Tales From Blue Saturday.

Chelsea vs. Tottenham Hotspur : 26 November 2016.

It all began on Saturday 1 December 1990 when the visiting Tottenham Hotspur team kicked-off at Stamford Bridge, with football in England enjoying a resurgence after the exploits of England during Italia ’90.

264584_10150299031957658_792083_n

The Tottenham side included England stars Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne – forever linked to that “have a word with him” moment at the Stadio delle Alpi semi-final against West Germany – but we had a strong side too, including Italia’90 squad members Dave Beasant and Tony Dorigo. I watched the ensuing ninety-minutes from the West Stand seats with my mate Pete, a Newcastle United supporter on his first-ever visit to Stamford Bridge. It was a cracking game, bristling with good football and played out in front of a vibrant Chelsea crowd of 33,478 which was as about as good as it got in those days. Chelsea deservedly won the game 3-2 but who would possibly guess that the same fixture would not provide an away win in the ensuing twenty-six years?

As the four of us alighted at Paddington Station at around 10.30am, there was a strong desire to see us win our seventh straight league game of a surprisingly golden autumn, but much of my focus was to just keep the run going. I just hated the thought of us losing to them, and thus ending a ridiculous show of ascendancy over our rivals from N17. In my mind, a draw would be satisfactory. Over breakfast in a diner out on Praed Street, my stand point had toughened.

“Let’s beat them.”

And Tottenham were beatable. After a disastrous defeat in Monaco, they were out of the Champions League, and were probably at a low ebb. We, on the other hand, seemed invincible.

With the kick-off some seven hours away, we had planned a pub-crawl away from the gathering legions around Stamford Bridge. We have decided that we aim to do this more frequently over the next few years. We have certainly visited virtually all of the pubs around Stamford Bridge; it is time for us to broaden our horizons. After a very enjoyable pub crawl along the Thames in September before the away game at Arsenal, we settled for a small walking tour around Covent Garden. The four of us – The Chuckle Brothers, Parky, PD, Glenn and myself – took the tube down to Embankment, and inadvertently bumped into Kim, Dan and Craig, fellow Chelsea supporters, who we knew from The Goose. They didn’t take much convincing to join us. We started off with three pints in “The Coal Hole”, alongside The Savoy Hotel on The Strand. We were joined by Andy and Wayne, from Kent, like the others. From there, a brisk walk past Covent Garden to “The White Swan”, “The Round Table” and then “The Salisbury.” The beers were flowing, as were the tears of laughter.

The game was hardly mentioned. We were too busy laughing.

img_0553

We split up, with the five lads from Kent shooting off to pick up tickets near the stadium. We grabbed a slice of pizza at Leicester Square and then caught the tube from Piccadilly Circus to South Kensington. Time for a quick drink at “The Zetland Arms” and then a cab down to Stamford Bridge. Actually, as pub crawls go – with the idea being to experience new boozers – we failed miserably; we had been to all of the pubs before. Must do better next time.

“The Chelsea Pensioner” was heaving and we weren’t allowed to enter. Not to worry. It was about 5pm. Let’s get inside. Not surprisingly, the alcohol was keeping the winter chill at bay.

With Christmas approaching, the West Stand was festooned with blue and white lights, and I have to say it looked pretty effective; a waterfall of neon greeted us as we headed off to the MH turnstiles.

We were inside with time to spare. Spurs had a few flags hanging over the balcony of The Shed. With fifteen minutes to go before kick-off, there was a buzz of excitement. For me, with each passing season, there is no bigger home game than Tottenham. I looked over at their fans and wondered how many had endured, in the same corner of the stadium, the traumatic events of 2 May.

This would be the second time that I would be seeing Tottenham play this month.

“What?” I hear you ask. Let me explain.

Back in the first week of November, I met up with my old friend Mario, who I have known since the summer of 1975, and who I have mentioned many times before in these chronicles of Chelsea Madness. Mario is a Juventus supporter from Diano Marina in Italy, but has been living in Germany for twenty years. His adopted club is Bayer Leverkusen (we watched the Bayer vs. Chelsea game in 2011 together), and he was able to get me a ticket for the Bayer game against Tottenham at Wembley. What a magnificent day we had. It was Mario’s first-ever visit to England and, after knowing him for forty-two years, it just seemed so right that the first time that I would see him in England would be at Stamford Bridge under the Peter Osgood statue. I treated Mario to a tour of Stamford Bridge, before we explored the capital’s main sights on a whirlwind tour; Buckingham Palace, Trafalgar Square, Whitehall, Downing Street, Westminster, The Thames. We ended up with a cracking meal in a pub on the South Bank. And then, the odd sensation of a Champions League game in London not involving Chelsea. I hated the walk down Wembley Way from Wembley Park tube station, with the whole area covered in Tottenham favours and trinkets. I hated seeing the Spurs badge superimposed on Wembley’s façade. I just wanted to get inside, away from them all.

The game itself was hugely enjoyable. Bayer Leverkusen had the upper hand throughout and I loved the experience. They were noisily supported by around 2,500 fans; they made a fantastic din. By comparison, the home support was woeful. I can honestly say that I only ever heard two Spurs’ songs during the entire evening.

“Oh when the Spurs – go marching in…”

“Come…on…you Spurs.”

Two. That was it. Honest.

For huge periods of the match, they hardly sung at all.

Bayer’s fans were led by a capo at the front of the lower tier who orchestrated each song, using a loudspeaker and what looked like a series of hand codes.

Clenched fist – song A.

One finger – song B.

Two fingers – song C.

It was odd to be in an away section that was so different to that which we experience in England. At a Chelsea away game, there are constant murmurs of songs being started throughout the away enclosure, and once a critical point is reached, songs envelope the whole area. It’s pretty democratic and organic. Songs rise and fall. At Wembley, the Bayer fans around me did not sing at all, or at least they did not start their own songs. Once the capo began, though, they all joined in. There was an awful lot of “sha-la-la-las” and a lot of rhythmic clapping.

“SHA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA – LA.”

“LE – VER – KU – SEN.”

I must say I preferred the English model though.

When Bayer’s Kevin Kampl slammed a goal past Hugo Loris from inside the six-yard box on sixty-five minutes, I can honestly say I went doo-lally.

Tottenham Hotspur 0 Bayer Leverkusen 1.

Oh my aching sides.

Walking back up to Wembley Park after the game with Mario was schadenfreude at its very best. The Spurs fans were silent again, except for the occasional moans about how poor they had been. I lapped it up. A wink and a smirk to Mario was enough for me.

Oh happy days, oh happy night.

The stadium filled to capacity and Stamford Bridge grew expectant.

These memories of Wembley toyed in my mind as I looked over towards them.

“Hey, Tottenham. I have a song for you. Do you know this one?”

ONE FINGER.

The team was unchanged once again. Why change it? No reason.

We were treated to the darkening of the lights and another electric storm of flashing strobes, blinding flashes and a pulsing heartbeat. It looks impressive, but I’d much prefer us to be left to our own devices, and to generate some atmosphere ourselves. Additionally, there was just enough time for a two-tiered display in The Shed just before the teams entered the pitch.

In the Upper Tier : “ONE STEP BEYOND.”

In the Lower Tier : “CHELSEA ACID HOUSE.”

This football and music crossover continues on. The staples of the English working classes.

I’m personally waiting for a Cocteau Twins banner to be flown from atop the East Stand.

At 5.30pm in deepest darkest SW6, the game began with not a seat in the house empty.

Let’s not ignore the facts. Tottenham completely bossed the first-half. I captured on film the free-kick which resulted in Spit The Dog bundling the ball in but photographic evidence backed up the linesman’s decision that he was clearly – “clearly I tell ya” – in an offside position. Tottenham then took the lead on just eleven minutes when the ball was worked to Christian Eriksen, who unleashed an unstoppable drive, with minimal back lift, past Thibaut Courtois.

They celebrated down below us. The Spurs fans roared. We had conceded our first goal since the last ice age. Fiddlesticks.

We looked lethargic in possession and lacking confidence. It came as a major shock to all of us. Spurs, in comparison, resembled the team that had – “cough, cough” – pushed Arsenal to second place in the league last year, showing a greater determination to work as a team. Our first real effort on goal was a trademark David Luiz side footed free-kick, which Loris easily gathered. In the stands, frustrations were overflowing. Our back three at times looked like a plan gone wrong. And Spurs continued to dominate. Spurs peppered our goal with shots from everywhere.

There were small – ever-so-small – signs of improvement. A Hazard shot.

“Let’s just get to half-time. Conte needs to talk to them.”

On the cusp of half-time, Matic played the ball forward to Pedro. He was around twenty-five yards out and for once was allowed time to turn. In an instant, he moved the ball out of his legs, and with no Tottenham challenge forthcoming, curled an exquisite shot past Loris and in to the goal, just inside the far post. It was not dissimilar to Diego Costa’s strike at Southampton. And the turn reminded me of Oscar’s goal against Juventus in 2012.

Anyway – “YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEES.”

Mad celebrations.

Undeserved but level at the break.

Phew.

Time to take stock, time for the manager to try to instill some confidence in the team. At this stage, I probably would have taken a point. We had been, as if I have to say it again, quite poor.

With Chelsea attacking the MH in the second-half, the crowd seemed enlivened as the game re-started. A shot from N’Golo Kante stung Loris’ hands, but the Spurs ‘keeper was not troubled.

Soon after, Eden Hazard pushed the ball on to Diego Costa, who dribbled deep, and with real skill, into the Spurs box. He slowed, then drifted past the last challenge before pushing the ball diagonally across the box. From my viewpoint, I saw it all. I saw Victor Moses rush in completely unmarked at the far post. If we were playing three at the back, Spurs must have been playing two because nobody was near him. We watched – the time seemed to stand still – as he smacked the ball goal wards. In reality, the ball struck two Spurs players on the way in, but I just waited for the net to bulge.

2-1.

The Bridge roared once again; the noise was deafening. It must have woken some of those in the adjacent Brompton Cemetery. All around me, people were bouncing with joy. The look on Alan’s face was a picture.

img_0640

Diego Costa then similarly set up Marcos Alonso, but his shot was rushed and flew high over the Tottenham bar. It felt that Chelsea were back on top, although chances were proving to be rather rare for both sides.

On sixty-three minutes, a poignant moment as the crowd applauded the memory of Chelsea fan Robert Huxley, so tragically killed in the recent Croydon tram disaster. It is a tram that Alan has used on many a day.

The game continued. No team dominated. It was a game of only half-chances, quarter-chances. Antonio Conte replaced Eden Hazard with Willian, Victor Moses with Branislav Ivanovic and Pedro with Oscar. The crowd roared the team home.

The run had continued.

Saturday 1 December 1990 to Saturday 26 November 2016.

Played : 27

Won : 18

Drawn : 9

Lost : 0

After the game, everyone was euphoric. We quickly met up with some pals outside the Ossie statue, and then some others back at “The Malt House.” No room at the inn there either. We cut our losses and headed back to Paddington. Pub number seven of the day was “The Sawyers Arms” and there was still time for a couple of rounds of shorts before the train home.

One thought kept racing through my mind. I know hate is a strong word, a horrible word really, but if Chelsea dislike Tottenham, they must fucking hate us. Our dominance continues even when we play below par. They must be truly sick of the sight of Fulham Broadway tube station, the CFCUK stall, Chubby’s Grill, the knobhead with the loudspeaker, the Oswald Stoll Buildings, Café Brazil, The Butcher’s Hook, the whole bloody stadium. And I would not have it any other way.

Another huge game awaits next Saturday; a lunch time kick-off at Manchester City.

I will see some of you there.

img_0668

Tales From The Riverside.

Middlesbrough vs. Chelsea : 20 November 2016.

My last trip to Middlesbrough was eight years’ ago. On that day in the autumn of 2008, with Luiz Filipe Scolari in charge, we won 5-0 and it was a cracking performance. On that particular occasion, I made the stupid decision to drive up and back in the same day. Five hours up, five hours back, and only a few miles’ shy of a six-hundred-mile round trip.

“Never again, never again.”

Eight years later, I had soon decided that Middlesbrough would be an overnight stay, as would Sunderland a few weeks later.

Not long in to the long drive north, I confided to PD that I was really looking forward to the football. Now this might seem an odd statement, but very often – and it seems to be increasing all the time – it is the “other stuff” that I get excited about these days. The banter, the craic, the laughs, the camaraderie, the pub-crawls, the beers. The pleasure of being in a different stadium, a different city, every two weeks is part of the fun too. A chance to experience new things, new sights, new sites. And although there were the joys of an overnight stay in Middlesbrough – “stop sniggering at the back” – to look forward to, I can honestly say that the magnificence of our recent performances had got me all tingly. After the beautiful demolition of Everton, the dreaded international break had come at a particularly unwelcome time.

I just simply yearned to see us play again.

I am a rare visitor to Teesside. I never ever made it to Ayresome Park, and this would only be my fourth ever visit to ‘Boro’s new stadium on the banks of the River Tees alongside the famous Transporter Bridge. On my first two visits in 2002 and 2007, I stayed in Scarborough and Whitby. There had been three wins out of three. But I was not taking Middlesbrough lightly. If ever there was a potential Chelsea banana skin, this was it.

Five straight wins and then a tough trip to the North-East on a wet and cold Sunday afternoon? It had “Fyffes” written all over it.

I eventually pulled in to Middlesbrough at around 3.30pm on the Saturday afternoon. PD and I had enjoyed our trip north, listening to the Manchester United vs. Arsenal draw on the radio – happy with points dropped by both teams – and it did not take us long to be toasting “absent friends” in our hotel bar. Friends Foxy and Ashley from Dundee soon joined us as we tentatively made plans for the evening. There were cheers as Liverpool dropped points at Southampton, which meant that a win for us on the Sunday would mean that we would reclaim our top spot. A win for City at Palace was expected. We took a cab into town, and Harry bloody Kane scored a winner for Spurs at home to West Ham just as we were deposited outside “Yates.”

“Well, that has spoiled the taste of my next beer.”

“Yates” was pretty empty. There were a few other Chelsea inside, but all was quiet. We sat at a table overlooking a pedestrianised street, deep in the city centre. In two hours, I just saw two people walk past.

“Lloyds” was next and a lot livelier. More beers. More laughs.

As the night deteriorated further, Ashley and Foxy headed on back to the hotel at around midnight, but PD and I kept going. We stayed a while in one pub – a local told me that it was “the roughest pub in Middlesbrough” – but it seemed OK to me. I could hear Parky’s voice :

“It was the kind of pub where the bouncers throw you in.”

Lastly, we visited the infamous “Bongo Club” but soon realised that we were reaching the end of our night.

We sniffed out a late-night takeaway, and avoiding the local “chicken parmo” speciality, scoffed some late night carbohydrates before getting a cab home.

Back in my hotel room – Room 101, I had to laugh – I set my alarm for a 9am breakfast.

The time was 3.38am.

“Oh fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck.”

It had been a bloody enjoyable night. Ten hours of drinking. Where did the time go?

Answers on a postcard.

You know when you have had a proper skin full the night before, when you wake up the next morning and there is not the faintest memory of an overnight dream. During the working week, my first waking moments are often coloured by the dreams I had experienced while asleep. A memory here, a vague thought there, maybe a recollection of some sort of sequence of events. Well, at 9am on Sunday 20 November, there was simply nothing.

A complete blank.

“Too drunk to dream.”

Oh boy.

We breakfasted, then headed out. As I was on driving duties, I would be on “Cokes” for the rest of the day. In truth, after just five hours’ sleep, I was hanging. At least there was no discernible hangover. I was just tired. It was going to be a long day.

In “The Pig Iron” near the train station we had our first match day drinks. It was another very cheap pub, but there was a rather unpleasant smell in the bar. A few Chelsea were present. But there were also a few local lads, sporting their finest livery, and I was quite happy to move on.

Back to “Yates” and it was a lot livelier, with many Chelsea arriving over the next few hours. Friends Kev and Gillian arrived from Edinburgh. I was gulping down the “Cokes” and eventually started feeling a little more awake.

I whispered to a few fellow fans “I can safely say that Middlesbrough has lived down to expectations.”

Other Chelsea fans had stayed the night in Newcastle, Durham, Whitby. They had possibly made the wisest choices. To be fair, although the town was hardly full of much architectural or cultural delight, the locals were very friendly. In one of the boozers the previous evening, I had even encountered a ‘Boro fan who admired John Terry.

I wished that the gents toilets in “Yates” were better though.

“It’s got a shallow end and a deep end.”

It was 3pm and we caught a cab to the stadium. It was a bleak and damp afternoon in Teesside. We bumped into a few friends and then headed inside. The away fans are now along the side. We had sold out long ago; three-thousand at Middlesbrough on a Sunday in November was indeed an excellent showing.

We had turned-up. Would the team?

There was a fair bit of noise in the concourse and in the away section. There was an air of invincibility. The Liverpool draw had definitely given us a bounce to our step.

We had heard that the team was unchanged yet again.

In Conte we trust.

PD and myself were right down the front in row one. It would be a different perspective for me. I had a constant battle with a steward though; he didn’t like my camera.

The teams soon appeared, with Chelsea wearing a charcoal grey training top over the unlovable black away kit.

Before kick-off, there was a perfectly-observed minute of silence for the fallen. I had noted that around thirty soldiers, in camo fatigues, had been given a block of seats in the end adjacent to us. As the teams broke, the noise boomed around the stadium. To my left, in the area where away fans were once housed, there was a section of the home crowd who were waving flags; it was, I suppose, their “ultra” section, though I am not sure if they would call themselves that.

We stood the entire match.

“Oh, my feet.”

Middlesbrough certainly have an awful home shirt this season, with that silly low swoosh come sash on the players’ stomachs. It reminded me of ice hockey’s greatest ever player Wayne Gretzky, who always used to tuck the right-hand side of his shirt in, leaving the left-side loose.

Anyway, as shirts go, this one is pants.

Middlesbrough started the strongest I thought. It looked like their left-winger was going to be a constant source of irritation for us. On two occasions he slipped past Cesar Azpilicueta. With a front row vantage point, it was fascinating to see the physical battle of the two as they raced together, arms flailing, legs pumping. Negredo had the first real chance of the game, but his low centre evaded everyone.

Eden Hazard was unceremoniously clumped from behind and he remained down, worryingly, for a while.

Both sets of fans were in fine voice. Middlesbrough had a few of their own songs, but their local dialect made deciphering the words difficult for some.

“What are they saying?”

I was able to assist :

“We’ve got some shit fans, but yours are the worst.”

For a while, both sets of fans seemed to be overlapping the same tune with different lyrics. The old ‘Boro favourite “Papa’s got a brand new pigpag” easily segued into “Victor Moses.”

It was a rather slow start for us, but gradually we began to turn the screw. Midway through the half, we were well on top. Middlesbrough’s spell of possession seemed ages ago. Just before the half-hour mark, Moses played in Pedro who was only about ten yards out. I expected him to score. He slammed the ball high, but Victor Valdes flung his arm up, and finger-tipped the ball over.

“What a save.”

Negredo rose well, but headed wide, but Chelsea were now dominating possession despite few real chances. Moses, enjoying a lot of the ball, blazed over.

The weather sharpened and my feet got colder and colder. There were a few spots of rain. Up went my hood.

Victor Valdes went down after a challenge, and it looked like he would be needing attention. I seized the moment. With half-time approaching, I decided to beat the half-time rush.

While in the gents in the under croft at the Riverside Stadium at around 4.47pm on Sunday 20 November 2016, I heard a roar above.

“Is that us?”

“Dunno.”

News travelled fast : Diego Costa.

There was a mixture of elation and despair.

“Bollocks, I’ve come all this way and I missed the goal.”

I quickly re-joined PD.

“Good goal?”

“A tap in from a corner.”

The half-time whistle blew immediately after.

At half-time, Chelsea were buoyant.

“We are top of the league. Say we are top of the league.”

As the second-half started, I couldn’t help but notice that there were two or three Middlesbrough fans in the section to my left constantly pointing and gesturing at some Chelsea fans in the away section close to me. A couple were going through the age old “you, outside!” malarkey. I suspect that their new-found bravery was quite probably linked to the fact that thirty soldiers were standing behind them.

The noise continued, but became murky with taunts and counter-taunts of “a town full of rent boys” and “Adam Johnson, he’s one of your own.”

Ugh.

It was still 1-0 to us, and as the game continued, I was convinced that Middlesbrough would equalise.

David Luiz was enjoying another fantastic game for us, heading cross after cross away, and then passing out of defence intelligently. On one occasion, he hopped and skipped past one challenge, before finding Diego Costa with a beautiful cross. His perfectly-weighted header set things up for Pedro, who smashed a volley past Valdes, but we watched as the ball agonizingly crashed down from the bar.

Moses then thrashed over again.

“Need a second goal, PD.”

We were still the better team, but there were moments when Middlesbrough threatened. Traore wasted a good opportunity and blazed over, but soon after Negredo raced forward and we held our breath. A low shot was battered away by Thibaut Courtois, his first real save of note during the game to date.

I was still worried.

As the clock ticked by, 1-1 haunted me.

Conte made some changes in the final ten minutes; Chalobah for Pedro, Ivanovic for Moses, Oscar for Hazard.

Middlesbrough had a few late surges, but our magnificent defence held firm.

At the final whistle, I clenched my fists and roared, along with three-thousand others.

It had been a war of attrition this one. The recent flair only appeared fleetingly, despite much possession. Middlesbrough looked a pretty decent team, but lacked a spark in front of goal. We knew we had passed a firm test on a cold evening on Teesside. Six league wins on the trot, and – most incredibly – not one single goal conceded. The noise emanating from the Chelsea fans as we squeezed out of the gates at The Riverside and into the cold night was a reflection of our lofty position but also in honour of our ability to eke out a narrow win when needed.

Diego Costa’s goal made it four wins out of four for me at Middlesbrough and – amazingly – I have never seen us lose to them home or away.

A cheap and cheerful burger outside the away end helped restore my energy and I slowly joined the legions of cars heading south. I managed to keep any tiredness at bay and the drive home, eventually getting in at 11.45pm, was remarkably easy.

It had been a decent weekend in Middlesbrough.

Tottenham – you are next.

img_0512

Tales From Firework Night.

Chelsea vs. Everton : 5 November 2016.

Everton have an atrocious record against us in the league at Stamford Bridge. We have not lost to them since Paul Rideout gave them a 1-0 win in November 1994, a game which marked the opening of the then North Stand. It is an unbeaten record which stretches back twenty-two consecutive seasons. If it wasn’t for our home record against Tottenham – twenty-six years unbeaten – then this is the one that everyone would be talking about.

So, we had that in our favour. The cumulative effect of all that misery would surely have some part to play on Everton’s performance; among their fans for sure, who must be well and truly fed-up with their trips to SW6 over the years. The Evertonians never seem to make too much noise at Chelsea. It is as if they have given up before the matches begin. But Everton would be no mugs. Ever since they jettisoned Roberto Martinez for Ronald Koeman, they have looked a far more convincing team.

For some reason, I kept thinking back to a game against Everton in Jose Mourinho’s first season with us. Almost to the day, twelve years previously, Everton had provided a tough test for us as we strode to top the division for the very first time that season. I remember a lone Arjen Robben strike at the near post at the Shed End after a sprint into the box. We won 1-0 that day and went top. The excitement in the packed stands was palpable. It was a great memory from 2004/2005. We would hardly look back the rest of that momentous season.

Fast-forward to 2016/2017. We went in to the game with Everton in fourth place and with a chance – albeit slim – to go top once again. However, once heavily-fancied Manchester City were at home to lowly Middlesbrough at 3pm, and I fully expected City to win that one.

But we live in a place called hope, and there was a chance that City might slip up.

We had heard that the team was again unchanged; no surprises there.

I was in the stadium at just after 5pm. I didn’t want to miss the club’s salute to the fallen, ahead of next week’s Remembrance Day.

There was a cold chill in the air, and we waited for the stands to fill. How different to the “pay on the gate” days of the old terraces, when the stadium would be virtually full a good half-an-hour before kick-off for the big games; this always added to the sense of occasion and the anticipation. There even used to be singing from the terraces before the teams came out.

I know – crazy days, eh?

The lights dimmed with about five minutes to go. Instead of the focus being singularly on Remembrance Day, the club had decided to celebrate Guy Fawkes’ Night with some fireworks being set off into the London night from atop the East and West Stands.

The air crackled to the sound of the detonations, and the night sky turned white.

It was over in a few moments, a few flashes.

The smell of sulphur lingered. For a few moments, Stamford Bridge seemed to be hosting a proper London Fog of yesteryear. I almost spotted Hughie Gallacher, a ghost from the foggy ‘thirties, appeal for a penalty, pointing with rage at a referee.

And then, the “Chelsea Remembers” flag, including two poppies either side of the club crest, appeared down below in the Matthew Harding Lower. The teams entered the pitch, with the striking scarlet tunics of two Chelsea Pensioners leading the way.

There was applause.

And then there was silence as the teams stood in in the centre-circle.

A moment of solemn remembrance.

Perfect.

At the shrill sound of the referee’s whistle, a thunderous boom from the stands.

I’m not sure, with hindsight, if it was right and proper to combine both a celebration of Firework Night and Remembrance Day. Did the former detract from the latter? I think so.

We had heard that, miraculously, Middlesbrough had equalised at Eastlands. The chance for us to go top was back “on.”

I love days like these.

The game began and there was hardly an empty seat in the house. Even at games which are advertised as “sold out” it is always possible to see a fair few empty seats. Not on this occasion. In the first few moments, we were able to be reunited with Romelu Lukaku, whose shoulders are as wide as the African tectonic plate. He had a few runs at our defence, but all was well in the vaunted back-three.

His partner upfront soon drew a comment from Alan alongside me :

“Bolasie – go home.”

We began playing the ball around with ease. I noted that even Gary Cahill now looked totally comfortable playing the ball out of defence.

The coldness of the early evening had resulted in a few players wearing gloves. Alan was soon grumbling.

“Short-sleeved shirts and gloves. What’s all that about?”

“Reminds me of me doing the washing up, Al.”

We were warming up to a sixty-second blitz. Out wide on the left, Eden Hazard received the ball. As is his wont, he took on a couple of Everton defenders and shimmied inside. A little voice inside my head doubted if he could score from so far out. I need not have worried one iota. A low shot beat Stekelenburg at the far post.

“YEEEEEEESSSSSS.”

I jumped up and bellowed my approval, and I soon spotted Eden run over towards the Chelsea bench, and then get engulfed by players. Conte was in and among them. What joy. I’m amazed how defenders allow Hazard to cut inside. Surely their pre-match planning was to show him outside.

In the very next move, Hazard played the ball into space for Pedro to run onto. His square pass evaded Diego, but Marcos Alonso was on hand to smash the ball home.

We were 2-0 up on just twenty minutes, and playing some wonderful football.

A lofted chip from Alonso picked out the late run of Victor Moses, whose hard volley crashed against the outside of the near post.

We were purring.

Our one touch football was magnificent. Everyone looked comfortable on the ball. Everyone worked for each other. There was so much more movement than in previous campaigns. It was as if a switch had been pressed.

A corner was swung in and Matic eased it on. The ball conveniently fell at the feet of the waiting Diego Costa. He wasted no time in slamming it in.

Chelsea 3 Everton 0.

Wow.

I leaned over and spoke to Alan : “I think we are safe now.”

Just before the break, Pedro worked an opening but shot wide. Then, well inside his own half, a sublime turn by the effervescent Pedro released Diego Costa. It seemed that every single one of us in the ground was on our feet and willing him on. He broke away, evaded his defenders, but shot wide when I had spotted a Chelsea player square. This was breathless stuff this.

Quite magical.

We were leading 3-0 and it so easily could have been 5-0.

Total domination.

Everton were simply not in it.

I commented to Alan, PD and Bournemouth Steve : “That’s one of the best halves of football I have ever seen here.”

This really was sublime stuff. A keenness to tackle, and to retrieve the ball, and an incredible array of flicks and touches to keep the momentum once in possession. We were unstoppable.

I noted that a fair few hundred Evertonians had vacated their seats after the third goal. Their creditable three thousand would dwindle further as the game progressed.

I spoke to Kev and Anna : “In all the time that Mourinho was in charge here, we never ever played free-flowing football as good as that.”

They agreed.

Soon in to the second-half, we were treated to another gem. Diego had already threatened the Everton goal on two occasions, but we were soon treated to another Hazard gem. He played a crafty one-two with Pedro, who back-heeled the ball in his path, and advanced. With that low centre of gravity, he just glided forward. This time, his left foot guided the ball just inside the Everton near post. The ‘keeper hardly moved.

What a finish. It amazed me.

Chelsea 4 Everton 0.

Super stuff.

Eden raced back towards his team mates, his tongue out, smiling, in a perfect moment. I noticed that all ten outfield players surrounded him in a close huddle. At the Shed End, Thibaut Courtois had hoisted himself on to the cross bar and had performed a handstand, with a back somersault on dismount. He was bored. It gave him something to do.

The Stamford Bridge crowd were on fire, and a new chant soon echoed around the stadium.

“Antonio. Antonio. Antonio, Antonio, Antonio.”

Simple but effective and so much better than that other one. The manager, raised his arms and clapped all four stands. It was his moment just as much as ours. Lovely stuff.

And still it continued.

A delightful back-heel from Eden and another lofted cross from Alonso resulted in a spectacular volley from Diego which was well saved by Stekelenburg.

I whispered to Steve : “Alonso has been fantastic – so much energy.”

On sixty-five minutes, Diego broke from the halfway line, showing great strength to race away from two markers, and strode on. He set up Eden who forced the ‘keeper to parry. The ball dropped at the feet of Pedro.

Bosh.

5-0.

Oh my oh my.

There was still twenty-five minutes to go and we were leading 5-0.

Oscar replaced Pedro, who received a standing ovation; he had been wonderful. Oscar dolloped a lovely ball for Diego to run on to, but the ball got stuck under his feet and the chance went begging. David Luiz volley from an angle forced Stekelenburg to tip over. Luiz had enjoyed another fine game. His series of “keepy-uppies” and a nonchalant pass to a waiting team mate drew warm applause.

And all through this demolition job, Antonio Conte did not sit for one minute. He paced the technical area, coaxing and cajoling his team to greater deeds. It was amazing to watch.

Everton were leggy and I almost felt sorry for them. They had been swept aside by a Chelsea whirlwind.

Conte, to my surprise, added Batshuayi to play alongside Costa. By this time, only a few hundred Evertonians were still in the stadium. I bet that they were not happy about us playing with an extra man in attack.

“Leave it out, la.”

Batshuayi replaced Eden.

It had been a perfect display from Eden. He had been simply unplayable.

A perfect ten.

We applauded him as loudly as anyone that I can remember in living memory.

Moses cut inside and Stekelenburg fumbled, but the ball stayed close to him. John Terry replaced Gary Cahill and soon played a superb faded ball through with his left foot, but we were flagged for offside.

It remained 5-0.

Five bloody nil.

Superb.

Maybe the club should have saved some fireworks for the end of this particular game. It would have ended the evening’s entertainment perfectly.

There had been a gathering of the clans in the pubs around Stamford Bridge before the game; Dave the Hat from France, Kevin and Richard from Edinburgh, Bob from California. I am sure that they, and everyone else, had loved every damn minute of it.

On the drive home, PD, Parky and myself were euphoric. Rarely had we played better. Sure, there have been more dramatic games of football, and more hard-fought victories, often resulting in silverware, but this one was so special. Everton had hardly had an attempt on goal the entire game. They are no slouches, but we could have won 8-0.

As I drove into the night, with fireworks exploding into the sky, I was reminded of a few other games where I had come away from Stamford Bridge, thinking “that was almost perfect.”

A 6-0 against Newcastle United in 1980 with two old-fashioned wingers and a beautiful “feel good factor” which lasted for weeks. The football had been wonderful.

A 4-0 against Newcastle United in 1983, when the John Neal team produced a near-perfect performance. Newcastle had been favourites for promotion but we were so dominant that day.

A 5-0 against Middlesbrough in 1996, and a fantastic show of one-touch football under Glenn Hoddle. A game which got the media talking and which made me feel energised for many weeks.

Since then, of course, we have enjoyed ridiculous riches, and I can rattle off many memorable games at Stamford Bridge. Three against Barcelona, a few against Liverpool, a few against Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester United. But there was not a dramatic change in our playing style in any of those games.

But those three from 1980, 1983 and 1996, and the one against Everton on Firework Night 2016, seemed different; they signified that there was something fresh happening, that we had set new benchmarks for the future.

Incredible.

Remember remember the fifth of November?

We certainly won’t forget the one in 2016.

img_0336

Tales From The New Blueprint.

Southampton vs. Chelsea : 30 October 2016.

In the pub before the game, we felt sure that Antonio Conte would revert to the same team that had mullered Manchester United a week previously. I suppose that the only question mark was over Pedro; would Willian get the nod?

“Nah, keep Pedro in. He has deserved it.”

And there, in an instant, was a good example of how far we had travelled in such a short period of time. It really wasn’t so long ago that respected friends of mine were questioning what Pedro gave to the team. Think back on those games against Liverpool and then Arsenal when we looked like a pale shadow of ourselves. Think about the under-fire Pedro. And think about Gary Cahill, too. Think back to only a few games ago when poor Gary was being blamed for virtually every goal that we had conceded, the breakdown of the defence, the falling value of the pound, the Syrian refugee crisis and more. And think how pilloried Nemanja Matic has been over the recent and the not so recent past; stretching back to the dark days of autumn 2015, he has often been the “boo boy” among the chattering, twittering and twattering classes of “social media.” Thibout Courtois is another one; lambasted by some for his reluctance to come for crosses and to dominate his box. For a while back there, certainly at half-time at Arsenal, the immediate future looked as bleak as the horrid tower block that greeted us outside Southampton Central train station, where I had parked up as early as 10.30am.

At Arsenal, I worried deeply about the task ahead of new manager Conte. Since then, we have enjoyed a dramatic improvement.

With three straight wins in the league campaign, against Hull City, Leicester City and Manchester United, and with no goals conceded, but with our goals steadily increasing (“2,3,4” – it sounded like the introduction to a punk song), we swept into Southampton’s St. Mary’s Stadium intent to stay among the tight group at the top of the table.

One of these days, I’ll truly get to explore Southampton. After leaving PD and LP to the noise of “Yates”, Glenn and myself had headed off to check out the marina, a twenty-minute walk to the south, but we soon heard that Alan, Gary and Daryl were settled in the “Bier Garten” bar. We soon joined them. There were Bavarian blue and white diamonds everywhere; we re-created our own little Mini-Munich and enjoyed a few beers and some good laughs, the highlight being Alan reciting, word for word, “Rappers’ Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang.

“You see, I’m six foot one, and I’m tons of fun
When I dress to a T.”

What a giggle.

The team was announced as we had predicted; the same as against United.

We made our way to the stadium; only a twenty-minute walk. We were soon inside. The away end was packed; no more the nonsense of Swansea, when so many decided not to travel. We have gone for seats at the front of the away end this season; Parky soon joined Alan, Gary and myself in row E. PD and Glenn were within distance, in row B.

With hardly a cloud in the sky, the stadium looked a picture. The teams entered the pitch and there was a minute of silence for the fallen. It would be the Southampton’s last home game before Remembrance Sunday.

Ryan Bertrand and Oriel Romeu – in the team and on the bench on that night in Munich – were in the opposing team, who had enjoyed a fine run of form of late. They would certainly be no pushovers.

Glenn had confided “I’ll be happy with a draw” and I almost agreed.

“A win would be fantastic.”

It was a very lively start with both teams attacking down the flanks and asking questions of each other’s defensive qualities. Dusan Tadic looked a skilful bugger out on Southampton’s right and for a while it looked like Marcos Alonso would be in for a torrid afternoon. Romeu lobbed a shot at Thibaut Courtois but he was not troubled.

We were already spreading passes around with ease, and a move built steadily. Eden Hazard pushed the ball out to Victor Moses out on the right. Hazard moved in to the box to receive the ball back. From our angle, down low and far away, it looked ridiculously tight. Hazard stopped, cut back on himself and tucked the ball in.

A mixture of wild celebration and “howthefuckdidhedothat?”

It was a joy to see Thibaut leap and punch the air as the goal was scored. I almost expected him to do a hand-stand and a back-flip.

It wasn’t a “thirty seconds Pedro” but it was good enough.

Saints 0 Sinners 1.

We continued to the play the ball with confidence, looking to play in Eden as often as we could, and often attempting the long cross-field ball to an unmarked Moses.

The Chelsea support had again enjoyed a hearty pre-match in Southampton; the support was strong and belligerent. The songs were varied.

I still think that mocking of medium-sized clubs with “Champions of Europe – You’ll never win that” a little of-the-mark, though. Having a dig at Tottenham, Arsenal and West Ham is fair game. Southampton and Hull City, not so.

Southampton, by contrast, were ridiculously quiet. I was disappointed that they didn’t air their “Johnstone Paint Trophy” chant.

After a while, Southampton managed to get a foothold. For a while, they enjoyed some possession. Courtois saved from the impressive Tadic. We countered with efforts from the two wide men, Hazard and Moses. A lovely ball from deep from Luiz had found Eden; he can certainly pick a lovely pass. Just before the break, Forster blocked an effort from Costa.

It had been a good half of football. Matic had been especially impressive, looking a lot more mobile and willing to venture forward than in a more recent, conservative, past. Alonso had settled, linking well with others. Luiz had hardly put a foot wrong

We started strong in the second period. Neat passing was the key, but with good movement off the ball. Southampton were getting swamped in midfield. The momentum was certainly with us. Alonso flashed wide, and then came a moment of magnificence.

Diego Costa gathered the ball from Eden Hazard about twenty-yards out. Southampton had given him two much space. He looked up, realised that he was in range and struck a sweet and sensual shot – right towards me – which curled in and beyond the late dive of Forster. It was as if the shot was especially for my eyes only; I was able to follow the curve and the trajectory. It left me breathless.

What a strike.

The away end roared.

Inside I exploded, but as Diego yelled and ran towards us, I knew I had to act fast.

Click, click, click.

The Chelsea players – a blur of blue – celebrated wildly in front of us. Moses jumped on top of Diego, the others screamed their pleasure.

At the other end, Courtois jumped up on to the crossbar and performed a gymnastics display.

GET IN YOU BEAUTY.

A few weeks back, a two-nil lead against Manchester United didn’t seem enough. On this occasion, two goals to the good, it seemed that the game was as good as over.

Ten minutes of the second-half had gone, and we were in control.

At times we purred in the second-half. The interplay between Diego and Eden – possibly the very fulcrum of potential success for us this season – was a joy to watch. Victor Moses, so full of running and energy, took aim and hit a low drive towards goal. Forster, usually such a dependable ‘keeper, could only scramble a block. The ball fell to Eden, who touched it to Diego, who set up Pedro, but he just couldn’t find his footing to knock it goal wards.

Southampton to their credit kept plugging away and a fine move resulted in a Bertrand cross, which Charlie Austin headed over.

Chelsea countered with a lung-bursting run from Pedro, who then played in Eden. How often have we seen him cut in from the left and strike home? Sadly on this occasion, he low shot was too near Forster. At the other end, a looping header from Steve Davis, dropped on top of the bar.

At last some noise from Southampton – some banter from them about West Ham. We responded with “Play Up Pompey.”

They didn’t care : “We’re all going on a European Tour.”

Victor Moses blasted a pile-driver right at Forster.

There were a few late changes from the manager.

Willian for the tireless Pedro; warm applause for Pedro, a song for Willian.

The bearded Brana for Moses; a loud and resonant cheer for Victor.

Michy for Diego; songs of love and devotion for our main striker. He was back to his best.

It finished 2-0, and this was a mighty fine performance. Southampton were not without merit, but they could not cope with our organisation, our spirit, and some top class performances from all of our main men.

Of course it helps to have superb players, but Conte has got them playing for each other.

“Another clean sheet, chaps.”

Fantastic stuff. We all played well. Kante was a little quiet, but only by the slightest of margins. It was a hugely enjoyable game.

And a hugely important win.

The top five teams are now tightly-packed.

  1. Manchester City – 23.
  2. Arsenal – 23.
  3. Liverpool – 23.
  4. Chelsea – 22.
  5. Tottenham – 20.

It’s always a long slog back to the train station at Southampton, but the Chelsea fans were buoyant as we slowly marched back to the waiting car. On the first day of winter, the future is far from bleak. There was a new song about Azpilicueta but it was too difficult to latch on to. Back in the car, I spoke about the upcoming week.

“It’s fantastic that Conte can now focus on Everton on the back of four superb wins. There will be no soul-searching about deficiencies. No worry about having to find a way to change the system. Just the desire to keep it positive. Keep playing this new way. Just keep the confidence levels high. Have Monday off. Come back on Tuesday and keep the unit together. Keep them smiling. Keep us smiling.”

Four wins. Four clean sheets.

It all started at Arsenal, when the manager replaced Cesc Fabregas and replaced him with Marcos Alonso, and went to a three. It was met with much-head scratching at the time, but at that low point, Conte – with hindsight – may well have instantly changed our whole season. With hindsight, it was inspired.

“3-0 down, I need something new, why not change it now.”

It was a brave thing to do, eh? Since then, he has been totally vindicated.

Since then, it has been remarkable, hasn’t it?

Antonio Conte’s new blueprint for our future looks damn good to me.

We move on. There is a lovely mood in the club and on the pitch and on the terraces right now. Kudos to the manager for changing the system so seamlessly, and just as much love and respect goes to all of the players too. They have responded so well.

This is going to be a great season.

img_0225

Tales From Stratford.

West Ham United vs. Chelsea : 26 October 2016.

There was no doubt about it; there was a definite edge to this one. All of the ingredients were there. A cup game under lights between two rival teams – and supporters – plus the added intrigue of our first-ever visit to a stadium which has been in the news all season. The football world has looked on from outside with bewilderment at the mess which has surrounded West Ham’s move to their new stadium. Not only has there been sporadic outbreaks of old-fashioned hooliganism outside the ground, but outbursts of fighting inside the stadium, between West Ham fans no less, too. Additionally, there has been a sense of alienation among the West Ham faithful at the awful atmosphere, and the poor sight-lines within the stadium. It has been, thus far, a tough move away from the intimate and well-loved Upton Park.

Usually I dread a mid-week away game at West Ham, but at least the drive was easy. I had collected the troops at 3.30pm and we were parked-up at Barons Court at 6pm. Until this season, the route to West Ham United would have involved staying on the District Line for over an hour, and a journey encompassing twenty-three tube stations. It is one of the most tedious train trips. On the last two visits, we have missed the kick-off due to congested traffic flow nearing the final stop.

I got the chaps to pose for a photograph, clutching the most sought-after away ticket of the season, outside Barons Court tube, and we then dived down the stairs to begin our journey to Stratford. We changed at Notting Hill Gate, and then sped along the Central Line.

We arrived at Stratford train station just before 7pm. This was a definite improvement on the painful schlep out to Upton Park. Strangely, I had spotted only one West Ham fan en route. The tube is usually full of them.

At Stratford, a quick handshake with Kenny and Rob who had evidently been on our train, and then a quick look to see which way we had to head. Outside into the mild London night and we followed the crowd, keeping close together. For a while we walked, I noted, in a diamond formation, with myself at the base, Parky and PD to my flanks and Glenn at the tip. It made me chuckle.

There was a certain boisterousness in the air. Occasionally, West Ham fans would bellow out “Irons!” and it sounded like a mating call.

Soon, we spotted the electric blue neon of the London Aquatic Centre, and then the lofty sculpture to its left – the oddly-named ArdelorMittal Orbit – which was glowing a deep red. Taking as a duo, it was a good enough effort to create a claret and blue welcome to West Ham’s new home. Beyond – quite a walk away by the look of it – was the illuminated London Stadium, a dash of white on the horizon.

Thus far, there was no trouble.

At Upton Park, it eventually became an easy away ground to negotiate ever since they moved away fans from the South Bank to the Sir Trevor Brooking Stand. Out of Upton Park tube, past the market, past the Queens pub, then over the road and through some Chelsea-only side streets, with plenty of police on hand in case there was ever any trouble. There never was.

Here, in Stratford, at the site of the 2012 Olympics, everything was vastly different. For one thing, we were in unfamiliar territory. And it was night time.

But to be fair, this was easy. There was no trouble, no mobs, no nonsense.

I spotted Jonesy, and caught him up. He had a different tale to tell. A few of them had been quietly drinking in a West Ham pub, maybe half-a-mile away, and had witnessed a mob of West Ham attacking the Old Bill.

We walked on.

“Irons!”

We approached the stadium, walking underneath the twisted metal of the Orbit statue, then past a long line of punters at the match-day ticket office. A friend, Maggie, grabbed me by the hand and said “nice to see someone we know – nobody is wearing colours” and she was right. As we veered towards the security check outside entrance D, it dawned on me that nobody was wearing colours; no Chelsea scarves, no Chelsea shirts, no Chelsea jackets, no Chelsea caps, no Chelsea hats. It was hardly surprising.

I hadn’t seen many home fans wearing too much other.

It had only taken us twenty minutes to reach the away end from Stratford.

Inside the packed concourse, there were Chelsea songs at last.

PD and Glenn shot off to their seats in the very front row of the lower block 119, whereas His Lordship and myself ascended to midway back in the upper tier 218.

And here was my real problem with West Ham’s new stadium. In truth, I was never a fan of the aesthetics of the former Olympic Stadium – quite bland, quite dull – but as it became apparent that the oft-quoted “football refit” had resulted in away fans being split in two tiers, it did not take me long to tell friends that I had spotted a problem.

The bottom tier seemed to be ridiculously isolated from the upper tier. Surely there would be a segregation issue here, especially since there would be home fans sharing the lower tier too. And then as the season began, we heard rumours that segregation inside the stadium – surprise, surprise – was a major problem. And wait – there’s even more. Police were not patrolling the inside of the stadium due to radio communication issues.

In my mind, right from the off, surely it would have been better to allocate away fans with a single block of tickets in a thoroughly-segregated upper tier, which is what happens at Sunderland and Newcastle. This would keep all away fans together in an area which would be easier to marshal.

I mentioned this, but with more succinctness and with many more swear words, to Jason who was two rows in front. He agreed.

I looked around.

Lots of empty seats. Such a wide open stadium. Not a football stadium.

“Thank heavens we don’t play here.”

The empty seats never did fill up as kick-off approached. There would be around ten thousand empty seats on the night. Conversely, I did not spot a single empty seat in our 5,200 allocation, which was probably split something like 1,700 downstairs and 3,500 upstairs.

We hadn’t spoken too much about the actual game on the drive up. We had heard that Michy Batshuayi and John Terry were playing. We wondered if John would play centrally in the back three.

Antonio Conte had mixed youth and experience. It was a typical Chelsea approach to the early rounds of League Cup football.

Asmir Begovic.

David Luiz – John Terry – Gary Cahill.

Cesar Azpilicueta – N’Golo Kante – Nathaniel Chalobah – Ola Aina.

Willian – Michy Batshuayi – Oscar.

The PA pumped “Bubbles” before the teams came out and then faded at the “fortunes always hiding” line to allow the home fans their big moment. It was loud, I’ll given them that.

The teams entered the pitch. The Chelsea fans were in good voice. The scene was set.

I did note that the manager had jettisoned his usual neat black suit for blue Chelsea gear.

I guess nobody had bothered to tell him the dress code for the night –

“No club colours.”

He was casual, but not in the way that some of our away support was; I just hoped his approach to the match wasn’t casual either.

The PA then repeated “Bubbles” again just before the kick-off and I groaned; nothing like overdoing it, eh?

I had a quick thought blitz through my mind.

“A sterile stadium and manufactured atmosphere. I hate modern football.”

I simply could not believe how far the directors’ box was from even the nearest touchline; it must’ve been fifty yards. The subs and management team were a good thirty yards from the same touchline. It is no wonder that Conte and Bilic stood in their respective technical areas all evening.

We began well to be honest, moving the ball around well. We had a couple of chances. First from John Terry at the near post and then from a Kante shot.

The mood in the away sections would soon change.

West Ham won a corner down below us – OK, some thirty yards away – and the cross was headed away, but only as far as Mark Noble out on the West Ham left. His cross was played in with pace and was met unchallenged by a perfectly-timed leap and header from Cheikhou Kouyate. The ball screamed past Begovic.

With this, the home areas boomed. The West Ham players gleefully celebrated at the near corner flag, and we were met with quote a surreal scene as both sets of fans goaded each other – separated by fifteen feet of open space – while bubbles from a machine drifted around in the background.

The West Ham fans to my left in the upper tier then began antagonising us and I tried my best to ignore them.

We reminded them of the poor show from them :

“They’re here, they’re there, they’re every fackin’where, empty seats, empty seats.”

They responded with the oh-so tiresome “WWYWYWS?”

The banter was flying now and our “You’ve won fuck all” soon morphed into a new Chelsea song –

“WE’VE WON IT ALL.”

And so we had.

Ha.

On the pitch West Ham then dominated the rest of the first-half. Our goal lived a rather charmed life as Michail Antonio drilled a shot wide. Manuel Lanzini then misfired on the half-hour mark.

John Terry was grimly exposed for pace when one-on-one with a West Ham attacker and it was horrible to see. Elsewhere, Oscar was especially poor, quick to pull out of tackles and awful in possession. Aina and Chalobah did their best but were not aided by the more experienced players on show. Kante was not at his best. Batshuayi did not get the early ball, nor the late ball for that matter; his service was poor. At the back, we looked nervous. It was a pretty grim story all round. Thank heavens for the excellent Begovic between the posts who kept us in it with a few fine saves and blocks.

In the closing moments of a dire half, Oscar found Batshuayi inside the box. From around one-hundred and fifty yards away, it looked an easy chance. But from twenty yards, it proved otherwise. Batshuayi shot high and over the bar.

Ugh.

At half-time we expected changes.

“And please – no extra time and penalties.”

I needed to be up at 6am on Thursday and, with penalties, I would not get home much before 3am.

Another “ugh.”

We heard from a chap from Gloucester that a Chelsea crowd of around three hundred had been the victims of Police kettling outside the stadium, at the bottom of the steps leading to the away turnstiles, for a full thirty minutes, thus missing most of the first-half. I have no idea why.

There seemed to be a strange atmosphere surrounding the game all night.

The second-half began and within just three minutes of the re-start, we were groaning again. Begovic saved from Payet, but the ball broke to Edmilson Fernandes who drilled the ball back and into the net.

2-0, bollocks.

More goading from the home fans to my left.

I had hoped that Conte would pair Batshuayi with Costa upfront, but instead our young striker was just replaced.

Hazard came on for Chalobah, Pedro for Aina.

It amazed me that Oscar had remained on the pitch.

There was a good chance for Willian, inside the box, but his shot narrowly missed the far post.

We built up a little head of steam, but we were plainly not “on it.”

Two consecutive corners from Willian failed to clear the first man.

Hazard and Diego fluffed good chances.

This was hurting.

There was still no end of aggressive pointing and gesturing from the West Ham fans to my left. One fan in front of me, clearly drunk, was annoying the fuck out of me with his solitary and boorish goading of the home fans, which involved the monotone singing, ad infinitum of “where were you at Upton Park?”

Ugh.

“And only four hours sleep if I am lucky.”

John Terry headed wide, a penalty claim on Eden Hazard was not given. With ten minutes to go, many Chelsea fans headed for the exits. There was talk of us being given an escort (how ‘eighties) back to the wonderfully-named Pudding Mill Lane, and so I wondered if the early-leavers would be allowed to leave the stadium.

And then the madness started.

The walkway behind the seating area of the lower tier became the subject of everybody’s attention. It appeared that objects were being thrown from both sides of the seated area, which then instigated a rush towards the stewards guarding the small wall of segregation behind the seated area. From memory, I thought that the West Ham fans were the instigators but “I would say that wouldn’t I?”

Fans from the upper tier moved downstairs. I noticed how fans could easily rush towards the problem area along unguarded alleyways connecting the lower tier seats to the concourse below us. It was an ugly scene. The stewards were in the brunt of it, though few punches were thrown. Many had vacated the lower seats, but were replaced by others who evidently wanted to join in the antagonism. The flashpoint was still the walkway behind the lower tier of seats; there was a mesh of segregation between the fans in the lower level which remained virtually intact the entire time.

My pre-match thoughts about the new stadium were being proved right; there was just too much space to monitor, too much shared-space, and not enough segregation. At last, as a token gesture, a few police arrived on the scene, woefully late, and apparently without much direction or idea.

Gary Cahill knocked a goal in, if anyone cared, and I had this sudden thought.

“Bloody hell, if we score an equaliser, another thirty minutes of this will be a nightmare.”

Was I surprised that there was this nasty outbreak of civil disobedience?

Not at all.

For an element among both sets of fans, this night was – sadly – always going to be more than about the football. The throwing of objects – plastic bottles, seats, even coins – was sheer stupidity. It has no place in football.

At the end, I was glad to hear the final whistle so I could go home and get some sleep.

We all met up downstairs in the concourse.

Outside, bizarrely, there was an overkill of police waiting for the Chelsea fans. They were all lined up, geared up too, and told us to head to Pudding Mill Lane. I thought like saying “where were you lot inside the bloody stadium?”

On the quick walk to the station, I turned around and expected to see hundreds of Chelsea fans behind me. There were hardly any. I had a chuckle to myself.

The others had obviously avoided the escort and had decided to run the gauntlet – for better, for worse – back to Stratford.

The four of us met up with a few old friends and were soon away, catching the Docklands Light Railway train to Poplar, where we stopped momentarily beneath the towering masses of the towers at Canary Wharf, before heading back to normality and west London.

We chatted to a couple of lads who were among the thousands who had returned via Stratford. There had been outbreaks and scuffles all the way back.

“All of a sudden – course you don’t know who is who – we found ourselves among the West Ham lot, so we drifted off, and lost them.”

We spoke about the game. The euphoria of Sunday had dissipated by the time we all reached Earl’s Court. There was talk that Conte should have played a stronger team, yet there is always a call that we don’t play the youngsters. It is a tough balancing act.

“Damned if you do. Damned if you don’t.”

The real problem has been that good players such as Chalobah and Aina have been played so sparingly by Mourinho and Hiddink in the past, that a potentially strong squad on paper includes many youngsters who are simply not experienced enough.

It is time that we give these youngsters more games, not less.

At the moment our signing of young players, and then putting them out on loan, or not playing them in the first team at all, is akin to stockpiling carrier bags, stuffing them in the drawer beneath the sink, then forgetting that they are there, and yet still paying money for new ones.

It is a mania that has to stop.

It had been a strange evening. We felt sure that West Ham would be fined for the problems with crowd segregation. In fact, we found it difficult to comprehend that a safety certificate had been awarded to the stadium at all. Already, some Chelsea fans were saying that they would never return. I will be back later this season, but it is a stadium that does not thrill me. I can completely understand the West Ham support’s displeasure at the sterile structure, so unbefitting of football. I am just so relieved that our stadium redevelopment involves more intimacy and more consideration towards those things that we hold dear.

On Sunday, it’s back to league football. See you there.

img_0069

Tales From Our Rejuvenation.

Chelsea vs. Manchester United : 23 October 2016.

We all remember where we were when we heard that Matthew Harding had died. For a generation of Chelsea supporters, it is our Kennedy moment.

On the morning of Wednesday 23 October 1996, I was at work in Trowbridge, Wiltshire, in a factory’s quality assurance office. I had not been present at the previous evening’s League Cup tie at Bolton, where we had lost 2-1. I tended to mainly go to just home games in those days. In fact, another sport was occupying my mind during that week as I was in the midst of watching my New York Yankees playing in a World Series for the first time since 1981. I had listened to the League Cup game on the radio before catching a few hours’ sleep before waking at around 1am to watch Game Three from Atlanta. The Yankees won that night, and after the game had ended at around 4am, I squeezed in a few more hours of sleep before waking at 6am for a 7am start at work. While setting off for work that morning, I briefly heard a mention about a helicopter crash involving Chelsea fans returning from Bolton. It was possibly just a rumour at that stage. With me being rather sleep deficient, I possibly wasn’t giving it the gravity that it deserved.

At around 8am, the news broke that Matthew Harding had been aboard the helicopter, and that he had been killed, along with the fellow passengers. I was full of sudden and overwhelming grief. I had been so impressed with Matthew since he had arrived on the scene at Chelsea in around 1993, and saw him as “one of us.” I remember I had seen him on a Sunday morning politics programme just a few weeks before, lending his support to the New Labour campaign. He seemed to be perfect for Chelsea’s new vision; young and enthusiastic, one of the people, but with a few bob to spare for our beloved club. It almost seemed too good to be true.

Soon after I heard the news, I received a phone-call on the office phone from a friend and journalist, who lived locally in Chippenham, and who had – with Matthew’s assistance – written a book about Chelsea’s 1994 FA Cup Final appearance and consequent European campaign the following season (“Blue Is The Colour” by Khadija Buckland). Within seconds, we were both in tears. My fellow co-workers, I think, were shocked to see such emotion. Khadija had only spoken to Matthew on the phone on the Monday. My head was in a spin. I was just devastated.

I had briefly met Matthew on one or two occasions, but I felt the loss so badly. I remember shaking him by the hand in The Gunter Arms in 1994, the night of the Viktoria Zizkov home game. My friend Glenn and myself watched from the Lower Tier of the East Stand that game, and I remember turning around, catching his eye in the Directors’ Box, and him giving me a thumbs up. His face was a picture of bubbly excitement. I am pretty sure that I met him, again briefly, underneath the East Stand, after a game with Bolton in 1995, when he appeared with Khadija, and we quickly shook hands before going our separate ways. In those days, both Glenn and myself would take Khadija up to Stamford Bridge where she would sell copies of her book in the corporate areas of the East Stand.

We all remember, too, the outpouring of emotion that followed on the Saturday, when Stamford Bridge was cloaked in sadness as we brought bouquets, and drank pints of Guinness in memory of Matthew, before a marvellously observed minute of silence took place before our game with Tottenham. The Spurs fans were magnificent that day. We won 3-1, and the victory seemed inevitable. It had been the most emotional game of football that I had ever witnessed. Later that Saturday night – in fact in the small hours of Sunday morning – I watched as the Yankees came from 2-0 down to win the World Series 4-2. At the end of that sporting day / night doubleheader, I was an emotional wreck. It had been a tough week, for sure. Sadness and joy all tumbling around together. Later, my mother sent a letter of condolence to Matthew’s widow Ruth, and I have a feeling that she replied.

I remember how happy a few friends and I were to see Ruth Harding in a Stockholm park ahead of our ECWC Final with Stuttgart in 1998.

Matthew would have loved Stockholm. He would have the triumphs that he sorely missed over the past twenty years. He would have loved Munich.

As our game with Manchester United, and the return of you-know-who, became closer and closer, I thought more and more about Matthew. And I was enthralled that the club would be honouring him with a specially crafted banner which would be presented to the world from the stand which bears his name.

Tickets were like gold dust for this one.

It promised to be a potentially epic occasion.

I had missed a couple of our most recent games – both the matches against Leicester City – and nobody was happier than myself to be heading to Stamford Bridge once again.

We set off early. In the Chuckle Bus – Glenn driving, allowing me to have a few beers – there was caution rather than confidence. Despite the fine performance against Leicester last weekend, Mourinho’s United would surely be a tough nut to crack. I am sure that I was not alone when I predicted a 0-0 draw.

“Just don’t want to lose to them.”

Once at Chelsea, we splintered in to two groups. PD, his son Scott and Parky shot off to The Goose, while Glenn and myself headed down to the stadium. I met up with good friends Andy, John and Janset from California, and Brad and Sean from New York, over for the game, and trying to combat jetlag with alcohol and football.

It was a splendid pre-match and the highlights were personalised book signings from both Bobby Tambling and Kerry Dixon. Glenn was able to have quite a chat with Colin Pates, and it is always one of the great joys of match days at Chelsea that our former players are so willing to spend time with us ordinary fans. It really did feel that we were all in this together, “Matthew Harding’s Blue And White Army” for sure. Into a packed “Chelsea Pensioner” (now taking over from “The Imperial” as the place to go for pre-game and post-game music) for a beer and then along to “The Malthouse” for a couple more. We chatted to former player Robert Isaac – a season ticket-holder like the rest of us – once more and shared a few laughs.

A couple of lads recognised Glenn and myself from “that night in Munich” and it was bloody superb to meet up again and to share memories of that incredible day in our lives. We had all caught the last train from the Allianz Arena at around midnight, and we were crammed together as the train made its painfully slow journey into the centre of Munich. They were Chelsea fans – ex-pats – now living in The Netherlands, and it was great for our lives to cross again after more than four years.

With a few pints inside me, I was floating on air as I walked towards The Bridge.

The match programme had a retro-1996 season cover, with Matthew featured prominently. The half-and-half scarves were out in force, and I aimed a barb at a dopey tourist as I made my way through to the turnstiles.

The team had been announced, by then, and Antonio Conte had kept faith with the same team that had swept past Leicester City.

So far this season, our usual 4-2-3-1 has morphed into 4-2-4 when required, but here was a relatively alien formation for these shores; a 3-4-3.

Conte was changing things quicker than I had expected.

Thankfully I was inside Stamford Bridge, in the Matthew Harding, with plenty of time to spare. The United fans had their usual assortment of red, white and black flags. There was a plain red square, hanging on the balcony wall, adorned with Jose Mourinho’s face. It still didn’t seem right, but Jose Mourinho was not on my mind as kick-off approached.

The stadium filled. There was little pre-match singing of yesteryear. We waited.

The balcony of the Matthew Harding had been stripped of all other banners, apart from two in the middle.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

I noted the phrase “Matthew Harding – One Of Our Own” stencilled on the balcony wall too. That was a nice touch; I hope it stays.

Of course, should the new Stamford Bridge come to fruition, the actual stand will be razed to the ground, but surely the club will keep its name in place.

Without any fuss, a large light blue banner appeared at the eastern edge of the Matthew Harding Lower. It was stretched high over the heads of the spectators and slowly made its way westwards.

It depicted that famous image of Matthew leaping to his feet at a pre-season game in the summer of 1996.

MATTHEW HARDING

ALWAYS LOVED

NEVER FORGOTTEN

There was no minute’s silence, nor applause, the moment soon passed, but it suited the occasion very well. There was no need for excessive mawkishness much beloved by a certain other club. Matthew would have hated that.

The teams appeared, but my pals in the Sleepy Hollow did not; they were still outside as the game began. To be fair, I was still settling myself down for the game ahead – checking camera, checking phone, checking texts – as a ball was pumped forward. It fell in the middle of an equilateral triangle comprising of Eric Bailly, Chris Smalling and David De Gea. Confusion overcame the three United players. In nipped the raiding Pedro, who touched the ball square and then swept it in to an open goal, the game just thirty seconds in.

The crowd, needless to say, fucking erupted.

The players raced over to our corner and wild delirium ensued. It was like a mosh pit.

Shades of Roberto di Matteo in the Matthew Harding Final of 1997? You bet.

This was a dream start.

Alan, PD and Scott appeared a few moments later. There were smiles all round.

I was so pleased to see us a goal up that the next few minutes were a bit of a blur. The crowd soon got going.

“One Matthew Harding. There’s Only One Matthew Harding.”

Luiz jumped with Ibrahimovic and the ball sailed over Thibaut Courtois’ bar.

Eden Hazard – his ailments of last autumn a distant memory – drove one past the United post. So much for a dour and defensive battle of attrition that myself and many others had predicted.

After around ten minutes, it dawned on me that I had not once peered over to see what Jose Mourinho was doing. Apart from taking a few photographs of the two managers, the men in black, on the touchline with my camera, I did not gaze towards Mourinho once the entire match.

This was not planned. This was just the way it was.

I loved him the first-time round, but grew tired of his histrionics towards the end of his both spells with us. When he talks these days, the Mourinho snarl is often not far away; that turned-up corner of his lip a sign of contempt.

My own thought is that he always wanted the United job.

Conte is my manager now.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

Twenty minutes in, a little more Chelsea pressure forced a corner. Hazard centered, and the ball took a couple of timely touches from United limbs before sitting up nicely for stand-in captain Gary Cahill to swipe home.

GET IN YOU BASTARD.

Two bloody nil, smelling salts please nurse.

Gary ran over to our corner and was again swamped with team mates.

United had the occasional chance at The Shed End, but our often criticised ‘keeper was in fine form.

A swivel and a shot from Diego Costa was blocked by a defender.

At the half-time whistle, all was well in the Matthew Harding.

Neil Barnett introduced Matthew’s three children to the crowd, along with former legend Dan Petrescu. We clapped them all as they walked around the Stamford Bridge pitch. The travelling Manchester United support duly joined in with the applause and this was a fine gesture. Of course, such disasters have united both clubs over the years.

Like Tottenham in 1996, respect to them.

As the second-half began, Alan and PD were showing typical Chelsea paranoia.

“Get a third and then we can relax.”

Although I was outwardly smiling – we were well on top – I agreed.

Juan Mata joined the fray at the break, replacing Fellatio, who had clearly sucked in the first-half.

Soon into the half, the little Spaniard came over to take a corner down below us and we rewarded him with a lovely round of applause. I still respect him as a person and player. He will always be one of us.

The second-half began with a few half-chances for Chelsea, and a few trademark Courtois saves thwarting United. Just past the hour, a lovely pass from the revitalised Nemanja Matic played in Eden Hazard. He dropped his shoulder, gave himself half a yard and curled a low shot just beyond, or below, the late dive of De Gea.

Three-nil, oh my bloody goodness.

Thoughts now of the 5-0 romp in 1999 when even Chris Bloody Sutton scored.

It was time to relax, now, and enjoy the moment. Every time Courtois and Ibrahimovic went up together for a cross, I had visions of their noses clashing in a football version of the rutting of stags, bone against bone.

We continued to dominate.

Ten minutes later, we watched with smiles on our faces as N’Golo Kante found himself inside the box with the ball at his feet. He sold a superb dummy with an audacious body swerve and cut a low shot past the United ‘keeper to make it four.

Chelsea 4 Manchester United 0.

Conte, who must have been boiling over with emotion, replaced Pedro with Chalobah, Diego Costa with Batshuayi and Hazard with Willian.

Willian, after losing his mother, was rewarded with his own personal song.

The noise was great at times, but – if I am honest – not as deafening as other demolition jobs of recent memory.

Courtois saved well from Ibrahimovic, but the game was over.

“Superb boys – see you Wednesday.”

There was a lovely feeling of euphoria as we bounced away down the Fulham Road.

There was a commotion over by the CFCUK stall, and we spotted Kerry Dixon, being mobbed by one and all. The excitement was there for all to feel.

“One Kerry Dixon.”

Back at the car, we had time to quickly reflect on what we had seen.

“It’s hard to believe that Arsenal, when we were dire, was just four weeks away.”

Sure enough, we were awful on that bleak afternoon in North London. I am almost lost for words to describe how the manager has managed to put in a new system, instil a fantastic work ethic, and revitalise so many players. It’s nothing short of a miracle really. Antonio Conte has only been in charge of nine league games, but he has seemingly allowed us to move from a crumbling system to a new and progressive one in just three games.

What a sense of rejuvenation – from the man who once headed the Juve Nation – we have witnessed in recent games. The three at the back works a treat. Luiz looks a much better defender than ever before. Cahill is a new man. Dave is as steady as ever. Courtois has improved. On the flanks, Alonso has fitted in well, but Moses has been magnificent. Matic is back to his best. Kante is the buy of the season. Hazard is firing on all cylinders. Pedro and Willian are able players. Diego is looking dangerous again. It’s quite amazing. And the manager seems happy to blood the youngsters.

“Matthew Harding’s Blue & White Army.”

A fantastic result to honour a fantastic man.

The five teams at the top of the division are now separated by just one point.

All of a sudden, there is confidence and enjoyment pulsating through our club.

Matthew would certainly approve.

img_9976

Tales From A Day Of Sobriety.

Hull City vs. Chelsea : 1 October 2016.

A few years ago, it was announced that the city of Kingston-Upon-Hull was to be awarded the title of UK City of Culture of 2017. This is a relatively new award, with the city of Londonderry in 2009 wining the inaugural competition. It is not to be confused with the European City of Culture, which encompassed Glasgow in 1990 (I can still remember Rab C. Nesbitt’s thoughts about that) and Liverpool in 2008. When Chelsea visited the home of Hull City during the 2013/2014 season, the natives were full of self-deprecation, chanting at us that we were only “here for the culture.” With 2017 approaching, I remained a little oblivious to the events planned for the city on the River Humber, er Hull, but presumed that events were taking shape to give the much-maligned city – once voted the UK’s most boring town –  a boost for their big year.

Then, back in the summer, a news story gathered pace over a weekend which brought the city back into the limelight. Photographer Spencer Tunick was up to his old tricks again, enticing thousands of people to assemble at daybreak on a Saturday morning in July, disrobe, and daub themselves in subtle shades of blue paint, in order for Tunick to capture several photographs around the quiet city centre. The resulting photographs were stunning.

After our recent games – two sad losses – against Liverpool and Arsenal, all eyes were on our manager and players. The pressure was on Chelsea to reshape, to re-group and to bounce back.

However, I wondered if my trip to Hull would result in Chelsea Football Club’s very own homage to Spencer Tunick.

Was the football world about to be horrified by the sight of many blue arses being exposed and solemnly embarrassed in a public place?

We hoped not. We bloody hoped not.

This was always going to be a long day. I set off early at 6am, the night still shrouding everything in darkness. I collected PD first, then Young Jake and Old Parky. We wolfed down a McBreakfast on the hoof, and then the long drive north began in earnest. The sun crashed through towering banks of cloud as I drove along the Fosse way, through the Cotswolds and its charming countryside. I was last on this famous old Roman road a mere two weeks previously, when I was tempted to Stratford-Upon- Avon to watch Frome Town play. We skirted Coventry on a new city by-pass, and we soon found ourselves on the M1. This was my fourth visit to see Chelsea play at Hull City, and there had been three victories out of three. I made great time, and the weather was exceptional. I drove into Hull, past the large and impressive Humber Bridge, at bang on 10.30am, and bang on time.

We made a bee-line for a drink in the large and impersonal Wetherspoon’s in the city centre. “The Admiral Of The Humber” would be base camp until we would leave for the game later in the day. We were last there in March 2015, and PD soon spotted a local chap who he and Parky chatted to on that occasion. Parky went over to say “hi” and he soon recognised us. He was wearing an old retro amber Hull City shirt from years ago. I am quite fond of their club colours; very effective. We chatted away to him and he told us a few home truths about the recent events at his club in recent months. It seems that discounted season tickets are no more, and everyone pays the same price, even if they are pensioners or youngsters. In fact, season tickets in general are no more. Now, everyone has to be a member, with home games having to be bought – ad infinitum – via direct debit. The club owner Assem Allam is hardly flavour of the month in Hull. His desire to rebrand Hull City as Hull Tigers caused outrage a few years back, and he continues to upset many. Steve Bruce, a decent enough manager, left during the summer, seemingly tired of the politics. The gates thus far into the new season have not reached capacity. Despite a promotion campaign last season, I sensed that all was not well.

The Hull City fan spoke about a visit of Newcastle United, when the very same pub was mobbed by visiting Geordies. They very soon started singing a song, aimed at him, based on the fact that his grey beard and glasses made him resemble an infamous person in Britain’s recent past.

“One Harold Shipman, there’s only one Harold Shipman.”

He smiled as he re-told the story of how he remonstrated with them, and how this resulted in the Geordies buying him drink after drink.

“I love that about football, the banter” he joked.

I popped out for an hour, but my little tour of the city was disrupted by a sudden downpour. The city centre seemed to be in a state of disruption, with virtually every pavement getting re-laid, presumably in preparation for 2017. I spotted a couple of colourful “bugs” on the walls of buildings and wondered if this was the Hull equivalent of Liverpool’s “Super Lamb Banana” sculptures in 2008, Bristol’s “Gromits Unleashed” in 2013 and Dundee’s current “Oor Wullie” trail. There will be a time when every city in the UK is overrun with comic sculptures and what a fine time that will be. I popped into “The Mission” – a converted building, once ecclesiastical, now a place for revelry – to get out of the rain.

No beer for me though, being the driver, and with a tiring drive home ahead of me. In fact, the superstitious part of my nature came to the fore on this day in Hull; in all of the previous domestic games this season, Chelsea were unbeaten when I had gone without a beer, whereas the two occasions when I had enjoyed a pre-match beer had resulted in losses.

I was taking one for the team.

No beers for me.

Outside the rain stopped.

Kingston-Upon-Hull was full of Saturday shoppers and it went about its way, oblivious to the two-thousand Chelsea fans that had descended upon it. I once described Hull as the UK’s unknown city and it remains so. It does not have the clout of others. It is not famous. In Elvis Costello’s famous song, the boys from the Humber did not even make the shortlist. I inwardly wished the city well in its year in the spotlight in 2017. Many might deride the decision to award Hull the title of City of Culture, but I suppose that the whole point is to use it as a stepping stone to some sort of rejuvenation to the area, to give the locals something to invoke some civic pride, and to celebrate the area’s culture, however it manifests itself. Past Everything But The Girl and The Housemartins, I was struggling to pin down some cultural reference points but I am sure there are others. Do Hull Kingston Rovers count?

Back in the boozer, the boys recounted a funny story. A few Chelsea fans had heard that some others were in a pub called the New King Edward. A six-seater taxi was booked and it pulled up outside. The six Chelsea fans piled in.

“Right, where do you want to go?”

“The New King Edward.”

The driver reversed ten yards. The pub was next door.

Ha.

The place was heaving with Chelsea now, and the large pub was reverberating with song. We watched, sadly, as Liverpool came from behind to beat Swansea 2-1.

Also in town were some Salford rugby league fans, playing at Hull KR, but we did not bump into any of them, save for one who seemed to think it would be mayhem later in the evening with three thousand Mancunians in town. We gave him a wide berth.

At about 2.15pm, we hopped into a cab outside the railway station, and were soon dropped-off right outside the renamed KCOM Stadium.

The team news had filtered through. We already knew that John Terry was out with an injury, and the news that Gary Cahill was the stand-in captain was met with a few disdainful comments. Elsewhere, Victor Moses was handed a start for the first time since the days of Rafa Benitez.

I found myself shunted further around the corner at the KCOM stadium. Back in 2007, I watched behind the goal, towards the west stand, and since then the away end has moved further east with each season. Parky, Alan, Gary and I were in row E, PD and Jake were in row B. It made a lovely change to be so close to the action. Thankfully, after hundreds of no shows at Swansea, virtually every seat was filled in the cramped away corner. And the Chelsea fans were in good voice for sure. I spotted a few patches of empty seats around the home areas, including a large block of the upper tier opposite. I like Hull’s stadium. Low on three sides, it rises dramatically on the western side. It’s a little different. I approve.

The game began, and it seemed that the home team started with a little more bite than us. Robert Snodgrass – one of the few City players I recognised – was heavily involved. Very soon into the match, it was a fine free-kick from the former Leeds United and Norwich City midfielder which forced an equally fine save from Thibaut Courtois.

For once, the home fans decided not to play the role of gobby Northerners, and their reluctance to make much noise surprised me. Maybe the malaise within the club is deeper than even I imagined. Whereas the Chelsea supporters were making some noise, we struggled to get going on the pitch. With Marcos Alonso playing in a very advanced position on the left, it gradually became apparent that Conte was playing a three at the back for the first time. David Luiz had Gary Cahill to his left and Cesar Azpilicueta to his right. On the right flank, Victor Moses was up and down like a yo-yo.

To be fair, there were no boos, nor negative noise, aimed at Gary Cahill. I approved. At a time when football clubs seem to be increasingly followed by a nerdy tribe of experts and critics, it is time for the match-goers to revert to the role of supporters, cheering the players on, and thus creating a platform for them to perform.

Chances for us were at a premium. I remembered our last visit in 2015 when we were abysmal but still eked out a win. Mbokani looked a bit of a handful up front for attack. We tried to get in to the game, but Hazard – playing a little more central than usual – was peripheral, and Moses lacked a quality final ball despite all of his resourceful forays down the far flank. But Moses was soon getting applauded by us.

A Chelsea winger who goes past defenders? Whatever next.

A Cahill shot bothered the home fans in the south stand rather than Marshall in the Hull goal.

A few half-chances, but nothing of note.

Just before the half-time whistle, Hull City broke but Courtois did well to save from Mason.

There was a fair amount of doom and gloom at the interval.

Sigh.

I commented to Gary : “Apart from coming for crosses, the Hull ‘keeper has hardly touched the ball.”

During the break, around a thousand flag-waving, blue track-suited City of Culture volunteers walked around the perimeter of the pitch. They were virtually all pensioners. A veritable army of Doreens, Normans, Norahs and Brians – we saluted them. Thankfully there was no Spencer Tunick moment on the centre-circle.

Soon into the second-half, it was easy to spot an added desire in our play. That man Conte had obviously spoken a few “bon mots” in the interlude. First Alonso threatened, and then a classic dribble, body shake, and shot from Eden brought us renewed hope. The rasping shot from Hazard was spectacularly tipped-over by Marshall.

“It’s all Chelsea, Gal.”

Then, a dynamic run by Diego Costa, out-muscling two defenders, and rounding the ‘keeper, but his firm shot hit the post. The ball fell to N’Golo Kante, but we were gobsmacked as his effort flew over.

“AAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.”

On the hour, after more Chelsea pressure. Willian worked his way into a little pocket of space inside the box and carefully curved an effort past Marshall and into the goal. It was a divine effort and one which was met with wild approval in the Chelsea quadrant.

Lovely to see the players celebrate so wildly. A hug from Willian from David Luiz.

Braziliant.

Willian dropped to his knees, pointed to the sky and no doubt silently whispered a word of dedication for his ailing mother.

More Chelsea pressure. A shot from Diego Costa. A shot from Nemanja Matic was blocked, but it fell conveniently at the feet of Costa. He automatically, without having time to doubt himself, curled the ball wide of the Hull ‘keeper. It was a pretty good copy of Willian’s goal.

Hull City 0 Chelsea 2.

Phew.

Moses, hardly similar to his aged namesake, and certainly without the need of a mobility scooter, kept racing past his foes. He had a great game. We could hardly believe that Willian was not awarded a penalty after having his legs clipped.

Victor Moses was given a fine reception, and his personal “Pigbag” song had a thorough airing, when he was replaced by Pedro. There were further appearances, off the bench, for Pedro and Nathaniel Chalobah.

When Tom Huddlestone came off the bench for the home team, Gary was soon to comment.

“Fackinell, you’ll never get past him. He’s like a barrage balloon.”

After a poor first-half, but a much better second-half, we exited the tight stands of the KCOM Stadium in good spirits.

I left the City of Culture 2017 at 6pm. The sun was soon to set. The road south seemed endless.

At Goole, we stopped off for some good honest Northern food from a chippy.

“Have we ever lost to Hull City?”

“Nah. Not in my memory.”

“Great chips.”

“Yeah, great chips.”

I reached home at 11.30pm.

It had been a good day.

Our next game is in two week’s time against Leicester City.

Do I have a beer or not? Let me think on that.

img_9883-3