Tales From The U.S. Capital.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 28 July 2015.

As I have mentioned previously, ten years ago I was in the US to see Chelsea play two of our three tour games that summer. This summer’s trip has a lot in common with that trip a decade ago. In 2005, I flew in and out of Charlotte and saw us play in Washington DC and New Jersey. This year, I flew in and out of Washington and see games in New Jersey, Charlotte and Washington DC.

Three locations are forever tied together in my personal history of following the boys over land and sea.

With two down and one to go on this tour, I left the clean, crisp and charming city of Charlotte at around 11am on the Sunday. I had breakfasted at a busy local restaurant with my good friend JR from Detroit and his family. I am still having gastronomic flashbacks and sugar rushes at the memory of the apple pancakes which I waded through. Another wonderful Chelsea road trip was ahead of me.

Charlotte to DC and another four hundred miles on the American road.

It was a perfect Sunday as we headed north-east. I ate up the miles in my…cough, cough…red Chevy. Oh the irony of driving around the US in the vehicular equivalent of a Manchester United shirt. JR and I chatted incessantly about all sorts on the long drive through North Carolina and Virginia. The time soon flew past. The first three hours seemed like thirty minutes. Others were travelling to DC by plane. Others by train. We were not the only ones travelling by automobile.

Around thirty minutes behind us, JR heard via our friend Janset that she was travelling up in a van with Paul Canoville, Mario Melchiot and a few more of Chelsea In America’s finest. JR also heard that the three from Iowa – Phil, Chris and Sam – were on the road too.

It seemed like a Chelsea edition of “Wacky Races”, but instead of Penelope Pitstop, the Anthill Mob and the Slag Brothers, this edition consisted of The Schmuckle Bus, The Cannersmobile 5000 and The Iowa Hot Rod – complete with blue smoke bombs. We later heard that Jeremy from Kansas was on the road too, but maybe he was taken out early in his Beardwagon by Dick Dastardly.

It is not known if Sergei and Dmitry from Badgercrack, Nebraska ever left the start line in their Facepaint Coupe.

The traffic began to slow, however. A trip that ought to have taken six hours eventually took eight. It was especially brutal north of Richmond on I-95. Thankfully a bottleneck cleared and the end was in sight. As we headed up over a gradual incline on I-395, a magnificent view greated me. Around three miles away stood the thin needle of the Washington Monument, the sun lighting up its west face, and with the white marble of the Lincoln Memorial to the west and the half-dome of the Capitol to the east. Down below us to the right was the monumental bulk of The Pentagon.

I was awestruck. It seemed that I had done all of my sightseeing in DC in a few seconds.

Within ten minutes we had arrived safely at our Hyatt Hotel just over the Potomac River from DC in Arlington, Virginia.

On the Sunday evening, Erin, JR and myself zipped in to DC for a bite to eat – my first burger of the trip – and then walked around the centrally located monuments of The Mall. Each one was floodlit and very photogenic. I took a few snaps, though only with my camera phone. I had neglected to pack my normal camera battery charger and was having a little OCD – obsessive Chelsea disorder – of my own. My number one task on the Monday would be to buy a new one. We had a lovely time, though. It brought back memories of my first time in DC, 1989, when I enjoyed a similar evening walking tour, which was provided free of charge by the youth hostel. There were also memories of that 2005 tour, with Roma, her two daughters and myself running through the sprinklers on those wide grass lawns to keep cool.

In 2015, the torrid summer heat of DC was fading quickly and it was a very enjoyable start to our time in DC. For the first time ever, I took an “Uber” to get back to our hotel.

Monday was another perfect day on this trip. I spent some time writing up “Charlotte” and then met up with Erin and JR again to visit the historic Ford’s Theatre, where President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in 1865. This was the number one sight on my list for DC. I have luckily visited most of the other main sites on my other two trips. I have been a keen Civil War enthusiast for over twenty years, and one of my most memorable days in the United States was spent at the stunning Gettysburg Battlefield in 2010. Obviously, Lincoln was the most famous protagonist of all in the seismic war which battled states against states, even families against families, and which almost ripped America apart. To witness the exact place where his life was sadly ended was another interesting and yet emotionally raw experience. The tour guide set up the scene amazingly well – with sensitive comments about the atmosphere and sensory feel of that evening – and explained with fine detail how events unfolded during the hours leading up to the fatal shot.

At the end, we walked over the road outside the theatre, whose large size surprised me, to the house which contained the parlour where Lincoln eventually died from his gunshot wound some seven hours later.

I had to double-take at the sign outside the house which forbade visitors to take in firearms.

Or maybe it was America being ironic.

I certainly didn’t appreciate a sizeable shop adjoined to the house, selling a vast array of Lincoln souvenirs, a mere five yards away from where he exhaled his last mortal breath.

I hot-tailed to Dupont Circle to buy my battery charger; I could relax.

On the Monday evening, I walked the mile or so up to the “Four Courts” pub which is where the local Chelsea supporters group in the DC area – “The Beltway Blues” – meet for matches. This was another long night. Just after I arrived at 7.30pm, Neil Barnet hosted another “Q & A” session with Bobby, Canners and Mario. I had heard most of the stories before, so sat in a quieter part of the large bar with JR and chatted with many other fans. It was another lovely evening, although not as manic as Charlotte. The usual suspects were present.

Andy kindly presented two “OC Hooligans” tour shirts for Parky and myself.

There was a photograph with Cath, Sambuca in hand.

Tim from Philly kindly gave me a few Yankee trading cards.

Photos with many good friends; some old, some very old, but some new.

I met up with Kathryn and Tim, good friends and two of the Beltway Blues, who I met on the bus taking us from Philly to Chester for the 2012 MLS All-Star Game.

I was impressed that Janset was wearing an original 1981-1982 shiny Le Coq Sportif shirt – one of my favourites – and I then gave her a crash course in the casual sub culture 1977 to date, which she really seemed to appreciate.

Many laughs, many smiles, many photographs.

But one thing was missing.

Talk about the game against Barcelona.

I definitely approved of this.

This simply mirrored what happens in my local, “The Goose” on the North End Road, on virtually all match days. As I have said before, Chelsea is what brings us together but the actual football takes up a surprisingly small amount of “talk time” on match days.

On my long and arduous drive down from West Virginia to Charlotte on the Friday, one town haunted me. As I set off early in the morning, a sign on I-81 said “Roanoke 202 miles.” For the next two hours I appeared to be driving in quicksand since the distances took forever to decrease.

“Roanoke 197 miles.”

“Roanoke 189 miles.”

“Roanoke 183 miles.”

“Roanoke 179 miles.”

“Roanoke 174 miles.”

Fackinell.

Well, late in the evening at “Four Courts” I met the chairman of the Roanoke Chelsea Supporters Club. Not only did this give me a wry smile, but it made me gasp. Roanoke is not a huge town – 97,000 according to my own personal information resource Akipedia – and yet it had its very own supporters group.

As the kids say these days –

“Mind. Blown.”

Two lads from London arrived late on the scene, just as the bar was calling last orders, and as I was thinking of heading back to the hotel. They had just come over for the one game on a quick “in and out mission.” We shared a couple of final beers. Then, Danny from Massachusetts and myself headed a few doors down for a gobsmackingly tasty Indian.

It was around 2.30am.

I needed to get back to the hotel.

In a slightly – only slightly of course – inebriated state I shuffled down Wilson Boulevard. I spotted a “7/11” and fancied a nightcap.

A beer?

A short?

Nope.

A “Reece’s Peanut Butter Ice Cream Cup.”

At 3am in Arlington, Virginia I was living the American dream.

I drifted off to sleep, dreaming of peanut butter, curried turnips, naan bread, Benetton rugby shirts and Torres’ goal against Barcelona in 2012.

On Game Day Number Three, I awoke with no hangover. This was a huge surprise. I am surprised that it didn’t make the papers. Rather than head back to “Four Courts”, a few of us were headed in to the city centre to meet my good friend Steve, who was travelling down to the evening’s game from his home in Philadelphia, but also Team Roma, which was already in DC, and taking a time out to show Super Shawn a few of the main tourist sites.

At around 12.45pm, I walked the short distance from Union Station to the Phoenix Park Hotel, where I met up with The Bobster and Steve. It was a pleasure to see Steve again, who I last met on a Friday afternoon in Manhattan last month as part of my baseball trip. In June we met at “McSorley’s” in the East Village, this time it was “The Dubliner” in DC.

Bizarrely, within minutes, three lads from home – two from Dorset, one from Scunthorpe – burst in to the bar and there were smiles all round. Even more strangely, I first met these chaps, and their oft-spotted “South Dorset Chelsea” Union Jack – out in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

Now, it seems, we can’t stop bumping in to each other.

Even more incredibly, JR – who was visiting the American History Museum with Erin – had just bumped into Roma, Vanessa and Shawn a mile or so away.

Chelsea world – I have said it before – is such a small world.

Before the others arrived, we enjoyed each other’s’ company. It was the first time all three of us had been together since Philly in 2012. Food was ordered, the beers flowed and we spoke about a wide range of topics, including the plans for the new stadium. Steve is yet to visit Stamford Bridge and we spoke, seriously, about concocting a robust yet devious plan to appease Steve’s wife Terry into allowing him a visit.

“Steve. You are an architect. That is reason alone.”

Roma, Vanessa and Shawn arrived at 4pm, clearly exhausted after walking around the city for a few hours. They sat and cooled off. It was lovely to see them again.

Outside, we had spotted many more Barcelona shirts than those of Chelsea. This was no surprise, since Barcelona can genuinely lay claim to be one of the big three global names alongside Real Madrid and Manchester United. Steve wondered if we are far away from their level. This was a question which I didn’t really answer, though I suppose we are undeniably one of the fastest rising stars of the modern football scene. I still, honestly, struggle to come to terms with our surge in popularity over the past ten years.

Others joined us. Rick and Beckie from Iowa. JR and Erin. Dennis and Dre from Seattle. The clans were gathering. Again, the game was hardly mentioned.

Roma met up with a family from her home town in Tennessee, who were in town for the game, but who were – gasp – Barcelona fans. Roma had coached the two young lads, resplendent in Barca shirts, in the local AYSO league. I explained that I was a Chelsea season ticket holder and, without thinking, soon said that I was “at Camp Nou in 2012.”

I then sheepishly admitted to Roma that this was not the most tactful of things to say. We all laughed though. And I think I laughed the longest.

They left to spend time together, and made their way independently to the stadium by car.

Despite warnings of lengthy travel times by car to Fed-Ex Field, which sits on the very edge of the DC conurbation in Maryland, the three of us booked an Uber car to take us to the game. We left at around 6.15pm. The game was to begin at 8pm. We envisaged reaching the stadium at 7pm.

For an hour and thirty minutes we sat with increasing tension as the driver – a cricket enthusiast from India – edged east. While we moaned about the traffic, the minutes ticked by. On the very last section – a mile or so out – we noticed many passengers leaving their drivers to battle on and walk the final distance. We counted the number of replica shirts. It was split something along the lines of 90% Barcelona / 10% Chelsea. Now, I know that the afore-mentioned casual subculture hasn’t really permeated into the US sporting psyche just yet, but even if some Chelsea fans were eschewing club colours, as is the tendency in SW6, this still represented an overwhelming bias in favour of Barcelona.

We wondered if the game would sell out the huge home of the Washington Redskins, which was once the largest in the National Football League. Ever since we heard that the magical skills of Lionel Messi would not be present, I personally thought that the attendance would suffer. As we edged ever closer, touts lined the approach roads offering tickets.

At 7.45pm, we arrived. There was still a ten minute walk – uphill, damn it – to the large and aesthetically messy stadium. On the final few hundred yards, we heard the national anthem from inside. The briefest of bag checks, and we were in. With ridiculous good fortune, we were inside in time for the kick-off. The stadium was not full, but I knew only too well how many were still outside in cars.

Due to my rushed arrival, I took a while to settle.

Again, the usual scan of the team, a scan to see if there were many friends close by, a scan of the setting and a scan of the replica shirts. It was easy to see that Barcelona greatly outnumbered us in the stadium, unless the Chelsea fans had followed the lead of Rick (Lacoste), Steve (Ralph Lauren), JR (Lacoste) and myself (Monclair).

The stadium was more or less as I remembered it from 2005 when we watched Chelsea beat DC United 2-1 with goals from Duff and Crespo in front of 25,000. It wasn’t a bad match to be fair, and we watched from the same eastern end behind the goal as in 2015. Ten years ago, I had driven to the game – no traffic – and had given a brief interview with a local TV station before the game, when the main question seemed to be about the perceived inadequacies of the local MLS team compared to the all-conquering visitors. When we went 1-0 down, I wondered if the interviewer was re-writing his script for his postgame analysis. I remember being scalded by a “soccer Mom” for knocking in to her when Duffer equalised. It emphasised to me how important it is to have segregation at football games. Sharing the same space with fans supporting opposing teams is always a problem, due mainly to the passions involved in our sport.

Chelsea in all white. I like that strip.

Barcelona in Catalan yellow and red stripes, with blue shorts and yellow socks.

The pitch seemed small and very close to the stands. Of course an NFL pitch is relatively narrow. It was not a stadium that I could easily like. It just appeared to be rather ugly, with executive boxes in the middle tiers, upper tiers sectioned off, brutal concrete everywhere. I bet that the Redskins will be building a new one before we know it. The new generation of NFL stadia seem a lot sleeker than this one.

So. Our team.

In goal was Thibaut, the hero of Charlotte.

In defence, Dave at left back, Kurt Zouma and Gary Cahill in the middle, Ivanovic on the right.

In the midfield two, Matic and Magic Hat.

In the three, Oscar, Hazard and…who? I didn’t recognise the chap. Ah, Kenedy.

Washington is as good a place as any for a chap called Kenedy to debut.

Up front, looking mean and menacing, Diego Costa.

Sadly, Roma, Vanessa and Shawn did not make the kick-off. I hoped they would soon be in. Again, as in Charlotte, and as in most US games, “our end” was full of supporters of the other team. I know that segregation is a prickly issue in America, but it can’t be hard to designate – say – one thousand Chelsea tickets to the Iowa Blues, the New York Blues, the North Texas Blues, the Beltway Blues, the Boston Blues, the Motor City Blues, the Roanoke Blues, the Badgercrack Blues et al, and then two thousand to other Chelsea fans fans to bolster that key segment of support. It was clear early on that the two main singing sections were too spread out, and with a horrible mix of Barcelona fans and “quieter” Chelsea fans too.

We began well I thought. An early Zouma header tested Ter Stegen. Matic seemed to impress straight away, winning tackles and prodding the ball intelligently. Although Messi and Neymar were missing, one familiar face and major irritant was playing.

Luis Suarez. I disliked you then and I dislike you now.

I wonder if the Suarez and Ivanovic subplot might continue.

A header from goal machine Mikel, a shot from Oscar. Barcelona were second best in the opening minutes. A magnificent run and dribble, leaving the entire Catalan nation in his wake, enabled Eden Hazard to dance in to the Barcelona box and calmly prod the ball low and into the goal.

Fantastic.

Barcelona countered, but our defence and Courtois especially were able to withstand any attempts on goal. Suarez was always a looming presence, though, and I like the look of Rakitic.A Chelsea free-kick taken by the involved Oscar rattled the bar. We were definitely on top.

Thankfully, Roma, Vanessa, and Shawn appeared alongside Bob and myself. The traffic had been awful. In addition to an ugly stadium, the Redskins also chose an ugly location for their new home.

Despite taking the lead, the Chelsea support in the area where we were based was at best piecemeal. We tried, but to be honest I soon gave up. My throat was still smarting from Charlotte. Every time a Chelsea song – and there was a nice variety – got going, it was drowned out by the annoying single grunt of “Barca!”

There were four FCB fans in front of me. There were two quiet Chelsea fans behind me. It was going to be an uphill struggle off the pitch.

The football was still of a good quality. Diego Costa should have scored after being set up by the neat Fabregas, but his shot was drilled wide. It seemed that Suarez was our main irritant, but Courtois did well to smother his few strikes on goal.

At half-time, we were happy.

Jose made two changes at the break with a Brazilian themed double substitution.

Wilian and Ramires for Oscar and Kenedy.

Soon into the second period, there was a repeat of my 2005 altercation, when a Barcelona fan and I had a few choice words. It was so pithy as to be unworthy of repeating.

I noted that I could see hardly any empty seats. Even the skyboxes appeared packed.

On the pitch, Diego came close, but then Suarez – why did it have to be him? – managed to lift the ball over the advancing Courtois. In a scene reminiscent of Anfield in 2005, the ball was hacked away by Zouma, but after the referee had already signalled a goal. Of course, all of the Chelsea had varying views of the incident. My view – over one hundred yards away – was perfect.

No goal.

1-1.

So…we then watched as Barcelona took over. And I got more and more irritated by the Barcelona fans around me. Having the enemy so close…breathing on me…might be OK in American sports, but it makes me feel uneasy. I’m no hooligan, but my tempers rose with each of their mocking chants.

We had to endure “BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA / BARCA / CHELSEA.”

I even found myself joining in, waving the white flag of surrender.

Ugh.

From behind me –

“Mourinho never beats Barca.”

A worry as Diego Costa appeared to be hurt. Please not his hamstring. He was substituted, and replaced by Falcao. On sixty-five minutes, Sandro – linked with us recently – stepped past Moses, who had been one of a flurry of substitutes from both teams on the hour – and curled a sublime shot past Courtois’ outstretched dive.

The stadium erupted, and the four Barcelona fans in front screamed.

“Count to ten Chris, count to ten.”

We somehow worked some chances. An acrobatic volley from Falcao is still in the air as I write, maybe over Florida by now. Ramires, taking a touch too many perhaps, shot well wide. The minutes ticked by. Moses did ever so well down in front of us, but his drilled centre evaded everyone. Our support rallied and we hoped for an equaliser.

The gate was announced as 79,000.

Bloody fantastic.

It could turn out to be our biggest attendance all season long.

Roma, bless her, was shrieking wildly throughout the second half.

“Let’s Go Chelsea” followed by that crazy smile.

With just five minutes remaining, Willian sent over a teasing centre, but the ball was knocked vertically. It seemed to take forever to come down, but a magnificently-timed leap by Gary Cahill met the ball before others could pounce. The ball looped – a la Ivanovic in Amsterdam – up and down before nestling inside the goal.

“YESYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

The joy was palpable. It was a friendly, but this meant so much.

Willian and Moses had a very late chance to win it, but inexcusably managed to jump for the same ball on the far post. A late Barcelona chance flew past the post.

2-2.

More penalties.

With perfect timing, Brian from Charlotte spotted me on his way out for a comfort break, and smiled as he said :

“Screw the penalties, let’s go to the pub.”

It was the line of the night.

So, the penalties at our end this time. Everyone stood. I varied my approach as I photographed each one.

Iniesta – Barcelona, goal – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 0-1.

Falcao – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Halilovic – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 1-1.

Moses – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 2-1.

Pique – Barcelona, miss – a photo of the TV screen behind me : 2-1.

Ramires – Chelsea, goal – a photo of the TV screen at the other end : 3-1.

Sandro – Barcelona, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 3-2.

Remy – Chelsea, goal – a photo of him through the crowd : 4-2.

We roared. Winning a friendly had never been this important.

Fantastic.

As Gill and Graeme, a few rows in front, almost exploded with joy, I too was pumped. My pleasure almost surprised me.

Only a friendly, right?

The post-match celebrations and presentations were over remarkably quickly. Thibaut was handed the man of the match trophy – a pint of Guinness and a packet of pork scratchings – and gave a rather embarrassed “thumbs up” to the camera.

The FCB fans had sloped off. I looked around to see if I could see some friends. Everyone was disappearing into the night, keen to leave by train and car.

Outside, I said my fond farewells to Roma, Vanessa and Shawn.

I slowly walked past the slowly-exiting cars, teetering down the shallow slope of the exit road. There seemed to be more Chelsea fans on the walk back to a local train station than I had expected. Maybe the Barcelona fans really had left quickly. At the station, a wait for a ticket, then a wait to board the train. The crowds reminded me of Munich. At least these ones were air-conditioned. I found myself talking to a Chelsea fan on the train, thus missing my stop. I alighted at the next one, which was conveniently located opposite “Four Courts” and unwittingly extended the night.

Here were all the usual suspects again, plus a couple of Chelsea fans from Toronto – Leigh-Anne and John – who had been hoping to see me all day. That I should bump into them in the last few seconds of the day – after extra-time and penalties if you like – was just perfect.

More beers, more photos, more laughs.

And then sadly, a few goodbyes.

A few of us popped next door for a kebab and one last beer.

Andy, Brad, Shaun, The Bobster, Leigh-Ann, John, little old me.

It was around 2am.

The last and final scene of this magnificent and memorable US Tour was being played out.

On Sunday, it’s back to England and back to London and back to Wembley.

And bloody Arsenal.

How boring.

IMG_1538

Tales From The Tar Heel State.

Chelsea vs. Paris St. Germain : 25 July 2015.

The very first time that I visited North Carolina, I was on a bicycle.

Let me explain.

After I left college in 1987, I wasn’t set on a clear career path, and my main desire in those days was to travel and experience different cultures. I had already criss-crossed Europe on several inter-rail marathons, but needed to expand my horizons. From May 1988 – relegation to the second division, ugh – until August 1989 I worked in the cold store of a local dairy in order to save several thousand pounds to head over to North America with my college mate Ian. We had a rough plan; east to west, ending up at my relatives in Vancouver in time for Christmas 1989. Travel would be by bus, train and bicycle. Yes, that’s correct; we planned to cycle our way around at least a part of the gargantuan continent. We had both cycled as kids, as teenagers, but I had not owned a bike since 1981 when I was sixteen.

What the hell. Cycling would be a cheap mode of transport, it would enable us to see proper America and proper Americans, and it would add a sense of adventure to our stay.

Our adventure in North America began in September 1989. We spent a week in New York, a few days in Washington DC, then bought our bicycles and our camping gear in Richmond, Virginia. After three days of cycling through that state, we crossed in to North Carolina just south of a state park in Clarkesville, where I remember cooking up some bacon and beans on our little camping stove, and sharing a joke with the resident park ranger when she explained how she came to learn that the word “fanny” in English is – ahem – slightly different to its American meaning.

We crossed the state line into North Carolina on route 15, and cycled over sixty miles through rolling countryside on small roads through little villages and towns such as Bullock, Oxford and Creedmoor, before staying the night in another state park, this time in the relatively unknown city of Raleigh.

After that, we headed further south, but our path was severely disrupted by the course of Hurricane Hugo which brought severe destruction and desolation when it hit land at Charleston, South Carolina. We were holed up in a cheap motel just off I-95 in a place called Dunn for two nights, and thankfully missed everything. After cycling further south to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina, we ended up cycling 120 miles in order to get through the disaster area.

Our cycling adventure was real. We laughed at the timing of all of it.

“We buy bikes on the Saturday. A week later, a bloody hurricane strikes.”

“What a couple of schmucks.”

However, it has to be said…it was an amazing few days.

Eventually, we ended up cycling around nine hundred miles down that Eastern seaboard of those historic and at times troubled South-Eastern states. We cycled through Georgia, then reached the promised land of Florida just north of Jacksonville. It had been a tough, but magnificent three weeks.

As an aside, and with typical irony, I only saw two Chelsea games in that 1989-1990 season – just before I left for NYC in September – and therefore missed our highest-placed finish since around 1971.

I wasn’t too bothered however. My first experience of the USA – and Mexico, and Canada – more than made up for that.

Almost twenty-six years later, I was again heading south to North Carolina.

After our surprising 4-2 loss to the New York Red Bulls on the Wednesday, I caught a New York Yankees game on the Thursday afternoon – an easy 9-3 win against the Baltimore Orioles – and then set off on my mammoth ten hour drive south to the city of Charlotte and our game against our new and seemingly bitter rivals Paris St. Germain. After five hours of driving through generally busy interstates, I stopped off at a hotel in Martinsburg, West Virginia. I then pushed on, heading south-west on the glorious interstate 81 which runs parallel with the Shenandoah Valley. The views were spectacular. This was a Chelsea road trip on another level. It was slightly longer than my drive from North Carolina to Chicago in 2006 for our game against the MLS All-Stars, which topped out at around 630 miles. I did that in one session though.

This one, from Yankee Stadium, New York to Charlotte, North Carolina would be 660 miles.

Ah, the American road. For those who know me, my love of driving is clear, even on the jam-packed and bottle-necked roads of England. If there is a Chelsea match at the end of it, even better.

As I pulled off I-81 and then headed due south in to North Carolina – “hello again” – it wasn’t long before we descended down from an Appalachian ridge down into the North Carolina piedmont on I-77. The vista, looking out over thousands of acres of greenery, was stunning.

Oh happy days.

Unfortunately, my original planned arrival time in to Charlotte of around 1pm never materialised due to traffic problems leaving New York City, several delays en route, and then further congestion to the north of Charlotte, with its city centre skyscrapers tantalisingly in view.

At around 5pm, I pulled up outside my friend and fellow Chelsea fan Brian’s gorgeous house a few miles to the south of the city centre.

I had arrived.

Phew.

Brian and I go back a few years; maybe a decade. He was, in fact, one of the first – if not the very first – US based Chelsea fan that I ever emailed. As soon as it was announced that our beloved team would be playing in his home city, Brian wasted no time in inviting me to stay with him and his family for a couple of days.

Fantastic.

I met Brian’s wife Jenny, their three lovely children – all Chelsea, all going to the match – and his good friend Leo, who I had met in previous tours. Perhaps I just needed someone to talk to after being alone in my car since 8.30am (please do not tell Parky that I missed him…) that I soon wasted no time in talking about all sorts of football, Chelsea and sport-related subjects. In their huge kitchen, I gabbled away manically like some sort of fool, as I ironed a shirt to wear for the evening’s pre-game activities.

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

We soon headed in to the city through indescribably picturesque tree-lined streets, and within ten minutes, were being deposited right outside the little park which links the city centre proper and the city’s two sport stadia. The sun was glinting off the towering skyscrapers, the weather was hot, but not unbearable. It was perfect. I was buzzing yet again.

Chelsea were in town.

In the same way that I knew virtually nothing of the city of Raleigh in the autumn of 1989, I am ashamed to say that I knew little of the city of Charlotte as this summer tour approached this year. I had visited its large airport twice before, in 2004 and 2006 on visits to see my friend Roma and her family in the mountains of North Carolina to the west, but Charlotte itself was virgin territory. I mentioned to Brian and Leo that, to be truthful, Charlotte is an almost unknown American city to us over in England. I was stunned to read that it is the ninth most populous city in the US. And yet, I would suggest, people in England would be hard-pressed to say which state it is in, let alone tell of its history and character. It would be a major disappointment on this trip that I would only be in town for three days.

During the hour or so that we spent chatting in the kitchen, I was reminded that the big college rivalry within North Carolina, despite being in the football-obsessed south-east, is in the sport of college basketball. Brian smiled when I explained that I have owned, in the past, a couple of items in support of the University of North Carolina Tar Heels. Their rivalry with the despised Duke is intense.

Elsewhere in Charlotte, the NFL Panthers – a relatively new franchise – and the NBA Hornets – now returned after exile in New Orleans – battle for affection. There is also a soccer (there, I said it) team called Charlotte Independence which competes at the sub MLS level.

As we walked to the little knot of pubs and bars opposite Romare Bearden Park, Charlotte looked just perfect.

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

From around 7pm to midnight, and beyond, the small courtyard which hosted several bars, became increasingly full of Chelsea supporters from various parts of the United States, plus a few of us from England.

Songs, beer, handshakes, laughter, smiles, piss-taking…fun.

The Bayou City Blues from Houston and their charismatic leader Jesus.

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

A little group from Jacksonville, Florida; kind enough to give me one of their very stylish chapter scarves.

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

Charles from Texas, so thrilled at meeting Paul Canoville for the first time.

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

The beers were flowing. It was superb. This night was rivalling Baltimore in 2009 for the best Chelsea piss-up in the US. I dotted in and out of the packed bars, taking photographs, chatting away. It was lovely to receive a few words of genuine appreciation from many folk who I had never met who thanked me for my efforts in posting my thoughts on this website.

I was touched.

[Parky’s voice from three thousand miles away : “who by, you fucker?”]

I darted off for a pizza, and sat outside chatting with Steve from New Orleans, Robert from London and Neil Barnet. Brian and Leo called by. Chelsea talk dominated.

I dropped back over to the bar area around 1pm but people had drifted away. There were just a few left. I caught a $10 cab and headed home.

Out on the porch, until 4am, Brian, Leo, Leo’s brother Vince and I chatted away.

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

I slept well, from 4am to 11am, and amazingly woke without the merest hint of a hangover.

Due to the fact that I needed to keep on top of these match reports – and with three games against Arsenal, Fiorentina and Swansea City coming up in rapid succession on my return home – I spent a while writing up “New Jersey.”

It was early afternoon on game day. While others decided what Chelsea shirts to wear, I reverted to type. Brian smiled.

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

Brian’s parents, with his father wearing a Chelsea away shirt from 2004-2005, a fine vintage, arrived and we set off in two cars for the local train station. On the short ride in to town – how English – the train compartment comprised of around fifteen Chelsea supporters and two PSG. This ratio was a good pointer for the rest of the day.

At around 4pm, we reappeared at the scene of devastation the previous evening. There had been reports of a little altercation earlier in the day. There had been a blue-smoked flare let off. The local police were in evidence. I again met up with the usual suspects. The notable arrivals were the New York Blues, unchained for a weekend on the loopy juice.

Mike, Frank, Lawson, Eliot, Julian – top lads one and all.

As I had a long drive ahead of me on the Sunday, my “intention” was to keep it light.

A couple of cans of “Blue Moon” later, I wasn’t so sure.

One special group of Chelsea supporters arrived at around 4.30pm.

Roma, her daughter Vanessa, hair dyed Chelsea blue especially, her son Super Shawn, plus Ness’ new boyfriend Dave and their friend Justin – who I remember as a three year old in 2004 – had driven in from their homes on the Tennessee and North Carolina border.

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

We waited for JR’s mother – her first Chelsea game – to arrive and then walked over to the stadium, the corporately-named Bank Of America Stadium, which is a typical NFL structure, with two tiers, and little charm.

Outside the main entrance, two statues of snarling panthers about to pounce, were the only feature which seemed to worthy of note. It was a modern and efficient stadium, but oh so bland. Thankfully the new Stamford Bridge, God-willing, will set new standards in design.

In Roman Abramovich – and his architectural design team – we trust.

As game time approached, the heat was still intense. I took respite in the dark and cavernous concourse. I walked past a merchandise store and it was unbelievably manic. Both Chelsea and PSG goods were on sale. The lines at the tills were ridiculously long. Maybe I would buy a tour T-shirt in DC. Not today. Too busy. All around me, folk in Chelsea shirts darted past me. Further evidence yet again of how our global reach has touched so many.

Again, to go back.

When I travelled up to Pittsburgh with Roma and Vanessa and a few others in 2004 – and when I printed up seven “North Carolina Blues On Tour” T-shirts, the Chelsea section was no more than 150. The gate in Pittsburgh was no more than 15,000, despite more tickets being sold, hence the 25,317 official figure. This game would be around the 60,000 mark.

Stunning.

To see so many Americans wearing Chelsea shirts blew my mind.

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

In to the stadium and the team were going through their drills. However, as often happens, my focus was 180 degrees opposite and I observed the massed ranks of the Chelsea fans behind me. My camera clicked. I was sat just behind Bobby Tambling and his wife Val. Fantastic.

It was clear that there were many more Chelsea fans than those of PSG. There appeared not to be any specific PSG section. We were in Block 122, right behind the goal, with the New York Blues. Other supporters groups were behind me and to my left. There then seemed to be a general level – general sale, not Chelsea only – in 121, before some recognisable faces appeared in 120. This was Chelsea central then. If there were – what? – 50,000 folk favouring Chelsea in the sky-blue stadium of the Carolina Panthers, the hard core behind the goal numbered a couple of thousand.

But this is not black and white, nor even blue and white. For example, right in front of Bobby Tambling were two chaps wearing Arsenal jerseys, and one of them had “Fabregas” on the back.

Work that out.

In the stadium, other English jerseys were spotted, notably – and with no surprise – Liverpool, Arsenal, Manchester United and Manchester City. In this sky blue state, the colours of the Panthers and the Tar Heels, maybe Brian will see an upturn in City shirts.

Even in our Chelsea section, there were sporadic shouts of “PSG” during the game. More of that later.

The teams walked out on to the pitch several minutes later than intended. The US national anthem was played, people stood, caps were removed. I am not one for the bluster of nationhood, but even I joined in.

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

Roma and Shawn had witnessed the Chelsea and PSG game at The Bridge in March. Who would have possibly thought that we would be all here together in Charlotte only four months later? Shawn, still sporting his David Luiz locks, is one lucky boy.

Jose fielded a very strong team, though Asmir Begovic was selected ahead of Thibaut. In came Matic, in came Hazard,in came Diego.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Milel, Matic – Moses, Fabregas, Hazard – Diego Costa.

All eyes were on David Luiz – once a hero, now a figure of fun, but sadly booed by many in our ranks in the first-half – and also the talismanic Ibrahimovic.

Chelsea began reasonably well, but as the first-half progressed, PSG tended to enjoy more of the ball. We began probing from out wide, but a lack of quality in to the box was present. PSG, however, looked a more rounded outfit.

The Chelsea support, in pockets, rather all together, was trying their best.

After about ten minutes, with things quiet, I struck.

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

(I always try and do eight…I was counting them up…ugh…keep going son…I was smiling towards the end)

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

Twenty-five minutes in, Mikel sadly lost possession and Augustin snapped a fierce shot against Begovic’s right post, but to our dismay the ball rebounded to the feet of Ibrahimovic, who slammed the ball into a virtually empty net.

That hurt.

There were – bizarrely – cheers from within the Chelsea sections. I cannot explain that.

America…over to you.

Right from the offset, everything about this game seemed to be much more important and relevant than our game on Wednesday. These were two massive clubs, with a recent history of animosity.

This one counted.

Diego Costa crashed a shot against the woodwork, but our chances fell away.

Sadly, PSG continued to dominate as the first half continued on. The rest of the half will be remembered for three stunning saves – all different – from Begovic. He received resounding applause from us as he walked away at the break.

At half-time, a beer, and a cool down in the concourse.

The noise thus far had been patchy. I hoped for greater things from both players and supporters alike in the second-half. At least we would be attacking our end.

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

There had been strong challenges throughout the first-half and this continued as this tale of two cities continued. After Cesc Fabregas took too many touches, dallied and saw his shot blocked, Vanessa – who thinks Cesc is gorgeous – remarked –

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

For a few moments, we were treated to the “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” chant.

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

The NYBs continued to sing a huge variety of songs, but with not many people confident enough to join them..

I sang “We Are Blue, We Are White, We Are Fackin’ Dynamite” to a sea of blank faces. For an odd few moments, there was an odd game of pinball between the two factions of support in the stadia, initiated by the other three stands I hasten to add.

“CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG / CHELSEA / PSG.”

A little similar to the “UNITED / SHIT / UNITED / SHIT” chant of old.

With Chelsea getting back in to the game, Fabregas picked out the movement of Victor Moses, who volleyed home from close range. There was a massive roar – GET IN! – and who says these pre-season games do not count. Victor’s somersault was spectacular. We bathed in his glory. It was magnificent.

Radamel Falcao was introduced to the proceedings and the roar was heartfelt. Chelsea grew in confidence and chased the winner. Willian, Oscar and Cuadrado entered the fray. A shot from fellow sub Loic Remy was pushed away. We roared them on. Sadly, amongst all this, the wave wrapped itself around the stadium for a few minutes.

Sigh.

This was excellent stuff, with the Chelsea fans around me full of smiles and encouragement. A few half chances were all we had to cheer, however. The last meaningful action of the game was a fine save up the other end from Courtois.

At least we didn’t lose.

Then, to all of our amazement, it was announced that there would be penalties, in a strange hark-back to the NASL days when no game ended in a tie.

“Damn, let’s take a draw and head back to the boozer” I thought.

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

I watched, calmly, and photographed the ensuing drama through my camera lens. I watched some penalties on the huge HD TV screen behind the goal.

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

Thankfully, that man Thibaut saved twice from Baheback and then, during sudden death, against Thiago Silva. Before we had time to think, we saw the tall figure, head to toe in 1987 jade, place the ball on the spot and smash the ball high into the goal.

GET FUCKING IN.

Oh boy, such a bizarre feeling, but one which was heartfelt.

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

I sadly lost contact with Team Roma; they had to shoot off to their homes as they had to work in the morning. I slowly walked back past the post-game crowds. I was alone with my thoughts.

Rather tired, rather exhausted, my throat hurting after those rasping “Zed zeds” but supremely happy with my lot.

I bought another can of “Blue Moon” and waited for friends to arrive. I spotted Bob, then JR. The atmosphere was lovely. Charlotte had been very good to us. Then, out of nowhere, three lads from the Chelsea Fans Channel – one of whom I had met in New York on Tuesday – enticed JR and myself for a few opinions on our performance.

Here we go :

https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=vqCX3E4Tbcw&app=desktop

As soon as we had finished, I commented to JR “I called us schmucks. I never use that word.”

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

“Not used that expression for years. Maybe not since Hurricane Hugo.”

We returned back to a lovely restaurant under the towering central skyscrapers for a good old Carolina BBQ.

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

IMG_1308

Tales From New Jersey.

New York Red Bulls vs. Chelsea : 22 July 2015.

Ah, the passage of time.

Ten summers ago, I was lucky enough to travel to the United States of America to watch two out of three Chelsea tour matches when we travelled as league champions for the first time in fifty years. I attended a match in the capital city of Washington against DC United and then at the Meadowlands in New Jersey against Milan. In 2015, I was repeating myself; a return trip to the nation’s capital and another game at the Redskins’ Fedex Field and then another game in New Jersey, this time at the purpose built home of the New York Red Bulls of the MLS. There would also be a third game in Charlotte, North Carolina. And again, we would be returning to North America as English Champions.

So, here was a great chance to compare the two trips, and to note how both the global spread of Chelsea Football Club has impacted upon another continent, but to also check on how the football scene in the US has changed over the ensuing decade. It would be a trip that will bring me face to face with many good friends, but also face to face with football’s steady rise in a once barren football nation.

Season 2015-2016, I guess, would begin in the little-known town of Harrison, New Jersey, across the Hudson River and the towering skyscrapers of Manhattan.

“Let’s go to woik.”

Most of my summers away from the constant beat of football – or at least Chelsea – follow the same pattern. After following the team extensively during the previous nine months, I usually feel exhausted and in need of a break. The summer of 2015 was certainly no different. As 2014-2015 closed, felt myself shutting-off. I needed to re-charge those batteries.

However, I was in no doubt that the upcoming US Tour, with matches against New York Red Bulls, Paris St. Germain and Barcelona, plus the fun of meeting a few good Chelsea mates, would be the kick-start that I would need.

And yet this tells only half the story.

In my closing words from the last game of season 2014-2015, I mentioned that it had been the least enjoyable of the four league championships that I had witnessed. I don’t really want to go over old ground, but in the circumstances I feel it is appropriate. There are probably several reasons for the melancholy which greeted title number five, but two are paramount. After our win against Bayern Munich in the European Cup Final of 2012, I sagely suspected that any success which followed would not reach those same heights of emotion and satisfaction. And although the lovely journey towards our fifth league championship was often exciting and entertaining, the deciding win against Crystal Palace was slightly anticlimactic.

Also, of course – and most importantly of all – in the closing months of last season, I sadly lost my mother after a short but yet distressing illness. In the period immediately after this devastating loss, football seemed at times irrelevant – and silly, banal and ridiculous – and yet at times it acted as the force which kept me sane. It was, undoubtedly, a strange and confusing time.

For both of these reasons, and more, it felt like I almost sleepwalked through the months of March, April and May.

Without being too melodramatic, season 2015-2016 represents a new challenge for me.

Of course I am genuinely intrigued to see how the new season will pan out, not only in terms of the team’s success – which, worryingly, seems assured in some optimistic quarters of our support – but also how I react to having a different set of circumstances under which I find myself supporting the club. Will my support for the club step up a few notches, will it remain constant, or will it begin to decline, with an almost imperceptible inevitability? If I am honest, I have felt that I have reached some sort of plateau of support over the past few seasons. I guess that is a pretty high plateau. I have averaged around fifty games over the past ten campaigns and it is unlikely that I will be able to maintain that level of support – some would call it addiction or obsession, rather than simple support – over the ensuing decade. But I’m not sure. This is why I find this season rather intriguing.

All of these thought, plus many more, formed a backdrop as I prepared mind, body and soul for yet another season supporting the team of royal blue on the Fulham Road.

After landing at Dulles International Airport at 3.30pm on Monday 20 July, my latest American adventure began. I picked up a hire car and soon found myself heading north. How I love the American road. The weather was perfect, the scenery magnificent. I zipped over an iconic iron bridge over the Potomac River; I was buzzing.

I was headed for my friends’ house in Flemington New Jersey. I have known Stacey since 1989. I first met her husband Bill in 2001. They kindly invited me to stay the first night with them. After five hours of driving, I eventually reached their fantastic house at around 10.30pm. The last time that I had seen them was at Gettysburg when I visited that wonderful and historic Civil War site with my dear mother in 2010. As we chatted – a bottle of Peroni never tasted better – I could not help think back on the few hours that my mother spent in their house five years ago. Lovely memories. The next morning after breakfast, we spoke about a few current issues occupying our minds, but – typically me – I managed to chat about football too. Stacey and Bill are no football fans, although Stacey accompanied me to our 1-1 draw with Milan in New Jersey in 2005 – but I enjoyed our conversation about how football has taken hold in an increasingly rapid fashion in the US in the time that I have been visiting.

During the previous evening, I had driven past the Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem, and I spoke to Stacey and Bill how that town used to house a US football powerhouse back in the ‘twenties called Bethlehem Steel. It was lovely that I drove past such an important town in the history of US football. The late David Wangerin penned an intriguing book called “Soccer In A Football World” which detailed the rise – and fall – and then rise again – of our sport in the United States. In the early twentieth century, everything was up for grabs, with various sports clamouring for national attention. For several reasons – some more nefarious than others – football missed its opportunity to stake a hold in the hearts and minds of the US nation. The other four major sports left football in their wake. It has taken a long time – via the boom and bust era of the NASL – for football to reach its current place in the hierarchy of US sports. The growth has been exponential in even the eleven years since my first Chelsea game in the US, the 3-0 win over Roma in Pittsburgh, when the Chelsea section was only around 150 in number.

The growth of the MLS – now with the fifth highest league attendances anywhere in the world – has grown year on year. New teams are created, new markets explored, new superstars added. It is an interesting story.

I often think that the US is a fantastical social experiment; “add various races from Europe, then add other races from Asia, then Africa. Mix and observe.”

It seems to me that the US football fan culture has evolved under similar lines; “add banners from Italy, songs from England, standing areas from Germany, scarves from Spain, chants from Mexico. Mix and observe.”

On the Tuesday, I drove to River Edge in New Jersey. I was staying with another couple – Lynda and Tee – for two nights, which would encompass the first of our tour matches. I have known Lynda, via the New York Blues, since 2010 and I first met T in 2012. Sadly, Lynda lost her paternal grandfather on the Sunday; it would be a tough time for her, but I was welcomed with open arms. Tee coaches football and soon arrived back from a “gig” in Hoboken.

It was Tuesday afternoon – around 5pm – and we sped over the George Washington Bridge into Manhattan. Our excitement was palpable; we would soon be meeting up with many friends in a bar under the shadow of the Empire State Building, but there was an added – and wondrous – twist. Not only would former players Bobby Tambling, Mario Melchiot and Paul Canoville be making an appearance, but arrangements had been made – hush hush and all that – for Frank Lampard to make an appearance too.

What excitement.

My friend Roma, with her friend Peggy, from Tennessee arrived at about 6.30pm. Roma is a familiar figure in these Tales, and has been a fantastic friend over the past twenty-six years. Roma has attended games at every one of Chelsea’s previous eight US tours (she is “one up” on me, since I missed the 2013 tour), and was doing all three of this summer’s games. However, when I calmly informed her that her hero Frank Lampard would be in the bar later in the evening, her reaction was lovely. To say she was excited would be an understatement. She almost began crying with joy. Bless her.

What a lovely time we all had. In addition to being able to reconnect with many good Chelsea friends, including the usual suspects from the UK, we were treated to an hour or so of valuable insights into the four guest’s views on various subjects. Munich often dominated the questions. Frank was very gracious and answered each question carefully and with wit and sincerity. I loved the way that he listened attentively to the other players. Near the start, the New York crowd began singing :

“We want our Frankie back, we want our Frankie back.”

Frank smiled and responded :

“I’ll be back.”

It was these three words which would be reported all of the way around the world the next morning.

I took a few photographs, but could not get close to Frank. However, it was just lovely to be so close to a Chelsea legend. Frank signed some shirts and photographs, but he needed to shoot off to meet up with his former team mates later in the evening. As he slowly exited amid scenes of adulation, it did not surprise me to see Roma right next to Frank, with her camera poised.

Snap.

Roma and Frank, New York 2015.

Picture perfect.

A few of us stayed chatting until gone midnight. To be honest I expected a later night, but then I realised;

“Not everyone is on holiday.”

Tomorrow, game day, would be a normal working day for most.

I spent all of the Wednesday in New Jersey. I was not tempted, for once, by Manhattan’s many attractions.

I had, actually, only been in New York in June, on a joint fiftieth birthday trip with my two good friends Daryl and Neil. We had planned that particular trip, encompassing two New York Yankees games, a New York Mets game and a Brooklyn Cyclones minor league game, for five years. We had a lovely time. The back story is particularly amusing.

In addition to being Chelsea fanatics, Daryl and I follow the Yankees. For many years we had said that should Chelsea ever experience a decline in fortunes, and specifically a prolonged absence from European games – with all associated expenses – then we would be able to go over to see some Yankee baseball. This plan was spoken about for many years.

Well, Chelsea kept winning.

Damn it.

The baseball trip never looked like happening.

European trips to Champions League cities prevailed.

Typical Chelsea.

In 2010, we decided that “enough was enough.”

In June 2015, we eventually made it to The Bronx for some baseball. We loved every minute of it. We even bumped into a few New York Blues at “Legends” after one game. It was fantastic.

On the Wednesday morning, I drove up to Woodbury Common in New York State, where there is a huge outlet centre. Always on the lookout for suitable additions to my football wardrobe, I picked up a few snappy shirts.

“It would be rude not to.”

In the afternoon, at just after 4pm, Lynda and I walked to the local suburban train station near her home. I was flagging slightly and, appropriately, guzzled back a refreshing tin of Red Bull. At 4.26pm, we caught the train to Secaucus Junction.

Season 2015-2016 was about to begin.

We then caught another train to Newark Penn Station. Outside, at around 5.30pm, we popped into the oddly-named “mmmBello’s” pub, which is often frequented by those of my New York mates who are not only Chelsea supporters, but fans of the Red Bulls too. This would surely be an odd game for them. What would be my equivalent? Frome Town versus Chelsea I suppose. It seemed we could not escape football. The US versus Jamaica game from Atlanta was on TV. The US would eventually lose 2-1, much to the complete joy of T, who had joined us, who is from Jamaica.

There was football everywhere.

On the Tuesday, the Red Bulls had played a US Cup – their equivalent of the FA Cup – match against Philadelphia Union. However, this meant that in all likelihood the Red Bull team against us would be a weakened team. This also meant that, unfortunately, the attendance would not be so great. This immediately disappointed me. I wanted to see a full house, with cheering NYRB fan groups going for it. I wanted a “proper” away game. As I met with more and more familiar faces, I was surprised how quiet the pub was. I expected it to be buzzing.

The “Rolling Rocks” were going down well though. It was a mellow time. I spoke with a few about the exciting plans for the new Stamford Bridge. Expect a running commentary about that subject this season.

One sight made my heart miss a beat. At the end of the street, past a huge graffiti mural on an old red brick building, the street opened up with a view across the Hudson River. There, all alone in the distance, was the World Trade Centre, standing tall on the southern tip of Manhattan.

Welcome to New York.

We were – typically Chelseaesque – running late for the game. We bolted down last beers and quickly walked the mile or so to the impressive Red Bull Arena. It is one of the new breed of purpose-built stadia, ideal for MLS, which have been built in recent years. It is a fine stadium. The sun glinted off the curving roof panels as we hurriedly entered the turnstiles. Up and into the guts of the stadium, and I was again impressed. The navy blue seats contrasted well with the silver of the exposed steelwork. Making our way towards the Chelsea section high up in the far corner, I glimpsed down just as Loic Remy kicked-off our season.

I soon joined the massed ranks of the blue-shirted loyalists and tried to take it all in.

Camera poised, I took a few panoramic shots, before focussing on the line-up. All of this was rather rushed. I would have preferred more time to settle myself. We were wearing our new Yokohama shirts.

Blue shirts, blue shorts, blue socks.

Chelsea appeared to be on top in the first few exchanges. All around me were familiar faces from New York and beyond. However, somebody was missing.

Where was Roma? She was meant to be sitting alongside me. I hoped that she was safe.

We bossed the first-half, with Victor Moses looking particularly lively, and with Mikel and Fabregas dictating the midfield. It was our first sighting of the much vaunted Bertrand Traore who fitted in well. We dominated the early play, with a few chances drawing excited gasps from the fans around me. On twenty-six minutes, Oscar found an unmarked Loic Remy, who was able to steady both himself and the ball, and slot home.

Get in.

The Chelsea section, although predominantly seated – unlike at Chester in 2012, the high water mark in terms of noise at any Chelsea game in the US – were in good form. Cathy initiated a hearty “Zigger Zagger” and there were outbreaks of that song and others throughout the first-half. It was great to hear.

The loudest chant of the first-half was the US-styled “Let’s Go Chelsea, Let’s Go” which used to annoy me, but I know accept it.

It is a US chant, not a Chelsea one, but so be it.

We continued to dominate the first-half, with only a silly blunder by Thibaut Courtois causing us any anxious moments.

At half-time, I descended down into the concourse and had a wonderful time meeting many Chelsea fans who it has been my absolute pleasure to get to know over the years.

Jon from Florida.

Karen from Connecticut.

Brian from North Carolina.

Tim from Pennsylvania.

Frank from New York.

Keith from New Jersey.

Brenda from Georgia.

Fantastic.

Behind the stadium, the night was falling and there were the bright lights of Manhattan. What a sublime view.

I missed the start of the second-half due to my prolonged hand shaking, hugging and suchlike on the crowded concourse. Thankfully, at the top of the steps were Roma and Peggy. They had watched the first-half from behind the goal. It was a relief to see them both.

Eliot thrusted a can of cider into my hands and I took my seat alongside Roma, Peggy, Tom, Samantha and Larry.

I could relax.

Jose had rung the changes at half-time and it took me forever to work it all out. Only Zouma, Oscar and Dave remained from the first period. However, in addition to my throat being rather sore, my mind was a little muddled. This pre-season is a work out for us fans too.

Roma joined in with the “Diego” chants. It was great to see him on the pitch. We need him to be back to his fearless – and fit – best throughout the campaign.

I won’t dwell on the events of the second-half. However, the equaliser set the pattern for an almost comedic array of defensive blunders which allowed the vastly under-strength Red Bulls team to surge past us.

1-1.

2-1.

3-1.

There was growing disbelief with each calamity. All around me, stunned silence. The home crowd, particularly quiet throughout the whole game, greeted each goal with woops of pleasure.

“Oh bloody hell Chelsea.”

The deficit was reduced when Eden Hazard cut inside and drilled a shot home.

3-2.

The Chelsea support was stirred. The songs began again. One song made me smile.

“One Bobby Tambling. There’s Only One Bobby Tambling.”

Bobby was watching among the New York Blues just a few rows behind me.

Sadly, our hopes were extinguished when the home team struck again and made our misery complete.

Ugh.

I quickly tried to explain everything to myself.

“Sigh. It’s only pre-season. Jose will not be happy though. Defensive blunders. Pretty good singing. The half-time social was magnificent. A defeat still hurts though. Ugh.”

No doubt some – hopefully not many – of our fans would be reading too much in to this surprising defeat. They ought to log on to Ebay and get themselves a life.

I took a photo of Bobby Tambling with Roma and Peggy with the quickly-emptying stadium as a backdrop.

We all then descended down and out into the New Jersey night.

I said some farewells to some. Sadly many were only watching this first game.

I would see others, many others, in Charlotte and DC.

After taking a while to exit the immediate area by the stadium, which like Stamford Bridge is rather hemmed in, Lynda drove us home.

All three of us were rather lost for words.

Then New York took over.

Heading north on I-95, that long and never-ending highway that hugs the US coast from Maine to Florida, we were treated to the bewildering and ridiculously photogenic sight of Manhattan, just a few miles away across the Hudson.

Scintillating blurs of reds, whites, yellows and blues fizzed and popped into view.

The sight was stunning.

All of a sudden, the football didn’t seem to matter.

IMG_0875

Tales From Tinsel Town.

Chelsea vs. Sunderland : 24 May 2015.

This was it, then. The last game of the season. To be truthful, it was a game in name only. With the league already won, the day was all about one particular moment which would happen at around 5.15pm.

The sun glinting off the Premier League trophy as John Terry lifts it high above his shoulders.

In fact, there was a part of me that wanted to fast forward through the actual match in order to just reach that point. Sure, there would be friends to meet and memories of the season to share along the way, but I just wanted to see the trophy back in SW6.

Best not to wish my time away though. Surely it would be best to relax and enjoy the day as it unfolded before me. That was the plan.

However, it was perhaps inevitable in this most difficult of seasons for myself, what with the recent loss of my mother overshadowing almost everything, that even this most potentially joyous of all days should be tinged with sadness.

On Wednesday, we sadly learned that one of the Bristol group, Clive, had sadly passed away. Although Clive was not in my immediate circle of close Chelsea friends, he was one of the many acquaintances that I have enjoyed talking to over the years, whether it was in The Goose or at any home or away game. That Clive lived in Bristol, relatively close to me in the West Country, meant that there was an empathy with him. He was a fine man, a very loyal Chelsea supporter and, for the want of a better phrase, one of the undoubted “good guys.” He has featured in these tales over the years as one of the un-named members of “the Bristol boys” and, to be honest, his unexpected passing hit me for six. Although the Chelsea family has lost a few well known supporters of late, Clive was the only one that I can honestly say that I knew. That he passed away on 19 May is an irony that was not lost on any of his close Chelsea friends. In the packed beer garden of “The Goose”, I had a quiet few words – a difficult few words – with Clive’s sons Kelvin and Rich. We raised a glass to their father and to my mother.

I had travelled up from the West Country for the final league game of the season with Southern Parky and Northern Dean. At the Chelsea hotel, The Copthorne, we had joined forces with a few good friends from the United States – Kathryn and Tim from DC, Tom from Los Angeles – and had met a first time visitor to Stamford Bridge, Jim, also from the DC area, too. Jim was over with his son CJ, and was supremely happy that I had managed to sort out a spare match ticket for him. On the way to “The Goose” we had stopped off at a ridiculously quiet “Malt House” for a pint and a chat about all things Chelsea. In “The Goose” the atmosphere was predictably boisterous.  The beer garden was rammed. Burger, Julie and Andy, veterans of many a Chelsea US tour, joined the celebrations. It was lovely.

The sun was shining and the championship was ours.

The beer tasted even better than usual. It was perfect, just perfect.

Sadly, we left the pub just a little too late for my liking. There was a typical melee at the turnstiles and I sadly missed the pre game presentation to the crowd of several members of the 2004/2005 championship squad. Alan, who was in early, was able to tell me that even William Gallas, probably the only ex-Chelsea player of recent memory who has received a tough time during his subsequent outings against us, was on show.

I was absolutely elated to see Tom alongside Alan. Tom is in his late ‘seventies and his health has not been too good of late. His presence was one of the high points of the day.

I noted that everyone had been given blue card mosaics and a royal blue flag to hold and wave before the teams had entered the pitch. Sadly, that infamous Chelsea tradition of “one last pint” had backfired further. I had missed all of that too.

Balls.

And so to the game.

Ah, the game. Yet again, all of the various pre match chats had managed to avoid the game itself. The first big surprise was that Eden Hazard, rumoured to be out due to the lingering side-effects of a dental operation, was playing. We had learned that this would be Didier Drogba’s last ever game for us and he was playing from the start. Also in was Petr Cech; would this be his last game, too? The back line in front of Big Pete was the standard four of 2014/2015, but Jose Mourinho chose Jon Obi Mikel – maybe his last game too? – alongside Nemanja Matic. The attacking three were Hazard, Willian and Cuadrado.

The traditionalist in me was just happy that the men in suits had not decided for our players to jettison the current playing kit for next season’s. It is always a pet peeve of mine. Dare I mention Moscow?

With the Chelsea support in fine form, I soon texted Jim from DC to see how he was doing.

“I’m in heaven.”

With the sun shining – perfect “Chelsea weather” – we began well and Drogba almost touched home a low Cuadrado cross at the near post. The crowd were vibrant and the party was on.

“We want you to staaaaaay. Petr Cech, we want you to stay.”

Two pieces of action involved our rampaging full-back / winger / battering ram Ivanovic. Firstly he tumbled in the box after a challenge but a penalty was not given and then, with a shot mirroring a similar effort against a recent opponent at home, a blistering drive from distance.

Sadly, despite having the majority of the ball, we conceded on twenty-six minutes. A corner was played in to the box and the ball’s path seemed to confuse and bewilder our entire defence. The ball bounced up,  just missing John Terry’s desperate attempt to intercept, allowing Stephen Fletcher to nod the ball down and in past Cech. To say we were stunned would be an understatement. The Mackems in the opposite corner, relatively quiet until that point, roared after a tantalising split second of silence; I suspected that they could not believe it either.

Bollocks.

Next, came a moment of pure theatre. Mourinho signalled for Diego Costa to replace Didier Drogba. The crowd began applauding our hero of Munich – and of course of many other moments too – but then we became aware of something strange. We saw Cech race out of his box and join the rest of his team mates in hoisting Didier up and carrying him, in a blue-shirted chariot, off the pitch. None of us had witnessed anything like this before. It was partly corny, partly magnificent. Didier turned, waved a palm to the stands, then took off his shirt once his chariot ride had finished. An embrace with Diego and Jose and his Chelsea career was over. I am still in two minds about his return to us, but here was a send off fit for a king. I have pictures of his last seconds as a Chelsea player on the Stamford Bridge pitch in 2012.

The pictures from 2015 seem more appropriate.

“Thanks Didier. You take care mate.”

Just after, Cuadrado tempted John O’Shea to lunge as he offered the ball as a prize. The lunge was ill-timed and the referee Lee Mason was left with no option. A penalty.

Diego Costa calmly stroked the ball in.

Unlike in 2005/2006 when our league campaign, after the title-clincher versus Manchester United, ended with two limp defeats, I was convinced that the 0-3 reverse at The Hawthorns would not be followed with another defeat here. We had, after all, another undefeated home record to defend. And there have been a few.

Sadly Cuadrado, enjoying his best game for us – “not hard” I hear you say – was injured and replaced by Loic Remy just before the break.

At the break, there was an air of disbelief around me when we heard that Stoke City were pummelling Liverpool 5-0. Oh dear, Stephen Gerrard, what a shame,  never mind.

We began the second half well, with Remy looking interested. A rare shot from Gary Cahill took us all by surprise. Willian went close too. Then, forty yards out, Hazard turned on a sixpence and ran in that unfettered way of his at Larsson. He gained a few yards and then played in Remy. The ball was moved sideways, then struck firmly. The shot was not particularly hard, but there was enough on it to evade Vito Mannone. I caught this third goal of the game on film too. The crowd roared again.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at wor now like.”

Chris : “Come on wor little diamonds.”

With a win now looking more likely, the crowd toasted Chelsea legends past and present. There was also a wave from the bashful owner in the middle tiers of the West Stand.

We heard that Newcastle United had managed to win and so their presence in the top flight would be assured for another season. Newcastle fans have their detractors ( I wonder what they make of Alan Pardew’s fine spell at Crystal Palace) but the Premier League is not the same without them.

Andreas Christensen replaced Mikel. We were coasting now and a bright line of stewards began to line the pitch as the seconds ticked away. We sealed the win when Remy appeared unmarked at the near post to delicately touch home a low cross from Matic. Another goal – the last of the season – on film, captured for posterity.

At the final whistle, hugs from the players.

Another win.

Job done.

The players returned to the sanctuary of the dressing rooms, and we waited. It seemed to take an eternity to construct the special stage on which the trophy was to be presented. Lucky me; not only would this be at our end of the stadium, unlike in 2005, but the players would be facing my way too. My memory card was full, so I spent a few moments deleting some unworthy photographs.

A fair proportion of the Sunderland fans, to their credit, stayed on to watch the post-game pageantry. With their safety assured only within the past week, perhaps they looked on and took some sort of vicarious pleasure in our superbly choreographed celebrations. In the very first few moments of the match, the away supporters in the lower tier had tossed around – if that is the correct phrase in the circumstances – an inflatable penis.  I couldn’t tell if an image of Mike Ashley’s face was added for good measure.

The wives and girlfriends walked on to a strange fenced-off area on the pitch in front of the West Lower. This gave Alan an easy laugh :

“That’s the John Terry area…”want, want, got, got, want, want, want, got…”

The minutes ticked by but eventually the stage was set. With Neil Barnett at the helm, players were announced, and cheers rang out. Although the Barclay’s corporate colour, and that of the stage and assorted props, is of a lighter blue than we normally see at Stamford Bridge, I was not too concerned.

I was hoping for a splash of red in the procedings, though. The presence of a smattering of Chelsea Pensioner scarlet always adds a sense of history and perspective to these occasions at Chelsea. Alas, the Royal Hospital was not represented.

As Jose Mourinho walked towards the platform, he looked towards Roman Abramovich and gave him a prolonged “thumbs up”and an extra wave.

“Thanks for having me back. Waitrose eggs never tasted better.”

There were extra-special cheers for Cech, Fabregas, Hazard, Drogba and Terry. Our captain, of course, was the last in line.

We waited.

With everything set, with the cameras poised, with 40,000 sets of eyes inside the stadium centered on the huge chunk of silver, with millions watching worldwide, with Kathryn, Tim, Andy and Jim watching too, our captain hoisted the 2014/2015 Barclay’s Premier League trophy high.

From above, royal blue and white tinsel cascaded down. There was tinsel in 2005, in 2006, in 2010 and at all of our Wembley cup wins too. It seems that where ever we go these days, blue and white tinsel is not too far away. Long may it continue. Great plumes of orange flame fired into the air from in front of the East Lower. Everywhere there were smiles. Soon, the players reassembled together for obligatory team photographs.

Snap, snap, snap, snap, snap, snap.

And then, Neil Barnett spoke :

“Didier wants a word.”

The crowd hushed as Didier took the microphone.

“I don’t really know what to say…”

He spoke for a minute or so, about his two spells at the club, his thanks to Jose Mourinho, his love of his team mates and of us, the fans. There was also a kind and thoughtful word for Frank Lampard too. It was classy stuff.

I watched, with Dave, Alan, Gary and Tom, as the players walked past us. Their children accompanied them. I took special care in photographing John Terry and Didier Drogba with the trophy. Petr Cech too. Will we see him again in Chelsea orange or yellow or white? Probably not.

The players headed off to The Shed where Parky and others were dutifully waiting. It was a familiar scene this; for the fourth time in my life, the fourth time in eleven seasons, we were parading the championship trophy at The Bridge.

And yet, if I am honest, I was finding it difficult to fully embrace this particular triumph. This has been a tough period of my life. February was the toughest month of all. A lot of my focus over the past three months has been on other far more important matters. The football has been a backdrop to my life rather than the centrepoint. To be blunt, this championship season, running from Burnley in August – game one thousand – through the autumn and in to winter, then out the other side into spring, has been increasingly difficult for me to relate to. If it matters, this one has been the least enjoyable of the four championships that we have won in these past ten years. Yet I am sure that this is no surprise to any. Losing my mother in February has overshadowed everything this season.

But I am sure that I will come back stronger next season. I am already looking forward to a full pre-season in the US in July. There are games in New Jersey, in North Carolina, in DC. It will be the perfect start to a new campaign, with maybe slightly a different focus this time around. I am so looking forward to seeing some good – no, great – friends in all three American cities. I am also looking forward to reminding American fans that there is no real need to wear Chelsea scarves in ninety degree heat in the summer, nor is there any need to refer to Chelsea as “Chels” every five fucking seconds. It will be a great trip. Then there is the Community Shield at Wembley and a home friendly with Fiorentina. By the time of the opening league game of the season, I should already have five games behind me. This season, my mark was just forty-two games. From a high of fifty-eight in 2011/2012, this is a rather low total. Our early dismissals in two cup competitions clearly did not help. By the way, if it matters, our brief foray in the Champions League gave me my most treasured memory this season; drinking Morangoska cocktails in the packed side streets of Lisbon on a magical Monday night alongside some dear friends was truly magnificent, as was, in fact, the entire three days in that historic and charming city.

What of the future, then?

We are in a very strong position here. We have the best manager in England. We have an interested and involved chairman. We have a top-notch academy. We have a great youth team. We are Youth Cup winners again. We will strengthen the squad further in the summer. We seem to be keen to redevelop our Stamford Bridge stadium rather than move to a soul-less stadium elsewhere.

All is good.

What could possibly go wrong?

In closing my reports for 2014/2015, a few words of thanks to our players for keeping the desire to win throughout the season and, of course, thanks to many fantastic mates for supporting me through my dark days.

Thanks also for the support for CHELSEA/esque too.

It is appreciated.

See you in New Jersey.

11377360_10153360183102658_6247124301156700723_n

11235271_10153360220207658_6520028661981443290_n

10957752_10153360194212658_6253778694773791703_n

Tales From The Hawthorns.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 18 May 2015.

The end of the season was nigh. It really did not seem so long ago that we still had ten league games left to play. And yet now there were just two games remaining. The Monday evening game at The Hawthorns seemed to conjure up mixed emotions. There was real sadness in the fact that this would be the last away game of the season. But happiness came with the realisation that we could bestow some love and appreciation on the team – the champions – once more. A trip to The Hawthorns is one of the easiest of the season for me. As I collected Parky from The Pheasant, I was relishing the chance to be among the tight little knot of three thousand loyalists in the away end later in the evening. There was a lovely buzz, growing with each passing hour, at the thought of a Chelsea game in the evening.

This would probably be the last time that The Pheasant gets a mention in these tales. Over the summer, my place of work changes from Chippenham to Melksham – same company, sparkling new premises – and we have already sorted out a new Parky pick-up point; a newly-built pub opposite my new place of work on the A350 called The Milk Churn. Parky had enjoyed a spirited send off at The Pheasant. He had already supped four pints while waiting for me to finish my shift.

There was an undoubted tingle of excitement, then, as we headed north to the trip to the stadium which sits on the boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country. I missed the match – another midweek fixture – at West Brom last season, but there were strong memories of the last three games that I had attended there. Four seasons ago, there was a 3-1 win under Carlo Ancelotti amid glorious self-mocking chants of “We’re Gonna Win Fuck All” from the smiling Chelsea contingent. Three seasons ago came a 1-0 defeat and chants of “Sacked In the Morning” from the home fans aimed at the fated Andre Villas-Boas (no wonder the home fans disliked him with a name like that). Two seasons ago, there came a 2-1 loss and the last league game for the much-loved Roberto di Matteo, who lost his job after the following game in Turin.

“The Chelsea manager’s graveyard” they called it, and with good reason.

Over the past three visits, we had endured two losses and a draw. The Hawthorns has clearly not been the happiest of hunting grounds at all. However, this season West Bromwich Albion have hardly set the world alight. I can’t think of another Premiership team that has endured such a nondescript season. There have been no relegation scares, only lower-mid table mediocrity. The both of us were confident of a Chelsea win.

“Two wins to finish off the season, ninety points surely” uttered Parky as he opened a bottle of cider as we headed through Gloucestershire.

Our pre-match at West Bromwich Albion is always the same; a few beers at the “Park Inn” hotel just off the M5. The hotel’s bar was over-run with Chelsea fans of a certain generation and it was lovely to see so many familiar faces. Parky and I found ourselves chatting to a little group of home fans as we downed some lager. One West Brom fan was the spokesman for the group. He mentioned the last time that he had ventured to Stamford Bridge – in the 1988-1989 season – when a last minute Graham Roberts penalty saved our skins. We bantered back and forth about that game – it was on New Year’s Eve – and he reminded me that Roberts later played for West Brom, though he was well past his prime. This link seemed to inspire the cheery Baggie.

“I’ve always felt, like, that – going back – West Brom were a bit like Chelsea. Flair players. Maybe not always winning much. But…”

I smiled, benignly, wondering where this was going. The standard comparison of my youth was more like Chelsea and Manchester City – ooh, the irony – but this was the first time that I had heard of this unlikely pairing. He continued on.

“And there’s a link with West Brom and Mourinho, you know.”

Now I was intrigued.

“Mourinho began as a driver didn’t he, for Bobby Robson, at Barcelona?”

I thought to myself “translator, not driver but keep going mate, I’m intrigued to see where this is going.”

“Well, Bobby Robson played here, at West Brom, in the ‘fifties. We played some pretty good stuff. I bet you that Robson mentioned his time at West Brom to Mourinho. The tactics, like.”

This was fantastic stuff. Expect a plaque to be erected at The Hawthorns over the summer stating that Chelsea’s success under Jose Mourinho was conceived and nurtured by Bobby Robson at West Brom in the ‘fifties.

The team line-up was shown on the bar TV.

“Diego Costa in, Loftus-Cheek playing, Remy in midfield, Izzy Brown on the bench.”

We left in good time for the 8pm kick-off, but the inevitable scrum at the turnstiles resulted in a delay. The rain had just started to fall. To my right was a large rainbow lightening the gloom. My enduring love of stadia – Simon Inglis calls it “stadiumitis” – flitted in to my mind.

“A rainbow over the site of the former Rainbow Stand, nice.”

As we waited in line, a familiar face at Chelsea was to be found singing songs to himself. A decidedly odd character at the best of times (I don’t think I have ever seen him sober), he was now putting to song every single thought that was entering his head.

“We are the Chelsea, we want to go in.”

“Let us in, let us in, let us in.”

“Getting wet, getting wet, getting wet.”

Oh boy.

To my left were two touristy-types, looking quite out of place, adorned with Chelsea track-suit tops, Chelsea coats and Chelsea scarves, obviously hot-foot from the megastore. Everywhere else, Chelsea colours were at the bare minimum, as per normal.

I edged towards Al and Gal, right behind the goal. I had just missed the guard of honour. Bollocks. There was just time for me to join in with both sets of fans clapping and singing along to “The Liquidator.”

“We are West Brom.”

“Chelsea.”

Chelsea in all yellow. It always reminds me of our 6-3 win at Goodison way back in August. Good noise from both sets of fans at the start. At West Brom, the noisiest section is right next to us in the shared Smethwick End. The three of us were just yards away from them. I was surprised at the amount of empty seats in the corners.

After a few early exchanges, the ball fell to Berahino outside the box. With no Chelsea player able to get close and charge down his shot, the ball tantalisingly curved away from Thibaut Courtois and inside the post. I was, annoyingly, right in line with the flight of the ball.

After less than ten minutes, we were a goal down, and the baying home fans just yards away were letting us have it.

Groan.

Out came their colourful array of songs, but then one which made me chuckle.

“WWYWYWS?”

I turned and looked at one in the eye, pointing “here.”

He waved away my gesticulations.

Thoughts wandered back to the 1985-1986 season with me in the Rainbow Stand; a 3-0 win in front of just 10,300, including 3,000 Chelsea.

“Where were you when you were shit, mate?”

As the game developed, we struggled to find any rhythm. Overhead, the skies grew dark and dirty.The home fans were buoyant. Their chants rang out. They suggested that we’d all be Albion fans by next week, which was at least original.

Then, a few moments of craziness, which the viewing millions in Belgravia, Brisbane, Bombay and Badgercrack, Nebraska probably saw – and understood – better than the three thousand in the Smethwick End. At the other end of the pitch, with Chelsea attacking down the right, the play was stopped. Initially, I thought the play was stopped for an offside. There appeared to be an “altercation” in the penalty area. For some reason, Diego Costa was booked, although Gal was convinced that he saw an elbow aimed at our number nine. While that melee was just about to be resolved, I looked up to see Cesc Fabregas drive the ball back towards the crowd of players in the box. I can only presume that he had heard a whistle and was returning the ball to the referee.

It was struck too well. It bounced back off a player. We thought nothing of it.

Red card.

The away end went ballistic.

To be honest, nobody was sure what had happened.

I still don’t.

Down to ten men, we seemed to play with an extra drive and with extra spirit. We troubled the home defence, but not the home goalkeeper. At the break, there was a general consensus that we’d claw a goal back.

Our hopes were smashed after just a minute of play when, down at the other end of course, we saw a defender – John Terry – attempt to rob Berahino of the ball from behind as the dangerous striker advanced on goal. I could only hope, from one hundred yards away, that it had been ball before leg. The referee had decided otherwise.

Berahino scored from the penalty.

The Baggies’ stadium was in full on “Boing Boing” mode now.

Their unique club anthem, with Black Country affectations, boomed out.

“The Lord’s moy shepherd, oil not want.

He makes me down to loy.

In pastures green, he leadeth me.

The quiet waters boy.”

The Chelsea team, clearly frustrated, were struggling to create chances, but we were running up against a packed defence. The otherwise poor Loic Remy twisted into a little space and shot low, but his firm drive came back off the base of Myhill’s post. On the hour, Courtois tipped over a Morrison effort, but from the resultant corner, the ball fell at the feet of Brunt, who smashed a drive past everyone and in to our net.

Three fucking nil.

Oh boy.

The home fans could hardly believe it and, frankly, neither could we.

However, with the home fans still bubbling away with chants and taunts, the evening changed.

With thirty minutes of the game remaining, the Chelsea fans collectively decided to act. Yes, we were getting stuffed at West Brom, but we had enjoyed a magnificent season and we weren’t going to let one game stop our sense of fun. Harking back to an afternoon at Selhurst Park earlier in the season, out came a song from our recent catalogue.

“We’re Top Of The League.”

And it continued, like at Selhurst, and continued.

At some point, it morphed into “We’ve Won The League.”

At times, both versions were sung together.

After thousands of miles following the team all over England, Wales and Europe, this was the simple answer – an exhausted answer – to the people who mock us.

“We’ve Won The League.”

Diego Costa was replaced by Juan Cuardrado. Nathan Ake replaced Loftus-Cheek. Izzy Brown replaced Remy.

And still we sang.

I joined in at the start and tried my best to keep it going for as long as I could. After a few breaks, I re-joined the rendition…“think I’ll have a sore throat in the morning.”

We had a few chances, but the focus was now not on the players, the focus was on us.

And still we sang.

The home fans quietened. It is easy to say we left them dumbfounded by our noise, but they had sung well all evening. They were merely taking a break. I expect that they thought we might tire, but we kept it going. It was truly wonderful. I remember a “Chelsea, Chelsea” chant at Anfield – captured on TV, with a quick glimpse of me – from a 3-0 loss in 1986 going on for about fifteen minutes, and drawing a comment from the BBC commentator Barry Davies and boos from The Kop, but this one at The Hawthorns in 2015 went on for thirty minutes.

The result was simply brushed aside. I am sure that plenty of sweaty new fans in Nerdistan were getting all anxious about a surprising loss – “damn, Berahino isn’t this good on FIFA15” – but the three thousand foot soldiers in the Smethwick End were having a party.

At the final whistle, the home fans roared. Well done to them. Three losses and a draw in our last four games there now. The Hawthorns is indeed turning in to a private nightmare for us all.

I quickly spotted the lone figure of Jose Mourinho making his way across the wet grass of the pitch, his brown suede shoes pacing out in a strong path. It reminded me of his “chin up” walk at Arsenal in 2007.

With his players staying a respectful distance behind him, our manager simply walked towards us, signalling “number one” with his index finger pointing to the sky. He stopped by the goal line, and clapped us. He hasn’t always been our biggest fan this season; I always wondered if his well-publicised complaints about our home support were aired to inspire us or were they the mark of a manager who just wanted to vent? I don’t know. At The Hawthorns he wanted to just say “thank you.” Perhaps if we had kept quiet, with no thirty-minute serenade, maybe we would not have seen this iconic walk from our manager. We will never know.

For maybe thirty seconds or more, he stood in front of us, and we lapped it up. The players clapped too. It was a beautiful Chelsea moment. He turned and met his players.

We said our goodbyes to each other – “see you Sunday” – and exited amid a party-like atmosphere. Never has a three-nil loss been so widely ignored amid scenes of complete and proper joy. We walked down the exit ramp, leading down from the stadium and out in to the night, with songs continuing.

Football, eh?

With the floodlights piercing the sombre Black Country night, a West Brom fan bundled past and admitted to his mate –

“If they had to win, they’d have fookin’ spanked uz.”

I smiled. He was probably spot on.

I slowly walked back to the car. These trudges back to the Park Inn after a defeat are becoming common place, but this one was thankfully a little easier.

On Sunday, Sunderland, and the party continues.

See you there.

IMG_9687

Tales From The Blue Carpet.

Chelsea vs. Liverpool : 10 May 2015.

With our fifth League Championship secured, the main focus before our match with Liverpool – our most bitterest of rivals over the past ten seasons – was on the guard of honour which the visitors were aiming to provide for us. There was also the matter of their captain Steven Gerrard’s last ever game in SW6, but I preferred the focus to be on us, the Champions. Three more games. Three more wins please. I wanted nine points and nine points only.

With time to kill before the 4pm kick-off, I idly spent an hour or so in and around Stamford Bridge, bumping in to a few friends outside the stadium and in a couple of bars. It is a strange fact of my life that I can run in to more acquaintances in half-an-hour outside any stadium where Chelsea are about to perform than half-an-hour in my nearest town centre. I grew increasingly frustrated by the sight of tout after tout crowding around the entrances to the tube station and stadium. I also muttered many uncomplimentary swear words under my breath – and sometimes over it – about the huge amount of people sporting joint Chelsea and Liverpool game-day “friendship” scarves. The most tell-tale sign of a wet-behind-the-ears first-timer, these scarves are stain on the English football scene. If visitors fancy a poignant reminder of their first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge, I would rather they bought a simple match programme. The need for ridiculous adornment leaves me cold.

And angry.

But you knew that.

Outside The Chelsea Pensioner, formerly the Black Bull, visitors were seen to be checking to see if their names were on the match day guest list. How things change. Back in the promotion campaign of 1988-1989, I used to frequent this lovely and perfectly-placed pub on the Fulham Road before games. In those days, my drinking partners were Alan and Gary – as of now – but also Paul from Brighton and two brothers, Mark and Paul, who I have not seen at Chelsea for maybe fifteen years. In those days, there were no guest lists. I walked past the quaint Fox And Pheasant, with drinkers nestling pints as they laughed in the bright sunlight. I took a photograph of several pastel-coloured houses, lined-up in a tight terrace, with the towering roof supports of Darbourne and Darke’s East Stand visible above.

This was a quintessentially Chelsea match day scene. Here was football-life and non-football life existing cheek by jowl. How cosmopolitan. How Chelsea.

Back on the North End Road, I popped in to The Cock Tavern, scene of my first-ever pint on a match day at Chelsea. This pub, much changed and much-gentrified since April 1984, is another lovely pub. We are truly blessed at Chelsea.

In The Goose beer garden, even more faces, even more laughter.

Lo and behold, who should be standing next to Alan and Gary, but Mark from the Black Bull twenty-six years ago. It was great to see him again. He was with his son. I gave Mark a big old hug.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I glanced at Jose Mourinho’s programme notes.

“You supporters, I think you also had some responsibility for my return, so I want to share my happiness and my pride with you all and I want to thank you.”

“I also want to honour a dear enemy: Steve Gerrard. We need dear enemies to be better, to be pushed to the limits, and no one in this country was that dear enemy better than Steve Gerrard – a super player and a good man, for sure.”

In came Filipe Luis, Kurt Zouma, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Jon Obi Mikel and Loic Remy. Big things are expected of Loftus-Cheek. It was lovely to see him start.

Over in the far corner were the three thousand away fans, but with a few empty seats. Some of those empty seats were not filled the whole afternoon. I spotted some of the balconies had been given a lick of royal blue paint, with the simple words “We Are The Champions” at regular intervals.

And then I spotted a huge – long and wide – royal blue carpet stretched out from the tunnel towards the centre-circle.

“Bloody hell Alan. No expense spared there mate. I’ve never seen such a big bloody carpet. Nothing like rubbing their noses in it.”

Soon enough, the eleven Liverpool players walked out and lined the way for the Champions. This must have been hell incarnate for them. Within only a few seconds, the Chelsea players strode by, led by captain fantastic John Terry. The roar from the home supporters was magnificent. I noted that both sets of players soon veered off the blue carpet, as if embarrassed by the size of it. If something similar was ever done under the chairmanship of Ken Bates, I would have expected stern words before the game :

“Don’t get mud on that bloody carpet, I’m taking it back to the shop on Monday.”

Roman, I expect, can afford carpet.

The first-half was relatively pleasing, with Chelsea enjoying most of the possession. Within a few seconds, a flying tackle by Cesc Fabregas left Raheem Sterling in a crumpled mess on the turf. The stoppage of play allowed the Bridge choir to unleash our favourite Demba Ba song towards the listening Liverpool captain. We were back in the schoolyard once more.

After just five minutes, a lovely Fabregas corner found the leap of John Terry, whose powerful downward header flew past Mignolet and Gerrard on the line.

The place was rocking.

Alan : “ehhh, THTCAUN.”

Chris : “COMLD, like.”

Play was at times overly pretty – from both sides – with many back-heels, self-indulgent dribbles and silly intricacies. Liverpool were not without merit, but we held the advantage.

The MH were in good voice. The serenaded the owner, who waved, in embarrassment no doubt. Then, a cheeky request –

“Roman, Give Us A Song. Roman, Roman, Give Us A Song.”

The sun was out and there was carnival atmosphere brewing.

I whispered to Alan :

“Must say it is lovely to see Liverpool and Manchester United squabbling over fourth place this season.”

An injured Zouma was replaced by Gary Cahill.

Towards the end of the first-half, there was a challenge on Fabregas by Gerrard out on the touchline in front of the West Stand. The newly-watered pitch proved problematic for the Scouse captain, who fell. He quickly scrambled back to his feet, but the moment was not lost on the home support.

“Steve Gerrard, Gerrard…”

There were also songs for our own players of course. The widely loved Willian song has consistently been the most loudly sung ditty all season; ironic, really, because it has taken a while for the typically Mourinho-esque qualities of our combative Brazilian to be appreciated by some. Then, of course, making a late run in our affections over the past two weeks – is that all? – is the Magic Hat song, which was sung with gusto too.

With the songs raining down on the players, we hoped for more goals.

Ricky Lambert, enjoying – or rather enduring – a rare start, was roundly booed for a silly tackle on Thibaut Courtois, for which he was booked. With hardly believable rumours about us buying the Liverpool striker next season floating around the pubs before the game, the Chelsea supporters aired their views :

“What A Waste Of Money.”

It was redolent of the anti-George Graham chants in 1996.

Alas, a Jordan Henderson free-kick down below me in the north-west corner was pumped high towards the far post where the ridiculously unmarked Steven Gerrard nodded in past Courtois.

“Bollocks. Him.”

Gerrard’s celebrations were oddly muted, but the away fans roared.

Had I just photographed his last ever goal for Liverpool?

Who cares?

Level at the break, we hoped for more Chelsea goals to come.

Just after the second-half began, Filipe Luis completely lost his sense of geography, allowing his man to set up a chance for Coutinho.

“Bloody hell, how did he miss that?”

The second-half was rather a disappointment. If I am honest, Liverpool edged it. Coutinho, just like at Anfield earlier in the season, was their best player. Lalana looked busy. We, on the other hand, looked flat. Willian was possibly our best player, causing considerable damage down their left. Eden Hazard drifted in and out. Shots were rare.

With the need for three points guiding him, Mourinho replaced Loftus-Cheek – a fine debut – with the dependable Nemanja Matic. However, we still struggled. Liverpool peppered our goal with a few half-chances. It was hardly inspiring stuff from Chelsea.

As Cesc waited to take a corner below, the MH serenaded him. Although his back was towards us, he seemed to be reveling in the love.

With just over ten minutes remaining, there was one more moment of theatre. There was an announcement of a Liverpool substitution.

As soon as the much-derided figure of Steven Gerrard began walking across the sun-kissed Stamford Bridge pitch towards the Liverpool bench under the towering East Stand, I was surprised to hear – and feel – the immediate recognition of his services to the game of football, and our bitter rivals in particular, through a spontaneous round of applause which seemed to start in the Matthew Harding, but was soon followed throughout the stadium. This was a genuine surprise and I was honestly pleased with this. Despite all of the sarcasm and derision aimed at Gerrard over the years, here was a little acceptance in our ranks of the role played by him for Liverpool and England.

Yes, the own goal in Cardiff in 2005, the back-pass in 2010 and the slip in 2014, but also some heavyweight battle royales – with and against our Frank – over the years too.

I stood and clapped. To be quite honest, I had told a few friends before the match that I was in some doubt whether or not Brendan Rodgers would put the Liverpool captain through the rigours of a game at Stamford Bridge, knowing full well that a certain song would accompany Gerrard all day long. His form has not been great all season; surely there was no need for Gerrard to play. His appearance in the starting eleven surprised me. A grudging respect to them for that; he could so easily have shied away. As Gerrard strode off the pitch, he raised both arms and applauded the home sections, with a quick glance towards the spectators in the Matthew Harding.

File under : “Fackinell. I Never Thought I Would See That At The Bridge.”

Of course, the biggest irony of all is the comparison between this match and the encounter with Norwich City in the last home game of last season. In that match, Frank Lampard, Gerrard’s erstwhile rival and arch protagonist, was replaced by David Luiz at the interval. Therefore, there was no stage-managed substitution for Frank. There was no chance for us to clap him from the pitch. Admittedly, of course, there was a certain uncertainty about his future. But Lampard never played for Chelsea again. He did not play any part in the season’s finale at Cardiff City the following week. His last moments in Chelsea blue involved him sloping off the pitch at half-time against Norwich City. Indeed, at the end of the Norwich game, with a good three-quarters of the crowd either on their way home or on their way to the pub, Frank Lampard meekly walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch in a lap of appreciation with his team mates. With barely 10,000 watching from the stands, there was no great last hurrah, there was no great final round of applause and no great anything. The last ever appearances – the last ever moments –  of Frank Lampard in a Chelsea shirt at The Bridge and of Steven Gerrard in a Liverpool shirt at The Bridge could not be more dissimilar.

Gerrard 1 Lampard 0.

And that hasn’t happened too often.

Cuadrado replaced a quiet Remy. Hazard was moved up top.

The game drifted on. Despite a heart-in-the-mouth moment at the end when a lucky deflection took the venom off a Liverpool shot and enabled Courtois to safely gather, there was little drama. We had edged the first forty-five minutes and Liverpool the second.

A draw was a fair result.

IMG_9550

Tales From Title Number Five.

Chelsea vs. Crystal Palace : 3 May 2015.

There was a moment a few months ago when I was observing a conversation develop on “”Facebook” – it was one of the oddest things, I felt, about “Facebook” when I first joined, that online chats were now visible to everyone, should you so wish, rather than being kept to selected friends on a private email – between one of my oldest and dearest Chelsea mates and some of his non-believing friends. They were attempting to goad him into admitting that the race for the 2014-2015 title was not as cut-and-dried as was once thought.

My mate was having none of it, but then killed the conversation stone dead by saying :

“After Munich, nothing matters.”

I knew exactly what he meant.

After that most phantasmagorical – seems that this is a real word, my spell checker liked it – night in Germany, when even the most ridiculous dreams of a Chelsea supporter growing up and supporting the team in the grim years were met and surpassed, I have constantly wondered if anything would come close.

It is very unlikely.

Although the other two games which vie for affection in my long history of attending games – Wembley 1997 and Bolton 2005 – were magical moments, Munich blew them out of the water.

And so, there is – in some ways – a gnawing realisation that regardless of how many more pieces of silverware Chelsea Football Club might accumulate over the next decade or more, my enjoyment will sadly pale when compared to the scintillating climax to the 2012 Champions League Final. I remember that I felt the same way in Moscow, just before that miserable game seven years ago.

“This was it then – the zenith of my Chelsea-supporting life. I had thought on the importance of this match for days on end. I realised that, to an extent, there was a certain inherent sadness in this momentous trip. Should we be victorious, this would undoubtedly be the high point, the high water mark, of my Chelsea life…anything else which follows would be therefore of lesser importance, of lesser value…quite a chilling prospect and it haunted me throughout the trip.”

So, as I attempt to unravel the events of Sunday 3 May 2015, I am well aware that things might not turn out as might be expected.

Munich you see. It’s a bugger.

Football is all about journeys and the journey for the championship – er, Premiership – decider began with an alarm call as early as 6.30am. With the early-afternoon kick-off, I wanted to make time to be able to relax and soak the entire pre-match atmosphere up. I collected P-Diddy at just after 7.30am and Lord Parky at bang on 8am. All three of us were in good spirits but we were a little concerned that the weather outside was rainy and miserable. I drove through some depressing and dispiriting weather; it was pretty nasty and tiring driving conditions to be honest. I tried to remember back to 2010.

“Wasn’t it a bit rainy against Wigan five years ago?”

I was grasping for lucky omens. I am sure I was not alone.

As I drove towards London, Parky and I spoke about the game at Leicester. It had been a fine evening and one of the highlights of the season. The three of us then looked ahead to the match against Crystal Palace. Although Alan Pardew, fresh from his unloved tenure at Newcastle United, has managed to get his new team playing some excellent football, with Bolasie and Zaha an identifiable threat, I assured the others that Jose Mourinho would not let the day pass without the team attaining the desired three points.

“He won’t let this day slide by. He won’t let this slip.”

Without even realising it, I was referencing a game from last season.

I slid into my usual parking place on Bramber Road at 10am exactly. The inclement weather had gradually diminished and the roads had been clear of any substantial traffic. Jackets were selected. We walked to The Goose, though were not too sure if it would be open.

Thankfully, it was. The place quickly filled, and I was able to relax in a corner booth as others joined us. During the next two-and-a-half hours, I was able to chat to a few close mates, including Daryl who was sporting a magnificent T-shirt which paraded our Le Coq Sportif kits from the early-‘eighties with a nod to the much-loved Benetton rugby top of that era.

“United Colors Of Chelsea.”

I remember I once owned a “United Colours Of Chelsea” shirt many years ago – featuring English and British flags – but Daryl’s was much better. I’ll have to bag one over the summer.

Friends from the US floated in to the pub, too and they were, of course, filled with joy that their individual trips to London – most planned months previously – had aligned themselves with such a crucial date in our history.

“Lucky bastards.”

Again, a lot of our foreign fans – without boring everyone – come in for much derision, but please believe me when I say that folks such as Curtis and Karen from Pittsburgh, Brian from Chicago, and Mike, Matt, Brad and Frank from New York do not fit the hackneyed-stereotype of gormless friendship-scarf wearing dolts which some section of our support take great pleasure in deriding.

They know our history. They know our songs. They have heard of Micky Nutton.

It was lovely to see them all again.

The mood in the pub was upbeat and I was able to sink a few pints, knowing that I would not be driving home for hours upon hours.

On the walk down to Stamford Bridge, I was vaguely aware of grafters selling poorly-designed and poorly-printed “Chelsea Champions” T-shirts. There was an innate inevitability about all of this that I found slightly odd. This was not the Chelsea way of old, of lore, of ancient history, and it didn’t rest easy with me.

However, paradoxically, this was something that we have experienced before under Mourinho. The 2004-2005 title was won at Bolton glorious Bolton with three games left. Our win at the Reebok – magnificent and much-loved as it was – was on the back of a run where there seemed like a definite inevitability of triumph. The following season, the clincher against Manchester United, was won with two games spare. Again, it seemed sure that we would win the title from a long way out. The last remaining league win that I had witnessed in person, the Carlo Ancelotti double of 2009-2010, was more like a typical Chelsea triumph; behind for most of the season, a few patchy performances, but a magnificent canter past Manchester United in the final furlong with goals being scored with reckless abandon.

The current campaign has seemed a stereotypically Mourinho-type affair.

Calm, calculated, efficient.

To be honest, compared to our previous one hundred years – before Jose – it has been most un-Chelsea like.

From 1905 to 2005, there has been calamity, disaster, underachievement but also swashbuckling style, entertainment and intermittent glory. It has been anything but calm and calculated efficiency to be honest.

Since 2005, our history, our character, has been updated.

As I made my way to my usual seat, with maybe ten minutes to spare before the kick-off, there was a nice buzz in the air. With just five minutes to go, the sun suddenly burst through the clouds and began to bathe Stamford Bridge in warming sun. On the page devoted to the manager’s pre-match thoughts, there were just ten words.

“THREE MORE POINTS TO BE CHAMPIONS. LET’S DO IT TOGETHER.”

There were rumours that Remy might be available, but Jose named Didier upfront. Courtois replaced Cech as expected. There was a late change however; Ramires was taken ill, to be replaced by Juan Cuadrado. I wondered if he would fill the role of Jiri Jarosik – a bit player and a surprise selection – who played at Bolton when we won the title in 2005.

[cue new fans typing in Jiri Jarosik in “Google.”]

[cue old fans saying “I’d forgotten him.”]

Three thousand away fans, Crystal Palace in yellow and pale blue, the sun overhead, the crowd nervous with anticipation, the wait for the referee’s whistle.

Didier knocked it to Willian and the game began, with Chelsea – unusually – kicking towards me in the first-half.

We began well, but the visitors also enjoyed a spell of dominance with a flurry of corners. We came back again and attempted to carve open the Palace defence. A raking shot from Cuadrado whizzed over. To my dismay, despite some degree of noise at the start, the Stamford Bridge crowd was outsung by the away fans, who took great pleasure in singing –

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

We responded with the dull and predictable :

“Oo the fackinel are yoo?”

Speroni was twice tested in quick succession. The second of two Didier Drogba free-kicks dipped maliciously at the last moment but Speroni was able to hack the ball away after momentarily dropping the ball at his feet. A fine block by John Terry kept Palace at bay on the half-hour . We weren’t playing particularly well to be honest and we waited for things to improve. I commented to Alan –

“We weren’t that special in the first-half at Bolton were we?”

A few half-chances came and went. Palace had certainly matched us. A draw would be a huge anti-climax, for all of us, but especially for Matt, Mike and Frank who were not staying around for any more games. Alan went off for a hot-dog just before the break. I spoke to PD about Eden Hazard, so often the main man, having a relatively quiet game. Within seconds, a lovely back heel from Willian was played in to the path of an advancing Hazard, just inside the box. A challenge, from possibly two defenders, it happened so quick; Hazard falling to the floor.

All eyes were on the referee Kevin Friend.

Penalty.

I was worried that Alan was not back at his seat. Thankfully, I spotted him a few yards away, entranced by the scene below. I waited and waited, camera poised of course, for Eden to shoot.

It was a weak shot. I clicked.

Speroni  easily saved, but thankfully the ball flew up to a reasonable height and Eden nodded the rising ball past the hapless ‘keeper into the far corner.

BOOM.

The crowd roared and I was just so relieved. With my camera in hand, I calmly photographed the run of Eden down to the corner flag below me; how lucky I am to have such fantastic seats, perfectly placed for numerous goal celebrations. It often seems that I am eavesdropping on their private parties. I captured the ensuing huddle and the players’ screams and shrieks of joy. And I screamed too.

“COME ON.”

Altogether now…

“Phew.”

A little time to relax at the break. Michael Duberry on the pitch. Forty-five minutes to go. Forty-five minutes to our fifth league title.

A typical Mourinho move at the break; Mikel, the closer, replaced Cuadrado.

A rasping drive from Branislav Ivanovic flew wide, and then – that rare event – a Mikel shot was grasped by the ‘keeper down low. This seemed to inspire the Chelsea crowd, who for ten minutes serenaded some key personnel in our recent history.

“Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich, Roman Abramovich.”

“Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho, Jose Mourinho.”

“Oh Dennis Wise.”

“Born Is The King.”

“Super, Super Frank.”

“Gianfranco Zola, La La La La La La.”

“One Di Matteo.”

“Oh Jimmy Jimmy, Jimmy Jimmy Jimmy-Floyd Hasselbaink.”

“Vialli! Vialli! Vialli! Vialli!”

“He’s Here, He’s There, He’s Every Fuckin’where, Frank Leboeuf, Frank Leboeuf.”

“Eidur Gudjohnsen, Eidur Gudjohnsen.”

Fantastic stuff. The place was alive, thank heavens.

No songs for Mineiro, though.

Then one more –

“WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.”

After a docile period of play, chances came again, with Palace starting to threaten, but with our defensive five in imperious form. Didier and Willian spurned chances to make the game safe. This was getting to be a predictably nervy end to the game. I dreaded a Palace equaliser. It seemed that the away team had decided to pack all of their attacking punch in to the last five minutes of the game. They had crosses, they had corners, but our defenders stood tall. A block by Courtois near the end was the only real time that he had been caused to make a save of note.

Two minutes of added time.

Phew.

“Blow up ref.”

More Palace pressure. More Chelsea clearances.

The whistle.

Number five was ours.

We were 2014-2015 English champions.

I stood, quite numb, and if I am honest, a little flat. I think that the toll of the last two or three months, losing my mother and coping with the grief, had left me a little distant. On previous games, some quite recent, I had loved the cut and thrust of the title run-in. However, at that exact moment in time, I was just relieved and quietly contented. It was a similar feeling to that which I experienced at Wembley against Tottenham.

Streamers filled the sky, “We Are The Champions” boomed out on the PA. There were whoops of joy all around me, and I gave Alan a warm hug. I knew what he was thinking. The players soon ran down towards The Shed and dived headlong in to history.

There was another loud cheer.

Happy days.

The Chelsea trio of club songs…

“One Step Beyond.”

“Blue Is The Colour.”

“The Liquidator.”

The Stamford Bridge crowd slowly drifted off and out in to the afternoon sun. I knew that I had to have a little quiet time with my thoughts. I thought about my dear mother, who had watched alongside me from my seat on two separate occasions during the 2004-2005 and 2009-2010 seasons, but would not be there to greet me with her usual smile at the end of this victorious campaign.

The Chelsea PA played another song, but this just tipped me over the edge.

“Cos the blue tomorrow gets closer each day.
We will follow the Chelsea.
Til our dying day.”

Alan appeared from nowhere and we hugged again.

I decided to stay on my own for a further few minutes. Alan walked off to join the rest of my mates at the “Lillee Langtree”. The stadium looked a picture. I am often one of the very last to leave at the end of the final home league game each season. This was no different. I was one of the last still there. I sat alone with my thoughts. After another five minutes, I decided to move. I had a quick chat with Darren about my mother as we descended the stairs.

Mum was hardly an avid Chelsea fan, but she loved to see me happy when we had won. Even in the last period of her life, suffering from dementia, Mum was able to reel off the names of a few Chelsea legends.

“Ron Harris”, “Peter Osgood”, “Kerry Dixon”, “Pat Nevin”, “Gianfranco Zolo.”

Bless her.

Outside the West Stand, I pictured the – much-changed – scene that would have greeted me after my first-ever game, in the West Stand, in 1974. It all came back to me in an instant.

I loved this club then and I love it now.

Back at the pub, drinks were overflowing, and there was some singing and chanting going back and forth between those outside the “Lillee Langtry” and those drinking outside the “Prince Of Wales.” There was joy, but it was all very controlled and understated. It was not like the euphoria of 2005, nor certainly 1997 nor – of course – 2012. I was sober, but happy to stay for an hour as the lads continued to drink. I bumped in to a few good friends. It was lovely

Daryl, Simon and I spoke about the season. We spoke about us being off the pace in Europe and wondered if we could have a stab at the biggest trophy at all over the next few seasons. We then focussed on the league. I am sure I oversimplified things, but my take on it was :

“Diego Costa carried us for the first few months. Then Eden Hazard. Then Jose Mourinho.”

It has certainly felt as though this season would be ours from a few months ago, as Mourinho turned the screw and pragmatically reverted to a more conservative style of play. The difference in style in our play before and after the turn of the year has been very noticeable and – sigh – the media has surely salivated on reminding everyone of it. Our last real swashbuckling performance was at Swansea in January. Since then, our formidable defensive qualities have shone, though in some quarters it seems that the football world would wish us to lose the occasion game 5-4 rather than grinding out narrow wins.

I’ll be honest, the entertaining football of the autumn was a joy and it would have been nice to maintain this style throughout the season, but with Mourinho’s safety-first approach, it is no surprise that style gave way to substance as the season reached a climax.

I can almost imagine a brief conversation which might have taken place in Roman Abramovich’s office high in the Stamford Bridge stadium in January.

Roman : “Good morning Jose. Are you well?”

Jose : “Sure, but…”

Roman : “What is the problem?”

Jose : “Well. We spoke after Tottenham. It felt like it was not Chelsea playing that night. Five goals, you know? And we spoke, I am sure you remember, about the need to tighten defensively.”

Roman : “Of course. Of course.”

Jose : “I told you, no I asked you, if you would be happy for me to tighten. I need that reassurance.”

Roman : “It is no problem. This is your team. You win the league your way.”

Jose : “And then we score five at Swansea!”

Roman : “Ha. Yes. That mustn’t happen again.”

Jose : “Ha. No. “No, it won’t.”

Roman : “You see this shirt of John Terry from ten years ago?”

Jose : “I see it.”

Roman : “The team scored 72.”

Jose : “Yes.”

Roman : “But conceded just 15.”

Jose : “You remembered.”

Roman : “Do the same this season. Tighten. No problem.”

Jose : “Understood. Thank you.”

Outside the pub, with the sun now heating us all up, the drinks were being quaffed by others. The songs continued.

In a quiet moment, I whispered to Daryl –

“Of course you realise that our global fan base has just increased by a million the past two hours.”

He looked at me; no words were spoken but a lot was said.

At just before 6pm, I drove out of Bramber Road, and headed west with another league championship title to my name. The traffic was thin, the driving relatively easy. In the last few miles, with a drowsy Parky having been poured out of my car and no doubt asleep on his couch, PD and I reviewed the incredible path that our club has taken since 1997. We both remembered how delighted we were to reach the, ultimately disastrous, FA Cup Final of 1994. So much has happened to us all since then.

It has been a magnificent journey.

By 9pm I was at home and devouring all things Chelsea-related on the internet. At the end of a tough time for me, I could relax and watch “MOTD2” and enjoy a few peaceful moments of pride and joy.

We were champions.

No, it wasn’t as good as Munich, but – for the time being – it will do very nicely thank you.

We now stand seventh in the list of champions of England.

Manchester United – 20

Liverpool – 18

Arsenal – 13

Everton – 9

Aston Villa – 7

Sunderland – 6

Chelsea – 5

We are climbing nicely.

Who knows where this magnificent journey will end?

IMG_0181