéd and banal question by those in the media, but I am always impressed how he usually takes a pause, waits, and then simply answers the question truthfully and with ease.

On this occasion, Mourinho stated that the game against Swansea changed within the first minute of play; that goal caused the home team to instantly re-assess their game plan, but it also gave our players belief and self-confidence. And how true this was.  Imagine how easier each of our working days would be if we got the equivalent of a goal within the first five minutes of our shift, perhaps in the guise of an email of thanks from a manager, or some good news from a client who had previously made life difficult. With such a lift, everything would become easier and decisions would be made with a greater degree of trust in ourselves and others.

With a goal to the good, and less than a minute on the clock, our working day had begun perfectly.

I had left my home village at around 9am, but was met with snow and then sleet on the drive to collect Parky. The wintry weather reminded me of the occasion of our League Cup semi-final second leg against Swansea City in 2013, when the threat of snow and ice caused me to miss the game – the one featuring the ball boy incident, if anyone had forgotten – in case I ended-up being stranded in my car in darkest Wales. This would be our fourth League match at the Liberty Stadium; it hasn’t been the richest of hunting grounds. Previously there had been two draws and a narrow win.

It was an easy drive into South Wales. Although the Brecon Beacons to the north were dusted with snow, driving conditions were fine. I headed straight into Swansea, but didn’t stop. Rather than spend a couple of hours in a generic city centre hostelry drinking lager out of plastic pint glasses, we had decided to head on out to The Gower. Even though it was the middle of January, we were happy to head off out of the city and spend an hour or two on this peninsula of fine countryside and unspoilt beaches, maybe to do some reconnaissance for that moment when the FA give us an away trip to Swansea in August or May and when we could truly make use of the stunning scenery on offer.

When I was growing up, Wales was close-by. Living in the west of England, our local independent television station – HTV – had a sister station in Wales, and we would often get treated to television programmes in Welsh, perhaps when the TV aerial had managed to be dislodged by half-an-inch or so. We occasionally visited relatives in Llanelli. We holidayed in both South and North Wales – Tenby and Criccieth – and although I loved these coastal resorts, there was still an over-riding feeling that Wales was a dark and moody country. These trips were full of industrial landscapes, deep valleys, impenetrable accents and a subtle dislike by some natives of the English.

On the drive out to our end destination on the Gower – the little village of Port Eynon – I was reminded of another facet of Wales; it always seemed to be raining. The trees were coated in moss, lichen and ivy, the air was damp. I began to doubt the decision of heading further away from the city. However, the scenery was splendid and it reminded me fully of the New Forest in Hampshire. There were even wayward sheep and ponies just roaming the moors, unfettered by anything as organised and English as a hedge or a fence.

We spent an hour or so in The Ship at Port Eynon. I treated myself to a bowl of soup called Welsh Cawl – pronounced “Cow-ul” – and the Peronis went down well. I even meandered out to the beach in order to take a few photographs of the sand dunes and the broad bay. By the time I had returned, Parky had finished his last pint, and it was time to move. The match had hardly been mentioned.

The slow drive back in to the city was increasingly fraught as match-going traffic slowed everything down; eventually, I reached my usual parking place, but with only twenty minutes to spare.

The capacity of the Liberty Stadium is just over 20,000. Therefore, the rules of the Premiership dictate that we only received 2,000 tickets; the ruling is “10% or 3,000 – whichever is smaller.” I have been in the away scheme since 2006-2007, so thankfully I don’t need to go through the rigmarole of applying game-by-game on the club website, the constant inspection of loyalty points and the tedious checking of updates (to say nothing of the box office page crashing on occasion), which is a modern day hell for some fans. As recently as 2004-2005, all of this was much different. Fixtures for the forthcoming season were announced mid-June and it was my anointed task, among my match-going friends – all season ticket-holders – to send a letter off to Chelsea. After a week or so of the new fixtures being studied, mates sent me a list of away games and I simply wrote Chelsea a letter; it was as simple as that. I really can’t remember if many did the same; away games were not so much of a political hot potato in those days. Of course there was a clamour for some tickets, but not every game sold out. In these days of online booking, and immediate confirmation, I just find it odd, looking back, that we could apply for a ticket some nine months in advance. And that Eddie Barnett didn’t lose my letter.

However, I know one thing. I am truly thankful that in the summer of 2004, I applied, in a hand-written letter to the box office at Stamford Bridge, to ask for seven tickets for the Bolton Wanderers vs. Chelsea game on Saturday 30 April 2005.

I reached my seat – towards the rear of the lower tier – just before the game kicked-off.

I was in, alongside Alan and Gary, with around five seconds to spare.

Chelsea in all blue.

Petr in goal, Luis at left-back, Gary in…mmm, who else?

There was just time for me to talk through the team with Gary, when the ball broke after a little early home possession and Oscar was in on goal. I was begging him to curl one, away from the ‘keeper’s clawing leap, towards the right hand post. Instead, he whipped a shot past the ‘keeper into the other corner, and we were 1-0 up on around 45 seconds.

Parky suddenly appeared behind me, and there was much back-slapping, mayhem and mirth.

Rob Brydon : “They’ll have to come sat us now, boyo.”

Dylan Thomas : “Of course they always accuse the Welsh of using too many words, too much emotion, or perhaps too much sentiment, but at this moment in time, with my heart pounding and my body spinning in tumultuous jest, without any fear of contradiction, I can truly say to you – come on my little diamonds.”

Tidy.

“The shot seemed to go through the goalkeeper, Gal.”

Soon after, Sigurdsson came close with a fine shot which clipped our right-hand post. But it was then time for us to totally control the rest of the first-half. Willian and Oscar rifled shots at the Swansea goal, and we played the ball around the entire pitch with tons of confidence. On nineteen minutes, a beautiful move, tight on the edge of the Swansea “D”, eventually found the ridiculously unmarked Diego Costa.

I shrieked – “Gotta be a goal.”

It was.

We were now 2-0 up and were laughing.

There had been a fair bit of noise from both home and away fans until this point, but as our domination continued unabated, I sheepishly admitted to Alan “we seem to be safe here…unless we score four or five, I reckon our support will be crap.”

We were treated to the usual “WWYWYWS?” from the home fans in the side stand to our left. Alan reminded me that “WE WERE HERE” in late 1983 when we were happy enough for Swansea to pull our game with them forward a week or so in order for funds to be raised as there was a risk of Swansea going under.

Our breath-taking one touch football – I almost hesitate to use the much-derided phrase tiki-taka – was exceptional. Swansea just couldn’t get the ball from us. Costa shot over, Willian slammed a powerful shot against the post. Then, a suicidal back-pass was seized upon by Costa and he scored from an angle. Soon after, Costa provided Oscar with a goalscoring chance and our Brazilian rifled home.

3-0, then 4-0, bang bang.

To our merriment, one Swansea supporter had decided to dress in a Teletubby “onesie” – why? For the love of God, why? – and then left when his team were losing 0-3.

Who are these people and how are they allowed out in public without a carer?

Then Willian hit the woodwork a second time. Diego Costa was then set up by his partner in crime Fabregas, but he was forced too far wide to shoot and the chance petered out

Alan : “I ain’t seen so much domination since you lent me that dodgy DVD, Gal.”

At half-time, it could have been 7 or 8.

Of course, no surprises, we never lived up to our scintillating performance of the first forty-five minutes after the break. Fair play, though, to the home supporters – or at least the two thousand in that noisy section to our immediate left – who created a wall of noise in the first fifteen minutes of the second half. It irritated the away fans, but I had to tip my hat to them. They were losing 0-4 at home, but they were making a hell of a din.

“Gary Monk’s black and white army.”

Deep-down, very deep-down, I was almost jealous of them.

“Twenty years ago, that would have been us.”

Our support was OK, but if I am honest, it didn’t befit a team still going strong in all four competitions this season.

The changes were rung and the substitutes appeared. Eden Hazard and Oscar went close. A surging run from Hazard set up Branislav Ivanovic, who tee’d up an easy tap in for substitute Andre Schurrle.

Swansea City 0 Chelsea 5.

Another substitute Loic Remy fired in one last shot at the hapless Fabianski, but no more goals were forthcoming, despite the away fans clamouring for six.

It had been an enjoyable match – of course – but it was almost too easy. As we walked back to the car, the game was soon behind us. There would soon be bigger, tougher matches ahead.

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Tales From The Blue, The Black, The White.

Chelsea vs. Newcastle United : 10 January 2015.

There is something essentially timeless about a Chelsea vs. Newcastle United match at Stamford Bridge. Other opponents engender far greater passions and there are certainly deeper rivalries, but – for me, anyway – I always love it when it is the turn of the black and white hordes to descend upon SW6 from Ashington, Wallsend, Byker, Hexham, Gateshead, Gosforth, Jarrow and Hebburn. As I never tire of saying, my first ever game at Stamford Bridge – March 1974 – was against the Geordies, and that match, plus a few others, are always in my mind when we play them afresh each year. Before the trip to London, I did some investigating, using my 1,000 game plus spreadsheet – you didn’t think I had one, shame on you – and it became apparent that I have seen every single one of the past twenty-two league encounters at Stamford Bridge between the two teams. The game on Saturday 10 January would be game number twenty-three. From season 1986-1987 to this season, I’ve seen them all. All have been in the top flight, but there are a few yearly gaps, as both teams have “missed” each other by doing the unthinkable and getting relegated and playing in the second tier; most recently them in 2009-2010 and us in 1988-1989. However, in many seasons in the early ‘eighties, we were in the second division together, like bosom buddies. There is simply no escaping them. Newcastle United are always there.

They are, in fact, my second-most viewed team at Stamford Bridge. The current totals are –

  1. Liverpool – 38
  2. Newcastle United – 33
  3. Manchester United – 32
  4. Tottenham Hotspur – 32
  5. Arsenal – 29

Quick, someone get hold of Liverpool…they’re top of something.

I really admire one thing about Newcastle United; the simple fact that they have always showed up at Stamford Bridge in their first choice black and white kit.

Year after year, season after season.

To be honest, they have only beaten us twice in that run of league games…1986-1987 and 2011-2012…you might think they would try another kit, if only as some desperate measure to reverse their fortunes.

I travelled up to London with LP and PD. My pre-match was rather hectic. Firstly I passed on match tickets to a couple of friends and I then met up with Helena and Iain outside the Peter Osgood statue at just before 1pm. Helena was at the tail end of a fortnight-long visit to London from her home in Nashville, Tennessee, while Iain was visiting for the day from Glasgow. I had not met either before, but it had been suggested by one of my US Facebook pals that I meet up with Helena to give her a little pre-match tour. Helena had bumped into Iain at their local in Nashville while he was over in the US. One or two clicks on a Facebook page, and a meet-up was arranged. I was more than happy to hear that both were keen to join me back at The Goose…

“It’s only fifteen minutes away at the most, but the way a lot of Americans talk, it had might as well be in Neasden.”

As we walked up the North End Road, I mentioned a few snippets of Chelsea folklore. For me to get everything in, we would have needed to crawl to a snail’s pace, but I did my best. It was a busy Saturday lunchtime in SW6. Supporters were milling around, popping from bar to street to bookie, and there seemed to be more than the usual share of touts in attendance.

Inside The Goose, I think that the sight that greeted Helena took her aback; she had probably never seen so many Chelsea supporters in one pub before. And, my, it was bloody crowded. I fought my way to the bar, and it seemed to take an age to get served. Of course, in reality, a relatively small percentage of supporters were actually wearing Chelsea colours; it is something that we, as a club, tend not to do. Apart from PD, nobody in my little band of amigos ever wears a Chelsea shirt. Chelsea fans not wearing Chelsea shirts?  It must be one of the biggest head fucks which first time visitors to a Chelsea game are forever asked to deal with.

It seems to me that supporters from Adelaide, Bangkok, Chicago, Dubai and Everywhere apart from the UK tend to cover themselves head to foot in royal blue favours. One presumes that it helps to forge bonds in faraway places. Yet I personally stopped doing this when I was about sixteen, along with many others. I used to wear Chelsea shirts occasionally, maybe a retro one for a Cup Final, but hardly ever over the past fifteen years. Frequent visitors to this site will know how a sea change happened within football subculture in the late ‘seventies, and most of my generation still adhere to these principles.

Less is more.

While I had been roaming the streets of Fulham (head fuck number two – “Chelsea” is in Fulham), the rest of the boys had been diving head first into copious amounts of alcohol. It was time to ask Helena the all-important question :

“How did you become a Chelsea supporter?”

Well, I may have got the story a little wrong, but it seems that Helena had been a fan of football – not many of my US pals call it soccer, thank heavens – for a while and was wondering which team to support. Her then boyfriend favoured Arsenal, but that wasn’t a valid enough reason. After watching a few of our games, Helena plumped for us.

“So you chose Chelsea to piss-off your boyfriend. Excellent.”

“We’re not together anymore.”

“No. Obviously.”

There are a regular bunch who show up in Nashville to see our games early on Saturday morning each week. This is tremendous.

As soon as Parky heard that Iain was “fae Glasgow”, Iain had to quickly say that he supported “neither of them, just Chelsea.” There always seems to be an easy assumption that all Scottish Chelsea fans favour Rangers. This is simply not true. Helena was enjoying herself in the pub. I kept telling her that everywhere you looked in The Goose, you would see fans who go week in and week out, home and away, wherever. I think that this impressed her. She was keen to mark her attendance with a team photo.

A rose among thorns could never be more apt.

Daryl and I spoke, wistfully, about the two thumpings that we served to Newcastle in the year of 1980…4-0 in January and 6-0 in October. Daryl was at both, I was at the latter. We agreed that the last time Newcastle played with anything other than a black and white kit was the January game.

The memory of the October game still gives me goose-bumps.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wdHleV7I7pw

At 10.24, in about the fifth row of the East Lower, my blue and white bar scarf is just about visible.

“This first time football of Chelsea is a joy to watch.”

Last week, I mentioned a Gary Chivers goal…this was it.

Incidentally, listen to the noise of that buoyant home crowd…it makes me yearn even more for those days.

On the walk to the ground, more bloody touts. They had ventured even further out than normal and were looking to buy extras rather than just sell spares. This obviously suggested massive demand. As I have said before, even though our attendance is always around the 41,500 mark, we don’t always sell-out. There are usual empty seats here and there. On this occasion, a sell-out would be on the money.

All £2.5M of it.

Opposite the West Stand entrance, some graffiti honoured those murdered in Paris.

As I was lining up at the turnstiles, I flicked through the match programme and was very pleased to see a long feature on Hughie Gallacher, our star centre-forward, who bewitched and beguiled fans of both Chelsea and Newcastle United in the inter-war years. Those black and white photographs of Gallacher, who committed suicide in 1957, haunt me and fascinate me in equal measure. Gallacher, along with Lawton and Greaves, has achieved mystical and mythical status in my mind. He is a player that I am intrigued with. He is one of many superstars who were lured to The Bridge in that period; there always was an allure to Chelsea Football And Athletic Company, as it was then known, despite the fact that for fifty years we won nothing.

I might be talking nonsense here, but there might be a very strong case for Chelsea and Newcastle United to be the two teams in England with the biggest average home attendances up until the start of World War Two in 1939. I am positive that the Geordies constantly had the highest attendances until the Tottenham boom in the ‘fifties and then the Manchester United boom soon after. Maybe Arsenal might have threatened to be in that top two, but we would certainly be in the top three until 1939.

Maybe I’ll do some further investigating.

Whatever, it is very unlikely that fans of other teams, once we had secured our first piece of silverware in 1955, were ever presupposed to politely enquire :

“Where were you when you weren’t quite so good, old chap?”

Inside – yes – Stamford Bridge was full to bursting. Not so much a Toon Army this time though; as Daryl commented in the pub…”more like a platoon army.”

Not 3,000 this time – nearer 1,500.

And not one single flag. They don’t do flags, the Geordies. Not sure why.

We had heard that Courtois had injured his finger and so Petr Cech was recalled. A change in the middle of the defence too, with Gary Cahill rested and Kurt Zouma taking his place. Elsewhere, we fielded a team with familiar names. And yet it was the away team who carved out the best chances throughout a mundane, from our perspective, first-half. We had much of the ball, but found it difficult to prise open the Newcastle defence. Once we had the ball, our movement was poor. Even Diego Costa was found lacking.

“Move’em about” yelled Alan.

I thought of previous years and previous strikers. I remembered how Gianluca Vialli, especially, was a constant blur, with all of his selfless running, pulling defences out of shape.

And it was bloody quiet too. It was as if the quietness of the Watford game last Sunday had continued into this one.

On seventeen minutes, the away supporters remembered John and Liam, the two fans killed over the Ukraine as they traveled to Kuala Lumpur last summer to watch their team play. Alan, PD and I joined the applause for a few moments, but we were the only Chelsea fans in our section that did. In 2011, I traveled to Kuala Lumpur to see Chelsea, so their deaths certainly hit home. As Alan remarked :

“It could have been any of us.”

Remy Cabella was the main thorn in our side in that worrying first-half period, showing great endeavor and skill, raiding at will and prompting others with fine passes. Only a last-ditch clearance from John Terry stopped the visitors taking a deserved lead.

A Chelsea break, involving the relatively quiet Eden Hazard and Diego Costa petered out when our centre-forward elected to pass rather than fire on sight. The home crowd moaned.

A fine low shot from Cabella produced an equally fine save from Cech, who collapses on low shots so well for a tall man. Then, Sissoko slammed the ball against the upright. We were struggling. Amid the worry, an injured Azpilicueta was replaced by Filipe Luis.

Then, the game changed.

It was all a blur really.

A corner was conceded by Newcastle and Willian reacted incredibly quickly. With the defence half-asleep, the ball was quickly played in to the path of Ivanovic – that most forward of defenders – and he played the ball back for Oscar to thump home. Krul was at sixes, sevens, eights and nines and could only slam the ball into the roof of the net once he had realised what had happened behind his back. The Stamford Bridge crowd roared. But I knew the score; our lead was quite undeserved.

Wor Alan : “They’ll have to come at wo’now,like.”

Wor Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

In the last moment of the half, Krul made amends by saving well from a Willian free-kick.

We were leading, but it had been a poor half. I walked past Gal and heard him say three words which I thought would never pass his lips :

“We’re missing Mikel.”

Soon into the second-half, Coloccini – he of the David Luiz comparison – stopped a ball from entering the danger zone with his raised arm, but the referee waved play on. Maybe it was “ball to hand” but why was his arm raised so high if his intention was not to stop the ball?

Alan : “Who is the referee?”

Chris : “Roger East. Should be Roger North-East.”

We were driven on by the devilish skills of Eden Hazard and the tenacity of Diego Costa, and we stepped-up in the second period. It was a much more pleasing performance. On the hour, a delightful move right in front of me involving Hazard and Oscar, worked the ball in to the path of Diego Costa. He was afforded just a little too much space and he rolled the ball square. Time seemed to stand still, and he took an extra touch – just to be sure – before drilling the ball back across Krul into the corner.

The stadium jumped to life in adoration as our scorer ran, arms outspread, in an arc, with Willian joining his celebratory run, before he joined up with the rest of the Chelsea brothers in blue. I managed to stay as calm as I could and snapped this most joyous of moments.

Fantastic.

The game was, now, surely safe.

Newcastle rarely threatened, save for a speculative cross shot from Ameobi, which Cech turned over. As our dominance continued, Matic impressed with his typical shows of defensive prowess and tireless running. Young Zouma hardly put a foot wrong all game and there was something inately reassuring about his simple clearances and strong challenges. A mesmerizing run by Hazard set up Costa, who glided through the Newcastle defence, only for his goal-bound shot to be cleared. News came through that Manchester City had gone ahead, only for Everton to equalise soon after. Loic Remy, sadly underused thus far into his Chelsea career, replaced Costa and his one effort buzzed across the six-yard box.

It remained 2-0 and it was, no doubts, a well fought win.

However, on a day when our play in both halves was as different as black and white, we were to thank our brothers in blue to help us back on to the top of the standings, with no need for numeric or even alphabetic assistance.

It had been a fine day.

Next up – one of my favourite away trips at the moment.

Over the water to Wales. Tidy.

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Tidy.