Tales From Hertfordshire.

Watford vs. Chelsea : 3 February 2016.

We were parked up at just before 6pm. There was a chill to the air and I was expecting the night to get colder still. The pedestrianised Watford High Street was eerily quiet, and the many large pubs which lined the wide street seemed to be largely devoid of punters. On Facebook, it seemed that the Chelsea faithful were located in just two pubs; “The Flag” near the town’s train station, and the central “Moon Under Water.” We aimed for the latter.

It was full of Chelsea. On walking to the packed bar, I was able to spot many friends and acquaintances. Pints in hand, Parky, PD and I headed over to meet up with the other members of the Away Club. The ever-present Alan and Gary were joined by Dave, back visiting us again from his home in the South of France. Beers were sunk, stories told, plans were forged for upcoming games.

I chatted to Noel, who lives so close to Milton Keynes Dons’ stadium that he was able to walk to and from the game on Sunday. I’ve only ever been able to do that once in my life, back in 1985, when I lived ten minutes away from Stoke City’s old ground. We both agreed that it is a very strange sensation.

“All these Chelsea fans were in my local, I couldn’t get to the bar.”

Noel’s “Bletchley Blues” flag is seen everywhere. I can even remember photographing it in Kuala Lumpur in 2011.

The pub did house a few odd looking locals, but Chelsea were in the ascendency. A few songs rung out.

The furore following John Terry’s frankly surprising statement, seemingly unprovoked, about the club’s reluctance to offer him a deal for 2016/2017 has obviously been one of the hot talking points since Sunday. We briefly touched on it. Was it a bargaining tool for John Terry to shame the club in to action, or just the stark admittance that this was the beginning of the end for him in Chelsea colours? A few of us thought that Terry, in the interests of team harmony, should have kept quiet. The last thing that the team wants is a John Terry sideshow between now and May. Of course, the crux of the matter is that on form and leadership alone, he should be offered a new deal. Replacing him, our heartbeat since 2004, will be almost impossible. However, it is everything else that is murky and unclear. His motives. His character. His misdemeanours. Not everything is black and white. Nor blue and white. Let us not forget how he was sorely tempted to become a Manchester City player in the summer of 2009. John Terry has always been a surprisingly complex character for someone who is, on the surface, a fundamentally old-fashioned blocker and tackler and an unreconstructed leader of men. I have a feeling that this story will run for a while yet.

However, if this is his last few months as a Chelsea player, the difference between his send-off and that of Frank Lampard’s could not be more marked.

Thankfully, Watford’s Vicarage Road is only a twenty minute walk away from the town centre. The difference in the feel to the surroundings between our last game, in Buckinghamshire, and this one, in neighbouring Hertfordshire – just thirty miles away as the crow flies – could not be greater. On Sunday afternoon, there were wide roads, a modern stadium, purpose built restaurants, wide open spaces. On this Wednesday evening, there were narrow terraced streets, with a stadium nestled in among the fabric of a town, with hardly an inch to spare.

But I enjoyed the contrast.

Dave and I laughed at the ridiculously long lines at each and every fish and chip shop en route to the stadium.

“Oh, they love their battered haddock in deepest Watford.”

We were soon outside the away entrance, which had evidently had a lick of paint since my last visit in 2009. The whole place looked a lot smarter. There were more familiar faces everywhere I looked. The concourse inside the away stand was still ridiculously cramped, but that had been freshened up too. I suppose Vicarage Road is like a smaller version of Selhurst Park, cramped and intimate, with the turnstiles at street level high above the pitch below, in some sort of natural dip in the land. Vicarage Road holds just over 20,000 now, and is a neat enough stadium. The three rather odd structures to the left of the away end were demolished and replaced by a new structure in 2014.

It is named after Watford’s former chairman and most famous fan Sir Elton John.

Along the black rear wall, running the entire length of the stand, there are words to one of Reg Dwight’s most famous songs.

“You can tell everybody this is your song. It may be quite simple but now that it’s done. I hope you don’t mind. I hope you don’t mind. That I put down in words. How wonderful life is while you’re in the world.”

It is not known if Watford thought about stenciling in “Saturday night’s alright for fighting” above the away seats.

There were plenty of moans from myself and others regarding our seats. There are around seven hundred people in Chelsea’s away season ticket scheme, of which Parky, Alan, Gary and I are all members. This is my tenth such season. In our annual application process, we indicate to Chelsea whether or not we would prefer seats in the front, rear or middle of the respective away allocations. Generally, we get our seats in the desired area; the middle. On this occasion, not only were we around eight rows from the front, but we were way beyond the touchline in the bottom corner. What a bloody joke.

Oh well, at least I’d get a good view of Willian hitting the defender on the near post at every corner.

As the teams entered the pitch, the opposite end, the home Rookery Stand, was awash with yellow and black flags. I presume this is a Watford “thing” insomuch that fans are encouraged to bring them to games, rather than Watford giving them out for free at each home game. Watford seem to have jettisoned the colour red in their kit these days, which is a bit odd since over half the seats at Vicarage Road are coloured red.

There was surprisingly no place for Eden Hazard.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Matic – Willian, Fabregas, Oscar – Diego Costa.

Although we looked comfortable on the ball in the opening moments, chances were not forthcoming. We moved the ball around, but Watford were proving to be a tough nut to crack. Like so many teams these days, they were working hard for each other, and tackling hard. Watford suddenly looked the more likely to score, with several good passages of play, and our defenders looked nervous and edgy, with the twin threat of Ighalo and Deeney causing us concern. From such close quarters, I was impressed with how John Terry is able to twist and move to block his attacker. Only rarely was he embarrassed on the floor.

We were drifting, though, with no real urgency in anyone’s play. Courtois did well to keep out a strong header from Prodl and then saved again from Capoue. The mood inside the away end, or at least the bottom corner, was of growing concern. It seemed to some that it would be a case of damage limitation from Hiddink.

Then, our best chance. The ball was played up to a snarling Diego Costa, who controlled the ball well, and sun away, in that devilish way of his, before dragging a low shot wide.

This seemed to inspire the Chelsea faithful. And although, there was noticeable support for John Terry from within our ranks, we chose to sing a song in praise of our other modern day legend as the first-half drew to a close. For many a minute, we sang and sang and sang.

“Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

Frankie Lampard.

[PAUSE]

Oh Frankie Lampard scored two hundred against the Pikeys.”

At half-time, my phone quickly alerted me to the fact that Frank, watching in New York City, had commented on social media about this, thanking us for the support. I was also informed that one of the 2,200 had been texting Frank throughout the chanting too.

At times like that, it really does seem that we are all in it together.

I noted an immediate increase in intensity in our play in the second-half. Apart from a fine block tackle, Fabregas had been largely missing in the first period. However, he set up Oscar, whose shot was saved. Mikel thundered in from the rebound but his shot was blocked too. Watford countered with a couple of attacks, but I wondered where a goal was coming from. I kept thinking of a last minute Salomon Kalou winner in 2007. I wondered if we would have to wait as long as that.

I was very frustrated when Diego Costa broke down the left, but only Oscar was in a dangerous position. Many yards behind, three midfielders were hardly busting a gut to join the attack. It seemed to be a perfect metaphor for the evening.

The frustration grew.

Watford’s home support was pretty tame.

“Watford FC” soon segued in to “Fuck PSG.”

Oscar shot wide from a Costa pass. A clean strike from the otherwise unimpressive Matic was hit straight at Gomes. Another shot from Oscar. Our chances were slowly piling up, but nobody seemed to be too impressed.

Watford’s players were wilting at the merest hint of a challenge from the Chelsea players. Alan was not impressed.

“You lot go down quicker than Elton John’s chauffeur.”

With twenty minutes to go, at last a substitution, with Eden Hazard replacing Matic. A lovely passing move ended up with a firm strike from Ivanovic testing Gomes, who saved well. Then, we had a great view of Willian teasing his marker, and getting an extra yard to play in Hazard, but his touch was heavy and the chance passed us by.

Then, with time marching on, the best chance of the entire game. John Terry ran at the defence – memories of a winner at Burnley just after the Vanessa Perroncel story broke, could he do it again? – but rather than shoot, he passed to Hazard. His cross was met well by Diego Costa. His header appeared destined to make the net ripple. Memories of Salomon Kalou in 2007. We gulped, we stretched on our tiptoes. Gomes clawed it away.

“What a save. Fackinell.”

And it was. It was a stunning save.

I turned in disbelief.

Ugh.

The game offered no more chances, no more drama. It was an off night for us. Many had felt unfulfilled. For large parts of the game, I suspect that many had hoped for a little bout of narcolepsy to kick in. It hadn’t been exciting. It was a disappointing let down.

“Three points tonight would have got us up to eleventh. Bollocks.”

There was quite a wait for us in the lower section of the away end. With only a very small exit, it took ages for the 2,200 away fans to disperse. Parky and I soon met up with PD, and we then joined the thousands heading back in to town. It seemed everyone was making the same trip, through the tight terraced streets, with cars squeezed together on the pavements, and past several fish and chip shops, fried chicken shops, many Indian restaurants, kebab shops, Chinese takeaways and pubs. Everything for a night out, it seemed. There was even a seedy sauna. In fact, just before we were back on the High Street, there was a Gentlemen’s Club called “Diamonds And Strings”, with several girls poised outside. As the three of us brushed past, one thrust a flier into my hand, advertising a Wednesday event called “Fantasy Night.”

Fantasy night?

“How about Chelsea finishing in the top half of the table this season?”

That’ll do me. Where do I sign up? How much to get in? How much will that cost?

In PD’s car, there was the briefest of summaries of the players’ performances.

“I think Mikel was as good as any to be honest. Zouma and Terry solid, Dave too. Ivanovic a little bit off tonight. Courtois didn’t have much to do. Fabregas bloody rubbish. Matic too slow. Willian off the pace a bit. Diego Costa tried his best to be fair. Oscar OK. Played better when Hazard came on.”

Just as PD made had made great time on the drive up to Watford – barely over two hours covered the 111 miles from a pub car park outside Melksham to a car park just north of the Watford High Street – he did even better on the return drive. I was home by 12.30am.

It hadn’t been the best of evenings following the team, but it never feels like a waste of time nor money. If or when it does, a part of me will be lost forever.

Manchester United at home on Sunday.

See you there.

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Tales From Fresh Fields.

Milton Keynes Dons vs. Chelsea : 31 January 2016.

The two domestic cup competitions were serving me very well in season 2015/2016. First, there was my first visit to Walsall’s Bescot Stadium in the League Cup in September. Then, on the last day of January, there was my inaugural visit to Stadium MK, the home of the Milton Keynes Dons, in the fourth round of the F.A. Cup. This was excellent news indeed; two new stadia within four months.

As soon as they appear, I’ll keep on ticking them off.

It had been an easy drive on an overcast Sunday; a leisurely trip through the shires of Southern England, avoiding the motorway network except for a fifteen minute spell on the M4 near Swindon.

Somerset, Wiltshire, Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire.

We drove past villages with names like Tingewick, Tubney, Kingston Bagpuize, Hinton Waldrist and Pusey.

We had decided to break the journey at Bicester. While I deposited the Chuckle Brothers – P Diddy, the birthday boy, and Puff Parky – at “The Acorn” pub for bevvies, I quickly raided the nearby shopping outlet for a lightning strike.

I had pulled over for a pullover, if you will.

I joined them for a drink, but we were soon on our way again.

We were parked up a few hundred yards away from the stadium on a grass verge by the side of the road. Although it looked just like any other road, flanked by industrial units and commercial premises, it was anything but. It was the site of the Watling Road, an old Roman road which originally shot as straight as an arrow from Canterbury through London – including Edgware Road – and up in to the Midlands before ending south of Chester. Back in August, while meeting pals at a pub before the Community Shield against Arsenal, we had walked a few hundred steps north on Edgware Road. And here we were, five months later, back on the Watling Road again. A little history, a little geography.

This was just up my street.

On more than one occasion in fact, the trip to Milton Keynes seemed a little like my schooldays revisited. Way back in 1979, I can remember learning about the new towns which were developed after the Second World War throughout Britain, in an effort to cope with population growth on one hand and a clearance of inner city slums on the other. Glasgow had East Kilbride and Cumbernauld. Edinburgh had Livingston and Glenrothes. Liverpool had Skelmersdale, Warrington and Runcorn. Birmingham had Telford. Newcastle had Washington. London had Bracknell, Basildon, Crawley, Harlow, Hatfield and a few more.

However, Milton Keynes, almost a cliché for blandness with its grid-pattern of streets and regimented land use, not to mention its famous concrete cows, is the most famous new town of them all. Apart from flying through the town on many train journeys from my college town of Stoke-on-Trent to Euston for football in the ‘eighties – the cows could be seen from the train – I had never visited Milton Keynes.

I would not visit it on this occasion either since the stadium actually sits in the town of Bletchley, merging in with its more famous neighbour to the north.

The town of Milton Keynes itself, the butt of many a joke, would have to wait.

It was approaching two o’clock, and the kick-off was over two hours away. A few good friends were drinking in a working mens club, but that was just too far away for us. We were not sure if there would be any pubs close by, but we decided to chance our luck and headed to the stadium.

From the outside the stadium is rather sleek. Although there is a large Hilton Hotel latched on to the main stand, the exterior walls are black and stylish. I was immediately impressed.

Outside the main entrance, excited locals were waiting for the Chelsea team coach to arrive. There was a tangible “buzz” about the place. We had sold around 6,700 tickets for this one, but I hadn’t been convinced that all of the home areas would sell out.

Outside the away end, we struck gold. Lined up, directly opposite the northern turnstiles, were a collection of restaurants.

“Prezzo.”

“Nando’s.”

“Pizza Express.”

“Frankie & Benny’s.”

“Bella Italia.”

“TGI Friday’s.”

This was too good to be true. We settled in “Thank Goodness It’s Sunday” and relaxed. The place was full of Chelsea, to be honest. Although hardly anyone was wearing colours, we just knew. We spotted a few faces. We chatted away to a chap who was with his four year old boy, one of the very few bedecked in Chelsea wear. The young lad was hugely excited and it was such a joy to see. Living locally, I asked if it was the boy’s first game. Far from it; it was his fifth game of the season. There had been tears at Wembley against Arsenal, to begin with, but this would be the lad’s third game of the month after Scunthorpe and Everton (more tears, followed by huge joy). It was bloody lovely to see the kid’s enthusiasm.

I spotted that the father’s mate was wearing a “Canada Goose” jacket, which I have started to notice being worn at football by those in the know this season.

“Aren’t you a bit warm with that on mate?”

“Just a bit mate.”

There had been a brief conversation with a MK Dons supporter outside. She had explained that she had grown up a Chelsea supporter, but could not afford tickets for our games these days. She was wearing a white MK Dons shirt, and was troubled that she did not really know who to cheer for. I found this rather odd. Even if you couldn’t afford tickets to many games, surely your club stays with you.

She seemed to sum up perfectly my dislike for our hosts.

Of course, I need not spend too much time chronicling the history of Milton Keynes Dons. Formed in 2004, on the back of the financial meltdown of former FA Cup winners Wimbledon, this is a football club which draws much disdain from the rank and file supporters of many teams throughout the football pyramid. That the town of Milton Keynes should suddenly be gifted a professional league team ahead of other more deserving towns and clubs, each with decades of history, really makes me angry. I won’t labour the point, but I was so happy and pleased when AFC Wimbledon, rising like a phoenix from the ashes, and cared for and succoured by fans, regained their place in the Football League in 2011.

Inside the stadium, I took my seat high in the upper tier in a corner underneath a large scoreboard. For once, I would be sitting alone. Other friends, the usual suspects, were scattered around the 6,700 away fans. I made myself at home. The black seats were padded, and roomy. I looked around. This was a very impressive stadium indeed. Originally there was just a lower tier, but as the years have passed the upper tier has been in-filled. Unlike so many new stadia – Southampton, Middlesbrough, Derby – this stadia had a variety of quirky features. The upper deck, quite steep in fact, gave the place an extra dimension. And rather than a single tier, wrapped around, there were distinct sections, set apart, with corporate boxes behind. This aspect reminded me a little of Red Bull Arena in New Jersey where our season began. I was especially drawn to the roof though. It seemed very light and airy, giving the whole stadium a European feel. I soon decided that I might not be a fan of the club, but I was a big fan of their stadium. Add in the row of bars outside the away end, Stadium MK was getting a huge “thumbs up” from me.

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As kick-off approached, the stands swelled to capacity. It was quickly evident that this was a full house. Hardly a seat was unused. Ironically, four next to me were empty. The Chelsea end looked fantastic. As this was “live” on BBC1, I was hoping that we would give the viewing millions a show both on and off the pitch. I had watched some of the televised Derby County versus Manchester United match on Friday evening and was pretty impressed with the United fans’ wall of noise throughout the game. Now it was our turn. I wanted skill on the pitch and noise off it.

A lot of Chelsea had come dressed for the occasion. There is no doubt that many make a special effort for away games.

Adidas, Aquascutum, Lacoste, Canada Goose, Moncler, MA Strum, CP.

Guus Hiddink had shuffled his cards slightly.

We were thrilled that Ruben was given a start.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Baba – Matic, Fabregas – Loftus-Cheek, Oscar, Hazard – Diego Costa.

We began the game on fire, and Diego Costa was the first player to test our faith. He was clean through, yet goalkeeper David Martin stuck up an arm to save at close range. We attacked at will and chance after chance came or way, only for awful finishing to let us down. Oscar was especially wasteful. However, the Chelsea supporters were in good voice and we hoped for a little more success in front of goal. Thankfully, Diego Costa pounced on a defensive error out wide and was able to feed Oscar, arriving on the far post. Although he slipped on impact, he was still able to guide the ball home.

Get in.

The home team had appeared to be silent witnesses to our comfortable start to the game, so it was a huge surprise when an optimistic shot from Darren Potter – who Cesc Fabregas really should have tackled – was deflected up and over Thibaut Courtois by the leg of Nemanja Matic.

Balls. That was not on the cards.

Fabregas then sent Eden Hazard clear, but his weak shot was parried by Martin on to the near post. We waited, still, for Eden’s first goal of the season. Baba, looking a little nervous, managed to squeeze a ball across the box, but Costa and Oscar seemed to get in each other’s way.

Not to worry, the Chelsea fans were making a racket.

“Oh Dennis Wise…”

Thankfully, just after the half-hour mark, Oscar was set free inside the box and struck a fine shot, first time, past Martin. The applause from the Chelsea fans, I thought, seemed quite subdued, but it only heralded more song.

“Bounce in a minute…”

A couple of shots were traded, but then Oscar went on a dribble before curling a lovely shot past Martin to give us a 3-1 lead.

A hat-trick for Oscar. Braziliant.

Just before the break, the entire Chelsea end burst in to song :

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon.

“Wimbledon, Wimbledon, Wimbledon – Wimbledon, Wimbledon.”

Lovely stuff.

Our 1997 FA Cup semi-final opponents were remembered.

In the second-half, with victory surely on the cards, the flowing football from Chelsea began again. Hazard was fouled just inside the box, and a penalty was awarded. Eden placed the ball on the spot and calmly rolled it home.

Get in you beauty.

4-1 and game over.

There was a song for Fabregas, now seemingly back in the fold, after a strange time for him.

“Fabregas is magic…”

There was also songs for heroes sadly no longer with us.

“The Shed looked up and they saw a great star…”

Bertrand Traore replaced Diego Costa.

He was soon involved, latching on to a Hazard pass and ably sweeping the ball home.

5-1, with hopes of a few more.

I do not know too much about the young lad from Burkina Faso, but he looks confident with the ball. Baba, after a shaky start, improved as the game went on, and Loftus-Cheek (complete with his “Give It Up” song) oozed calmness on the ball. The home team were reduced to taking long shots at Courtois.

Willian and Pedro replaced Hazard and Oscar.

There was no way that the BBC commentators could accuse us of taking the FA Cup lightly.

No.

Not Chelsea.

In truth we took our foot off the gas a little during the closing minutes, by which time I seemed to be transfixed by Dean Lewington, down below me on the Dons’ left, his movement reminding me so much of his father, Ray, who played for us from 1975 to 1979.

On the walk back to the car, we heard that we had drawn Manchester City in the fifth round.

By the time we had begun our return trip to Wiltshire and Somerset, we were numbed by the odd announcement by club captain John Terry that this would be his last season in the famous royal blue. I was confused and bewildered by this news. Ironically, I had mentioned to the lads on the drive to Bletchley that JT was worth another year. Last season was one of his best ever, and he rarely plays poorly. His performance at Arsenal last week was exceptional.

It had taken the edge off a fine day out in Buckinghamshire.

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Tales From The Clock End.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 24 January 2016.

I began the day early. This was going to be a long one. I had everything planned out. As with last season’s trip to Arsenal, there would hopefully be a little pub crawl for the four of us from the Somerset and Wiltshire border, ahead of meeting up with more friends nearer kick-off. This would be my tenth trip to Arsenal’s new stadium. For the vast majority of those games, and a couple at Highbury too, the meet would be at “The Shakespeare’s Head” at Holborn. Last season, after Parky and I went on an enjoyable walk on the north bank of the Thames in Chiswick and Hammersmith, we arrived late, just as the pub was reaching a Magic Hat crescendo. This year, we would be aiming for a walk through the West End before joining the massed ranks of the Chelsea Loyalists. It was going to be a fine day out.

The actual football itself worried me of course. I am sure that I wasn’t alone with those thoughts.

As I set off at just before 8am, I turned the car radio on. I was automatically tuned to Radio Two, and a Sunday morning show was playing a musical version of “The Lord’s Prayer.” On a day when I might be seeking for divine intervention in the quest for goals and points, I thought that this was quite apt.

The Chuckle Bus was fully laden for the trip to the capital. PD and myself in the front. Glenn and Parky in the back. When I had picked up PD, we both agreed on one thing.

“I’ll take a 0-0 now.”

Whisper it, but I was almost expecting us to get gubbed.

“I can see us losing 3-0.”

Glenn, who was coming with me to Arsenal for the first time since those two back-to-back FA Cup games in 2003 and 2004, was much more upbeat.

“Nah, we’ll do ‘em.”

The roads were quiet. We parked at Barons Court and rode the dark blue Piccadilly Line in to the West End. The pubs were relatively quiet, but it made a nice change to be seeing a different part of the city. Our ramble took us slowly east.

“The Sussex.”

“The Round Table.”

“The White Swan.”

“The Sun.”

“The Shakespeare’s Head.”

We were able to relax and enjoy each other’s company. Football was only part of the equation. Each of the first four pubs were cosy and full of character. “The Round Table” is a particular favourite of mine, its reputation slightly tarnished only because it brought back memories of Tottenham away last year, when we assembled there prior to heading north to N17. We stumbled across a few familiar faces in “The Sun” – off the beaten track really, quite a surprise – and then headed off to the last pub of the day, which – unlike the others – is far from cosy. Outside, my work colleague Bruno was waiting for me. It was just a minute or so before 2pm.

Bruno : “Hey, you’re on time.”

Chris : “We work in logistics, mate.”

Bruno is from Fortaleza in northern Brazil and had been working alongside me in our office in Chippenham and then Melksham since late Spring. He, typically, is a devoted football enthusiast. While studying in Portugal, he played for a lower level football team, somewhere in the Portuguese footballing pyramid, and his eighteen year old brother is currently on trial with us here in England. His team back home in Brazil is Palmeiras, from San Paolo, the city which hosts our 2012 World Club Championship opponents Corinthians. I was tickled to hear that Bruno has nothing but bad things to say about Corinthians. I heard a whisper that he had a slight inkling towards Arsenal, but I think it is fair to say that since we have been sharing the same office, my devotion to the Chelsea cause has inevitably worked a little magic on him. Throughout the week, I had semi-seriously joked that his life would change on Sunday 24 January 2016.

“Your life will never be the same, Bruno.”

Bruno studied for his Master’s degree at Bath University – he has loved being in England – but was yet to see a football match of any description while over here. Luckily, a ticket became available at the very last minute from a good mate, and so I was very happy to be able to invite him along. The timing really was perfect. His last day of work with us was on the preceding Friday and his flight back to Brazil would be on the Thursday. His wife had left for Brazil a week or so ago. This really would be a royal blue send off. There was just the worry about sending him away from Arsenal with a fine Chelsea performance. I knew that he would enjoy the experience of being in and among three thousand of us, but the actual match result was not so clear.

Regardless, I soon introduced Bruno to a smattering of my match-going companions in the large and noisy pub. Very soon, the boozer was reverberating with a few Chelsea songs. I could see that Bruno was impressed.

“I can see why this takes up so much of your life, mate.”

We were stood next to Alan and Gary. I casually mentioned that Gary has missed just one home game since 1976…”Sheffield United at home, 1992, Jason Cundy scored, we lost 2-1, chicken pox”…and this blew Bruno away.

“Fantastic.”

As always, Arsenal away brings back memories of 1984. I spoke to Bruno about that momentous day, and showed him a YouTube clip of Kerry scoring in front of a packed Clock End.

“Our first game back in the top flight in five years.”

“You were there, right?”

“We were all there, Bruno. And there is an entire book, in which I have written a few words, devoted to that one game.”

By the end of our hour or so in the pub, Bruno was asking about membership and season tickets.

I had a little chuckle to myself.

The team news came through.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Matic, Mikel – Oscar, Fabregas, Willian – Diego Costa.

Inside the tube, full of Chelsea, there were songs, one after the other.

“Make way for the champions…”

Bruno was full of smiles.

On the walk from Arsenal tube station – I was a little dismayed that I didn’t have enough time to show Bruno the classic art deco stands of Highbury – there were a few more Chelsea songs, but these soon petered out as we got closer to the towering stadium.

There was that odd little Arsenal chant as we walked up and over the railway lines.

“What do you think of Tottenham?”

“Shit.”

“What do you think of shit?”

“Tottenham.”

“Thank you.”

“That’s alright.”

Away in the distance, an altercation between rival fans, an echo from the past.

A shove, a punch, a stand-off, a kick.

There was time for one last photograph of Bruno and myself outside the Clock End, and we were inside.

We only reached our allotted seats with a few seconds to spare. As usual, I was positioned midway back, firmly behind the corner flag, alongside the usual suspects. Glenn was in the front row. PD was further back. Bruno towards the rear. The sky was full of low cloud. The air was still and mild. This seemed like a typical footballing day in the capital. A grey day on the surface, but full of colour – red, white, blue – underneath. The undulating upper tier of Arsenal’s stadium matched my thoughts of the day thus far. There had been lovely highs in the five pubs with good friends, but now my thoughts were full of worry about the ensuing ninety minutes.

Our play from the offset looked calm and assured. I was quickly impressed. There was efficiency in our movement and passing. This was as good a start as I could ever have hoped. I am not sure if the mind plays tricks, due to the fact that the stands are so far from the pitch at The Emirates, but there always seems to be tons of space down our right at Arsenal’s new stadium. Ivanovic and Willian were soon exploiting it.

Chances were traded, but there were no real threats on either goal.

While I waited to hear any noise from the home support, our corner quadrant was full of noise. Of course, I lament the atmosphere in the home areas of Stamford Bridge on virtually a weekly basis, so I can’t be hypocritical and say too much. However, the silence at The Emirates shocked me. Yes, home areas are usually quiet at most stadia these days, but Arsenal seem to continually set the bar high – or low – and it gets worse with every passing season.

A fine move found Willian inside the box, but his volley was wildly off target. However, it hit an Arsenal defender, allowing him a second bite of the cherry. Petr Cech – I’m over him, by the way – easily blocked Willian’s snatched follow-up.

Soon after, Willian played the ball in to space, dissecting the Arsenal line, and Mertesacker felled Diego Costa. There was a slight delay, but in my mind I was hoping that the much-maligned Mark Clattenburg would show a red card. He didn’t let me down. Get in. The Chelsea contingent roared. This was going too well. Bizarrely, Wenger took off Giroud.

A few minutes later, the ball ricocheted out to Ivanovic, lurking in space on the right. He wasted no time in punching the ball low in to the box, and I had a perfect view as Diego Costa met the ball perfectly. The ball crashed in to the net, past Cech, 1-0 to the champions.

The south-eastern section of the Clock End erupted. I punched the air continually. Such joy.

“He’s done it again.

He’s done it again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done it again.”

This soon morphed into the more sinister –

“He’s done you again.

He’s done you again.

Diego Costa.

He’s done you again.”

Arsenal never really threatened us in the rest of the first-half. Our defenders were supremely solid, no more so than the captain, who was simply dominant. We had a few chances. A towering header from Ivanovic was headed off the line. This was fantastic stuff. Our section was in full voice, almost embarrassingly so. Elsewhere, the residents of the Emirates – middle-class, middle-of-the-road, middling – were deadly silent.

Arsenal’s best chance of the half fell to Flamini – I struggled to acknowledge that he was still playing for them – but his flick was well over. Arsenal appeared to be missing a cutting edge, as always.

I briefly met up with Bruno at the break.

“Enjoying it, mate?”

“I know you hate the word, Chris, but…awesome.”

The second-half was a different affair. There was less noise from the away fans as the game carried on. I think the nerves were increasing as the minutes passed by. Soon in to the second period, Fabregas, who was enjoying his best game for ages, danced in to the box. He was upended, and bounced into the air. I felt that Fabregas overdid it.

Wenger brought on Alexis Sanchez. Chances were still at a premium. Courtois was hardly troubled. Mikel was enjoying another masterclass in controlled containment, and alongside him Matic was playing better than usual. Only his distribution let him down at times. Diego Costa, the Arsenal irritant, was replaced by Loic Remy. We watched the clock on the far side. Inside, I was surprisingly confident that we would hold on. Eden Hazard replaced the excellent Oscar.

In the last part of the game, the defenders seemed tired and dropped further and further back. Our sporadic breaks up field soon ran out of steam. Remy’s touch had deserted him; he was poor.

An almighty scramble followed as Thibaut dropped a cross at the feet of several Arsenal players. The ball was frantically hacked away. A couple of half-chances for Arsenal were blocked. Courtois, at last, had a real save to make, falling to his left to save from Monreal. At the other end, Willian broke free but scuffed his low shot wide.

Five minutes of extra time.

Then four.

Then three.

Then two.

Then one.

The whistle.

Glenn was right.

We did’em.

We all met up after the game. Bruno, the boy from Fortaleza, had bloody loved it. The mood was buoyant. Glenn, especially, was full of smiles.

The Arsenal support was obviously glum as they headed back to Middle Earth.

The seven of us headed back to civilisation. On the tube, our faces were full of smiles. The red and white scarfed Gooners had their heads buried in their programmes. Their misery was our joy.

Ten visits to the Emirates in the League with Chelsea, and our record is excellent.

Won 4

Drew 4

Lost 2

Goals 14-9

I wished Bruno well as we alighted at Kings Cross.

“Take care mate, safe travels, stay in touch.”

It had been a good day.

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Tales From The Madness.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 16 January 2016.

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THE FIRST HALF : pallid, boring, slow, inert, lethargic, quiet, lukewarm, tedious, frustrating, dull.

THE SECOND HALF : dynamic, rousing, intense, dramatic, noisy, warming, entertaining, heartening, emotional, breathless.

The third home game of the week paired us with Everton, in a game which certainly made me nervous. Although Roberto Martinez’ team often flatter to deceive – what a lovely football only phrase – we all knew too well that on their day, they can be a tough nut to crack. We only have to recall our away game in September and Steven Naismith’s finest hour.

Looking back though, our home record against the Evertonians is very healthy. Our last league defeat to them occurred way back in the late autumn of 1994, with a Paul Rideout goal giving Everton a win on a day when the then North Stand officially opened. Although we lost on penalties to Everton in an F.A. Cup replay in 2011, we were looking for our twenty-first league game in a row without defeat at Stamford Bridge against them. I had been present at all previous twenty games. They are familiar visitors.

It was a quick and easy commute to our place of pilgrimage, with myself back behind the wheel once again, and I was joined by Andy from Trowbridge in addition to Parky and PD. It was a perfect winter day. The fields touched by early morning frost, but blue skies overhead. A proper blue and white day in fact. The others dropped in to “The Oak” on the North End Road – one of the few remaining old school pubs left – while I headed down to meet up with Charles from Dallas, still in England and knee deep in the delights of London town. On the walk back up to “The Goose”, I made sure he called in to the “CFCUK” stall, where he picked up a copy of Mark Worrall’s book from 2013 “Making History Not Reliving It.”

It was a cold lunchtime in London, but not unbearably so. There was no bitter wind.

It was, again, a perfect day for football.

“The Goose” was as packed as I have ever seen it. It was crazy. The cricket was on the TV, and garnering a fair bit of attention. I introduced Charles to a few close friends, and wondered if he needed a crash course in the basics of our summer sport. A few quick wickets in Johannesburg in South Africa were met with raucous cheering in the pub. Meanwhile, Charles got stuck in to a plate of fish, chips and mushy peas. Another box ticked for him on his whirlwind tour.

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was rather astounded that Everton had brought a full three thousand. It doesn’t always happen. Last season, the number was around two-thousand. In that midweek game, almost a year ago, a very late Willian goal gave us three points. It is strange to think that at that stage Willian’s attributes were widely unrecognised by the majority of the match-going faithful, despite a loudly sang ditty in his name. I can remember thinking throughout the season that never had there been such a miss-match between Chelsea supporters’ love of a song and love of a player.

Guus Hiddink had fine-tuned from Wednesday. In came Nemanja Matic to sit alongside Jon Obi Mikel, allowing Cesc Fabregas to move alongside Pedro and that man Willian. Pedro’s presence in our team seemed to leave many cold. He reminds me of Florent Malouda, to be honest, in that he is ostensibly a wide man, yet seems to dislike running past his marker.

To my pleasant surprise, there were few empty seats in the stadium. Before the game, in “The Oak”, the lads had been approached by six Swedish tourists, nervously concerned about the validity of the tickets that they had bought off the internet. The tickets, for the West Lower, normally sell for around £50, yet these lads had paid £150 apiece for them. It annoyed me so much that they had paid out £600 extra between the six of them for these tickets.

Regardless, Stamford Bridge was full.

The game started slowly. Very slowly. It was not until the fifteenth minute that a well-worked move found Willian scampering down the right wing, but his shot was well saved by Tim Howard. Ross Barkley is one of the few bright hopes in the English game that I admire from afar, and his shot was well-blocked by Kurt Zouma, with Bryan Oviedo flashing the rebound wide.

This was pretty dire stuff in the main. Charles, for his second game at Stamford Bridge, had swapped ends and was watching in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding. With the atmosphere eerily quiet, I was desperate for the game and the atmosphere to improve. It took a full thirty-five minutes for the first significantly loud song to permeate the cold Stamford Bridge air.

Out of nowhere, “Amazing Grace.”

“Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea.”

On the pitch, Chelsea were dominating possession no doubt, but movement off the ball was virtually non-existent. It was painful to watch. I lost count of the number of times Pedro played it back to Dave, or Brana played it back to Willian, only to push the ball further back. It really was dire. A lovely sliding tackle by Kurt Zouma – sure to become his trademark, in addition to a no-nonsense hoofed clearance – was almost a highlight for us. I was expecting a little more from Romelu Lukaku, but he was well-marshalled by Kurt Zouma and John Terry.

Just before half-time, an impressive turn by Kevin Mirallas took him past Kurt Zouma and his low shot was well struck, but equally well-saved by Thibaut Courtois.

At the break, I was pleasantly surprised that there were so few boos from the Chelsea stands. Booing is something I abhor. I just can’t stomach it. Although Chelsea had dominated, Everton seemed a little more dynamic in possession. But really, this was a tedious game of football. I was glad that my pre-match drinking had been kept to two coffees and a “Coke.” Sleep was not an option.

Soon in to the second-half, a strong run from Lukaku and I immediately sensed danger. We seem to cope poorly when balls are switched quickly to our flanks. Barkley moved the ball on to Baines. I muttered the words “low cross” to PD, and – ugh – the ball was whipped in. There was a blur of bodies and the ball ended up in the net.

“That had a goal written all over it” I mumbled.

Soon after, Barkley rattled the post after being set up by Mirallas. Things were looking shaky.

Oscar replaced the disappointing Matic. Again, I was surprised that there were no boos. At least that was pleasing.

However, a well-worked move from our visitors across our box resulted in a cross towards Mirallas, who swivelled and connected well. We were 2-0 down and the Evertonians in the far corner were bouncing and buoyant.

Chelsea 0 Everton 2.

I turned to PD.

“Well, we’ll never score two.”

“Nah.”

The away fans were now full of noise.

“Martinez said he’s not for sale and I was satisfied.

Chelsea want those kind of things that money just can’t buy.

I don’t care too much for money.

Money can’t buy me Stones, can’t buy you Stones.

Money can’t buy you Stones.”

Never known for their volume, I think it was the loudest that they have ever been at Chelsea. However, Chelsea then reacted. The stands reverberated to the sound of the supporters rallying and getting behind the team.

As it should be.

If we are winning, sing and cheer.

If we are losing, sing and cheer louder.

I was so proud. Fabregas attempted a very audacious flick with his back heel, which looped up towards goal, but Howard tapped it over. Soon after, a long ball from Cesc was aimed, hopefully, towards Diego Costa. A calamitous mix-up between Phil Jagielka and Howard allowed the ball to roll free. Diego swooped and slotted the ball in to an empty net.

Game on. The crowd erupted and Diego pumped his fist towards the MHL.

Barely two minutes later, the ball was worked between Fabregas and Costa, with the former taking a speculative shot at goal. A deflection took it the despairing dive of Howard.

2-2.

The Bridge roared again.

Kenedy replaced the poor Pedro.

We were attacking at will now, with the crowd fully involved, and fully supporting the team. Diego stretched at a cross from Dave, but was too far away to connect. Sadly, our number nineteen was hurt in a challenge and was replaced by Loic Remy with ten minutes remaining.

Still the noise echoed around The Bridge.

“And its super Chelsea, super Chelsea FC.”

Mikel, another fine game from him, blasted wide. This was a pulsating game and we watched nervously as that man Mirallas broke through on goal, but Courtois blocked well. In the last minute of normal time, an Everton corner was cleared, but as substitute Deulofue swung a ball in, the Chelsea players appeared to be ball-watching. At the far post, another substitute Ramiro Funes Mori stretched to hook the ball in.

2-3.

“Fuck.”

The Everton players again ran over to their fans in the far corner.

I turned to Alan and said “this season doesn’t want to go away, does it?”

We had played well for so much of the second-half, but how typical of our season that our efforts would go unrewarded. I felt unsurprisingly low. To my annoyance, a notable number of Chelsea supporters upped and left, despite the PA announcing a hefty seven minutes of extra time.

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However, the noise continued and we urged the boys on. Willian struck a shot which flashed wide. We never ever gave up. As the clock-ticked by, the crowd were on tenterhooks.

With surely not long left, a long ball was pumped forward. I spotted that John Terry was up, supporting the attack. I snapped as Ivanovic headed on. I missed the most delicate of touches from Oscar, but as the ball fell towards John Terry, an unlikely recipient, I snapped as he attempted the most ridiculous of flicks with his heel. I watched, mesmerized, as the ball was touched by Howard, but the momentum could not stop the ball flying up and in to the goal.

The stadium gulped and then quickly roared.

I remained remarkably calm and snapped away as John Terry, boiling over with emotion, ran towards the supporters in the MHL. I watched as he stepped in to the crowd, then snapped further as he became engulfed by fans and team mates alike.

“Bloody hell, Chelsea, we did it.”

My photos complete, I looked over and saw Alan, his face contorted with joy.

I had a little moment to myself, crouching, breathing it all in. It was hardly a Munich moment, but I was just acknowledging how utterly amazing this wonderful game of football can be. What heights of emotion it can bring. I was in awe of the game itself – football, you beauty – as much as the goal.

It was a stunning end to a ridiculous game of football.

As a few friends chatted to me as we breathlessly spoke about the match, I had one recurring thought :

“And that is for the knobheads who left at 3-2.”

After a mundane and tedious first-half, the second-half was simply exceptional. There was a lovely mix of surprise, joy and relief on the Fulham Road as I walked back to the car. It certainly felt like a win. And although we gained only one point, I was hopeful that it would represent so much more. It might just give our team and club a little more belief and, that elusive commodity, a little more confidence. 3-3 draws in the top division seem all the rage of late, and this one will live long in the memory banks.

I exchanged messages with Charles, who I would later learn that night was right in line with John Terry’s leap into the Matthew Harding Lower, and who was able to catch the madness on film. I was so pleased that his four thousand mile journey to London had been worth it.

To complete a fine day of football, I soon learned that my local team, mired in a relegation place in the Southern League, had won a tough away game with a goal in the ninetieth minute.

It was one of those days.

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Tales From Vicarious Pleasures.

Chelsea vs. West Bromwich Albion : 13 January 2016.

When I first started penning – or rather typing – these Chelsea match reports, firstly on a rather ad hoc basis, in around 2006 on the “Chelsea In America” website, there was one word which tended to be mentioned with ever more increasing regularity.

“Vicarious.”

For those folks on the other side of the pond, as the old cliché goes, who had never been lucky enough to be able to attend Chelsea games in person, I received many positive comments which thanked me for allowing them to live vicariously through my personal detailing of my match day experiences. It is a word that still occasionally pops up to this day. Ahead of our midweek match with the Baggies from West Bromwich, I was well aware that for a few hours there would be a certain amount of role reversal taking place.

Charles, a Chelsea supporter from the Dallas area of Texas, would be attending his first-ever Chelsea game at Stamford Bridge, and I had planned to meet up with him before the game. I first met Charles in his home town for our friendly with Club America at the spanking new home of the Dallas Cowboys in 2009, and we have chatted on line about many aspects of football and fandom on a regular basis. In addition to being a Chelsea supporter, he is an FC Dallas season ticket holder and he attends the occasional away game too. We both work in logistics – and Charles loves foreign travel, and has written of his experiences on a personal blog too – so we have a few things to talk about outside of Chelsea. I last bumped into him in Charlotte in North Carolina over the summer. Although he has visited Europe twice before – Italy – this would be his first trip to England. He arrived on the morning of the game. I soon sent him a message.

“Welcome to Chelsealand.”

“Thanks! That line at customs ain’t no joke.”

“Need to make sure that Donald Trump doesn’t get in.”

As I muddled my way through my shift at work, I wondered what Charles would be making of the alien streets of London. The new architecture, awkward accents, different streetscapes, a brand new buzz. I was, oh most definitely, jealous of him. There is nothing like, in my mind, a first few hours in a new country, town or city.

His first few comments back to me were revealing.

“So far, London is great. So diverse.”

And indeed it is. Very diverse. And our current team mirrors it. Belgium, Spain, England, France, Brazil, Serbia, Bosnia, Italy, Ghana, Senegal, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Colombia.

The day’s work completed, I met up with PD and Parky. PD was taking a turn to drive and I could relax. We were in the middle of three home games in seven days and an evening with The Great Unpredictables was waiting for us in London.

In The Goose, the usual suspects were assembled. We were all very happy with our F.A. Cup pairing with either the Cobblers of Northampton Town or the knobheads at Franchise FC. As we stood in our corner of the pub, it was confirmed that our game would kick-off at 4pm on the Sunday. This was met with predictable groans. It would mean that I would not get home until around 9pm that night.

Bollocks.

Charles had made his way to Fulham Broadway and then ‘phoned for directions to pub. He sounded rather tired. I suspected that the jet-lag was having an unfortunate effect. He arrived fashionably late, at just after 7pm, but it was lovely to be able to welcome him to The Goose. I had a pint of trademark “Peroni” waiting for him and then introduced him to a few mates.

“Ah, you’re Lord Parky.”

Before we knew it, it was time to head off to the game. Such a fleeting pre-match, but Charles is in town for the Everton game too, so there will be another chance to serve up some Chelsea hospitality then. I was well aware that Charles had a ticket in the corner of The Shed. His front row seat was the stuff of dreams.

“Great position for when we score and the players go down to the corner flag to celebrate.”

Outside the West Stand, we wished each other well.

“Enjoy it mate. See you Saturday.”

Inside Stamford Bridge, I was stunned by the paucity of the away support. The lower tier, maybe able to hold 500 seemed half-full but the 1,000 seats in the upper tier were hardly used. The section filled a little before the kick-off, but West Brom’s contingent was surely no more than four hundred. I moaned at Alan :

“Bloody hell, the next time we go to their gaff and they sing “WWYWYWS” to us. They’re not even here when they’re good.”

The Matthew Harding soon let them know their feelings.

“Is that all you take away?”

To be honest, the gaps in the south-east corner were matched by many empty seats in the home areas. In just the immediate area of where our season tickets are situated, I counted ten empty seats. Over in the south-west corner, I soon spotted Charles. He is well over 6 feet tall. He is easy to spot. He was standing no more than five yards from Parky. Towards the seventeen away fans in the Shed Upper, a large “Chelsea Poland” banner was spotted on the balcony wall for the first time.

Guus Hiddink had finely-tuned the team since Sunday. In came Thibaut Courtois, John Terry and Jon Obi Mikel. When we arrived in London at bang on 6pm, the weather was milder than I had expected. By the time of kick-off, there was a chill to the air. The lights dimmed again, and there was the dramatic entrance of the teams once more.

“The Liquidator” echoed around the stadium.

Here we go.

There was a bright start from both teams, but Chelsea got into their groove quicker than the red-shirted visitors. Diego Costa, blasting ridiculously high into the Shed Upper, and then Willian wasted good chances. But then the visitors went close too, with chances arguably better. Thankfully, we escaped unpunished.

On twenty minutes, we were treated to a fine move. Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa who controlled the ball well and fed Willian. He passed outside to the advanced Branislav Ivanovic, whose low cross was turned in by Cesar Azpilicueta. It was a magnificent move and Stamford Bridge ignited. As I spotted Dave running across the goalmouth and towards the corner, I knew that I had to capture the moment. I snapped away as Dave leaped, rather awkwardly, before being met by his team mates. My pre-game comment to Charles was prophetic. There were the celebrations. And there was Charles, capturing the moment on his phone. A perfect moment.

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For a while, we played some lovely stuff. Maybe we were buoyed by the goal, but I noted a greater willingness to play the ball early. There was movement off the ball. There was a little more energy. I spotted Dave make some excellent blind-side runs behind the West Brom defence, but the playmakers were unable to spot him. Diego Costa was holding the ball up well. Fabregas almost played the pass of the season. Ivanovic put in a few more good crosses. We were playing as a team. This was good stuff.

And then, West Brom bounced back a little. Their new found confidence was rewarded when Pedro, the one who was yet to shine, weakly gave away the ball around the halfway line. Fletcher fed in Gardner, who was able to advance before unleashing a low drive from outside the box, which disappointingly crept in to the goal, just inside the post.

Ugh.

A couple of chances were traded before the break. Although it had been a reasonable first-half of football, the atmosphere was sadly missing. The temperature was dropping further, and although most fans in the lower tiers behind both goals were standing, the noise was poor. There were songs from The Shed on occasion and I was sure that Charles was joining in, but there was no cauldron of noise which we are occasionally treated to at Chelsea.

Pat Nevin was on the pitch at half-time, chatting away to Neil Barnett. Talking of barnets, Cathy had posted a link on Facebook during the day which detailed Pat’s recent hair transplant. This was a really strange story; of all the people who I would have suspected to eschew such cosmetic procedures – vanity, in a word – it would be Pat. The world is a mighty strange place.

Hiddink replaced the poor Pedro with Kenedy at the break. He immediately impressed, shooting on sight from way out. The kid from Fluminense has great energy. One of my current workmates is from Brazil – a Palmeiras supporter, in case anyone is wondering – and Bruno has a younger brother who is a promising footballer. He is currently staying in London and training with Chelsea, with hopes of signing a contract. He once trained with Kenedy in Brazil at a training camp hosted by a club. Who knows, if things go really well, Bruno’s eighteen year old brother could soon be playing for Vitesse Arnhem.

The referee then became the target of our ire. He had – in the eyes of some, maybe not me – blown for the end of the first-half just as we were breaking away, but then chose not to issue a second yellow card to Yacob for a trip on Diego Costa. Willian curled over from the resulting free-kick.

This was turning in to a feisty encounter. The crowd were suddenly the noisiest for the entire night.

I wondered if Charles was able to decipher the London accent.

“Yadontknowwhatcherdoin.”

The temperature dipped further, and now rain fell. I wondered if Charles was getting wet in the front row. All part of a typical London experience.

Temperatures were rising though in the home stands as West Brom seemed to be time wasting. Their goalkeeper Myhill – a fat Jack Whitehall – was booked as he waited for a team mate to put his boot back on. The referee, hardly flavour of the month, booked others. It was a niggly old game. We struggled to create too much in a poor second-half. Oscar and Fabregas seemed distant. Elsewhere others were struggling too. Zouma, so dominant in the air, found himself out of position and struggling on the ground.

Myhill was still getting it.

“You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard. You fat bastard.”

Then, the ball was moved out to Willian, always looking to gain a yard, and he spotted the movement of Kenedy. From behind a grassy knoll, he whipped in a troublesome cross. In a flash, Kenedy lunged at the ball and it flew in to the net, squeezing past the loathed Myhill. Kenedy ran off to celebrate in the far corner, and was joined by many others. Alan suspected an own goal. I was not sure. Regardless, we were winning.

Get in.

There were just fifteen minutes remaining. Costa went close again. But then the visitors came at us again. Matic, masked like Dave, replaced the poor Fabregas. The minutes ticked by. We seemed to be at risk with every West Brom attack. The place became nervous once more. With just five minutes remaining, a loose ball fell to the equally loathed James McLean who crisply dispatched the ball past Courtois and in, again creeping in by the foot of a post.

2-2.

Bollocks.

We collectively crumpled. If anything, the visitors seemed more likely to grab a – unwarranted – winner. In the end, the final whistle was almost greeted with relief. On walking back to the car, I chatted to PD.

“Just not good enough mate. Whenever we attacked, we were up against a packed defence. When they attacked us, they always seemed to have more space in which to move the ball. Tough game coming up against Everton. Lukaku. Then Arsenal away. Dreading it.”

I am sure that Charles had enjoyed himself, though. And, again, I had enjoyed sharing his evening in deepest SW6. It had been a vicarious evening if not a victorious one. This bloody strange season continues.

Everton at home on Saturday. On we go.

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Tales From Everything But The Game.

Chelsea vs. Scunthorpe United : 10 January 2016.

As I have said so often, although we are drawn to the sport of football through our love of the game, and to Chelsea because of our love of the club, it is the friends that we meet along the way that sustains the attraction and makes the whole process richer and more enjoyable. So, although the F.A. Cup has a special spice all of its own, and as our game with Scunthorpe United grew closer, my mind was not really focused on the game itself, but the social niceties which would be in store as the day progressed.

The game with The Iron would be our first of three home games in rapid succession, with games against West Bromwich Albion and Everton on the following Wednesday and Saturday. Three trips to London. Three trips to HQ. Three games in seven days. For us in Somerset, another six hundred miles on the Chelsea odometer.

Of course, we weren’t complaining.

And yet. And yet. I would be lying if I said that all of these home games occasionally didn’t fail to muster up the right amount of enthusiasm. Having seen so many games at Stamford Bridge over the years, I think this is only natural.

And this is where the “other stuff” comes in to the equation. The friendships, the chance meetings with mates, the shared experiences, the banter. I had no real expectation that the game with Scunthorpe would be a “cracker” but I was so looking forward to sharing a few laughs with some trusted pals in deepest SW6.

The first stop of a busy pre-match was to an old haunt, much visited in previous years, but off my chosen match day route for around twenty years. “The Chelsea Pensioner” is just over the railway bridge outside the main entrance at Stamford Bridge, and is therefore ridiculously well-placed for pre-game drinks. It was formerly known as “The Black Bull” and I first started going in there on match days with Alan and Gary – and Paul and a few of his Brighton mates, plus the brothers Mark and Paul – way back in our promotion season of 1988/1989. Tons of good memories in there. Plenty of beers too, in the days when I wasn’t shackled to a car, and when I used to travel up to London by train. Parky, PD and I enjoyed a pint with a few friends – Pete, Calvin – and it was nice to be back. I told Calvin about the time, in April 1989, when we were due to play Leeds United, and a coachload of Leeds fans slowly drove past. It was the week after Hillsborough, and on a day when the normal fever and fervor of club loyalties may have been weakened somewhat due to the horrible events of the previous Saturday, I can well remember the tension in the air as the baiting between the Chelsea and Leeds fans continued. I specifically remember all of the Leeds fans peering out from their coach, wearing what I can only adequately describe as Ku Klux Klan style head wear, hastily constructed from the day’s newspapers. It was an odd sight, a startling sight, one which has evidently left an impression on me after over a quarter of a century.

At just after midday, I headed up to West Brompton to meet my good friend Pete. I have known Pete since 1984, when the hand of fate threw us together, attending college in Stoke, on the same course, for a few years. Pete is from Scunthorpe and although he followed his father’s love of Newcastle United, his hometown team is also close to his heart, unsurprisingly. We headed off to The Goose, where the usual suspects were waiting, while we reminisced about the last time that we were at Chelsea together.

In January 2005 – in the third round of the cup again – Chelsea met Scunthorpe United. We traveled up together, drank in The Goose together, then watched from different stands as Scunthorpe took an early lead, only for Chelsea to come back to win 3-1. We memorably posed for a photo outside the West Stand, but that particular photo-call went horribly wrong.

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For that game, the six thousand away fans were housed in the lower tier of the Matthew Harding, as was the case on occasion in those days. I can well remember the surplus of claret and light blue balloons bouncing around on the grass behind Carlo Cudicini’s goal as the Scunthorpe scorer exuberantly celebrated. In that game, we were witness to a very rare event; a goal by Mateja Kezman. I remember it as a patchy Chelsea performance but an entertaining match, watched by a capacity crowd. Steven Watt and Nuno Morais played for us, in one of their very few starts. I was intrigued to hear from Pete that Scunthorpe, eleven years on, had only sold three thousand tickets. Despite being pummeled with hyperbole from various interested parties about the “magic of the cup”, here was proof that the World’s oldest cup competition was losing its allure.

In 2005, 6,000.

In 2016, 3,000.

I felt like saying “bloody hell, we’re the Champions of England. Where is the love?”

Tickets were competitively priced at just £30 too. Scunthorpe, the town, has been hit with job losses announced at its steelworks, but even so, I was taken aback with their projected turnout.

We met up with Alan and Gary – “Black Bull, 1989” – plus a few other good friends, Daryl, Ed, Andy and Sophie, out in the beer garden. Pete is well known at Chelsea among my mates. He is a veteran of many Newcastle United games at Chelsea over the years. I remember the first one that we attended together, a league cup game in 1992, when five thousand Geordies followed Kevin Keegan’s team down for a midweek game.

I digress.

Actually, let me digress further.

Back in 1991 – January, another F.A. Cup third round – I traveled with Pete for Scunthorpe United’s game with Brighton & Hove Albion on a bitterly cold Saturday. During that particular season, I was virtually unemployed for the entire duration, and so trips to Chelsea were relatively rare; I only attended ten games the entire season. Looking back now, it seems implausible that I chose to watch a Scunthorpe United game on a day that Chelsea were at home to Oxford United in the F.A. Cup. I would imagine that a few people reading this are lost for words.

It’s a head-scratcher isn’t it?

Looking back, I think that the lure of a trip to a new ground for a relatively cheap price won me over. What do I remember of that day twenty-five years ago? I remember watching from that odd, exposed, open to the elements sloping terrace along the side at the old Goldstone Ground. I remember Brighton winning 3-2. I remember a good few pints in the pub beforehand.  I remember former Chelsea players Clive Walker and Gary Chivers – plus Ray Wilkins’ brother Dean – playing for Brighton. I also remember their bloody awful kit; not only blue and white striped shirts, but blue and white striped shorts too, in a strange Brighton beach deck chairs meet Harlem Globetrotters fashion accident. Pete lived in Bristol in those days and on that day in Brighton, we met up with two Bristolian Scunthorpe United fans that Pete had bumped in to at a pub in the city a few months earlier. These two lads – I still find this odd to this very day – had chosen Scunny as their team by randomly sticking a pin in a list of teams. I wondered then, as I do now, if this is a common practice among football fans.

I suspect not.

It was a fine day out to be fair, spoiled only by returning to Pete’s car and hearing on the radio that we had lost 3-1 to Oxford in front of only 14,500.

Ugh.

However, these football stories, these football away days, these friendships. Bloody superb.

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Pete and I set off for the ground earlier than usual. Pete was to meet up with an old school friend that he had not seen in around thirty years. There was time for a quick photo of us outside the West Stand entrance. No mishaps in 2016.

We wished each other well, and I wondered if those two oddballs from Bristol would be in the away contingent, or if they had randomly chosen another team to follow.

I had time to quickly dip in to “The Chelsea Pensioner” a second time to have a quick word Rob and also Foxy, visiting from Dundee, just before heading in to the stadium. Rob told me a lovely story. He now lives in Essex, but was brought up in South London. Just recently, he found out that his grandmother used to work in “The Goose” back in the 1920’s, and – get this – first met Rob’s grandfather in “The Goose” when there used to be a boxing gym in the room above. In all of these years of Rob drinking in “The Goose” he was completely unaware of this. What a lovely story. In a similar tale, I found out during the week that my paternal grandmother lived in a house in Parkstone in Poole in Dorset right opposite a pub where I had a drink before a “Buzzcocks” gig in 2012. These stories, these twists of fate, send my head spinning.

I’m digressing again.

In the whirlwind of this pre-match, there was not even time to pay any attention to the team that Guus Hiddink had chosen.

Rush, rush, rush, and inside just as the two teams were marching across the turf.

Phew.

Ours was a strong team. However tempted he was to play a smattering of youth players against Scunthorpe, Hiddink resisted. Of course, there are two schools of thought here. On one hand, he had chosen to respect the competition and to play virtually a first XI. The opposing view, he had missed the chance to give valuable experience to a few, and most notably Ruben Loftus-Cheek, the recalled Patrick Bamford, and maybe a couple of others.

Begovic

Ivanovic – Cahill – Zouma – Azpilicueta

Ramirs – Fabregas

Willian – Oscar – Pedro

Diego Costa

I could not help but look for comparisons with 2005. Firstly, the away fans were, of course, neatly tucked in the South-East corner. There were no balloons. In fact, I could hardly believe my eyes; virtually every single one of the three thousand away fans were seated. This really surprised me. Most away visitors to Chelsea stand these days – as do we on our travels – and especially those on the lower tier, where sight-lines are not wonderful. Where was the sense of fun, Scunny? Where was the magic of the cup? They were pretty quiet too. I wondered what Pete, sitting at the rear of the upper tier, was making of it all.

He soon texted me “4-6-0.”

There was no false nine involved, either. Every yellow shirt behind the ball, every one covering ground, but relatively few tackles flying in. Scunthorpe’s plan was that of containment.

On the rare occasions that the away team moved the ball in to our half, there was optimistic cheer from the away fans. It was quite endearing, in a highly patronising way.

Bless ‘em.

However, I wasn’t getting too complacent. Even after being 2-0 up against Bradford City last year, we still managed to bugger it up.

Thankfully, we soon went ahead. Ivanovic, as far forward as ever, picked out the fine run of Diego Costa with a low cross from the right. Our number nineteen squeezed himself between two defenders and managed to guide the ball low past their ‘keeper. There was a warm sense of relief, but nothing more. We were up and running against a team that was already looking beaten. A lovely, sweetly struck drive from Fabregas caught us unawares, but the Scunny ‘keeper Daniels did well to tip over. Pedro and then Oscar shot at goal as our easy dominance continued. Scunthorpe’s attacks were rare. A fine block – ouch! – from Gary Cahill and then a magnificent sliding tackle on Williams from King Kurt were the defensive high points for us throughout the first-half.

None other than Gary Chivers – Brighton, 1991 – was on the pitch with Neil Barnett at half-time.

Hiddink appeased many supporters with the introduction of Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Oscar as the second-half began. Willian had frustrated us throughout the first-half with his woeful corners, but went close with a free-kick.

Then, a moment of concern. Kevin van Veen was sent through on goal and three Chelsea defenders were drawn towards him. From our vantage point at the other end of the stadium, it looked like too many cooks spoiling the broth, but Ramires got the closest of all to the Scunny attacker, who collapsed just inside the box. My view was unsubstantial, but the bellows of derision from the away fans after the penalty appeal was waved away suggested we had got off lightly.

Pete sent me another text : “Clear pen shocker.”

At last the away fans rose from their seats, especially in the lower tier, and their noise levels increased. Elsewhere, it had been morgue like. It was great to see so many youngsters at Chelsea for once, but the singing had been dire. I only joined in a few times. Another difference to 2005 no doubt.

With Scunthorpe getting back in to the game, a fine move down our left ended with the masked man Azpilicueta playing a low ball in to the path of Loftus-Cheek, who adeptly slotted the ball home just inside the post. I was happy, but immediately dismayed that I just missed photographing his slide down below us.

We could relax a little, though this Chelsea supporter was still fixated on the game with Bradford City less than a year ago.

Kenedy and Traore came on to replace Pedro and Diego Costa in the last twenty minutes and although Scunthorpe rallied again – and their supporters too, bless ‘em – we managed to keep them out.

It was far from a great game. I will be honest, I didn’t enjoy it too much. We did enough, but without making the pulse race. But our little unbeaten run goes on. We are up to five games now. By next weekend, let’s hope that we are up to seven.

And Wembley is one game closer too.

Job done.

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Tales From The Arthur Wait Stand.

Crystal Palace vs. Chelsea : 3 January 2016.

The rain was falling. I had parked about a mile to the south-west of Selhurst Park. Parky, PD and myself quickly zipped up our jackets in preparation of a twenty minute walk to Crystal Palace’s stadium. After only a few minutes of walking along the tight terraced streets of Thornton Heath – not far enough out, nor leafy enough, to be in suburbia – our coats were sodden. We marched on. This was already feeling like a decidedly old-fashioned footballing day out.

Unlike the area to the north of the River Thames, which is where ninety percent of the stations on the London Underground are positioned, South London is served by a plethora of over-ground railway lines, criss-crossing their way through a part of London that few tourists see. Serving Crystal Palace’s home stadium are three stations; Norwood Junction, Selhurst and Thornton Heath. On this day though, with railway engineering works commonplace, I had decided to drive straight in.

This area of South London is dominated by the Crystal Palace TV mast, sitting high on a hillside to the north of the park which houses the National Athletics Stadium. On the very same site, F.A. Cup Finals were played from 1895 to 1914. There is, therefore, a great sporting history in an otherwise nondescript part of the capital. When I attended our victorious 1997 F.A. Cup Final, I always thought that it was rather fitting that my day had begun with Alan, Glenn and myself catching a train from the red brick Crystal Palace train station – close to Alan’s flat – which was just a few hundred yards from where teams had competed for the famous silver cup decades previously. Back in those days, there were no terraces as such, just a vast natural bowl, which allowed huge numbers to attend, with only a few thousand watching from wooden stands. In the 1913 final between Aston Villa and Sunderland, 121,919 attended. I am sure that the vast majority saw very little of the actual game. However, in those early days of football hysteria, it was surely enough to just be there. The only event that I have attended at this famous footballing location was a Depeche Mode concert in 1993, on the same day that I saw Chelsea play Ajax at Tottenham in the Makita.

We dipped into the Prince George pub and were met by a roaring log fire. We dried out and sipped at cold ciders and lagers. The pub, no more than a ten minute walk from the away turnstiles on Park Road, was mixed with both sets of fans. There were a gaggle of police outside, but there was no hint of trouble. I recognised a few Chelsea faces, and we chatted away. Back outside, the rain was heavier and the wind was howling.

Yes, this had the feel of a rather old-fashioned away game, no doubts.

We tried to avoid getting splashed by passing cars.

Ahead, there was a defiant “Carefree” being bellowed by a few youths.

Thankfully, we soon reached the Arthur Wait Stand, which sits alongside the touchline at Selhurst Park, housing three thousand away fans and six thousand home fans. It is a dark and unforgiving place, with very shallow terraces. It has great acoustics, but unfortunately affords one of the worst views in the current top division. Selhurst Park is a disjointed stadium. The main stand opposite is a Leitch original, very similar to the one at Fulham. To our right is the odd Whitehorse Lane stand, once a large terrace, but now truncated with just a few rows, but with executive boxes above. To our left, sits the two-tiered Holmesdale Road Stand, with its rather old fashioned barrelled roof. Here, there was a large terrace too. When Selhurst Park was in its prime, with terraces on three sides, it managed to hold 49,000 for an old Third Division game with rivals Brighton and Hove Albion. For many years, mirroring the old Crystal Palace Stadium, some of the current terraced areas were merely grass banks. There are talks of stadium redevelopment. I am hopeful that the Leitch original stays and the Arthur Wait is improved.

As I waited for Alan and Gary to join us, I was aware that there were a few residual visitors from across the pond who were attending the game. I wondered what they thought of the old-school charms of Selhurst Park compared to the sleek steel of Old Trafford. I had a feeling that they would be reveling in its tightness and its obvious grubbiness. Well, put it this way; I knew that I would be.

I had a quick chat with an old Chelsea mate Mark (1984 and all that) and I admitted that I was still worried about our predicament.

“I watched Match Of The Day all of the way through last night and it just seems that every team is doing OK apart from us and bloody Villa.”

At the half-way stage, nineteen games in, we were mired in the relegation zone. And Palace, winners at our place a few months ago, would be no pushover. The rain lashed down.

The clock ticked by and 1.30pm was soon approaching. The Palace anthem “Glad All Over” (don’t ask) reverberated around the creaking stands as the away fans countered. The weather was truly awful as the teams entered the pitch from the corner on the far side.

Diego Costa was back from his silly self-enforced exile. Cesc returned too.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Zouma, Azpilicueta – Mikel, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Costa.

I immediately sensed a little more aggression from within our black suited ranks; the tackles were seeming to go in stronger, the body language more positive. When we had the ball, we seemed to be keen to move the ball quicker. However, despite all of this, it was the home team – shorn of Bolasie and Cabaye, remember – who somehow managed to get more efforts on goal than us. Campbell and Zaha came close as we looked a little exposed. We certainly rode our luck a little during the first quarter of the game. However, my abiding memory of the opening period is of Thibaut Courtois claiming cross after cross, rather than being stretched and asked to make too many saves close to his body.

Eden Hazard took charge and cut in from his position wide on the left, before testing Hennessey with a low fizzer which went off for a corner. Soon after, Hazard limped off, to be replaced by Pedro, and there were voluble moans aimed at Hazard from the Chelsea section.

Maybe it was due to the sodden conditions, but the atmosphere inside the stadium was not great. The away fans, of course – it goes without saying – were knee deep in Chelsea songs, but elsewhere all was relatively peaceful. The Holmesdale Ultras were only occasionally heard. I found it very interesting that an early chant of “Jose Mourinho” from the back of our stand never really gathered momentum, and in fact, was soon overtaken with a much louder “Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea, Chelsea” salvo. It was as if the crowd were moving on.

Maybe, just maybe, we are all getting over Mourinho.

Pedro added an extra zest to our play and we started to improve. A fantastic sliding tackle by King Kurt on Zaha on the far side drew rapturous applause. Puncheon soon sliced wide. Courtois was still yet to make a save worthy of the name.

On the half-hour, Fabregas spotted the run of Diego Costa and played a ball from deep. Delaney, the Palace defender, misjudged his attempt to intercept and Costa was through. He advanced, but rather than shoot from an oblique angle, he selflessly played in Oscar, who was ably supporting. It was a simple tap in. The Chelsea Ultras exploded.

Get in.

“We are stayin’ up, say we are stayin’ up.”

Any noise from the home areas reduced further.

Palace immediately countered, but Lee blasted over from close in. I still waited for a Courtois save. Amidst all of this, I noted the calming influence of Jon Obi Mikel, whose plain but effective patrolling of the area in front of the veteran Terry and the exuberant Zouma was wonderful. Only once did he annoy me, when he did not spot Ivanovic free and in hectares of space on the right. A small moan, though. He was otherwise excellent. Dave, bearing down on goal from an angle, saw his thunderous shot parried by Hennessey. With the Chelsea supporters in increasingly good form, we looked a lot more at ease as the first-half continued.

Hell, we were winning. Confidence comes with that, I know, but this seemed a little different. It was more like the Chelsea of old, or at least 2014.

As the second-half began, I was rueing Selhurst’s poor sightlines. We were all stood, of course, but with even Chelsea attacking our end, I had to lean and twist to keep up with play. A pillar right in front of me spoiled too many ensuing photographs. A fine Mikel tackle was perfectly timed to avert a Palace break. Soon after, the murmurings of “Seven Nation Army” started away to my right. I immediately thought it was in praise of “Ooh, Pedro Rodriguez”, but no.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

Ah, this was great.

Hundreds joined in. Where it came from, who knows? It did seem slightly surreal to be honest.

However, there had been a healthy debate in front of me between two fans, who had differing opinions about Mikel, and once the chant grew, the pro-Mikel supporter joined in too. Excellent. Did I sing it? Of course.

Zouma went close with a header. We were now even more buoyant. The noise continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he’s won more than you.”

“Jon Obi Mikel – he scores when he wants.”

This was a fine game now, and Palace worked an opening for Zaha, who forced Courtois to drop and smother. At last it was a save worthy of the name. On the hour, a fine passing move resulted in Oscar being pushed off the ball. The referee let play continue, and without a second’s thought, and with no real backlift, Willian drilled the ball high into the top right corner.

Boom.

The Chelsea section went into orbit as Willian slid down on to his knees in front of us.

2-0.

Game over? Maybe.

It was time for more song.

“We’re gonna win the league.”

In the middle, Mikel was having a blinder and, now, every touch of his was greeted with a cheer. I then wondered if, sadly, some among the Chelsea ranks were simply taking the piss out of our much maligned – and misunderstood, damn it – midfielder.

That simply won’t do.

Palace were finding it hard to cope with our intelligent passing and movement – which screamed “confidence!” at me – and Willian was able to skip past his marker. He played a relatively harmless ball in to the six yard box, but I was happy to see Hennessey make a mess of his attempts to gather. He merely pushed the ball in to the path of Diego Costa who happily banged the ball in. The net bulged.

3-0.

Costa looked well chuffed, and his performance had certainly warranted a goal. He had led the line well. More of the same please. There had been no boos for any player at Selhurst, and this surely needs to be the way forward now. Who knows where this season will end, but we need to be there, offering support at all times, cheering the boys on.

Still the songs continued.

“Jon Obi Mikel.”

“We’re the boys in blue from Division Two.”

“Don’t worry about a thing.”

This was a lovely feeling. Chelsea back to the form of last season, and fine performances throughout. Thankfully the rain eventually petered out as the second-half came to its conclusion. Oscar, with a disappointingly lame shot, and Diego Costa, flashing over, failed to add to the score line, but I did not object one little bit. Extra goals would have simply spoiled the symmetry.

On day three of the New Year, three goals, three different scorers, three points and three little birds.

Everything is going to be alright.

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