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

Tales From The Fosse.

Leicester City vs. Chelsea : 29 April 2015.

The league season was continuing with two away games on the trot. A trip to Arsenal on the Sunday would be followed by a trip to Leicester City on the Wednesday. A win at Arsenal would have set up a championship-decider at the King Power Stadium but it was not to be. This was always going to be an away trip to savour as it included that rare event, a new stadium. It was just a shame that it was now taking place on a midweek evening, when visits to stadia tend to be rather truncated affairs. My travel companions for this particular trip were Parky and Andy, both veterans of previous sojourns to a city that I had only ever visited once before for football, and only twice on any other occasion. I very much felt like the junior member. It is odd that I had only ever visited Filbert Street once – over thirty years ago in 1985 in fact – but I guess it was all down to circumstances. On previous occasions I presume that I was limited by financial constraints.

In truth, Parky was very lucky to be going at all. Due to the club’s cock-eyed decision to let tickets for this potentially key fixture to be sold with no loyalty points system in operation, Parky unfortunately missed out. I needed to ask for a favour from a transport company that I have been using for express loads around Europe for twelve years, based in Leicester, for an extra ticket. Within ten minutes of my call, Tim – the owner – had sorted me out a ticket in the home stand. On the basis that I could trust myself among the home fans rather than Parky, we agreed that it would be circumspect for him to have my ticket alongside Alan and Gary in the away corner. Everyone was happy.

I left half-an-hour early from work at 3pm. I gulped back a tin of Starbuck’s double espresso and we were off, headed north and through some splendid Gloucestershire towns and villages. Very soon in to the trip, I asked Andy a little trivia question.

“Why is the road that we are currently on relevant to tonight’s fixture?”

“Well, we’re on the Fosseway, aren’t we? An old Roman road.”

“Correct.”

“Ah, no idea.”

“Well, Leicester City’s first ever name was Leicester Fosse.”

I think Andy yawned.

Although it was a fine spring afternoon, with the Cotswolds looking resplendent and the sky dotted with small cumulus clouds, there were towering cumulonimbus clouds away on the horizon. I wondered if our trip to Leicester would eventually take place amid persistent rain, and the evening’s game against resurgent Leicester City too. As we circumnavigated round Coventry – by comparison I have seen us play there on five occasions – the weather was holding up but we became ensnared in some slow-moving rush hour traffic. The delays continued on as we headed north on the M69 to Leicester. It was a good thing that we had left Chippenham at 3pm. Any later and I would have been getting deeply frustrated.

At around 6.30pm, we were parked up on Shakespeare Street, around fifteen minutes to the south of the stadium. The Shakespeare’s Head at Arsenal on Saturday and Shakespeare Street in Leicester on Wednesday.

“2-0 or not 2-0; that is the question.”

We chatted about the evening’s game and whereas Andy and Parky were gung-ho about the result, I was predictably more cautious. Parky fancied a 3-1 win. Without Diego Costa, I honestly wondered where our goals would come from. Leicester City, of course, were in the middle of a fine resurgence, winning four crucial games on the bounce. Dead and buried a month ago, they were now looking a lot livelier. Four of their last five games were at home. Relegation was not the foregone conclusion it once was. I had this strange feeling that they might score first. The sun was still shining, but there was a chilling wind. The rain had held off, thus far.

“Fabregas is magic…”

I headed off to meet Tim, his young son Oliver and two of Tim’s workmates Rob and Stuart; nice to meet people that I have spoken to on the ‘phone for ages. They were all, obviously, Leicester fans. We enjoyed a chat and a refreshing beer in a modern pub called “The Local Hero.” Tim, and the others, was very worried that ex-Charlton and Liverpool left-back Paul Konchesky was playing. They predicted that he would be City’s weakest link.

At about 7.15pm, we set off for the stadium. Nearing the ground, I spotted the large electricity pylons and associated electricity sub-station that I had recognised from my visit to Filbert Street in February 1985. The station was just to the south of Filbert Street. It is just to the north of the King Power Stadium; the two sites are very close. I also spotted the new stand roof at Leicester’s Welford Road stadium too. I remember being escorted past that stadium, a very thin police escort at that, after the game at Filbert Street all those years ago.

Some comparisons.

Attendance.

1985 – 15,657

2015 – 32,021

Capacity.

1985 – 29,000

2015 – 32,500

Away fans.

1985 – 4,000

2015 – 3,000

Seat ticket.

1985 – £4.50 on day of game

2015 – £40 in advance

Club owners.

1985 – English

2015 – Thai and Russian

The Chelsea players.

1985 – English, Welsh, Scottish

2015 – Czech, Serbian, Spanish, English, Belgian, Brazilian and Ivorian

Heroes.

1985 – Dixon, Speedie, Nevin

2015 – Hazard, Terry, Diego Costa

Chelsea kit.

1985 – all yellow

2015 – all yellow

I spotted a couple of fellows wearing black and silver magicians’ hats outside the away end.

“He wears a magic hat…”

Another work friend, Sally, had been in contact throughout my trip north but our paths never crossed. Sally would be sat in the home end.

Sally to Chris : “I will be the one front row corner of the kop, tunnel side, going mental if we score.”

Chris to Sally : “when you score.”

I made my way in to the East Stand and quickly found my place. It was a great seat; Tim had done me proud. Not only was my seats “gratis” but it was in line with the penalty spot. I rolled my eyes when I saw a noise-maker waiting for me.

The 3,000 away fans, all stood, were at the far end of the East Stand. It was a neat stadium, slightly larger than its lookalike in Southampton. The teams entered the pitch. I had decided that my modus operandi for the evening would be polite applause for Leicester – and Chelsea if I could disguise it well enough. The Kop to my left housed the more vociferous home support. The corner next to me, with flags of varying quality pinned to the back wall, housed the noisiest of all.

As the game began, the sky was filled with a fearsome, billowing thundercloud. It was difficult to take my eyes off it. As the players scurried about, with the Chelsea kit mirroring the lemon of 1985, huge towers of rain were seen to fall in the distance. The clouds looked ominous. Sure enough, not long in to the game there was a rainstorm. Then, gradually, the sky turned from a mix of light lavender and moody grey to a lighter blue. The sun directly opposite me tinged the sky yellow and then orange and gold. It was a gorgeous sight.

“He could have signed for Arsenal…”

Leicester City definitely edged the first-half. The continual desire from us to maintain possession without real penetration left me frustrated. Soon in to the game, I realised that Cambiasso was their main cog. He stood out. He was very impressive. The home fans were shaking their noise-makers – “Clap Bangers” if you will – and were getting right behind their team. The songs were constant, with Leicester variations of “Cum On Feel The Noize” and “Yellow Submarine” reverberating around me. There was also, typically, “The Great Escape.” Then, a song which scanned perfectly :

“He’s magic, you know – Esteban Cambiasso.”

There were murmurings of pain from my neighbours when Andy King and then Robert Huth were substituted within the first twenty-five minutes. I almost – almost – felt for them. However, we failed to take advantage.

Our key players seemed to be subdued. A fine block from Petr Cech – always lovely to see him get a game in these last few weeks of his Chelsea life – kept us in the game, but Leicester were pressing hard. For once, Dave was getting turned down in front of me. In the last of three added minutes at the end of the first-half, Jamie Vardy breezed past Dave and sent a cross in to the box. Marc Allbrighton calmly swept the loose ball low past Cech.

Damn. I stood, a little later than the rest; I didn’t want to give the game away. I had photographed the goal and I now found myself, surreally, photographing the wild celebrations just yards away.

Chris to Sally : “told you.”

The mood was buoyant in the stands at the break. Ex-Chelsea forward Alan Birchenall, who hosts the corporate stuff at Leicester these days, introduced ex-England legend Peter Shilton to the half-time coffee-drinkers and programme-readers.

I wondered what the mood was like in the north-east quadrant.

I am sure that the noise generated by our supporters in the first-half was up to its usual high standard for away games, but from where I was sat, the noise didn’t appear to be that great. It felt odd to be alone, away from so many mates.

There was an extra zip to our play as the second-half began. More urgency. More pressing. More determination. Just as I was wondering if all of this would continue and indeed amount to anything, Ivanovic clipped the ball in from a good position and Didier Drogba swivelled and swept the ball low past Schmeichel. Not only did I photograph the shot, but the exuberant run and slide from Didier which followed. Now I could hear the away fans. Andy, Parky and I had commented earlier how rare his goals have been this season.

I sat calmly, but I was so relieved.

Our play continued its metamorphosis as the second-half continued. Matic put in a sterling performance and was back to his best, closing space, making life difficult for his foes, and then maintaining possession well. The midfielders grew in confidence, none more so than Willian, who gave that man Konchesky a torrid time on our right. Didier was a new man, troubling the Leicester goal with a couple of efforts. I silently prayed for more Chelsea goals.

“But he said no, fuck that…”

With around ten minutes of play left, a Fabregas corner found the head of Cahill, but the block from Schmeichel fell nicely for none other than John Terry to stab the ball in from inside the six yard box.

I inwardly and silently screamed.

I had again captured the goal, or at least the loose ball in flight before JT intervened, and I now calmly snapped our leader’s delirious run and slide towards the corner. I really was perfectly placed.

“He passes with his left foot…”

Just four minutes later, the ball held up just on the edge of the Leicester City box for Ramires to magnificently slam the ball in to the goal with a perfectly controlled rising drive. Again, on film, and again his celebrations were but yards away and captured on film, though I am not sure why he stuck the ball up his shirt.

“He passes with his right…”

Leicester were now quiet and our support took over. The noise was great to hear. A massive bouncy took over the entire away end. There had been a very loud song for Willian during the second-half, but now one song took over on a repeated loop.

“And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

“Ooooooooooooooooooooooooh…Fabregas is magic. He wears a magic hat. He could have signed for Arsenal. He said oh no, fuck that. He passes with his left foot, he passes with his right. And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

The players, at the final whistle, walked over to the away fans.

Another momentous win and another fantastic evening.

I quickly made my way back to the waiting car. The natives were quiet. I felt their pain. A Leicester City fan wouldn’t let up on the Konchesky talk :

“He was voted the worst ever Liverpool defender, you know.”

After the game.

1985 – Police escort, scuffles everywhere

2015 – Normality

I reached Shakespeare Street. It was 10pm on the dot.

Andy and Parky were not far behind me. There was an immediate rush of pent-up joy as I explained how much I had enjoyed the match. Until then, my lips had been sealed. To be fair, the home fans around had been perfectly fine. There was no noticeable anti-Chelsea nonsense. They just supported their team and I think that they will genuinely stay up, a sentiment that I shared with Sally and Tim.

It was a slightly easier return trip back down The Fosseway, but I still didn’t get home until around 1.30am.

Still, there are no complaints from me.

This has been our season. We have dominated this league from our first game at Burnley in August and now we stand on the edge of greatness.

One more win, boys.

One more win.

IMG_0101

Tales From The North Bank Of The River.

Arsenal vs. Chelsea : 26 April 2015.

Sometimes it often feels to me that the inhabitants of Planet Football have mindfully chosen to perpetually live as if they were children stuck in a particularly spiteful schoolyard where jagged and mean-spirited barbs are continually aimed at each of the other children’s football teams. I’m sure that football is not the only sport where this happens. On “Facebook” I often become privy to some occasionally nasty and rude conversations that take place between some US acquaintances as they discuss the merits of various college football teams, NFL teams or baseball teams. You can be sure it happens in Australian cricket, French rugby, Brazilian football and virtually all major sports currently being played too. Very often the debate is not about the abilities on show in the sport in question, but the personality disorders of players of hated rivals, sexual proclivities of other coaches and managers, to say nothing of the real or perceived differences between rival fan bases.

The reasons for this are many, but I suppose that the driving force for all this constant noise of abuse and antagonism is the desire to prove that your team, or club, is superior and aims to meet its goals in the correct way.

In football, it can get out of hand pretty easily.

There is a song which occasionally gets aired in and around football stadia, and elsewhere, about a certain Arsenal manager and a certain packet of sweets and a certain cheeky smile. To be honest, when we first heard this around twenty years ago it raised a smile, but as an example of how nasty a football song can be, there are few equals. I stopped singing it years ago. I can well remember being squashed inside a tube train en route to an Arsenal versus Chelsea game around ten years ago when the whole carriage seemed to be joining in. In the carriage were a few, only a few but a few nonetheless, young children. A good friend and I both rolled our eyes and admitted to ourselves that this was not a particularly edifying moment in our lives.

Sometimes Planet Football can be a cruel and painful place.

As the Arsenal vs. Chelsea game loomed on the horizon, the relative merits of both clubs came in to focus and the “banter” and dialogue on social media intensified. Out came the barbs once more. At times, I was back in the school yard. And I wondered to myself where I personally stood in this whole “us and them” thing. Of course, I’ve never liked Arsenal, why would I? In truth, I dislike Tottenham more. And yet there is something about Arsenal which annoys me intensely. It is their essential “Arsenalness.”

It is down to two things.

For the vast majority of their existence they have produced a rather humdrum and tedious brand of football, which even the doyen of all things Arsenal Nick Hornby has acknowledged. Yet since the arrival of Arsene Wenger, this “1-0 to the Arsenal” modus operandi has been airbrushed from the record books, with everyone inside and outside the media seemingly brainwashed into thinking that entertaining football has always been the Arsenal way. What nonsense. The memory of George Graham’s defensively strong Arsenal team of twenty-five years ago still lingers.

And then we need to talk about Arsenal supporters. For a sport which has traditionally drawn its support from the working classes, I never fail to be amazed with how painfully middle class the Arsenal support appears to be; they spend their entire life chattering, complaining, bickering, but never realising how lucky they are. This sense of entitlement, which I sadly see creeping in to certain sections of our support, really annoys me. What right have do Arsenal fans think they have to silverware? When Chelsea went without a single piece of silver for twenty-six years, did we wail and moan? No. We simply fucking got on with supporting our club, through hell and high water. Just imagine if Arsenal were to be relegated. The screams of torture emanating from North London would keep inhabitants of Australia awake at night.

And, of course – of course! – the Arsenal fans of 2015 are never shy in singing the two favourites, much beloved in school yards everywhere :

“Where were you when you were shit?”

“Shit club, no history.”

Again, there is this insistence within Arsenal’s support – and other teams too – that our success of late is unwarranted due to our perceived lack of historical clout. I need to readdress this view.

Back in around 2002 or so, before anyone knew who Roman Abramovich was, I stumbled across a discussion on a Chelsea fans forum, which totally changed the way that I felt about my club. Back in 2002, even I was beginning to believe the media’s view that we were a mid-sized club. True, I knew that Stamford Bridge had hosted huge crowds, but I also knew that our support had dwindled from the late ‘seventies to the mid ‘nineties. Crucially, it was this era – the most recent – that fans of other teams had referenced in discussing our small support base. Of course, most other teams’ support had dropped in this period too, yet it seemed that it was only Chelsea that was ever mentioned.

In this forum, average attendances were being discussed, and – salvation – somebody posted a link to a Newcastle United forum which, for a lover of statistics like myself, I found to be utterly fascinating.

Here, was a complete list, ranked in order, of every Football League club’s average home attendance, taken from their first season to the most recent. My heart skipped a beat when I realised that “little old Chelsea”, far from being a mid-ranked team, was the fifth-best supported club in England and Wales.

So, as of 2002 (though I think this list might well date from a year or two later when it was updated slightly), the numbers do not lie :

  1. Manchester United – 36,165
  2. Liverpool – 33,591
  3. Tottenham Hotspur – 33,386
  4. Arsenal – 31,692
  5. Chelsea – 31,113
  6. Everton – 30,917
  7. Newcastle United – 30,675
  8. Manchester City – 28,403
  9. Aston Villa – 27, 806
  10. Leeds United – 25,689

Of course, all sorts of things jump in to my mind here, but one key point needs to be addressed. Whereas in 2002 all of the clubs above us in this table had accumulated many more trophies than us, our support throughout almost one hundred years had stayed remarkably buoyant. Yes, Arsenal – for example – had won twelve or thirteen league championships in their storied history, but their average home gate was a mere 578 more than that of Chelsea, who had accumulated just one league championship to that point.

So, rather than the old notion of Chelsea’s support being poor, I would strongly suggest that our support has been historically the most unappreciated and arguably the most loyal of all.

I just wish that this little gem of statistical fact could easily be relayed into a witty terrace chant.

That would shut the bastards up.

My football weekend had encompassed a nervous ninety minutes watching my local team, Frome Town, eke out a 1-1 draw with St. Neots Town on the Saturday. The draw ensured survival for the fourth straight year at our highest ever level in the football pyramid, though this was due in part to the disappearance of former Football League club Hereford United around Christmas; thankfully, only three teams were relegated, not four.

On the Sunday, Parky and I decided to do something a little different. Everyone else seemed to be meeting in a Chelsea stronghold – The Shakespeare’s Head – at Holborn, which is where I have tended to assemble for Arsenal away games for ages, but I parked by the Fullers Brewery at Chiswick and we went on a really excellent pub crawl along the River Thames. We spent a few hours in four different pubs – The Old Ship, The Dove, The Rutland Arms, The Blue Anchor – before catching the Piccadilly Line east and then north at Hammersmith. This part of London is not specifically Chelsea territory – it is closer to Fulham’s ground – and I am sure that hardly any Chelsea match-going fans drink this far out on match days, but it is a pub crawl that we definitely want to repeat. Each pub was different, each had its own charms and each had lovely views of the river. There were blue plaques everywhere. The pubs are on the course of the University Boat Race. There was history and charm aplenty. Quirky and magnificent, it was a part of London that I had not yet witnessed until then. We’ll do it again.

Our meandering walk on the north bank of the river reminded me of the peculiar nature, in some respects, of our support. Yes, Chelsea is on the north side of the Thames, yet we have an SW6 postcode, and our traditional working class support was based not only in Fulham and Hammersmith but south of the river in Chelsea strongholds such as Battersea, Wandsworth and further south into Mitcham, Tooting and beyond. Arsenal, by contrast, eked out an existence south. That meandering Thames in its last twenty miles heading through the nation’s capital city has helped define and confuse the sense of geography of two of its teams.

Chelsea – north in location only, southern in spirit.

Arsenal – roots in the south, now in the north.

As soon as we entered “The Shakespeare’s Head” – packed with familiar faces and hardly any Arsenal – a new Chelsea song entered my consciousness. For a good ten minutes or more, it was non-stop. I quickly tried to work out the words. Within a few minutes, I was joining in.

“Fabrgegas is magic, he wears a magic hat.

He could have signed for Arsenal, but he said “no, fuck that.”

He passes with is left foot, he passes with his right.

And when we win the league again, we’ll sing this song all night.”

For the current climate, in current circumstances, this was a rather light ditty, without any associated malice. The cruel school yard seemed distant. I texted the words to a couple of friends, but word had got out. The Chelsea section of the World Wide Web was heating up with references to – gasp – a new song.

Lovely stuff.

The team news came through; “no striker.” Ah, the game…I hadn’t thought too much about it. A draw would be fine from my perspective. It seemed that Jose Mourinho agreed. A draw would knock Arsenal and their 578 extra fans out of the title hunt. I geared myself up for a dour defensive battle. Mourinho doing a George Graham, but with tons more charisma.

The stations at Holloway Road and Arsenal were closed (at the latter, there was the sulphurous odour of a smoke flare, Chelsea at work no doubt) so we had to alight at Finsbury Park. This resulted in a delay; I missed the kick-off by ten minutes. There is no doubt, for all the negativity about the lack of atmosphere inside, Arsenal’s stadium is striking.

Chelsea, in all blue, were attacking the other end.

Courtois, Azpilicueta, Terry, Cahill, Ivanovic, Matic, Ramires, Oscar, Fabregas, Willian, Hazard.

My pre-match expectation of a dour defensive battle was not too wide of the mark. As the game progressed, I commented to Gary that Arsenal never really looked like threatening us.

“We can soak all this up all day long, Gal.”

The first-half provided me with more good opportunities to observe how well our defence plays as a unit. Only on a few occasions did the Arsenal players find space. In a first-half of few chances, a shot from Ramires was saved by Ospina after good work by Willian. Penalty shouts came and went; Ospina clattered Oscar and Fabregas was booked for simulation.

Our support was in good voice, with the Willian song and the new “Magic Hat” song providing the highlights. One thought kept filtering in to my mind though –

“How can 57,000 people make such little noise?”

It was not difficult to judge the mood of the home fans though. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that even a win against us would not be enough. I can hardly remember a rousing Arsenal song the entire game. There was only a rise in the volume from the home areas when Arsenal attacked. There was no solid backing throughout the game.

Jose replaced Oscar with Didier Drogba at the break. I hoped for a little more attacking verve, but there was little. Courtois dominated the box time and time again, forever seeming to thwart high ball after hall ball. I thought that Dave had yet another fine game of football, but the star of our team was John Terry, who was simply magnificent. Walcott and Welbeck entered the fray late on for Arsenal, but we kept them at bay. I noted that a considerable amount of home fans applauded Cesc as he was replaced by Zouma.

The point was well won, and the away fans roared. After the final whistle, the screams of pure delight from John Terry were captured by me on camera.

Inside, if I am honest, I felt a little flat. Yes, I would have taken a draw before the game, but this particular game of football will not live too long in my memory. I felt a little empty. I wondered if it was only me experiencing these feelings. Sigh.

Outside, a little army of away fans had congregated outside the turnstiles and were baiting the home fans in the lounge and bar areas above. One song dominated.

It was magic.

We made our way south, back to Hammersmith, then repeated our footsteps back to the waiting car. As the evening sky was reflected in a resting River Thames, thoughts turned to Leicester City on Wednesday evening. Another win there and we will almost be home.

IMG_9992

Tales From My Football Timeline.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 18 April 2015.

For the first time in ages, I spent a Saturday morning at work in Chippenham. However, with the Chelsea vs. Manchester United game not kicking off until 5.30pm, I was still able to finish at midday and reach London in good time. Glenn had collected PD and Parky en route. I then took over and headed in to London.

If I am honest, I was slightly nervous about the early-evening game. Without Diego Costa to cause panic and concern in the United ranks, and with a few key players hitting a dry spell, I was very wary that we just might be catching an in-form United at the wrong time. I soon commented to my three companions that a draw would suffice. A win would be lovely, of course, but I was aware that we were not, collectively, setting the bar too high. We were becoming as pragmatic as our manager.

“A draw against United this weekend and a draw at Arsenal next weekend and we can start thinking that the league really is ours.”

The game at Stamford Bridge, however, was not the only football match troubling me. My local team Frome Town had lost on the previous Wednesday to a gut-wrenching last minute goal at local rivals Paulton Rovers and with two games left of the season, were only three points clear of relegation from the Southern League. A little part of me toyed with the notion of watching the first-half of the Slough Town vs. Frome Town game before heading in to London.

I decided against it. Who the hell watches halves of football games? Not me.

Heading east along the M4, the weather was magnificent. It was a lovely day for football. I spotted a few Reading scarves and immediately dismissed the afternoon’s FA Cup Final as unimportant, and not worthy of further thought. This, in a nutshell, shows how the importance of that once revered competition has decreased.

The game at 5.30pm would be my thirty-third Chelsea vs. Manchester United match at Stamford Bridge, dating back to a Saturday just after Christmas in 1984 – Glenn was with me on the benches, and I am sure many readers were there too  – when I set eyes on those famous red shirts for the very first time.

Thirty-three games. It’s quite a number. I have only seen the reds of Liverpool more often than the reds of Manchester at The Bridge. Interestingly – or not, as the case may be – a split of the first sixteen games and the second sixteen games against United reveals a seismic shift in results.

1984 to 2002.

Chelsea wins : 3

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 8

2002 to 2014.

Chelsea wins : 9

Draws : 5

Manchester United wins : 2

The two losses against United in that second period are quite recent too; a Champions League defeat in 2011 and a League defeat in 2012. For quite a while at Stamford Bridge, we have held the upper hand.

Among the wins, two stand out.

The 5-0 annihilation in 1999.

The 3-1 title-clincher in 2006.

Two of the happiest of days in almost forty-five years of supporting Chelsea.

Where does the time go?

Where did the time start?

I am sure that I am not the only Chelsea supporter who often thinks back upon the first few moments of our support and attempts to discover the defining moment when Chelsea became our team and our club. I’ve personally tied this down to a moment in my primary schoolyard in the first few weeks of spring term 1970 and those events have been detailed here before. As I have been coming to terms with the events of the past two months, there have been many hours spent thinking back on my childhood years.

Another trip down memory lane coming up everyone.

I am sure that I am not alone in my quest to attempt to assemble some sort of time-line of devotion, possibly involving memories of certain early games, conversations with friends, TV clips, pictures, favourite players and the like, which aid us to remember those critical moments when Chelsea became our team.

After my first game in 1974, it’s easy, remarkably easy. Before that, things get a little blurred.

Of course, some of my earliest memories involve Chelsea’s appearances on TV and of other games too. Knowing my parents, it is very likely that I was not allowed to stay up to watch “Match of the Day” on Saturday nights on BBC1 in the first few years of my growing love of football – let’s say 1970 to 1972 – because of the 10pm start. My TV-watching in these years was, I think, limited to watching ITV’s “The Big Match” on Sunday afternoons. Yes, the memories of this are clearer. I even have feint recollections of a sun-drenched Stamford Bridge in the days of the old East Stand, prior to its destruction in the summer of 1972. The earliest football game per se that I can ever remember seeing is the 1972 FA Cup Final, when an Alan Clarke header gave Leeds United a 1-0 win over Arsenal. Which is the first Chelsea game that I can remember watching? I’m pretty sure that it is the Chelsea vs. Leeds United home opener in August 1972 – with me, just over the age of seven – when 51,000 crammed in to a three-sided Stamford Bridge to see a 4-0 win, no doubt abetted by the fact that Leeds’ goalkeeper was injured and was replaced by Peter Lorimer. Typically, Peter Osgood scored.  In that season, I can also remember the Chelsea vs. Arsenal FA Cup game in March 1973, when there was an incredible buzz in the village school leading up to the match. Peter Osgood’s screamer in that game won the goal of the season that year. I also remember seeing the highlights of the replay on the nine o’clock news the following midweek, after pleading with my parents to allow me to stay up later than normal to watch. I can remember the sadness of defeat from that evening forty-two years ago.

I also recollect the very last game of that season, which involved the visit of Manchester United to Stamford Bridge. After the scenes of chaos at the Leeds game – which must have involved trying to force 41,000 into two end terraces – it was decided to limit the attendance at Stamford Bridge to a more reasonable figure. From memory, 44,000 still assembled for the United game. I am sure that it was not the first time that I had seen United on TV, but it is the first United match that I can remember – which is the point here – seeing. Both teams were struggling that season, but the large attendance was mainly due to the fact that it would be Bobby Charlton’s last ever game for Manchester United. Although Chelsea won that afternoon – Peter Osgood again, scored – my abiding memory is of the hullabaloo surrounding Charlton. I can distinctly remember the Stamford Bridge crowd – no doubt bolstered by thousands of visiting United fans, maybe not all wearing red favours – singing “We all love you Bobby Charlton.”

I am sure that this song was sung at the village school on the Monday, possibly by the younger children watching us older boys playing football on the school yard. I am also positive that a few of us re-enacted Peter Osgood’s goal in that game too, when he almost stumbled as he forced the ball over the line. His “to camera” shrug of the shoulders, as he was kneeling in The Shed End goal, was impersonated by me for sure.

I was lucky enough to meet Peter Osgood on several occasions and I was very honoured to be able to shake Sir Bobby Charlton’s hand as he brushed past me at Old Trafford last season.

Two iconic players from my early football world remembered.

Bless them both.

A Chelsea vs. Manchester United match first appeared on my football timeline, then, in April 1973.

Incidentally, while at the Frome Town match on Wednesday, I was rather taken aback when my friend Steve announced that the very first Frome Town game that I had seen – with my mother – was neither in 1971 nor 1972 as I had first thought but, in all probability, as early as 1970, when I was just five. Let me explain. During a summer holiday at a Dorset caravan site, I often played football with a former Bristol Rovers player called Mike Brimble, who was now playing for Frome. My father didn’t tend to like kicking a ball around with me – I remember he often used to “toe poke” the ball, which I didn’t approve of – ha – but I spent many hours kicking the ball to-and-forth with this chap from the adjacent caravan. There is no doubt that, during the kick-abouts with Mike, on hearing that I was a Chelsea supporter, that he would have mentioned our cup win against Leeds United that spring. And there is no doubt that this would have left a lasting impression on me.

After a week or so, my mother took me to see Frome Town play…we lost heavily…and I can remember to this day the little conversation I had with Mike at the end of the game.

“Nice to see you could make it Chris.”

I was so happy that he remembered my name.

I always thought that it was in 1971 or 1972, but Steve told me on Wednesday that Mike’s last season for Frome was 1970-1971. So, that game – with my mother – was undoubtedly as early as early autumn 1970.

1970 was obviously a defining year in my life.

It was the year that I chose Chelsea Football Club and it was the year that I saw my very first football match.

My football timeline had begun.

While out in the full-to-overflowing beer garden of The Goose, Alan and I spoke about these early moments in our football, er Chelsea, life. The first game that Alan can remember seeing on TV was the 1970 FA Cup Final.

1970.

I’d bet that many Chelsea fans’ timelines began in this year.

1970 and Peter Osgood. One and the same.

I mentioned to Alan about the nervousness that I had with the Frome Town game. His local team, Bromley, were on the brink of promotion from the Conference South to the Conference. We hoped for a triple of wins during the next few hours; Bromley, Frome Town and Chelsea. A text from a Frome Town follower in California – yes, really – informed me that Slough were 1-0 up against Frome. I groaned. He then texted me to say that the team three points below Frome, Arlesey Town, were a goal up at the high-flying Truro Town. I groaned again. If it stayed like this, it would all go to the last game of the season and relegation would be a distinct possibility.

Elsewhere in the beer garden, there were mixed thoughts about the upcoming game. Some were positive, some were cautious. We prayed for a fit Loic Remy leading the line. When we heard that Didier Drogba had been chosen, our spirits sank a little. At 36, he is not the man of 2012. I reconfirmed my view that a draw would be good enough for me.

Then, better news…Frome town had equalised at Slough Town.

“Yes.”

Then, just after 4.30pm, came some wonderful news.

Truro City 2 Arlesey 1 .

I punched the air.

Fantastic. In the end, Frome drew 1-1 and Arlesey lost 3-1.

Safe, barring a deluge of goals next Saturday, for another season. Bromley, meanwhile, had beaten Weston-Super-Mare 3-0. Beautiful.

Outside the West stand, I took a long-overdue photograph of Alan in front of the Peter Osgood statue.

We were inside with fifteen minutes to spare. The United hordes were already in good voice. I noted two flags playing on the point of United fans being “Manchester Born & B(red)” as if they have to constantly state, to the point of tedium, about Manchester being their territory and not City’s. Anyway, the United fans always put on a good show and they didn’t disappoint, singing loudly, in the first-half especially.

There was nothing but pure blue skies overhead. Despite the bright sun, there was a cold wind which blew in and around Stamford Bridge throughout the game. As the sun lowered, changing shadows formed different geometric shapes across the pitch and the towering East Stand.

So, the team.

Courtois – Dave, JT, Cahill, Ivanovic – Zouma, Matic – Hazard, Fabregas, Oscar – Drogba.

The big news was King Kurt alongside Matic, with Fabregas pushed forward. We presumed Jose wanted to toughen up that area, with a nod towards the improving Fellaini.

The first-half was a mainly frustrating affair. We began well, but United soon started pushing the ball around, and I lost count of the number of times that our right flank was exposed. Ivanovic, the former centre-back, tends to drift inside too often for my liking. Ahead of him, Oscar provided little cover. United peppered our goal with a few long range efforts, but thankfully their shooting was amiss. I noted how deep Wayne Rooney was playing. We gave him, and others, too much time and space. I longed for our midfield to get closer. It was Rooney who struck a shot against the back stanchion of the goal, and it looked to me – and the away fans – that it was a goal. I looked at Alan in disbelief.

As Juan Mata, much loved during his relatively short spell with us, walked over to take a corner down below us, the Matthew Harding stood and clapped generously. It was a fantastic moment. I am trying hard to remember the last time we gave a former great a hard time.

A run by an energised Fabregas deep in to the penalty box at the Shed End raised our spirits. But, our chances were rare. Drogba battled on, but often his touch ran a yard too short or too long for the supporting midfielders. United continued their dominance of the ball, and only rarely did our midfielders bite at their heels. The atmosphere was good, though. The underperforming Chelsea team was thankfully not matched by the support in the stands.

We roared the boys on.

With the half-time interval in sight, John Terry broke up another United move and fed the ball to Fabregas, who in turn passed to Oscar, now central. As soon as Oscar adeptly back-heeled the ball in to the path of a raiding Hazard – a magnificent touch – I sensed a goal. Eden calmly advanced and slotted the ball in to the United goal.

Inside, my body buzzed. There was only one thing for it. There is a walkway right behind where I sit and I leapt up the three steps to my right, took off my sunglasses, and just jumped up in the air continually for a few seconds.

Joy unbounded.

…while thinking “I bet I look like a right twat, I’m almost fifty, not five, but what a bloody goal.”

There were smiles of relief everywhere and The Bridge boomed.

“We’re top of the league.”

At half-time I sent a text to a mate ;

“Bit lucky. Only got closer to them in the last quarter. Cesc looks a bit livelier. Great goal. Utd have too much space down our right. But…halfway to paradise.”

Into the second-half, the first big chance fell to us. Matic won the ball and played the ball on for Drogba. I immediately wished for a time machine that could send Didi back to his powerful and absurdly potent form of five years ago, fearing that Smalling would easily deal with him. To be fair, Didier assembled just enough strength to stab a ball at De Gea, despite Smalling’s attentions. The ball took a bizarre path towards goal, deflecting off both United players, but landing just too far past the far post for the on-rushing Hazard to control. In the end, he did so well to get any attempt in on goal. Bizarrely, his flick touched the ball up on to the bar.

Zouma grew throughout the game. His war of attrition with Fellaini was pure box office. Ramires replaced  Oscar. Juan Mata did not create too much for United; good lad.

Falcao, not firing on all cylinders, cut in on goal in a similar to position to Hazard’s goal, but his powerful shot rose and hit the side netting. The atmosphere remained noisy throughout the second half, but there was incredible tension as the game grew older. United still dominated. Chelsea constantly defended well. It was, no doubt, a typical Mourinho performance. I would have liked to have seen more attacking verve, of course, but our time for that had passed. The salad days of autumn are over; it’s now all about putting meat on the plate.

Juan Mata received a fantastic and heartfelt round of sustained applause as he was substituted.

United continued to attack. Shots were dealt with. Nerves were continuing to be frayed.

The last meaningful moment caused immediate concern. Herrera and Cahill met in a corner of our penalty box. From over a hundred yards away, it looked a penalty, to Glenn, to Alan, to me. However, miracles happen and the referee Mike Dean – who had been the target of increasing levels of abuse from the home fans as the game continued – waved it away.

Four minutes of extra time.

We waited, but with fantastic noise continuing to boom around the packed stands.

The final whistle.

Euphoria.

I captured a few shots of players hugging, smiling, and enjoying the moment.

“One Step Beyond” boomed out.

After clapping us, they began to walk away, but John Terry dragged them back and, in a tight line facing the Matthew Harding, they stood.

Their joy was our joy. United in triumph.

One step closer. Ten points clear. Mind the gap.

There was another notch on my football time line.

IMG_9896

Tales From Bloemfontein Road.

For some reason, QPR have only allowed away fans in to the twelve or so rows of the upper tier of the School End this season. Unlike on all other visits that I can remember, there were now home fans in the lower tier. Maybe they had suddenly found an extra thousand fans from somewhere. Of course on many previous visits to Shepherd’s Bush by the descending hordes from Chelsea, it was very often the case that stands housed both sets of supporters. On my very first visit to Loftus Road in 1995, I sat in the Ellerslie Road Stand – along the side – in a home area, yet surrounded by Chelsea supporters. We used to swamp the place. In fact, our away allocation on Sunday April 12 2015 would mark our smallest ever presence at QPR. I suppose our previously weighty presence needed to be engineered out of the equation. Such is life. It will surprise nobody that I will take a couple of digs at Rangers’ ridiculous claim that “West London Is Ours” in this match report; to be honest they are an easy target. Just three years ago, when a Juan Mata penalty gave us a narrow 1-0 win in an FA Cup tie, the attendance of 15,728 was some 2,500 below capacity.

Pathetic really.

On the morning of the game, I had enjoyed a rather different pre-match routine. Setting off early, at just after 6.30am, and travelling alone – Parky was one of the many unlucky ones who had missed out on one of the 1,700 tickets – I had decided to undertake a little sightseeing around central London prior to attending the match. I often rue the fact that I never take really advantage of being in one of the world’s great cities on match days. I hoped to make amends. I parked-up at the usual place for a game at QPR, just off the Uxbridge Road, at just after 9am. I caught the tube from Shepherd’s Bush Market in to town. I headed for Piccadilly Circus and spent the best part of three hours idly walking on familiar streets in the heart of the city. The weather was spectacular and the bright sun made the famous buildings look even more stunning. As I slowly walked past tourists, I was in familiar territory…the Eros Statue at Piccadilly Circus, the cinemas on Leicester Square, the church of St. Martin In The Fields, the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, Nelson’s Column, and a glimpse of Whitehall and the Palace of Westminster, The Strand, Charing Cross Station, the Savoy Hotel. I dipped into the Strand Palace Hotel for a coffee, with good reason, and was lost in thought for many a minute. My parents honeymooned in this hotel in 1957 and my good friend Glenn’s grandmother worked in this hotel during World War Two. Down to Westminster Bridge and views – what views – of the city and the River Thames. To the east, the dramatic skyline of the city, with a plethora of new skyscrapers jostling for attention with the classic dome of Wren’s St. Paul’s Cathedral. To the west, Royal Festival Hall and the London Eye with the iconic Big Ben standing proud alongside the Houses of Parliament away in the distance.

London Town.

Chelsea Town.

There was a certain strangeness as I headed west again, via tube to Hammersmith and then bus to Shepherd’s Bush, in balancing the fact that this great city, with a population of eight million, was playing host to two of its top football teams in a stadium holding just 18,000.

Walking along the Uxbridge Road, past a few cafes and pubs, and past road signs for Loftus Road, then Ellerslie Road, and then turning up Bloemfontein Road, everything was pretty quiet. It was just before 1pm, with only half-an-hour before kick-off. There just wasn’t the hustle and bustle of match days along the Fulham Road. No souvenir stalls. No grafters. No touts. No buzz.

I bumped into a gaggle of mates outside. The big news was that Loic Remy was not playing; there were unsubstantiated rumours of his mother being taken ill. Izzy Brown was on the bench. Didier was playing. I summed things up in ten words.

“Tough game. We aren’t playing well. Didier. FFS.”

Yes, Didier Drogba is a Chelsea legend, but I am sure I wasn’t the only one who was worried about him leading the line for ninety minutes.

After a minimal search by a couple of stewards, all high-viz jackets and acne, and then a walk past a line of policemen and policewomen outside the steps to the upper tier, I was in. It is ridiculously cramped in the seats of the upper tier, and even more cramped in the narrow area behind. There was no beer sales, so I made do with a coffee. On the wall in the serving area, behind the young girls nicely bedecked in Chelsea T-shirts, were the famous words belonging to a South American football devotee;

“As a man, you can change your wife, your girlfriend, your politics, your religion and your sex, but you cannot change your mother and you cannot change your football team.”

Well said, sir.

Inside, Loftus Road looked the same as it has done for the past thirty-five years. It only holds 18,000 and, according to thousands of Chelsea fans, is a “quote, unquote, shit hole.” My personal view is that it is a neat stadium, albeit with restricted sight lines. Although it seems that the spectators in the upper tier might be able to tap goalkeepers on the shoulder if the need arises, visibility of the nearest goal line is only achievable by standing the entire game.

So be it.

Alan and Gary soon joined me in row H. We were just to the right of the goal. Above, a blue sky, flashed with the vapour trails of planes heading to and from Heathrow. The double-decked “Loft” at the other end. The ‘eighties-style scoreboard. The floodlights on spindles. The closeness of the supporters. The eccentric QPR fan wearing a sombrero, remembered from 2012,  in the first row of the South Africa Road Stand.

1,700 Chelsea supporters making themselves heard.

As the game began, with Chelsea in that odd black and jade number, I was far from confident. Yes, we were league leaders and yes, Rangers were mired in the lower reaches, but previous visits to Loftus Road have not, generally, been too successful. Our last league win was almost twenty years ago. Rangers, undoubtedly, would be fighting for every ball.

The first incident of note involved Willian, out on the right, who whipped in a bending cross which “plinked” against the metal of Robert Green’s near post. Chelsea tended to dominate possession in the opening period, but our play exhibited all of the characteristics of the past few weeks; one touch too many, players unwilling to take ownership, a lack of pace. The blustery conditions made controlling the ball difficult. After a neat start, Fabregas began to fade. Up front, Didier was putting in a lot of effort, charging down space and pulling the markers away from their comfort zones.

We had heard that Roman Abramovich was in attendance, but it took me a few minutes to spot him, alongside Bruce Buck and Eugene Tenebaum, in the director’s box. Roman was watching, with his chin nestled in the palm of his hand; it is his trademark. Buck was wearing a pair of royal blue comedy sunglasses. They all look involved and worried. Chelsea will do that.

A volley from Ramires did not trouble Green. Our midfield was generally struggling, and Eden Hazard seemed especially quiet. QPR’s attacks increased steadily throughout the first period, and the twin strike force of Austin and Zamora occasionally cut through our ranks. An Austin shot from outside the box, at waist height throughout, was classically palmed away by an extended Courtois. I was the save of the match thus far. It was a warning to us all. At the other end, a mere twenty five feet away, an awkward header by Fabregas cleared the bar. We had struggled in the first-half, and as I said to Gary, regardless of our result, the poor play did not bode well for the rest of the season. At times, the noise levels did not befit a local derby. The home fans were quiet too.

At the break, the mood in the away section was of gloomy pessimism.

Soon into the second-half, a cross come shot from Phillips evaded everyone and I gasped as the ball went out for a goal-kick. Oscar replaced Ramires, who had struggled to make an impact. QPR were attacking the School End now, and it enabled me to appreciate the organisational skills of John Terry as we defended free-kicks and corners. The Rangers’ chances began to mount up, but our defence was – thankfully – on top. Crosses were headed away, blocks were made and tackles kept attackers at bay. Azpilicueta again shone. Gary Cahill, although at times looking like his legs had been put on backwards, always seemed to make a tackle at the right time. If only his distribution was better. Didier, bless him, won countless headers, and ran his socks off.

But, still, our attacks were far from convincing.

A couple of half-chances raised the spirits slightly, but the mood in the away end was still of frustration. Two more dropped points here, with games coming up against Manchester United and Arsenal…sigh.

There was a major reprieve when Phillips was allowed space to turn on the penalty spot, but Courtois beat off the shot for a corner. There was a grim realisation that the game’s best two chances had fallen to the home team.

Our support rallied a little.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army, clap, clap, clap, clap.”

The odious Joey Barton was right in the mix of everything that QPR produced. He was the game’s dominant midfielder. Another save by Courtois from Austin.

On eighty minutes, Juan Cuadrado, who has hardly enjoyed the most positive of starts as a Chelsea player, replaced Willian, and I begged of him “come on, son, make a name for yourself today.” He made his way over to the right wing, but was largely ignored by his team mates. Niko Kranjcar, who seems to have been around for ever, yet is only thirty, appeared as a late QPR substitute. He has followed Harry Redknapp around with such blind devotion these past ten years, that I have no doubt he will soon be found running baths for the retired Redknapp in his Sandbanks home.

The minutes passed.

Brighton Tony, never short of an opinion, breezed past with five minutes to go, heading for the exit, and full of alliterative scorn for “The Catalonian.” I could not deny it, Fabregas – the latest of our masked men – had struggled all game.

Moments later, salvation.

A scuffed clearance by Green, with more backspin than a Alex Higgins screw-shot back in to baulk, was picked up by Eden Hazard. He skipped past a marker on the QPR left, received the ball back from Oscar, then played it in to Fabregas.

Surrounded by players, he calmly slotted low past Green.

Surrounded by fans, I calmly photographed the ball on its way in to goal.

The Chelsea end exploded. I can barely remember a goal celebrated so wildly all season. Clasping my camera in my right hand, I continually punched the air with my left fist.

Punch, punch, punch. punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch, punch.

Alan was away, lunging towards the front of the stand. The noise was deafening. He returned to his seat…

Albert Steptoe : “They’ll have to come at us now,”

Harold Steptoe : “Come on my little diamonds,”

With just two minutes left to play, we were winning.

Kurt Zouma replaced Cesc.

Four minutes of extra-time.

Tick, tick, tick.

At the whistle, shrieks of delight. The players’ faces were contorted with pleasure as they celebrated down below us all.

“And now you’re gonna believe us…we’re gonna win the league.”

IMG_9757

Tales From The Season’s Final Quarter.

Chelsea vs. Stoke City : 4 April 2015.

Maybe it is because Chelsea are now no longer participating in the latter stages of either the F. A. Cup or the European Cup that the end of this current season, to me at least, seems nearer than it actually is. Prior to our home game against perennial scrappers Stoke City, there were still a full nine games left of 2014-2015. Yet, it seemed like the first week of May, let alone April. We still have almost a full quarter of the season still to play. Our final league game is at the ridiculously late date of Sunday 24 May. Yet in some quarters, it appeared that the title was virtually ours. I was having none of that. Knowing Chelsea, there might still be a way for us to bugger it up at the last minute. Our form, let’s all admit it, hasn’t been too brilliant over the past few months. The swashbuckling exuberance of autumn seems distant. Our last excellent league performance was in Swansea at the start of the year.

It was agreed in the car and in the pub beforehand that a win against Stoke was all that mattered.

“Three points is king.”

It had been a busy pre-match, as they always seem to be these days. There was a slightly surreal feel to everything as I still tried to come to terms with the loss of my mother; these are tough days and nights. The cliché is that Chelsea would be there for me as an emotional crutch, but I wasn’t convinced.

As I walked to and from Stamford Bridge to meet up with friends from near and far, my mind was finding it difficult, if I am honest, to concentrate too much on the game.

I had travelled up to London with Lord Parky, Bournemouth Steve and also Dean. Dean is one of the many northerners in the Chelsea ranks, from Yorkshire, and who I have known for a few years. He has spent a while back-packing in Asia with his wife, but is now retired and house-sitting in a village south of Bath, no more than eight miles away from my home. It was lovely to have him aboard.

As I took my seat alongside Alan and Steve, I spotted a rather poor turnout from The Potteries. If the smaller allocation is 1,400, then surely no more than half of the seats were being utilised. Maybe 600 “Stokies” had travelled down.

Overhead there were clouds and the temperature was far from spring like. An impressive Arsenal win against the fading Liverpool had kept the pressure on us.

“Three points is king.”

On the large TV screens, a montage of images accompanied “Blue Is The Colour” being played over the PA. Our club anthem, of course, was in the charts back in 1972 to accompany our appearance in that year’s Football League Cup Final against Stoke City. I was a Chelsea fan by then, of course, though I do not remember one iota about that game. For the record, the Chelsea first game that I can definitely remember is the opening game of the 1972/1973 season against Leeds. Yes, them.

Just before the teams entered the pitch, the sets of large blue flags – as per usual – began their journey around both tiers of the MH and the top tier of The Shed. I just happened to notice that the one in The Shed – Chelsea FC London SW6 – was temporarily stalled just off-centre. It was stalled for a reason. Above and below it, fans were holding up a few extra banners to provide a pre-match tableau.

WE SHALL NOT BE MOVED.

CHELSEA FC LONDON SW6.

RUINING FOOTBALL SINCE 2003.

I took a photograph to capture it for posterity. Good work. The “ruining football” tagline is featured in a famous Chelsea sticker going the rounds at the moment and, as if I really need to explain it, makes an ironic nod to the fools who put all of modern football’s ills squarely at the feet of Roman Abramovich.

The team that Jose Mourinho had chosen did not include Diego Costa. There had been reticence in his voice during Good Friday’s press conference when he was questioned about our hitman’s chances of playing against Stoke City.

Courtois – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Oscar, Hazard – Remy.

It seemed odd to see us attacking the MH in the first-half. I commented to Alan that we don’t often do this. I remembered a last minute match-winner, a screamer, from Frank Lampard, which beat Stoke in 2009, scored at The Shed. But most last-minute winners have always been at “my” end.

As the game got going down below me, I couldn’t help notice – again – the ridiculously varied, and bright, variety of football boots on show. There were blues, whites, yellows, limes, pinks and oranges. I spotted that just one player, Nemanja Matic, was wearing predominantly plain black boots. I then rolled my eyes when I noticed that the soles were pink. Among the Stoke players, the predominant colour was orange. Many players had them. Red socks and orange boots. Ugh. This surely represented the nastiest jarring of colours seen at a Chelsea match since the ridiculously red-headed David Hopkin appeared in the particularly awful tangerine and graphite away kit in around 1995.

Chris : “JT, you’re a bloody defender. Why on earth aren’t you wearing plain black football boots?”

JT : “I know, but I have no say. I get paid thousands of pounds by Nike to wear them.”

Chris : “OK, no worries. By the way, I’m charging you £2,500 for this interview.”

JT : “About those black boots.”

We dominated everything in the first-half. Two early chances from Loic Remy, the match-winner at Hull, gave us a sense of hope. Further efforts from Hazard and Oscar followed. Stoke attacks were rare. For all of our possession, there was a typical growing anxiety among the home fans as the minutes passed by with no goal. Oscar was pretty quiet. Matic’ passing was off. Fabregas seemed to want an extra touch. There wasn’t the intensity of previous months. The team looked lacking in confidence at times.

Thankfully, on thirty-eight minutes, a run from Fabregas was found by Willian. His quick turn was too much for the Stoke defender Wollscheid (who?) and a clumsy challenge gave the referee no option.

Eden Hazard calmly rolled the ball past Begovic.

The crowd responded with a guttural roar.

Alan : “They’ll have to come at us now, ducks.

Chris : “Come on my little ducks.”

Stoke responded in typical fashion, leaving Fabregas bloodied after a challenge by Charlie Adam. Just before half-time, the Chelsea crowd were howling after a tackle on Hazard down below me was not punished, but as the ball was moved out to that man Adam, few of us could have been prepared for what followed.

Inside his own half, by around ten yards, the unlikable midfielder looked up, spotted Thibaut Courtois off his line, and pummelled a shot high into the air. It carried on and on, and although hit with precision and pace, seemed to take forever to reach its intended target. The back-peddling Courtois leapt but could only palm the ball into the net. The away supporters, quiet until then, roared in delirious pleasure.

Courtois could not be blamed surely. It was a stunning goal. When it was replayed back on the screens at the break, the strike was applauded by a few in the home areas. That doesn’t happen too often.

Jose replaced the miss-firing Oscar with Diego Costa to offer support to Remy. However, after just ten minutes, Diego pulled-up with a hamstring problem. This was a massive blow and I wondered if things, on the small scale of the match and of the large scale of the season, just got a lot lot worse. Didier Drogba was introduced. The dices were being rolled. Thankfully, the home crowd, realising that the team needed us, got going. The atmosphere had been so-so in the first-half so I was very thankful, and rather surprised if I am honest, to see things improve rapidly.

Down below me in the MHL, the spectators – standing, always standing – provided a riot of noise, with the “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” chant going on for a while (with associated clapping – which the MHU joined in with.) It was a lovely sight and sound. I had warned two first-time visitors from Washington DC about the lukewarm atmosphere at games of late, but I was so happy for them that this surprising din was turning The Bridge into a proper stadium once more.

Just after the sixty-minute mark, a poor clearance by Begovic was picked up by Willian. He moved the ball to Eden, who selflessly played in Remy.

2-1, yes.

The crowd erupted again.

Phew.

Rather strangely, Mourinho immediately replaced the goalscorer with Juan Cuardrado.

N’Zonzi hit the outside of Courtois’ right hand post.

The atmosphere inside the stadium grew tenser with each passing minute. This was certainly not an enjoyable game of football. With an equaliser only one kick away, nobody could relax. Begovic miraculously stopped Cuardrado not once but twice from close range. The seemingly endless list of Stoke players receiving yellow cards continued as substitute Crouch launched a scissor attack on the resilient, and brilliant, Hazard.

Four minutes of extra-time was signalled and as the last few seconds ticked by, my eyes were on referee Jonathan Moss.

He blew.

We sighed.

“Three points is king.”

On the walk out of the stadium, one phrase was often repeated.

“Bloody hell, let’s hope that the last eight games are not all like that.”

IMG_9656

Tales From The Beautiful North.

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 22 March 2015

On the long car journey north to Humberside for our match with Hull City, one thing was agreed; this was a “must win” game. Our main title rivals Manchester City had easily won at home to West Brom on the Saturday, thus narrowing the gap at the top of the league table to three points, although Arsenal were closing in too. With ten games left for us this season, there were still many points up for grabs. Although the end of the campaign seemed somewhat nearer, over a quarter of the season was still left to play. There were obviously many points to win, but also many points to lose.  After faltering performances against PSG and Southampton at Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea army were travelling north with a hope that we would see a much-needed win. This was no time for the weak-hearted, among players or supporters. Despite the long day ahead, it felt good to be back on the road following the team once again.

It was, in fact, the second football away day of my weekend. On the Saturday, I was at a loose end and decided to head down to the neighbouring county of Dorset to watch my local team Frome Town play at Dorchester Town in a relegation dog-fight in the Southern League. I thoroughly enjoyed myself; it was a glorious day for football, with the early spring sun combining with clear skies overhead.  I watched from the very rear row of the impressive main stand of Dorchester’s neat stadium, The Avenue. I remember that Chelsea, in October 1990, were the first team to play at Dorchester’s new ground, although I didn’t attend. I was dismayed when Dorchester went ahead with a quarter of an hour to go, but ex-Bristol Rovers forward Lewis Haldane equalised for Frome with five minutes to go. I roared from my seat and punched the air; ah, I love how the simple pleasure of a goal can produce such emotion. It was a well-deserved draw. I had bumped into a handful of friends at the game. It was a super day out. Unbeknown to me at the time, Dorchester’s assistant manager is Nick Crittenden, who played a couple of games for Chelsea in around 1997.

The chap filming the match for the home club was positioned only a few yards to my left. My shout of “yes, come on” when Haldane scored can clearly be heard at 7 minutes, 49 seconds.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9yDHbIqXuq8

The second day of my footballing weekend began at around 7.30am on the Sunday when I collected PD Wetherspoon and Lord Parky soon after. The two of them were soon opening up the first of their cans of cider. We were on our way.

This was a bittersweet trip for me. At the time of our game at Hull City in January last year, my mother was in relatively good health. However, just after – the following Friday – Mum was stricken with arthritis and her life changed. As is my wont, I always seem to remember landmark events in my life with football matches; Hull City on Saturday 11th January 2014 was one of them. How I wished that things could have stayed the same as on that day, with my mother in robust health, contented. As I ate up the miles on my way to Kingston-upon- Hull, my dear Mum would never be far from my thoughts.

This would be my sixth visit to the much-derided city on the banks of the River Humber. My first visit came in the autumn of 1973 when my parents took me on a day trip, while staying with friends in nearby Grimsby. There were two visits to Hull with work – P&O Ferrymasters had an office just under the impressive Humber Bridge – in 2003 and 2008. Memorably, towards the end of an important meeting in 2008, my boss nobly excused me with the following comment –

“Right, at this point, we are allowing Chris to head off down to London for tonight’s Chelsea game.”

At 4pm, I set off and tried my best to get down to Stamford Bridge for the Reading game. I was on target, but hit some nasty traffic around Luton, and parked-up just as I heard the crowd roar a Michael Ballack goal. I got in just before half-time and my unbeaten home run – which eventually stalled at 240 games – was able to continue.

This would be my third visit with Chelsea.

I was hoping that I would get a chance to take a look around the city’s marina before the game; Hull is not known as a particularly interesting city, but I was hoping to unearth a few hidden jewels. Last season, on that fateful day, I was fed-up that I had travelled all that way “just” for ninety minutes of football. I’m always a bit dismayed by stereotypical views of cities in the north being grim and unwelcoming. I was hoping that Hull might surprise me. Last season, I mentioned that Hull was where one of my favourite bands, Everything But The Girl, were formed. It was also where The Housemartins – who morphed into The Beautiful South, an ironic stab at London and the Home counties by the band members – were formed at around the same time.

On this day of football, I was hoping for anything but London 0 Hull 4.

Despite some speed restrictions north of Nottingham on the M1, we made good time and I was parked-up in the city centre at around 12.15pm. It had taken four hours and three-quarters. There would be similar travel times for the majority of other Chelsea fans.

We based ourselves in a large, but bland, city centre pub called “The Admiral Of The Humber.” Pints of cider at just £2.25 made PD and Parky smile. We were joined by two-transatlantic visitors; Tuna from Atlanta and Luke from Boston. Luke was back in England for his father’s funeral, and it was the first time that I had met him, having befriended me on Facebook via a couple of other mates in Boston. Luke grew up close by, in Wiltshire, before heading off to fresh fields.

Tuna, Luke and I left the drinkers to it, watching the Liverpool vs. Manchester United game, while we visited the marina on a quick little walking tour. The weather was perfect and it was good to get out of the pub for a while. We chatted about all sorts, and were impressed with a few quaint side streets. A historic pub – red brick, real ales, far more interesting than the other one – was highlighted for our next visit. At 3pm we took a cab to the stadium.

The Chelsea contingent this season was wrapped around a corner flag, rather than being right behind the goal; Alan, Gary and I took our seats a few rows back. The KC Stadium is a pleasing stadium, with a main stand that rises over the other three sides, like a mini version of The Etihad. The locals love their amber and black bar scarves.

Manchester United had won at Anfield, and closed in on us too. The pressure was on.

Pressure, what pressure?

After just two minutes, the ball was worked to Eden Hazard, who advanced on goal. With a swing of his left leg, he hit a perfect shot past McGregor in the Hull goal. I was right in line with the flight of the ball, as I often am. Get in.

We were one up and flying.

Hull then had a great chance to level, with Hernandez breezing past a static defensive line, but Thibaut Courtois blocked the shot with ease.

After nine minutes, Cesc Fabregas picked out Diego Costa, who ran at the Hull defence down the left flank. I was expecting a cross, but instead, he curled the ball past the ‘keeper and the ball nestled inside the far post. It was, frankly, a relief to see our striker back among the goals.

Two up and flying high.

This was ridiculous; two shots, two goals.

There was talk of another “Swansea” and a repetition of our five goals.

We then appeared to go to pieces. What a strange sport this can be. From a position of strength, and with our confidence presumably high, we collectively collapsed. Hull were excellent, moving the ball well, and causing panic in our defensive third. Our midfield were second best and the anxiety within the away contingent grew with each passing minute.

On twenty-seven minutes, Robertson easily escaped a poor challenge by Ivanovic and rattled in a perfect low ball in to the six yard box. The prod from Elmohamady just beat out an attempted clearance from Filipe Luis and Hull were back in the game. Just one minute later, yet more calamity. Ivanovic played a back-pass back to Courtois, but instead of a “safety first” approach, which could have involved him hacking the ball off for a throw, our young ‘keeper attempted to play the ball back to Ivanovic, but Hernandez nipped in to equalise.

The home crowd roared. Egg on faces. Ugh.

Nerves were frayed now. Our play continued to disappoint. At the break, a friend texted me to say that shots on goal in the first-half were –

Hull 14 London 3.

There was talk of tough games against Arsenal – not out of the title race – and Liverpool and Manchester United. There was talk of our lead being frittered away. Our collapse was mysterious; everywhere in the team, with maybe one or two exceptions, players were poor shadows of themselves. We needed another invigorating team talk from the manager.

Thankfully, after the break, we enjoyed most – if not all – of the early possession and we were able to threaten the Hull goal. Chances came and went, but McGregor wasn’t overly tested. We were at last finding space out wide, but a goal would not come. Ivanovic, Matic and Fabregas did not impress. All three were poor. With one mistimed challenge by Ivanovic, both Gary and myself likened the splayed legs of our big Serbian to that of Devon Loch, the horse who bizarrely stumbled, mid canter, on the homeward segment of the Grand National. A bad omen, surely, as we approached the final few hurdles of this long campaign.

Oscar came on for Ramires.

Then, against the run of play – completely – Hull broke away and a piece of sublime football followed. Thibaut Courtois, making up for his previous error, made three amazing saves from Elmohamady, Livermore and Ramirez in the same move. It was an astounding succession of saves. It reminded me of Jim Montgomery’s saves in the 1973 Cup Final.

Loic Remy – the oddly forgotten man – came on for Diego Costa.

Within two minutes, Willian – increasingly involved down below me – played in Remy who struck a low shot towards goal. The hapless McGregor was able to block, but not fully, and the ball had just enough momentum to roll slowly over the line.

We roared again.

A quiet away following were now roused and we turned the air blue.

A few late scares came to nothing.

We held on.

The final whistle blew.

I pointed skywards.

Phew.

Hull 2 London 3.

I turned to Alan and Gary –

“I’ll tell you what. City will be absolutely gutted, gutted with the way we won that, playing poorly, but still winning.”

We all met up outside and walked back to the city centre, where Luke and Tuna were parked too. I remarked to Tuna –

“Kinda reminds me of a game around this time of year, thirty-one years ago, when we came back from 0-3 down to draw 3-3 at Cardiff. Different result, but same feeling.”

At 6.45pm, we left the city, with Tuna driving right behind me. The sun was setting beyond the Humber Bridge, the crescent moon high, the sky clear. Again, another long journey lie ahead, and I reached home at 11.30pm. It was another four hours and three-quarters on the road.

It had been a very strange game of football. We had struggled throughout the game and doubts about our championship calibre would no doubt be raised by those both inside and outside our football club. Our current form is quite poor, and we have nine games left to win our fifth league title. There is worry in the air. However, remember this; in forty-five competitive games this season, we have lost just three.

Championship form?

The next nine games will answer that question.

IMG_9568