Tales From The Road To Recovery.

West Bromwich Albion vs. Chelsea : 23 August 2015.

This game had it all. Thankfully it had the most precious commodity; three points to us. Because, let’s make no mistake about it, a defeat at West Bromwich Albion would have dealt a huge blow to our immediate welfare and would have given those outside our club reason to swarm like birds of prey over us. Yes, it was only the third league game of the season – and I know titles are not decided in August – but surely everyone connected with Chelsea Football Club was hoping and praying for a win, any win, but a win.

It had been a fairly typical pre-match for a game at The Hawthorns. The morning had started off, however, with a torrential cloudburst and the few miles that I drove to collect Lord Parky filled me with dread for the rest of the day. Surely, it wouldn’t be as miserable and treacherous for the entire journey north? The rain lashed against my windscreen, the spray made visibility difficult and the surface water ebbed and flowed at the kerbside and it was the worst driving conditions that I had encountered for ages. And I hadn’t even left Somerset yet.

The clouds were dark overhead and the mood was sombre.

It clearly wasn’t a good start to the day.

Parky clambered into my waiting car, his bag full of tins of cider for the journey ahead, and we gave each other the usual abusive welcome.

For a change, we had decided to have a breakfast en route at the nearby town of Bradford-On-Avon, and this meant that we could wait for forty-five minutes or so while the worst of the storm, hopefully, would pass. A famous “Boatman” breakfast at The Lock Inn on the banks of the Kennet and Avon Canal hit the spot. I won’t give full details because it will only give any ex-pats reading both hunger pangs and home sickness. Parky washed his plate full down with a pint of Thatcher’s cider.

It was only 9.15am.

As the calories mounted up, the rain subsided.

We left just before 10am and were soon on the M4 and M5.

West Brom is an easy away game for us. It is barely over two hours from door to door. The pre-match was again spent within the confines of the Park Inn, where we encountered many of the Away Club that we met at the same location before the last away game of last season, and on many seasons previously. There was also the sighting, quite common at this location, of former football presenter Adrian Chiles, quietly drinking with a few elderly friends, and resplendent in in a “Bostin” T-shirt. Talk was of European travels with the club rather than the apparent doom-mongers among our support.

With a 1.30pm kick-off, our time was squeezed. We gulped down a couple of pints apiece. Thankfully, the rain had subsided since the early morning bursts, but the clouds were looming overhead as we made our way across the bridge which crosses the busy M5 and on to The Hawthorns, only a fifteen minute walk away. I noted that many of the home fans were wearing the Albion’s new shirt, which thankfully remains true to their history, with navy and white stripes rather than the strange, unbecoming, white with navy pinstripes of last season. There is only one team that can pull that off, and they reside in The Bronx.

Unlike in May, there was no tedious wait at the turnstiles. We were in with time to spare.

As I joined up with Alan and Gary, plus countless others, there was time to run through the team that manager Mourinho had chosen. If I am honest, I was not at all surprised that Branislav Ivanovic had maintained his place. There had been a clamour among the FIFA16 managers within our support for new boy Baba Rahman to be handed his Chelsea debut on the left-hand side of our suddenly troubled defence with Cesar Azpilicueta shifting over to the right. Rather than risk the young lad in a new team, with new team mates, a new system, a new country, a new league and a new stadium, Jose Mourinho chose the old war horse Brana instead. Debuting in a defence under scrutiny, in a tough “must win” away game is always more difficult, in my opinion, than a new player joining the team further up field, as in the case of Pedro, who was handed a Chelsea start immediately. The other change was Kurt Zouma being drafted alongside John Terry, replacing Gary Cahill. This was an interesting twist really, since several were thinking that the substitution of our captain at half-time at Manchester City would herald a new dawn. Gary Cahill has been a fine servant for us, though I sometimes cringe when he has time on the ball, and when he seems to awkwardly shift from one leg to the other like a cat on a hot tin roof, wondering what on earth to do with the ball at his feet. Regardless, I am confident that he can play a part this season, and the growing transfer talk of John Stones might inspire him. Courtois, of course, was back between the sticks.

Just before the teams emerged it began raining. Although it was August, in the early afternoon, the floodlights were on.

British summertime.

A first look at our third kit. All black, but with a certain degree of nastiness going on with the shorts, as if they had seen too much sun, and faded to grey.

The three thousand Chelsea loyalists were all together in the Smethwick End. In the lower corners of the side stands – the home areas – seats were empty.

As the rain fell, the game began.

It was a lively start from both teams and I was encouraged with the way that Diego Costa battled and held off a robust challenge before giving himself half a yard but then screwing a shot wide. It was just the sort of tenacious play that our number nineteen brings to our team.

A silly challenge by Nemanja Matic on Callum McManaman, with the West Brom player dribbling away from goal, gave referee Mark Clattenburg no choice but to award a penalty kick.

“Oh hell, here we go again.”

Thankfully, the penalty by James Morrison was drilled centrally and Thibaut was able to block with a flick of a trailing leg. The Chelsea support roared.

On two separate occasions in the opening quarter, Eden Hazard slipped away from markers using exquisite skill in tight areas, turning 180 degrees and opening up space in an instant. He is as slippery as an eel. On twenty minutes, Pedro – who had only flitted in and out of the game until then – exchanged passes with Hazard and drove in to the heart of the Albion defence. Within a blink of the eye, our new signing had feinted to create a little space and despatched a low shot goal wards.

His joy, running over to the far corner, was matched by ours.

We were on our way.

“Are you watching Man-chest-er?”

On the half hour, we broke quickly – for once – and Willian found Pedro on the right, who drove on. I snapped my camera just as he appeared to shoot, but the ball was more of a cross, which the surging Diego Costa was able to meet with a perfectly-timed slide.

We were 2-0 up, and loving it. Diego fell to his knees in front of the home fans in the Birmingham Road end.

“We are staying up. Say we are staying up.”

However, in an open game, West Brom pulled a goal back when new signing Rondon did well to keep a ball alive and hooked it back to Morrison. He managed to drill the ball low through some covering defenders.

2-1.

The home support alongside us were now making some noise of their own. We countered, poking fun at the empty seats to our left and right –

“Your grounds too big for you.”

A Willian miss, after good work from Pedro, caused us all to groan. However, soon after we restored our two goal lead. A move down the right found Diego Costa, who appeared to be fouled. All of my attention, and maybe that of the sleeping home defence, seemed to be on that, because nobody picked up the raiding Azpilicueta who nipped in to slip the loose ball home.

3-1.

There were smiles at half-time and quite rightly. This was more like it Chelsea.

In the crowded concourse, full of beer and ribaldry, the “Juliano Belletti” chant of a few years back was reworked, though I am not quite sure how we managed it, with fewer syllables up for grabs:

“Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez, Ped-ro-oo Rodriguez.”

Soon in to the second half, our world seemed to crumble. A long ball was pumped forward towards Rondon and with Courtois seemingly unable to intercept, John Terry challenged with what appeared to be a clumsy tackle. I immediately smelled fear. Without too much deliberation, the red card was brandished. This was a little similar to what befell John during the opening period of the second-half in our game at the same venue in May. Then, a penalty after a last ditch challenge. This time, the same. But no, wait, thankfully the challenge was just outside the penalty area.

The resulting free-kick thankfully came to nothing.

But we were down to ten men with many many minutes remaining.

Willian was sacrificed to allow the masked man Cahill to enter the fray.

Further doubts entered our collective minds when Morrison’s leap inside the box resulted in the ball looping up and in above Courtois’ despairing hands.

3-2 now and the Albion fans were the noisiest of the entire game, singing songs that only they could decipher.

This was going to be a long thirty minutes.

We didn’t retire into our shell, nor did we submit territorially. We kept plugging away, though the game seemed to bypass one particular player. For one who allegedly starts seasons on fire and then fades, Cesc Fabregas has hardly set the world alight in August. Some would say he is too lightweight to anchor the midfield, but on this occasion he failed to knit much together offensively. I hope for greater things from our number four. His magic hat seems to have been mislaid.

Matic came close with a free-kick. Diego Costa created a good with a typical piece of aggressive running. Down at the Birmingham End, Rondon belted a good chance wide and we all knew that we had escaped. This was tense stuff. There was more to come. The Chelsea faithful, inside the stadium and outside, were being tormented every time the Baggies attacked.

McManaman should have equalised for West Brom, but the ball whistled past the post. Another coat of paint, and the ball would have hit the upright. We breathed in as the ball was struck, we exhaled as it flew in to the advertising hoardings.

“Fackinell.”

Among the onslaught, Kurt Zouma seemed to repel everything. His distribution might lack a certain refinement, but his defensive strengths are evident for all to see.

We still created half-chances. Another for Diego Costa, who was then replaced by Falcao, who himself narrowly missed after failing to properly connect. I remember our last win at West Brom, back in 2011, when Fernando Torres was mired in his own personal hell, and when he was ridiculously unfortunate not to open his Chelsea account. I wonder what the future holds for our current number nine.

Our new starlet Pedro was replaced by Jon Obi Mikel, and I welcomed his addition as we attempted to dampen the attacks.

I commented to Alan that it wouldn’t be long before Chelsea fans near and far would be irritated by his very presence on the pitch.

He was soon showing his prowess in nullifying our opponents though, nibbling at any potential threat, and then playing the ball simply.

I was able to admire the close skills of Eden Hazard, dribbling his way around several nameless West Brom defenders down below me in the near corner. By this stage, late on, this bewitching show of twists and turns, shimmies and feints, were mainly in the guise of maintaining possession and – dare I say it – time wasting, but, even so, was a joy to watch. How he accelerates away with that ridiculously low centre of gravity, is one of the great joys of watching Chelsea in 2015. He even came close after a lovely ball from the hard-working Matic.

In the last ten minutes, the sun appeared. We would be saved from getting drenched on the march back to the car.

Courtois was involved throughout the last ten minutes of normal time and the five minutes of extra time. He did not let us down.

The minutes passed.

Tick tock.

A few shouts for the ref to “blow up.”

The game continued.

“Fackinell ref.”

The whistle blew and we could relax.

It was our eighth game of the season – I have seen them all – and our first win, not including those odd wins on penalties in Charlotte and DC.

We are still, obviously, on our road to recovery and there are still issues surrounding our team, but – boy – it was wonderful to finally get three points on the board. Did I enjoy it? I enjoyed the final whistle. These tense games certainly take it out of you. I felt like I had aged ten years over the second-half.

Phew.

There were a few handshakes with a few good friends. The mood was of relief.

Rob, who learned on the Thursday that his son was finally cancer free, suddenly appeared to my right. A handshake and a smile for him, especially.

I said just a few words.

“It’s been a good week.”

Rob’s smile said it all.

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Tales From A Litmus Test.

Manchester City vs. Chelsea : 16 August 2015.

It was around 8.30am. Parky and I were briefly summarising our start to the season, and our hopes for our game at Manchester later in the day. I was being truthful when I told him that I wasn’t looking forward to the day as I ought to be. There was no specific reason, but I suspect that the fear of defeat was breathing heavily down my neck. Was there anything else, more sinister perhaps, to be the reason for my melancholy about another trip north? I honestly wasn’t sure. I know that I have often spoken about the thoughts that I have regarding my level of support for Chelsea Football Club and the – whisper it – inevitably that it might start to wane. As I entered the M4 on the slip road a few miles to the north of Chippenham, I admitted to Parky “that moment will come.”

Like King Canute and the incoming tide, once that moment strikes, there will be little I will be able to do to stop it. As I headed north, with the weather turning sunny one moment and cloudy the next, I wondered if the day, and the key encounter with one of our biggest title challengers, might prove to be some sort of litmus test for my support over the coming season.

I was ready to be tested.

Of course the football season of 2015/2016 was only in its infancy, but there were already thoughts about the madness of modern football, with all of its associated nonsense. At Chelsea, of course, in addition to the dropping of – shock horror – home points against Swansea City, we had to endure the fall out of the “Eva-Gate” revelations during the rest of that first week. Sometimes, I just have to shake my head at the antics of those connected with football. Sometimes I wish it really was “only a game.” As the week unfolded, with respective factions taking pot shots across the bows, I watched from behind my sofa, through my fingers held up to my face, just as many children of my generation apparently did when “Doctor Who” was shown on TV. Oh to be a psychiatrist with Jose Mourinho as a patient, trying to understand his complex personality. Is everything that he does stage managed to perfection? Is everything part of some grand Machiavellian plan? Does he have an “edge” on everyone? Is this desire to lay blame elsewhere a natural or manufactured trait?

In an email to some pals on the Friday, I jested that I would ensure that I was given a parking ticket in Manchester on the Sunday, so that it would give Mourinho something to get the media talking about rather than the inadequacies of his players during a possible defeat against City.

Yes, it had been a crazy first week of the season alright. There had been some daft knee-jerk reactions from parts of the media – lauding Claudio Ranieri after two wins, castigating Dick Advocat after just two losses, even niggling away at Louis Van Gaal after just three shots on goal – but the media’s obsession with Eva Carneiro just about tipped me over the edge. Thankfully, acting as a lovely balance against the madness of modern football and its obsession with the cult of personality, I watched my local non-league team Frome Town eke out a creditable 1-1 draw with a very impressive Merthyr Town side on a lovely Wednesday evening. It stirred my spirits and I almost enjoyed it as much as the Chelsea game against another Welsh side, Swansea City, a few days before.

As an aside, it irritated me that Carneiro was erroneously portrayed as a club physio on at least one BBC news report. The corporation should know better.

Additionally, I have never been able to fathom the hold that Carneiro has on some of our support. Have these people never seen a woman before?

Back to the football.

The trip north – oh so familiar over the past ten years – was going well, but I was still not getting that match day tingle. We drove past The Hawthorns, scene of our last domestic away game in May, and a three-nil defeat which meant little. Up on to the M6 and the traffic was fine. We spotted a Manchester City car, boasting a sticker for the Weymouth Blues. The skies cleared and I ate up the miles. It was a familiar drive in to the city of Manchester and one which has almost become automatic for me; the Manchester Orbital, past Old Trafford, past Salford Quays, past the Salford Lads Club, right in to the city centre.

I parked up at midday, four hours after collecting Parky.

Out in to the bright Mancunian sun, surrounded by the familiar red brick, I suddenly got the kick that I was hoping for.

Chelsea away in a northern city, four hours to kick-off, boom.

The buzz was back.

Fantastic.

Parky and myself spent an hour or so enjoying a couple of bottles of beer apiece in the bar of The Lowry Hotel, right in the heart of the city, overlooking a narrow “cut” of The River Erwell as it winds its way out to Salford and beyond. We had visited this hotel before our famous win at City in the 2013/2014 season – one of the best away days of recent memory – and I suppose it was the superstitious part of me that made me want to revisit. Just as we were about to leave, I spotted the black and gold of an Ellison coach pull up outside the main entrance. This was a sure sign that Chelsea, as I had hoped, had been staying in the hotel. We loitered around for a while, despite the overzealous questioning of a few hotel staff, and were able to wish the players well as they quietly walked through the lobby in their white Adidas tracksuits and on to the waiting coach.

Chris : “Good luck, Eden.”

Parky : “Score two for me today, Eden.”

There was no response, no eye-contact, from him, nor the others. They looked, as you probably might expect on such an important day, focussed and serious. From another direction, came the suited Mourinho, again deadly serious. He looked straight ahead as I wished him well. A gaggle of fans, no more than ten, were waiting outside and only John Terry and Diego Costa had stopped to sign and pose for photographs.

Back at the city centre car park – no word of a lie – a young attendant was sheepishly waiting by my car and handed me a £25 parking ticket.

“I blame Mourinho and his bloody team talk Parky.”

Bollocks.

“Is that a bad omen, Parky? Shall we bugger off home now?”

We were caught in a little traffic, but were parked up in our usual place – a £5 spot at a car wash on the Ashton New Road – only ten minutes from the stadium.

Since the last visit of almost twelve months ago, another Sunday afternoon game, Manchester City’s stadium had been enlarged by a further seven thousand seats, with a high third tier now sitting on top of the south stand. The San Siro style exit ramps still exist at the sides, but the new stand has an encased look, with dull grey cladding at the bottom and windows above. It hardly adds to the aesthetic appeal of The Etihad. Down below, many familiar Chelsea faces were milling around. I met up with Alan and Gary. Alan handed me my match ticket, plus the one for West Brom the following Sunday. It was just after three o’clock. There were handshakes and a few grimaces.

“Take a draw today, son.”

More than one acquaintance admitted that Mourinho had been “a bit of a tit” regarding his outburst against Carneiro and Fearn.

There was ample time for a meet and greet with a few more friends in the bar area of the concourse of the middle tier. Inside the stadium, I was immediately met with the sight of five huge banners, held aloft by helium balloons, yet tethered by some folks at pitch level, announcing the new tier on the south stand. There was quite a festive feel. The new structure would bring the capacity up to around 55,000.

Two things to note.

City have been quite crafty in allowing away supporters into the new top tier too. The support, three thousand strong (at £58 a ticket, no less), was now split in to three tiers, thus making it rather difficult for all of us to synchronise the singing. I always thought that slicing our away section in to two at City resulted in a sub-standard noise level. With three thin sections, piled high upon each other, it would be even more difficult to get our support together.

As I have said before, I have always linked City and Chelsea historically; loyal, yet undervalued support, a sprinkling of trophies over many years, now powerhouses in the new order, with foreign investment bringing new levels of success and expectation. I will watch with great interest to see if City manage to fill those extra 7,000 seats on a weekly basis, what with our new stadium plans taking shape at the moment. It’s a litmus test for City, and maybe one for us too.

The team was announced.

Begovic – Ivanovic, Terry, Cahill, Azpilicueta – Matic, Fabregas – Willian, Hazard, Ramires – Diego Costa.

The loud PA stoked up the home support, with various players featuring on the TV screens – “I play for you” – interspersed with the faces of fans – “I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

“I play for you.”

“I sing for you.”

I remember commenting on something similar last season.

As the teams entered the pitch, the banners moved infield, and streamers cascaded down on to the pitch from the excited Citizens in the new tier above. With so many sky blue and white streamers filling the air, it reminded me of Argentina 1978.

Alan, Gary and I were in the middle of the middle tier, but right next to the home support.

“Lovely.”

The Chelsea support stood the entire game, which is nothing new.

From the whistle – Diego Costa to Willian – I was in to it.

Reports of my demise had been exaggerated.

Sadly, we lost possession straight away and a sublime ball from David Silva reached the run of Sergio Aguero. We held our breath, but Asmir Begovic saved well.

At the other end, Diego Costa fell in the box but I was unsighted. Down in front of us, City were coming at us at will, but Begovic saved magnificently on two separate occasions from the tormentor in chief Aguero. Our possession always looked like it would soon be coming to an end. A rare Matic header was our only effort which caused Hart to save. City were in the ascendency. Another Aguero chance went begging and as I looked across at the baying City fans, one chap was signalling “it could be 4-0.”

I silently agreed.

Just after the half-hour, the ball found Aguero yet again and he edged himself past Gary Cahill to fire City in front, the ball agonisingly coming off the inside of the far post.

We threatened momentarily, but City had dominated the first period. Our play was laboured and slow. Hazard was quiet. Fabregas, save for a couple of rare tackles, woeful. There were few positives.

Then, in the closing minutes, pure comedy.

An injured Gary Cahill needed attention in the goal mouth down below.

“Oh no.”

On came two unknown Chelsea assistants, scurrying like mad, and attended to our defender. The home sections of the stadium erupted in mirth.

“Sacked in the morning, you’re getting sacked in the morning.”

Only the hardest of Chelsea souls could not find that just a little amusing. I caught Alan having a little smirk to himself. In the lower tier to my right, the City fans were singing “Eva, Eva, Eva.”

After us singing Frank Lampard’s name last season and City singing Eva Carneiro’s name this season, this was getting pretty surreal.

What next?

Chelsea singing the praises of Eddie Large?

Next to receive attention was Diego Costa, clumped by a City defender, but away in the other half. Again, I was unsighted. As he walked off, head bandaged, he seemed to be overly agitated and Ivanovic – I think – had to steer him away from a City player.

At the break, there was the grim realisation that it could have been 4-0 to City. There were long faces everywhere I looked. After dismissing City as a main threat for our title before the season, I was having to re-evaluate, but yet a little voice inside my head kept saying “this is only the second game, don’t judge just yet.”

At the start of the second period, it was announced that Kurt Zouma was coming on as a substitute. My immediate thought was that Mourinho was looking to strengthen the midfield and maybe take off Ramires, put Zouma alongside Matic, and move Fabregas forward.

No. I got that wrong.

Kurt Zouma replaced John Terry.

What?

I had to think back to see if JT had received a knock. That was Gary Cahill injured before the break, surely. I just couldn’t compute that John Terry had been substituted.

Thankfully, much to our surprise, we enjoyed an upturn during the first part of the second-half. The increase in aggression and passion quickly inspired the away contingent to rally. We did our best to support the boys.

A break found Fabregas down below us in the inside-left channel and his lofted pass found Ramires, who controlled the ball and stabbed the ball past Hart. There was an instant roar of approval, but then the gnawing realisation that a linesman had flagged for offside. The City fans alongside us became animated and agitated. They mocked us for our false joy. I just looked across at them and mocked them similarly.

“Alright, calm down for fuck sake.”

Our play had improved since the first-half. Our chances on goal were rare, but we had definitely stepped up a gear.

Mourinho then replaced Ramires, one of the biggest improvements in my mind, with the much-maligned Juan Cuadrado. I am sure that there was a communal shake of the head among the Chelsea supporters inside the stadium and out. Our winger was much-heralded when he signed for us in February for around £24M. Since then, he has disappointed in nearly all of his subsequent games. There is a little part of me who thinks that Mourinho sees him as the 2015 version of Tal Ben Haim, a player so suspiciously “un-Chelsea like” in quality as to warrant the view that Mourinho only bought him, and kept picking him, as a mark of bitterness towards the lack of funds afforded him by the board.

Or is that me being too cynical?

With twenty minutes remaining, and the game delicately poised, a fine move – our best of the match – involving Eden Hazard and Diego Costa almost brought dividends. Diego lost his marker and played in Hazard, who made space well with a typical body shake, but Hart saved well.

We groaned a million “fackinells.”

Radamel Falcao, booed by City for his past season in Salford, entered the fray, replacing Willian, who had begun to tire. There were calls, tongue in cheek, for Falcao to replace Cuadrado. I was always told that it is not advisable to make substitutions before defending a corner. Falcao’s first three seconds of match action resulted in Kompany rising high above Ivanovic.

Bollocks.

2-0.

No way back now.

Insult was added to injury in the last five minutes when Fernandinho fired home from an angle. The home fans exploded in untold glee.

3-0.

Ugh.

In the dying embers, Diego Costa hit the post.

The City fans were in their element.

“Champions of England, you’re having a laugh.”

At the final whistle, a couple of the lads in front of me reached over to shake hands with the City supporters with whom they had been enjoying some good old-fashioned banter throughout the game. It was good to see. Despite a gut-wrenching defeat, I was deeply proud that not many Chelsea fans left before the end of the game.

I met up with Parky outside.

“That’s our second successive 3-0 away league defeat, Parky.”

Parky was with Kev, from Edinburgh, who last featured in these tales on our trip to wonderful Lisbon last autumn. I had managed to get a ticket for Kev before the game, and despite the loss, was full of thanks. Parky, maybe getting a little carried away, was looking forward to relegation and games against Bristol City and Cardiff City.

“Steady on, Parky, it’s not that bad mate.”

Our walk back to the car was alongside joyous sky-blue clothed locals. It was a strange feeling, to be honest. Despite the shifting sands of club rivalries, I still find it hard to genuinely hate City.

I ask you. If Chelsea fall short this season, would you rather that Arsenal, United, Liverpool or Tottenham won it?

Nah.

I wondered what Frank Lampard, in New York, thought about it all.

As with many trips to Manchester, music was in my thoughts throughout the trip. I had opened up the day on Facebook with a few lines from New Order :

“I feel so extraordinary.
Something’s got a hold on me.
I get this feeling I’m in motion.
A sudden sense of liberty.”

After a painful defeat, with home more than five hours away, I quickly decided upon a new update.

On this particular Sunday, it was now time to quote another Manchester son :

“Trudging back over pebbles and sand.”

On the drive south, with parts of the Chelsea supporter base no doubt going in to meltdown, Parky and myself were soon relaxing, enjoying each other’s company and looking forward to the next few games. As we sped past The Hawthorns, we made plans for our pre-match next Sunday. As Parky drank his ciders, I sang along – badly – to some music from the grim old ‘eighties.

I ate up the miles.

I was my usual philosophical self. It had been a tough game, but I was just so proud to be part of it. Hats off to those who continue to travel, to support, to keep the faith. I was so relieved that I had enjoyed the match day experience. I need not have been worried. Maybe the players had failed their test, but at least I had passed my own personal litmus test. I was happy for that at least.

After setting off for Manchester at 7.30am, I reached home at 11pm. It had been a long, tiring day.

Thankfully, I just missed our game on “Match Of The Day 2.”

Next Sunday, a Chelsea goal at West Bromwich Albion will be roared like a goal from our ne’er do well past. The noise will be deafening and the earth will shake.

See you there.

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Tales From The Malt House.

Chelsea vs. Swansea City : 8 August 2015.

The same four Chelsea supporters that had battled the awful traffic for last season’s league opener at Burnley were back together, twelve months later, for the first league game of 2015/2016. I was joined on my trip to London, the home of the champions, by three good friends; Glenn, PD and Lord Parky. And although the early evening game against Swansea City would be my sixth Chelsea match of the season, there was no doubt that all of the other encounters, to various degrees, were much less important than this one.

This one would matter.

Game one.

Game on.

Slowed by some traffic around Swindon, I sped away and made good time. Although we had been chatting away like mad at the start, by the time we had reached Reading, the conversations had dwindled. As I pulled out of the M4 services, almost apologetically – everyone knows how much I dislike discussing upcoming games ad nauseam – I suggested that it was appropriate that we ran through our projected line-up for the game ahead.

I took the lead.

“Well, the back five picks itself surely? Courtois, Dave, JT, Cahill, Brana. I think he’ll go with Matic and Fabregas. I am thinking Willian, Hazard and Oscar. And let’s hope he is fit, Diego Costa.”

Glenn agreed. Parky and PD stuck to their ciders.

“There’s the team sorted then.”

We passed the town of Slough, where my local team Frome Town were opening up their league campaign of 2015/2016.

It was a full on day of football.

The waiting was over.

After calling in at The Goose, with the beer garden sun kissed and overflowing but with fellow supporters being rather guarded about how well they thought Chelsea would fare this season, Glenn and I popped down to The Malt House. By that time, John – an acquaintance visiting from Los Angeles – had joined us. He has been living in London since March working on the score of the latest of the Mission Impossible series of movies.

“Mission Impossible.”

I wondered if our defence of the league championship might be similarly-named. Some friends in The Goose might have agreed with that working title. As for myself, I was relatively confident in our chances, though expected Manchester United to press us harder than any. I felt that Arsenal would flatter to deceive – that lovely football phrase – while I had doubts about Manchester City’s team spirit. Above all, we have Mourinho. He may irritate me at times with his outbursts, but lest we forget that he is one of the very best coaches in world football.

We bumped into Big John and his son Chris in The Malt House, which was decidedly less popular than The Goose, due in part perhaps to the more expensive prices. We enjoyed a good hour or so of banter. I chatted about my enjoyable trip to the US for the summer tour and we discussed the rise of football in that part of the world. John, clearly happy to be among some Chelsea “lifers,” spoke about how he became a Chelsea supporter and cited Gianfranco Zola as a deciding factor in choosing us, over Arsenal especially, in 1996. Big John was keen to hear about our support on the other side of the Atlantic. I warned him that many of the US supporters appear to love talking about tactics and trades. John smiled, and I know him well enough to know where he was going :

“I know a lot about Chelsea, but I know fuck all about football.”

We laughed.

For a change, we left enough time to calmly reach Stamford Bridge before the crush.

The news had filtered through about the team.

“Costa starts.”

It was the same team that I had named earlier.

Inside, I was saddened to see a large wedge of empty seats in the Shed Upper. They were obviously some of the 3,000 away tickets which Swansea City had not managed to sell. This is disappointing. It meant that around five hundred tickets were left unsold.

As the teams entered the stadium, I spotted a large and Italian-style banner, being held aloft by the inhabitants of the first few rows of the Shed Upper.

“We Are The Shed.”

Sadly, the two pensioners in our row – Joe and Tom – were not present. We wondered if they would be well enough to attend many more matches at all.

As the game began under a perfect London sky, the atmosphere was bubbling. There was cut and thrust in equal measure from both teams in a lively start. The hulk of Bafetimbi Gomis rose to meet a corner, but his header thankfully passed the post. As he was defending the part of the Stamford Bridge pitch closest to my seat, I could not help but notice that the first four times that Branislav Ivanovic was involved in the game, he either miss-controlled, lost his marker or missed a tackle. After a far from impressive start, I felt I had to keep an eye on Brana throughout the game. Usually so reliable, his form has worried me thus far this season. I’ll give him the benefit of time, though.

Good old Brana.

We looked impressive as we attacked the Shed End, with fine movement and intricate passing. Oscar again looked in fine form.

A lovely Swansea move, involving the strongly-booed Shelvey, found Gomis and a magnificently-timed tackle from John Terry saved our skins. Courtois then saved well from Ki Sung-Yueng. This was evidently a good game of football. The crowd were so obviously paying great attention to every twist and turn, in a way that was so missing from the previous couple of games.

A chance for Diego Costa, and a tumble inside the box, but no penalty. Soon after, a foul on Dave resulted in a Chelsea free-kick. Oscar punched a low cross in to the heart of the Swansea box, and the ball appeared to go unaided in to the far post.

The net rippled.

We rubbed our eyes.

Goal.

Alan and I had our first “THTCAUN / COMLD” moment of the nascent season.

However, on the half-hour mark, Swansea attacked our goal once more and after a fine Courtois block from that man Gomis, it was the nimble-footed debutant Ayew who managed to slide the ball in from the resulting melee.

Just as the Welsh hordes were celebrating with hymns and arias, we worked the ball out to Willian on the left. His attempted cross was wickedly deflected up by Fernandez and over the flat-footed and stranded former Goon Fabianski.

The hymns and arias stopped.

The Chelsea roar took over.

It had been a fine half of football. Despite Swansea’s resolute play, Chelsea had done just enough at the break to go in ahead.

As Paul Canoville – after New York, Charlotte and DC, there is no escaping him – walked the Stamford Bridge pitch at half-time, I dipped in to the match programme in search of entertainment.

Two statistical nuggets to share.

Our opening day results were listed, from 1992. Though, this in itself annoyed me. I had only recently seen someone, at Wembley I think, wearing a T-shirt in “Sky” font stating –

“Football Did Not Start In 1992.”

Anyway, twenty-three games and only three defeats, the last two at Coventry City in 1997 and 1998.

Also listed were the six highest attendances for overseas friendlies. Games in Baltimore, DC, Jakarta, California, Sydney were listed, but top of the pile was the game in 2011 that I was privileged to attend in Kuala Lumpur.

84,980.

Great memories.

Other than that, nothing much has changed in the design of the programme from last season and the season before that and the season before that. Maybe, like the megastore – which I had neither time nor inclination to visit – it needs a major overhaul.

I’ve always fancied myself as our programme editor.

Swansea came out guns-a-blazing in the second period. They peppered Thibaut’s goal with several efforts. Then, a ball from Shelvey released Gomis, who had beaten an offside trap and found himself free. As he approached the edge of the penalty box, Courtois swung a leg and Gomis tumbled. Admittedly, I was not particularly well sighted, being around one hundred yards away, but not only did it look a penalty, I was not surprised to see a red card being brandished.

Ugh.

Asmir Begovic replaced the unfortunate Oscar, who had impressed thus far.

Gomis coolly rolled the ball in from the penalty spot.

2-2.

Begovic, who some in the Chelsea fraternity have decided is not up to the job after only a handful of games, did well to save from Montero. To placate some of our fans, who apparently seem justified in pontificating about the prowess of our players despite not having much football knowledge outside of X-Boxes and Playstations, surely is a “mission impossible.”

Chelsea pressed on. At times the urgency was breathless, though not always with the required degree of skill to accompany it. Willian attacked down the right. Hazard, the little darling, attacked down the left. Without an extra man, though, we found it difficult to work the ball in to the brooding menace of Diego Costa. We urged the team on.

“Cam On Chowlsea.”

Brana headed over. At the other end, a Gomis goal was adjudged to be offside. Begovic saved well again. The ball was worked well to the dancing Eden Hazard, but his angled shot was parried away.

Despite Mourinho ringing the changes in the final quarter with King Kurt replacing a listless Fabregas and Radamel Falcao replacing the ever-willing Willian, in truth our best chances had come and gone. An errant foul by Williams on Costa drew howls of derision from others, but no penalty decision from Michael Oliver. I had noted that Costa had gone down too easily on other occasions throughout the half. Maybe that had worked against him.

In the circumstances, although I was obviously disappointed that our title defence had not opened up with three points, it is obvious that we did well to scramble a draw against a highly proficient Swansea City team, especially as we were reduced to ten players so early in the second-half. There won’t be many better teams than Swansea City who visit us in SW6 this season.

On the drive home, I stopped at Reading Services to refuel car and body. I briefly checked in on what the Chelsea Nation thought about the evening’s game via my smartphone. Although some were calm and pragmatic, others were sensationalist – “we drew against Swansea, therefore we will struggle this season” – and tiresome – “this player was rubbish, that player was rubbish” – in equal measure. For those among us who get pre-menstrual about a draw against a fine team such as Swansea City, I have to wonder if they are really suited to the life of a Chelsea supporter. In that long list of opening day results, there is a line which details a 0-0 draw at Stoke City in August 2011. I seem to remember that season ending rather well.

Next Sunday, we travel to the city of Manchester for an early-season heavyweight bout with one of our title contenders.

See you there.

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Tales From The International Champions Cup.

Chelsea vs. Fiorentina : 6 August 2015.

This was a strange evening and a strange game.

In the current climate, a home friendly is a pretty rare occurrence anyway. With our predilection for foreign climes and summer tours, a warm-up match at Stamford Bridge has been a very rare event over the past decade or so. I didn’t bother with last season’s game with Real Sociedad and, if I am honest, the only reason that I decided to attend the game with Fiorentina was because I had attended our other three “International Champions Cup” games in the US. I set off from work, alone, at 3.30pm to complete the set.

My main concern for the evening was the probable traffic chaos in London likely to be caused by the planned one-day tube strike. I sped as quickly as I could along the M4. At Reading Services, I spotted a father and daughter in Chelsea blue.

“Thought I was the only one daft enough to go tonight.”

“Should be a good game.”

Ah, the game. I hadn’t thought much about it until then.

This would be our first ever match with the viola of Florence. My only other previous encounter with them was on a muggy Sunday afternoon in late May 1989, when I watched a dull 1-1 draw between Juventus and Fiorentina in the home end at Stadio Communale. Apart from my first-ever sighting of Roberto Baggio – the eventual transfer of him between the two clubs would heighten animosities which exist until this day – my main recollection from that balmy Italian afternoon took place with around fifteen minutes of the game remaining.

Around 1,500 Fiorentina paninari – Timberland boots, Best Company T-shirts, Armani jeans, Burlington socks, Invicta backpacks, Schott bomber jackets, sunglasses, attitude – got a signal from their leaders, or maybe a phone call from their Juve counterparts, and quickly packed up their banners in the away end and left the terraces en masse, intent on disturbing the peace of an Italian summer on their way back to the city’s train station.

As a Juve sympathiser, there was a frisson of excitement about seeing them again twenty six years later.

As expected, I did hit some slow-moving traffic, but further out than expected. Ironically, the last section into London stayed relatively clear. At 6.15pm, I was inside The Goose, but in the strangest of circumstances. Nursing my first SW6 pint of Peroni of the season, I soon realised that there was not one single person in the pub that I recognised. I felt like I was in a parallel universe. This was going to be a strange one alright.

Thankfully, a few friends soon arrived.

Mick mentioned that he might have to leave just after half-time because of the expected ninety minute wait at the two closest mainline stations. For once, I was glad that I was driving and the master of my own destiny. The Bristol Four soon arrived and we chatted about the pre-season. We briefly spoke about Kenedy, the Brazilian lad who appeared in our team against Barcelona in Maryland. We all agreed that we could not remember the last time that a “trialist” ever appeared in our team. It’s an odd one. Like something from the amateur days of the pre-war years.

Although I was not too bothered about seeing the introduction of the first team squad to the spectators at 7pm – a full hour before kick-off – I wanted to have a leisurely stroll down the North End Road and Fulham Road. I soon noticed US-style pennants hanging from street-lights celebrating our Championship of last season, with torso shots of all of our players looking all mean and moody, and intent on repeating in 2015/2016.

I approved. It added a little to the streetscape around Stamford Bridge.

It was difficult for me to judge the size of the crowd. I didn’t expect a sell-out, especially in lieu of the London Underground strike. The place seemed busy enough. I didn’t spot any Fiorentina fans outside the stadium. I had decided to purchase a ticket in the East Upper for a change. What with the chances of the modern Stamford Bridge being demolished within the next few seasons, it might turn out to be one of my last visits. I promised myself to take more than my usual share of photographs. A different angle, a different perspective, lovely.

I had a great position in the towering East Stand, in row seven towards The Shed. The place was filling up nicely. Flags had been positioned by each seat. It was soon obvious that there were many more youngsters in attendance than usual. By all accounts the pre-game introductions were a little over the top with their US-style razzmatazz. What next? Players being parachuted in from the skies above next season?

As kick-off approached, the area around myself was full. There were chattering kids behind me, plus many more within sight. The next generation was well represented and it was good to see.

Stamford Bridge looked a picture. I like the fact that each of the four stands are slightly different, with idiosyncrasies, yet there is a common design to all. I am stirred that the new stadium designs echo these slight variances. The usual banners were out, though I noticed a few – Captain, Leader, Legend for example – looking rather faded and forlorn.

Our team contained several surprises.

Begovic – Aina, Zouma, Terry, Traore – Mikel, Loftus-Cheek – Cuadrado, Oscar, Moses – Falcao.

It would be home debuts for four.

I am sure that Ola Aina is in for a fine future at the club, but my main worry is that his name contains too many vowels for a defender.

“Too exotic son. See if you can get yourself some consonants. Work on that and you’ll be fine.”

Am I the only one who thinks our home shirts and shorts are – nicely – a deeper and darker shade of royal blue this season? They are certainly darker than the mid-blue of 2012-2013. Fiorentina, sadly but not surprisingly, showed up in white / white / violet.

Asmir Begovic did well to get down low within the first minute to save a rasping shot from distance after a simple passing move cut into our defence. We then enjoyed long spells of possession and our best twenty-five minutes of the evening. With the sun setting in the north-west corner, lighting up the sky nicely, I was settling down and enjoying this. Victor Moses, one of the stars in the United States, was again showing real promise in his determination and desire. Ruben Loftus-Cheek was impressing with his finesse and strength. We were playing some nice stuff. We were treated to a lovely Rabona from Oscar on the goal-line to my left.

I commented to the young couple to my right “I can do that after seven pints.”

I detected a foreign accent in the chap’s confused response, so I then decided to talk my way through the game with the Shed season ticket holder to my left. We had a good old natter throughout the match.

Mikel had been doing the simple stuff well, but then caused much merriment with an effort on goal which more resembled a defensive tackle.

Fiorentina then gradually took hold of the game. They kept the ball well and our play deteriorated alarmingly. On the half hour, a long raking drive smashed against Begovic’ crossbar. We had been warned. Soon after, Begovic saved well but could not smother the ball leaving an easy tap-in for Rodriguez.

The Fiorentina manager – ex-Juventus player and ex- QPR manager Paulo Sousa – was watching down below from the technical area and was increasingly pleased with his team’s performance. The little knot of away fans, no more than 150 in the bottom corner of The Shed, roared with approval too. They were, surely, mainly ex-pats. There was one “Viola Club Stockport” flag.

Fiorentina gained control and we struggled. The game went flat.

The noise, hardly tumultuous, reduced too.

At the interval, the Chelsea Women – in coats, they must have been feeling the cold – were introduced by Neil Barnett with the recently-won FA Cup.

Mourinho changed the personnel at the break, with Azpilicueta, Cahill and Ivanovic joining Zouma in defence. Matic replaced Mikel. The impressive Moses was sadly replaced by Ramires after the second of two knocks.

In truth, the second-half resembled the second-half at Wembley on Sunday; we enjoyed the majority of the ball, but found it difficult to break the opposition down. The frustration was starting to seep down to the players from the stands. Ivanovic seemed to be, again, a main source of our attacks, but again annoyed me with his final ball. As the game progressed I saw him getting increasingly annoyed with things. On one occasion he turned to the bench and had a proper rant, his face clearly contorted with rage about something or other.

“He had a face like a bulldog licking piss off a nettle” as the saying goes.

The comparison with the cool and calm and seldom-flustered Azpilicueta on the other flank could not be more dramatic.

Jose Mourinho, too, seemed to be increasingly annoyed. There were wholesale changes from both teams on the hour mark – on came Willian, Hazard, Fabregas and Remy – and Mourinho took dislike to the amount of time that Sousa orchestrated a similar amount of team changes too. It turned out to be the longest break for substitutes I can remember.

Joaquin, a visitor to Stamford Bridge with both Real Betis and Valencia in previous years, appeared among the viola substitutes. It was one name that I recognised.

“What do you mean Giancarlo Antognoni doesn’t play for them anymore?”

With more established quality in our ranks, surely a goal – and the inevitable win on penalties – would come now. Chelsea controlled possession but seemed to take forever to get going, and I lost count of the number of times the ball was passed laterally. We did improve when Willian, Hazard and Fabregas linked on a few occasions, but chances were rare. A Gary Cahill header from a Fabregas free-kick went close, and we all wondered how Remy, on for the quiet Falcao, managed to shoot wide from close range.

A rather agricultural – no, bloody clumsy – challenge from Kurt Zouma on a poor Fiorentina player – caused much merriment in the seats around me. It was, quite simply, one of the ugliest tackles that I have seen for a while.

The atmosphere, roused at times, was pretty quiet now, and parents with young families began to leave early on their long and tedious journeys home. I had commented to the Shed Ender to my left that I was impressed with the attendance. It looked to be at the 35,000 mark. Imagine my surprise when a full house of 41,435 was announced. Again, even for a friendly game, tickets sold rather than spectators in seats is used. It’s an odd one. Undoubtedly, there were empty seats around the ground too. Even so, on a night of massive travel disruption, this was a great attendance.

Despite five minutes of extra time, no equaliser was forthcoming.

“We could have played until March and not scored.”

The Shed Ender agreed.

“Sorry for the cliché, but as so often happens in these pre-season games, there are more questions than answers.”

He agreed again.

“My biggest worry is that all three of our strikers might be a knock away from being side-lined for weeks.”

I was a little subdued on my slow exit from a warm and sultry Stamford Bridge. And although I wasn’t – honestly – reading too much in to our rather lacklustre performance against a well-drilled Fiorentina team, I knew full well that out there in cyberspace, thousands of virtual Chelsea fans were throwing themselves off the nearest bridge, building or balcony as we endured another pre-season loss.

How these people would have coped in 1975, 1979 or 1988 beggars belief.

I wanted to get home as quickly as I could. Sadly, the journey home turned into one of farce as the roadworks on the A303 meant that I was severely re-routed, almost as far as Southampton damn it, and didn’t get home until 1.30am. Others, living in London, were still catching one final night bus.

A strange evening indeed.

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Tales From The Red Seats.

Chelsea vs. Arsenal : 2 August 2015.

What is the old saying?

“Familiarity breeds contempt.”

For the Football Association’s season opener this certainly seems to be the case. Long gone are the days when a trip to Wembley Stadium elicited a warm glow for myself and thousands like me. We are, as another old saying goes, a victim of our success. This would be Chelsea’s ninth such game – Charity Shield, then Community Shield – since 1997, and our eleventh in total. The 1955 game (beating Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge in front of just 12,802) is hardly ever spoken about. The 1970 game (losing to Everton at home, with a gate of 43,547, and Stamford Bridge never looking more sun-kissed) is on the outer reaches of modern Chelsea fans’ awareness. From 1997 though, our appearance in this game – first as F.A. Cup winners and then, get used to it world, as league champions – has been a regular event.

However, as of 2015, it is the one game every season that is starting to pall.

With the summer trip to the United States behind me, and with the league opener against Swansea City not far away, I was trying my hardest to get “up” for our Community Shield game against Arsenal. Of course it would be great to see a few Chelsea mates for the first time of the summer, but as for the game itself, I was struggling. There seemed to be a common understanding among fellow fans that a game against local rivals would add a little excitement to the game. There was talk of a “mark” being set for the season. There was also to be the strange sight of Petr Cech in Arsenal colours. Despite all of this, I was still having difficulties.

It was almost as if I was travelling to Wembley under some sort of strange sense of duty, which sounds rather pompous and silly. But, by the same token, there was no chance of me ever missing it.

“You’ve got me Chelsea, you’ve got me.”

I collected His Lordship at 9.30am. The domestic season was up and running.

On the drive to London, I chatted to Parky about the summer tour, which was over way too quickly, but left me with many lovely memories. Funnily enough, despite the joy of meeting up with a host of old and new Chelsea friends and the three games themselves, I think that the resounding memory for me is the time that I spent on The Great American Road. In my twelve days away, I covered 1,962 miles in my hire car, and the vast majority came in that massive “V” which I cut into the heart of America, travelling from New York City down to Charlotte in one trip and then from Charlotte back up to Washington DC the next. There were journey times of eleven hours and of eight hours respectively, with memories from each to last until the cold winter months and beyond. There was even one song – “Uma Thurman” by Fall Out Boy – which will forever be synonymous with my US trip of 2015, since I could not escape it, no matter what radio station I found. The summer tour also had other totems. The tour beers were “Shock Top”, “Rolling Rock”, “Blue Moon”, “Yuengling” and “Corona.”

From a football perspective, the theme was “penalties.”

And Bobby Tambling.

Good times, good times.

As we rose steadily on the elevated section of the M4, I glanced north and spotted the Wembley arch, clearly visible and with the late morning sun picking it out perfectly against the blue North London sky. We were soon parked at Barons Court. At about 12.30pm we met up with Alan, Gary, John and Dave at The Tyburn near Marble Arch. The last time that I was in this pub, and my last visit to Wembley in March, I was in my own little world of sadness.

As I sipped on a pint of San Miguel, I genuinely felt that a new season would help me move on from the grief which took over the closing months of 2014-2015.

Alan and Gary left for the game at about 1.45pm. Dave, Parky and myself stayed on for – you have guessed it – “one last beer.” We then had to hotfoot it to Marylebone to catch the 2.28pm train. It would be a fight to make kick-off. We never learn, do we? We bumped into the rumbustious crew from Trowbridge and Westbury on the fifteen minute train journey – “Parky!” – and it was great to see them again. To be honest, they would be the only familiar faces that we would see all afternoon. Maybe others were finding it hard to get “up” for this game too.

Inside the stadium concourse, I spotted Alan and Gary behind me.

“Got waylaid, son.”

We reached our seats just as the game kicked-off.

Phew.

We had super seats; row four of the upper tier, on the Royal Box side, midway inside the “Chelsea half.”

With people still lining up for beers in the area outside, the stadium was not remotely full at the start. However, after ten minutes, things were looking better and seats were filling up. It was obvious, though, that there were more empty red seats in our western end than in the Arsenal end. It was also noticeable that the Arsenal supporters in the lower tier were standing, whereas Chelsea were sitting. As an indicator of which set of fans were more “up” for the game, Chelsea were coming in a poor second.

I sighed.

The team contained few surprises, but we guessed that Costa was being protected in light of his recent injury scare in Maryland. Loic Remy deputised

It was immediately disconcerting to see Petr Cech in the monstrosity of an Arsenal kit.

Wembley Stadium was bathed in sunlight, with its huge and cumbersome roof supports causing strong shadows. It is a huge stadium, but I am still finding it a difficult stadium to admire. I still can’t believe that such a complex array of under structure does not support a sliding roof. It is a little ironic that the designing and building process for the new stadium – which took seven long years to be completed – was headed from 1997 to 2001 by none other than Ken Bates. That Chelsea Football Club might be moving in to Wembley for three years while Bates’ “Chelsea Village” is razed to the ground is doubly ironic.

There were few Chelsea banners on show.

One Arsenal banner caught my eye. The standard “Believe” had a yellow ribbon tied around the “I” which alludes to their bespoke F.A. Cup Final song. Quite clever.

I thought Chelsea began reasonably well, but then played second fiddle to a more energised and incisive Arsenal team for most of the first-half. I looked over at the Arsenal team which flashed up on the scoreboard. I must have reached that part of my Chelsea Life-Cycle which results in me being increasingly indifferent to players on opposing teams. In an identity parade, I would be hard-pressed to name Monreal, Bellerin and Coquelin.

It’s all about Chowlsea these days.

As I watched play develop before me, with Walcott finding Oxlade-Chamberlain, there was a clear moment when Dave saw enough of the ball to make a clearing tackle. That crucial moment passed and the Arsenal player struck an unstoppable riser past Courtois into the net. The Arsenal thousands roared, while we sat silently.

Until that point, it had been a relatively quiet affair of the pitch. While Arsenal made some noise, Chelsea retorted :

“Stand Up For The Champions.”

We did our best to get the singing going, but our section was unsurprisingly docile.

It was typical that while we clapped and applauded Petr Cech – though not ridiculously so – Cesc Fabregas was booed by his former Arsenal family every time he touched the ball.

Pathetic, really.

We found it difficult to get our game going in the first-half. To be fair, Willian was our main threat, moving well and more inclined to attack directly than in the past. I lost count of the times Ivanovic failed to deliver a cross by hitting the outstretched leg of his full back.

Two chances fell to Ramires. A shot went narrowly wide, but then a more glaring error. With the goal at his mercy, he headed over from a Remy cross. To be truthful, the ball was slightly too high for him. Or maybe he jumped too soon. It was a clear chance though. Elsewhere we struggled. A goal-line clearance from Ivanovic, with archetypal Goon Mertesacker breathing down his neck, stopped a second goal.

We hoped for a masterful Mourinho tongue-lashing at the break. He replaced Loic Remy with Radamel Falcao. We hoped for good things. Oscar soon replaced Ramires, and I immediately noted a bigger desire from him to attack the defensive lines. On a couple of occasions, he drifted inside and past his markers with ease. More of the same this season please.

On the hour, a second glaring miss of the match. Fabregas played in Eden Hazard, our player of the moment, and we fully expected him to rifle a shot low past Cech. Instead, his shot immediately rose high and flew over the crossbar. Such a rare piece of shoddy finishing from Eden shocked us all.

Fackinell.

A free-kick from Oscar – one of many which we were awarded in the final quarter – forced a save from Cech in the Arsenal goal. It probably looked more difficult than it was. The Arsenal thousands roared.

Kurt Zouma replaced Dave at left-back. That surprised me. On the other flank, Ivanovic was continuing to flounder.

As the game progressed, we never really looked like equalising. The atmosphere was deadening, though few Chelsea fans had decided to leave, which was a good sign.

Victor Moses replaced Terry, and Mourinho re-jigged things. Moses’ pace was not utilised and the equaliser proved elusive. Falcao had chased a few scraps, but his service was not great.

In the closing minutes, Arsenal had a couple of chances to increase their lead.

To be truthful, it hadn’t been a very entertaining match. We had looked a little sluggish, with our key players unable to match the creativity in key areas shown by Arsenal. At the final whistle, the Arsenal fans feverishly waved their red and white flags as if they had won a cup final.

Yes, I know, I sound bitter don’t I?

I was well aware that this reaction would be typical of the Chelsea supporters.

A win, and an important marker for the season ahead in a vital showcase game.

A loss, and an irrelevant result in little more than a friendly.

At the queue for the train back to Marylebone, there was a little chat among a few of us about the possibility of Chelsea using Wembley as a temporary home for several seasons should our planning application for the complete overhaul of our stadium be accepted. For some, Wembley would be a preferred option. For me, coming to London from the south-west, I think I would prefer to use Twickenham. Wembley, in my opinion, should not be used for club games, though you can be very sure that the Football Association would readily accept Roman’s millions for three seasons. It would also, perhaps forever, take away what remaining buzz of excitement that I get from visiting Wembley with Chelsea, if we were to play eighty games there in three years. There are also logistical problems getting in and out of central London. It would extend my day by an extra hour at least. The atmosphere isn’t great at Wembley. How would it cope with 50,000 Chelsea fans? I am not sure. Would we be able to get it jumping? It would be tough.

There is also the painful sight of Chelsea playing home games in a stadium of 90,000 red seats.

Ken – could you not have chosen a more neutral colour?

Royal blue, maybe?

To be fair, despite my moans about added travel time, we were back at Barons Court by 6.30pm.

On the way home, I glanced north once more. The Wembley arch was only just visible now, barely distinguishable against the early evening cloud.

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Tales From The U.S. Capital.

Chelsea vs. Barcelona : 28 July 2015.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or maybe it was America being ironic.

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

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

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

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

There was a photograph with Cath, Sambuca in hand.

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

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

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

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

Many laughs, many smiles, many photographs.

But one thing was missing.

Talk about the game against Barcelona.

I definitely approved of this.

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

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

“Roanoke 197 miles.”

“Roanoke 189 miles.”

“Roanoke 183 miles.”

“Roanoke 179 miles.”

“Roanoke 174 miles.”

Fackinell.

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

As the kids say these days –

“Mind. Blown.”

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

It was around 2.30am.

I needed to get back to the hotel.

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

A beer?

A short?

Nope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea in all white. I like that strip.

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

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

So. Our team.

In goal was Thibaut, the hero of Charlotte.

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

In the midfield two, Matic and Magic Hat.

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

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

Up front, looking mean and menacing, Diego Costa.

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

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

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

I wonder if the Suarez and Ivanovic subplot might continue.

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

Fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

At half-time, we were happy.

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

Wilian and Ramires for Oscar and Kenedy.

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

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

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

No goal.

1-1.

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

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

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

Ugh.

From behind me –

“Mourinho never beats Barca.”

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

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

“Count to ten Chris, count to ten.”

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

The gate was announced as 79,000.

Bloody fantastic.

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

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

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

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

“YESYOUFUCKINGBEAUTY.”

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

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

2-2.

More penalties.

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

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

It was the line of the night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic.

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

Only a friendly, right?

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

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

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

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

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

More beers, more photos, more laughs.

And then sadly, a few goodbyes.

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

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

It was around 2am.

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

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

And bloody Arsenal.

How boring.

IMG_1538

Tales From The Tar Heel State.

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

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

Let me explain.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What a couple of schmucks.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh happy days.

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

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

I had arrived.

Phew.

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

Fantastic.

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

Brian, Leo : I hope it all made sense.

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

Chelsea were in town.

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

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

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

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

This was going to be a great night.

And so it proved.

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

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

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

The Chicago crew.

The ex-pats Simon and Tuna from Atlanta.

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

Familiar faces everywhere.

Andy from Detroit.

Rick and Beckie from Iowa.

The Bobster from Fremont, California.

Beth. Always Beth.

Sam, Phil and Chris from Iowa.

Samantha and Larry from New Jersey.

Tim from Philly.

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

Steve from New Orleans.

Natalie from Kansas City.

Mark, David, Cathy from home.

Danny and a few of the infamous OC Hooligans.

Bobby Tambling.

Mario Melchiot.

JR from Detroit.

Pete from Florida.

Hoss from Oklahoma.

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

I was touched.

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

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

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

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

The Cocteau Twins played in the background.

“Heaven or Las Vegas?”

I’d take Charlotte anytime.

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

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

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

Lacoste Watch.

Chris – white.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just a three hour drive for them.

It was fantastic that Chelsea should be playing so close.

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

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

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

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

Again, to go back.

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

Stunning.

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

The PSG tagline for their tour was quite clever.

“PARIS LOVES US.”

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

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

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

Work that out.

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

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

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

“…and the home of the brave.”

The game started around ten minutes late.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER”

“OI OI OI.”

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

“ZIGGER”

“OI.”

(Slowing right down now…)

“ZAGGER”

“OI.”

(Phew…one last one.)

“ZIGGER ZAGGER ZIGGER ZAGGER.”

“OI OI OI.”

My job was done.

Smiles all round.

Sadly, my endeavours were not rewarded on the pitch.

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

That hurt.

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

America…over to you.

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

This one counted.

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

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

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

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

On came Courtois, Zouma, Ramires.

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

“He’s always nervous around me.”

Oh, that made me smile.

Nice one Vanessa.

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

Awesome.

Nobody in the central core sung this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

At least we didn’t lose.

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

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

We had a little think in our section.

Would this be our first penalty shootout since Munich?

I thought so.

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

As Cuadrado stepped up…”he’ll miss.”

Others agreed.

He missed.

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

GET FUCKING IN.

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

We did it.

A win is a win is a win.

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

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

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

Here we go :

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

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

“You’ve been in New York too long.”

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

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

Great times.

Thank you Charlotte.

Your city, your stadium, our club.

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